Assortments of Thought


Posted on: September 19th, 2009

As an issue involving the earliest of human life and death and the choices people make with regards to it, abortion is and will likely remain highly and passionately controversial for some time. And while many people on both sides will grant exceptions for special cases, they otherwise remain clear and firm in their beliefs. Those who believe pro-choice feel that women have the right to control their reproduction, while those who believe pro-life feel that women are duty-bound to protect their unborn children from harm. Hence the crux of the debate is whether embryos and fetuses have a right to life or not. By my own analysis then, the pro-choice position is the stronger of the two on the condition that abortion is never used on fetuses that have attained awareness of themselves and their environments, because never having awareness, there can’t be any harm. Yet even then, a little doubt is cast by the reasonable possibility that embryos and fetuses have souls, a possibility that can’t as yet be proven either way, so it’s impossible to fully confirm the pro-choice position even with all its strengths. Abortion must therefore remain legally and readily available to all, with neither pressure nor intimidation, so that individual women can reach their own decisions on this difficult and uncertain issue.

As I said then, the pro-choice position is the stronger of the two, on the condition that abortion is never used on fetuses that have attained awareness of themselves and their environments. Obviously, such fetuses never have awareness as living beings whether it’s during their existence or before or after it, so no one is being harmed if they’re aborted. Granted, they will reach awareness and likely grow up to be adults if they aren’t aborted, but again, they won’t be around to live with any kind of loss if they are. To illustrate this point, consider why it’s wrong to murder someone. When someone is murdered, not only do they usually suffer, but everything they were working to accomplish is cast in doubt, and all the people who depended on them or who simply loved them have to accept that they’re gone. In other words, it causes a lot of suffering and disruptions for those who go on living. More generally, for any case where it’s considered wrong to deprive someone of something, it’s wrong because that person must either go on living without something that’s rightfully theirs, or else must go on living without being allowed to attain something they should’ve. Getting back to the abortion of a fetus then, that’s precisely the point, that so long as it’s non-aware, it never has awareness and it never has dependents or loved ones, so it isn’t forced to live without something it should’ve had if it’s aborted. Hence, it seems that a non-aware fetus lacks a right to life simply because it never has a life in the first place except in a strictly biological sense, and so there’s nothing morally wrong with aborting one.

With that much said, of course the associated view that women have the right to control their reproduction, even through abortion, is easily supported. Indeed, as nearly everyone knows, there’re plenty of reasons why a woman may not want to have a child at a given point and situation in her life, if ever at all. Such a woman might feel, for instance, that having one would interfere with her getting an education or advancing in a career–particularly if her lover up and left her to raise one alone–or else that she wouldn’t want the responsibilities and personal sacrifices inherent with raising one. Perhaps she wouldn’t want to go through the rigors of pregnancy, with all the bodily changes and dietary restrictions and such during it, and the risks of weight gain, post-partum depression, and nerve damage and such after it. Or, even if she wouldn’t mind having a child someday, she might feel at the time that she isn’t ready yet to offer one the best possible life that she could, or else that circumstances are such that one would be disadvantaged in some way. In the extreme case, perhaps her child would even have a serious genetic disorder or be the child of a rapist or her own father, and she feels that no one, including her would-be child, should have to live with a reality like those. Hence, if there’s nothing wrong with aborting a non-aware fetus, then women clearly have a right to control their reproduction through abortion, and so a woman should indeed be able to get an abortion if she so chooses.

