Monday, March 7, 2011

Why I am Not Pro-Choice

There a bumper sticker often seen here in Lander, usually on gun-rack adorned pick up trucks. It says, "I'm pro-choice. I choose to hunt, fish, trap, eat meat, and wear fur." It's a fairly universal feeling around here, even among those who consider themselves liberal. This is Wyoming, after all.

When it comes to abortion, the real decision about whether to take the pro-choice stand is a bit more serious. Both sides of the issue believe strongly, and argue vigorously, that lives and basic freedoms are at stake.

The other day, a friend's Facebook picture showed an intelligent young lady at a pro-choice rally. She was wearing a shirt that said, "I trust women. Do you?" That sounds wonderful. But should trust be the main issue in this or any other legal issue? If it were, we could get rid of so many annoying and expensive constraints: speed limits ("I trust drivers. Do you?"), government oversight of our financial institutions ("I trust Wall Street Executives. Do you?"), mandatory taxes ("I trust wage-earning citizens. Do you?"), and maybe even child car-seat laws ("I trust parents. Do you?").

Of course, there is a reason we don't leave such things to trust. If I speed, blow my employees retirement funds on a new yacht, fail to pay taxes, or allow my child to stand in the front seat of my car, I am risking the safety of someone besides myself. I should have the right to decide what happens in my own car, business, or bank account. That right ends when my choices put the property or well-being of another person at risk. This is, at least ideally, why we have laws: To protect the innocent, prudent, and good from the evil, uninformed, or irresponsible.

The choice to terminate a pregnancy, the argument goes, involves a woman's own body. It is thus a personal choice. No one else has the right to interfere. I could not agree more, unless that "choice" is actually a child.

When you sweep away all the emotional rhetoric, that is what this all boils down to. Is an unborn zygote/embryo/fetus an actual person, or is it just a part of the mother's body? Because despite what the extremists on both sides would have us believe, very few people really want to murder babies or take away a woman's right to decide what happens to her own body. But if the unborn are in fact children, the decision moves into the realm of the child car seat. It is no longer a strictly personal choice. The life of another human being is at stake.

I am convinced that an unborn child is just that: A child. And as personal as this issue has recently become to me, I am not just thinking from the heart. There are a lot of facts on the side of the unborn.

I offer the following mostly to my pro-choice friends, all you wonderful people who are so concerned about issues of freedom and social justice: Please hear me out. I sincerely think you have chosen the wrong side on this one. Here's why:


It is fairly common, in discussions about the right and wrong of abortion, to hear a semi-sarcastic defense of the rights of sperm and eggs. The argument usually goes something like this: "If destroying a fertilized egg is murder, then a man commits mass murder every time he ejaculates; a woman commits murder every month. Because every egg and every sperm is a potential human being."

Clever, on several levels. But not entirely correct.

I don't want to insult anyone's intelligence, here, but please humor me as I attempt to review some freshman biology.

Human sex cells are plentiful, to say the least. A healthy human male produces around 500 billion of them over the course of his life. Genetically speaking, each one is part of him. Half of him, to be precise: Each sperm cell contains half of the father's DNA. Exactly which half varies. A human girl is born with one to two million egg follicles already in her body. Again, the eggs contain half of her genetic material. Left alone (and given an extremely long life-span in the case of the mother), all of these cells would be eventually eliminated from our bodies.

Thus, our sex cells are disposable parts of us which contain our DNA, just as skin cells and hair follicles are. And by themselves, they have precisely the same potential for becoming a person.

When the sperm enters the egg, all of that changes. The resulting zygote is suddenly a unique organism, with a completely unique genetic code which is neither the mother's nor the fathers. Gender, eye color, and a host of other characteristics--many of them still poorly understood--are set at conception.

This zygote, while still in the mother's body, is no longer a part of it. It has become something distinct from her. It has become, on a molecular level, a unique living organism.

