My confrontation-loving husband has often told me that one of the most important rules about entering a debate is to be clear about your premise. The other rules being, of course, "yell louder than the other guy" and "let your emotions get in the way of facts." (Kidding, Babe!) Scores of debates could have been more productive if we all knew where everyone else was starting.
I started realizing how much of the abortion debate is because so much is based on a difference of premises. We can all agree that murdering people is wrong, correct? So, if we could all agree on when life starts, we'd all agree on the issue of abortion. If doctors/scientists discovered tomorrow with certainty that the life begins when the fetus is this many weeks old, we'd all agree: Okay, no more abortions once the woman is this many weeks pregnant. Problem solved.
At least, that's what I used to think. But now that I live with one foot in the special needs community, I have realized that there is a whole host of people who think that there comes a point when life becomes not worth living. Suffering - on behalf of the individual or society - outweighs everything else. I deal with this idea regularly now, as two of the main arguments for aborting a child with Down syndrome is 1. Her life will be miserable; and 2. She will be a burden on society. But this issue shot to the forefront of everyone's consciousness this winter when Belgium was deciding whether or not to extended their assisted suicide laws to include minors. (In the end, they did). Proponents of the law published scores of heartbreaking, tragic stories about babies who spent a few pain-filled days outside of the womb before suffering a slow, difficult death. I cried reading some of them. There is no getting around the fact that those children did nothing to deserve that suffering, that life is unfair, and that the agony destroyed some families.
Of course there are always anecdotal stories to counter the tragedies. The teenager who is diagnosed with cancer, but uses his pending death to fuel him to live life to the fullest. The severely disabled baby who brings his family together during his short life. For every person whose life is - or predicted to be - filled with pain and suffering and who regrets every day is another person whose life is - or predicted to be - filled with pain and suffering yet still enjoys every day to the fullest.
So it seems to me that the question is: Is there meaning in suffering? Where there is meaning, we can discuss value and purpose. A lot of far smarter people have written a lot of really brilliant, insightful things on this issue, some big-wigs being the Pope, Gandhi, Buddha, and Martin Luther King Jr; Catholics and Buddhists have written very extensively on the issues.
I think beginning our discussion by understanding when everyone thinks life begins and what value they find in suffering will result in a far more productive (and mature!) conversation about the issue of abortion.