On Abortion: Time, Space, Error and Ethics.

Nobody wants an abortion. No woman wants one, and no man who has thought about the issue wants any woman he cares about to be in a position in which she feels compelled to have one. Sometimes, though, in the service of the greater good, abortions are necessary. In the wake of the announcement of American Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s imminent retirement, the issue of abortion once again became central in many newsfeeds. It is a topic perennially guaranteed to provoke outrage—all the more politically useful now that former hot-button topics like gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana have slid out of the maelstrom.

In Slate recently, William Saletan argued that, “Most Americans are conflicted about abortion. They don’t like it, but they also don’t like the idea of banning it.” This argument is backed up by poll numbers, but the position itself is not, contrary to what Saletan suggests, a conflicted one. Believing abortion necessary, while not “liking” it, is internally consistent, and both nuanced and moral.

I have friends who have had abortions. Most people probably do, whether they know it or not. One of my friends escaped an abusive home, became addicted to heroin, and got pregnant very young, before aborting the fetus, getting her act together, and becoming a scientist. That part where she got her act together and became a scientist? Far less likely had she been a teenage mother.

Rarely does the discussion of abortion include a consideration of the fate of zygotes absent intervention, or the fate of babies across human cultures. Let’s go there.

Humans Across Developmental Time and Cultural Space

People in WEIRD countries don’t tend to know a lot about pregnancy, despite what many of them will tell you. Here are some facts: most human zygotes throughout history never became children. They were miscarried, without any conscious decision by the mother. In many of those cases, the woman never even knew that she was pregnant—perhaps the fertilized zygote never implanted on the wall of the uterus (in which case, technically, the woman was never pregnant, although sperm and egg had come together in union). In other cases, there were chromosomal abnormalities so severe that development could not proceed past a few days or weeks. In still other cases, some combination of genetic and environmental conditions rendered the zygote non-viable. The majority of zygotes aren’t viable—they are flawed in some way, such that they cannot continue. They are human, by any usual definition of the term, but they cannot survive. This happens to most zygotes that have ever been conceived. This fact leaves me, a biologist, wholly unconvinced by arguments about the sanctity of life.

Furthermore, social norms in other cultures are both highly varied and responsive to their environments, and this truth extends to how humans have approached pregnancy. Just as they have a limited understanding of pregnancy, most WEIRD moderns have little knowledge of the diversity of human behavior and culture. Brace yourself, though, this gets ugly: historically, in many traditional societies, infanticide has been common. When there is not enough to eat, or the next oldest child is still highly dependent on the mother, or a young unpartnered woman has no good prospects for raising a child on her own, newborns are killed at their parent’s hands. Throughout recorded history (and presumably long before that), motherhood has been a matter of compromise—between the subsistence needs of the mother, the needs of her existing children and other commitments, and the time, energy and resources needed to bring a child to adulthood in the world. There is a long list of behaviors and actions historically available to women who are trying to control their own reproductive lives. Infanticide is on that list. I am not arguing that this is good, but it is true.

It is too easy to dismiss women who kill their babies as ill or criminally insane. Instead, we should recognize that maternal responsiveness varies with environment, and some environments are more likely to force women’s hands. This adaptive response, neither desirable nor good, exists in a suite of maternal responses to circumstance, along with abortion, abandonment and neglect.

Policies that provide women with access to education and reproductive services decrease rates of both infanticide and abortion. In the United States, very young mothers, and those with little education and no access to pre-natal care, are the most likely to commit infanticide, and maternal infanticide rates are lower in states in which women do not tend to live in poverty. Similarly, abortion rates have been reliably dropping in Europe and North America as reproductive services, including birth control, have become easier to access.

This debate could be a lot more gruesome: Americans don’t have to worry about whether the harvest will fail, and if it does, which child they will choose to feed as a result. Infanticide is off the table as an accepted practice. Society-wide, we have agreed on this much: once they are born, let us not kill our children.

