Biology, Fetuses and Politics

One of my best friends just had his first kid. I'm almost 25, and there's something strange about seeing a person you usually associate with beer and baseball cradling his infant. It sets of all sorts of hormonal switches. Instead of thinking about Deadwood, Proust and the Red Sox (my usual stream of consciousness), I've been inundated with thoughts of babies. I think I've suddenly realized that, biologically speaking at least, I'm capable of becoming a parent. Weird.

That said, this post isn't about my twentysomething angst. It's about abortion, because my friend had a baby, Hillary Clinton gave a speech, and abortion - at least as a political issue - continues to completely befuddle me. I also think the facts of biology can some shed light on the controversy.

What can biology teach us? Well, let's begin with the obvious. Both political extremes are wrong. A zygote isn't a baby, and a third-trimester fetus isn't a zygote. If cellular biology knows anything, it's that life is a gradient. Our consciousness slowly accumulates. There is no magic spark when an egg starts dividing and differentiating. It's just DNA doing it's thing. Of course, let those cells divide for long enough, and you'll end up with something pretty miraculous. Deciding at what point the miracle begins - at what point that bundle of cells accumulates a "soul" - is, of course, the really difficult part. But other countries - like Britain, where abortion is an issue debated by doctors, not grandstanding Parliamentarians - show us that this question can be answered in a methodical and rational manner. Living in Britain during the last national campaign, I was astonished that abortion was scarcely debated, even though Blair, following the advice of the National Health Service, had recently cut the legal limit for an abortion to 24 weeks. (A plurality of British women think the legal limit should be cut further.)

What can the British teach us about abortion? That we should stop obsessing over the first trimester and the last trimester, and start worrying about the second trimester. The first trimester isn't worth fighting over because unless you are strict genetic determinist a child isn't simply the sum of its genetic material, and that is the only thing we have in common with our embryonic precursor. A two-month old fetus will never be able to live outside the womb, because it simply isn't a person yet. That said, a third trimester fetus can often survive outside the womb (at least when given state of the art medical care), so it seems dubious to deprive it of all moral agency. If there is no magic spark at the moment of conception, there is also no magic spark at the moment of birth.

Now for the really hard part: the second trimester. I'm no expert, so I won't pretend to know where we should draw the line for a legal limit. (24 weeks seems fair to me, but maybe the British are wrong...Let me know if you know better.) But it does strike me as ridiculously obvious that this is where the debate should be occurring. Yes, life is precious, sacred, etc., but this sacredness is an emergent property, which slowly unfolds over the course of a 9 month cellular cycle. Until we accept the brute facts of biology, I'm afraid our politcal debate over abortion in American will be marred by the idiotic and unscientific extremes. These biological facts aren't comfortable, and they go against many of our intuitions (I'm just a sac of cells?), and it's always eaiser to rally a crowd with false simplicities, but they just might help us get past this tiresome controversy.


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"But it does strike me as ridiculously obvious that this is where the debate should be occurring. Yes, life is precious, sacred, etc., but this sacredness is an emergent property, which slowly unfolds over the course of a 9 month cellular cycle."

I hope you aren't saying that "sacredness" is part of the biological facts. Strictly speaking, though, the fertilization of an egg by a sperm does result in a new life. Biologically, a new life does begin at conception (although there are exceptions, e.g., twinning). What ever people view as "sacred" (life itself, consciousness, mental capacity, etc.) isn't part of the biological facts.

No, I don't believe sacredness (whatever that is) is a biological property. Biology is cold, callous and materialistic. My point was that while life begins at the instant of conception, we shouldn't confuse that zygote with what we end up becoming. I believe life is sacred, and yet I just killed a few hundred ants with a squirt of Raid. While my beliefs and my behavior are contradictory, I live with myself because I know that the ants are not capable of my sort of consciousness or specialness or sacredness or whatever. I believe that we should apply a similar biological logic to the issue of abortion.

But nothing about biology can tell us when it is alright to kill a human (whether the human is a zygote, fetus, infant, toddler or adult). Biology can't really help us out here since different people disagree on what makes a human "special" enough or "sacred" enough not to kill it. Biology doesn't tell us that the debate should be happening in the 2nd trimester. That you choose consciousness (or whatever it is you think happens in the 2nd trimester) for what is "special" doesn't mean somebody else can't choose birth and another person can't choose conception.

You do leave out one option (which PZ discussed a while ago): that the personhood doesn't emerge until some time after birth. Maybe he was specifically talking about pain, but it looks like there are some very "human" parts of the mind that still aren't developed at birth. It certainly goes against everyone's moral instincts to say that baby killing is a-ok, but post-birth is another area of ambiguity. That viability occurs in the late second or early third trimester is only one point to consider.

By ThePolynomial (not verified) on 14 Jun 2006 #permalink

Good point, and in no way do I believe that a newborn is a full fledged consciousness. However, it seems pretty difficult to start drawing moral distinctions between people based on their neural aptitude. The fact is, once a person is in this world, we deem them a person, even if they are six months old, or handicapped, or an asshole, or paralyzed (they can't feel pain either). That's a necessity of the legal system, and I doubt that the discoveries of neuroscience will budge judges to reconsider. But I do think that when it comes to the unborn - and we can't ask a fetus how it feels - our moral instincts should be guided, or at least influenced, by the facts of biology.

Everybody has a stake in the abortion discussion - not just doctors or politicians - because every person's moral code is worth considering, and this is a moral issue.

Developmental biology is interesting, but completely unimportant because, when a human sperm and a human egg meet, there is no other thing than a human that will result.

The consciousness argument is irrelevant also, because, as Jonah noted, there are lots of unconscious people that we will not kill just to get them out of the way.

The other arguments all boil down to convenience: Some people feel that they shouldn't have to allow a child to be born who will have disabilities, or was concieved because of rape, or might live their whole life in poverty.

The only thing left is morality: If your moral code says it's OK to kill babies in the womb, then you will find reasons why it is OK. If your moral code says it's not OK to terminate zygotes, then nothing presented by the other side will sway you.

So the real question is: How do you develop your moral code?