Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Abortion Post

I enjoy thinking about abortion.

No, not the act itself. All that clamping and scraping and vacuuming – ick. I’m talking about the abortion debate, the base issue of abortion as a right vs. abortion as a moral abomination.

It’s an interesting case because there isn't a convincing middle option. Either a fetus is a human life (in which case, killing it is murder and evil) or the fetus is a blob of tissue (in which case, removing it is no more immoral than popping a pimple). The middle ground either involves accepting a moderate level of child murder (unacceptable) or a moderate level of government control over women’s wombs (unacceptable).

So we have two parts that simply will not fit together. The closest thing I have ever heard to a middle ground is the “safe, legal, and rare” meme, which at least admits that abortion is less savory than, say, a pony ride.

Here comes the part where I clarify my personal opinion: I am rabidly pro-life. This is partially for religious reasons (from my mother’s womb, you are my God), but my keystone argument is genetic. Simply put, a fertilized egg is a unique set of human DNA distinct from both the mother and the father.

The most objective way to define an individual human being is by their unique DNA sequence. Of course, the most objective way is not the same as the best way (a severed limb has the same DNA as the human it was lopped off of), but it is the most fair. It requires no belief in God, gods, or the sanctity of life.

More importantly for the abortion issue, we can use DNA to show objectively that the blob of tissue is not part of the body of the mother. They are indisputably different humans. The only real debate can be over whether the blob of tissue is a human life.

Now, there are some pro-choicers who argue that consciousness is what matters, not life. These are the sorts who argue for 4th, 5th, and 6th trimester abortions – the murder of infants, toddlers, 4 year olds, etc., up until the ill-defined passage into consciousness.

My favorite part of the argument from consciousness is that consciousness can in no way be objectively quantified, let alone what level of consciousness makes one “legitimately human.” At least the argument from birth has an objective, clear cut-off point. Is it in the mother’s body? It’s a blob of tissue. Is it out of the mother’s body? It’s a human. Consciousness cannot be objectively quantified, much less "adequately human" consciousness.

There are still problems with the trans-vaginal definition of human life. The unavoidable genetic differences between mother and child means that it fails to prove that the fetus is not a distinct human. But what about the meaning (or rather, definition) of “life”?

I’m going to do some Wiki-quoting:

“Since there is no unequivocal definition of life, the current understanding is descriptive. Life is considered a characteristic of something that exhibits all or most of the following traits:

1. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, sweating to reduce temperature.

2. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells — the basic units of life.

3. Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.

4. Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.

5. Adaptation: The ability to change over time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity, diet, and external factors.

6. Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis.

7. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms, "with an error rate below the sustainability threshold."

Now, this is a Wikipedia summary of the biological definition of life, so let’s start by understanding this is not a perfect list. Let’s also understand that this definition is descriptive – we look at things we consider to be alive, and describe their traits. That’s actually a good thing. Science should be descriptive, not proscriptive.

So, using this list as a rough sketch, how do fetuses stack up?

1. Homeostasis: Fetuses self-regulate to their environment. Some of these processes are dependent on the mother, but then, all life forms depended on their food source. I'd consider this one debatable, but for now: one point for fetuses

2. Organization: Fetuses are inarguably composed of cells. Point two for fetuses.

3. Metabolism: Fetuses inarguably transform chemicals into energy. Point three.

4. Growth: Fetuses inarguably have a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. We’re four for four.

5. Adaptation: This one seems to apply more to species (change over time) than individual lifeforms (when’s the last time you mutated a new adaptation?). So either adult humans don’t get the point, or all human organisms get it. Either way, I’m calling this five points for fetuses.

6. Response to stimuli: This one is trickier. Fetuses don’t develop nerve endings (and thus the ability to respond to stimuli) until roughly the 10th week of gestation. I’m giving this point to all fetuses with nerves. Call it 5.5 out of 6 points.

7. Reproduction: Human children are also not capable of reproduction, in addition to eunuchs/the infertile/post-menopausal women. Unless we are going to define all humans not currently capable of reproduction as “not alive,” I’m giving this point to fetuses too.

So that's 3 indisputable points for all fetuses (Organization, Metabolism, Growth), 1 point for all fetuses past the 10th week of gestation (Response to Stimuli), 2 points that that either fetuses get or post-menopausal women don't get (Adaptation, Reproduction), and 1 partially debatable point (Homeostasis is partially shared with the mother).

Let's assume we have a hostile witness who is willing to throw post-menopausal women out with the babies. That means fetuses past 10 weeks of gestation still beat the "all or most" spread with a solid 4 points. With a non-hostile witness who does consider post-menopausal women human, all fetuses beat the "all or most" spread, hands down.

Fetuses fulfill as many of the conditions of "life" as post-menopausal women. Unless someone wants to argue that adult post-menopausal women are not alive, the only reasonable conclusion is that fetuses are both human (genetically distinct individuals with human DNA) and alive (fulfilling as many of the definitions of life as a post-menopausal woman). 

Of course, this argument says nothing about the rights of women, the trauma of being raped, or the difficulty of raising children. It also says nothing about God, the Bible, or morality. It is a completely objective, scientifically verifiable argument that demonstrates fetuses fulfill both the definitions of “human” and the definition of “living.”

To destroy a fetus is to destroy a living human. Moreover, it is to destroy a helpless human which had committed no crime other than living. If you feel the rights of women justify the destruction of a helpless, innocent human life, you are free to make that argument. You are not free to ignore the objective status of fetuses as living humans.


  1. There are some pro-abortion advocates that say that even if the fetus is alive, it is a parasite on the woman.

    1. Of course, if a parasite is both alive and human, then killing it without reason is still murder.

      The "it's a parasite" argument is a hand-waving attempt to dehumanize fetuses without factual basis. A human parasite is still human. If someone is okay with killing living humans who are not guilty of any crime, fine. At least that's a self-consistent argument.

  2. I lack the patience or vocabulary to read the link thoroughly, but I gathered that regulation and metabolism of the foetus does not behave independently of the mother until many weeks after conception. Did I read this correctly?

    1. More precisely, the metabolic function is shared between mother and fetus until many weeks after conception.

      Is the fetus a parasite? In a sense, yes. The question is, is a fetus a living human parasite?

  3. Interesting post. The argument from definition is essentially a more rigorous form of a common premise, but it's useful at least to dialectically shut down one of the more common pro-abortion talking points.

    I'd like to address more specifically the argument from choice, as you mention elliptically at the beginning. You present the argument from sanctity of life and the argument from choice as being opposed principles which cannot compromise, but I think this is mistaken. 'Choice' or even 'bodily autonomy' are not sensible principles to hold as absolutes, nor does anyone actually hold these principles absolutely. Thus, I believe that this position as expressed in the abortion debate is simply a rhetorical false front, allowing the pro-abortion position to be expressed in terms of principle rather than the more squalid and selfish reality.

    The issue is that literally everything anyone does involves "their body" in some capacity (unless and until we get literal thoughtcrimes, or government regulation of psychic powers, or something). Thus, the refrain "my body, my choice" is entirely vacuous. Women (as well as men) are not permitted to use their bodies to rob banks or murder people. They are not permitted to shoot up heroin into their bodies. The precedent for the government violating bodily autonomy is well and truly set, and there isn't anyone in the debate suggesting that bodily autonomy be truly respected as a principle (however that would work). Thus, bringing in a supposed right to bodily autonomy with regard to abortion and nothing else is a disingenuous argument which cannot be the real reason abortion is supported. (The same response can be applied to the argument from "right to privacy", a la Roe v. Wade; there is certainly no other circumstance in which a "right to privacy" is held to prohibit criminal laws against murder.)