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If Life Begins Once, About 3 Billion Years Ago

September 27, 1987|Garrett Hardin | Garrett Hardin is author of "Stalking the Wild Taboo" (William Kaufmann).

SANTA BARBARA — The abortion battle is heating up again and its echoes reach the current Senate debates about whether to confirm Judge Robert H. Bork as a Supreme Court justice.

People generally identify pro-abortion as a liberal position and anti-abortion as conservative. This may be a mistake, because polls show considerable independence between usually defined political liberalism and a person's attitude toward abortion. As a person who considers himself a conservative but who nonetheless supports women's choice in reproductive matters, I want to present a conservative argument for abortion.

Conservatism can be characterized by three attitudes: First, a keen appreciation of the future, and the future costs of present actions; second, an insistence on minimal interference with personal freedom; third, an unflagging awareness of the public costs of private actions. In sum, the conservative hopes to conserve community wealth and well-being, as well as private freedom. If many liberals agree on these points, so much the better for community peace.

The "pro-life" position is usually identified as conservative but it ignores certain realities of biology and human language, being wedded to a simple, non-scientific understanding of the meaning of the word life .

As a scientist I am embarrassed to admit that much present confusion would not have developed had biology teachers done their job better during the past 50 years.

Appearing before legislative committees I have repeatedly been asked, "When does life begin?" That, I have answered, is the wrong question.

The present-tense does in "When does life begin?" implies a repeated or habitual action. By the middle of the 19th Century it was clear that the beginning of life is not a repeated event. No human has ever witnessed the beginning of life; and a subtle but convincing argument supports the conclusion that life began on earth only once, about 3 billion years ago.

In the human case the facts are as follows: A living sperm cell unites with a living egg cell, and the resultant living fertilized egg (or zygote) then goes on to divide into about 100-million-million cells. Every cell is alive at its "birth," and every one gets its life from a preceding cell. No cell ever originates its own life.

The question lawmakers should ask is, "When does a human life begin?" This is not a quibble. Emphasis on the adjective "human" changes the inquiry to a question of definition. At what point in the sequence from one living cell to 100-million-million living cells should we choose to define the product as "human"?

Before the 19th Century, before the facts of biological development were made clear, a folkish--but erroneous--view of human development supported the right to early abortions. A pregnant woman's first sensations of the embryo's movement were spoken of as a "quickening." Just what was meant by this term was never very clear, but there was a suggestion that whatever was present in the uterus was first "quickened into life" at about three or four months.

This was nonsense; the embryo is alive from the very beginning. Long before the 12th week, the embryo moves; its motions are simply too feeble to be felt.

Using their own language, theologians asked when the "soul" entered that thing the woman was carrying. St. Thomas Aquinas thought "ensoulment" took place at three months if it was male, four months if it was female (sexism at the theological level). Both before and after St. Thomas, Christianity erected only the feeblest barriers to early abortions--until the late 19th Century.

Then biologists discovered that all developmental stages are alive. And in the middle of the 20th Century, DNA, the very stuff of heredity, was discovered.

DNA contains the information that tells a cell what to do, what to become. The DNA of a human zygote tells it to become a human being (under favorable conditions). The DNA of a cow zygote tells it to become a cow. By extremely sophisticated methods we can identify the DNA of all human stages of development as human DNA. Therefore, say pro-lifers, we must recognize all developmental stages as human, and forbid killing at any stage.

On its face, this may look like a logical argument for prohibiting abortion but biologists don't think so. And their position is consistent with the common law.

Some time ago, in a town near my home, a man shot his pregnant wife in the abdomen. The embryo was killed, but the wife survived. The man was then charged with the murder of the child and the attempted murder of his wife. Without hesitation the judge dismissed the first charge and accepted the second (which resulted in a conviction).

In law, there is no child until the conceptus is born alive. No child, no human being, no possibility of murder.

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