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A Choice or a Child?

Maybe the search for middle ground in the abortion debate is doomed. Maybe there is none. What do two sides have in common, when one sees babies being murdered and the other sees women demoted to walking wombs? Polite people want the decencies of debate preserved, but on the rare occasions when it happens, that achieves only less shouting, not a solution.

Abortion is supposed to be a complex issue, fraught with emotional, ethical, legal, social, and religious problems. Approaches that try to address the complexity have, so far, led nowhere. Instead of trying to deal with the issue in its full-fledged form, a better approach might be to simplify its terms as much as possible.

At its heart, abortion is a very simple problem. If we’re killing babies, it has to stop. If we’re not, we don’t.

The first question is whether an unborn “baby” really is a baby, that is, a human being in her or his own right. That leads directly into the question of what it means to be human, one of the thorniest problems people grapple with, even though humans should be the experts on the subject. Deciding on the relative merits of women versus babies is easier, which may be why people concentrate on that.

Science is the one method capable of finding objective proof for an idea, but it can only work its magic on objective data, and hence it can’t answer the big questions. It can tell us that human beings have forty three chromosomes, and that there is 95% similarity between our DNA and that of chimpanzees. The growing combination of egg and sperm is not called a baby in biology. It is a zygote, morula, blastula, gastrula, embryo, or fetus, depending on its stage of development.

Few people would feel that the purely physical parameters are very important. Human DNA in a petri dish isn’t exciting (except to biologists), and a corpse looks much more human than a zygote. Qualities of feeling and mind are really what we’re thinking of when we say that humans are special.

Science can actually provide some data for the discussion of feelings and mind. Nerves, for instance, become myelinated beginning around the fourth month of development. Myelination gives nerves the ability to transmit the sensations we traditionally associate with feeling. Unmyelinated nerves provide that curious awareness of touch and pressure that you can feel under local anesthetic. It is the degree of sensation found in clams.

Thus, one can say with certainty that the developing embryo’s unmyelinated brain is not thinking or feeling in a way that we could recognize. The process of myelination continues after birth, and if the process is disrupted, as for instance in fragile X syndrome, severe retardation can result. That is how far away a fetus is from having a mind like ours, so it is perhaps best not to lean too heavily on the human mind to define humanity.

There are other problems with relying on brain power as a defining characteristic. It is not unique to us. Animal behavior studies have shown that many animals can reason, and once the decision point depends on the degree of reason, fetuses won’t do particularly well.

The only mental skill that has not yet been found in the rest of the animal kingdom is grammar. Bees can say, “excellent flowers, southeast, five miles,” but they can’t distinguish between, “Fly southeast for five miles to find excellent flowers,” versus “Toward the southeast there are five miles of excellent flowers.” Of course, if grammar is to be the hallmark of humanity, it will be a bit of a letdown in our self-image.

Another problem for any argument that rests on our special qualities of mind or emotion is that fetuses don’t have them. Even infants aren’t any too impressive. If they survive, they may eventually show subject-verb agreement, but that is only one possible future. Potential is not the same as actual. I may have the potential to win the Nobel prize, but that doesn’t mean anyone actually gives me one. As reproductive technology advances, every cell in my body may have the potential to become an entire new human being, but that doesn’t mean it will ever make sense to save each cell my body sheds in the course of a day. Being potential human beings makes embryos interesting, but it’s not enough, by itself, to give them special status.

So there are no objective criteria by which to define something as human. “Looks like a human” won’t work, certainly not at the embryonic stage. Chromosomes won’t work because every bit of DNA doesn’t equal a human being. A person with a transplanted organ, even transplanted ovaries or testicles, doesn’t suddenly become two people. And being a potential human won’t work because potential is far from the same as real.

