What can science add to the abortion debate?

Few topics generate such a passionate division in opinion as abortion and ultimately there is no easy answer when choosing between an unborn child’s right to life and a woman’s right to freedom over her own body. However, after reading about the uproar caused by the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, I knew I wanted to add my own voice to this debate. Which left me pondering the following question: what can a science blog bring to the table when tackling a heated moral debate like this?

The answer, I believe, is something few mainstream sources address: the development of the brain and consciousness (as we understand it) in the growing fetus.

Of course if you are of the opinion that ‘life begins at the moment of conception’ the emergence of consciousness is probably a moot point. However, according to recent statistics more than 60% of UK adults and 18-35 year-olds in the republic of Ireland are pro-choice. This means that, under certain circumstances, they accept abortion as a viable option, raising a particularly difficult question. Assuming abortion, in theory, is acceptable, is there a point during the pregnancy when it becomes unacceptable and how do we decide where to draw this line?

Current UK legislation states that an abortion must be carried out during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. However, guidelines also state that the procedure should ideally be performed before 12 weeks. Current legislation bases its ‘upper limit’ on the survival rate of premature babies, which is significantly reduced prior to 24 weeks (Percentage of babies successfully discharged from hospital after premature birth at 24 weeks: 33.6%, 23 weeks: 19.9%, 22 weeks:9.1%).

Almost 90% of UK abortions are performed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. During this time there is no scientific doubt that the developing fetus is incapable of  any form of conscious awareness. The fetal brain does not begin to develop until 3-4 weeks into the pregnancy, at which point it is little more than a hollow tube filled with dividing neurons. Between weeks 4 and 8 this neural tissue grows forming the major divisions of the adult brain (forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain and spinal cord). By 8 weeks recognisable facial features have developed and the cerebral cortex separates into two distinct hemispheres. By the end of the first trimester (12 weeks) nerve cells are beginning to form rudimentary connections between different areas of the brain. However, these connections are sparse and incapable of performing the same functions as an adult brain. So by 12 weeks, although the fetus is certainly starting to look like a little human, the neural circuits responsible for conscious awareness are yet to develop.

The first trimester is also the time when around three quarters of spontaneous miscarriages occur. Miscarriages are possible throughout the pregnancy and are much more common than most people realise. One in eight women who are aware of their pregnancy experience a miscarriage, with many more occurring before the woman is even aware she has fallen pregnant.

As the complexity of the fetal brain grows, forming structures similar to those we recognise in the adult, so the does the fetus’ ability to experience and respond to its environment. Indeed, studies have shown that from 16 weeks the fetus can respond to low frequency sound and by 19 weeks will withdraw a limb or flinch in response to pain. An observer would certainly think these responses look very much like the start of conscious awareness. However, during these early days the neural pathways responsible for converting senses to conscious experiences have yet to develop. This means what we are seeing are just reflexes, probably controlled entirely by the developing brainstem and spinal cord.

In fact, we know that the brain structures necessary for conscious experience of pain do not develop until 29-30 weeks, while the conscious processing of sounds is only made possible after the 26th week. Even when the fetal brain possesses all its adult structures, scientists are cautious to assume it posesses what we refer to as ‘consciousness’. This is mainly because the low oxygen levels and a constant barrage of sleep-inducing chemicals from the placenta ensure that, until birth, the foetus remains heavily sedated.

Ultimately, although science cannot and should not try and answer the moral questions behind abortion, it can give us some amazing insights into how the brain develops. It seems that, in the womb, a fetus is unlikely to ever experience traditional consciousness. However, we do know that from the time neural pathways are in place (the last weeks before birth) the fetus can form rudimentary memories. Meaning that after birth it can show a preference for its mother’s voice and other sounds and smells experienced in the womb – yes, newborn babies show a liking for the smell of amniotic fluid.

Therefore, although the ‘upper limit’ on abortion remains relatively arbitrary. Its current position at 24 weeks appears to fit well with both premature birth survival rates and, in terms of neural development, a time before any major connections are in place. Making it, in my eyes, as pretty good point at which to draw this line.

Post by: Sarah Fox

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89 Responses to What can science add to the abortion debate?

  1. THEMAYAN says:

    If you were wrong concerning your use of the statement “This means what we are seeing are just reflexes, probably controlled entirely by the developing brainstem”
    if you were speak to the parents of these unborn babies who read this article and took you at your word. What would you say to them? Would it be something sorry, my bad?

    Unborn babies can feel pain
    Scientific evidence reveals that unborn babies do, indeed, feel pain
    Robert J. White, M.D., PhD., professor of neurosurgery, Case Western University

    The evidence of fetal pain
    With the advent of sonograms and live-action ultrasound images, neonatologists and nurses are able to see unborn babies at 20 weeks gestation react physically to outside stimuli such as sound, light and touch. The sense of touch is so acute that even a single human hair drawn across an unborn baby’s palm causes the baby to make a fist.

    Did you know that this 20-week-old unborn child can feel pain?
    Surgeons entering the womb to perform corrective procedures on tiny unborn babies have seen those babies flinch, jerk and recoil from sharp objects and incisions.

    “The neural pathways are present for pain to be experienced quite early by unborn babies,” explains Steven Calvin, M.D., perinatologist, chair of the Program in Human Rights Medicine, University of Minnesota, where he teaches obstetrics.

    Medical facts of fetal pain
    Anatomical studies have documented that the body’s pain network—the spino-thalamic pathway—is established by 20 weeks gestation.

    • “At 20 weeks, the fetal brain has the full complement of brain cells present in adulthood, ready and waiting to receive pain signals from the body, and their electrical activity can be recorded by standard electroencephalography (EEG).”
    — Dr. Paul Ranalli, neurologist, University of Toronto

    • An unborn baby at 20 weeks gestation “is fully capable of experiencing pain. … Without question, [abortion] is a dreadfully painful experience for any infant subjected to such a surgical procedure.”

    • thebrainbank says:

      Hi THEMAYAN, thanks for your comment, it’s always nice to see people doing their research before commenting!

      So a couple of brief points:

      The physical response you see to a painful stimuli such as a pin prick to a limb can be mediated entirely by lower brain structures. Interestingly, infants born with birth defects meaning that they never develop a cortex will respond to pain in largely the same manner as intact infants, this includes withdrawal of the limb and in some cases displaying facial expressions indicative of pain (similar responses can also be seen in some brain dead adults). However given their defect it is highly unlikely that their conscious experience of pain is equivalent to ours (indeed experience is probably not even the correct word).

      My research always comes from peer reviewed papers, however I do not always link back to these since unfortunately many are not available for public access. (My assertion that a infant under 24 weeks is unlikely to experience pain as we know it is taken from this review article (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19112406) which states ‘Cortical processes occur only after thalamocortical connections and pathways have been completed at the 26th gestational week’).

      However I’m quite certain that this is a work in progress, as is the beauty of scientific research we are constantly learning more and broadening our understanding.

      The Doctor you quote has written his own interesting review article, which unfortunately I cannot fully access. However in the abstract he does not assert that the fetus feels pain, just that it is capable of responding to painful stimuli, which is not the same thing. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15171500) This is an important issue in his field (fetal surgery), since even without a conscious experience of pain, the neurotransmitters released in response to a ‘painful’ stimuli (released by lower brain structures), could still influence future brain development.

      Also to note that ‘having a full compliment of brain cells’ is irrelevant to the ability to perceive pain, indeed perception is linked better with how these are connected and how they communicate (interestingly the manner by which fetal neurons communicate is different from that of an adult, they actually rely heavily on different neurotransmitters than those used in the adult brain).

      The final point I will make, which was something which I found particularly interesting and did not know before I began researching this article, is that the fetus remains under heavy sedation in the womb, therefore even if structures were in place to form a conscious awareness of pain, it is likely that these are numbed and will not respond in the same manner as an awake adult.

      However I agree that this is very important research, and something we cannot afford to be complacent with. So certainly further studies are necessary in the future to give us more information.

      I hope you found researching this topic as interesting as I did! Many thanks again for your comment.

      Sarah

      • The child may not be able to feel pain as we do, but that doesn’t tell us it cannot experience pain at all.

        Why are we taking chances on that?

        Your comments about spontaneous abortion don’t seem to follow. To say that a child can die doesn’t tell us anything about how it is living.

        To say that a child is heavily sedated also doesn’t tell us anything. Is it morally acceptable to kill those under sedation, whether heavy or light, simply because they are both sedated and inconvenient?

