Monday, February 25, 2013

Abortion, Conservatism, and Individual Rights

"A lot of so-called conservatives don't know what the word means.  They think I've turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion.  That's a decision that's up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the Religious Right."

- Barry Goldwater a.k.a. "Mr. Conservative"

The link between conservatism and the so-called "pro-life" movement is a recent phenomenon. It is not necessary for conservatives to be "pro-life," as indicated by Mr. Conservative himself in the above quote.

If conservatives wish to preserve the founding principles of this country, that every individual has inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then the question of abortion is ultimately a question of rights: at what point do the rights of the child begin and the rights of the mother end? To analyze this, we first must determine the source of our rights.

In a later post I will expound on the exact nature of our rights, but suffice it to say for now that Ayn Rand got it right.

What distinguishes mankind from animals is man's rational faculty. It is from this rational faculty that rights arise. Thus, an entity without a rational faculty cannot have any rights. It goes without saying that consciousness is a prerequisite for rights. An entity cannot develop a rational faculty till it first becomes conscious.

So the question of when the rights of any individual begin partly hinges on investigating when consciousness arises. According to the latest science, the necessary biological groundwork for consciousness does not exist in unborn humans till the third trimester:
Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration.
From this we can surmise that consciousness cannot arise before the third trimester, which means that a fetus cannot have any claim to rights in the first two trimesters of pregnancy. This establishes that there should be no doubt about abortion being safe and legal for the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

However, just because the necessary biological groundwork for consciousness exists does not itself establish that the entity possessing this groundwork is actually conscious. Consciousness can only arise when the conscious entity has something to be conscious of. As such, it is doubtful whether or not an individual human being even becomes conscious until it is born:
In late gestation the fetus is in one of these two sleep states 95 percent of the time, separated by brief transitions.
What is fascinating is the discovery that the fetus is actively sedated by the low oxygen pressure (equivalent to that at the top of Mount Everest), the warm and cushioned uterine environment and a range of neuroinhibitory and sleep-inducing substances produced by the placenta and the fetus itself: adenosine; two steroidal anesthetics, allopregnanolone and pregnanolone; one potent hormone, prostaglandin D2; and others. The role of the placenta in maintaining sedation is revealed when the umbilical cord is closed off while keeping the fetus adequately supplied with oxygen. The lamb embryo now moves and breathes continuously. From all this evidence, neonatologists conclude that the fetus is asleep while its brain matures.


What would dreaming be like for an organism that spends its time suspended in a sort of isolation tank, with no memories, and no way to imagine anything at all? I wager that the fetus experiences nothing in utero; that it feels the way we do when we are in a deep, dreamless sleep.

The dramatic events attending delivery by natural (vaginal) means cause the brain to abruptly wake up, however. The fetus is forced from its paradisic existence in the protected, aqueous and warm womb into a hostile, aerial and cold world that assaults its senses with utterly foreign sounds, smells and sights, a highly stressful event.

As Hugo Lagercrantz, a pediatrician at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, discovered two decades ago, a massive surge of norepinephrine—more powerful than during any skydive or exposed climb the fetus may undertake in its adult life—as well as the release from anesthesia and sedation that occurs when the fetus disconnects from the maternal placenta, arouses the baby so that it can deal with its new circumstances. It draws its first breath, wakes up and begins to experience life.
So if an individual human being does not become a conscious entity until birth, it cannot have any legitimate claim to rights until it is born. If this is the case, then abortion should be safe and legal in all cases.

But what if you are able to establish some context for rights to arise before birth? The answer is simple: the rights of the fetus cannot trump the right of the mother to expel the fetus from her property - her body.

This, again, can be derived from the nature of rights. Rights are not entitlements - you cannot have a "right" to the property of others. This being the case, the fetus cannot claim the right to live parasitically off of the mother without her consent. Therefore the mother, having an absolute property right over her own body, should be legally allowed to expel the fetus from her body.

To summarize: a child cannot lay claim to rights until birth, since it lacks the prerequisites for rights (consciousness and a rational faculty). Furthermore, even if the child has rights before birth, the mother still retains an absolute property right over her own body and is therefore allowed to expel the fetus from her womb. Thus, conservatives who wish to preserve the founding principles of individual rights and limited government ought to fight for a woman's right to have an abortion.


  1. Good post, Alex! I wasn't aware of the sleep states the fetus goes through, and the hormonal changes when it is born. Cool. :-)

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head in referencing the relationship of rights of the unborn and the mother. Can they both exist? No.

    I always cringe at the the parasitic reference but it is accurate.

    As the son of a Labor and Delivery nurse and as a former EMT your conclusion is spot on.

    Great post.