Contrasting perspectives on abortion (part 1)

Abortion is a subject about which there are few dispassionate opinions. Nearly everybody who has any opinion at all (and who cares to express it), stoutly cleaves to that opinion, and it’s very rare that somebody else’s opinion is ever changed by it (so I am under no illusions in that regard, and it is not my purpose to persuade anybody of anything in this piece).

For that reason (amongst others), the subject pretty much always generates far more heat than illumination and is therefore usually off-limits here. In fact, the only time this publication has ever directly addressed the matter was a piece written by Paul Elam just over six years ago, in which he articulated much the same sentiments as those in these first two paragraphs.

Paul has recently broken his silence on the matter by publishing part one of what will probably be a ten-part series of videos. Evidently, I don’t yet know the substance of his forthcoming arguments but, suffice to say, I take a different point of view from the thesis he has promised to prove so I offer this piece in partial rebuttal to Paul’s series and to demonstrate that AVfM, itself, does not take a view one way or the other on the subject.

I want to underscore that one more time: the ideas expressed in this article are expressly not endorsed by AVfM in any respect. At most, this is my opinion in my personal capacity — and even then, you should not assume that I personally espouse any of the following ideas (unless I explicitly state that I do).

You never know, it’s just possible that by the time Paul has finished, he’ll have changed my thinking. But, for now, I’m going to argue that it is impossible to arrive at any objective conclusions, that any conclusion you personally arrive at incorporates an ineffable aspect derived from your own personal beliefs and that, therefore, you cannot expect others to concur with your conclusions.

In other words, it seems that there is no one right answer on the subject and, therefore, views that dissent with either or both of Paul’s and mine may well be as valid as either of ours.

This is part one of what a four-part series, each of which is divided into sections considering the subject from a different perspective. Each section proposes at least one argument arising from that perspective, but I’ll reserve drawing any conclusions until my final part, which I will write and publish shortly after Paul has finished his series.

One thing that may be conspicuous by its absence from parts one and two is the moral angle. It’s not that I think abortion is not a moral issue; on the contrary, it very much is — but morality is not (in my opinion) the objective matter that some religious traditions hold it to be. I can give argument in support of that thesis, but I think we’ve got enough controversy on our hands already. If there can be different moral codes, then an argument from morality is going to fall flat for anybody who does not share that moral code, therefore I’m going to avoid the matter as much as possible until the end of part two.

The termination of pregnancy always involves three parties: the mother, the father and the … oh dear, in trouble already. Any word I could legitimately use is loaded with emotive baggage identified with one or other side of the debate. I’m going to punt for “foetus”, because I’ve an interest in medicine and the medical perspective is what I will describe first. In the interests of consistency and technical correctness, I’m going to stick with ‘foetus’ before birth and ‘child’ or ‘baby’ after birth. Nothing should be inferred from my choice of words beyond whether the foetus-baby has been born yet.

The medical perspective

First, a bit of basic biology: Everybody knows how an ovum gets fertilised. What most people don’t realise is how many things can go wrong from that point forth, or how many fertilised ova result in spontaneous miscarriage — somewhere between a quarter or a third of them (Wilcox et al, 1999; Wang et al, 2003) and anything up to 70% of them (Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies (5 ed.), Annas and Elias, 2007). In the majority of cases, the mother is never even aware that she would have been pregnant.

TL;DR of what is supposed to happen:

  1. The fertilised ovum (a zygote) begins to divide into a clump of cells known as a morula. These are undifferentiated cells, any one of which has the potential to develop into an independent embryo. (Sometimes the morula breaks apart; each fragment that survives develops into an identical twin.)
  2. By about 5 days, the morula has developed internal structure and is composed of somewhat differentiated cells and is known as a blastocyst. This then implants on the uterine wall, in which the placenta, umbilical cord and amniotic sac will eventually develop.
  3. This then develops into an embryo, where the foundational structures that will eventually develop into the major internal structures, amongst them the brain, spinal cord, vertebrae, heart, gastrointestinal tract and the Müllerian ducts (the precursor to the reproductive system), will develop.
  4. Around week 9, give or take, the embryo is developed enough to be regarded as a foetus, by which point the brain and heart are already (minimally) functional, and the foetus begins to show signs of twitch-like movement. That movement is a sign of the developing musculature and central nervous system; nothing more should be read into it for reasons the details of which are either too gruesome or boring (except to neurologists) to go into, and I decline to tempt Dunning-Kruger any more than I have.

