The debate about abortion is a debate about when life begins.
The pope argues that the purpose of sex is for procreation, not pleasure, and that it is sin to interrupt sex with any birth control that would suppress its purpose, denying life to some new soul. In a sense (and I’m sure he’d never say it like this), the pope teaches that life begins at the moment of ejaculation.
Most Protestants disagree with this religious belief. Some Protestants – essentially the religious right in the US – believe instead that life begins at conception. Based on this belief, they have no problem with any kind of birth control but do want to make all abortions illegal. And I think that they share the pope’s disapproval of sex as something to be used just for mindless pleasure.
And of course secular folks and other religious folks don't base their decision on what popes or Protestants believe.
Now it is worth pointing out that at the moment of conception the new life doesn’t look much different from what it looks like at the moment before; whether we’re talking about separate egg and sperm or a newly formed zygote combining the two, we’re talking about something too small to see with the naked eye.
I think that this belief that life begins at conception is more defensible than the belief that it begins at ejaculation, if only because it is less comfortable to say ejaculation during a public debate. But in both cases, we’re talking about a life that has no viable chance outside of the womb, life that is less conscious of its surroundings than the simplest insect, a life that bears less resemblance to a baby than does any mammal. If we say that life begins at conception we - like those arguing it starts at ejaculation - are not arguing that it is recognizably human at that moment but instead are arguing for its potential. That is, we’re expressing a belief, not stating a fact, when we say that this is when human life begins.
Most people in the US – religious or otherwise – believe that life begins sometime between conception and birth. They don’t know precisely when but they seem to believe that at the moment before birth, life in the womb is hardly different from the new born baby it is about to become and at the moment after conception, life in the womb is hardly different from the sperm and egg it recently was. Most people believe that while it is harder to pinpoint the start of life in this nine month window, it is more reasonable to locate it somewhere other than at its extreme end points.
This question about when life begins can be answered by religion, philosophy, or science, but it cannot be answered definitely by any one of these. Different scientists, different philosophers, and different religious people will reach different conclusions about when life starts. Making this determination requires judgment.
The argument for legal abortion rests on this fact: reasonable, conscientious people will disagree about when life begins.
What do most Americans believe? Well, about two-thirds believe that a woman has a right to an abortion in the first trimester (which is to say, they believe that life does not begin until at least three months after conception). By contrast, only about a third of Americans believe that abortions should be legal in the final trimester, roughly up to the point of birth.
If we were going to use the democratic approach to deciding abortion law, we’d probably have the following:
- A federal law that gave women in any state the right to an abortion in the first trimester
- State laws that may or may not give women the right to an abortion in the second trimester
- Abortion in the third trimester made illegal except in cases where the mother’s life is threatened.
Again, this is not a question about whether a woman has the right to kill a baby because she wants a better life, one with the promise of more economic prosperity and freedom. She doesn’t have that right. The issue of abortion instead stems from a legitimate question about when life begins.
The question of whether one person can kill another in the hopes of economic prosperity and freedom is instead one we should ask when questioning whether to go to war to “liberate” another country, knowing that this decision carries with it the inevitable destruction of lives that are years and decades past the point of conception. Individuals don't have that right; apparently states do.
Oh and as a footnote? Even if a person wants to base her decision about abortion on the Bible (obviously not a basis for modern law), she’ll have little guidance. There is at least one verse that mentions God knowing us even in the womb, implying that a fetus has the rights of a person. But it also states in Exodus 21:22 that if a man injures a woman so she miscarries, he should be fined. In a kingdom that meted out the death penalty for fornication, though, this punishment is fairly mild. Miscarry through violence is not an abortion chosen by the woman, by the way; this is an abortion performed against her will. Obviously, in the Old Testament they did not consider life in the womb to have the same rights as a newborn baby. Finally, Jesus never touches on abortion or when life begins. Even if you want to base your personal decision on the Bible, you are left to your own judgment. And it is the exercise of that judgment, apparently, that so offends those who would make abortion illegal.
Oh, and lest you think that this simple clarification should be dated and irrelevant - as I once did - I'd like to point out that the good people of Mississippi will vote on a (state) constitutional amendment that rules that life begins at the moment of conception - opinion become law.