How to be pro-choice and pro-life at the same time

seven-week-embryoI don’t weigh in much on the issue of abortion. I’m not sure why, but I did write a pro-life paper in college before I came to my senses. You could call me pro-life still, I suppose, but it means something much different. I am literally in favor of life; I think it’s a cool thing that should be protected from needless harm.

But not all living things are equal. It’s helpful to distinguish between different meanings of the word before we attempt to have an argument. When we talk about life, are we including plants? Insects? Or are we talking about something else?

I have to ask conservative pro-life people what they mean when they refer to a human life, the ending of which would be morally wrong. What sort of criteria can we use to distinguish between a human life and a sample of living human tissue? Or in other words, how do we distinguish dead people from living people? Obviously a severed foot, even if it’s fresh enough that the cells are still mostly alive, is not a human life, though it’s both human and alive. But what about a complete human body? What can we test to see if it’s alive or not?

The answer, in medical science at least, is the neural oscillations observed with electroencephalography. Since brain death involves the cessation of neural activity, we can detect that and tell if someone is dead or not. It’s important to be able to make this distinction because we want to do things like burials and taking organs for transplanting without accidentally doing them to a living person.

It seems perfectly logical to use the same sort of neural activity to determine when a human life begins. After all, without this sort of brain activity no cognitive awareness is possible. That means no pain, no senses, no thoughts, nothing. Just a bunch of brain cells hanging out together.

Brain activity begins after a human fetus reaches 20 weeks old. It takes at least that long for the brain to develop to the point that it would be capable of the neural oscillations that indicate life. Therefore, if we use a consistent standard for distinguishing living humans from non-living humans, life begins after 20 weeks. Of course, that doesn’t mean the fetus is dead before that point, but then if we were consistent with the definition, we wouldn’t call the brain-dead body dead either. Both are collections of living human cells.

To sum it up, I think murder is the premeditated ending of a conscious human life, as defined by measurable neural oscillations. Around 99% of all abortions happen before life begins, and most of the remainder are medical emergencies. Therefore, nearly 100% of all abortions performed cannot logically be called murder without equivocation on the definition of human life.

But let’s set that aside for now, because why do we need to defend abortion? It’s not desirable or ideal. If there’s a way to reduce the practice, would that be a good thing to do? I think so. I also think we should be able to talk about goals and solutions without involving our different opinions of when life begins. Because ultimately we have the same goal, if my pro-life friends are being honest. If their goal really is to reduce abortion, surely they would be interested in promoting solutions which would achieve that.

Two of the most important solutions are easy access to birth control and comprehensive sex education. Unwanted pregnancies tend to be much lower in areas with both of those things, and higher in areas dominated by religious ideology and abstinence-only sex ed. When birth control becomes easier to access, the rate of unwanted pregnancies goes down (Colorado is a good recent example). I know it’s a radical idea for many conservatives, but educating people about how to prevent pregnancy and giving them the means to do so actually tends to reduce the number of people who get pregnant on accident. Which has an obvious and direct bearing on abortion rates.

When someone unexpectedly gets pregnant, they may run into some serious issues. Healthcare costs in America are extremely high compared to every other developed country on earth. And it’s not because we use it more (in fact we see the doctor less frequently than Canadians), or because we get better service (it’s worse in almost every way here than at least ten other countries). It’s just because our system is run for profit. Because healthcare is so expensive, a poor single woman who finds herself pregnant faces the potential of many thousands of dollars just to finish the pregnancy and give birth.

She might also be laid off from her job, or be unable to work, and when you already live paycheck to paycheck you’re definitely not going to afford medical bills without working. Of course, like Papua New Guinea (and nowhere else), America has failed to provide paid maternity leave. So it would be really helpful to provide some sort of safety net for people who don’t want an abortion. Surely at least some of them would take that route, since around 75% who get an abortion say it’s because they can’t afford the alternative.

