“A Vindication of the Rights of Babies”

Some debates go on for far too long.

With something complex like an economic issue or picking out sexy summer-wear, the length of argument can be frustrating, but when the debate is something that can be solved in minutes with the ever-elusive “logic” and “scientific reasoning,” an argument’s refusal to be resolved can be downright irritating. At this point in the paragraph, you’re probably thinking “Just get to the point already!” Well, if you insist. The issue of which I speak is the long-going topic of abortion. I know, you want the argument to end too, right? I bet you don’t even want to read this article anymore. But fear not, for I assure you I’ll make it well worth your while. Throughout the article, I will refer to supporters of abortion as simply “proponents” for brevity’s sake. So what do the proponents say to support abortion? The most common point they make is that an embryo is not alive. Rather than wax philosophic about that indescribable quality that makes us alive (or does it?), let’s look at the characteristics found in every living organism to test this opinion.

Living organisms undergo a period of growth, maintain homeostasis, have a metabolism, respond to stimuli, reproduce, and, as a species, adapt to their environment. Since not every individual organism can reproduce (such as children and the infertile), only five of the above six characteristics are required to be met. Try as you may, you will never be able to find an embryo which does not meet all of the above criteria save reproduction. They grow (exponentially), they have organized bodies made up of cells, organs, and systems; they metabolize the nutrients sent by the mother via the umbilical cord (and transfer waste back to her the same way), respond to stimuli (how else would the zygote find the uterine wall to burrow in?), and, since they belong to the human species, share the same adaptation as all other humans simply by belonging to the species. Scientifically speaking, an embryo is alive. There is no religious debate, nor a philosophical one. Embryos are alive, and in the 21st century, believing that an embryo is not alive ought to be met with the same ridicule as thinking the Earth is flat.

And thus, many proponents do not dismiss an embryo’s life, but merely its personhood. After all, an embryo cannot carry on a conversation, or sustain life independently of its mother (with current medical technology), or play Mario Kart, or do any of the things that persons can. Why, then, should they be called persons? Wouldn’t a more accurate term be “growth” or even “parasite?” Embryos, by any measurable means, do not possess sentience, or even consciousness. They don’t tap their tiny feet to the beat of music until well into the second trimester. Surely one could not refer to such a thing as a person! But if an embryo (meaning first-trimester baby) is not a person, then we must ask two questions. What, and When?

What is an embryo, if not a person? Is it a chipmunk, or is it human but not “person?” You may think the chipmunk question was in jest, but I assure you it is necessary to pose it with seriousness, in order to discuss all possible permutations of this argument, so let’s get to the answer. Without over-thinking, what separates a human-type organism from an organism of the chipmunk class? If you answered “capacity for love” or “cheek size” I’m glad you succeeded in not over-thinking, but you missed the mark. What I was going for was “Human DNA.” Humans are made of human organs, made of human cells containing strands of human DNA. Chipmunks, likewise, contain fuzzy rodent DNA. Whether a human is alive or not, he is still considered human. Thus when we see a human corpse, we don’t say “Look at the size of that chipmunk!” but rather “How embarrassing; when I die, I hope I’m not wearing a Hannah Montana shirt like that guy.” As silly as it is for me to distinguish a human from a chipmunk, it’s important to establish that a human’s embryo is human, if not a person, and thus is entitled to the same basic rights as any other human. Even after death, humans are protected by laws such as those prohibiting grave exhumation and necrophilia. So now that we’ve established that a human embryo is indeed human, does that alone make it a person? An embryo is human and contains human cells with human DNA, but so does feces (it’s true. All those dead cells have to leave the body somehow!) and so do tumors. Are we then to say that tumors are persons? Some of them have hair, teeth, even organs!1 Should the cells of Henrietta Lacks have to pay taxes and serve jury duty? It seems that being (a) human isn’t enough to be a person.

