All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1972

Abortion: a Metaphysical Approach

The issue of abortion has occupied the minds of humans for as long as civilized society has existed. There have been times when abortion was legally condoned and socially accepted, and other periods of mankind’s history when this practice was outlawed and considered to be a criminal act. Today, at a point in time when the rights of individuals are being attacked, ignored or destroyed, we are again witnessing a resurgence of the debate on abortion, and within the past few years, the passage of laws which remove most or all restrictions which have, in the previous history of this nation, protected the individual rights of the most vulnerable, defenseless and innocent of human beings: the unborn child.

Abortion deals with an attack on the fundamental right of all humans: the right to life.The abortion controversy is not just another dispute causing people to occupy opposing intellectual and legal camps. It is not a subject that can be equated in importance with other national concerns. Abortion is an issue which must be recognized as one of the most, if not the most important argument of our times, for it deals with an attack on the fundamental right of all humans: the right to life. When this right, upon which all other rights depend, can be set aside; when, at the whim of an adult, a new human life can be destroyed simply because another human does not wish to allow this life to continue; when it is decided that one stage of human life is of no real value — that its existence is an inconvenience to others and can thus be terminated — mankind loses its most precious value. Once the absolute value of each individual to his own life vanishes, existence no longer remains as a right, but becomes a privilege to be granted or denied by those in authoritative positions, by majority vote, or by the caprice of an unreasoning mother.

The Nature of Existence


There is but one approach that can be taken in dealing with the subject of abortion — the metaphysical approach. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy which involves the attempt to understand the nature of existence, to explain and scientifically analyze natural phenomena, both in the animate and inanimate realms. Since abortion is dealing with the destruction of the human embryo or fetus, it is necessary to examine the biological nature of these entities and apply this information to another division of philosophy — Ethics —in the attempt to determine the correct behavior of men toward these intrauterine stages.

Among those who advocate abortion, who state that a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy simply because she desires to do so, there are two significant groups. One group states that the entity within the uterine cavity is not a living human being, that the embryo or fetus is simply a cluster of multiplying cells that could be considered as a part of the mother’s body. The other group considers the embryo or fetus to be human, but argues that there is a conflict between the rights of the mother and those of the unborn child. That the mother must have full control over her body, and that if she is denied this right she will fall victim to the rights of the unborn.

The Essentials of Reproduction Among Vertebrates


What is the actual nature of the intrauterine stages and does a real conflict exist between the mother and the unborn? In order to answer these questions it will be necessary to briefly analyze the known essentials of reproduction, particularly those factors which apply to vertebrates, of which the human is the most advanced form, and correlate this knowledge with the issue of the rights of the embryo or fetus, and the mother.

Sexual reproduction — reproduction accomplished by means of the production of sperms and eggs, and their subsequent fusion — is characteristic of most forms of life, and is the only method of reproduction possessed by numerous animal groups (for example, all vertebrates). Once a mature animal produces the sex cells, they are released from the organs in which they formed (the testis or ovary) and usually pass into ducts leading to the outside of the organism. Either the sperms and eggs are released into water, at which time fertilization occurs immediately, or sperm cells are introduced into the female tract and fertilization will eventually take place within the body of the female. The essential point is, that at the time of fusion of sex cells, a new generation of a species is produced.

Within each cell of an animal there are two sets of chromosomes (filaments containing genes). When the sex cells are formed, each sperm or egg contains only one set of chromosomes, but when a sperm fuses with an egg the full complement of chromosomal pairs is re-established. It is at this point, at the time of the formation of the zygote (the cell formed by the fusion of the sperm and egg) that a new organism comes into existence.

In human reproduction, the sperm fertilizes the egg in the upper portion of the oviduct. A new human life thus begins its existence in the cavity of the oviduct, and since it takes several days for the new organism to reach the uterus, it is already an embryo by the time it enters that organ.

The Point of Separation


One frequently hears the argument that the zygote, embryo or fetus is a part of the mother’s body over which she must have control. Without question, this is not the case. Once sperms and eggs are discharged from the sex organs, they are no longer a part of the organism which produced them. These highly specialized cells, which have been produced by a special form of cell division (meiosis — other body cells are formed by the process of mitosis), are of no value to the organism which formed them (as regards the maintenance of its own life) — thus they either degenerate or they are released from the sex organs and pass into a tube on their way out of the body. Ultimately a small fraction of these discarded sex cells will fuse. Under no circumstances could one consider mature released sex cells, or any subsequent organism resulting from the fusion of these cells, as a part of the individual which generated them.

(Although the human embryo attaches itself to the wall of the uterus in order to gain needed substances from the mother for its growth and development, it does not fuse with this organ but remains as a distinct new life existing within the cavity of the mother’s reproductive tract.)

Human life therefore has its beginning (is viable) at a point in time when the necessary genetic information, half coming from the father and the other half from the mother, is brought together by the fusion of the released sperm and egg to form the single-celled zygote. This individual organism cannot be a part of the mother (it has an entirely different set of chromosomes), but is a separate and unique human life.

All Vertebrate Life Begins in an Aquatic Environment


There is another important, but generally overlooked, aspect of the development of vertebrates which is germane to the discussion of abortion and which would shed light on the nature of the intrauterine embryo or fetus. It is a well known biological fact that all vertebrate life must begin in an aquatic environment. Fishes and amphibians generally release the sex cells into a body of water and the zygotes and embryos develop there. In the land vertebrates, which do not deposit their eggs into water, a sac forms around the embryo which fills with fluid. Consequently, each vertebrate, including the human, must spend the first developmental phase of its life in a water medium, and it is only after the new organism has achieved the necessary physical development (not accomplished by fishes and some amphibians), that it is able to continue its life in a gaseous environment.

(Even if humans should achieve the technological ability to raise what science fiction writers have called “bottle babies,” these “bottles” would be filled with fluid. It is only because the human organism begins its life, not in a glass container in which one could observe the rapidly changing new life, but in a dark cavity out of sight, that older humans find it possible to pretend that these younger humans are not living or are not human. If the growth of the unborn child were to be observed by the mother, the issue of abortion would most likely never have become a matter of world-wide concern, for what psychologically healthy mother, seeing the unborn child within herself, would choose to destroy it.)

Metaphysically, by its nature, every new human life must spend the first months of its existence in an aquatic environment, within the amniotic sac, if it is ever to experience a later stage of human existence. No human life has ever bypassed this requirement, or ever will — at least not for many millions of years, if then, considering the present rate of evolution. Every new human life must also have first been a zygote, then an embryo and finally a fetus before it is prepared to live outside the fluid medium. To contend that human life is only human at the time of birth, that the intrauterine entity is not an actual, but only a potential human being, is untenable.

If Not a Human Being, Then What Is It?


For those who insist that human life begins only at birth, the question that must be asked is: What is this entity developing within the uterus if not an actual human being? Is it possible that by some magic, at the time of birth, that this alleged potential being is somehow, within a matter of minutes, transformed into an actual human being? To rational individuals, in possession of scientific facts, the answer is incontrovertible. Both the unborn child and the new born child is an actual human being, and at the time of birth, the child is merely moving from one required environment (aquatic) to a new required environment (gaseous) so that it can continue to develop into the succeeding stages of its life until it eventually ends its existence at the time of death.

The biological facts relating to the reproductive process and the first stages of human life have been established. It is now necessary to relate this knowledge to the issue of rights.

Those that contend that the intrauterine being is not human have no problem in their attempt to settle a controversy over rights, for if this living “thing” is not human, it can possess no rights. Since it is a well substantiated fact that the zygote, embryo or fetus is a human being, their argument becomes meaningless and requires no further discussion.

Those who contend that a human life is existing within the mother during the period of pregnancy do ascribe rights to this new human life, but it is argued that the rights of the mother take precedence over those of the unborn child and thus she has, or should have, the legal and moral right to terminate the life of this new individual at any, or certain limited, stages of its existence. This latter position requires a succinct examination.

A woman must have full control over her own body at all times. She must be free to take any action which is deemed necessary to sustain her life. For instance, if it can be medically determined that carrying her unborn child to term would probably result in her death, she cannot be expected or required to sacrifice her adult in dependent life for the life of an immature, dependent offspring. (Actually, in many such cases, both the mother and the fetus could die, resulting in the loss of two lives, instead of just one.) Since medical science has advanced to a point at which such life and death situations rarely occur, the argument in favor of abortion in order to preserve the life of the mother has only limited application. Although this is the case, the legal code should specifically grant abortion if the mother’s life is seriously jeopardized, which it has done throughout the history of this nation.

