Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Science of Abortion

Abortion has been a hot topic through most of the 40+ years of my adult life, and probably before.  While I do have an opinion on abortion, I have seldom entered into the debate; mostly because I try hard to avoid conflict.  But I am finding myself drawn to this issue now and can no longer remain silent.

Just to be clear, I am a Christian and was raised in a believing home.  It is hard to separate my upbringing and faith from how I view the world and what goes on in it.  By no means is that an apology, it is how we all are; we are shaped by our past and our worldview.  But as I have thought about abortion over the past few months, I have tried to do so from a more science based approach than a religious one, and what follows comes from that attempt.

Life is a cool thing, and most of us would prefer having it to not having it.  And yet life is a challenging thing to define.  But most seem to agree that this dictionary definition is at least close: "the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death."

Why is this significant?  At the heart of the abortion debate is when life begins; when does the fertilized egg become a human life.  There seems to be a lot of alternatives to this question in the popular media and public debate.  But I find that in the actual scientific literature there is not nearly as much debate about it.

Following are the stages of pre-birth development as taken from the Cleveland Clinic's web site. At the moment of fertilization, the genetic makeup of the embryo is fixed, and is distinct from that of either the mother or the father.  Toward the end of the first day, the embryo will begin to divide.  After 3 days the embryo will implant into the uterus and continue development.  After the 8th week the embryo is called a fetus and at the end of the third month the baby is fully developed although not mature and incapable of living outside the womb.  After about 7 months the baby has a good chance to survive if born prematurely.

So when during this process does this embryo/fetus have life of its own?  When does it become a human?  While I did not read every scientific or medical paper, I did look at quite of few of them to see what they had to say.  And nearly all of them identified life as beginning within 30 seconds of fertilization, at essentially the moment of conception.  This white paper from The Westchester Institute For Ethics & the Human Person gives the most detailed defense of that position that I have so far found.  This RationalWiki article lists some alternatives, but I haven't really found anything else yet to support any of those alternative positions.  One would appear to be on pretty safe ground the say that, at least from a scientific perspective, life begins at conception, and that life is human, although not fully developed.  At this point it meets the definition for life: capacity for growth, reproduction (eventually, and this is also true for a three year old), functional activity and continual change.

The argument that I hear most to support abortion is that it is a health care decision that belongs to a woman, and to her alone.  I could agree with this if the issue was cancer, or the flu or heart disease.  But this argument, in relation to abortion, is trying to make the case that the unborn child is nothing more that some tissue that is growing within the woman.  The implication is that it is similar to a tumor; that abortion is nothing more that removal of that unwanted tissue; removal should be solely the woman's decision to make; and the rest of us should kindly keep our noses out of her business.

The scientific consensus, Bill Nye's emotional appeal notwithstanding, is that abortion is not the removal of an unwanted mass of tissue from a woman's body, but the termination of the life of a human.  Yes, that human is not yet capable of life outside the womb and is totally dependant on its mother.  But it is still a human life that is distinct from that of its mother.  And abortion kills that human life.

I understand that the abortion issue is not simple.  Issues of rape and incest, threats to the mother's life and unwanted and uncared for children all complicate the issue.  And I do not have an answer to much of that.  But let's call abortion what it really is, the killing of an unborn human child, rather than mask it as a simple health care decision for a woman.