The recent dust-up between the Susan G. Komen charity foundation and Planned Parenthood coupled with the newly-introduced contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act, have provided right-wing conservatives with a red-meat issue of the kind they’ve been seeking, never mind that contraception is a practice embraced by the vast majority of American women, including Catholics. The rancor and opposition by clerics has been fierce and the same baton is now being lustily taken up by conservative pols as an excessive intrusion by government into moral territory claimed by religion, no matter that the ACA merely makes contraception available and nobody is being forced to use it.
Another Globe blogger, Duane Graham (The Erstwhile Conservative) argues persuasively that the real issue here is abortion, something that many conservatives view as nothing short of murder because they believe life begins at conception. I agree with Duane that the political dispute is a (simple) case of powerful men wishing to define the issue in a way that satisfies them intellectually but which ignores the scientific facts and the right of ownership by women of their own bodies.
But, while the dispute itself is simple, I submit that underlying issue of when life begins is not. That has both theocratic and scientific components. Theocracy of course is not amenable to rational debate. If one chooses to believe that “life” begins at conception, when sperm meets egg, then abortion is evil and subject to residential assignment by Dante. As mentioned in Duane’s post, that is the end of the argument for columnist Greenberg and the conservative right. But, ought we not consider what science says about the matter?
Does life begin at conception? This is a riddle the answer to which depends on what one chooses the question to mean. What is life? My dictionary say that it is “the condition which distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity and continual change preceding death.” In other words, grass, trees, elephants, bacteria, men and mosquitoes are all forms of life. So perhaps the real question is, do the human embryos develop differently from those of other animals? It turns out that they don’t.
Mammalian reproduction is a messy process. Thousands of sperm are discarded in the process of conception, as are numerous eggs. And, when the parts don’t fit, which they sometimes don’t because something is wrong, the zygote, morula, blastula, or fetus (the three initial stages of fetal development) is spontaneously expelled by the mother in an act of natural abortion. If these are human beings, does that mean there is a special place for them in heaven, or a special place for them to resume their interrupted development?
Reproductive cell fusion and the resulting embryogenesis (production of an embryo) may result in an almost infinite number of possible outcomes, depending on the random combinations of genes from the male and female genes. It is a process which is well understood and which is common to all living things. In other words, while human beings are at the top of the food chain, we are very much like all the other forms of life on this planet. In fact, studies of fetal development show that human embryos in their early stages are virtually indistinguishable to the eye from those of many other animal forms. This is a product of evolution. Have you, like me, ever wondered about the similarities between humans and animals? For example, that mammals have four limbs, a spine, two eyes, two ears, a skull, and similar nervous, endocrine and circulatory systems? Those patterns were established very early on in the process of animal evolution. Once a successful grouping of characteristics evolved, it was carried forward by the process of survival, even while new variations arose through natural variation and mutation. This describes the very real and understandable process of genetics.
There is another good Wikipedia page that shows how the embryos of all earthly life forms develop with amazing similarities. The process is a continuum, starting with initial cell division of the fertilized egg. When the mass reaches about a hundred cells, still microscopic, it is called a blastula, after which specialization begins in accordance with the genetic instructions in the DNA. Scientists have made amazing strides in understanding this process in just my lifetime. There is little physical, scientific mystery left to how this happens. To the inquiring mind the only real mystery left about the differences between human beings and animals is that of self-awareness, and even a few animals share some of that ability with us.
It is interesting to me that here in an age of scientific enlightenment there can be such a passionate controversy over something like evolution, but abortion is different. I get that. Clearly, at some undefined point the fetus acquires a brain and a nervous system. It takes on the features of a person and reacts accordingly. But even then, it is on the path of a continuum towards undefinable completeness. Most people can not retrieve memories earlier than age 3 or 4, which means to me that self-awareness has taken that long to develop. Youths do not develop full maturity of judgement until some time in their 20’s and older people are categorically more mature still. We are a species capable of not only self-awareness but of self-understanding, but the latter is a lagging process and is in conflict with our spiritual nature. One wonders, given the environmental and political challenges faced by us so suddenly on the evolutionary scale, whether evolution can adapt us quickly enough to save us from extinction.
- Abortion is Mostly Justified (Part 2) (humanisticperspectives.wordpress.com)
- After the Mississippi Vote, the ‘Personhood’ Fight Is Not Going Away
Related post (a good one): Embryos Gain Personhood In Oklahoma