Monday, June 6, 2011

Belief Versus Biology

Strange to say, it has been my pleasure of late to engage some anti-choice adherents in spirited discussion of the nature of human biology, pregnancy, birth, and the definition of a human being. I use the term "discussion" rather than "debate," for to be a debate, there has to be some agreement upon the basic grounds, and that is where the discussion of abortion breaks down, because both sides have very different definitions of what constitutes a human being, or a baby, or development. This is what hampers any attempt to find common ground. In the end, the discussion is more about biology and belief.

Those who are devout believers in the Creation and God, are sure that the moment sperm meets egg, a full-fledged person exists. This is a wonderful belief to hold when you do not have access to modern biological techniques, say, two or three thousand years ago, when the internal workings of the human body were still mainly a mystery. Then, such a pronouncement was actually not feasible, as no one truly understood the mechanism by which a man impregnated a woman, except in the most general terms.

Today, we can track the development of a human being from its start as gametes, to the formation of a zygote, to its transformation into an embryo, to the gestating fetus which, after a full development cycle (hopefully), becomes a living, breathing human being. We can watch an embryo divide, cells begin to differentiate, organs and limbs form, a nervous system develop, and trace the evolution of humanity through the changes that take place within the fetus as it moves from one developmental stage to the next. The view is breathtaking, and surely, as with the pictures of the distant universe, some of the most beautiful representations of how the universe works.

But... to say that, starting with one cell, the product of the union of sperm and egg, a human being exists, is irrational. Is it a human embryo? Certainly. Will it become a human being? If it makes it through the full gestation, and does not contain some hidden genetic defect, yes. Therein lies the problem with the anti-choice point of view of fetus-as-human. The fetus, until it reaches the penultimate point of gestation, is unable to operate as an independent entity. It cannot breath on its own. It cannot take in nutrition on its own. Until the advent of modern prenatal care and intensive care technology, a premature infant had a very low possibility of surviving. Only through the creation of an artificial environment, with nutrients supplied intravenously and breathing regulated mechanically, is a sealed environment, could a premature infant survive.

In essence, it is hard to imagine a fetus as being a person, when it is clearly not independent of its mother until birth. Without its umbilical connection, the fetus would starve and die in its own excretions. Without the warmth and moisture of the womb, the fetus would shrivel and die. These are the facts of biology, not the ravings of an inhuman monster.

To turn a fetus into a person is ludicrous. For the longest time, they have no functioning neural connections, and their muscles are feeble. Their body has to be built step by arduous step, with only the resources supplied by the mother to complete the construction. Cells, dividing furiously, race to complete skin, bones, hair, eyes, stomach, liver, intestines, heart, before the point where the woman's body will begin to expel it. This is human development, a machine crafted through millions of years of human evolution -- it is not something miraculous. Many other of our brother species of mammals follow very similar patterns, and non-mammals share portions of the same developmental system with us. This does not mean women are going to give birth to monkeys or fish or rabbits; it does mean that this mechanism is a successful adaptation that has been spread widely through the animal kingdom. This adaptation increases the chance of the survival of a species, by allow for a greater mixture of genetic material that can enhance the capabilities of a species to cope with its environment.

The anti-choice legions, who march under the banner of being "pro-life," refuse to see the actuality of the biological mechanism that is sexual reproduction. Because it is happening to humans, and because their faith tells them so, they corrupt science with a healthy does of mysticism to prove that their view is the correct one. They are perfectly willing to dodge logic to deify the unborn fetus. One wonders if such energy, turned toward providing for children and their parents currently living, would eradicate poverty and hunger and disease, making a better world into which a child could be brought, even one a mother did not want? But no -- the fight is simply to bring a fetus into the world as a child, no matter the consequences, no matter the conditions, no matter the circumstances of its creation. Past that, there is little regard for the fate of such a child, and so many children are born into the horrors of the world, that we are left questioning if they think the mere presence of babies can somehow quell our societal ills.

I understand the idea: life is precious, a gift, something to be honored. Yet, if you look around, you see that life is cheap. War is rampant. Diseases run loose. Poverty and hunger affect almost twenty-five percent of the planet. Even in the so-called "First World," people are poisoned by toxins in the water and air, left hungry and homeless as jobs are shipped away or merely axed, and murdered in cold blood by the deranged, the desperate, and the calculating alike. So much effort is going into fighting a war over the control of women's ability to reproduce, that whole segments of humanity are suffering for the lack of compassion and attention.

It is not enough to dress a fetus in human clothes, if the mother who carries it is a victim of rape or incest, or of failed birth control, or simply was not ready. While no one wishes for the potential human life that is a fetus to be so easily and readily extinguished, perhaps that is not the real issue. More to the point, maybe we need to ensure that our society protects women from the hazards that come with the desire for sex. Better access to cheaper and more effective birth control, better family planning, and an emphasis on teaching young men and boys to respect women rather than see them as trophies or conquests, would do much to reduce the incidence of abortion, and better yet, reduce the number of children born into poverty and hunger.

The fight over women's reproductive health and welfare is a convenient way of diverting effort and attention away from more serious problems. It is a way for some to salve their conscience, proclaiming to their Lord that they are doing his work, even as around the corner, some live in deprivation and destitution, disregarded by the chanting, sign-waving, epithet-hurling masses. What god can look upon his followers who show no compassion for others, and not be saddened? The world must be lifted up, not cast down. Those who seek to choose for themselves must be allowed to do so, and must obtain the better sides of our nature, if we are to truly do God's work.


  1. I found you! Finally... I thought you must be hosting a blog yourself :) Nice to read you!

  2. Brilliant followup to your conversation on twitter the other night.