Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Biology, Personhood and Civil Rights

I have already discussed the issue of abortion at great length and in some depth in the past (1) and thought I had said everything I needed to say about it. Lately, however, I have noticed in the public debate two recurring themes which demand further discussion, namely, a lack of understanding about basic biology, and the implications of "personhood" with regard to civil rights.

Many of us had believed that the fight for sovereignty over our own bodies was settled years ago, back in the 1960s and 1970s, in America.  But we were wrong.  Now that we are menopausal, here in 2013, our daughters and granddaughters are facing the same battle.  One might think that this right to bodily integrity was self-evident, but apparently it is not, based on the quantity of legislation being introduced and the many commentaries posted on the subject.

Texas, North Carolina, Virginia and several other states are in the process of trying to pass more restrictions on abortion, both by changing the licensing requirements in order to shut down clinics on technicalities, as well as rolling back the allowable time limits based on, e.g., whether/when a fetus is able to feel pain (medical science is unclear on this), or when the heartbeat can be detected.  A more dramatic proposal, which is included in the official GOP agenda, is the "Personhood Act" which would define a fertilized ovum as a "person" with the same rights as any other person, making abortion and some forms of birth control, such as the IUD, completely illegal.

Other legislation is even more drastic, adopting the so-called "gestational age" of the fetus as being the date of the woman's last menstrual cycle which, technically, is about 2 weeks before fertilization occurs!  Proponents argue that it is valid because obstetricians use this method.  It is true that the LMP is used for convenience since the actual date of conception is rarely known.  However, it is only a formality, in much the same way that the first birthday of all Thoroughbred racehorses is arbitrarily stated as January 1.  If we needed to know the horse's actual age for medical reasons, such as to assess the maturation of bones, it would be necessary to use the real birth-date.  Likewise, the actual age of a fetus according to embryology is the "developmental age" which begins at fertilization.  The purpose of the legislation using the date of LMP is to restrict a woman's access to abortion by an additional 2 weeks.

Now, there has been much discussion as to when a zygote or fetus becomes a "person."  Some say all that is required is human DNA, so the zygote is a "person" as soon as the sperm meets the egg, which is actually prior to pregnancy!  The onset of "pregnancy" is defined by medical science as implantation in the uterus, which occurs 7-10 days after fertilization, towards the end of the woman's cycle (in contrast to the "gestational age" which erroneously uses the first day of her LMP, nearly a month prior to implantation).  Some say that a fetus becomes a person when the heartbeat is detected, others when brain activity and/or neurological development reaches a certain stage.

According to the classical Judeo-Christian tradition, the baby becomes a living person independent from the mother when it draws its first breath, because the breath is life, although it should be noted that technically only male infants one month of age or older were counted as "persons"; females were not "persons" at all. (2)  Roe v. Wade, the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court in in 1973, permits abortion until the third trimester, at which time a fetus becomes "viable," meaning that it can survive outside of the mother's body, which could likewise be equated with "personhood."

Many people insist that it is pointless to define "personhood" at any particular stage because they imagine fetal development as a steady continuum from conception to birth which, if not interrupted by abortion, would naturally result in a live baby.  They believe that God/Nature has a plan for every single fertilized ovum and that abortion at any stage disrupts this otherwise perfect process.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth!  This belief reveals a significant and widespread misunderstanding about biology on the part of the general public, including many legislators.  The startling reality is that the vast majority of fertilized ova never make it to implantation.  Between 60% and 80% of fertilized ova fail to implant and are expelled with the next menstrual period.   Of the approximately 30% which do successfully implant in the uterus and establish a pregnancy, about 1/3 will undergo spontaneous abortion ("miscarriage").  Therefore in the natural course of events, even if there were no intentional abortions, only about 20% of zygotes, at best, would make it to full-term; all the rest are aborted, and a live birth is the exception rather than the rule! (3)  This epidemic of "lost babies" should raise ethical questions in that if they are "persons," don't we have an obligation to save them by finding ways to prevent miscarriage?  Don't they all have a right to medical care in utero to correct the birth defects leading to spontaneous abortion?  And whenever a woman has a miscarriage, shouldn't that require a criminal investigation to determine whether she was guilty of manslaughter?

Regardless of how many "babies" are spontaneously aborted by God/Nature, the anti-choice argument is that a woman cannot voluntarily abort if the fetus is a "person," because that would be murder.  However, I think the "personhood" argument completely misses the point, and that is why I am blogging about it again today, even though I've already discussed it in my previous articles.

Let's assume, just for the sake of the argument, that a fertilized ovum is a "person" with equal rights as already-born persons.  Is a woman therefore required to carry it to term?  If the fetus has a "right to live" then the woman has no right to kill it.  But, what if we don't kill it?  A point that has been almost entirely overlooked in this argument is that the purpose of abortion, after all, is not the death of the fetus, but simply its removal from the woman's body who doesn't want it inside of her.  So, what if we just gently remove the fetus from the body of its unwilling host, without harming it?

The problem is that, much like a parasite, the fetus is unable to survive outside of the woman's body until a very late date in gestation (as reflected by Roe v. Wade).  So even if it is removed very gently, it will still die.  It needs to use the woman's body for the following functions:
1.  Ventilation.  The fetus cannot breathe on its own and must receive oxygen from the woman's bloodstream.
2.  Food and drink.  The fetus cannot eat on its own.  The woman must "eat for two" in order to provide the fetus with the nourishment and hydration it needs to develop from a single cell into a full-term baby.
3.  Shelter.  The fetus is completely vulnerable to the elements.
4.  Utilities/waste disposal.  The fetus needs the woman to process its wastes through her body, particularly the kidneys.

