Morula, Susan Lockhart. Image via Wellcome Collection.

People who want to ban abortion often refer to fetuses, regardless of their stage of development, as unborn babies. Curious, I looked up definitions of unborn. I liked this one for how it made my mind spin: existing without birth or beginning. If a being hasn’t begun, then can it exist? If a being exists, then hasn’t it begun?

Contemplating this dilemma, I’m eighteen again, on a camping trip, a little stoned, lying on damp grass beneath a starry sky, the weight of my best friend’s head on my belly, my fingers playing with her thick hair. I’m at once terrified and thrilled by our imminent new freedoms, asking, as stoned young people do, “Isn’t this all so incomprehensible — our little lives in this endless universe? How should we inhabit time? What are we, anyway? What is a person?”

I meant these questions like labyrinths. I wanted to ramble around in them with my friend, reaching for meaning, and perhaps even for a sort of spiritual promise to connect us across distance. Soon we’d start new lives in different countries.

I wasn’t thinking, back then, about fetal development — about zygotes, blastocysts, and embryos. I don’t think I even knew the words for these things; if I did, I’d only memorized their boundaries to pass some test and hadn’t thought of them since. So I surely didn’t mean: When does a cluster of cells become an unborn baby? Does personhood begin at fertilization or implantation? At gastrulation or with cognition? When a fetus is deemed viable outside the womb or when a child takes their first earthly breath?

But these questions, which are at the heart of so many arguments about abortion, cannot be easily settled by science either. A very high number of fertilized eggs never implant, and some that do spontaneously abort. Electrical brain activity occurs around the sixth week of pregnancy, but it comes nowhere near the level of human consciousness. And viability is not a fixed point. The threshold shifts with medical advancements and through legal decisions.

Many doctors argue that, rather than being a medical question, personhood is a philosophical, theological, and ethical one, like those I posed on that camping trip when I was eighteen. There are no bright lines, yet politicians and courts pretend otherwise — with profound, even deadly consequences.

I don’t remember much of what I had to say about personhood at eighteen, but I do remember, amid the wilderness, getting so tangled in questions that my friend and I were in hysterics. That particular combination of delight, wonder, connectedness, and uncertainty is, perhaps, the spiritual promise we parted with. I’m still guided by it today. It makes it not just possible but preferable for me to believe that many things are true at once.

On the one hand: A dear friend of mine miscarried at two months. She grieves her beloved unborn baby. I grieve with her. On the other: In my twenties, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive. I didn’t want to be a mother and would have sought an abortion. A few days later, I got my period and felt relieved. The word unborn never crossed my mind.

Nadia Owusu

Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer and urbanist. Her memoir, Aftershocks, was selected as a best book of 2021 by over a dozen publications, including Time, Vogue, Esquire, and the BBC. Barack Obama named it as one of his favorite books of the year and it was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Owusu is a winner of the 2019 Whiting Award in nonfiction, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Orion, Granta, The Paris Review Daily, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, among other publications.

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.