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Why be pro-life?

Social IssuesAbortion IssueSciencePoliticsHealthRudy GiulianiAl Gore

Idon't know if life begins at conception. I don't really know what "life" means. Consciousness? Possessing a soul? Well, if consciousness defines the issue, then life surely does not begin at conception. Not even the most adamant pro-lifer claims otherwise.

As for souls, I believe we have them, but I don't know how they work. Indeed, ensoulment -- the process by which God puts a soul in our bodies -- is a controversial topic among religious scholars, people who know a lot more about such things than I do. And I'm not sure any of them are right anyway.

If "life" simply means that fetuses are something more than inanimate objects, I'm with you. But that hardly seals the deal for me on the issue of abortion. After all, the world is filled with organisms that do not deserve any special consideration, let alone a claim on a human being's life or liberty.

In short, while I have great sympathy for "culture of life" arguments, if you tallied most of the above views on abortion, they'd appear to add up to my being pro-choice. And yet, when I get right down to it, I'm not. Why?

I've been trying to find my own answer to that question as the GOP comes to grips with the fact that its presidential front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, is pro-choice. I confess: A fully satisfactory answer eludes me, but I have enough of one to stay pro-life.

Part of my reasoning is politically pragmatic. Grover Norquist, the right-wing activist, once told my National Review colleague, David Freddoso, in an interview that anyone who can go to black-tie dinners and face the haranguing of rich donors for his pro-life stance has the backbone to support tax cuts too.

That's a crude way of putting it, but I know what he means. Being pro-life is so unfashionable, so uncool, I tend to trust politicians who are willing to hold the line.

This, in turn, points to why I have special contempt for antiabortion politicians who switch sides. Jesse Jackson used to call abortion "genocide." Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Dennis Kucinich and other pro-choicers all once championed the unborn. Did each of them revisit the moral, philosophical, scientific and theological issues involved and, after careful study, suddenly decide that abortion doesn't kill "babies" after all but, rather, merely evacuates "uterine contents"? I doubt it.

I could be wrong, obviously. But the fact that their conversions echoed the march of the Democratic Party and, for the most part, dovetailed with their own presidential ambitions suggests to me that they were willing to sanction the taking of what they had once believed to be innocent lives merely for political gain. That is disgusting.

Flip-flopping the other way (as George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney and others did) may be no less cynical. To pro-choice voters, it's surely deeply offensive to watch someone sacrifice the individual liberty of women for political expediency. But, morally, it just doesn't seem as bad to me.

Every day, the government restricts what you can do with your body, from the drugs you can take to the surgeries you can subject yourself to. In other words, the line of personal autonomy is often blurry and narrow. The line between life and death is supposed to be bright and wide. Once a politician takes a stand that a certain population -- be they fetuses, Jews, blacks or anybody else -- has the right to life, their motive for changing their minds should be a lot better than fear of losing support from NARAL and the New York Times.

And that gets me to my more philosophical or principled reason for being pro-life: I just don't know. I confess that I lack passion about debates over RU-486, Plan B and other measures that terminate a pregnancy in the first few hours or days after conception, because that's when I'm least sure that a life is at stake. But when it comes to, say, partial-birth abortion, I am adamantly pro-life. I don't know if a fertilized egg has rights. But I am convinced that a baby minutes, days or weeks before full term is, simply, a baby. And despite what you constantly hear, Roe vs. Wade doesn't recognize that fact.

In death penalty cases, "reasonable doubt" goes to the accused because unless we're certain, we must not risk an innocent's life. This logic goes out the window when it comes to abortion, unless you are 100% sure that babies only become human beings after the umbilical cord is cut. I don't see how you can be that sure, which is why I'm pro-life -- not because I'm certain, but because I'm not.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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