Pollard's Response to Leavitt's Commentary

- Irina Pollard, Ph.D.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 134-135.

Certainly bioscience ethics "is the plea for the bioethicists to be more informed about the biological, scientific details of the subjects the ethics of which they are studying" but more emphatically it is the plea to scientists to contribute fundamentally to the bioethical debate by sharing their special understanding of the biological world. This contribution is an essential balancing factor because ethical thinking is part of our biological heritage. Put simply, ethical behaviour belongs to our overall behavioural repertoire and is, therefore, encoded in our genes. The evolution of ethical consciousness has given us survival value and its genetic basis has been passed down the generations in a similar manner to all adaptive characteristics retained by natural selection. That behavioural evolution has been particularly important in human development is not a new insight. As social creatures, we each have a very low fitness unless we associate with our fellows and since we must, for our personal gain, live in social groups, we have to at the same time consider the survival of our social group and restrain our more flagrantly unworthy acts. Presently our social ethic is based on the premise that nature and the environment ought to serve humanity and contribute almost exclusively to the progress of human beings. This ethic has added greatly to the material advancement and quality of life for the privileged, but also it has encouraged aggressive materialism. This has not always been so. In many early human cultures (as judged from the folklore of Australian aborigines, North America's First Nation peoples and many others) irreverent abuse and exploitation of nature for immediate non-sustainable gain, was judged unjust and unethical. Such cultures developed and followed bioethical guidelines in the allocation of biological resources and conservation of species.

As stated in the commentary, our earliest intellectual (philosophical) deliberations grew out of extracting theoretical values from practical life. One important example can be taken from the record of human activity which shows us beyond much doubt that the role of the healer of disease and injury (even in the earliest societies) was an individual who possessed exceptional talents and ethical qualifications. History records that, for example, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia left behind a vast legacy of 'firsts' inscribed on clay tablets in cuneiform script, including the first record of ethical thought attributed to Urukagina, ruler of Lagash, a Sumerian city-state (1). Yet human civilization had been developing for several millennia before the written record began, so it stands to reason that the evolution of premonitions of human ethical thought on topics such as truth, justice, freedom, mercy, compassion began long before their recording in writing. Human uniqueness resides primarily in the brain where its flexibility has opened up the possibility for the development of an intelligence with the ability to anticipate problems and solve them in an unprogrammed, creative manner. Our brain has also made cultural evolution possible resulting in the greatest social evolutionary change in the least possible time - whatever one generation learns can now be passed onto the next by guidance, instruction, education, ritual, tradition and even indoctrination. It appears that the vital period in our past was some 35 000 years ago when human creativity, art, music, sophisticated tool making and spirituality quickly evolved probably as a result of a critical fine-tuning of the larynx making sophisticated language and abstract communication possible. Now our exceptional brain has to rise to the new bioethical challenge which human global dominance has created.

I want to now take up the question of abortion. The present bioscience ethics article, or any of my publications do not address the issue of abortion. This is not consciously because the issue is insignificant but because my emphasis was elsewhere. The following, however, clarifies some of my thinking on the topic. If the pregnant woman is free to have an abortion and does not do so, then she has chosen not to avoid a situation in which she will affect the well-being of another person (the child she will bear). In so choosing I suggest that she has assumed bioethical responsibility for all controllable aspects of the well-being of that future person. That is, the very availability of abortion has increased the possibility of maternal duties to fetuses and that a woman continuing with a pregnancy is a clear expression of free choice. She has no duty to bring a child into being; if she chooses to that brings with it responsibilities so she must be given freedom of choice because parents have an ethically proper way to act in the interests of their future offspring. Harm to a potential fetus per se is not at issue, rather concern with those preconceptual/prenatal negligent acts or omissions which reduce the effective potential and show up later as injuries to the child. This, of course, is the reasoning behind the ethics of drug-induced disability and individual/collective responsibilities to make future parents knowledgeable about adverse drug-effects. It makes ethical sense to offer prospective parents information about the effects of lifestyle choices on the outcome of a pregnancy and to discourage or alter harmful lifestyles. By indulging in substance-abuse, for instance, the parents who intend to carry a pregnancy to term are harming another and are thereby violating one of the most fundamental rights of a person, the right not to be harmed. A society who robs (intervenes) in a woman's freedom of choice not to go on with a particular pregnancy is, likewise, violating a basic human right, the right of freedom of choice. I want to put on the record, however, that I personally prefer to see choice via contraception (i.e., avoidance of conception) rather that birth control by abortion. Options are empowering and prevent needless pain, but can only be viable by the universal provision of cheap and effective contraceptives.

But back to the issue of free choice. A society who robs a woman's freedom of choice not to go on with a particular pregnancy is also violating a basic law of nature. It may surprise some of us to learn that contraception is not a human invention; rather pregnancy-avoidance mimics our extraordinary evolutionary heritage. As stated above, the human is an extraordinary species with freedom to deviate from strict stereotypical behaviours, especially sexual. For example, unlike most mammals who are sexually receptive only when fertile, the human female's potential for sexual arousal and orgasm at all times in her menstrual cycle, is no secret. In order to achieve sexual independence from fertility, however, evolution had to intervene in order to shift the physiological control of libido from the female sex hormones also involved in ovulation and pregnancy (i.e., estrogens and progesterone) to other steroid hormone involved in behaviour - the androgens (i.e., testosterone and androstenedione). Androgens derived from her ovaries and adrenal glands keep her sexual drive active throughout the menstrual cycle. The advantages of retaining sexual receptivity at all times including when conception is not a physiological option, is obvious. Such a strategy, clearly helps to maintain long-term relationships and is an evolutionary device to maximize parental care of the young and provides sexual pleasure and comfort for the highly sexed human female. Early human societies throughout the world understood this and developed many ways to embellish nature's gift by thoughtfully preventing unwanted conceptions (see 2 for historical review).

It is obvious that in a system where sex can be separated in time from fertilization, aged/defective gametes (sperm and eggs) and conceptuses are a natural component. Flexible sexual behaviour results in genetic wastage which has been taken care of by natural processes. Nature's solution was to provide high quality fertility by an excess of potential with the intention that only a small proportion of that potential will ever be realized. In fertile men, for example, the sperm concentration varies between 60-80 million active sperm per ml of semen in an ejaculate volume of approximately 2.5-3.5 ml. Despite the fact that each sperm (given the chance) is a potential person, the turning point between fertile and infertile sperm numbers is 20 million active sperm per ml. It is also well known that as few as 30% of all human conceptions survive to birth, with a large majority of these failures lost in the very early stages of pregnancy. Humans are unique in their very high frequency of chromosome abnormalities and consequent embryo wastage (3). Chromosome abnormalities and embryo wastage is high in humans because of the ease in achieving fertilizations (as demonstrated by in vitro fertilisation technology) but difficulties in continuing these pregnancies. Abortion is nature's way to counter environmental factors which exert an important influence on ageing processes of gametes and conceptuses. Presently we are not yet in a position to ethically question the logic of our evolutionary heritage especially before we have become a good deal more knowledgeable about our unique biological roots and nature's operating imperatives.


1. Chapman C. Physicians, Law and Ethics. New York, New York University Press, 1984.
2. Pollard I. Artificial Control of Fertility. In: A Guide to Reproduction, Social Issues and Human Concerns. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994:274-306.
3. Jacobs P, Hassold T. The Origin of Numerical Chromosome Abnormalities. In Advances in Genetics Volume 33; J. Hall & J.Dunlap (eds). San Diego, Academic Press, 1995:101-133.

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