Episode 23 - Can Science Tell Us When Abortion Is Okay?

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In today's culture if you want to know something, and really know it, you ask a scientist or at least that's how it's generally thought of.” Science gives us truth. Religion might give us a feeling or a purpose but science tells us about the world as it actually is, not things we have to believe on ‘faith’, or in some type of belief in spite of evidence.”

Science tells us the truth, or at least that how it's said. Some people would even say that if science doesn't say it or can't support it then it's not something we can know, that it's not true. This is what's involved in the shift in our educational system to saying that a fact is something that can be proven. An opinion is something you believe but a fact is something that can be proven, through some type of scientific or naturalistic process. 

Well this has grave implications for very important life issues like abortion and euthanasia, and so we're going to talk about that today and answer the question, "Can science tell us when abortion is okay?" You might be expecting me to say, "Yes, it can tell us when it's okay and it actually says it's never okay."

That is actually not something science could ever tell us. Science can never tell us when something is okay, or when it's wrong, because that's a moral claim, that's a moral determination. That would be something for the area of philosophy, or theology, or ethics, but certainly not science.

Science has an important role and we need to understand what that role is, because as I started out saying most people think science is the source of knowledge about the way the world really is. In some ways that's true, but science gives us a subset of knowledge about the world and the way it is. It cannot tell us everything, and the mistake today is to ascribe too much worth and give away too much in our lives to science and its supposed authority.

Let's talk about when live begins. 

Is there scientific consensus on this? Marco Rubio was recently doing an interview on CNN and he said that there is scientific consensus about when life begins, and he actually did a very good job, especially for a politician, of defending unborn life in pointing out: what else could it be that's growing in there besides a human being.

The fact that a human being is growing in its mother is not actually that controversial. We try to use other terms to distance ourselves like fetus or tissue, but it is human. It's not a dog. It's not a cat. He did a great job pointing that out. It is a being, it's alive… or is it? That's the question that we're going to look at now.

There are actually quite a few views in the scientific community about when life begins. There's the metabolic view, and this would say that when a cell is functioning that cell is alive. It's really easy to tell if a cell is alive or not. Is it taking in nutrients? Is it expelling waste? Is it doing cellular respiration? Is it creating energy? 

If the answer to those questions is yes, then whatever that thing is - that cell or group of cells - that's alive. That's one view. On that view the sperm is alive, and the egg is alive. We would affirm both of those things but they're not the same type of “alive” as the fertilized zygote or fertilized egg. 

We need to look at another view of when life begins, and this would be the genetic view. This would say that when you have a new genome that has been formed, a totally unique set of DNA that life has begun. I think this view actually pairs well with the metabolic view. You take two cells that are themselves each alive, they come together to create a totally new set of genetic code that never been seen before and never will be again. 

Those two living cells, now one, reproduce and recreate after themselves and grow. All of those constituent cells that are constantly being added to themselves are metabolically alive. This accomplishes the genetic view and the metabolic view. Both of these views together would say that life begins at conception; however, these are not the only views in the scientific community.

here is the embryological view. This would say that life begins about fourteen days after fertilization, because after this point, much of the uncertainty about the state of the fertilized egg becomes fixed. For instance, you can tell if they're going to be twins or not. For many scientists this time, fourteen days after fertilization, is when the “individual” starts to exist. That's certainly not life beginning at conception but it's a far cry from saying life begins when the baby comes down the birth canal.

The next view we're going to look at is the neurological view. Some people would say that a person, let's say a forty year old, who has no brain activity is dead. There's not life there. Well, the neurological view is what's at play there. It would say that an unborn child is not alive until there's brain activity.

This should not be compelling because there are people who go through stretches, like a comas, and don't have brain activity. Then they suddenly come back and they're all there. We don't want to say that you're a valuable person, you have dignity and worth only when your brain is functioning properly.

As Christians we understand that we are more than a brain, we are more than a body. In fact, we are not a body and we're not a brain. We are an immaterial self, a soul, and we have a body. The neurological view does not play well in the Christian world view. 

The last view we'll look at is the ecological view, and this would say that the start of life is determined when the fetus can sustain itself outside of the mother's womb. This is what's at play recently when people say that abortion should be illegal after the child could survive, or the majority of children at a certain age could survive outside of the womb.

This is a very dangerous view, because what this says is you are only valuable, you only have dignity as a human person if you can survive on your own. What about the combat veteran, who aside from the care of a team of medical professionals will die. Should we not save him because he can't protect himself or survive on his own? If you would take this view of life where it only begins when it can sustain itself, then you would have to say that we shouldn't help anyone who can't help themselves. That would be a consistent reasoning in that case.

There are a couple other views that aren't as popular, but these five views - the metabolic view, the genetic view, the embryological view, the neurological view, and the ecological view - are the primary ones in the scientific community today. What you can see is there's not a consensus in science, but an appeal to science for when it's okay to have an abortion or for when life begins in a meaningful sense is the wrong type of appeal to make. Because like I said initially, science has no ability to tell us about moral claims. To consult a scientist on if abortion is okay is like consulting a priest if you want to know how to get a rocket to the moon. They both could tell you something but they're far outside of their fields.

The priest's religious experience and authority should have no bearing on whether a certain formula or rocket or something like that will work out when it comes to getting to the moon. In the same way that just because a scientist understands the embryology or genetics or metabolic function of the unborn, that doesn't mean he's in any way qualified to tell us what we can do with that. Because the “what we can do with that” or the “when does life begin” question are concerns for ethics and philosophy and theology. 

We need to keep science in its proper place. I think it's helpful to see that science can inform us that life begins very early on. That is a scientific view. You could take the genetic view that you have a new genome that's formed or the metabolic that these cells were alive that came together and they're still alive, and they're creating energy and expelling waste and taking in nutrients, which is all an indication that it's alive. We can take these different views and support our philosophical and theological knowledge that life begins at conception and that all human beings are created in the image of God. 

What we should not do is throw all of our lot in with the scientific community, because there's not a consensus there. However, that’s not a problem. There's hardly a consensus on anything in the scientific community. Now I'm not anti-science; don't misunderstand me. I think science can definitely tell us things about this world, but it is able to tell us about the natural world. It is not able to tell us about the supernatural. People are not their bodies; there is a supernatural, a non-physical aspect of life. As Christians we certainly understand this. 

I will say that we don't want to divorce scientific or natural knowledge from other knowledge because reality is what the world is as it actually exists. That includes a physical component and that includes a non-physical or a spiritual component. There are non-scientific truths. If anyone ever tells you that the only truths in life are scientific truths, then that person has just contradicted themselves because in order for it to be true that the only truths in life are scientific truths, it would have to be a scientific truth that the only truths in life are scientific truths. That probably sounds like a tongue twister. Let me say it a different way. 

The claim “only science can give us truth” is not a scientific truth. There's no lab experiment that could be done to prove that. There's nothing in the natural world that could be studied to arrive at the conclusion that science is the only source of truth. There must be other truths outside of it, and some of those are ethical truths and some of those are theological and spiritual truths. We need all of these types of truth to come together to form a cohesive and complete view of the way the world really is, of reality. 

I hope this episode has been helpful to you. I hope you're now a little more equipped to dialogue about abortion and when life begins, and understand some of the scientific views on that. I also hope you're equipped to put science in its proper place. It is a tool, and just like fire it works well in the fireplace but you don't want to let it out so it goes all over the house. Keep science in its proper place. Understand its function. It can be helpful to an extent but it should not be an authority in even a small way when it comes to matters of life and death and ethics and values and religion. I hope to see you next week for Unapologetic.