Could Science Solve the Abortion Debate?

As science learns more and more about neonatal development, research is giving pro-lifers more fodder to boost their side of the abortion debate, according to a new article in The Atlantic.

“These advances fundamentally shift the moral intuition around abortion,” writes Emma Green, who covers politics, policy, and religion for The Atlantic. “New technology makes it easier to apprehend the humanity of a growing child and imagine a fetus as a creature with moral status. Over the last several decades, pro-life leaders have increasingly recognized this and rallied the power of scientific evidence to promote their cause. They have built new institutions to produce, track, and distribute scientifically crafted information on abortion. They hungrily follow new research in embryology. They celebrate progress in neonatology as a means to save young lives.”

Activist Ashley McGuire believes there’s no conflict between the terms “pro-life” and “pro-science.” She thinks they work together just fine.

“The pro-life message has been, for the last 40-something years, that the fetus … is a life, and it is a human life worthy of all the rights the rest of us have,” she told The Atlantic. “That’s been more of an abstract concept until the last decade or so.” But, she added, “when you’re seeing a baby sucking its thumb at 18 weeks, smiling, clapping,” it becomes “harder to square the idea that that 20-week-old, that unborn baby or fetus, is discardable.”

Colleen Malloy, a neonatologist and faculty member at Northwestern University, noted that as her own field of science has advanced, her thinking has changed accordingly: “It just became so obvious that these [fetuses] were just developing humans.” Malloy has testified before legislative bodies about fetal pain, repeatedly calling them “my patients.”

It goes without saying that not everyone agrees about what the science does, and doesn’t, support on this highly contentious debate. Some scientists feel their research is being taken out of context, even by both “sides” of the issue. The philosophical and moral elements of the abortion debate may never come to agreement, but it’s clear that science—a mostly objective endeavor with highly subjective interpretations—will play more and more of a role in this conversation.


Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine