Abortion: where do you draw the line?

April 24, 2010 1:11 pm Published by 26 Comments

I’ll start this out by saying that I’m in favor of abortion rights. I’m pro-choice. I’ll spare you my reasoning, because you’ve probably heard it all before, and who the hell wants to hear it again?

But one question I’ve always wondered is: where do you draw the line? When is it too late to perform an abortion? When does an embryo become a human?

A simple method is to break the 9-month development period into chunks. You could say that an abortion occurring after the 50% point (4.5 months) isn’t ok. Or, it’s common to break it down into trimesters (3 months, or 33%) and say that it’s not ok after a trimester, or two trimesters. The vast majority of abortions in the US already happen in the first trimester, and that seems to be the de-facto standard right now.

But I wonder, what other factors should we consider besides just time and overall progress? Some of the most relevant, I think, are when the heart begins beating, when it can move on its own, when it can feel pain, and when it becomes conscious.

The heart begins to beat at about the 6th week, which is 15% through the pregnancy (assuming the standard 40-week development period). That’s probably way too soon, and some women may not even know that they’re pregnant at that point. I also think that it’s a bad place to draw the line because, despite all the sentimental feelings we have about the heart, it’s just another organ. We shouldn’t use the functioning of the heart as a marker any more than we should use the functioning of the kidneys or spleen as a marker. Besides, the embryo is only about 1/8 inch at that point.

So, when is the embryo capable of moving on its own? Something like 13-16 weeks, or 33-40%, although the mother won’t actually be able to feel it until about the 19th week (48%). That matches up with the beginning of the second trimester, and as I mentioned previously, most abortions happen before this point already. Is it a good spot to draw the line? Maybe, but are the movements voluntary or reflexive?

Let’s look at pain and consciousness now. It’s very difficult to separate them, because one is dependent upon the other. Even if the pain receptors are working perfectly, if the brain can’t detect pain, there’s no point in worrying about it. In 2005, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper examining this very issue, and here’s what they had to say:

Pain perception requires conscious recognition or awareness of a noxious stimulus. Neither withdrawal reflexes nor hormonal stress responses to invasive procedures prove the existence of fetal pain, because they can be elicited by nonpainful stimuli and occur without conscious cortical processing. Fetal awareness of noxious stimuli requires functional thalamocortical connections. Thalamocortical fibers begin appearing between 23 to 30 weeks’ gestational age, while electroencephalography suggests the capacity for functional pain perception in preterm neonates probably does not exist before 29 or 30 weeks.

Pain perception probably can’t occur before 58-75%, because consciousness can’t occur before then.

With all that said, can we make a decision of where the line should be drawn? I think so. Before I started writing this article, (which I used as an excuse to educate myself on the issue, like I usually do) I felt that anything beyond 50% was probably not acceptable, and I still think that’s probably still a good rule of thumb. (The usual exceptions for incest, protecting the mother’s health, and so on still apply.)

That’s not to say that I think that laws should be made to prevent abortions from being performed after the 50% mark (not that any are). This is more about figuring out exactly what I’m comfortable with. Hopefully, I’ll never have a use for this information.

Lingering Issues

There are still a couple things worth thinking about. First, what do you do if the fetus has major genetic deformities? What if you find out that it’ll have Down’s Syndrome, or Spina Bifida, or something like that? These problems (and others) can be detected with an amniotic fluid test in the 16th-20th week (40-50%). Should such a pregnancy be terminated to spare the child from living their whole (possibly short) life with these problems, and to spare the family from all the extra difficulties and costs that come with it? I think it’s acceptable to abort in such cases, but it’s a complex issue.

Finally, you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned something that many people consider to be a very important part of the process: the soul. I haven’t mentioned it until now so I could avoid bogging down this article in unanswerable questions. Many people will ask, when does the soul form? If they think it happens at conception, then it’s easy to understand why they may think that any abortion is the same as killing a person. Does it form as the fetus forms? Does a fetus at 20 weeks have 50% of a soul?

I don’t consider the soul because I don’t believe in souls. There’s no evidence that they exist, and there’s no reason or need for them to exist. And even if they do exist, there’s zero data on when and how they form, or where they come from. There’s just no way to factor in a soul.

If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, I strongly recommend Michael Shermer’s book “The Science of Good and Evil“. It’s all about morality, ethics, and how such things can be informed by science. The whole book is a great read, and one of the later chapters deals with abortion issues in great detail.

As a final note, I know how contentious this issue is, and I know that there are many different views out there. I just hope that people will look at the facts, and not go purely by emotion. And if I’m wrong about something, please let me know. I’m certainly not an expert on this subject. If you post a comment, please keep it civil and scientific.

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This post was written by Bevans

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