Conservative bloviator Ross Douthat used his September 17 column in The New York Times to slam presidential aspirant Pete Buttigieg for a remark he made on a radio broadcast discussing abortion rights. Buttigieg had evidently noted that the Bible does not condemn abortion and indeed in the Old Testament repeatedly uses the term person (in Hebrew, nefesh) to refer only to those human beings who breathe. As abortion rights will be a key issue in the 2020 elections, let’s look at the matter, especially because Douthat’s column made much of the term personhood. Douthat also laughably accused Buttigieg of “mysticism.”
The abortion rights debate is not about “when human life begins,” a favorite trope of the anti-choicers, who like to say that it begins at conception, itself a not very precise term. “Human life” began many tens of thousands of years ago, and the evolution of pre-Sapiens to Sapiens was so gradual that no precise date can be assigned. What is important for today’s debate is when personhood begins, a term that Douthat uses in his column. Among the definitions of person in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary is this: “a self-conscious or rational being,” a commonsense definition that approximates what we think of about John or Mary, a next-door neighbor, or some public figure.
And what makes John or Mary or the guy next door a person is a functioning brain, which does not exist in a developing fetus until sometime after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks of gestation. The science behind this is well established. In 1987, psychologist James W. Prescott, I, and Americans for Religious Liberty put on a conference in Washington, D.C., that brought together scientists, lawyers, and theologians to examine the matter. The conference papers were published in our book Abortion Rights and Fetal “Personhood” (1989,1990), and the science stuff was used in an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services signed by 167 biologists, including DNA codiscoverer Francis Crick and eleven other Nobel laureates. Without a functioning brain, a fetus is not a person by any reasonable definition, and abortion is not “murder,” as claimed by the anti-choicers.
It should be noted that about 90 percent of abortions are performed by thirteen weeks and about 99 percent by twenty weeks. The small percentage after viability (twenty-four weeks) or brain development, after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks, are only for very serious medical reasons. Women simply do not on a whim decide to have an abortion at thirty-seven weeks. Incidentally, the latest statistics show that about 860,000 abortions are performed per year in America, about half the annual number of 1973.
Here’s the bottom line: Every woman’s right to terminate a problem pregnancy should be respected by law. Period. The reasons are too numerous to list in this column. In the 2020 elections for president, Congress, governors, and state legislatures, voters must give this priority.
And Now This
Left largely undiscussed by either side of the abortion-rights controversy are the large numbers of children born to women, in America and the rest of the world, who are unable to terminate problem pregnancies due to poverty, lack of clinics, conservative politics, or other reasons. As I noted in my previous column, although there are 56 million abortions worldwide per year and widespread use of contraception, there are still 130 million children born worldwide every year, a large percentage of whom are unwanted and will grow up in poverty and misery, both in America and throughout the world. At the same time, world population continues to grow and fuel climate change. Women with money will always be able to get abortions, but poorer women in countries or states where abortion is illegal will either have children or resort to back-alley abortions or coat hangers.
Giving away poor children for adoption is not really an option. There are too few families willing or able to adopt significant numbers of them, either in America or any other country. Besides, as Merry Bloch Jones showed in her excellent book Birthmothers, giving up a child for adoption is generally more traumatic for a woman than having an abortion.
The failure to provide universal access to contraception and safe, legal abortion is fueling climate change, increasing poverty and misery, increasing maternal death rates, and robbing countless women of their autonomy, rights of conscience, religious liberty, and decent living conditions.