07/14/04 — Life’s start: At what point should we give it protection?

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Life’s start: At what point should we give it protection?

Sen. John Kerry has raised an interesting new element in the debate on abortion.

Kerry is a Roman Catholic, and his church says that abortion should be prohibited. The basis for that opinion is the belief that life begins in a mother’s womb at the point of conception.

Kerry, however, always votes against any restrictions on abortions, even the barbarous late-term procedures called “partial birth” abortions. Still, while campaigning for president in Iowa recently, Kerry said that he agreed with his church that life begins at conception.

That comment seems compatible with his religion but not with his voting history. If he believes life begins at conception, how can Kerry vote against a prohibition on abortion? Wouldn’t it be the taking of a life?

Kerry’s reasoning is that his opinion that life begins at conception is a religious belief that should not be imposed on anyone else. To vote for a law that would prevent a woman from having an abortion, he reasons, would violate her freedom of religion.

He is right, to a point.

Science assures us that a form of life, complete with its own unique DNA, is created when a sperm fertilizes an egg.

At some time during the following nine months, that egg matures from the merest form of life into an embryo or a baby who is a person. At that point, it must not be destroyed. But when, along the way, does that point come?

Some religions, including Kerry’s, maintain that even at that fertilized-egg stage, God is aware of the life and, therefore, it should be protected. People who hold that view cannot approve of abortion at any stage of a pregnancy.

Those who don’t accept that idea must look to another point for the beginning of personhood. There are plenty of choices.

Is it in the hours after conception when the egg begins the process of cell splitting? Is it 12 days after conception when the egg attaches itself to the lining of the mother’s uterus? Is it four weeks after conception when a heartbeat begins, six weeks after conception when brain waves can be sensed, three months after conception when the fetus begins to look like a baby?

Does personhood begin only after the baby is born and takes its first breath?

Or is it when it could survive even an early birth? If so, partial-birth abortions are even more heinous, because some are done long after a baby reaches the stage where it could live if born prematurely. And both Kerry and his vice presidential running mate, Sen. John Edwards, have voted against outlawing these abortions.

That leads us to where Kerry’s philosophy goes afoul. His philosophy boils down to this: Abortion is wrong but shouldn’t be banned because a given woman might not think it is wrong.

Well, a given woman also might not think it is wrong to kill an unwanted newborn. That happens. But there are laws against it — just as there are laws against other murders — because newborns need to be protected. If an unborn baby has attained the status of personhood, is it not entitled to protection under the law?

Our opinion of abortion should be based on our concept of when a fetus attains personhood and how life should be protected by law. Politicians’ opinions on such matters often depend on the views of the people whose support they are seeking to win.

Published in Editorials on July 14, 2004 10:49 AM