Thursday, June 20, 2019

The issue of abortion

Abortion has been in the news of late because New York state passed a bill allowing abortion at any time during a pregnancy, and Virginia tried to pass a similar one that some claimed even allowed it immediately after birth if the fetus was critical or terminal. Of course, at that point, it would no longer be called a fetus and it would no longer be called abortion.

It seems to me that both sides are not addressing the right issue here, as vain as that is to say. A lot of people say the question is whether the fetus (or zygote or blastocyst in the earlier stages) is alive. But this is a simple question with a simple answer: of course it's alive. It meets all the scientific conditions for life. For that matter, individual sperm cells are alive, although they are haploids rather than diploids. Nor is the question whether the fetus is human life. Every cell in a human being's body is human life, it's a living cell that forms a part of a human being.

What people are really asking is when does a human life begin? That is, when does a unique individual human being begin to exist? Most pro-choice folk say that it's sometime during the pregnancy (some say at birth or even later), pro-life folk say that it's at conception, when the haploid sperm cell unites with the haploid ovum and a living thing that is not identical to either the sperm or ovum -- nor for that matter is it genetically identical to the father or mother -- begins to exist. Of course, many people say we can't know for sure and embrace the pro-choice side (because it unreasonably restricts what the woman can do with her own body) or the pro-life side (because if it might be a human life, we have a moral obligation to protect it). For that matter, many people say we can't know and remain agnostic on the larger question.

The problem with asking when a human life begins is that is still a simple question with a simple answer: a human life begins at conception. That's not a matter of opinion or value judgment, it's a scientific, medical fact. And I think this is why pro-lifers want to end the discussion here, because they are on solid ground while the pro-choicers are not.

But, as you can probably tell, I don't think that is where the discussion should end, because I don't think that's what the real question is. The real question is a two-sided coin. The first side is when does human value begin, and the second side is when do human rights begin? Perhaps we could say the question is not when a human life begins, but when a human being begins. Of course, pro-lifers will say that human value and rights begin when the individual human life begins, and that's a defensible claim. For value to begin at some other point seems arbitrary: there should be a clear indication, a clear event, which can be identified as when a creature has intrinsic value and the right to life. However, there is an objection that can be made here that can't be made (or made as plausibly) when we're just asking when does a human life begin. The objection, or problem, is that it is strongly counter-intuitive to say that an undifferentiated group of cells is a human being in the full sense that it has human rights and human value. This is what (I think) pro-choicers are objecting to: we have a cluster of cells that are dividing and nothing else, and we're being told that it has just as much right to live as the woman in whose body it is dwelling.

One potential response to this is that the fetus is no longer an undifferentiated group of cells by the time the woman discovers she is pregnant. Organs have been formed, and some are even functioning. The fetus's heart begins to beat at about three weeks gestation. However, it's difficult to say that a beating heart is what bestows human value and rights.

By human value I do not mean utilitarian value, what something is capable of accomplishing. In fact, the concept of human value is one of the very few aspects of Christianity I appreciated when I first became a Christian: a severely mentally retarded person, who spends his life in a hospital bed, never contributes anything to society, is a burden on all those around him -- that person has just as much value, rights, is just as important and as absolutely irreplaceable as the most influential thinker, statesman, or artist who ever lived.

At any rate, as I say, while the fetus is definitely a human life, it is at least counter-intuitive to say that -- at least in the very early stages -- it is a human being equipped with human rights and human value. This doesn't constitute a reason to think it is not, it just means the pro-life side has to produce arguments to counter this counter-intuition. I'm sure they think they already have, and I'm not disputing that. I just want to clear the air on exactly what (I think) the issues really are.


Earl Wajenberg said...

Thank you for stating the issues so clearly. In my experience, this never happens in the news, where the two sides are just assumed and you have to be grateful for any flicker of nuance.

Jim S. said...

Sorry to take so long to post your comment. I agree with you, but I don't expect the news to really go into any analysis on issues in the first place, so I'm not disappointed that they don't. I'm a little frustrated that they like to fan the flames of discord though.