The Sexes: Abortion on Demand

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»— WHEN DOES LIFE BEGIN? Most theologians and philosophers believe that she should base her decision on the question that Newman found to be a matter of individual judgment: when does a human being begin to exist? Is a fetus only "a bit of vegetating unborn matter" that counts for nothing, as Physician H.B. Munson asserts? Or is it a real person whose destruction Terence Cardinal Cooke describes as "slaughter of the innocent unborn"? The view of the fetus as a person has spawned a nationwide, Catholic-dominated, Right to Life movement whose partisans insist that abortion deprives the fetus of due process under the Constitution. Asserts Fordham Law Professo'r Robert Byrn, a leader of the movement in Manhattan, "I believe that each of us has the right to privacy. But there is a superior interest-the right to life."

Some biologists believe that humanity begins at conception because the fertilized egg cell contains human DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Manhattan Lawyer Cyril Means Jr., among others, finds this line of reasoning unconvincing: each sperm and egg also contain DNA, yet hardly anyone would argue, even metaphysically, that spermatozoa and ova possess the value of human beings.

A more persuasive argument makes a distinction between an embryo and a viable fetus-one sufficiently developed to survive outside the uterus. Because of incubators and sophisticated medical techniques, such survival is now possible after 28 weeks. "In this modern day," asserts R. Paul Ramsey, a Methodist and a professor of religion at Princeton University, "viability must be regarded as the equivalent of birth."

Most behavioral scientists, however, do not believe that viability marks the beginning of humanity. In their view, a fetus is not a person but a coherent system of unrealized capacities, and humanity is "an achievement, not an endowment." Anthropologist Ashley Montagu concurs, arguing that the embryo, fetus and newborn do not become truly human until molded by social and cultural influences after birth.

-WHOSE RIGHT TO LIFE? Some ethicists are not especially concerned about pinpointing the moment when human life begins. Philosopher Hans Jonas, who teaches at Manhattan's New School for Social Research, emphasizes rather that "a mother-to-be is more than her individual self. She carries a human trust, and we should not make abortion merely a matter of her own private wish." A secular ethicist, Jonas believes that society has a "social responsibility" toward pregnant women: it must protect the "mission of motherhood against the clamors of individuals or of social movements. To give this mission over completely to individual choice oversteps the order of nature." Others disagree. According to Reform Rabbi Israel Margolies, a fetus "is literally part of its mother's body, and belongs only to her and her mate."

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