The foetus has rights... but so does the womanTuesday, March 09, 2021
Those who would defend the rights of women to decide for themselves whether to terminate a pregnancy should also engage with the argument that the developing foetus is equivalent to a person who also has rights. Opponents of abortion maintain the view that the right to life of the unborn foetus trumps the rights of an adult woman. Some go even further. They believe that the foetus is a person. Defenders of abortion, on the other hand, are resolute that the foetus is not a person.
And what are the rights of women to have an abortion? Risk to life, rape, incest, serious foetal abnormalities, and risk to physical and sometimes mental health. These are clear-cut justifications for termination of a pregnancy. The dilemma of a 10-year-old pregnant schoolgirl is more problematic. Being pregnant, her education and commitments may be affected adversely. Shouldn't we accord more importance to her future than the multiplying cells within her body, which at the most represent potentiality. And, consider a woman overburdened with having many children and now faces an additional one. Is the foetus (a potential life) more important than the quality of life of the mother (an actual life), who now faces untold suffering? Shouldn't we choose the latter on the grounds of both reason and compassion? Who is going to suffer more? Potentiality is not the same as actuality, and moral principles must apply first and foremost to actual people, not potential ones.
What about the foetus' rights? If a developing foetus is equivalent to a person, then abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide. And if the foetus is a person, then it should be accorded the same rights and privileges as enjoyed by a person. If it is not yet a person, it need not be accorded the same rights.
Some even claim that personhood actually begins at conception so that destroying the cells of an early embryo is morally on par with killing a person. Cells even have souls, according to St Augustine. Simply scratching your nose you may be engaged in genocide and the diabolical culling of souls.
I contend that neither the egg nor the sperm cell is a human being. Nor is the conceptus (formed from fertilisation of the egg by the sperm) destined to become a baby. Between two-thirds and a quarter of them never implant in the uterus and are spontaneously aborted, some because they are genetically defective or for no discernible reason.
An eight-week-old embryo may have recognisable human features such as face, hands, and feet, but neuronal synaptic connections and critical organs are still under development and it could not exist on its own. It's not until 28 weeks, more or less, that the foetus acquires some of the cognitive capacities found in newborns. Destroying a human sperm or egg would not constitute abortion since neither are human beings. The issue is not when human life begins, but rather when does the life of a human being begin. A sperm and an egg are both human life, but are not human beings. They are human cells. A newly fertilised ovum is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.
It is not fortuitous that the legalisation of abortion in Argentina was permitted up to 14 weeks gestation. The time would have been carefully thought out, with the realisation that a 14-week-old foetus is neither viable; that is survive on its own, nor a person. Most obstetricians agree that foetal viability occur around 24 weeks' gestation, and more likely at 28 weeks (second trimester). Abortions are almost never performed in the third trimester (after 28 weeks). In fairness, 79 per cent of pro-choicers (those who support abortions) actually oppose abortions in the third trimester, and they advocate that abortions should be banned at 22-24 weeks, with exceptions.
Making abortions illegal increases the numbers done on the black market. Women remain forced to go to dangerously incompetent back-street quacks leading to life-threatening medical complications. This is a strong case for legalising abortions.
The premeditated killing of a human is murder. Is killing a foetus equivalent to killing a human being? Yes, and even earlier, at conception, say the Catholics. Others regard the foetus as human when the heartbeats can be detected, at 24 weeks when brain function becomes activated, and still others say when the foetus develops rational autonomy and self-consciousness.
Should the question of when the foetus becomes a person be the domain of the scientist, the embryologist, the philosopher, the bioethicist, the theologian (by divine revelation), or by the politician (by divine inspiration)? Until we can reach a consensus on when personhood is attained we will not be able to resolve the great abortion debate.
It seems more reasonable to draw the line at viability. At this level, most would agree that abortion should be prohibited. But viability is a continuum that depends on the state of current medical technology.
Dr Ethon Lowe is a medical doctor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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