In my previous blog post on Dr. Parker’s book, I addressed the complexities of Dr. Parker’s faith, which he wields in an attempt to give himself credibility and assert that advancing abortion access “is precisely the Christian thing to do.” After an in-depth analysis of the nature of his beliefs, I concluded that, while Dr. Parker is evidently a man of deep faith and spiritual convictions, he cannot claim to be a Christian, as properly understood in relation to the Bible. Now I turn my attention to one final subject: reason.
I have frequently argued—and continue to believe to this day—that the core question that must be answered in the abortion debate is this: Is the preborn fetus a human? This question is fundamental because, while it may sound empowering and even common-sense to use the language of being “pro-choice”, whether or not being “pro-choice” is, in fact, positive depends entirely on the nature of the choice being exercised.
We would correctly denounce anyone who claimed moral superiority for being “pro-choice” if the choice in question was the choice to inflict cruelty on animals. We would also correctly decry the suggestion that it is positive to be “pro-choice” if the choice in question involves afflicting physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse on another human being. And there are many who are currently denouncing Elon Musk’s infamous “free speech maximalism”—which, arguably, is a fundamentally “pro-choice” position, insofar as he is advocating for the unfettered right to choose what one says in public spaces—precisely on the basis of their concern that some people may use their choice to perpetuate hatred and harm. To be clear, I am not comparing the choice to have an abortion with these other choices or suggesting that these choices are all morally equivalent. I am simply making the point that, before we laud or decry being “pro-choice” in the context of abortion, we must first determine what is being chosen. In this context, that requires us to know whether or not the unborn fetus is a human.
Since Dr. Parker is a doctor—specifically, an OB-GYN—I had hoped that he would have a well-reasoned answer to this question. And I should clarify that I did not presume that his well-reasoned answer would be identical to mine. Quite the contrary, in fact. I knew that Dr. Parker was an abortionist, and so I knew that his answer to the question of the humanity of the unborn fetus would support his pro-abortion position. Still, my hope and expectation was that, as a physician, he would have an evidence-based, well-reasoned answer to this question. And that itself would have made his position respectable, even if it was an answer that I ultimately disagreed with.
It was with genuine disappointment, then, that I found myself reading the same tired statements that I have heard repeated over and over again by other abortion supporters, statements that lack intellectual consistency and coherent reasoning. While I by no means claim to be a scientific expert or authority on matters of healthcare, I—like any human being—am still able to test the veracity of Dr. Parker’s claims and evaluate the quality and consistency of his reasoning. What’s more, a large part of my professional expertise requires me to carefully scrutinize the integrity and logical coherence of arguments, whether my own or those of others. And my conclusion is that Dr. Parker’s claims, despite being sincerely held, are not scientifically supported or well-reasoned.
Unpacking Arguments Against the Humanity of the Unborn
One of the first things to note is that Dr. Parker was willing to overstate his position in ways that contradicted the other authoritative voices he cited in support of his position. In the chapter “Preaching Truth”, Dr. Parker makes the bold assertion that he “can authoritatively attest that life does not begin at conception.” Fascinatingly enough, he contradicts himself a few sentences later when he writes: “the fact is, as Justice Harry Blackmun so eloquently wrote way back in 1973, in the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, there is no historical, philosophical, theological, or even scientific consensus on when life begins.” The problem is that Dr. Parker cannot authoritatively assure readers that life does not begin at conception if there is, in fact, a lack of scientific consensus on when human life begins.
So, let us unpack Dr. Parker’s claims in more detail.
In the Prologue to his book, while discussing how he approaches interactions with the women he provides abortion to, Dr. Parker writes the following:
But if they ask me questions, as they frequently do, I answer them as their doctor—and not as their confessor or their friend—and I give them the medical truth.
Before twenty-two weeks, a fetus is not in any way equal to “a baby” or “a child.” It cannot survive outside the uterus because it cannot breathe—not even on a respirator. It cannot form anything like thoughts. Up until twenty-nine completed gestational weeks, despite what the antis may say, the scientific consensus is that it cannot feel anything like pain.
