“Six months from now her baby would be born. Something that had been a single cell, a cluster of cells, a little sac of tissue, a kind of worm, a potential fish with gills, stirred in her womb and would one day become a man – a grown man, suffering and enjoying….
“…A thing would grow into a person, a tiny lump of stuff would become a human body, a human mind. The astounding process of creation was going on with her….
That was written sixty years ago by an English author, Aldous Huxley, in a novel entitled Point Counter Point. It brings out effectively the wonder and mystery of human conception and development. In a sense it elaborates on a quotation from the Old Testament which pro-life supporters often apply to the unborn child – “I am beautifully and wonderfully made.”
Early in its growth the fetus does have rudimentary gills, suggesting though certainly not proving man’s physical evolution from the fish as ancestor. The Greek philosopher Aristotle envisaged a different kind of growth from the one Huxley describes, more in the direction of the Christian teaching that God directly creates a human soul – infusing the life-giving principle into matter – for each human being. Aristotle believed that the new organism was first infused with a vegetable soul, then with an animal soul, and finally with the rational soul appropriate for a human being. He conjectured that “ensoulment” or “animation” took place in boys about forty days after conception and in girls about eighty days. In a world where experimental medicine had to wait till the seventeenth century, this observation when “quickening” could be verified by the mother had an astonishing influence; it was either believed in or argued about for centuries.
Against the speculations in the past about life in the womb we can set the more certain knowledge gained in recent years by the new science of fetology.
On the cover of its March 1988 monthly magazine, Challenge from Winnipeg, carried a picture of a baby in its mother’s uterus with the caption “Canada’s most endangered citizen.” When a reader questioned whether such photographs can be considered genuine, editor Larry Henderson replied that the picture was first published in the American photo weekly Life in April 1965, and represented a remarkable scientific achievement:
“The photograph is by the Swedish photographer Lenart Nilsson, using a specially built super wide-angle lens and a tiny flash beam at the end of a surgical scope. Nilsson was able to shoot this picture of a living 18-week-old unborn child, its eyes still sealed shut, from only one inch away. Its authenticity has never been challenged.”
Many such photographs have been taken since Nilsson’s pioneering one, and the knowledge they have given us of life in the womb has made us realize how much more wonderful it is than it appeared to be in Huxley’s description. Now a woman can actually see the developing life within her. So can others; recently, an older woman, her eyes shining, said, “I’ve seen my grandson! I could never believe in abortion after that! She had seen the baby twice, once at about eight or ten weeks after conception and once at a later stage, and for her there was no possible argument: it was real life, real human life, which she had seen.
Henry Morgentaler is fond of saying that just as a pile of bricks is not a house, a collection of cells or blob of matter is not a baby.
This must be one of the most inept comparisons ever made. But its very falsity helps illuminate the truth.
A brick remains a brick. It can be used to make a wall, or a garage, or a house, but that is because someone with a plan or pattern in mind has used it in that way. No brick has ever developed brainwaves or a heartbeat.
The child in the womb may be a tiny lump of matter, but it is matter which is obeying a pattern of development within itself – not something coming form outside. The zygote, the single fertilized cell, contains within it all the genetic information it requires for the development of a mature human being. We know that the individual gets his entire biological makeup, from gender to baldness, when he is conceived.
One writer states, “it is merely a silly semantic evasion to talk as if his species weren’t part of the bargain.” Unless he is interfered with, he will develop into a man. That is what he was programmed to be from the first.
As the offspring of human parents, he is a member of the human species, and no other. Whoever kills him is not destroying a brick, but a member of the human species.
Until recently, it was simply taken for granted that doctors were supposed to protect life, not act as executioners. This was in keeping with a traditional view going back to Hippocrates, a Greek who died about 370 B.C., and who was often called the father of medicine. The oath associated with his name, and taken by most doctors through the ages, said in one of its form, “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked or suggest any such counsel. Furthermore, I will not give to any woman any instrument to produce abortion.”
The oath continued as a governing principle of medical practice at least as recently as 1948, when the World Medical Association meeting in Geneva, urged physicians to pledge themselves to “maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception.” (emphasis ours)
There is a sad irony in the fact that, as medicine has made childbirth much safer than it has ever been before, and has made remarkable discoveries about embryology and fetal development, the mother’s womb has become an extremely dangerous place for the baby to be. Today doctors are the only officially paid executioners in our society. It is astonishing that they have accepted the job.
In his little book, Yes, I’m a Radical, Father Ted Colleton strikingly describes the present situation in Canada as a civil war, in which the casualties so far have been far, far higher – more than a million – than Canadian casualties in both world wars. And all the victims are innocent children. Are some more equal than others?
“If a physician presumes to take into consideration in his work whether a life has value or not, the consequences are boundless and the physician becomes the most dangerous man in the state.” This prophetic judgment, quoted by Father Colleton, is from the German physician, Dr. Christoph Hufeland, who lived from 1762 to 1836.
Those who oppose abortion hold that the destruction of innocent human life is contrary to our legal, moral and medical traditions. Consequently we have take it for granted that the state’s protection should extend to all human beings. This is not a specifically Christian doctrine; it is a fundamental principle grasped by wise rulers and teachers of all societies.
Those who defend abortion implicitly or explicitly substitute for it another principle, namely that some people are more equal than others. In April 1987, Tom Harpur wrote a column in the Toronto Star, in which he challenged what he called “the oft-repeated slander that abortion is murder.” He went on, “it is time to challenge the sloppy thinking that jumps from saying a fetus is a potential human being or a human-being-in-process to saying it is already a human being or a person.
“Potentialities are indeed important, but they emphatically do not have the same value as actualities,” he stated. “In our Western morality, people have an ultimate value. Fetuses have value, but not an equal value with actual persons.
“Specifically, they do not have the ultimate value of a pregnant woman.”
But as Nilsson’s 1965 photo shows, the fetus is an actuality. It is alive, it is human and therefore, it is a human being.
There is a further consideration. Once you begin to discriminate between classes of human beings, where do you stop? Surely a mature woman is more important, has more value, than a pre-born or even a new-born infant, some people say. But once this principle has been granted others will say: surely a woman in her prime has more value than one who is aged or infirm. Surely the wishes of a woman in her prime, who is burdened with an infant she doesn’t like, or with a maiden aunt who is useless to society, or with a mother who is old and decrepit and ear death anyway, have to be put first. And there will be no rational principle to stop this process from being acted out.
Step by step, we reach the Nazi doctrine that some classes of human beings are open to elimination. Some are more valuable than others, some are more equal than others. Once we abandon the principle of maintaining the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception, respect for all life becomes much more problematical. And the physician does become the most dangerous man in the state.