Brain Activity

The human brain begins forming about three weeks into pregnancy. Synapses begin firing a couple weeks later. The brain stem develops first, taking responsibility for involuntary movements and responses to stimuli: twitching, swallowing, sucking, and even hickups. By week ten--ping-pong ball size--babies might be growing as many as 250,000 neurons per minute. As the cortex (responsible for memory, conscious thought, and voluntary action) begins to develop, third-trimester fetuses become capable of simple forms of learning beyond response to stimuli.

Despite this rapid progress, a full-term human baby leaves the mother with a still-primitive cerebral cortex. This lack of development allows it to fit through the birth canal--and anyone who has been through it knows that's difficult enough as it is. This lack of cortex development is also one of the reasons human babies are so helpless, and stay helpless for so long, compared to most other mammals.

Brain development is gradual and steady, from week three into adulthood. Some parents might make the case that there are certain phases of life in which the brain quits operating (between 13 and 20?), but the fact is that there is no fixed point at which the child can be said to have "started thinking." There is no tangible difference in a baby's brain activity before and after birth. Rather than taking rapid leaps forward, the cortex matures gradually throughout childhood and into adulthood, allowing human children to grow into the incredibly complex world of humanity.

Heart Beat

Early in my wife's first pregnancy, we had a scare that the embryo might have implanted ectopically. An emergency ultrasound showed that, no, the pregnancy was proceeding properly, in the proper location. Whew. The embryo we saw was about the size and shape of a jelly bean. Even at that tiny size the embryo already had a heartbeat. It was a mere flutter of movement, but it was there, plainly visible.

This isn't just my personal experience. According to the Mayo Clinic, a typical baby's heart is actively pumping blood four weeks after conception.

Senses, Response, and Movement

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video might be worth a million. I think anyone honestly considering their stance on abortion should watch these videos first. No, they aren't put out by some crank pro-life organization, but by the National Geographic Society. Take a few minutes and watch them all (there are 10 parts). I've linked to one that shows fetal sensory development and response to stimuli. But they are all worth watching.

Note: These videos, "In the Womb," tend to disappear from Youtube occasionally, and you might have to look for them. Apparently National Geographic thinks people should just fork out the twenty bucks and buy them. I encourage you to do so.

Some Thoughts on "Viability"

Viability means the ability of a baby to continue living outside the womb. It is mostly a function of time: Before approximately 24 weeks, a fetus simply has too little lung tissue to make it in the outside world. For some, this is a good place to draw the line on the outer limits of when abortion should be permissible.

I believe this is a valid point when the life of the mother is at risk. If continuing the pregnancy will cause the death of the mother, and the baby has not reached the age of viability, it is not a question of saving the baby. It is a question of whether one life will be lost, or two. It is a bit like triage. Imagine a surgeon in a combat hospital. The surgeon has two patients, one mortally wounded and unlikely to make it no matter what he does, and another who might be saved, but only with immediate care. The only logical decision, hard though it is, is for the surgeon to put his energy into the soldier who can be saved.

So with a case where the mother's life is at risk: The baby is going to die either way, because it cannot live outside the mother. The only question is whether to save the mother. During our recent ordeal, we were spared this brutal choice: Mom's body made the decision and delivered David on its own, thus saving mom's life.

But thinking back to the triage analogy, I must ask: Is the soldier who cannot be saved seen as less of a person because he has no chance at survival? Or is he afforded all possible respect and comfort, perhaps even treated with gratitude for his unwilling sacrifice?

That is the trouble with the viability argument: It is too easy to draw the line of personhood at the age of viability. This is wrong. Consider this: Currently, 24 weeks is considered the minimum age of viability in most hospitals. Could a 24 week old premie have had any chance of survival a hundred years ago? Fifty years ago? Not likely. So, a hundred years ago it was not a person, but today it is? Is our definition of humanity to be so fickle that it changes with each medical advance?

Furthermore, if the ability to survive outside the womb is the test of full personhood, I must ask, how long? We are all born to die. My son David was born at 21 weeks, a couple weeks short of "viability." The nurses and doctors, wonderful as they were, did not even make an attempt to save him--there was simply no chance.

