At the crux of the abortion debate is the question over when does life begin. It’s a hugely controversial and difficult question and not one with an easy answer. It is far to say that even pro-choice people acknowledge that the day before birth, the foetus is a child and is alive. Likewise even (most) anti-abortion people would acknowledge that on the first day of fertilisation, the embryo bears little resemblance to a human. So the question becomes, at what point does the foetus become human? At what point do we stop talking of miscarriages and start describing still births?
A central problem is that we are dealing with a constantly changing and developing organism. A foetus is not like a switch that moves from on to off, but rather a dynamic process. Every day the foetus becomes more developed and more alive than the day before. Even conception is not a single moment but a long process that can take two to three days. Every day its organs become more pronounced. Hence if we are to measure life by development, we will have to necessarily draw an arbitrary line. With these qualifications and warnings in mind, lets tentatively approach this landmine.
It is often said that life begins at conception, and in a sense this is technically true. However, we must examine what we mean by alive. After all, bacteria is alive as are plants, trees, bugs, lizards, cows and dogs. So when it comes to the abortion debate is not just life, but rather human life or personhood. When is a person created? What essentially separates us from other animals (and I’m greatly simplifying) is rational thought. Humans are capable of thought and experience that other animals are not (which is why many are happy to eat animals). Hence brain activity is one possible measure that can be used.
There is also the problem that it is surprisingly rare for a conceived embryo to develop even into a foetus. After conception, it is necessary for the egg to attach itself to wall of the womb so that it can develop into an embryo. According to the Mayo Clinic “you’re not actually pregnant the first week or two of the time allocated to your pregnancy.” This is because the true start of the pregnancy is not conception, but implantation. However, most of the time the egg fails to implant and terminates (it is known as spontaneous abortion). This happens so early that the women rarely even know they are pregnant. It is therefore hard to measure how frequent this is, but it is estimated that a fertilised egg has a chance of only 20-50% of implanting. This presents serious problems for those who claim that life begins at conception. If this is the case, than failure to implant is responsible for far more deaths than abortion ever could. Measures to reduce the failure to implant (if such things exist) should be the focus of their campaigns and research.
It is also important to consider death. As it hardly needs to be elaborated on, death is the opposite of life and thus for anything to be alive it must be able to die. The accepted measure is the cessation of brain activity. Therefore it is logical to assume that the beginning of life occurs when the brain starts operating and emitting a recognisable Electroencephalography (EEG) pattern. This usually occurs between 24 and 27 weeks after conception. While it is not conclusive, I find this the most convincing date for the start of life.
It is also commonly claimed that a person’s genetics are formed at conception. However this is incorrect. Our genes continually develop throughout the pregnancy, not at one specific point. Likewise the idea that our genes determine our traits and characteristics is also outdated. It is also worth noting that it is only referred to as a foetus after 11 weeks. It is also worth considering the difference between stillbirth and miscarriage. In Ireland and the UK a stillbirth is when the foetus dies after 24 weeks, whereas a miscarriages is a termination before it reached a level of viable self-sufficiency around 20 weeks. Thus the medical consensus seems to be that it is around 20-24 weeks (depending on jurisdiction) that the foetus can be considered alive.
Now reading this you are probably still unclear as to when life begins. The reason is that so am I. In fact, I think this blog post was over ambitious (especially for someone who hasn’t studied science). It doesn’t seem to be possible to draw a line whereupon we can say for sure when life begins. Rather it is a continuous process. To say life begins at conception is a gross simplification of a very complicated issue (which is probably why so many people believe it). Any date chosen will necessarily be arbitrary. The earlier an abortion is performed the better. To me, it seems that the crucial period is around 20-28 weeks which is the limit imposed by most countries. Were we to allow abortion in Ireland, this would be the time limit I think best (though considering the political climate and opposition to abortion, I think 20 weeks would be the most practical limit). However, at the end of the day, it’s not my choice to make. It’s the woman’s. It is not my place to tell women what is best for them. Instead I trust that they know their situation best.