Abortion: when life start?

For more than a generation, the controversy over abortion has remained one of the nation’s most polarized political debates. Since 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that obtaining an abortion during the early stages of pregnancy is a constitutional right, supporters and opponents of abortion have marched, protested and lobbied for their respective causes. After 26 years, however, many of the central issues in the debate have not changed, and a resolution remains as unlikely as ever.

On one side of the abortion debate are those who call themselves pro-choice. Pro-choice advocates argue that women have a fundamental right to terminate their unwanted pregnancies, and most pro-choice proponents oppose any attempts to curb the right to an abortion outlined in Roe. In their view, the debate over abortion is fundamentally about liberty and privacy; every woman, they say, has a basic right to make decisions that affect her own body without interference from the government. Restrictions on abortion, they say, would undermine a woman’s basic rights to choose her destiny, make decisions affecting her body and control her reproductive life.

On the other side of the debate are those who call themselves pro-life. Pro-life advocates want to see Roe overturned and abortion outlawed. They maintain that a fetus is a human being with an absolute right to life like anyone else. That right to be born, they say, overrides the mother’s right to make decisions about her body since her decision to abort affects the life of another human being, the unborn baby. Abortion, in their view, is murder and so should not be sanctioned by society.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue in the debate over abortion is deciding whether the fetus is, in fact, a human being. No one denies that the cells making up the fetus, like the cells in the rest of the woman’s body, are living. Rather, the key question is whether the fetus is a human life, one that is distinct from the woman in which it develops and one that deserves basic human rights. Responses to that question are numerous and complicated, involving a wide range of moral, legal, philosophical, spiritual and medical perspectives on what it means to be human.

The debate is often framed as a matter of timing. When during a woman’s pregnancy does a fetus become a human being? Many pro-life advocates say the answer is at conception, the moment when a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg, or ovum, are joined. At that moment, they say, the fetus is formed as a unique person that, if allowed to develop freely, would grow to function independently.

Many pro-choice proponents, however, argue that human life begins at viability, the moment when a fetus can survive outside the mother’s womb. Viability is usually marked at the 23rd or 24th week of pregnancy, although some babies can survive if they are born several weeks earlier, largely thanks to advanced medical technology. Only at viability, when the lungs, kidneys and other critical organs of the fetus are developed enough to sustain life independently, does a human life begin, according to many pro-choice advocates.

There are also many nuanced views on when human life begins during a pregnancy. Some people argue that human life begins when a heart beat or brain waves can be detected, for example. Others argue that, at least in principle, a woman should have the right to terminate her pregnancy regardless of whether a fetus is a human being.

Nevertheless, most of the debate has focused on whether human life begins sometime before viability since that moment has been crucial in Supreme Court decisions on abortion. In Roe, for instance, the court ruled that states can prohibit abortion only after fetal viability. Pro-choice advocates largely support that position, saying it upholds the rights of women to make their own decision on whether to terminate their early pregnancies. Pro-life groups, meanwhile, portray the Roe decision as a travesty of justice for what they refer to as the millions of unborn children who are aborted each year.

Historical Perspectives
Societies have grappled with the issue of abortion for millennia. As today, attitudes toward abortion were often shaped by religious views on whether a fetus was a human being and when its life began. In many cultures, abortion was frowned upon but was not regarded or punished as a form of murder. The early Hittite Code (1300 B.C.) used in the ancient Middle East, for example, established fines for abortion, while it imposed stiff penalties, including death in some cases, for murder. Fines for abortion were higher the further into a woman’s pregnancy they were performed–reflecting the belief that the fetus’s life became more valuable as it developed.

Within ancient Greek society, there were many conflicting views on abortion, largely arising out of disagreements over when the fetus gained a soul and thereby became human. Followers of the philosopher Plato taught that “ensoulment” occurred with the baby’s first breath. Aristotle, meanwhile, described different stages of ensoulment during fetal development, but he held that abortion should not be illegal until the fetus became animated.

