Monday, 6 June 2011

Why abortion isn't morally wrong

From the perspective of one who is very scientifically minded.

I am, of course, an atheist; this means that I do not believe in the existence of an immortal soul. This is, of course, very important in this debate, and it's the reason why I believe that the majority of the anti-abortion movement is based on religious reasons.

The religious argument against abortion is simple; they believe that at the moment of conception, the now-fused cells are invested with the soul, and become a human being in the eyes of their god. I'll give the argument this much; it's internally consistent with the rest of their superstitions.

I think I overuse semicolons.

For those of us who do reject the existence of the soul - and science must do so, for no evidence of it's existence has ever been presented - the question is less straightforward. When does a fetus become a person? What, for that matter, makes a person in the first place?

I wish to state for the record, unambiguously, that I agree with the right of a woman to choose, regardless of the circumstances. It's her body, and while the fetus remains inside her, completely dependent upon her body for it's life, I don't get to decide. I will be leaving these arguments by the wayside in the following, but I do believe in them.

That being said, we return to the question; what makes a person a person? The only serious difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is our minds; our intellect, consciousness, and sentience. If there is no soul, where do such things come from? In the eyes of science, it's all biochemistry. I'm nobody's idea of a biochemist, but it's widely accepted that the makeup of an individual personality, as well as memory itself, is stored in the synapses, the connections between brain cells. Each cell is connected to a number of other cells; the more connections, the more complexity, and the more powerful the brain. This, then, is what makes us people, what makes us individuals. The specific synaptic connections that we have are unique, which is why we, as individuals, are unique. In short, it's our complex brains that give us those distinguishing traits from the rest of the animals.

Fetal brains, of course, do not develop instantly. This is the crux of my argument here. Looking at BrainMind, it says under the heading "FETAL BRAIN-BEHAVIOR AND COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT":

Cognition has been inferred based on alterations in fetal heart rate (FHR) and habituation to airborne sound, response-declines to vibroacoustic stimuli, and what appears to be neonatal preferences for the maternal voice as well as melodies and stories presented up to six weeks prior to birth

Take note of that timeline; six weeks prior to birth. Halfway through the seventh month. That's really late, as only up to one percent of all abortions are performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy (citations [here] and [here]. In fact, going back to the first paragraph of the BrainMind article: the 25th week demonstrates stimulus-induced heart rate accelerations.

This is the very first indication of anything beyond simple autonomic responses, the first time that an outside stimulus can be shown to affect a fetus in any way at all... and it doesn't begin until 25 weeks.

But does some form of consciousness, however rudimentary, begin before this? We're back to brain structures and synapses, again. The cerebral cortex is widely considered to be the site of the higher-brain functions. The fetal brain begins differentiating in the second month, but the cerebral cortex does not come into it's own until it separates into it's two lobes - during the sixth month.

So, in short, we have development of the higher brain coming into it's own at six months, and true proof of cognition coming at seven and a half months, both well after the 20 weeks that the majority of abortions are performed. The majority of those performed after this date are, sadly, performed on wanted babies and done for medically necessary reasons.

I realize that that was long, and full of jargon, but it needs to be said. A fetus does not have a brain that's well developed enough to argue that you're killing a person, a human being. It's a clump of cells. It has the potential to become a human being, certainly, this is irrelevant. Destroying a clump of cells, no matter the potential, cannot be called murder. It can't be murdered if it's not a person yet.


  1. That's almost a perfect argument. However, in our society, too many people care about the potentials. When a person is hurt at work, they are expected by their employer to pay them the wages they would have made if they could continue to work; ie, their potential wages. When a person is in a car accident and their car is totalled, they expect the potential selling price of their vehicle to be paid by the offender's insurance company, as well as any money for potential pain and suffering they will go through. We do care about the potentials, and a potential person ought be cared for, as well. What we need to decide is, why is potential money more important than a potential person?

  2. "When a person is hurt at work, they are expected by their employer to pay them the wages..." should instead be:

    "When a person is hurt at work, they expect their employer to pay them the wages..."

    Sorry, typo.

  3. I think you're making too much of 'potentials'. What about the potential wages of someone who isn't hired for a job, not because they're unqualified, but because another person was perhaps slightly better so, or just made a better impression in the interview? This person receives nothing in terms of potential wages for a job he or she may have done excellently. A landlord with an apartment that isn't rented at any given time receives nothing for the potential rent of that apartment. Doubtless there are countless more examples for both positions.

    I would correct you that nobody receives insurance money for 'potential' pain and suffering, only for pain and suffering that can be shown to be actually happening. Also, I wonder as to your use of 'potential selling price' of the car - as opposed to what? The money received if the car had actually been sold? The potential selling price is an estimate of the actual selling price; the two would, given an accurate enough estimate, be the same number.

    Your first point, about the person hurt at work, makes more sense as a corollary, but is still an example of a system set up to aid a person who finds him or herself in a dire situation and need of aid. As the article I've written here hinges on a fetus being not a person but a clump of cells, the two don't really relate. I find that most of the pro-life/pro-choice debate revolves around this very point, which is why I decided to make a post centering on it.

    To take the point of potentials to extremes, I posit an odd situation, purely as a thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that a mad scientist has devised a way to combine the muscle tissue from two donors in such a way that their DNA is mixed up and joined together, in a way similar to what would happen if meiosis and fertilization were to occur. The result is a muscle cell, or perhaps a clump of such forming a tissue, with a unique DNA pattern in it, one that has never been seen before and may never be seen again. This new, unique DNA pattern, if it were given a chance to fully realize itself, would wind up creating a full, unique human being. But for now, it's nothing but a hunk of muscle tissue.

    This is, by your arguments, a potential person. It would be created by an unorthodox method, to be sure, but did the technology exist to implant that DNA into the correct cell and attach it to the uterine wall, a person would result. Does this potential person deserve a chance?

    I realize that this situation is completely far fetched and will likely never happen. But that doesn't really alter the argument. A unique set of DNA does not a person make. We are an amalgamation of nature and nurture; we are a product of our bodies, our environments, our inputs, sources, the people we know, the things we have done and have had done to us, be they good or bad. We are our minds. Without our minds, we're just hunks of meat. A potential person is important, of course - without potential people, we'd have no people at all; it's an important step. But a potential person isn't a person. That's the distinction.

  4. I'm also honestly curious as to your opinion on another point. If you consider a fertilized embryo to be a potential person because said embryo will grow into a unique person, what is your take on gametes? Every egg in a woman's body* is unique, and therefore has the potential to create a unique person; each menstrual period therefore represents the waste of a unique genetic pattern that could otherwise have made up half of a potential person. Is menstruation, then, equally as wrong as an abortion? If not, why not? Again, I'm merely genuinely curious as to your mindset on this topic.

    *I use the example of eggs and leave out sperm in this instance because, given the incredible volume of sperm produces in a man's lifetime, I cannot guarantee that genetic patterns will not appear more than once. The uniqueness of the eggs seems far more likely than the uniqueness of any given sperm.