Saturday, January 23, 2010

Confessions of a Pro-Choicer

As a teenager, the politics of the abortion debate was unformed like a lump of clay in my mind. I was religious at the time, but ideology in any direction wasn't exactly a strong component in my thought processes. During this time, a close friend of mine approached me with tears in her eyes and a revelation that she was pregnant. "My parents are going to kill me," she said. She asked me if I would loan her the money for an abortion which I did without hesitation. She was sincerely terrified and that was all I needed to make my decision.

The transition, for me, from redneck to college graduate was profound. I went from never having read a book to never being able to put one down. I shed my southern baptist skin and became an atheist who challenged everything, or so I thought.

Life, to me, is not exactly the miracle that so many make it out to be. Any two morons can have sex and create a life or lives that contribute more to the decay of this planet than the actual improvement of it. All you have to do is turn on your tv or pick up a newspaper or just walk outside your door to see living proof of it. And though I'm aware and sensitive to the multitude of social ills that plague this planet, I can honestly say that my efforts to alleviate them are minimal at best.

To say that I am pro-choice is an understatement, but a recent article in The New York Times Magazine by Annie Murphy Paul has not only challenged my way of thinking, but it has exposed a deficiency in what I thought was my greatest strength - challenging conventional wisdom and "group-think" mentalities to form my own unbiased opinion. But I never challenged the abortion debate because I've always believed that scientific evidence trumps religious faith any day of the week. When does life begin? Conception? 1 week? 1 month? Actual birth? I don't know and I really don't care because how much consciousness does one possess in the womb of its mother anyway? The article, however, has a twist as it follows a doctor by the name of Kanwaljeet Anand who was a medical resident in a neonatal care unit twenty-five years ago:
...his tiny patients, many of them preterm infants, were often wheeled out of the ward and into an operating room. He soon learned what to expect on their return. The babies came back in terrible shape: their skin was gray, their breathing shallow, their pulses weak. Anand spent hours stabilizing their vital signs, increasing their oxygen supply and administering insulin to balance thier blood sugar.

"What's going on in there to make these babies so stressed?" Anand wondered. Breaking with hospital practice, he wrangled permission to follow his patients into the O.R. "That's when I discovered that the babies were not getting anesthesia," he recalled recently. Infants undergoing major surgery were receiving only a paralytic to keep them still. Anand's encounter with this practice occurred at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England, but it was common almost everywhere. Doctors were convinced that newborns' nervous systems were too immature to sense pain, and that the dangers of anesthesia exceeded any potential benefits.*

That last sentence floored me. Does logic not dictate that its better to err on the side of caution when dealing with a life form's capacity to feel pain? Anand would try to understand this issue further by conducting a series of clinical trials in which he found that "operations performed under minimal or no anesthesia produced a 'massive stress response' in newborn babies, releasing a flood of fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline and cortisol." Anand's curiosity grew and, as the neonatal intensive care unit's technology improved, the ages of the pretern infants he cared for grew younger and he would find that "even the most premature babies grimaced when pricked by a needle."

The anti-abortion movement has, of late, rallied around fetal pain to champion their cause and I find it incredibly difficult, even in my pro-choice mentality, to argue against their case. I assumed that the medical and scientific community would not assume who does and does not feel pain. I was wrong. And in the legal framework of deciding when life begins in the abortion debate - ironically, it just might be science that assists the anti-abortion movement rather than faith.

*"The First Ache," by Annie Murphy Paul. The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 2008

No comments: