Personhood

If we are to pinpoint the moment of beginning of personhood that has the best scientific grounding, out of all the moments that are candidates, that will certainly be the beginning of the single-cell stage. A minute before, there were two spatially-separated haploid cells, each with insufficient genetic information ever to become anything resembing a full-grown person; a minute after, there is a single definable organism with the exact genetic information that it will carry throughout life, at 1 month of gestation, at 4 years, at 60 years.

Here –

http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/12/7300/

– Dr. Maureen L. Condic writes –

Structures capable of new functions are formed throughout embryogenesis. For example, grasping becomes possible once hands have formed. But the fundamental process of development proceeds continuously, both prior to and after hand formation, and the onset of this function reflects an ongoing developmental process. Given the continuous nature of development, to argue that embryos and fetuses become humans once some anatomical or functional landmark such as “consciousness” has been achieved is to assert some kind of magical transformation; i.e., that at some ill-defined point, a non-human entity spontaneously transmogrifies into a human being, without any change whatsoever in its behavior, its molecular composition, or any other observable feature.

I reject this argument. For something actually to transform into a different kind of thing, a change must take place in its composition or in its pattern of biological activity. For example, sperm and egg are two specific human cell types that fuse to produce a distinct cell (the zygote) with unique molecular composition and with a pattern of organismal behavior that is distinct from the behavior of either sperm or egg. A clear, non-magical, scientifically observable transformation from one kind of entity (two human cells) to another kind of entity (a distinct human organism) has occurred. . . .

Building the complex architecture of the brain is a continuous process that is initiated at sperm-egg fusion and proceeds through orderly steps under the direction of a ‘builder,’ that is, a human organism that is present from the beginning. The presence of an agent capable of constructing the mature body, including the brain, is the only sustainable definition of a human being. This agency should not be misconstrued as some kind of mystical or spiritual element that is merely attributed to an embryo or fetus based on personal or religious belief. The fact that the embryo acts as an agent is entirely a matter of empirical observation; embryos construct themselves. . . .

. . . science does not dictate that citizens have a right to equal protection under the law, but. . . . science has clearly determined when human life commences, and this determination legitimately dictates that equal protection under the law must extend to human beings at embryonic and fetal stages of development.

For more scientific sources attesting to the personhood of the zygote, see Appendix 1.

Though the beginning of the single-cell stage has the best scientific grounding among all the moments that are candidates for the beginning of personhood, some will debate against defining “personhood” in this way. And “personhood” or “person” is not the only word that can be debated. While some will maintain that a zygote is “a human being, but not a person,” others, since they can’t deny that it belongs to the species Homo sapiens, will insist, with an equally straight face, that it is “human, but not a human being.”

Some will even deny that a zygote is “alive.” Though any cell is usually considered “the fundamental unit of life,” and hardly anyone will deny that at least a cell which can reproduce (as a zygote can) is alive, some will say that life requires consciousness — according to their definition of consciousness. (In this view, are plants not alive, or are they alive and conscious?)

Perhaps the unborn babies of the world, overhearing all this chatter with bewilderment and growing apprehension, find solace by reflecting that they don’t really want to be grown-up after all.

More seriously, the problem is that “personhood” (like “life” and “human being”) is a word. A word does not have undebatable properties as does a molecule of sodium chloride. Scientists may agree, as a convention for their own use, on a definition of some word, but that does not mean that the definition is scientifically proven, or even that the editor of any dictionary is bound to include it.

There is no way to prove to a white that a black is a “person.” There is no way to prove to an oriental that a white is a “person.”

Motivation, perception and definition: Motivation will always be a cause of definition and even perception, as much as definition and perception will be a cause of motivation. Those who want to be at liberty to kill embryos (or let’s say “destroy” them, to satisfy those who deny they are alive) will define words in one way, those who want to save them will define in another way. The general approach, if not the universal approach, is to label something we feel should not be killed a “person,” rather than to declare that a person is something that should not be killed.

..in the eyes of the law…the slave is not a person. (Bailey/als. v. Poindexter’s Ex’or, 1858, Virginia Supreme Court)

the word ‘person’ … does not include the unborn. (Roe v. Wade, 1973, US Supreme Court)

Dehumanization: This fate has befallen some races and one gender, and it could happen again to any race (racism) or any gender (sexism), just as it is happening now to the unborn (ageism, size-ism and development-ism). With the help of the US Supreme Court’s brand of socio-linguistic engineering, any group could be dehumanized — tomorrow it could be me or you.

Now, it would be wonderful if we could abandon the semantic convolutions and simply get to the practical question — should people be free to destroy zygotes, or not? Why should pro-lifers not go along with calling a zygote any misleading term — an “inanimate person-elect,” or a “person-morphing inert speck” — as long as it is a person-morphing inert speck with the right to life? It is because our hyperactive cortexes on each side will ask the other side “Why?” One side will reply “Because it’s a person,” and the other will say, “No, it’s not,” and the linguistic debate will begin again.

And words and their definitions affect perception and motivation just as motivation affects perception and definition.

So if we want to save the unborn, it is important that they be “persons.” [Edit: And they are persons in what is ultimately the most pivotal sense, as we shall see.]

But first we must ask the most fundamental question: why do we want to save the unborn?

Well, to get really fundamental, we would also have to ask, Why do we want to save post-natal persons? But for this discussion, there is no need to go so deep. We only need to ask, Why do we want to save the unborn as much as we want to save post-natal persons?

As I said regarding definitions in the “Personhood and Citizenship” post:

“One can define personhood, or define anything, in any way one likes. But to view any object of the universe, not to mention an unborn child, with disregard of its potential, would be a very reductive and disconnected way of seeing reality. Full human potential exists at the zygote stage.”