Now, if the religious pro-life movement could get over their ridiculous obsession with authoritarian control and pay attention to reality, they might realize that progressives have been fighting on their side all along, which should be obvious from the fact that abortion rates tend to drop when they’re in charge. The legality of abortion isn’t going to make a difference because it’s not the cause. The people insulted as baby-killers are tackling the real causes, while the pro-life movement jeers uselessly from the sidelines and obstructs progress, blindly pushing an ineffective and damaging ideology that would defeat their own stated goal. Their approach is as counterproductive and idiotic as trying to eliminate workplace injuries by making it illegal to get injured at work, while blocking any effort to provide the workers with safety equipment.

Image: Wikipedia


11 responses to “How to be pro-choice and pro-life at the same time

  1. 2 things: 1. there’s a difference between figuring out the difference between a living human being and a dead human, and figuring out the difference between a living human being and a living something else. A dead human being is not a bunch of living cells that are no longer human; a dead human being is dead. At conception, the first cell is alive. We can’t use the same criteria for determining whether a living *being* is *human* that we use to determine whether a *human* is *living*. Those are two different things. 2. Not having sex if you don’t want to get pregnant is quite an effective way to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. Only one person in recorded history was pregnant without sex, and that was Mary the mother of Jesus, and you don’t even believe that really happened. So I’d say those are pretty good odds.


    • A human who has just died is a “dead human”, but on the cellular level the body is just as alive as a fetus without brain activity. Both are collections of living human cells, both have brains that are not performing the neural oscillations that indicate the presence of conscious life. The point is that if you use consistent scientific observations as the basis of your definition for a living human, either the brain-dead person is still alive, or the fetus before 20 weeks is dead. If you’re familiar with biology, you should know that there’s a big difference between a human brain being non-functional, and a human body being completely dead.

      While you are correct that refraining from having sex is one of the most effective ways to avoid getting pregnant, that really has no bearing on the practical solutions for reducing abortion. You cannot prevent people from having sex, so all you can do to that end is tell them they shouldn’t. Which has been tried, and has failed. Given the reality that people are going to have sex, then, why don’t we talk about solutions for reducing abortion that are actually relevant to reality?


      • How can something composed of living cells be dead? Besides, we know a fetus isn’t dead. A fetus is growing. I think science backs up that dead things don’t grow.

        Making it illegal for people to kill people who are born isn’t always successful in preventing people from doing it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have laws prohibiting murder. And attempts to deal with the “reasons” people murder each other have been rather unsuccessful, as the rise of school shootings and the like has vividly demonstrated.

        Of course we can’t prevent people from having sex, but teaching people that they actually had to take responsibility for their actions was pretty effective in the past. Maybe it would make more sense to look into the reasons that that’s not working now rather than trying to re-invent the wheel and come up with some brand new way to keep people from having babies. Kind of like the people who tried to figure out the best way to prevent a hangover, and eventually came to the conclusion that the best way was to not get drunk.


      • “How can something composed of living cells be dead?” Because we use the term “dead” in two different ways when we refer to the death of a cell and the death of a complex multicellular organism. At the moment when you die, most of your cells are still alive. This is because the death of a human is not marked by the death of all their cells, but rather the cessation of neural activity. After brain death, the living organs may be removed and transplanted into other people to save their lives. How would this be possible if they weren’t composed of living cells? Are you trying to say that the people we remove the organs from are actually still alive?

        Violent crime has been dropping for decades, and even with a very small recent uptick in certain types of crime, it’s still pretty much the lowest it’s been in at least half a century. As for the reasons, that’s a complicated situation, but I feel pretty confident in saying that the reduction in violent crime was caused by things that affected the reasons people commit violent crime. That’s sort of how causality works.

        I don’t think you quite understood…we have already tried abstinence-based sex education, and it has failed miserably. We have tried providing easy access to birth control and comprehensive sex ed and have succeeded greatly. So stop trying to act like your failed policy is somehow the answer when we already know what works.


      • I think I’m going to drop the issue of the best way to actually prevent unwanted pregnancies simply because that will make the conversation too long and complicated and I’m already kind of struggling to keep track of all the conversations I’m in the middle of.

