BREAKING DOWN CARL SAGAN’S LOGIC ON ABORTION Part 44 “We believe that many supporters of reproductive freedom are troubled at least occasionally by this question. But they are reluctant to raise it because it is the beginning of a slippery slope” (My 1995 correspondence with Sagan)


From the website

The Slippery Slope

Once government begins to define life and humanity, there is no end to the possibilities for subjective and selective determination as to who will be allowed to live.

At one time, blacks were not recognized as human beings. This was the rationale behind the slave trade that brought black Africans to the United States. They were transported in slave ships that held them confined in the same manner that livestock is confined when shipped to the slaughter houses. In Nazi Germany, only the Aryan race was considered human, and we know the consequences of that thinking. The treatment of Jews and other non-Aryans was similar to that of animals. And the Nazi genetic experiments remain a source for horror stories even today.

Will a society which has assumed the right to kill infants in the womb – because they are unwanted, imperfect, or merely inconvenient – have difficulty in assuming the right to kill other human beings, especially older adults who are judged unwanted, deemed imperfect physically or mentally, or considered a possible social nuisance?

The next candidates for arbitrary reclassification as non-persons are the elderly. This will become increasingly so as the proportion of the old and weak in relation to the young and strong becomes abnormally large, due to the growing antifamily sentiment, the abortion rate, and medicine’s contribution to the lengthening of the normal life span. The imbalance will cause many of the young to perceive the old as a cramping nuisance in the hedonistic lifestyle they claim as their right. As the demand for affluence continues and the economic crunch gets greater, the amount of compassion that the legislature and the courts will have for the old does not seem likely to be significant considering the precedent of the non-protection given to the unborn and newborn. [Francis Schaeffer, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?]

Joseph Fletcher, the popularizer of “situational ethics,” in his 1973 discussion of death with dignity gives this argument for euthanasia:

It is ridiculous to give ethical approval to the positive ending of sub-human life in utero as we do in therapeutic abortions for reasons of mercy and compassion but refuse to approve of positively ending a sub-human life in extremis. If we are morally obliged to put an end to a pregnancy when an amniocentesis reveals a terrible defective fetus, we are equally obliged to put an end to a patient’s hopeless misery when a brain scan reveals that a patient with cancer has advanced brain metastases. [Joseph Fletcher, “Ethics and Euthanasia,” American Journal of Nursing, 1973.]

One is reminded of the slave holders who devoutly espoused the theory that slavery was really for the good of the black man and that in the end he would be thankful for the opportunity to share in the white man’s culture, even from the distance of the garden shed. The Nazis also argued that their victims were being sacrificed for the high end of the general good of society. Many well-meaning people are attracted to what might seem to be the beneficial aspects of some sort of euthanasia program, because they think they can be free of the guilt of responsibility.

The “right-to-die” movement is not calling for a right to die, they’re mostly talking about a right to kill. The advocates of euthanasia are asking the government and courts to step aside and allow people who are feeble and elderly to be snuffed out.

Consider the people who were “assisted” in ending their lives by Dr. Jack Kevorkian. He wasn’t killing terminally ill patients – they had Alzheimer’s and were in a lot of pain, but they were alive and walking around. Dr. Kevorkian portrays another basic belief of humanist ideology – the extermination of the old, useless, and the infirm. Kervorkian believes that he has the right to help people out of their pain if they want to die. He claims to render “a medical service,” and his lawyer is clear that “he’s not going to stop … doing the right thing.” Already the suicide doctor has had an impact on our society’s views regarding suicide and euthanasia.

Language is an important tool in convincing others of your position. Euthanasia advocates have been skillful in masking their true intent with slogans like “death with dignity” and “a right to die.” These phrases easily capture people’s attention. Everyone believes in a death with dignity.

Though I’m sure the medical community is well intentioned, it is still a fact that their idea of mercy is increasingly to dehumanize their patients, to disguise the helpless person so that not even their family recognizes them. In time, the family’s love turns to pity, which turns to horror until, to our warped hearts, murder becomes mercy.

But these slogans take on new meaning when they are interpreted by our courts. The right to die may sound wonderful – until we realize that legally it means that you can kill yourself or someone can kill you, even if you don’t want to die. Language is powerful. But when it is interpreted by the courts it becomes much more than mere slogans. It becomes the law of the land, and often that interpretation is not at all what we expected.

  • Daily, senior citizens and accident victims are starved to death because their families have been convinced that even food and water are extraordinary means to preserve their life.
  • Over one-fifth of Medicare expenses are for persons in their last year of life. Thus in fiscal year 1978, $4.9 billion dollars was spent for such persons and if just one-quarter of those expenditures were avoided through adoption of living wills, the savings under Medicare alone would amount to $1.2 billion. [ WASHINGTON POST, June 22, 1977]
  • The drug company, Hoescht AG, has been granted the first patent for a euthanasia drug developed by Michigan State University. The drug is intended for use on animals but the patent is worded to include humans. (Source: UPI)

Critics of the U.S. Supreme Court’ Roe v. Wade decision have long claimed that legalized abortion would lead to legalized euthanasia. Supporters of Roe have often scoffed at the idea, insisting that decisions to eliminate a human fetus in no way devalue the lives of born persons. Yet recent court cases in Michigan and Washington have reversed the debate: Euthanasia supporters are openly citing Roe as precedent for a constitutional right to “rational” suicide. In the case of People v. Kevorkian, a trial judge has relied partly on Roe and the later abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, to find a consitutional right to assisted suicide. Jack Kevorkian’s attorney, Geoffrey Fieger argues that such a right is even better grounded than a right to abortion, because no unwilling ‘third party’ is involved.

Citing Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, on May 3, 1994, Washington U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein struck down the Washington state law that banned physician assisted suicide. Judge Rothstein stated that the terminally ill “have the same right to hasten death that they have to choose an abortion…” “Like the abortion decision, the decision of a terminally ill person to end his life involves the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime,” the judge wrote in her decision.

Government Provided Rationed Health Care
Imagine your health care needs being met by a government agency. Our country has a shortage of morals, an excess of debt and pending currency crisis. Health care is a scarce resource, and all scarce resources are rationed in one way or another. With government provided health care, as we have already seen with Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA, health care is rationed by long waits, high patient copayment requirements, doctors withholding information about treatment options, low payments to doctors that discourage some from serving public patients, and limits on payments to hospitals.

We already kill preborn children; there is violence in virtually every city; drugs and weapons are in our schools; and what a few years ago was called pornography is piped into our homes 24 hours a day on television. The people raised with these norms will constitute the government running the health care system, in which every patient will be an expense. In our present system, every patient is a potential profit.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A 70-year old retired man needs cataract surgery. This is going to cost the bureaucracy $2,000 for some guy who wants to see, but doesn’t make any money. No surgery. (Medicare has already advocated allowing people to go virtually blind before we fix their cataracts.)
  • A 60-year old grandmother who doesn’t generate any income needs dialysis because of kidney failure. That’s going to cost thousands. Forget it.
  • A 50-year old man who makes $25,000 a year needs bypass surgery because of his chest pain. This guy may pay $3,000 a year in taxes; his surgery is going to cost $40,000. His ledger sheet doesn’t balance. No surgery.
  • A baby is born with a handicap that’s going to require frequent doctor visits, physical therapy, and multiple medications. What a drain on the system. Deny the baby adequate health care and let him die.

When euthanasia becomes law it will start out on a strictly voluntary basis for the terminally ill. Then it will become available to anyone who wants it, and finally it will be involuntary, practiced on anyone who is a strain on the system: the elderly, the handicapped, the unemployable – potentially anyone who doesn’t benefit the system.

[Nov. 5, 1997] Voters in Oregon rejected Measure 51, which would have repealed doctor-assisted suicide. The vote and the legal interpretation mean a person who is mentally competent and diagnosed as having less than six months to live could request a lethal prescription from a doctor today, wait the required 15 days, then take the drugs. Dr. William Toffler, head of Physicians for Compassionate Care, a group of doctors favoring repeal, said the vote would put “the poor, the vulnerable, the weak and the aged” at risk. “It has profound complications for the whole world,” he said. “It’s a profound paradigm shift for the practice of medicine.”

Holland has euthanasia. They started out killing the terminally ill, but have veered markedly from this approach. Some estimate that over 50% of those euthanized in Holland are killed without consent. Some of the elderly are afraid to go to the doctor, for fear they will receive involuntary euthanasia. [ Dr. Tom Tolomeo, “Big Brother, M.D.,” All About Issues, July-August 1993]

When the United States Supreme Court made its ruling about abortion in 1973, Mr. Justice Blackmun delivered the opinion of the Court. The first section in his opinion was titled “Ancient Attitudes.” In it he referred back to pre-Christian law. He said, “Greek and Roman law afforded little protection to the unborn. If abortion was prosecuted in some places, it seems to have been based on a concept of a violation of the father’s right to his offspring. Ancient religion did not bar abortion.” Thus, as his first point, Mr. Justice Blackmun based his opinion on the practice of pre-Christian Greek and Roman law. Most people who read this did not realize the logical result concerning babies after their birth. Roman law permitted not only abortion but also infanticide. As we think this over, we ask ourselves, “Now that this door is open, how long will it be before infanticide is socially accepted and perhaps legalized?”

On June 14, 1981, the Hartford Courant ran an expose entitled “Defective Newborns Are Dying by Design” about infanticide at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The author, Diane Brozek, explained “In some of the cases… parents approached doctors about the possibility of overdose. Other times… doctors suggested the option, assuring parents they would sign the death certificate, no questions asked. The parents ended their infants’ lives with morphine or phenobarbital prescribed by the doctors and usually dissolved in a baby bottle.”

Changing attitudes toward infanticide

  • Peter Singer, who recently was seated in an endowed chair at Princeton’s Center for Human Values, said, “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”
  • In May 1973, James D. Watson, the Nobel Prize laureate who discovered the double helix of DNA, granted an interview to Prism magazine, then a publication of the American Medical Association. Time later reported the interview to the general public, quoting Watson as having said, “If a child were not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice only a few are given under the present system. The doctor could allow the child to die if the parents so choose and save a lot of misery and suffering. I believe this view is the only rational, compassionate attitude to have.”
  • In January 1978, Francis Crick, also a Nobel laureate, was quoted in the Pacific News Service as saying “… no newborn infant should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment and that if it fails these tests it forfeits the right to live.”
  • At a population-control conference in Washington D.C. one speaker saw “no reason why anyone who accepted abortion should balk at infanticide.” Another urged certain medical qualifying tests for all newborns. These would determine their genetic characteristics and, thus, whether their right to life should be forfeited. Of course, at present only a few hold these ideas, but unfortunately they are presenting these ideas again and again. Taken a little more seriously each time, they become just a little more thinkable each time.
  • Forty-two percent of women studied in a medical study in France said that if they gave birth to a severely deformed baby, they would favor killing the child. Twenty percent said no, and the rest were undecided.
  • Certain segments of the church are also not without a positive opinion on the subject of infanticide. A task force of the Anglican Church of Canada reached a conclusion in a 1977 report that it could be morally right to terminate the lives of newborn infants with severe brain damage. The callousness of the report is evident in its phraseology: “Our sense and emotions lead us to the grave mistake of treating human-looking shapes as if they were human, although they lack the least vestige of human behavior and intellect. In fact the only way to treat such defective infants humanely is not to treat them as human.” Happily, the general synod of the Anglican Church in Canada did not approve the report, but that such a report came forth from an official group of a major denomination in our day says much about the direction taken by certain segments of the church in regard to infanticide.

How far have our Congressmen and Senators slid down that “slippery slope” of abortion toward infanticide? Is it right to kill a fully delivered child? Consider the exchange between Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) and Senator Russ Feingold (D., Wis.) during the Senate debate on whether to override Clinton’s veto of the ban on Partial Birth Abortions.

Sen. Santorum: “If that baby were delivered breech style and everything was delivered except for the head, and for some reason that that baby’s head would slip out – that the baby was completely delivered – would it then still be up to the doctor and the mother to decide?”

Sen. Feingold: “The standard of saying it has to be a determination, by a doctor, of health of the mother, is a sufficient standard that would apply to that situation.”

Sen. Santorum: “That doesn’t answer the question. Let’s assume the head is accidentally delivered. Would you allow the doctor to kill the baby?”

Senator Feingold: “That is a question that should be answered by a doctor, and by the woman who received the advice from the doctor.”

We cannot underestimate the enormity of the battle before us. For over a decade pro-infanticide forces have been preparing us to accept legalized infanticide. Legalized abortion has made infanticide the next logical step in the devaluation and destruction of innocent lives. Technology such as amniocentesis and ultrasound has enabled us to diagnose a variety of handicaps in the womb. We can legally kill a handicapped child or any child up until the day it is born. But what is the difference between killing a child two days before it is born or two days after its birth? The pro-infanticide forces are also using the same methods now that the pro-abortion advocates used to see abortion legalized. That is, they now focus on the “hard cases” in a way that opens the door. Later, as has happened in abortion, these “hard cases” wil be forgotten as infanticide becomes normal practice.

The potential abuse of genetic knowledge, the ever-expanding power of the government, and arbitrary law, and, indeed, the prospects for the right of the individual and for humanness are grim. Dr. James R. Sorenson, associate professor of socio-medical sciences at Boston University Medical Center, spoke at the symposium “Prenatal Diagnosis and Its Impact on Society” and said:

[There is] a developing cultural or social attitude that … a couple ought to exercise control over their reproductive fate. While a couple should have as many children as they please (within cultural “limits”), increasingly our societal view is that they should not have unwanted children. I think that this developing societal attitude can very easily extend to encompass not just control of the number of children but … control of their quality as well. In short, I am suggesting that it may become culturally acceptable and perhaps even expected that parents ought to avoid the birth of a defective child, especially when we have a technology that can help avoid such events.