        Scientific facts about development are lovely, but they tell us nothing about moral decisions.

        • thebrainbank says:

          Hi Steve, thanks for your comment

          Does it not? It depends on your definition of ‘experience’ a creature with only a couple of neurons can respond to pain by moving away, but there is little doubt that it is not consciously aware of this experience, even a single cell can move away from ‘danger’. I don’t dent that we must tread carefully when discussing ‘upper time limits’, however we also do not want to deny the rights of and perhaps ruin the life of a sentient human being over something which may be little more than a red herring? Keep in mind that setting a blanket legislation undoubtedly contributed to the trigic death of Savita Halappanavar.

          That said…Uk statistics show that 90% of abortions are carried out before the first trimester (and I assume these statistics are pretty reliable since abortion is legal in this country so most those performed will be in an official medical establishment, where records will be kept). Guidelines state that an abortion should be carried out before 12 weeks, any wich are conducted between 12 and 24 are for important medical reasons. Thus the vast majority of abortions are conducted before there is any doubt that the fetus can hold any kind of awareness.

          Yes this is as far as science can go with this debate, it can simply provide the facts (which are important when considering legislation). However, it is up to society to decide on the morality of the issue

          I assume anyone who aligns themselves with the pro-life argument will never opt for an abortion, however if your leanings are pro-choice you do not wish to force your beliefs on other sentient human beings, you just wish for the opportunity to choose your own path. Current legislation allows for this, would it be better to allow a outspoken minority (according to statistics) to force their wishes on people they do not know, living through situations they probably have never experienced themselves? – but as I said my moral standpoint is irrelevant to the content of this post, since I have no wish to argue over this matter here, there are others who can do that much more successfully than myself!

          • cloonmore says:

            thebrainbank wrote: “Keep in mind that setting a blanket legislation undoubtedly contributed to the trigic death of Savita Halappanavar.”

            That’s an interesting statement to read on an ostensible science blog, penned by the would-be proponent of the “scientific view.” The only fact that seems indisputable in the Savita affair is that the widespread dissemination of precisely this unscientific view has directly led to the current hysteria. So please provide the evidentiary basis for your statement that “a blanket legislation undoubtedly contributed” to SH’s death.

          • thebrainbank says:

            Hi cloonmore

            Many thanks for your comment.

            Until the inquiry and post mortem are completed the medical facts surrounding this particular case cannot be verified. However, I wonder if the current ‘hysteria’ may not really be hysterical at all, rather a collection of rational minded people fighting an unjust blanket legislation, which values the ‘rights’ of an unborn foetus (even one who doctors say will not survive) over those of the woman carrying that foetus. The simple facts which we do know (assuming news reports are accurate) are: 1) the doctors assessment at the time of her being admitted to hospital were that she was suffering a miscarriage and that the foetus would not survive, 2) she was in poor health and this deteriorated over her stay in hospital. Although, the question still remains as to whether a termination may have saved her life, the fact that this wasn’t even an option seems illogical.

            I will be interested to learn what the inquiry into this incident reveals however, I still believe that whatever the circumstances turn out to be the case has raised a very valid point: that there are circumstances where such ‘blanket’ laws may need to be amended, certainly when a woman’s life is at risk.

          • Ken O'Kelley says:

            Pardon the pun but you guys are killing me with this sentient being rhetoric. This is just another attempt at making the killing of a human being acceptable. So that we’re all using the same definition:

            Sentient:
            1: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions
            2: aware
            3: finely sensitive in perception or feeling

            Are all elderly persons sentient depending upon their health situations? Are those who are comatose sentient?

            Also, you have based your premise of personhood on that of sentience. I argue that sentience is not the definition of personhood. The definition of personhood is when a human being is created and a human being is created at conception.

            Science does not help you in this argument. It hasn’t helped you for at least 150 years.

      • THEMAYAN says:

        “However I’m quite certain that this is a work in progress, as is the beauty of scientific research we are constantly learning more and broadening our understanding.”

        Fair enough, but instead of playing fast an loose with things that are not empirically confirmed, isn’t it better to take the side of caution since a human fetus is incapable of using words like ‘no please stop, your hurting me!?

        On a philosophical note, maybe there is a reason why a baby recoils from prick of a sharp object, or shows facial expressions of pain when geting pulled apart limb from limb. Maybe this is natures way of trying to tell us something. I am a big fan of science. It is scientism that worries me.

        • George says:

          All of science is a work in progress. I’m curious just what you think “empirically confirmed means”.
          ” In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”-Stephen Jay Gould.
          Its a fact that the neural substrates for pain simply aren’t present at 24 weeks. It’s not impossible that fetuses don’t feel pain…sure. Its also not impossible that your couch feels pain.
          Not sure why you bring up scientism. Science is a means of investigating and describing the empirical/objective (not metaphysically privileged objectivity mind you) world; the methodology doesn’t do everything. It does not establish our sense of art. I don’t think one can construct a moral framework by using science. Can neuro-science answer beyond reasonable doubt whether fetuses at various stages feel pain? If fetuses are conscious. If fetuses have emotions. I think it can. I think it has. Other branches of knowledge have the ability to even adequate address those questions let alone answer them.

          • George says:

            If my comment goes through moderation…”don’t” should follow “knowledge” in the last sentence. “at 20 weeks” should precede before “don’t feel pain in second paragraph.

            With that being said I hope my comment doesn’t go through moderation. I already regret posting it. If I could delete it I would delete (not edit) the entire comment.

          • George says:

            I just realized that I was responding to a four year old comment as well. *All the more reason to not let any of my comments on this post go through moderation.*

      • You are a research rock star! I appreciate your scientific approach to this issue. Lord knows we sometimes need to balance science and emotion, and this issue is one I have come to the conclusion that there is no “good” answer. This is definitely one issue where there isn’t black and white, because as much as I like to stand for those who can not stand for themselves, I simply can not justify taking away rights from one to give to another. A woman needs to know she is more than just an incubator once she gets pregnant. As to people using abortion as “birth control,” I’m sure there are some, but we can not take away a CHOICE for all women because of a few people’s poor behavior or choices. (I live in a red state and it’s amazing to me how much overlap there is between the people who use this argument to viamently defend their “right to bear arms” in the wake of a shooting, and the people who conveniently “forget” this argument when it comes to women’s rights to choose. )
        Also, people like to put the “it’s a woman’s responsibility to make sure she doesn’t get pregnant” idea out there. I feel like saying “Not counting instances of rape and incest, why, yes, yes it is. Which also means it’s OUR responsibility and CHOICE to decide what to do if we DO get pregnant. Fuck on off back to the fifties…”
        Sorry, this is a sore spot with me. I can’t help but imagine a handmaid’s tale type deal where women are forced to carry babies to term because we have less rights than a brood mare.
        This is all my long winded way of saying, while I know many people will choose emotion over science, I hope this sort of information in your article reaches more people and makes them realize that we can be logical about this to an extent.

    • GibblyGoo says:

      The same sort of thing happens when animals are killed in even the most humane ways, which is why there are many instances of people who have poked a dead animal or even cut their heads off entirely yet their body still jerks and moves sometimes in reaction to external stimuli. It is simply because there is residual electricity left flowing through the nervous system and that is how it is programmed to react. It is classifiable as pain? Yes, because that is how the nervous system feels pain- but do they have the capacity to process that pain? No, because their brain is dead by that point.

      You could get more reasonably angry at stabbing a worm than this, because living worms at least have enough of a functioning brain to process that they are in pain.

  2. Samss says:

    TheMAYAN has said in the orginal article responding to stimuli does not equal feeling.
    So either you did not read the article or you are an idioit

    • THEMAYAN says:

      No, I read the article, and even quoted the poster who’s words were not as you say……
      “responding to stimuli does not equal feeling” what he actually said was “This means what we are seeing are just reflexes, (probably) controlled entirely by the developing brainstem” This is an assumption, and I put emphasis on the word “probably”

      I cited a verifiable citation that disputes this notion, which included data that was produced by someone who had credentials and experience in the field. The poster does not cite any credentials nor did he provide any source material, and secondly Samss, if your going to call someone an idiot, at least first be able to spell the word idiot correctly. There are not 3 letters of I in the word idiot as yo spelled it “idioit”

      • Madgodloki says:

        “responding to stimuli does not equal feeling” what he actually said was “This means what we are seeing are just reflexes, (probably) controlled entirely by the developing brainstem” This is an assumption, and I put emphasis on the word “probably”
        Well what we are seeing are definitely just reflexes, Its illogical to think conception is when life begins, Think of tubal pregnancies the damn thing is technically conceived and then implants itself somewhere wrong and kills the mother.
        Well lets flip all this on its head you put a lot of emphasis on “what if the baby is conscious” So i’m going to say I know for a fact 100% that the pregnant woman is sentient and I know they’ve put in quite a bit of time in the world, Once you’re past 18 you’ve basically got tenure before then you’re the responsibility of your adult before you leave the birth canal you’re not even a developed human. Why would you take the chance letting a woman die for stupid legislation? Just so you know baby dies too. Thanks to you making the choices for people. You 100% will kill people in this manner. Is that more moral just cause you can look the other way and call someone a slut or a sinner and say they deserve the punishment? Is that really a decision you think that you can impose on people, what does it matter if you can tell the infant later that you’re the reason its here instead of some other baby if you’re then telling that infant what it can and can’t do while its alive, Its like “welcome to the world jackass, now get in line so I can tell you what to do next” When did women everywhere decide that some guy gets to decide what they create? Or that some other woman can decide for them? Since when does liberty mean “No choice”?

        • Lil says:

          I think conception is an appropriate beginning point for life. It is genetically and biologically it’s own entity with it’s own growth and development. If someone was left in a severe coma that required life support but would be assure that they would regain full consciousness – you’d be assured that they would be kept on life support.
          Cases where the mother’s life is at stake, severe disability of the child or in the case of rape are exceptions rather than the rule.
          I don’t think babies deserve to die because they are ‘unwanted’.
          Otherwise, it makes sense to me that unborn life should be respected and valued. There are a lot of people who would love to adopt kids and I wish the laws were less strict in this regards.

          • GibblyGoo says:

            Then you should also swear off cleaning products and killing off any bacteria that happens to enter your body, or jelly fish, or worms, or insects- because they are all living things equally deserving of life too that share the same cognitive ability- if not even more than a fetus does at certain points of gestation.

            You’re also not allowed to scratch your skin because that’s killing your skin cells that your body created- the developmental equivalent of a couple day old baby.

  3. Ken O'Kelley says:

    I have a question for you Sarah Fox. If you were relaxing in your home and a man walked in to your home to kill you would you desire someone to come and try and save you from your murderer? I am very serious with my questioning and I am not asking this willy nilly. I will ask it again: If you, Sarah Fox, were being attacked and threatened with death would you desire someone to come to your aid? I will ask the reader the same. Would you want someone to help you if you were being murdered?

    If you answer “yes” you would want someone to come to your aid then aren’t we obligated to assume that the child in the womb desires the same? Every pro abortion argument emphasis the mother who is already living.

    Nearly all abortions are done for some “other” reason other than the risk of the life of the mother so I ask again – who is the advocate for the child? Who is rescuing the child from the Doctor who would kill it? Who is attempting to rescue the baby?

    Regarding Science and when life begins allow me to quote Dr.Donna J. Harrison, M.D., and president of the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists:

    “Since the mechanism by which mammals reproduce has been known for at least the last 150 years, any biologist in the world can tell you that a mammal’s life begins when the sperm from the father unites with the egg from the mother. This process is called fertilization, and when the DNA from the father and mother have combined, the egg is called a fertilized egg, or zygote. When the zygote splits into two cells, it is called a two-celled embryo. When it splits into four cells, it is called a four-celled embryo, etc. The definition of “embryo” is “the youngest form of a being.”

    If this being is nourished and protected, it will proceed uninterrupted through the developmental stages of embryo, fetus, newborn, toddler, child, teen, adult and aged adult: one continuous existence. This being never develops into a pig, a frog or a tree, but only into a human. This being is therefore, by definition, a living human being.

    This fact is very inconvenient for those who want to treat embryonic and fetal human beings as property. The real argument in the abortion debate is whether or not this human being is a “person,” with all the legal rights and protections of “personhood.”

    Those who traffic in human tissue argue that he or she is not. This is the same argument used in the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that black Americans, though human, are not “persons” under the law.

    As long as “personhood” is denied to human beings in their embryonic and fetal stages, the holocaust of abortion will continue.”

    • thebrainbank says:

      Hi Ken

      Many thanks for taking time to comment!

      I hope you can appreciated that I have tried very hard not to comment on the philosophical and moral questions involved in this debate in this post (these issues are undoubtedly covered much more eloquently than I could manage by other, more qualified bloggers).

      Therefore the desire behind this article was simply to cover the development of the fetal brain. A topic I found very interesting to research, and I hope you also find interesting to read.

      Therefore I apologise, for not giving you a detailed reply here, however I hope you understand that my personal opinion on the morality of the debate, and the argument of (‘when life begins’) is largely irrelevant to this post.

      Sarah

      • Ken O'Kelley says:

        Hello Sarah and thanks for the kind reply. I’m glad to stay on point with the science and this is why I posted the Dr.’s words. What did you think of them?

        The science argument is not on the side of the one who would kill human life in the womb. Science has proven that the life of a human being begins at conception. The sperm is not Sarah. The egg is not Sarah. When the sperm of your father unites with the egg of your mother then we have the one and only Sarah. All of the DNA which makes Sarah the human Sarah that posted here is present at conception. Correct?

        So without day 1 then Sarah can’t get to day 2. Without day 2 then Sarah can’t get to day 2000….and onwardly you go. A person’s life can be measured in seconds, days, months, and years, and so day 1 of your unique existence began at conception. To kill you at day 1 is to kill you at day 20, 478 of your existence.

        The zygote is a human being. It is not in the form that it is in at 90 years of age but it is wholly human. The fetus is not as it is at 90 years of age but it is wholly human. The baby, the adolescent, the 20 something, the 30 something……and so on are not as they are at 90. We are continually changing from day one until death. Science proves this.

        • thebrainbank says:

          Hi Ken

          You make an interesting argument, however I disagree with a number of your points:

          Firstly I like to think ‘Science’ is and should remain neutral to the ethics of abortion (i.e. science does not put forward any ‘argument’ about whether it is right or wrong to terminate a pregnancy, it simply provides the facts, we then make up our own minds).

          Also I argue that the sperm and egg are very much Sarah, had a different sperm or egg been involved I may actually be Frank….So it’s amazing to note that a part of me was actually present in my mothers womb back in the 50’s (since women are born with their full compliment of egg cells).

          Also I think you must be more specific with your definition of life, as I stated the sperm and egg both have equal potential to become a fully developed human, and indeed sperm can move and make decisions based on simple biological signals (fun fact of the day, sperm are attracted the the chemical scent of ‘lilly of the valley’ and will actually move towards this)….they certainly seem ‘alive’, they move, make rudimentary decisions and will ultimately die.

          So although the embryo is the first point where both paternal and maternal DNA become one, without the precursors none of this would have been possible.

          Also a meeting of sperm and egg does not necessarily lead to the development of human life, the uterus is a harsh unforgiving environment, and technically the embryo and mother are in a constant battle for nutrients, so many pregnancies end in miscarriage (many more than we realise since this will often occur before a woman even realises she is pregnant).

          However as I mentioned earlier the ultimate judgement is a moral one, an embryo does have the potential to form a new human, but so does an individual sperm and egg….however few people would truly agree with the ‘Monty Python – every sperm is sacred’ idea.

          Science cannot answer these questions, that is up to society.

          • Science Teach says:

            A quick note and curious to hear your opinion, Sarah…. I often make the analogy that a zygote/embryo/fetus has not a mutualistic relationship with its mother, but in fact often a parasitic. As a result, the fetus is dependent upon its host for oxygen, nutrients, and waste removal. From a science perspective, can something meet the definition of life, if it can not perform respiration, metabolism, and excretion on its own?

            The other analogy zygote/embryo, in any other location of your body would be referred to as a tumor. Obviously, a zygote can’t grow in breast tissue, but initially, prior to differentiation, how similar is it to a tumor?

    • Alex Peter says:

      “If you answer ‘yes’ you would want someone to come to your aid then aren’t we obligated to assume that the child in the womb desires the same?”
      No we aren’t, because at least in the first 12 weeks, that organism growing inside the womb doesn’t have the mental capacity required for thoughts and desires.

      Your initial analogy with the intruder seeking to murder the person inside is wrong, because it refers to an aware and sentient being, while a fetus isn’t any of that. Any moral and ethical concerns (in order to be taken seriously) must refer to sentient beings. You don’t speak about the morality of cutting bread or crushing eggs or throwing rocks, do you? Why not? Because bread, eggs and rocks are not sentient.

      What anti-choice people like you try to do, is to obligate real sentient beings (pregnant women) to make sacrifices and take health risks against their will for the “benefit” of non-sentient organisms (fetuses). This is plainly immoral and unethical of you. And, ironically, people like you try to present themselves as occupying the moral high-ground.

      “The real argument in the abortion debate is whether or not this human being is a ‘person’, with all the legal rights and protections of ‘personhood’…This is the same argument used in the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that black Americans, though human, are not ‘persons’ under the law.”
      No, this isn’t the same argument. Black Americans are/were sentient beings, therefore they are/should have been considered persons under the law. Which, obviously, isn’t the same argument as what I previously presented above. And speaking of legal rights and personhood, why is it that a baby only receives an offical id at birth and not during the gestation period? Why do we have birth certificates but not conception certificates?

      • Ken O'Kelley says:

        Firstly, you avoided the question Peter. Secondly, if you answer, yes, you would want someone to rescue you then the only difference in day 10,386 of your existence vs. day 1 of your existence is that at day 10,386 you are able to speak and give a reply. So because you did not have a voice at day 1 I spoke up for you and fought for your life. You’re very welcomed because you were fearfully and wonderfully made.

        • Alex Peter says:

          To your particular question with the home intruder, the answer is yes. But, as I said before, your analogy is incorrect. To the implied question of whether I would have wanted somebody to obligate my mother not to abort me, the answer is NO. I’m grateful to her for giving me life, but if she wouldn’t have wanted me, then I understand and accept it, and I wouldn’t want to be born because the state or someone like you forced her. Does that answer your question?

          The difference between day 10,386 and day 1 of existence is huge, assuming you consider day 1 to be the day of conception. The difference is exactly that between a sentient being and a clump of cells. And this difference MATTERS.

          And I was “fearfully and wonderfully made”? I don’t understand what you mean here, but it sounds like religious nonsense to me.

          “So because you did not have a voice at day 1 I spoke up for you and fought for your life.”
          You think you’re helping, but you’re not. You’re just oppressing. So, you won’t get any thanks from me for your ‘services’.

      • jennyct says:

        Realistically, a baby ‘doesn’t have the mental capacity required for thoughts and desires’ related to anything but food and comfort. Development is an ongoing process, as is sentience. But who is to say that a non-sentient human does not deserve life?

      • Melanie says:

        Alex,
        Awesome post. I agree with you 110%.

    • corey scott says:

      I hate guys commenting on these issues because to be frank you don’t carry the baby. You don’t form the attachment until the baby is born. I hate seeing pro life guys out on the street being very wordy. It’s not right. If a woman is considering an abortion it’s already hard enough for her and to have a guy criticise her. Someone that’s never ever gonna experience the feeling of having to consider an abortion how annoying. I’m 11 weeks pregnant myself and I would never consider an abortion but for some people no matter how hard the choice an abortion is there only option. And who are we to say any different. And omg shut up you are so frustrating

    • Melanie says:

      I’m going to continue with my post to you.
      So Ken, you claimed “Nearly all abortions are done for some ‘other’ reason other than the risk of the life of the mother.” I love when people use this argument. This leads me right to my second point.
      2) Why do you think a woman would want an abortion? I’ll help you out. Some women want to get an abortion after they became pregnant from being raped, since they don’t want to be reminded of their rapist every day. Some women can’t afford to properly care for another child, and they don’t want the children they already have to go hungry. Some might want to continue on with their education so that they will one day be able to support their family with a good job. But the best part is that none of that matters, because women have a right to take care of their body as they wish. And this leads me to my next point.
      3) It’s funny how it’s always men who have this pro-life belief. It’s funny because you will never have to carry a child, so of course you don’t mind telling someone else to do it. If you don’t have a uterus, you need to keep your mouth shut and your fingers off your keyboard, because if you don’t, i promise you, one day you will get punched in the face.
      4) There are so many children in foster care that need homes. How about you try taking care of those first before you try to force people to make more.

      • Lil says:

        Hi Melanie,

        I’d just like to point out that there are plenty of prolife women out there.
        Do you have the right to “do whatever you want with your body” even if it kills another? Abortion is not like a tattoo or a piercing and can have consequences medically and psychologically for women.

        • Stuart Hildreth says:

          Haha, so can having a baby.

          • ov suvajac says:

            The simple fact is that a fetus is just a stage in the road from egg and sperm to person. Abortion is another form of birth control (not the best or safest, but that’s not the discussion). If all of the existing research was proven wrong and someone conclusively showed that in fact 20 week fetuses are complete humans after all, and are sentient and truly feel pain then this conversation would take a different turn. In all seriousness do the pro-lifers really think that those who believe in science and those who are pro-choice are just out to kill babies?

    • All due respect, sir but what we very much DO know the experience and pain of the woman carrying a child she may not want. Why is it okay to put her through that but not “chance” what a fetus may or may not feel? As to science being on the side of people who would kill a fetus in womb… science is not on any “side.” As Sarah already pointed out, science seems to indicate that a fetus in the first trimester can experience very little in the form of pain as we know it. Additionally, I’d like to re-iterate my stance that it’s all very well and good for men to issue an opinion on this subject because it can never, EVER happen to them personally…deep down they know if MEN’s rights were the ones at issue here and the roles of biology were reversed, you would be able to get an abortion at Walmart.

    • Rexene Olson says:

      Here is some food for thought: The Bible definitively states when life begins….”Many people think that a human being is created at the time of conception but this belief is not supported by the bible. The fact that a living sperm penetrates a living ovum resulting in the formation of a living fetus does not mean that the fetus is a living human being. According to the bible, a fetus is not a living person with a soul until after drawing its first breath.

      After God formed man in Genesis 2:7, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and it was then that the man became a living being”. Although the man was fully formed by God in all respects, he was not a living being until after taking his first breath.

      In Job 33:4, it states: “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”

      Again, to quote Ezekiel 37:5&6, “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

      In one simple quote, Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. sums up the hypocrisy of many in the ‘pro-life’ movement: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

  4. Judith Weis says:

    I am surprised that in your scientific analysis, you refer to a fetus as an “infant.” That’s not accurate and just feeds into the arguments of the antiabortion people.

    • thebrainbank says:

      Thank you,

      you are correct (simply a mistake) it has been rectified. – wish there was another word for fetus, I feel a bit repetitive

      Sarah

    • THEMAYAN says:

      If we are going to get technical, then it should called a human fetus.
      Would you rather I refer to you as a lady, or a prokaryote?

      I do agree with you about anti abortionist though. They seem to be the only people who do not believe in child sacrifice, oops I mean fetal sacrifice.

  5. Ronado says:

    When dealing with abortion issues we should always put the woman who is carrying the baby first. What she is going through should determine the decision that is taken, science withstanding.

  6. Skulander says:

    Medical authorities tell us that pain doesn’t set in before 24 weeks, long after most abortions are done. To pretend otherwise it intellectually dishonest. Futhermore, let’s remember that 90% of abortions are done during the 1st trimester: at this early stage the decision belongs to the pregnant woman, to no one else.

    I believe this private decision shouldn’t be made by a 3rd party, antichoice folks, the government, the church, etc. There are lots of reasons why an abortion might be necessary and no one is entitled to impose their beliefs on others.

    • Ken O'Kelley says:

      Then to be consistent, so long as someone kills someone outside of the womb and it does not cause them pain, then it is acceptable. It is abundantly clear by science that at conception a human being is formed. To kill it is to kill a human being. If you believe it is acceptable to kill a human being inside the womb so long as it does not experience pain then , again, it should acceptable to kill one outside of the womb for the same reason.

      • thebrainbank says:

        Is this consistent? There is certainly a difference between killing a sentient human being, with memories of their past, aspirations for the future and an understanding of the present and terminating the development of a ‘non-sentient’ collection of developing cells (albeit one with the potential to become a sentient human being). I would certainly argue that I would rather not be killed now, however I would not care if I had not been born, there is a vast difference between these two concepts.

        Also I don’t think ‘science’ actually does make the distinction between what is human and what is not, this is more a philosophical argument. – does a full complement of human genetic material meet the requirement for being human? Then any one of our cells could fulfil this requirement. Perhaps the necessary factor is the ability to develop into a fully functioning human? Then any one of our sex cells could fulfil this role. Or perhaps it’s a combination of both, but is this not still rather arbitrary?

        I worry comparing murder of a sentient adult with termination of a pregnancy is not the best way to view this issue?

        • Ken O'Kelley says:

          Hello Sarah. My reply post to this went up the page to some other post that you made. So I wanted to come back and try again. I had written that the idea of “sentient persons” is just another attempt at making the killing of a human being acceptable.

          So that we’re all using the same definition:

          Sentient:
          1: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions
          2: aware
          3: finely sensitive in perception or feeling

          Are all elderly persons “sentient” depending upon their health situations? Are those who are comatose sentient?

          Also, you and Alex Peter have based your premise of personhood on that of sentience. I argue that sentience is not the definition of personhood. The definition of personhood is when a human being is created and a human being is created at conception.

          Science does not help you in this argument. It hasn’t helped you for at least 150 years.

          • thebrainbank says:

            Once again I must politely disagree with you here. However, I also want to note that it is clear we address this issue from quite different moral standpoints and since morality is a very personal concept I must say that I am in no way opposed to your opinion, I simply don’t share it.

            I believe that every aspect we define as constituting the ‘self’ emerges from the brain, therefore once the brain fails to function, or before it begins functioning the self does not exist and the individual cannot be thought of as sentient.

            There is of course a challenge associated with those who had sentience but lost it through either accident or disease (note that we must be sure that this is certainly the case, since amazingly some vegetative patients are indeed conscious but unable to communicate with the outside world: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20268044).Once again in my opinion the life of people in this condition should be treated as they (when they were in sound mind), or their family would have wanted. I strongly believe that if I reach a point in my life where I cease to be myself, through mental illness or disease, that I should have the option of ending my life or if necessary having someone else do this for me. One of our other bloggers recently wrote a very heartfelt post on the ‘right to die’ which you may find interesting (http://thebrainbank.scienceblog.com/2012/09/10/right-to-die-is-it-ever-justified-a-scientists-perspective/)

            Finally as I have pointed out before, the argument of when person-hood begins, thus when human rights are given is a very old argument, tackled more in philosophical circles than scientific. All science can and does contribute is knowledge of how the system (in this case a developing embryo) works. We make the final decisions and laws, based on our own morality.

          • ov says:

            There is no argument that can be made to cause Ken to reflect on scientific evidence. He has chosen the premises on which he bases his arguments and is thus doomed to fallacious arguments based on these premises. You can’t win arguing with Ken anymore than you can teach a donkey to fly. There just are no tools for the job.

          • Melanie says:

            Ken, sweetheart, you are not an intelligent person.
            1) the connection between sentience and personhood has been proven by scientists that have gone to medical school and have had years of training. Since you haven’t done either of these things (and i’m actually considering if you even graduated high school with the things you’re saying), nobody cares if you have a different definition of sentience, because you clearly have no clue what you’re talking about. I saw this 5 year old the other day that was telling his mom that the clouds were actually made of 100s of butterflies. Do you think his mom stopped what she was doing, called the New York Times and reported her son’s brilliant discovery? No. And do you know why? Because her son has not learned anything about science or reality yet, and because scientists have already proven, through years of research, what clouds are actually made of. Are you capable of understanding this analogy?
            2) I’ll put the next one on one of your other ridiculous posts.

        • tori says:

          My question is a fetus in the womb can not feel or know that they are about to be killed or terminated. But is it not the same as for someone in a coma and medically sedated. They are also unaware and won’t feel it, yet they have memories and a past present and future that’s supposed to make it okay. Now for my stance on abortion no I don’t feel anyone should have the right to decide for anyone else in the cases of; health risks (cause her to die), or rape (i could understand this if you feel carrying, labor, giving birth, and adoption is not at all an option although that innocent child didn’t hurt you not to mention every where you look there us this or that couple who can’t conceive and would love and cherish ot) because I agree 100 percent that should be her choice, but it can be argued that if you should have the right to make the choice to terminate it because you got raped (they had sexual intercourse against your will or permission) the child fetus what ever you would call it did not decide or ask to be made in the process and just because they have no brain activity so to speak memory fully developed brain previous life or the ability to speak and say no (a child carried full term 9 months can’t even speak or say no it must be taught and learned. Same for everything else including but not limited to eating and drinking. So to classify a fetus as a parasite would be like classifying a child 1 month old a bum and lazy because they do nothing for them selves eat day drink change wash ect. But as for MY stance like I said on abortion if not medically suggested or raped., but instead was having sex and got pregnant I don’t feel its right or okay to say fuck it i don’t give a shit I want to be selfish and not give up my body or I want to accomplish this with my life first what ever the excuse I feel those are wrong if you willingly made the decision to go have sex, birth control & or protection used or not whether it was affective or not. We all get taught that the only ? way to ensure no pregnancy would be to not have sex…. , so step the fuck up and deal with the consequences of their actions. Now after tg child is born if decide to give it up for adoption, sign over the rights, or keep love and take care and responsibility for it!!!!! Again I’m not a doctor, I recently graduated high School in a very small town, Greene county is full of people who could save themselves issues in the end by just staying abstenant, instead of babies having babies

  7. Alice Fusco says:

    Thank you for the excellent piece, Sarah. Your science is strong and current. It saddens me to see how strongly the anti-choice folks resist learning any credible science. And how they don’t care about fully developed humans. Any time we have religious ideology dictating medical decisions or denying scientific truths, we tread a very dark path, indeed.

  8. Janelle says:

    Thank you for this refreshing view on abortion, Sarah. It is difficult to block out any moral and thus personal opinions when viewing the termination of a human fetus but I am fascinated by how little we truly know and understand about the concept of “life” and what exactly defines it based on conception and fetal development.

    I am especially intrigued by the topic of whether or not human fetuses “feel” and “react” to pain during the early stages of development. I read an article online “Stages of Prenatal Development” published by Kendra Cherry and accessible at in which she states that “The brain and central nervous system also become responsive during the second trimester.” this is to say that even though a fetus may resemble a fully developed “tiny human” – (for lack of a better description) with a heartbeat and most of its vital organs (sans distinct sex organs) during the second trimester – there is no proof that its actions and reactions are functional as the brain is not fully functioning at this stage. This means that even though cells might flinch when presented with a disturbance or “pain”, it could simply be due to their instinctive nature and not due to the fetus “feeling” discomfort.

    I do not wish to offend anyone or go against any opinions whether pro-life or pro-choice; I simply wish to thank you for your valuable blog entry and comment that it has really inspired me to due further research into this topic.

  9. Rose says:

    Consciousness does not just suddenly arise at 26 weeks, it is an ongoing process for the neuronic connections to be made in the cortex. It starts at 12 weeks when the neurons start penetrating the subcortical plate but the connections are not fully made till the 26th week . Does that mean at 19 weeks it is not conscious at all? We can not say for sure. Since it is slowly gaining consciousness how can we put a marker up and say it is ok to kill the fetus when it is a little conscious? It is not possible to really say when it is enough of a person to let it live. And the sedation of the womb has absolutely nothing to do with its personhood. That is like saying it is ok if I have an operation and someone deliberately kills me under anesthesia. There is no reason why we need to abort healthy fetuses after the first trimester. Pregnancy tests exist, an when we are sexually active we should use them monthly! Even if we use birth control. The earlier a woman aborts the more humane.

  10. Andy says:

    Wonderful article. So glad to have come across this. My partner and I recently lost one of our unborn twins before 5 months. I had been reduced to tears trying to imagine whether their was any pain involved, imagining breathing difficulties…it is reassuring to know that there is little chance the poor blighter could actually feel or assess anything at all. This article has eased my pain and sadness greatly. Not completely, but hugely. Thank you

  11. Autumn Harms says:

    So, yall should be glad that your mothers didn’t want an abortion. Meaning the prochoice people. Sorry, but just because some guy who has MD in front of his name ,or something else, says that babies aren’t alive or cant feel pain, does that make it true? somehow I cant help but think that ‘how the heck do we know if this baby can feel pain?’. Honestly, what if every fetus naturally responds differently than fully developed humans. it is wrong to abort unless there will be a death during pregnancy or delivery. If you cant handle the pregnancy, then you should have been more responsible. I completely agree with Ken on this one.

    • Erinations says:

      Actually, my mother had the option of aborting me as I was a) born out of wedlock and my father was still a married man, having just separated from his wife but not yet legally divorced.

      My father wanted me aborted, actually. Of course, I would simply be a burden. My mother was dirt poor as well, no education, no clue how to raise a child. What changed my father’s mind was that I was a girl. My father has two older sons, way older, and so my mother planned to leave him and keep me, believing I would be her only source of love in this world and she went on to have me, only to find my father in the delivery room with her.

      There are times in my life that have been so dreadful, I wish I had been aborted, for then I wouldn’t save felt such pain as I did/do during life, for I wouldn’t have lived and wouldn’t have known the life that awaited for me.

      But yes, I am still pro-choice. Because forcing someone to have an abortion when they’re happy with their pregnancy is just as bad as forcing someone to not have an abortion when they’re unhappy and know they can’t support the child the way it needs.

      The problem is? I don’t have a happily ever after. My mother has no clue how to provide for me emotionally and physically, my father ignores my existence as if I had been aborted unless I do something that he can brag about to his colleagues.

      “If you can’t handle a pregnancy, then you should’ve been more responsible.” Pregnancy should be treated as a gift, but here you prove it to be a consequence, you contradict and prove it to be something terrifying.

      I am only a sample of one of the many lives who could of been aborted, where abortion was in consideration but wasn’t followed through. If my life is as bad as it is, unable to receive any sort of form of love from someone who was in their late twenties when they had me, I refuse to imagine how life would be for one who was put into that horrid thing one would call a foster system.

      Women should always be given a choice for abortion. If a 27 year old woman couldn’t handle the responsibilities of another human life despite wanting it, then most certainly women in their teens can’t raise the next generation. They are still children, we are still children. Science doesn’t define the argument for abortion, but rather subjective opinions. E

  12. John says:

    There is no moral question. It’s a purely scientific one.

    The fetus is either a sentient human being and therefore should be afforded all the rights and protections of the law of the land or it’s a collection of sells and abortion is no more a moral grey area than bursting a zit. The woman’s right to choose shouldn’t come into it since someone’s life trumps her desire not to be pregnant.

    The question is at one point and again we need to be 100% certain in my view that the fetus isn’t a sentient human being since getting it wrong leads to the murder of somone so reading what Sarah Fox said I think the age should be put back to 12 weeks.

    • Perion Cedric says:

      I have some questions for you that I think will make the debate clearer.

      What is exactly a person ? A sentient human being ? But how did you came to this conclusion ? Is it even possible to prove a definition ?

      How did you came to know persons have rights and moral worth ? Can you give a purely deductive argument to justify this or do you just believe it by faith ?

      • Liam Reamonn says:

        A Chairde –
        The matter of showing human Worth, from a secular point of view, follows hereunder. It is not clever to hope that Nature does not mirror robust religion. However, looking into the mirroring process does demand discipline (lots of it).
        Asking what is a human is not clever either. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Our beginning is at conception, after which we only need water, oxygen, food and warmth. With morals hard-wired into our DNA, we grow into the consciousness we now have, whilst others drop into and out of this. Big deal.
        Go dté sibh slán – Liam

        14] Our metaphysical Footprint

        Free Thinking has Boundaries: One is quite free to compose views on the value of life, even if no moral or ethical code is accepted. As the myriad of personal and societal codes vary, let us all here think outside the box, momentarily. In 2013, a pre-human species of hominid (Homo naledi) was found (2.5m years old). Bone fragments suggested ritual (the idea of Worth) – thought unique to humans. Scientists can describe, not explain, natural phenomena, like Worth – or Gravity. An apple may be observed to fall: the pull on it is utterly critical to all planetary motion. Where could we ask eg why this force is maintained?

        Thinking freely has Boundaries: Whatever about hominids, Man always had a sense of ‘good and bad’ and wondered or, by his/her especial choice, not wondered. Anyway, to keep a balance in Nature, our Worth will likely be summed up one day. Not following basic algebra, the process will cover eg where a triggered ‘Warrior’ gene operates. Otherwise, if given to Parkinson’s patients, Parmipexole can lead to compulsive gambling. What we do is influenced by an environmental and evolutionary imperative. How we do it reflects human Worth – related eg to vast, undetermined workings in our neural networks.

        At lower, subatomic levels, quantum particles exist, of no diameter. They can occupy multiple places at once (‘entangled’). Shape-shifting particles can split and combine with others, gaining greater mass than the sum of the parts. [1+1 ≠ 2, so ⇒ festina lente.] The principles of quantum mechanics apply to everyday objects – as well as to atomic-scale particles. In 2010, an object large enough to be visible to the naked eye was put into a mixed quantum state so that it was both moving and not moving.

        The unfathomable complexities of our neural networks and quantum mechanics require strict subjectivity (ever more clearly beyond us) in gauging Worth. We can measure an individual’s standing with objective laws – “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. However, we cannot begin to imagine judging his/her subjective Worth – let alone our own – though conscience will normally play some part in this latter.

        Further to reflect infinite complexity: the human microbiome – separate from our body and consciousness – has a substantive impact on our cognitive function and fundamental behavioral patterns. Without trillions of microbes, our underlying neurochemistry would be profoundly altered. Investigation is opening up on genetic behavioral influences, once thought by many to be understood. Research Scientists, however, do not deduce certainty from uncertainty (humility is a characteristic).

        Just thinking has Boundaries: 13.7 billion years ago, from 10–43 to 10–36 seconds following the Big Bang, the Universe entered the Grand Unification Epoch, when the earliest elementary particles (and antiparticles) appeared. In the next instant, with cosmic inflation, the Universe underwent a rapid, exponential expansion. A hot, dense quark-gluon plasma of elementary particles, which remained after this, was distributed across the universe. In the Quark Epoch, 10–12 to 10–6 seconds from the beginning, quarks, electrons and neutrinos formed and the Universe cooled to below 10 quadrillion degrees.

        Quarks and antiquarks annihilated each other upon contact. A surplus of quarks (about one for every billion pairs) survived, ultimately forming matter. Temperatures fell to c3,000 degrees (as hot as the Sun). Protons (which comprise two up-quarks and one down-quark) captured electrons, neutralizing their electric charge. With electrons bound to atoms, the Universe became transparent to light. Gravity amplified slight irregularities in the density of regions of primordial gas. They became denser, even as the Universe continued rapidly to expand. Small, dense clouds of cosmic gas collapsed under their own gravity. They became hot enough to start nuclear fusion between hydrogen atoms, forming the first stars.
        Beyond Boundaries: Each of the estimated 100 bn Galaxies contains 100s of bns of Stars, of varying composition. It takes 46 bn light years to reach the edge of the Visible Universe. In the dense, hot (15moC) and complex early stellar conditions, Hydrogen and Helium came about. In dying Stars – Red Giants – the energy released by nuclear reaction opposed stellar collapse under gravity. With the Hydrogen all gone, the inevitable collapse raised temperatures to 100moC, allowing Carbon to form. Then, at even higher temperatures (over shorter periods), nuclear reactions formed other elements. [Beetle Juice, or Betelgeuse, is a Red Star where the physics of energy-in and energy-out confounds analysis.]

        About 73% of all matter is Hydrogen and 25% Helium: the remaining 2% makes up the rest of the Visible Universe. Black Holes of stellar matter form when very massive stars collapse and die. General Relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform Spacetime to form a Black Hole. Without an apparent source, Dark Matter (over 3/4 of all matter) is invisible. It reacts to gravity, causing galactic structures to form. An elliptical galaxy is formed when smaller galaxies merge, their stars and Dark Matter mixing and mingling. An Astrophysical Journal paper suggests that, because the Dark Matter outweighs everything else, it molds a newly forming elliptical galaxy, guiding the growth of the central Black Hole. Dark Energy (comprehension yet again defied) causes galaxies to fly apart towards Critical Density, after which the Universe cannot collapse back on itself in a Big Crunch. Rather will it continue until galaxies are alone in Space – with atoms slowly reacting to form the stable silver nucleus – before once again dissipating into radiation. But then, Dark Energy might first change behaviour, like 6 bn years ago, when the rate of expansion increased. Dark Energy is everywhere, including in you, the reader.