        Now, yes, there is a difference between a living cell and a living organism. But the point is, when an entire organism is dead, we don’t say that it changes into a different kind of organism. A brain-dead person isn’t a frog or a monkey or a plant. Brain dead people are not living anythings (assuming that’s truly a good way of determining whether someone is alive), even if most of their cells are living. An amputated foot is not a living anything, even if most of the cells in it are living; it as a whole is not going to grow or do the other things that living things do.

        Also, taking a part of something that was a whole, like an organ, and saying that it’s not human even though it came from a human is one thing. We can even do that with inanimate objects. A book contains pages, but you can’t rip a page out and call that page a book. That’s something we all understand and agree on.

        It’s something else entirely to take a whole but not fully developed organism and say that just because it’s not fully developed, or hasn’t developed any given characteristic, it’s not even in the same category–the same species, for lack of a better term. Why go by brain activity, anyway? Again, why use the same criteria to determine *if* something is living that you would use to determine if something that is *clearly* living is human? Those are two different things. And I know I said that before, but you don’t seem to have grasped it yet.


      • “It’s something else entirely to take a whole but not fully developed organism and say that just because it’s not fully developed, or hasn’t developed any given characteristic, it’s not even in the same category–the same species, for lack of a better term.”

        Nobody is saying that. This is a straw man argument.

        “Why go by brain activity, anyway?”

        Because it’s the criteria that most reliably indicates when someone has died.

        “Again, why use the same criteria to determine *if* something is living that you would use to determine if something that is *clearly* living is human?”

        This question makes no sense. The brain activity measured with EEG is what indicates the presence of a functional brain. A fetus is alive, and it is human…just like a brain-dead body having its organs harvested is both alive and human. Both of them are human bodies comprised of living cells, neither of them have functioning brains. So they are “alive” in the sense that the cells comprising them are alive, but they are “dead” in the sense that they do not have the capacity for experiencing anything.

        You seem to have confused my argument with the absurd claim that a fetus without brain activity is not human at all, which makes no sense. You’re simply ignoring my entire point and arguing against an idea I never proposed. When you talk about “human life”, you are not talking about the cells in the body being alive. You are talking about a functional human brain. So even if a human body is technically alive, it may not qualify as a “human life” if it doesn’t have a functional brain…like in the case of the brain-dead person, who can be kept “alive” using technology even though everyone would say they’re dead. Or a fetus before 20 weeks, which does not yet have a functional brain.

        In other words, to maintain the position you are taking requires dishonest equivocation on the definition of “human life”, which explains your nonsensical questions. I think you should know better. You even agree that “Brain dead people are not living anythings, even if most of their cells are living”, yet you claim a fetus is a living human even though it does not have a functional brain and is therefore alive in precisely the same sense as a brain-dead person…that is, its cells are alive.


      • I also find it ironic that you’ve left behind the issue of how to practically reduce abortion in favor of arguing about when human life begins, considering that the main purpose of my article is summed up in this sentence: “I also think we should be able to talk about goals and solutions without involving our different opinions of when life begins.”

        If you want to use a definition of human life that applies to fetuses younger than 20 weeks and brain-dead bodies, go for it. Nothing will change, and holding such a view gives you no more logical basis for pushing “solutions” that actually cause the problems you’re trying to solve, but perhaps you can feel superior about it or whatever.


      • Well, it sure sounded like you were saying it was the brain that made a fetus human. So thanks for clarifying. In fact, you’ve clarified a lot.

        Although frankly, you’ve made your position a little more confusing at the same time. I mean, you agree that a fetus is alive and that’s it’s a human being, but you don’t think that taking the life of a fetus is taking the life of a human being. How does that work?

        I suppose I was thinking more in terms of when the brain dies and the body dies soon after. In those circumstances, there’s no doubt that the human being is dead. Individual cells may for a while grow and multiply and do the things that living things do, but the organism isn’t functioning. It is dead; the human being is dead.

        I think you were thinking more of when the brain dies and the body continues to function on a certain level and can do so for days, weeks, and even years. In that situation, I would say we honestly can’t be sure in that situation if the person really is dead.

        Either way, it’s still not quite the same. There’s a reason people say that brain dead people are dead. People are brain dead when something is very wrong with them physically. You know, like–something that could kill them, perhaps?

