Awareness of anti-abortion legislation should be a priority for those who support the genetic sciences, autonomy, and libertarianism.
Look beneath the surface of opposition to emerging technologies and the question of “What is life?” is often at the root. Closely tied to that question – relevant to issues such as consciousness and AGI, regenerative medicine using embryonic stem cells, ethical issues associated with IVF, concerns about population increases, ethical use of enhancements, and personhood for non-human species – are the moral issues birthed in the abortion debate.
In recent years, anti-abortion forces have tried to reframe the discussion from viability to personhood. The Louisiana bill that seeks to ban all abortions outright, no exceptions, wants to rename abortion ‘feticide’, a designation of personhood, and include penalties for the doctors who perform them.
As gynecological and obstetrics sciences have matured, we better understand that while birds and bees may “do it,” human pregnancy is very different. Like death, rather than simply being on or off, the beginning of human life progresses through stages.
Let’s review a few key aspects of the birth process:
“According to both the scientific community and long-standing federal policy, a woman is considered pregnant only when a fertilized egg has implanted in the wall of her uterus; however, state definitions of pregnancy vary widely.”
The rate of miscarriage, that is, the failure of pregnancy up until week 20, is about 10% - 15% after the cells attach but “may be around 40% when fertilized eggs that do not implant are taken into account.”
According to the site gopchoice.org (in regards to a Colorado ballot initiative on personhood), “30-70 percent of fertilized eggs spontaneously fail to implant within the uterine cavity.” (For religions such as Christianity and Buddhism that consider conception the point of ensoulment, that’s a large number of lost souls.)
It is the mother’s hormones that determine the genetic outcome of the child, that is, which genetic predispositions may be activated, or not.
Around days 10-12, the placenta and amniotic sac begin to form from the cells of the fertilized egg. These cells are not “people” but are necessary to sustain the embryo. About three weeks, “the area that will become the brain and spinal cord (neural tube) begins to develop.” Until that time, the cells could divide to create twins (or other multiples), or twins could combine to form one individual.
According to this article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the biology enabling nociceptive activity begins to develop around the 7th week of gestation. Nociceptive “pathways as well as cortical and subcortical centers necessary for pain perception are well developed late in gestation.”
The organ most related to personal identity, the brain, continues to “mature throughout pregnancy.” That brain activity is important. Neurons, dendrites, and axons, with synapses between them “are not present in the human cortex before 20-24 weeks of gestation, it is not possible to record ‘brain waves’ prior to 20-24 weeks… The ’individuating’ function of a person’s brain doesn’t start to come into existence until the outer surface of the cortex begins to develop those deep furrows, grooves, and convolutions (sulci and gyri)… These structures don’t begin to form until the last 2 months of pregnancy.”
The process for another key aspect of our personal identity, gender, is not completed until week 16 of the pregnancy.
In 2010, the state of Nebraska passed a law “barring abortions after 20 weeks because of the possibility that the fetus could feel pain.” This is a shift in the framing of abortion from viability, a measure of individuation, to the ability to feel pain, a measure of empathy.
The Arizona anti-abortion law passed in February of this year prohibits abortion based on race or gender selection. It is even more directly aimed at both defining the fetus as a person and laying the groundwork to challenge genetic technologies. The next logical challenge, given this law as a precedent, might be to prohibit abortions based on disability.
Those who have lost a wanted pregnancy, regardless of the developmental stage, may experience grief. Love and emotional attachment create a bond. But not all pregnancies are wanted, nor in fact, planned. “In 2001, 49% of pregnancies in the U.S were unintended.” Contraception helps, but inconsistency of use, misuse or failure of contraception happens and contributes to about half of unwanted pregnancies.
It is important to remember that until as recently as 1965 some states prohibited the use of contraception, even among married couples. It was Griswold v. Connecticut that secured “individuals’ right to privacy in deciding when and whether to have a child.” Looking ahead to potential regulation of enhancements, such a precedent for privacy is likely to be important. At the core of the Griswold ruling is whether or not the government has the right to dictate how we use our bodies.
For emerging technologies, the abortion debate and legislation may be important for four key reasons:
1. Asserting “all abortions should be banned” or “life begins at conception” suggests that each person has a pre-ordained destiny. Determinism—whether coming from religion, socio-biology or government—is a form of authoritarian control. It is ideological rather than scientific.
2. Undoing Griswold vs. Connecticut may also harm privacy rights needed to support the use of enhancement technologies. Emerging technologies such as enhancements support a right to use available resources to improve the quality of our lives.
3. Genetic technologies may substantially improve the quality of life. The genetic sciences are helping us to understand the nature of genetic diseases and are showing potential for treatments. Embryonic stem cells are being used in developing a wide range of medical treatments. Geron Corp., for example, “is developing cell therapy products from differentiated human embryonic stem cells for multiple indications, including central nervous system (CNS) disorders, heart failure, diabetes and osteoarthritis, and has initiated a Phase 1 clinical trial in spinal cord injury.”
4. Ensuring social justice relative to genetic sciences means creating an environment for R&D to continue and the associated watchdog mechanisms to prevent a biological caste system from taking hold. Legislation aimed at undermining genetic technologies will have the opposite effect of what is desired. It may mean that these technologies become more expensive to acquire and it is then, when we create road blocks for equal access, that a harmful eugenic pattern can take root.
As our knowledge and understanding of the mechanism of life increases, the complexity of what to do with that knowledge also increases. The challenge for bioethics is to use this knowledge to make nuanced, considered decisions that respect life while avoiding coercion and supporting equal access.
I believe it is in the self-interest of those concerned about emerging technologies (both genetic and computational) to demonstrate a respect for life. Prior to week 24 of gestation, the fetus represents the potential for human life but it has not fully formed nor fully individuated. That potential needs to be treated with respect, and every effort possible should be taken to ensure the fetus does not suffer.
What bioethical standards might be suggested?
Should techno-progressives take a stand for men and women having control over reproduction (e.g. access to contraception, emergency contraception, abortifacients, etc.) and a stand against forced or coerced abortions?
What does our understanding of fetal development suggest regarding abortion?
What other developments might techno-progressives suggest to reduce or eliminate the need for abortion?
Dorothy Deasy is a freelance design researcher with a Masters of Applied Theology and a BS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.
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