The need for an honest, 21st century debate about abortion *UPDATE*

I dreamed last night about the first ultrasound I had when I was pregnant with my daughter.  I was sixteen weeks pregnant, and had been throwing up non-stop for 15 1/2 of those sixteen weeks.  I was not happy.  I resented the parasite within me.  And then I saw the sonogram image and discovered that the parasite had a little round head, two arms and two legs, and an incredible spinal cord that looked like the most exquisite string of pearls.  That image did not instantly reconcile me to the next 26 weeks of non-stop vomiting, but it made me aware that “the fetus” is not simply an aggregation of cells, or a thing indistinguishable from a dog or a chicken fetus.  It’s a baby.

By the time I had my second child, I knew, without question, that every “fetus” is a nascent human being.  I finally recognized on an emotional level that the zygote created on the first day is the same life as the baby you hold in your arms on the last.  It is also the same as the toddler that lisps “I wuv you,” and the pre-teen who says “Y0u’re the best mommy ever.”  They all start there, right inside each mother.

You’d think, of course, that this realization should have been obvious to me, and should have long predated the birth of two children.  But I grew up in the feminist abortion oriented culture, and that culture shies away assiduously from focusing on the life within the woman and focuses, instead, only on the woman herself.  There’s a great deal of logic to that focus.  During my lifetime alone, there was little to focus on other than the woman.  Doctors doing autopsies and medical students studying anatomy might have had a sense of fetal development but, really, no one else did.  We weren’t peeking in the womb just a few decades back.  Premature babies died as often as not, so our cultural sense of their viability was limited.  Heck, in the old days, huge numbers of full-term babies died as often as not.  In the pre-modern era, up to 50% of all children died before their 5th birthday — and that’s just counting live births.

And so what we saw in the old days of the abortion debate was the woman.  And in a pre-birth control, high morality era (and yes, I mean morality, not mortality), the unmarried, or even the married, woman’s lot wasn’t an easy one when it came to pregnancies.  First off, married or not, short of abstinence, there were only the most limited ways to stop pregnancy.  The married woman whose husband (reasonably) didn’t want celibacy, could expect a lifetime of pregnancies until her early death, often as the end of a torturous labor, when she’d be laid in her grave alongside probably half of the children she had borne.  For the unmarried lady in a high morality era, rape, or simply the romantic impulse of the moment, could lead to horrific social ostracism, to which was then added all the risks of childbirth.  In short, for many women, pregnancy was a truly rotten deal, and abortions, legal or illegal, safe or unsafe, seemed like a very reasonable option.

How the world has changed!  Nowadays, condoms are everywhere, whether in the vending machine at the nightclub bathroom, at Walgreen’s, or even at your local Safeway grocery.  Women also have available to them the ubiquitous Pill, IUDs, diaphragms, contraceptive sponges, and contraceptive gels.  All of these forms of birth control can fail even if used properly, but the main result of pregnancy in America is probably the decision, conscious or not, not to use any birth control at all.  Some decide not to use contraceptives because they want to get pregnant, and some decide not to use them because, whether for the man or the woman involved, they’re uncomfortable, inconvenient, or embarrassing.  Still, compared to the old days, sex that is free of the risk of pregnancy is normative, not impossible.

The world has also changed in that the stigma of pregnancy outside of wedlock has vanished.  Whether the young woman intends to keep the baby or to put it up for adoption, no one would judge her for getting pregnant.  Indeed, so totally has our culture changed, I had to explain to my son why I thought it was a good idea that his Mommy and Daddy got married before having children.  To him, it was six of one, half dozen of the other.  (Incidentally, I explained it by telling him that a stable married relationship was the best thing for the child, and you wanted to make sure you had that relationship in place before the child came along.  As a child himself, he could appreciate that reasoning.)  With Angelina Jolie, a most admired young woman, going around adopting and giving birth to multiple children, either alone or with a partner to whom she is not married, you know your culture has crossed a line to a time and place in which marriage and pregnancy bear no relationship to each other.

