Thursday, November 13, 2008

abortion, one more time

Several people in comments of previous posts assert that they are comfortable with both defining a fetus as human and also supporting the right to abortion on demand. As I've said, I vigorously defend abortion rights. I could not however endorse abortion if I believed a fetus to be human.

Humans have human rights, and the most basic right-- the foundational right-- is the right to live. I don't think that the state or any individual has the right to take the life of another person. (I am sympathetic to merciful euthanasia, but of course in that situation there is the informed and free given consent of the person who wishes to die.) Yes, it is a terrible burden to ask women to undergo pregnancy against their wishes. People should indeed have the right to control their own bodies. But I cannot imagine that this right trumps the right to live. We mostly like to pretend that our rights are absolutes, but sadly real human life dictates that at times, they run up against each other. At these times, we invent a hierarchy as best we can. And as horrific as a forced pregnancy seems to be, it doesn't seem right to me that it would be worse than ending life. Look, say we're talking about a female fetus, and suppose for reasons of argument I grant that a fetus is human. When that fetus grows into a woman, she could become pregnant and desire an abortion. Her right to acquire that abortion seems compelling. But could it be more compelling than a right to life that allowed her to grow to that age in the first place? No, I simply can't reconcile support for abortion with belief that a fetus is human. That maybe logically unsatisfying; I guess it's just a first principles thing.

Again, though, I believe that a fetus is not human. This interpretation is supposedly susceptible to the complaint that defining life as beginning at birth is arbitrary. (This is a principle line of argumentation in Ramesh Ponnuru's book.) Maybe so. The law, however, is a series of arbitrary decisions, as I've said before. Steal a certain dollar amount of merchandise, and you might receive a misdemeanor. Steal just about that amount, and you might receive a felony. If someone has sex with a girl a day after her eighteenth birthday, there are no consequences. If that same person has sex with her the day before her eighteenth birthday, technically, he could be subject to imprisonment and a lifetime on the sex offender registry.

Decisions we make about law and rights seem arbitrary because we've got to muddle through in a world that is remarkably resistant to bright-line rules and easy interpretation. As far as things go, I find defining the beginning of life at birth to be remarkably sensible. And though traditionalism is never the last word on things, I think there's a lot of evidence that we have traditionally defined the beginning of life at birth. There are also many pragmatic advantages to that, due to the difficulty of understanding when conception happens, the (still) relatively high chance of miscarriage for any particular pregnancy, incompatible philosophical and moral arguments about viability, or the soul, or sufficient resemblance to an adult human.... Muddy waters, of course, don't necessitate adhering to any particular position on the issue. Someone could come up with many reasons to support the vision of life beginning at conception. Ultimately, however, I think most people are comfortable regarding the fetus as non-human, and while appeals to democracy are never dispositive, they are sort of all we have, when we argue public policy.

As an aside, the "you don't understand because you are not a woman" argument doesn't thrill me, I'm afraid. It's no more moving than, say, "you don't have a right to argue about tariffs because you are not in the manufacturing business", etc. Democracy requires a certain degree of false universalism among the citizenry. That's imperfect, but is I'm afraid an inevitable and necessary consequence of rule by the people.

20 comments:

MikeF said...

Great post. For me, every civic and intellectual instinct that I have pushes me towards a pro-choice position. I desperately want to allow women as much freedom as possible, and I think it's terribly unfair that they alone have to deal with unwanted pregnancies.

But, I consider myself pro-life because I do believe that a fetus is human. My idea of human life centers around the unique genetic determination that we all receive at conception; I can't convince myself that something magical happens when the umbilical cord gets cut or the baby's eyes open.

I think the abortion debate will exist for a very long time, and will always be as heated as it is today. There really are only two logical positions: pro-life for those who believe a fetus is human, and pro-choice for everyone else. And the key difference is a vague, difficult point of personal belief.

bcg said...

I don't know how you set aside your fear that you have set the line too late and are actually killing a person. These arbitrary lines are what we have to work with when we're shooting for separating issues with different significance - stealing more money vs. less money, sex with a baby vs. sex with a fifteen year old.

In light of that, I don't think that "arbitrary" is perhaps the best word - they are not truly arbitrary, they are a best guess at a real standard believed to exist. And a real standard must exist in this situation - clearly, we are all persons. If someone tries to redefine me as a person, I don't lose my personhood. It is still present, albeit if ignored or disrespected.

David said...

Well, I don't think you can really define person-hood at birth. It is, as you admit, unbelievably arbitrary. So is the idea of starting at fertilization.

Yet, you confuse the necessity of discrete guide-lines for the purpose of law, with actual rights and morality.

Most people would say, law be damned, that there isn't any moral difference between having sex with a girl the day before or after her 18th birthday.

In the same sense, the idea that the womb magically insulates a baby from it's human rights is absolutely absurd.