In ancient Rome, the fetus was not considered a human being until the moment of birth; until then, it was regarded as part of the woman. Obtained as a matter of convenience, abortion was common and widespread in Rome, but it was also dangerous–women often died from taking the poisons, or “abortifacients,” used to induce an abortion.

Some scholars consider it striking that the Judeo-Christian Bible, the most influential religious text in the Western world, says nothing explicitly about abortion. As a result, the stance of religious leaders and scholars on the issue of abortion has often shifted. In the Talmud, the ancient Jewish law that is based on interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Torah, the fetus is regarded as part of the mother and not a distinct being. The Talmud even explicitly requires a woman to seek an abortion if her pregnancy is life-threatening.

The Christian Church was largely silent on the issue of abortion until it issued The Didache of the Apostles in the 2nd century. The Didache, a book of religious rules drafted by the early church, ordered followers not to kill “the fetus by abortion nor destroy the infant already born.” Early church leaders, however, did not necessarily regard abortion to be murder. St. Augustine, for example, wrote in the 4th century that abortion was murder only if it occurred after the fetus was “fully formed,” a moment of ensoulment that Augustine called “hominization.” For males, hominization took place 40 days after conception, Augustine said; for females, it occurred 80 days afterward.

Variations on Augustine’s views on abortion held sway in the Catholic Church at least until the 19th century. Its position on abortion changed in 1869, when Pope Pius IX issued a decree that abortion was murder at any stage of pregnancy. “Although not ensouled, [the fetus] is directed to the forming of man,” it stated. “Therefore, its ejection is anticipated homicide.” The Catholic Church continues to hold the position that human life begins at conception, a position that is also embraced by many Protestant denominations.

Abortion and U.S. Law
Until the early 19th century, abortion during early pregnancy was common and legal in most areas of the U.S. Under common law, abortion was considered lawful until “quickening,” the moment when the fetus first moves in the womb, usually the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. Even in states that were among the first to restrict abortion–Connecticut (1821), Missouri (1825) and Illinois (1827)–abortion was punished only after quickening.

The first large-scale movement to restrict abortion in the U.S. was led by physicians during the mid-19th century. Until then, the topic of abortion had rarely been discussed and there appeared to be general tolerance for the practice in the states. Within decades of the medical community’s anti-abortion campaign, however, public opinion shifted against the practice, and by the end of the 19th century, more than 40 states had passed legislation to restrict or outlaw abortion.

Most anti-abortion laws at the time allowed women to obtain abortions only if a physician deemed it necessary to safeguard her health or save her life. Although abortion remained illegal in nearly every state during the early 20th century, researchers estimate that the abortion rate remained about the same as it had before the practice was outlawed. Though common, illegal abortions were often unsanitary and unsafe and resulted in the death or mutilation of many women.

A movement to reform abortion laws began to emerge in the 1950s and gained increasing strength during the 1960s. Spearheading the effort to reform abortion laws were leaders of the burgeoning women’s rights movement. In 1967, the recently formed National Organization for Women (NOW), a women’s rights group, adopted a resolution calling for abortion rights. Soon, the movement to reform abortion laws turned into a movement to repeal the laws altogether.

In 1970, Hawaii became the first state to repeal its anti-abortion law, passing a measure that legalized abortions before the 20th week of pregnancy. New York State followed suit that same year, repealing its own statute that had criminalized abortion.

All other state anti-abortion laws were effectively nullified by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. Writing for the majority in Roe, Justice Harry Blackmun said that women have a fundamental right to abortion during the first trimester (12 weeks) of pregnancy. The right to an abortion, he stated, is part of a right to privacy that is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

In Roe, the court’s majority explicitly rejected the claim that a fetus is a “person” endowed with due process rights provided by the 14th Amendment. However, the court ruled that a woman’s right to an abortion was not absolute. States may regulate abortions during the second trimester, the court said, to protect the woman’s health. For example, states may regulate clinics that perform abortions to ensure that abortions are performed safely and that doctors are qualified to perform the procedure. Furthermore, the court held that after fetal viability, the state may outlaw abortions “except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” During those weeks, the court stated, the state has an interest in protecting the potential human life since the fetus “presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.”

