Just one question

I’ve been discussing the abortion issue for quite some time. Back in the days before the Internet, people would use dial-up modems to call Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) and have discussions there. One particular discussion about abortion there caused me to clarify my thoughts on the subject and distill the issue down to just one question.

Depending on how you answer that question (no matter how you answer it), it shows that all other questions and issues pale in comparison. In this episode I give you the question, why it matters, and why I answer it the way I do.

And note, not a single Bible will be thumped.

Mentioned links:

Original essay “Just One Question”

Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “life”

When Human Life Begins [American College of Pediatricians]

Why Life Begins At Conception

“Consider This!” archive for “Abortion”

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Show transcript

Before the Internet, in those ancient of days (by which I mean the late 80s and 90s), I used to dial up individual Bulletin Board systems to talk about various topics and upload & download files. It was on those systems that I got my first taste of debates that continue in our society to this day. One of those was, of course, the topic of abortion. I heard many of the pro-abortion arguments you hear today, and more, back then. After an extended debate on this topic, I found that my thoughts on it had clarified, and that the back and forth had boiled down the issue to just one question. Some years later, I reposted what was, for this debate, my last word on the subject on my fledgling website. The link is in the show notes.

I’m using it for this episode because the abortion debate has certainly come back to a head in the country, and I wanted to spend this time with you to just concentrate on this subject. Very little of this essay has changed for use here, although I have added some ideas that I’ve heard recently. This, then, is just one question about abortion.

I’ve discussed the topic of abortion with a number of people in various venues. I have noticed that ultimately, after all the statistics and the emotional arguments have been exhausted, the question of abortion comes funneled down to a single question. How one answers that question, and how one acts based on that answer, is at the core of one’s attitude toward abortion.

That question is: Is the fetus (or zygote or embryo, whichever stage) a human life?

If the answer is “No”, then not much else matters. The choice for abortion is then no different than cutting off a toenail. The viability issue, the “it’s my body” issue, the “it’s my choice” issue – none of them matter if the fetus is just a lump of tissue devoid entirely of life.

If the answer is “Yes”, interestingly enough, still not much else matters. If it’s alive, a living human baby, then all other issues pale in comparison.

Here are some examples of those other issues.

It’s my choice: If the fetus is a living human being, then this argument goes against everything this society holds dear. One does not have the right to choose who lives or dies outside the womb, and therefore the baby inside the womb certainly deserves the same legal right. If not a legal right, then at least the moral compass inside of us should kick in and let us know that killing any human being that has never remotely done anything to deserve it is wrong. Murder is the highest crime we have, and if the fetus is a human life, then abortion fits the description of an act of murder. The location of the life in question (in the womb vs. out) is not a mitigating circumstance.

It’s not viable: The issue of viability, when looked at through the lens of this single important abortion question, is revealed to be nothing but an artificial smoke screen used to make a black and white issue look gray. Something that is “viable” is simply something that can live. In most dictionaries, the additional requirement of living without artificial support is added only as a special instance for fetuses; a special instance that is obviously there solely due to the abortion situation. For every other use of the word, it simply means something that is able to live (a viable company, a viable candidate). Consider how viable those researchers on the Antarctic continent would be if not for their artificial support (heaters, shelter, all that). If something dies when you take it out of its natural habitat and place it in a hostile environment, that does not make it non-viable.

It’s my body: If the fetus is not a human being, then this argument is entirely correct. However, if it is an independent human life, then a life or death decision should not hinge on how or where it is housed. Further, scientifically speaking, a mother’s body never has twenty fingers and twenty toes, or two brains, or two hearts that beat at different rates. That second set of fingers and toes and brain and heart are not hers.

But consider this; regardless of how one answers the question of life, according to the body of the mother, it’s not her body. From the beginning, the mother’s body has to hormonally fake itself out with regards to the newly fertilized egg. Otherwise, it would react as it does to any other foreign body and try to jettison it, much like it would try to do with a tapeworm or a transplanted organ it was rejecting. (Some miscarriages are, in fact, due to a breakdown in this area.) And why shouldn’t it try to? The DNA of this foreign body is different from the mother’s, and the blood from it could actually kill her. The mother’s body knows that the new zygote is not a part of her, but there are systems that kick in that allow her body to house & feed it nonetheless. The woman may say, “It’s my body”, but her body’s got another opinion.