And yet he did live, for almost three hours. He moved. He interacted with us. He breathed. He made sounds. He received love, and possibly even gave it back in his way. And he died. A lifetime compressed into a couple of hours. Is he less of a person because he lived a few hours rather than 80 years?

For the less emotionally and more legally minded, David has a birth certificate, a death certificate, and a social security number. Both the state of Colorado and the Federal Government recognize him as a person.


In a nutshell: If it has a heart beat like a baby, thinks like a baby, moves like a baby, responds to the same stimuli as a baby, has the same genetic uniqueness as a baby, it is completely reasonable to assume it is a baby, and wrong to kill it intentionally.

Of course there is the tired argument about rape and incest. I'm fairly sure that every case of anti-abortion legislation has included exceptions in those cases, and perhaps that's as it should be. There is a lot to be said about this, but I must simply ask the obvious questions: Is it the baby's fault? Is it somehow justified to kill the baby to make the problem go away?

You can talk about "fetal demise" (from "What happens during an in-clinic abortion" on the Planned Parenthood website) and clean it up with clinical terms. There is a good reason pro-choice people do this. If we acknowledge the possibility that an unborn child is a person, then we accept the possibility that killing it is murder.

I have shared some of the reasons I believe an unborn child is a baby, deserving all the rights and respect we would consider due any fellow human being.

To my pro-choice friends, please explain to me why you think it is not. If you cannot, please rethink your stance. The unborn do not have their own voice; someone must speak for them. Stand up for the helpless.


  1. Tom, I am in complete agreement with your argument, and have no issue with the conclusion it leads you to. I've carried four of those little heartbeats myself, after all.

    I utterly reject the often-used pro-choice rationale that the unborn is not a real person yet. That leaves me with a tough case to explain, when I remain politically pro-choice. I have to allow as how I am, by my stance, preferring to grant women the right to end the life of a child. To hold the "not a child yet" position seems to me to be a way of not being willing to face the reality of what occurs in an abortion.

    Whether I could ever opt for an abortion myself, whatever the circumstances, is a question that—at this point in my life—will remain unanswered. But, I can say that I have trod closely enough to the threshold of depression and point of almost not being able to cope to say that I have imagined scenarios in which I would, yes, choose to kill someone in order to be able to carry out my obligations to the already born ones. (I think of Sophie's Choice, or an episode in M*A*S*H where a woman suffocates her crying infant to save the lives of the other people she's with.) It may not seem that such harsh choices should exist within the context of our society, but I am sure they do. And I am sure that we can often barely guess at the psychological conditions people are often enduring that drive them to feel they must make such harsh choices.

    So, I find I that an honest, conscience based, consideration of all factors at play leads me to a pro-choice position. When it comes down to it, I guess I will not always value an individual human life above the alternatives. To put me in perspective, it grieved me enormously to carry out spays on cats that were half-way through gestation. It pains me to kill ants fer cryin' out loud. But, I apparently don’t have a no-kill policy toward anything.

  2. My political position on abortion acknowledges that, in the way I view things, there is no black and white. If this were a world ruled by people with hearts like yours, then I can imagine that there would scarcely be any call for abortion. But, for me to legislate that this option is out, absolutely out, is to place real-world humans who do not have alternative escape plans to the untenable situations they may find themselves in even less tenable situations. This world can be a very-not-good place, and sometimes not-very-good decisions are the only way a person can see to continue subsisting in it.

    As for the young lady in the photo you reference, (My daughter, obviously (^_~), it is probable that she does yet have a full grasp of the position she's endorsing, but she is wise enough to comprehend that the people "in charge" would often seek to suppress her uniqueness, passion, and spirit, rather than encouraging it, and it is natural that she would endorse policies that seek to keep her out of the controlling clutches of many politicians and religious leaders who fail to come across as people who truly want what is good and just.

