IFAS | Freedom Writer | July 1994 | myths.html

Abortion myths

By Marlena Sobel

Abortion is murder.

Only a person can be murdered. Therefore, abortion is not murder unless one considers the fetus to be a person. According to Roe v. Wade, the word "person" does not include the unborn, and a fetus does not have equal status with the mother until the point of viability, or when the fetus can exist outside of the mother's womb. In addition, according to the common law in criminal matters, the definition of a "person" is one who has been born alive.

However, in recent years the subject of fetal "personhood" has taken alarming turns with the passing of "feticide statutes" that allow for criminal actions for the wrongful death of the fetus in the womb. Attempts to confer personhood on the legal status of the fetus has expanded into the civil and medical areas as well: there have been cases involving forced caesareans; forced blood transfusions against the pregnant woman's religious convictions; and some states have even gone so far as to disallow the use of "living wills" for pregnant women. In all of these cases the "rights" of the fetus, whether before or after the point of viability, have been held paramount to the rights of the pregnant woman.

Unless the courts begin granting "personhood" to a fetus, abortion cannot be considered murder. However, what would the penalties be if the laws of the U.S. reflected the motto of Operation Rescue?: "If you believe abortion is murder, then ACT like it's murder!" Would women having abortions, and doctors performing them, be subject to the death penalty?

Science says that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception.

The "genetic definition" of personhood, as developed by the evangelical Francis Schaeffer and former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, holds that science proves personhood at the moment of conception. Their argument follows that since the whole genet ic code is established when the ovum and sperm is united, and each code is unique, a unique person is therefore created at the moment of conception.

This logic is flawed, however, because although there is a continuum from conception to death, there is a difference between an actual person and a potential or possible person. A fertilized ovum, or zygote, is a cluster of cells; taking this genetic code argument to its extreme, each of those cells is encoded with a specific DNA. If each of these cells is then to be considered a possible human being, then any time any cell is removed, through surgery for instance, a potential life is destroyed.

The Bible says a fetus is a person from the moment of conception.

Two passages are most often quoted to explain the theory of life from conception. The first is Psalm 139:13-15: "For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb... My frame was not hidden from thee when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth." If this verse is to be taken literally, then the Psalmist came from the ground, not his mother's womb.

The second is Jeremiah 1:5, "Before I formed you in the belly I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified you, and I ordained you a prophet unto the nations." This verse simply refers to the concept of God's foreknowledge, and his divine plan for certain individuals, in this case, the prophet Jeremiah. However, Genesis 2:7 states that "The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." According to this verse, a fetus is not a person a living soul until after birth, when it take s its first breath.

Additionally, conservative Christians speak about becoming a "new spiritual person" by being "born again," quoting John 3:7, "You must be born again." So, if spiritual life is described as a new "birth," then it follows that physical life, or personhood, comes from "birth," not conception. Otherwise the Bible would say, "You must be conceived again."

Finally, the Bible never explicitly mentions abortion.

Doctors have confirmed that a fetus can feel pain.

Although this theory has received much attention through the showing of Dr. Bernard Nathanson's video The Silent Scream, experts in the medical field have repeatedly and vehemently established that this is impossible. The perception of pain is a complex biological and psychological phenomena that involves certain states of "consciousness" that would be impossible to achieve at the time of conception.

The brain itself is composed of approximately 100 billion brain cells called neurons. These brain neurons do not even exist prior to four weeks in utero, and the peak period for this brain neuron development is between two to five months in utero. There are also about 100 trillion connections between these neurons, called synaptic connections, by which neurons pass information amongst themselves. A minimum number of neurons must be developed in the cerebral cortex, and the interconnectivity of these neurons is absolutely essential, before states such as sensation, perception, and thought are really meaningful. While these synapses start to form at about the third month, the minimum number do not usually develop until about 31 weeks, and most are not formed until after birth.

The American Medical Association is against abortion for safety reasons.

While it is true that it was the medical establishment rather than the clergy who first supported the use of restrictive laws on abortion, the motives for this were not necessarily for health or safety reasons. The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in the mid-19th century in an attempt to enhance the status and influence of doctors; before this time, medicine was an uncertified, unsupervised business in which anyone could practice.

In its first decade, the AMA lobbied against abortions performed by anyone other than licensed physicians. This assault on abortion was motivated not by concern for the health of the woman, but rather for the welfare of the fetus because, physicians claimed, new embryology showed that the fetus could be human before quickening.

In addition to only licensed doctors being able to decide if an abortion would be "morally justified," new abortion laws would also limit competition from unlicensed competitors and serve to professionalize the practice of medicine. It was also left up to the discretion of the doctor to decide if and when a pregnancy posed a threat to the woman; if so, the abortion would be allowed.

There was, however, a possible health reason for some restrictions on abortion during this time. Up until the mid-20th century, when the use of antibiotics became more common, abortion was considered more dangerous than bearing the child. By the end of the 1960s, however, the AMA had joined with a coalition of individuals and organizations to liberalize abortion laws. Today, an early term abortion is one of the safest medical procedures available, and, at all stages of pregnancy, abortion is safer than childbirth.

Abortion was completely illegal in the U.S. until 1973.

Abortion was legal in the United States from the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, until state legislatures began banning abortion in the early 1800s. Having evolved from the British common law, abortion was legal provided that it was performed before "quickening." Quickening is the term used for the point where a woman first notices fetal movement, and usually occurs at about 16-18 weeks into the pregnancy. Not only was abortion legal, it was also not entirely uncommon, and many newspapers, including some church publications, provided advertisements for drugs to induce abortions.