Evolution responds to circumstance. Most zygotes disappear before even making themselves known to their mothers. In many cultures, in which the environment was variable enough that many children were unlikely to make it to adulthood, infanticide has been acceptable. First, the circumstances of the genetic arrangement, then that of the environment inside the womb, then the environment outside of the womb, have caused fertilized eggs, zygotes, fetuses and babies to die or be killed. Adults across cultures have been making difficult reproductive choices for as long as we have been human. In short, abortion has been one of many ways, across time and space, that humans, with our greatly expanded childhoods compared to all other species on the planet, have managed our reproductive lives.

There is good scholarly work on the use of botanical abortifacients in other cultures, too.  This originally came to the West’s attention during the Age of Exploration, when the rare female adventurer waded out of her safe sphere and into the cultures and lands of others. In 1705, Maria Sibylla Merian, a German woman traveling on her own, wrote about the use of the abortifacient peacock flower by Indian and African slave populations in Surinam, so that they would not bring children into a life of slavery. Other examples include, for instance, the dozens of plant species used by traditional healers in ancient Persia in medicinal formulations to instigate abortion. Indeed, even non-humans are rumored to seek abortions under certain conditions: I had a friend in Madagascar, a naturalist guide, who pointed out to me the plant that lemurs were said to eat in order to induce abortions.

At its core, this issue comes down to where we draw the line—and whether a line is in fact the right metaphor.

A Line or a Continuum?

The clearest, brightest line is that of conception, when sperm and egg meet. Monty Python and their send-up of the Catholic church notwithstanding, most people do not argue for the sanctity of gametes. Once gametes are combined, however, it is possible to provide legal protection for those fertilized eggs. It is an enforceable goal—it is actionable—but that doesn’t make it the right goal, and what we know from biology assures us that most zygotes are not destined to survive.

Another clear line, with only slightly fuzzier borders, is birth: being inside or outside of the mother’s body is an observable fact. We know, given the prevalence of infanticide in human history, that this line has not always been considered sacrosanct. But, for most moderns, the idea of abortion at nine months gestation, just before a full-term birth would occur, is a bridge too far, except in those rare cases when it is medically necessary for the survival of the mother.

Those are the two obvious lines. Lines are easy, from a governance perspective: the discrete cases on either side are binary, and therefore easier to police than gradients based on probabilities. But ease of governance is neither sufficient justification for, nor a moral response to, such a complex societal issue.

What rubric might we use, then, if not a bright line, a clear moment in time? We have extensive data on the average age at which organ systems are laid down, at which brain development accelerates in utero, and also when a fetus can survive outside of a mother’s body, with and without external life support. If we recognize a trade-off between the positive social impact of keeping abortion available to women, and the problems of providing carte blanche for all abortions up to some very late date, perhaps we should seek a solution that renders barriers to abortion higher the farther along in the pregnancy a woman is, but allows free and easy access early in pregnancy, and so does not sacrifice a woman’s ability to choose her life’s fate.

The polarization over abortion is serving two distinct constituencies—those who would have it banned, and those who would have it broadly expanded in scope. The arguments are often presented as if those are the only two viable positions (anti-abortion under all circumstances, and embracingly, positively, pro-abortion). But somewhere between “every sperm is sacred” and “children can be killed on command” lies every human’s position. It is a continuum.  As is so often the case, that polarization is at odds with a properly nuanced position in this debate.

There is, on the anti-abortion side of this issue, an argument about the sanctity of life. I respect people who hold this position, so long as they’re consistent. Given the fate of most pregnancies, and the remarkable diversity of approaches to unwanted pregnancies across cultures, it’s not my position, but if the reason that you are opposed to abortion is because you believe in the sanctity of life, then, to be consistent, you also need be opposed to the death penalty. I would take it one step further, and suggest that you also need to be interested in increasing funding for those at risk of early death from malnutrition, homelessness, addiction and illness, both physical and mental. And that list is substantively incomplete.

