“If you wish to converse with me,” said Voltaire, “define your terms.” How many a debate would have been deflated into a paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms! This is the alpha and omega of logic, the heart and soul of it, that every important term in serious discourse shall be subjected to strictest scrutiny and definition. It is difficult, and ruthlessly tests the mind; but once done it is half of any task. (Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, New York, Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., 1926, page 67)
My reach for Voltaire was caused by a June 14, 2017 Perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine by R. Alta Charo, JD, Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School. In the article, she is concerned that many new executive branch appointees are purveyors of alternative science, “rife with alternative definitions of well-understood medical conditions and characterized by rejection of the scientific method as the standard for generating and evaluating the evidence.” For the remainder of the blog, I wish to focus on the latter half of her article regarding pregnancy, contraception, and abortion (and abortifacients). I will make the case that Professor Charo is wounded by her own sword.
Her concern is that those physicians, nurses and pharmacists claiming “conscious clause” refusals to “prescribe or provide hormonal contraceptives, emergency contraceptives, and IUDs because they oppose abortion” are wrong because, according to her, none of these can cause an abortion. Per Charo, a pregnancy is defined as the time from implantation of the zygote in the uterus until birth. Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy. Therefore, the term “abortion” can only be used to discuss the time from zygote implantation until birth, and, though conceding that IUDs “can also prevent implantation”, states these methods “do not interrupt pregnancy, and a drug or device that prevents fertilization or implantation is a contraceptive, not an abortifacient.”
There are several problems with her choice of definitions and her consistency of definition within the article itself. Pregnancy can be defined in several ways. Most healthcare providers still use the last menstrual period (LMP) to begin the count for the determination of gestation age. In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and Assisted Reproduction Technologies (ART) can obviously pinpoint the exact timing of fertilization, thus providing an accurate fertilization age; gestational age is then calculated as fertilization age + 14 days. Lastly, pregnancy can be defined beginning at the time of implantation of the zygote to the lining of the uterus, roughly 7-10 days after fertilization. Under this definition, according to trusty Wikipedia, “during the time between conception and implantation, the future fetus exists, but the woman is not considered pregnant.” It is this last definition that Professor Charo clings to in her argument in the latter half of her article. The problem is that she relies upon the first definition only two paragraphs earlier in arguing: “the fetus does not have the physiological (let alone the psychological) capacity to experience pain until at least 24 weeks gestation (as properly estimated from last menses).”(emphasis mine)
The problem in this particular case is what do we believe to be the moral status of the zygote between conception until implantation (during the time frame outlined in this diagram)? Professor Charo is not ignorant of this time period as she parenthetically comments: “Roughly half of all blastocysts naturally fail to implant, but getting one’s menstrual period is not having a miscarriage.” Fine, but is it something else entirely to intentionally, knowingly cause the blastocyst to unnaturally fail to implant? Does she have a definition for that?
The mechanism by which levonorgestrel (LNG, the active ingredient in Plan B) is successful when used as an emergency contraceptive (“morning after pill”) is that it prevents ovulation (release of a potentially fertilizable egg), though it was originally thought to also prevent implantation. Professor Charo cited a 2001 study that observed no change in the endometrium of surgically sterilized women who took LNG. A summary of more recent studies has continued to argue that implantation is likely not effected by LNG, but summarized that “it is not scientifically possible to definitively rule out [that mechanism]”. From the same summary paper regarding IUDs: its “very high effectiveness implies that emergency insertion of a copper IUD must be able to prevent pregnancy after fertilization” (that is before implantation).
The union of a human egg and a human sperm, whether in utero or in vitro, results in a unique new human being. That is a scientific fact regardless of one’s definition of pregnancy. As such, I believe this new human being deserves the same moral safeguards as anyone reading this blog. The fact that this unique human being does not implant in the womb for up to 9 days post conception ought not alter these moral protections. In castigating physicians, nurses and pharmacists who raise moral objections to the intentional termination of the life of any human being prior to implantation by accusing them of using “alternative definitions of well-understood medical conditions”, I believe Professor Charo is guilty of the same crime. Her definitions do nothing to improve the environment for an open and honest discussion of the moral question at hand, namely: Is it right to intentionally terminate the life of a human being after fertilization but before implantation?
Tom Garigan covered this general topic very nicely in a previous post on this blog back in September 2015, which I encourage you to (re)read. He offered a similar soft nod to Voltaire in his title.
Also, extrapolating from the definition in Wikipedia, any “future fetus” is a “right now” human being. And “right now” is the time to start defining our terms more clearly so we can have the type of conversation that Voltaire had in mind.