I 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.