On abortion

Let’s get one thing out the way first. People who view abortion as being the murder of human beings are not inherently anti-women’s rights. Just the same, people who view the issue as being a fundamental choice that ought to be left up to women are not inherently pro-abortion, much less pro-murder. Both arguments are just dishonest rhetoric.

The question of the morality of abortion can be viewed from a number of perspectives, but I want to focus on the most common issue: When does life begin? I don’t think the answer is so clear.

My big motivation for this post comes from a number of red herring theists, none of whom were able to argue in a coherent fashion. Since they insisted on avoiding the topic at hand (the support for their position), instead demanding I answer their questions (about my position), they are welcome over here in order to appropriately address where I stand on abortion.

Perhaps the most tempting way to define the beginning of humanity is the point of conception. And there’s some good reason. It marks the point where the genetic material for a person all comes together. Usually. In some instances of twinning the embyo can split in two up to four days after it was conceived. As a result, we have two groups of cells that, provided everything goes to plan, will end up as two living, breathing newborns. The problem that this raises is that we can no longer call the point of conception the absolute beginning of humanity. In these instances, conception results in one set of cells. It was only after conception that a new set of cells emerged. Unless we’re ready to call that ‘second’ twin non-human, we have to abandon this imaginary line in the sand.

But let’s go with the most logical counter-argument: Okay, it isn’t that conception marks the beginning of humanity; it’s something about conception that makes that mark. In that case, what? I think the best answer is that it is the emergence of cells which can result in the birth of a newborn which defines the beginning of humanity. That covers twinning. (The fact that the aforementioned red herring theists could not articulate something so simple and obvious makes me regret the time I wasted giving them any sort of respect.) But this answer isn’t without its problems.

What is it about this emergence of cells that is special? What makes this moment so important? The most logical answer is that it marks the beginning of development. (The red herring theists confused development for humanity.) It is the point where cells can start to form a full organism. But what more is this than the arbitrary declaration that a certain level of potential development is important? When gametes come together, yes, that marks the start of development, but so what? It isn’t development itself. It isn’t a full organism. It’s just a baseless valuing of potential. I could just as easily point to the emergence of a fully formed gamete and say that that marks a key point in development. “Why, a sperm has the potential to become a human!” And I would be right. The counter-argument would be, “A sperm can’t become human on its own” and the easy response is that neither can two gametes just because they’re combined. The whole process depends on a massive number of factors. That’s why it’s a process.

I like to compare the arbitrary line-drawing to the mark of American adulthood: the age of 18. It isn’t like a 17 year old is appreciably less mature the day before his next birthday compared to the day after. The line is ultimately an arbitrary one. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. The fact is, if we want to have a coherent system of law, we must declare some age as especially important in distinguishing between childhood and adulthood. Eighteen is a reasonable number. Just the same, we need to do the same with how we want to define what it means to be human.

Now I need to clarify even further (or at least re-emphasize). The starting point of development is a technical concept; it isn’t a difficult one, but it is technical. That is when we can say the road to humanity has begun. If we want to go further and say that that is the marker of humanity itself, then we need to explain why. That is, “humanity” isn’t some technical, scientific term we can apply to conception. (We can apply it when we’re talking about species, presuming we’re using it interchangeably with “Homo sapien“, but we can’t go beyond that; we can only say “That is a human egg/that is a human sperm/that is a human zygote.” When we start using “human” as a noun rather than an adjective, we’ve lost all embryological meaning.)

So that brings us to my position. As I said, the line in the sand isn’t clear, no more than it’s clear that an 18 year old is or is not really an adult. I do believe that if an embryo is a human being, then we must protect it. There are persuasive arguments, especially from Judith Jarvis Thompson, which say we don’t have that responsibility even if humanity begins at conception, but I don’t buy into them. I value human life highly and as a result I feel it necessary to protect whenever possible. But I reject the idea that conception is some magical point where some cells go from non-human to human. I still see cells.

I hope it is clear that it is the process of development where I see real value. It is patently absurd to say a human life begins at conception, as if development is unimportant to how a person turns out. Take another look at twinning. There is a point where everything is exactly the same between each set of cells. At that instance, there is no difference between the twins. So how can anyone say we are looking at two different humans? If there is no difference, there is no difference. And if that’s true (and it is), then there must be something else which goes into defining a human. We call that development. And that isn’t without its problems.

Just as the assertion that humanity begins at conception suffers much like the assertion that an 18 year old is an adult, the process of development suffers from a lack of clear lines. But it does offer reasonable lines. We can figure out viability, ability to feel, development of consciousness, and even employ caution. This often brings us to approximately six months. But I’m open to moving that mark. Maybe there are key factors in development which take place by five months, even four. Maybe those factors matter in how we define the important aspects of what it means to be human. A persuasive argument might get me to adjust my position. And in all likelihood, that position will only move down in number of months, if it moves at all. It seems there is too much doubt in moving up beyond seven months. Certainly at the eight or nine month mark that line in the sand has almost completely vanished; it wouldn’t be reasonable to claim a fetus is not a human at 9 months, 1 week, and 6 days, but when it’s born at 9 months, 2 weeks, why, we have ourselves a full-fledged human. That’s just as arbitrary as declaring conception the beginning of humanity.

So discuss the issue. But keep this in mind: while I don’t normally moderate comments except for obvious spam (such as ads), I will be moderating them here for blatantly dishonest (and bad) rhetoric. In other words, don’t call someone pro-abortion or anti-women’s rights merely for holding an opposing view.

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10 Responses

  1. Like I’ve said before, if it were solely up to me I would put the mark where we you can look at a fetus and say: “Thats going to be a little person!” as opposed to…. lets say a puppy.

