Recent reports from a French laboratory contain some good news and some bad news for the prochoice movement.
The good news is that abortion is not the taking of human life. Studies conducted by the French geneticist Jacques “Mad Jack” Junot of the Institut Genetique in Paris reveal that, contrary to prevailing scientific opinion, human genetic material is not present until birth. (According to Professor Junot, the birth process triggers a genetic transformation of the fetus into a human being.) Therefore, as prochoicers have long contended, killing the fetus—which, in its early stages, looks more like a small fish than a child—is not murder.
But the Professor’s findings also contain bad news for those who wish to “keep abortion safe and legal.”
The early fetus, or embryo, is a small fish: Professor Junot’s studies establish that what eventually become human beings begin, genetically speaking, as snail darters. And it is a federal offense to destroy a snail darter. Thus, abortion, at least in the early stages, is even now illegal in the United States.
And there is more bad news for abortion rights advocates: Professor Junot’s research shows that even in the later stages of fetal development, when the fetus bas ceased being a snail darter, it becomes genetically pinnepedic before its transformation into a human being at birth. In other words, the late fetus is, in reality, a baby seal.
Of course, baby seals are protected somewhat less strictly than snail darters. They may lawfully be killed by members of the Okeach Eskimo tribe of Northwest Alaska, who have relied on the meat and fur of baby seals for their self-preservation throughout the history of the tribe. Congress created a special exception for the Okeach in its 1987 Baby Seal Protection Act. So, technically, abortions of fetuses once they have reached the seal stage are permissible if performed by members of the Okeach tribe.
The problem is that Okeach Eskimos refuse on religious grounds to engage in social intercourse with non-tribe members; which means that anyone wishing an abortion must first be inducted into the tribe. The tribal induction ceremony, in which the person seeking membership must ritually slay a dozen baby seals with a blunt instrument, is followed by a one-year waiting period. So, even where women are desperate enough to kill baby seals on the Alaskan beaches, by the time they are eligible for tribal membership their fetuses would already have evolved into human beings.
At a hastily called press conference, a spokesperson for the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) said that her organization would seek a Supreme Court ruling declaring federal laws protecting snail darters and baby seals unconstitutional. At another press conference, however, the Society for Animal Rights (SAR), a long-time political ally of NARAL, made it plain that they would not back down from their historic position in favor of federal protection for snail darters and seals. According to a spokesperson for SAR, “These reports out of France change everything so far as we are concerned.” She said that as long as it was thought that the fetus was genetically human, “we had no problem with favoring the rights of a full person over those of a merely potential person; but if abortion is the killing of animals, it amounts to speciesism.”
A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union reached by telephone declined comment.
Robert P. George teaches philosophy of law at Princeton University.