by Edd Doerr
One of the most serious consequences of the Republican electoral sweep in November 2010 has been the dramatic upsurge in Congress and many state legislatures of efforts to do away with or sharply curtail abortion rights, reproductive choice. Underlying these drives is what is correctly labeled malignant patriarchalism, a centuries old macho movement to keep women subordinate to men. We see this malignant patriarchalism manifested in many ways: The Vatican's refusal to ordain women and centuries of exploiting the labor of nuns. Conservative evangelical opposition to female ministers. Female genital mutilation in parts of Africa. "Honor" killings. The paucity of women in Congress (17%) and low numbers in state legislatures. The old German "Kinder, Kueche und Kirche" ("Kids, Kitchen and Church") mentality. The Islamic burqa. Etc.
To justify this malignant patriarchalism the guys invented the idea that fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses are "persons", persons with the same rights as you and me. But this idea is alien to the more "primitive" cultures with high infant and child mortality rates. It is also alien to the Judeo-Christian Bible, which not only does not condemn abortion but also (in the Jewish or "Old Testament" portion of the Bible) uses the word "nefesh" to refer to persons, and "nefesh" refers to something that breathes, as in our Latin-based word "respire". The "personhood at conception" idea is also unscientific.
Some years ago I was the moving force behind an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court in Webster v Reproductive Health Services signed by twelve Nobel laureate scientists (including DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick) and 155 other distinguished scientists (had we had a few more days to gather more signers we would have had a veritable army of scientists). At the heart of the brief is this: "The Organic Capacity for Human Thought is Absent Until After 28 Weeks of Gestation.... It is not until sometime after 28 weeks of gestation that the fetal brain has the capacity to carry on the same range of neurological activity as the brain in a full-tern newborn. ... The neurobiological data indicate that the fetus lacks the physical capacity for the neurological activities we associate with human thought until sometime after 28 weeks of gestation." We should note that 90% of all abortion procedures are carried out during the first trimester and over 99% by 20 weeks. Abortions after 20 weeks are performed only for serious medical reasons.
Isaac Asimov has made the point that we can replace or do without arms, legs, hearts, lungs, kidneys, etc. and still be persons, but we cannot replace or do without the cerebral cortex.
Let me put it this way for the many of our fellow citizens who believe that man was "created in the image of God". This of course could have nothing to do with flesh and blood and DNA, but, rather, with the "godlike" capacity for consciousness and thought and will. For religious conservatives to ascribe "personhood" to fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses is to be more "materialistic" than naturalistic humanists or atheists.
Readers of this comment need to put abortion rights near the top of the list of hot concerns, along with protecting our public schools, church-state separation, the environment, civil liberties, and other pressing matters.
(Disclosure: From 1973 until 2003 I represented the American Humanist Association on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and was elected a vice president of the group more than once. I have also worked with the group Catholics for Choice, publishers of the excellent journal Conscience.)
(The amicus brief mentioned above is included as an appendix in John Swomley's book Compulsory Pregnancy: The War Against American Women [Humanist Press, 1999] and is available from me for $7 at Box 6656, Silver Spring, Md 20916. See also Abortion Rights and Fetal 'Personhood', edited by me and James W. Prescott, and also available for $10 from me at the address above.)