When Does Life Begin? Medical Experts Debate Abortion Issue

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When Does Life Begin? Medical Experts Debate Abortion Issue

When does life begin? Two experts share their opinions on this issue, as it relates to abortion. They discuss scientific and religious views. Share your opinions here too.

[Editor's note: This article was originally hosted on MyFamilyDoctorMag.com, our sister site.
It's now featured here as part of our new general-health section.]

When Does Life Begin? Medical Experts Debate Abortion Issue | The Survival Doctor

 

Pro-lifers generally belief life begins at fertilization. So pro-choicers generally believe no, it doesn’t.

… Right?

Wrong.

In every political season, abortion emerges as one of the most hotly debated topics. It draws in everybody—from the religious to the political. But what about the scientists?

In 2006, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Ethics published their opinion on “Using Preimplantation Embryos for Research.” In it, they say, “If the preimplantation embryo is left or maintained outside the uterus, it cannot develop into a human being.” Did you catch that: “… into a human being”?

The question for many doctors and scientists is not, “When does life begin?” but, “When does that life become a human being?”

Pro-lifers say it’s a human from the start. How could it be anything else? “Scientific and medical discoveries over the past three decades have only verified and solidified this age-old truth,” says the conservative-leaning American College of Pediatricians on its website. “The difference between the individual in its adult stage and in its zygotic stage is not one of personhood but of development.”

Rules of Engagement

We invited each participant to write an argument, then read the opponent’s argument and, if desired, write a rebuttal. Neither was allowed to read the other’s initial argument before writing his own, and neither could read the other’s response before rebutting.

“Pro-choice docs would say that it is not their business to determine for a patient when life begins,” says Diana Philip, interim executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers and its sister organization, the Abortion Conversation Project. “Ultimately each patient determines the value and definition of life and that definition lies within her own mind and heart.”

So the question to our debaters was simply—and yet not so simply—“Do we know when human life begins?”

Now, let the debate begin.


Argument: YES, any biologist in the world can tell you when life begins.
Debator:

Donna J. Harrison, M.D., president, American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Since the mechanism by which mammals reproduce has been known for at least the last 150 years, any biologist in the world can tell you that a mammal’s life begins when the sperm from the father unites with the egg from the mother. This process is called fertilization, and when the DNA from the father and mother have combined, the egg is called a fertilized egg, or zygote.  When the zygote splits into two cells, it is called a two-celled embryo. When it splits into four cells, it is called a four-celled embryo, etc.  The definition of “embryo” is “the youngest form of a being.”

If this being is nourished and protected, it will proceed uninterrupted through the developmental stages of embryo, fetus, newborn, toddler, child, teen, adult and aged adult: one continuous existence. This being never develops into a pig, a frog or a tree, but only into a human. This being is therefore, by definition, a living human being.

This fact is very inconvenient for those who want to treat embryonic and fetal human beings as property. The real argument in the abortion debate is whether or not this human being is a “person,” with all the legal rights and protections of “personhood.”

Those who traffic in human tissue argue that he or she is not. This is the same argument used in the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that black Americans, though human, are not “persons” under the law.

As long as “personhood” is denied to human beings in their embryonic and fetal stages, the holocaust of abortion will continue.

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Argument: No, we don’t even know when life ends, much less when it begins.
Debator:

Suzanne Holland, Ph.D., bioethicist; chair, Religion Department, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Wash.

What makes us so sure we know when human life begins? Despite our best efforts, we do not even really know when human life ends, as the Terry Schiavo case reminded us. If it is so achingly difficult to know whether someone is dead or alive when she is in front of people who love her, how much harder it is to be certain when life begins, especially when we cannot see it with our own eyes.

Biologist Scott Gilbert, an expert in human development, tells us that there are at least four distinct moments that can be thought of as the beginning of human life. Each can be said to be biologically accurate.

The genetic view (the position held by the Roman Catholic Church and many religious conservatives) holds that life begins with the acquisition of a novel genome; it is a kind of genetic determinism.

The Survival Doctor's Guides to Burns and Wounds, by @James HubbardThose who hold the embryologic view think life begins when the embryo undergoes gastrulation, and twinning is no longer possible; this occurs about 14 days into development. (Some mainline Protestant religions espouse a similar view.)

