While constitutional lawyers, ethicists, and theologians — in descending order of importance in the abortion debate — have been arguing in the 46 years since the Supreme Court attempted to settle the debate, some technologists have been making a consequential contribution to it. They have developed machines that produce increasingly vivid sonograms of fetal development. This concreteness partially explains the intensification of the debate.
Six states have passed “heartbeat bills” to ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, approximately six weeks after conception. Such bills are, indeed, unconstitutional given the Court’s Roe ukase that abortion cannot be restricted before a fetus is viable outside the womb — which means, presumably, before the fetus is a child.
But why should “viability” be the dispositive criterion? Viable means capable of surviving outside the womb, which no infant can do without constant help that others must give. Must. No infants are “viable” in that all are helpless, and the law requires that help be given by those responsible for the infant.
A New York Times editorial (December 28, 2018) opposing the idea that “a fetus in the womb has the same rights as a fully formed person” spoke of these living fetuses — that they are living is an elementary biological fact, not an abstruse theological deduction — as “clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings.” Now, delete the obfuscating and constitutionally irrelevant adjective “viable,” and look at a sonogram of a ten-week fetus. Note the eyes and lips, the moving fingers and, yes, the beating heart. Is this most suitably described as a “cluster of cells” or as a baby? The cluster-of-cells contingent resembles Chico Marx in the movie “Duck Soup”: “Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
The “heartbeat bills” are wholesome provocations: One of their aims is to provoke thinking about the moral dimension of extinguishing a being with a visibly beating heart. Furthermore, pro-life people are being provoked in different ways.