An earlier version of this blog was published as an article in the November 2019 issue of SciTech . As I noted then, what follows is likely going to make someone angry.
As the title suggests, I am writing about abortion, more specifically the way in which the knowledge we have gained about the biology of human (and mammalian, generally) reproduction has been ignored, misconstrued, or deliberately distorted in the public debate. This is an issue that deserves more words that I will give it here. But I believe that it is the kind of issue for which there is a lack of public clarity but an overabundance of public factional certainty both of which undermine wise, moral judgment.
First, let me perhaps upset some of my “liberal” friends. As an a priori moral judgment, I do not accept abortion as a form of contraception. Actually, to suggest that it is is an oxymoron. Abortion does not prevent conception, it terminates the life of a conceived organism.
That said, it is regularly claimed that access to abortion is grounded in a woman’s right to privacy with respect to her body. Without doubt in mammalian reproduction the female has a profoundly intimate relationship biologically and emotionally with the organism developing within her. But that organism is not her. It does not share her genome though its genome is derived in part from her.
A developing embryo or fetus might be characterized as a symbiont that acts to the advantage of the female. It can contribute to hormone regulation and reduce the of risk of diseases like breast cancer and multiple sclerosis.
However, the developing organism might also be characterized as a parasite that demands nutrients from the female, can precipitate high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, and iron deficiency anemia among other health challenges. Pregnancy can even be lethal. According to the CDC, in 2018 there 658 women’s deaths during pregnancy, during childbirth, or within 42 days after childbirth. But, however characterized, the developing organism is not a part of the woman’s body no matter how intimately and securely it is attached.
Yet, this objection to the so-called “pro-choice” position pales in comparison to the scientific misconstruals or outright distortions by those who identify as “pro-life.” The term “pro-life” is itself an overstatement. Few Americans like the Jains would scrupulously avoid taking any life even that of insects. Often, hypocritically, those who claim the “pro-life” mantle also advocate for capital punishment. Such folk might argue that they are really “pro-innocent-life.” So, they feel justified advocating the execution of a human who has been convicted of a capital crime. Apart from the fact that sometimes those on death row are wrongly convicted and in jeopardy of execution, the organism growing within the woman is not “innocent.” It is self-interested as are all life forms. It seeks its own survival first.
It is also claimed that there is an “inalienable right” to “life.” The U.S. Constitution asserts that “life” along with “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable rights. But the Constitution itself allows a person to be deprived that all three of these including “property” through due process of law. Even biologically, conception does not guarantee life. Recent studies indicate that more than 50% of all conceptions spontaneously abort.
But, to be fair, setting aside the question of hypocrisy and the matter of miscarriage, those who hold a so-called “pro-life” position actually hold a “pro-person” position. There is no doubt that at the point of conception, the developing organism is a form of Homo sapiens life (it’s not some other species). The real question is not, “When does human life begin?” but rather “When does personal life begin?”
From one perspective “human” life began 6-7 million years ago when there was an evolutionary branching in the tree of life and reproductive line of our ancient ancestors separated from that leading to today’s chimpanzees and bonobos. But even if we limit “human” to “Homo sapiens” then human life “began” some 300,000 years ago when our particular species evolved in Africa from within the hominin species, Homo heidelbergensis. Since then we, “humans,” have been passing on life as an evolutionary legacy, parents to children, not beginning human life anew with each conception.
The real question then is, “When in the Homo sapiens gestational process does the human person appear?” This is not a scientific question. It is not a religious question either, even though some religions have asserted an answer. It is basically a metaphysical question for which there is no definitive empirical or theological answer. It is a matter of philosophical judgment.
The scientific study of human (and mammalian) gestation has discovered a number of developmental milestones:
conception (the integration of a sperm cell with an ovum),
the formation of the blastocyst (200-300 cells formed over about 5 days from conception),
implantation into the female’s uterus,
the formation of the neural tube,
fetal heartbeat (no earlier than the 38 days after
first involuntary movement (as early as 49 days after conception and unfelt by the female),
quickening (voluntary movement of the fetus from about the 105th to the 119th day after conception and felt by the female),
so-called “viability” (between 168 and 196 days after conception),
This is not a comprehensive list of gestational milestones. New organismic developments occur virtually every day. However, we can ask, “Are any of these or other such gestational moments evidence of the presence of a person?”
