Essay

The Search for a Fetal Heartbeat is an Effective Return to the Curtain Rod

There are people, organizations, institutions and leaders in politics that support the idea that a woman should be made to get an ultrasound and then listen to the fetus’s heartbeat before she can go through with the abortion she has decided to get. In the case of a pregnancy not yet five weeks, as I understand, no heartbeat can be detected, so a probe must be inserted in her up to the opening of the cervix– it cannot enter the womb, or can it, I don’t know, but this is futuristic alien invasion stuff. This is an effective return to the curtain rod.

I know that this is far, far too invasive. I cannot imagine what mind thinks of this stuff–and stuff is used without irony or pun intended. It is another punitive measure imagined by moralizers, who, when matters of morality arise, are usually wrong or wrong-headed or exaggerated or extreme in their proposed solutions. The Nazis were a moral majority, really; grotesque, extreme, absurd, even, but always very, very dangerous in their popularity. I know where I stand on this issue, no pun intended, issue being the King James Bible’s referent for children or the clap. But yes, Nazism was a fundamentalism, a ferocious ethic of cleansing society of its social diseases which went beyond eliminating the occurrence of gonorrhea or syphilis. People or peoples became diseases in the body politic. What this has to do with us today in this assumed democratic and liberty-loving America might seem far fetched, but I insist that there are inordinate ways which we are like both the Nazis and the Soviets, to which we are fast becoming unable to respond because fascism is coming at us from both left and the right.

I grew up in a country and at a time where I could not support the notion that I could tell a woman what to do except in so far as it concerned my body and my person and what she could not do with impunity to me. No, I cannot tell a woman what to do with her body, no matter how cliché opponents to a woman’s legal access to her right to choose think it sounds. Nonetheless, there are legislators who imagine it is the government’s job to do so, even if they carefully couch their arguments about abortion in language that raises the specter of having to protect the constitutional and human rights of a fetus or more ridiculously, an embryo.

A woman’s body is only an object to her, and to no one else, especially the law, or the state, or any rabid public in service of that state levying its power, its authority, against the people. I know the slippery slope that anyone falls on when trying to locate the soul or the mind–because we separate the two, but not only for this. Just when personhood begins I couldn’t tell you, nor could any neurologist with any certainty. We can map the progress of the human embryo and fetus, but cannot the development of consciousness as we call it in the naming of personhood. We can no more locate this developing consciousness than anyone can tell us where the mind is located or where the soul in a person resides; that is, if we insist on keeping them categorically separate. Again, doctors cannot pinpoint when consciousness begins: here at this point, at this moment and not before. They can tell us the probabilities, but these are not always certainties, except in the faith of some scientists about the limits of their science, or the faith of those who have made science, out of ignorance or rhetorical convenience, a religion.

I just lost my mother to a cerebral hemorrhage, quickly eliminating her higher brain functions. There was brain stem activity for about a week, and for emotional reasons I waited until it was confirmed that there was no brain stem activity before we removed the tube that was by then more than helping her breathe. I spent the last hours with her; I was there every day. I did not hope against hope, I just kept myself from concluding that all was lost, which seemed to converge with hope against hope. I couldn’t tell anyone what to do in like circumstances. My decisions were personal and I think or hope were intelligent enough to manage the multiplicity of individual decision-making while preserving the dignity and integrity of individual life. Seeing her as she was was not something I couldn’t stand, no matter how painful it was to see her like that.

I remember thinking about a hypothetical situation where a man has a friend who is dying horribly and in pain. The friend asks the man to kill him and put him out of his misery. It’s not important to understand if he does it or not only that if he does shoot his friend, let’s say, then it is because the man finds it easier to shoot his friend than to watch him as he is or to listen to him in pain; if he does not shoot him, then it is because it is easier for him to listen to his friend in pain than it is to pull the trigger. We only ever do what is good for us, even if we have confused what is good for might be to inflict pain and misery on ourselves, all of which could be done with words to accompany the decision.

What this has to do with the simple, solitary woman waiting to have an abortion I do not precisely know. But having to undergo the fore mentioned invasion of her body on top of the trauma of the abortion is something I cannot abide from a society that at least pretends to be humane and often insists through rhetoric or inference that it is a leader in matters of the humane. I do say that the abortion is difficult enough, and only the most desensitized person could believe that any woman who has an abortion is so desensitized or depraved that she would need to undergo this chamber of horror, this nearly inquisitional moral awakening before she would be granted an abortion. No woman takes having an abortion lightly, the exceptions to this rule only proving the rule. There need be no added punishment. We are humane, are we not? I am questioning this, genuinely, although also rhetorically; I am setting my argument against this imposition, this violation of a woman’s body. And I do understand the impulse to say, What about the embryo?  And I retort, Yes, what about the embryo? I am not addressing fundamentalist lunatics; but I will entertain well reasoned rational arguments from anyone who might be so inclined to address this issue from a conservatively religious position.

I am with the French language, though, where human and humane are one word, and there is no humanity without human humane. Please, let’s not step backward. History may not be in itself progressive, but humanity can and should take steps forward.

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