6 July 2022 | by Jim Walters
When I began teaching bioethics to medical students in 1980 I thought the abortion debate would soon end (as Roe was then seven years old), and we’d fully engage new right-to-die issues such as termination of treatment for patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). I was wrong.
After relatively limited debate, ethics and law are fairly settled on death issues such as a terminally ill patient’s right to decline life-extension. And regarding treatment of PVS patients, families increasingly exercise their option to say Stop. Even physician-assisted dying laws now exist in ten states—mostly in the West.
But the abortion debate only gets hotter. And this is highly ironic. Call it lopsided ethics at life’s edges. And tragically this largely conservative Supreme Court will likely make the ethics of appropriate termination of life even more disproportionate—largely at the expense of less-privileged women.
At life’s late edge, patients’ brainstems control breathing, but typically their quality of life is so poor, and/or death is imminent, that they or loved ones often decide the candle isn’t worth the flame, to modify an old saying. A quiet, unheralded death is accepted. This acceptance is acted upon by allowing an easily preventable death of a mature human being who still possesses tens of billions of functioning brain cells.
But at life’s early edge, the live/die battle rages! And here conscious life is nonexistent, and human life is physically minuscule. In Texas, which now has the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban, the embryo can’t be older than six weeks—the size of a lentil or small blueberry, ¼ inch—and there isn’t a single brain cell for another week.
It’s as though the human conceptus were the mirror reflection of a person in her prime.
The Roman Catholic Church, with 1.3 billion adherents and a 2,000-year history, is the most potent foe of abortion. The Vatican admirably defends many forms of vulnerable human life, but it mistakenly focuses on the “moment of conception.”
Yet the union of sperm and ovum is no momentary event. First, the ovum chemically signals the sperm. Once the sperm penetrates the ovum wall, it seals the rupture by emitting an electrical charge. The fertilized single-cell zygote lasts 12 hours, with the pairing of chromosomes occurring late the first day. On day two the zygote becomes two cells, and by day three 16 cells. After eight to nine days the 200-300 cell embryo, now pinhead size, attaches itself to the uterine lining for nourishment. Prior to implantation, the embryo may divide into twins, triplets, or even more offspring.
Beginning with day one’s fertilized egg, over 60% of the embryonic-fetal tissue will be spontaneously aborted. However, it’s noteworthy that there is no medical assault on this natural, unrestrained destruction of human life—not by the Vatican or by the Centers for Disease Control. Why? Intuitively we sense, individually and collectively, religionists and secularists alike, that there is a moral difference—despite our often-conflicting rhetoric— between embryonic and mature human life.
Yet, the deep irony is that it’s the tiny embryo or fetus—not the mature adult—that’s become the focus of today’s debates about human life. Why the disparity? It’s likely some strange combination of denial and promise.
On the one hand, we appropriately allow our ailing, near-vegetative loved one to pass on, with the unspoken thought, “I’d sure not want to be kept alive in that shape!”
But on the other hand, many people now mistakenly prize lentil-size human tissue that is only potential life—depriving an adult woman from control of her reproductive health before most women even know they are pregnant. In its handling of Mississippi and Texas abortion cases the Supreme Court warned us that it would return America to the decades prior to the reform efforts that culminated in Roe, when abortion was largely banned, even in cases of rape and incest and fetal abnormality. That has happened. The difference now will be state diversity: reproductive freedom and health could be determined by zip code and income.
A virtual sea-change in ethics and law over the last 30 years has occurred regarding right-to-die at the later edge of life—and broad public acceptance ensures this advance. However, the advance made by Roe, giving all women the constitutional right to early-stage abortion, has now been eliminated. Today’s already lopsided ethics at life’s edges is likely to get worse, sadly at the expense of women of color and those with limited means.
James W. Walters is professor emeritus of ethics at Loma Linda University.
Randi Robertson is an instructor/pilot for JetBlue Airlines. She teaches at JetBlue University at Orlando International Airport.
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