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.