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.
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.
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.