The pro-life position and the scientific story | Louisa Mifsud Houlton

Yes, abortion is present in many societies; but so is social injustice and the constant violation of human rights. Does that make it right? Of course not

Prof. Isabel Stabile’s article of the 28 October with the title of “Potentiality and Personhood: personal views” from its title promises to present the author’s personal views about being pro-choice. In spite of this, it goes on to give arguments which are presented as if they should be attributed the scientific status of objective facts, proposed by someone claiming to be standing “on the shoulder of giants”; as if this statement alone, necessarily earns someone the freedom to dismiss any idea of finding logical sense in any pro-life position, as, according to her, they all necessarily emerge from incorrect scientific evidence or philosophical assumptions ‘hijacked by religious views’.

Let us look through the arguments presented and check if her views are indeed as objective, scientifically and philosophically superior to the pro-life ones as Prof. Stabile indeed claims them to be.

One of the arguments proposed by the pro-life movement is that life cannot be terminated after conception for the reason that the cells contain the complete human genetic material of a unique human being. Prof. Stabile starts by speaking about its irrelevance since both hair and a cancerous tumour have these properties. I agree with Prof. Stabile on one point: we do need to go further into our debate to clarify and consolidate this argument and not by resorting to religion of course, but by taking a good look at the scientific research. Here, Prof. Stabile seems to think she is justified in claiming that, while us pro-lifers are obsessed with imposing our values on others, the more objective reasonable scientific research agrees with her.

However, in contrast with what Prof. Stabile wants us to think, if one takes a look through some research that exists, one does not need to go too far to discover evidence that points towards the fact that a foetus is far more than just its genetic material: it is very much its own being, with its own rhythms, urges and biological expectations. It determines which way it will lie in pregnancy, the timing of the birth, and which way it will present for the birth (Music, 2013). A foetus responds to musical signals, moves in synchrony to a rhythm and even continues to move after the music has stopped (Sallenbach, 1993). As early as the first trimester the foetus will jump if touched by an amniocentesis needle, turn away from the light of a doctor’s foetal stethoscope (Goodlin and Schmidt, 1972) and has demonstrated a surprisingly clear capacity for choice. Indeed, observations using ultrasounds of foetuses have shown clear personality traits developing (Piontelli, 1992).

Can a cancerous growth do all this? Or a hair? Of course not. So in the light of this research, equating a foetus with a hair or a cancerous growth is at best reductionistic, at worse it is erroneous and untrue; and all the pro-choice activists who argue their way into making us believe that scientific research proves this, are downright wrong.

Next Prof. Stabile goes on to argue that the foetus is only potentially a human being and not actually one, so one does not need to enter into any ethical dilemmas about terminating it; pro-choicers even go so far as to protest when the term ‘murder’ is used, claiming their sensitivities are being hurt as if this is far more of an issue than anything else. Of course, I understand their preference for the cleaner word of ‘termination’ from the messier one of ‘murder’; with the former, they want to give it the semblance of a simple laboratory procedure of another cancerous tumour.

But, with all due respect, this language is ludicrous. Forgive me if I fail to understand the difference. Am I the reason that I am not getting it? So, for the pro-choice movement, life in the womb seems to resemble life on another planet, outside our galaxy (which by the way we can feel all justified to terminate if inconvenient), but which if it is supposedly marked by an event called ‘birth’, it somehow lands magically here on earth and takes human form, from which point we should all agree to do everything we can to safeguard it. And what is even more infuriating, they quote science or philosophy to argue their way through it.

But let us take a good look at what the scientific research tells us: surprisingly, the first thing we will find is that indeed there is no evidence to point towards a clear demarcation line in our biological development of becoming who we are. Newborns distinguish their mother’s voice from the voice of other new mother’s because they heard it ‘in utero’ and research finds that they prefer the sound of it when the high frequencies has been filtered out so that it more closely resembles the muffled sound of the mother’s voice in utero (DeCasper & Fifer, 1980; Querleu et al., 1984; Fifer & Moon, 1988). They even prefer (DeCasper & Spence, 1986) a story they heard repeatedly before birth, or people speaking their mother’s language to another language (Moon et al., 1993). So while Profs. Stabile wants to have us believe that a newborn is so different from a foetus, science tells us another story.

