Thoughts on Fetal Life

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2005

My brother, some friends, and I have been having a discussion on the new ethical questions looming as biotechnology makes advancements in cloning and stem cell research. We had these discussions because these advancements are moving the Pro Life - Pro Choice controversy onto new ground, and that new ground affects me much more than the old ground did. (I have never had to face an abortion choice, but there may be many cures coming from biotechnology that I or my family could take advantage of.) The result is I have been discussing this issue and doing new thinking on this matter.

Some background

The Pro Life - Pro Choice issue formulated itself as the Pro Life - Pro Choice controversy we know today in the 1950's and 1960's, as the technology to perform safe abortions became widely available. As abortion techniques became safe and low cost, the question arose as to how the community should take advantage of this new technology? On this there was bitter disagreement.

One part of the community favored easy access, and the other favored highly restricted access. The Roe v. Wade decision became a symbol of this controversy. It was supposed to be a symbol that the choice of whether or not to use this technology was now an issue of personal choice, and a moral issue rather than a legal issue. But "the losers" chose not to see this interpretation. They chose to see it as a symbol of government supporting abortion.

At the time the Roe v. Wade court case was decided, it was expected that the controversy would die down after ten years, or so. It did not. Instead the part of the community that felt it was on the losing side of the court case transformed the controversy into a religious issue, and it picked up fire. The anti-abortionists centered their plea for support around the right to life of the fetus, and changed the name of their cause to the emotionally potent title Right to Life, or Pro Life. The pro-abortionists, sensing a serious assault on High Moral Ground Hill in this new anti-abortion name, changed their name to the equally heartstring-pulling term, Pro Choice. These name changes indicated this controversy going to be an emotional battle with a little science slathered over the top.

My "take" on the controversy

I have just finished a long discussion of this issue with family and friends. To me this issue is a very curious extension of community interest. Part of the community has decided that what happens inside another person's body is their business, and part of the community has decided, "No, it isn't!" It's not surprising that a woman's emotions about what goes on inside her own body should run deeply. It is surprising to me that for some community members, their emotion about what goes on inside another person's body runs just as deeply.

When emotions run this high about an issue that looks patently irrational to me, it opens the possibility that an underlying survival issue is at stake -- apparently having the community involved in what happens inside a woman's body has historically been good for survival. It has been good enough for survival that mankind's brain has it hardwired in as an instinct. This means it was good for survival during the recent prehistoric era -- often called the Neolithic or New Stone Age. What about Neolithic living would encourage the community to take a serious interest in a particular woman's pregnancy?

Assisted Birth

In Neolithic times mankind lived in hunter-gatherer societies the size of small villages -- 20 to 50 families. What was it about that lifestyle would promote Pro Life emotions?

Perhaps, it was an offshoot of assisted birth. Assisted birth is a great benefit to the fetus. A fetus which can count on assisted birth can stay in the womb longer and develop more fully. The mother experiences a painful, debilitating delivery, but the community helps her through that, and the community has a stronger baby to show for its efforts.

But, for this longer pregnancy to happen, the community must be so solidly behind the mother's pregnancy that there is no question of assisting her when "labor day" arrives. In other words, this must be an instinct, and a well developed one.

If this is so, what the Pro Life - Pro Choice controversy is about is a clash between the new capabilities a new technology offers and an old instinct. The new technology and new capability is the ability to have safe, easy abortions. The old instinct is that once a woman gets pregnant, her community prepares to support her birth and the nurturing of the coming child. Because of this strong instinct to support a pregnant woman, if the woman chooses to say, "Ho Hum... No thanks." it is seen as a deep betrayal of the community. I suspect this is the real fire behind the heat of the Pro Life movement. An instinctive feeling of betrayal.

What does this mean in terms of future policy?

What does this mean in terms of future policy?

First, like the relation between airport security and the fear of flying, the right emotions must be addressed. We need to be looking for a better way to recognize the community instinct and gain the benefit of our new skills in biotechnology. We need to reexamine the question of, "When does a fetus become alive?" at the emotional level, as a community support issue. (We really need to sidestep this issue, it's not the heart of the problem. It's a symptom of the problem.) We need to address the core issue which is: How to keep community members from feeling betrayed or abandoned: a) when a fetus is grown for purposes other than making a fully functioning child, and b) when a mother chooses to terminate a pregnancy without birth.

-- The End --