Richard Erlich: Stars and planets align to clarify abortion debate

It’s hard to judge when to submit an opinion-piece on abortion. Send it out when the abortion debate rages and (a) it gets lost in the crowd of commentaries, and (b) if read, is too often read by people too ticked off to think straight. Send it out during a lull, and editors aren’t much interested.

But before the next round of rage, I’d like to help make a little bit more plausible President Barack Obama’s idea that we don’t have to agree on the basics of abortion for many of us to be able to work together on reducing the number of abortions. We can have very different world views, philosophies and politics, and still cooperate on practical issues.

So consider for a moment literal world views, as in views of the world, the cosmos.

For much of the time, people who thought about such matters at all took the common-sensical view that the earth (with a small “e”) was at the center of the universe, and the sun and moon and stars circled around the earth. With more observation, however, your odd shepherd and later your odder magus noted “wandering stars” that didn’t stay with the others, nor, for that matter, twinkle like a proper star.

Planets complicated matters and, eventually, you got a complex world view with the earth in the center of concentric crystalline spheres that moved at different rates. This is the geocentric (earth-centered) view of things, summarized for the ancient world by Claudius Ptolemaeus — usually just “Ptolemy” — some time in the second century of the Christian era.

And with a lot of fudging and futzing around by astronomers and astrologers, the Ptolemaic model remained unchallenged for a millennium and a half and longer, with a key challenging coming in 1543 with Nicolaus Copernicus publishing “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” suggesting that the sun was at the center of things, with the Earth a planet revolving around it: the heliocentric model.

And within a couple centuries, the sun became just our Sun (sometimes with a capital “S”), and we have the Earth displaced from the center of the cosmos to a small planet revolving around a standard-issue star on the edge of an unremarkable galaxy.

From early modern into modern times, we went from a Ptolemaic universe to a Copernican one to the currently dominant model of an expanding universe. And it’s an interesting question — what most people believe in and for how many of us our view of the universe is a matter of belief: Modern folk may have no more scientifically respectable bases for our belief in the Big Bang cosmos than the followers of Ptolemy.

Two things:

• These different views cannot be reconciled. If the earth is at the center of things, the sun is not; if the center of things is a hypothetical point for the Big Bang, which we are moving away from rapidly, then neither our Sun nor the Earth is central.

• During the 400 and more years these different views competed, navigators could use Ptolemaic charts or Copernican charts or modern charts and usually get to where they were going. And if followers of Ptolemy, Copernicus and GPS devices cooperated, they could navigate with great reliability anywhere on our planet, and under almost all conditions. (If things get really bad for us, it will be well if someone in the group can pull out the old mariner’s astrolabe and figure out where on Earth — literally — we are).

Similarly, it is highly unlikely that the highly logical people rigorously arguing logically “pro-life” or “pro-choice” positions will ever agree. Fortunately, most Americans are pragmatic, and we’re willing to deal to get results.

If the issue is really abortion and not birth control or sexual morality, control of women or “pronatalism” (i.e., encouraging births among one’s own people) — if (a big “if”) the key issue really is abortion, then many of us can work together. We can reduce the number of abortions by moving toward a world where pregnancies result from couples’ choosing to have a baby; not from ignorance, accident, social pressure or lack of contraceptives.

Navigators don’t have to agree on cosmology to navigate a boat; Americans don’t have to agree on how to define “human” to greatly reduce the number of abortions.

Richard D. Erlich is an emeritus professor at Miami University in Oxford and is retired in Ventura County, Calif.

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