The following essay on the politically-charged issue of abortion was originally written for my regular Scientific American monthly column, Skeptic, but we decided that it was too political and not grounded enough in science for Scientific American, so we shelved it. I ended up expanding that column into a chapter section in my book The Science of Good and Evil.
In 1959 astronomers were polled for their opinion on the then undecided debate between two competing cosmological theories. “Did the universe begin with a Big Bang several thousand million years ago?” A third answered yes. “Is matter continuously created in space?” Almost half answered yes. Most telling, to the question “Is a poll of this kind helpful to scientific progress?” all answered no.
The reason for this unanimity is that scientific questions are not settled by consensus opinion. Unfortunately, in complex human and social issues, separating fact from opinion is not so easy, and for no issue is this more apparent than abortion. Setting aside the emotionally charged moral and political aspects of abortion for a moment, how can science inform this debate? (continue reading…)