Paradigms of Science/Society Interaction: The Abortion Controversy
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PARADIGMS OF SCIENCE/SOCIETY INTERACTION: THE ABORTION CONTROVERSY RIVERS SINGLETON, JR.* What L· man, that thou art mindful of him?—Psalm 8:4 For much of the past decade, in this country a major controversy has raged concerning the moral correctness of direct and intentional termination of pregnancy. Both proponents and opponents of abortion have been vocal and political, as the debate over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court demonstrated. On more than one occasion, violence has occurred. While there is nothing modern about the abortion controversy, two elements seem to make its present manifestation historically unique. Both elements involve the way science interacts with and has effects on society. Recently, scientists have been called upon to establish the nature and origin of human life in scientific terms. Opponents to abortion in particular frequently lay claim to scientific proof that human life begins at conception . Two examples serve to illustrate this claim. In 1981, a bill was reported from the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, entitled "the human life bill" (S. 158). If enacted into law, this bill would have effectively reversed the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that liberalized abortion practice. The major thrust of the bill was to extend protection of the Fourteenth Amendment to the fetus, based on purported new scientific evidence about the nature of the developing fetus. During hearings on the bill, numerous scientists and physicians were called to provide scientific evidence for the origin of human life. A major conclusion emerged from these hearings: The author thanks his many colleagues at the University of Delaware for their helpful comments and criticism. He especially thanks N. J. Berrill of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, for comments and encouragement. * School of Life and Health Sciences, Center for Science and Culture, and Department of English, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716.© 1989 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/89/3202-06 12$01 .00 174 I Rivers Singleton, Jr. ¦ The Abortion Controversy The testimony of these witnesses and the voluminous submissions received by die Subcommittee demonstrate that contemporary scientific evidence points to a clear conclusion: the life of a human being begins at conception. . . . Until the early nineteenth century science had not advanced sufficiendy to be able to know that conception is the beginning of a human life; but today the facts are beyond dispute. Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being. . . . [1] Since it never emerged from committee the impact of the human life bill on the consciousness of the general population was minimal; of far greater general influence was the film The Silent Scream, which is a powerful and evocative depiction of an abortion procedure using the advanced technology of ultrasonic analysis. The filmmakers assert that this scientific analysis established the humanity of a fetus being aborted. Because of the validity of this assertion, they then claim that the conceptus is endowed in utero with all of the rights of an extrauterine person. These examples serve to illustrate one role that science plays in the present abortion controversy. Numerous other examples could be cited. These two are sufficient, however, to demonstrate that the controversy raises profound questions about the nature, limits, and applications of scientific knowledge. A second element of the present abortion controversy emerges from the role that modern science, particularly biology, plays in contemporary society. Research in biology creates numerous ethical dilemmas and paradoxes for many people [3, 4]. Consider, for example, the growing use of fetal tissue for the alleviation of certain disease processes. (The transplantation of fetal tissue that purportedly produces, or stimulates the production of, L-Dopa into the brains of individuals suffering from Parkinson's disease is an excellent example of this.) Alternatively, consider the number of human conceptuses that will be destroyed, as we develop the technology to correct genetic defects at the germ-cell level. Many other examples could be cited; these two serve to illustrate some of the present technological possibilities which have serious moral implications . Resolution of the abortion controversy will have profound implications for the way one deals with the ethical dilemmas and paradoxes posed...