The “A” Word — Don’t Get Angry, Calm Down, and Let Us Talk
Lots of issues draw emotional reactions whenever brought up in communication, but perhaps none more heated than the issue of abortion. Despite my experiences of angry lashings-back, of accusations or religious and/or moral consequences, and of frustrated resignation that there are no solutions to the impasse the issue creates to all forms of communication, I would like to propose we can have control over our emotional outbursts, we can conjure enough decorum and polite maturity to have civil discourse, and, consequently, we can actually carry on a calm, intelligent conversation about abortion.
To say I am trying to change the reader’s mind about the issue of abortion, or to say I am touting a view I dogmatically declare is the only rational way to reach a consensus on the issue of abortion is to assume wrongly before reading. I am merely saying we can without mindless anger calmly discuss abortion.
In my opinion, if we do not have deep, serious discourse about abortion, it has the potential to fester in our society as a divisive cancer of our own making. Ignoring it is futile, just as back in the 1960’s the issues of the Vietnam war, civil rights, and the women’s movement, all divisive in their own ways, brought questions for our nation that cried out for resolution. Without the resolution of these three issues, as gut-wrenching as they may have been, or still are to many individuals, our nation would have been torn asunder, perhaps irreparably.
An indicator of the need for dealing with the issue of abortion is clear when observing radical, pro-life, Christian opposition to abortion rights. The indicator is multi-faceted, from the overt murder of abortion clinic staff members to the covert redefinition of Christianity (similar to the redefinition of Christianity conjured by Christian anti-evolutionists — see “Creationism and Intelligent Design — On the Road to Extinction” [July, 2012]) based upon opposition to abortion. Communication on Facebook from a friend with whom I grew up was recently cut off (his “unfriendment” of me), in no small part because he could not discuss without irrational emotion his pro-life version of Christianity (see “What Did I Say or Write? WTF?!! (For Adults Only)” [Jan, 2013]). There are more such indicators than this, but just one is more than enough reason to have this discourse about the “A” word.
In addition, modern medicine has made possible for couples wanting children in the future options heretofore unanticipated. Many of these options directly or indirectly involve abortion. Ignorance of abortion or failure to enter upon rational discourse on abortion could limit the options for these couples, causing them avoidable and unnecessary pain and heartbreak.
I take the word “abortion” to mean any termination of the pregnancy of a mammalian female. (The exception among mammals is the egg-laying duck-billed platypus, so the definition does not apply to female platypuses; those mothers have no uterus in the traditional mammalian sense.) [There are, of course, other definitions, so, just to be clear, I am not talking about military missions called off due to unforeseen circumstances nor about some situation that was completely botched relative to the plans for that situation.] The evolution of mammalian motherhood has been ongoing for over 65 million years, so the emotional trauma of a terminated pregnancy for a female mammal is unavoidable; to want to bear a child, to want to be a mother, is deep within the human XX genes; mammalian mothers, whether of our species or not, that have consensually mated, willingly subject their bodies to a potentially threatening situation caused by a parasitic relationship (all fetuses “feed” off the mother’s body), with no guarantee of a successful termination and delivery birth — all in response to the genes whose origins go back to the earliest mammals.
Like all uterus-bearing female mammals, human females risk, during pregnancy, “natural” abortions; we call them miscarriages. The existence of a biochemically-based mechanism allowing the pregnant body to expel the fetus is part of mammalian existence for good reason — not all pregnancies, not all developments of a human-in-the-making are going to produce good results, are going to produce “normal” results. For the good of the species, miscarriages are necessary. The ability to miscarry is like “evolutionary life insurance” for the particular species; in addition to weeding out fetuses that have no chance of becoming a healthy, “normal” pregnancy brought to term, many mammals, especially “prey” animals to predators such as lions, have the ability to “panic abort” or “instantaneously miscarry,” in order that the mother can escape a lion attack by sacrificing the unborn fetus “on the run,” so that she can live another day to have another baby. Miscarriages are far more common, I suspect, than most of us realize — common across all mammalian pregnancies. Most of us humans as adults know by personal experience or by close association the emotional trauma and bitter loss of miscarriages; most of us are intimately acquainted with natural abortion. Though the sad blow of a miscarriage may not be softened by taking a broad biological view, it might be somewhat helpful if every couple or single mother suffering a miscarriage remembers that a miscarriage is the termination of a pregnancy for which something was biologically “wrong,” a pregnancy detrimental to the species, possibly dangerous to the life of the mother, and wasteful of the bio-energy being pumped into it by the mother’s body. A miscarriage, if alive at birth, almost certainly, would not be one the mother, if she could suspend her optimistic, hopeful XX emotions about giving birth, would not want under any circumstances; bluntly put, it would be a physical or a mental “monster,” or both.
