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Ron Regan: Who is best able to decide the ‘value’ of life

Abortion cartoon
Ron Reagan

By Ron Reagan

Recently, while waiting to view the first stunning images gathered by the James Webb Space Telescope, I stumbled across a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing ostensibly devoted to legal questions raised by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Republican and Democratic senators took turns questioning a panel that included both supporters and opponents of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

I lingered just long enough — a new universe awaited, after all — to catch an exchange between John Cornyn, the senior Republican senator from Texas, and Khiara Bridges, a UC-Berkeley law professor on the pro-choice side.

“Does an unborn child have value?” Cornyn wondered. This is what is typically referred to as a “gotcha” question. Answer no and you’re a monster. Yes, on the other hand, leaves you playing the questioner’s game on his own terms.

Understandably, the witness refused to play, replying something to the effect that she valued the free agency of those who were pregnant. Cornyn persisted. She resisted. Finally, the senator read into the record that she had refused to answer his question.

While she may be commended for refusing to engage a dishonest enquiry, Cornyn was correct in pointing out that she was ducking. What frustrated me in the moment and in the early morning hours of the next morning was that her evasion was unnecessary and represented a missed opportunity. She should have, and could have, tackled his sophomoric question head-on.

Let’s have another go, shall we?

While I have met no one — psychopaths excepted — who regard human life at any stage of development as essentially worthless, the question of “value” is both subjective and relative.

What is valuable to me may have little or no value to you. And if everything is of equal value, then the whole concept of value is rendered meaningless.

So, senator, valuable to whom and relative to what?

Leaving aside the more precise definitions of blastocysts, embryos and fetuses, etc., who is best positioned to judge the value of what you term an “unborn child”? A 70-some-odd-year-old male senator? An unelected panel of judges? State legislators? Or the person actually carrying that fetus within her body, with all the risks and rewards that may entail?

And let’s acknowledge that “unborn child” is not a generic category, but, in each and every case, a very specific entity. As is the pregnant woman. Those opposed to abortion make that case — unique DNA profile! — when it suits their purposes, but otherwise tend to lump all fetal life into an undifferentiated mass of sanctified humanity.

In 2019, there were 629,898 abortions performed in the United States, down from 1.4 million in 1991. Their incidence has steadily declined over the decades since Roe was passed.

The vast majority, some 92 percent, are performed in the first trimester, and nearly half of those before six weeks. Another 7 percent take place early in the second trimester. Only 1 percent of abortions occur beyond 20 weeks, almost exclusively for medical reasons. All of them represent very particular, indeed, unique cases.

Let’s imagine, Sen. Cornyn, a stack of 600,000 papers teetering on your desk, each representing a terminated pregnancy. Have you read every page? Do you know all the factors that led each of these people to choose an abortion? Can you imagine the circumstances of each and every one of their lives?

You may say that is unnecessary. Each life is equally precious, of equal “value.” Is it?

Whose life do you consider more valuable: The Ukrainian defender of his homeland or the Russian invader? The 9/11 hijacker or the unwitting office worker in the tower? The murderer on death row or his victim?

You may claim that all are equal in the eyes of your god, but I dare you to honestly claim they are equal in your eyes. We all make distinctions.

You have two daughters. Now, let’s imagine you are fleeing a burning house. In one room, unconscious, is a stranger’s child. In another, equally helpless, one of yours. Tragically, there isn’t time to rescue both. Which do you choose? We both know the answer. You will place a greater value on one life over another because you are more intimately connected to that life.

That doesn’t make you evil. You are not murdering the other child. You are simply behaving as a human being.

Let’s try another thought experiment: Assuming you support abortion to save the life of the pregnant woman (again, valuing one life above another) let’s imagine a case where a pregnancy late in the third trimester — truly an unborn child — will with 100 percent certainty kill the expectant mother if carried to term. Is an abortion justified? What about a 99 percent chance? Ninety percent? Fifty-one percent? What if we’re not talking about death, but grievous, crippling bodily harm? What if the woman in question is your daughter? Would that change your calculus?

Some 1,000 girls under the age of 15 receive abortions in the United States every year. The World Health Organization estimates that pregnancy and childbirth kill more young women between the ages of 15 and 19 than any other cause. Nevertheless, as we’ve all been recently reminded to our horror, some states like Ohio will force even a 10-year-old rape victim to go through a resulting pregnancy. Imagine, Sen. Cornyn, you are that little girl’s father. Can you think of anything that would be more meaningful to you than her young life, her hopes, her dreams, her future? What wouldn’t you do to spare her further trauma? Allow her to terminate the pregnancy? Would that be too much for you? Would you be content to wait until her life was in immediate jeopardy?

Or, like some of your Republican colleagues, would you suggest she was lying, that the whole thing was a liberal sham?

We, as individuals and collectively as a nation, often make decisions to value some human lives over others. These may be — should be — difficult, even tortuous choices, though sometimes, when the link between our decisions and their consequences seems most incidental, we make them quite cavalierly. I am quite sure you have voted for legislation that, indirectly at least, has led to the deaths of innocent people. That may not have been your intent. But — be honest now — it has happened.

The overturning of Roe, which you enthusiastically support, will surely result in the deaths of some people, disproportionately black and brown folks. You have apparently calculated that that is a worthwhile price to pay for the salvation of “unborn children.” You have chosen some lives over others. Do they have an unequal claim to life?

I have never met a person who did not cherish the life within her, whose decision to “murder her unborn child,” as you might have it, was not wrenching and painful. The question, Sen. Cornyn, isn’t whether that life had value, but who is best positioned to weigh the competing values involved.


Ron Reagan is an honorary director of FFRF. A former ballet dancer, he is a commentator who has hosted his own radio programs and is famous to FFRF members for generously recording a TV commercial as an “unabashed atheist . . . not afraid of burning in hell” to promote FFRF.