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A Few Words on Abortion

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

Adapted from the chapter “Body & Mind” in
STARRY MESSENGER: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization

Science and technology have the power to guide moral and ethical decisions we make as a society, especially when one branch cross-pollinates another. A highly valued machine in hospitals, the magnetic resonance imager (MRI) has no taproots within the medical profession. For this reason, no amount of money given to medical researchers would have fueled the discovery of the machine’s foundational principles. That’s because the MRI is based on laws of physics, co-discovered by Edward Purcell, a physicist-stargazer, who had no interest in medicine. The same is true for a hospital’s entire radiology department (including X-rays, CT Scans, and PET Scans), EEGs, EKGs, oximeters, and ultrasound. You name it. If the hospital machine has an on/off switch, its function is probably based on a principle of physics. That’s how it works. That’s how it has always worked. Of course for these machines to exist at all requires medical engineers who see the utility of such discoveries. Viewed from above, the picture is clear: Want to advance civilization? Fund it all. You never know beforehand which discoveries will transform your field, birthed in professions not your own.

Ultrasound technology in particular has contributed to a perennially debated topic regarding the human body. For the first five and a half months of a nine-month pregnancy, the human fetus cannot survive outside of the womb. Maybe one day we will know how to bring a fertilized egg to maturity in a medical vessel, but that time feels far off in our future. In the US, arguments rage over how much control we grant to state and federal lawmakers over the uteruses of its citizens.

Can a political platform without contradictions be constructed from the relevant facts?

For instance, the left leaning movement to protect Earth’s oceans is long associated with people who are also pro-choice. The same people who want to “save the whales,” according to pro-lifers, will not hesitate to “abort the babies.”

Other demographics feel strongly that people who are pregnant should not have the right to terminate their pregnancy after the first six weeks, around the time you can first detect a heartbeat via ultrasound. They cite murder. To be clear, this would be the murder of a nonviable human embryo that weighs no more than a paper clip. Part the curtains of this community and you find strong influence from fundamentalist and otherwise conservative Christian groups.

Of the fifteen most religious states, eleven have laws on the books ready to ban or greatly restrict abortion the moment the US Supreme Court overturns the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade. Clearly, belief in a loving, compassionate Christian God and in the sanctity of all human life (viable or not) strongly motivates these views. So they’re not being bad citizens, they’re being good Christians—although ten of those same eleven states also embrace the death penalty.

Meanwhile, 94% of Republican senators—a fraction that has steadily increased over the years—and three out of four Republican voters support some kind of anti-abortion/pro-life posture, strictly enforced by laws. But Republicans are typically the loudest for wanting less, not more, government intervention in our lives.

Should we let our political parties do our thinking for us? If so, it resonates with a favorite lyric from “Sir Joseph Porter’s Song,” the admiral of the Queen’s Navy, in Gilbert & Sullivan’s comedic light opera H.M.S. Pinafore (1878):

I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.

Just a sampling of perspectives to consider as we all take sides on who controls our bodies.