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Photo credit: photodune.

Keeping the baby vs. abortion: Americans muddled morality about the unborn

Photo credit: photodune.

Photo credit: photodune.

By Trevin Wax

On March 18, Michelle Wilkins answered a Craigslist ad for baby clothes. When she arrived at the seller’s home, Dynel Lane, a former nurse’s aide, attacked her, cut her open, and removed her unborn child. Wilkins survived the incident; her child did not.

Hearing about this horrifying crime provokes a sense of moral revulsion, as well as a demand for justice to be carried out against the killer. But this crime took place in Colorado, and therefore, the attacker will not face murder charges. Colorado state law does not recognize the fetus as a person unless the fetus has reached the point he or she can survive outside the womb.

Today, 38 states have fetal homicide laws that increase penalties for crimes involving pregnant women or explicitly refer to the fetus as a person worthy of protection.

But creating and passing these laws is a contentious process because it takes lawmakers to the heart of our society’s debate over abortion: What is the unborn?

Opponents fear that some of these laws go too far in bestowing “personhood” on the unborn and may jeopardize a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. Supporters believe these laws provide justice for women like Wilkins and Laci Peterson, a pregnant California woman who disappeared in 2002.

The debate over fetal homicide reveals our society’s inconsistency in the ongoing debate over abortion: We only affirm the humanity of the unborn if the child is “wanted.”

With friends and neighbors and family members who celebrate a pregnancy, we speak of the unborn in warm and personal terms: “baby” and “child.” When debating the right to abortion, we speak of the unborn in clinical and impersonal terms: “fetus,” “zygote,” or “tissue.” One wonders if our manner of conversation conveniently shifts, depending on the context, or whenever we find it necessary to distance ourselves from the humanity of the unborn.

American views of the morality and legality of abortion are complex, defying the conventional labels of “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” and confounding activists on both sides who see the issue with black-and-white clarity. Describing American views as “complex” is the nice way to put it; it may be more accurate to say we’re muddled on the morality of abortion because we are inconsistent in our view of human life in the womb.

This is why Cosmopolitan can post an article lauding Latina reproductive rights activists and a video of ultrasounds showing how unborn babies grimace when their mothers smoke, without any apparent dissonance. Cosmo readers are supposed to react with horror to the harm smoking may cause a prenatal child, while rallying to support a woman’s right to a procedure that, in the second and third trimesters, would tear the same child limb by limb.

It’s why many in our society demand the harshest penalties for people who commit violent crimes against a pregnant woman or unborn child, while maintaining the right of a doctor to do violence to the unborn within the sterile confines of an abortion clinic. It’s why there is outrage at the news of fetal remains being used to heat hospitals in England, as if we ought to treat a prenatal child with more dignity after death than before. If the baby is “wanted,” he or she deserves our protection. If the baby is unwanted, he or she can be discarded.

Appealing to religious grounds in opposing abortion is difficult because of society’s wide range of perspectives. Agnostics or atheists may not agree that human beings are made in the image of God, or that abortion is a sin against another human being, or that human life begins at conception.

Appealing to science is difficult as well because, while science may answer the question of when human life begins (at conception), it cannot tell us if that developing human being should be considered a “person” or at what stage of development we should consider the fetus worth protecting.

But here at this intersection of science and faith the debate over the unborn is beginning to converge. Technology is playing a larger role in these discussions. High-quality ultrasounds offer us unprecedented pictures inside the womb. Millennial parents who put together scrapbooks for their children begin with sonograms, not newborn photos.

And so, as technology advances, our society is put in the increasingly uncomfortable position of both affirming and denying the humanity of the unborn. For now, however, our muddled inconsistency will deny justice to Michelle Wilkins, and no one will be charged in the death of the baby she lost.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After.”

 

Two Standards of Detention

By Amy Goodman, Truthdig

Scott Roeder, the anti-abortion zealot charged with killing Dr. George Tiller, has been busy. He called the Associated Press from the Sedgwick County Jail in Kansas, saying, “I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal.” Charged with first-degree murder and aggravated assault, he is expected to be arraigned July 28. AP recently reported that Roeder has been proclaiming from his jail cell that the killing of abortion providers is justified. According to the report, the Rev. Donald Spitz of the Virginia-based Army of God sent Roeder seven pamphlets defending “defensive action,” or killing of abortion clinic workers.

Spitz’s militant Army of God Web site calls Roeder an “American hero,” proclaiming, “George Tiller would normally murder between 10 and 30 children … each day … when he was stopped by Scott Roeder.”

The site, with biblical quotes suggesting killing is justified, hosts writings by Paul Hill, who killed Dr. John Britton and his security escort in Pensacola, Fla., and by Eric Rudolph, who bombed a Birmingham, Ala., women’s health clinic, killing its part-time security guard.

On Spitz’s Web site, Rudolph continues to write about abortion: “I believe that deadly force is indeed justified in an attempt to stop it.”

Juxtapose Roeder’s advocacy from jail with the conditions of Fahad Hashmi.

Hashmi is a U.S. citizen who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and went to Brooklyn College. He went to graduate school in Britain and was arrested there in 2006 for allegedly allowing an acquaintance to stay with him for two weeks. That acquaintance, Junaid Babar, allegedly kept at Hashmi’s apartment a bag containing ponchos and socks, which Babar later delivered to an al-Qaida operative. Babar was arrested and agreed to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for leniency.

While the evidence against Hashmi is secret, it probably stems from the claims of the informant Babar.

Fahad Hashmi was extradited to New York, where he has been held in pretrial detention for more than two years. His brother Faisal described the conditions: “He is kept in solitary confinement for two straight years, 23- to 24-hours lockdown. … Within his own cell, he’s restricted in the movements he’s allowed to do. He’s not allowed to talk out loud within his own cell. … He is being videotaped and monitored at all times. He can be punished … denied family visits, if they say his certain movements are martial arts … that they deem as incorrect. He has Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) … against him.”

Hashmi cannot contact the media, and even his lawyers have to be extremely cautious when discussing his case, for fear of imprisonment themselves. His attorney Sean Maher told me: “This issue of the SAMs … of keeping people in solitary confinement when they’re presumed innocent, is before the European Court of Human Rights. They are deciding whether they will prevent any European country from extraditing anyone to the United States if there is a possibility that they will be placed under SAMs … because they see it as a violation … to hold someone in solitary confinement with sensory deprivation, months before trial.”

Similarly, animal rights and environmental activists, prosecuted as “eco-terrorists,” have been shipped to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ new “communication management units” (CMUs). Andrew Stepanian was recently released and described for me the CMU as “a prison within the actual prison. … The unit doesn’t have normal telephone communication to your family … normal visits are denied … you have to make an appointment to make one phone call a week, and that needs to be done with the oversight of … a live monitor.”

Stepanian observed that up to 70 percent of CMU prisoners are Muslim—hence CMU’s nickname, “Little Guantanamo.” As with Hashmi, it seems that the U.S. government seeks to strip terrorism suspects of legal due process and access to the media—whether in Guantanamo or in the secretive new CMUs. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Bureau of Prisons over the CMUs.

Nonviolent activists like Stepanian, and Muslims like Hashmi, secretly and dubiously charged, are held in draconian conditions, while Roeder trumpets from jail the extreme anti-abortion movement’s decades-long campaign of intimidation, vandalism, arson and murder.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 750 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times,” recently released in paperback.

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