Without any objective answers, the only possible answers are subjective. Like great art, we can recognize fellow human creatures when we see them, but we can’t define them. Unfortunately, what we recognize differs. Some people see a baby, others see an organized collection of cells, and–this is the point–there is no way to prove either point of view. They are both based on beliefs about what makes a being essentially human. These convictions can be very deeply held, but that does not make them facts.

It is frightening and troubling to understand that our definition of humanity is a matter of opinion. Some cultures didn’t even consider newborns human. If they lived to be some days, weeks, or months old, then they were named and accepted as members of society. The definition of who is human in a given culture is based on consensus. In these modern times, one can probably say that newborns are considered human the world over (although the consensus seems to slip when it comes to adults who belong to “them” instead of “us.”) There is no equivalent agreement about fetuses.

There is no way to resolve the debate about fetuses, because there is no way to prove one belief right or wrong. The more deeply held the beliefs, the closer the argument comes to a holy war, and there is no middle ground in a holy war. The fight over abortion is just that: a holy war between faiths with no end in sight.

The good news is that we know how to deal with conflicting beliefs. We separate beliefs and state. That is why it has to be a choice, not a child.

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Tortured Sex

[The blogposts before March 2005 had been deleted, and were re-posted in October 2005.

This was my first post because I couldn't, and I still can't, stand what has happened in the US. I never thought this country would commit torture, and I never thought it would react with anything but outrage. I never, ever, thought Americans would calmly re-elect the people responsible. I'd forgotten you don't have to be German to be a Good German. US crimes against humanity haven't stopped, and now we're due for another round of publicity. Let's hope it slays the beast this time.]

Sex is not torture. Maybe that’s obvious, but then again, given some of the statements on prison torture, maybe it needs to be said. There’s Limbaugh, hopefully speaking only for himself rather than as a mouthpiece of the Too Right, saying it was a few soldiers having “fun.” The Muslim community, on the other hand, fully conscious of the subhuman brutality involved, sees it as symptomatic of debauched Western attitudes to sex. Whether or not Western sex is debauched, subhuman brutality is not its goal. So maybe the point bears repeating. Sex is not torture.

Sex–obviously–is pleasure. It’s the biggest, easiest high available without drugs, and it is bound up with the deepest desires for admiration and love. Poisoning that is to poison a person’s very heart . . . which is why sex is so effective in torture.

There has been no mistake in the methods used by the Americans. The humiliations were carried out not to gratify some inhuman appetite on the part of the torturers, although they may have done that too. Their stated purpose was to extract “information.”

Unattributed comments from an interrogator said the techniques had been practiced in Afghanistan, and that they had Afghani men talking within hours. Who knows what they talked abo

ut, because torture has a bad track record for extracting truth, but the techniques were then applied in Iraq to equal effect. Sexual humiliation, the military found, works wonders at causing compliance.

Why, one wonders on a horrible sort of practical level, did the soldiers at the bottom take those souvenir snapshots? Were they nuts? Apparently not. The pictures were taken to increase the humiliation, and they also had other purposes. They could be used for blackmail to extort more information once the prisoner was nominally free. And showing them to other prisoners could save the time and effort of having to commit more atrocities. Anyone with less than perfect courage was terrorized into compliance merely by knowing what could happen.

Make no mistake, it is the military and the administration at issue here, not just some soldiers. As Senator Collins pointed out, a few frustrated soldiers would try beatings. They wouldn’t apply techniques designed to cause maximum humiliation to Muslim men. The intent is also evident in Rumsfeld’s statement that what occurred is not torture. Lawyers, he says, have looked into it and it is not, to be exact, torture. This raises the macabre spectacle of well-spoken men in suits making sure that their kind of torture is legal. It does not square with the image of a few impulsive sadists. Never let it be said again that Americans lack cultural sensitivity. We can manage it when we want to.

One excuse is that whatever you call it, American torture isn’t as bad as even more horrible tortures practiced by others, or it’s not on the same scale, or it’s in a good cause, or something. Yet the inescapable fact is that no matter how little we do, more of the same is all it takes for us to become like any monster in history. To say we’ll somehow only dabble in it is like saying we’ll only be a little bit pregnant. There is no reliable social equivalent of abortion if a monster is in the making, not least because abortion does require some foresight. Prevention is really the only approach.

