Unspinning Abortion: A Call For Honesty
In the U.S., public opinion on the question of legalized abortion is roughly divided, with around 57% in favor, 40% opposed, and 3% on the fence. The numbers wiggle up and down slightly over time, but not by much. So I’m likely to anger at least half of everyone who reads this. Where positions are this entrenched, you just can’t win.
It’s long past time to cut through the rhetoric and spin distorting the “debate” — screaming match, more accurately — over abortion. I won’t tell you what to believe about the practice or suggest its proper legal status. Rather, this is a call for honesty with regard to what underlies the question. I’m going to explore a few hard, inconvenient facts. You may not like me for this. I’d just ask that you spit out any anger you feel rising in your throat and think rationally about these matters. They demand careful thought.
What Abortion Is
Do a web search and you’ll get several definitions for “abortion.” The most technical I found is this from MedicineNet:
…the premature exit of the products of conception (the fetus, fetal membranes, and placenta) from the uterus.
This is described as a “loss of pregnancy” without reference to why it happened. Under this definition, a miscarriage is a spontaneous abortion. Note that viability isn’t an issue, only prematurity. We’ll return to that distinction in a moment.
While this definition refers to the fetus, the developing organism could be either a fetus or an embryo. There are several terms for the stages of development during pregnancy, most of which need not concern us now. Here, we’ll just use two of them. From conception to eight weeks, the developing human organism is termed an embryo. From eight weeks on, it is termed a fetus. Implantation in the uterus occurs seven to eight days after conception, during the embryonic stage.
Induced abortions can occur any time, but laws often limit the practice based on viability. Medically, a pregnancy is considered to be full-term at 40 weeks, while a child born before the 37th week is considered premature. Viability is another matter entirely, based on the likelihood of survival, which depends in part on the state of medical science.
Studies indicate that fetal viability is more than 90% at 26 to 27 weeks, only 50% to 70% at 24 to 25 weeks, and a mere 25% to 35% at week 23. These numbers may change over time as medical science advances, but their state at any given time has often been used to determine the point at which most abortions are no longer allowed by law. In public discussion, this has sometimes been called the point at which “life begins.”
That’s a false designation.
When Life Begins . . . or Began
Based on fossil evidence, life on Earth began more than 3.77 billion years ago, possibly over four billion years ago. Mass extinctions notwithstanding, it has never been completely destroyed. So life in the general sense doesn’t “begin” at some court-designated moment. Just as an adult human is a living organism, so is a child, even before birth. A fetus is a living organism, as is an embryo, as are the gametes (sperm and egg cells) that precede the embryo. There is an unbroken chain of life from parents to offspring throughout countless generations, crossing even species lines.
But that’s not what people mean when they say “life begins” at a certain point during pregnancy. They mean something now exists that they are willing to call human, whereas before that point whatever it was wasn’t human. That’s false, too. Biology doesn’t work that way. A unique human organism doesn’t suddenly appear at some arbitrary moment in the middle of the growth process. A unique human organism is created at the moment of conception.
This is not a religious belief. It’s a hard scientific fact. For what makes a unique human organism? A particular assemblage of DNA. Forty-six chromosomes, 23 contributed by the organism’s mother and 23 by the father. This mixture of chromosomes is distinct from either the mother’s or the father’s, or from any other species for that matter. Once that DNA is assembled, a fertilized egg cell is its own unique human self. It’s not a frog embryo or a fish embryo or a platypus embryo or anything else. It’s a human embryo, a unique human individual.
Granted, outwardly it’s not recognizably human. It’s just a single cell. It can’t do anything but grow. But then, a newborn infant is far from a fully-developed human, too. It doesn’t have the bodily proportions of an adult. It can’t work a computer or talk or understand what it hears. It can’t even see very well, much less walk or crawl or even sit up. But it is human. And two minutes before birth it’s not terribly different from two minutes after birth. Neither is a fetus two minutes before the start of the second trimester terribly different from the same fetus two minutes after.
The only significant transformation in the developmental process that could possibly mark the line between not-human and human is the fertilization of the egg, when DNA of the father merges with DNA of the mother to create a new organism with fully human DNA different from any other that has ever been. That is when an individual human life begins.
A Word About Killing
Give the above, we must face an unpleasant fact: abortion kills a unique living human being. It just does.
Don’t get too steamed. This is merely a fact, no matter how inconvenient. It’s neither an argument for nor against abortion. After all, we sometimes do make legal and policy decisions that allow for the killing of people, to wit:
- A reasonable argument can be made for capital punishment for certain heinous crimes, even though not everyone agrees with it. (How many of you think the Adolf Hitlers and Osama bin Ladens of the world deserve death?)
