Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why does it matter when life begins?

Wow, it's been a while. One would think I'd have spent MORE time thinking about blogs over the summer and LESS during the school year, but such are the contradictions of teenage life.

Another vague, half-formed thought I've been masticating crystallized as I viewed the comment thread of this post over at Hot Air. The post itself castigates Pelosi for her poor attempt to reconcile her pro-abortion stance with her Catholicism (not that I care, since I'm not Catholic), so of course the comment thread walks through the whole abortion debate again.

The only part of the abortion debate I'm interested in is the "murder of an unborn child" question. After all, that IS the deciding factor of the debate. If abortion is indeed murder, that obviously outweighs any considerations about women's freedom and so on, and the pro-lifers carry the day. If not, then the idealistic argument of a woman's right to choose (even if I often feel that it should be a choice of whether or not to have sex rather than a choice of whether or not to get an abortion) and the practical argument that the government has no business legislating the issue will outweigh any moral arguments the right can muster. A lot of people have gotten this far, which is why one so often hears the question, "when does human life begin?" For many, that question was answered by the Pope in 1869, when he announced that the cutoff mark was conception. This is the foundation of many a pro-lifer's position on abortion.

But upon looking at the issue, I was confounded by the question you see up top. Why is it that the primary factor everyone thinks of is life? Bacteria are alive, broccoli are alive, cows are alive, yet few have any compunction about ending the life of these creatures. More to the point, my arm is alive; the cells in my kidney are alive; that tumor that had to be cut out of my aunt Louise was alive, and human to boot, but we have no moral qualms about amputation or kidney removal or chemotherapy. When it comes to defining the boundaries of murder, "life" and "human" seem wholly inadequate. For the true crime of murder is not the death of the cells comprising a human being, but the death of the mind (to the religious, the "soul") that resides within.

That's why, to me, the relevant word is "consciousness". When Mazer Rackham describes the buggers' clearing of Eros to Ender, he makes sure to mention that the buggers don't see what they did as murder. As a hive race, they expected to encounter another such; what they did was "trimming", not murder. By the same token, until the foetus reaches independent consciousness, it's naught but a part of the mother, and the mother can decide to remove it if she wants.

Don't confuse this with the "personhood" criteria that one can find on Wikipedia. I do not require that a foetus be able to tell the world, "I think, therefore I am," to be a person. The minimum standard for consciousness, according to the few websites I've visited that discuss the subject, appears to be the ability to feel pain, which develops around the 26th week (regardless of when the foetus starts actually feeling pain). So in my opinion, till then, the mother can do what she darn well pleases; afterwards, she should treat the foetus with all the respect she would give any other living human being. Which may not be much, but it's a start.

EDIT: Both Alioth, here, and BKennedy at Hot Air have pointed out that the potential for consciousness could be used as an alternative cutoff point, and one that would establish the sanctity of the foetus from conception (since this standard requires that the entity in question would do so if left alone, we can ignore gametes, since they must first find another gamete to reach this stage). Also, Think_B4_Speaking at Hot Air has offered a second possible milestone for the establishment of independent consciousness, namely the point when the foetus' brain waves begin registering (around week 11), which would change the cutoff point to near the end of the first trimester.

Finally, a couple of clarifications:
1. "Independent consciousness" does not mean that the foetus be self-sufficient or awake, merely that it have a "self" which is separate from the mother.
2. I am not trying to equate cancer cells with human foetuses (foeti? heh). However, both of them are alive, human, and genetically unique, thereby disqualifying those three criteria from consideration. Obviously a foetus either has independent consciousness, or it has the potential for such, while tumors have neither, so we're right back to those two criteria.
3. When I draw a line, I draw a line. I don't draw a slippery slope. So please, no comments about how next I'll be excluding female foetuses, or foetuses with Down's Syndrome, or gay foetuses (and how am I supposed to tell that last, anyway?). None of these characteristics become apparent until after brain waves begin registering, anyway, so the point is moot.


Alioth said...

There's still a difference between a human blastocyst and a human blob of random cells, because a healthy blastocyst has the potential to develop consciousness.

The lab is burning down -- which petri dish do you bring, the one with the blastocysts in, or the one with the skin cells in?

However, the potential for consciousness does not equal actual consciousness. The lab is burning down again -- what do you save, the petri dish with blastocysts, or the baby?

Math_Mage said...

True, I hadn't considered the "potential for human consciousness" argument.

Durr. Since I can't post any of this over at Hot Air (probably my over-long comment from before triggered an automatic blocker, and I won't be able to post there for a while), I'll post this comment here, in response to some of the posters.

