In a column which appeared only in the print edition (Las Cruces Sun-News, 6 June), Neal Hooks begins his anti-abortion polemic with reference to the infamous Dr. Gosnell, who murdered born-alive survivors of botched, late-term abortions. The episode is an example of nothing related to the practice of abortions by ethical professionals. He intends this inflammatory introduction to insinuate that anyone disagreeing with his views on abortion must be endorsing the practices of a butcher. This rhetoric is the ethical nadir of those who use unworthy means to advance presumably worthy ends.
The gist of Hooks’s argument, when he departs from the incendiary, seems a modest statement opinion: “it seems to me that life begins at conception for two undeniable reasons.” The modesty is false. Stating that the reasons cannot be denied, he offers, not opinion, but dogma. His two reasons are not only deniable, but also dubious. Indeed, the failures of his argument are typical of the arguments of all anti-abortionists: they are blithely ignorant of, or dishonest about, culture, history, science, and, most ironically, religion.
The first: “the Bible is very clear on the subject; Psalm 139 tells us that God ‘…knit us in our mother’s womb.’ I don’t believe it would be wise to interrupt this process.” Hooks would have us believe that a psalm-writer living 3000 years ago is the irrefutable expert on the moment of conception. What is not very clear is what the translated metaphoric word “knit” means; it could mean the moment of implantation of the zygote on the uterine wall—an event occurring about 9 days after conception—or almost anything else.
The second: “immediately following conception, the newly formed embryo contains a metabolism that allows it to maintain structure, grow, reproduce, and respond to its environment. And along with a full complement of DNA, this zygote has everything science calls life. In fact, the only difference between you and a zygote is different stages of development.” These statements mean much less than their scientific terminology suggests. I suspect that Hook’s claim that the zygote responds to its environment is intended to imply that it can feel pain. If so, the implication is nonsense: an electro-chemical reaction does not imply consciousness necessary to experience pain. Everyone knows that sperm and ovum joined together contain the totality of genetic information for growth. Whether the resulting organic matter known as a zygote is life is a matter of definition, and definitions vary. After all, philosophers and theologians defined life rather differently in the nearly three millennia between the writer of Psalm 139 and the scientists who discovered DNA. As a rule, they took life to begin with quickening, the fetus’s first movement, which they thought reflected ensoulment, the moment of the endowment of the body with a soul.
One interesting aspect of Hooks’s two reasons is, not their universality, but their cultural parochialism. Hooks assumes that the Bible is the only holy book which asserts what its believers take as truth. He is so ideologically blinkered and biased by his Christo-centricism that he is unaware of, indifferent to, or dismissive of the Big, Wide World, the many and diverse peoples in it, and their different beliefs. So the first of Hooks’s reasons is really a tenet of his religious faith. It is not a reason which is undeniable, much less one which carries any weight in my religion or in the religions of many others. Moreover, what science calls something is irrelevant to such discussions. In its way, it resembles religion because it stipulates definitions and principles to guide its work; scientists accept or refine them to conduct research and communicate results to others. Science does not displace or support the religious definitions of life or religious stories of its (or even the world’s) creation.
What is true of Hooks’s argument is true of any and all arguments about life and its beginning. There are no compelling reasons, only opinions, about the “truth” of these matters, which “truth” remains unaffected by the strength or sincerity of one’s convictions. People may, do, and will continue to disagree about them. The proper response to this inevitable state of affairs is not sectarian bigotry, but respect for others and for their choices of belief and practice.
For myself, I like the wisdom of the Navajo definition of the beginning of human life: a child’s first laugh.