Abortion is a very sensitive and difficult subject. In addition to being a hot political and social topic, it has moral and religious implications. The current discourse is limited. The narrative is reduced to slogans. But pregnant women and girls need a new and larger frame of reference to assess their moral and religious options if not their legal ones.
In decision theory, a decision rule is a function based on observations that lead to an appropriate action. I propose that there is a way to establish a decision rule for abortion. It has to do with consciousness.
The theory here is to establish the relative rights of each party involved. Namely, the mother and the fetus. This approach forces us to ponder the uniqueness of human life and how it might differ from other life forms.
Modern psychology teaches the following:
Women and men are sentient beings: We constantly receive impulses from our five senses. The impulses travel through sensory nerves all the way to the brain. All senses are constantly receiving and transmitting. But we are not constantly aware of all the sensory perceptions. We have trained ourselves to ignore what is not relevant.
Women and men are cognitive beings: Each sensation from the five senses is received by the brain. The brain compares each sensation to an enormous databank of past sensations. Each one is instantly identified or cognized. Right away we know if a sensation is in the normal range of what we are used to or not.
Women and men are conceptual beings: Our mind develops some concept of the sensorial experience from the information received. We learn from the myriad of empirical information received by the senses and interpreted by the mind. We give meaning to what we experience. From those experiences we draw knowledge that becomes the basis of our future choices.
Women and men are conscious beings: Of all living entities, it seems that only men and women are able to be consciously aware. Many animals are capable of some thinking. But they are not likely to think about their thinking. They are simply not aware of it.
When the seventeen century French philosopher René Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” he was identifying with his capacity to think. He could have said, “I am aware of thinking therefore I am.” We had to wait for the twentieth century American mystic and spiritual teacher, Joel Goldsmith, to clarify the true nature of men and women. Goldsmith declared, “consciousness is what I am.”
The distinctive nature of humans
In short, as humans, we have the capacity to be conscious of our conceptual, cognitive, and sentient nature. We form paradigms of beliefs that explain and rationalize our environment and our life experience.
Most animals have some degree of awareness, and many are sentient beings. But we have no evidence that they are capable of being aware of their awareness. By this definition animals are not capable of being conscious in the same way that we, as humans, are.
We can define the uniqueness of human life beyond our biology or psychology by the unique faculty of consciousness. That understanding is pivotal. Abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia, pause critical moral issues. The criteria of consciousness gives us a way to address the dilemma created by such situations.
Inflexible pro-life groups declare that human life starts the moment the sperm penetrates the ovum. They give priority to the fetus to pursue its development. Simultaneously, they preempt the right of the mother to an abortion.
Those who affirm that the one-minute-old embryo is a human life reduce human life to its most simplistic biological level. They ignore that humans are endowed of the unique faculty of consciousness. That faculty becomes the moral decision rule when abortion is concerned.
Pregnancy cannot cause a mother to be less in charge of her body and of her life than before
Pro-life groups are telling women, “You have the right to become pregnant, but once you are, you lose your rights over your body and your pregnancy. Whether it was forced upon you or not. Whether you want the child or not. Whether you want that father for your child or not. And that is regardless of your circumstances.”
Society has no right to turn a pregnant woman against her will into a simple vessel for the development of a fetus. The fetus remains a work in progress and cannot have the same rights as the mother.
The biological life of the embryo and of the fetus
During the first three months of pregnancy, the embryo is essentially an extension of the life of the mother. From the third month on, the fetus exists only as a potential human life that becomes realized from a biological viewpoint with the successful exit from the womb. But from a spiritual point of view, it is the advent of the Soul and the exercise of consciousness that makes life sacred and truly “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27).
Soul and consciousness go hand in hand. Consciousness is a necessary tool of the soul. We do not know when the soul joins the body. But it will not happen before the fetus becomes capable of consciousness. The time frame of the embryonic brain development indicates that the embryo cannot have consciousness. The fetus will have the potential of consciousness only when the brain has sufficiently developed its neocortex. It is known that by the sixth month, only three quarters of the neocortex development has taken place. Therefore the fetus could not have any consciousness before the 6th month of pregnancy. That is why many countries disallow abortion after 24 weeks.
Movements of the fetus can be felt as soon as the fourth month. Early movements are emotionally important for the mother. But they cannot be seen as indications of a conscious life of the unborn baby so long as the neocortex is not yet sufficiently developed. That could not happened before the sixth month. Consequently, an abortion before the sixth month would not end the life of a conscious human being.
Conscious life is clearly far more than biological life.
The first moves of the baby to leave the womb are most likely due to instinct. The first act of consciousness of the newborn baby is likely when he/she recognizes his/her caretakers. Any earlier time for a conscious act remains pure speculation.
