Photo by: Brenden Cowan
*CONTENT WARNING: Sensitive topics such as infanticide are discussed in detail in this article*
With the U.S. Supreme Court having overturned Roe v. Wade last summer, which guaranteed abortions to women in the first trimester, a reminder that a fetus isn’t a person seems vitally necessary.
Living in Canada comes with the benefit that abortion is not only legal at all stages of pregnancy, but that it’s funded by our universal healthcare system. In the states, not only is abortion not available to roughly half of those able to get pregnant in the country, but insurance coverage for the operation varies widely based on how states allocate insurance services. Whether through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicaid or private insurance, the coverage for abortion is often spotty in the U.S., especially for low-income women of colour.
It’s not just in the U.S. While abortion rights were expanded to quite a few Latin American countries as of last year, Latin America and Africa have the most abortion restrictions globally.
The most belligerent accusation made against pro-choicers is that abortion is murder. Some argue that it’s murder even if undertaken just at the moment of conception, regardless of the zygote consisting of microscopic cells. This extreme position can be debunked rather effortlessly. Our moral faculties usually kick in when we see animals, especially the ones we keep as pets, get harmed or killed. Our reaction to microbiological death doesn’t produce nearly the same reaction, much like the way killing a born baby is clearly worse than a clump of cells that has the potential to be a baby. But even when the fetus has taken shape, murder involves the intentional killing of another person; which begs a better question that is ultimately a philosophical one: Is a fetus a person?
A fetus is not a person.
Unless you’re Plato and you think that the human being is an imperfect imitation of some eternal essential idea of the human, it’s patently obvious that a fetus hardly resembles an exogenous human being.
The absurdity of the position was revealed in a rather comedic way when the comedian Ben Glieb faced off against republican talk-show host Charlie Kurk on the topic of abortion and presented an image of a fetus to Kurk asking if he truly believed it was a human being; “without a doubt” replies Kurk, to which Glieb reveals that the image is in fact a dolphin fetus.
Ontologically a fetus is nothing like a human being, either. A fetus is entirely dependent on existing within a human being, requiring their bodily resources, and, even though it can respond with irritation to stimulus, this is usually the result of a preconditioned state for motor responses by the still developing cerebellum.
Notably, these types of motor responses are not a function of consciousness. Therefore, when a fetus displays behaviour that suggests consciousness, such as responses to harm, touching or even kicking, it’s often still endogenously sedated which is a form of being unconscious.
Furthermore, the thalamus is the part of the brain that transfers nerve fibre connection to the cerebral cortex essentially allowing sensory information to be processed in the part of the brain that mediates any input as feelings that belong to oneself. The development of thalamocortical radiation — the axons between these two parts of the brain which act like electrical wires that connect their neurons — required to perceive pain aren’t hooked up and functional until the third-trimester of a pregnancy (29-30 wk gestation).
It’s important to remember that third-trimester abortions makeup less than one per cent of abortions and that when they are undertaken it’s primarily because there’s a threat to the life of the person carrying the child, novel information about the fetus that suggests fatal outcomes in birthing the fetus, or because policy restrictions made it difficult to abort before the final three months of the pregnancy.
With that being said, the more modest pro-life stance of conceding that abortion is not murder but that it is unethical because it causes pain to a nearly conscious being also doesn’t hold water considering the neurogenesis of an in utero fetus.
Now that it’s established that at no point in the early to mid parts of the pregnancy can what becomes a fetus be considered experiencing themselves and the world as a full-on person, including pain, it’s crucial to focus on the actual people affected by unwanted pregnancy.
As Sophie Lewis points out in The Nation, many species can cancel a pregnancy at will, whereas humans can’t, and when a person undertakes a clandestine abortion the placental apparatus in humans makes the process far more dangerous. Before the development of robust abortion procedures, unsafe abortions were, and still are, a leading cause of maternal deaths. Clandestine abortions are still widely pursued in places where it’s illegal to get an abortion or where the medical system is antiquated.
Considering all these arguments means it only makes sense to fully legalize abortion, because the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and fetus are simply not human beings; those carrying them are, however—and they deserve full rights over their body.