Visions of Daniel

The Question of Abortion


Papers link

This is an edited excerpt (pp. 250-255) from Daniel's The Transcended Christian: What Do You Do When You Outgrow Your Religion? This discussion exemplifies a reasoned way of approaching disputed questions.


The Triumph of the Good:
Christ Reigns from the Cross

Consider another of the hottest issues of the day, abortion. What is the right or wrong of it? Surely, the critical consideration is the respect for human life. But the discussion is not very clear about what the term human life means. When we say, “to take a human life,” we mean to kill someone. Anti-abortion groups speak of abortion as the murder of children. But is the fetus really a someone who could be killed, a human being? Is the fetus really already an infant? Is terminating a pregnancy really murdering a person? Too easy talk of "human life" confuses the discussion.

In my mind, the prime issue is whether or not there is a human being, a person, in the womb. Now, there is no doubt that what is growing in the womb is human. If it comes to term, it will not be a cow or a horse, but a human being. Equally, there is no doubt that what is there is human life—a biological process dependent on human DNA: It is human, and it is alive. But is that growth a person? Is that complex of tissues that is developing in the womb already a human being? Or is it merely a mass of human tissue, like a gall bladder that is surgically removed or a clutch of hair that is cut off or a finger that is lost?

Without doubt, if the fetus is actually a human person, then abortion is wrong. Abortion would be murder. But if the fetus is not yet a person, then, for sufficient reason, the pregnancy might be ethically terminated. In my mind, the telling question is this: When does the fetus become an actual person?

To be sure, we cannot give a precise answer to this question, and this uncertainty explains much of the debate. But medical science can tell us a lot about fetal development, and it is possible to say when the fetus is sufficiently developed that, as best we can determine, it would be capable of real sensation, emotion, and mental processes. I would take these to be indicators of an individual personal life. Without them, how could there be a person?

Legislative initiatives have proposed a human heartbeat as the sign of personhood. They would outlaw abortion as soon as a heartbeat is detectible—with current technology, at about eight or nine weeks. Of course, the intent of these laws is to outlaw abortion, period. This rationale is not only deceptive but also naïve. Why should a heartbeat be declared the indicator of personal life? Mice, cats, dogs, birds, they all have a heartbeat. In their case it's not declared sacred. Clearly, a beating heart is no sign of personhood. But mental capacities unique to human beings would be such a sign.

Current research shows that before the twentieth week, at the earliest—more securely, the twenty-fifth week—brain development is so primitive that neural connections do not yet exist to sustain mental processes, not even sensation (touch on a finger, sound through the ear, sight in the eye), let alone internal images, perceptions, emotions, awareness, or thought. Before the twentieth week, lack of physical development excludes the possibility of a mind. Fetal EEG scans confirm this conclusion; the early fetus shows no brain waves similar to a person's. The sensationalist movie The Silent Scream shows a young fetus recoiling from an intruding surgical instrument and claims the fetus feels. But the movement at that early age is a reflex—like the kneejerk caused by a physician's mallet or the unthinking jerk away from a hot stove—not a response to the experience of pain. The undeveloped brain is incapable of feeling pain or anything else.

Therefore, quite conservatively, until about the twentieth to twenty-fifth week, there certainly is a human form developing in the womb; but it seems sheer fantasy to believe that this human form is already a human person. This should also be noted: On the basis of "viability," the U. S. Supreme Court noted this same period of time when it legalized abortion. This twenty-some period should certainly be sufficient time for a decision to be made.

To be a person before, say, the twentieth week, the fetus would have to have a mind without a functioning brain. To support its claim that a person exists in the womb from the first moment of conception, the radical pro-life movement relies on this bizarre notion, a literal miracle every time, a soul floating free of a body. Everything we know otherwise disqualifies such a supposition. It rejects all current scientific understanding, pitting blind faith against evidence-based reason, as if God's one truth were spit into camps at war with each other. Besides, if the person—well, the soul—is independent of the body, why even worry about preserving the body? Why worry about abortion? The presupposition of this argument is that a person is not an embodied being, but some kind of immaterial substance floating about somehow in the universe. This line of thinking is not even talking about real flesh-and-blood human beings.

Former generations were quite comfortable with the understanding I am supporting. Major figures of Christian history, such as Thomas Aquinas, allowed that abortion, while discouraged, was not murder during the early weeks of pregnancy. Expressed in terms of an older theology, the notion was this: In the early weeks, the fetus is too under-developed to support the presence of a soul, so there could not yet be a human person there. In the technical terminology of that day, borrowed from Aristotle, only appropriate “matter” can take on a corresponding “form.” Mud, for example, does not lend itself for construction of a bridge. Cardboard is not material with which to build a boat. An insufficiently developed nervous system cannot sustain a human mind or soul or spirit. Such traditional reasoning, now highly refined by developmental neurological research, is certainly a legitimate approach to the question of abortion.

Of course, terminating a pregnancy is a serious matter. Who ever said it was not? The women and men who agonize over their decision certainly know the matter is serious. One would not have an abortion frivolously, without good reason. But when there is good reason and when the pregnancy is in its early stages, though the thought is itself repugnant, abortion may certainly be a legitimate and morally acceptable action. Indeed, it might be the most ethical choice, reluctantly the best thing to do under the circumstances. Oftentimes responsible living requires that we do what we would prefer not to have to do—discipline a child, fail a student, amputate a limb, take up arms against aggressors.

President Clinton used to say, “Abortion should be legal, safe—and rare.” “Legal and safe”—because abortion will happen, in any case. Wealthy women have always been able to procure safe abortions under the benign name of a D&C (a procedure to scrape clean any abnormal endometrial lining of the uterus). Only the poor suffer when competent medical care is denied. And “rare”—because realistic sex education and accessible contraception would make unplanned pregnancies unusual. How foolish that religions campaign against contraception and then also condemn abortion resulting from unwanted pregnancies! Even if some (like the Vatican, but not the majority of Catholics) think contraception is wrong, surely it is a lesser wrong, a better choice, than abortion. And people are always going to go on and have sex, like it or not.

You see, we know about these things. We have information that sheds light on such questions. In contrast, religion looks foolish when it simplistically appeals to God or other-worldly belief without any consideration of the this-worldly facts. Then religion becomes hallowed superstition. The insistence of religion and of human dignity, itself, is certainly valid: The fertilized egg must be reverenced from the first moment of conception because it is destined to become a person. Pregnancy is a serious matter. But claims or insinuations, that there is a human person in the womb from the first moment of conception, are ludicrous.

From all that we know, the initial emergence of a human mind (or soul) depends on a developed and highly intricate brain. No one cell, no zygote, no blastula, no embryo, could have a mind.

Suppose, further, that the fertilized egg divides to become identical twins. Was that fertilized egg a human person who now magically became two people? On the other hand, rarely, but sometimes, two fertilized eggs unite to produce one person. Was one person lost in the process, or even both of them, so that an entirely new, a third person could emerge?

And what about the afterbirth: the placenta, the umbilical cord, and the amniotic and chorionic sacks? These all develop from that same initial fertilized egg. They carry the same DNA, and as tissue composed of functioning cells, they are biologically alive. They are forms of human life. Are these, then, also to be treated as human persons?

And what about miscarriages? Probably at least twenty percent—perhaps as many as two-thirds across species—of all conceptions are spontaneously aborted, most before a woman even knows she is pregnant. Are we to believe that Mother Nature (or God) routinely kills off a major portion of the human race, persons, before they ever even see the light of day?

One only need learn a bit of modern medicine to realize that much of the anti-abortionists' argument is extremist—as likewise is, I would add, those who minimize abortion as simply a casual, routine medical procedure. Most “pro-life” argument appeals to religion, God, and blind faith, and it stirs up emotions, but it makes little sense biologically, philosophically, or theologically.

The Vatican, for example, is well known for its absolute prohibition of abortion “from the first moment of conception.” Yet, in contrast to uninformed, sometimes hysterical pro-life rhetoric, even Vatican documents are careful not to say that the fertilized egg is a person; rather, they say, it deserves the respect due a person because it is destined to become a person.

This consideration brings to sharp focus the question about abortion. The bottom-line question is this: Does any reason ever justify the termination of a pregnancy—given, it is clear, that no person is in question and, therefore, no murder is at stake? The Vatican answers, “No, never.”

A bright, young, true-believer Southern Bapitst student of mine provided a rationale for that answer: God wants as many souls as possible to share eternal life with Him, so we should not prevent the birth of any human person. What can one say to such innocence? I was reminded of myself at that same tender age, sincere, goodwilled, believing, and...naïve. So I said nothing, but I had my thoughts.

