The morality of abortion hinges on different criteria depending on who it is you are having the discussion with. One of the most persistent defenses for abortion is the question of when life begins. This is a question only asked by those philosophizing about abortion, not among those in the embryological sciences. The moment a new human life begins is the instant the sperm enters the egg. But some will argue otherwise: Since we don’t know the precise moment in time the new life begins, it is morally permissible to have an abortion. Personally, I find arguing for abortion from medical ignorance morally and ethically irresponsible. After all, if you don’t know, wouldn’t it be prudent to err on the side of life? But for the sake of argument, let’s agree and say we don’t know when life begins. What does that mean for the abortion debate? Nothing.
Abortions are not performed until well after the mother is determined to be pregnant. The earliest a pregnancy can be detected is between one and two weeks after fertilization. However, the majority of women will not begin to suspect pregnancy until after a missed cycle which could take a few weeks after fertilization.
So what does this mean? All elective and medically necessary abortions — without exception — are performed long after the fertilized egg is indisputably established to be alive. 62.8% of abortions are had by 8 weeks, at which point fingers and toes are taking shape, heart beat has already been established, and brain function is present. Another 28.6% of abortion happen by 13 weeks, at which point fingerprints have formed, veins and organs are visible, and the baby can respond to outside stimuli.
The objection that we don’t know when life begins is a distraction. When life precisely begins is completely irrelevant to the abortion issue because of when abortions are performed. But also, when life begins seems also to be irrelevant to the objector offering the objection anyway. With the exception of possibly two people, I haven’t had anyone who has offered this objection change their mind on abortion once informed about when life begins, or abandon the argument. Those who defended abortion with ‘we don’t know’ but then shown their error and dig their heels in nonetheless exposes how deeply wedded to abortion they are.
This is not to say arguing the pro-life position is fruitless, many people come to change their pro-choice view, I did. And the discussion can be beneficial to those who may be on the fence. The information is readily available to anyone who earnestly seeks to find it. But I think the person defending elective abortion by claiming ignorance as to when life begins is offering a vacuous and irrelevant argument. It flies in the face of medical fact and practical application. I suggest before addressing the ‘when does life begin’ defense of elective abortion, we should ask if their stance on abortion would change if it could be shown that we do in fact know when life begins.