(Incidentally, I like to point out that if all natural phenomena are seen as some kind of theistic manifestation — that is, if miscarriages are seen as part of the “will of God,” part of His Creation — then it seems logical that God is a divine abortionist; in fact, God must the be “Ultimate Abortionist.” I haven’t had much luck getting pro-life ministers and pew warmers to warm up to that “if-then” statement.)
Clearly, the biological outcome of both miscarriage and abortion is the same. Equally clearly, the issue of abortion we face today is not talking about natural abortions, miscarriages, but, rather, about non-natural, synthetic, man-made, deliberate abortions — intentional terminations of what otherwise might very well be healthy pregnancies on their way to term. And, the biological outcome of murder is almost the same as that of natural and un-natural abortions; murder is the termination of a human that is no longer biologically dependent upon the mammalian physiology of the mother in order to exist; miscarriages and abortions are terminations of humans-in-the-making, or potential humans, still dependent upon that physiology in order to exist.
Because killing others, murder, is detrimental to the species, we pass laws against it, citing consequences; “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” But, even murder is qualified, despite its disadvantages, such as in instances of war. We actually reward those who murder the “right” victims, the enemy; we honor soldiers who kill and risk their lives for their companions, especially in cases of close combat. I contend abortion is not detrimental to the species; we have overpopulation problems, not underpopulation problems. Therefore, abortion cannot socially and legally be compared to killing, to murder; there is no need for anti-abortion laws, for punishing those who perform or have abortions. This very stark legal difference arises from the very subtle biological difference between abortion and murder; terminate the physiologically dependent, it is abortion; terminate the physiologically independent, it is murder.
Deep motherly affinity, similar to the feelings we have when we see any baby mammal, like puppies or kittens, tends to make us call fetuses “babies,” as if they are already brought to term. All of us have no problem seeing the sonogram of a family member-on-the-way as a welcome new arrival, even if the arrival is several months away. If we were honest with ourselves, we would realize fetuses are not babies until they can live without the nourishment of the mother’s body, until they are delivered, premature or not, and are breathing on their own. “Fetus” seems too cold and detatched to many, especially to pro-lifers, and “baby” seems too emotionally charged and inaccurate, especially to pro-choicers, so I suggest instead of either fetus or baby a good scientific term, “proto-baby,” or baby-in-the-making, or baby-to-be. In the cosmological theory of the origins of solar systems, a glob of material growing in size via gravity pulling together countless chunks of rocky material is a “proto-planet,” and a growing glob under gravity pulling together an enormous sphere of interstellar gas, mostly hydrogen, not yet glowing by nuclear fusion, is called a “proto-sun,” or “proto-star.”
There is a moment in the evolution of a solar system when a proto-planet becomes just a planet, and when a proto-star becomes a sun or star — when the accumulated gas begins to generate light and heat energy through nuclear fusion (the “ignition” of the star), the same process as the basis of the H-bomb. I think there is a moment when a proto-baby becomes a baby, when the umbilical cord is cut, when the baby must live “on its own.” One moment the proto-baby lives because of the bio-chemical lifeline of the cord; the next, the baby lives because he/she is breathing air into his/her lungs. OK, maybe not as dramatic as the ignition of fusion in an unbelievably big sphere of the primal “stuff” of the universe, but to we humans, the successful cutting of the cord is as important to each of us as the energy we receive from the sun; we could not exist as we do without either.