And it is the same regarding the related question about motivation, about wanting to save the unborn: it all comes down to intuition. If not influenced by religious doctrines [Edit: or political or other kinds of opportunism], pro-lifers simply have a sincere intuition that the unborn deserve life.

And most pro-choicers, if not simply influenced by political or other kinds of opportunism, or a financial stake in the abortion industry, [Edit: or overreaction against the tragic oppression of women, or simple selfishness,] have a sincere intuition that the unborn do not deserve life [Edit: , or do not deserve it at the cost of some degree of sacrifice by post-natal persons, particularly the mother].

Since both sides are mainly sincere (see also Appendix 2), are we headed toward one of the usual cliches such as “Neither side has the whole truth, the truth is somewhere in the middle” — ?

I don’t think so.

I think some people’s intuition is better than others. And I think that as a general rule, a person’s intuition will improve throughout life, especially if they meditate.

Someone will ask, who is to decide whose intuition is better? That too is a matter of intuition. We are in an area where science can’t help us much. But that does not mean that intuitions are not valid.

Though there is no objective standard of intuition, I venture to assert subjectively that the Buddha’s intuition about the richness of life was better than that of Genghis Khan. I venture to assert subjectively that Martin Luther King’s intuition about the sister- and brotherhood of all humanity was better than that of Jeffrey Dahmer.

I think I would be able to find many people who would agree with me, and if there is agreement about extreme contrasts, there can be some degree of agreement about nuances also.

Agreement will not prove, scientifically or otherwise, that pro-lifers are correct, but that is not the point. I think that pro-lifers in different countries will eventually be able to find enough legislators who get it, to enact legislation along the lines of a recent proposed North Dakota state constitutional amendment: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.”

And that, that ability to enact legislation, will be the point — the point of a growing intuitive consensus that the unborn deserve life and are persons.

In resting my case ultimately on intuition, am I abandoning scientific proofs because the scientific case for personhood at conception is weak? No, the scientific case for personhood at the beginning of the single-cell stage, as we have seen, is better than the scientific case for any other definition of personhood. What I am doing, rather, is honestly admitting that science fails us in this area. That is better than to claim a scientific basis, which ultimately doesn’t stand up, for some definition or other.

I do not know whether the Buddha ever said anything about abortion. But I bet that he would, at least if he had had access to present-day scientific knowledge, have considered a zygote to be a person, [Edit: the starting point of an organism that can maintain its identity for a life of several decades, and deserving to be valued like any other person]. (Our intuitions will certainly be influenced by scientific data, but in the end they will be intuitions.)

[Edit: (Just as the fact that a paramecium can split into two paramecia does not mean that it was not originally a paramecium, the fact that a developing person can occasionally split into twins does not mean that it was not originally a person.)]

As regards Martin Luther King, his pro-life niece is quoted on this page:

http://www.catholic.org/politics/story.php?id=52819

According to Dr. [Alveda] King, when asked about where the Pro-life Movement fits in with her life’s work, “The Pro-life Movement is a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, and abortion is one of the greatest Civil Rights issues of our time.”

Furthermore, she notes that her father and uncle, Martin Luther King, Jr., were Pro-life and “worked hard to promote and preserve civil rights for all Americans.” In that way, they laid the groundwork for the Pro-life Movement of today . . .

I wrote above: “I think some people’s intuition is better than others. And I think that as a general rule, a person’s intuition will improve throughout life, especially if they meditate.”

For purposes of this post, except for a brief note about my own experience, I will let the meditation topic rest. I think that my intuition about reality has deepened throughout my life and would have deepened even without meditation, but that meditation has helped. And I think my intuition has not deepened more in any area than in relation to the unborn. When I was young, the unborn seemed quite insignificant to me. I was concerned about overpopulation, more for selfish reasons than any other, and probably thought that abortion for population control was a good thing. Today, simply from reading science, thinking, meditating and living, I see the unborn just as I see all my sisters and brothers.

And I think that simply from reading science, thinking and living, even without meditating, similar is the pattern of perceptual unfoldment, with exceptions of course, for people in general. And I think people’s expansiveness toward the unborn often increases exponentially when they are jolted by some emotional experience.

Any number of women have suddenly (or gradually) woken up and become pro-life after having an abortion.

In the case of Albany Rose, who tells her story in a YouTube called “My Abortive Testimony and Conversion,” she aborted her first child at the age of fifteen, then became a pro-choice advocate. But during her second pregnancy she gained a deeper understanding of the reality of life, and is now a very clear and articulate pro-life advocate.

Here is an exact sequence of comments that appeared under her video during a couple of days in October, 2013:

taraist1 –

i had a similar experience, my mother told me i would ruin her and my dad’s life if i had and kept my baby. she told me she had an abortion once too and that it was the best decision she made. i know now she was lieing and it makes it all hurt so much more. how could she push me into that knowing the feelings later? i believe all women come around to the regret eventually, some later than others. my mother let me down that day and all i can do now is stop the cycle with my own.

the propaganda and lies spread by the pro-choice lobbyists are astounding. i wish the whole disgusting truth would be shown. i am also not religious and used to be prochoice. thank you for your video as if you change one person’s mind it was worth it. i wish i had seen something like this when faced with my horrible choice. because it is a choice, meaning you have OTHER choices. we let women do this with their eyes closed, without really understanding what it means what it is. it needs to stop.

Chelsea Saint-Dreher –

Dear Albany, you are so brave! My mother had me as a teen mom, and my premature birth was difficult for her. Seeing photos of aborted babies changed her mind when she considered her options. I wish you love.

telekenisis9 –

Same here i was pro choice after a lot of research i found exactly that its a lie , the silent scream and 22 weeks and 180 film plus a lot of vids from formers abortion providers changed my mind i felt so dupped :( i am agnostic so its down to the evil propaganda its anything to sell you the abortion .

