Evolution is True and Christianity, and All Religions, Are Not
Discussing abortion rights without considering biological issues can lead to many errors in judgement. For example, to say that a one celled zygote resulting from fertilization is now an “unborn child” and has an instilled soul ignores identical twins, chimeras (talk about splitting) and IVF procedures. This also implies personhood when no brain or even nervous tissue is present. In the following I will present several problems for theists arguing for full human life and rights starting at fertilization for one religious view. My conclusion is that potential human life begins at fertilization but not personhood and a zygote can’t have full human and citizen rights over a pregnant woman. The only solution is to decrease unwanted pregnancies and to stay out of difficult personal choices of the woman and her health care providers. Bodily autonomy is an established right and that must be confirmed to the pregnant woman and those working in fertilization fields.
Abortion in America
Briefly as a review, human fertilization is defined as the union of egg and sperm cells to form a single cell with unique DNA called the zygote. This normally occurs in the fallopian tubes leading to the uterus. This is conception. Pregnancy had not occurred yet because conception can obviously happen outside the body through IVF, but also pregnancy has not been achieved until successful implantation into the uterus lining, or outside the uterus in which case it’s called an abnormal and dangerous ectopic pregnancy. As the fertilized egg moves down the fallopian tube it undergoes cell divisions until it reaches a cluster of about 100 cells when it is called a blastocyst. If a normal pregnancy occurs it successfully implants into the uterine lining about day 6 and is completed by day 10. Many fail to implant however which will become important later in our discussion regarding abortion. Some of the cells form the placenta and by day 12 other cells form an inner layer which creates the amniotic sac. The blastocyst is now considered an embryo.
It is now 5 weeks into pregnancy by gestational dating. Organs begin to form and almost all organs except the brain and spinal cord are formed by about 10 or 12 weeks of pregnancy, depending on how pregnancy is calculated. In humans at the end of the eighth week after conception the developing embryo is now called a fetus. The fetus will normally develop during the coming months until labor and delivery at about 40 weeks or 9 months in humans. At the time of birth, the newborn can also be called a neonate for the first 4 weeks. The term infant is commonly applied to the first year of a child and sometimes up to two years of age. As the child learns to walk they are usually described as toddlers.
The term child is usually applied to a young person between infancy and puberty. It is inappropriate for the term to be used before birth but it is common for those opposed to abortion to apply child to any stage after fertilization; I have encountered this often and the term is often used as an “unborn child” or “unborn baby”. But an embryo or fetus is not a child any more than an acorn is an oak tree or a ball of yarn a sweater. They are both potentially finished forms, but only potentially. If one asserts that these early stages of human development are equivalent to children there are nearly unsolvable theological, biological and legalistic problems that arise.
Human development and abortion have unfortunately become politicized. This especially becomes apparent when discussion involves fetal pain, heartbeat bills and personhood.
In the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision the court attempted to balance the rights of the individual woman to control their bodies versus the state’s right to protect potential viable human life and a soon-to-be citizen. Until the late 19th century abortion was legal in America until “quickening” when fetal movements could be felt, often at about 18-20 weeks. However a woman who has given birth before can detect this perhaps around 15-17 weeks and even down to 13 weeks from their last period. In Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court used trimesters to decide abortion control. In the first trimester governments could not prohibit abortions, during the second trimester governments could regulate under some conditions and in the third trimester abortions could be prohibited. Later in 1992 The Supreme Court changed the trimester system to one of fetal viability outside the womb in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, usually 23 - 24 weeks. Even now the chance of viability at 22 weeks or earlier is only about 5 percent.