Proponents of the neurological view adhere to brainwave criteria; life begins when a distinct EEG pattern can be detected, about 24 to 27 weeks. (Some Protestant churches affirm this.) Interestingly, life is also thought to end when the EEG pattern is no longer present.

Finally, one can say that life begins at or near birth, measured by fetal viability outside the mother’s body. (Judaism affirms something close to this position.) After all, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of all embryos conceived miscarry.

So, when does life begin? I do not think we can know this with any more certainty than we know when life ends. People of faith, and people of good conscience, are going to have to agree to disagree—with a good dose of humility—on matters of life and death.

 

REBUTTALS

Dr. Holland’s
-
Dr. Holland declined to submit a rebuttal.
Dr. Harrison’s
-
Dr. Holland’s arguments are essentially religious, obscuring the basic biological question:  When does mammalian life begin?
-
Her “moments” only highlight notable characteristics along a continuum of human life already biologically existing. The “views” she misrepresents are scientifically incoherent and biologically inaccurate. (In her “genetic view” identical twins would not be considered alive since they don’t have a unique genome, a human corpse alive because it has one.)
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The defining characteristic of mammalian life, including human life, is the continuous process of development, which starts at fertilization and ends at death.
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Original article appeared in July/August 2008 edition of My Family Doctor magazine. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

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  • Grn724

    I cannot help myself, for I find this entire debate complete foolishness. An egg is an egg. A sperm is a sperm. Neither are any thing other than what they are. Now, when an egg is fully ripened and a sperm has entered into it you have fertilization, thus the egg is no longer and egg and a sperm is no longer a sperm. What you then have is a zygote, which is the fertilized egg splitting in two, then four, and that my friend is the beginning of human life. There can be no other way you can dance around the facts. EEG measures only brain activity and brain activity alone does not constitute life. Terry Schiavo was not dead. She was breathing air and her heart was beating, yet these do not constitute life either. Life is far more complex that a single organ or its function. It is the sum total of each and every function and organ the body contains. Life, in its fullness can never be measure in definitive biological function, for it is the Spirit that gives life, but the Spirit must have a natural physical environment to operate within. God is the creator of ALL life, human and otherwise and God’s work cannot be measured scientifically, nor watered down, nor circumvented. Man cannot spew sperm onto a tree and produce life from either the tree or himself. A woman cannot produce an egg to become anything but an egg, otherwise it turns to blood and the body discharges it. Life begins at conception, which is when the Spirit has enter into the equation and the development of a human being takes place and any unnatural interruption in this process is the cessation of the process and of life itself. Death occurs when the Spirit leaves the body, which in some cases may take longer than the body stops to function. Life and death are not and will never be a measure of the body. The body exist solely for the purpose of the Spirit.

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  • Carter

    These are both very good arguments, and although I agree with the first one, I feel like it’s argument is invalid as soon as it mentioned Dred Scott vs Sanford, which was overturned by the 14th Amendment in 1868.

    For those of you who don’t know, Dred Scott vs Stanford was a case in which Dred Scott (a black man and former slave who had run away while being inslaved in a free state) was declared still the property of Stanford. This case also ruled that while African Americans were ‘people’ they did not have the same rights in the eye of the law that white people did. It also prohibited them from arguing in courts.

  • Beloved

    Bottom line…please read the below definition, weather or not we agree on when life begins…abortion is a choice to terminate a human life that we are fully aware is their.

    a·bor·tion
    əˈbôrSHən/
    noun
    noun: abortion; plural noun: abortions
    1.
    the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, most often performed during the first 28 weeks of pregnancy.
    synonyms: termination, miscarriage More
    the expulsion of a fetus from the uterus by natural causes before it is able to survive independently.
    BIOLOGY
    the arrest of the development of an organ, typically a seed or fruit.

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  • GeniusPhx

    both arguments can be true. the big question is, why do pro lifers want to legislate their beliefs on the other half of the country? why must your beliefs have to become my beliefs by law? since it is mostly christians who want to legislate their beliefs on others, aren’t xns supposed to be inclusive, open minded, forgiving, able to look at the sinner not the sin? why would Jews, Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, have to obey christian views by law??

    my message to pro-lifers, get the hell out of my bedroom, my familys decisions, my sex live, who I can and cannot love, whether I can use contraception or not! Not your concern! Now go find some illiterate rice farmer and make him a christian!!!

    • Guest

      i just hope one day, if you do have an abortion, you will feel the pain of knowingly killing someone that would eventually be your pride and joy, your bloodline, and your bearer to your grandchildren when you get older. And if you do get an abortion with a shot you could possibly never have kids again. Just saying.

      • southern feminist

        rude

        • myintx

          truth

          • southern feminist

            No one is EVER going to settle this dispute, and this issue is as old as time itself – women aborted in ancient Rome, in Greece, even Jerusalem. No one is saying embryos are not alive, but not all life is sacred. If it were, the pro-life movement would actually work to help those 26000 children that die of starvation on a daily basis, and there wouldn’t be any confusion over the immigrant kids right now. But, life is also a continuum if i use christian logic (i assume you are a christian), and that ideology, because it adheres to one belief system, can NOT be the basis of a society that incorporates an entire belief spectrum. The only thing you guys, and women – even us pro-choice ones b/c no one is pro-abortion, can hope to accomplish is to diminish the need for this procedure: support responsible and age appropriate sex education, be rational about birth control (an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure), understand that abortions are not the general result of some horrible uncaring person who uses it “because she feels like it” (i mean – they are not easy to get regardless of what FOX news states) – but many women, and 1 in 4 have had them) had to make that choice out of economic necessity. I am sure you understand that more and more men leave their families or never were involved to begin with (and there are probably women who chose to go for their own reasons), regardless – most children are in single parent homes, many of these women work at jobs paying at or slightly above min wage, then they are shamed for having sex, not staying with the child’s father (when he could have been an abusive drunk), and vilified by society for all of its ills (and while you are yelling at these women, all of the good paying jobs are sent overseas to sweatshops where other children are exploited for labor or they are getting heavy kickbacks from government). Did you know that american taxpayers contribute over 150 million yearly to walmart because they refuse to pay their employees, many of whom are women and mothers, living wages. If min wage had kept rate with inflation, our min wage would be over 20.00 hourly by now. You know what that means – very few would need the assistance of the government or your dime. also, maybe if women were protected in the workplace, many wouldn’t fell the need to choose between having a child or having a job to feed the child that they already have. FMLA leaves major loopholes – even some of the countries in Africa have better maternal protection than we do. i am just saying that oversimplification is only going to show how much someone does NOT understand an issue. and yeah, it is rude to wish that on someone. i do believe it was your own book that instructs you to 1: leave all judgment to your god, 2: all sin is EQUAL in the eyes of the lord (my abortion is equal to your judgement of my abortion, so you are no better in his eyes than i would be) 3: founding fathers were pretty adamant about that “wall of separation” between church and state 4: if you are going to be pro-life, you have to take it all the way, which means stop cutting funding for children’s programs like school lunch

          • myintx

            People owned slaves in ancient times… does that mean slavery should never have been made illegal in the US? Over time, people’s views evolved to recognize slaves as people with rights. Over time, more and more people are seeing the humanity of the unborn child. A majority of people in the US believe an unborn child should be protected after 12 weeks – that means they fundamentally disagree with Roe V Wade. Roe V Wade needs to be overturned so that states can make the laws their people want protecting unborn children and at the same time protecting the women too.
            Do you tell people who work to make the lives of the elderly more comfortable or work to provide housing to the homeless that they should drop everything and focus on the starving children? I doubt it… It’s a smokescreen to try to justify killing unborn children. In the US, there are 1 million unborn children being killed every year. How many die of starvation in the US every year? My guess is no where near the number that are killed in even one hour at the human extermination centers known as abortion clinics. Starvation is horrible – so is the senseless killing of unborn children.
            ‘economic necessity’ is no reason to kill a born child. It’s no reason to kill an unborn child either. A woman can work with an adoption agency to arrange adoption. Sometimes, adoption agencies can help with costs – as many other agencies can too.
            it doesn’t take religion to know that killing an unborn child is wrong. Take a look at a 4D ultrasound of an unborn child at 18 or 20 weeks. Should only take common sense to know that killing an unborn child is wrong.

          • southern feminist

            Slavery still exists, worldwide. And since I am assuming that you are referring to the history of slavery in North America, let me add – it ended in 1863, and in name only. Jim Crow was only recently done away with since maybe the 80s after much vigilance on the part of the Dems. Slavery is the exploitation and control over another individual; this property would have no access to any constitutional rights as they were only considered 3/5′s a person – they were bought and sold, children torn from their mothers, wives torn from their husbands, no marriages were recognized as the owners liked to stud out the strongest males with the healthiest females for breeding purposes, women were raped time and time again, and so on and so on – for you to dare compare a non sentient being to a independently breathing, fully aware and with years of memories to boot to a fetus is quite baffling. First and foremost, the majority of abortions are done within the first trimester. Secondly, i think it’s wonderful that one assists with the elderly and such, but to go on and on about the innocence of these unborn kids and then drop the concern for them when food stamps or school lunches are in question is hypocrisy at its finest. I truly believe that you can either complain about abortion/birth control or complain about welfare, but you can’t do both, because it looks ignorant. Secondly, the number of starving children in america is actually pretty equal to your abortion stat. Third, 1 in 5 women die from childbirth complications in america, so to simply say that a woman should carry to term with no prob and then be hooked up to an adoption agency is faulty at best. The workplace pregnancy discrimination issue still stands. Finally, there is nothing wrong with my morals – i am pro-choice because i trust that a woman making that decision is facing one of the hardest choices she will ever have to make, and it’s not for me or you, or especially some panel of beings that will never have to make the choice, to decide for her. Finally, on a side note – it was the evangelical christians who used the bible to support the existence of slavery and to relegate the southern black population to a second class existence, because the whites saw them as infantile and unable to function properly. Today, the bible is used to do this to women.

          • myintx

            An unborn child is a human being – just like a newborn. Birth does not a human being make. Sentience does not a human being make. For you to dehumanize an unborn child in order to justify killing it is what is baffling here. Look at 4D ultrasounds of unborn child at 23 weeks and at 24 weeks – they are BOTH human beings – they BOTH deserve to be protected.

            Did I say I was against food stamps or lunch programs? The problem is the exponential increase in these programs (when the economy is supposedly getting better) – where is the money coming from? what programs (Veterans programs?) might have to be cut or who will be affected (and how) to change the qualifying rules and give food stamps to more people? Can some money be recovered by reducing fraud (like Gov Jindal is trying to do by saying you cannot use food stamps at nail salons and liquor stores). You cannot go with the feel-good hopey-changey story of increasing handouts without looking at what the effects might be first.

            Oh, you ‘trust’ women.. like Emily Letts – who didn’t even TRY and killed for 15 minutes of fame (no ‘hard’ decision there!).. like women who kill because they want a girl instead of a boy (or vice versa)? like women who kill to hide the results of an affair? Or a woman who says she doesn’t want a C-section because of a scar and then one of her twins dies? or a woman who uses meth and gives birth to a baby with a birth defect? Some women can be trusted, but they don’t know better – they don’t know there is help out there and that killing isn’t the best choice. They need help, but PP just wants to sell abortions. There are places that can help – even financially.

            If you ‘trust’ women, why not make all laws apply to men only? women never steal, murder, commit fraud, etc… lol.

            “First and foremost, the majority of abortions are done within the first trimester” – so, you’re OK if they’re restricted after the first trimester? GOOD – that means you’re on the side of most Americans. And, that means you disagree with at least a part of Roe v Wade- OVERTURN that mistake :)
            It doesn’t take religion to know that killing an unborn child is wrong. There are atheists pro-lifers out there (secularprolife dot org). Pro-aborts pull the religion card when they run out of arguments to defend the senseless killing of unborn children.

          • southern feminist

            Yes i do trust women to make a choice that is fucking theirs to make! And sorry, but most women, especially single mothers who have to earn a living, are more important than a blastocyst. Pro-aborts?! We don’t hand out pamphlets trying to get a woman to terminate her pregnancy. Once again, pick a struggle – abortion or welfare because you can’t have both…

            As far as assistance – I said that if you are pro-life then yeah, i hope you put your money where your mouth is – or else you are pro-birth. Assistance is increasing because american jobs refuse to pay a living wage, not because women are having kids. Further, the repubs voted down veteran’s assistance and against their jobs act. oh, i am certain you are aware of the number of military personnel that receive assistance, so be careful who you call a freeloader. As far as EBT fraud – there is no way those businesses trade services for EBT (this must be people trading them for misc stuff) because you cannot even buy a hot food item with your card in alabama, much less a liquor store, not even dog food.

            I don’t know of any woman who has terminated for the reasons you mentioned above, but i have seen plenty of women who have put their baby in a ,microwave, or forget about their baby in a car while they bought and did drugs, put cigarettes out on their kids, leave their kids alone overnight – dirty – and with no food; and, i have seen plenty of men who have molested 3 year old little girls, shaken their girlfriend’s baby to death, and physically beat and/or force themselves onto their wives/girlfriends all while the kids were in viewing range. I have seen kids not even out of elementary school yet who are ultimately diagnosed with ptsd and still wet their pants at 11 years of age because someone accidentally slammed a door or shouted too loudly. so don’t talk to me about saving an unwanted fetus when i know what is waiting out here for them. every child should be wanted, and every mother should be willing.

            i am totally on board with men taking some responsibility for birth control! Vasectomies are cheap. There is also a pill, has a nasty name, but works kind of like birth control that they could take until they are married, and since we all know how responsible men are when compared with women, there would never be an unwanted child….

            And i didn’t say i was okay with anything – i personally don’t care for abortion unless it’s done like early enough to take the ru486 pill, but, once again – a woman’s private choice is her business and her’s alone. and no, i know it doesn’t take religion to know right from wrong, but it does take religion to convince an individual that it’s divine will to force a woman into reproduction and have complete autonomy over her person-hood while she remains a bystander to what happens to her, and then remove the very means by which she would be able to sustain that child emotionally, educationally, medically, etc. And i am not saying that you aren’t an atheist, but your banter certainly reflects much of what theists think.

          • myintx

            No one should have a ‘choice’ to kill an unborn child (unless absolutely necessary to save a woman’s life).

            If you are FOR abortion, you are pro-abortion. If you blast adoption as an option, you’re definitely pro-abortion (I’m not saying you do, but some do).

            Its the liberals who are voting against jobs acts. As far as the Veterans go – it’s the dems who are in charge now – the Veterans healthcare issues are the dems fault. And, the jobs bill was turned down because there were already several other separate Veterans jobs programs out there. All the republicans wanted to do was see why those other programs werent working before throwing money at a new one – common sense.

            “I don’t know of any woman who has terminated for the reasons you mentioned above,” – well, then google Emily Letts… and I assume you’d be OK with banning sex selective abortions?

            Child abuse is horrible. Parents should be responsible and turn their kids over to CPS or put them up for adoption if they cannot take care of them. And, women who dont want their kids when they are born should do the right thing and arrange to put the child up for adoption when they are born. No child – born or unborn – should be killed because he or she is inconvenient or unwanted.

            ‘Complete autonomy’ – no one has that. Prostitution laws, drug laws, laws against selling your organs, public nudity laws, etc. Besides, in a pregnancy, there is more than one body involved – BOTH human beings involved in a pregnancy should have a right to life. An unborn child should not be killed in the name of autonomy simply because it is inconvenient or unwanted.

            “i am totally on board with men taking some responsibility for birth control!” I’ll close on a good note – something we agree on.

    • missy

      Have a son that gets a girl pregnant, said son tells girl have baby and walk away I’ll raise it alone. He believes life starts at conception, she doesn’t. I wish there was legislation that would give the Father some rights before birth. He has no say and has to live with the fact that the love of his life killed his baby because it’s”technically” legal. Her point of view vs his. It’s a shame we even have to talk about whether or not it is human and worth saving. All life is precious no matter how tiny.

