U.S. Rep. Todd Akin undoubtedly regrets the cause of his national notoriety: his bizarre claim that women whove been raped cannot become pregnant. Since he uttered that ridiculous notion in response to a question about whether abortion should be permitted in cases of rape, he also implied that women seeking abortions while claiming to have been raped are lying. Yikes.
The Romney-Ryan campaign wasted no time in repudiating Akins statement, and stipulated they would not oppose abortion in cases of rape. Thats admirable in itself. Unfortunately, Romney-Ryan cannot easily untangle themselves from Akin, because Romney has advocated the repeal of Roe v. Wade, Ryan co-sponsored a House bill called The Sanctity of Human Life Act which elevates embryos to the status of persons, and the Republican Party platform seeks to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest, or risks to the life or health of the mother.
Absolutist arguments against abortion contain or assume two key premises. First, that its always immoral to intentionally and directly kill an innocent person. Second, that the human embryo is a person from the moment of conception. From those premises, a conclusion that abortion is always immoral logically follows. But lets look closely at those premises.
The moral rule against intentionally killing innocent persons seems solid. But is it always wrong to kill innocent persons intentionally?
Consider tragic cases where abortion is necessary to save the mothers life. In such instances abortion is clearly killing in self-defense, even though the fetus obviously has no intention to kill its mother. So in at least some abortion situations, killing an innocent person (if the fetus is a person) can be the right thing to do.
However, not only do Republicans like Ryan and Akin oppose abortion to save the mothers life, that policy is mandated at all Catholic hospitals in the U.S. Do we really want such an appalling religious policy to guide federal or state abortion laws? I desperately hope not.
There are also serious problems with the claim that the human embryo is a person. That view is typically grounded in a religious belief that ensoulment occurs at conception. But there is no functioning brain present at conception. In early embryos there are only undifferentiated cells. There arent even any neural cells that might eventually form a working brain.
Consider: if persons are said to exist from conception, then brain-death, accepted as a legal definition of death in all 50 states, would not be sufficient: wed have to wait until every last cell of a persons body decomposed.
Even after neurons start forming in the embryo it takes months for them to connect with one another to make conscious experience possible. Those who claim ensoulment occurs at conception cannot explain how that soul is able to merge with a developing brain, and thus how our soul would encompass our conscious experience and sense of self.
Neural cells dont form enough synaptic connections in the fetus to enable consciousness earlier than 24-26 weeks gestation. And according to the Guttmacher Institute, over 99 percent of all abortions in the U.S. occur before that time.
So, since a capacity for consciousness is necessary for personhood, it makes no sense to regard embryos or fetuses as persons prior to the emergence of that capacity. Before then, nobodys home, hence early abortions cannot plausibly be equated with homicide.
Absolutist moral arguments against abortion fail completely. The legal right of women to obtain abortions must not be undermined.
Will the Republican Party come to its senses on this issue, or continue to promote baseless policies that endanger the lives of women and insult their intelligence and integrity?