Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in Abortion

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The abortion debate is one of the most polarising everyday controversies, dichotomizing people into being either "pro-choice" or "pro-life". "Pro-choice" insists that women should be able to choose whether or not to abort, whereas "pro-life" prioritises the life of the embryo.[1]

The abortion debate is considered to be a moral dilemma, as views on the matter typically stem from opinions on the following:

  • When life begins. Is an embryo alive upon conception or at its first heartbeat?
  • Whether or not life implies "personhood"[2]. Killing a person is considered murder, whereas killing a fish isn't. Is an embryo a person or not? Hence, is abortion murder?
  • Whether one's quality of life is or isn't a factor. Is knowing that an embryo could have a poor quality of life sufficient reason for abortion? Should a mother be able to terminate if completing the pregnancy would worsen her quality of life?

A short case study: Professor Lejeune's Dilemma[edit]

Leujeune's observation : a karyotype with Down Syndrome

Jerome Lejeune was a twentieth-century Catholic geneticist. In 1958 he discovered an abnormal chromosome on the 21st pair, proving a relationship between mental disability and a chromosomal anomaly[3]. Whilst his work earned him numerous scientific awards, he was troubled that his research was used to identify disabilities including Down Syndrome with the aim of terminating pregnancy due to the difficult life that awaited such children. As pro-abortion movements began growing in size, Lejeune's theological understanding of truth prevailed; he gave anti-abortion conferences worldwide, arguing that pregnant women weren't given enough information and foresight about a life with disabled children.

Interpretations of Truth by Academic Disciplines[edit]

Developmental Biology & Psychology[edit]

Through an objective approach[4], developmental biology models an accurate account of the growth of organisms, using methods of experimentation[5]. It is especially concerned with embryonic development, and hence pertinent in understanding reproduction: the first cell formed after fertilisation, the zygote, contains all the necessary material to sustain life and develop into a complete individual. Thus, from this perspective, life begins at conception. However, whilst a zygote is a form of life, so are parents' germ cells and billions of other cells we lose everyday. In this case, is killing a sperm cell abortion?

Similarly, psychologists seek to understand the relationship between the human minds and behaviors.[6][7] A fetus is considered a subject in psychology and therefore "alive" at 32 weeks when its brain develops the ability to reason.[8] Psychologists also argue that personhood begins at 18 months, where a newborn develops self-awareness,[9] which is arguably, as stated by René Descartes, the main characteristic of a person: "I think therefore I am" [10].

Studies have classically shown that abortion can lead to depression and anxiety for women[11][12], but recent research has also shown that unwanted pregnancy, terminated or not, may cause negative side effects.[13]

Empirical scientists often have narrow perceptions of truth: they create a constantly-growing field of evidence for other disciplines to then draw their own conclusions. Science isn’t concerned with the abortion debate as much as it seeks to deepen our knowledge about life itself.

Sociology & Law[edit]

Sociology follows a deflationary, interpretive[14] approach, observing patterns in order to understand of the development of human society.[15]. There are, however, less common sociologists who seek positivist truth through research and methodical testing. Sociology plays a crucial role in the abortion debate due to its influence on law-making. The Roe v. Wade, 1973[16] case provides a framework to consider the legal position on abortion.

Roe v. Wade[edit]

Roe v Wade, 1989, Jane Roe and her lawyer on the steps of the Supreme Court

Positivist studies proving that premature birth survival rates increase exponentially after the third trimester[17] fostered the court’s understanding of when life begins. The court inferred, that abortion should be legal during the first trimester and legal only if necessary to protect the mother's health during the second and third, implying a fetus is considered “more alive” in the later trimesters.

As of 1971, there were no legal cases where a fetus was considered a person. This was an argument made by the plaintiff, Jane Doe, who used the pattern-seeking nature of sociological truth to conclude that a fetus must therefore not be a person. Quality of life wasn't mentioned as a factor in the case, but the verdict maintained that a woman's right to privacy, stated under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution[18], fostered her right to an abortion on any grounds whatsoever during the first trimester.

Biblical Theology[edit]

Biblical theology is the study of God according to the Bible.[19][20] Pontius Pilate asked "What is truth?"[21], to which Jesus replies "I am the way, the truth and the life". [22]Theological truth isn't quantifiable, nor existentially relevant[23]; it is the "self-expression of God"[24], following the coherence theory of truth, with God as the fixed system against which truth is measured.

A depiction of Adam & Eve

The cornerstone of Biblical theology is the Ten Commandments, one of which is "You shall not kill"[25]. Theologists might follow the biological view that human life begins at conception, thus concluding that Biblical doctrines that forbid abortion should be universally accepted, even if the life of the woman is at stake. On the other hand, a theologist could argue that the portrait of personhood starts with Adam & Eve in the New Testament, not with an objective explanation of conception. A person is portrayed as a complex being, with the ability to make irrational decisions: to kill, to lie, among others, as "God created men to be an image of his own eternity"[26]. Following this line of reasoning, a fetus is not a person, but a pregnant woman is. If a fetus is not to be considered as a person until it matches the description of Adam & Eve, the life and well-being of a woman should be placed above that of an unborn child.

Interdisciplinary views & Conclusion[edit]

Whilst biologists recognise the beginning of life as conception, ignoring the concepts of personhood and quality of life, psychologists specifically focus on the mind and its two significant milestones, resulting in a divergent conclusion: life begins at 32 weeks and personhood 18 months after birth. It applies its positivism to consider the quality of life and how abortion may affect it. Sociology, from its deflationary point of view, doesn't have one specific point at which it considers life to have begun and demonstrates interpretivism in its conclusion, in the Roe v. Wade case, that a fetus isn't a person and that quality of life is immensely significant. Theology establishes, through the coherence theory, that personhood begins at a much later point than the other disciplines. God is eternal and has no beginning, hence we cannot determine the point at which life begins, nor whether quality of life matters.

The overlap in views from many different disciplines makes abortion a never-ending debate. But by breaking down the disciplines' conception of truth, it allows us to look past the abortion controversy as being strictly binary and to better understand where differing views stem. In his case, Lejeune wasn't able to reconcile his theological understanding of truth with his scientific one, ultimately choosing to prioritize the former. The dilemma he faces is one of many examples showing how different definitions and interpretations of truth within disciplines can play out in global issues.


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  20. Newsletter. What is the academic field of Biblical Theology? [Online] Available at:
  21. 38th verse in Сhapter 18 of the Gospel of John in the New Testament of Christian Bible.
  22. 14th chapter of the Gospel of John in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
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  26. Wisdom of Solomon. Chapters 2:20-2:23.