Furthering Your Understanding Through In-Depth Study


The following is a paper I wrote for an English 103 class in the Spring of 2018.

The Problem with Abortion

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." - Thomas Jefferson, in the US Declaration of Independence

Induced abortion has been controversial for thousands of years, but perhaps the subject is more controversial now than it has ever been. Those who call themselves "Pro-Choice" believe abortion is morally acceptable in most situations, while those who call themselves "Pro-Life" believe the opposite: that abortion is morally wrong in most situations. Both sides publicly claim the moral high-ground. Pro-Choice groups have likened induced abortion to a woman's right to engage in society and politics, live independently, and direct her own life as a mature adult. On the other hand, Pro-Life groups have likened induced abortion to the slave trade, and even infant-sacrifice. While the Pro-Choice group has historically considered embryos as cellular growths with the potential to become a living being at some later date, Pro-Life groups consider them to be unique, living beings which are dependent on, but separate from, the woman that carries and nurtures them. Science is often cast aside when it comes to abortion, but science, if allowed to speak, has something important to say: that is, induced abortion for any reason should no longer be a legal practice in the United States.

In 1973 the Supreme Court made a ruling on Roe v. Wade. A pregnant, single woman, a doctor being tried for performing illegal abortions, and a couple who allegedly feared pregnancy due to health issues, all joined together to challenge Texas' abortion law in the Supreme Court (“Roe”). At the time, abortion was banned in Texas except in the case of extreme risk to the mother. Although the Supreme Court ruled it had no legal right to intervene on the doctor's and the couple's behalf, it did seriously consider the single woman's case. The Court ruled that the Texas law, enacted one hundred years prior, was unconstitutional. This ruling would help change the landscape of abortion ethics for more than forty years, and become the focal-point of a controversy that has lasted for centuries.

Roe v. Wade is often seen as a line in the sand, something that cannot be crossed. Although the Court’s ruling was definite, it was also somewhat vague. Justice Blackmun, presenting the majority opinion, conceded that Ms. Roe had a right to sexual privacy, as loosely interpreted from the fourteenth and the ninth amendments, and, in general, all amendments in the Bill of Rights, and that this right covered the decision to have an abortion (“Roe”). However, he also conceded that if person-hood of the unborn was ever realized, the government’s obligation to protect that person would override a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Essentially, while person-hood of the unborn is yet undefined, the government has no so-called “compelling interest” to interfere in a woman’s right to privacy during her pregnancy. However, if person-hood of the unborn were defined (i.e., legally), the government would have no choice but to protect them from undue harm, just as it is obligated to protect the women who carry them.

Unfortunately, claims to prenatal person-hood fell flat in Roe v. Wade. The Constitution does not mention person-hood until birth, and the question of when life begins is often called an “open question.” Blackmun determined, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer” (“Roe”). In other words, if the unborn are indeed persons, millions have legally been killed, simply because society is largely ignorant of exactly when life begins.

Ironically, to show the difficulty of determining when life begins, the Court used sources which are hundreds, and some even thousands, of years old. Blackmun mentions the views of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the ancient Jews, the Catholic dogma up until the Reformation, and the early Protestant teachings as a whole (“Roe”). Ancient views of abortion might serve as an interesting talking point, but they have very little place in determining when life begins. If the question of when life begins is truly a scientific matter, what do the opinions of the ancients have to do with it? Unfortunately, the Court paid little attention to what science might say about abortion.

In fact, the irony of presenting, with weight, the opinions of the ancients on abortion becomes extremely apparent when examining what they have said on such matters more closely. Even during the first century (or three-hundred years after Plato), some have thought the wind direction during procreation determined the sex of a sheep’s offspring. Pliny the Elder writes such educational facts as, “If the right testicle is tied up, the ram will generate females, and if the left, males” (Pliny 8.72). Considering that a basic understanding of genetics remained unrealized until approximately the nineteenth century, the ancients cannot be faulted for having such erroneous theories. However, if the Court’s decision leans upon such opinions without looking equally, or more so, to modern scientific wisdom, it should be very disconcerting.

Unfortunately, the Court’s view of modern medicine seems very distant in Roe v. Wade. Concluding the Court’s opinion on when life begins, Blackmun states:

“Substantial problems for precise definition of this view [that life begins at conception] are posed, however, by new embryological data that purport to indicate that conception [better, the creation of life] is a ‘process’ over time, rather than an event, and by new medical techniques such as menstrual extraction, the ‘morning-after’ pill, implantation of embryos, artificial insemination, and even artificial wombs” (“Roe”).

It is troubling that the Supreme Court would consider the scientific aspect of the question so dismissively. For example, in which way does the “morning after pill” (a pill which prevents ovulation) lead to unanswerable questions about when life begins? The same question might be asked concerning artificial implantation. Whether life begins at conception (i.e., when sperm and ovum meet) or afterward, the possibilities raised by Blackmun have no effect upon that fact. Even zygotes (each being a fusion of sperm and ovum), having been frozen for years, raise no further problems for when life begins. It is commonly known that cells can be frozen for long periods of time, and science fiction has long proposed that one day human adults will be able to be frozen and thawed again, yet this can hardly be conceived as raising questions about the person-hood of all humanity. Sadly, Blackmun fails to see this point, or rather uses these various objections in order to avoid the subject altogether.

It appears, then, that the Court based its decision not to consider whether the unborn are living beings or not on three points. The first point is that the Court is not the place to determine when life begins. The second point being that there is no overall consensus concerning when life begins. The third point is that because it is possible to manipulate when and where the unborn develop, or if they do, this in some way raises questions about whether the unborn are alive or not. However, this is not an unanswerable question for science, then or now.

Genetically, life begins when new DNA is formed. According to Walker and Hawley, writing for AccessScience.org, meiosis is the process of gamete (sex-cell) generation. By the end of meiosis, each gamete is left with a single chromosome copy from each of the forty-eight chromosome pairs of the parent, with each copy potentially containing changes due to genetic recombination. It is through this process of splitting chromosome pairs between gametes during meiosis, and then pairing these lone chromosomes with lone chromosomes from the other parent during fertilization, that leads to the creation of new (i.e., different) DNA. Not only does a zygote (a fusion of the ovum and sperm cells) have DNA which is distinct from the mother’s DNA, this DNA will persist as long as the child lives. In more sensational terms, if a mass killing were to occur in which the only means for counting victims was by comparing DNA samples that survived the event, a zygote would be counted as a victim, so long as its DNA was preserved.

Another interesting example of person-hood can be found in the female development of gametes. According to Walker and Hawley, while males develop new sperm throughout their lives, females develop all the ova they will need during the course of their lives before birth, during the fetal stage. They write, “Thus, all of the meiotic recombination that a human female will ever do is completed before she is born.” While the lone chromosome copies present in sperm are always recently made, the lone chromosome copies present in ova precede birth, comparable to a person’s normal (i.e., non-sexual) DNA. In fact, one could say half the DNA of a woman’s offspring was already prepared while she was yet unborn.

As the zygote moves toward the uterus after its conception, it begins to multiply through mitosis into a group of cells, which eventually attaches to the lining of the uterus, growing a placenta and becoming known as an embryo. According to Harland Mossman, formerly working in the Department of Anatomy for the University of Wisconsin, the placenta allows the bloodstream of the embryo and the mother to come close to one another, but they never actually touch. The close proximity of the two bloodstreams allows waste to pass from the embryo’s bloodstream to the mother’s, and nutrients to pass from the mother’s bloodstream to the embryo’s. In other words, the mother and the embryo have separate, distinct bloodstreams, or more specifically, the embryo has its own bloodstream. The embryo cannot be called a “clump of cells” belonging to the mother if it has its own bloodstream, and potentially has a blood type which differs from the mother.