  3. There does remain this one distinction between a born child and an unborn child, and it is that the unborn child is dependent upon the mother to sustain its life. Therefore, whether the mother chooses to sustain that dependent life or not seems to me to be between herself and God. Not between herself and the U.S. Government. So, there’s the legal piece. It is her body. She may choose not to sustain life with it if she wishes. She can choose not to sustain her OWN life if she wishes. She can choose not to donate her kidney to her born child who will die without it. I’m throwing these things out without emotional embellishment because its the bones of what I think should be legal. The ethics, emotional aspects, etc, are for the individual to grapple with.

    So, I guess my stance hinges on the points of biological dependence, and the best holistic overview I’ve been able to make of reality as it exists in the world we live in.
    I suppose the best any of us can do is take the data and process it in the light of whatever comprehension God saw fit to give us, and come up with the answer that makes the most sense to us.

  4. Emily
    As far as the legal ramifications are concerned in regards to sustaining life, I must disagree. If a mother refuses to feed a born child (allowing that she is producing milk) that would clearly be treated as neglect and would be prosecuted for murder. This would be true in any situation where any living thinking creature was dependent on another fully for survival and then was denied that aid. Furthermore in every part of America (as far as I am aware) it is illegal to kill yourself. And if you fail or caught in the act there can be serious legal ramifications.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Tom, and per his request am not trying to jump on you. I just saw that the logic you used towards the end did not mesh with your earlier statement that an unborn child is actually a person.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. (sorry...just rewrote it a little.)
    Well, the "logic" would only mesh insofar as I could hand the born child to someone else who would give it food. That person might not, however, be a suitable kidney donor. That's the rationale for the comparison. Obviously, like any analogy, it is inadequate and not a good basis for trying to close a case solidly.

    I would say that my final paragraph is the best "case" I can make, or best apology (in the sense of apologist) I can make for why I can't vote to forbid abortion. It would not be an honest move based on my best attempt to assess things. But that's only one brain, one person, one assessment.

    It's such an incendiary issue, and I surely do not hope to "settle" it by being forthright about my perspective.

  7. Here is an additional comment from my friend, D, who was for some reason unable to post his own comment. He asked that I withhold his real name. --TW

    Very much respect Tom's position. I don’t really quarrel with his conclusion, but I have a problem with his argument.

    I've become convinced over the years that some problems can't be solved from reason and empiricism. My religious tradition teaches that from conception, you've got a human being with a soul. Although there is often an attempt by anti-abortion activitists to co-op science, I think religious arguments are best when they remain religious, as in, "I believe that a person, with a soul, exists from conception." I completely respect that and, on my better days as a Christian, I believe it.

    I think scientific evidence cannot answer the question about the humanity of the fetus. That's essentially what Tom has tried to do. (President Reagan famously insisted we all insist that human life begins at conception until science proved otherwise. I suspect this was disingenuous. Tom is not disingenuous.)

    Knowing that the process of gestation begins with a single fertilized cell and remains, scientifically speaking, an organized collection of cells for some time, I think it's impossible to argue scientifically that that is a human being. In fact, of the items Tom cites, the only one that applies to that early period of gestation is the genetic one. So, Tom says "In a nutshell: If it has a heartbeat like a baby, thinks like a baby, moves like a baby, responds to the same stimuli as a baby, has the same genetic uniqueness as a baby..." and only the last part is true of the earliest period of gestation. I think the genetic argument is dubious, too, quite honestly, and I can tell you what I have in mind if you're interested.

    It takes time to get a heartbeat, brain activity, response to stimuli, etc. So, shifting to the other end, only a lunatic would assert that an 8-month old fetus is not a baby. Or a 7-month-old. Or, I think, even a 6-month old, and we can go back further. At some point, however, the number of people who will be able to agree that that’s a human being, with the same rights as a delivered baby, will start to decline. And, biology will increasingly support them (as biology). If one’s spiritual/religious beliefs tell one that, no, that’s a human being with the same rights as a 6-month-old baby, that’s fine, but that IS a religious view and not a scientific one. And, as a Christian, I would assert the value of religious beliefs. But they can’t be confused with scientific positions. In my opinion, one of the reasons people who work against abortion often want to turn to (dubious) scientific information to support their views is that they know it’s largely inappropriate in 2011 to impose their religious beliefs on other people.

