randombio.com | commentary
Thursday, May 16, 2019

With the Alabama abortion law, both sides rush toward defeat

Science is left behind, waving its hand, hoping to catch up

T his week the Alabama governor signed a draconian law prohibiting almost all abortions. The left is calling it an attack on women's rights. Some are trying to make the the issue about race by saying all the signers of the bill were white males—a fact that is, and ought to be, totally irrelevant. The governor is a woman.

The bill is two things: it is a reaction against efforts in other states to liberalize abortion beyond the limits set in Roe v Wade; and it is intended to be unenforceable. Some other states have banned abortions after six weeks, a time when women may not even realize they are pregnant.

Its sole purpose is to challenge Roe v Wade, but the US Supreme Court may not agree to hear it. Even if they do, the most probable outcome is that it is struck down: the bill allows abortions if the woman's life is in danger or if the fetus is unviable, but prohibits them in cases of rape or incest. It imposes ridiculously long prison terms for abortionists (but not for the woman). These things put it out of touch with the views of the average American, and if the Court takes it, it is likely to uphold its previous rulings.

Yet even The Economist once said that America's abortion laws are too lenient and should be revised.

Alabama is socially conservative, but it is not a backward state. The research that is done at their universities is as advanced as any in the world. Claiming that this symbolic maneuver represents an outpouring of oppression of women, that it is regressive, or that it moves us to a Handmaid's Tale scenario would be an exaggeration.

It is true that there is no scientific dispute as to the status of a fetus: it is a new, separate individual, with a unique genome, from the moment of conception. It is scientifically inaccurate to say that it is just a part of the woman's own body. But it is also not a fully developed human being. Sapient life requires conscious awareness and the ability to feel pain. A fetus can feel pain by 20–22 weeks[1,2], indicating rudimentary consciousness, but conscious­ness of other stimuli might occur earlier. When this first happens is still unknown, because we do not yet know how to measure it.

Cerebral Organoids

The issue of consciousness comes up in new invention called cerebral organoids, which are small three-dimensional balls of cultured cells containing a few thousand neurons, astrocytes, and microglia.[3] Cerebral organoids make it possible, for the first time, to study intercellular signaling that might be involved in brain diseases like Alzheimer's disease, using live human cells. Since we can now reprogram skin cells and fat cells into neurons, these organoids do not rely on aborted tissue. It is hoped that they could someday be used to repair brain injuries.

Cerebral organoids have neural connections and electrical activity, but they have no connection to the outside world, and no possibility of an emotional state. Yet a few bioethicists claim they are developmentally equivalent to a few-months-old fetus. So are they in any way conscious? Lavazza and Massimini[4] invoke a controversial theory called the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness to claim that they do.

The IIT says a system has subjective experience to the extent to which it is capable of integrating information. Many scientists regard this as highly speculative and theoretically shaky: one could, for example, use it to claim that even a thermostat integrates information, and thus is conscious. Our understanding of this issue is, shall we say, embryonic, so science cannot resolve the abortion issue. Anyway, consciousness is not morally determinative, since there is more to a human life than consciousness and the ability to feel pain.

The bill is significant for another reason: social conservatives are finally taking action on some issue instead of reacting to actions of their opponents, as they have done in the past. This may signify a much-needed restoration of balance in American politics.

But because the Alabama bill is both tone-deaf and DOA by design, the most likely scenario is that it is rejected by the Supreme Court. At most, the timetables might be refined and clarified. It seems that, as usual, overreaction interferes with rational discussion. But on the most important questions, science is struggling to catch up.

1 Bellieni CV. (2012). Pain assessment in human fetus and infants. AAPS J. 14(3),456–461. doi: 10.1208/s12248-012-9354-5. Link

2 Gibbins S, Stevens B, Beyene J, Chan PC, Bagg M, Asztalos E. (2008) Pain behaviours in Extremely Low Gestational Age infants. Early Hum Dev. 84(7), 451–458. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2007.12.007. Link

3 Hostiuc S, Rusu MC, Negoi I, Perlea P, Dorobantu B, Drima E. (2019). The moral status of cerebral organoids. Regen Ther. 10, 118–122. doi: 10.1016/j.reth.2019.02.003. Link

4 Lavazza A, Massimini M (2018). Cerebral organoids: ethical issues and consciousness assessment. J Med Ethics 44(9), 606–610 Link

may 16 2019, 10:22 am. last edited may 19 2019, 6:55 am

Notes: An earlier version of this article said the ban was similar to Georgia's ban, which prohibited them after six weeks. Some people have commented that consciousness does not occur until after birth. This is not true: reaction to pain is evidence of consciousness, so conscious­ness occurs at 20–22 weeks at the latest. The article has been updated to emphasize this point.

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