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Friday, March 08, 2013

Take a breath!

The Republican led legislature in Arkansas overrode a veto by the Democratic Governor to pass the most restrictive law in the country: Abortion after 12 weeks is now banned in that state.

This was a "compromise". The original proposal was to ban abortion after 6 weeks. Wary of the national firestorm that erupted last year after Virginia tried to require an intrusive transvaginal procedure, proponents revised the bill to specify that a fetal heartbeat should be detected by abdominal ultrasound or other external methods, which are not feasible at six weeks. 

The earliest a fetal heartbeat can typically be heard / seen by abdominal ultrasound is 12 weeks.

The law contradicts the limit established by Supreme Court decisions, which give women a right to an abortion until the fetus is viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Even some anti-abortion leaders called the measure a futile gesture. 

Unfortunately, the Arkansas Legislature is hardly alone in its devotion to turning out new abortion restrictions. Last year, 19 states enacted 43 new provisions seeking to curb access to abortion services, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute

In 2011, 92 such measures were passed. So far this year, 278 such provisions have been introduced in state legislatures that would narrow abortion rights in a host of ways. Another 18 measures would limit access to contraception. 

Not all of these will get enacted, of course, but undoubtedly some of them will. At this point, three states are down to just a single abortion provider, including Mississippi, where a medically unnecessary rule requiring that doctors have visiting privileges at local hospitals is threatening to close down the state’s last clinic. 

The Republican right-wing hysteria over reproductive rights rights continues unabated  and apparently unchastened by their party’s lagging support among women as well as the Republican rebranding efforts to soften the Tea Party's line-in-the-sand approach to all things political. 

Excuse the metaphor, but the underlying motto seems to be "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" for some Republicans who want to reassert the primacy of the penis.

Here's what's caught me up short in the new Arkansas law: The philosophical / medical / legal / theological basis of the law is a 12-week old beating heart.

Most of the right-wing Republicans are ..... (ahem) "informed"..... by an Evangelical or Roman Catholic theological interpretation of scripture.

So, when did the heartbeat become the scriptural basis for determining life?

Everything I read in scripture about life is about breath. God's breath. Ruach. The Spirit of life.

From both stories of Creation in Genesis - God's breath swirled over chaos and brought it into order AND God's breath animated the life of Adam and Eve - to the story of the Valley of the Dry Bones - Ezekiel 37:1-14 - to Jesus dying on the cross and "giving up his last breath", to the gift of the Resurrection at Pentecost - everything involves breath.

When a baby is born, the required APGAR score includes pulse rate AND breathing. 

When a person is found unconscious, first-responders are trained to check for a pulse AND breath sounds. When efforts begin to save the life, cardiac compression AND mouth-to-mouth resuscitation are required.

When a person is "pronounced" dead, the legal document filled out by the doctor or nurse requires documentation of the absence of a pulse/heart beat AND breath sounds.

I suppose the 'heartbeat' argument has its own logic - if you buy into the idea that "life begins at conception".

NEWSFLASH: There is to heart to beat at conception.  At that point it's just a collection of cells.

The language of Roe v. Wade, allowing abortion before 24 weeks gestation, is predicated on the understanding that, at that point, life is sustainable outside the womb. That is, the heart may be developed but the lungs have not yet developed enough for the fetus to breathe on its own.

Or, at least, the fetus would have enough lung development to be able to receive medical assistance to support life - i.e, BREATH - in order to have some kind of QUALITY OF LIFE after birth.

Why? Because we need heart and lungs - pulse and breath - to have life.

So, why the focus on the heartbeat?

Despite the obvious emotional appeal, it is no doubt because a heartbeat is an easy enough measurement to discern in utero - after approximately 12 weeks. However, it's only one of two measurements of "life". It's the heart AND the lungs. A pulse AND breath sounds.

The complexity of this issue was brought into focus by the case of Tamara Mann, a Jewish woman living in Ohio and the case of an "optional" vs "voluntary" abortion.  The 13 week fetus she was carrying had been determined, on routine sonogram, to be seriously deformed:
He (the doctor) saw me, gestured for me to come to his office, and referred to the ailing life in my belly as a baby. "This isn't good," he whispered. "It's really not. Let me show you." He was kind but clear. "The organs are not inside the baby's body. The hands and feet are curled, actually one limb seems to be stunted or missing. The neck isn't right. This really doesn't look good."
A week later, her own doctor called her with the news:
"Tamara, I have looked at the scans and I have shown the scans to doctors in my office. I want to tell you that we all agree that this fetus is not compatible with life. It will not survive the pregnancy. You should get it removed immediately. The longer you wait the more risks are involved." 
She was, of course, devastated, and sought the advice of her Rabbi:
The idea of "removing" my baby, my fetus, while its heart was still beating was simply unbearable. Was it living? Was it still growing? Would I be stopping the heartbeat, cutting short its life? And what do I do after the operation? Do I bury it? I didn't understand what I had inside of me and I didn't understand what I should do. I called a dear friend, an Orthodox rabbi, who I knew would be both compassionate and firm. After consulting with his rabbi, he said the case was clear. In situations where the mother's health is at risk and the fetus (he explicitly said fetus) is not viable, Jewish law errs on the side of the mother's health. I should have the operation and I should not bury the fetus -- it is not a life. 
The situation was far from over, however. The hospital called the next morning:
"Because your fetus still has a heartbeat, it has been our experience that insurance companies in Ohio will not cover the costs of the operation. They consider it an optional abortion. Our office suggests that you go to Planned Parenthood, which will only run you $800. If you go to the hospital it will be over $10,000."
You can read the rest of this heart-wrenching story here.  The author, Tamara Mann, asks: "What is going on here? Why have so many people settled on the heartbeat as the best marker of life in-utero? This is not science. It is the tyranny of a metaphor." She says:
Life is not instantaneous. It is an arduous, miraculous, process. So many steps have to align -- so much has to go exactly right for a baby to take its first breath. When we start to think of life this way, the pro-choice/pro-life debates seem to me almost cruel. Neither accurately explains the moral nuance of each individual's situation or honors the complexity of creation. I wish we could reframe the debate and talk more about what it would mean to honor the sanctity of life. To honor the actual lives of pregnant women and the potential lives they hold within them. 
I share Tamara's wish.