This paragraph is fairly representative of Dr. Parker’s core arguments around the unborn fetus not being human (although he does make a number of other side points that I will address in an effort to be comprehensive, thorough, and fair.)
Value at Viability?
Dr. Parker’s first core argument is that the fetus’ lack of viability precludes him or her from being recognized as a human being. This is consistent throughout the book. For example, when discussing the post-abortion process of piecing the unborn fetus back together to ensure that no part has been left inside the woman, Dr. Parker comments that, “no matter what these parts may look like, this is organic matter that does not add up to anything that can live on its own.”
The argument about viability is a common one. For those who support abortion, there is this ongoing difficulty of identifying when human life begins, while somehow preserving the position that abortion is mostly permissible. Notwithstanding the Canadian legal fiction that a fetus remains sub-human until the moment of birth, very few people truly believe that human life only starts at the moment of birth. How could they? After all, what is the difference between the preborn child a few seconds before birth and the newborn child a few seconds after birth? Humanity is not magically endowed by the birth canal. And so human life must begin before birth. Of course, then there is the matter of late-term abortions, which many abortion supporters find intuitively uncomfortable. In the desperate effort to pinpoint a logical moment in pregnancy at which humanity begins, viability frequently emerges as one solution, perhaps because human life beginning at viability both sounds more logical than life beginning at birth and simultaneously shields most abortions from legal intervention.
The problem is this: the point of viability is not static. As medical technology and healthcare interventions advance, the point at which a child is viable has moved earlier and earlier in the pregnancy. When the US Supreme Court issued its infamous decision in Roe v Wade, it wrote: “Viability is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks.” In the decades since then, progress in medical technology has steadily moved that line earlier and earlier. Dr. Parker seems to assert viability is somewhere between 22 and 25 weeks. And, despite Dr. Parker’s bold proclamations that a preborn fetus before twenty-two weeks “cannot” and “will not” survive, “not ever”, that is simply not the case (a verifiable fact that I established in my previous blog post). Many children have survived being born before 22 weeks gestation, including one young boy who recently celebrated his first birthday, conquering all odds after being given a 0% change of survival when he was born at 21 weeks and 2 days.
Not only has the point of viability changed with time and with technological advancement, but it will also change depending on the country in question and the medical technology that is available in different locations within that country. To suggest that something as concrete and scientifically verifiable as when human life begins is based on something as varied and unstable as the point at which the preborn fetus is viable is ludicrous. It is to conflate a static, existential truth (namely, what constitutes “personhood”) with a highly varied and contextual medical determination (what constitutes “viability”).
Interestingly enough, Dr. Parker seems to indirectly concede this point. While he at times discusses viability in a medical sense, he shifts his definition of the term, eventually drawing on a more philosophical and abstract understanding of “viability”. In a longer passage, Dr. Parker elaborates even further on how crucial viability is to his conception of human life:
A full-term pregnancy lasts forty weeks, on average. And up until at least twenty-two weeks, the fetus is not “viable.” That is, it cannot—it will not—survive outside the uterus, not with the assistance of medical technology, as in a respirator, and not with the spiritual support of earnest and hopeful prayer. Not ever. Up until twenty-two weeks, fetal development is insufficient to sustain life. A baby born at that gestational age cannot breathe. Its body weight cannot support life. Its skin is permeable. The antis may want to call a twenty-two week fetus a “person,” but if born, it will die.
The antis don’t want to hear this, but “life” is a gray area. There is a period, between about twenty-two and twenty-five weeks of gestational age, during which “life” is a vague state. A fetus may or may not be viable in that period, and there’s no way to reliably predict outcomes. A fetus born during this period is not definitely consigned life. Nor is it destined to die. Depending on various different factors—its weight, its lung development, the health of its mother, the expertise of the doctors in charge, and the technological capacity of the neonatal facility—it may live. Or not. And if it lives, it may grow up into a healthy adult, or it may suffer, afflicted with extensive organ and brain damage, and die young. These are the medical facts, having nothing to do with religious belief, or the power of prayer, or the hopes of parents to raise beautiful children. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not recommend trying to resuscitate babies born at twenty-three weeks. At twenty-four weeks, doctors understand that it’s a crapshoot and they let the parents, together with their attending doctors, decide. At twenty-five weeks, the America Medical Association recommends resuscitation. But within these guidelines, doctors understand that “life” is not assured and that its “sanctity” is merely a hope.
