Just One Question

by Doug Payton

I’ve discussed the topic of abortion with a number of people in various venues. I have noticed that ultimately, after all the statistics and the emotional arguments have been exhausted, the question of abortion comes funneled down to a single question. How one answers that question, and how one acts based on that answer, is at the core of one’s attitude toward abortion.

That question is: Is the fetus (or zygote or embryo, whichever stage) a human life?

If the answer is "No", then not much else matters. The choice for abortion is then no different that cutting off a toenail. The viability issue, the "it’s my body" issue, the "it’s my choice" issue; none of them matter if the fetus is just a lump of tissue devoid entirely of life.

If the answer is "Yes", interestingly enough, still not much else matters. If it’s alive, a living human baby, then all other issues pale in comparison. For example:

It’s my choice: If the fetus is a living human being, then this argument goes against everything this society holds dear. One does not have the right to choose who lives or dies outside the womb, and therefore the baby inside the womb certainly deserves the same legal right. If not a legal right, then at least the moral compass inside of us should kick in and let us know that killing any human being that has never remotely done anything to deserve it is wrong. Murder is the highest crime we have, and if the fetus is a human life, then abortion fits the description of an act of murder. The location of the life in question (in the womb vs. out) is not a mitigating circumstance.

It’s not viable: The issue of viability, when looked at through the lens of this single important abortion question, is revealed to be nothing but an artificial smoke screen used to make a black and white issue look gray. Something that is "viable" is simply something that can live. In most dictionaries, the additional requirement of living without artificial support is added only as a special instance for fetuses; a special instance that is obviously there solely due to the abortion situation. For every other use of the word, it simply means something that is able to live (a viable company, a viable candidate, etc.). Consider how viable would those researchers on the Antarctic continent be if not for their artificial support (heaters, shelter, etc.)? If something dies when you take it out of it’s natural habitat and place it in a hostile environment, that does not make it non-viable.

It’s my body: If the fetus is not a human being, then this argument is entirely correct. However, if it is an independent human life, then a life or death decision should not hinge on how it is housed. But consider that, regardless of how one answers that question, according to the body of the mother, it’s not her body. From the beginning, the mother’s body has to hormonally fake itself out with regards to the newly fertilized egg. Otherwise, it would react as it does to any other foreign body and try to jettison it, much like it would try with a tapeworm or a transplanted organ it was rejecting. (Some miscarriages are, in fact, due to a breakdown in this area.) And why shouldn’t it try to? The DNA of this foreign body is different from the mother’s, and the blood from it could actually kill her. The mother’s body knows that the new zygote is not a part of her, but there are systems in place that allow her body to house & feed it nonetheless. The woman may say, "It’s my body", but her body’s got another opinion.

It’s legal: It’s unfortunate how some folks moral compass is set solely by the federal government; if it’s legal, it’s OK. But this is a life in the balance, and the idea of legality should certainly not be the determining factor. In fact, the legality issue is nothing but a shield to hide behind when one cannot honestly deal with the previous issues. If the fetus is a living human life, then the fact that it’s legal to kill it means only one thing; the law is wrong.

So then I see just one question about abortion that, depending on how it’s answered, either justifies or prohibits abortion; Is the zygote, embryo or fetus a human life?

To begin to answer that question, I want to start with the question of what life is. Life, according to Merriam Webster’s WWWebster Dictionary is defined as:

1 a : the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body b : a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings -- compare VITALISM 1 c : an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction

The first parts of this definition talk about a distinguishing quality or force, and states that, for example, that a dead body or inanimate matter does not possess this quality or force. A fetus is not a dead body or inanimate matter, so it fits this definition. Comparing an embryo or zygote to a dead body is a stretch regardless of what side you're on, but some would make the case comparing either to inanimate matter. Let's hold that thought for a second.

The third part of the definition talks about 1) Metabolism, 2) Growth, 3) Reaction to stimuli and 4) Reproduction.

Metabolism - At each stage in the womb, the zygote/embryo/fetus consumes food and disposes of waste. (Thanks, Mom!)

Growth - At each stage in the womb, the zygote/embryo/fetus grows.

Reaction to Stimuli - This is also true for each stage, from the whole body all the way down to the cellular level.

Reproduction – It is explosive at the cellular level. True, a fetus cannot produce another fetus, but neither can a 2-year-old. For a 2-year-old, the potential for complete reproduction is good enough to consider it life, so it ought to be good enough for a fetus.

What we see here is that at every stage in the womb, the zygote/embryo/fetus exhibits proof that it is life. This qualifies the zygote and embryo for "life" status, and thus does not come under the "inanimate matter" definition. It's as animated as they come.

According to this definition, that which is in the womb is life. But is it human life? It doesn't look like we do. At certain stages it doesn't have all the parts we do, inside or out. For a few days there isn't even a brain or a heart. If we deprived it of the food and shelter it requires, it would wither away. But, as any scientist or doctor will tell you, inside the womb is a human zygote, a human embryo or a human fetus. It is unlike anything else in the world. When full-grown, it will not be a full-grown fichus plant, nor a full-grown cat. It will be a full-grown human. Science calls it human, regardless of how weird that may sound or how strange it may look.

So by dictionary definition, a fertilized egg is life, and by scientific definition, it is human life (not inanimate matter), and also by scientific definition, it is human from the start.

Here’s an example of that stand that science and medicine take; I was listening to an anti-abortion advocate speak a number of years ago. He was discussing how the movement had to shift their emphasis and why. Their initial emphasis was that the fetus was a human life and should be protected like any other stage of human life. They especially targeted the medical community trying to convince them of it. There came a point when they realized that their emphasis was not achieving results, which is when they began to study the effects, physical and emotional, an abortion has on a woman and present that information.

Why did their first effort fail? Because in trying to convince the medical community of the idea that the fetus is a human life, they found out that the medical community, in general, already believed that human life begins at conception.

[What reasons the medical community gives for taking what they consider a life after giving an oath to do no harm is an entirely different topic and outside the scope of what I intend to cover.]

Since what we have here is a human life from the moment of conception, it is very clear that any law that goes against that desperately needs to be changed. Changing the law in this matter would no more be "cramming my idea of morality down your throat" than would any other law on the books. Some people could, depending on their opinion, level that criticism at laws against stealing or laws for civil rights, yet they are good laws.

The problem with the abortion debate is that too often arguments get emotional, and the real facts get lost in the rhetoric; all heat and no light. When the facts are presented, the issue of abortion comes down to one, crucial question whose ramifications are far-reaching; is the zygote, the embryo or the fetus a human life? The answer is an unequivocal "Yes".

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