Friday, June 3, 2011


Abortion is one of the most difficult  and intractable issues in American politics. It involves ethical issues of the highest nature, compounded by strong religious views.

At heart the issue is one of the deepest philosophical issues: What makes a sentient being?  At what point does a lump of flesh with human DNA cease to be a lump of flesh and become a human being, with all the inherent rights and responsibilities.

The truth is we do not know the answer with 100% certainty.   Worse, humans have a tendency to de-humanize other humans via prejudice.  The history of slavery, the Holocaust, and other assorted discrimination makes all intelligent people very reluctant to declare "You are not fully Human, and we therefore can kill you."

I have identified the following major camps in the argument.

  1. "Zealots" that claim they know the truth, handed down by God (via the pope if they are catholic).  They claim to know for sure that life begins at conception, and that therefore abortion is murder.
  2. "Doubting Thomas's" that claim we don't know for sure, and that therefore, we should take the safer, more ethical choice and criminalize abortion.
  3. "Deniers" that claim we don't know for sure, and that therefore we should not criminalize something that destroys the lives of so many women.
  4. "Evidence-rs" that claim, while 100% certainty is impossible, the huge pre-ponderous of evidence shows life begins long after inception, so abortion is not murder.

I am in camp four, the evidence-rs.  

The zealots need a lesson in American politics.   There is nothing wrong with basing your beliefs on your religion.  But in the US you can't base your political arguments on religion.   The Government can not legally base law on a religious belief.  Attempting to force your religion on other Americans makes you a traitor.   The zealots should  take civic lessons until they understand that America is NOT a "christian" country, it is a secular one.   The very founding of our nation, while it was done in large part by Christians, was based on the belief that no religious group would be in charge.  No establishment of religion, nothing that would prevent the free exercise of religion.  It is the first amendment to the Constitution, without which, most of the founders REFUSED to join the country.  You can worship whichever god you want, you can base your personal beliefs on that god.  But if you want to pass a law, you should not so much as mention that religion in the discussion.  You need secular reasons to pass the law, and the zealots make no attempt to do this.

The Doubting Thomas's are the people I disagree with but still respect.  They make the second best argument, but I find it ignorant of many facts.  More about those facts later.

The Deniers are not as bad as the Zealots.  At least they have not betrayed their country.  But I am not persuaded by the belief "we don't know it's bad, so its OK to do."  That bit of stupidity caused millions of people to take up smoking before it was 'proven' bad, caused thousands of women to take Thalidomide (mostly Europeans, the US wisely never let it in), put Asbestos in schools and buildings throught the world, to name just a few examples.

Now for the evidence I mentioned earlier.

  1. At inception, a human embryo is one cell.  It takes 4 days to become 16 cells.  This is not a human being, by any definition of the word, except based on DNA.   DNA is found in skin cells, and tatooing kills more of them than 16.  Tattooing is not called murder.
  2. We can freeze an embryo (up to 8 cells - less than 4 days after fertilzation), store it for 16 years (source), and re implant it in a woman.  There is no increase in birth defects.  We can't do this to a human being. Four days is still not a human being.
  3. About 20% of pregnancies naturally terminate in the first 3 months.  If God does exist, then this would be incredibly cruel. God is not cruel, QED these embryos do not have a mind/soul.  If God does not exist, then the fragility of the embryo is strong evidence against  it having a mind.  Brains are expensive, energy intensive things, that need a fulling working support system.
  4. Embryos develop using "embryological parallelism."  Basically this means that pregnancy follows evolution.  It starts out as a single cell organism, turns into a colony, then into a single organism that looks a lot like a worm, develops slits that look similar to the gills of a fish, etc.  The gills etc are not functional, but you get the idea.  The embryo first creates simple parts, enhances them, lastly makes the most complicated parts.  It does nothing at all on the brainstem until the 2nd month.  It doesn't make a brain that is more advanced than an adult monkey until at least the 4th month.  It takes a full 7 months to complete the development of the cells in the brain (at 7 months, all the cells are there, but they are not fully connected to each other).  The brain itself continues to mature (connect everything up) until 6 months after birth.
  5. Brains work by connections.  The wrinkles are there to allow more connections.  That is why Einstein could be a genius without being significantly larger - it is the connections that matter, not the size.  One Quadrillion synaptic connections in fact for a live human being.  Just having the cells is NOT enough, they need to talk to one another.
  6. Doctors have a solid, legal definition of death: "Brain Death".  In the US, if someone is declared brain dead, then disconnecting the machines that keep their body alive is not murder. (Dority v. Superior Court of San Bernardino County, 193 Cal.Rptr. 288, 291 (1983)))  Brain death is usually determined by multiple EEG readings.  An EEG measures the electrical activity along the scalp, resulting from the curents within the brain.  Embryos don't have scalp.  Instead, a more advanced machine called an Magnetoencephalography (MEG) can be used for people that don;t have scalps.  They are used for burn victims.  Fetal MEG's can detect brain activity after the 5th month - but not all the time.  Some fetus's take 6 months.

The first 5 steps are pretty solid.  Enough for me to say "Your belief in a mind at conception is foolish, and you offer no reasonable later date."  But the sixth is the killer.   We have a definition of death - used by the law and by doctors.  If the fetus fails the definition, then legally it is dead, and we can disconnect it from the life support.  Whether that life support is a hear/lung machine, or the womb of it's mother, is irrelevant.

If I was in charge, the law would be simple.  A.   Abortion at under 3 months would be legal in all cases.  B. Abortion after 4 months would require an MEG to confirm no brain activity.  This gives some leeway.  C)  All hospitals that receive federal money would be required by law to allow abortions in them under 4 months, no waiting, no lectures.   By law, if they showed up before the 4 months, with a doctor willing to do it, the hospital must do it that same day.  Individual medical personal would not be required to participate, but the hospital must have the names of sufficient personal willing to do the procedure and give them to the patient.  D).  Any hospital that had an MEG machine (or similar device) would be required to offer abortion after 4-months if the MEG indicated the fetus was legally dead.

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