A recent article from Newsweek was making the rounds in social media this week reporting on the new strategic draft issued by the Department of Health and Human services. The draft includes language that defines life as beginning at conception.
"HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception."
The comments on this article were cleanly divided across ideological lines: those against abortion considered this a major victory while those for abortion considered this a major setback. It is neither and that debate seems to be nothing more than a red herring at best. I think the science is quite clear: life, whether it is human or otherwise, does begin at conception. Once the egg and the sperm fuse the resulting DNA is human DNA which, for those of us who have their worldview informed by science, is the sine qua non of being human. The DNA is unique to the developing embryo and will stay just as unique throughout the entire gestational period until the mother gives birth. The mother and the child are separate and equal both in fact and, as I will argue, under the law.
The anti-abortion argument goes something like this: if you grant that the child is a child from the moment of conception (granted) then aborting the child at any point along the timeline spanning conception to birth is murder since you are taking a human life. It follows then that we should legislate according to this understanding since our laws consider murder a capital crime and our legal system, rather than aiding and abetting this, should be consistent in outlawing and prosecuting those who engage in this practice as they would any other individual or group who commits murder. The question is, does this argument follow from granting personhood and the subsequent legal rights that personhood entails in our society to the developing child? My contention is that it does not.
What the understanding that life begins at conception does do is grant both the mother and the child equal rights under the law. This is what logically follows, not the idea that the ending of the child's life is murder anymore than the death of a mother due to complications while carrying a child to term is murder. In a secular society that follows the rule of law, we are all considered equal under the law. If we are all considered equal, including the developing child, then no one, including the developing child, has the right to use anyone else's body for any reason, including survival, without that person's consent. That is the proper legal stance that government should hold and should base it's legislation on. Given this understanding, the decision whether to have or to not have an abortion is left with the mother, her conscience and her doctor's advice.