The matter does not stop with malformed babies, but leads naturally to limiting the number of babies a family may have. In 1971, at the national Conference on Population Education in Washington, D.C., Martha Willing, co-director of Population Dynamics of Seattle, Washington, first proposed tax disincentives for parents who have more than two children. Then the state should proceed “to penalize deliberate violations of a small family norm and set up controls which prevent such violations.” The author continues:

After the third child is born, both mother and father will have to present themselves at a hospital to undergo sterilization procedures. If the couple does not appear, there will be no birth certificate issued to the third child, but instead a “third child paper.” The mother can be tattooed or marked to signify a third birth to any subsequent doctor. Instead of the missing parent, the child can be sterilized on the spot, insuring that this undue share of the gene pool will not be carried forward.

To quote C. Everett Koop,
“The moral question for us is not whether the suffering and dying are persons but whether we are the kind of persons who will care for them without doubting their worth.”

How we treat the sick and the unborn is not a measure of their humanity but of OUR OWN

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Recently I have been revisiting my correspondence in 1995 with the famous astronomer Carl Sagan who I had the privilege to correspond with in 1994, 1995 and 1996. In 1996 I had a chance to respond to his December 5, 1995letter on January 10, 1996 and I never heard back from him again since his cancer returned and he passed away later in 1996. Below is what Carl Sagan wrote to me in his December 5, 1995 letter:

Thanks for your recent letter about evolution and abortion. The correlation is hardly one to one; there are evolutionists who are anti-abortion and anti-evolutionists who are pro-abortion.You argue that God exists because otherwise we could not understand the world in our consciousness. But if you think God is necessary to understand the world, then why do you not ask the next question of where God came from? And if you say “God was always here,” why not say that the universe was always here? On abortion, my views are contained in the enclosed article (Sagan, Carl and Ann Druyan {1990}, “The Question of Abortion,” Parade Magazine, April 22.)

I was introduced to when reading a book by Francis Schaeffer called HE IS THERE AND HE IS NOT SILENT written in 1968. 

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Francis Schaeffer when he was a young pastor in St. Louis pictured above.

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Francis Schaeffer and Adrian Rogers

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(both Adrian Rogers and Francis Schaeffer mentioned Carl Sagan in their books and that prompted me to write Sagan and expose him to their views.

Carl Sagan pictured below:

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Francis Schaeffer

I mentioned earlier that I was blessed with the opportunity to correspond with Dr. Sagan. In his December 5, 1995 letter Dr. Sagan went on to tell me that he was enclosing his article “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. I am going to respond to several points made in that article. Here is a portion of Sagan’s article (here is a link to the whole article):

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Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan pictured above

 “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”

by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

For the complete text, including illustrations, introductory quote, footnotes, and commentary on the reaction to the originally published article see Billions and Billions.

The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground. You’d think the fight was over. Instead, there are mass rallies, bombings and intimidation, murders of workers at abortion clinics, arrests, intense lobbying, legislative drama, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, major political parties almost defining themselves on the issue, and clerics threatening politicians with perdition. Partisans fling accusations of hypocrisy and murder. The intent of the Constitution and the will of God are equally invoked. Doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes. The contending factions call on science to bolster their positions. Families are divided, husbands and wives agree not to discuss it, old friends are no longer speaking. Politicians check the latest polls to discover the dictates of their consciences. Amid all the shouting, it is hard for the adversaries to hear one another. Opinions are polarized. Minds are closed.


Is it wrong to abort a pregnancy? Always? Sometimes? Never? How do we decide? We wrote this article to understand better what the contending views are and to see if we ourselves could find a position that would satisfy us both. Is there no middle ground? We had to weigh the arguments of both sides for consistency and to pose test cases, some of which are purely hypothetical. If in some of these tests we seem to go too far, we ask the reader to be patient with us–we’re trying to stress the various positions to the breaking point to see their weaknesses and where they fail.

In contemplative moments, nearly everyone recognizes that the issue is not wholly one-sided. Many partisans of differing views, we find, feel some disquiet, some unease when confronting what’s behind the opposing arguments. (This is partly why such confrontations are avoided.) And the issue surely touches on deep questions: What are our responses to one another? Should we permit the state to intrude into the most intimate and personal aspects of our lives? Where are the boundaries of freedom? What does it mean to be human?

Of the many actual points of view, it is widely held–especially in the media, which rarely have the time or the inclination to make fine distinctions–that there are only two: “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” This is what the two principal warring camps like to call themselves, and that’s what we’ll call them here. In the simplest characterization, a pro-choicer would hold that the decision to abort a pregnancy is to be made only by the woman; the state has no right to interfere. And a pro-lifer would hold that, from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive; that this life imposes on us a moral obligation to preserve it; and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Both names–pro-choice and pro-life–were picked with an eye toward influencing those whose minds are not yet made up: Few people wish to be counted either as being against freedom of choice or as opposed to life. Indeed, freedom and life are two of our most cherished values, and here they seem to be in fundamental conflict.

Let’s consider these two absolutist positions in turn. A newborn baby is surely the same being it was just before birth. There ‘s good evidence that a late-term fetus responds to sound–including music, but especially its mother’s voice. It can suck its thumb or do a somersault. Occasionally, it generates adult brain-wave patterns. Some people claim to remember being born, or even the uterine environment. Perhaps there is thought in the womb. It’s hard to maintain that a transformation to full personhood happens abruptly at the moment of birth. Why, then, should it be murder to kill an infant the day after it was born but not the day before?

As a practical matter, this isn’t very important: Less than 1 percent of all tabulated abortions in the United States are listed in the last three months of pregnancy (and, on closer investigation, most such reports turn out to be due to miscarriage or miscalculation). But third-trimester abortions provide a test of the limits of the pro-choice point of view. Does a woman’s “innate right to control her own body” encompass the right to kill a near-term fetus who is, for all intents and purposes, identical to a newborn child?

We believe that many supporters of reproductive freedom are troubled at least occasionally by this question. But they are reluctant to raise it because it is the beginning of a slippery slope. If it is impermissible to abort a pregnancy in the ninth month, what about the eighth, seventh, sixth … ? Once we acknowledge that the state can interfere at any time in the pregnancy, doesn’t it follow that the state can interfere at all times?

Abortion and the slippery slope argument above

This conjures up the specter of predominantly male, predominantly affluent legislators telling poor women they must bear and raise alone children they cannot afford to bring up; forcing teenagers to bear children they are not emotionally prepared to deal with; saying to women who wish for a career that they must give up their dreams, stay home, and bring up babies; and, worst of all, condemning victims of rape and incest to carry and nurture the offspring of their assailants. Legislative prohibitions on abortion arouse the suspicion that their real intent is to control the independence and sexuality of women…

And yet, by consensus, all of us think it proper that there be prohibitions against, and penalties exacted for, murder. It would be a flimsy defense if the murderer pleads that this is just between him and his victim and none of the government’s business. If killing a fetus is truly killing a human being, is it not the duty of the state to prevent it? Indeed, one of the chief functions of government is to protect the weak from the strong.

If we do not oppose abortion at some stage of pregnancy, is there not a danger of dismissing an entire category of human beings as unworthy of our protection and respect? And isn’t that dismissal the hallmark of sexism, racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism? Shouldn’t those dedicated to fighting such injustices be scrupulously careful not to embrace another?

Adrian Rogers’ sermon on animal rights refutes Sagan here

There is no right to life in any society on Earth today, nor has there been at any former time… : We raise farm animals for slaughter; destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there; kill deer and elk for sport, leopards for the pelts, and whales for fertilizer; entrap dolphins, gasping and writhing, in great tuna nets; club seal pups to death; and render a species extinct every day. All these beasts and vegetables are as alive as we. What is (allegedly) protected is not life, but human life.

Genesis 3 defines being human

And even with that protection, casual murder is an urban commonplace, and we wage “conventional” wars with tolls so terrible that we are, most of us, afraid to consider them very deeply… That protection, that right to life, eludes the 40,000 children under five who die on our planet each day from preventable starvation, dehydration, disease, and neglect.

Those who assert a “right to life” are for (at most) not just any kind of life, but for–particularly and uniquely—human life. So they too, like pro-choicers, must decide what distinguishes a human being from other animals and when, during gestation, the uniquely human qualities–whatever they are–emerge.

The Bible talks about the differences between humans and animals

Despite many claims to the contrary, life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of our species, hundreds of thousands of years ago. Every human sperm and egg is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, alive. They are not human beings, of course. However, it could be argued that neither is a fertilized egg.

In some animals, an egg develops into a healthy adult without benefit of a sperm cell. But not, so far as we know, among humans. A sperm and an unfertilized egg jointly comprise the full genetic blueprint for a human being. Under certain circumstances, after fertilization, they can develop into a baby. But most fertilized eggs are spontaneously miscarried. Development into a baby is by no means guaranteed. Neither a sperm and egg separately, nor a fertilized egg, is more than a potential baby or a potential adult. So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg–despite the fact that it’s only potentially a baby–why isn’t it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?

Hundreds of millions of sperm cells (top speed with tails lashing: five inches per hour) are produced in an average human ejaculation. A healthy young man can produce in a week or two enough spermatozoa to double the human population of the Earth. So is masturbation mass murder? How about nocturnal emissions or just plain sex? When the unfertilized egg is expelled each month, has someone died? Should we mourn all those spontaneous miscarriages? Many lower animals can be grown in a laboratory from a single body cell. Human cells can be cloned… In light of such cloning technology, would we be committing mass murder by destroying any potentially clonable cells? By shedding a drop of blood?


