Is there a decisive moment?

The human embryo at about 7 weeks

Contrary to what many believe, one can be a pro-life advocate yet not hold the position that the unborn enjoys full personhood from the moment of conception. Dr. Bernard Nathanson was one of those. You may be familiar with Nathanson who co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America, and ran what was in the 1970s the largest abortion clinic in the US. He began rethinking his pro-choice position when advances in medical technology, such as ultrasound imaging, allowed him to see the unborn target of his instruments of death. He subsequently became an outspoken critic of abortion and produced a number of pro-life works, including “Silent Scream, a controversial short film that showed the vacuum aspiration abortion of a 12-week-old fetus; according to Nathanson’s narration the fetus could be seen ‘rearing away’ from medical instruments,” as described in The Lancet.

In one of his books, Nathanson argued that the decisive moment conferring full humanness on the unborn is when the conceptus implants in the woman’s uterus, which occurs within two weeks after conception. He is cited by Francis Beckwith in Chapter 6 of Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1) as holding to one of the Arguments from Decisive Moments. Nathanson’s reasons for believing that before implantation the sperm-egg union is not fully human include the observation that sometimes they result in unusual entities, such as the hydatidiform mole which is actually a tumor, and the blighted ovum where the embryonic sac develops but not the embryo itself. Both of these, however, at least in some cases, do attach to the uterus so I don’t see how they support the view of implantation as when full personhood begins.

Beckwith doesn’t mention this, but the uncertain status of frozen embryos would seem to support this view. What are we to make of these tiny entities of the human species suspended in time and liquid nitrogen for possibly decades before being implanted in the womb? They present a troublesome challenge for the full personhood from conception view, and I personally struggle with it. But as odd as it may be, if we can envision the cryogenic preservation of an adult body for reanimation at a later time, why must the frozen condition of a human being at its earliest stages count against its personhood?

Some argue for implantation as the decisive moment for determining personhood because of the large numbers of spontaneous abortions occurring before then. But Beckwith responds that, “it does not logically follow from the number of unborn entities who die that these entities are by nature not fully human.” Some abortion advocates will charge that if we really believed they are fully human we would make an effort to save their lives. But as the author argues, this “confuses our obvious prima facie moral obligation not to commit homicide (that is, to perform an abortion) with the questionable moral obligation to interfere with natural death.”

Another decisive “moment” when full personhood is said by some to occur is when the unborn looks human. But of course the embryo then fetus gradually develops her more familiar human form, as it necessarily needs to be. So the determination of a moment when she looks human enough to have the rights of one is largely subjective and arbitrary. And, as Beckwith states, “an early embryo, although not looking like a newborn, does look exactly like a human ought to look at this stage of her development.”

He also makes an observation which I think is very important to note: “it is psychologically easier to kill something that does not resemble the human beings we see in everyday life.” It is also easier to kill something you can’t see at all, which is why Bernard Nathanson stopped performing abortions once a window to the womb was created, and sought forgiveness for the killings he had committed by converting to Catholicism. He is reported to have confessed killing his own son.

The Silent Scream was produced in 1984 so the clarity of ultrasound then was less than what medical technology has provided since. But as it was produced and narrated by someone who was heavily involved in the abortion industry and knows what he’s talking about, even though the killing being done is not clearly seen, the reality of it still is because of his input. It’s worth a watch for all who do want to see.

(1) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)