Yanna Lee

spent this previous Friday afternoon with fellow members of Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), Yale’s pro-life organization, giving away cupcakes and talking with other students about abortion in Bass Cafe. We laid out a handmade timeline of fetal development titled “When do human rights begin?” and gave those who passed by neon dot stickers to place on the poster. We had over 30 students place stickers on the timeline at many different stages of development, demonstrating there are a wide variety of viewpoints at Yale about when personhood begins. Though we might expect Yale students to be overwhelmingly in favor of broader accessibility of abortion, I discovered that when you ask basic questions about the nature of human development, people challenge their own assumptions.

One friend placed his dot firmly at birth, arguing that human rights are conferred on an individual only when one physically enters society. Another student placed her sticker earlier at 21 weeks. This is the point of “viability,” the earliest point at which a premature baby can survive outside the womb given current neonatal technology. This is also roughly the point of development at which the Supreme Court ruled in “Planned Parenthood v. Casey” that abortion (for all reasons) must be permitted in all 50 states. In more liberal states, abortion is available “on demand” up to the third trimester (27 weeks).

And yet, many students — even of those who called themselves “pro-choice” — expressed that personhood starts at a point much earlier than this legal standard. They felt that such characteristics as perceptible movement and having a fully developed sensory system (16 weeks), or possessing a fully functioning kidney, intestines, brain and liver (10 weeks), demonstrated that the fetus had the right to live.

Some participants even put their stickers at five weeks, at which point the embryo, even though it’s only the size of a sesame seed, has a beating heart.

Then there were the participants who placed their neon dots at the moment of conception itself. Some placed their stickers there because their beliefs, religious or not, affirm an innate value in each human life the moment fertilization occurs. Some did so because they believe that a society that encourages the violent act of abortion, instead of acting to truly support all of its expectant mothers, is no society at all. Some did so because they think that a legal standard that permits abortion “on demand” works against meaningful change for the status of women in society.

I agree with those students who argue that personhood begins at conception. Human rights should not be granted only on the basis of possessing self-awareness, a functional sensory system or the ability to consciously move. Think of someone you know who lacks some or all of these capacities, and ask yourself, are these people any less human than I am?

Regardless of any of the differing philosophical conceptions of human worth, it is  scientific fact that all the genetic information necessary for the essential characteristics of a person are present in the 23 pairs of chromosomes in the human zygote at fertilization. The physical characteristics of this new human will change as it grows from embryo to fetus to baby to toddler and so on; at every stage, it is the same human worthy of the same protection from unjust death.

Pro-lifers do not deny that pregnancy can be a difficult, disruptive and downright dangerous thing for women. Within the pro-life framework, it can still be morally permissible for a physician to induce labor early or to otherwise remove the fetus from the womb in cases where the health of the mother is truly at risk (i.e. ectopic pregnancy or eclampsia). In these cases the physician acts to preserve as much life as possible, rather than with the intent to kill. These situations are difficult and they do happen. But resolving them properly requires a full acknowledgment of the personhood of the growing fetus.

Abortion is not something that is rare in practice. Based on 2011 statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization aligned with the pro-choice movement, an average of 40 abortions a day occur in the state of Connecticut alone. I am not here to condemn anyone on this campus who has had an abortion; rather, as members of CLAY, we seek to inform students fully as they are making decisions regarding pregnancy and their views on abortion.

CLAY cares about abortion because we think that someone ought to speak up for those  who can’t speak for themselves. We also care about abortion because we value the lives of every person on this campus. The pro-life perspective affirms that all people have tremendous worth at every stage of life, and that everyone has the right to protection from unjust death, regardless of circumstance.

Evy Behling is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at evelyn.behling@yale.edu .

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    Did you know that it is illegal in CT to addle the eggs of Canadian geese?

    Why? Because you’d be killing a goose, of course. And killing is bad.

    When, pray tell, do biology majors say life begins?

  • winter

    You state your opinions well and respectfully of those who may disagree, which is commendable, but I think the most important thing to understand here is that whatever your beliefs are about the beginning of life, they have no authority over my autonomy over my own body. You can oppose abortion morally for whatever reasons you want, but any attempts to legally prevent women from making the choice that is right for them are themselves reprehensible. Your morality does not trump my own.

    • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

      Why do the rights of one person’s body extend into another person’s body?