But if an embryo is not a person, when does it become one? The legal answer, in most states, is the beginning of the second trimester. At about twelve weeks, that human thing formally called an embryo is now dubbed a fetus (from the Latin for “baby”) and is now protected by federal and state laws, even though there is no physiological difference between a baby at 11 weeks, 6 days, 23 hours; and 12 weeks even—other than normal development (after all, every day during pregnancy a baby is more developed than the day before, and that trend continues in the child for the next twenty years). This arbitrary date seems to be when a human thing becomes a human person. Thus if an embryo is aborted on the last day of the first trimester, it’s not murder because the embryo is not sufficiently developed to be a person. If a fetus is aborted on the first day of the second trimester, however, then it is a person’s life which was taken and not just a collection of human cells inside someone’s womb. I well understand the importance of arbitrary dates when legality is concerned. One cannot vote at the age of 17 years, 364 days; nor can one buy alcohol at 20 years, 365 days (leap year!). But perhaps that same tolerance of arbitrary dates is being used to decide whether killing is murder, or just the abortion of a lump that gives its mother weird cravings at two in the morning.

So why might the end-of-first-trimester deadline make sense? Beats me. I suppose it must be because embryos are less developed than fetūs. Though by that same logic, a four-year-old must be less of a person than a forty-year-old. Granted, children do have fewer privileges than adults, but have no less protection under the law. Child abuse is not looked upon with less scorn than abuse towards an adult, but then again that could be because children aren’t persons so they can’t defend themselves, so the penalty should be steeper. And children aren’t persons so when they are tried for a crime, the court is more lenient. But if it were true that a child is less of a person, that would mean that murdering a child should be less heinous than murdering an adult. That must be true, what with all the popular support for the murder of a child named “Justin Bieber.” So maybe it is true that the younger a child is, the less “person” it ought to be considered. That makes sense in terms of mass. So if an embryo only weighs an ounce, it just barely meets the mass requirements of being a person. Any less than that, and there’s not enough human to make up a person. It’s sort of like how, if you have one scoop of ice cream left in the freezer, you can’t very well make a sundae, now can you? There’s not enough ice cream there to be considered “sundae.” But who decided how much human matter you should have before making person? The answer differs, it seems.

The most hard-core of proponents support late-term abortions, well into the third trimester. If I had to guess, I’d say that the majority of proponents shun these extremists as a little cuckoo and possibly spiteful, but prefer not to give extensive thought as to why they feel this shunning; for doing so would expose their hypocrisy. If you, dear reader, are yourself a proponent, I suppose right now you wish to stop reading so you can track me down and beat in my smug face, but I implore you to first let me defend my calling you a hypocrite. After that, anything is fair game. Why do I say moderate proponents are hypocritical when late-termers are not? It’s very simple. Late-termers don’t tolerate that arbitrary deadline which I referred to above. They don’t have to wonder why a seven-week baby shouldn’t be protected but an eight-week baby should. To them, as long as a human thingy is attached to its mother, it doesn’t matter if the thing is undeveloped and weighs one pound, or if it has a full beard and weighs 100 pounds (ouch!)—it’s still a non-person. With that being the case, we can only say that a human is a person once it is no longer attached to its mother. Meaning, when the umbilical cord is cut and not a second sooner. Before the umbilical cord is cut, the baby is still attached to its mother, and is therefore a part of her body. The only two differences after birth are that the baby now breathes oxygen through its throat, and it doesn’t need protection (by the placenta) from being suspended in fluid. Other than that, nothing is different; it’s still a part of her body. Is not a woman’s hand a part of her body because it’s attached via her wrist? Is not a woman’s tooth a part of her body because it’s cemented in gums? And would a woman’s arm cease to be a part of her body were it severed in an accident?