Even at an early stage in development, the unborn have human organs. Placentation occurs at five weeks gestation, and the embryo’s brain, spinal cord, and heart begin to develop during this week as well, along with blood cells and nerve cells (“Fetal”). By the seventh week, the embryo’s main arteries are in working order, the heart pumps normally, and the bone structure begins to form. By the eighth week the embryo has arms and legs, and the lungs have already begun to develop. By the end of the ninth week all of the essential organs have begun to form, and by the tenth the embryo is called a fetus. The genitals develop by the fourteenth week, and at this point the fetus can make a fist with his or her hands. By the eighteenth week, the fetus can stretch and suck fluids into its lungs. If an embryo has a working heart, brain, spinal cord, and vascular system as all human adults do, doesn’t this seem to imply its humanity, no matter what physical shape it currently takes? Interestingly, the more mankind learns about how the unborn develop, the more human they seem to be.

If nothing else, organ-harvesting makes one thing clear: the unborn have human organs. Using words like “stomach-turning” and “damning,” Kirsten Powers, a reporter for CNN, and an active writer for USA Today, reacted in anger to an undercover video in which a Planned Parenthood doctor was recorded talking about harvesting intact organs from aborted fetuses. No wonder. Planned Parenthood doctors intentionally dismember live fetuses in such a way as to harvest the organs that researchers are most interested in purchasing. But the gruesomeness of late-term abortions aside, the fact that there are medical uses for such organs should make it obviously clear that a fetus is nothing less than a human being. If fetuses have human organs, can they be considered anything less than human?

Finally, there is the issue of pain. Fetal pain during abortion is the basis for such laws as “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” According to Teresa Collette, although doctors disagree as to whether “feeling pain” means a conscious recognition of negative stimulus, or simply the presence of negative stimulus itself, they do agree that a fetus at eighteen weeks gestation not only sends pain stimuli through the spinal cord and into the brain, it often has a physical reaction to actions commonly considered painful, such as a needle prick (1215-1219). If a fetus is not a living human being, how could it feel pain? The very presence of such a debate requires an indirect admission that the unborn are in fact “persons,” or at the very least, living beings.

In light of the realization that the unborn are not “a clump of cells” belonging to the mother, some have adopted the stance that they must be, in essence, parasites. The convenience of such a stance is obvious. After all, people kill parasites all the time, and the unborn, like parasites embed themselves in the body of a woman, and feed off of her bloodstream. Clearly, they should be treated like parasites. However, such opinions are about as scientific as the view that the unborn are “just a clump of cells.” For one, it completely ignores the fact that the unborn are created in a woman’s body through a process known as “procreation”: they are not, in fact, “aliens” (as the joke goes) that have invaded her body. Second, it ignores the fact that the woman’s body is specifically designed to create, nurture, and give birth to these “parasites.” Third, it ignores the fact that the unborn one day grow up to be people, not leaches. The size of the unborn in itself is immaterial: they are human if they are human.

There are various other counter-arguments to any moral objection to abortion. Considering the issue of abortion, Blackmun says that “population growth, pollution, [and] poverty, . . . tend to complicate and not to simplify the problem” (“Roe”). Elsewhere, he lists six “detriments” that make abortion necessary: economical distress, “[p]sychological harm,” an unsuitability for raising children, mental “distress” over having an “unwanted child,” being forced to care for a child without being ready or equipped to do so, and “the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood.” Clearly abortion solves many, diverse problems: from saving psychologically imbalanced mothers from further harm, to preventing over-population. However, these arguments beg the question, “Is abortion really a solution, or does it ignore the real problem? Is abortion really ‘contraception’?”

