The Question of Sentience

The nomination of John Roberts as replacement justice for Sandra Day O’Connor, who recently retired from the Supreme Court, promises to rekindle the 30 year old abortion debate. I’ve often thought about this question, that can inflame passions like no other.

The two sides cannot even agree on a definition of terms. The left views the question as simply one of women’s rights, privacy rights, and individual choice. The right tries to end the debate with simplistic slogans such as “it’s not a choice, it’s a child.” Most thoughtful Americans have their own viewpoint, but would never seek to impose it on another, considering it the most private and personal of decisions.

I think both sides are focusing on the wrong questions:

The morality of abortion hinges entirely on whether one believes a fetus to be sentient. Indeed, self-awareness is the defining characteristic of all life that deserves protection. Also, we care about a creature’s capability to experience pain. Plants are alive, but no one worries about a tree feeling pain when we prune its branches. In fact, if we do not prune our trees, we may be considered careless, and even receive a citation from the city. Most people don’t have moral qualms about killing insects, even committing insect ‘genocide’ by fumigating a house.

So it would seem that humanity has accepted the need to sometimes kill or alter life for its own purposes. We generally base this on the idea of minimizing suffering, or allowing suffering that is so primitive in terms of awareness as to be insignificant, such as with insects or livestock. (Of course there are certain religions who preach ahimsa and would find even fumigation offensive.)

But when we turn to the question of human life, most people are very uncomfortable with anything that may cause death or injury, even if self-inflicted. So, two questions arise:

  • At what point do we consider a fetus to be a part of a woman’s body, and when does it become a separate individual?
  • At what point does a fetus become sentient: begin to experience pain, and a sense of threat to to its own survival?

These two questions are linked. Today’s medical technology can be brought to bear to answer the first, as the date at which a fetus becomes viable in an incubator gets pushed earlier and earlier. The second question may be answered in the near future, as science unravels the mystery of consciousness. Once we learn to establish an artificial connection with a human brain, and begin to be able to observe the relationship of impulse to thoughts, thereby deciphering the contents of the human mind, we may well be able to establish a point at which a fetus becomes sentient.

Today, no one really knows. We can take our cues from myth and parody. Athena was said to have sprung fully formed from the mind of Zeus. At the other extreme, we have the Monty Python song “every sperm is sacred,” a brilliant parody of the Catholic ethic of reproduction. We know that the point of sentience is somewhere between these two extremes.

It’s hard to take religious fanatics seriously, when they continue in their blind insistence that life begins at conception. We know that life is a continuum. Our DNA has existed in an unbroken chain for millions if not billions of years. The zygote, though certainly a potential new human life, is larger but little different from the surrounding cells. And, in humans and all other animals, millions if not billions of cells die every day. Our skin, hair and fingernails are nothing but dead cells. In fact, household dust consists of mostly dead skin cells. So clearly, killing cells is not a crime, unless you are one of those prudes who loves to recite the biblical story of Onan, and rant on about “wasting sperm.”

At some point, after many, many divisions, a fetus with trillions of cells begins to become aware of its environment. Its heart beats, it begins to suck its thumb, it drinks amniotic fluid, it responds to light, and external touch. Expectant parents can now even get formal ultrasonic portraits of their new baby, well before it’s born. By the time we can see a recognizable human on an ultrasound scanner, it is in fact alive, it deserves protection and should not be killed, except perhaps to save the life of the mother. Anyone who has seen the film “The silent scream” knows that a human being is being killed. Anyone who is not horrified and outraged after seeing photos of late-term abortions is a monster.

So it seems to me that the entire abortion debate should center on the first two months of pregnancy. At some point between conception and 8-12 weeks, it’s pretty clear that some kind of sentience begins. Until science puts a finer point on it, thinking and caring individuals should act quickly if they plan to terminate a pregnancy. Otherwise they risk their own offspring experiencing the most horrible betrayal and death imaginable as it is ripped limb from limb.

Since the majority of abortions are performed on young and vulnerable women, who may not have the support of their parents and immediate family, procrastination and inaction becomes a huge problem. Every day after conception, the point of sentience grows nearer. It becomes a race between time and compassion:

The cost or logistics of getting to an abortion clinic may be prohibitive until much later in the pregnancy. The religious views of a young girl’s parents, or the lack of cooperation from the father may complicate things further. All of this argues strongly for widespread and confidential availability of emergency contraception (the morning after pill), the abortion pill, and prompt abortion counseling services.

Of course, that assumes you are interested in compassion, and minimizing of suffering to sentient life. If your agenda is preservation the religious status quo, the demonization of sex, and doing nothing about overpopulation, then you’ll do what the Bush administration has done. That is, teaching gobbledygook abstinence-only sex education programs in high school (which limit access to contraception information and thus actually result in higher pregancy rates), limiting funds for abortion services, and trying to stack the Supreme Court with ideological nominees.

Let’s hope reason prevails, and John Roberts does not decide to extend the long reach of government back into women’s wombs.

UPDATE: In response to reader’s questions, I clarify that I am NOT in favor of outlawing abortion–only of a better and more conscious debate. This should be a personal decision, and it would be great to see social and cultural norms that support increased information and counselling so that women who wish to terminate pregnancies do so quickly.

Comments (14 comments)

chris / August 26th, 2005, 10:56 am / #1

Very Powerful! You really know how to colorfully get your message across!

