Skip to content
September 10, 2005 / Gabriel

A Rational Look at Abortion

For all its emotion and controversy, the abortion debate is actually quite simple, and rests on a single question: at what point does human life begin?

After all, both the pro-choice and pro-life camps agree that killing a one-week old baby is murder. No issue there. And neither camp has an issue prior to conception. The only difference between the two, and the source of so much disagreement, is in that 9-month period in between. The absolute pro-life position is that human life begins at the moment of conception; the absolute pro-choice position is that life doesn’t begin until the whole baby is out of the womb. And of course there are many positions in-between.

The debate has nothing to do with women’s rights, or the right to privacy. These are red herrings that simply serve to confuse the real issue. Don’t believe it? Then try applying these rights arguments to a 1-week or 1-month or 1-year old baby: What if the woman doesn’t want the child? Isn’t ready? Was raped? Doesn’t have a father? Doesn’t have the money/time/resources/support for a baby? Can the woman abort her 1-week old baby? Of course not. She’d go straight to prison for murder. Because there’s no legal “right” that allows one human being to legitimately end the life of another (other than in self-defense.)

So the debate is entirely about when human life begins.

This is a very important question, because the answer determines whether one is simply making a lifestyle choice or committing infanticide—not something to be taken lightly.

Some people say life begins at conception. Others say 3 months. Others say at the time of a baby’s viability. And yet others not until the baby is physically separated from the mother. So who is right?

And the answer is: nobody knows. Not definitively. Sure, there are many with a certainty of opinion on this matter. On both sides. But certainty of opinion is far different from certainty of fact, and only unchecked hubris would not allow for the possibility of being wrong.  Thus far there is no scientific proof that life begins at one point versus another.

Given the absence of proof on this subject, and given the immense importance of the decision—whether or not to terminate what may possibly be a child—the obvious rational and moral decision is to err on the side of caution. To assume that life begins at conception, until proven otherwise. To not do so is to risk being wrong, and being wrong on this issue would mean participating in the murder of children.

Protecting children is one of the most important responsibilities that we have, both as individuals and as a society. And life and death decisions regarding children are not something we should take lightly or gamble with, especially not for the purpose of convenience or lifestyle choices.

And for those with religious or spiritual beliefs, being wrong on this issue has personal ramifications far more serious than simply feeling guilt over the death of a child–all spiritual beliefs save their harshest punishments for harm done to children.

If, at some point in the future, there comes definitive proof that human life doesn’t begin until some time after conception, then at worst the result of our cautious approach will have been some additional deliveries, which our society can handle. But if it turns out that at some time in the future life is proven to start at the time of conception, then we will spare humanity infanticide on a massive scale. In ignorance, then, playing it safe is by far the more enlightened choice.



Leave a Comment
  1. Tim / Oct 4 2005 5:31 pm

    I agree it is better to err on the side of caution. However, a full 9 months is a long way to slide the life marker from birth to conception, and it does not show any effort of compromise between the two extreme positions. You mention, “Thus far there is no scientific proof that life begins at one point versus another.” So, let’s start with something we do have scientific proof of – death. Scientifically, when there is no brainwave activity and no heartbeat you are dead. Using the same empirical criteria we can deduce the exact opposite of death – life. The heartbeat of a fetus can be detected around 4 weeks and brainwave activity can detected around six weeks. This creates a marker for life that is both supported scientifically and offers a spirit of compromise. Now, to err on the side of caution and “assume that life begins at conception, until proven otherwise,” requires us to only slide 1.5 months.