The argument and conflict over abortion hinges on the question of when a human being ceases being a proto-baby to become a baby, to use the terms introduced above, which, hopefully, are devoid of vitriolic emotions. So hinges the rational discussion of abortion. It is possible for the moment of transformation to be as early as conception and as late as one or two years after birth, and the history of mankind has witnessed moral, social, legal, political, and philosophical definitions of the moment placed all along that time line. Catholics and radical pro-lifers have chosen the earliest possible definition, choosing words like “Life begins at conception.”, and primitive and/or warrior societies throughout history have chosen the latest possible definition with the practice of infanticide, especially the exposure of female infants to the elements and/or predators. In my opinion, reason and the biology of human birth suggest a moment somewhere in between; I think biology answers the question for us.
Already I have hinted above at the moment that distinguishes proto-babies from babies, a moment suggested by biology — the cutting of the umbilical cord. Note this definition of a baby does not put a necessary gestation period on the definition of a baby, given the survival nowadays of more and more premature babies. Among my many discussion buddies, with whom I talk about science, history, philosophy, and religion, are Dr. Jim Burns and Dr. Stephen Weldon, who recently thought biology does not suggest a defining moment. Their point was well taken; given premature babies and the human desire not to harm anything that looks human, even very young proto-babies, the time to define a baby seems arbitrary. But I still maintain the cutting of the cord is like a biological watershed, a point of no return, or a turning point — a climactic moment like no other in the span from conception to infanticide. A resolution to the “abortion problem” requires a defining moment, and the appointment of that moment has to be up to us; my friends are right to point out its arbitrariness, but I think biology comes closest to suggesting its own definition by requiring the severing of the cord in order for a symbiotic organism (the pregnant mother) to transform into two separate organisms (the mother and child). In my opinion, it is the most reasonable compromise definition of the beginning of a baby upon which moral and legal definitions logically follow.
With a baby defined by the cutting of the cord, then to terminate a proto-baby, to stop a pregnancy still “on the cord” is legal abortion; to terminate a baby, to kill a newborn whose cord has been successfully cut is illegal murder. The choice to bring a proto-baby to term or to abort the proto-baby has no legal consequences, but is, rather, an affirmation of one of the most important decisions made during our lifetimes. Whatever the choice, we as a species benefit; the joy of bringing a wanted and loved baby into the world will not change; the abortion of a proto-baby can, with the consent of the mother-no-longer-to-be, result in tissue donation for medical research — tissue with stem cells, for example — much like the donation of organs from deceased children and adults or like what is done with certain miscarriages.
I strongly feel the decision whether or not to abort is solely that of the mother and her physician(s); if she is married, the father is a third party in the decision; if she is a single mother, the father is not a third party, unless she wants him to be. It is not a matter that can be decided by her parents, by her family, by her friends, by her hospital, by her religion, by her State, or by her nation; nonetheless, she can ask for and accept or reject the counsel of any or all of these, if she chooses. If her physician finds the pregnancy endangers her life, or medical tests on the proto-baby reveal that if brought to term the child will have some congenital physical or mental disorder assuring the need for expensive medical and/or psychological care, she should be encouraged to abort, should a miscarriage not occur. In such cases, without a miscarriage, she has the right to ignore such encouragement, as long as she understands she will bear the full responsibility of bringing such special needs and burdens into the world.
Lest this sounds calloused toward the unborn proto-babies, advances in human reproductive science are well on their way to forcing greater consideration of abortion as a viable option for couples and single mothers — toward an option free of all guilt and moral stigmata. Sooner than we think pregnant couples or single mothers will all receive genetic counseling wherein genetic mapping of the proto-baby will give the prospective parent(s) so many choices, including: 1) bringing the existing package of genes to term, 2) repairing any existing genes that are defective and bringing the healed package of genes to term, 3) altering the existing genes closer to the idealistic tastes of the couple or single mother for purposes of bringing to term, 4) aborting because of detected defective genes whose repair seems improbable, or 5) aborting because the couple or single mother declare(s) the pregnancy an unplanned mistake that would produce an unwanted child.
