Morality and contemporary embryology

Before the late 19th- early 20th Century, most of what we knew about human embryology was so limited that we couldn’t rule out an idea like, say, the male sperm swam around or worked on parts of the womb for several months before forming a unique human organism. Even if we imagined that something other than semen formed, we might imagine it as some vague and ill-defined golem that was not quite seed, not quite separate, with any question of its life or humanity as puzzling as trying to classify a platypus or jellyfish. Moments like “quickening” wouldn’t be of much help either, since all it tells us is “something is moving”, and that “something is moving” doesn’t require a life other than the mother, or even life at all.

In such a world most abortions wouldn’t be seen as killing human persons, which is most of all what abortion opponents now object to. And so, as R. Marie Griffith points out, abortion in the 19th Century was at worst a misdemeanor, though it was more often not an object of law at all.

While no scientific finding can definitively establish personhood in something biologically human, the facts of embryology didn’t turn out to be what we would have chosen if we wanted abortion to be an obvious instance of not killing a person. Perhaps a clear, scientific examination of a womb five months after insemination could have found only clumps of easily identifiable mother or father tissue, or blobs of goo with no cell structure. The world isn’t like that, though.

The contemporary problem of abortion is thus as much a problem generated by scientific knowledge as climate change, and in both cases the resolution of the problem is essentially in the moral-political domain with science as ancilla. 



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