Finally, the world has changed in that both maternal and infant mortality in America are but a small — beyond small, minute — fraction of what they once were.  When a woman dies in childbirth, or has a stroke, it’s so rare it makes the news section of the paper.  In the old days, it was just another obituary and a tombstone.  I don’t need to describe to you the rarity of infant deaths.  We know they still happen, but they too are rare events, and often result from terrible birth defects that are beyond the reach even of modern medicine.

In our modern era, therefore, many of the forces that once drove abortion are gone.  You’re infinitely less likely to get pregnant than you once were (unless you want to).  If you’re married and get pregnant, you’re much less likely to die than ever before.  If you’re unmarried and get pregnant, not only are you less likely to die than in the past, you’re also going to get baby showers, not social ostracism.  If you keep your baby, you know that, even though it’s a tough row to hoe, you’ll be supported.  If you give it up for adoption, you know that there are nice middle-class families who are desperate to give your baby a good home and tons of love.

Why then, in our modern era, should we still have abortion?  That’s the question we ought to be asking, especially as the Democrats are currently demanding the Americans directly fund abortions for those women who choose to have them.

Certainly, I think most of us would agree that abortion is a good, even a necessary, thing if the mother’s life is in danger.  That the mother’s life is in danger with much less frequency than once was the case doesn’t change the moral force of protecting the existing life over the nascent life.

There’s room for debate over abortion for pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest.  Some could say that the fetus is innocent of the violence and betrayal visited on the woman, and therefore shouldn’t be destroyed.  Others would say that rape and incest are such heinous moral crimes that it is equally immoral to force the woman to carry the result of that evil in her body.  To be honest, both arguments make sense to me.  I think the majority of Americans side with the former line of thinking, and I can certainly live with the legal outcome of accepting that argument.

And then there’s the last argument to justify abortion, the “convenience argument,” although no pro-choice person would ever describe it in those terms.  This is an argument that once sat very well with me, but that now makes me very unhappy.  It is a purely modern argument, once that exists in an era where few women fear accidental pregnancies, death or social stigma.

The “convenience argument” says it’s just not fair that both the man and the woman get to make whoopee, but that it’s the woman whose life is put on hold for nine months or, depending on her decision, for 18 years or more.  It’s not fair that she has to throw up for months, go through labor, stop her education, give up her career, lose her figure, and just stop having fun, while the man, if he chooses not to marry her, gets to go on with his life as before.  Even if they marry and the man takes on economic responsibility for the child, his figure, his career, and his free time can be remarkably untouched by precisely the same event that irrevocably changes a woman’s life.  To which I would say now (although I wouldn’t have said it 20 years ago), life is tough.  The child didn’t ask to be conceived but, now that it is, you owe it an obligation, whether it’s a nine month obligation through to adoption or a lifetime commitment.

Interestingly, one of the things you’ll notice about pro-choice advocacy (usually in movies) is that it roots its emotional arguments in the past, when women couldn’t stop pregnancies, when they died far too easily, and when an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was the end of the world.  Think back, for example, to 2004, when the movie Vera Drake opened to immense critical approval, was nominated for three Oscars, and won a whole slew of other awards.  The movie tells the story of the saintlike Vera Drake, a loving wife and mother in the 1950s, who also provides pathetically poor, distressed women with abortions.  The women getting abortions are all desperately in need of them — a mother of seven children, a rape victim, an isolated immigrant, a wife who had an affair while her husband was in Korea, etc. The movie also shows a rich girl getting away with a medical abortion, so as to emphasize the Marxist theory that the rich get richer and the poor get children.  The dramatic tension in the movie comes about because Vera Drake is arrested and prosecuted for this then-illegal act.

Vera Drake is blatantly pro-choice, but also blatantly dishonest as an instrument in today’s debate.  Both the troubles faced by the poor women and the advantages offered to the rich are no longer issues in today’s abortion debate.

Another movie that cheated when it came to the abortion issue was HBO’s 1996 movie, If These Walls Could Talk, which follows three abortion events affecting the residents of a single house, over a period of decades:


The 1952 segment deals with Claire Donnelly (Demi Moore), a widowed nurse living in suburban Chicago, who becomes pregnant by her brother-in-law and decides to undergo abortion in order not to hurt her late husband’s family. However, abortion at the time is strictly illegal. Donnelly eventually finds another nurse (CCH Pounder) who provides her the name of a woman who can find her someone who will perform the abortion. After a clandestine procedure she finally manages to abort but dies shortly afterwards due to hemorrhage.


