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Abortion

The annual Roe v. Wade protest took place the other day in D.C. A co-worker had mentioned it last week. We avoided getting into a heated debate about it in the office, but it did get me to thinking about the issue. I've mostly steared clear of talking about abortion on this blog, but I have discussed it in my entry, The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican. However, my discussion there was a bit scattershot, so I thought I'd consolidate it all into a new entry (read recycle), and add a few more thoughts.

Abortion is a difficult topic, not easily reduced to slogans. Anybody considering it shouldn't take the decision lightly. But there are legitimate reasons for people to get abortions, so they shouldn't be banned outright.

A few years ago, I used to think it was simple. I thought that life began at the moment of conception, and that all humans were worthy of protection, so it followed quite simply that abortion was bad, and should only have been performed under the most dire of circumstances (such as a pregnancy endangering the life of the mother).

Now, I realize that even my first assumption was wrong. Life doesn't begin at the moment of conception. Life began a few billion years ago, and has been continuous ever since. There's no point at which the egg or sperm are dead before coming together for fertilization. Every organism you see is part of an unbroken chain of life stretching back to the first cells. (Even if you don't accept evolution, the same point still holds for individual species, including us, going back to the first breeding pair in whatever creation myth you happen to believe). Plus, there's no 'moment' of conception. Like most things, it's a process. A sperm enters an egg, then has to release its genetic material, which must then find its way to the nucleus of the egg, enter the nucleus, and finally fuse with the DNA from the egg.

I know some people wouldn't care about my semantics of 'life' in the above paragraph. They're more interested in the soul, and think that's what makes us human. In this country, with a population of around 80% Christians, I think it's safe to assume that most people get these ideas from Christianity. I'm really not going to bother with trying to figure this out. First, as is probably clear from the rest of this site, I'm not a Christian. And, at this point, I really doubt that souls even exist. But even if I were to give the concept the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did, I wouldn't see any reason to think that it was only humans who had souls. Other animals besides us certainly seem to think and experience emotional lives. A few, such as elephants and cetaceans, seem to be nearly as smart as us, just not technologically inclined. (I do think that we're the smartest species on this planet to date, but just like some animals can approach the speed of a cheetah, I'd bet that other animals can approach our intelligence.) So, if it's okay to kill, say, a pig, even though it would presumably have a soul if souls existed, what would be the justification for saying it was wrong to kill a human embryo? In fact, I think souls are rather extraneous to this question. Assuming that other animals besides us think and experience emotions, how can we say it's okay to kill intelligent non-human animals, but not an undeveloped individual that just happens to have human DNA? Additionally, if organisms did have souls, death wouldn't be nearly as big of a deal - it would just be a transition from one type of existence to another. It's only if we don't have souls that death becomes the ultimate end.

The other problem with the soul idea is determining when ensoulment actually occurs. I'm not going to get into this very much, since I doubt the whole concept, anyway. But, this page has a good discussion of the issue. For example, if ensoulment occured during the process of conception, what would happen if the embryo split into twins? Does the soul split, do two bodies share the same soul, or does one body end up a soulless automaton? It seems that Christians have been debating the moment of ensoulment for centuries. So, until there's some type of evidence, these debates will just keep going around and around in circles.

I disagree with considering a fertilized egg to be a full human being with all the legal rights that entails. Just because a collection of cells has human DNA doesn't make it a human being. I doubt anybody would argue that it's murder to kill a HeLa cell. In a way, trying to grant that status to a zygote cheapens the status of actual humans.

My brother has suggested (and I've heard others make this suggestion, as well) using brain activity as the legal definition for when people should be considered human. At the end of life, it's when brain activity ceases that we say it's okay to pull life support. Likewise, when brain activity starts is when we should say that the fetus becomes a human who should get appropriate protection. There's definitely a grey area when the fetus begins to develop a nervous system (the physical structure of the brain starts coming together around the start of the second trimester, and measurable brain wave activity begins around 25 weeks, near the start of the third trimester*), but before there's a functioning brain, what type of experiences can a fetus have? And even when brain activity begins, the rights of the developing baby need to be balanced against those of the pregnant woman. If the pregnancy is endangering the life of the woman, I would think that the woman's life takes precedence.

Still, it's not as if making abortion legal is the same thing as making it mandatory. It's only an option for those who choose it. A woman could continue with a life endangering pregnancy if she wanted to. And any woman that wanted to put her baby up for adoption would also be free to do so.

There's a very touching article on this subject, and if you only follow one link from this blog entry, follow this one. It's written by a woman who found out during the second trimester that her baby had severe hydrocephalus and spina bifida, and that if it had survived at all, it would have experienced severe suffering. Following her story is that of another woman who's baby girl had anencephaly - no brain or any chance of life. Both women had what could be termed 'partial birth abortions' to terminate the pregnancies.
Real Life: Why I Chose Abortion

Another story that greatly affected my views on abortion is that of Jonny Kennedy. He had a rare skin disorder known as dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa which caused him horrible suffering. In a documentary on his life, The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, he was asked what he would do if he had a child, and it was discovered while the child was still in utero that the child had the same condition. Without hesitation, he said that he would want the woman to have an abortion. For those of us who have been lucky enough to live comfortable lives, it's easy to say that every potential life should be given a chance, even if there are circumstances that might not be perfect. But to hear someone who had suffered their entire life basically say that no one else should have to experience that suffering is pretty powerful.

Not too many people are actually pro-abortion. Most would prefer that the unfortunate circumstances that lead to a woman choosing abortion never happened in the first place. This leads into a related topic, which I'll only mention here, which is one of the more frustrating when dealing with many from the anti-choice crowd. We know that one of the best ways to avoid unintended pregnancies is through comprehensive sex education. So, if you really want to reduce the number of abortions, teach kids the ABC's - abstinence, birth control, and contraception. Don't stop at just the A part, because abstinence only programs have been demonstrated not to work.


Hardly anybody likes abortion. Most people who go through with the procedure take it very seriously. Read the articles I linked to above. They present very good reasons to get an abortion, and they're not the only ones. Rather than banning abortions, we as a society should do what we can do eliminate the conditions that lead to them, and give women the choice to get abortions for those times when they are justified**.


*Even a newborn's brain is still pretty undeveloped. Babies don't have much self awareness at all. In fact, most children don't 'pass' the spot test until around a year and a half to two years old.

**As far as when abortions are and aren't justified, I'd rather err on the side of freedom, and leave that choice up to individuals, rather than let the government legislate it. However, I think Roe V. Wade was a reasonable, if not perfect, compromise.

Updated 2013-04-19: Fixed a few broken links, either pointing to their Wayback Machine version when available, or their new location if they were moved.

Comments

Jeff,

I hope you don't feel disconsolate that no one seems to leave comments. I have referred several of your blogs to others. Don't give up. The way you put up an argument/debate is very impressive and shows you have heaps more brains than the average person. I wish I could say "your time will come"! Don't ever give up!

Well written view on abortion. I have thought along those lines, but not as coherently.

Alexov - Thanks. Obviously, I do look forward to comments on this blog, but if that's all I did it for, I'd have quit blogging a while ago.

Eric - I just looked back over you abortion entry from your In Polite Company series. You made a good point that I didn't bring up here.

Also, if you decide to have the child, then you should do it responsibly. Quit doing drugs, drinking and smoking, and start eating right, it's not just your body anymore.

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