    • David

      So, you say yourself that both arguments can be true. This implies that you believe, at least half way, that life starts at conception, and DNA defines that life as human. It also shows that you acknowledge that abortions are, in-arguably, being conducted. In fact, over a million abortions are conducted each year in the U.S. alone. So, that means that over 1 million human lives are terminated each year. What’s the definition of murder? Ahh, that’s right, disregarding the flock of crows, murder is the killing of a human being, which isn’t an exclusively Christian definition. I would hope that you agree with murder being illegal as universal, not just to Christians. Abortion isn’t accidental man-slaughter either. It seems pretty deliberate to me. Before you make fun of some “illiterate rice farmer” who is busy growing food to provide for people, check your grammar.

      • southern feminist

        if you are so adamant about abortion and anti-killing, are you also anti-death penalty, anti-war, and pro social programs that help to sustain life?

      • GeniusPhx

        you have a black and white answer for everything. problem is those arguments are old, they are the same as argued for roe v wade. in other words the law is the law. in one of their opinions the supreme ct wrote no one person should be able to decide for another when life begins. and thats what you want to do, legislate your views on me whether i like it or not. is that something Jesus would do?

        scotus only changes a decision if new evidence comes up that was not available at the time of the first time. that isnt the case here. the nervous system has developed at 24 weeks and thats why scotus decided that way.

        in the new movie Counselor a drug lord is talking to him about the murder of his wife. counselor keeps bargaining for the life of his wife while the drug lord explains its too late and he should accept shes dead and go on with your life. that’s what you ppl should do, stop bargaining and accept that abortions are a fact of life and go on. even if they outlawed it, the number of abortions hasn’t changed legal or illegal. if you think stopping abortion is hard when its legal, try stopping it when its illegal and it happens in ppls homes all over the country. that’s what happens when choice is no longer an option.

        • Remi

          Why do pro lifers want to legislate their beliefs on the other half of the country? Why pro choicer want to legislate their belief on an unborn human?

          • southern feminist

            why are you dismissing the human even having to make that choice? i find it humorous that once a female becomes preggo, then fuck all – she, as an individual with hopes and dreams ceases to exist, and she becomes some mere portal for forced reproduction. you guys really need to take into account that the country who can strip you of your right to choice can move the scales either way (look at china). the government strong enough to keep you from having an abortion can also force you to have one. it can also forcibly sterilize you if they decide that you are unfit to procreate – forced sterilization was huge in the US up through the 70s with regard to minorities.

  • Marina Redwood

    I think life begins at conception, but I’m pro-choice.

    • E E

      Interesting I’d like to hear your argument for being pro-choice then.

      • southern feminist

        perhaps because some of us believe in the separation of church and state and not forcing our personal opinions on others, and i am not being snarky here (inflections of tone is lost on the written word). but most scientists believe that life does begin at conception, but the question is rather, when does this life become a human being, and when is a life worth protecting. further, one cannot argue religiously on this topic, well you could, but that would be a mistake – because faith, too, is a matter of opinion. if society really wants to remedy this, perhaps we should start by creating an environment that protects it’s mothers politically, socially, and economically.

  • Anonymous

    Nobody has yet mentioned this, so I thought I would. Regarding Dr. Hollands argument, the precise moments at which of these occurs is as follows:

    1) Conception – a clear, identifiable moment
    2) After twinning is no longer possible (about 14 days into development) – the exact moment is very unclear
    3) Brainwave criteria (about 24-27 weeks into development) – the exact moment is very unclear
    4) At or near birth (measured by fetal viability outside of the body) – the exact moment is very unclear

    Conception is the only event that occurs at a definitive moment. All the others (as well as some she didn’t list) are merely time frames in a person’s gradual development. Since one either is alive or isn’t alive, it follows that the only possible option for the beginning of life is that which occurs in an instant – conception.

    • southern feminist

      but life is also seen as a continuum. i mean the egg and sperm are alive prior to conception, so technically you can say that my monthly period is my body aborting a potential human because a sperm didn’t infiltrate.

    • GeniusPhx

      the bible doesn’t back you up at all. ppl keep talking about life when the legal argument is about viability, not life. the bigger argument is whether one side can tell another they cant make a choice to carry or not. That’s what SCOTUS decided, that one person does not have the legal right to require another to abide by their beliefs.

      • southern feminist

        i bet they would understand the ideology behind separation of church and state if all of a sudden sharia law was implemented and muslims became the majority forcing their respective beliefs on them.

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