Here we see a very different understanding of “viability” and the notion of “life”. While Dr. Parker starts off with discussing when a preborn fetus can physically survive on his or her own, he shifts to discussing the lack of assurances that this life will endure into the future. Whether this bait and switch was intentional or not is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that it is a change, and a meaningful one at that, because Dr. Parker is no longer discussing a medically verifiable point in time, but rather a much more abstract, esoteric principle about the assurance and continuance of life.
I understand the point that Dr. Parker is seeking to make, and he’s not wrong in asserting that life is never assured, particularly for a child born prematurely. However, the harsh reality of human existence is that life is never assured. Arguably, tragedy is always just around the corner. And so, suggesting that the value of human life—whether that life has sanctity and is worth protecting—is contingent on whether that life is assured is untenable and unascertainable. To use a tragic hypothetical: a new mother and her newborn child could leave the hospital and get hit by a car, fatally killing them both. Their lives were not assured beyond that moment in time—which, for the child, was likely a matter of mere hours or days—and yet both of their lives were of infinite value, full of sanctity and worthy of protection.
Recall that the start of human life is about more than abortion. Identifying when human life begins also means identifying when human rights begin. It is both inadvisable and illogical to base something as serious as the commencement of legal protection and human rights on the ever-changing point of viability.
Having dispensed with that unreasonable assertion, we move on to Dr. Parker’s next claim: that the preborn fetus “cannot form anything like thoughts”.
Cogito, ergo sum?
When reading the book, I found that Dr. Parker makes many confident assertions—presumably drawing on his medical background—about what the preborn fetus can and cannot do without offering any sources to support his claims. This assertion that the preborn child “cannot form anything like thoughts” is one such unfounded—and, apparently, untrue—claim. I say it is untrue because experts and researchers have found that the preborn fetus experiences both REM and non-REM sleep, meaning that he or she dreams in utero. It has also been accepted that preborn fetuses can create and retain memories, and fetal memory—combined with infant dreaming—was at one point thought to potentially explain sudden infant death syndrome. In short, while Dr. Parker’s lack of support for his brazen claims makes it impossible for me to consider the medical evidence that he was theoretically drawing on, I find it difficult to comprehend how a preborn fetus could experience REM sleep, create memories, and store those memories, all while being completely unable to “form anything like thoughts”.
Even if Dr. Parker’s assertion was accepted on its face, however, he makes no attempt to explain the difference between a full-term preborn child and a newborn child. In those few hours of labour—and, really, in those few seconds that distinguish a preborn child from a newborn child—what changes anatomically to enable the newborn child to form thoughts? How is Dr. Parker evaluating the ability to “form anything like thoughts”? I am familiar with the more articulate argument that the preborn fetus is not sentient—not conscious of its existence—but that argument too runs into the problem that, to my knowledge, full-term preborn children experience no anatomical change during birth that suddenly enables them to contemplate their own existence. If sentience, consciousness, and the ability to engage in higher thinking are to be determinative of when human life begins, then it is unclear how full-term preborn children and newborn children will be differentiated. (And hopefully it goes without saying that a definition of the commencement of human life that permits the killing of newborn children—infanticide—is not a viable definition. Pun intended.)
The Problem of Pain
Then we reach Dr. Parker’s comment about the preborn fetus not being able to feel pain. Reiterating a point he referenced previously, Dr. Parker writes:
Truth: Until twenty-nine weeks, a fetus can’t feel anything like pain. This is the established opinion of a 2005 clinical review in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agrees. Both consider the inability of a fetus to feel pain before the third trimester an established fact. And yet, despite the empirical evidence given by science, and not contradicted, the antis continue to disseminate their own version of “truth”—which is to say, lies—and to pass laws that support an entirely false idea about what fetuses in utero can “feel.”
