Our guide in this investigation is Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist and author of an absolutely enthralling book: Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. What is clear from Hrdy’s research is that nature has evolved reproductive strategies that are designed to produce more offspring than a given species is generally capable of nurturing to maturity. This provides the species with extras if something should go wrong, but it requires the development of tactics for ensuring that the burden of too many offspring does not threaten the viability of the species itself. The excess of births are dealt with by allowing some to die. That is nature’s way. That has also been humanity’s way.
Data on the behavior of humans at earlier stages of development can be inferred from the study of other primates, particularly the other apes, and from early studies of primitive hunter-gatherer societies, before their behavior patterns were altered by encounters with modern civilization. Historical records go back a few thousand years and provide additional information. The picture that emerges is one in which infanticide was a common practice up to the time when modern contraceptive methods became available. For example, the best recorded data determine that allowing excess children to die was common among Christians from the origin of the religion in the Roman Empire through the nineteenth century.
Let us begin in the beginning. Human-like creatures, bipedal apes walking the ground, began to emerge several million years ago. Most evolutionary attempts failed and the species disappeared. Humans were lucky enough to have emerged from the line that began with Homo erectus. Evolution drove humans farther and farther away from the other great apes in characteristics. Humans lost their body hair and began to have ever larger infants that were less developed at birth and more vulnerable. Whereas a baby chimp was born strong enough to grasp its mother’s hair and ride her as she went about her business of gathering food, human mothers had only the option of carrying her infant everywhere. Carrying around a cumbersome and absolutely helpless infant was not an efficient way to gather food.
Hrdy tells us the next step was to learn to depend on allomothers, a grandmother, other kin, or just another woman in the group, to nurture her child at times when she couldn’t. Keep in mind that infants have little or no immune system active at birth. If they do not have access to safe fluids from a woman’s breast they nearly all die. This act of shared nurturance meant that the child spent less time on its mother’s breast. The contraceptive effect of lactation is not absolute; it is a function of the amount of nipple stimulation the mother receives. Going significant periods without that stimulation increased the probability of conceiving again before the previous child could be weaned. To face the need to care for multiple infants at the same time became extremely difficult and extremely dependent upon circumstances.
This tendency to conceive over shorter intervals was probably beneficial in terms of survival of the species, but it had to be moderated in order that the demands of a rapidly growing population could be limited if food or water became scarce. Humans are unique in many ways, but this one characteristic became very important.
When water, food, or allomothers were scarce, the mother had to decide if she had sufficient resources to support the infant. If she had older children she had to decide whether it was worth risking their lives by adding the burden of an additional infant. This type of decision process must have been quite common. Given that the human population must have grown and contracted many times over the ages, the need to eliminate infants had to have been common.
If the decision to allow a baby to die was to be made, it had to be made quickly. Mothers and infants seem to have evolved characteristics that recognized this process and provided a grace period, a few days in which the exceptionally fat human infant could survive without mother’s milk, and a few days before the mother began to lactate and her body began issuing all sorts of chemical and hormonal signals ordering her to bond with her child.
These behaviors were observed in hunter-gatherer societies when encountered centuries earlier. They are observed today in the few such societies that remain. This behavior pattern did not disappear as humanity exited from the pre-historical era. As societies became more complex, decisions of life or death for infants often became a group decision or came under more defined social rules. Many societies defined viability tests to insure that only the sturdiest infants were invested in.
The ancients had an answer to the question of when life begins. It begins when someone decided the infant is worthy of the investment of scarce resources. In particular, it begins when a woman, usually the mother, offers the infant her breast and lactation begins. No infant was viable until that occurred.
Hrdy tells a fascinating tale of the investigations of the historian John Boswell.
How should one interpret that strange piece of advice? Boswell ultimately proved what could be the only logical explanation.
Boswell seemed to maintain hope that these Christians abandoned their infants on the assumption that some kind soul would pass by and pick them up. And of course that kind soul would be lactating so the infant would have a safe supply of fluids and nourishment. Some obviously did survive and probably became slaves or prostitutes, but, as subsequent history will show, abandonment was more likely a death sentence.
The Christian nations of Europe did not eliminate the practice of abandonment, but they did begin to keep better records. The practice was so widespread and encountering abandoned infants so common that attempts were made to gather them up and nurture them in group homes—an experiment destined to fail.
The experiment referenced was the creation of foundling homes. Gathering together a large number of infants with little or no immunity was not a good idea.
One again, infants without access to a lactating woman usually died, and there were not near enough of them to go around.
What the foundling homes did do was keep records.
Without contraception, a couple could produce 10-15 infants in a lifetime. Few could provide the necessary level of support. They had little choice. The existence of foundling homes made abandonment an easier decision to make, but the death rates for infants had to be known.
The practice of abandoning unwanted infants went on for centuries.
As modern contraception became available, abandonment and infanticide essentially disappeared from most societies. But the perceived need to avoid giving birth to an unwanted child or a child that a mother is unable to support remains. Consider this tally of reasons why people choose to have an abortion.
These motivations are similar to those that have driven women for uncountable numbers of generations. How can the desire of a woman to have an abortion be considered evil or unnatural given the history of humanity that has been described? Abortion is, today, a tiny residual of a once-common practice that is as old as humanity.
Rather, can one argue that the decisions women have been forced to make over the ages should be described as pro-life?
One can make a valid argument that humanity would not have survived if women had not limited the population when necessary. That should qualify as pro-life at some very high level.
The decision to let an infant die in order to improve the life prospects of others can be considered as pro-life.
Modern medicine has complicated the issue of viability, but there is no justification for assuming it begins at conception. That is a fantasy dreamed up by old men who wish to exert control over the bodies of women and their reproductive habits. That topic involves another tale of evolutionary history—and the subject is not life, but power.
I would argue that the potential harm produced in creating an unwanted or uncared-for child, far exceeds any harm that comes from eliminating a nonviable fetus.
And that is a pro-life point of view.