Note: Celia Wolf-Devine is an extensively published author and lecturer in Philosophy. She, along with her husband Phil Devine are co-authors of a book on Abortion published by Oxford University Press. She writes from a Catholic perspective.
We all hear frequently that Catholic teaching forbids abortion – that human life must be respected from conception to natural death. Yet most of us have friends, family or co-workers who don’t see things this way. They seem to be basically good people and not some sort of moral monsters. How can this be?
Some people are confused or have been misinformed about some basic facts. Men may believe that because women are the ones most intimately affected by pregnancy and abortion, they aren’t entitled to make judgments about whether it is right or wrong or to limit women’s access to it. After all, it is the woman’s body. Some think that permissive abortion laws are something women want and that such laws are necessary to help women attain equality. Some are troubled by the very real sacrifices women may be required to make to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term, especially in a society that does very little to help poor women and their children. Some may agree with the Church that it is morally wrong, but question whether it should be made illegal, either because they think we shouldn’t legislate morality or because they think outlawing it would result in bad consequences.
In this series of articles, I will clarify some facts and reply to some common pro-choice arguments. I begin by trying to clear away some common confusions about pregnancy and fetal development and explain why it is correct to say that what is growing in the woman’s womb is a new individual human being. Science here strongly supports the pro-life position. First of all, the zygote, embryo, or fetus is NOT a part of the woman’s body. Its genetic code is completely different from hers, and it is connected with her only by the umbilical cord through which it absorbs nutrients and fluid. The mother and baby do not actually share blood; sometimes the mother couldn’t give the baby a transfusion because their blood types are different.
At conception something new comes into existence that didn’t exist before, and the process through which it develops and matures is an extremely gradual one extending through and even after birth. That it is alive is shown by the fact that it takes in nutrients and secretes wastes. That it is human is shown by its DNA, and any biologist could identify it as a human zygote or embryo. This individual combines the genetic heritage of two different lineages. We can say, for example, that if allowed to develop normally, this individual will have its grandmother’s red hair and blue eyes, its mother’s good ear for music and its father’s tall lanky build. It is not just a distinct individual, but also a family member.
We would all agree that a newborn infant is a person. But if look back at its development in the womb, there is no point at which it undergoes any sort of radical change that could make it become a person at that point when it had not been one before. Birth is just a change of location. Breathing air hardly seems to make a big moral difference. At a certain point in the pregnancy the baby becomes able to survive outside the womb. This point is called the point of viability, and it is constantly getting earlier in pregnancy as medical technology improves. But whether it can live outside the womb or not does not change the basic kind of thing it is. Already in its earliest stages of development the implanted zygote exhibits an inner-directed process of growth and development which will ordinarily culminate in a fully developed human infant unless somehow interfered with. Although we can’t know for sure what its inner conscious states are, the unborn individual is sensitive to touch as early as 7 weeks, and is certainly capable of feeling pain quite early on.
Some pro-choice advocates admit that it is a human life but claim it isn’t a person because it is unable to do things people characteristically do like using language and reasoning. But an infant can’t do these either, and we consider them persons. If we feel free to deny personhood to unborn human individuals because they don’t meet certain criteria like being able to reason or use language, then logically we can also deny it to people already born who aren’t capable of these things.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the reasons why men may feel that because they cannot experience pregnancy they are not entitled to make moral judgments about abortion.