All human sperm and eggs are genetic halves of “potential” human beings. Should heroic efforts be made to save and preserve all of them, everywhere, because of this “potential”? Is failure to do so immoral or criminal? Of course, there’s a difference between taking a life and failing to save it. And there’s a big difference between the probability of survival of a sperm cell and that of a fertilized egg. But the absurdity of a corps of high-minded semen-preservers moves us to wonder whether a fertilized egg’s mere “potential” to become a baby really does make destroying it murder.

Opponents of abortion worry that, once abortion is permissible immediately after conception, no argument will restrict it at any later time in the pregnancy. Then, they fear, one day it will be permissible to murder a fetus that is unambiguously a human being. Both pro-choicers and pro-lifers (at least some of them) are pushed toward absolutist positions by parallel fears of the slippery slope.


Another slippery slope is reached by those pro-lifers who are willing to make an exception in the agonizing case of a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. But why should the right to live depend on the circumstances of conception? If the same child were to result, can the state ordain life for the offspring of a lawful union but death for one conceived by force or coercion? How can this be just? And if exceptions are extended to such a fetus, why should they be withheld from any other fetus? This is part of the reason some pro-lifers adopt what many others consider the outrageous posture of opposing abortions under any and all circumstances–only excepting, perhaps, when the life of the mother is in danger.

By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions. Instead, the United States is far behind other nations in the development of safe and effective methods of birth control–and, in many cases, opposition to such research (and to sex education) has come from the same people who oppose abortions.continue on to Part 3

For the complete text, including illustrations, introductory quote, footnotes, and commentary on the reaction to the originally published article see Billions and Billions.

The attempt to find an ethically sound and unambiguous judgment on when, if ever, abortion is permissible has deep historical roots. Often, especially in Christian tradition, such attempts were connected with the question of when the soul enters the body–a matter not readily amenable to scientific investigation and an issue of controversy even among learned theologians. Ensoulment has been asserted to occur in the sperm before conception, at conception, at the time of “quickening” (when the mother is first able to feel the fetus stirring within her), and at birth. Or even later.

Different religions have different teachings. Among hunter-gatherers, there are usually no prohibitions against abortion, and it was common in ancient Greece and Rome. In contrast, the more severe Assyrians impaled women on stakes for attempting abortion. The Jewish Talmud teaches that the fetus is not a person and has no rights. The Old and New Testaments–rich in astonishingly detailed prohibitions on dress, diet, and permissible words–contain not a word specifically prohibiting abortion. The only passage that’s remotely relevant (Exodus 21:22) decrees that if there’s a fight and a woman bystander should accidentally be injured and made to miscarry, the assailant must pay a fine.

Neither St. Augustine nor St. Thomas Aquinas considered early-term abortion to be homicide (the latter on the grounds that the embryo doesn’t look human). This view was embraced by the Church in the Council of Vienne in 1312, and has never been repudiated. The Catholic Church’s first and long-standing collection of canon law (according to the leading historian of the Church’s teaching on abortion, John Connery, S.J.) held that abortion was homicide only after the fetus was already “formed”–roughly, the end of the first trimester.

But when sperm cells were examined in the seventeenth century by the first microscopes, they were thought to show a fully formed human being. An old idea of the homunculus was resuscitated–in which within each sperm cell was a fully formed tiny human, within whose testes were innumerable other homunculi, etc., ad infinitum. In part through this misinterpretation of scientific data, in 1869 abortion at any time for any reason became grounds for excommunication. It is surprising to most Catholics and others to discover that the date was not much earlier.

From colonial times to the nineteenth century, the choice in the United States was the woman’s until “quickening.” An abortion in the first or even second trimester was at worst a misdemeanor. Convictions were rarely sought and almost impossible to obtain, because they depended entirely on the woman’s own testimony of whether she had felt quickening, and because of the jury’s distaste for prosecuting a woman for exercising her right to choose. In 1800 there was not, so far as is known, a single statute in the United States concerning abortion. Advertisements for drugs to induce abortion could be found in virtually every newspaper and even in many church publications–although the language used was suitably euphemistic, if widely understood.

But by 1900, abortion had been banned at any time in pregnancy by every state in the Union, except when necessary to save the woman’s life. What happened to bring about so striking a reversal? Religion had little to do with it.Drastic economic and social conversions were turning this country from an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. America was in the process of changing from having one of the highest birthrates in the world to one of the lowest. Abortion certainly played a role and stimulated forces to suppress it.


One of the most significant of these forces was the medical profession. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, medicine was an uncertified, unsupervised business. Anyone could hang up a shingle and call himself (or herself) a doctor. With the rise of a new, university-educated medical elite, anxious to enhance the status and influence of physicians, the American Medical Association was formed. In its first decade, the AMA began lobbying against abortions performed by anyone except licensed physicians. New knowledge of embryology, the physicians said, had shown the fetus to be human even before quickening.