The 1974 segment deals with Barbara Barrows (Sissy Spacek), a struggling and aging mother with four children and a policeman husband who works the night shift, who discovers she must welcome another addition to the family, despite having recently gone back to college. She considers abortion with the support of her teenage daughter (Hedy Burress) but ultimately chooses to keep the child.


The 1996 segment deals with Christine Cullen (Anne Heche), a college student who got pregnant by a married professor, decides on an abortion when he breaks up with her and only offers her money. She is operated on by Dr. Beth Thompson (Cher). However, the abortion takes place during a violent protest, and an abortion protester (Matthew Lillard) walks in on the operation and shoots Dr. Thompson.

If These Walls Could Talk is quite a carefully thought-out movie, making sure to keep sympathy in places that still resonate today:  the woman who is incestuously raped, a situation that we sympathize with now, dies because abortion is not legal; the woman who keeps getting pregnant, a situation we find less sympathetic in a birth control era, chooses life; and the least sympathetic woman, the one who has the convenience abortion, is trumped by the even more evil murderous pro-Lifer.

It’s also a dishonest movie.  Nowadays, as I said, few quarrel with the legality or morality of an incest or rape abortion; birth control should help keep women from repeat pregnancies (although I do know a woman who claims that she and all four of her siblings were each born clutching Mom’s diaphragm); and the fact that there are loony-toons out there doesn’t lessen the dubiously moral choice of abortion for convenience.

Outside of the movie industry, if you go to the NOW website, that organization still has a page devoted to women who suffered abortions in the past, at a time when women daily had to face down endless pregnancies, childbirth mortality, and extreme social stigma.  As I have tried to prove, though, those emotional arguments do not provide a good rationale for unlimited abortion in 21st Century America, especially at the taxpayers’ expense.

A much more intellectually honest movie view of abortion was Juno, a sleeper hit in 2007 about a teenage girl whose foolish moment of passion with a friend left her pregnant.  That movie was honest about how the pregnancy happened (no birth control), honest about the absence of social stigma (lots of familial love and support), honest about the almost frightening ease with which even teenagers can obtain abortions, and honest about the desperate middle-class couples looking for a baby.  It was also honest about the fact that, given all of these circumstances, it was entirely logical for the teenager to opt not to abort.

As for me, long time readers of this blog know that, even though intellectually and morally I’m no longer pro-choice, I’m still not entirely pro-life.  I accept abortion to protect the mother’s life, and can agree to abortion in cases of rape or incest, even though that’s not fair to the innocent fetus.  My problem is that, while I know that convenience abortions are morally wrong, I still get this emotional, lizard-brain feeling of a trapped rat in a cage when I imagine myself being a young woman who finds herself pregnant when she doesn’t want to be.  For me, although motherhood has had many rewards, it’s also entailed many sacrifices.  When I think of those sacrifices, and then apply them to, say, a 22 year old version of me, or when I imagine my daughter grown, and in the same situation, I still want to cry out “But that’s not fair.”  When that happens, though, I squish my lizard-brain, tell myself “Life isn’t fair,” and try to focus on the fetus and not my feelings.  I only hope that, if my daughter, before she’s married, ever does come to tell me she’s pregnant, I remember that deeper morality, and give her the right advice.

UPDATE:  The Anchoress took my rather limited argument one step further, and examined the implications of using taxpayer money to fund everyone else’s potential abortion.  It’s a superb bit of writing.  Here are my thoughts, triggered by her thoughts.

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  • Old Buckeye

    Book, I have to disagree with you on the statement that abortion is ok to save the mother’s life. I can’t condone abortion under any circumstance. But that’s because I believe in miracles and the possibility of miracles: the miracle of life and the possibility of a miraculous rescue of an in-danger mother.