As taraist1 said, “Women come around to the regret eventually, some later than others.” In a YouTube “The Dark Secret: Life After Abortion,” a woman who runs a Christian support group for women who have aborted says: “Some women go into meltdown immediately after . . . and others can keep it buttoned down for a long time, and I was one of those. But there was a deadness and a flatness and a grayness to my life . . .” Referring to other Christians, she says: “They hate what we have done, but believe me, they don’t hate what we have done as much as we hate what we have done.”

What the death they had dealt eventually caused them to realize was the personhood of the unborn baby — or the fact that it deserves to be treated like a person, which is the same thing.

A reader of the “The Reasons Better Be Good” post has commented “Many people regret having children…” Though not the point he was making in that context, this statement could be taken as a rejoinder to the experiences I have listed above, so let me take it in that way and reply to it. First of all, if some people regret having conceived children, that is one thing. But having conceived, do some people regret not having proceeded to abort the children? Here is a statistic I would like to see: the % of aborting women who say that for most of their lives they have regretted what they had done; versus the % of women who raised a child — even those who made great sacrifices to do so — who say they regret having done THAT, i.e., say they wish they had killed the child at the outset. I would expect the latter percentage to be quite small, and to become smaller as the mother’s years go by, becoming vanishingly small when the children start taking care of the mothers.

Here’s the president of Feminists for Life:

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151830708866882&set=a.10150709936306882.456402.123097641881&type=1&theater

Women aren’t stupid. We know it’s a baby that is growing just like we did in our mother’s wombs. . . . As feminists, we don’t believe in discrimination based on size, age or location. Do you believe that a child has less of a right to exist because he or she is small? Are large or tall people more valuable than small or short people? . . . For years, abortion advocates have been pitting women against their unborn children, dehumanizing the growing child with misleading phrases like “blobs of cells” and “products of conception.”

Dr. Bernard Nathanson was a co-founder of NARAL and one of the main architects of the movement that culminated in Roe v. Wade. He went on to run abortion clinics and to perform thousands of abortions himself. He eventually woke up to a horrible guilt, and produced a famous documentary, The Silent Scream, whose purpose was to prove the personhood of the unborn.

To quote from this page –

http://clinicquotes.com/former-abortionist-dr-george-flesh/

Dr. Flesh talked about the experience he had that led to him quitting abortion practice:

“… a married couple came to me and requested an abortion. Because the patient’s cervix was rigid, I was unable to dilate it and perform the procedure. I asked her to return in a week, when the cervix would be softer.

“The couple returned and told me that they had changed their minds and wanted to ‘keep the baby.’ I delivered the baby seven months later. Years later, I played with little Jeffrey in the pool at the tennis club where his parents and I were members. He was happy and beautiful. I was horrified to think that only a technical obstacle had prevented me from terminating Jeffrey’s potential life. The connection between the six-week-old human embryo and a laughing child stopped being an abstraction for me. While hugging my sons each morning, I started to think of the vacuum aspirator that I would use two hours later.”

That connection is a simple fact of biology. The surprising thing is that it quite normally takes a long time to see it, unless a person has one of these jolting experiences. As with my own worldview when I was young, it is “Out of sight, out of mind,” and a size-ism that seems to be the default, almost univerally, until a long time passes. The word is “callow.” We are born callow. A callow person is also callous. Sensitivity has to be learned, acquired. And some people remain callow in relation to the unborn throughout their lives, though sometimes they are not at all so in other dimensions.

Dr. Anthony Levantino was a pro-choice abortionist who performed 1200 abortions. One day his little daughter was killed in a car accident, and after that he found that he was unable to go on killing. He suddenly understood the personhood of the unborn. Here he tells his story:

When you finally figure out in here [heart] not just here [head] that killing a baby this big for money is wrong, then it doesn’t take you too awfully long to figure out that it doesn’t matter if the baby’s even this big, it’s all the same. . . . Even the most pro-choice person, when they see an ultrasound, things change . . .

It is in the heart that we can really come to understand the definition of personhood. I think that once we can, by any means, deeply understand our own humanity, we will understand the humanity of all those we had previously considered second-class citizens.

As with individuals, so with society. Following a clear trend, societies are outgrowing racism and sexism, and I think they will outgrow ageism and development-ism as well; and think that the societies will benefit almost as much as the babies. In the Western context, it humanized us (those of us who are white) to come to see other races as persons; it humanized us (those of us who are men) to come to see women as persons; it humanized some of those of us who are Americans to come to see the Vietnamese as persons; and it will humanize us to come to see the unborn as persons. That step, crossing that last civil-rights frontier, will humanize us more than any other, because of the subtlety of thought involved.

And when that happens, the vanished era when we treated embryos as anything other than the most defenseless and vulnerable members of our family, those most deserving of fierce protectiveness on our part, will come to seem like the dark ages.

The late Christopher Hitchens once said: “I’ve had a lot of quarrels with some of my fellow materialists and secularists on this point, [but] I think that if the concept ‘child’ means anything, the concept ‘unborn child’ can be said to mean something. . . . that opinion . . . should be innate in everybody.”

Yes. That opinion is innate. It is not ultimately an opinion that can be formed by science. The skeptical and materialistic Hitchens, a wonder-struck admirer of science, grasped the heart of the matter.