No matter how unpopular the notion, the best birth-control is abstinence. Jeffries et. al., coming from various University departments, including the Department of Sociology, Criminology, and Law, and the Department of Applied Health Science, in outlining the prevalent argument against Abstinence Only Education (AOE), admit that abstinence is the only method that is guaranteed to prevent pregnancy and STD’s (172). In fact, out of the 199 teachers in the study which did not teach under the AOE rules, 98% still taught abstinence as a form of birth-control (177). Clearly abstinence would be preferable to abortion. Abstinence is safe and effective. Abortion carries certain risks, especially as the pregnancy progresses. Abstinence prevents conception (that is, the creation of a human being), while abortion prevents birth (that is, the destruction of a human being).

The trouble with abstinence is that most people don’t fully observe it. Jeffries et. al., presenting the primary argument against AOE, write, “many youth do not remain abstinent until marriage and others (e.g. non-heterosexual youth) choose not to marry” (172). Despite the natural focus on sexual activity among youth, this problem is not limited to adolescents. Youth often choose not to remain abstinent until marriage, despite the admitted benefits, but adults follow this pattern as well, if not more-so. Adults, especially young adults, are not immune to the tendencies of youth, nor to the perception that they are “old enough” to do what they want.

As it turns out, parents have a strong impact on how their children will perceive sex. According to Blake et. al., when parents talk to their children about sex and its consequences, children are less likely to engage in sexual activity, and, if they do, are more cautious about who they have sex with, and more likely to use some form of birth-control (52). Parents have a great impact on the decisions their children make, for better or for worse. Although this study does not consider how the lifestyle parents choose affect their children, one thing is clear: parent involvement in a child’s sexual education effectively lowers the likelihood they themselves will beget a child. This influence undoubtedly reaches into adulthood to some degree.

Another, perhaps much more controversial, way to lower the number of pregnancies among youth and young adults would be to teach them about abortion. In the study conducted by Jeffries et. al., forty-two percent of the teachers who did not teach AOE taught about abortion (177). However, given the highly sensitive nature of abortion, it is highly unlikely that this education includes information about how abortions are performed, or, even more importantly, the moral and philosophical implications of abortion. If laws were passed to legally define life as beginning at conception, teaching youth about abortion in light of when life begins, with all the grittiness abortion naturally entails, could perhaps be a further deterrent against unsafe sexual activity. Despite its highly controversial nature, it could be argued that if youth are capable of deciding when and if to terminate a fetus, they must be capable of handling the weighty subject of abortion itself.

Finally, one other method would be to provide government-funded, long-term contraception and sterilization. According to William Elliott, a study shows that “[l]ong-acting contraceptives, such as IUDs and implants, are up to 20 times more effective than oral contraceptives and other short-acting contraceptive methods” (2). If abortion were to become illegal under most circumstances, long-acting contraception and sterilization could naturally take its place as a government-funded option. Rather than offering abortions to young women, UID’s and sterilization should be offered, to counter-act the non-observance of abstinence seen among the population.

However, despite the usual focus on female sterilization, sterilization for men should not be overlooked. According to Rodriguez and Pastuszak, vasectomy—or male sterilization—is less invasive, more effective, and less costly than tubal litigation—or female sterilization (1). Despite this, only half as many vasectomies are performed in the US as tubal litigations. If the government were to fund this procedure, for adults and youth, alongside long-term and permanent contraception among women, there would be less of a so-called need for abortion.

In Roe v. Wade, the Court determined that it could not, and should not, determine when life begins. However, science is very clear on this issue: genetically (as in zygote DNA), developmentally (as the embryo’s development of a heart and blood-type), and perhaps even pathologically (such as a fetus’ ability to react to pain stimuli after eighteen weeks gestation). Despite the scientific community’s desire to over-sanitize the subject of abortion, it is, and will continue to be, a moral dilemma as long as the practice persists. However, other alternatives to abortion such as abstinence, sterilization, and long-term contraception deserve further consideration. In light of these, and other facts and options which will continue to come to light over time, it is now more important than ever for the government to finally choose life: to think of the humanity of the unborn, and not just the privacy of the mother. Abortion is not, and never has been, contraception.

Works Cited