Birth by Design

High-definition 3D ultrasound of 11 week old fetus in womb.
A 3D ultrasound of an 11-week-old fetus in the womb, on a Philips GlassVue machine.

Mother’s Day was just a few weeks ago here in the US, and I’d like to focus on the process that results in biological motherhood: pregnancy. Stephanie Grey talked on Biola’s Think Biblically podcast back in January and mentioned the pro-abortion objection that since a mother isn’t legally obligated to give a sick child one of her kidneys, a mother shouldn’t be obligated to give the unborn child her uterus. Stephanie’s response was extremely insightful and one that I think will resonate with technical-minded people in particular. Let’s work through that today.

Stephanie says she was presented with this objection by a philosophy professor at a debate one time. I think it’s a really good objection to look at because it’s strong enough to concede ground to the pro-life view and still be persuasive. Arguments like “my body, my choice” are easily overcome by pointing out the obvious fact from biology that the baby, with its distinct DNA, is not actually part of the mother’s body, and therefore its life or death is not legitimately her choice. This professor however, was saying that even if the unborn fetus is a human, and is a person, and has a right to life, “abortion is justified on the basis that living human persons with the right to life do not have a right to use another living human person’s body without their consent.”[1] That is actually a good argument for abortion – probably one of the best I’ve heard because it can give so much ground that is typically argued over (humanity, personhood, and the right to life) to the pro-life view without being weakened. This comes down to that fundamental idea that while everyone respects and honors self-sacrifice, it’s not a choice one can force people to make. Self-sacrifice, such as giving someone else an organ that they might live, while praiseworthy, must be voluntary.

But Stephanie’s inspired answer was to look at the purpose of a kidney versus that of a uterus. The mother’s kidney is designed to filter the mother’s blood to help ensure the survival of the mother. When a kidney is properly functioning, it is contributing a vital life function to the body of which it is a part. But the uterus is different. A woman’s uterus isn’t for her use. Everything about the uterus is designed specifically for ensuring the survival of the person inside it, not the mother whose body it belongs to. When the uterus is functioning properly it is a natural incubator that is absolutely vital to the baby inside but completely unnecessary to the woman (other than for the purpose of having a baby). In fact, the uterus is constantly refreshing itself each month specifically to be ready for occupation by a fertilized egg, whether that actually happens or not. The baby simply cannot live without the uterus, while the woman easily can.

This line of reasoning really clarifies this otherwise persuasive objection and shows that the comparison is not valid. I’ve written previously about how the linchpin of any design is choice made for a purpose. For instance, I make many choices every day as I design different framing connections for buildings. There are choices related to materials, such as bare carbon steel for use in an indoor protected environment, or maybe stainless steel for an outdoor installation. There are choices related to types of fastenings such as bolts, screws, welds, or adhesives like structural epoxy. There are choices regarding the configuration of a connection, such as the number of screws in a wood connection, the size and length of welds in a steel braced frame joint, or the spacing of headed studs in a beam endplate connection to a masonry wall. And there are hundreds of other examples like these. But all of those choices have purpose behind them. I’m requiring more expensive stainless steel for corrosion resistance; I’m calling out for more bolts or longer welds because I have a certain capacity I have to meet; I’m using a particular type of connection because it can meet the aesthetic requirements of the owner while still safely supporting the roof.

Understanding why something is the way it is typically requires understanding the purpose behind it. We run into this in renovating old buildings as well. Building methods and design methods change over the decades or even centuries of a building’s life. Opening up a wall in an existing building to determine if it can support some added loads from a proposed addition can sometimes reveal some very puzzling choices having been made 50 years ago. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell whether the builders messed up or whether the designers at the time did. But generally, if you can determine the purpose behind a particular choice, you can make sense of it. Oftentimes with old buildings, it’s difficult to discover extenuating¬† circumstances like an iron shortage at the time, where the obvious choice of adding more rebar maybe wasn’t an option, so the designers had to get more creative with their solution. Those are frustrating reminders of the significant limitations of our knowledge. But when the records are more detailed, those can make for some fascinating “aha!” moments.

Sometimes, after discovering the purpose for a decision, our suspicion that a mistake was made turns into deep appreciation for the creativity of the solution given the previously unknown limitations. Our reaction changes from “What on earth were they thinking?!” to “Oh wow. I wonder if I would’ve been able to figure out any solution to that dilemma if I’d been trying to design this back then… with such limited options?” Knowing the purpose of something can make all the difference in engineering investigations, and we find it does on the subject of abortion as well. Our organs provide life support, but if we don’t recognize whose life an organ is intended to support,¬† we can succumb to faulty reasoning like Stephanie’s debate opponent had.


[1] This quote was Stephanie’s recollection of his argument, not the direct quote from him, but would appear to be a reasonable summary of the professor’s position.

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