The Roe decision is perhaps the most controversial decision handed down by the Supreme Court during the second half of the 20th century. In cases since then, the Supreme Court has modified its stance on abortion by moving away from the trimester framework outlined in Roe. The court has also ruled that states may restrict abortions before the moment of fetal viability as long as the restrictions do not place an “undue burden” on the woman. [See 1999 Key Court Decisions on Abortion]

Does Life Begin at Conception?
Many pro-life proponents argue that the Supreme Court’s Roe decision is fundamentally wrong since it does not recognize the fetus as a human being who has rights before viability. Pro-life groups, including the National Right to Life Committee, instead contend that human life begins at conception. Abortion at any stage of a woman’s pregnancy is therefore murder in their view.

The position that human life begins at conception is also the official position of a number of religions, including the Roman Catholic Church, headed by Pope John Paul II. “Procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing…of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth,” the Pope states in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, or The Gospel of Life (1995).

The Pope contends that a human being is ensouled at the moment that the ovum is fertilized. Even if science cannot confirm the presence of a spiritual soul at the moment of conception, the Pope argues, research clearly shows that the fertilized egg is endowed with a “personal presence” that is distinct from both mother and father. That distinct new life, he explains, would not be able to become human if it were not intrinsically human already, and so it must be protected throughout its development.

Although a fertilized ovum, or “zygote,” may not look like a human being, it is nevertheless a distinct person, according to pro-life advocates. They point out that a newborn child does not look like an adult person, but that does not make the child any less human. Just as children need time to develop before they look like adults, a fetus needs time to develop before it looks like a newborn baby, they say.

It is reprehensible, pro-life advocates argue, to sanction the killing of a human being simply because it is developing inside the womb rather than outside the mother. “Is there any fundamental difference between a baby who resides in his mother’s uterus and one who has made an eight-inch journey down the birth canal?” asks James Dobson, founder and president of Focus on the Family, a Christian organization that opposes abortion. “Surely the Lord does not look upon the baby inside the uterus with any less love and concern than one who enters the world a few minutes later.”

While spiritual beliefs play a key role in the argument against abortion, many pro-life proponents also cite scientific reasons for their claim that life begins at conception. Indeed, a number of medical authorities agree that there is ample evidence that the fetus, even as a single cell in the womb, is a human being. Their medical argument often hinges on the fact that from the moment of conception, the fetus has 46 distinct human chromosomes. Chromosomes are the protein structures in every cell that carry a person’s genetic information.

Since only members of the species Homo sapiens, or human beings, have 46 human chromosomes, the fetus must be considered a person, according to pro-life advocates. Indeed, the fetus has a set of chromosomes that distinguishes it from its mother and father and, except in the case of identical twins, distinguishes it from everyone else in the world. If the fetus is living, and it is not a bird or some other animal, they ask, then what else could it be besides human?

To stress the humanness of the fetus, pro-life advocates often show pictures of the fetus as it develops in the womb. Early in the pregnancy, they point out, the fetus begins to develop a distinct human appearance, with hands, toes, feet and a beating heart. The fetus reacts to stimuli and moves around in the womb long before the mother can feel it. The pictures, they say, are ample evidence that the fetus is a human being in his or her early stages of development. A developing human being, they stress, is still a human being and not something that is somehow “pre-human” or inhuman.

Pro-Choice and Viability
From the point of view of most pro-choice advocates, the fetus before viability is at most a potential life, a developing mass of cells that cannot yet claim rights. They say that pro-life proponents make a moral and medical mistake by trying to equate the life of an unconscious, single-celled zygote with the life of a full-fledged, breathing, conscious woman.