To avoid taking that road altogether, we have to recognize that the first step is dehumanization. It makes torture excusable. Whether the torture then uses sex to strike at a person’s innermost heart is a matter of methodology. It doesn’t change the nature of torture, except to make it worse, and it has nothing to do with sex itself.

The use of sexual humiliation to force compliance is not a rare event, whether in its worst form as state-sponsored torture, or in more individual crimes. It is practiced against women daily, hourly, and everywhere. It is so common, it seems like a normal, if regrettable, state of affairs. It is not. Its effect on women is no different from its effect on men. It is so completely dehumanizing and terrifying, it can force compliance of any kind. We belong to the same species, after all.

Consider the situation in some of the housing projects near Paris. Gangs of toughs rape women who don’t conform to their idea of proper behavior for Muslim females, such as not wearing a head scarf. Now, clearly, women can choose to express their religion as they see fit, but if someone chooses not to wear a head scarf, sexual humiliagtion is not a legitimate means of forcing compliance. The situation was reported by the BBC because of a woman who refused to knuckle under–and who had suffered gang rape twice as a consequence. I can’t even begin to imagine how much courage she has. The BBC reporter wondered who, in such a system, would dare to speak or even know her own mind. Anyone with less than infinite courage is terrorized into compliance merely by knowing what could happen.

That is not fundamentally different from the common brutalities that happen every day, everywhere. Their message to women is clear: stay in “your” place or you’ll get put there. They work. They affect where every woman goes, what she does, and how she makes a living. Women either live within narrow limits, or they need the courage and caution of a war reporter to make it through the day and, even more so, the night.

Crimes by states are, of course, a different order of evil than crimes by individuals, even gangs of them. States have practiced sexual humiliation on a recurring basis, although generally against women rather than men. And even though it is the women who are tortured, they are so much less than nothing, they aren’t even the real targets. Mostly, the intended targets are the men to whom the women “belong.” Such mind-numbing levels of dehumanization need their own category among crimes against humanity.

The victims are not the only ones dehumanized. Everyone has understood by now that the perpetrators have to lose their humanity first to commit horrors like the annihilation of the Jews or the lynchings of blacks. It is no less true of torture.

It is also no less true of crimes against women. People might ask why we should extend the parallel to women when there is a much closer one in the treatment of prisoners right here in the USA. However, with prisoners it’s possible to pretend that the problems are happening somewhere else to someone else. By extending the parallels as far as they go, we may learn to recognize the quiet beginnings of atrocity.

The sexual humiliation of women touches every one of us. It shows how easy it is to deny that brutality is happening, to deny that it has any far-reaching effects, to deny even that anything is being denied, and to thereby enable the whole system to continue. My point in drawing the parallel between the sexual torture of women and that of prisoners is to show how easy the first steps are, and how quickly we take them as the path of least resistance.

I am not trying to say the torture of prisoners and the humiliation of women is always exactly the same. Nor is either of those the same as ethnic cleansing, or slavery, or genital mutilation. Nothing is ever exactly the same. If we wait for exactly the same crime, new horrors can never be prevented.

The Limbaughs of the world notwithstanding, atrocities aren’t generally committed for entertainment. They’re done for a higher purpose, to preserve a way of life against all enemies, to survive. But some fates truly are worse than death. Living with a poisoned heart is one of them. Losing one’s heart altogether is another.

(For details and sources of the facts discussed, see Sy Hersh’s series of articles on US prisoner abuse in the New Yorker, 10-05-2004, 17-05-2004. Many of the facts were also indicated earlier on blogs. The ones I have drawn on include Juan Cole – Informed Comment,, Billmon – Whiskey Bar,, and Riverbend,

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