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Tuesday, 26 March 2013 07:51

The Abortion Wars: Opening a Second Front

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AbortionFINALDuring the Second World War, almost from the time the United States entered the war on December 8, 1941, the Soviet Union, which had been invaded by Nazi Germany on June 22, 1941, was demanding that the United States and Great Britain establish a “Second Front” in Western Europe. By this they meant doing so by invading Occupied France on its Northwest Coast. The Western Allies did invade North Africa in November 1942, and Sicily and Southern Italy in the summer of 1943. But the major offensive in the West, which could require that the Germans move major forces from the Eastern Front to France, did not, as is well known, occur until June 6, 1944.

The Abortion Wars in this country have been underway since well before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade was handed down on January 22, 1973. That decision established that freedom of choice in the outcome of pregnancy was the Constitutional right of any pregnant woman, under the right to privacy subsumed by the Court to be in in accordance with the due process clause of the 14th Amendment (1). The only limitation placed by the Court in Roe and subsequent decisions was that this right was a pregnant woman’s without limitation until the “time of fetal viability” (that is the ability of a fetus to live independently with the usual support provided to newborns, outside of the womb, generally considered to occur at about the 24th week of pregnancy).

(While the Court explicitly rejected the argument, I feel that what can also properly be called “freedom of choice in the outcome of pregnancy” is also supported by the Ninth Amendment, to wit: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be con­strued to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Ambiguous? Interpretable? Oh yes, and that was exactly the original intent (Justice Scalia) of the Founding Fathers. They built into the Constitution a good deal of ambiguity and thus interpretability when it came to personal rights and liberties, that could change over time.   No wonder Robert Bork, the ultimate so-called “originalist,” described the Ninth an “as inkblot on the Constitution.”)

Since the time of Roe v. Wade, the Pro-choice movement has pursued a strategy that has three major elements. One is that it has focused almost entirely on the choice issue. The second is that from the beginning its promotion of that element has been primarily court-based. The third is a major emphasis on contraception and birth-control services to reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancy leading to abortion (something the so-called “pro-life movement ignores when it is not completely opposed to the availability of such services).

What political organizing that has been done from time-to-time has been primarily in response to what the anti-choice forces have been doing. Indeed, the Republican Religious Right has been ramping up the political assault on abortion rights for years. Their political strategy has been three-fold. One has been focused on gaining control of state governments in order to enact anti-abortion rights laws per se. The second (see for example recent actions taken by state governments in Arkansas [3] and North Dakota [4]) has been aimed in recent years at getting the issue back to the Supreme Court where they would hope, given the Catholic-dominated right-wing majority, the could achieve reversal of Roe v. Wade. Third, they envision the total criminalization of abortion through both state and national Constitutional “origin of life” amendments.

It is proposed here to broaden the battle, opening a “second front” in the war, using issue of religious determinism/authoritarianism. This would make the battle everyone’s, not just women’s. This is not to say that this issue has not been raised. It certainly has been, from time-to-time (like the North African and Southern Europe invasions). It is to say that it’s time for its full force to be brought to bear, on the equivalent of the beaches at Normandy. “When life begins” is a religious (and philosophical/ethical, for us atheists) concept, not a scientific one.

On GOP pseudo-science, concerning the criminalization-of-abortion issue, for example, there is, for example, the fake “libertarian” (Dr.) Rand Paul saying that it’s a scientific fact that life begins at the moment of conception and thus abortion should be criminalized. Speaking as a physician myself, I wonder what medical school he went to, or maybe he just wasn’t paying much attention during his OB clerkship. No, Rand, it is not a scientific fact that life begins at the moment of conception, any more than, Todd (Akin), women when raped have some sort of built-in magical contraceptive mechanism.

In fact, on the religious side, great Catholic theologians, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas themselves, did not believe that the soul (which, they felt, upon its arrival in the fetus indicated that “life” had begun) was present in the embryo from the moment of conception, but arrived somewhat later (2). “Later” was usually defined as the time of “quickening,” which occurs some time on the 2nd trimester. So early abortion was OK for Catholics. That is until it happened to be declared not OK by Pope Pius IX in 1869 (who also delivered to Catholics the doctrine of Papal Infallibility and the concept of the virgin birth).

That the matter of abortion-rights is a first and foremost a religious question is the key point that the “pro-choice” movement has not used to anywhere near its fullest extent all of these years. It is a matter of a woman’s choice, of course. But in their drive to criminalize such a choice the anti-abortionists always proceed from a religious position, theirs, that “life begins at the moment of conception.” What our side has missed all of these years is that there is an equally valid religious belief (and an atheist/humanist belief as well) that life begins at the time of viability.

What the GOP and the other so-called “anti-abortionists” want to do is criminalize the religious belief of anyone who holds that life begins at the time of viability. Yes, folks, criminalize it. It is suggested here that we move to finally win the abortion wars, by adding to the very important principle of the “woman’s right to choose” (which has, however, by giving over to the anti-abortionists the term “pro-life,” created the illusion that anyone promoting or having an abortion was abetting or committing murder) to freedom of religion, as provided for in the First Amendment, and opposition to the religious authoritarianism/determinism of the Republican Religious Right.

Suddenly the issue would be changed from one solely of women’s rights (which I fully support) over what is happening to one’s own body, to the rights of all of us to hold religious/ethical beliefs that are indeed within the mainstream of the broad population of the United States. Then, all of a sudden it’s everyone’s issue, not just that of women. And it is. For if the GOP, the Republican Religious Right, can criminalize a set of beliefs on when life begins, one can just imagine what might come next. Why, perhaps, criminalizing the belief that the “one true God” is that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not the one of the Book of Exodus (Moses), or the belief that there is none. That is a road we do not want to follow, do we?

(Photo: Inger Al Haosului)



1.         Wikipedia, “Roe v. Wade,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roe_v._Wade.

2.       “The Roman Catholic Church's ‘traditional teaching’ on Abortion,” http://liberalslikechrist.org/Catholic/abortionteaching.html.

3.       Eckholm, E., “Arkansas Adopts a Ban on Abortions After 12 Weeks,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/07/us/arkansas-adopts-restrictive-abortion-law.html?emc=eta1&_r=0.

4.       Eligon, J., “North Dakota to Put End to Abortions on the Ballot”   http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/us/north-dakota-allows-vote-on-strict-abortion-limit.html.


Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for [email protected] he is the Managing Editor of and a Contributing Author to The Political Junkies for Progressive Democracy (http://thepoliticaljunkies.org/).