Like pro-life advocates, pro-choice proponents cite medical and spiritual arguments to defend their position. From fertilization to viability, they argue, the fetus does not have many of the biological traits even minimally associated with being a person. More than 50% of induced abortions occur before the eighth week of gestation, they point out, when the fetus is still only about an inch long and has fewer cells, less animation and less brain functioning than many insects. Many medical abortions (those induced by drugs), they add, occur during the first few weeks after conception, when the fetus is just a few millimeters large.

While pro-choice advocates acknowledge that a fetus has human chromosomes, they say that other traits, such as awareness, viability or consciousness, also need to be present before the fetus can be considered more than a potential human being at best. Abortion-rights advocates frequently use the analogy of a building to underscore the difference between human chromosomes and a human being. Skyscrapers are erected based on written instructions, or blueprints, that detail how the various parts of the building will be coordinated. Yet the blueprints, which consist of ink and paper, are distinct from the building–an assemblage of metal, cement and other materials.

Abortion-rights activists say that the chromosomes in the fertilized egg are like those blueprints. The chromosomes in a living cell provide a map for a human life but they are not themselves human. Just as the blueprints for a building are drafted long before a skyscraper is built, chromosomes exist in living cells long before an actual human being comes into existence, they claim.

“A person is more than a collection of cells created by 46 chromosomes,” says John Swomley, professor of social ethics at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. Speaking from a religious perspective, Swomley argues that the notion that life begins at conception actually devalues the meaning of human life. “To focus on the biological realities of genes and chromosomes present at conception,” he says, “neglects the spiritual nature and characteristics of humans.” Swomley says that when the Bible describes humans as beings created in the image of God, it was not referring to biological similarities but “to the abilities to love and to reason; to the capacity for self-awareness and transcendence; and to the freedom to choose, rather than to live by instinct.” Those traits, he says, are lacking in the fetus.

Until viability, many pro-choice advocates argue, the fetus is little more than a collection of uncoordinated body systems that are completely dependent on the woman for sustenance. Typically, viability occurs only after the 23rd or 24th week of pregnancy, when the fetus’s brain has developed to the point where it can integrate its body systems. Until then, the fetus cannot breathe air even with a respirator because it is unable to pass oxygen to the bloodstream from its lungs. Pro-choice proponents argue that a fetus cannot be considered a distinct human being meriting rights until its body systems are working as a whole and it can survive independently.

Pro-choice advocates note that more than 90% of abortions occur before the 24th week of pregnancy. Most pro-choice proponents defend abortions after viability only if the life or health of the mother is endangered. “When the woman’s life or health is not at risk–aborting a viable fetus is morally wrong–pure and simple,” says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).

But Michelman and others argue that restricting or outlawing abortion before viability would have disastrous consequences for women, who unquestionably are human beings with human rights. Before abortion was legal, thousands of women died and many tens of thousands were mutilated by the procedure, according to Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice organization. To return to those days of “back alley abortions,” Planned Parenthood says, would result in the death of many women and force them to act like criminals. Pro-choice groups argue that it is demeaning to women to disregard their privacy rights and give greater rights to an unviable fetus that in early pregnancy may be nothing more than a handful of cells.

Other Criteria
One reason that the debate over abortion is so complicated is that many people hold nuanced views on the question of when human life begins. Their views do not always fit squarely with the common pro-choice position that life begins at viability or with the typical pro-life position that it begins at conception. Indeed, doctors, theologians, ethicists and others have proposed various criteria, some of which are listed below, for determining when a fetus becomes a human being or for deciding when abortion should be restricted:

Human life begins at approximately eight weeks. Eight weeks of gestation is often considered the end of the “embryonic” period of pregnancy; at about that time, the cells in the fetus have differentiated to a degree that there is a foundation for each of the basic internal and external body features that the fetus will have as an adult human. As a result, some people argue that the fetus is at a stage where it can be considered a distinct human being, rather than an unspecialized mass of cells.

Moreover, although it is still highly undeveloped, the fetus’s brain at eight weeks begins to emit brain waves, signaling some form of brain activity. In the fields of medicine and law, the irreversible termination of brain activity is often an accepted definition of death. Accordingly, many people argue that the start of brain activity in the fetus should be considered the beginning of an individual human life.

