Abortion and Brain Waves

How science and religion might come together on Roe v. Wade.
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  1. No other issue in American politics stands at such an impasse. Decades after Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate remains a clash of absolutes: one side insists that all abortions be permitted, the other that all be prohibited. The stalemate has many and familiar causes, but a critical and little-noticed one is this: Public understanding has not kept pace with scientific discovery. When Roe was decided in 1973, medical knowledge of the physiology and neurology of the fetus was surprisingly scant. Law and religion defined our understanding, because science had little to say. That is now changing, and it is time for the abortion debate to change in response.

    Quietly, without fanfare, researchers have been learning about the gestational phases of human life, and the new information fits neither the standard pro-choice position nor the standard pro-life position. As far as science can tell, what happens early in the womb looks increasingly like coldhearted chemistry, with the natural termination of potential life far more common than previously assumed. But science also shows that by the third trimester the fetus has become much more human than once thought—exhibiting, in particular, full brain activity. In short, new fetal research argues for keeping abortion legal in the first two trimesters of pregnancy and prohibiting it in the third.

    This is a message neither side wants to hear. But, as the Supreme Court prepares to take up the abortion issue for the first time in nearly a dec...