Reflections on life, marriage, and a young woman who is constantly learning how much there will always be to learn!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Abortion Discussion 2

(See previous post for part 1)

Fetuses are uniquely different from born human beings in major ways, which casts doubt on the claim that they can be classified as human beings. The most fundamental difference is that a fetus is totally dependent on a woman's body to survive. Anti-choicers might argue that born human beings can be entirely dependent on other people too, but the crucial difference is that they are not dependent on one, specific person to the exclusion of all others. Anybody can take care of a newborn infant (or disabled person), but only that pregnant woman can nurture her fetus. She can’t hire someone else to do it.

This point, though it might make for an interesting discussion, does not speak to whether or not the fetus is a human being with rights. In my view, it only speaks to an obvious difference between an unborn person and a born person. Most living things, when reproduction takes place, experience a delicate and immature stage when they must have special protection in order to develop. So it seems odd to suggest that these delicate and immature living things cannot be classified as members of the species that begot them...simply because they are more dependent (naturally) at that stage than older and more mature members.

Another key difference is that a fetus doesn't just depend on a woman's body for survival, it actually resides inside her body. Human beings must, by definition, be separate individuals. They do not gain the status of human being by virtue of living inside the body of another human being—the very thought is inherently ridiculous, even offensive.

I disagree. Human beings must, by definition, be "human beings" regardless of where they live. An unborn child, at seven months along, does not change his personhood status by virtue of whether he is in the womb or outside of it (if he is born premature). He is either a person or he is not.

This essay is too long for me to address every point, but let me jump down to where the author addresses the question: "Is a Fetus a Human Being Physically?"

The normal meaning of human being implies a physical body of a certain size and shape with common attributes (excepting disabilities). Early embryonic forms do not share basic commonalities that define us as human beings. For example, zygotes and blastocysts are barely visible to the naked eye and have no bodies, brains, skeleton, or internal organs. Are they materially substantial enough to count as human beings? Fetuses cannot breath or make sounds, and they cannot see or be seen (except by shadowy ultrasound). They absorb nourishment and expel waste via an umbilical cord and placenta, not via a mouth and anus as do all other human beings. Further, fetuses are not just miniature babies. At various stages, fetuses have eyes on stalks, notochords (instead of spines), fish-like gills, tails, downy fur, distorted torsos, spindly legs, giant heads, and alien-looking faces. In fact, an early human fetus is practically indistinguishable in appearance from a dog or pig fetus.

So, the author's argument here boils down to: The fetus does not look or act like (what I think) a person looks or acts like, therefore it is not a person. Wow. Her view of personhood seems arbitrarily narrow. EVERY born person of every age at one time passed through the preborn phase. Far from being an aberration, the preborn state is the normal (and temporary) passageway from conception to life in this world. So doesn't the burden fall on those who disclaim personhood of the unborn to prove that the fetus is inherently NOT a person until a certain point? (Not to simply opine on what the fetus looks like?)

Finally, the fetal brain is not yet capable of conscious thought and memory (which aren't fully actualized until two or three years after birth). But our complex brains are what set us apart from animals and define us as human beings. The brain is the seat of personhood.

Alright, thank you! Let's examine this more closely. From a secular perspective, I suppose that a more complex brain is the main distinctive that humans hold. From a biblical perspective, people also have a spirit--the TRUE seat of personhood, because it is eternal whereas the brain is not. So on this point, I will disagree with the author, but I will acknowledge that her point makes sense from a secular worldview.

However, let's take this to it's logical conclusion. If the brain is the seat of personhood, then brain-damaged folks are less of persons than the rest of us. The author admits that conscious thought and memory aren't fully actualized until a child reaches two or three years of age. So babies and toddlers (according to her argument) are also lesser human beings. To me, Peter Singer seems to hold an intellectually honest perspective on this point, when he allows that newborns, the elderly and brain-damaged people are not true persons and can be euthanized in certain circumstances, morally speaking. If the brain is the be-all, end-all of personhood, then Singer is right.

Near the end of the essay, the author gives us her philosophy of life: "Life is a Crap Shoot," but she's quick to assure us that this isn't as hopeless and depressing as it sounds:

This is not to say that human life doesn't have value. Of course it does, but only the value that we ourselves bestow on it—in biology, life is cheap, life is wasteful, and death is vital. Nature does not value humans any more than worms, and in all species, vast numbers of eggs and seeds don’t stand a chance of reaching maturity19. Life has been cheap throughout human history too—it's only modern medicine that has allowed us to keep most of our babies alive for the first time. Why shed futile tears over spilt milk and the biological facts of life? Instead, let's focus on protecting the rights and improving the quality of life of born human beings.

Perhaps it is this perspective, moreso than just the inherent personhood of the fetus, that separates the two sides. We can discuss the physical attributes of a human being along every developmental signpost till we're blue in the face: Yes, upon conception, the fetus is a genetically separate and complete being. Throughout gestation, nourishment and time are the only factors added. By eighteen weeks, the fetus can feel pain intensely. These are scientifically proveable facts about the physical nature of personhood.

But then there is the spiritual side of personhood that science cannot touch. This the side where *we* live--regardless of the state of our bodies--where our spirits find meaning. This spiritual knowledge is where the real disconnect lies. And it would seem that our author agrees to some extent:

Because there can be no consensus on the matter, the value accorded to a fetus is a subjective, personal matter. Individuals, not society as a whole, must choose what the status of a fetus should be, based on their personal beliefs, morality, and circumstances. And ultimately, this choice belongs only to pregnant women.

She's right that there cannot be a true 100% consensus about spiritual matters. In my next post, I'd like to expand on the general worldview behind the abortion rights position.

However, I need to point out that societal standards (especially those reinforced by law) rarely (if ever) represent the subjective beliefs of 100% of the people they regulate. We live in a country where the large majority of citizens claim to believe in the Christian God. Many of our foundational laws reflect biblical principles. These laws (such as laws against murder of born humans) are imposed upon ALL citizens, regardless of whether or not they personally support them. This is because we have historically held that these laws and standards are protections that uphold objective truths or essential rights of others. It makes no sense to create a "special class" for the rights of the unborn, and to say that this one class can and should remain individually subjective.

Just because we disagree about the nature of personhood, doesn't mean that we as a country shouldn't pursue an understanding on it and take a position on the side of caution. If there is even a chance that the fetus is a person created in the image of God with inherent worth and dignity (as the majority of us claim to believe about ourselves and other "born" humans)...the intentional death of millions upon millions of them is entirely unforgiveable. And we aren't doing ourselves any favors as a country by deferring the question.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

He who thanks but with the lips
Thanks but in part;
The full, the true Thanksgiving
Comes from the heart.
~J.A. Shedd

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Hugs & Blessings,
Susan Godfrey

9:36 AM, November 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have a fine ability for debate.

I will be interested in your third article on the underlying world view of pro-choice/anti-lifers - simply because I think in the end the best way to address the result (abortions) is to adress the root - which is their world view.

6:04 AM, November 28, 2006  
Blogger Leigh said...

Very interesting, Erin! Thanks!!


6:27 PM, November 28, 2006  
Blogger Becky Miller said...

These two posts were very well written and your point was well argued, Erin! Good stuff.

12:18 PM, November 29, 2006  
Blogger Becky Miller said...

Oh, and I thought your point about Peter Singer was excellent - that he holds an intellectually honest view. If the pro-abortion argument is carried to its logical conclusion, that should be the result (allowing infanticide).

Conversely, if the pro-life/anti-abortion argument is carried to its logical extent, we could not endorse abortion legislation with exceptions for rape/incest, and we also would oppose all potentially abortifacient forms of birth control. (If life begins at conception and all life is valuable, we would have to oppose those things, and as you know, not all pro-lifers do.)

Barbara Curtis has written some great stuff about the difference between being anti-abortion and being truly pro-life.

12:20 PM, November 29, 2006  
Blogger Mrs.B. said...

Wow Erin, this is great! I've been wanting to read this and haven't had the time, until now.

Great job!

8:07 PM, December 01, 2006  

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