Students of economics, around 2005, would distinctly remember the book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Levitt and Dubner. A bestseller of its time, the book was a phenomenon, igniting young minds to think out of the box, offering compelling and unthinkable explanations for events around. It may be worthwhile to recollect chapter four: "Where have all the criminals gone?" where the authors provide a fascinating explanation for the drastic fall in crime rates in the United States (US) in the early 1990s.
Dissecting and demolishing each of the reasons offered by the crime experts, the authors linked the fall in crime rates in the early 1990s to the legalisation of abortion by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in the 1970s—what we call the Roe vs Wade -1.
The authors' reasons worth quoting are—"[r]searchers found that in the instance where the woman was denied an abortion, she often resented her baby and failed to provide it with a good home... the researchers found that these children too were more likely to become criminals."
Then, on page 139, the authors assert that "in the early 1990s, just as the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was hitting its late teen—the years during which young men enter their criminal prime —the rate of crime began to fall."
If one goes by the above explanation and already dwindling economic prospects and rampant gun violence, it is not difficult to imagine the trajectory of American society in the post Roe vs Wade -2 judgment of the SCOTUS. But that is not the purpose of this write-up.
Roe vs Wade -2 is interesting for another reason: the SCOTUS's remark that "[w]e need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology cannot arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."
When life begins—at conception or at birth—is a difficult position to reconcile. This position has created an inherent tension between the right to life, right to privacy and religious freedom which 'for' and 'against' camps have exploited to their advantage.
Let us focus on the central question: 'when life begins'; and leave the entire debate, the future ramifications etc., surrounding Roe vs Wade -2 for another day.
SCOTUS is right—when life begins is a difficult question to resolve. Different cultures have approached this question in different ways.
In India, 2000 years ago, sage Pippalada posed the question regarding what life is and how it begins in Pasana Upanishad
. In fact, the central question is supplemented by six supporting questions. The same author then goes on to provide a very detailed answer to these questions in what is known as the Garbha Upanishad
(GU), details of which are available on Padma Shri Subhash Kak's 2019 blog
from where I draw.
GU provides a precise chronology of foetal development from the time of conception to the time of birth. GU says the embryo, upon formation, is initially in a semi-fluid state. After seven days, it becomes a bubble; after 15 days, a solid mass and after 30 days, it hardens. After two months, the head is formed and, in three months, feet grow. In the fourth month, belly and hip are formed, the backbone is formed in the fifth month, and the nose, eyes and ears are formed in the sixth month. In the seventh month, the corporal body is enlightened by jiva, that is it becomes self-aware and, in the eight month, it becomes 'complete in every sense'.
It is remarkable that physical markers identified by the Pippalada up to six months are accurate when compared with the sonographic images of a pregnant woman today. Further, the sages make an essential point that the foetus becomes self-aware only in the seventh month and it is complete in all respects in the eighth. Hence, the word 'life' takes on a wider meaning and not just includes the creation of the new physical body but also the point when self-awareness dawns. How it dawns is not explained, though.
Thus, the plain answer to the question when life begins is not at the time of conception or at final birth but somewhere in between, when the new physical body becomes self-aware. This may sound somewhat confusing. If we assume that life only begins at birth, then, by position in the GU, at this phase, it is not self-aware. If we assume it is only at the time of birth (after nine months), then also it is problematic because we reject the very stage of conception and self-awareness. This is tantamount to saying that we accept the Ganga but reject the Gangotri.
In a nutshell, the creation of life is a sequential process where each preceding stage is as important as the final outcome. However, it is the stage of self-awareness that gives the new being its unique personality conditioned upon its past karma.
Pippalada's theory of how life begins in GU is also fascinating for another reason. Since creation is viewed as a continuum leading to self-awareness, in what way the conception happens is not that relevant. Thus, complications arising because of Roe vs Wade -2 in respect of assisted reproductive technology, such as IVF, do not arise if we follow this theory.
In the end, where does our theoretical exercise take us? As far as Roe vs Wade -2 is concerned, it is extraneous. Such delicate questions and their answers are sensitive to cultural context. But, if there is a remote possibility that the US debate will spill over to India, it is worthwhile to give some consideration to Pippalada's theory in GU on what life is and how it begins.
(The author is an economist in the banking system. The views expressed here are personal)