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Bill Cunningham: When it comes to abortion, it is time to turn down the noise, and dial up the respect

Have you read Roe v. Wade? Don’t feel bad. No one else has read it either. Yet people have marched in the streets over it; ranted and cussed and shook their fists and even injured property and people over it. A high school friend of mine was murdered over it.

Have you read Dobbs v. Jackson which overturned Roe v. Wade? Don’t feel bad. No one else has either. Yet people march in the streets, hurling invectives at each other, and become incoherently rabid over it.

Abortion. The best definition I can find for that word is from Webster — to arrest or check before being fully developed.

But, before what is fully developed? It can be a planned moon shot, a false start of a painting on canvas, or even a family vacation before you pull out of the driveway.

But what we are talking about here is the wonder of all wonders. It makes the Pacific Ocean, Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, moon, stars, sunset, sunrise… all packaged together, trivial in comparison. It is the greatest miracle our Maker has created since this planet was formed.

What we are talking about is human life. The checking or arresting of human life before it is fully developed. We know that many babies are born, needing heroic measures to keep them alive… because they are not “fully developed.” They are human lives that survive, thrive, and become human beings that may end up the biggest kid on their high school basketball team. So, abortion — depending on when it is performed — can be the termination of human life, before it is fully developed.

Bill Cunningham (NKyTribune file)

So, the horrific question becomes “when does life begin?” It appears that we mere mortals who are the beneficiaries of that great miracle, cannot show our gratitude for it without hating each other over it.

It is the opinion of some of our sisters and brothers that life begins at conception. For others, it is when we can hear it cry. To many, each of these options seems extreme. Many reasonable people opt for somewhere in between. Heartbeat? Brain activity? A person is declared dead when the heartbeat and brain activity ceases. So, that belief makes sense, even if it’s only six weeks into pregnancy. Viability? When the fetus can exist independently of the mother?

But there are millions of people alive today who are not viable. Well into the yellow leaf of their long lives they are unable to live free of the mother’s womb without tubes hooked up to their arms, oxygen tanks, or defibrillator implants for the heart. We don’t allow doctors, nurses, or anyone to arbitrarily go around jerking tubes and wires out of people just because they are not viable.

So, this wonder of wonders, and all the questions which lead up to human life are complex. Incredibly and unbelievably complex. Just like life itself.

You can almost feel the anguish of the nine Supreme Court justices struggling with the issue of abortion in Roe v. Wade. You can feel the same anguish of those mere mortals deciding on Dobbs.

We’re all struggling with it. We should be struggling together, instead of apart. After all, whatever the answer is, it’s the same answer for all of us.

For a woman, the most monumental decision she will ever make is whether to carry a fetus inside her body from conception to full term and birth. That is a decision she should be able to make on her own and preferably after serious consultation with the father of the fetus. She doesn’t need the state making that intimate decision for her. A woman’s body and her reproductive rights are health care issues. These rights need protecting.

And yet, there are the names of more than 58,000 American boys listed on a black wall in Washington, DC who gave up their bodies and their reproductive rights for their country.

My point? There are some — not many — but some things more important than our bodies and reproductive rights.

Human life is one. The human life of the person who is pregnant, and the human life that a pregnant woman may have still abiding in her body.

But when is a human fetus a human life? When does the state have an interest in stepping in to protect either or both? That is the issue. And it is terribly complex. The Roe v. Wade case tried to wade into the decision-making and didn’t do a very good job of it. It said the state has an interest in protecting “potential human life.”

But then, it virtually pulled viability out of the air. Of course, we know a potential human life begins much earlier than that. Hopeful and excited couples start making joyous phone calls to family and friends when the woman first learns she is pregnant, not when the baby is viable — whenever that is. Potential life begins at conception. But, is it a human life at that time? Should the state step in at that time and make a law to protect the unborn fetus? Many say yes. Many say no. And they hate each other.

Our fellow citizens on the Supreme Court who decided Roe v. Wade were not baby killers. They were good people, struggling with a mind-boggling issue. They tried. They didn’t do very well.

Even the late, liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was highly critical of the analysis in that case. It was a decision that was illogical and split the country apart for fifty years. Now, some more fellow citizens took a stab at it in Dobbs vs. Jackson. They decided that it wasn’t their decision to make but should be made in the respective legislative halls of the states — closer to the people, rather than nine political appointees sitting in Washington, D.C.

Now you can meaningfully express your views to the state representative who goes to your church, rather than nine, unelected strangers 1,000 miles away. Maybe the current justices didn’t do a very good job with it either. Maybe we’ll be at each other’s throats for another fifty years. But they are not advocates of women being butchered in illegal abortions. But their decision, like that of their predecessors in Roe, has split our country apart. Again.

I’d like to think that our fellow Americans who sat on the Supreme Court of the United States when Roe v. Wade was decided were good people doing what they thought was right for our country and its people. I’d like to think that our fellow Americans who sat on the Supreme Court of the United States in deciding Dobbs v. Jackson are good people with the same good intentions.

Silly me, I guess.

The solution? I have my own opinion. But it makes no difference. I am often wrong. I once believed with all of my heart that there was a fat, little old man who flew around in the sky carrying toys for children at Christmas time.

But, I will say this with certainty. After spending over 50 years trying to resolve serious human conflicts, I’ve learned they are never settled with people screaming at each other. We need to stop acting like children — yelling at those with which we don’t agree. We need to turn down the noise level and turn up the respect knob.

Why do people talk in low, considerate tones in funeral parlors? Because there is serious business going on. We are talking about serious business here.

We are supposed to be a religious nation, believing in the ‘Golden Rule.’ When it comes to the abortion issue, I don’t see it.

Bill Cunningham is a retired Kentucky Supreme Court justice.

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  1. Lorrie Hill says:

    Love the comment “I’ve learned they are never settled with people screaming at each other. We need to stop acting like children — yelling at those with which we don’t agree. We need to turn down the noise level and turn up the respect knob.” Thank you for sharing this thoughtful message.

  2. Vincent says:

    Finished with, “we’re supposed to be a religious nation…”

    No, we we’re supposed to be a secular one. THIS is how we got to where we are. The assumption that law springs from one particular religious text. Because let’s be honest, when we say our nation is a religious one, it means a Christian nation. And that’s definitely BS.

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