Some religious traditions have asserted philosophically that the person is present at the moment of conception. Others have proposed that the person is present with quickening. Still others have held that the person is not present until birth. Scientifically, we know that the brain continues to develop after birth and that the prefrontal cortex, arguably the most distinctive feature of Homo sapiens physiology, the portion of the brain effecting complex decision making, does not mature until 25 years or so after birth.
So, when is a human person? Unless one is committed to a dualistic metaphysics of substance (material/spiritual) and/or a dualistic theological cosmology (nature/super-nature), it is difficult see a single cell or even a cluster of cells as personal: Homo sapiens, yes; personal, no.
After all, we know scientifically that prior to implantation you cannot say whether you have one organism or two or more, given that “twinning” (3.5/1000 deliveries) can occur before then. In addition, it seems to me that at a minimum a Homo sapiens person should be conscious and consciousness requires some degree of a developed and integrated neurological system. That system is not in place until about the 24th week of gestation or later and its integral functioning not synchronized until the 32nd week or so.
Some propose that a human person is present if the fetus can feel pain. “Feeling pain” is also related to neurological development; however, the meaning of the expression, “feeling pain,” is not unambiguous. A 2006 article in the Journal of the British Medical Association distinguishes between neurological response to a noxious (harmful) stimulus and “feeling pain.” According to research the “biological system necessary for pain is intact and functional from around 26 weeks' gestation.” However, while the brain of a new born is not a tabula rasa, blank slate, it has minimal content from lack of experience of the external world beyond the womb.
In its 2020 definition of “pain” the International Association for the Study of Pain states,
Pain is always a personal experience that is influenced to varying degrees by biological, psychological, and social factors.
Pain and nociception are different phenomena. Pain cannot be inferred solely from activity in sensory neurons.
So, it is questionable whether a fetus can experience “pain” prior to birth. Psycho-social development contributes to the experience of “pain.”
Building on the matter of psychological development, I’m also inclined to think that personhood requires not just sentience or consciousness but self-awareness. Scientific investigation indicates that objective self-awareness does not occur until about 24 months after birth. Further, because I judge personhood to be an historically emergent property of Homo sapiens physiology, then the whole or complete “person” is not present until his or her last breath at the end of life.
Well, that was a long “dissertation” of mixed scientific findings and personal judgment. What has any of it to do with the issue of abortion?
It seems to me, another personal judgment, that the foregoing argues against there being any fine ethical or moral line that can be drawn separating when an abortion is an appropriate action and when it is not. The particular medical, social, and personal circumstances at the time of decision are paramount. While there can be many factors influencing the decision, the woman carrying the developing organism ultimately has the primary role in making the decision.
It needs to be noted that scientific and related technological developments over the past century in medical knowledge and practice have had a profound impact on the capacity to intervene in or support the gestational process. One of the consequences is the formation of embryos in the in vitro fertilization process that are preserved but not implanted. Another is that through prenatal support gestating organisms that have become developmentally compromised due to random or environmental impacts (e.g., anencephaly) can be brought to term when otherwise they likely would have been naturally and spontaneously aborted. This raises the difficult question as to whether prenatal medical intervention can “condemn an organism to life.”
As I said earlier, the issue of abortion deserves many more words than I have used here. There are obviously many points of view on the issue. Thus s mine.
Seeking to understand nature/Creation is a worthy Christian enterprise. I share the judgment attributed to Copernicus that “…ignorance cannot be more grateful [to God] than knowledge.” And I also share Whitehead’s judgment about the moral nature of knowledge when he wrote, “Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice.”
The decision to terminate a Homo sapiens pregnancy is not a casual one. But neither is it one that can be made “just” or “unjust,” “good” or “evil,” by the imposition of theological doctrine, civil legislation, or criminal law. The decision is a personal, moral and religious one not a doctrinal or legal one. In my judgment it is a decision that requires scientific insight, an understanding of technological options, an appreciation of social circumstances, religious reflection and an attitude of humility. It is a decision that, I believe, is finally most rightly that of the woman carrying the developing organism. In God’s creation she is the one who bears this responsibility. In her efforts to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly,” it is she who must be allowed to decide.