Abortion: There is No Ethical Dilemma

Carl Sagan said this decades ago. I think my friend John Zande actually says it better. If the end of brain activity is the end of an individual’s life, then before there is coherent brain activity, individual life has not yet begun.

How can you “kill” something that cannot “die”?

This is arguably the most significant question in any discussion concerning the legality of abortion, and because facts matter, the following seventeen words are critical in understanding that before gestational week 25, although more accurately week 28, there is no ethical dilemma in terminating a pregnancy because nothing is being killed—or worse, to use the careless language of some, murdered.

At no stage does life magically appear in a zygote, a blastocyst, an embryo, or a foetus.

Life began on earth 3.8 billion years ago and has not been interrupted since. There is no ‘divine spark,’ no ensorcelled moment when the inanimate abruptly transforms into the animate. A foetus was never inorganic and suddenly becomes organic. The egg and the sperm are already parts of the living system—a 3.8 billion years old system driven by chemiosmosis, where the rechargeable…

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on July 22, 2018, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. The problem is not that you are killing something that has no brian , rather that you are taking away a potential human life. Many object to the cutting down of a magnificent tree , it has no brain but it is alive. The difference between contraception and abortion is the living process has been put into action. The Catholic position carries this a step further in saying that contraception prevents natures intention of multiplying.
    Would you take eggs from a birds nest ? Most people would not like to do such a thing because you are preventing the fulfilment and purpose of nature.
    Let me say I’m not against abortion but I would much rather it was prevented by suitable contraception. There is an ethical dilemma and it is not all down to the religious faction , many are uneasy about the widespread use of abortion.
    Although this is a faultless scientific explanation we are not entirely scientific beings that is why ethics exists and why science is called to examine its intentions.

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  2. “…….gestational week 25, although more accurately week 28, there is no ethical dilemma in terminating a pregnancy because nothing is being killed……….”

    Whatever one’s views on this emotive issue you are quite wrong to state that there is no ethical dilemma. If it was as simple as you suggest then the world and their aunts would not still be discussing the matter for yonks and many more into the future. An Act of Parliament promulgated into law does not automatically erase an ethical argument. I make this observation without regard to any religion. I’m also a pragmatist in accepting the occasional justification for abortion such as rape and a diagnosis on an adverse state of the fetus or there is a threat to the mother’s life. But I do have severe ethical concerns over abortion by demand based simply on social embarrassment and inconvenience.

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    • The thesis of the article is that the fetus does not have the right to protection that we give a living person because it is not, in the only sense that counts, a living person.

      It seems that you do not agree with this argument, but you have not stated why.

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      • My point was solely that abortion was, is and will always be a highly emotive issue. You dismissed that in your preamble that I quoted you on.

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      • No, I do not dismiss the fact that abortion is a highly emotive issue. I am saying that the belief that it poses a moral dilemma is based on the assumption that the fetus is alive, whereas Zande argues (and I concur) that it is not alive until there is significant activity in the nervous system. The emotion, in other words, is misplaced, or to be more exact the granting of moral significance to the emotion is misplaced, because it depends on false beliefs about facts.

        I do not expect you to agree, but I hope I have been fair in anatomising our disagreement.

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      • For the avoidance of doubt, ethical issues, especially those relating to life, are always emotive when there is no universal consensus.

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      • Emotion need not bestow moral significance. Some people find find the idea of certain sexual practices disgusting, but that does not give them the right to morally condemn them.

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    • Clearly you have no idea how inconvenient an abortion is if you think women use it routinely for contraception. It is, however, a suitable method of preventing the massive inconvenience of an unwanted child.

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      • I am not sure if you are replying to me, or to John Zande whose piece I am reblogging, or to etgs who used those words in a comment. However, I don’t think any of us are so ignorant, or have led such sheltered lives, as to “think women use it routinely for contraception.”

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  3. I really like the reasoning here –seems so straightforward, yet I never thought of it this way before. Thank you!

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  4. I just submitted the following (it awaits moderation) at the Zande blog:

    I read this post today after spotting that Paul Braterman had re-blogged it recently. You say: “the onset of a defined human life is when foetal brain activity begins to exhibit regular and sustained activity…”.

    You may be interested to know that around an hour ago young earth creationist Ken Ham tweeted the following:
    “Do these protestors also carry signs saying “humans in mother’s wombs feel pain & want to live?” They want to protect fish (which are animals, not humans who are made in God’s image), but what about the millions of children murdered yearly by abortion?”

    I know that Ham believes a foetus is ‘alive’ from conception, but he is also apparently claiming that any foetus or ‘human’ in the womb can feel pain (or any in cases where abortion is legal). Speaking as a layman, and risking over-simplification, I thought that the human nervous system controlled how we process and feel pain (the central nervous system – brain and spinal cord – and the peripheral nervous system).

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  5. PS I note Kertsen’s comments. Their position appears more reasoned than the shrillness of Mr Ham.

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