Recently, I was browsing the forums on a website that belongs to an indie band I like. In one of the forum discussions, a fan suggested that this Texas band – which has several female members – should move to a state that supports women’s rights. This comment quickly inspired a debate about abortion. When I expressed my pro-life views in the debate, I was accused of imposing my “religious beliefs” on women. Even though I never mentioned religion, the other debaters assumed that since I was pro-life I must also be religious.
Though I am a Christian, my pro-life stance is not based on a “the-Bible-tells-me-so” attitude. You don’t have to be religious to be pro-life. In fact, I’m convinced it’s the only rational position for someone who believes in science and human rights.
The central issue in the abortion debate is human rights. If a fetus is not a person, it has no legal rights – it’s simply a part of a woman’s body, and she should be free to remove it just like a cyst or tumor. However, if a fetus is a person, then it has legal rights – including a right to life. No one, not even the mother, can take away that right.
But how do we know whether a fetus is a person or not? What counts as personhood? Is it an innate quality, or is it developed later? In my opinion, there are only two reliable criteria for determining personhood, and those criteria rest on scientific and medical evidence. The first criterion is the presence of life, and the second is the possession of a human genome. If something is a living organism and possesses a human genome, then it is not someTHING but someONE – a person with a right to live.
When we attempt to determine the personhood of a fetus, we need to start with this question:
Is a fetus a living organism?
The answer, quite simply, is yes. No biologist would dispute the claim that a fetus is alive. In biology, there are seven criteria for determining whether something is a living organism, and a fetus meets all of those criteria:
Like all living organisms, a fetus maintains an internal equilibrium by producing various chemicals and bodily effects (homeostasis).
Like all living organisms, a fetus is organized, meaning it is composed of at least one cell.
Like all living organisms, a fetus has a metabolism – it can transform chemicals into cellular components and break down complex substances for energy.
Like all living organisms, a fetus can adapt to changes in its environment.
Like all living organisms, a fetus develops reproductive features.
Like all living organisms, a fetus responds to stimuli.
Like all living organisms, a fetus grows.
Based on this evidence, there is no reason not to view a fetus as a living organism. As Dr. Hymie Gordon, the Chairman of the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Genetics, explains it, “By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.”
However, just because a fetus is living is not enough reason to view it as a person. It must also be human, which brings us to our second question:
Is a fetus human?
Once again, the answer is yes.
According to the laws of biogenesis, every species reproduces its own kind. Alligators give birth to alligators, bacteria give birth to bacteria, chickens give birth to chickens, and dogs give birth to dogs. No dog will ever give birth to an alligator, and no chicken will ever give birth to a bacteria. It’s biologically impossible. Every organism can only reproduce its own kind.
Based on this scientific fact, it should be evident that when a human male’s sperm fertilizes a human female’s ovum, the resulting embryo cannot be anything other than human. If you doubt that, just look at the genetics.
Every adult human possesses a unique genetic code that consists of 23 pairs of chromosomes. A fetus possesses this code as well. Therefore, since the fetus possesses a human genome, it cannot be anything other than human. This is not a subjective opinion; it’s a scientific fact. As Dr. Jerome Lejeune, the “father of modern genetics” puts it, “To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion … it is just plain experimental evidence.”
Of course, someone might object by claiming that DNA doesn’t make something human since biological samples like toenail clippings and pieces of hair also contain human DNA. Though it’s certainly true that a toenail clipping does contain human DNA, there are two obvious differences between a toenail and a fetus.
First, the DNA in a toenail matches the person it came from. If a geneticist removes a cyst from a pregnant woman, she will find that the DNA contained in the cyst matches woman’s DNA. However, if she examines the fetus’s DNA, the geneticist will find that it is not identical to the mother’s. Every fetus possesses its own unique DNA that shows it is not part of the mother the same way her bodily organs are.
Second, a toenail is not a living organism. Unlike the fetus, it does not meet the biological criteria for determining life.
A fetus is alive and human? So what?
Scientific evidence makes it clear that a fetus is both living and human. This is beyond dispute, and has nothing to do with religious beliefs. “That the most partially formed human embryo is both human and alive has now been confirmed … We are the first generation to have to confront this as a certain knowledge,” writes the atheist and activist Christopher Hitchens.
Nevertheless, most abortion activists refuse to accept this evidence because it would lead to the conclusion that a living human organism is a person with rights. Consider this statement by abortion activist Joyce Arthur:
“[U]ltimately, the status of the fetus [as human] is a matter of subjective opinion, and the only opinion that counts is that of the pregnant woman. For example, a happily pregnant woman may feel love for her fetus as a special and unique human being … But an unhappily pregnant woman may view her fetus with utter dismay, bordering on revulsion.”
Similarly, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry created a controversy recently when she claimed the answer to the question “When does life begin?” is not provided by science, but by a mother’s “powerful feeling.” According to Harris-Perry, a woman’s emotional state trumps scientific and medical opinion.
Let’s suppose, for a moment, that these ladies are right – the personhood of a fetus is not determined by objective scientific evidence; it’s a subjective concept. If this is the case, though, then why isn’t the personhood of children (or even adults) a subjective concept as well? Why can’t a mother kill her newborn child if she suddenly develops a “powerful feeling” that the child is actually a nonliving, nonhuman burden for her?
According to some pro-choice activists, a fetus is not a person because it is dependent on its mother while a child is not. For them, independence counts as a mark of personhood. But let’s consider that logic. From a biological perspective, there is little difference between the dependency of a fetus and the dependency of a newborn. Though the newborn is no longer living inside the mother’s body, it is still completely dependent on her (or a surrogate) to meet all its biological needs. In fact, the complete and utter dependency of newborns is so obvious that Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethicist, argues mothers should be allowed to kill their newborn children. “Many people find this [idea] shocking,” Singer says, “yet they support a woman’s right to have an abortion … From the point of view of ethics rather than law, there is no sharp distinction between the fetus and the newborn baby.”
Hopefully, most people will be appalled by Singer’s claim. Yet, his logic is consistent with the premise that dependency robs a living human being of his or her right to live.
If we accept Arthur and Harris-Perry’s claim that the personhood of a fetus is a subjective concept, then there is little to prevent us from eventually accepting Singer’s claim that the personhood of children is also a subjective concept. Once we reach that point, though, where will we stop? What traits do adults possess that make them worth respecting as people? Ultimately, there does not seem to be much difference between the logic of abortion activists and the logic of the Supreme Court when it ruled in the infamous Dred Scott case (1857) that African Americans, though human, belonged to an “inferior order” and therefore had no legal rights.
If we reject the notion that personhood is determined by a very simple formula (life + humanity = personhood), then we must find an alternative definition of what makes someone a person. The question is, however, whether we can find any definition that provides a reliable, objective basis for human rights. I don’t believe such a definition exists.
That’s why I’m pro-life.
Cole Jeffrey is working on his PhD in English literature at the University of North Texas. You can find his blog at www.colejeffrey.tumblr.com, where he enjoys discussing theology, philosophy, literature, and movies.