Okay, so let us entertain just for one minute the notion that there does exist an imaginary line that once crossed gives us the status of human beings. Since, as the above-mentioned article acknowledges, science still leaves us in doubt as to where exactly this imaginary line can be drawn, does this give us any more reason to draw it?

Let me give one example to elaborate my point: if you were holding on to a rope hanging over a cliff and you could feel that something alive was tugging on the other end but still had some doubt about whether it was another human being holding on tightly for dear life, would this doubt give you any reason to feel justified to go ahead and let go of it until you were most absolutely sure that it was not what you were thinking? Probably not as that might involve the risk of bringing about a terrible end to another fellow human being. If you had a shred of humanity inside you, you would do your utmost to hold onto it until you had enough evidence and where absolutely sure to the contrary, even, if without checking the facts another human being from behind you vociferously was telling you, using any other argument on the planet, to do otherwise, no matter how vociferous they would become and how inaudible the voice of the one hanging on would be. You would listen to your own good common sense telling you that no matter how vociferous that human being became it could never have the final say over the fate of the other human being whose life depended on the fate of that rope and is surely the greatest stakeholder (i.e. of life and death). And no, having a loud voice should not give one the right to have more say than those who do not have one, such as the unborn.

Not only scientific research of newborns points towards this continuity in our development. There is also other research that might be considered even more significant. Prof. Stabile in her article implies that the time ‘in utero’ is just a potentiality and so unimportant and insignificant that is not worth considering its value in the whole entire order of things.

So, what about the research which points towards how this time can deeply and concretely affect a human being at every point in his or her life? For example, it is a known scientific fact that prenatal stress affects not only birth-weight but also stress levels after birth and has an effect on the way particular genes are expressed (Mulligan et al., 2012).

Severe antenatal stress affects hormones that regulate mood, such as dopamine and serotonin and is linked to a range of childhood emotional and behavioural problems. Low birth weight which is often linked with prenatal stress has been found to be also a predictor of illness decades later in one’s life (Barker et. Al, 2008). It is beyond the scope of the article to quote the exhaustive research about how the time ‘in utero’ can affect very concretely someone’s life. What can be more actual and real than the knowledge that the time ‘in utero’ is central to who we actually become? There was not just a potentiality of me in my mother’s uterus but what happened there affected all of who I was concretely then, throughout my life, and who I am today. Science proves this which makes me fail to understand, at this point, how the scientific and philosophic logic of this pro-choice view is not actually being the one hijacked by convenience and personal agendas – the criticism so often thrown at the pro-life movement.

I am all for gender equality and sexual rights but not without responsibility. I take issue with traditional cultural double standards held around male and female sexuality; I take issue with gender inequality, or with men who are by society and exonerated from the responsibility of their sexual behaviour. But I also take issue with not calling a spade a spade because it hurts our sensitivities; especially when the truth is we are washing our hands from responsibility and not holding ourselves accountable for the natural consequences of our behaviour, even of that which is sexual. Yes and allow me to feel this even more if it may involve ending someone-else’s life and thankfully, I am sure that I am still one of many here in Malta who think this way. This is usually the order of things in civilised societies in most dimensions of life: so why not of the life of the unborn?

Yes, abortion is present in many societies; but so is social injustice and the constant violation of human rights. Does that make it right? Of course not. So why should abortion be different? We all know that if something is legal it does not make it right so allow me to rejoice when that happens and feel proud of our legal system when it is doing what it should. Abortion is illegal now and we will surely work for it to remain so; and let us be proud of what this might mean - that perhaps we are still living in a society where all life is considered sacred, therefore criminal to terminate it, while simultaneously we provide for good healthy sexual education for all, adequate and appropriate emotional and practical support where unplanned pregnancies happen, and awareness and education about other life-giving alternatives like adoption; instead of washing our hands from responsibility while promoting a culture of convenience and of death, no matter what labels of ‘modern’, ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ are being attached to it by the pro-choice movement both here and in other countries.

All references supplied.