Their assault on abortion was motivated not by concern for the health of the woman but, they claimed, for the welfare of the fetus. You had to be a physician to know when abortion was morally justified, because the question depended on scientific and medical facts understood only by physicians. At the same time, women were effectively excluded from the medical schools, where such arcane knowledge could be acquired. So, as things worked out, women had almost nothing to say about terminating their own pregnancies. It was also up to the physician to decide if the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman, and it was entirely at his discretion to determine what was and was not a threat. For the rich woman, the threat might be a threat to her emotional tranquillity or even to her lifestyle. The poor woman was often forced to resort to the back alley or the coat hanger.

This was the law until the 1960s, when a coalition of individuals and organizations, the AMA now among them, sought to overturn it and to reinstate the more traditional values that were to be embodied in Roe v. Wade.continue on to Part 4

If you deliberately kill a human being, it’s called murder. If you deliberately kill a chimpanzee–biologically, our closest relative, sharing 99.6 percent of our active genes–whatever else it is, it’s not murder. To date, murder uniquely applies to killing human beings. Therefore, the question of when personhood (or, if we like, ensoulment) arises is key to the abortion debate. When does the fetus become human? When do distinct and characteristic human qualities emerge?

Section 8 Sperm journey to becoming Human 

We recognize that specifying a precise moment will overlook individual differences. Therefore, if we must draw a line, it ought to be drawn conservatively–that is, on the early side. There are people who object to having to set some numerical limit, and we share their disquiet; but if there is to be a law on this matter, and it is to effect some useful compromise between the two absolutist positions, it must specify, at least roughly, a time of transition to personhood.

Every one of us began from a dot. A fertilized egg is roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The momentous meeting of sperm and egg generally occurs in one of the two fallopian tubes. One cell becomes two, two become four, and so on—an exponentiation of base-2 arithmetic. By the tenth day the fertilized egg has become a kind of hollow sphere wandering off to another realm: the womb. It destroys tissue in its path. It sucks blood from capillaries. It bathes itself in maternal blood, from which it extracts oxygen and nutrients. It establishes itself as a kind of parasite on the walls of the uterus.By the third week, around the time of the first missed menstrual period, the forming embryo is about 2 millimeters long and is developing various body parts. Only at this stage does it begin to be dependent on a rudimentary placenta. It looks a little like a segmented worm.By the end of the fourth week, it’s about 5 millimeters (about 1/5 inch) long. It’s recognizable now as a vertebrate, its tube-shaped heart is beginning to beat, something like the gill arches of a fish or an amphibian become conspicuous, and there is a pronounced tail. It looks rather like a newt or a tadpole. This is the end of the first month after conception.By the fifth week, the gross divisions of the brain can be distinguished. What will later develop into eyes are apparent, and little buds appear—on their way to becoming arms and legs.By the sixth week, the embryo is 13 millimeteres (about ½ inch) long. The eyes are still on the side of the head, as in most animals, and the reptilian face has connected slits where the mouth and nose eventually will be.By the end of the seventh week, the tail is almost gone, and sexual characteristics can be discerned (although both sexes look female). The face is mammalian but somewhat piglike.By the end of the eighth week, the face resembles that of a primate but is still not quite human. Most of the human body parts are present in their essentials. Some lower brain anatomy is well-developed. The fetus shows some reflex response to delicate stimulation.By the tenth week, the face has an unmistakably human cast. It is beginning to be possible to distinguish males from females. Nails and major bone structures are not apparent until the third month.By the fourth month, you can tell the face of one fetus from that of another. Quickening is most commonly felt in the fifth month. The bronchioles of the lungs do not begin developing until approximately the sixth month, the alveoli still later.

So, if only a person can be murdered, when does the fetus attain personhood? When its face becomes distinctly human, near the end of the first trimester? When the fetus becomes responsive to stimuli–again, at the end of the first trimester? When it becomes active enough to be felt as quickening, typically in the middle of the second trimester? When the lungs have reached a stage of development sufficient that the fetus might, just conceivably, be able to breathe on its own in the outside air?

The trouble with these particular developmental milestones is not just that they’re arbitrary. More troubling is the fact that none of them involves uniquely humancharacteristics–apart from the superficial matter of facial appearance. All animals respond to stimuli and move of their own volition. Large numbers are able to breathe. But that doesn’t stop us from slaughtering them by the billions. Reflexes and motion are not what make us human.

Sagan’s conclusion based on arbitrary choice of the presence of thought by unborn baby

Other animals have advantages over us–in speed, strength, endurance, climbing or burrowing skills, camouflage, sight or smell or hearing, mastery of the air or water. Our one great advantage, the secret of our success, is thought–characteristically human thought. We are able to think things through, imagine events yet to occur, figure things out. That’s how we invented agriculture and civilization. Thought is our blessing and our curse, and it makes us who we are.

Thinking occurs, of course, in the brain–principally in the top layers of the convoluted “gray matter” called the cerebral cortex. The roughly 100 billion neurons in the brain constitute the material basis of thought. The neurons are connected to each other, and their linkups play a major role in what we experience as thinking. But large-scale linking up of neurons doesn’t begin until the 24th to 27th week of pregnancy–the sixth month.

By placing harmless electrodes on a subject’s head, scientists can measure the electrical activity produced by the network of neurons inside the skull. Different kinds of mental activity show different kinds of brain waves. But brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy–near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this–however alive and active they may be–lack the necessary brain architecture. They cannot yet think.

Acquiescing in the killing of any living creature, especially one that might later become a baby, is troublesome and painful. But we’ve rejected the extremes of “always” and “never,” and this puts us–like it or not–on the slippery slope. If we are forced to choose a developmental criterion, then this is where we draw the line: when the beginning of characteristically human thinking becomes barely possible.

It is, in fact, a very conservative definition: Regular brain waves are rarely found in fetuses. More research would help… If we wanted to make the criterion still more stringent, to allow for occasional precocious fetal brain development, we might draw the line at six months. This, it so happens, is where the Supreme Court drew it in 1973–although for completely different reasons.

Its decision in the case of Roe v. Wade changed American law on abortion. It permits abortion at the request of the woman without restriction in the first trimester and, with some restrictions intended to protect her health, in the second trimester. It allows states to forbid abortion in the third trimester, except when there’s a serious threat to the life or health of the woman. In the 1989 Webster decision, the Supreme Court declined explicitly to overturn Roe v. Wade but in effect invited the 50 state legislatures to decide for themselves.

What was the reasoning in Roe v. Wade? There was no legal weight given to what happens to the children once they are born, or to the family. Instead, a woman’s right to reproductive freedom is protected, the court ruled, by constitutional guarantees of privacy. But that right is not unqualified. The woman’s guarantee of privacy and the fetus’s right to life must be weighed–and when the court did the weighing’ priority was given to privacy in the first trimester and to life in the third. The transition was decided not from any of the considerations we have been dealing with so far…–not when “ensoulment” occurs, not when the fetus takes on sufficient human characteristics to be protected by laws against murder. Instead, the criterion adopted was whether the fetus could live outside the mother. This is called “viability” and depends in part on the ability to breathe. The lungs are simply not developed, and the fetus cannot breathe–no matter how advanced an artificial lung it might be placed in—until about the 24th week, near the start of the sixth month. This is why Roe v. Wade permits the states to prohibit abortions in the last trimester. It’s a very pragmatic criterion.

If the fetus at a certain stage of gestation would be viable outside the womb, the argument goes, then the right of the fetus to life overrides the right of the woman to privacy. But just what does “viable” mean? Even a full-term newborn is not viable without a great deal of care and love. There was a time before incubators, only a few decades ago, when babies in their seventh month were unlikely to be viable. Would aborting in the seventh month have been permissible then? After the invention of incubators, did aborting pregnancies in the seventh month suddenly become immoral? What happens if, in the future, a new technology develops so that an artificial womb can sustain a fetus even before the sixth month by delivering oxygen and nutrients through the blood–as the mother does through the placenta and into the fetal blood system? We grant that this technology is unlikely to be developed soon or become available to many. But if it were available, does it then become immoral to abort earlier than the sixth month, when previously it was moral? A morality that depends on, and changes with, technology is a fragile morality; for some, it is also an unacceptable morality.

And why, exactly, should breathing (or kidney function, or the ability to resist disease) justify legal protection? If a fetus can be shown to think and feel but not be able to breathe, would it be all right to kill it? Do we value breathing more than thinking and feeling? Viability arguments cannot, it seems to us, coherently determine when abortions are permissible. Some other criterion is needed. Again, we offer for consideration the earliest onset of human thinking as that criterion.

Since, on average, fetal thinking occurs even later than fetal lung development, we find Roe v. Wade to be a good and prudent decision addressing a complex and difficult issue. With prohibitions on abortion in the last trimester–except in cases of grave medical necessity–it strikes a fair balance between the conflicting claims of freedom and life.What do you think? What have others said about Carl Sagan’s thoughts on 


Image result for carl sagan and ann druyan
Carl Sagan with his wife Ann in the 1990’s
Image result for adrian rogers francis schaeffer
I grew up in Memphis as a member of Bellevue Baptist Church under our pastor Adrian Rogers and attended ECS High School where the books and films of Francis Schaeffer were taught. Both men dealt with current issues in the culture such as the film series COSMOS by Carl Sagan. I personally read several of Sagan’s books.  (Francis and Edith Schaeffer pictured below in their home at L’ Abri in Switzerland where Francis  taught students for 3 decades.
Image result for francis schaeffer
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