by Katie Ambrose ‘20
The near-total ban on abortion passed by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey earlier this month has sparked a nationwide resurgence of the abortion debate. While always a relatively hot topic, abortion is once again in the national spotlight as well as our Instagram feeds, provoking many to share their own opinions publicly. While I’ve heard logical arguments on both sides of the issue, I’ve heard less-sound ones too, and even some that are downright absurd. This article is in response to a justification for abortion I’ve been hearing a lot lately: life begins at birth therefore abortion is not murder. I suspect that this faulty deduction is based on a misinterpretation of life as personhood, a distinction I aim to clarify in this article.
I’ll preface this by saying I’m pro-choice but often find myself at odds with certain arguments made by the pro-choice community. My discontent arises from an increasing neglect and ignorance of the ethical implications and biological facts of abortion. What is an inherently complex issue deserves treatment as such; and “easy” solutions make light of the challenging ethical dilemmas posed by abortion. In this article I will state my case and explain how I hold two seemingly paradoxical viewpoints: A) that abortion is murder B) that it should be legal. You can agree or disagree, all that I ask is that you take into consideration the biological facts and nuanced nature of ethics when forming your own opinions on the issue.
The claim that life—and here I mean life in its purely biological sense—begins at birth is false. In fact, it is an objective, uncontested, and scientifically proven fact that life begins at conception. From sperm-egg fusion, the human zygote produces increasingly complex tissues, structures, and organs, which compose the human embryo. This self-orchestrated organismal behavior is unique to the zygote and sets it apart from mere bodily cells, which do not generate the coordinated interactions necessary to build a human body. We all know and recognize that a tree is alive, a protist is alive, and a red blood cell is alive too. The notion that a human zygote is alive shouldn’t be a point of debate.
I’m going to loosely define murder as the deliberate killing of a human being. I’m also going to loosely define human being as any living organism containing Homo Saipan DNA. By these definitions, abortion—the deliberate ending of a fetus’ life—is murder. But to be fair, the definitions of “murder” and “human being” are highly contested in the context of this debate, and the differentiation of abortion as murder is not essential to my argument. My point is this: abortion does end a life. Let’s start calling it what it is. Claiming that life begins at birth, while it offers an easy way out of a difficult ethical dilemma, reduces abortion to a morally negligible act. Women who are considering abortion as well as pro-choice activists should fully recognize that the decision to abort is a decision to end a life.
So why then am I pro-choice? I believe that in cases where the victim is not a sentient being, murder can be morally justifiable. What this boils down to is a distinction between human and person: human, as defined earlier, is an objective biological term; person, however, is a moral term and its definition is entirely subjective. Personhood is what entitles one to moral consideration and certain rights, and naming what those rights are and what makes a person a person is very much what is at the core of this debate. Is one a person simply by virtue of being alive or being a human? If not, what is it that constitutes personhood? Where is the line drawn?
I believe consciousness—the capacity to think, feel, and be self-aware—is what separates the state of personhood from mere being. It follows that unconscious beings should not be subject to moral consideration. To what extent the human fetus is conscious is a topic of debate, but most scientific evidence suggests that even early signs of consciousness occur in late stages of pregnancy and infants are not fully conscious until at least eighteen months after birth. While a mature fetus reacts to external stimuli, these reactions likely have a subcortical nonconscious origin. Not to mention, the fetus is almost always asleep and insensate due to endogenous sedation (neuroinhibitors such as adenosine and pregnanolone, which induce a coma-like sleep state). To summarize the pool of scientific research: there is tons of evidence that suggests fetuses are either unconscious or conscious to a limited degree, but there is virtually none that suggests full consciousness before birth.
With an overwhelming majority of scientific evidence showing that fetuses are not conscious—or at least not completely—we return to the question of personhood. Is a fetus a person? According to my previously stated criterion for personhood, no. And it follows that because a fetus is not a person, it is not subject to the moral rights and protections personhood grants, one of which being a right to live. While somewhat brutal in its logic, my argument—contrary to what many have characterized it to be—is not dehumanizing; a fetus, by virtue of its genetic code, is a human being. I fully recognize that. What I take issue with, however, is the claim that fetuses deserve the same rights that we do, simply because they’re human beings. It seems that humanity has a strong intuition to feel compassion towards the fetus, a helpless and vulnerable member of our own species. But intuition alone is not an objective and valid basis for prescribing moral rights.
Keep in mind also: I said in the case that a victim is not a sentient being murder can be morally justifiable, not murder is morally justified. I do not advocate for the unrestricted legalization of abortion. I do, however, believe women should have the choice to abort in cases where murder is admissible. What constitutes a morally justifiable case? That, my friend, is can of worms to be opened in another article. But I’ll say this: circumstances of rape, endangerment of the woman’s life, and serious mental and physical disabilities in the fetus are the most valid justifications for choosing to abort. In my opinion, abortion should always be legal in these cases. However, anything beyond these is where the line gets blurry; and to be completely honest, I’m still debating where I stand on circumstances like a woman not being able to afford a child, being too young for motherhood, or fearing that a child would interfere with her current life plan. It takes a great deal of time and deliberation for me to seriously position myself around social issues such as this. And in general, I don’t have strong political opinions or even align myself with a particular party platform. In the end though, I find this liberating. My conclusions are not drawn from subscribing to a partisan view or reaffirming my position as a [insert political party here], they are instead based on reason and upholding a logical consistency between my ideas from one issue to the next.
Where you stand on this issue matters. Not only as the future voters, leaders, and activists of America, but as rational beings. Your thoughts on abortion are a manifestation of your fundamental philosophical beliefs. But don’t get it twisted: what you see as proper ethics should be guiding your outlook on social issues, not the other way around.