As so typical of religious thinking, that rationale provides a heavenly answer to an earthly question. That rationale appeals to other-worldly unknowns to resolve this-worldly problems. And it raises further questions. Should we, then, not help God even more? Why not breed like rabbits so more people could get to heaven? Why not preserve and use every single egg and sperm so that heaven could be filled to overflowing? Should male masturbation be outlawed again so sperm would not be wasted? Why not defend and protect every possibility of human birth? (Ah, is this why even Protestants are now protesting contraception? Or is this protest just one more political maneuver to prevent universal healthcare in the USA? Oh, how disingenuous our “ethical” discussion has become today!)

The Vatican and many others insist that even the possibility of a person must never be truncated for any reason. In company with many other ethicists, I disagree. To that telling question, Does any reason ever justify the termination of a pregnancy? I would say, “Yes, in some cases there may be reasons sufficient to justify terminating an early pregnancy.”

Killing a person and terminating an early pregnancy are two different things. The fetus is not a person. Surely there are cases in which an early abortion is not only permissible but also to be recommended. It would be the ethical choice, the best decision for all concerned—and the fetus is not “one of those concerned” because it is not yet anyone. The lives of real persons already existing in full bloom surely outweigh the mere possibility of another person. This is a common Jewish position regarding a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother. The real always counts more than the possible, the likely, the merely probable. Actual persons take priority over potential ones.

We cannot shut down our minds and forget our learning because religion says, “God forbids that”—especially when everything we know about the matter honestly and reasonably supports a different conclusion. In the case of abortion and so many other contemporary issues, we know too much to play the role of naïve and simple-minded believers. It is insulting and foolish—for both God and ourselves—to think that God would require us to do so. God is no megalomaniacal mother who goes around forbidding things to her children just to assert her power and to test the limits of her children's obedience.

Should we follow such a tyrannical, irrational God in good conscience? Does bearing the self-imposed burden of ungrounded choices make us virtuous? Must we go against our own better judgment to be faithful to God? Does true religion require us to distrust our own God-given minds and hearts, even at their most honest, informed, and sincere? Surely, not!

We have to honestly admit that religious teaching has sometimess been wrong—hardly about spiritual matters but especially about natural science and ethics. The Bible offers blatant examples. The earth is not flat, but spherical. The sun does not revolve around the earth, but vice versa. The earth is not 6,000 years old, but 4.5 billion. Women are not inferior and subordinate to men, but all are equally children of God. Taking interest on loans is not wrong...although in light of the unconscionable interest being charged on credit cards and other loans these days, one should wonder, "Where are the Bible Literalists when we need them?!"

My approach here relies on long-standing, natural-law theory, which I apply equally to all of today's difficult questions. It presumes that the very structure and functioning of creation indicates how it should be used. As we learn more about our world and its working, it is only to be expected—if we are informed and honest—that some of our ethical opinions will change. Smoking used to be thought chic; now it's known to be deadly. Besides, in a pluralistic world, this approach via natural law seems to me the only realistic one. We can no longer rely on disputing religions and opposed cultural practices to give ethical guidance in a global community.

Of course, relying on natural law, we must be careful to get the natures right. On this very point I fault Vatican teaching on sexual ethics. Relying on outdated opinion, the Vatican gets the nature of human sexuality wrong and sees animal reproduction as its essential feature. In contrast, we should recognize that emotional bonding and interpersonal communion, spiritual matters, not physical, are the sine qua non of human sexuality. Then the sexual diversity of recent decades becomes fully legitimate when all sexual sharing serves human wellbeing. For our contemporary questions, the conclusions of contemporary science must provide the most reliable guide. The armchair speculation of earlier ages must give way to informed research and documented opinions.

In a pluralistic world, this approach that appeals to evidence and reason seems the only realistic one. The varied opinions of different religions, cultures, and tribes can no longer uncritically serve as our guides: We all now know about them, and they all differ. These blatant differences discredit the claims of religion. Only appeal to relevant evidence, good-willed pursuit of understanding, and honest judgment achieved in respectful collaboration can be our moral guide—what Bernard Lonergan calls authenticity or human genuineness and what underlies scientific method.

Such an approach offers the hope that we might at least get this-worldly matters right—including that most contentious question of abortion. Then whatever other-worldly matters there might be will graciously take care of themselves. Good living in this world will lead to the fullness of life in the next. "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God, the things that are God's."