My concern is that our education and moral counseling of today do not include the information for students in sex education classes, clerical consultation, or homemaking skills courses necessary to prepare future parents to reasonably make an informed choice among those like 1) through 5) above. If you believe that what I think is coming sounds too much like science fiction, reconsider. Already we have correlated certain defects and syndromes to specific gene sites on proto-baby chromosomes. Surgeries are becoming both healing and preventative, along with less intrusion, at an exponential rate. In less than a decade one major surgical procedure performed upon me was so updated and improved, that the recovery time now is about one tenth the time I had to go through. You can see these options coming for future parents, most of whom I fear are not going to be prepared to deal with them.
The continuation of the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy seems hard sometimes to understand. Pro-choice seems the “no-brainer” of the two, as that stance makes no attempt to foist its position on the “other side,” as the pro-lifers seem to do. Any pro-choice advocate who “twists the arm” of someone to agree with him/her betrays the strength of the pro-choice position. Pro-choice calls for the right of everyone to deal with abortion in their own way; pro-choice advises a pro-life pregnant mother NOT to have an abortion, if that is her choice. Pro-choice respects the right of the individual to decide, asking that that right be protected and extended through time. Politically, pro-choice, therefore, must fight for abortion rights for all women, fight for the right TO have an abortion AND for the right NOT TO have an abortion.
For pro-lifers to claim God is pro-life is, to me, ludicrous. Pro-lifers push the definition of Christianity (or whatever is their religion) to a “must” inclusion of being anti-abortion, which smells of heresy. (See “An Expose of American Conservatism — Part 2” [Dec, 2012]) If they are theists, which they surely almost all are, then God, instead of being anti-abortion, logically is the “Ultimate Abortionist” because of miscarriages; that is an oxymoronic description of God. And all major religions, certainly including Christianity, were defined in a time when the issue of abortion was moot. Infant mortality was so high, with poor sanitation and poor nutrition added to miscarriages, unwanted children usually died from neglect of some form, with hardly anyone noticing; in addition, a potion-induced abortion could always be labeled as a miscarriage, again, with hardly anyone questioning that explanation. Only in recent times has modern medicine allowed fundamentalist-minded believers, like Christian pro-lifers, the ability to place an artificial moral judgement on synthetic abortions of proto-babies — a judgement named “God.”
Speaking of “moot” (perhaps it should also be “mute”), the verbal tact of a lot of pro-lifers will sooner or later include something like “What if you were aborted?” They ask as if that question is some profound point in their favor! If I was aborted? Clearly I was not! It is like asking “What if I was born female?” or “What if I was not born in the USA?” or “What if your children or grandchildren had been aborted?” or “What if the sky was not blue?” etc., etc. The only answer is “Then, things would be different, wouldn’t they?” And, in the end, no point has been made; nothing of substance has been said. Silly, if you ask me.
Finally, there seems to me to be great hypocrisy in the pro-life position. With grand religious zeal they will council a woman (say, a pregnant crack whore) to bring the proto-baby (probably destined to be already addicted to crack) to term (into a life of misery, pain, and destitution) unconditionally. That counseling only makes sense conditionally — if the pro-lifer(s) is/are willing to “foot the bill” in the raising of that potential child to, say, age 18, either through adoption or through a binding contract of meeting the child’s financial costs. Do they ever offer to do that? I don’t think so; after the birth they were responsible for bringing about, it is “out of their hands and into God’s;” suddenly the mother is responsible, as if she wanted to bring the proto-baby to term in the first place! Until the pro-lifers are willing to do something like this when they counsel and succeed, they should get out of the business of counseling mothers-to-be; they cannot afford it!
I hope I have presented a position respectful of all views, without forcing anyone to or preventing anyone from thinking or acting contrary to their conscience, and without “ruffling too many feathers.” If I have “ruffled” anyone beyond the “calm, intelligent conversaton” mentioned at the beginning, my bad — such was not my intention. At the very least, I hope I have demonstrated that meaningful and substantial content can accompany discourse on abortion. We must continue such discourse.
