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Abortion: When does human life begin?

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Transcendental Commentary on the Issues of the Day

Almost everyone agrees that life begins at conception; the sperm mixes with the ovum in one of the fallopian tubes, and barring natural or man-made calamities, this initial mixture ultimately results in the birth of a child.

But when does human life begin? When does that mixture of sperm and ovum become an individual person entitled to protection under the law? This is the central question in the abortion debate. “It’s human right from conception,” the anti-abortion forces say. “No, it’s not, ” the pro-abortion people counter. “Not until birth can a child be awarded human rights. “

But why, the Krsna devotee asks, should the abortion debate hinge on the question of human or nonhuman? Is only human life sacred? According to the Vedic literatures, an eternal individual soul inhabits the body of every living creature. The soul is the driver of the bodily vehicle, and without the soul there is no possibility of life or living symptoms. The soul enters the womb at the time of conception, and this makes the fetus a unique, living individual person.

What to speak of abortion, even contraception, which is highly recommended by many anti-abortionists, interferes with nature’s arrangement to provide a soul with a new body and is therefore bound to result in unfavorable karmic reaction. The bottom line, then, is that if you don’t want to suffer the karmic reactions to abortion and contraception, then don’t have sex unless you want to have a child.

This month we are considering the abortion issue in the light of two recent events.

Fetus Fiasco

by Drutakarma dasa

1984-10-26About five thousand years ago the great sage Vyasadeva made the following prediction: “In the Kali-yuga [the present age of quarrel and hypocrisy] the following things will diminish: religion, truthfulness, cleanliness, mercy, duration of life, bodily strength, and memory.”

The decrease in the quality of mercy is particularly noticeable in the phenomenon of abortion, the deliberate killing of unborn children. It’s hard to think of any act more merciless, yet last year there were 1.3 million legal abortions in America.

Considering the overwhelming instinct of humans to protect children once they are born, it is hard to see why abortion is tolerated. Part of the reason seems to lie in the fact that many people do not see abortion as killing. By a kind of doublethink, they deny the status of humanity to the fetus.

That the nation’s courts are taking a leading role in fostering this misconception is extremely unfortunate. A recent decision by the California State Court of Appeals, reported in The Los Angeles Times (July 3, 1984), illustrates the point.

Two years ago, sixteen thousand human fetuses stored in jars of formaldehyde were found in a repossessed shipping bin belonging to the owner of a pathology lab that had gone out of business. Anti-abortion groups, including the Catholic League, wanted to hold a memorial funeral service for the fetuses, but were opposed by pro-abortion groups. The matter wound up before a Los Angeles Superior Court justice, who ruled in favor of holding the funeral service.

Upon appeal, however, this judgment was reversed. Writing for the State Court of Appeal, Justice Arleigh Wood said, “It is clear from the record that the Catholic League is a religious organization which regards a fetus as a human being and abortion as murder. While this specific belief may well cross sectarian lines, it is a belief not universally held. Consequently, any state action showing a preference for this belief will be strictly scrutinized and must be invalidated unless it is justified by compelling government interest. . . .”

This logic is sickening to anyone who has not been completely overwhelmed by the ignorance of the age. There is an obvious difference between the sixteen thousand fetuses as they existed in the wombs of their mothers and as they now exist in jars of formaldehyde. It’s not at all a question of “belief”—the fetuses once displayed the signs of life, and now they no longer do. And the reason that they don’t is because of the intervention of abortionists, whose life-depriving actions are sanctioned by the nation’s courts. If murder isn’t murder, than what is?

The pro-abortionist reply is “It’s not murder, because the fetus is not human.” But the big fallacy is the pro-abortionists’ claim that their views are somehow impartial, whereas the religious view that human life begins at conception is a narrow, sectarian bias. Exactly the opposite is true. The laws of God are the actual impartial and objective universal principles by which human society should be ordered. Proscriptions against murder are found in all religions.

God is the supreme father of all living beings, and He alone is capable of giving guidelines applicable to all. But the so-called laws manufactured by the imperfect, limited intelligence of materialistic men are bound to work for the interests of some people and against the interests of others.

The exact balance is determined by factors such as the relative political power of the groups in question. Abortion is a good example. Parents are relieved of the burden of raising children resulting from their sexual relations. Government is relieved of the supposed burden of an increasing population. But the unborn children, who can rely upon nothing but the mercy of humanity, are denied the right to life.

Yet it should be noted here that just as the state has the means to enforce compliance with its imperfect man-made laws, God has made arrangements to enforce compliance with His perfect, universally applicable laws, such as “Thou shall not kill.” The principles of cosmic justice are administered through the operations of karma, by which those who cause injury to others must themselves undergo equivalent suffering. Quite simply, this means that there is a very good chance that those responsible for abortion will undergo a similar fate in their next lives. Just a belief? Let’s wait and see.