It is innate, but undeveloped in most. It is natural for the undeveloped and mechanistic minds that most of us start life with, to judge a zygote by its size. [Edit: Within the simple framework I sketched out above -- those who have a sincere intuition that the unborn deserve life, and those who have a sincere intuition that the unborn do not deserve life -- there is a big range of variations. Many will feel more compassion for the unborn with each little increase in its size or functionality. It is to be expected that an undeveloped mind will think in such mechanistic terms, just as to a growing child, the size and strength of the people around them, and of themselves, is everything.] But that is purely a lack of vision, and the vision can slowly develop in us.

(According to this website — http://www.prolifehumanists.org/secular-case-against-abortion — Hitchens went on to reply “Yes” to the question whether he was a member of the pro-life movement.)

Appendix 1: Further Scientific Sources on the Personhood of the Zygote

“Dr. Bradley M. Patten from the University of Michigan wrote in Human Embryology that the union of the sperm and the ovum ‘initiates the life of a new individual’ beginning ‘a new individual life history.’ In the standard college text book Psychology and Life, Dr. Floyd L. Ruch wrote ‘At the time of conception, two living germ cells — the sperm from the father and the egg, or ovum, from the mother — unite to produce a new individual.’ Dr. Herbert Ratner wrote that ‘It is now of unquestionable certainty that a human being comes into existence precisely at the moment when the sperm combines with the egg.’ This certain knowledge, Ratner says, comes from the study of genetics. At fertilization, all of the genetic characteristics, such as the color of the eyes, ‘are laid down determinatively.’ James C. G. Conniff noted the prevalence of the above views in a study published by the New York Times Magazine in which he wrote, ‘At that moment conception takes place and, scientists generally agree, a new life begins — silent, secret, unknown.’” (The Wikipedia, “Beginning of human personhood”)

The Wikipedia offers some other candidate descriptions for the beginning of personhood, but gives prominence to these. Why did the Wikipedia deem these quotes to describe the beginning of personhood, when the words used are “individual” and “human being”? We cannot take the Wikipedia as an absolute authority, but the Oxford Dictionary also makes the connection by defining “person” as “a human being considered as an individual.”

Appendix 2: Perceptions of Each Side by the Other

Above I said that most pro-lifers have a sincere intuition that the unborn deserve life, while most pro-choicers have a sincere intuition that the unborn do not deserve life. Can we expect that each side will be equally baffled by, or incredulous about, the intuition of the other; or on the other hand equally credit the sincerity of the other; or will we not find such equality in how the two sides see each other?

I would think that pro-lifers would be better able to understand the intuitions of pro-choicers, and to judge them as sincere, because of having been there themselves. Humans start out callow, and I think normally with a default size-ism in relation to the unborn. Pro-lifers will be able to remember that in themselves.

Pro-choicers, on the other hand, have probably not experienced the worldview of pro-lifers. They suffer from a certain inability to see life as a process, as a constant transition — they tend to rate the value of an embryo as if it were frozen in time rather than being the inescapable first phase of a seamless process. Thus they are likely to find compassion for a tiny speck, incomprehensible or simply insincere. So they will look elsewhere for what makes pro-lifers tick, and begin to impute all kinds of motives to them — a desire to oppress women, for instance, or sexual perversity, or blind religious belief.

[Edit: George Carlin famously said, “Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers.” Did he have any evidence that that was a dominant motivation of conservatives, or was he just baffled by a motivation not accessible to his perceptive powers?]

Such motives must also, of course, often be imputed for tactical reasons, knowing that they are false or at best sweeping generalizations. Not that such motives are necessarily non-existent. Blind religious belief is probably widespread, but it could not be as universal a motive as some pro-choicers would like us to believe. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, mentioned above as one of the main architects of the movement that culminated in Roe v. Wade, said later, after becoming pro-life, that one of their most important tactics had been to stereotype all opposition to abortion as stemming from the Catholic Church.

Appendix 3: One Reader’s Questions

I met Timothy.Griffy in the course of a discussion on another website. On that page, among other things, he probed into “Personhood” and the ideas thereof; and probed into my use of the phrase “moral sensitivity.” It will be useful to now address some of his questions here:

T.G: I do believe there are moral absolutes.

No Termination without Representation (Acyutananda): That position of yours is very clear now. Apparently I had misunderstood your first post (pair of posts) based on –

“your argument works only on the assumption that ‘moral sensitivity’ is absolute. It isn’t”

– and –

“Outside . . . clear cut situations [such as the Newtown, CT shootings], the entire concept of ‘moral sensitivity’ becomes void for vagueness.”

Since I had not said that moral sensitivity is absolute, I had taken your first sentence to mean “morality isn’t absolute, therefore any sensitivity will have nothing absolute to sense.”

Now that it’s clear you believe in moral absolutes, may I understand that sentence to mean “your argument works only on the assumption that ‘moral sensitivity’ is perfectly accurate in recognizing moral absolutes. It isn’t” — ?

JulieMeg had said –

“Your assumption is that ‘moral sensitivity’ is somehow absolute”

– and I had replied –

“I feel that some rights and some wrongs are close to absolute, and I think that some people have more sensitivity than others regarding those rights and wrongs.”

This is how I see the relation between moral absolutes and sensitivity.

(All this so far is just to try to get our language straight.)

Let me continue with your first pair of posts.

T.G: Let’s point out one big difference between what Adam Lanza did in Newtown, CT and the abortion *debate*: What Lanza did is clearly and so nearly universally accepted as morally wrong that anyone who says he was morally right would themselves be morally suspect. And ‘debate’ is the key term here. To judge a person as ‘hardened’ reflects an assumption that, at least in principle, a moral issue has been settled. That is precisely what has *not* happened in the abortion debate. The anti-choice article ['Personhood'] stacks the deck in favor of their position so as to allow other anti-choicers to feel justified in feeling superior.”

