When Does Life Begin?

Texas Governor Rick Perry has called a second Special Session of the Legislature in order to pass new abortion rules that were thwarted last month by Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster. The legislation would ban abortion after 20 weeks. More importantly it imposes new “safety” rules designed to shutter most of the state’s abortion clinics and eliminate the practice of remote abortions by medication.

The debate over abortion rights usually turns on the question of when human life begins. The pro-life movement has for the most part settled on the moment of fertilization for that threshold. A recent effort in Mississippi along with similar proposals in Arkansas and North Dakota have sought to legally define the beginning of life at conception.

At that developmental stage the fertilized ovum has not yet implanted into the uterus, so a standard pregnancy test will not even detect the condition. Yet, for those who turn to religion for answers to life’s questions, that extremely early stage may still be too late.

The Bible is silent on abortion, yet it speaks very loudly about the sanctity of an earlier participant in that process. In Genesis 38, the Bible says that God personally killed Onan in retribution for the atrocity of “wasting” the most vital element in the creation of life – semen. Early church fathers had little to say about abortion, but the sanctity of semen was a common theme. Jerome and Clement of Alexandria both used the Onan story as support for the idea that wasting semen was a terrible crime. The story forms a pillar of modern Catholic teaching about contraception and the purpose of sex.

Until a generation ago in the US, the debate over the beginnings of human life would have focused on matters long before fertilization and centered on the moral legitimacy of contraception. Those attitudes about reproductive rights have not disappeared from mainstream thought on the right, as evidenced by recent debates over insurance coverage for contraception.

From a scientific perspective, both a sperm cell and an ovum are absolutely alive and both contain genetic material vital for defining a human identity. Like an embryo, either of them if allowed to continue their processes without some specific failure or intervention will produce a person.

This pre-conception analysis is important because so much of the pro-life position hinges on “butterfly effect” reasoning, which reaches backward from the existence of a person to establish the sanctity of each random coincidence which led to their existence. That logic, taken to its ends, establishes no more moral latitude for the casual masturbator than it does for a late-term abortionist. There is one factor that most persuasively explains why conception has become the rallying point for the pro-life movement – it is the earliest moment in the reproductive process at which a man’s sexual choices are no longer at issue.

If the question of when life begins must be limited to events after intercourse, then what can we learn from medical research on fetal development? When does a fetus acquire the characteristics that would require us to balance its right to existence equally with the mother’s right to control her own body?

A fertilized ovum may take up to a week for the cell makes its way into the uterus for implantation. That fertilized cell, or zygote, contains the full genome necessary for development.

At this stage the zygote is about the diameter of a human hair, the largest cell in the human body. Some scientists believe that this is the stage at which the “morning-after” pill operates, preventing the structure from implanting in the uterine wall. The science on this question is not absolutely settled.

Prior to implantation, the zygote will begin to divide forming a multi-cellular structure called a blastocyst. After implantation, the structure is referred to as an embryo and it begins dividing into new cells at a rapid pace. The woman’s body begins the adaptations we recognize as pregnancy and the embryo develops specialized cells which will develop into the body’s various structures and organs. For the first nine weeks, a chemical abortion can be induced with the drug RU-486.

For the next few weeks there is little about the fetus that we would recognize as human. Pro-life activists point to the presence of a detectible heartbeat as early as 12 weeks in an effort to stress the relatable human-ness of this early structure. Along the way they conveniently ignore some very interesting developmental stages that remind us of human evolutionary origins.

During the first trimester the developing fetus includes some odd features tied to our evolutionary past, including gill slits (pharyngeal arches), a tail, a yolk sac, and a primitive autonomic neural system which we seem to have inherited from a fish ancestor. That nervous system, unlike the tail and gill slits, remains with us throughout life even after our more complex brain develops.

By 16 weeks the fetus is about four inches long and looks very much like a baby. It has a complete vascular system, most of the organs have formed, and it has begun to take on very individual features like fingerprints.

Between 18-21 weeks the fetus begins to “kick.” This is the stage of development described as “quickening” which in tradition was regarded as the beginning of person-hood and marks the approximate halfway point in a pregnancy. At this point an ultrasound can reliably determine gender.

The earliest ever successful premature birth occurred at 21 weeks. Based on the Supreme Court’s “viability” standard for balancing fetal rights against the privacy rights of a mother, this is theoretically the point at which a state may begin an abortion ban. Seventeen states ban abortion after 22 weeks or earlier. Another 11 ban abortion after “viability.” A third-trimester abortion is only legal in 11 states. Late term abortion accounts for a fraction of a percent of abortions performed annually.

At 24 weeks, the fetus has developed almost all of the structural features necessary for life, though many of its organs are not yet ready to function unaided outside the womb. In particular, its lungs need considerable further development.

The survival rate for premature births at 25 weeks is about 50%. Although births occurring at this stage sometimes lead to survival, about half of premature births before 26 weeks result in permanent disability. Premature births after the 32nd week routinely survive, though they often need significant medical intervention and run higher risks of disability. Pregnancies are regarded as full-term after about 37 weeks.

From the precious possibilities of the sperm and egg to the visceral reality of a crying infant, at what point do the rights of that potential life outweigh the rights of a father or mother to control over their bodies? Science can tell us, based on the current state of our medical technology, the point at which a fetus is probably capable of survival outside the womb, but is that the same as person-hood?

It is tough to make a credible argument that a viable fetus should be subject to abortion-at-will right up to the moment of birth. It is equally difficult to justify full protection of the law, over the competing rights of a woman, to a collection of cells with a tail and gill slits. At any point in between there is no political position, whether through action or inaction, that doesn’t potentially threaten the critical rights of either an unborn person or a woman.

Wisdom suggests that issues of such emotional power and moral ambiguity are a poor place to make an extreme political stand. The Republicans in the Texas Legislature are determined to charge ahead and let history count the cost.

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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Posted in Religious Right, Reproductive Rights

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