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January 22, 2015 marks the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, yet the abortion discussion remains mired in confusion. The debate is too often framed as a debate over “when life beings.” That misleading phrasing obscures the two distinct questions, one biological and one philosophical, at the heart of the issue.
The biological question is not open to reasonable dispute. As shown below, an embryo created through human reproduction is indisputably a living member of the human species. Even many of the most ardent pro-choicers acknowledge this. The philosophical question is the real point on which pro-lifers and pro-choicers disagree. That question explores when a living human obtains full human rights. Is every living human entitled to human rights, or is there another requirement? Asking the question in that matter clarifies the actual dispute between pro-lifers and pro-choicers.
Absent the controversy over abortion, it is inconceivable that anyone would dispute that an embryo is a living member of the human species. This fact is reported without equivocation in embryology text books. For example, Medical Embryology 3rd edition, by Jan Langman, reports that “[t]he development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism.”
Pro-choice partisans routinely admit this fact. Alan Guttmacher, the founder of Planned Parenthood, wrote in this book Life in the Making that “we of today know that man is born of sexual union; that he starts life as an embryo within the body of the female; and that the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm. This all seems so simple and evident to us that it is difficult to picture a time when it was not part of common knowledge.” Sadly, despite the “simple and evident” nature of this fact, it remains shrouded in confusion to some Americans. Pro-choice philosopher Peter Singer similarly acknowledges the “scientifically accurate claim that the foetus is a living individual of the species Homo sapiens.”
There is no doubt that an embryo is alive. Embryos are made up of cells that work in a coordinated fashion, take in nutrition and turn it into energy, excrete waste, grow, move, and are sensitive to their surroundings. Single celled organisms like amoebas and paramecium are alive, bacteria are alive, weeds are alive, and so are human embryos.
There is simply no such thing as “potential life.” Nonliving things do not turn into living things: the theory of spontaneous generation has been discredited for centuries. Stones do not transform into mice. The creation of a new living human requires a living sperm and a living egg. The zygote formed by their fusion is alive as well. If an embryo dies, there is no way that it can mature into an infant, toddler, or adult. We have not yet discovered the secret of raising the dead. This may sound childishly obvious, and yet some people still frame the abortion debate as a debate over when life begins.
It is also indisputable that a living human embryo is a member of the species Homo sapiens, otherwise known as human. When two members of the same species reproduce in a natural manner, their offspring is not a member of a third species. Two elephants do not naturally produce a giraffe: they produce another elephant. Similarly, the product of human reproduction is another human.
The fusion of a human egg and a human sperm produces a zygote, which is a “new, genetically distinct human organism.” At that moment, the new human has 46 chromosomes like every other living human. His genes are distinct from those of his mother and father and immediately determine and control his growth and development. Under normal circumstances, that human zygote will mature through the natural stages of human life, eventually reaching adulthood.
Until this point there is no serious debate. The real discussion is over the consequences of those facts. The pro-life side maintains that full human rights, including the right not to be murdered, attach at the same moment that human life begins. The pro-choice side argues that “biological life is not sufficient to give the foetus the right to life.”
The pro-life argument does not depend on theological claims. It is has nothing to do with souls or God. It simply states that humans obtain their full rights at the very second they come into existence. No other factor or milestone is required. All humans, regardless of location, size, strength, intelligence, dependency, age, or health, are entitled to the same fundamental human rights.
According to the pro-choice side, “[m]erely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” In other words, human rights do not apply equally to all living humans. In fact, they may not apply to some humans at all. At least one other factor is necessary before a living human is entitled to a full compliment of human rights.
A popular pro-choice argument is that human rights only apply to a child once she is “viable” or capable of surviving outside of her mother’s womb. The child is alive prior to birth, but has no rights until that moment. Viability is not a fixed standard: it varies from human-to-human and generally moves backwards as technology improves. It is not a sudden change to the nature of the organism, as is fertilization, rather it is the product of a human’s gradual growth. It is impossible to imagine a compelling reason why human rights should depend on such a variable and arbitrary point.
Other pro-choicers argue that human rights are dependent on factors such “having wants and desires” or the capability “of attributing to her own existence some . . . basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her,” or a maternal choice. These positions are less arbitrary and more intellectually sound than viability, but they are morally abhorent.
Some on the pro-choice side acknowledge that — based on these approaches — some humans outside a womb also are not entitled to human rights. As two pro-choicers admit, in their view, “all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons,” including some “mentally retarded human individuals.” It is unnecessary to point out the ghastly implications of the pro-choice position as its proponents freely acknowledge them.
Once the abortion question is clarified in this manner, it is possible to have a more productive conversation. An honest pro-choice or undecided individual can no longer hide behind the claim that he cannot figure out when human life begins. At least in his own mind, he will have to grapple with the important philosophical question. Proclaiming oneself pro-choice necessarily means accepting the proposition that some living humans are not entitled to rights.
This will not cause the pro-choice side to disappear. There are intelligent people, cited above, who adopt exactly that position. However, many people who would have previously glibly proclaimed themselves agnostic on the question of “when life begins” will recoil from such a position.
It is impossible to debate a person who claims that he does not know when life begins. His position is based on ignorance or superstition rather than fact. However, it is possible to have an intelligent and productive conversation about the consequences of the undeniable fact that human life begins at fertilization. After 42 years, it’s about time that we started having an intelligent and productive conversation.