Instead, I argue that a fetus obtains human rights when it reaches a certain level of neural development(Neural development is actually quite discrete). Depending on which measure you use, this places personhood status somewhere between 30 and 90 days for a baby.

This is more internaly consistent than tha alternatives, and gives women plenty of time to abort an unwanted child.

Freddie said...

Instead, I argue that a fetus obtains human rights when it reaches a certain level of neural development(Neural development is actually quite discrete). Depending on which measure you use, this places personhood status somewhere between 30 and 90 days for a baby.

How is that any different, though? You're again choosing when to determine "person-hood". This is what I mean when I say that the question of when someone becomes human is necessarily a moral or philosophical one, not a scientific one. You could convince me that there are certain stages of neurological growth necessary to be a functioning human; but I don't see any particularly compelling reason to make that a definition of human-ness. No matter where we set the beginning of life, it's going to be in some sense an arbitrary position.

Matoko said...

I think the abortion debate will exist for a very long time..

not so long.
15, maybe 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me humanness, or personhood, is irrelevant. I think of it this way: we have a short list of situations in which, for the well-being of others, it's permissible to end the lives of acknowledged human persons. I'm thinking of self-defense, death penalty, war casualties, conjoined twins, etc.. And we openly contemplate and tolerate the certain deaths of persons in, for example, our regulation of the food and drug industry, in which certain numbers of deaths are assigned prices and factored into cost-benefit analysis. Abortion is just one more entry on that list. Human-ness or personhood doesn't get you past that argument, so it doesn't get you all the way there.

Anonymous said...

anonymous, all of your examples are tradeoffs where lives will be lost with either decision. The death penalty is seen as a deterrent. In war it's kill or be killed. The equivalent abortion scenario to these is the situation where the mother will die if the fetus is not aborted. And in this scenario, many pro-lifers (including myself) don't have a problem with the abortion being allowed.

But most of the debate focuses on the much greyer area of abortions for convenience. No decent person would advocate killing a 1-day old baby because the mother does not want to raise the baby or have it adopted (apologies, I think, if you hold this view). So the question is, when - if ever - is there a transition between a nonhuman fetus and a human baby?

Anonymous said...

But then how do you get around the "viability" argument? How can human be a human if it cannot exist outside of the womb?

Anonymous said...

If you look at the number of women murdered by their partners while pregnant, I think you can make exactly that argument. Sure, we don't know exactly who the people killed or not killed will be, but war casualties are like that too, right? I'm speaking here of civilians, rather than combatants, who die when their city is bombed or whatever-- did you miss that?

Look at it another way: we let people drive cars. Nobody thinks this doesn't cause death of persons. But we allow it anyway because it contributes to our well-being.

But more importantly, if you accept abortion to save the mother's life but still think a fetus is a human person, then you're agreeing that it's not really about personhood or humanness, aren't you? Instead it's become a balancing test.

The Raj Man said...

The fact there is an element of arbitrariness in all lines in the sand ought not displace common sense. A fetus that is one day short of 9 months sounds pretty human to me. Birth is not as satisfying a marker as one would like...to wit, premature babies who are "birthed" for any number of physiological reasons. Is an 8 month old fetus not human if a premie born a month early is? Neither should we waste our time talking about the "viability" of a fertilized egg. Gimme a break. Not to bring up the much-despised "compromise" term, but maybe we could agree on a "reasonable" cut-off line of some kind.

Clint said...

Well spoken, but I confess confusion at the premise: "I could not however endorse abortion if I believed a fetus to be human."

Words have meaning, and in this case, a fetus is quite simply a mammal at a particular stage of its development. It's not a nebulous concept like person or personhood. Thus a human fetus, definitionally, must and can be nothing other than human. It isn't a dog fetus, or a cat fetus, or a horse fetus--it's a human fetus.

So yes, if you believe that "[h]umans have human rights," then by simple biological fact, a fetus has human rights. This is actually the very reason I began questioning the pro-choice position of my twenties. I still have a problem considering the life of a one-day-old implanted zygote to be the same as a six-month-old fetus, but I recognize that's just a rationalization on my part. If the pertinent criteria is that it is a human life, that criteria is satisfied from zygote till death.

The real issue, then, isn't whether it's human or not, or alive or not--biologically, at any point certainly past implantation, both are certainly true--but whether that matters or not. Either our humanity is equally important at all points in our development or it isn't. If it isn't, well--there's your arbitrary: Deciding at what point, and why, it isn't.

Dave Hunter said...

"This interpretation is supposedly susceptible to the complaint that defining life as beginning at birth is arbitrary."

What's that "supposedly" doing in there? You're conceding that it's arbitrary.

Also, if I'm not mistaken, your argument for abortion rights runs like this: Killing humans is wrong, so let's the majority of us simply agree to call fetuses something other than human. This sounds to you like a more moral justification for abortion rights than those which admit the scientific fact that fetuses and blatocysts are forms of human life?

My argument makes no judgment on whether it is "right" to kill a fetus. I simply observe that there is no set of laws that could consistently protect unborn human life. Really all we can do is throw up obstructions, and these obstructions will follow human biases as to when abortion is appropriate. I find that idea to be abhorrent and, I'd suppose, against the principles of the Constitution.

I've really done exactly what you've done, which is to justify why there is a separate category of human life that isn't titled to the protection of the law, simply because nature, in this case, defies the law's just application. My justification happens to be based on reason. I'm not sure why you wouldn't prefer it.

Jason King said...

I'm astounded and pleased that this discussion has stayed civil. My one factual complaint about the original post is that historically "quickening" or observable movement by the fetus can been the general historical dividing line. Both the law in the Old Testament (cited here as historical not divine reference) and English common law have more severe penalties for causing a miscarriage or killing the mother after quickening has occurred.

Scott said...

Personally, I think the most logically consistent way to determine the beginning of life is the same way we determine the end of life: vital signs.

Whether it's a heartbeat or brainwaves, it seems consistent that if we say that the absence of these things amounts to the end of human life, then the presence of them amounts to its beginning.

As I recall, brainwaves are detectable within about 4 weeks from conception.

bgarst said...

Birth as defining life is nonsensical. What is the difference between a fetus an hour before it is born and a baby an hour after? Developmentally they are the same; the only difference is location. Location is not what makes us human. The problem is not that the birth line is arbitrary, it is that it is clearly wrong.

Brendan said...

It seems to me the question here is the extent of the power of the state, not the metaphysical question of when a fetus becomes a person. We accept that the state doesn't have the authority to enforce human rights at any time and place; even if we believe that rights are being violated in Saudi Arabia, or Sweden, we don't claim for our government the right to invade those countries. I know this is a weird analogy but it's apt for abortion: the state doesn't have the right to "invade" women's bodies. Sovereignty over one's own body seems to me intuitively to be pretty important to basic human rights and dignity.

Matthias said...

jason king: Regarding traditional concepts of personhood, we can toss the the Hippocratic Oath onto the list, since it lumps inducing an abortion to taking taking a human life (assisted suicide).

I am somewhat wary of claiming such arbitrary positions when it comes to human life. I found the "sex with an 18 year old" to be a more compelling comparison than theft (since any kind of theft is wrong... we're just modifying the severity of punishment based on the scope of the crime). Still, the sex comparison strikes me as an inapt comparison.

Imagine there is man on trial for having sex with a 17 year old girl and at his defense he proclaims that he had sex with her on Thursday and not Tuesday. Because Wednesday was her birthday, he claims he committed no crime. Our moral response between sex on Thursday and sex on Tuesday is pretty much "eh". The legal system responds to this arbitrary cut off by not enforcing it very strongly (most convictions for statutory rape involve the minor being 14 or 15 and additionally involve a coercion factor).

Transpose this to abortion and we see something vastly different. With many (not all, but many) pro-choice proponents, we see people who believe that the moral difference between ending a life on Tuesday and ending a life on Thursday is 30 years in jail.

Even stranger to me is the fact that we have two sets of laws. The first ones imbue personhood upon birth if the mother doesn't the child. The other set defines the fetus as a person for the sake of punishing an aggressor in the case that the mother does want the child. California defines it as past 7-8 weeks, New York uses 24 weeks. Florida and Massachusetts both refer to "viability".

If we're going for an arbitrary line, these lines strike me as much better ones, since they pass the comparison smell tests that Freddie puts forth. It is basically society saying:

"We want a law that protects (small children / fetuses) from (sexual abuse / death), so we need an line in the legal sand. When you get too close to the line, we get morally nervous, but the line is needed so we can provide legal definition for those who are way on the other side of it, like those who (sexually abuse a 14-year-old / kill a 8 month old fetus)."

In conclusion, it seems to me that, given his premises, viability is a much more reasonable line for Freddie to argue.

Matthias said...

Correction to above:

The sentence "The first ones imbue personhood upon birth if the mother doesn't the child" should read

"The first set of laws only imbue personhood upon birth (and not before) if the mother doesn't want the child."

Freddie said...

Well, it depends. In some ways we do. But we don't, for example, have funerals for miscarried fetuses, or give them names, etc. Although, it's true, miscarriages are usually occasions for great sadness.

Squadron Leader said...

This is a peculiar post. If it is life then how can it fail to be human life? It is a human set of genes, which is living. And how can it fail to be life, if an amoeba or a fungi counts as life?

If you believe that humanity is a set of traits rather than an identity then what are these traits?

If they are higher level sentience then does this make a retard less human than somebody with a fully functional brain? Or a genius the most human of all?

Simply accept that a foetus is a life, is a human and that this does not matter. Humanity is just another species. We are nothing intrinsically special, and only a bigot would say otherwise.