With the wonders of modern technology it is possible to reattach a severed body part as long as the right conditions are met (time from severance, way in which part was severed, etc. are factors). Surgeons can replant various parts with reasonable success. With a transplant, immunosuppressant drugs are needed to prevent the host from attacking its guest, much in the same way your wife restrains you when you’re enraged at her parasitic live-in brother. But when an arm is reattached to its own shoulder, instead of someone else’s, no problems arise because the arm doesn’t suddenly stop being a part of the body just because it was missing for a few minutes. Likewise, who’s to say that a baby being severed from its mother after birth means it’s no longer a part of her body? Imagine how much nicer teenagers would be to their mothers if the threat of abortion constantly loomed over their pimply heads. It’s true that a child can’t reenter its mother’s vagina (unless that child’s name is Oedipus—bow chicka wow wow!) but why squabble over physical impossibilities? A child inherits its mother’s DNA and indeed, females inherit all of their mothers’ mitochondrial DNA entirely, intact, generation after generation. Maybe that’s why you’re becoming more and more like her every year. If half of you owes its existence to her one ovum that didn’t end up on a tampon, then according to the previous logic, doesn’t that qualify you as literally, physically, a part of your mother’s body? …I believe I have just made myself uncomfortable. Let us move on.

So if it’s not okay to abort a child when it’s four years old and won’t stop singing the jingle from that annoying commercial, nor is it okay to abort a baby after it’s born and before the umbilical cord is cut, why ought we to think it is acceptable or justifiable (more on that later) to abort a baby when it’s still in the womb? Perhaps this is a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” If you can’t see a baby’s hazel eyes, and its fingerprints, and you can’t feel its beating heart, or let it wrap its tiny hand around your finger, then you won’t have to think about ending its totally non-person life. Lest I rely entirely on pathos, however, and before I get too far ahead, I’d like to return to a previous paragraph in which I discussed the non-personhood of tumors and feces. In a spontaneous argument with a stranger on Facebook, I made the same argument as I did above, saying that an embryo is of course a person, because it has human DNA. My opponent the proponent responded with “This pre-med student isn’t really sure where to start with that reasoning. Thanks for the laugh.” She presumably referred to herself as “this pre-med student” to intimidate me, as if not yet being in med school were an awesome testament of her limitless medical knowledge. At least she was kind enough to thank me for making her laugh. After I further supported my argument, being sure to make liberal use of medical terms like “penis,” she responded with the quote below.

“ If you’re arguing that cells with human DNA should be legally protected as people [sic], I hope you’re consistent enough to have never masturbated and you’re against the removal of cancerous tumors. If you think there is something different about fertilized eggs, being totipotent, and that they should be legally treated differently than [sic] other cells then say that but don’t pretend that the systematic attempt to legitimize controlling women’s bodies is all about “biology.” ”

As difficult as this may be for you to believe, I have masturbated in my twenty years. I know, you’re shocked. Just as I’m sure every man does, I usually do so with the severed hand of a thirteen-year-old (SATIRE! DO NOT PROSECUTE!). Chuckles here is basing her reply on the misconception that I said individual cells other than zygotes are persons. While cells make up persons, they themselves are not (they don’t have enough mass, remember?). Still, I do cherish all life and every time I poop, I mourn thirty days for the dead cells I just excreted. The difference between those cells and a zygote is, as she said, totipotency, which for you non-Latin speakers, means “capable of the whole.” That part of her response was right on the money. No cell in the body will split into two, then four, then eight, and so on; nor will it grow a few heart cells and a few lung cells until it has its own organs and an umbilical cord. Because of that same inactivity, an ovum is not a person until it is fertilized.  Were it otherwise, a woman would bleed out thousands of living persons in her lifetime. A man would lose billions more. Luckily God is not so harsh in his dealings with our mortal race. Aside from miscarriages, a baby will only die if it’s killed before even having a chance to screw up its life like the rest of us. By the way, if you’re wondering why I keep referring to an embryo as “it,” there are two reasons: “it” is easier to write than (s)he every single time, and an embryo’s gender is indiscernible visually until the 8th week. Up until then the baby develops both sets of sex organs, meaning that every male has a uterus. Pretty cool, huh?