Lars / April 20th, 2009, 1:38 pm / #2

I know it’s trivial but i’d just like to say that dust being made up of mostly dead skin cells is a common misconception.

Arghwhoop / February 16th, 2010, 9:58 pm / #3

By the end of your article you concede the point that it is unethical to kill a human life form(at the 8 weeks point). My point would be that you are arbitrarily picking a cut off date to consider the unborn a viable human being. I do not believe anyone has the right to judge whether or not any living human is considered a viable life form or not. So I protect life form the very beginning. Thats conception.

My country has been the victim of many genocides, and my people have rather strict rules on abortion, simply on the belief that the right to life trumps anyone else's rights. We have no abortion, death penalty, nor do we engage in war.

BlackSun / February 16th, 2010, 10:05 pm / #4

Uh, apparently you didn't even read the title of the article. "Sentience" refers to self-awareness, or the ability to feel pain. Far from arbitrary, it's the only line of demarcation that makes any kind of moral sense whatsoever. I did not say 8 weeks, I said we need to study when sentience is achieved and set the line then.

By your definition, every time a woman has a menstrual period which expels an unimplanted embryo, or a miscarriage, that would be considered a death. Morning-after pill? Murder in your eyes.

That kind of thinking is what is arbitrary and unsound.

albert quelch / June 28th, 2010, 2:13 pm / #5

A menstrual period sheds an unfertilised egg , not an embryo

AngieAntiTheist / February 17th, 2010, 3:08 pm / #6

Wow, I believed right up until "only the first 2 months". With my first pregnancy, I didn't find out till I was 21 weeks along (over halfway) Obviously, I continued the pregnancy & I love my son very much. This time, I'm lucky enough to find out & get an abortion scheduled by 6 weeks. Are you telling me that if I hadn't been daily peeing on stick tests till one showed up positive (like I knew I was) and had missed this window by another few days, I'd be stuck carrying a child to term, with everything that entails?

Sorry but until I can require someone else to donate a kidney to save another person's life, I cannot require someone else to donate their womb to save another person's life. That's what we're talking about here. I say this as a mother, as someone who has "lost" a fetus to miscarriage, and as someone who is getting an abortion tomorrow. If women don't have rights to our bodies at least equal to if not superior to a non-communicating, non-self-supporting (in purely physical terms) parasite. Otherwise we have no rights at all.

BlackSun / February 17th, 2010, 5:32 pm / #7


When you take a reasoned and principled stand, you're going to get flak from both sides. It's important to recognize that a fetus starts as a parasite and transitions to an independent life.

Those who say life begins at conception are as wrong as those who say abortion is ethical 5 minutes before birth. There's an ethical line somewhere. We don't exactly know where. It has to do with the capacity of the fetus to suffer. We need to try to find out when that occurs.

Danann / October 27th, 2012, 7:28 am / #8

This is a well-thought-out post and makes complete sense to me. Having had an abortion at 8 weeks 40 years ago when it was illegal and having almost died from that, I have pondered this subject to the core of my being. This is the first time I have read anything that comes close to making complete sense and I want to thank you for writing it. What I have come to feel in my bones is that life, as you made so clear here, is a continuum. Also death is part of life and not the end of everything like we've been taught. Sentient beings must be protected of course and I think you make a good point in deciphering when that starts. Clearly it is not one set time but a process. Individuality is a developing thing until you are 18 actually. And the baby and the child are in the process of that, so it is the parents job, and society's, to protect that and nurture it to adulthood. A zygote is alive but not individually seperate from the mother and can miscarry with no moral repercussions. It seems the woman should have the right to control that which is of her body without society judging her for it.

Arghwhoop / February 17th, 2010, 7:08 pm / #9

I'm sure the Jews didnt like being referred to as parasites when the Nazis decided their lives werent valid. I believe women do have a chocie, a choice to close their legs. Murdering children is avoidable. Its laziness and selfishness thats leads to casual abortion.

BlackSun / February 17th, 2010, 7:21 pm / #10


You have shown your true colors. "Pro-life" is anti-sex prudery at its core. Now get out of here with your Godwin violation before I block you.

lucia / June 19th, 2011, 4:23 pm / #11

I wish the whole god/political crap would stop. The question is when dose sentience occur and what dose that mean in the case of abortion.

There is already a limit on the time an abortion can take place…why? because this was the date determined at that time an fetus was viable outside of the womb.

Today scans 2d & 3d show a life form responding to sound/light/touch. But is this sentience.

If there was a date that a fetus becomes sentient then that would mean a whole person (factually the fetus is not a parasite) whose rights must be balanced against another.

lucia / June 19th, 2011, 4:55 pm / #12

Just had a thought. Instead of when dose a fetus feel pain perhaps it would be better to ask when dose the fetus show signs of pleasure and preference. since one sign of sentience is responsive to or conscious of.

Pain can easily be argued an automatic response but pleasure and the seeking of it, is harder to put down to this. This might shed more light on this question.

lucia / June 19th, 2011, 5:02 pm / #13

This is interesting as it is about development

Colin / December 31st, 2012, 8:57 pm / #14

Excellent post, and it agrees with my own way of thinking .. however when in debate with pro-lifers these sort of comments are ignored. The whole debate about abortion should be about funding the research to discover when the fetus becomes sentient until that time I firmly believe that the current law(s) are about right.

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