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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.

Technorati tags: abortion, pro-choice, pro-life, ethics, human beings, church and state, beliefs

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "A Choice or a Child?"

#1 Comment By Anonymous On 13 Oct, 2005 @ 08:45

Really nice post.

The only thing I can disagree with is your statement that no animal species has mastered grammar. If you look into some of the ape language studies… most notably Kanzi the bonobo and possibly Washoe the chimp, you will see that they both understood grammatical differences. Kanzi knew that “put the tomato on the elephant” was different than “put the elephant on the tomato”.. even when he was given seemingly nonsensical directions, Kanzi understood what was expected.

Also, I believe Alex the gray parrot is being taught some grammar and is an amazing example of all animals know. Just because they can’t prove it to us doesn’t mean the behavior or mental capacity is lacking… it may just mean that we don’t know how to test for it yet.

Anyway, kudos on a great blog entry. I’m pro-choice myself. Once the fetus could unequivocal by proven to be sentient, I wouldn’t abort (I’m vegan and it’d be awfully hypocritical to abort a sentient human being… as I don’t even believe in exploiting other non-human sentient beings)… but I don’t think my ideals should dictate public policy.


#2 Comment By quixote On 16 Oct, 2005 @ 16:34

It’s true that with human help, some chimps and grey parrots have shown a grasp of grammar. The distinction observed so far is that none have invented grammar on their own, as far as we can tell. Bees, black weasels (I think it was weasels?), crows, whales, etc., etc., have some very complex ways of speaking to each other, but none seem to have grammar. Of course, we may find out that they do use grammar, once we understand them better. It wouldn’t be the first time that facts are eclipsed by our inability to understand them. Either way, though, it just underlines the point that it’s *very* difficult to draw the line between Us and Them.

#3 Comment By That Girl On 02 Feb, 2006 @ 06:17

Im so glad I found you again in PZ’s comments! I had you on my blogroll and the evil IT people deleted everything while I was on maternity leave.
Try putting in “Acid Test” in google and see what you come up with.
Great post!
I have to say that as a big fan of the English language the thought that grammar may be the only thing that seperates us from animals is truly enough to make me cry.
I found it especially ironic that people believe that no severely mutated children are ever born. Ah, to live in their magical world!

#4 Comment By quixote On 03 Feb, 2006 @ 20:21

Hi Girl!

Glad to see you back. And it sounds like congratulations are in order! (Hope all is going well, and that you’re back to getting some sleep by now?)

I tend not to Google myself or people I know. Something about it gives me the heebie jeebies. It just doesn’t seem right to see all that, (kind of like having a window into your own stomach). However, you made me curious, so I checked. Gawd. How depressing. The first 50 hits were some bible thing. How depressing and inappropriate. I should change the name I guess, but I’m not good at names (as you might have guessed from me calling the blog “Acid Test”). Should I have a “name this blog” contest? Suggestions? Pharyngula (brilliant name!) is taken already.

#5 Comment By ailea On 24 Jan, 2008 @ 13:00

“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.”

Actually, I’m not so sure that this is such a simple question, either. There is a very good arguement about how no human being has the right to use the body of another human being without their permission, even if it means their death. So… even if we are killing babies (which I wouldn’t be so much convinced of) we don’t necessarily need to stop.

#6 Comment By GimliGirl On 08 Nov, 2009 @ 17:56

“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.”

As a woman who’s undergone and abortion and had been mulling over the very idea of hurting said embryo along with killing it, this information is a relief. I mean, in my mind, it’s bad enough I killed it, but wondering ‘did it suffer?’ has been in the back of my thoughts for nearly 2 years now. This kind of information, the kind that provides clarity in an issue that is so emotionally charged, is so necessary I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before. I already have one child, and I’ve read so much literature on the development of the fetus, but I’ve never seen THIS. How is that possible? Thank you very much for writing this piece, and many others. Your whole blog is wonderful.

#7 Comment By quixote On 10 Nov, 2009 @ 12:50

GimliGirl, there is so much basic information that could inform debate but is ignored. Intentionally ignored, I’d say, because the simple fact about myelination doesn’t help the “killing babies” argument.

It’s another case of trying to entitle people to their own facts, not just their own opinions.

Seems to happen a lot, given the liberal, pro-choice bias in the facts.

#8 Comment By merri On 07 Dec, 2009 @ 03:53

While I am strongly pro-choice myself, I can see the argument a pro-lifer would make in response to this: why does your argument to “separate belief and state” only apply in cases involving abortion? There are people out there who believe blacks, jews or gay people aren’t human, but they’re protected by murder laws.

So how do you make that distinction? Because I’d love to be able to understand your reasoning so I can quote/paraphrase you when debating about abortion rights.

#9 Comment By quixote On 07 Dec, 2009 @ 20:14

merri, that’s the scary thing about realizing that the definition of who is human is a social decision. In Linnaeus’s day (mid 1700s) people really didn’t think blacks were human. They’re right there in his classification as a different species.

At this point, the number of people who would, in all seriousness, say gays or blacks aren’t people is so vanishingly small, their concept of what the consensus should be doesn’t matter. They’re not part of it. The law doesn’t reflect their views.

But if people get their heads far enough up their asses, there’s literally no limit to what they can decide about this. If a society has no concepts of fairness and justice, and decides that, say, all blonds are slaves, then behavior is organized accordingly. People can and have done that in the past. Those aren’t very happy societies, and they tend to fall apart on first contact with better ones, but the fact remains that social consensus can be anything. It doesn’t have to make sense.

So the answer to the anti-choicers is to point out that they’d better have an inclusive view of who’s human, including women, and blacks, and gays, because if they don’t, there is nothing to stop, say, me, from deciding that their highest purpose would be as spare organ parts.

And a view of humanity that includes women as persons with the same rights as everyone else means that being pro-choice is the only option on a social level. (One can always be anti-abortion for oneself.) Even people who believe the fetus has all the rights of a citizen cannot start giving that fetus more rights. If they insist that women can be forced to provide life support for a fetus, then they’re promoting the idea that some people are more important and others can be used as ambulatory organ storage. As I say, I doubt very much that they really want to go there.

So, short form: no, there’s nothing outside of consensus that decides who’s human. Yes, we better decide women have the same rights as anyone else, because otherwise any class of humans can be declared non-persons if the consensus decides to go that way.

(Hmm. Pretty longwinded. I hope I answered your question, somewhere in there. :D)

#10 Comment By abortion 28 weeks On 09 Jul, 2014 @ 15:58

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#11 Comment By quixote On 10 Jul, 2014 @ 11:37

To the commenter on July 9, 2014: That strikes me as spamming, and in the normal course of events you’d be deleted. But it seems to be in an okay cause, so I’ve left this one here. Please don’t continue spamming on this site, though.