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With the Supreme Court about to weigh in on abortion, I wanted to share with my fellow Ricochetti how I came around on this subject. I’m curious if anyone else had a similar journey.
I was a default leftist in my 20’s. I remember making pro-abortion arguments to a friend who was a Lutheran seminary student. I don’t recall what my arguments were. I expect I was repeating what I heard on NPR that week.
About that same time I visited my dad and he told me about a legal matter he was handling for a friend. The friend owned some wooded acreage in Northern California, and he wanted to take out some dead trees. Problem was, a bald eagle had established a nest on the top of one of those trees, and all the neighbors (and maybe the Fish & Game Department) knew it. He was worried about what kind of liability he might face if he took down that tree. A lot, it turned out.
Under the Endangered Species Act, destroying the nest of a bald eagle is a crime. In fact, destroying the egg of a bald eagle is a criminal act that carries a five-year prison term.
So the tree stayed up, which seemed right.
So let’s put a pin in this, and we’ll come back to it.
Flash forward about five years and I’m in Chicago attending a sneak preview of Clint Eastwood’s newest Western: Unforgiven.
If you know the movie, you know the scene where the young, wanna-be gunfighter has just made his first kill. He’s deeply shaken and confesses his anxiety to the old, retired gunfighter, played by Eastwood. Then Eastwood delivers a line that hit me like a punch the moment I heard it: “It’s a helluva thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got, and everything he’s ever gonna have.”
That description of murder seemed right to me.
Let’s put a pin in that one, too.
Years later I’m listening to the radio and I hear Five For Fighting’s hit song 100 Years. If you know the lyrics, the song describes the stages of our lives: “I’m fifteen for a moment; I’m thirty-five for a moment; You’ve only got 100 years to live.” Nice song.
Then this happened: I’m listening to NPR and some legal analyst is describing a case about how many weeks is too late to perform an abortion. 10 weeks? 15? 20?
That talk about weeks got me thinking about the eagle’s nest. My dad’s friend’s criminal liability for destroying an eagle’s egg would not depend on how many weeks the eaglet had been gestating inside its egg. His criminal liability would attach as soon as it was laid. Indeed, his criminal liability would attach if he had destroyed the eagle’s nest even if had no eggs in it. Why?
Isn’t it obvious? We hold people criminally liable for destroying eagle’s eggs because we know that inside the eggs are gestating eaglets who will grow to be fully fledged eagles someday. Gestating eaglets are not nothing, and we don’t throw people into federal prison for destroying nothing. We throw people in prison for destroying gestating specimens of the species Haliaeetus leucocephalus.
But why do we throw people in prison for destroying gestating specimens of Haliaeetus leucocephalus? Because the destruction of a gestating specimen deprives the world of a specimen that will become an eaglet, then an adolescent, then an adult Bald Eagle who flies, and fishes, and nests, and makes little eagles. We know that’s what happens. Of course that’s what happens. All creatures exist over spans of time. That’s why we throw people into prison for destroying gestating specimens of Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and every other species on the Endangered Species list. If someone kills it while gestating, he is depriving it, and us, of its existence for its entire lifespan. That’s a crime.
Then my mind went to that line from Unforgiven: “It’s a helluva thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got, and everything he’s ever gonna have.”
So thinking back to the gestating eaglet, destroying it takes away everything that eaglet has (which isn’t much), AND takes away everything it is ever going to have—which is the full life of an American Bald Eagle–a life of value. That’s why we throw people in prison for destroying it while it is gestating. Yes, the destroyer is acting in a moment when it is not a fully grown Bald Eagle, but he is taking away all the moments that make up the life of a fully grown Bald Eagle. He is cutting a lifespan short. That’s a crime. And that’s why we put him in prison when he does it.
So what about our species? What is the abortion procedure but an act of killing a gestating specimen of our species that takes away everything he has (which isn’t much), AND takes away everything he is ever going to have? How is it different, in principle, from destroying a gestating eaglet, which is a crime? What is it but cutting short the lifespan of a fellow human?
And what is our gestating fellow human going to have over his lifespan? The same things we all get. That made me think of the Five For Fighting song:
We all start as kids.
“I’m fifteen for a moment Caught in between ten and twenty; And I’m just dreaming Counting the ways to where you are.”
We fall in love:
“I’m twenty two for a moment; She feels better than ever; And we’re on fire; Making our way back from Mars.”
We become parents:
“I’m thirty three for a moment; Still the man, but you see I’m of age; A kid on the way; A family on my mind.”
“I’m forty five for a moment; The sea is high; And I’m heading into a crisis; Chasing the years of my life”
And we pass on:
“I’m ninety nine for a moment; Dying for just another moment; And I’m just dreaming; Counting the ways to where you are”
There is a lot to life. The song is right about that. Which is why the movie is right about this: “It’s a helluva thing, killing a man.”
And killing could not be more serious when the killing is at the start, because the timing of that killing takes away every one of the 100 years our gestating fellow human being has out there waiting for him. Abortion truly is “a helluva thing.” How can any of us, any of us, presume the authority to take away the 100 years of life that is out there waiting for another one of our fellow human beings to live? How is it not a crime to intentionally take away everything our fellow human being has, AND everything he is going to have over his 100 years?
Looking back, I don’t know how I ever convinced myself abortion was not a crime. When I think of it in terms of eaglets, and Unforgiven, and 100 Years, I don’t know how it could be anything else.Published in