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Someone once argued to me that legalizing abortion has encouraged people to have more sex, using abortion as a form of simple birth control, and that thus the law has led to selfish people murdering babies because it is the easy way out. There are, of course, two claims here - that abortion is murder and that legalizing it makes it easy for people to selfishly abort - but they are tightly related.

I would argue that people who use birth control because they are going to have sex anyway are the opposite of selfish - they are responsible. People who have sex only because birth control is available - well, that's a choice we all have to make, but it's not necessarily selfish, especially since there are options other than abortion which ninety-nine percent of the time can avoid the need (like spermacide or morning after pills) in those quite rare instances where the initial birth control (like condoms or diaphragms) doesn't work. Given those facts, it's hardly a hugely selfish gesture to decide sex is safe enough to be worth what they get out of it (and again, note that it isn't just promiscuous people that use birth control - as many or more people use it in monogamous relationships because they want to have sex but aren't ready for kids).

As for abortion itself, many opponents seem to be operating under the assumption that it is some simple magic wand that selfish people wave to easily get rid of their 'problem'. In reality, though, abortion is a shitty prospect for almost all of those who get stuck having to choose (and legal or not, the choice comes up, so it's much better for those who are intent on aborting to do it safely in a legally regulated practice). It is not an easy choice, and it is not just women deciding to be lazy, get knocked up and have the procedure done. The fact is it hurts like hell, not just physically, but emotionally.

I am all for legalized abortions, but from those I have known in real life, and all the straight-talk sites and sources (as opposed to the extremists who have a political agenda to push at all costs - whatever their good intentions for doing it that way), it doesn't sound like more than an insanely rare percentage of women get abortions lightly. So if you are claiming it's selfish, then it's certainly not selfish in a simple, easy way. It's a grueling, hard kind of selfish.

And even then, it's a big question whether or to what extent someone considers abortion wrong, and at what point (both in the fetal development and in the life situation) they might find it the best possibility. Yes, some people choose it because it's the easy possibility, but that doesn't necessary mean it is the wrong one either (sometimes trying to bring up a child when you aren't financially, emotionally or mentally prepared can be to deal the kid a crappy hand right off the bat). Generally, I think most people put a lot more thought into the decision than the "pro-lifers" give them credit for.

So when is abortion wrong? It's a hard question, and one we all have to answer for ourselves, but maybe some general lines can be drawn that most reasonable people could agree on, even if the grey borders between are fuzzy. And the legal issue is not the same as the moral one (any more than asking if telling big lies should be illegal even if it is agreed to be immoral), so that's a related but separate issue.

The fact is very, very few people will claim that it is wrong to destroy any form of life at all, and only a handful might even think of considering laws to protect all life. Just about all of us kill bugs with impunity, and not just poisonous spiders that could harm us. Beyond that, anyone who washes their hands or showers kills billions if not trillions of bacteria and viruses all the time.

The defense of life generally comes up at a higher level. All of us as far as I know eat plants, which are living things and have some sort of feedback mechanism even if it isn't as complex as a nervous system. Most all of us eat animals, which certainly feel pain. So the fact that a developing human-to-be can feel in the womb (to whatever extent they can...from what I understand it's about analogous to complex animals for most of the process) shouldn't give us much more pause than eating meat does (unless you can think of another reason why the fetus' pain is fundamentally different from a cows even though they aren't really more complex as an organism - and often less - during gestation in the womb).

So we've covered the fact that the baby inside is alive (though one has to remember not to naively associate the use of the word "baby" here with the one month olds we're used to seeing suckling at their mom's teat - it's quite far into development before it is significantly similar to that creature). And we've covered the fact that the baby feels pain. I don't personally see that as any reason not to abort at least in the first term, maybe the second, unless one is really against eating meat - and even then some circumstances might make it morally acceptable by most standards.

As to the fact that the fetus is a "potential human", well it doesn't take much thought to realize that every sperm and egg combination (all billion sperm in one guy's sac and numerous eggs in every woman's menstruation) is potentially a human, but that doesn't make it a human and it doesn't mean that every wet-dream or period is mass murder of humans.

On whether abortion is murder, I think the term murder is generally used so as to mean the killing of humans (as opposed to bacteria or plants), so we have to ask to what extent the entity in a mother's womb is a human before we ask whether it is murder (and then of course there are the oft-mentioned concept of self-defense if the mother's life, and perhaps even health, is significantly threatened).

First, some facts from Carl Sagan's "Billions and Billions":

"Every one of us began from a dot. A fertilized egg is roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The momentous meeting of sperm and egg generally occurs in one of the two fallopian tubes. One cell becomes two, two become four, and so on-an exponentiation of base-2 arithmetic. By the tenth day the fertilized egg has become a kind of hollow sphere wandering off to another realm: the womb. It destroys tissue in its path. It sucks blood from capillaries. It bathes itself in maternal blood, from which it extracts oxygen and nutrients. It establishes itself as a kind of parasite on the walls of the uterus.

By the third week, around the time of the first missed menstrual period, the forming embryo is about 2 millimeters long and is developing various body parts. Only at this stage does it begin to be dependent on a rudimentary placenta. It looks a little like a segmented worm.

By the end of the fourth week, it's about 5 millimeters (about 1/5 inch) long. It's recognizable now as a vertebrate, its tube-shaped heart is beginning to beat, something like the gill arches of a fish or an amphibian become conspicuous, and there is a pronounced tail. It looks rather like a newt or a tadpole. This is the end of the first month after conception.

By the fifth week, the gross divisions of the brain can be distinguished. What will later develop into eyes are apparent, and little buds appear-on their way to becoming arms and legs.