Religious issues and abortion
1. Pro-life Movement is heavily politicized. Although Roman Catholics had always considered that human life began at conception but hedged on abortion, conservative Protestants such as the Southern Baptist Convention officially affirmed the right to abortion until the early 1980s when the SBC changed its views. Until then abortion was thought of mainly as a Catholic issue and human life in the Old Testament defined life as beginning with the first breath based on multiple Old Testament verses. The pro-life movement within American Protestant organizations especially accelerated greatly due to the work of Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop (1). Opposition to abortion then became a political way to merge Catholics and Protestants in American under one voting umbrella and one voting issue. Actually, the idea of using abortion as a unifying tool for voting traces back to Bob Jones University and its fight over segregation with the IRSs. Please take the time to watch a two part, only 10 minutes each very important short presentation about the real origin of the pro-life movement in America (2). I also lived through much of this personally and have read Frank Schaeffer’s book on the subject who worked with his father to form the pro-life movement in America. I want to state clearly that I wish to decrease abortions and unwanted pregnancies as much as anyone but not having the facts about this complicated subject won’t help.
2. Ensoulment a problem. Many conservative Christians who are pro-life need to be consistent with their religious views and when asked about ensoulment are forced to claim this occurs at conception since this where a regression from birth logically leads to. But we know that identical twins can form from a single egg between 1.5 to 6 days after fertilization. So, does the soul split in two? Or, does one twin keep the original and the second twin get a new one? Is this not similar to the silly discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Worse for those who consider human life to begin at fertilization, rarely a chimera can form. In tetragametic chimerism two eggs that have been fertilized by different sperm fuse later where one embryo absorbs the second. What happens to the other “soul”? Do the souls fuse so that there is a mosaic soul? Or does this fetus now have two souls? Or does one "soul" die when the fusion occurs? Are not these questions absurd because the whole ensoulment issue is mythology?
And then there is the issue of IVF. During IVF extra eggs are harvested to be sure enough healthy ones can be identified for fertilization and hopefully implanted, which is about 50% successful. The extra embryos are then frozen and placed into storage with high monthly fees when no longer needed. At least 20% are eventually abandoned and with 500 fertility clinics in America the number of abandoned embryos is estimated in the hundreds of thousands to millions. Are all these souls frozen? Can one freeze a soul? Are these abandoned embryo "souls" awaiting their fates in the coming decades or centuries?
Science often exposes theology's many incoherences. Whoever wrote or influenced the writing of the Hebrew Bible, NT, and Quran did not know basic biology. It sure was not God. Theology becomes absurd eventually in the light of science.
3. God the greatest abortionist? In the Noah’s Flood narrative God commits genocide except for 8 humans on the ark. He drowns men, women, children and infants. And certainly many of those women would have been pregnant. How does this not make Yahweh the greatest abortionist ever conceived? Even if we consider this only mythology, what positive lesson does it teach? Apologists will defend His action by several rationalizations: since He created
everything He has the divine right to take life, or that the world was so corrupt that it was better for those fetuses never to be born. Presumably, in terms of the infants and children He could have snapped His celestial fingers to zap all of them to heaven instantly but instead He drowns them, making them suffer first before dying. The death of the unborn by choice is an elective abortion; He does it according to the narrative by drowning thousands upon thousands. If one supports a literal global flood, which is easily discounted by science, this inevitably makes this God the most incredible abortionist in all history. Fortunately for believers in the Abrahamic religions the Flood narrative never happened; we know its pure myth. There never was a global flood nor an ark. A local flood fits poorly with a sound scriptural interpretation. “Over the high mountains” and needing to take birds on board is not how a local flood would unfold.
4. Human reproduction is wasteful. Evolution works by producing many offspring and resultant variety to get just a few fit individuals into the next generation. How many eggs do fish commonly lay to get just two into the next generation in a stable populations? How many acorns on average will a single oak tree produce over its lifetime of 100+ years to just replace itself in a stable forest? At least millions. In order for natural selection to operate it needs variation at scale. By having many offspring that are not identical in sexual reproduction, this is attained. But at what cost to the offspring that don’t make it into the next gene pool? Are they just collateral damage? Some are eaten by predators while alive. Some die horrible other deaths. The waste is incredible to just get a few better adapted individuals into the next generation. Looking at the fossil record, over 99.99% of all species have gone extinct, frequently with huge catastrophic extinction events. The study of nature details the process of evolution as very creative yet incredibly wasteful, opportunistic and undirected.
