The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

Part 2 of My humble submission to the conversation about Gosnell, abortion and hormonal contraceptives


First of all, let me start by saying that I don’t intend for this essay to be one in which I attempt to make a decision for every woman when it comes to birth control. Rather I want to share why I personally have made the decision not to use hormonal birth control. Please read Part 1 of this essay for important context for this, Part 2.

A zygote is a single cell with all the genetic information necessary to form a human being. It is formed by the merger of two gamete cells. As discussed in my last post, zygotes may be destroyed by the use of hormonal birth control.

If I start from infancy and work my way backwards, a human life gets smaller and smaller and perhaps bears less and less physical resemblance to myself. But from the moment two gametes met and you or I became a zygote, you and I were an utterly unique human being (we now know that even identical twins are not identical genetically). Not even the coldest and hardest of sciences will deny that something mysterious (some might even say miraculous), happens when two cells from two separate and distinct human beings meet and merge to form one single-celled human organism, a third separate and distinct individual with all of the genetic information necessary to fully build an adult human being if allowed to continue life along a natural course.

A zygote may be too tiny to see and it may be too delicate to survive outside of the womb, but there are no questions that human life begins with that single cell. The question for scientists has not been whether or not a zygote is a human life, it has been whether or not a zygote can be defined as a person. That distinction between a human and a person is the foundation for an ethical discussion about how we determine whether the life of one human has enough worth or value to offer it the same protections and rights as another human. In my own mind, this distinction between a human and a person felt rather artificially constructed and that is why I started wrestling with these issues.

When I consider whether or not a fetus (or an embryo or a zygote, depending on the number of cells) has value or worth comparable to a human outside of the womb, I end up asking certain questions that inevitably challenge my own understanding of the value or worth of any person. If one does not choose the zygote as the beginning of human life, then every other point chosen begins to feel rather arbitrary, especially when we try to apply it to other people living outside of the womb. 

For example, what happens to a culture of life if we judge the worth or value of another* human being based on his or her:

  • Consciousness. Are we less human when we are dreaming?
  • Heartbeat. If our heart stops beating during a surgery, do we stop being a person in that moment? And if we do, do we become another person if we are revived? Is a person using a pacemaker less human?
  • Number of cells. What number of cells should we choose as the number that constitutes a person? If we lose a certain number of cells via our skin sloughing off or if we lose an entire arm, even, do we cease being a person?
  • Geography/Location. Why does it matter that a person is inside the womb or outside of the womb any more than it matters if she is in the United States or Uganda. If I put my fist in my mouth, does it stop being a fist?
  • Age. Does it matter if a human is 4 months gestational age or 8 months from birth any more than it matters if they are 4 years old or 80 years old.
  • Viability. If we determine whether or not a human is worthy of being giving a chance to continue to live based on how long a human could survive outside of their dependence on another person, we would deny the truth of the inter-dependence of all people. Our dependency on other people is highlighted in utero and in infancy but is actually just as true in mid-life and old age as well. Furthermore, a human’s value while they are alive is not diminished by how close to death they might be. What might their last days mean to someone else or even to themselves? Who should be able to determine when to cut a life short?
  • Dependence on medical technology. Many humans live longer because of medical interventions that range from devices that regulate a heartbeat to medications taken daily. And the state or availability of these medical technologies change almost daily, not to mention that their availability differs from hospital to hospital and there are great injustices in the way s they are distributed social-economically. Should the value of a life depend on something so capricious as the state or availability of science? And if a person does or does not depend on medical interventions to survive, who has the right to determine whether or not this life is less valuable? This brings me to the next question-
  • Quality-of-life as determined by someone else. This is an incredibly subjective value. Talk to any number of people with a disability or life-limiting condition and ask them how much their life is worth or how much value they place on living another day and you will find that their answers are as unique and diverse as they are. Their responses may also depend on the day and hour that you ask them.
  • Impact on/cost to society. How can we know how much good or how much harm any individual might pour out onto this earth? Who can determine for someone else the value of granting, via expensive medical intervention, one more month of life? How can we measure the impact of a person’s future actions if they were allowed to live? Is a person born without disabilities, who does not require any medical interventions really more valuable than a person who enters this world with a body that requires an immediate outpouring of medical attention? Is the life of a person born with Down’s Syndrome less valuable than the life of someone like Hitler?
  • Ability to feel pain, experience certain emotions or to think critically. There are all sorts of medical and mental conditions that limit these abilities in human beings outside of the womb, so to define the value or worth of a person based on these criteria is problematic.

*I think that it is important to mention that I think that we as individuals of sound mind can make some of these decisions as they relate to our own lives. But I think we come very close to playing a role that is not ours when we begin making these decisions for someone else, specifically another human being who has not made their own wishes known.

You may think that I’m spending too much time highlighting subtleties in this discussion when, in fact, people really only feel the need to make these determinations in dramatic situations. But the truth is, that there is a significant proportion of the public that would condone drastic action for circumstances that are not at all very extreme. In my thesis, for example, I cited studies that found a significant portion of the population in a variety of countries is in favor of allowing termination of a pregnancy for conditions such as two missing fingers, short stature or even limited musical talent.

So after I ask myself all the above questions, I am left with very few places to draw the line. If every other criteria for personhood seems too arbitrary, and if I try applying those criteria to other human beings outside the womb and find myself challenged to uphold a consistent culture of life, then I am left with no other place to begin than the zygote. Though I continue to wrestle with these issues, my personal decision is made until I can determine with greater certainty that by taking hormonal birth control I am not taking an action that might predictably and directly end the life of another person.

So that is the ground on which I stand. It is terrain that is more than a little uncomfortable and it is relatively undefined territory, still being explored by science and ethics. So I am willing to admit I might be wrong about where I choose to honor the beginning of human life. But ultimately, it comes down to this: If I err, I would rather err on the side of life than destruction. When it comes down to it, if I have to answer for human lives I have been responsible for taking, I would rather there be fewer.

 Because of the length of the post addressing this single topic, I will need to take another post to discuss why I feel our society could benefit from learning to place greater emphasis on the humanity of babies before they are born.


2 thoughts on “Part 2 of My humble submission to the conversation about Gosnell, abortion and hormonal contraceptives

  1. i’m eagerly awaiting the final post.

  2. I’m glad someone is! I’m having a tough time sitting down to wrap this up! It was a big beast to tackle and my oven wasn’t quite big enough to cook it. 😉

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