As I’ve thought about this sensitive and controversial topic, more questions than answers have occurred to me. Some questions generated their own answers, which sometimes generated more questions; others remain unanswered and perhaps will always be so.

One issue is that of emotion versus fact. I write this aware that emotion can make life both wonderful and terrible, and can blind us to reason. And as a male, I’m treading especially carefully, because I don’t run the risk of my abdomen ballooning up to twice or thrice its usual size, and experiencing the discomforts of pregnancy. They say that passing a kidney stone is as close as a male can get to the pain of childbirth. I’ll let you know if that happens; or maybe I won’t have to: you might be able to hear the screaming.

Nevertheless, suffering doesn’t change certain facts – if they are facts, not just an opinion. People who have suffered or are suffering need our compassion and help, not cold facts. Mostly we know those facts anyway but it can help to be gently reminded – gently, I say again – of those facts.

The invariable first and chief assertion in favour of allowing abortion is that a woman has the right to choose. To choose what? To choose what she does with her own body? Yes, a woman has that right. Or does the phrase refer to a woman’s right to choose whether she has the child or not? Every person has the right to do what they want with their own body; but does anyone have the right to do what they want with another person’s body (or mind, or emotions)? If not while in the womb, the foetus will become an independent human being.

Do you think it is unfair to prevent someone from going to school or have a career because of who they are: for example, female? “You’re not a man, so you have no right to an education or a job.” All people are able to learn and to work, so no one should be denied the opportunity to have an education or career. What do you think about the justice of this comparison: “You’re not human, so you have no right to exist”? Again, if even we disagree on whether an embryo is human, and when it becomes human, shouldn’t we consider that an embryo will one day become human?

And if we allow the right of abortion, when does that right stop? I believe it has been suggested by someone that the right of abortion should be extended to 28 days after birth. The answer to this depends upon the answer to two questions: what does it mean to be human, and when does someone become human?

Consider the people this topic affects. Every human who has an opinion about abortion was once in a woman’s womb. No one who has an opinion about abortion is themselves in danger of being aborted. The ones most affected by abortion are the ones who aren’t able to have an opinion about it, let alone voice an opinion. Not yet.

That leads to the next question: what makes someone a human? The ability to relate to others? Animals can do that. The use of language? Again, animals have their own languages (did you know that cats only meow at humans, and bees communicate by dancing?): whether this language extends to conveying abstract concepts, such as love, is debatable, but it seems unlikely that it does. Is being human the ability to experience emotion? It has been noted that even animals have emotion: for example, elephants seem able to grieve over death. Perhaps the argument is too anthropopathic, and no doubt animal emotion isn’t as complex as human emotion, but we classify it as emotion nonetheless.

Does being human require the ability to think in abstract concepts? A human generally can’t do this until they are about 12 years old. But a parent who kills their four-year-old child is considered guilty of murder, so it can’t be that. Does being human require conscience: the conviction that some actions are right or wrong? But until they’re about seven years old, depending on the culture, a human doesn’t seem to realise that they can do something they know is wrong. But again, we still think of a newborn as a human. Could that be because we recognise them as the same kind of entity as the rest of us? But that still doesn’t define what a human is. There is clearly a difference between an adult and an infant, but there is something that both have in common that means we consider a child to be a human. Maybe it’s not about what we do or think; maybe it’s about what we have the capacity to do. It’s not about what we are; it’s about what we will be, or can be.

Do we become human when we look human? If we’re considered human because of what we look like, how should someone look, at any stage of life, to be counted as human? When we’re children, we look like children. When we enter adolescence, we develop a more distinct physical appearance depending on our sex. As we age, we get wrinkled and physically weaker. Does that mean we’re less than fully human. So when we’re two or five months old, we look how we should look. And what precisely in our appearance makes us human? What about people born without one or more limbs? And what should we say is the final date by which abortion could be performed?

What other basis is there for being considered human? At the time of the first heartbeat; brain waves; speech; ability to feel pain; to survive apart from the mother? The heart beats at about the third week of development; brain waves can be measured at about six weeks; before nine weeks, hands, fingers, feet and toes are recognisable. Check out the websites of the Endowment for Human Development, of Nucleus Medical Media and of Lennart Nilssen. Time magazine called Nilssen “the world’s greatest scientific photographer.”