What are you talking about? Government legislates morality all the time. Passing law by it’s very definition is legislating morality.

apacalyps on August 25, 2008 at 7:43 PM

And yet this community rose up in arms against Huckabee in part because various things (including his support of a smoking ban) indicated that he wanted the government to legislate morality. Captain Ed used that very language during the primaries. My point is that if the government bans abortions, it won't be just because they're wrong, it'll be because they're murder. One can then argue about whether the government legislates about murder because of morality, or the good of society, or whatever, but it's not an argument that needs to be had at this point.

Comparing a human being to a cancerous tumor?? That is sickening.

apacalyps on August 25, 2008 at 7:49 PM

Why? Is the act of comparison an act of equation in your mind? I have explicitly stated that I do not hold a foetus equal to a cancerous tumor, specifically because of the potential for independent consciousness as a human being. That does not mean that there are no points of similarity between the two, however.

MM must be a new troll.. sheesh..

Chakra Hammer on August 25, 2008 at 7:53 PM

You could go back and check my decidedly non-trollish record of posting on this blog from late last year and early this year, or you could go back to Captain's Quarters where I was a frequent contributor. If Captain Ed remembers his commenters, he could vouch for me.

I read this and I thought, man, that’s a cold person … little scary too … when people say stuff like this I wonder do they know what they are saying or how they sound? I mean, re-read that. Does anybody else notice the elephant in the living room?

apacalyps on August 25, 2008 at 8:00 PM

Your arm is alive. It is human. If you think those are over-broad definitions of those two terms, say so and we can agree to disagree. But don't just take quotes out of context and go, "man, isn't that CHILLING?"

A few messages ago this person said they were an atheist. Folks, this is a prime example of atheistic, evolutionary, thinking. A worldview is the way you view the world. The atheistic worldview ultimately culminates into this. They’ve replaced the foundation that God is Creator, with a foundation that says, man decides truth for himself.

It's true that I wouldn't have this view on the issue if I were Catholic. but does that really make a difference to you? If I were Christian, you'd call me another Pelosi; would you PREFER that? Say my ideas are immoral, Hitlerian, whatever, but don't say they're wrong because they're not aligned with Christian thought. You won't get anywhere pissing on my beliefs, just like I wouldn't get anywhere pissing on yours. Let's move on.

Oh, and one little pet peeve of mine - DON'T bring evolution into this. I will kick your rear six ways to Sunday in that debate, but I really don't want to waste the space on this blog doing so. If you really want to, go check my comments on the Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed website's blog.

Even though science has proven as far back as 1874 that U.S. embryos are Microscopic Americans they say, “Well, it is not viable. It can’t live on its own.” Give your head a shake, neither are you viable stark naked on the North Pole. I mean really, is the baby viable after it is born?

Gee, I wonder where I mentioned viability...oh, that's right. I didn't.

I’ve got family members, and I thank God you were not my mom or dad, cuz no one would be listening to me now because you would have killed your kid.

apacalyps on August 25, 2008 at 8:32 PM

Classic. "Nobody listen to him, because he would have aborted me!" I don't have sex because I'm seventeen. If I did, I'd use a condom. You'd never even have gotten to the step where abortion was possible. Will you next crusade against the condom? Besides, I don't plan on ever making my hypothetical future wife have an abortion.

Specious. There is a difference between a tumor and an unborn child. Too bad you don’t recognize the difference.

Numerous differences, in fact; but that doesn't mean they don't share common traits, and that I can't make arguments based on those common traits.

You’ve no medical or biological basis on which to make that determination.

Before there are brain waves, it's just a clump of cells. Do you expect me next to show that a person without a brain does not have an individual/independent consciousness? What do you think would happen if your brain was removed from your body?

Totally relevant. A Latin term is used to dehumanize the child. Most people don’t know what the word actually means.

I use the correct term. I don't care what connotations you draw from it.

Facetious? Don’t you mean specious?

Don’t mischaracterize my argument. I didn’t argue that it was okay to abort one gender and not the other. I simply pointed out the logical flaw of saying that abortion should be legal because a woman has a right to do what she wants with her own body, as well as pointing out the logical flaw of the argument that an unborn baby is part of the mother.

Your deliberate attempt at a straw man notwithstanding.

fossten on August 25, 2008 at 8:37 PM

Did you read the last sentence of my response? Your argument with respect to baby girls is the same as your second argument about rights stopping at the womb, and your argument with respect to baby boys is the same as your first argument about new genetic material. I don't see the need to respond twice to the same arguments, that's all.