Monday, April 11, 2011

Abortion and Personhood


My own views on abortion, I'm not on either pole of that and neither of the interest groups on either end of this issue would probably be comfortable with my views.
  ~ Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada

I shudder to think of the consequences of prohibited abortion in our already oppressive society. Like arguments for legal prohibition of gay marriage, those who seek the same for abortion do not see the logical consequences of their campaigns: State intrusion into houses of religion and into medical institutions to assure compliance. It is ridiculous and terrifying.

Pictured above is a human zygote. A zygote is a genetically unique single-celled organism and is the result of the meeting of two gametes, or male sperm and female ovum (egg) in a process called conception or fertilization This is the earliest stage of all mammals.

In the case of humans, however, could this single-celled organism actually be a person? Pro-choicers would scoff at my answer, which is yes. However, my case for zygotic personhood is based not on religion, but on science and logic. I was a pro-life atheist (yup) for several years. To get this out of the way: I am a male. And I have an opinion on abortion. This does not make me a misogynist, nor does it validate the ridiculous ad hominem attacks on pro-life men by pro-choice extremists. Pro-life women use the same arguments as pro-life men. Address those arguments, not genitalia.

In this piece, I will examine certain weak arguments concerning the nature of the prenate (as opposed to neonate, etc.) at any stage between conception and birth. Arguments that deny prenatal personhood are completely fallacious. But the silliest thing is that there are far more powerful arguments for legal abortion rights that address the real issue while prenatal personhood is taken for granted.

When does life begin? This is very poor wording of one of the central questions in the abortion debate. Life itself is a continuum. Cells are all alive. This means that a sperm and ova, as cells, are alive. But the question isn't about when life begins, it is about the identity and nature of the prenate. The pro-choice movement has bastardized embryology and logic in their attempts to dehumanize the prenate. Pro-choicers may stop me and insist that the prenate is not a human. Terminology must be addressed:

1. Human/Human being: A scientific designation, meaning a member of the species homo sapiens.
2. Person: A philosophical and legal designation, specifically an entity with rights.

That the prenate is a "human being," the noun phrase, and not just describable with the adjective "human" from conception is biological fact. It cannot be specifically part of the mother because it has its own genetic code. It is merely attached. On page 10 of his "Evolution, Genetics, Man,1965 edition, published by New York: John Wiley and Sons," the famous geneticist (and atheist) Theodosius Dobzhansky says:

A human being begins his existence when a sperm fertilizes an egg cell

Major textbooks on embryology affirm this as well:

  • The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented EmbryologyZygote: this cell results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo). Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm ... unites with a female gamete or oocyte ... to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell (a cell that can become other cells) marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.
  • Essentials of Human EmbryologyIn this text, we begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual.
  • Human Embryology and TeratologyFertilization is an important landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.

When and how does a being with its own genetic code, growing from day one, join a species it was not part of one moment prior to whatever marker pro-choicers elaborate? The answer is that it was always a human being from the moment it was created.If you deny that the prenate is a human being from conception, then you are at odds with medical science and this discussion cannot continue.

But is it a person? Above my definition gave the context of the issue of the person, but it did not define person specifically. For purposes of this piece, I am not going to define it. However, here are two pro-life views:

However, my objective here is to challenge the logical consistency of pro-choice views which dehumanize the prenate and deny its rightful status as a person.

Are you a person? If you are reading and understanding this article, you certainly are. However, what if someone looking at these letters was only a Mandarin speaker and cannot for the life of him understand what I am communicating? Is he not a person? No answer is necessary.

And for someone to ponder whether someone else is a person, that pondering entity must also be a person!

So you are a person and so am I. Since we have established the scientific fact that human beings exist at conception onward, our question becomes: when does a human being become a human person?

There are dozens of criteria and "checkpoints" during pregnancy, and indeed, even after birth that various moral and legal philosophers have said constitutes the proper moment personhood is conferred on the prenate. But all of these points are arbitrary nonsense, and one may simply use the reductio ad absurdum (reduction to the absurd) to explain this.