    It’s an ultimately beautiful and wondrous thing, gestation, which is the reality that makes this a problem that can’t be solved. It’s a CONTINUOUS process, which we arbitrarily divide into trimesters. Biology knows nothing of trimesters. If I suspended my religious views on the subject and tried to look at this objectively, I’d say that a fertilized egg, and what it becomes for many days after that, doesn’t come close to qualifying as a “baby.” A 7-month-old fetus certainly does. I don’t even know where I’d draw the line in the process of gestation. Continuous processes make that a deranged endeavor. If I draw the line at 3 months gestation, I’m saying that a fetus that is now a human being wasn’t a human being a few days ago.

    So, except (1) for those whose religious convictions make it clear to them to go to one extreme and (2) those for whom the reproductive rights of the mother can NEVER be compromised who float around the other extreme, the rest of us are doomed by the biology of gestation to not know at what point the rights of a continuously developing (but unborn) human outweigh the reproductive rights of the mother.

  8. And here is my response. --TW

    Not sure why this wouldn't post on my blog, D. Nothing personal, I'm sure. :)

    First, the religion thing. My faith in God certainly makes me more motivated to speak up about this than I would otherwise be. The Bible makes pretty clear that God thinks quite highly of babies, and that although he has the ability and right to take life, he seems to want to keep that right to himself. It is easy to see why this is so.

    Really, though, I think I am more motivated by my brief experience with my son than by my religious belief. It appalls me that, just a moment before he was born, it would have been legal under US law to kill him. It puzzles me that so many people who are interested in social justice are not only not bothered by this, but vehemently insist that it should be so.

    But I realize the need to be careful. There is a logical fallacy that is very real, though I haven't seen it on any of the formal lists I've read. I call it "Appeal to tragedy," and it goes something like this. "I went through a horrific tragedy. Because of that, I have strong opinions. Whenever I voice those opinions, I will be sure to mention my tragedy. That way, no one can argue with me without seeming like a complete jerk." This is the large part of why I tried to explain my opposition to abortion in scientific/factual terms, D. I want to give people who might disagree a fair chance. You can argue with facts. You can't argue with heart-rending experiences.

    So, in short, my religious beliefs do motivate me to speak up somewhat, but to the best of my self-understanding they don't really provide the true basis for my belief in the person-hood of the unborn. The Bible never comes right out and says, "Life begins at conception," though it gives some strong hints that are commonly interpreted that way. I tend to think it is possible, spiritually, to believe otherwise and still be a Christian. Whatever side one takes, it is a somewhat shaky argument scripturally, and I am always cautious about making the Bible say things it doesn't come right out and say. (some would strongly disagree with me on that, of course)

    D, you do point out a weakness in my argument, though: Of all the evidence I present, only the genetic one goes back to conception. I appreciate your calling attention to that. You are also quite correct in saying that, due to the gradual nature of human development, it is impossible to draw a line: This day not a person; the next day a person. Unfortunately, since this is a legal issue, we are faced with the choice of either drawing a line somewhere, or refusing to draw a line anywhere. The latter option is basically the same, legally, as drawing the line at birth. Most people would agree that this is unacceptable.

    But the point of the genetic argument was intended to counter those who say that an abortion is essentially no different from an appendectomy. It is a fact that a fertilized egg is, genetically speaking, no longer simply a part of the mother's body. It is a new organism, distinct from the mother. Of course, you could say the same about a bacterium or an intestinal parasite, could you not? Thus the question: If a new organism, what *kind* of organism? The facts point to its being a human (albeit a very primitive, very undeveloped one) and in my way of thinking, worthy of treatment as such.

    But it is still inside the mother's body, which is what makes it such a complicated issue.

    Thanks for your thoughts, both of you.