        Getting a functioning brain, on the other hand, is a normal part of development. Nothing is wrong with the fetus who doesn’t have a brain at 19 weeks, or 10 weeks, or at 1 second old. The fetus is healthy and growing and functioning exactly the way a 1 second, or 10 or 19 week baby is supposed to function. To give a cognitive analogy, we don’t say something is wrong with a 3-year-old who struggles to learn to read, and take some sort of remedial action, but if a 10-year-old is struggling to read, then something is wrong. We know that we use different criteria for different ages. It’s the same thing biologically.

        I left out the question of how to practically reduce abortion because I think it’s the more complicated question and I have limited time. And if you believed that thousands upon thousands of living human beings were being killed, I think you would find slowly reducing poverty while scores more people die to be a rather unsatisfactory course of action, too. And I haven’t told you what my real plan is, anyway. And I don’t feel superior. Why would I feel superior? If you must know, I’m too sleep-deprived to feel superior.


      • I’m just trying to point out the different ways in which we use the word “life”. A tree is alive, but it doesn’t have a brain, it’s more like a big colony of individual living cells. Other living things have brains which allow them to collect and process data about the world around them, in order to quickly react to it and survive. That’s a different form of life, the sort we’re talking about when we talk about our human lives.

        My point is that when we say a person is dead, we aren’t saying that every single cell in their body is dead. We are talking about the end of their conscious awareness, the point at which they cease to be capable of experiencing the world around them. That is brain death. At that point, the rest of the body will die over the course of hours, unless we use technology to keep it alive. Either way, the important factor is the cessation of neural activity, which at a certain point is irreversible with our current technology.

        So if you look at a fetus before 20 weeks, it’s a small human body just beginning to develop, kept alive by the mother’s body. With no brain activity, the fetus is a collection of living cells supported by an external system, just like the brain-dead body.

        “I mean, you agree that a fetus is alive and that’s it’s a human being, but you don’t think that taking the life of a fetus is taking the life of a human being. How does that work?”

        This strikes me as another dishonest question. What do you define as a “human being”? Because in my opinion a human being is the sentient organism that exists from the time a human brain becomes active to the time it stops. A human body is the collection of cells that make up an individual, the “person” is all in the brain. The important distinction for me is this: before 20 weeks the fetus is a human body with no brain activity being supported by an outside system. After that, the brain boots up and takes ownership of the body, and that’s the beginning of what most people would call a “human life”. It’s like waking up. It’s literally the opposite of dying.

        So of course there’s nothing wrong with a fetus that has no brain activity before 20 weeks. The body has to be generated before the brain has a place to develop. But to compare it to a three year old is ludicrous. The three year old has a functioning brain. The three year old is not a body being kept alive by external systems while a brain is developed for it. A closer analogy would be if someone cloned people and grew them without brains as body donors for rich old people. Until the body is hooked up to a functioning brain, it may be a human body but that doesn’t make it a “human life” or “human being” or whatever term you use to refer to a living person.

        I know you’re desperately trying to equate the fetus to a living person, but we usually define personhood by the presence of attributes which the fetus does not have until week 20. So that is my science-based answer for when life begins.

        Regarding methods for reducing abortion, perhaps it would move faster if people stopped fighting the solutions that work and advocating ones that do the opposite. Like I clearly said, legality has no effect because it isn’t a cause. You cannot force something to stop without addressing the cause. If it’s too slow for you, try to find new and better ways to address those causes. Don’t simply ignore them and trumpet solutions that’ll only make things worse. It makes you look dishonest and undermines your message. It makes you appear to care more about being right and protecting your ideology than actually fixing the problems. And I don’t necessarily mean you in particular, although you’ve expressed some of the same ideas I hear from all the other religious anti-abortion people. I’m talking about the right-wing pro-life movement in general. So if you want to prove you’re more receptive to the data than they are, go for it.