Now, the issue of a preborn child’s ability (or lack thereof) to feel pain is something that pro-life advocates discuss quite often, so I understand why Dr. Parker mentions it in his critique of the “antis” position. However, in my 13 years of experience in the pro-life movement, no pro-life individual has ever asserted in my presence that the preborn fetus is a human being because he or she feels pain. Rather, the importance of the unborn child feeling pain is exclusively about the humaneness—or lack thereof—of the abortion procedure.
It is also ludicrous to suggest that the ability to feel pain is a prerequisite to being recognized as human. There are currently human beings living today who are incapable of feeling pain. It would be foolish to suggest that these individuals are not, in fact, human beings and therefore do not deserve the benefits that come with recognition as a human being (e.g., human rights, inherent dignity, intrinsic value, etc.). While we may think of the ability to feel pain as inherent to human beings, it is clearly not an experience shared by all human beings. The ability to feel pain is also by no means exclusive to our species. In short: the ability to feel pain cannot be a prerequisite for being considered a human being. Therefore, even if the unborn child cannot feel pain—and, to be clear, there are experts who suggest in no uncertain terms that the unborn child can feel pain, perhaps as early as 12 weeks—a preborn fetus can still be (and, in fact, is) a human being.
Ancestral Life, Premature Death, and Other Abstract Arguments
Perhaps the culmination of Dr. Parker’s argument about the humanity—or, from his perspective, the lack thereof—of the unborn fetus can be found in his detailed description of an encounter he had with some University of Alabama students who opposed abortion. Dr. Parker writes:
I can understand why the antis like to insist that “life begins at conception.” It’s a simple way to comprehend human reproduction, and because of its simplicity, it offers moral clarity. What I tried to impress upon those students that day is that the scientific truth about life is complicated—but complication doesn’t conflict with a deeply moral, or even religious, orientation. It’s just that a nuanced moral stance requires wrestling with science and God in a way that might be difficult. It might take some time.
An egg, unfertilized, is alive. And sperm are alive. The human beings who generated those cells, which are called gametes, are also alive. These humans move and think; their cells consume and create energy. Men and women who have engaged in sexual intercourse are healthy, or not; they have good nutrition, or not. They carry with them the DNA of generations of ancestors who were also once alive. Within that DNA are maps or codes for possible future outcomes: brilliance, depression, obesity, schizophrenia, heart disease—all these living secrets are contained in each human cell, whether fertilized or not. So the idea that life begins at conception is already false: life begins long before conception with the lives that enabled those gametes to come into being.
Here we see Dr. Parker again return to this esoteric, abstract conception of “life”. While this is a fascinating line of conversation, ideal for philosophical circles and perhaps even for everyday life, Dr. Parker is once again using a bait and switch tactic. Having said that “the scientific truth about life is complicated”, he then switches to a distinctly non-scientific definition of life, waxing lyrical about “life begin[ning] long before conception with the lives that enabled those gametes to come into being.” This is all well and good and intriguing, but it does little to address the ethics or morality of abortion. More importantly, Dr. Parker slyly skips over crucial scientific facts, such as the fact that egg and sperm cells, while alive, have the DNA of the woman and man, respectively, whereas the newly formed gamete has his or her own DNA, making the newly conceived unborn child genetically distinct from the egg and sperm cells that Dr. Parker tries to frame as essentially scientific equals. If anything, despite its momentarily single-celled nature, the gamete is much closer to the “human beings who generated” the egg and sperm cells than it is to the egg and sperm cells themselves.
Dr. Parker then goes on to list a number of scenarios and challenge whether the unborn fetus is still “life” in this context. He mentions that a “large number” of “fertilized eggs” never successfully implant in the woman’s uterine wall, and he mentions that ectopic pregnancies occur. He asks: “Do all these conceptions qualify as ‘life’ as the antis define it? A ‘person’ with rights equal to a woman’s rights?” He similarly points to miscarriages and embryos that fail to thrive, asking: “Is an embryo that fails to thrive ‘life’? On the same level as a healthy newborn? Or on the same level as the woman carrying it?”
