Abortion is a tricky subject. The word “abortion” itself means nothing more than the termination of a pregnancy before birth. The question whether the abortion of a zygote, embryo, or fetus—henceforth, an unborn—kills a living being matters in Christian and Jewish faiths, ordinary ethics, and American law. The Supreme Court’s answer in Roe v. Wade depends on the trimester of the pregnancy and the mother’s well-being.
The central tenet of the strict anti-abortionist position is its definition of life: the combination of ovum and sperm resulting from fertilization; this moment of conception marks the creation of a human being. Circumstances of conception—rape or incest, say—are irrelevant. This unborn has “inalienable rights” and deserves protection. If, during the pregnancy, the unborn threatens the life of the mother-to-be, the question becomes which life to spare?
This question also arises in some cases of fetus in fetu, a rare situation involving twin embryos, one of which grows inside the other. The mother’s pregnancy in such cases has one of three outcomes: both embryos or fetuses die, the embedded embryo or fetus dies either during pregnancy or after delivery, or the embedded twin survives inside the newborn. A recent case was a seven-year-old Mongolian boy carrying his twin brother in his abdominal cavity. At that point, the growth of the embedded twin threatened the life of the independent twin. Again the question: which life to spare?
Law, religion, and ethics often decide such cases in favor of the one already alive or apt to survive independently. By strict anti-abortionist definition, however, this decision still means killing an unborn. Of course, not killing the embryo or fetus means letting the mother or twin die. Dogmatic justifications for terminating an unborn or letting an already living person die (commission vs. omission) are easy only for dogmatists. Others struggle with the question: which is more sacred, potential or actual life.
Relaxing the strict definition raises an enormous theoretical problem: where to draw the line? Consider rape and incest. Whether involuntary or not, both can and often do result in an unwanted and presumably unintended pregnancy, at least from the woman’s perspective. But if such circumstances justify the chemical or surgical termination of an unborn, then why only these? Others can result in unintended or unwanted pregnancies. One circumstance is the “oops” factor—accidents happen—between consenting partners who do not intend or want pregnancy for a variety of reasons, none of which need imply casual sex by unmarried persons. (Advocacy of abstinence to avoid accidents is driven by doctrine and deprived of realism.)
The strict anti-abortionist definition of life is a tendentious one—merely one, with limitations, among many. First, it applies to the fertilization of humans only, not other animals—not a negligible consideration, but still a biased—that is, a homocentric—one. Across the spectrum of organic life forms, fertilization is a relatively rare means of procreation (and I exclude parthenogenesis). At the extreme, single-celled organisms reproduce by various, non-sexual means. For instance, amoebas, by mitosis, simply enlarge and split.
Second, the definition of life—specifically, human life—reflects different contexts in which it is used. Scientists define the word “life” differently in different contexts; their definitions are themselves stipulated and thereby subject to debate within scientific communities. Some textbooks define life as beginning at fertilization; others, at viability. One irony in the abortion debate is that anti-abortionists assert their moral or religious position by insisting on a scientific definition of life, one itself presupposing a moral or religious, not a scientific, position—thus, begging the question.
And scientific definitions are not the only definitions; non-scientific definitions—religious, moral, and practical—abound. By Biblical account, Adam and Eve came to life by means other than fertilization; so, too, Jesus. Although Jews of all varieties respect the potential life of the unborn, almost all define life as beginning at the moment the unborn breeches the uterus; a few, after survival for a month. Christian definitions, some linked to the Aristotelian idea of “ensoulment,” have varied throughout theological history. Non-Western cultures define life differently.
Anti-abortionists believe that life created at the moment of fertilization also creates a person. Not all cultures equate life, however defined, and personhood. Navahos regard a life as a person only when he or she first laughs, and the person who causes that first laugh assumes special responsibility in rearing the child, like a godparent in Christianity.
So definitions of “life,” “human being,” and “person” are contextual and change as contexts change. To insist on, and implement, one definition dismisses the various ways by which, and purposes for which, people in different cultures have defined these terms. The anti-abortionist definition is only one of many, and only lately important. Until recent times, abortion has been a minor issue, probably because it was secret, unsafe, and infrequent. Only with the advent of modern medicine and with public access to safe procedures has it become a contentious issue.
In the end, the abortion conflict, which involves different terms and values, reflects divergent responses to the strains in our culture as it undergoes modernization. Maybe we should address those strains directly and not avoid them with dogmatic prescriptions and coercive legislation about how people other than, and perhaps different from, us live their lives.