        Personal Boundaries: All the atoms in your, the reader’s body, date from a few seconds after the beginning of time and – indeed – your being (and its reasoning capacity) was inherent in the original radiation. You are the result of an infinite set of infinite (unfathomable) complexities, the result of infinitely intelligent composition, under an infinitely complex web of laws, maintained for a purpose: not a chance that you are some lowly chance event (as in o/∞%). The laws of probability (or any others) – as observed – should not be conflated with any inevitability in overarching design. Our knowledge of Nature’s laws is (you may now infer) limited. It took hundreds of years and scientific careers and many thousands of volumes of abstruse Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry to bring us to where we are.

        Breaching the Boundaries: Using human logic eg to speak of ‘cause and effect’, is to pit limited capacity against limitless, infinite unknowns. It is not enough to say our responsibility for how we act, our Worth, is proportionate to our intellectual capacity and our efforts to gain and give expression to an understanding of ‘why?’. We might, however, rationally say that this approach is evidence of a segment of metaphysical reality. And that we shall, hopefully, forward our ultimate, lasting footprint, our Metaphysical Footprint (our real Worth, opaque to human view), into a reality within the Infinite.

        The Infinite Author of an Infinite Universe never had to start time. It is reasonable say that we are living in a blink of a series of events which never started and will never end. Astrophysicists have modelled both what preceded the Big Bang and where everything is headed within the timescale of this present Universe. This short note does not begin to address the complexities of your, the reader’s, world but aims to show that you and I have always been an intricate, essential part of this Universe-without-end, with an infinity attaching to all things. Society recognises broad parameters for good and bad. We may expect that these will normally feature in our individual measure of Worth, when this is ultimately established.

        We can examine ethical issues at any level. There will always be some who say they are responsible to nothing, except themselves. They may refuse to recognise the humanity of eg a child who is to be killed. They exist, of course, in two realities – the physical and the metaphysical. One day, with the Footprint they have fashioned, they will be in only one reality – the latter – a necessarily unchanging reality.

  13. Pingback: Death Before Discomfort? | Pro Life Feminism

  14. well this a hard topic to debate on because I am especially intrigued by the topic of whether or not human fetuses “feel” and “react” to pain during the early stages of development. but to my opion am sure they do feel it but because we can not see that while the pregnancy is being ended we assume they dont feel pain

  15. Ma.Jeralyn Dickerson says:

    We should never forget only fetuses know what they feel inside the womb not the scientist nor the mother and not all the things in this world can be answer by the science.Weather the fetuses can feel pain or not. The conscience of killing someone is matter.
    Sorry my english is my second language so my grammar is not that good.

  16. Korou says:

    I’d just like to say, thanks very much for taking the time to write this article and for answering comments. I’ve been looking for someone to explain this to me for some time. Very useful in some debates I’m involved in at the moment.

  17. Anne Hopkins says:

    Sara, I complement you not just on your concise, logical presentation of scientific facts, but (perhaps more importantly) on your poise, patience, and style of responding to critics of your post. You set an excellent example for all bloggers trying to set the tone for civil discourse in the emotionally-charged abortion debate. I plan to include a link to your post in an upcoming blog post in the United States.

    Thank you.

    Blue Skies,

  18. Meh says:

    I’m not against abortion as far as medical and scientific reasoning is concerned, but I am against human stupidity. We have to remove that at the fetal level, so that people who make dumb choices in life don’t get to make a choice about playing with a life they conceived.

    Its interesting really we go on about animal rights, feminist rights, voters rights, gun rights etc… yet pull a fancy one on the whole abortion argument. It’s really not as hard as cleaning toilets for a living folks.

  19. Ron Mallett says:

    Sarah, to be honest I think your research is totally irrelevant to the abortion debate. I can see your aim is to create some theories/facts that make murder easier to rationalise but I’m afraid you are missing the point.

    The only scientific fact that matters in any rational discussion is that abortion kills a potential life. Barring accidents and miscarriage the majority of foetuses WILL survive and DEVELOP and be born. What abortion does is only to steal everything the victim would have become and experienced. You take every birthday, every christmas, every school-yard crush, the exhilaration of winning their first job, their honeymoon, the chance to be a parent, a grandparent, every opportunity to be right, wrong and everything in between, any chance to create and enjoy the creativity of others. Everything.

    I live in a country that sadly has embraced abortion as a mainstream form of contraceptive. In a country of 20 million on average there are less than 400 adoptions a year and more than 90, 000 publically funded abortions . Who knows how many potential scientists and artists have been torn apart and incinerated for the sake of convenience? Who knows how many potential nobel prize winners never got the chance to live?

    How many dead skin cells on the back of your hand have ever gone on to do anything like that?

  20. Iggy says:

    Gonna solve this here simply.

    Unless the anti abortion people here are also vegan and only buy from local clothing and grocery stores please.. go away…how can you be so pro life when killing animals for food and clothing is conpletley fine and not considered murder as well. Or child enslavement for most imported products like clothing and even chocolate. Double standards much? Thank you.

    • Valerie W says:

      I am mostly vegan, and I think that argument goes BOTH WAYS!
      I think it is certain that the unborn can’t feel any sort of discomfort in
      the first 12 weeks of pregnancy–that does not make abortion ok, but it does
      take the “pain” argument out of the equation.
      After that time, I think the issue gets murky.
      When a fetus recoils from a sharp instrument, I don’t think ANYONE can
      say for sure that no discomfort is being felt!
      It was not that long ago that doctor’s thought BORN babies could not
      feel pain, and routinely did invasive procedures on them with NO anesthesia!
      The truly moral thing to do in situations like this would be to give the
      unborn the BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT after 12 weeks by greatly restricting
      abortions, and limiting them to only the most extreme cases after 20
      weeks.
      If, as was stated, 90% of women have abortions in the first 12 weeks, I really
      DON’T understand why the pro-abortion lobby is SO ADAMANT about
      having unrestricted abortions until 24 weeks or later!!

      • Anne Hopkins says:

        Re the comment by Valerie W: “… I really DON’T understand why the pro-abortion lobby is SO ADAMANT about having unrestricted abortions until 24 weeks or later!!” Valerie, you are not alone. So many people form this opinion without sincere pursuit of the facts. If anyone is truly interested in understanding why women wait until late in a pregnancy to make an abortion decision, please consider the information in the award-winning documentary “After Tiller.” Here is a review I wrote of that film that summarizes the important points. http://advocatesaz.org/2015/12/14/movie-night-after-tiller/

        I am not, by the way, pro-abortion — nobody “wants” an abortion. But, a woman is the only person qualified to make a decision to have the procedure.

        • Val says:

          I read your article and saw the trailer about the movie.
          I have not seen the full film yet.
          The person who murdered Dr. Tiller it was COWARDLY and DESPICABLE!
          I ALSO hate hearing about ANIMALS BEING BURNED ALIVE!
          I said in my original comment that I think abortion after 20 weeks should be “restricted to the most extreme cases”, not TOTALLY banned.
          Some cases described there, with severe brain injuries, or a painful disease that will cause death within a few years after birth, sound like 2 such “extreme examples”.
          If causing “premature birth” were TRULY necessary to save a mother’s life (even if that met that the baby would die), I think that would ALSO be justified.
          I DON’T agree with you that abortions after 20-weeks (or possible not even after 12 weeks) should be allowed for social/economic reasons.
          Sorry, but the Catholic girl you mentioned had waited 25-WEEKS already, could wait a BIT LONGER and give her baby up for adoption!
          Only DISTORTED thinking could lead her to think KILLING A HEALTHY baby at that stage is BETTER than giving him/her up for adoption!
          As for child abuse, I think the attitude that is is “ok” to kill in mid and late term pregnancies could well lead to moral-confusion and INCREASE child abuse!
          Many countries in Europe (such as France), who are considered pretty progressive, restrict abortions similar to the way I’ve described and seem to get along just fine!
          The possibility of “sentience” in mid pregnancy and the PROBABILITY of it in later pregnancy outweighs
          a women’s DESIRE–even STRONG DESIRE– to “not be pregnant”!
          By the way, I think it is important for me to add that I am SECULAR, I HEAVILY FAVOR the use of contraception (and think it should be FREE for everyone), I favor UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE, 6-months PAID maternity leave for everyone, DAYCARE SUBSTUDIES for most parents, and INCREASING the economic safety net!

  21. gcneyhiden says:

    How can you argue w people who don’t want to know about biology or evolution but seek religious “live saving brownie points” no matter that they have to be so invasive in other peoples lives to accomplish this rude behavior. these people don’t know and probably will deny the existence of a long tail on early human fetuses. These religious cub scouts probably couldn’t pick out a human fetus from a chicken fetus, but they expect the right to determine family planning and women’s health issues, not only their own but people they don’t know. Its totally absurd. All you blind fundamentalists out there…embryonic development is a window to our evolution. It proves our unique connection to the world that you degrade and you say doesn’t even exist. That is reason enough on ethical grounds to have laws that save us from your ignorance.