What about humans? Females ovulate an egg monthly during their reproductive years if not using certain contraceptives. At times their periods were late and they never knew that it was due to a failed pregnancy. Frequently a miscarriage occurs. In medical notes it is called a SAB - spontaneous abortion, one caused by nature because of a genetic defect or placental malformation for example. It is estimated that 1/3 of conceptions fail to implant and another 15% are SABs in the second trimester but some sources state a 50% failure rate in the first semester alone. Before modern medicine about 27% of children died the first year and 46% did not live to adulthood (3,4) which is one reason in the past women had so many children if they themselves did not die giving birth. So, out of 100 conceptions only about 19% make it to adulthood. Since we know evolution is true, this God then used evolution to create species or allowed it. He designed or allowed a system that would kill about 80% of human conceptions that many theists claim contain a soul at fertilization. There must be trillions and trillions of “souls” in heaven then that never made it to birth or to adulthood? What do they look like if they were only a malformed fetus? How does this not make God incompetent, indifferent to the waste and suffering, or malevolent?
5. Is pro-life really mostly just pro-birth, or forced birth? If pro-life adherents assert that elective abortions should be outlawed in nearly all cases then we would expect that those groups should have a very high percentage of adoptions within their congregations and groups to support all the unwanted pregnancies. In addition, they should support many social services to cover the additional expenses of unwanted pregnancies and the resultant births. And yet many pro-life supporters are the very conservatives that vote for cutting budgets for social services and conservative congregations are full of believers who don’t adopt unwanted children.
Lastly, if pro-lifers are so supportive of adoptions, let’s take a poll as to how many in their congregations have adopted. I have spoken to theists who insist that women with unwanted pregnancies can simply put them up for adoption, but if I ask how many children they have personally adopted I usually get silence. If I ask how many in their pro-life organizations have adopted children from their crisis pregnancy clinics that convince women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term it is often few to none. How is this not hypocritical? These views are placed forward as solutions and yet the pro-lifer people run from their responsibilities to be consistent with their views.
6. As a movement, most Pro-life adherents are often actually only pro-birth. Personally, I want to do everything that is effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies, not aborting after the fact. Unwanted pregnancies are often especially egregious for teenagers and forces many women into a cycle of poverty. I know of no real pro-abortion advocates; they are really pro-choice. One study in Colorado that was privately funded reduced teenage pregnancies by 40% and elective abortions by 35% through providing education and birth control free to teens (5). See also the study in Delaware with a 35% reduction in abortions (15). And yet what we often see is conservative Christians opposing any kind of effective birth control and family planning because of their beliefs regarding premarital sex. This is not realistic nor pragmatic. These roadblocks to effective and humane means to decrease abortions actually then result in increasing them.
7. Many American Christians are hypocritical regarding abortion. The official Catholic Church position is against any contraceptives. Yet studies show about 82% of American Catholics disagree (6). They use them yet may vote against providing contraceptives and social services to poor women and teens especially by voting against legislation to raise taxes to support these programs. Many American Christians have had abortions and yet support limiting them for others. The Catholic Church works to limit condom use, even in Africa where it can reduce HIV and death from AIDS - all because of ancient Biblical religious beliefs. The Catholic Church has opposed anesthesia during childbirth in the distant past arguing that it was against God’s plan since pain was a curse upon women by Him due to Eve eating some fruit suggested by a talking serpent in a magical garden.
1. Full human fetal rights? If a fetus has the same full rights as a child, does that mean before birth it should have a social security number issued? Should the parents take out insurance policies on the unborn in case of a miscarriage? Should the father be forced to provide child support before birth? You can’t deport a mother because she’s carrying an American citizen? You can’t claim a fetus as a dependent on your tax return because a fetus is not a person. If a fetus is a person why can’t it get the same benefits as a person and child? To be consistent, if you are going to call a fetus a full human being, then a pregnant women should be able to drive in the HOV lane without a citation because there are two persons in the vehicle? Calling a fertilized egg a child means it should have the same rights as an adult citizen and the label "child" or "unborn child" results in many legal conflicts and complications. Ironically, the Catholic Church and many other Protestant denominations which practice infant baptism have a problem with a fetus that has died and unable to receive the sacrament. For without a baptism in Catholicism, supposedly original sin is not forgiven and that “child” would be in danger of not having salvation. The unofficial concept of Limbo previously used by the Church to address this has been dropped and now the Catholic faithful just throw up their hands and leave this conundrum to God. The appeal is to God with the hope He can figure something out. Again, often religions look silly in the light of science and biology.