      From The Yale Book of Quotations: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

      Your right to prevent pregnancy is more or less absolute (and, I’d like to think, generally uncontested, despite what Sandra Fluke and MSNBC would have you think); however, once another life is involved, things perhaps change. Perhaps “your autonomy over your own body ends just where the other person’s life begins” or some such?

      • winter

        And yet, this also applies in the reverse. “Your right to dictate morality ends just where my uterus begins”.

        • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

          *My* rights, surely, but what of those of the unborn person?

          I don’t think a child’s biological “will to live” equates to that child “dictating morality.”

          Do what you will with your body, insofar as you are not harming another’s. By all means, PREVENT your biological offspring from taking up co-location, but once that occurs (overwhelmingly as a consequence of personal “choices”), things change. You would exert your assumed rights to harm another?

          Imagine (no, really, I mean it) that the very words you yourself typed were instead produced by your unborn daughter: “Your right [Mom] to dictate morality ends just where *my* uterus begins”.

          [You may have to sub in “body” for “uterus,” but you get the point.] Or imagine (no, really) that YOU were suddenly, magically transported to a womb… What rights and limits would you prefer?

    • ydnreader

      Humans have the duty to protect other humans from violence (even humans that are uniquely and temporarily dependent on their mothers’ bodies for nourishment).

      I think the idea is that if you believe that the fetus is a human life deserving of protection, it follows that you would see it as your duty to protect that life and convince others to do so also. Your body is no longer the only body in question. A fetus is not the moral equivalent of an unsightly mole or five-o’clock shadow, to be thrown in the trash or washed down the drain.

      So you can see that either “my” morality or “yours” must indeed “trump” the other, since a pro-lifer would see it as immoral not to act to prevent such violence.

    • credo

      Are you a libertarian? Otherwise, while I find this love of liberty commendable, this sense of unassailble automany seems at odds with practically every other conception on governance

      • winter

        In certain ways. I do not believe this extends fiscally to the liberty to not pay taxes or contribute to society, but I don’t believe in legislation of anything you do to your own body.

        • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine


  • GBC

    There are no such things as “natural human rights.” Human rights are the result of some sort of collective agreement about what society should look like – and it is my opinion (when I say opinion, I mean “my current conclusion after looking at statistics and examining logical and empirical consequences, both social and economic, of various abortion policies”) that a society with abortion would be better by most reasonable metrics than a society without abortion.

    We might be able to think of other “rules” that we think society would be better off “following” (i.e. codifying them in our laws, or writing our laws to permit them) that seem to logically imply that we should accept abortion as well. These may include some levels of bodily autonomy, the ability to disconnect oneself from a parasite violinist, or the permissibility of killing in self defense. But even without these pulled-back justifications, the society which is similar to ours in all ways but has broadly legal abortion (in my opinion, up to the day of birth is optimal; others will disagree on this point but agree in general) is better (from the standpoint of average welfare, average freedom, future sustainability, and many other metrics that I think are important) than the alternative society which criminalizes abortion. That’s why abortion should be legal – it’s good for society, and out of all the things that we will have to do restrict freedoms to preserve humanity, it’s a pretty tiny restriction to deny the fetus’ potential life.

    • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

      Yes, all sorts of eugenics-style programs could lead to a society “better by most reasonable metrics than a society without.” Indeed, Margaret Sanger herself supported many such ideas, such as the sterilization of the mentally incompetent (“morons,” in her words and the parlance of the day).

      I quote from her Pivot of Civilization: “Organized charity itself is the symptom of a malignant social disease. Those vast, complex, interrelated organizations aiming to control and to diminish the spread of misery and destitution and all the menacing evils that spring out of this sinisterly fertile soil, are the surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding and perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents and dependents.”

      And from her 1923 article “A Better Race Through Birth Control”:

      “The object of civilization is to obtain the highest and most splendid culture of which humanity is capable. But such attainment is unthinkable if we continue to breed from the present race stock that yields us our largest amount of progeny. Some method must be devised to eliminate the degenerate and the defective; for these act constantly to impede progress and ever increasingly drag down the human race.”

      For reference:

      • GBC

        Yes. Such ideas are unpopular these days because many have yet to understand how bleak humanity’s outlook is – both at the individual and collective level – due to overpopulation and overuse of natural resources (they go hand in hand). We should certainly encourage lower reproduction rates across the board; we should absolutely develop strategies to try and prevent or reduce the average carbon cost of an individual’s life. Growth is unsustainable. I hope that whatever methods we develop will cause the minimum of visible human suffering, which makes me squeamish.

