What Does Abortion Really Mean?

As uncomfortable and distasteful as this whole topic is for many I’m still going to talk about this stuff just to inform anyone who cares to read this and get a clearer explanation of what is going on. For most pro-life people the fundamental belief is that life begins at conception. Bill O’Reilly, for example, makes this argument very forcefully when he talks about the fertilized egg or ovum as containing the DNA of both parents, and so that defines it as being ‘life’, as being alive. And Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood may not disagree with that position but still doesn’t care. But what the scientists, the biologists, embryologists, etc. say is that the process of ‘epigenesis’ is what is occurring from the moment the implanted fertilized egg begins growing by cell doublings, over and over again, and cell differentiation and specialization through the developmental sequences of blastocyst, zygote, embryo, all the way to fetus and then viable unborn baby. It is an incredibly complex and finely tuned process of an organism ‘coming into being’, and it happens in frogs, mice, bats, cats, dogs, elephants, etc., as well as humans.

A long time ago, in the early 1980s, the computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter wrote a great book on computers and artificial intelligence called ‘Godel, Escher, Bach…The Eternal Golden Braid’, which took me a couple of weeks of intense mental concentration to get through and understand in my limited way. (It’s got a lot of math in it, like Typographical Number Theory, and Godel’s Theorem, and the Turing Hypothesis and Floop and Bloop and Gloop computer programs that artificial intelligence researchers work with, and a lot of other stuff…but I urge anyone with patience and fortitude to seriously read it, it’s worth it.)  I bring it up because Hofstadter is not a political ideologue on abortion in any way but he did bring up the issue of abortion in an aside, just as he referred to other political issues as examples of conundrums that can illustrate, but not be resolved by, scientific thinking. He pointed out that one of the fundamental mysteries and problems that science is striving to resolve is the question of how information, or software, becomes a physical thing, or entity, i.e. hardware, as in the embryological development of organisms endowed with the software of DNA combined with the protective structure and nutrients inside the womb.

This is a gigantic issue for robot developers these days who are trying to create genuine artificial intelligence and are constantly running into roadblocks in trying to convert electronic representations of data and information/instructions into some kind of structure of knowledge inside the computer robot brain that can change how the hardware works or is wired, etc. etc.  But getting back to abortion it was just Hofstadter’s point that society has struggled, and continues to struggle, with this question.

And so that’s my point here. I’m saying that it is not enough to just say, as pro-lifers do, that ‘life begins at conception’, because that is not the issue. The more subtle and powerful question is: “when does the information in the DNA get sufficiently translated into the hardware of the developing living body of the fetus to get it over the dividing line between just a package of cells, albeit a special one, and into the realm of being a human being?” Now, I understand the pro-life position that asserts that the embryo, at the time of conception, is already a human being, but, if you hold that position, would you also say that a cat embryo, say, just after fertilization is already a cat-being?  Unfortunately we humans, as biological beings, share with the rest of the biological world this characteristic of having to come into being, or instantiation, or ‘inception’ (as in the sci-fi movie ‘Inception’ with Leonardo DiCaprio from a few years back, which is really a well-made and intelligent dramatization of the deep mystery of the concept of ‘inception’ in the realm of dreams and consciousness, but ‘inception’ is just as mysterious in the ontological meaning as well) through a long physical developmental process where software gets translated into hardware, and it is only through asserting the presence of a special spiritual endowment or reality at work in the human case that allows for a differentiation to be made in our use of language, where pro-lifers can assert the existence of a human being just after fertilization whereas not even the most ardent pro-lifer would say the same of a dog, say, asserting that a ‘dog-being’ already exists in the body of the fertilized dog ovum or zygote.

My point is that science and biology can be of no help in proving one side or the other right or wrong in this debate. It’s not a scientific question at the earliest stages of embryological development and it will always be impossible to draw a neat dividing line between those stages of development that may be more properly described as software-biased as opposed to the more hardware-heavy later parts of fetal development. Biology is far too subtle and convoluted for that kind of simplistic model to be applied. Even the most abstruse conceptual frameworks, such as the early 20th century one that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, are just crude first-order approximations of the complexity of biology and physical existence.  Is the quality of being a ‘human being’, or ‘personhood’ in legalese, something that exists on a continuum, with the early zygotes and embryos having very little of it, but third trimester developing babies having much more of it all the time? Do the different developmental stages blend into each other, or can they be separated?

So the debate about abortion will never go away. The pro-life side believes that just the presence of the special DNA software in the fertilized ovum is sufficient to attribute ‘beingness’ to the developing entity, the human embryo (the O’Reilly position), whereas moderate pro-choicers maintain that there has to be a sufficient amount of biological hardware, i.e. a developing fetus of a reasonable amount of maturity, for the pro-choice side to be queasy about, and perhaps be prohibited from, aborting the developing human entity or potential human being at, or beyond, that stage (I discount the position of the radical feminists as exemplified by Planned Parenthood because they do not accept the software-hardware model and insist that a woman can and should be allowed to choose abortion at any time. That’s pretty extreme). By the way, if you can distinguish between the theories of epigenesis and preformationism…go to the head of the class. But it still won’t help any of us in this debate.