Abortion and Personhood


In the U.S. and for many people worldwide, we are on pins and needles waiting for the SCOTUS to rule on the constitutionality of a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks. Interestingly, the State also wants SCOTUS to overturn Roe. While the latter seems unlikely, the 15-week ban is problematic on several fronts. <break time='1s'/>

First, there can be no argument that the folks behind banning all abortions are generally from the religious groups in our nation, primarily Christian. Still, I'm sure they have the support of many conservative Jews, Muslims, and perhaps other beliefs and attitudes. They cling to the idea that fertilization and gestation in humans, but only in humans, is a sort of miracle sent down by a higher power. This same biological phenomenon occurring in other animals is simply the work of nature. I will ask you, dear reader, to set aside any suggestion that divine intervention is a part of what I'm calling "personhood" to look objectively at this issue that so divides our nation and some of the world.<break time='1s'/>

Let's first go back a few thousand years before we had all the medical and biological knowledge we now possess or the skills to intervene in the development of a collection of cells inside a woman's body. Abortions were occurring all the time in ancient times, not medically induced abortions although they were trying various techniques in ancient Greece and Roman times. I'm talking here about natural abortions just like the ones that occur all the time in the rest of nature.<break time='1s'/>

The first type of natural human abortion is called spontaneous abortion or sometimes a spontaneous miscarriage. These natural abortions occur before the twentieth week of gestation. The Mayo Clinic points out that "Miscarriage is the spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week. About 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in Miscarriage. But the actual number is likely higher because many miscarriages occur very early in pregnancy - before you might even know about pregnancy. The term "miscarriage" might suggest that something went wrong in the carrying of the pregnancy. But this is rarely true. Most miscarriages occur because the fetus isn't developing as expected."<break time='1s'/>

"About 50 percent of miscarriages are associated with extra or missing chromosomes. Most often, chromosome problems result from errors that occur by chance as the embryo divides and grows - not problems inherited from the parents. In a few cases, a mother's health condition might lead to Miscarriage. Examples include, uncontrolled diabetes, infections, hormonal problems, uterus or cervix problems, and thyroid disease." Mayo Clinic<break time='1s'/>

The second natural form of abortion is called "stillbirth." Stillbirth refers to the death of a fetus at or after the 20th week of pregnancy. There are many causes of stillbirth, ranging from congenital disabilities to problems with the pregnancy. "The reasons go unexplained for 1/3 of cases. The other 2/3 may be caused by problems with the placenta or umbilical cord, high blood pressure, infections, birth defects, or poor lifestyle choices. Stillbirth happens in one out of 160 pregnancies yearly in the U.S." Cleveland Clinic. <break time='1s'/>

These natural events in human procreation have been around since we climbed down from the trees and even before that. It's a natural event in the course of procreation for every living thing on earth.<break time='1s'/>

Fast forward to the present day. We now know that no fertility god helps us get pregnant. We don't have to burn incense, make sacrifices, or rub exotic plants on our genitals to make that happen. There is no more magic or mysticism to getting pregnant than there is with our dog, cat, birds, or the animals we raise for food; it's all part of a natural order of things.<break time='1s'/>

We can produce multiplying human cells in a Petri dish in the lab. We have grown a human ear on the back of a mouse. And, we can grow human skin in the laboratory to help burn patients. We have developed the knowledge and the medical skills to intercept a collection of cells with the potential to be a person and stop the process, not necessarily because of defects or the mother's health or lifestyle, although these are legitimate issues, but for psychological reasons. <break time='1s'/>

One of the advances in our understanding of the human body is the mental health effect on the woman who is pregnant. We now understand that mental health can be as devastating as physical health. So, in addition to the various physiological issues that can prevent a fetus from achieving personhood, we now know that psychological health can prevent a woman from wanting to bring a child into the world.<break time='1s'/>

Like the natural ones, the psychological reasons are many and sometimes hard to define. Pregnancy can be psychologically paralyzing for a single mother with limited education and few prospects for successfully raising a child to adulthood. She may have been raped by a stranger or even a family member, and she might never look at the child without seeing the rapist and reliving that horrible moment. The woman may be just starting in life with many expectations, and having a child is simply a psychological burden that will cause her and the child pain and misery over many years. <break time='1s'/>

The expectant mother may already have more children than she can manage or afford. Other reasons may have to do with age; she is underage or not ready to have children or older and doesn't want to have more children or any children at all; it must be her choice. She may have a troubled relationship with the father or not know who the father is. The reasons a woman might choose abortion are many the psychological impact on the woman forced to carry a baby to term is just as onerous and dangerous as a medical condition.<break time='1s'/>