        But the survival of our planet, and equivalently the human race, is genuinely more important than the survival of any individual, no matter how pitiful. I am a realist about the threats facing our society. I think that we can preserve many individual freedom and comforts, more or less, for the humans alive today; but we cannot preserve the freedom to produce carbon with reckless abandon, and reproduction (including raising the child) is one of the most carbon-intensive actions an individual can undertake.

        • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

          At least you are honest about your ideas; that’s something.

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    I ask again, then (and direct my question primarily to bio majors): When does life begin?

    (I referred to the egg-xample because CT, at least in the case of Canadian geese, believes it to be sometime prior to hatching, unless you equate laying a fertilized egg with birth?)

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    Belief is one thing; biological fact, another. I do not dispute a woman’s legal right to end/terminate/kill/abort a baby prior to its birth, but I dispute this “belief-based” idea that life occurs, Schrödinger’s cat-like, along some “continuum” dependent upon the observer and that observer’s preference or convenience.

    “A little bit pregnant” is a joke for a reason (in anticipation of any willful or feigned ignorance: because there is no such thing).

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    “Well, if you want a bright line as to ‘where life begins,’ you’re not going to find it.” Oh, but science disagrees; any biologist will tell you *exactly* when life begins–at fertilization.

    “That is, in human reproduction, when sperm joins ovum, these two individual cells cease to be, and their union generates a new and distinct organism. This organism is a whole, though in the beginning developmentally immature, member of the human species. Readers need not take our word for this: They can consult any of the standard human-embryology texts, such as Moore and Persaud’s The Developing Human, Larsen’s Human Embryology, Carlson’s Human Embryology & Developmental Biology, and O’Rahilly and Mueller’s Human Embryology & Teratology.” – Dr. Robert George

  • Ashley

    This is a really good point, and I agree that we should err on the side of caution since the beginning of an individual’s life is contested. Given that about half of Americans think that the embryo/fetus is a child, and about half don’t, let’s say there’s a 50-50 chance that the embryo/fetus is a child, and a 50-50 chance that it’s nothing more than a potential being (source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/170249/split-abortion-pro-choice-pro-life.aspx). Now, imagine you’re a demolition worker about to tear down a building. If you found out there was a fifty-fifty chance that there was a child huddled inside the building, would you proceed with the demolition? Of course not. What if there was a 30% chance? A 10% chance? The point of this thought experiment can be summed up as follows: America lacks public consensus as to whether or not there’s a human child hidden inside the woman’s womb; killing a human child is prima facie a grave, serious evil; since America is divided 50-50 about the status of pre-borns, we can say there’s a 50-50 chance the embryo/fetus is a human child; We should err on the side of caution, and stay the swing of the demolition ball on the chance that we’d kill an innocent babe. Even if there’s less than a 50-50 chance that the fetus is a kid, we should still protect it from the curette, just as we would tell the demolition worker to stop even if there was only a small chance that a child was hidden in the building’s basement. As adults, we have a serious duty to protect human life, especially the weak and vulnerable and among us—the children. (This thought experiment is taken from Beckwith’s book, Cambridge, 2007). Thanks for thinking along with me. With sincerity, a woman who has carried a fetus in her body

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    I won’t address the pre-packaged, MSNBC-fed ideas you have about those more conservative than you, but I will respond to your (rather mundane and already-implemented) “suggestions”:

    1. support real, evidence-based sex ed

    I believe public schools already do this, and libraries are free, and, heck, even my local (Christian) church has a whole series on sexuality for its youth/teen group. Research will show that education has less bearing on bearing than one might think. Not-wrapping is wrapped up in culture, and we can’t crit culture. (I, for one, think children should observe mating season at the farm, then discuss it with their parents.)

    2. make effective, long-term, reversible birth control (i.e. IUDs or Norplant) available to all women at low to no cost

    Um… 4 bucks a month at Walmart for the pill; free under ACA.
    http://www.walmart.com/cp/4-Prescriptions/1078664 (Click “women’s health”)

    BTW: Thinking of again law skool grad Sandra Fluke: Why is her… man… exempt from purchasing — or USING — birth control?

  • http://theweeklyworldview.com dougmcburney

    Those among us who draw the line for Personhood at fertilization are certain
    never to kill an innocent person by abortion. Those who draw that line
    elsewhere will have to explain themselves to God if they are wrong. This is a
    serious matter. Consider your choice carefully. http://theweeklyworldview.com