Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Life, non-life, and the space between

For some reason, I've been reading a lot about abortion lately. It's not a topic that has any real personal importance to me, nor does it impact my life at all. However, I do find the arguments made by either side to be fascinating, mostly because they deal with the murky problem of defining life.

Life is a word with no precise definition. There have been numerous attempts to come up with one. Look in the dictionary, and you'll find one there. But no one definition is both sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently specific. The border between life and non-life is rather arbitrary, like most borders between concepts. Our need to categorize everything falls short of describing the continuous reality.

Regarding abortion, those who wholly oppose it state that life begins at conception. For these "pro-lifers", killing an embryo is the moral equivalent of killing a child (or an adult, for that matter). It is murder. Even some forms of contraception, by this definition, are murder. From this standpoint, it is not hard to see how people can be so up in arms about the issue. Effectively, as they see it, doctors charged with guarding the well-being of people are unceremoniously and gruesomely killing people, and it is legal. It is even easy to see how some extremists would go to great lengths, like shooting abortion doctors. For them, it is the moral equivalent of shooting a serial killer.

On the other side, "pro-choicers" believe that life begins at birth. Until then, the embryo/fetus is effectively part of the woman's body. It acts as a parasite, taking nutrients and oxygen from the mother and generally ravaging her body until it is large enough to come out. And then it does, and it is a separate being. Until then, however, it is a parasite. It is the woman's choice as to whether she wants to allow this parasite to use her body for nine months or not.

So what we have at stake here, are some of the core values of the United States: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Is abortion the taking of a life? Does not allowing it strip a woman of her liberty and ability to pursue happiness?

The Life Argument

The argument that life begins at conception is a sound one. It is at conception that the novel set of chromosomes that define the person to be made comes together. In most cases, barring interference from external forces, the embryo grows into a recognizable human being. There is no other point in fetal development (including birth) where such a clear distinction can be made between one state and another.

However, the argument is not without problems. Yes, we can say that a distinct life comes into being at conception. But is it human life? After all, that is what is at stake here, isn't it? The people who are arguing against abortion aren't generally trying to stop us from eating eggs or slaughtering cows. It's humans that concern them.

The newly formed embryo does indeed have human DNA. However, DNA does not define a being. It is a blueprint. An embryo does not think or feel. It doesn't do anything except grow, and it can't do that on its own. Without the mother's cooperation, it will die a quick death, and it will never know it because it is incapable of acquiring knowledge. Is it human? If so, that opens the door to many other things potentially being called human. Any living cell of a person must then be considered fully human. If it is not human, what is it, and at what point do we consider it human?

These are not small or easily answered questions. It involves the very quiddity of humanity. No answer is without problems.


The next stopping point for those who argue against abortion, and one that is often considered the middle ground of the argument, is fetal viability. That is, a fetus becomes a person when it is capable of surviving without the mother's help. The most obvious problem with this argument is that there is no clear point at which a fetus becomes viable. It happens gradually over the course of the pregnancy, and there is some degree of variation between fetuses. Some are born premature naturally and need an incubator to survive. Are they not people yet? Is it okay to kill them? Is it okay to kill a fetus at the same stage of growth that is still in the mother?

A very costly and impractical but morally sound route, given fetal viability as a cutoff point, would be to induce delivery rather than abort once a fetus reaches a stage at which it would have a chance at survival (with medical assistance) outside of the mother. So instead of an abortion, the doctor intentionally delivers the baby prematurely, and if it can survive on its own, it does, and it's a person. If it can't, well, it doesn't (and I suppose that means it was never a person to begin with, right?).


Currently, the legal definition of human life includes having been born. Once the baby pops out, it changes into a person. It's not difficult to see the many problems with this, the most prominent of which is that there really isn't a difference between a baby that has just been born and a fetus that is about to be born. There is no sudden transformation. We have Caesarian sections for babies that are, by our clocks, overdue. Does something magical occur when the doctor cuts open the mother's belly and pulls out the child? No.

Beyond Birth

After birth, a baby still relies heavily on his or her parents to survive. Left to fend for himself, the newborn child will not last long. Unable to really do much of anything, he just cries and cries, and if no one feeds him, he doesn't eat, and he will die. This doesn't sound much more viable than a fetus, does it? So maybe a newborn baby still isn't a person, right? Should we legalize the killing of any child that can't get her own food or keep herself alive without assistance? Not many people would support this, I think.

Brain Function

Backing up a bit, one of the more sound cutoffs for considering a fetus to be a human being is when the brain is formed fully enough to process signals, including pain. I would consider this to be an argument from a different set of goals, though. Rather than determining whether human life exists or not, in this case, we are trying to determine whether it has some level of awareness that it is being aborted. From this perspective, we say that we cannot determine presence of human life (or that it is not part of the equation), but we can say that if we terminate a pregnancy earlier than a certain point, we are causing no pain to the fetus.

This sounds reasonable, but again, the point at which signals can be processed is not easy to determine. The fact that a signal is being processed does not mean that there is an awareness of it. What does it mean to feel pain, if one is not aware of the pain one is feeling? Does that even make sense?


Sometimes, when it is difficult to determine the morality of something, the best thing to do is to fall back on the consequences of it, direct and indirect, and determine the practicality of allowing or disallowing it. In the case of abortion, this viewpoint clearly favors the pro-choice group.

For one, fewer births means fewer people - specifically, abortion means fewer unwanted people, and probably fewer inept parents (though that is debatable). If every child aborted is unwanted (which, discounting medical emergencies, is pretty much always the case), allowing them to be born would result in an abundance of children who are either not well cared for by their parents or who become a public burden by entering into foster care or some other publicly funded child-rearing scenario. Some may find homes with adoptive parents, but many will lead very difficult lives.

For another, women with unwanted pregnancies will find ways to abort even if it is illegal. They will just do it in ways that are much more dangerous and unsanitary, which can create an economic burden for society as a whole, since many of them will end up in public assistance programs.


So what is my conclusion, after thinking this through? There are other considerations I haven't listed, such as other potential cutoff points in fetal development, but I've written about what I consider to be the most reasonable ones.

My primary conclusion is that I am very glad that I am not the one who has to decide such things. If I were, no solution would leave me feeling at ease with myself. There is a genuine conflict of interest between the unwanted fetus/baby and the mother who does not want it. The fetus is unable to state its own case, but I think the assumption that it would want to avoid pain and suffering and death is a sound one.

Beyond that, though, I think the argument with the fewest flaws in it is the one for brain function. Consciousness is central to what we think of as the human experience. I find it hard to think of something without it as a living human being. It also addresses the freedom of the woman. The point at which brain function is achieved is sufficiently far into the pregnancy that the woman would have known for some time that she is pregnant, so the opportunity to abort would have been there. But it is not so far in that anyone is physically hurt by the abortion. No pain is involved for the fetus.

I think abortion is a sad thing. It's not something to be celebrated. But I also think that women need to have some level of freedom regarding their own bodies. If a woman truly feels that she cannot go through with a pregnancy, perhaps the best option for her, sadly, is to abort. Adoption is something that should be considered in most cases, though adoption does nothing about the rigors of pregnancy on the body. Ultimately, if a woman does not want to give birth, she shouldn't have to, as long as she is causing no pain to someone else. If that someone else has not yet developed a capacity for feeling pain, she is not.

So that is my take on it. Like I said, there's no easy answer, but I suppose an answer has to be given.

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