Taking Responsibility for Error

Some will argue, instead, that prioritizing personal responsibility is what drives their anti-abortion position: personal responsibility argues for both an anti-abortion and pro-death-penalty position. To this I respond thusly: an error made by two people—unwanted pregnancy results from two people having sex—in which the responsibility is not just potentially borne by only one of them, but the life of that one will be forever altered and potentially fully derailed—is not reflective of responsibility. It gives half of the would-be parents a free pass, and sentences the other half to a fate that, while wondrous when desired, can be disastrous, for both child and mother, when not.

Furthermore, if you play soccer and break a leg doing so, it is not responsible to remain maimed simply because the playing of soccer brought with it the risk of breaking one’s leg. It is, in fact, responsible to have your leg fixed, not merely so that you can live to play soccer again, but so that you can go on to contribute maximally to society, living up to your potential, not just with regard to soccer, but in other regards as well. If you have sex and end up pregnant, it is not responsible to become a parent out of a sense of moral obligation, if you are not ready to do so. Responsible athletic and sexual behavior both involve a reduction, on the front-end, of the chances of undesirable outcomes. Setting a bone is not identical to aborting a fetus, but there is a moral analogy to be made, with regard to how a person should take responsibility for their actions.

There is confusion, too, I think, about what drives many of us to be pro-choice. We are not anti-life. Our reasons for supporting a woman’s right to choose may not, in fact, hinge on how we view what is human and what is not. My position on the death penalty, for instance—I am opposed—is based on the fact that some convictions are in error, and I would far rather have murderers living behind bars than have any innocent executed. I do not oppose the death penalty because I am under the impression that human life is sacred. Facilitating choices that allow people to live their highest and best lives is consistent with both a pro-choice and an anti-death-penalty position—in part because it recognizes that we are flawed. We make errors, all of us—as individuals and as society—and forgiving those errors, learning from them, and moving forward, is a humane response.

A Humane and Reasoned Response

There is a question of which of two lives we, as a society, prefer. Do we prefer the life of an adult who can make decisions for herself, and who has found herself in an unfortunate position? Or do we prefer the life of her unborn child—a child who has not yet had the opportunity to make decisions for itself, good or bad? The implicit moralizing that prefers the fetus to the woman has judged the woman guilty for needing an abortion in the first place. But think of it this way: every baby needs someone to love him completely, to sacrifice in ways that they have probably never sacrificed before. By contrast, some adults may want such a person in their lives, but no fully functional adult needs it to survive. By preferring the future baby—who will need love and sacrifice, and lots of it—over the adult—who does not need that kind of support—you guarantee that our shared social fabric will be stretched ever thinner.

Finally, there is the issue of the fundamental difference between the two sexes, with regard to how this issue has the potential to affect individuals. There are several experiences that are borne exclusively by women, on behalf of humanity: menstruation, gestation, lactation, miscarriage and, yes, abortion. Some are positive, all are at least somewhat, or sometimes, negative. Because menstruation is both involuntary and universal among women, it is hard to politicize in the way that abortion is politicized. But everything on that list above is, to some degree, analogous to the other things on the list. Regarding menstruation: men mocking it is a dick move, and women amplifying discussion of it, working to normalize it in what used to be called water-cooler conversations, is solipsistic—or, if you will, also a dick move, just without the dick. Similarly, regarding abortion: it makes no more sense to ban it than to celebrate it. Sometimes abortion will be the best choice. Because women get pregnant and men do not, it seems like a women’s issue. But it is no more a women’s issue than is the production of life. We are obligate sexual creatures. We all bear the costs of that.

Mostly, Americans and other WEIRD moderns are in agreement: we do not want abortions to be common, but we understand that they are sometimes necessary, and that making them available to women is important if we are to value the lives of those already alive and breathing on their own. Between two extreme positions—“abortion is murder” and “abortion is no big deal”—there is a vast middle ground. Most of us live in that middle ground, and can handle the grey area.


References Cited

Gauthier, D. K., Chaudoir, N. K., & Forsyth, C. J. (2003.) A sociological analysis of maternal infanticide in the United States, 1984-1996. Deviant Behavior, 24(4), 393-404.

Hrdy, S. B. (1992). Fitness tradeoffs in the history and evolution of delegated mothering with special reference to wet-nursing, abandonment, and infanticide. Ethology and Sociobiology13(5-6), 409-442.

Hrdy, S. B. (1999). Mother nature: A history of mothers, infants, and natural selection. New York: Pantheon. 723 p.

Lycett, J. E., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (1999). Abortion rates reflect the optimization of parental investment strategies. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences266(1436), 2355-2358.

Madari, H., & Jacobs, R. S. (2004). An analysis of cytotoxic botanical formulations used in the traditional medicine of ancient Persia as abortifacients. Journal of natural products67(8), 1204-1210.

Overpeck, M. D., Brenner, R. A., Trumble, A. C., Trifiletti, L. B., & Berendes, H. W. (1998). Risk factors for infant homicide in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine339(17), 1211-1216.

Schiebinger, L. (2000). Exotic abortifacients: the global politics of plants in the 18th century. Endeavour24(3), 117-121.

Sedgh, G., Bearak, J., Singh, S., Bankole, A., Popinchalk, A., Ganatra, B., … & Johnston, H. B. (2016). Abortion incidence between 1990 and 2014: global, regional, and subregional levels and trends. The Lancet388(10041), 258-267.

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  1. I appreciated your discussion of this difficult issue. . . I find it interesting that you say that you are against the death sentence because we are prone to error. That sounds like it could actually be a reason to be against abortion too. . . .

  2. I maintain the same practical position (in that mothers should be legally allowed to kill their developing children in the early stages of pregnancy whether it is moral or not), though I disagree with many arguments presented.

    – Nobody likes abortion.
    – That natural pregnancy termination supports the permissibility of ‘early term’ abortion (i.e. which mirror the same time frame/probabilities of natural zygote death/miscarriage).
    – The ‘every life is sacred’ meme is either a recapitulation of buddhism or is misleading. There is no reason to assume that microbes, or if one is a panpsychist, even less complex substances like viruses or molecules should retain equal value to more complex organisms, wherein value is typically measured in sentience/agency.
    – If one is talking about a human life however, or one which will naturally develop in 99% of all cases without human intervention (i.e. > x days/weeks), then the sacredness of life depends on how/when sentience is assigned to a physical entity. This is dependent upon the correct philosophy of mind, which is a serious epistemological problem. Being philosophy, such cannot be empirically established (such hypotheses cannot be denied by observation), only informed by our progressive understanding of the neural correlates of consciousness. Ultimately this depends on whether the assignment process is discrete as in the spontaneous emergence of a ‘physicalist soul’ (mental properties), or a continuum as in panpyschism (all energy/quiddities have both mental and physical qualities). However, if one is an atheist, then there is reason to believe that this assignment occurs very early in organic development (late emergence sounds contrived and indicative of teleology). Hence it is more reasonable for a theist to support late term abortion (like animal consumption). In any case their god could handle the consequences.
    – Personal responsibility lies with both parents.
    – The nuanced debate.

    – The normativity of infanticide in human civilisation. Female infanticide was for example condemned by Muhammed (https://web.archive.org/web/20080420131558/http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/016.qmt.html#016.058), which is one evidence of the progressive nature of the religion with respect to the Bedouin culture of the time/locale.
    – The consequences of an unsustainable child in society was (is) typically death for its tribe and/or war, although in a culture promoting millions of dollars being spent on the sustenance of disabled individuals along with a depleting native population the relevance of societal resources here is ad hoc. Accordingly, developing civilisations strongly favoured the infanticide of the disabled.
    – To tolerate a problem without addressing (decrying) the underlying cause indicates special pleading, or that one doesn’t really consider it that bad after all. This is probably why many don’t take others’ “choices” seriously.
    – The language; people aren’t making choices, they are just ‘doing what they think is right – it is the only reason anyone does anything’. Not everyone thinks it is right.
    – “… and so does not sacrifice a woman’s ability to choose her life’s fate” – ‘choices’ occur before engaging in sexual relations (outside of abuse/assault), and a 30% abortion rate is not “an unfortunate position”, it indicates a consciously/socially accepted risk. This remains true regardless of how difficult (or socially engineered) the real choice actually was.
    – “Do we prefer the life of an adult who can make decisions for herself” – the moral weight is not about a women’s decisions; they can presumably make decisions. If not, what is stopping them from making these decisions? What needs to be done to help them? What societal institutions existed to help sustain these decisions? What have we done to them, and why?
    – “The implicit moralizing that prefers the foetus to the woman has judged the woman guilty for needing an abortion in the first place” – not necessarily; they might just not like to take chances with innocent lives (and if it turns out their concerns were correct, two wrongs don’t make a right).
    – “By preferring the future baby – who will need love and sacrifice, and lots of it – over the adult – who does not need that kind of support – you guarantee that our shared social fabric will be stretched ever thinner.” – good intentions do not necessitate good outcomes. Compromise can morally bankrupt/corrupt a group’s ability to function coherently (see “morale”).
    – “Sometimes, though, in the service of the greater good, abortions are necessary.” – see JK Rowling on the greater good (it is not necessarily a sound reasoning in any given context). The classic test case of utilitarianism being; would one keep a tortured child locked in an underground basement its whole life if it would mean creating a worldwide utopia.
    – There is a correlation between premarital sexual standards and positions on abortion; this is why marriage evolved (cultural universal). Societies that could not manage the consequences of sexual relations (the subsequent drain on female psychological+physical resources) died out.
    – There are other philosophical/legal issues at stake. For example, humans who could have been artificially terminated typically appreciate not having being (one could potentially be sued for having attempting to kill someone).
    – “to be consistent, you also need be opposed to the death penalty” – human life is valued for both its sentience and agency (there are two separable factors).
    – “I would take it one step further, and suggest that you also need to be interested in increasing funding for those at risk of early death from malnutrition, homelessness, addiction and illness, both physical and mental.” – there is a difference between proscriptive (shall not) and prescriptive morality (shall/omission).
    – “Furthermore, if you play soccer and break a leg doing so, it is not responsible to remain maimed simply because the playing of soccer brought with it the risk of breaking one’s leg” – the analogy of breaking a leg to getting pregnant (one is an evolutionary norm/adaptation for a female, the other is not).
    – “It is, in fact, responsible to… so that you can go on to contribute maximally to society, living up to your potential… it is not responsible to become a parent out of a sense of moral obligation, if you are not ready to do so”, “Facilitating choices that allow people to live their highest and best lives” – human flourishing is not an easily measurable quantity, upon what time span is it considered – what if the society dies out along with all its progeny? Psychological consequences should also be considered; for example living in denial of what might have occurred (cognitive dissonance).
    – One of the primary motivations for abortion is the effect it has on the mother’s prospective long term relationships (given that they are unlikely to still be with the father) – the sexual market value of a mother pre-committed to a genetically unrelated offspring, not specifically their career goals.
    – “Adults across cultures have been making difficult” choices, but it doesn’t make them acceptable in a modern civilisation – certainly not one which is actively promoting the conditions (sexualisation) upon which the choices are necessarily created.

    For reference, I think parents should be legally allowed to kill a lot more than their developing children – “I would far rather have murderers living behind bars than have any innocent executed”.

    1. Mark, WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic. I’m not too keen on acronyms because they seem to always demand a stop to the reading flow to go look up.

      Both you and Heather wrote very good articles. Hope to read more you may offer to fabulous Areo.

  3. Very good article. Indeed, the topic of abortion exists in the moral gray area for most of us out here. The absolutists on either end distort and politicize the matter so much that their arguments become unrelatable or just come across as unrealistic/idealistic/oversimplified. This is a tough topic incapable of intelligently being reduced down to mere political talking points, and biological and historical realities absolutely do need to be brought to light in such discussions. Might make people feel like they’re on the side of right to offer up simple platitudes like “all life is sacred,” but it truly is more complex of a situation than those folks give it credit, much as we might like to dream that human life could be rendered morally unambiguous.

