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Magical Thinking - The Abortion Controversy

Society and Morals

To begin with, a full disclosure. My wife and I have two daughters, both adopted. They are grown now, with children of their own. One grandchild, the oldest, is a fine horsewoman and a Registered Nurse at a local hospital, from all indications an exceptional one. She will undoubtedly at times in her career be instrumental in saving lives. We take pride in the knowledge that our family consists of decent, productive--or potentially so-members of society. The kicker is that when we look with loving eyes on our girls and their families, we cannot help but think that had it been a few decades later, these two wonderful kids might well have never been permitted to live.

Magical thinking, simply defined, is the idea that the real world is what we want it to be, not what it is. The abortion controversy abounds with magical thinking. Prevailing pro-choice philosophy is that if a pregnant woman wants her unborn child, then it is a human being subject to the full protection of the law. However, if she does not want it, then it consists merely of "an undifferentiated mass of cells" that can legally be aborted. This is a perfect example of magical thinking.

In fact, the philosophical guru of the pro-choice community, Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University, asserts that a child should be subject to killing after birth, should it prove to be defective. According to Singer, "... killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all." (Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge, 1993)

In most societies, killing a human being is a major crime subject to severe punishment. The salient issue in the abortion controversy, then, must of necessity be the "humanity" of the fetus or embryo. Certainly, the delivered fetus, now an infant, is a living, breathing human being, Prof. Singer notwithstanding. The question is what is it before birth? A common argument is the lack of "viability" of the fetus, its inability to survive outside the womb. Supposedly, if it is not viable, then it is not a protected human being.

The problem with this is that abortion is technically legal at any time in the pregnancy, although many states restrict third trimester abortions. Babies born prematurely often survive-are viable-any time after the 23rd week, near the end of the second trimester. Also, we do not refer to adults with impaired breathing requiring oxygen to survive, or other life support, as not being "viable". At least not yet.

So, what do we have with a developing child in the womb? Is it human and is it alive? If so, then we are on dangerous ground indeed when we authorize killing it. There is little question that at some point the developing fetus is alive and if it is not human, then what is it? Let us try to define that point, a problem that has occupied philosophers and ethicists throughout history.

Some religious folks assert that the developing embryo/fetus becomes a human being when it receives a soul. Scripture tells us that, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart;" (NIV-Jeremiah 1:5) Sounds like God assigns souls pretty early in the game.

Well, how about the scientific approach, medical or biological? Let's take a look at the human reproductive process. I will dispense with the preliminaries and start with the little buggers that get the whole thing started. They're called gametes-the sperm and egg (ovum). The gametes get together and create a zygote, a fertilized egg. The zygote implants in the uterus, at which time it becomes a blastocyst, but still has not started the process of cell division. When cell division starts, the blastocyst becomes an embryo. This process takes 3-4 days.

At 4 weeks, the embryo has recognizable human features like a spine, brain, rudimentary eyes and ears, heart and liver. (See Fig. 1)

Fig. 1 - Embryo at 23 days

At 6 weeks, it is about ½ inch long and has a recognizable head, jaw and external ears. At 8 weeks (2 months) it is now designated a fetus and has a face with eyes and ears, a nose with nostrils, limbs with joints, hands and feet with fingers and toes, genitalia and all internal organs. Movement begins. (See Figs. 2,3)


      Fig. 2 - Embryo (hands) at 7 weeks                   Fig. 3 - Embryo at 6 weeks

At 3 months, the end of the first trimester, the fetus is clearly recognizable as a human being. Early in the second trimester at 18 weeks, the face is fully developed. (See Fig 4)

               Fig. 4 - Fetus at 18 weeks

At 5 months, the fetus has hair and begins kicking Mom in the stomach. At 6 months it has eyebrows and eyelashes and at 7 months the eyes open. The rest of the time until the normal end of gestation at 9 months is spent growing and in lung development, one of the last things to be completed.

O.K., when in this process do we have a living human being? I don't know, and neither does anyone else. This is a seamless process of development from blastocyst to birth. Is it possible that at some point very early in the process we have that "undifferentiated mass of cells?" I guess it's possible, but to me there is no clear-cut onset of "human-ness". Aye, there's the rub.

Abortion has been compared to capital punishment. I have commented on this in a previous post. However, we in this society bend over backwards to insure that we are executing a truly guilty malefactor, according multiple years of appeals and re-examinations until every vestige of doubt is eliminated. Better several guilty go free rather than one innocent be executed. It seems to me that the same policy should be applied to the unborn infant.

If we cannot with absolute certainty assign a point in the fetal development process where human life initiates, then by the principle of the condemned, we must err on the side of life. The only safe policy is to assume that life begins at conception, i.e. the zygote or at least the embryonic stage 3-4 days after fertilization.

The process of magical thinking that permeates the abortion controversy never ceases to amaze me. I find it hard to believe that it's all about "choice" or the mental health of the mother. I find it hard to ignore the fact that Planned Parenthood typically charges $400 for an abortion, a very lucrative business for them.

The mother's health is often cited as an issue justifying aborting a fetus. The problem is that this is a very broad, often subjective category, covering everything from emotional health to life-threatening conditions. In the case of the latter, where there is a clear medical "Hobson's choice" between the life of the mother and her baby, historically the life of the mother takes precedence. I see no problem with this. I do see a problem with the mother's emotional or mental health being used to justify an abortion, even the grotesque "partial birth" procedure.

Another issue often raised is the mother's right to make choices concerning her own body. First, in civilized society our choices are often restricted. For example, we cannot choose to kill someone who offends us. The embryo/fetus is not an integral part of the mother's body, like a kidney. It resides therein being provided sustenance and shelter, connected only temporarily to her for less than a year. (Please, I'm not minimizing the marvelous process of pregnancy and the huge contribution of Mom to the miracle of a new life.) This does not convey the power of life or death over a unique human being.

One last point. The question of rape or incest has been raised to justify abortion. This ignores the rights of the human unborn child in favor of the interests of the woman victim. Incest, a disgustingly reprehensible and illegal act, does not pose a great genetic risk unless practiced over time and generations. Thus, a baby is not at significant risk if conceived due to an isolated incestuous act. Rape, a vile and vicious crime, may result in an extremely unwanted pregnancy. This is fully understandable, but again has nothing to do with the right of the fetus to survive. In both of these cases, adoption is a viable alternative. Nine months of discomfort and modest restriction would seem to be a small price to pay for a human life.

I do not expect this essay to change many minds. Magical thinking today is so prevalent on so many issues, it would take more than my poor effort to make a substantial dent. The issue of abortion is one not exclusively of religion, morality or politics, although these are certainly factors. To me, it is simply a matter of logic and honest realism, in the primary context of humanity.

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