While Dr. Parker seems to be using these questions to try to expose an alleged absurdity in the “life begins at conception” position, his proverbial “aha!” moment falls flat with one word: Yes. Yes, the “large number” of “fertilized eggs” that never successfully implant in the woman’s uterine wall do, in fact, quality as “life”. Yes, miscarriages and embryos that fail to thrive are life “[o]n the same level as a health newborn” and “on the same level as the woman carrying it”. While these embryos clearly did not have the opportunity to fully develop and experience the fullness of life, neither did children who die in infancy, teenagers who die before adulthood, or adults who die of anything other than old age.
Each of these individuals—the teenager who dies in a tragic car crash, the infant who dies of sudden infant death syndrome, and the preborn child who dies of a heart wrenching miscarriage—will have lived a life that was prematurely cut short. However, while this brevity of these lives is tragic, it does not change that fact that these were, in fact, human beings. To put it succinctly: The length of one’s life does not alter the fact of one’s existence as a human being. And so, while miscarried embryos and embryos that never implant may die very early in their lives, they do still constitute human beings, as defined by science.
Returning momentarily to his anecdote about the students from the University of Alabama, Dr. Parker writes:
In my conversation with the young anti-abortion activists at the University of Alabama that day, I presented fatal fetal anomalies as clear-cut cases for the necessity of preserving abortion rights up to and beyond twenty weeks. They countered that sometimes miracles happen that allow these fetuses to survive. Yes, I answered, maybe. But most of the time they don’t. And the students were forced to conceded that, sometimes maybe, abortion does not equal murder. And then I brought my argument home: If you can agree that certain medical conditions might justify abortion, then how can you exclude social, or personal, or financial conditions? If abortion is permissible in the case of a fatal fetal anomaly, then why not in the case of a homicidal, battering partner? Or a dire lack of resources? Or a drug dependency? How can the state adjudicate the circumstances of a woman’s life at all?
Unfortunately, the fact that Dr. Parker managed to outwit a handful of university students by no means demonstrates the strength or veracity of the argument that he “brought home”. Now. Dr. Parker would likely be delighted to know that I agree with his assertion that, if abortion is justified in cases of fetal abnormality, we cannot then wrinkle our noses at abortion in cases of domestic violence, poverty, substance abuse, or other life circumstances that women often face. If the unborn child is not a human being, then there is no need to justify abortion—abortion would not end a human life, and abortion would therefore be no different than a woman having her tonsils or her appendix removed. It would be entirely her choice, a decision to be left up to her and her doctor (and, presumably, the loved ones in her life who would offer helpful feedback and tangible support). However, the opposite is also true: namely, that, if the preborn child is a human being, no justification for abortion is adequate, because abortion would end a valuable human life deserving of equal protection as the life of the woman.
However, up to this point, Dr. Parker has still not established that the unborn child is not a human being. Therefore, regardless of what these university students may have been duped into agreeing to, Dr. Parker’s argument is still not made out. Fatal fetal anomalies in a preborn child are by no means “clear-cut cases for the necessity of preserving abortion rights up to and beyond twenty weeks”, just as disabilities in a born human child in no way justify ending his or her life. Similarly, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse by no means justify abortion, just as these admittedly heartbreaking life circumstances in no way justify ending the life of a newborn infant, two-year-old toddler, rebellious teenager, or any other human being, for that matter.
The presence of personal tragedy does not negate the existence of the other’s humanity.
The “Illusion” of the Infant
I will touch on one final comment that Dr. Parker makes in regards to the humanity of the unborn child. In discussing his personal frustration around what he frames as the sentimentality that came with the advent of sonograms, Dr. Parker states:
That the fetus has human features—fingers, eyelids, toes, ankles—only enhances the illusion that this is already a baby, their baby. But to refer to the fetus in utero as a baby is inaccurate. It reflects a hope, not a reality. In reference to a fetus, “baby” is a cultural term, not a scientific one.