NTwR: Isn’t all this just what I call “democratizing moral authority”? My main thesis has been that judgments about whether the unborn deserve life are ultimately intuitively-based (we could broaden that to any moral judgments), and that some people’s intuition is better than others. Here aren’t you just saying that many people’s judgments are different from what I consider correct, without addressing my thesis that those people might well all be wrong?

“The anti-choice article ['Personhood'] stacks the deck in favor of their position so as to allow other anti-choicers to feel justified in feeling superior.”

The article is aimed at pro-choicers, so as to save babies. How does it stack the deck?

T.G: Am I morally insensitive if, as ["Personhood"] implies, I don’t accept that a zygote is a person? Well, wait a minute here. As Judith Jarvis Thompson pointed out a long time ago, accepting the fetus is a person only gets you so far when talking about the ethics of abortion. The right to life–like *every* other right–is not absolute. So assuming I did accept the fetus was human, it still wouldn’t follow that I would have to accept the special pleading it takes to get to the anti-abortion position.

NTwR: I haven’t seen JJT’s argument, but presumably you more or less summarize it as “The right to life–like *every* other right–is not absolute.”

“Am I morally insensitive if . . . I don’t accept that a zygote is a person?” We would expect the rest of your paragraph to try to answer that question, but it seems to answer not that question exactly, but rather an understood question, “Does a person have absolute rights?” But I think that is a different question, and so “Am I morally insensitive if . . . I don’t accept that a zygote is a person?” remains unanswered. I’ll try to answer it.

First of all, when I raised the possibility that women who don’t regret their abortions might not be morally sensitive (unless the circumstances requiring abortion were very compelling), I didn’t try to pinpoint just where that insensitivity might lie — do they fail to see the unborn as a person, or do they fail to see that a temporarily-helpless person deserves compassionate treatment? I guess at the time of writing, I was really thinking “either.” But thinking further, I would say that failure to see the unborn as a person is not exactly moral insensitivity. What could we call it? “Ontological insensitivity” — failing to intuit what they would be able to intuit about reality, if their intuition was more highly developed? “Ontological insensitivity” may not seem to you a more tactful way for me to speak of people who disagree with me than saying “moral insensitivity,” but you’ve asked me to clarify what I mean about people who don’t accept that a zygote is a person, so this is it — as expressed in “Personhood.” As also expressed in the post, science can only be brought to bear to a limited extent, so really everyone will have to take my idea about intuition, or leave it.

But let me ask this, just to start a thinking process (not to finish it): If there are moral absolutes, how do we know them if not through intuition? And if something is a moral absolute, such as “What Adam Lanza did was wrong,” and someone says what he did was right, then isn’t their intuition wrong? Aren’t they morally insensitive? And wouldn’t it be similar with ontological sensitivity?

“So assuming I did accept the fetus was human, it still wouldn’t follow that I would have to accept the special pleading it takes to get to the anti-abortion position.”

Anti-abortion positions are not a monolith. My views regarding the special burden on the mother that an unborn child represents are explained in the Aug. 1 post “Personhood and Citizenship.”

T.G: Unless and until the anti-abortion crowd can produce a gamechanger, I have no qualms about dismissing their judgments about my “moral sensitivity” out of hand.

NTwR: I wouldn’t expect a gamechanger based on science, in the sense of an already almost-airtight scientific case for the personhood of the zygote, becoming airtight enough to convince people who are on the pro-choice warpath for whatever reason. I expect an eventual gamechanger in terms of human evolution. To quote from “Education and Art to Change Perceptions of the Unborn”:

“It humanized us (those of us who are white) to come to see other races as persons; it humanized us (those of us who are men) to come to see women as persons; it humanized some of those of us who are Americans to come to see the Vietnamese as persons; and it will humanize us to come to see the unborn as persons. That step, crossing that last civil-rights frontier, will humanize us more than any other. . .”

I think coming to see the unborn fully as persons will be a particularly evolutionary step for the human race, because it will involve opening up a deeper and subtler level of our minds – not a new level, but a level that is little visited in our usual frenzy for different ambitions and gratifications.

T.G: . . . for your hypothetical case, I would find it disturbing for a woman to have an abortion simply so she could attend a fun party on her scheduled due date. I don’t even need to grant that the fetus is a person to be disturbed by it. Even if a fetus is not a person, it is a potential person,

NTwR: I think a “potential person” is automatically a person, as discussed most fully in “Too Young for Rights?”

T.G: However, at the end of the day, even IF the fetus is a person, I would still have to admit that in aborting the pregnancy to go to a party does not make her unjust. As I also said in another post, a person’s right to life does not give that person a claim on another person’s body (parts).

NTwR: Normally no permanent damage is being done to the woman’s body parts. A baby being cared for by its father has a claim on the father’s arms and legs. If the father fails to use his arms and legs to go out for infant formula and feed the baby, he is morally culpable and legally indictable. I would support a law requiring people to give blood in certain circumstances. In a peaceful country beset by aggressors, I would see nothing wrong with compulsory military service; think of what the soldiers may have to give [Edit: of their body parts].

T.G: I might think she is callous, stingy, cruel, or [fill in the adjective of your choice], but she absolutely has not violated the fetus’ right to life.

NTwR: Sorry, I find this a conflicted sentence, if our context is a moral discussion. (And not a legal discussion — that is, if you are not just citing Roe v. Wade to me.) You obviously recognize that she has violated SOMETHING — what?

T.G: Now that there should be no doubt I’m not a moral relativist, I think it should also be clear that you really haven’t addressed my arguments at all.

NTwR: As of now, is anything unaddressed?

T.G: For example, your question about killing the two year old becomes a red herring. [this is a new argument] Birth is a gamechanger because an infant is no longer dependent on the mother’s body, making other options available that simply weren’t there before. We’re no longer comparing apples to apples, it’s apples to oranges.

