Luna_Northcat wrote:From a biology standpoint, I think I can contribute some factual answers to some of the questions raised here.
The question was raised early in the thread about when measurable brain activity appears. It appears late in the pregnancy, generally after 21 weeks; and no, it doesn't appear suddenly, not there one day and there the next. There is some measurable electrical activity in weeks 20-21, but it doesn't count as true "brain waves" under any criteria (get into that in a moment); in weeks 22-23, there are almost-brain-wave-like electrical signals, but they are not coordinated and they do not resemble "normal" brain waves; in about week 24 they start to settle into a coordinated pattern, and by week 26 they look like normal brain waves and actually have recogniseable sleep-wake patterns. The presence of detectable brain activity kind of fades in, like tuning in a radio station, but a lot slower.
Brain waves aren't simple to generate. The neuron has to maintain an electrical potential, through the maintenance of an ion gradient from one end of the cell to the other, and there needs to be a full complement of neurotransmitters in the body to facilitate communication from one nerve cell to the next. What happens is that a neurotransmitter docks at a one of many possible specialised receptors in the membrane at one end of the cell; depending on what neurotransmitter it is, its docking will spark off one of many possible signalling pathways across the length of the cell itself, where the ion gradient is used to zap electrons along a chain of proteins; then at the other end of the cell, the electrical charge thus carried is used to poink another neurotransmitter across the 40-50 nm gap to the next neuron. In order for there to be brain waves, this process needs to take place in multiple neurons at once in a coordinated fashion. And this explanation is actually a gross oversimplification, and there is a good argument that the post-synaptic neuronal membrane is the single most biochemically complex system in the human body.
Basically, it takes a while for the cells to mature to the point that they can do this, and for the neurotransmitters to start getting manufactured in the body. Before this point, the only electrical activity is the ordinary, unfocused electrical activity that all living cells have, and there is no chance of brain activity or true awareness because there is no physical system there for it to work from.
(Incidentally, no matter how the media characterised it, by medical definition Schiavo was not "brain dead" until she was actually dead. If there is any measurable brain activity, then no matter what it ultimately means in terms of awareness, it is NOT "brain death". Brain death is the legal and medical criterion for actual death, and occurs when there is no measurable brain activity at all.)
If one wanted to set the limit for abortion at 22 weeks, as when (a) there is brain activity, and (b) there is a bare potential for survival outside the womb (although survival at 22 weeks is <1%), then I would go for that. With one reservation -- there are some deformities and diseases which are incompatible with life, which are frequently not detected until very late in pregnancy. This can include anencephaly, but also things like laryngeal atresia and long-segment tracheal ring deformities, which are often first detected in week 23 or after and which mean that the child will not be able to breathe (even with a machine) and will die painfully in its first few minutes outside the womb. Although late abortions do carry significant risk, there are some women who simply can't take the idea of carrying one of these babies to full term and having a normal delivery, only to have it die horribly; in cases like this, I favor leaving it up to the mother how she wants to handle it. She has enough trauma on her plate at this point, and anything that can be done to ameliorate HER pain takes priority, as far as I'm concerned. The baby will die, and there is sadly nothing we can do to prevent that; the only thing that can be addressed is how, and how much pain will it experience.
On another tack, I think it was claimed somewhere that a fertilised egg, under normal circumstances, develops into a full pregnancy. That's....only marginally true. In humans, at least (at minimum) 50% of all fertilised eggs either never develop into blastocysts, don't implant, or implant and then spontaneously abort within the first few weeks. As high as 80% of fertilised eggs don't and wouldn't make it through a full pregnancy under ideal conditions and with no outside interference. This is actually the main reason I have difficulty with the idea that a fertilised egg becomes "ensoulled" at conception; that would just be so....pointless? Wasteful? Cruel? Yeah. Something like that. Nature is incredibly wasteful of fertilised eggs, and the idea that all these doomed-from-the-start efforts have souls makes no sense to me.
Abortion should never be "casual", and I think anything that contributes to that attitude needs to be addressed, although I'm very aware that this in itself is a complex question. Having said that, I also think that in the first trimester it should also be freely available, but that as pregnancy progresses it should become increasingly restricted, to where there is clear need. And sometimes, sadly, there is clear need.
I have a kind of personal interest in this topic, you should be aware. I had an ectopic pregnancy when I was 21, and those come down to a relatively simple question: abortion, or death. I am obviously not dead, and that is the way I prefer it. But it did involve a lot of thinking on what it all meant.
Thank you for this post.