The Abortion Debate: What the Pro-Life side gets Wrong
I don't often get political on my page. But I will talk about abortion because I think it's a bioethics debate that's important to human rights and the quality of life.
A friend of mine shared a political cartoon (but actually anti-abortion propaganda) on his page.
Like me, he was shocked by the lack of understanding about the recent New York bill that safeguards the right for hospitals and doctors to perform emergency abortions when either the fetus will die in the birthing process or the mother will die.
Really, that's all the bill protects. The right to save life via a necessary emergency medical abortion.
But cartoons like this pop up and play to the emotions of an uneducated public whose reaction is...oh, they're killing babies! Caterwauling about all the baby killin' goin' on in the U.S.
But this just goes to expose the irrationality of the pro-life side and reveals they prefer hyperbole and scare tactics to science and truth.
I've stated quite emphatically before that the pro-life position isn't a rationally devised argument.
But breaking it down is easier said than down. So, let’s begin with the pro-life premise.
The entire premise behind the pro-life argument is that *life begins at conception.*
This sounds true enough, but is it entirely accurate? Maybe not.
The process of life starts with fertilization, this is true. But the notion of conception according to the religious right who challenge abortion doesn’t just entail fertilization, it lumps in assumptions about ensoulment and personhood too.
Personhood is what pro-life advocates want to actualize so they can give a zygote the same legal protections as a child so as to make abortion a criminal act rather than a vital and often necessary medical procedure.
Additionally, the religious right considers life at conception sacred because they believe in ensoulment—that a human zygote is given a soul at conception.
Hence life at conception takes on a whole new theological meaning.
If it were just a discussion of the biology alone, then the claim life begins at conception wouldn’t be incorrect.
But the claim is more than that, because the majority of pro-life advocates assume ensoulment and personhood at conception too, which is why pro-life advocates say abortion is murder.
Science says personhood isn’t clearly definable at conception and suggests we ought to examine the stages of biological development and think about life in terms of viability and not magically fully-formed “life” for no other reason than its presumed ensoulment/personhood.
Because ensoulment and personhood aren’t easily definable, to claim they are given facts about the nature of life after conception is misleading.
Its a way to push theological assumptions into the debate about biology where they don’t belong.
It's not an entirely true statement about life because the science demonstrates that even if we accept the life beginning at conception spiel that there are various instances in the fetal development that can make the life self-terminate.
This biological objection suggests that a self terminated life in the early stages of fetal development is fundamentally incompatible with notions of ensoulment and personhood. In other words, you cannot be a sacred life and simultaneously be dead.
That doesn’t make any sense.
It’s illogical. And this ill logic arises when things that are supposedly living don’t meet the requirements needed to be deemed viable.
The confusion here arises around the difference of a life and a potential life.
Although nuanced, the difference shouldn’t be overlooked in favor of jumping to the conclusion that all life after conception must be viable therefore congruent with religious doctrine.
So, at most, the claim life begins at conception can only mean fertilization begins and a potentially viable life starts a long series of developmental stages before becoming a viable fetus.
But this says nothing on the ethical considerations of abortion, because all the statement reveals is that fetal development starts at fertilization. And nobody is denying this. Yet it would be stranger still to say this is your basis for your moral argument against abortion, minus the concepts of ensoulment and personhood.
At best, we’re dealing with the chance for a viable life.
But we NEED to think of viability because ONLY viable zygotes can grow into fetuses that can be described as a life.
And we need to keep viability in mind throughout the whole biological process because biological life happens in stages. It doesn't just spontaneously appear as though a stork left a baby on your doorstep and it’s a fully formed person.
So, life beginning at conception, although not entirely inaccurate also isn’t entirely accurate given the theological assumptions tacked onto it.
Simply put, science shows there are numerous stages before life can even be deemed viable -- that is, before it can be said to be alive in any meaningful way beyond the observation that we have a collection of living cells.
That said, another problem I have with the abortion debate is how if you want to support women's health, women's rights, and women's safety -- it is always these things that are the first to come under attack when pro-life legislation gets involved.
Make no mistake, anti-abortion legislation is almost always a deliberate attack on women and women's reporductive rights.
And erecting anti-abortion laws has NEVER made women or babies any safer. All it does is place an unnecessary burden on women and their lives.
Now, the *pro-choice position isn't a counter-argument to the pro-life argument.
The pro-choice side is, in philosophical terms, a contra-argument.
Now what does that mean?
A contra-argument is an objection to a separate, flawed argument.
The way pro-life arguments are usually presented are to claim abortion clinics, doctors, and mothers are killing a babies by having an abortion at any stage (although we know this to be false based on taking into consideration viability and biological stages of development).
What the *pro-choice argument does is say, hey, that pro-life argument is misleading at best and, contrary to popular opinion, is actually being used to restrict women's rights.
Because it (the pro-life premise) is problematic and tries to smuggle in religion into the debate while ignoring most of the science, we cannot accept it and we do not accept it when given as the reason to protect unborn, potential life and not viable life at the expense of women's health, safety, and legal rights.
A third area we need to be aware of is that the claim that abortion is murder is a highly controversial one.
Now, murder is a nuanced legal term. And there are degrees of murder distinguished by the law and for good reason.
There's first, second, and third-degree murder. But none of these fit the description of medical abortion.
And so to claim abortion is the murder of babies and not a vital and sometimes necessary medical procedure is FACTUALLY WRONG.
Nearly all abortions happen before the 12 week mark, and this is due to the fact that 8 to 12 weeks into development the baby's central nervous system has NOT developed enough to feel pain.
That's why, in only the most extreme medical cases, where there is a clearly defined medical EMERGENCY that late-term abortions are permitted.
And even then, the CDC estimates that it’s rather low. According to them, nearly 70% of abortions happen before 8 weeks. The rest usually occur before 20 weeks. Very few ever occur after that. If they do, it’s almost certainly because of a medical emergency.
As such, this is the call of medical professionals, doctors in the know, and not merely the whim of mothers who don't want babies.
So scrub that falsehood from your brain right now.
Late-term abortions have, and always have been (at least in the United States) reserved for medical emergencies where the fetus or the mother's life are in danger.
Never because the mom simply didn't want it.
The pro-life argument gets so much wrong because it ignores the science, it ignores the medicine, it ignores the bioethical concerns regarding both the mother and child, and it ignores cold hard facts. It relies only on emotional appeals and magical thinking about ensoulment and personhood.
Does that mean I think you're irrational if you're pro-life?
No, but it means that in all likelihood you haven't probably given the abortion debate the consideration it deserves before finalizing an opinion.
But all this just goes to show why we're still having the abortion debate even though the pro-life side has offered a complete NON-STARTER.
We're still having it because emotional appeals tug at people's heartstrings and facts bore people to sleep.
AND I'm not saying that the pro-life side doesn't mean well and I'm not attacking them for their irrationality because I merely take the opposite position.
I am saying it's an problematic and highly flawed position because, logically speaking, it is.
And because if you consider all the evidence, all the facts, and stay awake long enough to give it a proper vetting, then you would see the flaws too.
You would come to understand that offering an emotionally pleaded opinion is not the same as a scientific medical fact.
I know it bothers me, especially when I see propaganda cartoons like the one my friend shared instead of a real discussion with real facts.
--Tristan Vick (author / humanist / human rights advocate)