For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the politicised topic of abortion. More importantly, I was contemplating the idea of the person as a social construct. This is because, as some may already know, my partner is now pregnant and we are awaiting the birth of our first child. What really struck me is that, for the two of us, the embryo (well, foetus now) had already become a person for us. However, I was also thinking about women who choose abortion and I think that, for them, the embryo/foetus is not (and perhaps will never become) a person. If this is accurate, then this is a huge missing piece of the dialogue surrounding abortion. Basically, the general pro-life camp (and perhaps the pro-choice camp as well) focuses on the biological aspects (i.e. conception as the beginning of personhood) at the expense of the social aspects. However, I wish to look at few different areas which, I think, reconstruct the argument in terms which make most of the common arguments moot. These areas each highlight the ambiguities of the debate and show how the pro-life position is, at times, inconsistent and perhaps even harmful to its strictest proponents.
As I mentioned previously, there is a social process in which what a woman carries becomes a human person. It can be agreed upon that the medical/physical occurrence is no earlier than conception (if only because there is no physical thing to become human before conception). One should note, however, that conception does not usually occur immediately after sexual intercourse. Rather, it generally occurs one to six days later. Something like a ‘morning after’ pill works by preventing fertilisation in the first place and implantation in the second is not, in any legal or medical sense of the term, an abortion despite the pro-life camp’s choice word ‘abortifactant’. In fact, the GOP member of Congress and Presidential candidate hopeful Ron Paul has stated such during televised debates for the 2012 election. By painting emergency contraception (how the ‘morning after’ pill is classified) as early abortions, the pro-life camp not only shows that it does not understand the science behind the medicine, but they also contaminate discussions of ‘normal’ contraception (i.e. regular birth control pills and, to a lesser extent, even condoms). This is because the oral contraception pill does the exact same thing as the ‘morning after’ pill — if not more because it does not simply delay ovulation until fertilisation is less likely. The result here is that a truly consistent pro-life advocate must take the Roman Catholic Church’s official stance that all forms of ‘artificial’ birth control must be rejected. I don’t think the majority of evangelicals in the pro-life movement maintain such an extreme position (especially because oral contraception can be and is used for more than just birth control).
The greater issue, then, is when after conception does the fertilised embryo become a human person and at which point in that process is a safe bet that such is the case. The pro-life proponents tend to want to define this as close to conception as possible. Ignoring the ambiguity of defining exactly when conception occurs, there’s a second hypothetical scenario which makes this definition problematic. This is, of course, the case of a miscarriage. They happen on a frequent enough basis that they merit inclusion in this discussion. Why? Medically (and legally) speaking, every miscarriage* is an abortion (well, ‘clinical spontaneous abortion’). Interestingly, though, there is a difference between the embryo and the foetus. This difference is one of age: it is an embryo for the first eight weeks after fertilisation (or gestation up to the 10th week) before it becomes a foetus. During this transition is the first point a heartbeat can be detected and the embryo/foetus first becomes ‘alive’ and perhaps ‘human’ in the broadest sense of the term. Yet, if conception is used as the definition (even if to ‘err on the side of caution’), the legal implication is that every miscarriage can be interpreted as a criminal act (and worse: if it is defined as day one of gestation, than every menstrual cycle which does not result in pregnancy could also be interpreted as criminal acts). This stirs up many issues regarding women’s rights, but I do not have the time to address them at this time (another post in the future, perhaps?).
There is also a theological aspect. For example, Norman Geisler, the stalwart Christian conservative who has written about abortion for years, wrote as late as 1971 (in his Ethics: Alternatives and Issues) that ‘embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person’ and, for that reason, medically induced abortions should be permitted (source). Geisler was not a lone wolf here: both Christianity Today and Eternity magazines had special issues in the early 1970s which included evangelical Christian theologians arguing for abortion because the embryo (and sometimes even the foetus) was not yet a human person. Even as late as 1984, evangelical institutions had not yet solidified their participation in the pro-life movement. For example, Wheaton College’s student government was unable to make a public resolution advocating a strong pro-life perspective because of massive reactions in their own evangelical community (cf. Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell, p 189ff).
The dominant issue, then, is what I have been implicating throughout this post: at which point does an embryo or foetus become a human person (and, theologically speaking, gain a ‘soul’)? It should be clear that it is some point after conception and before birth. Roe v Wade defines this point at viability (that is, around week 24 of gestation when the foetus becomes capable of surviving outside the womb), but the Partial-Birth Ban Act (passed in 2003) makes intact dilation and extraction, or ‘partial-birth abortion’, illegal even if performed before the 24th week. Legally speaking, this is a decent estimate because it disallows interpreting miscarriages as criminal and it serves as a bookend for the process of becoming-human. That is, after becoming viable, the foetus is definitely human. Yet it could be improved upon. Most abortions occur during the first trimester (roughly 87% according to this chart), so it would seem that pregnant women begin to see the foetus as a human person by the 12th week of gestation. If one incorporates the study in this chart (well, the second chart regarding late abortions), this age could be even earlier.
The more important law to consider, though, is the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (passed on 2004) and the 36 states which have similar laws. Why? The text of the law states that certain actions which cause the death of a foetus (e.g. an abortion) can be tried as a criminal act. This is important because it reinforces the social process of becoming-human. These laws imply that for the women who wish to bring their pregnancy to term as well as those who have not yet made that choice (or, in my language, women who reconstruct the foetus as a human person), their foetus is already a human person despite not being born.
The ambiguities continue to abound; however, this makes it possible to distinguish a few features which the arguments surrounding abortion have lacked. First, the foetus is definitely constructed as a human person by the 24th week of gestation. Secondly, pregnant women (and perhaps their partners) decide — often very quickly and much sooner — whether the embryo/foetus is a human person before then. Thirdly, considering that most women do not discover or confirm they are pregnant until the 4th week of gestation and that most abortions occur before the 12th week, it seems safe to say that by the time the embryo develops into a foetus, it has become a human person. With these in mind, I suggest that the embryo is socially transformed into a human person at the same moment it becomes a foetus in the beginning of the 12th gestational week. That is, unless the pregnant woman (and perhaps her partner) decides sooner (or, in my language, opts out of the social process of becoming-human which began at conception).
Lastly, it seems that the best way to encourage women to reconstruct the embryo/foetus as a human person is through encouraging proper birth control rather than insisting on defining the moment of conception as the legal point at which the embryo/foetus becomes a person. Proper birth control usage and family planning gives women (and their mates) the time and space to (1) settle into a partnership (i.e. ‘marry’ in a broad sense), (2) find when they are ready to have children, and (3) encourage them to treat pregnancy, birth, and life seriously through the process of transforming their future embryos and foetuses into human persons before they are conceived.
NB: This is after the fourth week of development. Before then, it is simply an ‘early pregnancy loss’.