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It’s about who decides

This has been brought on by a comment thread at Reclusive Leftist. The post was about feminism, but the thread kept veering off into abortion. Could you be a feminist and be antiabortion?

Folks, that is the wrong question. And asking the wrong question can never lead to the right answer, any more than looking for your socks in the bedroom when you lost them in the dryer is going to help you find the things.

So let’s start by asking the right question.

Maybe the first thing to do is figure out whether abortion really does kill babies. (I’m using “babies” as shorthand for “legal person with the same right not to be murdered as everyone else.”) If it does, even that’s not the end of the matter, as we’ll see in a bit, but first let’s figure that out. It’s a sticking point for many people.

Who’s human?

What are the facts? Science is the one method capable of finding objective proof, but it can only work its magic on objective data. 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 called a zygote, morula, blastula, gastrula, embryo, or fetus, depending on its stage of development. There are lots of facts, but I can see you rolling your eyes already. These facts don’t matter.

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.

All of this means that 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 human DNA, by itself, is just a molecule. If people really believed that chromosomes were all it took, then people with transplants would have to carry two ID cards. And, last, being a potential human won’t work because potential is not the same as real. You only get to vote when you are an adult, not when you might become one.

Science provides no answer at all to the question of who is human in the sense that’s relevant to the abortion debate. Biology can only determine who belongs in the species Homo sapiens, but there is no cellular marker that lights up when someone is due to get legal rights.

Without any objective answers, the only possible answers are subjective. Books have been written about how to define what is human. Socrates struggled with it. In the Cliff Notes version here, it’s enough to say that the more you think about the issue of what actually defines “personhood,” the harder it becomes to figure it out.

Nor do cultures speak with one voice on the question. Some cultures didn’t even consider newborns human. Infants had to survive for a while, days, weeks, or even months, before 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. There is no equivalent agreement about fetuses.

It is frightening and troubling to understand that our definition of humanity is a matter of opinion.

That means objectively defining who is a human person is not a difficult question. It is an impossible one.

Is murder ever acceptable?

It could be argued that since we don’t know at which point humanity begins or ends, we should stay on the safe side and never resort to abortion.

We don’t, however, apply that principle in general. There are many cases where killing is accepted. Killing in self-defense is not a crime. Most people walk around with an extra kidney and a lot more liver than they really need. But nobody suggests requisitioning these spare organs to save a life. There’s a common thread here: people have an absolute right to be what the law calls secure in their own persons, even at the cost of someone else’s. They have an absolute right to control over their bodies, to not be punched or hit or even touched, to refuse medical treatment, and so on through every example you can think of. Except when the example involves women and babies.

Funny how that works.

Whether you think a fetus is a person or a developing mass of tissue, a pregnant woman is providing the life support. According to basic rights, it has to be up to her whether she does that or not. Assuming otherwise, means also assuming that healthy people should be strapped onto gurneys and forced to give up a kidney because that can save a life. If it’s okay to use human beings as parts for other human beings in one case, it’s okay in all cases.

In the ultimate irony, admitting the idea of forced life support and denying people the right to control over their own bodies also admits the idea that forced abortions are acceptable. The people who oppose abortion have to hope their ideas don’t gain enough traction to be truly accepted, and they lose the right to refuse medical procedures.

The fact that women are adapted by nature to provide life support, and the fact that they are happy to do it often enough to overpopulate the planet, doesn’t change the ethics of the matter. The fact that a woman’s egg helped produce the creature needing life support doesn’t change that, any more than it does for the sperm provider. If it did, parents should have no legal right to refuse to donate organs to their offspring, should the need arise.

The amazing part is not that women have the right to be secure in their own persons. The amazing part is that it needs to be explained.

So, what is the question?

Let’s recap. The question is not “Who is human?” because there is no single answer to that. The question is also not “Who is more human, fetus or mother?” If the first question can’t be answered, the second one definitely can’t be. There is no way to resolve the debate about the humanity of fetuses, because there is no way to prove one belief right or wrong. It is pointless to argue about it. There is no evidence on either side. It’s pointless to look for middle ground. That ground depends on one’s beliefs, and you’re right back where you started.

For most of human history, people have had no idea how to deal with that situation, other than smashing the opposition into silence. Then along came a few geniuses who pointed out that it didn’t have to be that way. We could separate beliefs and state. We could all live according to our own faiths, to the extent that it was compatible with the same right for others.

So that’s the question: Does my abortion change your ability to have or not have children? In short, is my abortion your business?

No matter what you believe about fetuses, admitting the principle that anyone can be deprived of the right to control their own bodies means that abortions could be forced as well as pregnancies. It means organ donation could be forced. It means any medical procedure could be forced. It means that killing in self defense might be criminal, if the defender was less human on the social scale than the attacker. We probably don’t really want to go there.

That means the answer to the question is a resounding “No! My abortion is not your business.” It also means that personal beliefs about the humanity of the fetus are not the issue.

It’s very important to remember that this says nothing, absolutely nothing, about the rightness or wrongness of abortion itself. That can be a very complex question depending on what one believes, and it can be enormously hard to resolve. But the crucial phrase is “what one believes.” It can be complex for the individual.

It is not complex at the social level. It is very simple. Everyone must have the same right to self-determination. So, even though individual decisions about abortion may be very difficult, socially they are easy. You stay out of my business, and I’ll stay out of yours.

That says two things about the debate on whether one can be both a feminist and anti-abortion.

Yes, obviously, you can be both feminist and oppose abortion . . . for yourself. You can be a feminist and have a zillion kids . . . yourself. You can be a feminist and use abortion as birth control . . . for yourself.

What you cannot do is be a feminist — or anyone who cares about extremely basic human rights — and tell someone else to have an abortion. Or a child.

(This post echoes my previous ones on this topic here, here, here, and here.)
Tags: abortion, feminism, choice, pro-choice, pro-life