- Although most of us would rather not see war, we recognize the need for a military force and agree with its use in at least some cases.
- The controversy notwithstanding, many feel it’s appropriate in at least some cases to let dying people pass away without excessive medical intervention.
We readily agree in special cases to kill people. Still, it’s psychologically hard for us to justify, and a good thing, too. To make killing people more palatable in these circumstances, we dehumanize our targets. We portray criminals and enemies as unlike us: outsiders, unprincipled villains, monsters, even animals. We think of the dying as dead already, with no chance of anything like a meaningful life. It’s far easier to agree to kill someone who isn’t really human.
The unborn child?
Not even human to begin with. Just a little blob of tissue, an unnecessary appendage within the mother’s body, which after all is hers to do with as she pleases. This claim silently invokes the falsehood of human life beginning at some arbitrary point after conception to deny that abortion kills a human being. Dehumanization of the unborn child thus has nothing to do with science or even law. It’s merely to make abortion palatable. Otherwise, we must own up to killing a human being — no, a human child — and that’s the hardest admission of all.
Again, this is neither an argument for nor against abortion, yet the fact must be acknowledged. Whatever the context, if we are to legally permit the killing of a human, then we must have the honesty to admit what we’re doing and be prepared to explain why killing is justified in that context. To do anything less is to assert that life has no value, an assertion that leads toward genocide and the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.
A Woman’s Body
While on a commuter train a few years ago, I overheard two young women discussing politics in the seat in front of me. When the talk came around to abortion they were of one mind. “Why should men decide the question?,” the first commented. “They don’t have a uterus.” To which the second replied, “Exactly.”
Overlooking the fact that every unborn child has rather a lot to do with a man, namely the man who contributed 50% of the genes to the project, abortion isn’t about a woman’s uterus. The developing child occupies the uterus, true, and certainly there is a physical link between the unborn child and the mother. Yet the mother’s uterus isn’t much at issue unless we regard abortion as akin to evicting a squatter from a rental apartment. But we don’t usually kill people in the course of evicting them, so scratch that analogy. It’s hardly apropos.
The claim that it’s all about the woman goes back to the false portrayal of the fetus or embryo as not human. If the unborn is more like a cancerous growth inside the uterus, then of course the woman should have the right to remove it. Doctors do sometimes remove the entire uterus. That’s hysterectomy, a procedure usually done out of medical necessity, and nobody screams about that.
Abortion, however, does not remove any part of the woman’s body, even if we count the placenta and such as part of her body. Those structures only exist to support the child’s life. Abortion is done to terminate pregnancy, to remove the embryo or fetus, which as we have seen is a human being distinct from the mother.
Accurately stated, then, abortion is about two bodies, the mother’s and the child’s. Again, this is merely a fact, not a statement of what should be. In choosing to have an abortion, the mother is not merely addressing an issue about her body, she is making the decision to destroy the child’s body. Does she have that right in some circumstances? If so, what are those circumstances, and why does she have the right to kill her child? Does the father have any rights with regard to the fate of his child? Such questions are swept under the rug when we falsely deny the humanity of the unborn child and just as falsely regard abortion as a matter solely affecting the mother.
Current law doesn’t offer much help, either, because it is largely based on the same false premises. Indeed, it’s often severely conflicted over the status of the unborn child. While laws legalizing and regulating abortion fundamentally deny the personhood of unborn children, at least prior to some arbitrary stage of development, laws addressing the injury or death of an unborn child accept their personhood. The U.S. government and 38 states have such laws on the books. But what should we expect? What constitutes a “person” under the law doesn’t have any connection to what constitutes a “human being” in the first place. Law can be weird like that.
The Real Problem
Probably the oddest thing about the abortion issue is that it’s not the real problem at all. It’s one attempt among several to deal with fallout from the real problem. The fallout here is unwanted pregnancy. The actual problem runs far deeper.
Historically, human beings as a group have been poor at practicing sexual morality, even when they preach it. In the modern era, even the social conventions and religious beliefs that once provided our moral framework have been all but thrown to the wind in favor of a laissez-faire philosophy that places individual desires ahead of nearly everything. In particular, sex has become disconnected from long-term commitment. Rather than the consummation of a deep relationship, sex is now seen as a first step in a couple’s tentative exploration of each other. And that’s at its best. At its worst, sex has been degraded to mere entertainment.
