Aggregating Skeptical Thought

A skeptical inquiry into abortion

I know this is a hot topic more prone to emotion than critical thought but if I have these questions then there have to be others that have these questions as well.  My questions or doubts revolve around whether abortion is moral or not. I know, I know as a good liberal I’m supposed to accept this unquestionably and I’m supposed to treat Roe vs. Wade as infallible but then again I’m a skeptic and I have a tendency to question everything.

I have not put any of my thoughts to paper (electronic or otherwise) since I’ve always wondered if my doubts are rooted in my conservative evangelical Hoosier upbringing (yes, I’m aware that might be redundant). So here we go…

Let me lay out some assumptions I’m bringing to the table.

  1. Killing of human life is wrong except in self-defense (and I will include capital punishment as a kind of societal self-defense for the sake of this argument).
  2. Killing of animal or non-human life is okay with exceptions, you can kill any animal you want unless it’s cute like bunnies, sorry, I couldn’t resist. Seriously I don’t have a problem with killing animals for food or leather belts. Everyday I see the value of a vegetarian life but tofu-burgers are just not the same. Of course, we have to be responsible with our animal friends. Being cruel to animals is wrong, killing endangered animals is wrong, decimating animal populations that are harmful the local ecology is bad.
  3. I’m also going to make another assumption that might be a little controversial (and entirely liberal in thought). I am limiting this discussion to abortions of choice. These are abortions that are completely elective and have no other overriding factors beyond “I simply don’t want a baby now”. I’m okay with abortions in which they are the result of rape, or carrying the baby to term will endanger the mother’s life. I would even go so far as to say abortions are fine if it’s determined that the baby will be mentally or physically-handicapped even though some of these diagnoses can come late in a pregnancy.
  4. Here is how I would define “life”, source: Wikipedia, although I have seen these laid out in other places so I think these would be relatively safe to site.
    • Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, sweating to reduce temperature.
    • Organization: Being composed of one or more cells, which are the basic units of life.
    • Metabolism: Consumption of energy by converting nonliving material into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.
    • Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of synthesis than catalysis. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter. The particular species begins to multiply and expand as the evolution continues to flourish.
    • Adaptation: The ability to change over a period of time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism’s heredity as well as the composition of metabolized substances, and external factors present.
    • Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism when touched to complex reactions involving all the senses of higher animals. A response is often expressed by motion, for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun or an animal chasing its prey.
    • Reproduction: The ability to produce new organisms. Reproduction can be the division of one cell to form two new cells. Usually the term is applied to the production of a new individual (either asexually, from a single parent organism, or sexually, from at least two differing parent organisms), although strictly speaking it also describes the production of new cells in the process of growth.

So let’s start off easy. Birth control and masturbation (contrary to some) are fine by me since sperm and eggs do not exhibit enough of the signs of life to qualify as “human” although ironic that sperm/eggs are used to reproduce they themselves cannot reproduce on their own which is big disqualifier from the big list of 7.

Let me layout a timeline of development of our future human in question, highlighting the various points along the way that I feel are important to the discussion.

  • Fertilization of the ovum takes place.
  • Now you’ve got yourself a fertilized ovum (zygote) which begins a process of cell division called the embryo. This lasts up until about the 8th week after fertilization.

Up until this point none of these stages would qualify as human life in my opinion. You could even make the claim the embryo is not really even life since it can’t replicate itself, true it’s dividing and synthesizing like mad, it can’t just duplicate its whole self. I wouldn’t say it’s very adaptable if it were in vitro fertilization/embryo transfer should be a snap. There is probably limited response to stimuli and beats me about homeostatis here. Tell me where I’ve gone wrong and I’ll re-edit this to make it look like I’m smarter than I am 😉 I shall continue.

  • At about the 8th week after fertilization the fetal stage begins. At the very earliest stages of fetal development the fetus has a beating heart and has the ability to move and react to stimuli
  • By 12 weeks EEG activity can be detected although not continuously
  • At 20-22 weeks (5 months) this is the earliest a baby could exist outside the womb (although mortality rates are significant). And at 26-28 weeks babies can survive outside of the womb but with extraordinary care. One factor of having a baby this premature is because the respiratory and central nervous systems have not fully differentiated.
  • At 30 weeks continuous EEG activity can be detected and with modern technology it’s not uncommon for premature babies to be born this early.
  • Pregnancies are considered full-term at 35 weeks and this is sufficient for the baby to live outside the womb.

As you can tell 2 major factors for me rely on whether there is sufficient brain activity and/or the fetus can reasonably survive outside of the womb without extraordinary efforts to keep it alive. These 2 factors go back to my assumptions of what “life” is. There’s no doubt that the fetus has the potential to become human life but when does the potential become actual?

Does brain activity give us that determination? Probably not, since we really can’t determine what kind of brain activity is taking place nor do we have an adequate definition of what parts of our brain (or coordinating systems of our brain) constitute consciousness.

Does the viability of the fetus outside of the womb determine it’s human-ness. This ties into a couple of factors such as homeostatis and metabolism. When does a fetus have the ability to regulate its internal processes alone? Clearly the fetus can metabolizes energy inside the womb but when can it begin to metabolize energy without the mother?

Now that I’ve laid out some of the questions I have, let me tell you how I have reasoned this out. A fetus up until the 20th week is not viable outside of the womb and brain activity is so minimal that it would be reasonable to assume that any form of consciousness does not exist to this point. Now unless I’m missing something I would also say up until the 30th week most of the same conditions apply. After the 30th week, however, the fetus is sufficiently the same as the new born (only smaller), there is extensive brain activity and it’s chances of survival outside the womb have gone up significantly.

I have to conclude based on what I believe to be true here is the following, taking into account my assumptions above and the information provided that late-term abortion after the 30th week is actually the killing of human life. Or perhaps reworded, based on the assumptions and evidence provided above it would be reasonable to assume that a human fetus after the 30th week should be afforded the same rights and protections as a new born infant.

Perhaps our understanding of human biology doesn’t allow us to make a claim as to when a fetus is “fully human” and we should default to legal definitions until such time as our understanding can make some definitive conclusions. If we can’t determine scientifically then we must default to legal definitions which can and are frequently arbitrary and political in nature.

I am aware that a scientific definition of when human life begins will do nothing to dissuade those who believe that the human soul rides in on the sperm at the moment of “conception” but I have to believe that my own thoughts are representative of a certain group of people trying to shed some of the dogmatic beliefs that have been embedded.

P.S. Wikipedia (with sources) reports that late-term abortions after 24 weeks account for .08% of all abortions in the U.S.

P.P.S. If you find factual errors please do not hesitate to post a correction, I will incorporate it into the post.


Filed under: Politics, Religion

2 Responses

  1. mara says:

    You might be interested in reading Carl Sagan’s essay on abortion.

  2. […] Skeptics Guide #88 -March 28th, 2007Skeptics Guide #87 -March 21st, 2007Skeptics Guide #86 -March 14th, 2007 « A skeptical inquiry into abortion […]

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