  • Tonestaple

    About 30 years ago I got pregnant by a manipulative bum.  I wasn’t raped and I would never claim that I was not responsible.  I have no idea why, but I did not get an abortion – maybe because it would have meant I had to admit I had been very, very foolish.  But I didn’t, and I gave that baby up for adoption.  This was a long time ago and adoptions were still mostly closed then – the idea of an open adoption of some sort never occurred to me as I just wanted to put the whole horrible episode behind me.  (You would have to know my family to know the “horrible” and I wasn’t even living with them at the time.)

    I think I have sometimes gone years without thinking of her, but lately she is almost always with me, popping in and out of my head every day.  I don’t know if she is alive but I hope she is and I pray that she is healthy and happy.

    I know that I could sign up with one of those match services and perhaps find out, but it’s really none of my business:  too late to fix anything if her adoptive family sucked, and not my place to insert myself into her world (even if she is willing) if her adoptive family was straight out of “Father Knows Best.”

    Her birthdays are hard but I would much rather wonder than regret.  At least this way, there were infinite possibilities instead of just one final scrape.

  • gpc31

    When you believe in a morality based on the times (rather than eternal verities), there is always the danger that you yourself will become outdated.  In fact, it is inevitable.  But then again, that’s what the “me generation” is all about.
    Book, you are absolutely right to point out the changing social conditions that have mitigated whatever rationale(s) that once existed for abortion.
    The time is also long overdue to stop treating the success of civil rights as a hammer, and everything else as a nail.  Another reactionary boomer policy wherein the self-righteous rhetoric has long obscured reality. Shall we recall Teddy Kennedy to the bar?  (May he enjoy his eternal dessert): “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”

  • Ymarsakar

    Abortion as it exists today in America is a for profit and for power run business, headed by such organizations as Planned Parenthood, which only plans to keep in check the biologically inferior client races.
    The entire debate is meaningless unless one acknowledges what these people are really for. There’s no point ignoring it. For there is no justice or fairness, under any policy, for people who pretend otherwise.
    It can’t be done, no matter what policy people create. They can have the best intentions and abortion policy ever, but once they fund, support, or compromise with PP, it’s all over. It doesn’t matter what they wish for women, because those women will not be saved. Nor will their future children be saved.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Book, it has been very interesting to watch your evolution of thinking over the years that YM, MikeD and many others including myself have been communicating with you in your E-salon.
    I wonder if we aren’t slowly slipping beyond the acceptance of abortion toward gradual societal acceptance of infanticide. Obama himself voted for bills in the Illinois Senate to permit the killing of babies born from botched abortions. Here and there I read worrisome tidbits of mothers who kill their babies and get off scot-free. A recent bill was proposed in Texas that would absolve some mothers of responsibility for killing their kids. I would argue that the collective shrug that our Chicago Democrats give to the slaughter of young children due to inner city gang violence falls in this category as well.
    G.K. Chesterton observed that a sure sign of societies’ collapse is when they start killing their kids (he referenced the Carthaginian worship of  and child sacrifice to Baal).

  • suek

    Obviously, there are two basic aspects to abortion – the moral issue and the legal issue.  The moral issue is based on one’s religious beliefs, the legal issue is based on a particular society’s values.
    Morally, I find abortion to be wrong.  No excuses, no options.
    Legally, now.  That’s a different issue.  If I had my choice, I’d make it somewhere in between legal and illegal – maybe illegal, but not enforced except when abuse by an abortion agent is egregious.   The reasons I would prefer it that way are twofold: first, if it’s legal, it can be made mandatory.  That may seem unlikely at the moment, but how many other things are happening today that we would have considered impossible 20+ years ago?  Secondly, who is likely to enforce the charges of illegality, on whom and how seriously? (addressing the not much enforcement part)  If it’s made illegal with 100% enforcement, who will you prosecute? the mother? the doctor?  Do you really think either will be thrown in jail?  If a law in unenforceable, it’s better not to make it at all.  So actually, I’d prefer no law.  The problem is that the aborted baby is either a person or not a person.  If a person, then to abort is murder, plain and simple.  If not a person, then there is no legal issue.   This is a discussion that could go on ad infinitum – but when you have a legal system that considers that a person who causes the death of a _wanted_ foetus as a murderer, but a person who causes the death of an _unwanted_  foetus as no legal offense, you have a very confused system.  Scott (whatshisname) was prosecuted with the death penalty because he killed two persons – his wife and her unborn baby.  But she could have gone to a clinic and aborted the same baby and have had no legal repercussions.  Is that rational?  The bald eagle is protected, and you can be prosecuted for destroying its feathers and its eggs.  What is the rationale for protecting the egg unless you have the recognition that the egg is also a bald eagle – or that it will be, if and when it hatches.  So if that egg is a bald eagle and entitled to protection, how much more so should human embryos be given protection?  To say it’s “just a clump of cells” is inane.  If nothing is done, it _will_ become a human.  Certainly it will be nothing else.

  • Judy K. Warner

    Tonestaple, you are truly admirable.

    Bookworm, I was where you are for a long time. What finally unstuck me was two things: One, the realization in my gut that the life in the womb was just as much a life as a baby out of the womb, as you have described.  This happened when I agreed to be tested for my baby’s Down Syndrome when I was pregnant for the first time at age 42. Right after I did that I struck myself on the forehead and said to my husband, “I wouldn’t have an abortion even if the baby did have Down Syndrome, so why did I get the test?” The realization that I could never have an abortion made me think about why not. (In my earlier years I would have had one without qualms, but fortunately the issue never came up.) The reason was that this was a person and you don’t kill people.

    The second thing was the one that released me from focusing on the poor young woman who finds herself pregnant in a bad situation. (Of course there is adoption, but you can always imagine situations in which it’s the pregnancy itself, not the baby, that is the problem.) That thing was the realization that abstinence is a real possibility. Honestly, that had never occurred to me before. But around 1998 our local radio station started playing Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s program and I started listening. Moreover, my then 12-year-old daughter started listening, and was riveted. We were homeschooling her then, and she spent the entire three hours of the show every day listening carefully. She had always been extremely conservative in her basic character, and she drank up Dr. Laura’s ideas, one of which was abstinence outside of marriage. Maybe that’s easy to promote when you’re in your fifties, as Dr. Laura and I both were at the time, but my daughter has stuck to her decision to this day, when she is 24. I realize that people differ, and abstinence is easier for some than for others, but nevertheless I was quite struck both by Dr. Laura’s arguments and by my daughter’s acceptance of them. At that point I could let go the pity and look clearly at the right and wrong of the matter of abortion.

  • highlander

    Tonestaple and Judy K, you are truly awesome.  You have made vivid the human side of the issue.
    Another aspect, frequently ignored, is what many women go through after an abortion.  My daughter, now in her 30’s, has several friends who had “convenience” abortions.  All of them suffered extended periods of depression in the wake of the abortion and still today, years later, have a lingering ache in their hearts.  It may partly be conscience, but I think most of it is akin to Tonestaple’s wondering about what ever became of her daughter.
    Except for these women it’s an ache wondering about what might have been and now can never be.

  • Leah

    Book, I’m probably where you are on this issue.  I thought it was simply – getting older.
    I never thought of your reasoning, how different circumstances are today, great food for thought.

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  • Deana

    Bookworm – Out of the park.  Wonderful post.
    Tonestaple – thank you for writing.  I don’t know whether I agree or not about your decision to not try to find your daughter but what I think doesn’t matter.  Your reasoning resonates with anyone who stops and tries for just a second to put themself in your shoes.   What you did and continue to do is courageous.

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  • Ymarsakar

    Abortions cause PTSD in women.
    The reason why the Left goes on and on about PTSD causing people in the military to be unrestrained killers is because… they are talking about their own policy, not the military’s.
    Abortion agencies never counsel women afterwards. They don’t warn about the psychological costs. It’s not something people should care about, a clump of cells. But reality is different. Human emotions don’t care about our ratonalizations. If we could explain our way through stress and trauma, we wouldn’t need shrinks.

