Abortion remains a hugely divisive social/moral issue. Both anti-abortion and pro-choice supporters passionately believe their diametrically opposed positions are fully justified human rights. Those who take the Pro-Life position believe the human embryo, from conception, is a human being with an automatic right to life. ‘Pro-choicers’ don’t believe the embryo is a human being, particularly the early embryo, and therefore pregnant women have a human right to abortion.
Science is silent on the moral value of the human embryo. Moral value is a philosophical question, but not amenable to final proof. Nevertheless, following the recent US supreme court decision, leading scientific/medical journals and American national medical associations are publicly campaigning in favour of abortion.
On June 24th, 2022, the US supreme court in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation ruled (commonly referred to as “Dobbs”) that there is no constitutional right to abortion, upending the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling. Whether or not to allow abortion is now up to individual states, about half of which are expected to ban or seriously restrict abortion. Opinion polls indicate that 40 per cent of Americans support Dobbs, 56 per cent oppose.
The situation in Ireland following the 36th Amendment to the Constitution referendum in 2018 is that abortion on request is permitted during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and later if the pregnant woman’s life is at risk, or in the case of fatal foetal abnormality.
The sole function of science is to explain how the natural physical world works. Science has nothing to say about many other important areas, for example, values, aesthetics or the supernatural.
Specifically relating to today’s topic, science describes how every human life begins at conception when a sperm and an egg cell fuse to form a zygote (earliest embryo), how the embryo grows and develops in the mother’s womb for nine months before emerging at birth as a human baby. Science can describe how the baby develops into an adult, then on to old age and finally to death.
Science describes a continuum of human development from conception to death. At all stages the developing entity is unambiguously human biologically — the zygote has the full human genetic complement and no further genetic information is added later along the continuum. At every stage along the continuum the developing entity has the characteristics appropriate to that stage. But science cannot assign a moral value to this human entity. To discuss moral value we must turn to philosophy (ethics).
Nevertheless, science is helpful when pondering this ethical issue. It helps me, and many others, decide that we are dealing with a human being from the moment of conception and that, since it is morally wrong (ethics) to kill a human being, abortion is morally wrong. I argued this case previously in this column during the Irish abortion referendum debate in May 2013.
But others, equally as sincere and scientifically literate as myself, argue that a human being does not arise until a certain point along the continuum is reached, for example when the foetus could survive outside the womb, about six months after conception, and that therefore abortion is morally permissible up to that point. But none of us can absolutely prove our case because there is no objective way to assign value.
Several leading science/medical journals have come out against the recent Dobbs verdict, such as the Lancet, Nature Medicine, Science Advances and the New England Journal of Medicine. None of this coverage acknowledges that science is silent on the ethics of abortion nor that philosophy cannot finally adjudicate on this matter. The articles highlight medical ill-effects to women denied access to abortion but not the ill effects to embryos of killing them. Nor do they comment on the enormous scale of abortion — according to the World Health Organisation, about 73 million induced abortions take place worldwide each year.
Of course, people must be free to express their informed opinions, but it should be made clear that these scientific journals are not presenting science’s position on abortion — science has no position.
Abortion is much less acceptable to conservatives than to liberals and many claim the Dobbs verdict reflects the conservative majority on the US supreme court. Maybe so, but then a liberal majority would produce the opposite verdict. For almost 50 years American conservatives lived with universal access to abortion. Now American liberals must live with restricted access to abortion. Some claim this is unjust, but is it not the only way democracy can deal with an extremely divisive issue when that issue cannot be objectively adjudicated on?
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC