30 years of abortion: A Christian biologist’s view
Donald R. Colborn
February 5, 2003
ST. LOUIS -Thirty years ago this month the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Roe v. Wade that would literally change the face of our nation. In their decision, seven justices determined that a "right to privacy" existed within the United States Constitution. This clause was used to eliminate virtually all state laws prohibiting abortion.
Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his dissenting opinion, wrote that this ruling would be used ”as a fulcrum for deciding that states may impose virtually no restrictions on medical abortions performed during the first trimester of pregnancy." This prophesy has been proven true as even common sense legislation enacted by several states, such as parental notification for minors, has been ruled unconstitutional.
My initial exposure to abortion came in the early 1980’s while a student at Hannibal-LaGrange College, During one chapel, members of Missouri Right-to-Life gave a presentation on the realities of abortion. As a student in the biological sciences, I found the presentation both very interesting and extremely troubling. I continue to find the procedure very troubling not only from a Christian viewpoint but also from a scientific perspective.
My graduate and post-doctoral training is in the area of reproductive physiology. I have worked with fertilized embryos from several animal species as part of my research into various aspects of reproductive biology. As I reflect back on my time studying the miracle of reproduction, several thoughts come to mind regarding this most important moral decision facing our nation.
The overriding issue in the initial debate seems to have been the question of when does human life begin? In 1973,1he limited scientific evidence suggested that life began at conception. Thanks to improvements in medical technology, scientific evidence in 2003 overwhelmingly supports the idea that life begins at conception.
From a biological perspective the process of conception begins with the fusion of the male and female pronuclei. At this point, the 46 chromosomes characteristic of all humans are present and many complex biochemical processes are initiated that result in the fertilized embryo beginning to divide. Each mitotic division results in an exact copy of the parental cell being formed. At this initial step, all the genetic information required for human life is present within that growing infant.
In 1973, little was known about the developmental process that took place after this initial period of fertilization. However, the last 30 years have brought many scientific breakthroughs that tend to shed light on the process of embryonic development. Thanks in part to the Human Genome Project, which started in 1990, we now know that spread along the 46 chromosomes present within the embryo are approximately 30,000 genes. Genes are the nucleotide sequences that dictate the formation of proteins. These proteins are largely responsible for the physical characteristics that make up an individual. As the embryo continues to divide, these 30,000 genes are turned on and off in various combinations. This switching process leads to the differentiation of the cells into bones, muscles, nerves or whatever cell type is required for normal development. The mechanism controlling cell differentiation is still relatively unclear to developmental biologists. What is known, however, is that all the information necessary to make these important decisions resides within the embryo from the moment of conception. Thus, it now appears that what is taking place within the uterus during fetal development is merely the beginning of a process that will continue even after the baby is born.
Imaging capabilities now exist that permit taking pictures of the activities within the womb. We now have pictures of developing humans at various stages of gestation. Perhaps more than any other development, this capability is answering many previous questions about how life is formed. It was once believed that humans had gills during fetal development. This was often used as evidence of the evolution of humans from amphibians. We now know that this is not the case. For the first time we now can see with vivid clarity, the facial features of a developing infant.
The last 10 years have witnessed an increase in the ability to conduct in utero surgical therapy. Surgery can be performed on a developing child before it is born. This can alleviate congenital problems that develop and could be potentially life-threatening if not corrected early. As a society we must now grapple with the question of why we would want to invest the money and take the risks associated with performing surgery on a fetus unless the fetus was a living child.
Many pro-life organizations have been raising these issues in recent years. Thanks to groups like the Vitae Society and others, the tide appears to be slowly turning in America. In a recent survey, when asked whether they favored restoring legal protection for unborn children, 68 percent of those polled indicated they were in favor of such legislation. The number of abortions has dropped slightly over the last 10 years from 1.61 million in 1990 to 1.31 million in 2000. As more people become aware of the truth of human developmental biology now afforded to us through scientific advancement, more Americans will have to wrestle with the truth of abortion.
Recently, the governor of Illinois granted clemency to all the inmates on death row in that state. Many of these men were there for committing the most heinous and violent crimes. In his remarks, the governor cited studies that indicated that capital punishment was biased based on race and economic level. These same biases have existed for years in the abortion arena. And yet, we have been largely unwilling to call attention to these statistics. Let’s pray for the day when we Americans will realize the error of our ways and demand that the politicians grant clemency to the truly most vulnerable and innocent of all our citizenry.
Dr. Don Colborn Ph.D., is associate professor of biology and chemistry at Missouri Baptist College.