  • Tonestaple

    One more thought:  this point was made by Jan in my 9th grade biology class.  I forgot it about it for years and I still don’t know how it came back to me, but it wasn’t at the time you might think.  However here’s what Jan had the wisdom to say at age 13 or 14: 

    Those cells respire.  Those cells excrete waste.  Those cells take in nutrition.  Those cells are alive, just like any other cell in our bodies. 

    I don’t remember Jan saying anything about DNA, but the rest of the argument seems obvious to me now:  those living cells contain the complete genetic material necessary to construct a human being therefore those cells are a living human.

    Until the pro-choice/abortion (you choose) side has the intellectual honesty to agree that we are talking about a living human being, it’s never going to be possible to settle this debate politically.  Until that time, it will have to be settled one woman at a time, one moral argument at a time.

  • Ymarsakar

    Related to this subject, please check out this

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  • Spartacus

    Gosh darn you, Mrs. Bookworm.
    I’d successfully completed the 12-step program to extricate myself from the comments sections of political blogs, and had been clean and sober for a couple of years, but you’ve caused me to regress.  (But I’m not actually blaming you for my own weakness, because that would make me a liberal.)
    Been reading here for a number of months now, and had to chime in.
    I’ll limit myself to one little point I hope you might consider:  We, as a society, have been having what little “debate” we have on abortion with at least one improper definition of terms.  When a woman walks into Planned Parenthood and says, “I don’t want to be pregnant anymore,” that is properly called an abortion: it is her intent to abort the pregnancy.  When a woman who is happily married and eagerly expecting her second child is rushed to the emergency room and then into surgery because of severe pains caused by what turns out to be an ectopic pregnancy, that is more properly called surgery.  That the secondary objective of saving the child may not be possible does not change the nature and intent of the surgery, and I would submit that such cases do not deserve to be lumped in under the same term.
    Wonderful group of commenters here, BTW.  =)

  • Lulu11

    For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed that when the pregnancy is wanted the mother refers to the child inside her as a “baby”. When it is unwanted it is the “fetus”. It’s not the age of the nascent human that seems to matter in this debate, it’s whether the child is welcomed or not as to whether the embryo is perceived as human or not. Interesting food for thought, and thanks Tonestaple and Judy foradding a personal dimmension to the discussion.

  • Ymarsakar

    humans are masters of self-deception. Given a choice between making a hard decision and an easy decision, people want to choose the latter. So if they are going to get rid of it anyways, they would prefer to think of it as less, rather than more.
    This is the ‘choice’ bandied about in the Left’s religious circles. Of course, when the Left talks about choice, they aren’t talking about free will or informed decision making.

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  • Charles Martel

    I’ve always been bemused by the element of magical thinking that Roe v. Wade loosed upon the land. Or perhaps I should say magical language.

    Statement No. 1: “I do not want this fetus in me. I’m going to have it killed.”

    Statement No. 2: “I have changed my mind. I intend to keep my baby.”

    Magical Language Element: Note that simply by saying so, the mother has instantly changed the fetus from a disposable thing into a baby.

    And if she wishes, she can change it back simply by saying so!

     Is there any science on earth that can match this power?

  • Mike Devx

    We’re guaranteed to upset each other as we discuss our deeply personal, and strongly-held beliefs, concerning abortion.   Hopefully we can accept that.
    I do not see a 3-month old fetus as a baby, just as I don’t see a six-year old boy as a man.  They’re all human, however.  And for me, that means that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a right belonging to that fetus, and it shouldn’t be terminated out of convenience.
    I feel an existential horror come upon me when I contemplate ONE MILLION abortions per year.   It is that staggering, near-unimaginable number that has changed my opinion over the years.  I can’t imagine trying to count the “tissue discards” of  ONE MILLION fetuses.  I can’t imagine it.
    I’m willing to compromise in cases of incest and the life of the mother, and even narrowly constrained medical definitions of threats to the health of the mother.  I’m willing to leave it to the States.  But I personally have become anti-abortion, more and more through the years.

  • Danny Lemieux

    You are a good man, MikeD. For you, one million lives is not “just a statistic”.
    Sadly, I don’t know that all that many people can say that anymore.

  • Ymarsakar

    <B> Is there any science on earth that can match this power?</b>
    Doublethink can

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