2. Fetal pain? This is an area of controversy, but even pro-life voices citing the best recent research to support their views puts the time at about 20 weeks (7, 8). Other researchers note there are many difficulties in assigning pain to the fetus (9). Although free nerve endings begin to develop at 7 weeks and can reach a major sensory switching area of the brain called the thalamus at 7 weeks, there are no thalamic projections into the developing fetal brain cortex, which is only 1mm thick and has no laminar structure at that stage. Thalamic projections into the cortical plate don’t form synapses until 23 - 25 weeks’ gestation. There is a subplate present at 12 - 16 weeks but it is transient and is therefore necessary for the maturation of the later functional cortical connections only since it is later removed after actual mature connections for pain processing are established. “Current theories of pain consider an intact cortical system to be both necessary and sufficient for pain experience”. Observations with functional imaging and stimulation of cortical neurons in the absence of noxious stimulation indicates the experience of pain can be generated at that stage. The neural projections from the thalamus into the cortex are complete by 23 weeks’ gestation. By 26 weeks’ gestation the peripheral nerve endings, spinal cord, thalamus and cortex resemble the adult brain. Derbyshire notes that “pain is not merely the response to noxious stimuli or disease but is a conscious experience… The limited neural system of fetuses cannot support such cognitive, affective, and evaluative experiences;…”(9). A major point here is that just subjective observations of withdrawal and responses by the very immature fetus may not actually be a response to pain as such. Whether a fetus can feel pain at 20 or 23 weeks’ gestation it appears pain feeling earlier than this is not established. It is easy to cherry pick sources to support a position other than this but the medical consensus appears to consolidate on 20 - 23 weeks and not before. The point is that using this argument by pro-life advocates is not honest.
3. Fetal heartbeat. The heart does begin to develop at 6 weeks gestation, but at this stage it is just a tube with initially irregular sporadic electrical impulses. It is not until 10 weeks that there is an actual structure that remotely resembles a heart and at this time the embryo becomes a fetus (10). It’s not until 17 - 20 weeks that the fetal heart has four chambers and can be imaged on ultrasound according the the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (11). Importantly, the heart does not define a person or a potential person; we transplant hearts and stop hearts for surgery and put patients on bypass for hours without a heart beating. A person is not defined by their heart and heartbeat but rather by their brain and mind, their consciousness that is best defined as personhood. We do that because they have lost what it means to have critical person properties. When a person’s mind has died or degenerated to such a point we begin welcoming death. It appears the heartbeat laws and bills are thus just certain people politicizing for anti-abortion ideologies. Rather than heartbeat we should consider when personhood and consciousness is present. One can't have a heartbeat without a heart and there is no fully formed heart until 17 - 20 weeks.
4. Personhood. What is it? Some attributes of personhood which occurs on a continuum in other species as well as humans can be listed: sentience, the ability to feel pleasure and pain, to have preferences and intentions, to be aware of one’s existence, to be aware of the existence of other sentient beings and live in relation to them. When does it begin? There is no consensus because of course development is a gradient. Some say at fertilization but then there is the problem of ensoulment discussed above in number 2 and for theists all the zygotes that never make it to birth I posit makes God incompetent, indifferent, or malevolent. Some say at implantation when pregnancy begins. Others say at the end of about 8 weeks when the major organs are formed. Or is it when EEGs begin to detect brain activity at 24 - 28 weeks especially if the lack of EEG activity is an important criteria for determining death? Philosophers, theologians and ethicists have discussed this topic for hundreds of years and come to no consensus (12, 13). Notice that these two citations approach the topic theologically.
