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A Choice or a Child?

Maybe the search for middle ground in the abortion debate is doomed. Maybe there is none. What do two sides have in common, when one sees babies being murdered and the other sees women demoted to walking wombs? Polite people want the decencies of debate preserved, but on the rare occasions when it happens, that achieves only less shouting, not a solution.

Abortion is supposed to be a complex issue, fraught with emotional, ethical, legal, social, and religious problems. Approaches that try to address the complexity have, so far, led nowhere. Instead of trying to deal with the issue in its full-fledged form, a better approach might be to simplify its terms as much as possible.

At its heart, abortion is a very simple problem. If we’re killing babies, it has to stop. If we’re not, we don’t.

The first question is whether an unborn “baby” really is a baby, that is, a human being in her or his own right. That leads directly into the question of what it means to be human, one of the thorniest problems people grapple with, even though humans should be the experts on the subject. Deciding on the relative merits of women versus babies is easier, which may be why people concentrate on that.

Science is the one method capable of finding objective proof for an idea, but it can only work its magic on objective data, and hence it can’t answer the big questions. It can tell us that human beings have forty three chromosomes, and that there is 95% similarity between our DNA and that of chimpanzees. The growing combination of egg and sperm is not called a baby in biology. It is a zygote, morula, blastula, gastrula, embryo, or fetus, depending on its stage of development.

Few people would feel that the purely physical parameters are very important. Human DNA in a petri dish isn’t exciting (except to biologists), and a corpse looks much more human than a zygote. Qualities of feeling and mind are really what we’re thinking of when we say that humans are special.

Science can actually provide some data for the discussion of feelings and mind. Nerves, for instance, become myelinated beginning around the fourth month of development. Myelination gives nerves the ability to transmit the sensations we traditionally associate with feeling. Unmyelinated nerves provide that curious awareness of touch and pressure that you can feel under local anesthetic. It is the degree of sensation found in clams.

Thus, one can say with certainty that the developing embryo’s unmyelinated brain is not thinking or feeling in a way that we could recognize. The process of myelination continues after birth, and if the process is disrupted, as for instance in fragile X syndrome, severe retardation can result. That is how far away a fetus is from having a mind like ours, so it is perhaps best not to lean too heavily on the human mind to define humanity.

There are other problems with relying on brain power as a defining characteristic. It is not unique to us. Animal behavior studies have shown that many animals can reason, and once the decision point depends on the degree of reason, fetuses won’t do particularly well.

The only mental skill that has not yet been found in the rest of the animal kingdom is grammar. Bees can say, “excellent flowers, southeast, five miles,” but they can’t distinguish between, “Fly southeast for five miles to find excellent flowers,” versus “Toward the southeast there are five miles of excellent flowers.” Of course, if grammar is to be the hallmark of humanity, it will be a bit of a letdown in our self-image.

Another problem for any argument that rests on our special qualities of mind or emotion is that fetuses don’t have them. Even infants aren’t any too impressive. If they survive, they may eventually show subject-verb agreement, but that is only one possible future. Potential is not the same as actual. I may have the potential to win the Nobel prize, but that doesn’t mean anyone actually gives me one. As reproductive technology advances, every cell in my body may have the potential to become an entire new human being, but that doesn’t mean it will ever make sense to save each cell my body sheds in the course of a day. Being potential human beings makes embryos interesting, but it’s not enough, by itself, to give them special status.

So there are no objective criteria by which to define something as human. “Looks like a human” won’t work, certainly not at the embryonic stage. Chromosomes won’t work because every bit of DNA doesn’t equal a human being. A person with a transplanted organ, even transplanted ovaries or testicles, doesn’t suddenly become two people. And being a potential human won’t work because potential is far from the same as real.

Without any objective answers, the only possible answers are subjective. Like great art, we can recognize fellow human creatures when we see them, but we can’t define them. Unfortunately, what we recognize differs. Some people see a baby, others see an organized collection of cells, and–this is the point–there is no way to prove either point of view. They are both based on beliefs about what makes a being essentially human. These convictions can be very deeply held, but that does not make them facts.

It is frightening and troubling to understand that our definition of humanity is a matter of opinion. Some cultures didn’t even consider newborns human. If they lived to be some days, weeks, or months old, then they were named and accepted as members of society. The definition of who is human in a given culture is based on consensus. In these modern times, one can probably say that newborns are considered human the world over (although the consensus seems to slip when it comes to adults who belong to “them” instead of “us.”) There is no equivalent agreement about fetuses.

There is no way to resolve the debate about fetuses, because there is no way to prove one belief right or wrong. The more deeply held the beliefs, the closer the argument comes to a holy war, and there is no middle ground in a holy war. The fight over abortion is just that: a holy war between faiths with no end in sight.

The good news is that we know how to deal with conflicting beliefs. We separate beliefs and state. That is why it has to be a choice, not a child.

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