If there is any hope for change in national abortion politics, it will rest on more honest and open discussion. The sad reality is that extremists on both sides are alienating citizens (as well as people of faith) from one another. The common ground that unites the majority of Americans who want to limit abortions is eroded by people who insist on an absolute position.
The extremist poles on abortion are these: 1) nothing short of criminalizing the termination of any pregnancy from fertilization or conception is acceptable; 2) nothing short of total reproductive choice until birth is acceptable. These extremes have determined the debate in the public square; and as long as this continues, we will never reach consensus to protect unborn human life. They are also polar positions that have never been closely examined by their proponents.
Absolutists for “choice” should answer the following questions. Is there no constraint on “reproductive freedom”? Do you want a woman to be free to choose only male births? Why or why not? Do you support abortion in the second or third trimester for the sake of harvesting organs? Would you support a woman’s right to sell her aborted fetuses? Are you in favor of infanticide for newborns resulting from a botched abortion? And speaking of neonates, what do you think are the significant differences between a one-day-old baby and a 30-week fetus? Are you willing to face the moral chaos of absolutizing the “right to choose”?
Absolutists for “life” should answer questions too. Since you hold, as I do, that a human being’s life begins at fertilization or conception, do you think that Senator John McCain, Senator Orrin Hatch and John Danforth are accomplices to homicide in their support of embryonic stem cell research? Do you know why they hold their position? Can you offer evidence that might change their minds? Do you wish to criminalize those who sell or buy contraceptive pills that are likely abortifacients? Do you think there might be people of good faith and conscience who think a human life does not begin until implantation? If there are, are you proposing that we impose our position on them?
The politicizing of extreme positions that have never been seriously questioned has prevented any serious discussion of the facts. Facts are the enemy of both poles. And facts are what we should look at, if we are to address the topic of abortion in the public square.
The evidence supporting fertilization as the beginning of a human life is largely genetic. If you ask yourself when you began as an individual being, conception is the strongest candidate. Prior to that moment, there were two germ cells or gametes, each with 23 chromosomes and each a dead end. At fertilization you have a new being with 46 chromosomes programmed or informed to develop into the entire organism that is you, sporting the same genome of that initial zygote in almost all your cells. If another sperm had united with the ovum, the result would not have been you, with your unique genetic endowments, but a brother or a sister.
There is other evidence, however, to suggest that an individual human being does not begin until the process of implantation in the uterus begins. This is largely a cellular argument. In the judgment of some scientists and scholars, the cells of an early-stage embryo seem not to function as an integrated unitary individual. They are undifferentiated, uncommitted to function as parts of an organism. Moreover, twinning can take place (as well as recombination), which suggests to some that it is not an integrated individual. Finally, the phenomenon of early-stage loss of embryos (from 40 percent to 60 percent) leads many to believe that an individual has not yet come to be. (All of these points, by the way, are countered by proponents of fertilization who argue that differentiation of a kind starts at day one, that twinning is genetically programmed and that the loss of embryos is only an indication that individuation has not occurred.)
There is a third-stage argument that focuses on organ formation. Some hold that you cannot speak of an organism until you have the formation of organs. Thus, they point to the 6- to 10-week period after fertilization as significant in determining the start of a human organism with an incipient heartbeat, a central nervous system and neural firings in the brain. There are honorable people who hold this, although I fail to see the cogency of their position.
What I do see is that most people open to the facts recognize that a human life has begun by the end of the first trimester of a pregnancy. It is at this point that some common ground may be reached to protect unborn human life. There is political will at hand to ensure such protection; but as long as the extreme positions hold sway, no action will be taken. People know that a human life is being terminated after the first trimester. What compounds the tragedy of abortion is our helpless acceptance of the ugly reality.
Abortion reform will occur only if the extreme positions are unmasked as intransigent, unwilling to suffer tough questions or accept the basic facts of life. Those of us who hold that human life begins at conception will continue to argue our case. We will celebrate adult stem cell therapies as strongly as we resist embryonic stem cell research. And we may convince many. But if we are unwilling to make even the slightest move to protect some of the unborn because we cannot protect all humans conceived, the shameful history of abortion in the United States will go unchanged.