To do justice to all aspects of how we view a human, how about this definition: an entity whose genome carries all those characteristics unique and common to the biological kind called Homo sapiens sapiens – characteristics such as capacity to think about abstract concepts, to take another’s perspective, to appreciate beauty; to distinguish between good and bad; and to choose an action that goes against our natural desires?

From what makes someone human, we could ask, when does someone become human? This is probably the central question in the topic. If the definition of a human is as above, then a human comes into existence at the moment a new organism comprising 46 chromosomes is formed (note this would hold true for clones as well. Clones would be people two.)

An article in Microsoft Encarta states: “At the close of the first month, all major organs have begun their development. The eyes are visible, the arms and legs begin to bud, and the four-chambered heart beats for the first time” [1].

Another Encarta article says: “From about the eighth or tenth week in the womb until birth, the new individual is known as a foetus. At ten weeks, the foetus measures about 2.5 cm (1 in) from the crown of the head to the rump. The face is formed but the eyelids are fused together. The brain is in a primitive state” [2].

Following are some other considerations about this topic:
Raising a child is expensive, or a disruption to our current lifestyle. What if we aren’t able or willing to be a parent? There are many people who are willing to adopt; starting with my sister, who is unable to conceive, even after IVF treatment.

What if a woman gets pregnant through rape? Then we should punish the guilty, not destroy the innocent. It is, to say the very least, inconvenient for the woman: adding insult to injury, even. True, as a male I run no risk of becoming pregnant; which means I must be very careful about my attitude to this topic, as I wrote at the start. However, if an embryo is a human being, it still stands that we should not destroy the innocent, but rather provide the highest level of support for the mother-to-be.

What about the quality of life of the child, if there is evidence of a congenital illness? Raising a child is an effort under any circumstance but raising a child with a disability (ignoring politically correct language) needs special devotion. Again, the parents will need extra help. And what of the children? Do you know anyone who has Down’s Syndrome, who is deaf and blind, or who has debilitating cerebral palsy. How do they feel about their life? Do they wish that they hadn’t been born? Should they not have been allowed to be born? A legal phrase is fitting here: difficult cases make bad law. We should start with what is simple, certain, and what we have in common.

Talk to those who are already parents: if they could go back in time and talk to their pregnant self, would they encourage their younger self to abort the child? (Thanks to Nat for this point.) Sure, there are times when we would wish we had the freedom we did when we were single, or didn’t have kids, but on the whole, where would we rather be?

As we all were once in a woman’s womb, what do we think about the fact that we could have been aborted? For myself, there have been many times – and there still are – I’ve wished that I hadn’t been born. But that’s for another reason.

Contraceptives, medical and mechanical, have become widely and cheaply available. This means women are freer to have sex without risking the complication of pregnancy. Of course, condoms break and medications don’t always work. We all want to be free of restrictions but there is always a price to pay. We usually don’t care if it’s someone else who bears the cost; that includes me.

At the risk of pushing too far: if you don’t support abortion yourself but say other people can, isn’t it the same as saying it’s okay for someone else to murder another person, even though you wouldn’t do it yourself?

This is the final (for this essay) consideration, and what is arguably the strongest argument for abortion: what if the life of the mother is at risk? What if it was probable, even almost certain, that the life of my wife, mother or sister would be at risk by continuing the pregnancy? The life of the foetus might be at risk, or it might not. This is a question I have no answer for, but the answer will depend on your definition of “human”. Certainly I believe it is impossible for me or another human to condemn a woman or a couple for deciding to end the pregnancy. Further, even if you have had an abortion, I wouldn’t condemn you for it. I have no right; not because I’m male, but because I’m only human.

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Endnotes

[1] Jonathon Slack, “Development (biology)”. In Microsoft® Encarta® Premium Suite 2003.

[2] “Human Reproduction”. In Microsoft® Encarta® Premium Suite 2003.

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