Saturday, October 18, 2008

Embryo, Fetus, Baby ... Have we missed a possibility?

Governor Palin is definitely re-energizing the Right to Life movement with her courage and decency in having her son Trig, so I wanted to revisit a few of the terms in which the current debate has been argued and show where I think we have made some mistakes that have given too much ground to the Abortion Rights folks.

The Abortion Rights movement systematically refers to what is growing in the mother's womb as an embryo or a fetus, depending on the stage of development. Actually, as far as it goes, that is correct, by which I mean those are the suitable scientific terms to refer to those stages of development. It has long been noted that the point of using the scientific terms "embryo" and "fetus" is to argue that what is being aborted is not a baby, since "baby" is the next stage of development after embryo and fetus.

This is why I think the Right to Life movement has made something of a tactical mistake in referring to what is growing in the womb as a "baby" -- while of course we all know what is meant here and besides that I agree with the general point behind using the word "baby", please hear me out as to why I think it was a tactical mistake to argue only in those terms and what we might do to communicate our point more effectively.

When we call what is growing in the womb a "baby", not only does that invite the argument over birth status and stage of development, but it also unintentionally concedes the ground that if something is not yet a "baby" then it can have no right to life. From there, all that the Abortion Rights supporters have to do is maintain their stage-specific terminology about human development. An "embryo" is not a "fetus" is not a "baby", even though those three stages of life lie in an obvious developmental sequence. The fact that people go on having abortions and arguing for their legality and acceptability should demonstrate to us that people have taught themselves to base their thoughts on "human" status solely on the stage of development or birth status; the fact that a fetus is not a baby is all they need to know to hold onto their beliefs that aborting this fetus is morally neutral.

Do you remember a few months ago all the furor over a legendary creature called a "chupacabra"? This animal was said to prey on farm animals. Scientists had insisted that a chupacabra is a coyote with a severe case of mange. Those who had seen them insisted it could not possibly be a coyote. Recently a woman found a dead chupacabra; DNA samples were sent off for testing. DNA test says: coyote. Badly diseased, not easily recognized as a coyote, understandable why someone would take it for something besides a coyote, but still a coyote.

Remember the recent people who claimed to have found a dead Sasquatch? That one was settled out by DNA tests too. Fraudulent.

Do you know what you get if you run a DNA test on an embryo, a fetus, and a baby? Human, I expect, and I would be very shocked to hear anyone even try to maintain otherwise. Too easy to take samples to labs and have the matter settled once and for all. I mean, you could hardly screen for Down Syndrome in utero if you didn't know where in the human DNA sequence to look for the genetic problem, could you? In the case of a human pregnancy, "embryo" is an early stage in human development. "Fetus" is a later stage in human development. "Baby" is, in Abortion Rights terms, a still later stage in human development. What cannot be so easily escaped at this point is that we are talking about an early stage in human development: the developing human being is not fully developed but is fully human. The Abortion Rights supporters have long confused the two issues, equating "human" with a certain developmental stage. This is the ground on which they are, factually, simply wrong. We have some options in bringing this to light. We could factually call that which is aborted:
  • human life in the early stages of development
  • the embryonic (or fetal) stage of human development
  • developing humans at the embryonic (or fetal) stage.
Here we will bring home the entirety of our point, what is occurring during a pregnancy is that a human life is growing through different stages of development. The life that is ended is not fully developed, but it has been fully human all along.


LoieJ said...

You seem to have both the language and science exactly right. I studied enough rhetoric in college to see through many arguments. In this case, if we don't call something what it really is, then it really isn't what is really is. .....

Having taught childbirth education for 6 years, I know that the class members called what was inside them "a baby," regardless of how far along they were, yet in some ways, they didn't really know the reality, that it was an actual child developing in there. There was always some measure of denial, some measure of unreality, and unrealistic expectations. That's why the people who favor "choice" use the language that they use.

I also commend this to you for another take on the issue.

Weekend Fisher said...

You know, I don't recall ever meeting a pro-lifer who didn't respect the moral permissibility of an abortion when the mother's life was in danger -- not because the developing human isn't human, but because even among fully-developed adults we recognize the right to self defense up to the point of ending the life of an attacker.

I think there is probably an overwhelming majority consensus that when the mother's life is in danger abortion should not only remain legal, but is even morally acceptable.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

LoieJ said...

I just saw a politician on TV stating that the problem with "the life of the mother" argument is that is has been broadened so much as to be meaningless. That may well be. But the other side of the coin is somebody who knows nothing of a particular situation making a decision before that situation even takes place.

Exact language for a good law is hard to come by.

Tony said...

Interesting post. It's true that if we seek to persuade the other side, we need to use the same language.

Minor rant: that chupacabra thing was one of the dumbest things I remember hitting the television screen! It was so obviously an ugly dog or some kind of canine, and yet it made national news. This is what we call a "slow news day".

Weekend Fisher said...

No doubt laws can be difficult to word but that has not stopped legislators from passing hordes of laws. The larger problem is that there is no consensus because one side does not recognize the developing humans as human and the other side does; there's no common ground there. So that's where I'm trying to start.

If I ever did march outside the local Planned Parenthood office (and hope I didn't find my mother volunteering that day on the other side), I think my signs would say "My children are the best thing that ever happened to me."

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

LoieJ said...

I think you did do an excellent job with your post. I think that a person's "choice" is so influenced by the prevailing thought in the community. Women felt pressured to "give up" babies 40 years ago. Then the pendulum swung to lots of women keeping a baby even if they didn't have a good support system. Or perhaps because they didn't have a good support system, ie, they were looking for somebody to love them.

Raising children is a challenge, no matter what. Parents need support, no matter what their situation. That's what is really important. And if the choice is that a person can't raise that child, then the support has to be better for adoption. There are so many people wanting to adopt children.

The real "choice" has to be made before a person has sex in a situation where the two people aren't able to care for a child. I don't think that the fact that birth control methods don't work 100% is really taught to young people. But, of course, that is unrealistic. We have to deal with the reality.

Part of the problem with the pro-choice debate is the emphasis on the woman, which is all well and good, but as your post explains so well, there really is a second human to be considered.

Well, this is important to me because I'm an adoptive parent of two, birth mother of one. I get skittish when either side uses rhetoric to make a point that blows apart the facts. For example, the partial birth abortion topic: this is NOT something that is common; it is only a very rare situation for some drastic complication. Whoever has this needs compassion not ridicule.