NTwR: As I replied to a comment on the “Personhood and Citizenship” article:

“Your argument about invasiveness is that the sacrifice a pregnant woman makes in carrying and delivering a child is unique — men don’t have to make it — and therefore women should not have to make it either. But what you are doing is artificially defining the issue in such a way that you cannot lose; you are saying that because men don’t have babies inside them, nothing that a woman might do related to her unborn baby could possibly be wrong, lest it violate equality. You are trying to impose a rule ‘If a form of suffering is unique to one gender, that gender has a right to avoid it regardless how much destruction may be wrought, lest it violate equality.’

“But really, every sacrifice that might be made to save some helpless person is unique. If I see a child about to run out in front of a car, I can say, ‘I don’t want to save it because I have a sore ankle, and it’s unique — no one ever had a sore ankle exactly like mine before.’ (It’s completely true.) So merely because some sacrifice is unique, is not necessarily a big deal.

“So I don’t accept that uniqueness is the issue. The real consideration is the degree of the sacrifice. Compare a healthy and affluent woman who has a trouble-free pregnancy and as smooth as possible a delivery, and thereafter gives for adoption or employs a nanny, to a handicapped man living at bare subsistence level who is the only support and care-giver of a sick daughter for years and years — even if that is not your arbitrary ‘invasiveness.’”

Here a person who is not pregnant and is moreover male is morally and legally obliged to make a greater sacrifice on behalf of a child than is a pregnant woman on behalf of her unborn child.

T.G: It is as someone who believes in the existence of moral absolutes that I challenged your thesis. You were (implicitly) saying that a woman who has no regrets about having an abortion lacked “moral sensitivity.” You supported your contention with an article that stacks the deck and relies on the very assumptions that are under contention.

NTwR: Did I ever refer to any of the article’s assumptions that you had already contended?

T.G: It is only when the basic issues have been resolved that one can even begin talk about an individual’s “moral sensitivity.”

NTwR: How are we doing?

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Web links (http://. . .) included in a reply should not exceed three.

 

Some future posts:

Life Panels

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

Abortion and Problem-Solving

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Too Young for Rights?

A couple of months ago, a pro-choicer named TF wrote to me in a public online forum:

“. . . women are individual human beings who have inalienable rights, and the POTENTIAL, NON-INDIVIDUAL developing embryos are not and do not.

“It is an argument between what IS, and what MAY BE.”

(I have no idea what she meant by “non-individual,” but I could understand what she was attempting to say about “potential.”)

More recently, on a YouTube page titled “My Abortive Testimony and Conversion,” a pro-choice commenter named DoneWithDogma at first made a similar assertion, that an early fetus is not a person (“does not have the characteristics of a person [mainly being cognition]“). DoneWithDogma later agreed with me that personhood is a matter of definition, but then asserted that a being who has not yet developed cognition or whose pain receptors are not functioning, regardless of what we call that being, does not have the same rights as a fully-developed human being (and later said that it has no right even to live).

TF’s argument about personhood was ultimately aimed at denying rights, so we can analyze all such arguments together in terms of the word “rights.”
Continue reading

The Reasons Better Be Good

Despite the extreme vulnerability of unborn babies and the relative ease of killing them when technologically well-equipped adults make a choice to do so, occasionally an attempt to kill one fails. As Gianna Jessen says, “And to everyone’s great shock and surprise, I didn’t arrive dead, but alive . . . in a Los Angeles County abortion clinic.”

Gianna Jessen and Melissa Ohden are two women, now in their 30′s, who survived attempts to abort them. From the information I can gather, both of their stories are authentic (though really the point these two women make could stand even if their stories were just fictional). Shaped by their experiences, both became ardent pro-life advocates. Both also attribute their religious belief to their survival against steep odds and what they see as evil designs. Jessen’s public activities seem to be motivated as much by religious evangelism as by her pro-life convictions; this might make her less effective as a pro-life advocate than she might otherwise be, with some audiences.

I am not myself a Christian, and my purpose is not to weigh in one way or the other on the validity of Christian doctrine. I would like to point out, however, that pro-choice forces often try to dismiss the pro-life feeling of Christians by saying that their feelings derive only from an abstract and debatable religious doctrine. Yet in the cases of these two survivors of the front lines of the “silent holocaust” (Gianna Jessen’s phrase), the converse seems to have happened: these two seem to have been driven toward doctrine by their highly-understandable revulsion against abortion.

I recommend watching both the following videos (10 minutes and 8 minutes) in their entirety. Here are the links and a few words from each of the women:

Melissa Ohden: Aborted At Birth

“I couldn’t understand at the age of fourteen how any parent could make that decision — to end their child’s life. . . . I felt like I deserved to know — you know, why is it my life was just a choice for someone . . .”

Gianna Jessen Abortion Survivor in Australia Part 1

(She is American, but speaking in Australia.)

“. . . if abortion is just about women’s rights, ladies and gentlemen, then what were mine? There was not a radical feminist standing up and yelling about how my rights were being violated that day, and in fact my life was being snuffed out in the name of women’s rights.”

The disproportionate importance of these rare cases is this: These cases, where the intended victim has grown up and become loud and visible, make most obvious what is always the simple truth — that even if you kill someone when they are quiet and invisible and preborn, you are killing a person.

What could any abortion-rights advocate say if face to face with such a survivor? To be consistent, they would have to say, “Your mother’s choice was not properly honored. Those bungling doctors let us all down. They should have upheld the Constitution of the United States (or wherever) and finished you off.” But would anyone have the guts to say that? No.

And what could any parent (barring those motivated to abort by the most extreme circumstances) say if they later came face to face with a child they had tried to kill? Could they say, “The abortion was a good idea in principle. And in the end they heard you cry and fished you out of that garbage pail. So everything worked out for the best” — ? They would not have the guts to say that. They would normally have to admit that they could have sacrificed a little more. And the fact that they would not have the guts shows that it was never a good idea in the first place. Yet somehow it takes rare cases such as this to reveal what a bad idea abortion so routinely is.

The potential value, for our social discourse, of such cases coming to light from time to time, is not to prove to anyone “I told you so” about the past. Their value lies in their potential impact on the minds of mothers and fathers and doctors contemplating abortion in the present. Any adult who contemplates aborting an unborn baby knows that the chances of ever having to actually face the grown-up target of their intentions, are extremely small. But if they have once or twice had a chance to meet an abortion survivor, as we all have had in the above videos, they will know that at any moment in their consciences, if not in external reality, they may be reminded of a fact — they may be reminded that the unborn baby whose life they took when it was tiny, helpless and perhaps shapeless, was a person destined one day not to be tiny, helpless and shapeless. They will know that in their consciences they will have to look that person in the eye one day and explain their reasons for what they did. And they will understand that their reasons had better be good.

Thus it would not matter if the stories of Melissa Ohden and Gianna Jessen were untrue. Their real value lies not in demonstrating a statistical possibility, but in their impact on our consciences and imaginations.

Anyone should be able to figure out that what is now small is in the process of growing up, and will do so if allowed to. But somehow we fail to see that except in those rare cases where our technology has failed us.

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

Abortion and Problem-Solving

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Education and Art to Change Perceptions of the Unborn

Once when I was about eight, my younger brother did something, perhaps involving physical pain for me, for which I felt that retaliation was fully justified. As I ran after him, I was intercepted by our mother. I was outraged that she would so unfairly interfere. She in turn was shocked by the desperate fight that I put up, and finally resorted to lying down on top of me, as the only way to keep me from breaking free. I can still remember my impotent rage. I hated it.

No one likes to be restrained from doing what they want, even when what they want is to harm another person. So though unborn child-protection legislation may be unavoidable if we are to save all the lives that can be saved, it will always be problematic. It will never be completely successful. (Among other things, what we could call a “kitchen-ingredients week-after pill” might be just around the corner.) And such legislation will have bad side effects.

Parents who decide to kill their unborn kids may rarely if ever be motivated by anger as I was at the age of eight. Even when the abortion is unjustified, their motivations are normally more thoughtful, and sometimes offset by hesitation and guilt. Some factors may make them less resentful of restraining authority than I was, some even more resentful. But in any case, clearly a deeper solution is needed than mere legislation.

If we can unlock the love and protectiveness for the unborn that already lies within us as part of our deepest nature, this will not only shield the unborn better than any legislation, but will represent the biggest breakthrough yet in the slow process of unfolding our own humanity.

As we begin the process of facilitating in society an appreciation for the unborn, one of the foundations of that process should be a non-technical but thorough course in embryology — “Getting to Know Our Unseen Neighbors,” we might call it — for all children at the fifth- or sixth-grade level. The emphasis in such courses should be on the wonder of the life that is transforming itself, reinventing itself, hour by hour, deep within the body of a somewhat senior and more-developed member of our human family.

One of many sources to give us a hint of how prosaic science can tug at the heart in the right way is this one: http://www.birth.com.au/pregnancy/

To make vivid to children that a human life is a seamless process, students could be given thought experiments such as: “Pretend that Mary the embryo can speak and tell the world about her hopes and dreams — how she longs to begin to beat her heart, to pump her lungs, to touch from the outside, for the first time, the skin of the mother who has nurtured her inside . . . to learn to stand up, to learn to throw a ball . . . What would Mary say to the world, if she could?”

What we’re up against: We may have to admit that the default viewpoint, the mental starting point, for many people, likely is that the unborn are of little significance. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Many people may not be able to see the humanity and personhood of the unborn without going through a process of mental development. But if education can to a great extent create a salutary aversion to the limited destructiveness of smoking, can’t it create a salutary aversion to the extreme destructiveness of killing unborn babies?

Little girls, in particular, should hear as they grow up some viewpoints, and perceptions of the unborn, that all too often go unheard, such as this dialogue between the president of Feminists for Life and one of her correspondents.

Serrin Foster: “Women aren’t stupid. We know it’s a baby that is growing just like we did in our mother’s wombs. . . . For years, abortion advocates have been pitting women against their unborn children, dehumanizing the growing child with misleading phrases like ‘blobs of cells’ and ‘products of conception.’ . . .”

Michelle Stewart: “I am a prolife feminist. Abortion before 20 weeks is equally wrong. The founding feminists understood this truth. Women are strongest when they engage as warriors to protect the most vulnerable. What is more vulnerable than an unviable human being in development?”

Children are likely to start hearing at an early age the view that women should be free to kill their unborn babies. In a small example of the effectiveness of art, Neil Young once satirized almost this same kind of “free world”:

That’s one more kid that’ll never go to school
Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool
Keep on rockin’ in the free world . . .

As children grow up, they will hear all the messages that different groups want to bombard them with. We cannot and need not, and even should not, prevent this. But if children first come to understand the realities that lie deeper than the messages, they will be able to discriminate. Certainly children as they grow should learn to understand the heart-rending plight of many pregnant women, and to consider deeply all the possible solutions. But the plight of the unborn is a plight that is easier to overlook than any other, and that therefore requires a more proactive education. The prevailing positional disadvantages of the unborn can be summarized very well by three old proverbs: “Out of sight, out of mind” (already mentioned), “Might makes right,” and “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

And for adults: Just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin made vivid, to people unable to see it before, the human yearnings of slaves, a blockbuster book or movie could make vivid the yearnings of the unborn to live and realize their potentials. Some of those yearnings are very undeveloped or unconscious, but they exist (they are in the genes), and could be portrayed imaginatively by art. We need a suspenseful movie portraying an unborn baby imminently threatened by abortion.

