A few of my friends are avid hunters and become quite animated this time of year. I don’t share their zeal since I’ve never been a hunter, nor do I come from a family of hunters. My father – a brilliant engineer and academic – took me hunting once as a wee lad. I recall watching Dad firing his shotgun twice at fleeing pheasants. He missed both times. Our guide brought down a bird with a single blast. Dad never went hunting again.
All was not lost however. That brief experience introduced me to one of hunting’s unbending rules: If something stirs in the woods – and we’re not sure what it is – don’t shoot. Taking human life is markedly different than shooting deer. This imperative might be a way to reframe our country’s divisive debate over abortion.
The most significant abortion rulings by the Supreme Court have admitted to uncertainty. In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Court said: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” Fair enough. But it sounds like they’re admitting we’re not sure if there’s human life in the womb.
In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, and Stevens admitted to more than uncertainty – they wafted into mystery: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” I am not a lawyer, but it seems the court is saying we’re not sure when life begins. Since it’s hazy, go ahead and shoot. You make the call.
But making that call is getting murkier – whether we’re talking about the beginning or the end of life. In the September 8 issue of the journal Science, British neurologist Adrian M. Owen reports on a 23-year-old woman who suffered head trauma in a July 2005 traffic accident that left her in a coma.¹ She had no ability to communicate and repeated tests over more than five months found no signs of awareness or consciousness. Doctors diagnosed her as being in a vegetative state.
But through a series of tests using functional magnetic resonance imaging (which can detect different types of mental activity by measuring blood flow to various parts of the brain), Owen and his colleagues witnessed the woman’s brain lighting up in ways that were “indistinguishable” from those in 12 healthy people. When asked to envision playing tennis and exploring her house, the regions of the brain used in language, movement and navigation came alive in the woman. “It was an absolutely stunning result,” Owen exclaimed. “We had no idea whether she would understand our instructions. But this showed that she is aware.”
That sounds like we’re not so sure anymore when the lights go out. To be fair, the research does not indicate that many patients in vegetative states are necessarily aware or likely to recover. Nor does it necessarily apply to the case of Terry Schiavo, who suffered much more massive brain damage for far longer than the patient in Britain. But it is part of a pattern indicating gnawing uncertainty regarding life’s bookends. In the case of the British woman, researchers are less certain than before about the end of human life. And in the Casey ruling, the justices admitted to uncertainty about life’s beginnings when they wrote: “post- Roe neonatal care developments have advanced viability to a point somewhat earlier.”
Maybe I’m missing something here. If we admit that we’re not sure about what’s moving in the womb… shouldn’t we hold our fire until we know for certain?
1 Rob Stein, “‘Vegetative’ Woman’s Brain Shows Surprising Activity: Tests Indicate Awareness, Imagination,” ( Washington Post, September 8, 2006; Page A01)