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Analyzing the Abortion Argument

Veena Thomas

The famous Roe v. Wade decision occurred in a very different culture than today. In 1965, a Connecticut statute prohibited the use of contraceptives, and in 1972, a law banned the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people. In 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion before fetus viability, and left it to the states to determine laws for abortion after that time. The court case allowed women access to legal abortions in an age without the technology and prophylactics that we have today.

Fast-forward 30 years. The contraceptive options are staggering. Besides the male condom, the female condom, and the pill, women can have implanted contraceptive devices, or periodic injections. Add to these the emergency contraception pill, and there is scarcely a reason, besides rape, for accidental pregnancy. If few people inadvertently become pregnant, few abortions need be performed.

Yet the abortion debate rages on. The Roe v. Wade decision allowed desperate women a last option for ending an unwanted pregnancy. However, currently many abuse this ruling and use abortion as a form of birth control, to the extent of being irresponsible about contraception. Why? Misinformation abounds. While we’ve all heard both the pro-choice and pro-life arguments before, few actually know anything about the issue. We’re MIT students; we need real scientific information. What are the actual facts surrounding the abortion debate? What is each side not telling you? Read the facts, and make up your own mind.

It’s difficult to find completely impartial abortion information. The most unbiased information stems from medical resources. A search on <> for “fetal development” provides some interesting information. A doctor can often detect a heartbeat in a four-week-old embryo. At five weeks, when the abortion pill RU-486 is most effective, the half-inch embryo has hands and feet. At seven weeks, the outer edge of effectiveness, the inch-long embryo has arms, elbows, and developing ears. A 13-week-old embryo sucks its thumb. By the age of 16 weeks, the fetus distinguishes sweet from bitter, senses light, makes facial expressions, and even yawns and hiccups. The fetus can hear sounds at around week 18, and will even cover its ears if startled by a loud sound. By 24 weeks of age, the baby’s brain waves resemble a full-term newborn’s.

Although these are strictly the medical facts, you won’t find these facts on pro-choice websites. It’s far easier to choose abortion if the fetus is viewed as a tissue mass with de-emphasized human features.

What, then, of RU-486? Hailed as a gentler nonsurgical abortion, it allows a woman the ability to terminate her pregnancy privately at home. Yet with this control comes drawbacks. What happens if a woman taking RU-486 at seven weeks sees a tiny foot, an arm, or her entire aborted embryo lying in the toilet bowl or on the floor of the shower stall?

All of this traces back to the fundamental question: when does life begin? Pro-lifers believe that “life begins at fertilization,” and accuse pro-choicers of redefining life and pregnancy to suit their needs. What, then, is pregnancy? Pro-lifers maintain that pregnancy, like life, begins at fertilization. However, the pro-choice camps state that pregnancy begins with the implantation of the embryo in the uterine lining. Therefore, pro-choice groups support use of the emergency contraception pill (ECP), or “morning-after pill,” as a safe and 75-to-89-percent effective way of preventing an unwanted pregnancy, not terminating it, while pro-life groups see use of the ECP as murder. Which is true?

The pro-life groups fail to mention that ECPs are merely ordinary birth control pills taken in high doses up to 72 hours after intercourse, and therefore work in the exact same way as regular birth-control pills. Both contain combinations of female hormones estrogen and progestin. Since they have three functions, birth-control pills are over 99 percent effective (when used correctly) in preventing an unwanted pregnancy. They stop a woman’s egg from completely forming, preventing fertilization. However, if a woman takes the pills more than 24 hours apart, sometimes her eggs develop properly. Due to another function of the pill -- thickening the cervical mucus, which hinders sperm trying to fertilize -- the pill can still prevent pregnancy even with a developed egg. Even if somehow the egg is fertilized, the pill still changes the uterine lining enough to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, therefore preventing pregnancy.

ECPs, taken up to 72 hours after intercourse, work like birth-control pills, but faster. ECPs prevent full formation of an egg if the woman has not yet ovulated, and thicken the cervical mucus to prevent fertilization. However, if fertilization has already occurred, the ECP will prevent implantation, allowing the fertilized egg to pass through the body before a pregnancy can begin.

But, pro-life groups charge, use of ECPs does not amount to prevention of a pregnancy, but, rather, an abortion. Yet they remain curiously silent on the matter of birth control pills used regularly by women. Since birth control pills could potentially lead to the prevention of implantation of a fertilized egg, does this very common form of contraception amount to abortion? Why are pro-life groups only speaking out against birth-control pills when used as ECPs? Do pro-life groups advocate banning birth-control pills, and only allowing barrier methods of contraception, such as condoms?

Let’s hope not. Banning birth-control pills, an easy, convenient, and effective method of birth control, would undoubtedly result in many more unwanted pregnancies and more abortions. Caught up in the midst of the abortion debate, many seem to forget this: no one, not even pro-choice people, likes abortion. Therefore, both groups should work towards reducing the need for abortions.

How can we accomplish this? We need to educate everyone about biology, contraceptives, and the reality of abortion. Right-wingers should not continue to condemn abortion while simultaneously opposing everything but abstinence-based sexual education in the schools. Roe v. Wade may have been necessary in 1973, but with today’s contraceptive breakthroughs, abortion’s role should diminish. The primary barrier to successful ECP use is lack of information, stressing the need for education. If MIT students don’t know the facts, then who does?