Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the continuation of Carl Sagan’s classic 1980 television series, premiered on March 9, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. During the premier, Tyson paid tribute to Sagan, who died In December of 1996, as his mentor. Among his many important contributions to science and civilization, Sagan was a member of the National Advisory Board of Americans for Religious Liberty (ARL), the organization I have been privileged to head since 1982.
Perhaps you didn’t know that Sagan was also an important champion of abortion rights. His great contribution was a magnificent article, coauthored with his wife Ann Druyan, in Parade magazine, April 22, 1990, titled “Abortion: Is It Possible to Be Both ‘Pro-Life’ and ‘Pro-Choice’?” The article is reprinted in his 1997 book, Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. A concise masterpiece, the article summarizes the history of abortion, shows that the Jewish and Christian scriptures contain no proscription of abortion, that the two greatest Christian theologians, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, did not consider early abortions to be homicides, and that this view was adopted by the Catholic Church’s 1312 Council of Vienne and “has never been repudiated.” The article ends with a survey of what science has learned about fetal development, concluding that the brain function needed for human personhood is simply not present until sometime after twenty-eight weeks of development. Fewer than 1 percent of abortions are performed that late, and those only for serious medical reasons related to maternal health or survival.
There is a backstory behind Sagan and Druyan’s Parade article. On May 30, 1987, ARL sponsored a conference in Washington, D.C., that brought together scientists, theologians, and others to examine the question of when human “personhood” begins and its relation to the abortion rights issue. The papers were published in ARL’s book Abortion Rights and Fetal “Personhood,” edited by psychologist James W. Prescott and myself (Centerline Press, 1989, 1990). When, during its 1988 term, the Supreme Court accepted the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, ARL engineered an amicus curiae brief to the court representing twelve Nobel-laureate biologists (including DNA codiscoverer Francis Crick) and 155 other distinguished scientists. (We would have had many more, but the court deadline could not be extended.)
The brief, based on the conclusions of the scientists at the 1987 ARL conference, concluded that “The neurobiological data indicate that the fetus lacks the physical capacity for the neurological activities we associate with human thought until sometime after 28 weeks of gestation. In other words, the capacity for the human thought process as we know it cannot exist before that time. Amici believe that these neurobiological facts support the chronology of development this Court recognized in Roe v. Wade.” The brief is included as an appendix in (former ARL president) John Swomley’s 1999 book, Compulsory Pregnancy: The War Against American Women (Humanist Press).
Before the attorneys who prepared the amicus brief decided to limit the signers to biologists, I had consulted with ARL advisers Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, neither of whom was a biologist. Asimov agreed to be on the brief, but Sagan held back, not having yet made up his mind as to the twenty-eight-week brain development criterion for personhood. So I sent him the papers from the ARL conference. Those, plus his own further research, led to the 1990 Parade article.