Roe v. Wade Was Decided (Partly) on Science Denial

In the Netflix documentary, Reversing Roe, at around the 28:00 mark, Sarah Weddington, the attorney who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court in 1973, recounts that during the case a justice asked her when she believed a human life begins. She responded, “Your Honor, we did not try to say exactly what moment that was. There is no one answer to that. Different religions have different answers to that question. There is no legal standard that says, ‘At this point the fetus becomes a human.’ So, the question is, who gets to make that decision? Is it the woman or is it the government? And my position has always been it’s not the government.”

This is a classic case of a false dilemma (or trilemma). Why are these the only options? Weddington confuses the issue by pretending that the humanity of the unborn is either a religious issue, a decision to be made by old white men (the Supreme Court in 1973), or the woman carrying the baby.

None of these things are true. The humanity of the baby in the womb is a scientific fact from the moment of conception. Any attempt to confuse this issue is ignorance at best and malignant ideology at worst.

Consider for example these statements from widely used textbooks:

“The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.” [Langman, Jan. Medical Embryology. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1975, p. 3]

“The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.” [Sadler, T.W. Langman’s Medical Embryology. 7th edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995, p. 3]

“Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)… The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.” [Carlson, Bruce M. Patten’s Foundations of Embryology. 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996, p. 3]

In other words, there is no question scientifically when a human life begins. To deny this is to deny science.

But there is trickery afoot in Weddington’s comments in Reversing Roe. I’m sure she knew at the time that human life begins at conception. The real question that needs answering is, “At what point does a human fetus become a person.” This may sound like an inconsequential distinction, but it is actually the crux of the matter.

Pro-Choice thinkers have succeeded in separating the issues of human life and personhood. The personhood of an individual is now what provides dignity and protection under the law. So, while it is clearly unscientific to deny that an embryo is human from the moment of conception, the way to deny the baby in the womb protection is to say it is not a person. The question, however, is who gets to say when a human becomes a person? That leads to the next essay, “Dolphins and Computers are Persons While Babies in the Womb Are Not.”

See the previous essay, “Let’s Not Forget What Abortion Really Is.”

Mark Farnham is coauthor of the forthcoming book, Talking About Ethics: A Conversational Approach (Kregel, 2021).

Let’s Not Forget What Abortion Really Is

The issue of abortion has never been more contentious among Christians. I’m not referring to debates between Christians and non-Christians, but among those who profess to be followers of Jesus.

So, let’s get back to the basics of what abortion is. A straightforward scientific definition of abortion is “the termination of a pregnancy by the death of the embryo or fetus.” Pro-Choice advocates have recently sought to minimize any sense of the personhood of the baby in the womb by redefining abortion as “inducing fetal demise” or “removing the pregnancy.” In addition, abortion is now being cast as a basic human right and “reproductive justice.” On the Planned Parenthood website any reference to the baby in the womb is avoided. It is a “pregnancy” being removed, not a baby.

I ask my progressive friends, however, will you admit what the act of abortion really is? Will you look at the medical description of abortion without blinking, and can you say afterward that this shouldn’t be a major consideration in how you vote? In reality, abortion is the single issue that determines the votes of people on both sides of the issue. 

[In this article I will use the terms embryo and fetus interchangeably for the baby in the womb. Embryo is usually used for the first 9-11 weeks of life, while fetus can be used at any stage of development. When referring to humans the etymology of the terms simply mean human “young one” or “offspring.”]

There are several methods of abortion that are used in the first, and sometimes second, trimester of pregnancy. A medical abortion uses powerful drugs to cause the embryo to be expelled within a few days. Clinical (surgical) abortions are more graphic in their methods. First, in a Dilation and Curettage (D&C) the mother’s cervix is dilated, and the surgeon inserts an instrument (curette) to scrape the wall of the uterus, cutting the human embryo to pieces and removing the placenta from its place in the uterine wall. 

Second, vacuum curettage (aspiration), or suction, is often used in combination with a D&C. The abortionist uses suction with a force 28 times that of a vacuum cleaner to tear both the embryo and placenta from the uterus into a jar. (The Planned Parenthood website calls this “gentle suction to empty your uterus”). The doctor then reassembles all the pieces of the embryo to ensure that nothing is left behind in the uterus. More than 85% of abortions take place in the first trimester.

Third, in the saline method a needle is inserted through the mother’s abdomen into the amniotic sac, and some of the fluid is removed and replaced with a solution of concentrated salt. The baby breathes in and swallows the salt and is poisoned. The outer layer of skin is burned off and the brain hemorrhages. It takes the baby about one hour to die. The next day the mother goes into labor and delivers the dead baby.

As horrific as these procedures are, abortion performed in the third trimester is worse. Dilation and Extraction (D&X) and Dilation and Evacuation (D&E) are methods used in what is sometimes called “partial birth abortions.” These procedures are also used in the unfortunate case of miscarriage, but in an abortion they are used on an intact baby, or one that would survive outside the womb if given care. The intact baby is delivered feet first until all but the head is outside the womb. A doctor then punctures the skull and scrambles the brains. Alternately, the mother’s cervix is dilated, and the doctor pulls the viable baby apart piece by piece. The baby cannot be vacuumed out because it is too large.

Although late-term abortions are rare, any act of destroying an embryo or fetus in the womb is essentially the same scientifically. It is the destruction of a unique individual that is genetically human. This leads me to my next article, coming soon: “Roe v. Wade Was Decided (Partly) on Science Denial.”

Mark Farnham is coauthor of the forthcoming book, Talking About Ethics: A Conversational Approach (Kregel, 2021).