Abortion is perhaps the most divisive issue in America today. Incredible scientific advances in recent years, however, are beginning to change the conversation in a way that strongly favors the pro-life side of the debate.
“My generation has grown up under an entirely different world of science and technology than the Roe generation,” abortion advocate Ashley McGuire told The Atlantic. “We’re in a culture that is science-obsessed.”
You are unlikely to be classified as a “true” pro-lifer unless you fundamentally disagree with abortion on moral grounds. You are more than likely to believe that a fetus is innately bestowed with the same rights as a full-fledged adult in so far as they are a “person.” But this has always been a bone of contention in the pro-abortion camp. Many of them would choose to view a fetus as a collection of cells, a clump of tissue, or just a “growth” of nothing more than “parasitic” value.
But is science beginning to disprove that very assertion?
“The pro-life message has been, for the last 40-something years, that the fetus … is a life, and it is a human life worthy of all the rights the rest of us have,” Maguire continued at The Atlantic. “That’s been more of an abstract concept until the last decade or so.” But, she added, “when you’re seeing a baby sucking its thumb at 18 weeks, smiling, clapping,” it becomes “harder to square the idea that that 20-week-old, that unborn baby or fetus, is discardable.”
Emma Green, writing at The Atlantic, goes as far as to declare that science is “remaking the debate around abortion.”
At the time of Roe v Wade, most experts pegged the chance of fetal survival outside the womb at around 28 weeks. Now, with stunning advances in medical research, that figure has been drastically reduced down to just 22 weeks. This provides grounds for pro-lifers to weigh in on the “personhood” argument with ever more vigor, backed up with clear-cut scientific reasoning.
Nowadays, you can see a child growing in the womb with your own eyes, even at some of the earliest stages. Extraordinary 3D imaging can capture your child in staggering detail. “These advances fundamentally shift the moral intuition around abortion,” asserts Green. “New technology makes it easier to apprehend the humanity of a growing child and imagine a fetus as a creature with moral status.”
And the pro-life movement has harnessed this relentless march in the advancement of medical science to push their argument of “personhood” ever more fervently.
“Over the last several decades, pro-life leaders have increasingly recognized this and rallied the power of scientific evidence to promote their cause,” Green highlights.
“They have built new institutions to produce, track, and distribute scientifically crafted information on abortion. They hungrily follow new research in embryology. They celebrate progress in neonatology as a means to save young lives. New science is “instilling a sense of awe that we never really had before at any point in human history,” McGuire said. “We didn’t know any of this.””
No longer in possession of the crucial scientific evidence and related impetus for their cause, many pro-choice advocates have resorted to claiming that the pro-life community is some sort of archaic rabble of fundamentalists who are denying all women their fundamental human rights.
“They are against [a] world where women can contribute equally and chart our own destiny in ways our grandmothers never thought possible,” wrote Ilyse Hogue, the president of the abortion-advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice in a 2017 piece for Cosmopolitan.
There is great danger, then, in politicizing the subjective reasoning and straying from hard scientific fact. “When scientific research becomes subordinate to political ends, facts are weaponized. Neither side trusts the information produced by their ideological enemies; reality becomes relative,” Green aptly highlights.
The trouble is, the abortion debate is plagued with political point-scoring and futile name-calling. “Perhaps it was inevitable that abortion would go the way of the rest of American politics,” writes Green. “With two sides that share nothing lobbing claims of fact across a no-man’s land of moral debate.”
But there’s more. In-utero fetal treatment has advanced to an extraordinary level. Many conditions that would have previously been chalked up as fatal and an appropriate justification for a termination can now be treated effectively and safely as the baby sits in the womb. “Many are the same age as the small number of fetuses aborted in the second or third trimesters of a mother’s pregnancy,” adds Green.
Colleen Malloy, a neonatologist and faculty member at Northwestern University, finds it staggering that such medical practice should not serve to advance the argument that these beings are nothing less than “human” fetuses.
“The more I advanced in my field of neonatology, the more it just became the logical choice to recognize the developing fetus for what it is: a fetus, instead of some sort of sub-human form,” she said. “It just became so obvious that these were just developing humans.”
Without the moral argument, void of emotion, and with a heavy emphasis on science, abortion can become what Planned Parenthood have always intended for it to be: a mere medical procedure.
“Science for science’s sake is not necessarily good,” said McGuire. “If anything, that’s what gave us abortion…”
Of course, pro-lifers must also be careful to back up their arguments. Jumping on the bandwagon of scientific research before ensuring that it comprehensively backs up a clearly defined moral viewpoint is, for many, reckless and harmful to the cause of the unborn.
A prime example of this occurred when a British academic discovered that unborn babies in the third trimester responded to the visual of a human face, much like newborns and infants do. The study “tells us that the fetus isn’t a passive processor of environmental information. It’s an active responder,” Lancaster University’s Professor Vincent Reid told The Atlantic.
Immediately following publication, Reid was fielding calls from pro-lifers based in the United States. He found it perplexing. “I had a few people contacting me, congratulating me on my great work, and then giving a kind of religious overtone to it,” he said. “They’d finish off by saying, ‘Bless you,’ this sort of thing.”
The issue? Only a tiny fraction of abortions occur during the period of development that was at the center of Reid’s research. “It clearly resonated with them because they had a preconceived notion of what that science means,” Reid said. “It’s frustrating that people take something which actually has no relevance to the position of anti-abortion or pro-abortion and try to use it … in a way that’s been pre-ordained.”
Many would argue that this type of response from the pro-life community erodes their credibility and makes them look insatiably political – out for a fight, hunting for ammunition. Then again, others may put forward the fact that if “any” babies are aborted in the period of fetal development studied by Professor Reid, his research should be widely disseminated and used in the fight against what many pro-lifers call a “genocide.”
A las, it is perhaps inevitable that any and every piece of research will be swallowed up by one side or the other, even if the link to their respective cause is tenuous at best. It is an emotive debate on the origins of life. It is serious stuff and those campaigning will do anything to get the upper hand. After all, the pro-life community believes it is saving lives, and the pro-choice community believes it is protecting and progressing fundamental human rights.
“You can’t do this and not get sucked into somebody’s orbit,” said Dr. Mark Largent of Michigan State University. “Everyone’s going to take your work and use it for their ends. If you’re going to do this, you either decide who’s going to get to use your work, or it’s done to you.”