Yet for those who have lost loved ones to brain trauma where the medical community determines that there is no brain function present or expected, and the person is in a persistent and permanent vegetative state, bioethics specialists will usually counsel to discontinue artificial support. That would appear to me that the person or their body has thus lost what it means to be a human with meaningful consciousness. Also, when we have lost loved ones to advanced dementia, many have realized that the “person” they once knew has effectively dissolved and is gone. Care is often transitioned to palliative so as not to prolong life. The easiest stage to claim personhood is at fertilization, especially for the theist, but in my opinion that does not translate to how we interact with this topic pragmatically in our day to day living. Notice then that when considering pain, heartbeat, and brain function as discussed in sections 2, 3 and 4 here the fetal gestation that intersects is about 25 - 26 weeks. This obviously has input into when to consider halting elective abortions unless there are mitigating circumstances. It’s certainly not at fertilization, 6 or 15 weeks.
5. A woman’s rights supersede all others (and the father or sperm donor). Others argue that none of the above discussion matters; it is a woman’s choice. For example we can request a person to be an organ donor but can’t demand it. And so a woman who carries a fetus must always have the final say as to what she does with her pregnancy in her body. And actually, the fetus is not really in her body just like what is in your gut is not in your body but surrounded by you (all that bacteria for example) - it’s in a protected area of the uterus - not only to protect the fetus but to protect her from an invasion of a foreign substance and the possible fatal immune response. The fetus steals calcium from her and other nutrients. Her teeth can become loose. The Ligament holding the pelvis in the middle may never be the same. Her shoe size may go up and never return to her pre-pregnancy state. It’s her body and she is the one at risk from real potential effects (for example eclampsia, death by embolism (I know of one healthy woman who died of an amniotic embolism), strokes, and even childbirth death). She is a person and as a citizen (14th Amendment) with rights that the zygote, embryo or fetus does not yet share. There are instances in Catholic medical facilities where a bleeding pregnant patient was turned away from an Emergency Department, where a woman would die in the hospital without an abortion but the theologians have put the potential life of a fetus outside the womb over the woman, and pharmacists refusing to dispense a pill based on their religious beliefs to end a nonviable pregnancy that was threatening the woman. Indeed, as a physician I posit that the very difficult decision to end a pregnancy especially in cases where the fetus is not viable, cases of rape or incest, or in a myriad of other circumstances should only be between a woman and her health care providers. The theologian, insurance company, and health providers with theistic projections have no claim to be in the decision making process.
Closing Abortion Remarks
In my opinion we should do all we can to reduce elective abortions and unwanted pregnancies, and provide alternatives – including preventing unwanted pregnancy, improving maternal health, and supporting the wellbeing of young children and families. Passing laws against abortion and criminalizing it does not get us to those goals. Preventing unwanted pregnancies is a far superior approach but we have seen how often pro-life supporters can be viewed only as pro-birth by indirectly making laws that increase abortions - limiting family counseling and under-funding social services due to mistaken religiously based moral beliefs. Here archaic religious beliefs of many Americans result in deleterious effects on society. Indeed it’s interesting that many conservative Christians who wish to severely limit abortions have also cut back funding for international programs that involve contraception, pushed abstinence only programs that have been proven not to work, and yet fully support Israel without reservations despite that country having abortions practically available to anyone for almost any reason. Indeed, the countries with the most liberal abortion laws have the lowest abortion rates (14). In the face of these facts, it is obvious that the religious pressure in America to do the opposite of what works to decrease abortions would seem to expose the hypocrisy of the religiously based objections to abortion. Is there any humane, rational or economic justification to continue to legislate against abortion if your actions are making the situation worse? Ultimately, the decision for a woman to have an abortion is often very complicated and should only be left up to her and her health care providers who are aware of all the circumstances behind a very personal and often difficult choice. It’s not about pro-abortion; it’s about individual choice, a person’s bodily autonomy, fair and often complicated health care decisions, and what actually decreases the number of abortions.
History of Abortion in America. Much truth in this 13 minute presentation:
How Evangelicals Were Deceived About Abortion
2. Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yz4AmUaLbUQ
Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPsderlzd6c