Here's a simplistic response to the simplistic idea of a heartbeat defining life: Don't want an abortion? Don't have one. But, please don't hold a woman's life captive to the "tyranny of a metaphor" and embrace the complexity of everything that makes up life.

Here's a more complex response to those who oppose abortion: Don't want an abortion? Work to eradicate the reasons many women have an abortion: Poverty. Lack of quality education. Lack of access to quality medical care. Domestic violence.

In the midst of the current high-testosterone debate about reproductive rights - everything from contraception to third-trimester abortions - I wish we would all take a breath and reframe the debate to talk about what it would mean to honor the sanctity of life - from womb to tomb.

Given the fact that so much about the debate over reproductive rights - like the sequester and the filibuster on cabinet nominations - is based less on getting to a workable solution and more on proving which side can "win", taking a breath and reframing the debate may prove to be as "futile a gesture" as the Arkansas law to prohibit abortion after 12 weeks.

I don't know what gesture wouldn't be futile when defending against the tyranny of a metaphor. 

At this point, however, I think there's ample and sound biblical foundation for it - allowing the breath of God to breathe over the chaos of this time and bring us some inspiration to honor and respect all life.

That's a choice we all have.

And, it's one we can all make.


Sextant said...

The problem with simplistic responses is that can't be debated to death and nuanced ad infinitum.

"Don't want an abortion. Don't have one." Don't believe in contraception, don't use it. Sounds like common sense to me, but how do you get any political traction out of that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I know. It's a trap. I can get hooked by the simplistic "life begins at conception". Well, okay, but "life" for a blade of grass begins at the seed. How can you equate a human life with a seed of grass? Menstruation is a bunch of eggs that didn't get fertilized. What are we supposed to do with tampons? A nocturnal emission is a bunch of sperm that never fertilized an egg? Should we burn the sheets and PJs and have a funeral service?

I mean, it gets so silly.

And yet, the temptation is to break things down for minds that think small thoughts. Even that little bit of simplistic logic doesn't work.

As my grandmother used to say, "If you hang around a barber shop long enough, you'll get a hair cut."

JCF said...

"This is not science. It is the tyranny of a metaphor."

The same tyranny which produces the "unborn baby" slogan.

It's crazy. It would be ironically funny . . . if it weren't so oppressive.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Amen, JCF. Amen.

robert holman said...

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:41

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:13-16

-- there are other verses that speak of life in addition to those you choose to refer to...

Matthew said...

The story of the Ohio woman is hearbreaking. Who cares if it has a "heartbeat" if the fetus is "incompatible with human life" as determined by multiple competent medical authorities? For that matter, who cares even if its after 25 weeks since it will never be vialble because its incompatible with human life? Why should it matter even if its at 8 months along? Somehow I feel these people want to require a woman to carry a dead fetus and die of toxic shock because technically the heart is still beating, albeit outside of the body on its own. Too bizarre for words.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Robert - I think you are stretching Holy Scripture to make your point. Elizabeth may have been filled with the Holy Spirit, but that doesn't mean the child she was carrying was breathing.

I think Psalm 139 is a powerful call to respect the life - and choices - of a woman who is pregnant and doesn't want to be.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - the great irony from the "Respect life" people is that they have absolutely no respect for a woman's life - present and future - and little respect for the "life" she carries after it is born.

Photina said...

Freedom has been given to us by God. Let no one take it away. However, as a minister, are you certain that it is perfectly good to exterminate an unborn child, even up to the point that it takes its first breath? God loves creation. The Enemy loves death. Which side do you profess?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I would never - ever - encourage the extermination of anyone - much less a child. Abortion is a legal, safe medical procedure which removes a collection of cells from the sidewall of a woman's uterus. It is my intent to work as hard as I can, with Gods help, to make certain that choice is always available to a woman.

You and your friends have certainly been busy writing comments on various posts on this blog. I'm flattered by all the attention. Thank you.