In order to get to foetal stage, an awful lot of things have to go right. The biggest single culprit for miscarriage is trisomy, where one or more of the nuclear chromosomes come in triplets instead of the normal pair. Most trisomies are fatal to the zygote/embryo, but a few are viable albeit with various (and serious) developmental problems (e.g. Down’s Syndrome, aka Trisomy-21). Other causes include uterine defects, drugs (medicinal or otherwise, many of which are teratogens, i.e. cause major developmental abnormalities, including the anti-seizure drug sodium valproate and, infamously, the morning-sickness drug thalidomide), illness of the mother, hormone imbalances and physical trauma.

Medicine, as a science and as distinct from the subject of medical ethics, does not itself take a view on abortion so why does any of this matter? Because it establishes that pregnancies fail for many reasons other than (and more frequently than) by artificially-induced means.

From that, one could argue that, at least during embryonic development, if more than half of zygotes naturally fail to reach second trimester, and since terminations represent a minority of pregnancies that do, it follows that many more zygotes die by natural causes than by artificial and therefore there is nothing (yet) all that special about a given embryo and artificial termination (during first trimester) isn’t all that different to what Mother Nature does much more frequently than her creation does artificially.

The mother and father’s perspective

I’m treating these together because both cases have similar interests, one way or the other. The majority of people want children at some point in their lives so both mothers and fathers can have an interest in a healthy baby brought to term.

And, conversely, parenthood is a massive undertaking for which both parents need to be ready, or they won’t sacrifice as is required to do the job properly. (Becoming a parent suddenly means you can’t put yourself first anymore — and the arrival of an infant means that suddenly, there’s somebody capable of nearly the full gamut of human emotion who is utterly dependent on you. Few can afford to maintain their previous lives while discharging such responsibilities diligently.)

The conflict arises when one parent is ready when the other is not. I’ll deal with this from a legal perspective in part three. Beyond that, the only thing left to say (with respect to the parents) is that the playing field is not level even though in every other respect, equality is de jure. A father cannot oblige a mother to terminate, nor avoid financial responsibility if she won’t, nor does he have any right to play an active role in his child’s life if he wants to. A mother can choose to terminate, give up for adoption or raise the child herself. If she chooses to raise the child, she can oblige him where he cannot oblige her.

This much could be fixed by changes in law, but it is an unalterable fact of mammalian biology — it is the insurmountable sexual inequality — that the female of the species carries the developing foetus in utero for the duration of gestation.

I hope you’ll pardon the coarseness of the analogy but, biologically speaking and to the extent that a foetus is a genetically distinct organism that grows inside its host’s body until it is ready for its next phase of life, it is nearly indistinguishable from a parasite (I’ll address why it isn’t in part two) and it is unsurprising that, in some cases, the host wants rid of it.

Yes, I know I’m talking about human offspring here, but my remarkably tasteless turn of phrase was intended to give some sense of what it must be like to be forced to bear a child you do not want, particularly when pregnancy still poses a serious risk to life (also addressed in part two) and, in any case, can have a profound effect on health.

Though one does not own the rights to one’s own body (Moore v. Regents U. CA), few would argue that one should not possess sole prerogative with regard to one’s own body. Certainly, every person of competent mind possesses sole prerogative with respect to their medical care. Taken together, after all, those form the basis for opposition to infant circumcision; an infant cannot give any sort of consent (never mind meaningful consent) in respect of such cosmetic surgery, and elective surgery done without consent in any other situation is considered assault.

If agency, autonomy, self-determination and liberty mean anything, then it ought to include the right to determine what or who has the use of one’s own body — yes, just as those things mean a man ought to have the right to determine who has the use of his body (and his wallet). Therefore, regardless of the basis upon which US Supreme Court cases Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton were decided, there seems to be a fair argument, from a woman’s point of view, that she and only she has dominion over her body and, therefore, the decision whether to terminate rests solely with her.

Put in other words, the question in respect of a woman’s body has moved on from privacy (which always struck me as being curious logic, but then legal theories frequently are) to a question of the right to exercise agency and self-determination. Again, I’ll address these legal aspects in part three.

If that were the end of the story, then there probably wouldn’t be much controversy. But it’s not, because there are other considerations (even aside from moral ones), not least the interests of the developing foetus which, in potentia, shall become a human child, who has his or her own interests that directly compete and conflict with those of the mother.

In part two: The foetus’ perspective (including term limits, viability, unavoidable terminations, and the value of the human condition). In part three: The perspective of the law and the question of the moral argument.

I invite and encourage civil debate in the comments section below, but please keep in mind that there’s more to come and, regardless, such a complex topic would not cover every aspect in dozens of articles of this size. I’d also suggest that, because Paul and I are restricting ourselves to secular arguments, religious points of view are probably best avoided.

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