Abortion and the 2012 Election Season: Let's Get the Facts Straight
By Carolyn Porco

August 22, 2012

Once again, as the US prepares itself to elect another President and slogs its way through another drawn-out, gaffe-rich, truth-free, meaning-less, overmarketed election season, we Americans find ourselves in the midst of what has become a quadrennial tradition: an irrational debate about abortion.

This year and more precisely this past week, the particular issue in question surfaced in a stunning remark by the US Republican Senatorial candidate from Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin, when he claimed, after citing doctors, that a woman's body has the means to prevent a pregnancy from 'legitimate rape'. Nevermind the callousness towards rape victims that such a statement betrays, which is shocking enough. Nevermind the audacious implication that some rapes may not be 'legitimate', whatever that might mean. [Really, let's not even go there.] For me, it is the utter face-palming ignorance in Akin's statement that sickens.

And that is the root of all of it, really: The extraordinary ignorance to be found in the thinking of so many elected officials and their supporters on the matter of abortion and its related issues.

Personally, I can relate to concerns that the annihilation of a living being inside a human womb might be murder. It is a reasonable question. Personally, I can relate to those who question the unilateral right of a woman to abort a fetus. The issue of abortion is complex, has deep moral implications, and if it really constitutes murder, it is reasonable to question the right of one person to decide. I get all that.

But what I cannot fathom in an educated, supposedly advanced society like ours, where so much information is readily available to us, is the deliberate refusal to access and evaluate the facts as we know them, and from there, in sober fashion, construct guidelines for decision-making and behavior based on them. We have a robust (if underfunded) scientific enterprise in our country; our nation's politicians must avail themselves of it if they are to construct sensible, meaningful laws that are consistent with reality. In the end, it is the fruits of scientific inquiry that can and must delineate the boundaries within which discussions of morality and politics can take shape, and within which laws can be written.

In the matter of abortion, those boundaries were masterfully laid out in 1990 in an article written by Carl Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, and first published in Parade Magazine in April 1990. To this day, this is the most sane, objective, and balanced evaluation of the issues surrounding abortion that I have ever encountered. The facts concerning the evolving characteristics of a human fetus are used by the authors to judge the point before which abortion could not reasonably be considered murder and beyond which it could. It was a brilliant examination of a thorny social issue, written for the public. It should be required reading for high school students everywhere.

So impressed am I still with Sagan's analysis, and so disgusted am I with Akin's remark and the here-we-go-again GOP anti-abortion platform that apparently will be advanced this year to exclude rape as an exception to the rule, that I reproduce the article here for all to read. [Years later, Sagan elaborated on that simple initial 1990 treatise in his book, 'Billions and Billions', published by Random House in 1997. A link to Chapter 15, "The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers" is also provided below for those who want the full, lengthy exposition].

This particular website is surely not the place where such an article should be posted. I emailed Parade Magazine yesterday and requested that they post the Sagan/Druyan article anew on their website, since the subject matter is so timely and the election is pressing upon us. But having received the response that it would be 5 weeks before the Parade folks even get to it, and having no other website or better venue to display it, I post that article here. Again, for those who wish the simpler elucidation, the Parade magazine article is excellent. [The pencil underlinings are mine from 1990.] If you wish a more in-depth examination of the issue, Sagan's book chapter is for you.

And of course, I'd be interested to know what you think. I can be found on Twitter at @carolynporco.


File links:

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. "Is It Possible To Be Pro-Life and Pro-Choice?" Parade Magazine, April 22, 1990.

FULL SIZE: 1260 X 8182 (PNG 6.7 MB)

Carl Sagan. Billions and Billions, Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Chapter 15: "The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers", Random House, 1997. (HTML Text article)

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