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  • Writer's pictureSergio Focardi

Is abortion murder? No, it is not.

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a ruling restricting the right to abortion. This ruling has caused outrage in the progressive world. The general comment is that this sentence will cost women very dearly. I am secular and agnostic, in the sense that I do not believe in any religion. I personally believe that the decision of the American Supreme Court is not a sign of civilization, as some people claim, but a return to barbarism.

I am also concerned about the possibilities of contagion of this decision. In fact, this decision of the American Supreme Court could influence many in Europe, especially in nations like Italy, to push for a revision of the right to abortion. The question therefore is: what is the best strategy to counter this wicked decision?

Unfortunately, I have to say that insisting on women's rights to determine their own motherhood seems to me to be a weak strategy. "The uterus is mine and I manage it" is a slogan that has had a disruptive force in the past but today no longer excites. We need to get to the root of the problem.

The root of the abortion problem is religious. Almost all major religions assume that a human being has an immortal soul. In particular, both Christianity and Islam assume that man is characterized by an immortal soul that distinguishes him from the matter of which he is made. What the soul is and whether it can be identified with self-consciousness and the mind is a topic of discussion.

I do not want to enter into this discussion but I would like to observe that if the soul is to be immortal it cannot be identified with the mind and sensations that are processes that evolve during a person's life and can be imagined to disappear with death. It also seems difficult to identify the immortal soul with self-consciousness as even self-consciousness is an evolving process that it is not always present. For example, during an anesthesia we are not conscious (in fact we do not know, we may simply not remember)

The soul should therefore be a metaphysical concept, a spiritual object that nevertheless is related to mental and cognitive processes. We leave to theologians the discussion of what the soul is and how it is related to the mind and self-consciousness. From the point of view of abortion, the problem is to understand when the soul joins the body. There is no agreement between religions on this.

In the current Christian vision the soul joins the body at the moment of conception, that is, at the moment when the sperm joins the egg. In reality, conception is a very complex process in which hundreds of millions of sperm enter the vagina in the sexual act but only one survives until an egg is fertilized. In the Christian vision, after conception, the fertilized egg is a human being with a soul. On the other hand, accordingto to Islam, or at least according to certain interpretations of Islam, "animation", that is, the association of a soul with the fertilized egg, takes place 120 days after conception.

Now, clearly we are talking about conceptual positions that can in no way be corroborated or rejected. The metaphysical concept of the soul is probably not intelligible. Assuming that one can understand what is meant by soul, the question remains: how do we know if the soul joins the fetus at the time of conception, 120 days later or any other number of days? These are all questions that can never be answered. It is senseless to legislate on the basis of such highly dubious notions.

Let's try to reason by substituting the metaphysical concept of soul with the concept of mind, or self-consciousness. Science has no idea how mental content can be associated with a material system such as a brain. Let’s remark that science is only knowledge of structure, knowledge of the relationships between observations. Science is agnostic about the nature of the world. The question: What is it? has no scientific answer. Not only this, but science does not know how to reason about self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is something inexplicable from a scientific point of view. An interesting perspective on self-consciousness is givenby Thomas Nagel's article What is it like to be a bat? We don't really know how to reason about self-consciousness.

Then we do not know how and when a fetus becomes a sentient being endowed with self-consciousness. We can try to make some assumptions by associating the mind with the complexity of the nervous system of the fetus. But in reality we do not know if complexity justifies the mind. Blake Lemoine, a Google engineer, argues that Google has developed artificial intelligences that are so complex that they are sentient. Few really believe that Google's artificial intelligence is sentient.

However, strictly speaking, at the current state of knowledge we are not able to verify or reject this statement. We do not know if and how structural complexity produces self-consciousness. In reality, the considerations to be made are extremely difficult. For example, physical complexity is replicable at the macroscopic level of circuits while self-consciousness is unique. However, at the quantum level it is not said that a structure can be duplicated. Perhaps self-consciousness is related in some way to quantum mechanics.

We do not know how self-consciousness is associated with a fetus. We do not know how it happens that the nervous system produces a sentient being. The claim that a fetus is a full-fledged human being is very dubious. We don't really have any notion of how and when a fetus eventually develops sensations.

From the religious point of view, the problem of abortion is given by the belief that a fetus even in the first months of gestation is still a complete human being. Based on this belief, abortion is considered murder. Clearly, in the face of this conviction, women's rights take a back seat. Religion does not justify murder.

So it seems clear to me that if we want to maintain the right to abortion we must work to make it clear that the claim that a fetus is a fully formed human being is not justified. We do not know how self-consciousness is formed in the fetus but we have no reason to think that for a considerable part of gestation the fetus is a sentient being albeit very primitive.

It is necessary that those who have a religious faith have the humility to understand that their beliefs are subject to doubt and therefore to let people decide for themselves. In the past we have had examples of religious beliefs that eventually succumbed to doubt. For a long time it was believed that certain women were indeed witches, that they had sexual orgies with devils, and that they had the ability to produce negative effects such as death and disease as an action-at-a-distance. Based on these beliefs, thousands of women have been tortured and killed in the most sadistic ways.

Progressively the doubt about witchcraft prevailed and in the end the notion of witchcraft was abandoned in the penal code and the horror of the Inquisition ended. Even today, many believe that there are people with the ability to do damage at-a-distance with practices such as the evil eye. These beliefs, which are very strong in some people, are not enough to change the legal system that does not accept remote-control crimes. Doubt prevails when legislating.

To conclude, it is not enough to invoke women's rights to save the right to abortion. It is necessary to undermine the conception that a fetus is a full-fledged human being. It isn't. A fetus is a set of cells that only at the end of the gestation process will begin a path that will lead it to become a full human being. But for a large part of the gestation process it is really difficult to think that the fetus has sensitivity and self-consciousness.

Obviously, no one thinks that abortion is a valid birth control system. Abortion is a traumatic experience for every woman who has to do it. But the life of a woman can be ruined by an unwanted pregnancy and it is unethical and cruel to start a life if she's likely to be full of suffering. Love for life cannot be confused with the belief that it is right to produce new lives: it is not. Love of life is love of joy and happiness.

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