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Parsing abortion debate terms (Part 2)

12/20/2013

In volcanic exchanges about abortion, a standard phrase is "Life begins at conception."

Strictly speaking, life began before that. At conception, both male sperm and female ova are necessarily alive before joining to conceive a new life (or multiple lives). And it's not simple one plus one equals a new one math.

"In the formation of the germ cells, it is a matter of chance which member of each pair of chromosomes goes to a given ovum or sperm. It is also purely a matter of chance which sperm fertilizes an ovum. All in all ... there are about 70 trillion possible combinations of chromosomes that a child could inherit." What is a germ cell? It's "an ovum or a sperm cell or one of its developmental precursors." (medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Genetic+lines)

Of those 70 trillion possibilities, there's no guarantee of healthy sperm or ova. In addition, environmental agents or diet or lifestyle, health factors permanent or temporary -- in fact, an amazing variety of factors might result in birth defects, some of which are tragic, to put it mildly. Some result from a complex interaction of both genetic and environmental influences. In approximately half of all birth-defect cases, the causes are unknown.

According to a March of Dimes source, every year approximately 8 million infants, six in every 100 newborns, have serious birth defects -- some treatable, some not. More than 3 million newborns are disabled for life. A 2006 EPA study found "although birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality (deaths occurring to those under 1 year of age) in the U.S., the cause is unknown for approximately 70 percent of all cases."

Some might believe a supernatural being is responsible, others that sin caused the problem. Whatever the case, many brought to delivery represent significant lifetime medical and social cost for somebody. Few are adopted.

Annie Dillard, in her slim philosophical book "For the Time Being" begins with several paragraphs about two siblings, ages 3 and 6, who are "bird-headed dwarfs." Each suffers from "moderate to severe mental deficiency" having faulty cerebrums resembling those of chimpanzees. Both have 11 pairs of ribs (rather than 12), cannot straighten their legs. Each has displaced hips and elbows. They are "easily distracted." The 6-year-old's back is "slightly wider than a deck of cards." Both their faces the length of a normal adult's thumb. There are other examples.

The descriptions come from graphically illustrated "Smith's Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation," 4th edition by Kenneth Lyons Jones, M.D. Of the book, Dillard tells us, "In conscience, I cannot recommend your prolonged attention." It is difficult, for me at least, to credit or blame, any God I would respect for bird-headed dwarfs -- even though their unique lives surely "began at conception." While bird-headed babies and other horrible malformations are relatively rare, it is ignorant to dismiss them with a catch-all "life beings at conception" platitude.

Several sources estimate 30 percent, even as many as half, of all pregnancies end in miscarriages -- many of which are not reported. Half or more of spontaneous abortions are caused by genetic abnormalities. Others relate to the mother's health, diet or environmental agents. Often, the cause is unclear. Many happen so early the female mistakes casting off a zygote or blastocyst with experiencing an irregular period.

The moral question is whether a Supreme Being ordains, causes or assists spontaneous miscarriages occurring late enough to be recognized by the female ... or so early as to escape her attention. In any event, human life which began at conception ends in premature death.

As for personhood:

Those who are rigidly anti-choice version B as outlined in the previous column routinely use linguistic framing in their statements. By framing, I refer to words such as "babies, unborn infants, children," which -- intentional or not -- automatically arouse mental images of healthy fetuses at late stages, or approximately 1.5 percent of all performed abortions.

Ask the average person to draw a picture of an infant, child or baby, and it's unlikely the artist will draw a bird-headed dwarf. Or some other malformed entity. Nor will they draw a zygote or a blastocyst. Nor will they consider (for the moment at least) that whatever they drew will die within hours, days or weeks. Nor will they consider the birthing mother might have died in the process -- ending her life which also "began at conception." Nor will they pause to consider whether the female invited the act which made her pregnant.

Nor will they consider her to have been 8 or 9 years old. (Yes, that is possible.)

In Part 3, we'll discuss how granting full personhood at any stage or condition of development poses often unconsidered problems for those advocating the repeal of Roe v. Wade -- and potentially for all of us.

Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.

celtic@ruraltel.net

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