  2. Gabriel / Oct 5 2005 7:56 am

    Hi Tim,
    You make an excellent point. If there is unanimous agreement that life ends at a given set of biological criteria, there is strong validity to the inference that life begins at its inverse. At the very least, it’s certainly a logically defensible position.
    I’m not a medical doctor, so I can’t say for sure, but is the lack of heartbeat or brainwave activity really the final arbitrer of life? I believe I’ve read of a number of cases where one or both stopped and the individual still fully recovered. While these may not be common they would point to a need for a more rigorous set of criteria, because if there are exceptions on the death side then the same logic would lead us to also believe in the potential of exceptions on the life side.
    Remember that our interest here is not a “spirit of compromise,” but to arrive at an objective truth. The potential for infanticide, like other morally repugnant crimes such as rape, murder, child molestation, genocide, and so on, is not best served by splitting the difference between opposing viewpoints. Rather, our goal should be to rationally determine when human life actually begins, be it on either end of the spectrum or somewhere in the middle.
    That said, I think your point merits very serious consideration in that objective and is an excellent starting point for that discussion. Thanks for writing.

  3. Tim / Oct 6 2005 10:40 am

    Per the Columbia University Press Encyclopedia:
    Death is the cessation of all life (metabolic) processes. Death may involve the organism as a whole (somatic death) or may be confined to cells and tissues within the organism.
    Somatic death is characterized by the discontinuance of cardiac activity and respiration, and eventually leads to the death of all body cells from lack of oxygen, although for approximately six minutes after somatic death—a period referred to as clinical death—a person whose vital organs have not been damaged may be revived.
    Brain death, which is now a legal condition in most states for declared death, requires that the following be absent for at least 12 hours: behavioral or reflex motor functions above the neck, including pupillary reflexes to testing jaw reflex, gag reflex, response to noxious stimuli, and any spontaneous respiratory movement. Purely spinal reflexes can remain.
    As a result of recent refinements in organ transplantation (see transplantation, medical) techniques, the need has arisen to more precisely define medical death. The current definition is that of a 1981 U.S. presidential commission, which recommended that death be defined as “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem,” the brain stem being that part of the brain that controls breathing and other basic body functions.
    The full definition of death per the Uniform Determination of Death Act:
    Section 1
    Determination of Death. An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.
    So, it looks like if you have circulatory and respiratory function for more than six minutes and brain function for more than 12 hours your are not dead.

  4. Andrés / Oct 14 2005 10:34 am

    First I want to apologize for my English.
    I think that the definition of death that Tim have stated mislead the discussion. In the case tim have first presented to convalidate an abortion it must be taken into account that you are not testing if the child to be born can recover their body functions. We trully knows that this child is going to live a normal life if the natural process of life is let to continue. Could you keep thinking you are not commiting murder?

  5. Steve / Aug 18 2009 11:15 am

    Excellent articles, extremely well written, thoughtout and thought provoking! Who wrote these and why isn’t that person in a high position in our government?

  6. Lyric / Dec 30 2009 11:56 pm

    The beginning and end of life is a blurry line, and anyone attempting to pinpoint its exact beginning or end will run be in trouble.
    To solve the problem we need laws that consider the gradual nature of life and death, just as we have laws that consider the gradual difference between child and adult.

  7. Gabriel / Dec 31 2009 8:03 am

    Lyric, my point is exactly that it’s undefined, and that therefore one should err on the side of caution. And laws don’t necessarily resolve moral issues–did the fact that slavery was once legal make it moral or right?

  8. Lyric / Dec 31 2009 12:52 pm

    By that logic we shouldn’t attempt to define “adult,” and should err on the side of caution as well.
    We should insist that no-one under 30 drive a car, buy alcohol, spray paint, have sex, get married, etc.
    It is clearly beneficial to define the beginning of adulthood in the same way that it is beneficial to define the beginning of life, even though both are blurry lines.

  9. Lyric / Dec 31 2009 1:02 pm

    The laws are not intended to solve moral issues. The issue of the beginning of life won’t ever be “solved” because it is a gradual progression.
    The best we can do is find a point on that blurry line that reasonably balances our emotions regarding life and death.
    We should make decisions that are practical, that maximize happiness, and that minimize suffering.
    Banning all abortions and raising adulthood to 40 years old both seem unreasonable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: