Reproductive biology of abortion

By Max Kummerow

 “What would you say of the learned here, who…. have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?”

                                                                      Letter from Galileo Galilei to Johannes Kepler

The Catholic Church has admitted that forcing Galileo to recant in 1633 was a serious mistake. Insisting the sun revolves around the earth stifled progress and shifted power to Protestant countries that embraced science. When it comes to contraception and abortion, the Catholic Church remains in the Middle Ages, an even more serious mistake that threatens the future of the Church and humanity. Ignoring scientific discoveries, as it did in the Galileo trial, Church doctrine reaches erroneous moral conclusions. What would the Church see if it had the courage to take a closer look at the observable facts of human reproduction? Undoubtedly, exponential growth, environmental limits and a feasible path to a better world.

Population growth continues unabated so far. Will fertility decline?

Malthus was appalled that in 1800 half of all babies born did not survive their first year and tried to understand why a benevolent God would allow so many innocents to suffer1. Adam Smith, in his book Wealth of Nations, wrote, “In the Highlands of Scotland, I have been frequently told, it is not uncommon to find a woman who has born 20 children and has not two alive.” Darwin’s theory of evolution explains how excess reproduction renews and perpetuates life. Numerous offspring allows for variation, natural selection and survival of the fittest, allowing living species to change and adapt to new conditions.

In humans, excess potential offspring comprise trillions of sperm per male and females born with a million potential reproductive cells. Of these, 350-400 develop into eggs in a lifetime, most lost through monthly menstrual cycles. Half of fertilized eggs fail to implant after conception. Ten to twenty percent of pregnancies or more are lost through miscarriages. Life is imperfect and not all potential individuals survive. All individuals die, but life goes on. One might ask, “If God opposes pregnancy terminations, why does natural reproduction discard more than half of all the “genetically unique potential humans” that result when egg and sperm combine at conception?” Not every fertilized egg is meant to be born.

Two parents can produce, on average, a maximum of about 12 children, a six-fold increase each generation2. Starting with 10 billion people expected by 2050, after 300 years (10 generations) there would be 60,466,176 billion (sixty million billion) people on earth if all possible babies survived to reproduce. Obviously, space and food limit human numbers, not our ability to have more children. Humans suffer when there are too many of us. Species’ extinction and climate change caused by too many people reduce earth’s ability to support us. We evolved to live in a world with animals, butterflies, birds, trees and flowers. These are the ethical issues we should focus on to preserve the community of life we depend on.

An egg is not a chicken. Medical science confirms that a fetus’s brain cannot process information like a more developed child’s brain, so a fetus cannot be self-aware nor suffer3. The 200 cells, 90% of them pre-placental cells, that implant at the beginning of a pregnancy, are not a baby. Justice Brennan showed the wisdom of Solomon in his Roe v Wade decision by dividing pregnancy into trimesters, giving more legal rights to the mother and less role for the state during the first three months of pregnancy, more rights to the child in the last third of pregnancy when the child might survive outside the mother. Late term abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, only 1% of all abortions, in almost all cases result from serious health risks to the mother and/or conditions certain to prove fatal to the fetus.

Clear moral thinking based on facts of reproduction and ecological limits to population growth would discard doctrines that birth control and abortion are morally wrong. Rather, these means of family planning and responsible parenting are morally right in a world where populations must be controlled by some means. Birth control and abortion are more humane than destroying human living space and the ecosystems and community of life we depend on. Better than poverty, wars, plagues, famines and permanent destruction of earth’s life supporting ecosystems.

Every child has rights to be loved, nurtured and cared for. No child should be born into circumstances where parents cannot provide what it needs to thrive. The Catholic Church’s failure to value equality of women and women’s right to make their own responsible parenting choices, reflects unscientific attitudes towards reproduction and women’s capacities. As the Church struggles with social justice, women’s roles and pedophilia, Catholic moral credibility would be immensely aided by accepting modern knowledge and attitudes towards sex and reproduction. This evolution of moral thinking may be essential for survival of the Catholic Church.

Regulating excess reproduction by reducing fertility rates has enabled prosperity, longer lives, low infant mortality and peace in dozens of developed nations. On the other hand, in countries with high birthrates where modern contraceptive use remains low and abortion illegal, women are oppressed and children suffer from poverty and violence. Birth control and abortion can reduce the threat of deaths from hunger, disease and war in these countries.

People are better off where they have fewer children
fertility vs well-being
abortion laws and abortions

Regrettably, nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended. Responsible women terminate pregnancies when they cannot afford another child, lack a suitable male partner or face serious hardships as a result of pregnancy or childrearing. Women terminate pregnancies for good reasons. In the United States, half of all women seeking abortions report using contraceptives the month they became pregnant. The “natural” family planning techniques approved by the Church often fail and result in numerous unwanted pregnancies.

Globally at present there are, in round figures, 140 million births each year, 60 million deaths and 56 million abortions. So global population grows by 80 million a year (140 million births minus 60 million deaths), a billion more of us every 12 years. In 1960 world population was 3 billion. In 2055, according to the UN Medium projection, global population will hit 10 billion. Without abortions we would be adding another half billion, mostly poor, people per decade to world population. Particularly in poor countries in Africa where we now see high birth rates, this would be a great tragedy – but legal abortion would improve the situation there.

