Abortion Debate Settled
OK, the title might be a bit grandiose, but let’s look at this abortion thing rationally. That’s the problem with fundies. Their whole argument is based on a set of irrational fantasies. To wit (or in their case, a half-wit):
- Life begins at conception.
- Humans are unique critters unrelated to other animals and poofed into existence by a skydaddy in a special act of creation.
- There is a human soul that infects infests inhabits the zygote at conception.
Let’s first look at those fallacies, after which we’ll look at the facts of the matter.
Fallacy #1: Life begins at conception
There are trillions of cells in the human body. A fertilized egg is one cell. At this point, it is no different in its behavior than any other. If it were its own special life form, it would swim around autonomously like an amoeba. Instead, it sits there like a lump, indistinguishable from most other cells in the mother.
If you take it out of the mother (or fertilize it in a test tube) and put it in a Petri dish with nutrient solution, it will grow and divide. However tumors removed from cancer patients will also continue to grow and divide. Unless you think curing cancer is murder, this is hardly proof of a new, unique human being.
There is a microscopic difference between the zygote and all other cells in the mother’s body: Its DNA. It is unique in that regard. However, at this point, that DNA is just a blueprint. Virtually none of it has been expressed yet. The zygote is just a potential life.
Humans love to put things in nice, well-defined boxes. That is a cat. That is a tree. Nature isn’t that clean. Everything is really just a blur. At what point did humans diverge from the other primates? June 16, 500,000 BC? February 12, 2,000,000 BC? Were Cro-Magnon’s human? What about Neanderthals? Is a platypus a mammal, bird, or reptile? We can’t even agree on when the last millennium ended, but we think we can tell when life begins?
The beginning of life is a gradual transition. The transition begins sometime after conception and completes sometime before birth.
Fallacy #2: Humans are unique critters unrelated to other animals and poofed into existence by a skydaddy in a special act of creation
First of all, a skydaddy may or may not exist. I don’t know, and despite their claims to the contrary, the fundies don’t know either. There is no credible evidence to support the claim. Get back to me when you find some.
Humans were not poofed into existence in a special act of creation. We evolved from earlier animals. This has been proven. If you dispute this, go get an education first, and then we’ll talk.
Fallacy #3: There is a human soul that inhabits the zygote at conception
There is no credible evidence for the existence of a soul. Furthermore, the model proposed by the fundies depends upon the existence of a skydaddy, a concept also lacking support.
I was wondering how this silly notion works when twins are involved. Identical twins occur when the fertilized egg divides in two. Wait! I thought the zygote had already received its soul ration. What does it do? Go back to God and say “Please, sir, may I have another?”
Does one twin not get a soul? Are there lots of soul-less people roaming around today?
Souls can’t divide, can they? If so, why would they only be allowed to do that shortly after conception? I’d like to have a few extra souls. I can spend them at Satans R Us. With my first soul, I think I’ll buy fabulous wealth. With my second soul, I’ll buy hordes of beautiful women who want to do nothing but satisfy all my physical desires (Don’t complain, feminists! This is my fantasy. Go get your own!). With my third soul, I’ll buy a world without fundies. Now that’s heaven!
OK, So What Are the Facts?
Ted Turner once said to Jerry Falwell something along the lines of “Life doesn’t begin at conception, and I can prove it.” When Falwell bit, Turner said “You don’t have funerals for miscarriages.”
(Turner also once uttered one of the wisest things anybody ever said: “Christianity is for losers.” They don’t call him “the mouth of the South” for nothing!)
I just finished watching a fascinating documentary on the National Geographic Channel, called In the Womb. It contained some interesting facts.
Here’s one: Only about half of all fertilized eggs survive all the way through pregnancy and result in a live birth (most miscarriages occur in the first trimester). By my reckoning, that makes God the world’s biggest abortionist. What are the radical fundies going to do now? Protest outside every church? Get religion outlawed? Or maybe now they will try to assassinate God. Oh, that’s right; fundies aren’t consistent.
When Does Life Begin?
The morality of abortion is something that everybody needs to decide for herself. In terms of public policy, we need to decide what interests society has to protect. It seems to me that it comes down to two issues:
- The right of the woman to control her own body.
- The right of the unborn not to be harmed.
It gets sticky when rights conflict. This is not unique to the abortion debate. Conflicting rights are all around us. The laws we have are an attempt to navigate this minefield.
The right of the unborn not to be harmed enters the picture at the point where the unborn becomes a unique living thing—in other words, a life. Prior to that, there is insufficient harm for the government to intervene. It is just a potential life. There is nothing special. Nothing human. It’s like San Jose, California: “There’s no ‘there’ there.” It is just biological proto-machinery. It is no more a human being than the steel being placed onto the Ford assembly line is a car.
Ahh, but we have a problem. We established above that not only does life not begin at conception, but there is no single, definable point along the development process where it does begin. We’ll have to look at the development of a fetus for some insight to this dilemma.
According to In the Womb, at eight weeks, neurons from the leg muscles are connected to the spine, but they do not yet extend into the brain. The heart is not yet connected to the brain; it just beats on its own. To me, the verdict is clear: This is not yet a human being. Life has not yet begun.
The documentary says that at four months, the nervous system is connected to most parts of the body. The brain is starting to control things. The brain is regulating the heart rate. The brain starts to become aware of its surroundings.
So how does this information help us solve our dilemma? It’s clear to me that an abortion anytime prior to the four-month mark is a no-brainer, since (for all practical purposes) the fetus doesn’t have a functional brain. Abort away in clear conscience.
What about at the four-month mark and beyond? Here is where it starts to get fuzzy. We’re starting to get to the point of a recognizable, functional critter. It is far from fully developed, and it definitely can’t survive on its own, but maybe it’s starting to become its own unique entity. I don’t think it is yet, but if you want to err on the side of caution, maybe four months is the cutoff.
The documentary said that it is theoretically possible to survive outside the womb at the 24-week (5-and-a-half months) mark. In a few rare cases, a 22-week-old fetus survived. Half of all fetuses delivered before the 26-week mark develop mental disabilities or learning difficulties. This is because the lungs are too underdeveloped to deliver sufficient oxygen to the body.
It seems to me that either 22 or 24 weeks should be the absolute cutoff for an abortion. By that point it seems to be a whole human.
The final relevant fact from the documentary is that at the end of the second trimester (26 weeks), everything is fully developed and is functioning as it will in the fully grown (i.e., carried to full term and delivered) baby. The last trimester is primarily just a growth phase. For me, an abortion during this period is clearly wrong.
Life doesn’t begin at a specific instant during the development of the fetus. As a result, there is no specific instant that we can point to as the defining moment of life or the cutoff point for abortion.
The right to abortion is a conflict between the rights of the woman and the rights of the unborn. Each of us has to use our own values to determine for ourself the point where the mother’s rights become eclipsed by the fetus’s. Scientific evidence suggests that this point is somewhere between four months and five-and-a-half months.
Does a recently-impregnated woman have the right to have an abortion? Absolutely. Abortion foes have provided no evidence or compelling arguments to refute this.
Does a nine-month old fetus have the right to be born? Yes.
Does society have the right to intervene? Only to the point of determining where one person’s rights stop and another’s begin. We can use our collective values and morals (which, contrary to fundie propaganda, are not handed down by God but come from within us all) to settle the issue.
We need an honest, civil debate. We should weigh the scientific evidence, the interests of the mother, the interests of the fetus, and the collective interest and values of society.