I agree, Ronnie. A “calm, intelligent conversation” must continue. Pro-choice provides freedom. In many ways, religious conservatism impedes development of a much needed push for a more progressive public policy agenda. Freedom matters.
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This was a really good, respectful article. I found the biological perspective on abortion to be particularly insightful. It made me look at the situation a new way.
I was also glad to read that you acknowledge the arbitrariness of when a proto-baby becomes a human. I definitely agree with this point. I considered your definition: cutting the chord. Logically, I believe this definition is satisfactory, although I do not believe that it fully represents a clear transition from the proto-baby as part of the mother to the creation of a new organism.
Isn’t it technically true that fetuses are already their own organisms? After all, they have their own DNA.
As far as being physiologically dependent goes, proto-babies are definitely parasites. I would also argue that they remain parasitic even after the chord is cut. Newborn babies, at least in the most natural of settings, are still completely dependent on their mothers for survival. One obvious necessity is the mother’s milk, but there are other needs such as mother-child bonding which are crucial for the baby’s development.
Of course a newborn baby does not totally need his or her mother to survive. They could be bottle-fed or raised by someone or something that isn’t their mother at all. I don’t think this means that the baby has reached a state of biological maturity though. I think that at least in principle, even a proto-baby is not totally dependent on its mother’s body. It is conceivable to me that a fetus could be grown from scratch in a laboratory in some kind of weird machine and still be a fetus. So if you took a one-week-old proto-baby out of its mother and put it in one of these machines to keep it alive, would it then be a full-on baby? What about a single zygote? This is certainly debatable, but I would answer that they have not yet achieved full baby status.
Again, this matter is completely arbitrary. Unfortunately, the issue of what makes a human seems to resemble something like a mathematical formalism. For example, if we chose an economic perspective instead of a biological one, we could even define someone under 22 to be a parasitic proto-human if they are still living off of their mother.
I personally think that a consciousness-based approach is the best way to go since I think consciousness is equivalent to the idea of a soul or spirit. So basically you would ask, “Is there someone behind their eyes to feel the pain?”
But this has a ton of problems associated with it, namely: how do I tell if this thing’s conscious? I certainly haven’t been able to come up with an answer to this, but I suspect that neither babies nor proto-babies are conscious since I don’t have any memories from before I was 2. In fact, I don’t know if anyone besides me is conscious, and I haven’t been able to think of a way to tell. This consciousness-based approach could easily become messy since you wouldn’t know which adults are actually human by your definition. They could just be mindless biological robots programmed by the forces of natural selection, and for some reason God never gave them a soul.
Due to the arbitrariness of deciding what makes a human, and due to the impracticality of my preferred consciousness-based method, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best thing we can do is play it safe. We don’t want to accidentally murder anyone, so I think we should accept the broadest definition of human possible. If, legally, we assume that life begins at conception we avoid a lot of trouble; whether or not we actually believe it isn’t as important I don’t think.
Thank you for the article.
Thanks for commenting on my abortion post, Tim. Good to hear from you — hope all is going well in your studies. I particularly appreciate your calm and well-considered tone — such a nice change from the last time my views of this post were discussed with a friend; he got so emotional, rational discourse became almost impossible. You are a credit to rational discourse. You have clearly been exposed to some great philosophical thinking — you propose something and quickly see the weaknesses in your position; that is very healthy for the mind! You also are gifted in seeing weaknesses in my position.
Clearly, I need to modify the idea of “cutting the cord” to include proto-babies raised in some sort of artificial environment (artificial wombs). Whatever in synthetic birth that corresponds to cutting the cord, that will have to apply to the new birth technology we know is coming. To define a point when a proto-baby is a baby is tough and “gray” as you have correctly said, but one of the reasons it is tough is that some consensus must be reached before more and more people go “knee-jerk” on us.
You give me hope it is not too late to come up with a consensus, whether it be my biologically-based idea or not. Thanks again — please keep reading and responding, if you can make the time.
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