Abortion should be restricted once the fetus is capable of experiencing pain. Some people maintain that an important developmental threshold for determining when abortion should be restricted is the fetus’s ability to feel pain. Exactly when a fetus begins to become aware of pain is quite controversial. As early as the seventh week of pregnancy, a fetus may react to physical stimuli, such as medical instruments that are introduced to the womb, by pulling its head back or dodging the object. Some people regard that response as a sign that the fetus feels pain. However, many doctors argue that those movements are automatic reflexes, rather than pain reactions.

Some doctors contend that the fetus does not feel pain until much later in the pregnancy. “While there is reflex activity as early as the third month of pregnancy, there is no data that there is pain perception until the late second trimester,” says Mark Evans, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich.

Regardless of when a fetus becomes human, the mother’s right to terminate her pregnancy always takes precedence. A number of pro-choice advocates maintain that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is a private decision that belongs exclusively to the woman, even if a fetus is a human being. Some argue that, as long as the mother’s body provides sustenance to the fetus, the woman has the right to make decisions for the fetus regarding its physical well-being, including whether it should live. Using a similar line of argument, others contend that a woman cannot be legally forced to sustain another human being in her body against her will. [See 1999 Abortion and a Famous Violinist]

Responding to such arguments, many pro-life proponents maintain that if the fetus is a human being, then its life should be regarded as equally sacred as that of the mother. They say that requiring a woman to finish her pregnancy deprives her of her liberty for only nine months. In the case of an abortion, however, the fetus loses its life. If both the mother and fetus are equally human, requiring the woman to finish her pregnancy would therefore result in the least overall harm, they say.

An Unresolvable Debate?
Whether a fetus is a human being is only one question among many in the nation’s long-running war over abortion. Are certain abortion procedures more harmful or immoral than others? Should minors who are pregnant be forced to obtain their parents’ permission before getting an abortion? Is abortion in cases of rape or incest more legitimate than abortion for other reasons?

Nevertheless, answers to most of those questions typically depend on a person’s views on whether the fetus is a human being deserving of human rights. Pro-choice advocates contend that if doctors, ethicists, theologians and policy makers cannot agree on when human life begins, then the pregnant woman, rather than a group of politicians, ought to be trusted to answer the question for herself since an abortion involves her body. Many women who obtain an abortion, they note, are young, unmarried and unprepared–both financially and emotionally–to raise a child. They maintain that each woman is therefore in the best position to decide for herself whether to have a baby.

Such arguments are unconvincing to most pro-lifers, however. When pro-choice advocates speak about the liberty and privacy rights of pregnant women, pro-life advocates typically respond by asking about the liberty and rights of the “unborn child.” If the question of when human life begins cannot be definitively resolved, pro-life advocates say, then society should err on the side of life by assuming that the fetus is a human being and making abortion illegal. While they acknowledge that many pregnant women are not ready to have a child, they say that there are alternatives, such as adoption, that make abortion unnecessary.

If there is one point of agreement between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, it is the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Even that issue, however, is clouded by debate over sex education and family planning policies. Many conservatives favor programs that stress abstinence and avoid discussions of contraception, such as condoms or birth-control pills. Liberals, on the other hand, typically support education programs that speak frankly about sexuality and contraception, and they often favor making contraception readily available. [For more on the debate over sex education, see 1996 Sex Education]

Will the debate over abortion ever be settled? A striking 88% of Americans in a January 1998 New York Times/CBS News poll answered “no.” Remarking on the intractability of the debate, essayist Roger Rosenblatt writes, “For all the standards applied in various societies, no one has ever been able to prove when a person comes into being…it is important to note that this question of personhood is not now, nor has it ever been, settled.”

To agree on when human life begins may require advocates and opponents of abortion to agree on what it means to be human and whether the answer is primarily a scientific, spiritual or legal one. Such questions have bedeviled philosophers, scientists and theologians for thousands of years, however, and are likely to do so for many more.

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