Why shouldn’t it be those things? Well . . .
Time for another of those inconvenient facts: the primary purpose of sex is reproduction.
Yes, you heard correctly, but notice the word “primary.” It means “first,” not “only.” In various species, sex has evolved secondary purposes as well, but its primary purpose is always reproduction.
Few care to admit that. They’ll point to the role sex plays in emotional bonding and talk about how furry animals need physical intimacy for good mental health. Besides, with our clever contraceptive technology, we can decouple sex from reproduction. Therefore, it’s not about that, at least not anymore. Right?
While sex does indeed serve secondary purposes in many species, they are secondary, not primary. You probably should know that, but in case elaboration is required. . .
Humans reproduce sexually, as do other cuddly mammals. Then again, so do birds. And no-so-cuddly reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects. And a great many plants, which are not at all known for physical intimacy. Actually, fossil evidence shows that sexual reproduction first appeared 1.2 billion years ago. That’s long, long before the time of mammals and their emotional needs.
So let’s stop pretending. Sex first evolved as a means for reproduction, and it remains a means for reproduction, even though it has acquired other functions in some — but not all — species. We ought to have a little respect for that fact, even if we don’t particularly like it.
Our peculiar problem with sex — the one that leads us to the sorts of denials we’ve been unmasking here — lies in an unusual fact about our species. We take a very long time to mature. In most other species, mating is subject to biological controls, such as restricting it to a particular time of the year. This generally affords offspring, which mature with a year or so, sufficient time to grow up and move out before mom gets to work on the next generation. Some species mature more slowly, but we humans require over a decade to reach physical (sexual) maturity. Only a few animals, large species such as the elephant and the blue whale, grow up so slowly.
In our case, it’s not size that dictates the length of childhood, but the complexity of our brains. We are born relatively immature compared to other species so our heads can squeeze through the birth canal without killing our mothers. While our bodies reach physical maturity in our early teens, our brains continue to develop for several more years. This creates a disjunction between physical maturity and intellectual/emotional maturity. We are capable of reproducing well before we’re ready to handle such responsibility.
Nor is that all. We lack much in the way of internal regulation of our sexual behavior. Unlike most species, we are — this isn’t a joke, just a statement of fact — ready and willing most anytime, even when the female can’t get pregnant. The confluence of these facts is startling: we are ready for and interested in sex before we can handle its consequences, yet our biology doesn’t impose sufficient control to keep us out of trouble. Even once we’ve reached full maturity, we must rely upon our wills to keep sexual behavior in line. It’s no wonder we so often make a mess of things.
And thus, another very inconvenient and possibly sobering fact arises: we need some external means of regulation, such as those historically provided by social and religious strictures. We need them. Our unaided wills are not usually enough.
On the deepest level, we suffer from a spiritual failure manifesting in behaviors that lead to problems for which we have devised a drastic and, in the view of many, evil response: the killing of unborn children. Indeed, even if you believe abortion should be legal, you probably don’t believe it is an ideal or even good practice. You’d probably rather see it used as little as possible.
But the methods we’ve devised to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the spread of disease through sexual contact are themselves no better than halfway measures. Contraception may actually exacerbate our abdication of self-control, which increases risks not only of unwanted pregnancy and the spread of disease —our methods don’t always work, after all — but also the documented negative psychological effects of promiscuity and exposure to pornography.
As little as anybody might want to hear it, we cannot fix this without reasserting self-control, and that likely means reinvesting in some of the very strictures we’ve abandoned. Because sex is our method of reproduction, sexual expression should properly be confined to a context where reproduction is welcome: that of a committed, long-term relationship. A few social expectations would help moderate our behavior, too: equality of women and men, defined limits on how we interact with each other, and an expectation that people take responsibility for their actions. For example, it should be absolutely shameful for a man to impregnate a woman and walk away, leaving her to deal with the consequences without his support.
Yet we must also be realistic. Addressing such widespread problems is a multi-generational task, nor will we ever completely eliminate problems such as unwanted pregnancy. Particularly for a teenager, pregnancy is fraught with medical, social, and financial peril, particularly if the father vanishes. This fact should no more be swept under the rug than the others we've explored.
Accordingly, we need to face up to such problems as a society and consider ways to alleviate them aside from abortion. For even if as a society we decide it is acceptable to kill unborn children in some circumstances, who would be willing to tout it as the best or only way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy?
These are hard questions, as hard as the facts that must, if we are to be at all honest with ourselves, frame them. But they do need to be asked, and asked honestly.