April 26, 2013 by Anders Ingemarson
The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade had barely faded from memory before the trial of Kermit Gosnell once again brought abortion into the limelight. Regardless of your stance on abortion, we probably agree that it is one of the most polarizing issues in America today. And for good reasons. It is literally a matter of life or death.
If you believe that aborting an embryo or a fetus is murder you’re advocating for a ban on abortion. After all, you argue, the fundamental role of government is to protect individual rights, so it is within its jurisdiction to ban abortion to protect the rights of the unborn.
If, on the other hand, you’re championing a woman’s right to her life you’re sure to defend her right to have an abortion if she chooses. After all, you say, the fundamental role of government is to protect individual rights, and what is more fundamental than the right to decide what to do with your own body?
Each side is deeply entrenched. Is there any hope for finding common ground?
Enter a discovery that so far has received little attention. A discovery that I think eventually will resolve the abortion issue once and for all.
This is the discovery that individual rights—the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—only apply to actual human beings, not potential human beings.
What does it mean to be an actual human being? To find out we need to understand what, in essence, makes us human. We need to define “human being”. The proper definition is “The Rational Animal”. Rational in this context does not necessarily mean behaving rationally at all times although we may hope for the best. No, here “rational” means having the capacity (mental or physical ability) to reason (to think) and the free will to exercise that capacity.
Until a fetus has become “a rational animal”, until it has developed free will and the capacity to reason, it doesn’t meet the definition of an actual human being. It is only a potential human being and as such without rights.
When has a fetus developed into an actual human being? Probably sometime in the third trimester. However, this is a question that only science can answer. As research advances we’ll continue to learn more and more. But as tricky as the third trimester borderline cases are, it is important to realize that this is not the real issue in the abortion debate. On a fundamental level, the question is whether the embryo or fetus has rights at all times during pregnancy or not, from conception onwards.
(As you read this your thoughts may go to individuals who are born with a diminished capacity to reason, or that have lost that capacity later in life. These are important issues but not the subject of this post.)
The discovery that individual rights only apply to actual human beings, not potential human beings, is obviously controversial, primarily in anti-abortion circles (but also among pro-abortion advocates who don’t understand the concept of individual rights). But most controversial discoveries that are based in facts of reality tend to become accepted over time.
Most anti-abortion advocacy is faith based. Religious people base their position on religious texts and teachings. But a recurring theme throughout history is that people of faith who are also committed to reason tend to adjust their religious views as new scientific and other facts are discovered. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
- In 1633, Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest for life by the Roman Inquisition for his advocacy of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, because it was against the teachings of the church. But sentencing Galileo did not stop heliocentrism from spreading. On the contrary, his discovery quickly became central to future scientific discoveries, for the most part spearheaded by scientists who themselves were religious. When faced with the newly discovered facts that contradicted their faith, they went back and reexamined and often reinterpreted the religious texts, and adjusted their faith accordingly.
- In the early 1800s the new science of geology was all the rage. William Smith, the father of geology, examining fossils in different strata of the earth, discovered that our planet had been around a little longer than previously thought. The standard, religiously based, view before William Smith was that of Bishop Ussher who in 1654 had calculated the night preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC as the date of creation. The debate between the proponents of the new science and the people of faith that supported Bishop Ussher’s view was as heated as today’s abortion debate. But over time, the facts became irrefutable and religious people gradually adjusted their views.
History is full of examples of this process at work, with faith and facts initially clashing but eventually being reconciled. I think we will see the same development in the views of abortion. The fact that rights only apply to actual human beings will over time gain acceptance among religious people. I’m not saying it will happen tomorrow or next year. Faith based views are deeply personal and each individual has to find a way of reconciling the new facts with his faith, and allow the time he needs. But gradually, religious men and women will gravitate towards the facts.
In the meantime, while trying to come to terms with the issue, I hope you join me in championing the moral case for separating state and the economy and make abortion a lower priority on your moral and political agenda.