Jul 21st 2013

Zealotry in the Doctor’s Office

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Where there was previous little doubt, now there is none at all.  The fundamental idea of separating church and state, so dear to our founders, is dying.

Religion is driving and winning legislation across the land. Texas just passed a law that will ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, limit abortions to surgical centers and mandate that doctors must be present for even non-surgical abortions.  Tasting blood, a Texas lawmaker introduced a bill that bans abortions at about 6 weeks, when the first fetal heartbeat is detected.  North Carolina is poised to pass motorcycle safety legislation that has transformed into one of the nation’s most aggressive anti-abortion bills.  Among many draconian provisions: public employees and individuals who obtain health coverage through the federal health care law’s new public exchanges would not have access to a plan that includes abortion coverage.  Wisconsin is considering an extreme anti-abortion bill, and Michigan tried last year (and presumably will keep doing so).  This is the tip of the iceberg as freedom of choice becomes threatened state by state.

Let us be unambiguously clear about what is happening with this latest resurgence of zealotry.  The fundamentalist Christian right is staging a theocratic coup, imposing one brand of religious belief on all others.  No matter how the issue is parsed, foes of freedom of choice base their opposition on one idea, and one idea only: that life begins at conception.  This is a religious conviction, one being imposed on those with different religious beliefs, and one removed from any biological reality.  This disconnect to reality leads to two irreconcilable problems for those supposedly “pro-life.”

Can’t Compromise on Murder

Since opposition to abortions is based on the flawed view of biology that life begins at conception (we will see why that is flawed in a bit), and the ancillary idea that all life is sacred (equally untenable as discussed below), then opponents cannot possibly compromise to accommodate voters with a different view.  If they truly believe “life-at-conception” and “life is sacred” then anything less than a total ban on abortion would be to them the equivalent of murder.  Even the 20 week limit adopted by the Texas House would constitute murder by the movement’s own definition.  So someone like John McCain who tries to put a moderate face on radical views must come up short. McCain said about pro-choice voters, “I would allow people to have those opinions and respect those opinions.  I’m proud of my pro-life position and record. But if someone disagrees with me, I respect your views.”  That sentence makes sense if we are talking about a difference of opinion about national security, for example, but not about murder.  You respect my view that murder (by your definition) is OK?  That is untenable.  Therein we find the problem with legislation passed on the basis of biblical interpretation:  there can be no compromise. And compromise is the essence of any democracy.

Life at Conception:  A Religious Myth

But anti-abortion folks face an even greater unsolvable dilemma.  Their basic claim is wrong; the ugly realities of biology prove that life does not begin at conception.  The majority of fertilized eggs are naturally aborted, never leading to life nor ever having the chance at life; 75% fail to implant in the uterus due to fatal genetic abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, or a uterus incapable of receiving the embryo.  The moment of fertilization is nothing but one step (and usually an unsuccessful one) in a series of millions that take us from a single cell to an independently living being.  Granting that moment special status is completely arbitrary and meaningless biologically. 

Abortion foes claim, as a secondary argument and extension of the idea that life begins at conception, that a fertilized egg has the same suite of rights enjoyed by all humans. But the belief that a few cells derived from a fertilized egg is a human being is a sad example of good intentions based on misguided notions of biology. The small ball of cells is potentially a human being, but so are eggs and sperm, even if to an unequal degree. All require specific and tenuous conditions to realize the potential to become human. Ovulation and male masturbation would be acts of murder by the same logic that confers the status of humanness on a fertilized egg or early-stage embryo. Conception is just an arbitrary point along a continuum; the fertilization of an egg is no more magical or meaningful than the original production of the sperm or egg; all are equally essential parts to the cycle of life. 

Biological Realities

Yes, somewhere between a just-fertilized egg and a baby about exit the birth canal lies a distinction between potentially human and human. Because that line is difficult to draw does not mean that the line does not exist.  Clearly, the division between potentially human and human is increasingly difficult to distinguish with time from conception, but even later stages of the embryo pass milestones that offer important guidelines.