The life of the embryo, and then of the fetus, is one of biological evolution and transformation. It cannot be a conscious human life during the first six months. But during that period, the mother is a fully conscious being.
Our hierarchy of priorities cannot equate the yet-not-conscious life of the fetus with the conscious life of the mother. That critical point is drowned by slogans. Yet, we cannot ignore the criteria of consciousness that defines the uniqueness of human life. And, we cannot ignore the principle of a hierarchy of rights between mother and fetus.
How could men truly relate to pregnancy?
Pregnancy is a major aspect of a woman’s life. It is part of her overall sexual experience. Men have no basis to understand and relate to the experience of a pregnancy. For that reason men should recuse themselves when an abortion is considered. Furthermore, any decision pertaining to an abortion should fall under the woman’s right to her pursuit of happiness as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.
Ideally, a pregnancy should be the result of a conscious decision on the part of the parents. The next best thing is that if the pregnancy is unplanned it occurs between loving adults willing to assume their respective responsibilities. Short of this, the next best thing is when the mother is fulfilled by the prospect of motherhood. These are the positive scenarios. Any situation short of those conditions starts the list of negative scenarios.
The negative scenarios
The worse scenario is when the woman was forced into sex. These circumstances can be horrifically devastating and could become a wrenching lifelong stigma. The male perpetrator might have very undesirable attributes. Drugs and venereal disease might be factors. They might affect the mother, the fetus, and eventually the child. Under such conditions, how could anyone have the right to force a victimized pregnant female to prolong her agony? Not only an agony for an unwanted pregnancy but for being forced into unwanted lifelong motherhood. This presumption of judgment is an act of violence against women—not an act of love for the only conscious life at stake i.e., the mother’s.
There are other negative scenarios. One of which is when a pregnancy occurs between two young innocent people unaware of the consequences. Unless they have supporting parents ready and able to help, the young mother will be in dire condition. Shouldn’t she be given a safe opportunity to bring a child into the world on her own terms at a later time? Or, for her lack of awareness concerning sexual matters, should she be condemned to a punishment that will affect her for the rest of her life?
A woman or young girl should not be punished because of the prejudices of others—particularly Christians who should remember the principle of loving others as themselves.
The political weight of Christian fundamentalists
We have witnessed abortion being politicized in the United States as well as in other countries. It has become a screening test in the qualification of Supreme Court judges and other officials. It is an unmeasured and unqualified view of life that has led to extreme laws. Banning all abortions without consideration for individual circumstances is not progress. It is even medically backward as not all pregnancies unfold as expected.
Clearly, it is totally wrong to encourage abortion. But the current position which has gained so much ground in the United States is that unless the life of the mother is at stake, abortion should be categorically forbidden. And anyone inducing abortion should be prosecuted as a criminal. This position is unjustly punitive. It is also both ill-founded and hypocritical.
The current new laws at both federal and state levels are another triumph of herd mentality. They are propelled by slogans and rammed by prejudiced thinking. They pretend to be morally and spiritually founded and based on scientific facts. They are not.
The real motivation of those pushing this agenda is barely hidden. The misogyny and anti-sex obsession of much of Christianity is legendary. It drives many Christians to want to make premarital sex punishable. Many would like to limit sexual activity to the act of procreation on the part of legally married heterosexuals.
Is the imposition of an unwanted pregnancy on a woman or a teenage girl fair retribution for their sexual act?
The stench of hypocrisy
Claiming to save life by banning abortion is a hypocritical proposition. If there are very undesirable factors pertaining to a pregnancy, it is criminal to insist that the pregnancy be pursued against the mother’s wishes for an early abortion. That is during the period when we know that there is no possibility of eliminating a conscious life. Therefore, such a decision should remain a private matter and not a societal one.
A society that tolerates so many young single mothers and their children to live in deep poverty has no moral ground to stand on to impose its will on another conscious being i.e., a woman or girl. A society that makes the death penalty legal cannot claim to be ‘Pro-Life.’
The need to make a choice
The foregoing should not lead the reader to the rash conclusion that I would suggest that any and every unconscious life loses its right to live. But the issue of abortion forces us to establish a hierarchy of priority. It is within that conflict between the mother’s wishes and the alleged rights of the embryo/fetus that there is a need to make … yes, a choice. This choice can be made by seeking the higher truth found through the principle of consciousness.
An extract from the essay of the same name from the recently published book, Religion, Politics, and Reclaiming the Soul of Christianity: A Spiritual Imperative for Our Time and Our Nation, by Jon Canas. Available at: http://Reclaimingthesoul.info
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