In our time, there probably aren’t as many topics that incite such emotions and impassioned debate as the topic of abortion. Over the last few decades, the political and social landscape has been impacted by the stances of those who identify themselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, debating the ramifications of how far the state should go to protect the unborn vs. how much a woman has the right to choose what to do with her own body. In my view, it is a perfect example of the statement, “my rights begin where yours end”. But how did we get to this point, and what are the ramifications/legal concepts involved?
In 1973, the SCOTUS ruled in the landmark case Roe v. Wade about the issue of abortion. In a 7-2 decision, the court stated that the Texas abortion ban, along with those around the country at the time, were unconstitutional due to violating the due process (right to privacy) of women under the 14th Amendment. However, the Court also claimed that such a right had to be balanced with the state’s two legitimate interests of protecting prenatal life and that of the woman’s health. In stating that such interests become stronger as the pregnancy goes forward, the Court came up with a trimester formula that tied state regulation of abortion to the third and final trimester of pregnancy.
This was contemplated based on the notion that fetal viability (the time at which a fetus could exist on it’s own outside the womb, even with artificial aid) should be the determination of when a fetus’s right to life is protected. At the time, technology was such that a fetus on average could survive around 28 weeks, though with certain precautions it could occur as early as 24. However, today’s technology has advanced to the point where unborn children have been kept alive from even earlier dates, with the youngest being a fetus birthed in 2006 prematurely at 21 weeks in Miami. Such advancement has made the viability test more complicated, recently leading to a complete overturning of the trimester formula created in the Roe case in the 1992 Supreme Court case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, with the claim that it was outdated.
Even more recently, in 2003, the Partial Birth Abortion Ban was passed through Congress that raised penalties (such as jail time) for doctors who performed the procedure during the late point of pregnancy. Such a law was upheld by the Supreme Court in a later case, claiming that it fit within the state’s legitimate interest. States have also passed laws to require parental notification for minors, and mandate the disclosure of abortion risk information to patients prior to the procedure. There are laws in certain states that would move to either illegalize or protect abortion rights in the event that the decision in Roe was overturn someday by the SCOTUS.
But where does this leave us? Where is the line drawn? Is there even an answer to such a question? To be frank, not at the moment. Scientific advancement and research has looked into the capabilities of the fetus and attempted to understand when the first vestiges of what we would understand as life first arise. According to data from some channels, including Maureen Condic, Ph. D, Associate Professor of Neurology and Anatomy from the University of Utah, the first vestiges of heartbeat and nerve activity of a detectable level can be found anywhere from 8-12 weeks into the pregnancy. Condic et. al. interpret such data to show that fetuses at that developmental stage can technically feel pain, and as a result are able to interact with their surrounding environment, a strong product of life. Others though claim that there isn’t much to show how strong such neuro development is, stating that research can only definitely show that by 23-25 weeks is development at such a level of maturity that fetuses can process physical sensations such as pain (USNLM, Institutes of Health). Research is of course still ongoing, but it seems that such a methodology will be more effective than simply setting an arbitrary date that is increasingly becoming more obsolete as technology grows and advances.
Where do I stand on this topic? While I do think that a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body is important and shouldn’t just be dismissed out of hand, the topic of abortion also includes the concept of an individual (fetus) without the capacity to protect itself. In cases where an individual is such, it is the right of the state to provide that protection. From the beginning annuals of our nation, in the Declaration of Independence, it was stated that there were certain unalienable rights that no one could take from us. The first of those rights to be stated…was life. Every single one of us, from when we show the first vestiges of life, deserve to experience it to the fullest of it’s potential. The question is, however, where such vestiges can be found. As I’ve stated before, research has started to show that the first vestiges of life can be found on average about 10 weeks or so into pregnancy. While some scientists do disagree about whether such vestiges actually represent a conscious, mature system of interaction, I feel that such questions don’t necessarily refute such interaction. Whether mature or not, such vestiges still represent the mechanization/activity of life and therefore should be taken into consideration. That, of course, wouldn’t take away the exceptions where if a women’s life was in danger, or she had been the victim of rape or incest that abortion would be an option…or if she simply decided not to carry on the pregnancy before the 10 weeks.
Even with all this though, as of yet, there really isn’t a definitive answer. Much rides simply on where one strongly feels, which will determine how they interpret this topic. As the last few decades have shown, this debate looks set to continue on for a long time.