  4. For every woman who has had an abortion, there is a man who was involved.

    Once we start naming the fathers of aborted fetuses, and making it illegal for a pro-life man to have sex with a pro-choice woman, the ethics of this issue go away. A thought as radical as a government determining the fate of 1/2 the population.

  5. Thank you. It is good to see the nuanced difficult ethical and practical issues placed before us for careful consideration. Sexuality and procreation place an *immense* ethical responsibility on individuals. Neither the blindly righteous or the flippantly liberated take this responsibility on board. We need forums for careful discussion like this aided by a map of the difficult biological, ethical and practical terrain that must be traversed by each individual facing these issues.

  6. Many intelligent, science-oriented points in the article except for one added opinion that would’ve been better to edit out: pro-choice folks think an abortion is “no big deal.” Not true! Only a minority of psychopaths devoid of a conscience may look at it that way. Abortion is a somber, realistic look in the eye of human fallibility.

    A problem not mentioned in the article is the current law which makes things black and white. Roe vs Wade put a stop to back alley or precarious self-inflicted abortions but it also allowed abortions to occur at any time during fetal development. To change the law would mean to strike down Roe vs Wade and then suffer the slow wheel of legal arguments, procedures to rewrite and enact another law which would not allow late term abortions but may impede life in another way…

    It gets complicated because there are always mitigating circumstances which may make it necessary to abort a late term pregnancy—the mother could suffer medical complications which may cause her to die during pregnancy or during birth process.

    There is a window of time in which a pregnancy can be stopped without harming a fully viable human being by taking a morning after pill immediately after unprotected sex or getting a dilation and curettage in the first or second month (the author better explains the zygote, gamete stages than religions or politics try to attempt).

    The article is well-written and I appreciate what the author contributed to Areo Magazine. Thank you.

  7. I am highly suspect of the motives of (at least a portion of) the anti-abortion crowd. The religious have lost the moral argument on a whole raft of social issues, from their stance on homosexuality to the demonizing of human sexuality in general, and this is the last issue on which they think they have the moral high-ground. To put it crudely; I don’t believe for one cotton-picking minute that the Christian screaming in the face of a frightened young women outside the last abortion clinic in Alabama gives a flying fuck about anyone else’s fetus.

  8. This is a good exposition of facts but lacks of a solution, probably of necessity. Acknowledging that a woman has a right to determine her own fate, the issue of later term abortion can be addressed by requiring the procedure to preserve the life of the child without increasing the risk to the mother. Of course, the mother would also be legally relieved of all parental rights and responsibilities. Further, the father must have the equivalent rights. He should only be burdened with parental responsibilities if he affirmatively accepts them. These two principles should be included in the basis for any legislation in the area..

  9. I don’t think there is anything inconsistent about being pro-life and pro-death penalty. I personally am anti death penalty because governments are too corruptible to give them this power, but if given the hypothetical of knowing someone is 100% guilty, that is really a completely different circumstance than the completely innocent baby in the womb. Sanctity of life can easily be changed to sanctity of innocent life if that makes anyone feel better.

    1. I do think it’s inconsistent. Just as people have different views on if/when abortion might be permissible, so too do people have different views on when the death penalty is appropriate. I might kill another person to protect my life in the moment, but if a person is secured behind bars, my safety is not the issue. What, then, is the point of capital punishment? Abortion, on the other hand, will make a dramatic difference in the life of the mother. Heyer’s article makes a good case for letting pregnant women, not you, not me, not her parents, not the government make the decision about abortion. I’m with her.

    2. Here’s a thought. Punishment should not be the primary purpose of the justice system. Justice is compensation of the victim, as much as possible. Although I’m not a believer, I’ll put it in religious terms. Punishment is for god.

      1. Just as well, should women ask rather similarly?

        Good article. Though there is still tension between the human flourishing imperative and the described fate of most zygotes. The post-WWII humanitarian progress is apparently meeting old-fashioned limitations of living on a finite planet, after all.

        As for potential consequences to the man and the woman: contemporary alimony laws would apply deeply to most men’s lives, really.

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