There has been no more divisive, painful, incendiary subject in Ireland in the last forty years than abortion; it is at the nexus of all of our recent nightmares and divisions and topics that make people mad – church power, the rights of women, sex, children, fertility, secularism versus religious domination, bodily autonomy, moral absolutism. Abortion has all of these things and more.
For those outside of Ireland, abortion has been almost completely illegal in this country since the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution was passed in a referendum by a still very Catholic Ireland, back in 1983. The Eighth Amendment gives equal right to life to the “unborn” (is this just an Irish term, or is it used anywhere else?) and the pregnant woman.
There are many places to start a discussion of the topic, but for me there is one that really stands out, and that is the following; the anti-abortion side (Save the eighth, abortionnever, Loveboth, the so-called “pro-life” side) have one, very simple message – embryo/ foetus = person.
That’s it. That is what all of their sloganeering and self-righteousness and browbeating come down to; any entity that results from the fusion of a sperm and an egg is a fully-fledged, completely whole human being, no matter what its size or stage of development, and is deserving of all of the protections that we afford born human beings living independently in the real world.
It is useful to look at exactly what an embryo is. For the first couple of weeks of its existence, the human embryo is simply a tiny, round collection of cells. By week three it is beginning to elongate a little and curl itself around into a living form, and by week five there are the beginnings of the development of organs.
By week six or seven there are the beginnings of some parts of the embryo’s brain, though the spinal cord is still not developed and so the central nervous system cannot be said to be up and running quite yet. As Kate Connors (spokesperson for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists) says “"The science shows that based on gestational age, the fetus is not capable of feeling pain until the third trimester,".
Similarly, Wikipedia has this…. “The hypothesis that human fetuses are capable of perceiving pain in the first trimester is not supported by science; the scientific consensus is that a fetus "is not capable of feeling pain until the third trimester", which "begins at about 27 weeks of pregnancy".
Difficult for Both Sides
Talk of the development of embryos and foetuses (spelled “fetuses” in American English) is uncomfortable for both sides in the abortion debate. For the Yes side, which supports greater access to abortion, the pictures of developing foetuses slowly becoming more baby-like as the weeks pass may be a reminder that this entity growing inside the womb is getting nearer and nearer to being something recogniseably human. These visuals make abortion more unpalatable for some people.
For the anti-abortion side it is also a tricky area. The fact is that an embryo in the early stages of development cannot feel pain, does not have a brain or vital organs, does not have blood or a central nervous system, and really does not have any recogniseable limbs or a head. Does this sound like a human being? How many human beings do any of us know who lack all of these things?
For the groups who oppose all abortion under any circumstances, a two week old embryo, which is not much more than a vague collection of cells with no discernible human shape, is a “person”. It is a person in just the same way as I am, as I sit here typing on my Dell laptop (though an embryo does not have fingers) or the kid next door who is playing on the swing (though an embryo does not have legs or arms to swing) or the elderly man I passed on the street this morning as he made his way into town to buy the paper (though an embryo does not have eyes to read). The embryo, all embryos, are “people”.
I have also used the word “it” to describe an embryo, and this is not to imply any disrespect, it is simply a necessary term because gender does not develop for at least the first two weeks. In fact, recognisable gender markers take about eight weeks to begin to develop, so it is not possible to use a gender pronoun (“he” or “she”) about an embryo until then.
And yet, this entity without a gender is, according to the anti-abortion movement, “a person”.
I have looked at a number of anti-abortion websites to try and find a justification for this belief, and there isn’t a lot there. Or rather, there are a lot of words, but there are very few substantive arguments in favour of using the word “person” to describe a two-week old embryo.
There is talk about “life”, (the anti-abortion activist’s favourite word), that “life” begins at the moment of fertilization, as if this is sufficient. One anti-abortion website defines “life” as “The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, & continual change preceding death.”
This, they seem to think, is proof of the correctness of their position. We are for Life, who could argue with that? Yet in their definition, they include animals and plants when describing “life”. By this logic, all killing of animals – even for food – is wrong, and anything that results in the destruction of any plant life is also immoral. I may be wrong, but I would bet that most anti-abortion campaigners contentedly eat meat and pull living weeds from their gardens without a second thought.
There is also some talk of DNA. An embryo contains all of the DNA necessary to produce a fully formed human being, so it is, in essence, already a fully-formed human being. From the Pro Life Action website “A human fetus is no less human simply because it is smaller and more delicate. For that matter, neither is an embryo less human, though it looks quite strange to our eyes, even in comparison to a fetus. Still, it is our duty to recognize our common humanity at all stages of development.”
Again, no actual argument to back up the contention that an embryo or a foetus is the same as a fully-formed, born, independently living human being. The generally don’t make arguments; they simply state their beliefs as if they were self-evident, without any need for justification or arguments in favour.
So what is behind this assertion that two-week old embryos – entities with no brain, central nervous system, organs, limbs or gender – and adult human beings are essentially the same, with the same rights and worthy of the same respect. Where does it come from?
Inevitably, the answer is that it comes exclusively from religious dogma, and from nowhere else.