So the real question is not, should the woman be allowed to "murder" the fetus? but rather, does the fetus have a right to stay inside of the woman's body and use her womb, lungs, bloodstream, calories and kidneys against her will for 9 months so as to be provided with all the things that it needs in order to survive?

If the "pro-life" people were communists I would be more sympathetic to their assertion that the fetus does, in fact, have such a right.  But since the vast majority of "pro-lifers" also claim to support private property rights and strongly oppose welfare and other social programs which provide exactly the above services to already-born people, I must question that claim.  If you say you want "equal rights for the unborn," but are unwilling to provide the SAME rights to already-born people, then you are actually giving the unborn rights beyond anybody else's.  In America nothing is for free; food, shelter, utilities, even necessary medical care is a "privilege," not a right!  But many of the people who protest that they should not be obliged to give their hard-earned money to provide the basic necessities of life to already-born persons, are the same ones who insist that a woman should be forced to provide for the needs of an unwanted fetus.

Some have stated that a woman automatically "agrees" to carry a pregnancy to term whenever she willingly has sex, and "if she doesn't want to have a baby, she should keep her legs closed."  But, since fertilization occurs several days after intercourse, the fetus did not exist at that time, so we might question with whom the alleged agreement was made.  Of course, the ideal solution would be universal access to contraception, but the technology is not 100% effective.  In addition, many who oppose abortion also oppose contraception, on the basis that it promotes the "culture of death" by implying that pregnancy could ever be unwanted.  In any case, the argument is that a woman should only have sex when she is able and willing to have a baby.

Now, imagine if the same rule applied to your house as to her body.  What if you invited someone over for supper and he said, "Wow, that was a great meal!  I'm going to enjoy living here."  A bit taken aback, you say, "Excuse me?"  He explains, "Well, I lost my job recently, the bank foreclosed on my house, it's the middle of winter and I have nowhere else to go."  You reply, "I'm really sorry to hear that, but I'm not in a position to take on a house guest.  I am broke myself and I have to support my own kids.  Look, I don't even have a spare room."  "That's ok," he says, "I will sleep in your bed with you."  After some discussion, the guy refuses to leave.  You call the police and are informed that you have to let him stay due to the Affordable Housing Act signed by President Obama.  The law says that by inviting a person into your house you are thereby agreeing to let them stay and be supported by you for 9 months.  So if you don't want a 9-month house guest, then you must never allow anyone into your home for any reason.  Or, if you fail to lock your doors and windows and somebody gets in, it's your own fault for failing to secure the premises.  That person has a right to life; they have no food, no coat, and nowhere else to go, and if you throw them out, particularly during the winter, they will die and you'll be guilty of murder.

That's communism!  Unthinkable!  But the "right to lifers" are asking more of a woman than just to provide the fetus with food, water, shelter and utilities for 9 months.  She is required to keep it inside of her body, which is quite a bit more "inconvenient" than having a house guest.  Moreover, the fetus has a "right" not only to gestate inside of her womb, but at the end of the 9 months, to exit through her vagina (the euphemistically named "birth canal"), a process involving considerable pain as well as probably some degree of physical injury, and which can even result in death.

Let us keep in mind that, again, this gives the fetus "rights" far beyond what any born person has.  No man can use a woman's vagina without her permission; it is a crime called rape.

Statistically, most rapes are over relatively quickly and do not necessarily result in serious physical injury (although there will be lingering psychological damage).  By contrast, the fetus uses the vagina during its exit from the womb anywhere from 4 to 8 hours, in the culmination of excruciating, gut-wrenching labor pains that can last 24 hours, and while a rapist's unwelcome penis is painful, it pales in comparison to the baby's head which stretches or tears the vagina to about 10 cm, nearly 4 inches in diameter.  Hemorrhage is a common complication of this process, but in America it rarely results in death; only about 2 women per day die from childbirth here.  In other places, such as Afghanistan, the maternal death rate is as high as 50%.

Anyone who refers to giving birth as a mere "inconvenience" is either ignorant or lying; it is a violent, traumatic assault on a woman's body.  Even the most "uncomplicated" birth under the best circumstances, where a woman is happy and enthusiastic about bringing her baby into the world, is no picnic.  How much more torturous would it be for a woman or a terrified child who did not want to be pregnant in the first place, especially if it was the result of rape?!  But according to the "pro-lifers," because the fetus is a "person" it has a "right" to demand this of the woman and she should be legally required to endure it.

What is wrong with this picture?  Are we really talking about "equal rights" here?  Clearly, we are not.  When the "pro-life" rhetoric talks about the "right to life," it is giving the fetus property rights over the woman's body, as well as immunity to laws against rape and assault, not allowed to any born person.  Does the "right to life" include the right to make other people give us whatever we need in order to survive and if so, why does it only apply to fetuses and not already born people?  In essence the fetus is granted rights which nobody else has and which trump the rights of the person in whose body it resides with or without her permission.  And if all fetuses have this right to life, why are we only focusing on the 10% that were unwanted - what about the other 80% that were wanted, but lost due to spontaneous abortion?

Call me cynical, but I don't believe this is about "babies" or "the right to life" at all.  It is a backlash against the sexual revolution, an attempt by the patriarchy to regain control over women's bodies, to put us back in our place, barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen; to keep us out of the workforce and turn us into obedient broodmares.  "Babies" are being used as a sentimental ploy to sway public opinion and I'm not buying it.

I trust God/Nature to know what He/She is doing in the natural biological course of events which result in spontaneous abortions being the norm and full-term births being the anomaly.  And I trust women, who have the power to give life or withhold it, to choose wisely.

(1)  The Allegedly Nonexistent War on Women
and my "pro-life" series:
Part 1 - Is The Bible Pro-Life?
Part 2 - How Pro-Life Are You?
Part 3 - Privacy, Property and Communism
Part 4 - The Gift of Life



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