Mitigating Circumstances


Are there other circumstances that might arise which would, or could, legally and morally permit an expectant mother to undergo an abortion? The answer is yes —in cases of legally proven (which is sometimes difficult), unwillfully engaged in acts of rape or incest. When an individual does not commit an act of his own free will, he (or she) cannot be held responsible for the consequences of this act. Although this is true, it does not alter the fact that a new life is existing and that it will be destroyed if aborted. The most humane response to such a circumstance would be to encourage the expectant mother to carry the child to term, but no one could require this of the victim.

There are some who insist that abortion should be allowed for other medical reasons — in the case of diseased or malformed fetuses. But what individual physician, or board of physicians, or legislative body has the ability to determine what diseased condition or what deformity could warrant killing the unborn (or the born)? No such judgment is possible, either for the intrauterine or extra uterine human.

“Handbook on Abortion”


Dr. and Mrs. J. C. Willke, in their recently released book, Handbook On Abortion, emphasize this point when they write: “This price tag of comfort or utilitarian usefulness, called euthanasia when applied to incurably ill post-born humans, applies equally well to the pre-born human who is also judged to be so deformed or mentally deficient that he too should not be permitted to live. This criterion and value judgment which permits humans to continue to live only because they are useful and independent is an utterly barbaric concept. Once life has a price tag on it and is no longer an absolute right, then all life is endangered, all life is only worth the current price tag placed upon it by society, the state, the master race, or those in positions of power.”¹

Having full control over her own body (having self-determination) is an absolute right of each woman, but having full control over another’s body, over the body of a new life developing within her reproductive system is not, and never could be her prerogative. A woman must have the right to prevent conception — to determine herself if she wishes to have, or not have, a child — to obtain contraceptive information and materials — but she must also bear the responsibility for sustaining the life of a newly formed human if she willfully engages in intercourse which results in pregnancy.

(It should be noted that certain contraceptives do not prevent conception, but preclude the implantation of the embryo in the wall of the uterus. The use of such contraceptives should be condemned, for they bring about the destruction of very young lives rather than prevent their coming into existence.)

A Collectivist View: The Individual Is Expendable

Consider the political philosophy, and the attitude toward individual rights, of those groups which are the most outspoken supporters of abortion — those concerned with environmental pollution, the population explosion and the “liberation” of women. Each of these groups espouses a collectivist view of life and considers the individual human to be expendable or enslavable as the means of achieving their ends. They are outspoken lobbyists backing legislation granting the agency of force, the government, the authority to establish a myriad of programs which they consider necessary to achieve their aims, and they completely ignore the fact that it is other human lives that will be sacrificed in this attempt to carry out their master plan for society. The sacrifice of the unborn is just one other aspect of their social engineering which is completely compatible with their view of man — the view that the individual is nothing; the collective is all.

There is no conflict of rights between the expectant mother and the unborn child. Both she and the new life within her have the right to life, a right which must be possessed by all humans at all stages of their life. And since it is the function of government to protect the rights of all humans, from the beginning of life to its end, it is right for the government to proscribe the killing of the unborn by means of abortion — except to save the life of the mother or in instances where a woman’s self-determination was obliterated, as in the case of forced rape or incest.

The unborn child is a new individual having the same rights as all other individuals, and, as with all humans, possesses the right to life.

In her brilliant essay, “Man’s Rights,” Ayn Rand states: “There are no ‘rights’ of special groups, there are no ‘rights of farmers, of workers, of businessmen, of employees, of employers, of the old, of the young, of the unborn.’ There are only the Rights of Man—rights possessed by every individual man and by all men as individuals.” The unborn child is a new individual having the same rights as all other individuals, and, as with all humans, regardless of their age or station in life, possesses the most basic of all rights, the right without which all other rights would cease to exist, the right to life.

 When A New Life Begins

There is perhaps no phenomenon in the field of biology that touches so many fundamental questions as the union of the germ cells in the act of fertilization; in this supreme event all the strands of the webs of two lives are gathered in one knot, from which they diverge again and are rewoven in a new individual life-history…. The elements that unite are single cells, each on the point of death; but by their union a rejuvenated individual is formed, which constitutes a link in the eternal procession of life.

  • Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Biology and Professor of Chordate Embryology at Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia.