The closer we get to the 2020 election, the more we hear about the abortion debate. Let’s get something clear, it isn’t a debate. The participants in a debate understand the issues and engage in a fact-based exchange of ideas and opinions. We have only angry and emotional people yelling at each other. So, for the sake of civility and sanity, we shall attempt to identify the main issues and present the alternative points of view.
The abortion debate is over two seemingly contradictory rights. The right of a woman to choose and the right to life of the unborn. These rights are derived from the truth that we are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The right to life is an expressed right because it is enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. The right to choose is an implied right because although it isn’t specifically mentioned in the Declaration, it is necessary if one is to exercise their liberty and pursue happiness. Therefore, they are both fundamental rights.
However, there is a hierarchy of rights. A right can either be absolute or conditional. Most of our rights are conditional. That is, we are free to exercise them on the condition that it does not infringe upon the rights of another.
People have the right to smoke, but they don’t have the right to expose others to the hazards of secondhand smoke. Therefore, the state can regulate or restrict the exercise of that right. That’s why the government suspends the right to smoke on an airplane. When the smoker is no longer in a public space, their right to smoke is restored.
Our right to choose is conditional because it can be temporarily denied and restored. However, our right to life is absolute because once it is denied it can never be restored. Thus, the right to life will always supersede the right to choose. No person’s choice can infringe upon another person’s right to life. Consequently, the main issue in the abortion debate is when does life begin, and when does that life become a human being.
Science tells us that life begins at conception because a single cell embryo has the capacity for growth, reproduction and functional activity. That is the definition of life. Furthermore, it contains human DNA. Therefore, it is a human life. If fact, if science discovered an embryo on Mars it would be the greatest discovery in history. Not only would they declare that life was discovered on Mars, they would declare it was human life. Its indisputable, life begins at conception. Although science has answered the first part of the question, the second and more significant part remains. Is that life a human being?
When does a human life become a human being? That’s the question on which the debate hinges, and on which there is so much uncertainty. An uncertainty that’s a result of the 1973 decision that legalized abortion. In Roe v. Wade, the Burger Court ruled that a woman has the right to an abortion up until viability; the point in time when the fetus is “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.” Accordingly, viability is when a human life becomes a human being, viability is the point at which the right to life takes president over the right to choose, and viability is when the state assumes its obligation to protect that life. However, the problem with using viability as the determinant of a human being is that it is vague and ambiguous, and dependent upon too many external factors.
A fetus may only be viable if it has access to advanced postnatal care. Are we willing to concede that a child born in a country with advanced neonatology care is more human than a child born in an underdeveloped country that doesn’t have that level of care? Of course not. Viability can’t be the determinant. Whatever criteria we use to define a human being, it can’t be vague and ambiguous. It must be certain and verifiable.
So, the question remains, when does a human life become a human being?
The first alternative is at birth. In this case a life in the womb may indeed be a human life, but it is not a human being. The carrier is not an expectant mother but a host, because mother denotes a child, and a child denotes a human being. In this scenario a life in the womb has no individual identity until it exists independent and autonomous from the host. Subsequently, it has no inherent or inalienable rights and is subject to termination up until the moment of birth, be that natural or cesarean. The hierarchy of rights does not apply because a non-human being has no rights that can be infringed upon.
The second alternative is at conception. In this case there is no distinction between a human life and a human being, they are synonymous because life is an evolutionary process. Just as life outside the womb evolves from an infant, to a child, to an adult. A life inside the womb evolves from an embryo to a fetus. A human life’s right to life is inherent and inseparable from the condition of being alive. Any choice to intentionally terminate a human life in the womb infringes upon and denies a human being it’s right to life.
The third alternative is that a human life becomes a human being somewhere between conception and birth. Is there a point during the forty-week gestation period, a determinant that is both certain and verifiable? That point could be when a heartbeat and brain activity are detected. That’s the condition used to legally determine when a human being ends; perhaps it could be the condition used to legally determine when a human being begins. In this case a woman can freely exercise her right to choose up until that determinant point.
Abortion is an emotional issue because a pregnancy is a life altering event. An unplanned pregnancy can be psychologically devastating, and the circumstances of the conception may be tragic, but regardless of how real or compelling these factors may be, they are not relevant to this debate, because they in no way alter the truth that every human being’s right to life is absolute. No one can choose to deny a human being their right to life because they are unwanted or undesirable.
When does a human life become a human being? That’s the questions, the central issue of the debate. We need to find the answer to that question, but we need to be careful. It must be an answer that’s found in principal and truth, and not in political expedience or convenience, because in the end, the answer will absolutely define us.