It’s legal: It’s unfortunate how some folk’s moral compass is set solely by the federal government; if it’s legal, it’s OK. But this is a life in the balance, and the idea of legality should certainly not be the determining factor. In fact, the legality issue is nothing but a shield to hide behind when one cannot honestly deal with the previous issues. If the fetus is a living human life, then the fact that it’s legal to kill it means only one thing; the law is wrong.

So then I see just one question about abortion that, depending on how it’s answered, either justifies or prohibits abortion; Is the zygote, embryo or fetus a human life?

To begin to answer that question, I want to start with the question of what life is. Life, according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary site, is defined as:

  • 1 a : the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body
  • b : a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings
  • c : an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction

The first parts of this definition talk about a distinguishing quality or force, and states, for example, that a dead body or inanimate matter does not possess this quality or force. A fetus is not a dead body or inanimate matter, so it fits this definition. Comparing an embryo or zygote to a dead body is a stretch regardless of what side you’re on, but some would make the case comparing either to inanimate matter. Let’s hold that thought for a second.

The third part of the definition talks about metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli and reproduction.

So for metabolism, at each stage in the womb, the zygote/embryo/fetus consumes food and disposes of waste. (Thanks, Mom!) For growth, at each stage in the womb, the zygote/embryo/fetus grows. For reaction to stimuli, this is also true for each stage, from the whole body all the way down to the cellular level. And for reproduction, it is explosive at the cellular level. True, a fetus cannot produce another fetus, but neither can a 2-year-old. For a 2-year-old, the potential for complete reproduction is good enough to consider it life, so it ought to be good enough for a fetus.

What we see here is that at every stage in the womb, the zygote/embryo/fetus exhibits proof that it is life. This qualifies the zygote and embryo for “life” status, and thus it does not come under the “inanimate matter” definition. It’s as animated as they come.

According to this definition, that which is in the womb is life. But is it human life? It doesn’t look like we do. At certain stages it doesn’t have all the parts we do, inside or out. For a while there isn’t even a brain or a heart. If we deprived it of the food and shelter it requires, it would wither away. But, as any scientist or doctor will tell you, inside the womb is a human zygote, a human embryo or a human fetus. It is unlike anything else in the world. When full-grown, it will not be a full-grown fichus plant, nor a full-grown cat. It will be a full-grown human. Science calls it human, regardless of how weird that may sound or how strange it may look.

So by dictionary definition, a fertilized egg is life, and by scientific definition, it is human life (not inanimate matter), and also by scientific definition, it is human from the start.

Here’s an example of that stand that science and medicine take; I was listening to an anti-abortion advocate speak many years ago. He was discussing why the movement had to shift their emphasis. Their initial emphasis was that the fetus was a human life and should be protected like any other stage of human life. They especially targeted the medical community trying to convince them of it. There came a point when they realized that their emphasis was not achieving results, which is when they began to study the effects, physical and emotional, an abortion has on a woman and present that information.

Why did their first effort fail? Because in trying to convince the medical community of the idea that the fetus is a human life, they found out that the medical community, in general, already believed that human life begins at conception. I have links in the show notes that cite Congressional testimony and peer-reviewed journals to demonstrate this.

Since what we have here is a human life from the moment of conception, it is very clear that any law that goes against that desperately needs to be changed. Changing the law in this matter would no more be “cramming my idea of morality down your throat” than would any other law on the books. Some people could, depending on their opinion, level that criticism at laws against stealing or laws for civil rights, and yet they are good laws.

The problem with the abortion debate is that too often arguments get emotional, and the real facts get lost in the rhetoric; all heat and no light. When the facts are presented, the issue of abortion comes down to one, crucial question whose ramifications are far-reaching; is the zygote, the embryo or the fetus a human life? The answer is an unequivocal “Yes”.

Filed under: Abortion