Revolutionary Worker #897, March 9, 1997
Scene in front of a family planning clinic: A "right-to-lifer" attempts to discourage women from getting an abortion by walking up and down with a sign that says "The Fetus is Life"...As if that were enough to settle the argument around abortion.
Is it true that a fetus is a form of life? Of course it is. It is made up of live cells, it is growing and processing energy, it has the capacity to mature and reproduce, it has a genetic system and so on.
Will an abortion destroy this form of life? Yes, absolutely.
Well then, isn't an abortion killing another human being? No, absolutely not.
A fetus is not yet a human being. It is more like a seed or a sprout of a human being. It is "alive," but that is also true of all the other cells in a woman's body. It has no life of its own yet. It is not yet a separate life from the life of the woman in whose uterus it is.
Just because something has the characteristics of "life" doesn't mean people should necessarily preserve it. This is an obvious truth. Think about it: People routinely terminate "life" for what is seen as a greater good. We do this every time we eat--all the fruits, vegetables, and meats come from live plants and animals killed for our nourishment. People end "life" every time we cut a tree for firewood, every time we take antibiotics to kill off the live disease organisms which are making us sick, or even every time we kill other human beings in self-defense or to prevent them from causing other human beings to suffer and die.
In other words, we kill life to preserve and enrich other life. So what about the life of the woman?
The life of a woman who is forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy is endangered. She might have to resort to a risky back-alley abortion. And if she is forced to go on with the pregnancy, her life is weakened and degraded. She will be robbed of pride and self-respect because she has been told by society that she is essentially worthless--even an undeveloped bunch of cells that isn't even a whole baby yet gets more respect and has more value than this woman! Because she is not allowed to control her own body, her own reproduction, not allowed to decide whether or not or when to become a mother, she has no more freedom than a slave.
If a woman doesn't want to continue a pregnancy all the way (for whatever reason), she should have the freedom to end it, safely and easily. This is for the greater good--for the health and overall well-being of that woman, whose life we should value and cherish more than that of a partially formed fetus. And for the greater good of humanity. After all, isn't it in the greater interests of all of humanity that women not be slaves?
The "right-to-life" people don't see it that way at all. They have made it crystal clear that to them the life of the fetus is more important and has more value than the life of the woman in whose uterus it is. From a social point of view, these people who want to forcibly take away a woman's right to abortion are nothing but vicious, rabid dogs.
But from a scientific point of view, they are also ignorant fools or calculating liars.
Have you seen the pictures they use? Check them out. These pictures are very often blown-up pictures of fetuses almost ready to be born (but the truth is that more than 90 percent of abortions in the U.S. are done in the first three months of pregnancy). These pictures are designed to make you feel like the fetuses women are aborting are just like cute little babies, ready to be held in someone's arms and cuddled and burped. But they're not! Far from it.
And have you noticed how the fetuses are conveniently pictured floating around all by themselves, as if they weren't still inside a woman's body? Where is the woman in all this? Even in most school textbooks they show you drawings or photographs of a fetus inside a uterus, but they don't show you the woman it is part of! It sort of makes you forget the woman is even there!
One of the things the Operation Rescue types are doing is taking advantage of the ignorance many people are kept in concerning their own bodies--what happens inside a body, how a pregnancy develops, and so on. Let's have a look at what the truth is about how a fetus develops.
The truth is that pregnancy is a process which takes some time. And it is not some mysterious event guided by outside forces either. It is part of the normal processes of the woman's body. Not the man's, who has nothing to do with it except for providing the sperm. Not the church, not the government, not any other person. It all takes place inside the woman.
The egg changes and develops into a fetus, and keeps on changing for nine months, only because the woman's physiology (the way her body works) is making these changes happen.
Let's review what happens in the first trimester of a pregnancy (1 to 13 weeks since the woman's last menstrual period):
It all starts with an egg cell and a sperm cell. Each egg cell and sperm cell is alive.
Over a period of about 30 years a woman releases one or more of these live egg cells from her ovaries every single month. That's a lot of egg cells over a lifetime! Every time a man ejaculates, he releases between 200 and 400 MILLION LIVE SPERM CELLS! And that's definitely a lot of live cells! Of course most of the time they just all die. Funny, isn't it, that even though eggs and sperm are "life" too, the right-to-lifers aren't trying to "save" every one of them!