By the sixth week, the embryo is 13 millimeters (about 1/2 inch) long. The eyes are still on the side of the head, as in most animals, and the reptilian face has connected slits where the mouth and nose eventually will be.

By the end of the seventh week, the tail is almost gone, and sexual characteristics can be discerned (although both sexes look female). The face is mammalian but somewhat pig-like.

By the end of the eighth week, the face resembles that of a primate but is still not quite human. Most of the human body parts are present in their essentials. Some lower brain anatomy is well-developed. The fetus shows some reflex response to delicate stimulation.

By the tenth week, the face has an unmistakably human cast. It is beginning to be possible to distinguish males from females. Nails and major bone structures are not apparent until the third month.

By the fourth month, you can tell the face of one fetus from that of another. Quickening is most commonly felt in the fifth month. The bronchioles of the lungs do not begin developing until approximately the sixth month, the alveoli still later.

[...]Thinking occurs, of course, in the brain--principally in the top layers of the convoluted "gray matter" called the cerebral cortex. The roughly 100 billion neurons in the brain constitute the material basis of thought. The neurons are connected to each other, and their linkups play a major role in what we experience as thinking. But large-scale linking up of neurons doesn't begin until the 24th to 27th week of pregnancy--the sixth month.

By placing harmless electrodes on a subject's head, scientists can measure the electrical activity produced by the network of neurons inside the skull. Different kinds of mental activity show different kinds of brain waves. But brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy--near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this--however alive and active they may be--lack the necessary brain architecture. They cannot yet think."

So where in that process does the fertilized egg become a human? Most of the steps seem arbitrary, since we can find characteristics such as response to stimuli and breathing on their own in all sorts of non-human lifeforms. The matter of facial appearance seems superficial. Sagan suggests, and I agree, that the most reasonable and meaningful point at which to draw the distinction is when the fetus develops the ability to have distinctly human thought, the most salient defining characteristic of our species. I mean, that's what really makes us different from the cows we slaughter for burgers and steaks. We can think complex thoughts.

A line must be drawn somewhere despite possible differences in individual situations. A conservative estimate seems best, in order to allow for the possibility of precocious brain development (regular human brain waves are rarely found in fetuses at all). Thus, six months appears the most reasonable place at which to draw the line between when abortion should be considered the killing of a human as opposed to a non-human. Of course, it is still a complex issue when we are talking about killing a non-human, but at least it seems like we aren't really talking about murder, and the use of the term in that case seems purely for emotive appeal.

But what about the third trimester? Aside from the simpler self-defense situation, one generally has to consider a fetus' right to life (as a human, but one with very little brain development and very little development of personality and memory) and the mother's freedom to do as she wishes with her body. In this case, I'm generally tempted to side with the new entity's right to life in cases where there aren't important mitigating circumstances. If she had the chance to abort earlier in the pregnancy, then she should have, and by the third term it seems not too unreasonable for society to expect her to live with her decision for a couple more months (we as a law-based society expect similar things from people who enter into contracts and the like when there aren't mitigating circumstances).

In the case of self-defense, or if it wasn't possible to get the abortion earlier, etc., I'm more tempted to sympathize with the mother and let her do it. We may lose a human in early development, but in my opinion (and this is just me) the death of such an entity doesn't seem the same as the death of someone who is full of thoughts and memories and experiences, who has really developed into a full person in the sense of having complex self-identity and emotion. It's a hard call, definitely, but that's my take on the third trimester. In general, I'd say it should be avoided, probably even outlawed, but with exceptions for significant circumstances where an abortion couldn't have been performed earlier.

I should note that it just so happens that my cutoff at the end of the second trimester is pretty much what Roe v. Wade decided, though they had different reasons: some developing fetus' could live outside the womb that early, though with technological help. Of course we may someday be able to make literal test-tube babies in which case survival outside the womb with technical help doesn't hold up as much of a standard if we end up protecting every sperm sample in a lab as if it were a full human.

As to the common suggestion that people should just have the baby and give it away, that's generally an atrocious way to look at things. The fact is, there are lots of kids out there waiting to be adopted by families who can't have kids (or can but prefer adoption), and adding to those numbers makes it harder for the kids already waiting for a family. One might confuse the situation with families that want sperm (and sometimes egg) donations, but those are the people who cannot have kids "naturally", but nonetheless want to give birth to a kid rather than adopt. That's why we have sperm banks, and why they pay people to donate.

Believe me, we've got no shortage of good kids waiting to be adopted, and adding to those numbers just for the sake of adding to those numbers is a horrible thing. That's like Mother Theresa's oh-so-wonderful "humanitarian" gesture of fighting off any chance of birth control in over-populated India - she may have done some great help for the poor, but she sure hurt them all terribly with her message of no birth control. (Yet another reason why religious-based humanitarian aid is often a worse cure than the initial disease; let's keep humanitarian gestures to humanitarian gestures and keep the preaching separate - it makes the church look a lot less underhanded).

On top of that, nine months of pregnancy is itself a major thing, and nine months carrying an unwanted child-to-be that you plan to give away can be hard and even traumatic. Encouraging people to carry a fetus to term in order to give it up for adoption is not something to take lightly as a quick fix to avoid dealing with the abortion issue. Perhaps if someone is in the third trimester and simply decided that they could not handle the dedication required to raise a child properly, then in that case adoption might be the best path. However, this is far from the suggestion some people make that as soon as you are pregnant - even in the first trimester - you should carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption rather than abort. That sort of reasoning makes sense only if are convinced that aborting any zygote or fetus (no matter how undeveloped and simplistic a life-form it is) is somehow 'murder', in which case it appears most of us are murderers for killing bacteria, insects, plants and livestock.

Originally Written: 01-23-01
Last Updated: 03-03-05