      • I think you’re looking at the criteria we use for the sake of convenience and confusing that with objective criteria. When someone is in the hospital and they’re very, very sick, so much so that doctors aren’t even sure if the person is alive, they have to pick some way of making a decision. When do we pull the plug? When does it cease to be murder to pull the plug? How to we determine if the person is already dead? Hospitals don’t have limitless resources and they don’t want to waste them. So they chose brain activity. Maybe sometimes that *has* resulted in killing human beings who weren’t dead. We don’t know. We can’t know. That’s not something science can tell us. Now I don’t fault them for that; it’s a very difficult situation and a difficult decision to make. But just because people of necessity made that decision doesn’t mean we should set it up as an absolute for non-emergency situations such as normal human growth and development.

        And as for being supported by an external system, people who are on dialysis are supported by an external system, but they don’t cease to be humans.

        I said that you agree a fetus is human because you made the statement, “you seem to have confused my argument with the absurd claim that a fetus without brain activity is not human at all, which makes no sense”.

        And Mason, I think we had the analogy conversation when you posted your Spiderman post. An analogy is only meant to draw certain points of comparison. I know you know that. The point of comparison I was drawing is that we sometimes view the same characteristics differently depending on the age of the person/organism we’re discussing. So *like*–NOT identical to—we may view a 10-year-old as mentally handicapped while a 3-year-old is not, even though they may have the same abilities, we can’t automatically assume that because an adult in a certain situation would no longer be a living human, a 19-week-old in the same situation must also not be a living human.

        As for reducing abortion, I think it should be law that before a doctor performs an abortion, he has to show the mother an ultrasound. Informed consent is, I think, already a law, and frankly, in the case of abortion I think it’s being violated. Women and girls can say “Yes, take this out of my body”, but they don’t really know what—or who, as the case may be— the doctor is removing? So much for pro-choice. Now, I also happen to think that, especially in the case of teenagers, if they see a picture of a baby, which is what an ultrasound would show, you probably won’t be able to convince them that’s not a human being. Just sayin’. (And by the way, it was by a sort of back-door political maneuver that William Wilberforce managed to abolish the slave trade in England.)


      • It’s true that the line between alive and dead can be somewhat blurry. We might even end up with technology that enables us to resurrect people after all their cells die. But the reason we chose neural activity is not just because we needed a line and it’s convenient. It has nothing to do with “emergency situations”. It is a logical choice based on science, which can tell us precisely when a person’s brain is no longer able to experience or react to anything. The whole point, which again you are completely ignoring, is that we want to distinguish between a being with a functional brain that’s capable of experiencing things, and something that does not have the capacity for experience.

        It’s a completely rational and science-based distinction. Plants don’t have brains. They do not have cognitive ability so they don’t have a mental awareness like humans and other animals do. I’m sure you are capable of understanding this distinction, even without understanding the science that allows us to tell the difference. One organism (the plant) is literally just a colony of many cells, while another (the animal) is a colony of cells in which some of those cells work together to form an organ capable of awareness.

        There’s a difference between something being “human” and something being a “human being”. A severed foot is human. It is not a human being. A dead body is human. It is not a human being. The “being” part indicates an active brain. This is why I said the question was dishonest…I said it’s ludicrous to claim a fetus is not human, but you claimed I was admitting the fetus is a human being. Those are two different things.

        The distinction between a being with mental awareness and a colony of living cells without a brain is important because ethics are based on the experiences of mentally aware beings. For example, nobody thinks burning a plant alive is morally equal to burning a dog alive. Why? Because the dog has a functioning brain that gives it the ability to feel pain. So you see, the issue of brain activity is about far more than just telling the difference between living and dead human bodies. Without brain activity, there is no “person”. There is no “being”. Without a functioning brain, an organism can only be alive in precisely the same way as a plant–a colony of individually living cells with no higher capacity for experience. This is why your analogy still fails (though I understand what you mean by it). Your analogy compares differences between two organisms with functioning brains. My whole point is that the absence of a functioning brain MUST mean the absence of “personhood” or “being” because those concepts are defined by the ability to experience things, which is only possible with a functioning brain.

        Is this just too complicated? Am I not explaining it well enough? I thought it would be pretty simple to understand that our concept of “human life” is defined by brain activity, not just in how we determine when it ends but also how we define it in the first place. A human body is not a human being unless it has an active brain, because “being” refers to a trait that exists only in things that have active brains. So it is an objective criteria after all.


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