Abbie Berringer: A journey to defending life through science

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 5:56pm

I was raised in a pro-life family. It was an implicit part of our Protestant Christianity. The fundamental ideas underlying our belief in the sanctity of life were that life begins at conception and every human being is endowed with a unique purpose from our creator. Psalm 139:16 says, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” This Bible passage, as well as others on the topic of life, leads many denominations of Christians to believe God knew us and planned for us before we were created through human conception. Therefore, the second we are fertilized we are not just another random human, but rather unique in form and loved unconditionally by our creator.

For me personally, though I remained a believer in Jesus Christ, the transition into my teen years began to make me question many of my beliefs, including my belief in the sanctity of an unborn life. High school accentuated the complexity of this issue within me as people I knew began to experience pregnancy scares. I spent more than one panicked night with a friend wondering how they would take care of a child financially, if the father would be supportive, if their parents would disown them and if their dreams for the future were essentially ruined if they chose to have the child. I began to put myself in these shoes as well, feeling with intensity that my whole life could be altered completely in a moment if I were to become pregnant. I also became more invested in the scientific view of life. Are we really no more than a clump of cells for weeks on end? When can a baby in the womb feel pain? When are the unborn sentient? Politically and ethically I began to hear both sides of a complex debate on when the right of a life inside the womb trumps the rights of the mother.

Additionally, I kept being told by so many of my peers as well as much of the media that if I didn’t support a woman’s right to choose then I was somehow betraying my own gender. I had also become more aware of the consequences women in unplanned pregnancy situations could potentially face, including physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their families and partners, exacerbated poverty and so much more. For these reasons my position as someone who still considered themselves fairly pro-life had shifted further away from this long held belief to a point where I openly considered myself pro-choice.

Then, I attended an apologetics conference through Summit Ministries the summer before my senior year, and that is when everything changed. Apologetics essentially is a branch of Christian theology that attempts to defend Christianity against objections, not just through the use of scripture but through science, philosophy and ethics. In a lecture given by Christian elocutor Megan Almon I learned the most important question in the abortion debate: “Are the unborn human?” I was forced to ask myself this over and over again. At first, I thought it was fair to say “they are becoming human.” Then I learned the scientific study of embryology affirms that once an egg is fertilized to become a zygote, it is at once a “highly specialized, totipotent cell [that] marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual." From the moment we become zygotes we are genetically distinct and totipotent, meaning that, aside from the nutrients we will use to grow from our mother, we have all the components we need to continue developing from within as a human being. We are not becoming human. We are human from the point of conception. We are living, we are distinct and we are whole, meaning we have all the fundamental characteristics of a unique living organism. As philosopher Richard Stith put it; like a picture taken on a Polaroid camera that we are waiting to develop, just because we can’t see our full form yet does not mean that we are not fully there. We aren’t being constructed from outside forces like pieces of a puzzle but instead we are developing from within ourselves, growing just like one small seed grows into a beautiful flower.

As these scientific and philosophical arguments began to sink in for me, I started to ask myself if I thought it was ok to kill an innocent child. So much rhetoric around the abortion debate says that it is not right to call abortion murder. Yet if I believed the unborn were human beings even in the first stages of their development then I felt morally compelled to believe their destruction was murder. This contradicted so much of what I had come to believe in the previous years. All of the arguments I heard between professors and peers didn’t really account for the unborn as being human and endowed with the same rights as all of us outside of the womb. They often focused solely on the rights of the mother. Arguments like: "As a woman, no one gets to restrict my autonomy over my body," or, "if we force women to have unwanted children, they may not receive the care they deserve." In addition, some say, "Sometimes women with multiple children cannot afford to feed another child, and abortion gives women the freedom to continue pursuing their career goals."

These arguments began to seem insufficient when I applied them to the parameters of a test called “trot out the toddler.” I am sure if I asked anybody I know “Is it okay to kill a toddler so a woman can pursue her career goals? Is it okay to kill a toddler because they are unwanted? Is it okay to kill one of your children because you can no longer afford to feed them all?” They would say “of course not, that is absurd.” They would probably even say that argument has very little to do with abortion rights which would bring us back to the question of “are the unborn human?” If the unborn are genetically distinct human beings from the point of conception then they have rights that trump almost any argument made against them at any stage in their development. Their rights are equal to the rights of any child outside of the womb as well as the rights of their mother.

Once I decided this I ceased to see abortion as a women’s rights issue. While I still feel there is extensive work that needs to be done to support and protect women who have ended up in unplanned pregnancy situations, and I do not agree with the hurtful shaming of women whom have already chosen abortion, I no longer support abortion, even for the most part, in the initial stages of a woman’s pregnancy. I do not feel like supporting the rights of the unborn child is a violation of my rights as a woman. Just like I don’t feel it would be right to violate one person’s rights to benefit another on the basis of race, religion or any other parameter, I cannot justify violating the rights of an unborn child simply because of they are located inside rather than outside the womb.

That being said, there are so many more complex debates to be had surrounding the abortion issue. This article has touched little on the arguments that support abortion as a means to protect the health and the life of the mother, which can come under danger at anytime during her pregnancy. This issue is obviously a complex one that both pro-life and pro-choice advocates must consider wholeheartedly.  There has been a lot of focus on the health of the mother within abortion jurisprudence which could constitute an entirely separate article on the legal and political debates surrounding abortion. While I plan to take on the endeavor of tackling these issues in a separate article, I felt it was important to first defend the moral and scientific arguments that underpin a well thought out pro-life stance. So many pundits claim pro-lifers are nothing more than religious zealots, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Even those who do have religious reasoning for supporting the sanctity of life can be further justified by scientific and secular ethical arguments, such as aspects of my own, in support of the rights of the unborn.

Abbie Berringer can be reached at abbieber@umich.edu.