Saturday, August 11, 2012

It's The Brain, Stupid!

In 1962 Gianna Beretta Molla, a pregnant mother of three, discovered she had a potentially lethal uterine tumor. She faced a horrible predicament which no potential mother should have to face:  An abortion would kill the fetus she was carrying, while leaving it there would likely kill her. She weighed the options and made her choice, telling the doctors not to save her life if it meant terminating the pregnancy.

She died a week after giving birth, leaving her husband a widower and her four children motherless.

On May 16, 2004, Pope John Paul II Canonized her as a Saint, prioritizing her ahead of Mother Teresa for the title.

When it comes to abortion, Christians aren’t kidding.

They are also dead wrong.

In this post, I am going to argue why abortion is absolutely ethical, and why those who oppose it, are unwittingly evil. Yeah, I know, it’s a tall order. More people are irredeemably lost to logic over this one issue than any other. But I believe it’s possible for people to see reason, even here. It’s been said before, and it bears repeating here: We are all pro-life and pro-choice. We can therefore find common ground, tricky though that might be. All it takes is a little bit of scientific knowledge.

First, let’s get one thing straight:  “Saint Gianna,” did a courageous thing. She exercised her right to choose, and she chose the life of her unborn child. She risked her life to save her daughter. Any mother might do the same. But she died as a result, an overall negative – especially for her children as a whole. She is quite rightly hailed as a heroic figure.

But had she known what I’m about to say below, she would have changed her mind.

Let’s begin by making a couple of concessions to the pro-life side. First, it is absolutely true that a fetus is alive. Arguments to the contrary are quite ignorant.  It is comprised of living, human cells, and is thus both living, and human.  Any removal of these living cells is therefore the taking of human life, by any definition. It does little use to deny this fact. However, the removal of an appendix or a set of tonsils might also be considered the taking of human life by this same standard. In both such cases, living human cells are deliberately removed and killed. To differentiate between these surgeries and an abortion, we must ask whether, and when, a fetus is an autonomous, individual being. We'll get back to that, shortly.

The other concession to the pro-life side is this: A late-term fetus is tantamount to a newborn baby. The only real difference between a fetus just before birth and a baby just after birth is that the latter breathes air, and the former breathes amniotic fluid. (Oh, and also that thing about drinking milk as opposed to having an umbilical cord.) Thus, the argument that birth is not a reasonable place to draw the line is not only sound, it’s a scientific fact. We must bow to the scientific evidence regardless of our political preferences, and that means near-full-term fetuses do have rights. The failure of certain activists and a few politicians to see this has driven many in the pro-life movement absolutely white-hot with rage, perhaps understandably. So, in an attempt to force the issue, lawsuits for murder have sometimes been filed in certain legal cases where a pregnant woman has been assaulted and her fetus killed. One such case was that of a woman from right here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, named Tracy Marciniak.

In 1992, Marciniak’s estranged husband, Glenndale Black, assaulted her. According to reports, he brutally beat her, hit her twice in the abdomen, then refused to call 911 or let Tracy call 911. As a result, her baby died, and she was very nearly killed herself. She was only five days away from scheduled full term pregnancy. Maddeningly, when she sought to press charges against Black for the manslaughter of her child, she discovered that she couldn’t because Wisconsin law did not consider a fetus a human being until after it was born. Black was instead only charged with assault and wrongful imprisonment. Tracy Marciniak’s plight became a landmark event which led to a change of the legal code of the State of Wisconsin in 1998, and brought about the “unborn victims of violence act” to the United States Senate and House of Representatives. On April 1st, 2004, President George W. Bush finally signed the act into law. The general public overwhelmingly agreed that birth is not the place to draw the line.

I agree. But then, what about the opposite end of the spectrum?  Does life begin at conception?

Upon examining the evidence, the surprising answer is – no!

Both sperm and egg are very much alive before they join together. Both mother and father are very much alive when they produce sperm and egg. The sperm and eggs which made the parents, in turn, were very much alive before they joined together, and so forth. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we must conclude that life does not begin at conception. Life begins at the dawn of all life upon the planet Earth! The question then is not, “When does life begin?” The question is, “When does the life of an individual being begin?”

Okay, now we have the question accurately phrased, but when is that point exactly?  Why not conception?

To answer that, we must replay the fertilization scene between a sperm and ovum. When sperm meets egg to form a zygote, a living thing with all the genetic material of an individual person has come into being. It has a complete DNA chain, 48 chromosomes, and has begun the process which will eventually cause it to grow to adulthood—a process which it will not fully complete until 21.75 years later. (It’s 21.75 instead of simply 21 because we ought to include the additional nine months’ gestation period.) Based upon these facts, many conclude that an individual life does, in fact, begin at this point. And because some birth control methods work by preventing the zygote from attaching to the uterine wall, the conclusion is sometimes drawn that use of these methods are immoral.

Yet something very interesting can happen after a zygote forms. It is at this point that the cells multiply furiously, going from a few to a few hundred thousand in a very short amount of time. And here it is that the zygote, in rare but not uncommon cases, can split to form two growing zygotes to make a pair of twins! In much rarer cases, the zygote could split three ways to form triplets. So the life of a single individual simply cannot begin at the point of conception, because it could be more than one person. Conception is logically ruled out!

So much for conception.

So if an individual human life does not begin at conception, and definitely does begin before birth, then it must happen somewhere in between. Makes sense in theory, but there’s quite a lot of gray area in between those two.  But if conception doesn’t work, what other possible criteria can be used to determine the point at which growing human cells become growing human being? Is there a definite line?