First of all, is there such a thing as a human non-person? Besides the prenate, are there any others? To pre-empt a possible argument regarding euthanasia of comatose or otherwise irreversibly incapacitated humans: It does not follow to refer to ending a specifically and awfully brain-damaged human's vitals and justifying that the developing human being in the womb is not a person in any case. Another red herring argument employed here is that a corpse is a human, as if this is a relevant critique. Decomposing bodies, however, are incomparable to a constantly developing prenate. If there were a valid comparison, why does the prenate have to be killed in abortion?

Second, how and why does location decide personhood? Why is the prenatal human not a person, not even until leaving the mother's womb? And why does it become such the moment after?

Third, "it doesn't have a brain." Brain waves are detectable by EEG at 43 days after conception. Most abortions, then, are still immoral by that definition. The logical end to this criteria is that pregnant women must walk into abortion clinics, have an EEG, and if there was brain activity, she is out of luck. Absurd.

Fourth, the most dismissive "it's just a blob of cells." But we are all blobs of cells. How many cells make a person? And why are that many cells minus one not a person?

Fifth, some would say it is ridiculous to consider the single-celled zygote a person, and one might as well consider a human skin cell the same. The crucial difference, however, is that if placed in a womb, no amount of time will allow a skin cell to grow as a human being. This ability is unique to a zygote, and is referred to as totipotency, the ability of a cell to develop the cells of all other systems in an organism. It is the only cell that will grow as a human being in a womb-like environment. And that reason it will grow as a human being is that is a human being.

Finally, the issue of twinning. From conception to anywhere from seven to fourteen days onward, the zygote (though after day 5, it is referred to as a blastocyst) may split, forming two embryos. This is the origin of identical twins. It is argued that it is ludicrous to refer to a zygote as a person when it has the potential to split into two separate entities. This is true enough, but really irrelevant. Even if the zygote splits later, that does not have any implications on whether it was or was not a person beforehand. 
 Of course we can consider the zygote a person, in the same way we can consider a person who was the source of a clone a person before he was cloned, on top of considering the cloned individual a person as well, since they now exist. That's the point. Examples of the latter two arguments are found here

I can understand difficulty in considering the zygote a person. However, there is no other reasonable marker for when a human person comes into existence, except when that human person comes into existence: conception (or twinning).

As Professor Kreeft (linked above) puts it:
There is a common premise hidden behind... these pro-choice arguments. It is the premise of Functionalism, [but c]ommon sense distinguishes between what one is and what one does.

To put it another way, rejection of prenatal personhood is based on a faulty premise, that only if an entity does something, it is a person. But how can an entity, as a non-person behave personally in order to even change from a non-person into a person? An entity that behaves personally must have been a person from the moment that entity came into existence: conception.

On a related note, I have heard arguments that persons must have well defined personalities. But our personalities are constantly shifting, even slightly, throughout the day every day. Personality as a criterion for personhood not only commits the functionalist error, but redefines the question of "is the prenate a person" into a measure of personhood, or degree of personhood. But that is silliness. Personhood is not subject to levels or degrees. it is a matter of demarcation between non-person or person.

Proponents on both sides believe it is worth it to lobby for its legality or prohibition. I do not. It is just a shiny ball for politicians to throw in the air to distract from the real and overarching issues such as war, debt, inflation, taxation, and the militarization of police.

To their credit, there are still pro-choice moral and legal philosophers, such as Judith Jarvis Thomson and Walter Block, who take the personhood of the prenate for granted. Those arguments are the only intellectually serious ones that address the actual issue: the bodily autonomy of the woman. It is not my purpose here to refute those arguments (I am unsure that they can be), but only the dehumanization and denial of personhood for the prenate.

Rather than making abortion illegal, it should be made irrelevant. Both pro-life organizations (especially the Vatican) and pro-choice organizations should be pouring money into artificial womb research, also referred to as ectogenesis. Imagine abortion clinics becoming wings in Catholic hospitalsThe question of who would take care of these children does not refute its superiority to legal campaigns. Besides, if pro-life organizations were committed to saving babies, they would be doing just this right now.

Unfortunately, it seems they are more interested in shaming young women already in emotional turmoil.

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