I have been trying to convince a “pro-life” UU that a woman is a person, and that a fetus is, at best, a special class that requires special consideration when we look at what rights we ascribe to it.
Let me start by saying that I am Pro-Life. I am in favor of not only life in simple terms, but in quality of life and the fullness of life and in life being something to celebrate. I was adopted as an infant. I have 2 children of my own, and I assure you that the first was a surprise. I wish that bearing a child didn’t come with social stigma and economic burdens. I wish that Maternal Mortality weren’t still an issue all over the world, more than 1 women in every 50,000 births in the US. Even if we managed those social and medical achievements, it can’t be ignored that having a child changes a woman’s body and brain chemistry, and not just the first time, but with each child that she bares. Every pregnancy requires a commitment to a real and unpredictable alteration to your way of life. It requires something akin to ego-death and accepting that you may not come out the same person. That isn’t something that we are likely to overcome any time soon.
I am Pro-life. I am also, out of necessity, pro-choice. Let me explain why, and how I rationalize that with my own past, my principles, and modern science.
Let’s start with a look at what it is that makes a person. It can’t just be genetics: a cancerous tumor is genetically human, and yet, differentiated from its host. It cannot live outside the host, even as it drains resources to fuel growth. It is alive, and it is human, but it is not a human being. The crucial distinction, then, is in the potential for a fetus to outgrow that specialized dependency and become an individual. I can accept that that potential is important, but it is not the same as a promise.
This is something so obvious that no country that I am aware of treats the fetus as a person. No industrialized nation issues “fertilization certificates”. Fetuses are not counted in any census. They are neither taxed, nor dependents to be claimed. If we are fighting for the “rights” of the fetus, what rights is it capable of exercising? It cannot have liberty from its womb. It cannot own property. It cannot believe, speak, read or write, or assemble freely. It cannot do these things, not for a defect in its development or an injury it has sustained, but due to an inherent and obvious lack of ability ensuing from the fact that it is not, as of yet, a person. It is not reasonable to describe the fetus as a whole person, and certainly not one that has the right to reside within an unwilling woman.
Why is it so obvious to all these secular agencies? Why has science been able to change our definition of death so clearly, but left the beginning of life so obscure? In part, it is because people will believe what they want, and that, generally speaking, the idea of when someone gains “humanity” is not a scientific question; it is generally held that a zygote is human, but that only something that has been separated from its egg, its mother, or (in the case of seahorses at least) its father’s womb. Before that, it is “alive”, but it is not a qualified individual member of its species.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why the promise of the embryo is not the same as an individual, much less a person:
Up to one half of all fertilized zygotes never make it beyond the 3rd week. Many women will have at least one miscarriage in their childbearing years. Some of the critical errors that can cause a miscarriage are:
* Inheritance of a defective set of chromosomes. Errors in meiosis (called nondisjunctions) can produce an egg or sperm that has an abnormal number of chromosomes or broken chromosomes. This is almost always lethal. About half of the early miscarriages in humans are afflicted with this kind of random chromosomal defect.
* Errors in mitosis after ferilization. A nondisjunction in a dividing blastula may produce one abnormal cell — but since the blastula has so few cells, that means a significant fraction of the embryo is defective, preventing further development.
* Implantation errors. Human embryos have to nestle down in a good home, in the uterus. If the mother’s hormones are not just right, that can prevent implantation, and the otherwise healthy zygote may be sloughed away. In addition, 0.5 – 1% of all pregnancies are ectopic: the zygote tries to implant in the wrong place, most often in the fallopian tubes. This is always fatal for the embryo, and has the potential to be fatal for the mother.
Plenty of zygotes never implant in the uterus, and plenty of embryos are ejected by the host’s body for a variety of reasons, and this is possible at all stages of gestation.
At around 16 days after fertilization, we see a process called gastrulation, the point in development when the genetic code of the father first becomes truly involved in the embryo’s development. Until this point in development, even interspecies hybrids are possible, though most will die off once gastrulation occurs. This shows that simple fertilization does not promise a viable member of any species at all.
So, there must be a point in development where we are certain that we are going to get a person. Arguably, this happens around 20-23 weeks along, when we can detect actual brain activity above just the brain stem. That parallels the common medical definition for brain death, which is where we commonly declare the end of life, or at least hope for quality of life.
Even after that, though, many premature births still result in a being that is incapable of living more than a few weeks, even days. At least at that point, though, the fetus has a chance at life, outside the womb, in the care of someone other than the woman in whom it implanted. And that is the earliest point at which I can hold the argument for real personhood.
That still doesn’t explain clearly why women need to be able to choose to evict this mass, if they choose to do so. I feel I have established my position of the fetus as a non-entity, but why does that matter? Let’s cook up a ridiculous analogy; ridiculous because any attempt to duplicate the strain of an unwanted pregnancy with a relatable situation is doomed to seem silly to anyone who has been through even a planned and welcome pregnancy.
I am adopted. No member of my family is genetically close to me. I need a kidney. I, therefore, insist that everyone in the US be screened, and that a random person with a proper DNA profile who has 2 good kidneys be forced to give up one. My need of their body is life or death, where as the risk to them is slight to moderate. We must also make them pay for the operation and drastically change their lifestyle for 9 months to prepare for a potentially deadly (one woman dies in the US for every 50K live births) medical procedure that will take months to recover from and alter their own brain and body chemistry for the rest of their lives.
Oh, and they have to wear a silly hat for those 9 months that opens them to public ridicule and even scorn for having been a viable donor. That is the real problem I have with a prohibition on abortion.
We can change the world such that a woman knows that she’ll have food and medical treatment. We can ensure that she will still have educational opportunities. We can continue the work of medical science, though I don’t know what kind of breakthrough would make delivery any safer outside of some sort of teleportation. We can do all of these things, and some women will still refuse to share their body with that child at the time the child needs it. She should retain that right, even as we work to reduce the chances it will be exercised. She is a person, actual and whole, and she has a right to control what and who has access to her body.