Hopefuls take different paths on abortion

Posted: July 17, 2008

Two candidates campaign for the presidency with different views on when life begins, use of stem cells, and abortion. While it is easy to say they have different perspectives, they are often addressing very different, but related, beginning-of-life issues.

Republican John McCain examines these issues from the perspective of the embryo. He argues that the embryo has every right to life. He focuses on the right of the embryo to mature and develop to birth. McCain's Web site states: "At its core, abortion is a human tragedy."

Democrat Barack Obama looks at these issues differently and discusses the rights of women to choose their own reproductive fate. Obama's Web site states: "Thirty-five years after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, it's never been more important to protect a woman's right to choose."

What makes this a more troublesome issue is that most Americans do not know the early stages of human development. They cannot relate the development of an embryo with a woman's menstrual cycle. Most have no idea how fertilization, implantation and gastrulation (development of the embryo) occur.

Would most Americans know that only 30 percent of the fertilized human eggs make it to birth and the rest don't develop? Would the average citizen know that only a little more than half of the implanted embryos actually complete development while the others normally abort spontaneously?

Would most citizens realize that, once fertilized, the embryo is capable of full development, is not a bunch of cells during the first few weeks, and by the fifth day has identifiable parts?

Would they know that implantation, the formation of the neural tube, and the first heartbeat are only some of the early stages of human development occurring before a woman knows she is pregnant?

The sad part is the candidates do not even talk about the same issue. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson used "Philippa Foot's Trolley Problem," an exercise in ethics, to raise issues about abortion.

In the first scenario, a runaway trolley is heading toward and will kill five innocent people standing on its track. You can divert it to another track, but if you do it will kill one innocent person on the second track. What ought you to do?

In the second scenario, a runaway trolley is heading toward and will kill five innocent people on its track. You can stop it, but you have to push an innocent bystander onto the track into the path of the trolley. The innocent bystander will die diverting the trolley. Again, what ought you to do?

The reason I bring this up is that the presidential candidates chose to talk about different parts of the story. Some talked about the victims. Others talked about the person standing at the switch having to make the decision.

Then there is much talk about the trolley system itself. Why is it broken? How can we fix it? Is it the trolleys that are too old or are the tracks in disrepair?

So when the abortion debate occurs, the candidates talk past each other.

The best approach is for the candidates to address two specific issues:

1) When does the embryo/fetus gain protection from society? When is personhood conveyed?

2) Who has the right to dictate to a woman what she should do with her body? Is there a time when a woman's reproductive rights can be sacrificed by society for the greater good?

Then you might want them to address health care for women, especially those women who cannot afford it. But that is a third issue.

I believe that if we know their thoughts on these issues we would find out a lot more about the candidates than we know right now. Maybe we should even present them with the Trolley problem.

Thomas A. Marino is a professor of anatomy and cell biology at Temple University School of Medicine.

E-mail Thomas A. Marino at marino@temple.edu.

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