July 10, 2006

One of the questions in the abortion debate is whether life starts at conception or at birth. As a pro-choice person, I naturally went for the “at birth” stance, since it’s the party line. But after reading a bunch of biology books recently, it’s hard to defend that point of view. Birth is a pretty arbitrary point in our lives. It’s important to us from the outside, because it’s the first time we see the baby, but to the baby it’s not nearly as important an event as when it was conceived. That’s when its DNA was first formed, making it a unique cell. (We celebrate birth and not conception because (a) we don’t know when conception is happening, (b) we don’t know the exact date it happened (to celebrate the anniversaries), and (c) conception is related to sex, which is an awkward thing to talk about.) So I’m now of the opinion that life starts at conception, and that birth is one of the big traumatic experiences, like puberty, where a lot of things change at once.

Consider, for example, marsupial mammals like the kangoroo. Its young leaves the womb after about one month and spends the rest of its gestation in the pouch. If birth is the beginning of life, when does its life start? When it leaves the womb or when it leaves the pouch? And what about the life of fish, which are never in a womb at all? And what about future in vitro humans babies who will spend their entire gestation in a lab? Or extremely premature human babies? Conception is a much cleaner definition all around.

If life starts at conception, then abortion is killing a life. So why is that bad? Pro-lifers will say something about the “sanctity of life”. But in fact we kill life all the time. We kill people on death row. (You might say that these people are guilty, but actually a lot of them are shown after the fact to have been innocent.) We certainly kill people in war. According to George W. Bush, we’ve killed about 30,000 Iraqis so far. And we recklessly kill non-human life. A zoo-keeper can kill a chimpanzee for no reason at all, even though the chimp is smarter than many retarded humans. So much for the sanctity of life. (Ironically, it’s the pro-lifers who are so much in favor of killing criminals and Iraqi civilians, and so indifferent to the killing of animals.)

Before we ask why it’s bad to kill a fetus, we must first ask why it’s bad to kill anyone. If it’s not the sanctity of life, then why is murder illegal? It’s illegal because that’s what’s best for the stability of society. If murder were legal I would never leave my house. Society would collapse. We prohibit the murders that would destabilize society, but allow and encourage the murders that stabilize society. (For example, according to various estimates, every person killed by capital punishment prevents about 8 murders.) Surely George W. Bush would argue that the killing of 30,000 Iraqi civilians will make American society more stable. So it’s really a very pragmatic reason, not a spiritual one. And given this reason, should we allow the killing of fetuses? It’s been shown repeatedly that unwanted babies are more likely to commit crimes later. In fact it’s overwhelmingly true. (A chapter in Freakonomics is very convincing about this.) If stability of society is the criterion, then abortion should clearly be legal. In fact there’s no defensible anti-abortion argument except “God doesn’t like it”. Any other argument is fairly easy to refute.

My opinion is also influenced by my concept of the value of an individual’s life. To me, the value is a curve that starts out low, peaks at around 35-45 years of age, and descends back down to a low number at old age. When my 97-year-old grandmother dies, no one will say that it’s a tragedy. She has lived her life. But it would be tragic if a 35-year-old (me, for example) were to die. There are 35 years of investment that will pay dividends in the next 50 years. What a waste! In a strange way, the curve applies when a baby dies. The potential is great, but the investment is very small. To put it another way, there’s little difference between a baby dying and not having lived at all. It’s even more clear with a fetus. That’s not to say they’re worthless, of course, but to me they’re worth a lot less than a 35-year-old, where both the investment and the future returns are great.

I see two legitimate uses for abortion: pregnancies that are both accidental and unwanted; and if a birth defect is discovered. In the former case the abortion should easily be possible in the first trimester. There’s little excuse for waiting beyond that. In the latter case the defect can be discovered after 22 weeks (amniocentesis is performed as late as 20 weeks, plus two weeks for the results), which is over five months. Other cases are shameful, but are also exceedingly rare, and there’s no way to ban those anyway.

It’s easy to see why pro-lifers are so passionate, though. As my wife Jen says, imagine a place where you could take your two-year-old son and have him killed. You’d be against it too. That’s how they see it. So I disagree, and I think their opinion is given to them by their church (instead of reasoned out), but their fervor is understandable.