The Facts of Life

In this slim volume, two science professors provide a new perspective on the abortion debate. The issue central to the debate has always been whether the developing fetus is a “person” entitled to legal protection. Morowitz and Trefil approach this issue as scientists, regarding the fetus as part of the complex web of life and focusing on the purely scientific question of when the fetus becomes uniquely human. They argue that the issue is not when the fetus becomes a person—personhood is a legal concept that applies at birth in Western cultures. Nor is the issue when life begins—the sperm and egg are both alive before conception. For Morowitz and Trefil, the issue is: “When does the embryo or fetus acquire those characteristics that distinguish human beings from other living things, or humanness?”

Sidestepping emotionally charged political, ethical, and religious concerns, the authors present a rational review of fetal development, drawing from advances in biology, embryology, neurophysiology, and neonatology. They conclude that humanness depends on the intellectual sophistication associated with a well-developed cerebral cortex. This development begins during the twenty-fourth week of intrauterine life. Coincidentally, the probability of survival before this age is extremely poor, and the survival rate after this age rises significantly.

Departing from their objective stance, the authors suggest that policy should be in tune with scientific reality—during the first two trimesters of pregnancy (before the fetus has acquired humanness at twenty-four weeks), the woman’s right to choice takes precedence; during the third trimester, the state must weigh the rights of the fetus. These recommendations coincide with the Roe v. Wade decision.

In an afterword, Morowitz and Trefil present their personal opinions on abortion, and the reader can determine if the findings are colored by their biases. Obviously, the abortion debate cannot be reduced to a question of scientific fact. Opinions should be informed by the facts, however, and this book is an excellent overview of the biological aspects of abortion.