I dropped this post over at the AfroSpear on the topic of abortion, specifically on the issue of when does life begin? I was not surprised by the positions taken by most of the commentators, however I found this comment by Francis L. Holland very interesting. It is lengthy, but I believe it is worth sharing here in it’s entirety:
I think life begins before conception. Sperms are “life” and ova are “life.” Sperm swim, they are multi-cellular, the live and die, and so they are “life.” Period. As with the efforts to discontinue the use and reliance on the utterly unscientific “R” word from our scientific thought, it’s very destructive to clear human thinking and to scientific advancement when we invent or redefine scientific concepts such as “race” and “life” for the purpose of gaining ground politically and ideologically. It hobbles scientific thought and it thereby hobbles and frustrates all subsequent political and ideological thought.
If doctors and medical researchers were so foolish and blind by ideology as to believe that babies were not “alive” in the womb, then they would also have to conclude that efforts to preserve the lives of the fetuses – efforts like prenatal care – were inappropriate. Why would we “care” for something that is not alive? As a matter of well-known biology, human life begins begins before conception, with sperms and ova.
The tricky part is when we try to draw political conclusions from scientific observations. Does the fact that my sperm are “alive” mean that I should be imprisoned for masturbating and killing thousands of sperms at once? Have I committed genocide? Should women be compelled to conceive to prevent ALL of the eggs in their ovaries from dying, which would compel them to give birth hundreds of times during their lifetime?
Obviously, the question of whether abortion is wrong cannot turn on whether pre-born life is “alive” or not. When posed in that way, that’s a rhetorical argument, not scientific question that can be answered with scientific inquiry. The science itself is already clear.
Once we accept that life begins when the individual cells of the sperm and ova begin separately to multiply (or even before, perhaps) then we realize that the question of abortion must be decided on other grounds, because that scientific inquiry and established facts do not and cannot compel answer the essential moral and ethical questions involved here:
In what cases should society tell women (and men) what to do with what is inside of them, for example, sperm, ova, and fetuses, but also including testicles and ovaries? Counting the baby’s age from the average of the birth of the sperms and the birth of the ova, at what age, or at what point in the baby’s growth, should society tell a woman how to treat the fetus?
Most of us agree that once the baby passes through the birth channel and enters the operating room and begins to breath, his life must receive all of the protections that any other living human person does. Our laws are clear on that point.
But, before the point of “birth,” when the fetus is capable of living independently were s/he liberated for the womb, there remains considerable debate as to whether s/he should be offered the opportunity to do so. I think most of us would also agree that there is very little moral difference between killing a child that is two minutes out of the womb and killing a child that is two minutes from being born. Yet, there are some people who say that a woman has a right to an unquestioned right to an abortion, even if she runs to the family planning clinic at the last minute, racing the baby to see whether she can kill him before s/he is born alive and becomes her lifelong responsibility. There are virtually no cases where that occurs in practice, but it is worth mentioning the possibility to demonstrate that even those of us who believe we are solidly pro-abortion have limits to what we can morally stomach.
I also believe that very few people are really “pro-abortion” just as very few people are “pro-suicide.” No one gets pregnant for the express purpose of having an abortion, just like no one intentionally becomes depressed for the joy of subsequently committing suicide.
No one says, “I am glad that I am pregnant because now I can have an abortion.” No one says, “I am glad that I am alive, because otherwise I would not have this opportunity to kill myself.” No one is really “pro-abortion” or “pro-suicide.” We are not in favor of abortion in the abstract. Those of us who insist on the continued existence of the legal and medical option of abortion do so because we believe that, among the alternatives that present themselves, there are cases when abortion is the best among a group of bad alternatives.
We are in favor of each person having the right and assuming the responsibility to make the best decision they can under the circumstances that present themselves, with respect to their sexual organs and the fruits of their sexual organs, for at least so long as those fruits remain within our bodies.
Is that right? If I am two months pregnant, does the fact that the fetus resides inside of me give me the right to intentionally and knowingly and purposefully modify the DNA of my fetus so that it will have one eye in the middle of its forehead, or two horns and a tail, or so that it will be born and live mentally retarded? Once I decide that the baby will be born at all, don’t I have some responsibilities to that baby even when s/he is inside the womb? Don’t fetuses have rights at least against knowing and willful acts done intentionally for the purpose of destroying what lives they can have after they are born? (My wife thought this example was too absurd to be included here, and yet I do so to demonstrate that all freedoms and liberties must, at least morally and ethically, be recognized to have some limits.)
Our obligations to each other are first moral and ethical ones, that we sometimes decide to legislate into legal obligations. One of the requirements of criminal law is that the acts we are forbidden to take must be clear to us beforehand, so that we know what behavior may result in loss of life or liberty. Criminal laws are designed and intended to define and delineate for society those acts that society believes to be so clearly wrong that they are impermissible. And this is why abortion must not be outlawed: The situations in which abortion is clearly wrong and clearly appropriate are too fact-specific for any one law (or compendium of laws and exceptions) to apply to all or even most cases.
For example, a friend of mine who is a church-going conservative evangelist told me that she is unalterably anti-abortion. So, I recounted to her the situation in which my grandmother and grandfather found themselves when my grandmother was pregnant with her sixth child. My grandmother was sedated in the delivery room when the doctor informed my grandfather, “I can save your wife, the mother of your five children, or I can save the baby, but not both.” The doctor asked my grandfather to choose between the life of the mother and the life of the infant.
Astoundingly, my grandfather chose the life of the infant, just as all those who are unalterably anti-abortion would be compelled by their abstract beliefs to do, were they to follow their logic to its ultimate conclusion in this particular case. In many countries, and even in the United States, it is still all too common for women to die in childbirth or as a result of continued pregnancy (e.g. preclampsia).
We are morally outraged that my grandfather would choose the life of the infant over the life of the mother of his five children, and yet this would seem to be required by a position that always rejects abortion, regardless of the circumstances. And so even the most rigidly anti-abortion among us are compelled to admit that the morality of abortion – the rightness and wrongness of abortion – is sometimes situationally specific.
It is precisely because the morality of abortion depends upon the particular circumstances – the varied multiplicity of circumstances that confront human beings everywhere – that I believe that abortion ought not be illegal. Instead, we must rely on information, education and moral suasion to compel men and women to make the best decisions with respect to their own sexual organs and what resides inside of them.
As individuals, we also can refuse to accept employment and participate in activities that would compel us to engage in behavior that we believe is morally wrong.
We must limit certain procedures involving the fetus; intentional acts taken for the purpose of causing fetal abnormalities (retardation, horns and tail) should be illegal, because they would burden the life of the fetus after he is born, and for so long as s/he lives, and so such procedures would exceed the SELF-determined authority of the individual to control his/her own sexual organs.
In the case of my grandmother, the doctor thankfully did that which he believed to be consistent with morality and reason and my grandmother’s “informed consent” to her medical treatment: the doctor saved the life of my grandmother, even though this compelled him to terminate the life of the unborn fetus. I approve of the decision that the doctor made, with my grandmother’s informed consent. Thankfully, they properly had the legal freedom and obligation that we all must have to such decisions, on a case by case basis, based on the circumstances that present themselves.