    When a fetus starts to take on distinctly human features it definitely becomes human for me. By being recognizable as a human I think that’s, yes a very early, but good line. There’s something special about looking like a human.

    On a related subject, does anyone ever consider how bad abortion is for you? It’s not good that’s for sure, especially repeated ones.

  2. Like Michael, I think the point of definition is around six months but can and will change as science advances and the process of development is more deeply understood.

  3. I am pro-life, and thus I am pro-abortion because to me, “life,” in this sense, means human life, specifically conscious human life. More specifically, conscious human life that is worth living, as I am of the opinion that life is not always all that it’s cracked up to be, and thus that sometimes death is a more preferable condition than life. On the other hand, life can be wondeful, and amazing, and precious; when it’s good, that is. I love life. And I think babies are one of the most incredile, beautiful things in the world. But they are not conscious. Human, yes; but not conscious human beings, in my opinion, at least; not until they are at least a year old, and then only barely. Not until they are two or three would I say they are really conscious human beings. But that mother, on the other hand, that woman, is. And a conscious human being experiences the most exquisite and agonizing of sufferings: conscious human suffering. Worse than any physical pain we endure is the conscious human mental suffering we can experience, and especially physical suffering which is made tenfold greater by it’s being accompanied by our being conscious of it.

  4. I’m against abortion but Pro-Life! Is that a conflict? At some point there might be. A pregnant woman carries a fetus but until that fetus is born, I see only one life…the life of the mother developing another life inside her uterus.

    I am pro life for that woman and I stand behind her wise choice to sustain her own life.A “wise” choice covers much grounds (the reasons both medical, psychosocial /and economic, the stage of development of the fetus, the health of the fetus, etc).

    I understand what is “wise” to me might be “unwise” to others. Bottom line, if it is a healthy fetus capable of sustaining life on it’s own, I’m against abortion. There are other solutions including adoption, But I have a double bottom line…the decision of the mother is her choice to make.

    For most woman, abortion is most often not an easy decision. One would hope she is counseled by professionals both before and after making her choice. One would hope that she is making the wisest decision possible.

    By making abortions illegal, we are denying the right of the woman to an informed choice. We are compounding an already difficult situation into a more difficult one.

  5. I think with the inevitable progression of medical science every fetus will be viable (outside the womb) at some point in the future.

    The only question will be do we still allow abortions when we get to that point?

    Very reasonable position you have there Paul.

  6. I draw the line at 8 weeks. After 8 weeks, the child is too developed to justify killing*

    A bioethicist struck that point a few years ago arguing that our definition of the end of life is at the point where brain function ends, so shouldn’t we bookend it to say that life begins when brain function starts? That happens around 8 weeks. It’s not precise, but it’s the only non-arbitrary point I know of besides the moment of conception.

    I’m very glad to see this topic being given the respect for its complexity it deserves. Have you heard Hitchens talk about why he opposes abortion? It was very interesting to hear.

    *I used the word killing instead of “murdering” on puprose, as they mean two different things.

  7. Nate + Bob,
    I diverted some bickering to the trash bin.

    Jennifer,
    I agree that sometimes it can be difficult in saying just when a baby becomes aware in a meaningful sense. But I share the same feeling some pro-lifers have (or at least the argument they put forth) when they say ‘If we can’t be certain, we should be cautious’.

    Michael,
    Thank you for that specific word choice. In discussions like these bad word choice is usually a sign of the assumptions a person has in his or her arguments. I always appreciate language awareness.

    I haven’t heard Hitchens on the subject, but I’m not surprised to hear that he has given his opinion. I’ll be checking it out soon.

  8. Michael, I find it difficult to develop any “absolutes” such as after 8 weeks, the fetus should not be killed. The whole issue of abortion contain little “absolutes” but a plethora of relative considerations.

    I am against the killing of a viable fetus…by viable I mean sustaining life outside the womb without significant intervention. An 8 week fetus requires significant intervention….intervention which may or may not be successful in order for it to grow into a healthy life.

    And I take issue with “killing” and certainly with murder. I prefer terminate. It is less emotional and more accurate. Normally, the term of conception to birth is 9 months. Causing the end to a fetus prior to that is a termination of pregnancy…not a killing or murder.

    Two beings are involved , the mother and the fetus. One is a fully developed form of life, the Mother. The other is not. The mother can make decisions,,,,the fetus cannot. We have two unequal lives to consider.

    Now we want yet a third life, a third person (i.e government, courts, community ,religion) to intervene and determine who lives, who dies?

    I am pro choice and against abortions of a viable fetus…..but in the end…it is the one conscious choice of one conscious human being who can make that decision….the mother.

  9. Interesting thoughts. I sort of agree with Obama in that the answer to the question of start-of-life is above my pay grade.

    I consider myself a pro-life Christian who is, nonetheless, opposed to criminalizing the medical procedure of abortion.

    I tend to think that human life begins at conception, but I have no way of “proving” that, anymore than I think anyone else does. That’s one issue for me and in absence of any absolute answer, I warily go along with the parents/family involved making the decision, not gov’t (any more than I’d want gov’t deciding that all potentially sick babies MUST be aborted, or all baby girls/boys).

    Yet another and perhaps unrelated issue for me is the whole End of Life angle: Who gets to decide what is “best” for family members/loved ones – the gov’t or the family? I tend towards the family and thus, for THAT reason, I tend away from criminalizing abortion.

    Which all makes me wary. Given that I tend to think that human life begins at conception, I hate to think of people using abortion as birth control. Like Clinton, I’d like to see abortion be safe, legal and rare. In the end, though, there is enough uncertainty on the topic that I tend towards letting the family – not gov’t – make these sorts of calls.

    For what it’s worth.

  10. [...] have written about my stance on abortion in the past, but there is one thing I would really like to emphasize: the concept of [...]

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