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Personhood and Abortion Rights

How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue

ALTHOUGH IT HAS BEEN 45 YEARS SINCE ROE V. WADE was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), abortion continues to be a highly controversial and polarizing issue within the body politic. At the two ends of the continuum are the radical pro-life and radical pro-choice advocates. The radical pro-life position is that from the moment of conception the human organism is a person that should have full human rights, including the right to life, and these rights should be fiercely protected by the state. On the other side, the radical pro-choice position is that the pregnant woman already has full human rights, including the right to bodily autonomy, and that she can freely decide to end her pregnancy at any time she wishes for any reason at all. Many pro-lifers view the zygote—the one-celled human organism resulting from fertilization—as sacred, and believe that causing the death of the zygote, embryo, or fetus, either directly or indirectly, is murder. By contrast, the pro-choicers believe that the organism becomes a person only after it leaves the womb and becomes disconnected from the life support of the mother. The main purpose of this essay is to articulate a third position that falls between these two extremes. Call it the “properson” position. Although it leans more towards the pro-choice stance, it has a much stronger philosophical and scientific foundation.

Most of us would agree that all persons should be assigned the full spectrum of human rights, e.g. rights to life, bodily autonomy, property, etc. But what is a person anyway? When does the human organism developing inside a woman become a person? Traditionally, the answer was left to theologians and religious leaders. The prevailing view during the time of Aristotle was that the human soul entered the forming body at 40 days in male embryos and at 90 days in female embryos.1 On the other hand, during medieval times theologians referencing Genesis concluded that the soul enters the body when the baby takes its first breath. Today, many religious people opine that “ensoulment” occurs at fertilization. As efforts to define, identify, or locate the soul have failed, and as religion has declined in its influence, different thinkers have simply pinned the beginning of personhood to different developmental milestones.

The most popular milestones have included: conception, first heart beat, quickening (fetal movement when first detected by the pregnant woman), onset of pain perception, first brain waves, first brain waves in the cerebral cortex, birth itself, and first breath. On May 4, 2018, the governor of Iowa signed into law a bill which bans most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, occurring usually around six weeks of pregnancy.2 On the other hand, the decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 accorded importance to fetal viability, but this has obvious drawbacks. Viability depends very much on modern medical technology and the skill of physicians and nurses. With the best of technology, a 20-week-old fetus may occasionally be kept alive, but without it even a 36-week-old fetus may perish. In the future it will probably become possible to sustain a human organism in a special artificial incubator from fertilization for a period of nine months, making viability a moot point. Personhood should not be defined by the fetus’ location, dependence, or connection to another human or to machines. Personhood should be defined by the species and the current capacities of the fetus.

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About Skeptic

WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Health Freedom, Right to Try, and Informed Consent, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Do You Have Traits or Are You a Type? by Carol Tavris • SPECIAL SECTION ON TACTICS FOR DISCUSSING CONTENTIOUS ISSUES Personhood and Abortion Rights: How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue, by Gary Whittenberger • How to Teach Evolution to Religious Students, by Surat Parvatam • The Arguments for Creationism and the Arguments for Evolution: A Study in Contrasts, by Ralph M. Barnes • Meeting Our “Enemies” Where They Are: The Advantage of Understanding Your Adversary’s Arguments, by Andrew Cooper-Sansone ARTICLES The Grandest of Questions Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? by Michael Shermer • Reports of Mysterious Attacks on U.S. Diplomats Continue: Separating Fact from Fiction by Robert E. Bartholomew • The God Damners: The Now Not-so-New Atheism by Michael Cohen • Quackery in America: An Inglorious and Ongoing History, by Morton Tavel, M.D. • What Is It like to Be a Human? by Colin McGinn REVIEWS Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress • The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution • The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will • SCAM: So-Called Alternative Medicine • Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life • The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are JUNIOR SKEPTIC Secrets of the Ouija Board, by Daniel Loxton