Souls On Ice

by Dvarakadhisa-devi dasi

1984-10-27Bring up the subject of abortion at any social gathering and you’re sure to ignite sparks. On both sides of this heated issue, convictions run deep, and for either party compromise is usually unthinkable. One reason the controversy over the moral complexities of abortion continues to rage is the absence of any authority to clarify the basic points of contention. For example, the combined efforts of our scientists and legal experts have been unable to produce a simple definition of precisely when human life begins. The Supreme Court skirted the issue in 1973 in the famous Roe vs. Wade decision, which upholds that a woman’s right to govern her own body overrides the right to life of her unborn child. That decision has opened the door for our current system of abortion-on-demand.

Now the courts—this time in Australia—may get another shot at the hordes of unborn, unwanted infants. In Melbourne, two miniscule human embryos are drawing a lot of attention as they float silently in a freezer tank at Queen Victoria Medical Center. The embryos were intended to be implanted in the womb of Elsa Rios, who entered the clinic in 1981. After one unsuccessful attempt at implantation, Elsa and her husband never returned to the clinic, leaving the two embryos frozen in suspended animation. Last year the couple was killed in a plane crash, leaving no word on the care of their two heirs-to-be. Now the question attracting all the attention is what to do with the hapless orphans: implant them in another womb and give them the chance to enjoy their inheritance, or simply allow them to thaw and perish?

The forces on both sides of the abortion issue quickly realized the implications involved in such a decision. To treat unimplanted frozen embryos as legal entities entitled by law to the shelter of a womb would be devastating to the abortionist platform. On the other hand, the right-to-life groups will be outraged if the embryos are thrown out as useless property. Australia’s court system is unwilling (or unable) to offer any substantial guidance, and the scientific community is hampered by its continuing bewilderment over the mysteries of conception.

Of course, scientists admit the presence of some viable life force that motivates the development of the human embryo from conception to birth. The argument used by the pro-abortionists, however, is that because the embryo is dependent upon the body of the mother for survival, it should not be considered an individual human being. But is this argument reasonable? Even after the child is born he is still completely dependent upon the mother for survival, yet we do not question that to kill a small baby is murder. Indeed, all living beings are dependent upon some particular physical arrangement to satisfy the needs of their bodies. Human beings need sunshine, food, water, and fresh air; no one would seriously suggest that they must be able to exist without these necessities before they can be accepted as human. So how can we conclude that there is no human life in the early stages of pregnancy?

But the issue of abortion becomes complicated not so much by a lack of scientific evidence and legal clarification as by the desire for unrestricted sexual enjoyment. Society encourages free sexual expression, but no one wants the resultant responsibility for unwanted children. Rather than deal with the difficulties of self-restraint, we have opted for abortion. The issue then becomes how to justify the heinous act of slaughtering helpless, unborn children, dehumanizing the fetus so that our consciousness won’t be troubled by thoughts of murder. The bulk of society has now accepted abortion as standard medical procedure, even without assurance from legal or scientific authorities. How will they ever resolve the issue of frozen embryos in Australia without the benefit of any real guidance?

For one familiar with Vedic teachings, the problem is at once painful and comical. That the finest legal and scientific brains are unable to understand that an unborn human child is human is certainly comical. But to witness widespread legalized murder is painful. Thus uncontrolled desire has merely clouded the issue, and neither laypersons nor judges, scientists, or other so-called experts seem competent to comprehend the simple facts about the nature of life. Society should be educated about the soul within the material body. The eternal soul inhabits many varieties of bodies, from insect to demigod, so there should be no difficulty in accepting the existence of a living soul within the human fetus. The soul enters a new body at conception and, when allowed to stay there unhampered, gradually develops all the faculties of body, intellect, and senses. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes:

The individual particle of spirit soul is a spiritual atom smaller than the material atoms, and such atoms are innumerable. This very small spiritual spark is the basic principle of the material body, and the influence of such a spiritual spark is spread all over the body as the influence of the active principle of some medicine is spread throughout the body. This current of the spirit soul is felt all over the body as consciousness, and that is the proof of the presence of the soul. Any layman can understand that his material body minus consciousness is a dead body, and this consciousness cannot be revived in the body by any means of material administration. Therefore, consciousness is not due to any amount of material combination, but to the spirit soul. (Bg. 2.17, purport)

Thus, with the application of spiritual wisdom, one of the most complicated issues of the day is greatly simplified. Of course, the world will continue to debate the issue of abortion. And as for our little friends in the freezer, the future looks bleak. Most likely, they will perish in thawing, scientists predict, due to the primitive techniques employed at the time of their fertilization. And even if they do make it in and out of the womb, the many legal complications involved will afford the courts plenty of room to avoid the significant issue. How can judges decide on the rights of motherless embryos when they themselves have no insight into the nature of the soul? Thus materialistic society continues to roll along on its unenlightened course, creating confusion and anxiety for all who follow its path. In contrast, spiritual understanding is waiting for those sickened by the bewildering whirl of material life.

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