Guest columnist Michael Miller: Abortion bans can’t stand up to scrutiny

Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap

Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap Glenn Carstens-Peters/StockSnap

By MICHAEL MILLER

Published: 01-30-2024 4:24 PM

The regulation of individual women’s abortion rights has long been debated in the U.S. In the 19th century, Matilda Joslyn Gage said, “Enforced motherhood is a crime against the body of the mother and the soul of the child,” and “To say when and how often she chooses to go down into the valley of the shadow of death, to give the world another child, should be hers alone to say.”

Arguments against abortion rights are embraced by religious leaders and their followers. Their campaigns led to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision to reverse women’s federal right to abortion and promoted passage of state laws restricting abortion access. These changes reflect findings by the Pew Research Center that 45% of Americans believe the U.S. should be a Christian nation.

The Founding Fathers would be the first and loudest to decry such claims. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson used the term Creator, not God. Madison ensured that neither Creator nor God appears in the Constitution, and the First Amendment assures a separation between the church and government. Even Roger Williams, preeminent Puritan theologian and leader of Rhode Island, supported a robust church-state wall to prevent the government from meddling in church activities.

We are a nation of immigrants who earned citizenship regardless of their beliefs. This plurality and respect of diversity is ensured by federal and state laws.

For example, the constitution for Utah, arguably the most religious state, declares, “The State shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … There shall be no union of Church and State, nor shall any church dominate the State or interfere with its functions.”

Some contend that life begins at conception. Hence, abortion at any time is murder. Taken to its logical consequence, 1) a natural miscarriage is murder, and a formerly pregnant woman must be punished; and 2) incarceration of a pregnant woman punishes an innocent person. Yet, the concept that a fetus is a person contradicts teachings in the Old Testament, the core of Abrahamic religions. Exodus 21:22-25 says fatal harm to a woman (pregnant or not) is punished by execution of the offender, whereas fatal harm to a fetus merely results in a fine.

States are passing or contemplating laws banning abortion after six or 15 weeks of gestation, or defining personhood at conception. Are such laws medically sound? To answer this, let’s pose the converse: What are the criteria for death? The consensus among medical and legal professionals is for three concurrent signs: failure of the heart, lungs, and brain.

The rudiments of the heart, lungs, and brain appear during fetal development, but when they function is the critical issue. Though cardiac activity begins at six weeks, lungs are only capable of independent function by 24-28 weeks. Ask parents sitting in neonatal intensive care units while their prematurely birthed offspring teeter on the brink of life. Brain activity is complicated. Let’s take control of opposition of the thumb as an indicator — after all, this action distinguishes humans. Volitional control of the digits develops after birth.

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Thus, if the three criteria for death guide our definition of the onset of life, there is no time when abortion should be illegal. Distressing as it may be, that includes rare third-trimester abortions. Such heart-rending decisions must be made by the woman and her physician, not politicians.

Using conception, six or 15 weeks of gestation as when life begins is flawed religiously, ethically, and medically. Abortion bans disrespect the diversity of the composition and religious practice of Americans, contradict medical knowledge, and destroy the separation of the church and government. Gage warned, “Unless the American people rouse to instant action we shall soon find our government turned into a monarchy, church and state united, and the people no better than serfs.”

We must address abortion rights with knowledge, intelligence and respect.

Michael Miller lives in Florence.