Robert Wyman on the Biology and History of Abortion
One of the most hotly contested aspects of the abortion debate is the question as to when life begins. Prolife arguments typically depend upon the premise that life begins at conception — a premise many prolifers take to be scientific fact. But is it?
While I accept the prolife premise for philosophical reasons, I decided it worthwhile to investigate the science. Here is what I found: a very engaging and informative lecture by Robert Wyman of Yale. I must admit that I was not able to comprehend the scientific details of fertilization as presented by Wyman. What I did gather is that modern science views life more as a cycle than as a narrative with a distinct beginning or end:
The only scientific response to the question of when life begins is, when does one say? Well four billion years ago, when the first cell in some slime of some sea somewhere or something, life began and since then cells have replicated cells. In a sense, since every cell in your body is the result of a split of some prior cell, in a sense every cell in your body has been alive for four billion years. There’s never been anything dead in the past of that.
Science, it would appear, is beginning to realize what Buddhists have known for centuries: that life is always in flux, so that none of us has a permanent “self” distinct from everything else that is. Here is how Thich Nhat Hahn puts the point in “Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers”:
In Buddhism we speak of the world of phenomena (dharmalakshana). You, me, the trees, the birds, the squirrels, the creek, the air, the stars are all phenomena. There is a relationship between one phenomena and another. If we observe things deeply, we will discover that one thing contains all the other things . . . When we hold a piece of bread to eat, if mindfulness is there, if the Holy Spirit is there, we can eat the bread in a way that will allow us to touch the whole cosmos deeply. A piece of bread contains the sunshine. That is not something difficult to see. Without sunshine, the piece of bread cannot be. A piece of bread contains a cloud. Without a cloud, the wheat cannot grow. So when you eat a piece of bread, you eat the cloud, you eat the sunshine, you eat the minerals, time, space, everything.
Wyman’s biology leads us down the road to Thich Nhat Hahn’s mysticism. Further down that road, we find a distinction between conventional and ultimate reality in which Thich Nhat Hahn’s observation that the bread contains cloud, sunshine, and minerals (ultimate reality) is completed by the observation that the bread at the same time has a form distinct from that of cloud, sunshine, and mineral (conventional reality). “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”
The question as to whether or not a fetus is a life belongs to conventional reality. Thus, while science can point us toward a richer overall picture of reality, it is simply not qualified to intervene in our political debates. As with the season cycle, Wyman tells us, the beginning of life depends on cultural, and not scientific, understandings:
[The season cycle is] conventional, it’s not a scientific statement, and it’s whatever any of the culture decides. Similarly, with when does life begin? Different cultures have decided different start points for this cycle of life.
He goes on to rehearse a long series of cultural definitions as to when life begins — from the Fulani of West Africa to the tribes of New Guinea to traditional China to St. Thomas Aquinas. I suspect he hopes to show that no conclusive answers can be reached on the matter, and that the decision ought therefore be left to a woman and her doctor. But, of course, the mere fact of cultural diversity doesn’t prove anything. We’re left right back where we started.
Here is a video of the entire lecture for anyone who is interested: