Sunday, 23 September 2012

Take a deep breath before commenting...

(Originally published 26 April, 2011, as a Note on my Facebook.) 
I've been avoiding writing about this for years.  Because this is going to make people angry.  The topic for today is abortion. 
As most of you know, I used to be an evangelical Christian, and most of my family still are.  As most of you also know, I'm of a left-wing bent politically.  This means that unless I take a weaselly middle-of-the-road not-saying-anything-really position on abortion, I am going to be fitting myself into somebody close to me's definition of "evil". 
And that would be easy to do.  I'm male; abortion is not something I'll ever be in a position to experience personally.  I can even argue that it would be a bit presumptuous of me to take one position or the other, simply for that reason!
But that's not going to fly.  I vote.  I (occasionally) make submissions on bills before Parliament.  I intend to live alongside women for the remainder of my life, and their welfare matters to me.  I'm never personally going to experience child slavery either, but that doesn't mean I should avoid forming a strong opinion on it. 
When I was, oh, about twelve or so, we had a book kicking around the house called The Unaborted Socrates, by a guy called Peter Kreeft.  Socrates returns to life just to debate the issue with an abortion doctor, a modern philosopher of ethics, and a psychologist.  Kreeft is a Catholic, and the book doesn't leave you wondering what his answer's going to be: the abortionist's name is Rex Herrod. 
This was the book, I should make it clear, from which I learned the basics of deductive reasoning.  (I also learned the meaning of the word "refute", and gained a lifelong niggle when people misuse it: "prove wrong", not "argue against". ) Socrates begins by getting Herrod's definition of murder -- "killing an innocent human being" -- and quickly deduces that if a foetus is a human being, then abortion is murder.  The rest of their dialogue is a back-and-forth over whether foetuses are human beings. 
One by one, Herrod brings up the differences between foetuses and adults: mobility, independence, mental capacity. . .  Each time, Socrates notes that these differences also exist between an infant and an adult, albeit sometimes to a lesser degree.  At length, Herrod concludes that he just doesn't know whether foetuses are people.  Socrates triumphantly points out the one real radical transition in the process of making a baby -- conception.  There, Kreeft concludes, a human life truly begins. 
That's just the first part of the book, of course.  There are two more dialogues to go, where Herrod, the philosopher, and the psychologist try and convince Socrates that other issues matter as well -- women's control over their bodies, for example.  Socrates' response throughout is: yes, I take your point, but that doesn't justify murder. 
While Kreeft takes a rather more cerebral route than, say, SPUC -- whose recent appearance in a friend's blog finally convinced me to write this -- they both have the same core message: A foetus is a person, therefore abortion is murder.  Some pro-lifers willingly acknowledge that pregnancy takes a big toll on a woman's body, and that she might have legitimate cause to complain about it.  But killing an innocent for other people's mistakes, they say, is an even grosser injustice. 
Kreeft kind of has a point.  Abortion is probably the one issue which will get people screaming at each other fastest in the Western world, and this question really is the core of the disagreement.  The trouble is, each side thinks their own view of the foetus is so obvious that the other side must surely hold it as well. 
Pro-lifers will argue that any particular abortion could, for all we know, be robbing the world of the next Beethoven or the next Nelson Mandela.  But this argument depends, for its force, on our already agreeing that the foetus is a person.  Every time you, dear reader, walk past a stranger of the opposite sex on the street and don't have unprotected sex with them then and there, you are robbing the world of a potential Beethoven or Mandela.  (Assuming you and they are both fertile, obviously. )
Pro-choicers, for their part, are primarily concerned with women's rights over their own bodies.  It takes two to make a pregnancy, but only one of them can then walk away and deny it's any responsibility of his.  This fundamental asymmetry is at the root of the sexism found in nearly all cultural traditions; it can only be redressed by giving women control over the reproductive process.  All well and good -- but if abortion is killing a person, then the injustice is compounded, not redressed. 
Since the foetus is obviously a person, pro-choicers must secretly prefer to commit murder rather than give up their sexual indulgences.  Since the foetus is obviously not a person, pro-lifers must secretly want male control over women's bodies. 
Kreeft's book did have one logic gap that I could pick out even at age twelve.  At one point, Herrod suggests that a foetus is part of the pregnant woman's body, and persons cannot be parts of other persons.  Socrates counters: how many feet does a pregnant woman have? Two, says Herrod.  No, four, says Socrates, once the foetus has developed feet.  If the foetus is male, the woman must have a penis.  Since this is absurd, a foetus cannot be defined as a body part. 
Except that, while absurd in the sense of being a comical way of using language, this is not at all self-contradictory, which is what it takes to count as logically absurd.  But hey, it was OK, because I knew a better argument.  The embryo is genetically distinct from the moment of conception, ergo it cannot be considered part of the mother, and so all the rest of Kreeft's argument followed just fine. 
Even then, of course, there was a minor problem: identical twins are not genetically distinct, but it's still murder if you kill only one of them.  Obviously, identical twins are two physically separate people with their own individual personalities.  So why not make that the criterion for personhood? Well, because then there would be nothing wrong with abortion!
But is that all there is to it? There's no fundamental change in an infant's brain, or any other part of its physiology, during birth.  It is quite clearly the same thing a minute after as it was a minute before.  How can there be a drastic change to its moral rights, simply because it is now in a different place? It does become markedly less parasitic as a result, but it had no choice in the matter and cannot justly be punished for its former lifestyle. 
Is it any more sensible to consider conception the magic moment? There's one difference between fertilized and unfertilized egg cells: the number of chromosomes they have.  Chromosome count is also what determines whether someone has Down's syndrome.  If it is murder to kill someone with Down's syndrome, the difference between a person and a non-person cannot come down to chromosome count. 
Every human egg, fertilized or not, contains all the genetic information necessary to build a new human.  The arrival of a set of matching chromosomes to make pairs with, at fertilization, is a critical point in the process, but, despite Kreeft's mysticism, it isn't "something radically new coming into being".  For that matter, every skin cell and liver cell in your body also contains all the information necessary to build a new human. 
The difference (pro-life readers are retorting even now) is that a fertilized egg, left to itself, will turn into an unquestionable human being, whereas an unfertilized egg or a liver cell won't.  They are mistaken.  You have to add really rather a lot of things to a fertilized egg -- most of them come under the heading of "nutrients" -- to turn it into a baby.  And you have to add exactly the same things to turn an unfertilized egg into a baby.  Plus, at the beginning of the process, one sperm. 
Perhaps we should pick out the moment at which it becomes more likely than not that the cell we're looking at will turn into a human being, and call that the beginning of personhood.  A good candidate is implantation, which happens roughly ten days after fertilization; more than half of all fertilized eggs die without implanting. 
Except...  remember how we cavilled about picking birth as the magic moment, because all that's changed is that the infant is now in a different place? Guess what: the same is true of implantation. 
When, during the transition from unfertilized gamete to infant, is there a change in the embryo's fundamental nature so profound that it can be said to have definitively turned into a person? Never. 
Kreeft is an unabashed essentialist.  When Herrod protests that a little ball of cells can't possibly be a human being, Socrates responds: "What is it, then? an ape? a fish?" Well, no, Socrates (or rather, no, Mr Kreeft), it's a little ball of cells, that's what it is. 
I've discussed essentialism and what's wrong with it before.  Here's a recap.  Human consciousness is, approximately, object-oriented -- a vital saving on information capacity.  Imagine if we had to figure out, separately, whether every new person we met could walk or talk! Instead, we keep a mental class called "human being" in our heads, with a set of facts about them ("methods and properties" in object-oriented programming jargon) that we assume apply to all members of the class. 
Suppose, with Socrates' famous pupil Plato, that this is an insight into fundamental reality; that things have "forms" or "essences" over and above any property you can touch or see.  Even so, moral philosophers tell us that "ought implies can" -- you are never to blame for not doing something you can't do.  And one thing we can't do is determine the "essence" of a thing directly.  If we can't deduce it from empirical data, no moral question can hang on it.  And here it's clear that we can't. 
Kreeft replies, via Socrates, that if you can't tell whether something is a person or not, you mustn't kill it, just in case.  But this only works if you can draw a line where you are dead certain that one side doesn't count as a person.  Kreeft does not condemn women who menstruate rather than get pregnant, because he is certain that an unfertilized egg is not a person.  As we have seen, he has no grounds for such certainty. 
Where we've gone wrong is basing our morality on essences.  It's right and good to say that all people should have the right to life.  What's not good is the idea that this right resides in some abstract, unknowable quality of human-ness, rather than in something that can be grasped and understood. 
To argue this issue properly, we should really first establish where rights and morality come from in the first place.  Even for me, that's too big a diversion.  Let's just take a look at a couple of the options. 
It would be fair to say that the pro-life camp contains a significantly higher proportion of people who believe they derive their morality from the Bible than the pro-choice camp (a discussion of whether this belief is accurate would, again, be too big a diversion).  There were no abortion clinics in Biblical times.  There were herbal abortifacients, like pennyroyal, which some of the women must surely have known about; but the Bible was written by men.  This is what it has to say:
Exodus 21:12 He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.  ---Exodus 21:12

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.  ---Exodus 21:22
So the Bible does not value a foetus's life as human.  Someone who terminates a pregnancy, however violently, has merely committed a property offence against the woman's husband, to be settled in a civil court. 
Roughly 86% of cultures surveyed place the beginning of personhood some time after birth, when it has become clear that the infant is going to survive.  Traces of this attitude remain in our own heritage.  The premise of the '80s classic Labyrinth is the early mediaeval story that evil spirits stole babies, replacing them with goblins that happened to look just like infants suffering from diphtheria.  The wicked witch trope of so many children's tales had the same idea at its core (yet again, too big a diversion). 
We can agree, I think, that if we cause someone to suffer unnecessarily, we have wronged them.  And it's no great leap to suppose that anything capable of suffering counts as "someone" for this purpose.  But the right not to be tortured is one thing, and the right to life is another.  We don't extend the right to life to all beings capable of suffering.  Even those who refuse to partake in anything created by killing animals, still stand aside and allow animals to kill one another. 
I think we can safely say that dogs, cats, pigs and cows cannot contemplate or comprehend their own eventual death.  I wouldn't be so sure about dolphins, elephants, or chimpanzees.  That strikes me as the safest requirement for the right to life.  If I am capable of determining my own plans for the future, you wrong me if you take that future from me. 
A foetus is not capable of contemplating the future or determining its own life's purpose.  Then again, neither is a newborn, or a young toddler.  Setting the bar for the right to life at birth is, by this standard, actually pretty generous! Most of us would want to err further on the side of caution, and the standard adopted by most Western states -- a human foetus has the right to life once it is capable of enjoying this right outside of the womb -- seems fairly reasonable. 
So that's where I come down on the abortion question.  I know it's going to make people cross; some because I don't think the right to life begins at conception, some because I don't think the woman's right to self-determination is the only consideration.  But if this were to become a live political issue in New Zealand again, that's how I would vote.

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