If even just one of those sperm cells released in a woman's vagina swims into the uterus and out into one or the other of the two Fallopian "tubes" (on each side of the uterus), and runs into a ripe egg cell, fertilization can take place. That means that the egg and sperm have fused and the result is called a fertilized egg.
The fertilized egg gets pushed down the tube. The egg started off as one cell, but soon divides into two cells, then four cells, and so on. By the time it gets back to the uterus (a muscular sack only about the size of a small pear) the egg is still much smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
For the pregnancy to keep going, this tiny egg has to stick to the sides of the uterus. If it doesn't stick (implant), it will simply be flushed out of the uterus with the menstrual blood during the woman's next period. When this happens--a form of "spontaneous abortion"--the woman doesn't know it, because the size of the fertilized egg is so tiny.
If the egg does stick to the woman's uterus, this triggers hormonal changes which will keep the woman's next period from coming on. The way pregnancy tests work is that they measure these hormones in the woman's blood or urine to tell if she's pregnant.
The implanted egg is now called an embryo, and its shape starts to change as the cells start to move around to different positions. The cells are beginning to "differentiate." That means they are starting to take on different functions and form different kinds of tissues which will later become different parts of the body. Instead of all being the same, some cells will become skin cells or heart cells or eye cells, for instance.
Three weeks into the pregnancy, the whole embryo is still only about 2mm (2 millimeters) long, or about the size of the letter "o."
The placenta gets formed from a combination of some of the tissues of the woman's uterus and of the woman's embryo. It is a mass of tissue rich in blood vessels, which connects the embryo to the woman's blood circulation system. During the whole pregnancy the fetus will remain attached to the placenta through the umbilical cord.
The placenta helps show how the embryo or fetus is very much part of the woman's body for the whole pregnancy. The embryo cannot get food on its own, clear out its own wastes, or even breathe on its own. It gets oxygen and dissolved food nutrients (and sometimes toxic substances) from the woman's blood through the placenta and umbilical cord. It gets rid of its wastes the same way, releasing carbon dioxide and urea into the woman's bloodstream for disposal.
Just as a single live cell cannot survive independently of a body, the embryo cannot survive independently of a woman's body because it is truly part of her.
After four weeks of pregnancy the embryo looks a little like a tadpole. It even has gill slits like a fish, and a bony tail! These are features shared by embryos of many different species of animals and reflect our common evolutionary history. The embryo is now about 5mm long, smaller than this: ooo.
By the third month of pregnancy the embryo, now called a fetus, starts to look a little more "human" as it grows arms, legs, sex organs, fingers, and toes. It is undergoing a lot of changes, but inside, its internal organs, muscles, skeleton, and nervous system are still very undeveloped. The whole thing is still only about 25mm long, or about this long: oooooooooooooo
More than 90 percent of abortions done in the U.S. are done in these first three months of pregnancy.
This is the best time to do it. It is the easiest, safest, and cheapest time to do it. It does not need to be done in a hospital but can be done in a walk-in clinic. You don't have to be put to sleep.
The way it is done is that a flexible tube the size of a straw is inserted up the vagina and into the uterus. This tube is connected to a bottle with a suction pump. When the pump is turned on, it acts like a small vacuum cleaner and sucks out the contents of the uterus. What comes out looks mainly like blood, since the embryo or fetus is still so small. The abortion is usually not very painful. The woman may feel "cramps" in her uterus similar to having an IUD put in. The whole thing lasts only about 5 to 15 minutes and then it's over. The woman rests for a while, and then she can go home.
There is no doubt that if a woman is pregnant and doesn't want to be, she should do everything possible to go to a clinic and get an abortion within the first three months since her last period. The sooner the better.
In France doctors now give women a pill called RU 486 which ends the pregnancy even more simply. After a few hours, it causes the embryo to "unhook" and the menstrual period to start, flushing it out of the uterus. It can only be used at the very beginning of a pregnancy, but it seems to be the easiest and safest abortion method yet. In the U.S. some clinics are doing experimental trials with RU 486, but it has not been approved by the U.S. government for wider distribution. And the anti-abortion movement has made it clear that they will fight the use of RU 486 in the U.S.
This is a time when the fetus grows a lot. Starting around the fifth month, the woman is able to feel it kicking, even though it is still only about eight inches long. It may suck its thumb, simply because of a genetically programmed sucking reflex which facilitates nursing after birth. Its internal organs, bones, and muscles continue to develop. In the sixth month it grows rapidly, to around a foot in length.
But it is important to realize that it is still not "complete" and that a whole lot of development still has to go on. Even at the end of this trimester it cannot survive outside the woman's uterus without special medical measures. Its brain is still very unformed. Its lungs are not ready to take in air. It is still very much a part of the woman's body and completely dependent on her bodily processes.
Abortion in the second trimester can still be done. But it can be hard for a woman to find a doctor or hospital to do it. Because the uterus is softer and the fetus is bigger, there is a greater possibility of medical complications, such as a torn or "perforated" uterus or infections. It is important to get good medical care for these second- trimester abortions.
There are different ways of doing these later abortions. Sometimes a doctor will inject a saline solution into the woman's uterus. This kills the fetus and makes the woman's body go into labor, and the fetus is expelled like a live baby would be. Sometimes a doctor will give the injection and then leave the woman alone, or with just a nurse, to "deliver" the dead fetus. This is cruel and difficult for all concerned and it is totally unnecessary. There are other methods.
The best procedure for second trimester abortions involves a combination of dilation, curettage and evacuation (it's called a D and E). The entrance to the uterus is stretched open (dilation), and the uterus is scraped with a metal loop (curettage) and emptied out (evacuation) by suction. This is a much better procedure: much safer, and less upsetting for the woman and medical staff than the "induction" abortions which cause the woman to go into labor. D and E abortions can be done from 12 to about 16 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Since abortion is so much easier (physically and emotionally), safer, and cheaper, in the first three months of pregnancy, why does any woman ever get one later than that? The answer is that sometimes errors are made with pregnancy tests, or a woman gets pregnant while taking pills, or with an IUD, and doesn't realize she is pregnant right away. Sometimes she has to fight off the pressures of men or family members who object to the abortion out of their own backwardness. Sometimes she has to struggle through her own ignorance, fears, and lack of information before knowing what to do. Most often the delay is caused--and this is a real crime--by a lack of money. Increasingly, state laws that impose waiting periods and the lack of abortion facilities in rural areas will force more women to have abortions in the second trimester.
A high proportion of the women who are forced to get later abortions are young, poor, or women of color. This is another example of how women of color suffer a double oppression. And if laws are passed to force under-age women to get a parent's permission before getting an abortion, more delays and more "late" abortions will certainly be the cruel consequence.
While first-trimester abortions should be encouraged, and everything done to facilitate them, it is important to uphold the right of women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy at any time, and to provide women with the safest and the least physically and emotionally demanding abortions available at that time.
Abortions are rarely done in the third trimester except in emergencies to save the life of a woman. In such cases the doctor has to cut open the uterus and remove the fetus and placenta, and this would be considered major surgery.
The fetus still has a lot of development to undergo in these last three months of pregnancy. It grows a lot. But in the seventh month the fetus still only has a small chance of surviving if it is born prematurely because its internal organs are still not developed enough. In such cases doctors have to take special measures to try to finish incubating the fetus.
Final organ formation takes place in the eighth and ninth months. This is when the lungs finish developing. Until the lungs are finished the fetus would not be able to breathe air independently outside the uterus.
Also during this time lots of new brain cells are formed and major nerve tracks develop in the brain. In human beings a lot of the brain development continues to take place in the six months or so after birth. But by the end of the nine months of pregnancy the fetus is developed enough to be born and the woman's body needs to expel the fetus before it gets too big to get past her pelvic bones! The woman's body now goes into labor, contracting the muscles of the uterus, and finally pushing out the fully formed fetus.
As soon as the umbilical cord connecting the fetus to the woman's body is cut, the supply of oxygen from the woman to the fetus is cut off and the newborn takes its first independent breath. This is its first act as an independent human being. It is now really a "baby." For the first time it is a truly separate life entity, and a separate social entity as well. From this moment it is really a separate human being, and should be treated as such.
*A.S.K., the author of "Life Cannot and Should Not Always Be Preserved," is a contributing writer to the Revolutionary Worker with experience in the struggle for scientific experimentation as well as the revolutionary struggle. The article appeared previously in RW #699, March 28, 1993.