  22. gcneyhiden says:

    A fetus isn’t an individual being until its separated from the mother, OK. I love the way many pro-lifers say they are for small Govt and in the same breath want to go down this weird road of giving full person rights to fetuses, THAT ARE NOT INDIVIDUAL Humans YET. Are we going to pass laws that say a pregnant woman cannot eat this, drink that, restrain from certain activities that may harm the child? Are we going to start forcing women who go to fertility clinics to carry all six or seven fetal implants. really. Are we going to have govt agencies or private church organizations that will do the monitoring of the mom’s to be to insure the safety of the unborn person. the fact is..the mind of a person is their most important human feature, its what makes us different. its also the very thing the religious fundamentalist don’t want us to use.

  23. lorraine shelstad says:

    A study in Finland regarding suicide in women saw an increase in suicide after a miscarriage or an abortion. http://www.bmj.com/content/313/7070/1431

  24. Gabriel says:

    Every woman should be able to make choices regarding her own body and her own reproductive health, period. Why do so many people (particularly men) believe that it’s their place to make these choices? Last I checked, most pro-life politicians, the ones who are privileged enough to make these choices for society, don’t have a uterus. Why then should their opinion on the matter trump the needs of the applicable person? Whatever you may think about the topic of abortion, unless you’re the one who will have to undergo it, you have no say.

    P.S. I realise the irony here of myself being a man, but that is truly beside the point. Even though I’m the one voicing it, I do believe my opinion shouldn’t carry much weight.

  25. Rebecca says:

    Some people can never feel pain. I think it is dangerous to qualify a human life based on her abilities.

    I also don’t think the fact that a lot of women have miscarriages is worth mentioning. A lot of people in their 60’s die natural deaths from heart attacks. Does if follow we can kill people in their 60″s?

  26. Michael says:

    It’s sad to me that “life” or “not life” boils down to a matter of the first-down chain. “Sorry Ken, you only made it to 9.93, off by mere inches. Off you go, then.” JOEY! You made it to 10.000006. Congratulations then, here’s hoping you don’t become a genocidal dictator.

  27. Pingback: Woman reported to police for not being sorry she had an abortion. | Lynda Jane Purcell: Freelance Mum

  28. Pingback: Abortion – twentysomethingjournalist

  29. Micheal Tarr says:

    A fetus has no cognitive ability:

    Neither does a dead person. The dead person has no memory of being killed, since they are dead.

    A fetus cannot survive by itself before 24 weeks, so killing it before then is ok:

    A baby cannot survive by itself before 2 years old in the wild… Is killing it before then ok?

    Is the baby a living human or not. What it feels or remembers about the death, and whether or not it can survive before a date are both irrelevant.

    In the end, you’re justifying murder.

    I can justify ANYONES murder with science too. It’s what the nazis did.

    • ov suvajac says:

      I don’t think anyone else here would justify murder quite the way you suggest. The question at hand is at what point do fetuses become human beings. If there is no cognitive ability then removing a fetus is more akin to removing an appendix rather than a 2 year old child who does feel and think. The fact that if it was left unattended, it has the potential to grow into a human being only suggests it is farther along than an egg or sperm which are also not human beings.

  30. Micheal Tarr says:

    “Gabriel says:
    January 19, 2016 at 9:17 am
    Every woman should be able to make choices regarding her own body and her own reproductive health, period. Why do so many people (particularly men) believe that it’s their place to make these choices? Last I checked, most pro-life politicians, the ones who are privileged enough to make these choices for society, don’t have a uterus. Why then should their opinion on the matter trump the needs of the applicable person? Whatever you may think about the topic of abortion, unless you’re the one who will have to undergo it, you have no say.

    P.S. I realise the irony here of myself being a man, but that is truly beside the point. Even though I’m the one voicing it, I do believe my opinion shouldn’t carry much weight.”

    A greater percentage of women with children are opposed to abortion, than men in general. That’s a cop out.

    Yes, I agree you can do with your body what you want… The problem is… The baby is not part of your body… it’s inside it.

  31. Wheeler says:

    The science behind this is interesting but I don’t view it as relevant since, through science, I’ve yet to see a scholarly offering that indicates definitively the point in time when you could say that a human has the POTENTIAL for becoming a conscious being. And by that, I mean conscious in the sense of being self-aware…aware of one’s own existence. Not just being aware, per se, but the point in time when the capacity to become conscious being happens. And therein lies the rub. Scientific inquiry will not resolve this question since it’s not purely a question of biology or chemistry. So, my Christian views aside, I believe it is dangerous to assume you can define a point in time after conception where you can draw the line between abortion being OK or not OK because of the ethical issues attached (along with the slippery slopes that led intellectuals in pre WW-2 Germany down the path of eugenics). That said, I want to emphasize I’m not a ‘pro-lifer’ in the political sense and believe that since God trusted us with freewill, who am I to take it away from anyone else, especially since I’m so imperfect myself. That said, I do think that we Christians (myself included) could do a better job of influencing the hearts of people such that abortion went away regardless of legislation for or against…and that wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?

  32. Liam Sheáin says:

    Not to allow a growing individual time to become ‘aware’, in line with Nature, but to kill him/her, exemplifies a Cognitive Bias. People, through accident/illness, can at any time lose awareness and yet we don’t (often) call for their death. Calls for abortion use several catchwords. Some people want ‘trial parenthood’ for 5 years (since there is not too much difference between killing the preborn and the born). Vulnerable/different people have always been killed or let die off. If abortionists do not regard human life as sacred, why do they pussyfoot with catchwords, and not just say they want rid of the child? They will eventually be listened to, things are getting ever more liberal.

  33. Joana says:

    Great article Sarah! Very informative and we’ll written. I start to realize that most people that are so called pro life are not going to change their minds ever, perhaps showing a more deontological way of thinking than a consequentialist. If one has the ability to distanciate some early established beliefs from actual real consequences it will realize that life isn’t black and white and sometimes the least harm choice has to be done. I believe in life with quality for both mom and child that comes with choice. In the state of the world today, with rape crime increasing but lesser convictions, with the fact contraception methods not being fully effective (and some require coloration from the man, wich doesn’t allwais happen), and with economic dificulties amongst many, one should think more about wath are the real consequences of abortion within first trimester or forcing a women to carry unwanted pregnancy, the consequences for her life, mental and physical health, socio-economic situation… after all the laws in other countries in Europe permit voluntary interruption of pregnancy up to 12 weeks and protects the women in case of rape and danger to her health. This doesn’t happen in Ireland, where the women’s life is even at risk in case of unproperlly dealt with cases of miscarriage. From a consequentialist point of view, being an unwanted child has very negative impact in the childs future life, even when adoption occurs, let alone a life spend in institutions that unfortunately faill to provide some essentials for a happy life. Speaking about the pain argument… most abortion are performed within the 12 weeks, it us not reasonable to think that the fetus feels or remembers anything at this point. However it is acceptable for many to inflict both phsycological and even physical pain to an adult living women, making her going trhough unwanted pregnancy against her will, putting her trough life risk, and deplete her from deciding to her life and body. I would say she would be the real unprotected one here. And not to forget that this women us a contributing member of society, many with already very relevant jobs and activities, with impact in other people’s life’s. I think one should think more about the consequences within each situation instead of blindly preach unrealistic arguments. That would be the real challenge

  34. It is not for mankind to determine by laws (always different, to account for changing sensitivity), that because an embryo is on the natural path to adulthood, that this human can be killed for convenience (social reasons are those usually given). Using the neural argument is a poor escape: adults can lose their self-awareness by illness or accident. The case of Savita Halappanavar (RIP) was widely misrepresented. She died of sepsis, deadly infection. The argument of ‘bodily integrity’ is also poor: the fact that there is another body, another person who is very young, can be proven by growing an embryo in an artificial womb. There is a flourishing set phrases to excuse abortion. Poor excuses when examined. Extreme abortionists even claim the right to murder born children up to the age of five, after a ‘trial parenthood’. Mankind is very good at dehumanising. Remember the old phrase ‘Ya Injun varmint!’ before the cowboy pulled his trigger? Sadly, it will always be thus.

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