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Thinking about abortion


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The Objective

María Iraburu

President of the University

The beginning of a human being is a particularly exciting stage from a scientific point of view. It is surprising for its speed and precision: in little more than 100 days, from an initial cell and thanks to a unique genome that will be maintained throughout life, all organs and tissues are built, each in its own place, with its own function. Moreover, the success of the process depends on some "molecular inventions" that sound like science fiction. For example, that our arms and legs appear where they appear and not elsewhere, happens thanks to homeotic genes, an achievement of 500 million years ago that we share with all beings with bilateral symmetry, from fruit flies to other mammals. Whether our internal organs are where they are, with the heart on the left and the liver on the right, is decided in the second week of life and depends on cells with small "mobile hairs" (cilia is the scientific name). If all goes well, the cilia move in one direction and cause a flow of molecules on one side of the body and not on the other, and so the usual arrangement of organs is produced.

So far, two scientific examples of the many with which the embryonic development astonishes us. Relatively often someone asks me: if we know so much about the biology of human embryos, how is it possible that the option of ending their life is being considered? Indeed, science has a lot to say in any discussion about human life in the embryonic phase: it tells us what a new organism is and what it is not, it warns us against fallacious arguments based on the idea that it is "a bunch of cells" or something more like a tumor than a new being. Moreover, good science, good scientists, also recognize the importance of other voices: from ethics and law, to Economics and sociology. This topic, like so many others, is a stimulus for questions to be addressed in an interdisciplinary way, taking into account all wisdoms. It is also an invitation to scientists, in the words of Albert Einstein, "not to forget their humanity".

Few issues are more important than how we treat human lives, especially the most vulnerable. Any law that affects human life affects us all as a society, whatever our beliefs. If anything is missing from the recent discussion it has been the important questions: what is a human embryo really? what does attention deserve? to what extent is it worthy of respect and protection? what determines whether we give it unconditional or conditional value? where does it take us as a society to have some members of the human family deciding whether or not others deserve to live? Perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes in these weeks in which the abortion law has been modified has been the disproportion between the seriousness of topic and the quality of discussion. Reproaches and simplifications have gained ground against the objectivity that sciences such as embryology or ethics could provide. Perhaps one of the most alarming facts that the new law transpires is the invitation to non-reflection, to non-knowledge.

Undoubtedly, thinking is dangerous; it can lead us to consider that one thing is not the same as the opposite; it can make one reconsider one's plans; but, with all this, it contributes to raising the use of freedom to a different level and to forging a citizenship manager. The human and democratic quality of a society depends on its ability to identify relevant issues and treat them with the seriousness and reflection they deserve.

I end by turning my gaze to the University, to any university worth its salt. Faced with the great issues of our time, such as the right to life, we have a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge: to be able to transmit to society the knowledge that our classrooms and laboratories house, encouraging true reflection. The opportunity: that these same problems lead us to research in a rigorous and open way, in dialogue with other areas, without fear of the biggest and most difficult questions. Only in this way will we be true universities, only in this way will we contribute to a more just, more humane society. 

María Iraburu, Professor of Biochemistry and president of the University of Navarra.