In the absence of a central nervous system, the embryo is incapable of any sensation. Until a brain is formed with a functioning cortex, the embryo has no ability to form any conscious thought. Neural development begins early, but the process is slow relative to other organ systems. The three main lobes that will become the brain form by the 29th day. About six to eight weeks after fertilization, the first detectable brain waves can be recorded, but the brain is not nearly fully formed, and the cortex is little distinguished. Before eight weeks, in the absence of any brain function, the growing embryo is little different in its human potential from a fertilized egg.  Abortion at this stage is little different from what happens 75% of the time when a fertilized egg fails to implant.

Later stages of growth do not offer a sign as clear as brain development, but the fetus provides another point of determination, although one involving a higher emotional and ethical cost in the hierarchy of decision-making. Before a fetus is capable of living outside the womb at week 23, even with invasive medical intervention, the line from potential to actual human has not been crossed. Before week 23, a premature baby cannot survive.  Viability between weeks 23 and 26 is uncertain.  After week 26, survival is possible, although lungs do not reach maturity until week 34, and a suite of life-time medical problems can be expected.  Medical advances can only push this point of viability so far back toward conception, because functioning lungs, even if not mature, must be present for a fetus to survive outside the womb.  No amount of medical intervention before that point of development will change this fundamental fact of biology, which establishes a second threshold for abortion at 23 weeks.  A science-fiction scenario of an artificial womb in the far future would not change this calculation of natural embryogenesis.

The Myth of Life’s Sanctity

Beyond the point of when a fetus might be viable outside the uterus, the threshold for when an abortion is a reasonable choice becomes significantly higher. I agree that late-term abortions are difficult to justify, except in the extreme case of rape or incest in which the victim had no access to medical care earlier in the pregnancy.  A primary argument here rests on the notion that life is sacred.  Indeed, the very term “sanctity of life” is code for opposition to abortion, supposedly indicating a pious regard for all things living.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

Cows, pigs, goats and sheep are alive, but killing them for food is not questioned. Hunting big game for sport is just fine.  But since cows and big game are alive, the unctuous appeal to the “sanctity of life” is absurd.  Plants are alive, but I suspect the “sanctity” part only applies to animals.  What abortion opponents mean is that some forms of life, that only they have the right to define, are sacred, while others can be disregarded as long as they give the OK.  

Perhaps, then, the “sanctity of life” really applies only to human beings.  No, that does not work either because abortion foes do not view all human life as sacred; only some life.  For example, killing in war is justified, as is lethal injection for convicted criminals. Opponents of abortion are almost universally in favor of the death penalty.   Killing an intruder in your home is acceptable.  How can one possibly hold these beliefs and claim to believe at the same time that “all life” is sacred?  The contradiction is stark, and the assault on logic and reason beyond comprehension.

Alright, let us say for the sake of argument that the sanctity of life argument really does only apply to humans, and only to some humans as defined by abortion foes.  Even that concession does not lead to any logical conclusion.  Ask yourself this question: when was the last time a pro-choice activist entered a church and gunned down a pro-life activist in front of family and friends?  Is it not just a bit odd that the some of the very people who claim that life is sacred are the ones that kill to promote their cause? Pushing the “sanctity of life” becomes particularly problematic when murders are committed for the cause.  Those proudly proclaiming support for the sanctity of life support nothing of the kind.  The truth is that these folks believe life is sacred on a case-by-case basis, hardly a founding principle.

The sanctity of life argument is dead; and abortion foes who continue to spout pious nonsense that all human life is sacred will have to oppose the death penalty and denounce all wars, allow intruders into their homes and cease defending themselves against lethal attack.  Those who claim all life is sacred must become vegans who only eat plant products that do not damage in any way the parent plant.  If all life is truly sacred, eating any plant or animal would be murder, an idea no more absurd than claiming that eliminating an undifferentiated ball of cells is murder.  The sanctity of life argument is ridiculous at every level.

Last Resort

Nobody likes abortion.  That is not the question being debated.  Prevention, not abortion, is the vastly preferred method of family planning. Abortion is an invasive surgical technique, physically and psychologically traumatic, expensive, and potentially dangerous. Whereas sex should be as frequent as desired, unwanted pregnancy should be exceptional rather than routine. Part of the adult responsibility commensurate with having an active sex life is prudent and careful use of contraception. Abortion should not be viewed as a contraceptive. However, if an unwanted pregnancy occurs, a women’s right to choose her own reproductive destiny must be protected.  As should our right to live in a country free from religious tyranny.



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