The “Science” of Abortion

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Whenever someone says or write to me that they want to put “science” and/or “reason” into the abortion debate, I am immediately skeptical.  So when I hopped on to Reason.com and read the article “Abortion, Religion, and Science,” my eyebrow immediately went up.

I was intrigued by the author’s claim here that “It’s unfortunate that abortion is a social issue, because it is science and reason that can turn the debate.” He then tells this story:

When a pregnant woman in my Denver neighborhood was recently struck by a hit-and-run driver, she tragically lost her child. Throughout the area, there was an outpouring of support and sadness. Some wondered whether the assailant should be charged with manslaughter. Or would it be murder?

A few commented—in appropriate company—that had the fetus been a few weeks younger, a doctor could have performed a surgical procedure on it and terminated its life, and there would be no grieving.

The fact is that if the mother had displayed sufficient mental anguish, she could have taken the drive up to Boulder that day and visited Warren Hern, a late-term abortionist, who could have called that “baby” a “fetus”—a linguistic substitution with profound consequences for at least one human being—and put an end to the entire arrangement.

Is this science? I see no data. Is this reason? I really don’t see the logic behind it. In fact, he comes dangerously close to reasoning by analogy in this story and loses any purchase in reason that he perhaps once had.

At most he makes a very interesting philosophical point. A fetus becomes a baby when it’s wanted, and it remains a fetus if it isn’t. And thus, it seems that whether a fetus is aborted rests wholly on a single person’s judgment. Regardless as to whether or  not you think life begins at conception, the decision whether to let life evolve or to cut it off still rests with a person. I think this author means to question that assumption, and I think he’s generally right to do so.

However, to do such under the guise of science or reason is irresponsible. The debate of abortion is not a debate of science or reason. It is a debate of fundamental definitions. Where does human life begin? That is not something that science can answer, because that’s not something that we as a species have an answer for. Science gives us data and readouts, not definitions.

Take the color red. One can scientifically verify the color red by using all sorts of tools to measure the wavelength coming from whatever it is that you’re looking at. Science can tell you if the wavelength is 650 nanometers, but it cannot tell you whether to call what you see at 650 nm red or purple. We already decided what to call red long before that.

Science fits onto our preconceived notions of reality and serves us in that capacity. Without the definition of red, knowing that at 650 nm we saw… something… wouldn’t be very useful. By the same token, science cannot help us in the definition of human life. When we decide what we want that definition to be, science can help us determine whether or not a particular instance is or isn’t human life. But the hard part is up to us socially first.

Currently, we have pegged a certain amount of brain function to the definition of a human life with rights. A lot of people disagree with that. Personally, I am sympathetic to both sides. But people calling upon science to justify their own definition so that they can feel superior to everyone else, who is clearly ill-informed, is ridiculous. Science has no say in the abortion debate as it stands right now. And calling upon science to justify your stance on abortion just makes you look more ignorant, in my eyes, than people who call upon God.

~V.A. Luttrell