Well, as we all know, abortion is a pretty contentious topic in the United States. It also faces its strongest opposition from religious groups. Considering how we atheists do not believe in God and need to rationally conclude morality for ourselves; we cannot rely on religious moral pronouncements about abortion, but need to come to our own conclusions. Philosophically, there are many different moral stances framing the issue that atheists can take, but we can also apply science to the issue to come to reasonable conclusions. Being essentially a utilitarian, as I have made clear in previous articles, this is my take on the abortion issue. I see the abortion issue as having two different priorities that we need to balance: the life of the fetus and the mother’s right to her own body.
To me, a fetus most certainly is a human life, but we must be careful how we define and frame this issue. Some people see the killing of all human life to be bad, while I obviously disagree in this particular circumstance. It has been said by people who are pro-choice, particularly those not of a religious variety, that life does not begin, but that it continues. A fertilized egg is formed from living components from the mother and the father, and this gives a fertilized egg a distinct set of human DNA, which then grows into a fully born human. In a vacuum, it could be argued by some that this life should not be destroyed, but obviously this fertilization process does not happen within a vacuum. It typically happens in a fully grown, or nearly fully grown human female. This woman has her own priorities and concerns, and these should not be discounted simply because a fetus or an embryo or a fertilized egg is a human life. We must look at how the two priorities between the mother’s concerns and the life of the fetus should be weighed against each other.
Looking at the issue in this context, we can see two sides of the extremes. On the one hand, we have a newly pregnant woman with a fertilized egg/embryo/fetus inside of her. This fetus is very undeveloped, and developmentally is not even aware of its own existence. If it died, it would be as if it never existed in the first place, and no actual harm would be done. In this case, under utilitarianism, I would argue that a woman aborting a fetus early term is not immoral at all; the concerns of a conscious being, no matter how minor or petty, clearly outweigh the nonexistent concerns of an entity that has never existed to begin with from its own perspective. On the other hand, killing a fully born baby clearly is immoral. We do not give anyone the right to kill anyone else out of some sense of inconvenience, for example; typically it is only allowable in certain instances of self defense. That being said, we need to examine the abortion issue in such a way that we establish a timeframe within which the rights of the fetus become more important than the rights of the mother to her own body. I have three criteria I find to be relevant here, with which to separate a born baby from a fetus:
Viability: This is the point at which a fetus can survive on its own outside the womb. This is a distinguishing characteristic between a fetus and a born baby. Since we grant rights to all born humans, it makes sense to also grant such rights to those who have the technical ability to be born and survive, all else being equal.
Consciousness: To me, as an atheist, a consciousness is what makes a person a person. It is what separates a human being deserving of rights from an empty shell, or a rock, or bacteria. While one can argue that those who are in comas are also not conscious; they were at some point, they have set identities, they could have attempted to contemplate what it would be like to be in a coma, and have had the chance to make choices for himself or herself before such a situation arose. A fetus does not have that. It has never lived life consciously, it has no identity, no desires, and is completely incapable of such. Without consciousness, a fetus might as well not exist, and it seems irrational to place its rights over a mother’s concerns.
The ability to feel pain: This is a sign of some level of self awareness, and making a human being feel pain is generally a bad thing within the context of the utilitarian framework that I prefer. That being said, if a fetus can feel pain, it should not be terminated.
So what does the science say regarding these three measures for separating a fertilized egg from a baby, a being deserving of rights versus one that is not, considering the mother’s priorities in the matter?
Viability: Like many other things having to do with fetal development, viability exists on a continuum. It appears that the first glimmer of viability is likely around the 22nd week of pregnancy, where the fetus has less than a 10% chance of survival outside of the womb, and is unlikely to survive without great complications. By the 24th week, these chances to improve to 40-70%, which is the first week that fetuses have a 50% chance of survival. By the 27th week, that rate reaches 90%, which is a very good chance of survival. Based on this indicator alone, abortion should become illegal some time between the 22nd and 27th week, depending on how strict of a standard one wants to have.
Consciousness: This is actually tricky to measure because the development of consciousness seems to happen over time, and also exists on a continuum. However, The Scientific American puts the development of the thalamo-cortical complex, which is necessary for consciousness, around the 24th to 28th weeks. However, during the third trimester of pregnancy, the fetuses are typically asleep most of the time. Regardless, if we want to preserve any indication of consciousness, the 24-28th week may be a good standard to go by.
Pain: This is a very contentious question, since pro-lifers and pro-choicers give different time lines, but according to Mother Jones, the majority of studies suggest that a fetus cannot feel pain before the 24th week due to a lack of brain and nerve connections required to do so. Some pro- life groups point to an outlier study that suggests that fetuses feel pain at week 20, but most scientists do not seem to agree with such a conclusion.
So what can we conclude from this? Well, we can probably conclude that abortion becomes morally problematic at the very earliest after the 20th week, if a minority of studies regarding the presence of pain are true. However, a better standard to go by would be the 24th week of pregnancy, since it seems like all three characteristics that I used to mark the transition from a mere fetus to a born baby happen at about this time. In this week, fetal viability reaches 50%, and the brain begins developing the connections that allow it to form consciousness and feel pain. It may also be reasonable to conclude that abortion becomes wholly immoral by the 27th-28th weeks or so, when this transition appears to be complete or nearly complete. At this point, the brain is likely developed enough to allow for a rudimentary consciousness and the ability to feel pain. It also is the point where fetal viability is over 90%. I would likely oppose abortion for anything other than dire medical necessity at this point. I would argue that restrictions on abortion some time around the 24th week seem to be the most logical, and become increasingly necessary after that. Seeing how most states have restrictions between the 20th and 28th weeks, the status quo in the United States seems largely on the right track. I might disagree with some of the states arguing they are too restrictive or too lax, but the majority of the country has their laws based on sound science, despite the best attempts of Republican lawmakers to sabotage them.