What would America’s abortion policy be if the number of months in the gestation of a human infant were a prime number — say, seven or eleven? ... In 1973, the court decreed — without basis in the Constitution’s text, structure or history, or in embryology or other science — a trimester policy. It postulated, without a scintilla of reasoning, moral and constitutional significance in the banal convenience that nine is divisible by three. The court decided that the right to abortion becomes a trifle less than absolute — in practice, not discernibly less — when the fetus reaches viability, meaning the ability to survive outside the womb. The court stipulated that viability arrived at 24 to 28 weeks.This is a classic conservative maneuver: focus on a particular problem with a policy and argue that, instead of trying to fix the problem, the whole policy baby (pun very much intended) must be jettisoned along with the problematic bathwater. And it is true, the trimester policy is problematic because, it is also true, it has no foundation other than mathematical neatness, which is not a good basis for policy of any sort, all else being equal.
But as with so many things, all else is not equal.
Abortion is particularly problematic because it is so emotionally fraught, to the point where even an intellectual like Will loses sight of (or perhaps deliberately obfuscates) facts and history by, for example, declaring that the Supreme Court "seized custody of the [abortion] issue in 1973" and thereby "damaged political civility." He conveniently forgets that Roe v. Wade was not decided on the margins. It was a 7-2 decision. And it was not immediately controversial. Abortion did not become the hot-button issue that it is today until conservatives cynically decided to seize on it as a political wedge years later.
But let us leave history and politics aside and really try to examine the issue on its scientific merits. Back to George Will:
Pro-abortion absolutists — meaning those completely content with the post-1973 regime of essentially unrestricted abortion-on-demand at any point in pregnancy — are disproportionately Democrats who, they say, constitute the Party of Science. They are aghast that the Department of Health and Human Services now refers to protecting people at “every stage of life, beginning at conception.” This, however, is elementary biology, not abstruse theology: Something living begins then — this is why it is called conception. And absent a natural malfunction or intentional intervention (abortion), conception results in a human birth.It is actually not quite true that "something living begins [at conception]". To be sure, conception is a profound transformation, but it is not abiogenesis. Sperm and egg are just as much alive before conception as after. It's true that they are haploid cells, but what DNA they do contain is undeniably human. The idea that "human life begins at conception" stands on no more solid ground biologically as the idea that viability begins at 24 weeks.
Conception is just one of many, many profound transformations that cells go through on their journey from meiosis to fertilization to implantation to birth to first steps and first words to puberty and beyond. Historically, birth, not conception, has been the most profound of these transitions. There is a reason we celebrate and count a person's age from the day of their birth rather than the day of their conception, and it's not just that birthdays are easier to determine. The primacy of birth has deep, deep roots in human society. Even the Bible explicitly calls out a substantially lesser penalty for violence that results in a miscarriage than for murder.
But all this is to miss an even more important point: there are so few true "pro-abortion absolutists" in the U.S. that we have completely forgotten what such a creature actually looks like. The opposite of prohibition is not permission, it's requirement. A true pro-abortion absolutist would not permit abortion on demand, they would require abortions in the name of, say, eugenics or population control. People who support that point of view are all but extinct today, but they were the political majority in China until fairly recently, and a fashionable minority in the U.S. for decades in the early 20th century.
So how do we untangle this Gordian knot? There are a couple of things that everyone agrees on, so let's begin there: sperm and eggs are not "human life" where that term is taken to refer to whatever it is that we humans think is worth going to extraordinary efforts to preserve. (Defining exactly what that is is exactly the problem we are trying to solve here.) No one actually believes that every sperm is sacred (that's why it's funny). Likewise, there is broad consensus that a baby is "human life" once it is born; no one defends outright infanticide, at least not in the U.S.
It would seem like a straightforward logical conclusion, then, that somewhere in between sperm-and-egg and birth there must be a line, a boundary between human-life and not-human-life. How could it be otherwise? Furthermore, that boundary can't be birth itself, because the thought of killing a baby right before it is born is just as abhorrent as infanticide. There are no other dramatic events between sperm-and-egg and birth other than conception, so that has to be it. Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains must be the truth, no?
This reasoning is based on a faulty assumption, namely, that whatever ineffable quality we seek to define as "human life" is a binary quantity. For the bright-line argument to hold it must be the case that either a thing is human life or it is not, and there are no grey areas. But this is false. Humanity is chock-full of grey areas and always has been. Conservatives who trumpet the sanctity of human life are often first in line to support the death penalty on the grounds that the life of a murderer is less sacred than the life of his or her victims. There is no outcry from conservatives about civilian deaths from drone strikes in the middle east because "collateral damage" is the price we have to pay to fight terrorism (except, of course, that it's not us who pays the price, it's them).
If you look at what conservatives do rather than merely what they say, human life is sacred until it isn't. Your life is sacred unless you're convicted of murder (never mind whether or not you actually did it), at which point your life is not sacred any more. Your life is sacred until you sign up to be a soldier, and then if you die, well, tough luck because you knew what you were getting in to. Your life is sacred unless you are the leader of a political movement that the U.S. considers "terrorists", or happen to live near one. Your life is sacred unless you're a Syrian or a Bangladeshi, or a Puerto Rican or even a poor Kentuckian. Until 1865 in the U.S. your life was sacred unless you were black, in which case you were one notch below livestock on the social scale (and some people seem to want to re-litigate that decision).
And just to cite an example that is not so emotionally an politically fraught, your life ceases to be sacred when you are brain-dead despite the fact that your fully human body might still be functioning normally otherwise.
So the bright-line argument fails on logical grounds simply because it is based on a false premise.
But there is a much more compelling argument against the idea that life begins at conception, and that is that even people who claim to believe it can be shown not to really believe it by applying a very simple test. It is a variant of the famous trolley problem: if you could save 1000 embryos by shooting a five year old child, would you do it?
It's easy to riff on this theme. For example: there are about 600,000 frozen embryos in the United States. These are created by people trying to conceive through in-vitro fertilization. It's an unreliable process, so extra embryos are created because multiple attempts are often needed before a birth is successful. If you believe that human life begins and conception, then you must believe that every one of these frozen embryos is a fully fledged human being, and that destroying them is murder.
So... should women who undergo IVF be forced to implant every single one of her embryos and carry them all to term? What about "orphan" embryos whose parents die without leaving a will? Should women be conscripted to carry these "babies" to term? I have never heard anyone on the pro-life side seriously propose this, but if you think about it, forcing women to carry frozen embryos is indistinguishable as a matter of principle from denying a woman an abortion on the grounds that abortion is murder. It is not implantation in the womb that is (supposedly) the Bright Line between being human and not, it is conception.
There is a long list of practical difficulties and absurdities that result from taking conception-as-bright-line theory seriously: Should frozen embryos be counted in the census? Could a state (or even a wealthy individual) pay women to undergo IVF in order to increase the population of their state in order to gain Congressional seats? Who is responsible for paying the electric bill to keep frozen embryos frozen? Can embryos inherit? Can trust funds be set up for them? Can they be counted as dependents on income tax forms?
Self-identified "pro-life" advocates never ask nor answer these questions because even they don't really take seriously the proposition that life begins at conception.
The best way to eliminate abortions is to attack the problem (and yes, of course it is a problem!) at its root: by eliminating unwanted pregnancies. And the best way to do that is to make birth control as easily and widely available as sugary drinks, and to make sure every sexually active person is educated on how and why to use it. But do people who profess to want to eliminate abortions advocate this? No, of course they don't. Because they don't really care about eliminating abortions. They care about subjugating women.
Abortion prohibition has never been about the sanctity of life, nor even about eliminating abortions. It is about using pregnancy as a lever to shame women for being self-possessed and sexual, because these qualities are seen by conservatives as a threat to the natural order where men are the providers and women are the caretakers of children. It is about getting women out of the board room and the executive suite and back into the bedroom and the kitchen. That is why abortion prohibitionists focus almost exclusively on embryos in women's wombs. An embryo in a freezer doesn't help advance their true agenda.