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Robert Wyman on the Biology and History of Abortion

January 4, 2011

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:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    January 11, 2011 11:19 am

    You touch on another issue and one that I think is more basic to the debate, the issue of individuality. Abortion rights are necessarily argued in the context of individual rights.

    WRT to abortion this breaks down, because in preganacy you have two separate persons in one body for a period of months. Traditionally the pragmatic approach has been to negate the personhood of the fetus because pregnancy and birth, and infancy for that matter, were pretty chancy. In some cultures even newborns did not have full personhood and weren’t even named until some period had passed – ie. it looked likely that the kid would survive. So it was senseless to equate the personhood of the fetus and the mother.

    Well, time change. There was a time when we any of us hardly had any personhood outside our clans and femilies. In most places women were so economically dependent on the crops that only men grew or the herds that only men guarded or the raids that only men went on that they were really not viable individuals. Times have changed, and initially it was simply a legal fiction of economic independence, but perhaps in our lifetime women will truly produce as much value as men do, building roads and drilling for oil and all the rest to the same extent that men do. There are significant cultural hurdles, but we are on our way.

    It’s a lot more complicated or subtle when you are talking about something going on in a person’s body, and the issue is exacerbated in a culture that institutes each person as a sovereign indivudual. we have tried all the alternatives to that, and we have agreed in our culture that they are nightmarish, and we like indivuduality. It’s just that we have to recognize that it is a cultural construct when it comes to the extreme we take it too. We have the decide how far we can ride that horse.

    As a practical matter, I can imagine only a very few hypothetical examples where the women herself is not obviously the most well-infomred authority to decide the question. Married women may be one such example, since reproduction is not an indivudal matter in a monoecious species and since we alreadyt have precendent where individual autonomy is not absolute – in many states until recently, and maybe still, a married man could/can not get a vasectomy without his wife’s permisson.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      January 12, 2011 1:32 am


      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m not sure if you had the chance to watch the Wyman lecture or not, but he raises a similar point as to how definitions of personhood vary culturally.

      I agree with you that “individual rights” is a cultural construct and shouldn’t be taken to an extreme. (I have made that exact argument repeatedly on this blog.) I am a bit puzzled, however, by your seemingly wholesale acceptance of the logic of capitalism — which is nothing if not individualistic to an extreme.

      In a capitalist society, housework and child rearing are not understood to create value. Rather, value refers to whatever increases a firm’s profit margins — for example, “building roads and drilling for oil.” In exchange for producing value, workers receive a wage. Earning a wage, in turn, translates into economic independence, which is itself the basis for personhood. Hence, in order to become persons, women must first become wage earners.

      (Absent from this scheme is any sense of family or community as an organic whole, in which each member supports and is supported by the others, both economically and otherwise.)

      Supposing it is true that personhood corresponds to participation in a capitalist economy, why then do you assert that a women is the “most well-informed authority to decide the question” as to when human life begins? Haven’t you already answered it? Doesn’t life begin behind a Wall Mart cash register at some point in one’s adolescence?


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