The Liberal Case Against Abortion
From The Writings of
Vasu Murti

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The Liberal Case Against Abortion

Alive and Kicking

Abortion policy must be completely secular.  In 1797, America made a treaty with Tripoli, declaring that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”  This reassurance to Islam was written under Washington’s presidency and approved by the Senate under John Adams.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a physician who presided over 60,000 abortions before changing sides on the abortion issue, wrote in his 1979 book Aborting America:  “The U.S. statutes against abortion have a non-sectarian history.  They were put on the books when Catholics were a politically insignificant minority...even the Protestant clergy was not a major factor in these laws.  Rather, the laws were an achievement of the American Medical Association.

“Traditionally, religion opposes abortion because ‘the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.’  What about atheists like myself who do not believe in the existence of a personal God?  I think that abortion policy ought not be beholden to a sectarian creed...In the case of abortion, however, we can and must decide on the biological evidence...without resorting to scriptures, revelations, creeds, hierarchical decrees, or belief in God.  Even if God does not exist, the fetus does.”

In 1827, Von Baer determined fertilization to be the starting point of individual human life.  By the 1850s, medical communities were advocating legislation to protect the human unborn.  In 1859, the American Medical Association protested legislation which protected the human unborn only after “quickening.”

A rational, secular case thus exists for the rights of the human unborn.  Individual human life is a continuum from fertilization until death.  Zygote, embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, adolescent, adult, etc. are all different stages of human development.  To destroy that life at any stage of development is to destroy that individual.  The real question in the abortion debate is not the seemingly absurd scenario of giving full human rights to human zygotes, but rather the thorny question of how to legally protect those rights without violating a new mother’s privacy and civil liberties.  And the right to privacy is not absolute.  If parents are abusing an already born child, for example, government “intrusion” is warranted—children have rights.

Recognizing the rights of another class of beings limits our freedoms and our choices and requires a change in our lifestyle—the abolition of (human) slavery is a good  example of this.  A 1964 New Jersey court ruling required a pregnant woman to undergo blood transfusions—even if her religion forbade it—for the sake of her unborn child.  One could argue, therefore—apart from religion—that recognizing the rights of the human unborn, like the rights of blacks, women, lesbians and gays, children, animals and the environment, is a sign of secular social progress.

The humanity of the unborn:  Are the unborn human?  Yes.  Biologically, the unborn are not only human, they have an individual human genetic identity; 46 human chromosomes.  Virtually all medical authorities (physicians, biologists, etc.) agree with geneticist Ashley Montagu who wrote:  “the fact is simple.  Life begins not at birth, but at conception.”  J. Lejeune of Paris, discoverer of the chromosome pattern of Down’s syndrome, observed:  “Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.” 

When does human life begin?  “At conception,” states Professor W. Bowes of the University of Colorado.  Professor M. Matthews-Roth of Harvard writes:  “It is scientifically correct to say that individual human life begins at conception.”  Dr. Mary Calderon of Planned Parenthood in the 1960s, wrote:  “Fertilization has taken place; a baby has been conceived.”

Everything that defines a person physically is present at fertilization—only oxygen, nutrients and time to develop are required.  The unborn child has his or her own genetic code, EEG trackings, and circulatory system.  Often, the blood type and sex of the unborn child will also differ from that of  the mother. The heart of the unborn child begins beating at 18 days, and is pumping blood at 21 days.  The brain is functioning at 40 days—EEG trackings have been made at less than six weeks gestation.  The unborn child responds to stimuli by the sixth to eighth week.  Rapid Eye Movements (R.E.M.s) characteristic of actual dream states, are present in 23 weeks. There are clearly two distinct individuals (mother and child) present during pregnancy.

Philosophical debates about the “personhood” of the human unborn resemble the old, medieval arguments about ensoulment.  Dr. J.C. Willke, former head of National Right to Life, summarizes the case against abortion as follows:

“Ask the question, is this fertilized ovum alive?  Yes, by any dimension of that word, this fertilized ovum is alive, growing, replacing multiplying cells, life.  Is this fertilized ovum human?  How can you tell a human from a rabbit, from a carrot?  Genetic chromosomes.  Take a look, 46 human chromosomes, this is a member of the human species.  This is human, growing, intact, programmed from within, moving forward in a self-controlled ongoing process of maturation, development, sexed male or female, replacement of his or her own dying cells, within ten days taking control of the host body that this little being grows within, controlling physiologically the host body for the balance of that gestation time, enlarging her breasts, softening her pelvic bones, setting his own birthday, all this controlled by the developing baby, this is alive, human and sexed.

“That’s the biological measurement.  Total intactness from a single cell.  You’re 40 million million cells, but every single cell is the identical replication, genetically speaking, of the first one.  Nothing was added to that single cell, who you once were, nothing but nutrition.  Biologically, there isn’t a perception, there isn’t an opinion, biological, it’s absolute...

“What are the other yardsticks?  They all fall into a category that can be described as philosophic theories.  This is not human until an exchange of love, until a certain degree of consciousness, until a certain degree of maturation, until a certain degree of independence, viability, until birth...certain IQ, whatever.  Now, all of those are used as yardsticks to define the word ‘human life’ or if you please, ‘person.’  Now the question is, what do they all have in common?  Not one is subject to natural science and proof.  They are all beliefs or theories.  People of good will differ diametrically upon these and if you put six such people in the room, you might get six different answers.

“We believe the yardsticks of philosophic measurement of the word ‘human life’ should be subject to the same political judgment as the religious beliefs on human life and just as we should not impose a religious faith, belief upon our neighbors through force of law, so we should not impose a philosophic theory upon our neighbors through force of law...we would go back to the one area that we cannot disagree on, that is the biologic judgment, and we would say that the...question, is this human life, should be answered scientifically.”

“I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of conception; even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.”

---Declaration of Geneva
    World Medical Association
    September, 1948

“The child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.”

---A Declaration of the Rights of the Child
    United Nations General Assembly

“Is birth control an abortion?”

“Definitely not.  An abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun.”

---Planned Parenthood pamphlet
    August 1963

“Every person has the right to have his life respected, this right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception.  No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

---American Convention on Human Rights in San Jose
    November 22, 1969

“The reverence of each and every human life has been the keystone of Western medicine... it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent.  The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous, whether intra- or extra-uterine.  The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not put forth under socially impeccable auspices.”

    Journal of the California State Medical Association
    September 1970

In one anti-abortion pamphlet, Dr. Jean Garton states that religion did not discover when human life begins, the biologists did.  The fact that religious people may oppose abortion does not make abortion a “religious” issue any more than the fact that religious people may oppose drunk driving makes drunk driving a “religious” issue.  In her book, Who Broke the Baby?, Dr. Garton compares discrimination against the human unborn to other forms of discrimination:

“By placing unborn human beings outside the protection of the law, it became possible to deny them basic rights.  This is not the first time in our history that we have made a distinction between the biological category of living human beings and the legal concept of ‘person.’  At one time in our history American Indians were not legal persons because we did not grant them the protection of our Constitution.  Thus we were able to take by force anything which belonged to them.

“Usually what we wanted was their land, so we denied them the right to property.  Next in our national list of non-persons were black slaves, declared to be chattel and property of their masters as a result of the Dred Scott decision of 1857...In 1973, another group of human beings was added to the non-person list:  the unborn.”

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