Our present numbers, 7.6 billion, and lifestyles are rapidly depleting key resources (soil, fossil fuels, species, etc.). Humanity lives on a vanishing “bank account,” of subsidies from past sunlight in fossil fuels and non-renewable resources. See, for instance, the Scientists’ Warning (and second warning) to Humanity5. Numerous sources support the idea of ecological Limits to Growth, the title of a 1972 book that predicted collapse in the second half of the 21st century if growth continues. This view is confirmed by recent analyses by Meadows, Bardi, Higgs, Heinberg, Lovelock, Smil, Weisman, and many others6.

Several ways of looking at the earth’s limits have been proposed. Rockström et al. estimate “planetary boundaries” of maximum safe human impact. Wackernagel and Rees developed “footprint analysis” to calculate land areas required to support humans—calculations that show overpopulation and the impossibility of ending poverty without reducing the human footprint. “Energy slaves” analysis demonstrates the enormous subsidy to present human economic output and food supply from use of fossil fuels (which will end when oil, gas and coal are used up). The IPCC 5th climate assessment report presents evidence that sea level rise and other impacts will reduce earth’s carrying capacity for human life. Biologists’ documentation of a sixth mass extinction event shows that negative effects on other species from human overpopulation are already well underway7. Calculations of arable land per capita and the proportion of the earth’s land area devoted to crops show that feeding humanity will become more of a challenge8. Humans’ growing numbers have dramatically shifted the biomass of various lifeforms essential to maintaining the environment conducive to human life9. We are using so much of earth’s “net primary productivity,” the amount of sunlight energy captured by plants, that current exponential growth of the world economy at 3% annually (four doublings in a century) looks likely to reach or surpass limits during this century.

We do not live in the Garden of Eden. Rather, we live in a fallen world of folly, struggle, environmental destruction and too many people. We live in a world where all birth control methods fail, some with quite high failure rates. Of course, nobody favors abortion as a first choice. Legal abortions are less than a tenth as risky to a woman’s health as a pregnancy, hundreds of times less costly than raising a child, and less painful than giving birth. Abortions are, nevertheless, an uncomfortable procedure with costs and risks. Not as tragic as an involuntary termination of pregnancy (miscarriage), but still a termination with psychological stress. Abortions usually make life easier and allow more opportunities for women and their existing or potential future children. Better family planning, sex education, more responsible behaviors and adoption of modern contraceptives can drastically cut abortion rates. But until Jesus comes again, there will be unwanted pregnancies in this fallen world. In many circumstances, abortion will be the best and most responsible outcome.

Galileo reportedly murmured, when forced to recant his claim that the earth revolves around the sun, “E pur si muove”: “But still it moves.” Science contradicts the Church’s positions on birth control and abortion. Basing morality on false understandings has terrible consequences.


1. Malthus, Thomas, 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus devoted the last two chapters of his essay to reflections on this “problem of evil.”

2. Demographers call the maximum possible number of children the “intrinsic fertility rate,” a limit set by summing the number of months usually needed for a sexually active woman to become pregnant, plus 9 months of pregnancy, plus a post-partum infertile period, averaging perhaps one year. Dividing the resulting 18-24 months/child on average into about 360 months of fertility between menarche and menopause, and allowing for the 20% miscarriage rate, gives an estimate of maximum numbers of children per woman. Infant and maternal mortality increases when a woman has large numbers of children, so high fertility reduces life expectancy.

3. Lee, Susan, et al. 2005 “Fetal Pain: A systematic multidisciplinary review of the evidence” JAMA. 2005;294(8):947-954. doi:10.1001/jama.294.8.947

4. UN World Population Prospects 2017.   See also World Bank World Development Indicators.

5. Ripple, William J., Christopher Wolf, Thomas M. Newsome, Mauro Galetti, Mohammed Alamgir, Eileen Crist, Mahmoud I. Mahmoud, and William F. Laurance. 2017. “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.” BioScience 67 (12): 1026–28.

6. Meadows and coauthors revisited limits to growth models thirty years later, reaching similar conclusions. Ugo Bardi, an Italian physical chemist, has published Limits to Growth Revisited and Extracted. Kerryn Higgs’ Collision Course documents propaganda that misleadingly dismisses limits warnings. Richard Heinberg has written several books on “peak oil” and depletion of energy sources. James Lovelock, whose “Gaia” concept shows the importance of life in maintaining conditions for life (producing soil and oxygen and climate regulation feedbacks), opined that only a billion people would survive in 2100. Vaclav Smil has examined human crowding out of other species. Alan Weisman’s Countdown discusses impacts of overpopulation. Many other authors have documented the impending collision between earth’s growing population and limited resources.

7. Kolbert, Elizabeth, 2014. The Sixth Extinction, New York, Henry Holt publishers

8. Crist, Eileen, Camilo Mora, and Robert Engelman. 2017. “The Interaction of Human Population, Food Production, and Biodiversity Protection.” Science 356: 260–64.

9. Yinon, M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo, “The biomass distribution on Earth” PNAS June 19, 2018 115 (25) 6506-6511; May 21, 2018

Max Kummerow is a retired Business School (Real Estate) professor who has been studying demography and fertility transitions since 2008. His papers show correlations between lower fertility rates and better outcomes including higher incomes, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, reduced pressures of immigration and “the outbreak of peace.”

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