These are all-natural causes for an abortion. The only difference is that we have more recently achieved the ability to relieve the woman of childbirth's psychological pain and damage that nature has previously sometimes handled. Some spontaneous abortions and stillbirths likely result from the psychological stress of being pregnant, therefore putting these natural abortions in the same category as deciding to abort based on the mother's psychological health.<break time='1s'/>

"In 2017, there were 14 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15-17 (down from a peak of 75 in 1989), 57 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 18-19 (from a peak of 175 in 1991), and 111 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 20-24 (from a peak of 202 in 1990). pregnancy rates among older age groups have been increasing since 1973. The pregnancy rate for those aged 35-39 peaked in 2016 (with 73 pregnancies per 1,000 women), and the rate for those 40 or older reached a historic high in 2017 (with 19 pregnancies per 1,000 women). Among women aged 15-44, the abortion rate has largely declined since its peak in 1980 and 1981 (of 29 abortions per 1,000 women) and reached a historic low in 2017 (of 14 abortions per 1,000 women). Among women aged 30-34, 35-39, and 40 or older, the rate of abortions has stayed relatively stable since the late 1970s, during which time birth rates have largely increased." Guttmacher Institute<break time='1s'/>

Now we come to the discussion of personhood and what it means. Much of the debate driven by the anti-abortion faction revolves around when a person is really a person. What or who is a person and when does that happen? I'll try not to get too wonky, but rather than shooting from the hip or quoting religious texts, I like to do a little research to see what the pros say. Here's some of that; "Farah and Heverlein describe the importance of defining "Person-hood [as it] is a foundational concept in ethics, including both pure philosophical ethics and the applied field of bioethics." They go on to say, "nevertheless, defining criteria for personhood have been elusive" "For this work, a human being refers to a biologically human entity, and human person constitutes a moral category."<break time='1s'/>

"Two competing hypotheses that constitute a philosophical dilemma in defining personhood are presented. The first of the two hypotheses is that a human being has existed since fertilization and that personhood is always inherent in a human being at all stages of development. The second of the two hypotheses is that a biologically human entity becomes a human person at some point after fertilization. That is, that not all human beings are human persons and as a result not all human beings have moral status. Proponents of the latter may believe that a zygote, embryo, or fetus are developmental stages of human life and have potential to become a human being or person, but may not yet be a person."<break time='1s'/>

I would argue that in fertilization, you do not have a person; you have the potential to develop a person. You have a collection of cells with the potential to become a person, to exist as a person. A hen lays an egg. It has the potential to become a chicken if a) it's fertilized and b) if it develops appropriately in the egg.<break time='1s'/>

Suppose a sonogram of a fetus revealed a developing zygote without a head (I know that's not possible, but for dramatic purposes). There is little question that the mother/parents, in concert with their doctor, would opt to abort the pregnancy. Severe congenital disabilities that will prevent the fetus from achieving meaningful personhood are often the impetus for that decision. The body naturally aborts births due to problems in the development of the fetus or the health of the mother.<break time='1s'/>

Defining personhood or being a person doesn't seem all that difficult. A few givens are there. A person requires a functioning brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and circulatory system at a minimum. There are thousands of other physiological elements needed to be a functional person with human potential, or where the lack thereof can produce what we often refer to as a vegetable or near vegetable.<break time='1s'/>

While some elements might be present early in gestation, the complete person with the potential to live outside the womb and function as, and, this is a keyword, in my opinion, enjoy their personhood for life doesn't appear to exist until about 24 weeks into gestation. <break time='1s'/>

There is a reason 1 in 5 pregnancies abort naturally by 20 weeks when the body detects a problem with either the fetus or the mother. And only 1 in 160 pregnancies results in stillbirths after 20 weeks. Nature has given us a roadmap for determining a near-point where abortions are practical.<break time='1s'/>

In 1973, the landmark and controversial court case Roe v. Wade came to a close when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman's Constitutional right to privacy negated abortion legislation. This court ruling enabled women to terminate pregnancies up to the point of fetal viability (the point in fetal development at which a delivered baby can survive without interfering with the body of the mother. In humans, fetal viability is considered to occur at 24 weeks of gestation. Science Quarterly <break time='1s'/>

Suppose we set aside the mythology that this is all being orchestrated by a supreme being rather than the natural order of things, as we readily accept with other life forms. In that case, I believe we can, as an advanced society, recognize that psychological abortions, whether they occur naturally or are medically assisted, are, in fact, a natural part of ensuring that we produce healthy and happy offspring and families. We're not forced to breed whether or not we like it, the way we demand from our livestock and meatpacking industry.<break time='1s'/>

The women in our world and society are not mares or cows that should be forced to give birth whether they want to or not. We are pushing to develop a more humane way to produce the meat we eat; we most assuredly should want to treat the women of our species with the same respect.