A Certain Uncertainty


by John Tyler Connoley

May 11, 2004


I believe I'm like most Americans when I say I'm pro-life. To me, it's self-evident that a fetus is more than just a bundle of cells attached to a woman's uterus. I also recoil at the thought of euthanasia, unable to imagine killing someone for being too old or too damaged.


On the other hand, I believe I'm like most Americans when I say I'm pro-choice. I recognize the complicated and deeply personal ethical dilemmas surrounding abortion (particularly in the first trimester), and I couldn't bring myself to condemn a woman for believing abortion is her best option. Likewise, while I hope I'm never in a situation where I have to sign my name to remove life support from a loved one, I can see where that might be a choice I would make.


The world is terribly complicated and medical science offers us new ethical dilemmas every day. A hundred years ago, when someone was thrown from a horse and fell into a coma, we waited to see if he would wake up in a few days or die. Within a week, the family knew if their brother would return to them, or return to his Maker.


But in the last century, we've learned to differentiate between types of comas, and we've perfected the ability to keep people alive in what is now classified as a persistent vegetative state. Terri Schiavo's family has been waiting years, hoping their sister might return to them, and I sympathize with their desire to keep hoping, but I also sympathize with Terri's husband who believes it would be best to remove her feeding tube and let Terri go. I'm sure the uncertainty is devastating, and it's probably worsened by the ethical ambiguity of the situation.


With all the uncertainty and ambiguity that modern medicine offers, it's tempting to choose an arbitrary line and stick with it, no matter what. We look to our leaders and hope they can give us a ruling or law that's universal. It's this desire that led to Terri's Law in Florida, as lawmakers tried to make things simple for the common folk. It's the same impulse that recently led the Pope, speaking to a convention of Catholic medical workers, to say that healthcare providers are morally obligated to provide food and water to disabled patients or those in a persistent vegetative state -- no ifs ands or buts.


On the other end of life, it used to be that a woman had to wait until her child was born before she knew what sex it was and whether it was healthy. In those days, infant mortality was a fact of life (it still is in many parts of the world), and most people waited several days before naming a newborn -- just to be sure it would make it. It was important not to get too attached to a baby, until you knew it would grow up and join the family.


Not surprisingly, Bronze Age legal codes took a different view of when life started than some of us might today. The biblical book of Exodus states that when someone strikes a pregnant woman and causes a miscarriage, that person must pay the family whatever amount of money they demand. However, if harm comes to the mother "then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth," and so on. The law implies that killing an unborn child is not the same as killing a full-grown woman.


Today, we have prenatal portrait studios popping up in malls, where a woman can get 3-D ultrasound images of her unborn child. The pictures show eyelashes and little fingers. Mothers name their children while they're still in the womb, and even buy special prenatal music CDs, which they play on headphones stretched over their bellies. So it was no surprise, during debates on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, to hear the tearful testimony of parents who felt they'd lost not only their pregnant daughters to murder, but their unborn grandchildren as well. Unlike Bronze Age families, these people demanded more than just money in their search for justice.


The Unborn Victims of Violence Act, passed by Congress and signed by the President, makes causing the death of an unborn child an act of murder, if done in the course of committing a federal crime. Like Terri's Law, it tries to clear the murky ethical waters churned up by modern science. But, also like Terri's Law, it does so by weighing in on an issue that is emotionally fraught and far from clear. In effect, the law gives unborn children the status of personhood in this narrowly defined circumstance. This of course leads to the ethical question of how it can be murder to end a pregnancy in one instance and a woman's constitutional right in another. Then there's the moral question of how Bible-believing Christians can back a law that's antithetical to a biblical law. But, then again, how can one ignore these grandparents' cry for justice? They'd already named their grandchildren, after all.


With the issues so muddied, I find myself (again like most Americans) unable to be strictly pro-choice or strictly pro-life, which is why I'm glad I live in a country where, for the most part, difficult ethical choices are left up to the individual. And I hope it stays that way.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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