This passage is perhaps most revealing of all. In a strangely cautionary and distinctly unscientific tone, Dr. Parker explicitly disregards the obvious, empirical, observable evidence for the humanity of the unborn child. Despite recognizing that the features that the preborn fetus possess are, in fact, “human features”, Dr. Parker deftly avoids the obvious conclusion—namely, that the unborn child possesses human features because he or she is a human being—and chooses instead to zealously assert that these features are simply part of the visual deception that “enhances the illusion that this is already a baby”. This passage feels almost hysterical, as though Dr. Parker is warning readers about a conspiratorial plot—likely, in his mind, attributed to the amorphous “antis”—to control women’s bodies by portraying the fetus as a human with “fingers, eyelids, toes, ankles”. While Dr. Parker’s impassioned and fervent forewarning would be almost endearing if it were true, he seems to miss a glaringly obvious fact that annihilates his assertion that this is an “illusion”: namely, that the “antis” didn’t give “human features” to the preborn fetus, and that, in this context, sociology and anthropomorphism cannot explain away the biological reality that the unborn child’s human features are concrete facts of reality, not projected parental hopes.
And this, my dear readers, is the perfect place to close this blog post. Because, as I have hopefully established through my commentary and as I think Dr. Parker himself makes quite clear in this passage alone, his conviction that life does not begin at conception is “not a scientific one”. It is not based on medical evidence, it is not based on coherent reasoning, and it is not based on a rational weighing of the evidence. Dr. Parker clearly believes that the unborn child is not a human, and I’m sure that he hopes that his work is the morally justified, compassionate contribution to women’s wellbeing that he would like it to be. But hoping that that is the case does not make it true. His claim that the unborn child is not a human being is a cultural one, not a scientific one. In short, to borrow his own words, Dr. Parker’s conviction “reflects a hope, not a reality.”
 WJ Parker, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, (New York: 37 Ink/Atria, 2017) [Life’s Work].
 Life’s Work.
 I recognize that some abortion supporters, acceding to the humanity of the unborn child, shift their line of justification to asserting that the unborn child is not a person. While I will not address this argument in this blog post, I would encourage readers to watch a short video I made many years ago on this question. For a more nuanced discussion of this issue, consider reading this article: John Janez Miklavcic and Paul Flaman, “Personhood status of the human zygote, embryo, fetus”, The Linacre Quarterly 84(2) (May 2017), 130, online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5499222/#.
 See, for example, Pranshu Verma, “Elon Musk wants ‘free speech’ on Twitter. But for whom?”, The Washington Post (6 May 2022), online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/05/06/twitter-harassment/.
 Life’s Work at 145.
 Life’s Work at 145 (emphasis added).
 Life’s Work at 12-13.
 Life’s Work at 95-96.
 Roe v Wade, 410 US 113 (1973) at para 160.
 Life’s Work at 150-151.
 Life’s Work at 150-151.
 See American Institute of Physics, “Baby’s First Dreams: Sleep Cycles Of The Fetus”, Science Daily (14 April 2009), online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090413185734.htm, citing Schwab et al., “Nonlinear analysis and modeling of cortical activation and deactivation patterns in the immature fetal electrocorticogram”,Chaos An Interdisciplinary Journal of Nonlinear Science, 2009; 19 (1): 015111 DOI: 10.1063/1.3100546.
 Christos, G A, “Infant dreaming and fetal memory: a possible explanation of sudden infant death syndrome”, Med Hypothesis, 44(4) (April 1995) 243, DOI: 10.1016/0306-9877(95)90172-8, online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7666822/.
 Life’s Work at 157-158.
 David Cox, “The curse of the people who never feel pain”, BBC (27 April 2017), online: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170426-the-people-who-never-feel-any-pain.
 Stuart WG Derbyshire and John C Bockmann, “Reconsidering fetal pain” (2020), Journal of Medical Ethics 46, 3-6, online: https://jme.bmj.com/content/medethics/46/1/3.full.pdf.
 Life’s Work at 148-149.
 See, for instance, Fred de Miranda and Patricia Lee June, “When Human Life Begins”, American College of Pediatricians (March 2017), online: https://acpeds.org/assets/imported/3.21.17-When-Human-Life-Begins.pdf.
 Life’s Work at 149.
 Life’s Work at 149-150.
 See, for instance, Fred de Miranda and Patricia Lee June, “When Human Life Begins”, American College of Pediatricians (March 2017), online: https://acpeds.org/assets/imported/3.21.17-When-Human-Life-Begins.pdf.
 Life’s Work at 152-153.
 Life’s Work at 155.