In 1821, Connecticut became the first state to enact abortion legislation for women who had reached quickening, but abortion before quickening did not become illegal in Connecticut until 1860. New York, in 1828, adopted legislation that was followed by many states between 1830 and 1850; most of these statutes dealt more severely with abortion after quickening than before.

These anti-abortion laws were enacted for three basic reasons: a Victorian obsession to discourage illicit sexual conduct; a health concern, because at the time abortions were dangerous; and a newfound interest in protecting prenatal life. By the end of the 1950s, however, a large majority of states had banned all abortion except for instances where the woman's life was in danger.

Abortion is used primarily as a form of birth control.

To choose to have an abortion is a very personal and very private decision, and no one, individual or institution, has the right to question why a woman decides as she does. There are a number of reasons why a woman chooses to have an abortion, including health, family welfare, financial situation, and other personal reasons, but the decision itself is not one that is ever taken lightly.

Pat Schroeder has an apt response to this myth: "Saying that abortion is used as birth control is like saying why bother eating when you can have an IV in your arm?" Her statement illustrates the point that most women would choose, and do choose, to use contraception before undergoing any surgical procedure.

This myth also underscores the reason why sex education and birth control should be more widely accepted and available; if it were so, then the need for abortions overall would decrease.

Abortion is a multi-billion dollar industry.

While there are a number of private clinics that do provide abortion services, the majority of women's health care clinics, providing a spectrum of reproductive and health services, are non-profit and in need of federal funding and general support from the public in order to serve their clients. Not only do these clinics provide a variety of services including gynecological and prenatal exams, and family planning for both men and women, they are also the primary source of health care for millions of women, well over four million of whom rely on federally funded clinics.

While anti-choice groups would like people to believe that these clinics are only interested in making money off of abortions, or in costing the taxpayers money by having to pay for those abortions, the truth is that clinics actually save taxpayers money by providing services and education about reproductive freedom in an effort to prevent unintended pregnancies. These unintended pregnancies lead to both unwanted births and abortions, both of which cost private and public money. In 1989, for example, taxpayers were billed $18 billion dollars in direct health and welfare costs for teen childbearing alone.

Abortion is not a multi-billion dollar business, but trying to restrict access to and information about reproductive freedom is costing taxpayers billions. The business of women's health care clinics is to be able to provide a variety of services and education to their clients; money is not the motive.

Most Americans oppose abortion.

A number of different surveys over the years have consistently shown that a solid majority of Americans do support abortion rights. Recently, for example, an extensive poll was released that analyzed its findings by religious background and educational levels: there was strong agreement across the entire spectrum (78% to 20%) with the statement "Abortion is a private issue between a woman, her family and her doctor; the government should not be involved." In addition, in a poll taken before the last election, only a sixth of the Democrats and a third of the Republicans asked said that they wanted their party to oppose legalized abortion.

Overall, there is no doubt that although there are differences in the degrees to which respondents support a woman's choice, a majority of Americans support and want access to legal abortions. Interestingly, 35.6% of the abortions performed in the U.S. involve evangelical Christian women.

The Catholic Church has always considered abortion murder.

Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church has not always opposed abortion. In fact, for centuries abortion was not considered murder until 1588 when Pope Sixtus V declared it so. However, only three years later, Pope Gregory XIV revoked all ecclesiastical penalties for abortion, provided that it took place before the soul was "animated." The church rule therefore allowed that abortion was to be considered murder only if performed after the soul became rational or "animated." The time for animation was set at forty days after conception for a male fetus, and eighty or ninety days after conception for a female fetus. (There was no explanation how the sex of the fetus would be determined.) It was not until 1869 that Pope Pius IX finally declared that the Catholic Church would regard abortion at any stage as murder.

No true Catholic can support abortion rights.

Archbishop John O'Connor proclaimed in 1984 that no Catholic in good conscience could vote for a political candidate who supported abortion rights and that the Catholic teaching on the subject of abortion was not divided. However, there were and are a number of prominent Catholics in politics, the clergy, as well as the general public who have publicly disagreed with this sentiment.

Mario Cuomo, in response to O'Connor, said in a speech at the University of Notre Dame that he and other public officials take an oath to preserve the Constitution because it guarantees their rights to be Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or whatever they choose. Of primary importance to Cuomo, as a devout Catholic as well as a politician, is an understanding that "to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if it occasionally produces conduct by them which we hold to be sinful."

If abortion were outlawed, all of the unwanted children would be quickly adopted.

Every child should be a wanted child. In 1990, in New York alone, more than 62,000 children were in foster care and over 129,700 child abuse and neglect cases were reported. While the anti-choice forces are claiming that the answer is adoption, not abortion, the reality of the situation is that all over the country children are being abused, abandoned, and neglected because no one will take care of them.

Many anti-choice groups speak of warehouses full of clothes for needy children and families who would love to adopt a "saved" child but how many have actually done so? There is no reason to believe that the number of children being adopted would change if abortion were outlawed; there would just be a greater number of children available for adoption. According to anti-choice groups, the right to life itself is the greatest gift of all. However, what kind of a life do today's unwanted children have?

Abortion is morally akin to the Holocaust.

It has become a prevalent trend among anti-choice factions to equate the legality of abortion to the atrocity of the Holocaust. This statement is notable only for its shock value. To even remotely equate the two, especially in such a cavalier manner, offends not only Jews but everyone in society who is aware of the horrors of the Nazis. Rabbi Balfour Brickner, of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, said, "The Holocaust stands alone....There are no legitimate or acceptable analogies."

Marlena Sobel, a recent graduate of Suffolk Law School in Boston, was an intern at the Institute for First Amendment Studies last summer.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.