In fact, the only point that casts any doubt on all this, though it’s a very good one that a pro-life supporter might raise, is that it’s possible that fetuses and even embryos have souls. Indeed, between all the anecdotal accounts of people seeing or even communicating with spirits; traveling or simply being out-of-body; exhibiting psychic powers; and recovering past-life memories; a belief in something beyond the physical realm is not implausible, and nor is one in all biological lives having souls. It could be then that fetuses do have souls, and so aware or not, aborting them harms them in a non-apparent way that transcends the physical. Of course, having just said that, even after all these years there’s yet to be any solid evidence for an afterlife, whether scientific or philosophical, and in fact alternative explanations for specific cases are often found. And even if it were confirmed that life after death exists, that simple fact alone would still leave innumerable questions unanswered. Many of course would be relevant to abortion, including what a soul is precisely; whether they’re formed at conception with bodies or connected later; whether they’re all separate like bodies or as one in some form of universal consciousness; and whether aborting a fetus means taking a spirit’s chance away to live physically, and leaving them to continue living knowing so. As all these questions illustrate then, to show that abortion is wrong because fetuses have souls wouldn’t even be as simple as proving the existence of an afterlife, and indeed, our current knowledge of a potential afterlife isn’t even enough to recommend against abortion on a basis of erring with caution. Still, with the possibility of an afterlife being as plausible yet unknowable as it currently is, it’s enough to prevent a truly solid, final determination on whether abortion, even of a non-aware fetus, is harmful or not, and hence, enough to prevent the pro-choice position from being certain as well.

In the end then, it’s highly unlikely that abortion of a non-aware fetus is harmful, so there’s no reason to withhold abortions from women who want them. Abortion must therefore remain legally and readily available to all women, including teens, without pressure or intimidation from doctors, and without mandated involvement or permission of partners or parents (though it would be nice for such people to be included in the decision when appropriate). Yet as there’s still no guarantee that abortion isn’t harmful, even though any doubt about it is insufficient to oppose it, it still can’t truly be said that it’s morally okay either. Until the time then if ever that the morality of abortion can be definitively settled, individual women considering it will have to reach their own conclusions about it. In particular, they’ll need to evaluate the possibility that their unborn child has a soul, and consider what the implications could be in that regard and how they feel about it. But even beyond that though, they’ll need to consider what an abortion would really mean to them, for even though their non-aware fetus would never have awareness of it, they always would. Thus they’ll need to consider how they might feel after it’s done, knowing a child they would’ve had will now never be, knowing that had they wanted it, they wouldn’t have thought anything less of it than it being their child. And, if they’re considering it over a case like a genetic disorder or rape or incest, they’ll need to consider if the reality their child would have would really be so bad in comparison to the potential everyone has to rise above the circumstances of their birth, or, indeed, their conception. Indeed, abortion just isn’t an easy issue no matter how it’s looked at, no matter how logically it’s analyzed, so in the end, only an individual woman considering an abortion can decide, in and for her own particular case, whether it’s truly okay or not.


Just to finish with a necessary explanation, the argument that aborting a non-aware fetus doesn’t harm it because it then never has awareness of itself or its environment is strong, but in order to be of practical use, it must be known at what stage of pregnancy a fetus becomes aware. That said, obviously, as it’s impossible to experience the reality of another living being, it’s impossible to ever say with certainty when a particular fetus makes the transition from non-aware to aware. Still, through our understanding and knowledge of neurology and the brain, we can generalize when fetuses might first become aware very well, even if not necessarily when they definitely do. In that regard then, no matter how much capacity there may be for awareness, awareness can only arise and develop with sensory input, and sensory input reaches the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for awareness, by means of the thalamus. Therefore, it would seem that connections between the thalamus and the cortex are a necessity for having awareness, and since these connections don’t form until approximately six-and-a-half months after conception (see the Wikipedia article “Neonatal Perception,” sec. 3, para. 3), fetuses earlier than that can’t possibly have awareness. Thus it would seem that a non-aware fetus is guaranteed to be one earlier than about six-and-a-half months, and so women contemplating abortion have until that time to get one by the non-aware argument presented in this post. After that, of course, aborting a fetus could be akin to euthanizing a newborn in that both might have awareness, depending on whether fetuses definitely become aware after that time.

Reference: “Neonatal Perception,” at Wikipedia as of Sept. 19th, 2009

©2009, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.


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