I think the question of when life begins is the wrong one to ask.

Take any animal, insect, or other non-human being for example. It certainly has a life by all three of these definitions. Yet, unless we are to become vegetarians all, we agree that the simple fact that they are alive does not confer them with rights.

The question we should instead ask is when rights attach. Because at this point, the fetus is morally indistinguishable from any other human being in terms of its right to life.

This question can easily lead down a rabbit hole of ethics discourse, but I think we can easily chart the two component questions of when rights attach to humans:

1) What differentiates humans from other living beings in such a manner that we are granted different moral value?

2) When in the gestation process is the earliest that this is likely to occur (erring on the side of over-inclusion to limit the likelihood of rights violations should our scientific understanding be incorrect).

To avoid boiling the ocean, I'll err on the side of being overly simplistic in my answer. In my opinion:

1) The prime differentiator between humans and other living beings is the depth of our sentience. While any other fauna can use its brain to execute directives in order to sustain its own life and the continuation of its species, humans are either alone or among a very small number of animals that have a serious sense of self-awareness.

2) It's unclear when this happens, but the earliest that it is likely to happen is when the fetus reaches pain capability, or the ability to process various stimuli such as pain. This is important because the ability to respond to stimuli is required in order to be sentient. Based on the body of existing research, this occurs - at earliest - when the brain stem attaches around 14-21 weeks. Again, erring on the side of over-inclusion, we should assume the fetus would then reach pain capability - and therefore meet the conditions that grant it the higher moral status that humans are granted - at 14 weeks post-conception.

While I do not hold on strongly to the 14 week mark, It is significant because it the best approximation that we can reach for when a human is sufficiently different from any other living creature that it is granted the right to life. I am certainly open to changing from this position, I find the use of when life begins to be the least compelling path to an answer that doesn't place man on the same moral plane as the cattle I eat for dinner.

Note: one potential counterargument is that we indeed are granted the same moral agency as animals, and that we are simply the apex predator. I do not believe this to be a valid one as we accept intra-species killing between animal species over status or procreation rights etc, but obviously should not accept that I can kill you in order to have children with your wife, or kill the mayor of my town in order to claim the throne.

Lastly, I am aware that my position likely necessitates granting the right to life to certain apes, and potentially some marine life such as dolphins and/or octopi. I'm fully comfortable with this and don't see any logical consequences that would be dissonant or absurd.

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What about the notion of "viability," the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb? This is a more elastic notion that is contingent on technological development, and at the time Roe was decided in 1970s was the beginning of the third trimester. It fits with similar ideas we have those in hospitals requiring medical technology to survive.

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In my view, viewing life as beginning at birth has serious problems given that it's disconnected from the scientific evidences of life in the womb. Not only heartbeat but brain activity, unique DNA, reaction to outside stimulae, and viability outside of the womb all point to a distinct life deserving legal protection.

On the other hand, while I personally view life as beginning at conception for both moral and religious reasons, there is a distinct moral incongruity in carving out exceptions for rape and incest. If a fertilized egg is considered human life, why is such human life to be protected or not protected based on the circumstances of its creation? Opponents of the "life begins at conception" viewpoint point out, not without reason, that if a fertilized egg can be disposed of without concern for its existence as distinct human life because it was created through rape or incest then why should women who are unable to provide for a child or who have gotten pregnant through poor decisions not also be able to dispose of a fertilized egg.

I think the question of life in the womb is likely to lead to three realities. First, abortions after the 1st trimester will come to be fully outlawed in almost all states with exceptions only for the health of the mother. Second, there will be an ongoing debate about the definition of viability and most states will adopt laws that define viability variously and outlaw abortions after that point is met. And third, the question of life before viability is likely to remain an open question because it is a question largely of moral and religious debate. Some states will be absolute in their abortion restrictions, others will allow unrestricted abortion until viability, and some will split the issue by allowing morning after pills but not procedural abortion.

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There is an argument to be made that the denial of choice in the case of rape is grounds enough for an exception to be made (one should not be responsible for the consequences of their actions if they did not choose the action), but that argument stands on shaky ground. I don’t have a better response, other than 1. You’re correct that circumstance of conception doesn’t change the sanctity of the life and 2. I’ll wholeheartedly live with that cognitive dissonance if the needle is moved in the right direction, since rape and incest cases amount to essentially a rounding error in the total number of abortions in America.

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Jun 8, 2022Liked by Scott Howard

I agree with you, of course. I only point out the dissonance because that's going to be a major hurdle in the debate.

I'm growing more and more convinced that the pro-life movement has to ground its efforts in successive waves, because if we focus on the most debatable aspects of the debate first, we only weaken the less debatable aspects.

First, we should secure a ban on all second and third trimester abortions in all 50 states. That's winnable, it's doable, and the abortionists have little credible argument against it, both because of the clear evidences of life and because carrying a child past the first trimester is, in and of itself, a choice.

Second, we can turn our efforts towards securing protection for life after viability, however science and reason allows us to define it. I don't think we'll win this argument in every state, but we can definitely win it in most of them.

Then, after having secured these major victories, we can turn towards the most ambiguous questions concerning life before viability. This is the question we can only win in predominantly religious states, but having secured our previous victories the ambiguities and the dissonance involved in this question wouldn't damage the easier victories.

I think that, unless the pro life movement adopts this kind of layered effort, the march towards a culture of life will take longer to accomplish simply because the pro life movement often declares as unquestionable that which, before viability, is more ambiguous than most would care to admit. We should play to our strengths first and fight for the winnable wins, before making our case on the harder questions.

Regardless, I think most of the pro life argument is based on common sense and self-evident truths, and that eventually, whether its ten years or a hundred, society will look upon the idea of unrestricted abortion as a barbaric policy. The only question is how long will it take to get there.

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I agree with that line of thinking, obviously, because when push comes to shove and there are legislative stakes a more incremental approach will be needed.

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