Up until the end of her response I was unwavering. But then, the last line caused an epiphany. Here it is again. “…don’t pretend that the systematic attempt to legitimize controlling women’s bodies is all about “biology.” ” That line hit me like Ron Artest’s fists at a Pistons game. How could I be such a sexist my whole life? Here I was, trying to control women like an issue of Cosmo! But now that I have seen the light, I shall resolve to let women, and especially pregnant women, exercise the rights that God and probably George Washington intended them to have! If a pregnant woman wants to smoke, or drink, then by Jove, take her down to 7-11! It’s her body, and it’s her choice! If she wants to get drunk to celebrate finally being able to conceive with the help of doctors and a Petri dish, then that’s her God-given right! What’s that, you say? Alcohol causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? You say that the decision to drink will affect her baby? Well, the last time I checked, abortion also affects the baby. How is it that one could think nothing of damage done to an embryo as long as it’s fatal, but recoil in horror at the thought of damage that results in deformity but not death?

There’s the real question there. To understand the thinking behind your typical abortion, we must understand the events that usually precede it. Every year, nearly 1.2 million women in the U.S. have an abortion. The most common reasons are inability to support a child, to end an unwanted pregnancy, to spare a child its congenital deformities, conception by rape or incest, or a condition that endangers the life of the mother and/or the child. About 30% of abortions come from teenage mothers. Rather than express my moral outrage at teenagers having sex or some other such thing, I will express sympathy for every mother who feels abortion is the best option. It’s truly sad when circumstances drive a mother to choose such an awful selection. Never let it be said that I can’t speak credibly about this issue because I have a Y chromosome (my father’s sperm’s choice, not mine) or that I can’t understand what these mothers are going through because I’m incapable of being pregnant. I have a uterus too, you know!

Hollywood must have quite an impact on our way of thinking when we feel it justifiable to kill a child in order to put a Quasimodo out of the misery we assume he’ll suffer in life because of his defects. Because if there’s one thing movies have taught us, it’s that only the beautiful can be happy. And do we really think that it is better to kill a child than to spare it a life of suffering? Are you kidding me? What human doesn’t suffer? Shouldn’t we all be dead right now? We cannot know the destiny of our children, but God knows what difference they could make. Frederick Douglass was raised in cruel slavery and used his awful history to further abolition. If he could make beauty of tragedy, who’s to say some other child born into poverty or malady could not? Really, all of these circumstances are merely excuses, sought out to end a burden on the mother/parents—except for the last, of course. If a mother has to choose between her baby’s death and both of their deaths, I hope she’ll choose the former. It’s better that the baby should die when its fate is already sealed, than for both of them to die needlessly.

But as tragic or excruciating as a situation may be, I cannot think of a single situation in which murder becomes justifiable. Not wanting a baby is hardly a convincing reason. If you eat doughnuts, you have no right to complain about your twelve chins. And if you have sex, don’t complain about pregnancy. I’m talking to you too, scared boyfriend. In the Saudi peninsula and elsewhere before the 7th century, it was not uncommon for impoverished parents to leave newborn girls in the desert to die, because a strong, be-muscled son can help with farm work but a girl would be just another mouth to feed. This is why the Qur’an contains a verse, XVII:31, encouraging couples to bear through tough times and have faith that they will be provided for. The Bible also contains multiple verses (Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10, etc.) forbidding any kind of infanticide (that word sounds a lot dirtier than “abortion,” doesn’t it?), so either the Hebrews also practiced infanticide, or God had the foresight to address others (He’s a pretty smart guy, you know). I said all that to say this: there is a long and ignoble history of struggling parents who felt incapable of caring for a child. But no one is alone. There’s a lot to be said for humbly asking friends/family for assistance, or even resorting to adoption. Adoption is a good choice! Nobody who doesn’t want kids is going to adopt them.