To conclude, let’s elaborate a little on “the slow process of unfolding our own humanity,” mentioned above. It humanized us (those of us who are white) to come to see other races as persons; it humanized us (those of us who are men) to come to see women as persons; it humanized some of those of us who are Americans to come to see the Vietnamese as persons; and it will humanize us to come to see the unborn as persons. That step, crossing that last civil-rights frontier, will humanize us more than any other, because of the subtlety of thought involved. But that may only be possible through education and art.

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published.

Some future posts:

Life Panels

Evolution, and the Humanizing and Uplifting Effect on Society of a Commitment to the Unborn

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

Abortion and Problem-Solving

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Only a Potential Person?

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

Some Comments on “Personhood and Citizenship”

(Recently on another website I had some discussion about “Personhood and Citizenship” with a reader named “My turn.” I will reproduce here the more probing parts of that reader’s critique, and my replies. -Acyutananda)

My turn:

A fetus has potential to be a person, but is not one yet, and it is not guaranteed by nature.

No Termination without Representation (Acyutananda):

“A fetus has potential to be a person, but is not one yet . . .”

This was clearly rebutted in the post, so to be convincing you would have to address that rebuttal. Please see the post again.

“. . . and it is not guaranteed by nature”

It is not guaranteed by nature that a 4-year-old will turn 5, but we have no moral right to kill her.

My turn:

[In your post there is] not alot of science (none in fact). . . . It did not rebut anything. The cornerstone of your argument seems to be that because we were all once a fetus, a fetus is therefore a person. This is not logical, as each person was once two haploid cells, and before that genetic code in our parents gonadal cells. You still have not made the case that undeveloped fetuses are any more “people” than the living cell stages before it. Nor have you made a case for giving them rights, especially greater rights than the living enjoy, and at the expense of subjugating the woman.

NTWR:

The cornerstone of my argument, as regards your points, is:

“One can define personhood, or define anything, in any way one likes. But to view any object of the universe, not to mention an unborn child, with disregard of its potential, would be a very abstract and disconnected way of seeing reality. Full human potential exists at the zygote stage.”

This is what rebuts your attempts at definition. [Web pages] such as this one are full of definitions. Objectively speaking, none of the definitions is right or wrong. It is all semantics. I put my definition, rather, on a subjective, psychological basis: if one disregards the potential, one’s view of anything will be very abstract and disconnected. If one disregards the potential of an unborn child, one’s view will be “disconnected from the deepest nature of our species.”

No one can prove this objectively, but look deep enough within yourself and you’ll see it. You appeal to objective science, but in the field of psychology, objective science cannot even presently prove that you are aware of your thoughts, although you know that you are. Science can prove by the outcomes of your thinking that you have thoughts, but cannot prove that you are aware of them. Each of us has to do lonely experiments in our own mental laboratory to test some hypotheses of psychology.

You wrote: “The cornerstone of your argument seems to be that because we were all once a fetus, a fetus is therefore a person. This is not logical, as each person was once two haploid cells, and before that genetic code in our parents gonadal cells.”

At those times the “person” did not have the DNA of a person, i.e., the DNA that it would maintain at 1 month of gestation, at 4 years, at 60 years. I think brother pmsulley [another contributor on that web page] has made the point about the DNA of a zygote.

You wrote: “and at the expense of subjugating the woman.”

This also is addressed in the [post]. I gave an example of a man legally and morally required to sacrifice some of his interests for the sake of a baby. Again, you may have your own definition of “subjugation,” but if this is subjugation, it is highly justifiable subjugation.

[end of dialogue]

My last reply does not mean that women who abort in violation of the unborn child-protection laws of the future should be severely prosecuted, if prosecuted at all. But abortionists who flout the decisions of the future “life panels” set up according to those laws, should be considered to have taken innocent life without justification.

Reflecting further on the dialogue, I would observe that if objective science cannot presently be our exclusive guide on this particular moral issue — abortion — then better not to forcibly contrive an exclusively-scientific formulation, or claim to have successfully arrived at such a formulation, as some do.

Above I said that at the pre-conception stages of haploid cells and their pre-conception genetic code, “the ‘person’ did not have the DNA of a person, i.e., the DNA that it would maintain at 1 month of gestation, at 4 years, at 60 years.” On the question of identification as a member of the human race, objective science is very clear and there are no arguments; on the question of personhood, it is strange that some people divorce it from such identification, but some people do.

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published.

Personhood and Citizenship

(This post, first published August 1, 2013, is an explanation of why there should be no termination without representation.)

The unborn babies of the world today, November 15, 2013, are living their lives just as you and I were living our lives a short time ago, and as each of us may, in the view of many, soon be living our lives again. What you are today is you as you are today, and what you were not long ago was the same you, as the unborn baby that you were then. An unborn baby is a typical person, operating as one would expect a typical person to operate at its age. It should be considered a citizen of its respective nation or nations, or a citizen of the world, with the rights of a citizen. The era in which we treated the unborn, legally and otherwise, as second-class and “other,” will in future be seen like the dark ages.

One can define personhood, or define anything, in any way one likes. But to view any object of the universe, not to mention an unborn child, with disregard of its potential, would be a very reductive and disconnected way of seeing reality. Full human potential exists at the zygote stage.

And yet, an unborn baby is “a citizen who complicates the life of another citizen.” Let’s look at an example of what this means: Continue reading