Monday, March 8, 2010

Defending Abortion, Part IV: Pro-Choice Basics

Previous writing (parts I, II, and III) rebutted certain key arguments offered by the anti-choice faction. Neither the preborn’s potential nor miraculous beauty grant a right to life. Furthermore, the Bible supports pro-choice Christianity. Click the following links:

Defending Abortion, Part III: Dealing With Potential

Defending Abortion, Part II: Pro-Choice Christianity

Defending Abortion, Part I: The Embryo Photo

Here, I am going to make the basic positive case for the legitimacy of abortion in certain situations. First of all, it should be recognized that preborns are not merely lumps of tissue. They are complex and exquisite beings with the capacity to become like you or me, and even foster an entire lineage. The decision to have an abortion should not be taken lightly. Every situation is unique and context always plays a role in this tough decision.

That being said, it still remains true that preborns do not ethically possess a right to life before the third trimester (from here on out I am only talking about the first two trimesters). This hinges on a couple points: (a) a lack of sentience and subconscious, (b) never having had sentience or subconscious.

Here is the key premise of my argument from a commonsense perspective: zygotes, embryos and early fetuses do not have thoughts, memories, loves, hopes, dreams, and sensations. Their minds are incapable.

Here is the key point from a scientific perspective: Until the ‘neural circuitry’ of the brain becomes differentiated and developed, the preborn lacks even the complexity of the simplest mammal.

Not until six months into pregnancy is the basic system in place:

“The cerebral hemispheres now cover the whole top and sides of the brain including the cerebellum. Cerebellar development begins from this moment, but will not be complete until two years after birth. Six distinct layers are now differentiated within the cerebral cortex, and almost all of the neurons within the central nervous system are present by the end of this sixth month of life and neural 'circuitry' continues to develop.”


The cerebral hemispheres are the home of the all-important cerebral cortex, which is “largely responsible for higher brain functions, including sensation, voluntary muscle movement, thought, reasoning, and memory.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed.)

It is not until the seventh month of pregnancy that the sulci and gyri, the ridges and deep grooves on the cortex, start to elaborate. Keep in mind that the outermost layer of the cortex is the most richly populated in brain cells (neurons) and is the last to form:

“The cortex develops in an inside-out pattern in which the earliest born neurons are found in the deepest cortical layers while the later born neurons move to the more superficial layers.”

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The following diagram shows the cortex of a six-month old preborn. Note that the first layer (I) is the topmost layer and barely has any dendrites (the connecting ‘wires’ that form between brain cells).

diagram source:

Compare the above to the following cross-section from the Wikipedia entry on “cerebral cortex.” The relevant cross-section is the one on the FAR RIGHT, which shows the cortex of a one-and-half-month-old infant (the others are shots of adults using a totally different scale and technique). Note how incredibly different the infant’s first layer is from that of the six-month-old preborn.

The two cortices are clearly disparate. The layer I of the infant teems with connections. The layer I of the preborn is hardly touched, a couple tentative dendrites at the edge. The other five layers (II-VI) aren't very populous either.

Both the common sense and scientific perspective show a major difference between the infant and the preborn. If your neurons are not differentiated and connected, your brain is the equivalent of a computer without functioning circuitry.

In practical terms, this plays out in many ways. For example, you might ask if the preborn can feel pain. The lack of brain development is highly pertinent:

“Many pro-life groups emphasize that embryos start to develop pain sensors a few weeks after conception. Many readers of their literature then assume that embryos can feel pain from this point in pregnancy onwards. However all available evidence shows that even though these sensors develop early in pregnancy, human embryos cannot actually sense pain. Certain major components of the central nervous system that are necessary to feel pain are not present and functioning.”

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In conclusion, preborns and infants are radically dissimilar, and this fuels a solid argument for a legitimate pro-choice stance. In another blog entry (coming soon), I will complete the case.

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