“But John,” you say, because apparently you don’t know this is a one-way conversation, “What about pregnancy by rape? Surely you don’t expect a poor girl to care for a baby that was violently forced upon her! Don’t you think abortion in this case would be best?” No, I don’t. I said before that I can’t think of any situation that would justify murder, and I meant it. I agree that rape is a horrible thing and being pregnant by rape is awful, but why punish the baby for the crime? Why not abort the rapist? I am obviously not being serious, but if you are willing to take a life for a rape-pregnancy, why not make it the man who caused it? If you are in support of abortion, you’re almost definitely liberal when it comes to other issues as well. What’s my point? Well, with that being the case, you are against capital punishment. Remember when I called you a hypocrite before? Yeah, I meant that too. How could anyone disapprove of sentencing to death a (wo)man who took another life (possibly several lives) and yet throw support behind killing a baby whose only crime is existing, and against its own will? I assure you, no one on Earth was consulted before being conceived. Existing is not anyone’s choice.

And just before you say I’m not aware of the thing I’m about to elaborate on, “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” morality can be found in other areas of our lives, as well. It’s easy to enjoy how cheap chocolate is when it comes from child slaves in West Africa. It’s easy to enjoy the affordability of electronics that were assembled by quasi-slaves in China after the raw materials were sent there from child slaves in central Africa, and it’s easy to enjoy our pristine cars when we don’t have to consider the high rate of carjackers in South Africa. We all turn a blind eye–and we shouldn’t–but if you are able to stop a death, don’t you think you should?

Of course, there is a reason this debate continues to rage on. The reason is that persons (especially those in a rich society like ours) have a bafflingly strong sense of entitlement. They want what they want, and they believe whatever is convenient to them. That is why many persons believe the 1969 Moon landing was a hoax, despite there being freaking footprints on the lunar surface! There are those who believe 9/11 was an inside job, that President Obama was not born in Hawai’i, and that the Holocaust, an event which left behind many survivors who were there at the time, never happened. We believe what we want to, despite minor considerations like “facts” and “logic.” It’s a concept Stephen Colbert referred to as “truthiness.” Why think with your head when you can feel with your gut? If you want to believe embryos aren’t persons, you will, never mind facts and logic.

So do I think that women who have abortions because their boyfriends impregnated them and then refused to support the children are bad persons? Well, that question isn’t fair, because I think everyone is a bad person, including myself. (Remember that sense of entitlement? We shouldn’t call ourselves good if we’ve done bad things.) What I am saying is that, despite the crappy hand that some of us were dealt, and despite being burdened with a commitment of 18 years and ~$200,000, two wrongs never make a right. And if you choose to push forward despite that massive burden, despite that unprecedented disruption in your life, and despite having to do it without the support of that idiot who knocked you up, then what will that perseverance say of your character? When you refuse to take the easy way out because you consider even one death of a tiny person that doesn’t even have a name yet inexcusable, what will that say of your courage? And when you didn’t beat me up for calling you a hypocrite, how much money did you save on not driving all the way to my house? Fight. Fight, and never surrender.

Finished April 2011

P.S. Two points I didn’t bring up in the article proper are the proponents’ argument that embryos can’t live without their mothers, and the fact that premature babies can be sustained in an incubator. The first argument is used by proponents to say that embryos aren’t persons because if they were removed from the care of mommy, they would die. I would like to point out to these eagle-eyed geniuses that newborn babies also cannot survive without their mothers for lack of milk, and most urbanites would probably die if the supply trucks stopped filling the shelves at the grocery store. As for the second point, if babies are born far too early, say at 23 weeks, there is a good chance they will survive in an incubator until it’s safe to live in room temperature like the other babies. My point to this is, what if technology reached the point to where a test tube baby didn’t need human gestation at all? What then, would we say of its personhood, when it shares the same situation as comatose patients? Oh yeah, and the umbilical cord doesn’t even attach to the mother until week five, so before that, an abortion wouldn’t be doing anything to the mother’s body. It’s the embryo’s body, so it should be the embryo’s choice. I am strongly pro-choice!

  1. Kuno N, Kadomatsu K, Nakamura M, Miwa-Fukuchi T, Hirabayashi N, Ishizuka T (January 2004). “Mature ovarian cystic teratoma with a highly differentiated homunculus: a case report”. Birth Defects Research. Part a, Clinical and Molecular Teratology 70 (1): 40–6.

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