One possibility could be vital signs. In the medical profession, a doctor determines if a patient is alive or dead based on the tell-tale signs of heartbeat and respiration. A fetus’ heart begins beating after only 22 days. Respiration of uterine fluid begins around 12 weeks, although true breathing of air does not begin until after birth. Yet these vital signs are not absolutes. Circulation and oxygenation of blood can be achieved artificially. A person could lack both a beating heart and a set of working lungs and yet still be obviously alive. Certain patients undergoing radical surgery can have their blood chilled, and their heartbeat slowed to the point that they are clinically dead, yet be warmed and revived after the procedure is completed. Thus, advancements in medical technology have highlighted the fact that vital signs such as heartbeat cannot be used as an indicator, and the bumper stickers which say, ‘Abortion stops a beating heart,’ are completely missing the point. Heart, lungs, and indeed every organ in the human body could potentially be replaced with either a donor organ or a mechanical device. All except one, that is. That organ, of course, is the brain.

Of course! The brain!

When one is alive, that means brain alive, and when someone is dead, we mean that person is brain dead.  All other indications of life could be present, but if the brain is dead, they all mean nothing.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, the brain defines the being!

To illustrate, one can do a simple thought experiment. Suppose one takes a living brain, and just for fun, let’s say that it is the brain of Congressman Paul Ryan. We could surgically remove his brain, put his body on life-support, and then put the brain into a very sophisticated robot which could sustain and interact with it, so that the brain can operate the robot’s arms, move about, and speak to people. Now, we can ask the question, ‘Where is Paul?  Is he in his body, which still shows heartbeat and respiration but is otherwise lifeless, or is he in the robot, which others can talk to and interact with?’ The correct answer, of course, is that the Congressman is inside the robot. Where else could he be? For all functional purposes, the robot would now be Paul Ryan!

Now we can make the debate more interesting: Suppose someone unplugs the life-support on Ryan’s body and allows it to die. Has this person committed murder? Recognizing that the brain is the house of the being, the answer must be no! So long as Paul’s brain is alive and safe, Paul himself is still alive. It is certainly a criminal act; it is destruction of property, it is vandalism, it is cold-heartedly mean, but it is not murder!

This standard can now be applied to the abortion debate. When dealing with a fetus whose brain has not formed yet, abortion may be done with an absolutely clear conscience! Without a formed brain, there is no ‘being’ yet present inside it. To put it in spiritual terms, without a functional container for the soul, there can be no soul contained therein. In other words, a fetus must first pass the ‘point of ensoulment’ to be viable.

We now must face the next question: ‘At what stage of development does a fetal brain become viable?’ Here, there are three clear places one can draw the line. I have labeled them, ‘the three stages of quickening.’ They are as follows:

Stage One quickening happens with the earliest brain activity of any kind. Even pro-life publications admit that this point does not take place until six weeks of development. This gives a one-and-a-half month window in which abortion may always be done with a clear conscience, no matter what. Any abortive procedure which takes place prior to Stage One quickening is absolutely ethical.

Stage Two of quickening happens with the sudden onset of fetal movement. Little, if any, movement takes place within the first nine weeks. Then, at the tenth week of development, the fetus begins very radical movement, indeed!  This indicates the formation and activation of the cerebellum, the brain’s center of locomotion. This is not yet thinking, reasoning, or what we might call an awakening to sentience. That comes later. But we recognize that many will see such movement as definitive. Although I’m convinced that this stage does not yet mean the onset of cognition or awareness, and that abortion may still be ethically done after this point, someone else might choose to draw the line at this stage. If so, I would find that position respectable.

Stage Three of quickening happens with the sudden growth and activation of the cerebellum, the center of thinking and reasoning. This takes place around 20 weeks of development – or roughly the half-way mark of the nine-month gestation cycle. A sudden growth spurt of this part of the brain takes place just prior to this time and it is at this point that electroencephalographs (or, EEG’s) first reveal the sudden appearance of the first true alpha, beta, gamma and theta ‘brain waves.’

This final stage marks the point where I officially draw the line. This is where, I argue, the spiritual line has been crossed, and the “soul” (for want of a better word) enters the body. The point at which abortions should not be performed is at Stage Three quickening, or about the 20th week. Abortion ought not be done after this point, except in extreme medical cases where the fetus suffers from a malady which renders the brain unviable, such as anencephaly, severe hydro-encephalitis, or the pregnancy is such that threatens the health of the mother.

Note that I say ‘health’ of the mother, because although a caesarian-section may not normally be life-threatening, any major surgery has the potential to become so. If a D&C, commonly referred to in the media as a ‘partial-birth abortion,’ is rendered illegal, then the only recourse a doctor would have in such extreme cases would be a caesarian section, thus needlessly jeopardizing a second life when a first has already been lost. Such legislations are unscientific and short-sighted. D&C is, on occasion, medically necessary and should remain legal. Also such decisions should be made by a patient and her physician, and not by legislators who tend to lack the sufficient medical training to make such decisions.

So, there it is! My solution to the abortion debate. You can’t counter-argue science forever (although creationists certainly try). There is an adequate window of opportunity where a woman may have an abortion ethically. It is a position which supports both a woman’s right to choose, and also supports the sanctity of human life. There's no excuse for forcing young people who made one, little mistake into permanent poverty. There's really no excuse for forcing rape victims to bear their assailants' children. There's really, really no excuse for blocking contraception. There's holy shit no excuse for blocking morning after pills! And holy fucking shit is there no excuse for blocking morning after pills to rape victims! And if all this is true, then those who oppose stem cell research based on outdated, conception-based criteria, are criminals. Unwitting criminals perhaps, but criminals, nevertheless!

Oh, I don’t think this outline of mine will solve anything right away, but as surely as I’m writing this, it will be the societal position someday. Population pressures and economic forces will eventually leave us with no other choice. Accept it now, or don’t, but we’ll all accept it sooner or later.



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