Wednesday, January 6, 2010

To Be or Not to Be...That is the Question

Earlier today I was listening to an old podcast of Penn Jillette's now defunct radio program. A discussion about abortion ensued therein and just listening to some of the callers got me thinking about the issue. Why is it that almost no theory on what is appropriate regarding abortion or the end of life meets my standards?

I've always held the view that life begins at conception. This isn't because of some steadfast adherence to a particular religious creed, the words of wise sages, or some other pedantic nonsense, but rather a default position. Why? To be honest, it's because I've never heard a particular opinion that really swayed me to move my anchor further out at sea. And I've always felt, being unsure about it, that it would be best to uphold the overly cliched mantra of "It's better to err on the side of life." And so far, not one has given me sufficient reason to leave that position. And, without being too holier than thou, I don't really consider it a fault on my part but rather a fault with people who defend abortion with really bad reasoning.

The first defense we always hear is the hypothetical "rape" and/or "incest" story. Now firstly, these account for a minute portion of all guess would be less than 0.1%. I think most adults realize that abortions are, more often than not, simply used as some retroactive form of contraception. And while most people who are even against abortion in general, including myself, are willing to consider that hypothetical as a validation for a procedure in those cases, I'm not even really sure it's all that logically consistent. Granted, the idea is that in these cases, it wasn't the mother's choice and therefore not really her responsibility. I'm sympathetic to that.

However, I think the crux of the moral issue isn't really the responsibility of the mother, but rather the quashing of innocent life. For instance, even in the case of rape or incest, if we all (hypothetically) agreed that all post-conception forms of the child were indeed human, then wouldn't it still be wrong to murder an innocent human being? Maybe or maybe not. But regardless, the hypothetical of rape or incest certainly doesn't make it an open and shut case.

Listening to the show, I heard a caller give another too-common-for-comfort opinion that abortion should be fine up until the child is born. And he even specifically made the case by saying that the idea that a child is a human being before it is born is really just a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo and that you'd have to be some right-wing religious zealot to parrot such craziness. As an openly agnostic individualist anarchist, most (sane) people would be hard pressed to call me a right-wing religious zealot, yet I couldn't disagree more with what this caller was saying.

He was sitting here blasting anyone who thinks an unborn child is a human being by labeling them primitive and unscientific, but listen to what he was saying. He's actually saying that right before a woman goes into labor that the child in her womb is not a human being at all. But that maybe within twenty minutes of labor (keep wishing ladies) that this same being is somehow something completely different than what he was twenty minutes prior. Does that really sound like a non-religious scientific argument to you? That when a child is on one side of the vaginal canal he isn't human but as he magically passes through the other side he's somehow more some kind of post-utero baptism? Call me crazy, but I think location, be it inside the womb or two feet outside of it, is bad way to determine the substance of any being from a scientific basis.

A caller later in the show took a stab at an argument that was at least somewhat sophisticated. She claimed that up until the 2nd trimester that the child has brain waves that are only on par with someone like Terri Schiavo. Although I think this is a much more respectable defense, I still think it falls short. The implication here seems to be that as long as someone is "brain dead" (even if they're still alive) that they aren't really human. And I've always had a problem with this line of reasoning, particularly regarding end of life issues. Don't get me wrong, if someone wants to end their OWN LIFE, regardless of what ailments they may or may not have, I'm fine with it. I might favor trying to get them help, but I'm not ultimately going to tell someone else what they can and can't do to themselves.

However, in most of these cases, be it abortion or instances like the Terri Schiavo ordeal, we're not discussing people deciding to terminate their own life. We're talking about other sentient beings making the decision to end the lives of other innocent individuals without their permission. And I can't ethically bring myself to support things done in that vein, even if I'm sympathetic to the pragmatic aims. If the humanity of an individual is determined by their mental capacity, then there are a lot of psychotic people that should be able to have their way with many people in hospitals and mental institutions across the world but I doubt too many people would really be OK with that. I just don't think that brain wave activity is a sophisticated enough factor to be a barometer of humanity.

And, of course, I happened to hear the all-too-prevalent notion that a child is just a parasite and that, since they can't live for themselves while they are in the womb, they aren't really human yet. Well, dependency just happens to also be a pretty shoddy measurement of humanity. As far as children are concerned, they don't lose a very real physical dependency on others (adults) for a very very long time. And what about seniors who are arguably even more dependent than children in their last years. Even if we were to be more specific in delimiting it to an issue about being able to breathe on your own, would people on respirators lose their rights as human beings, even if the outlook for them was good? Even more sophisticated arguments like this seem to miss the point entirely.

My beliefs on abortion stem from two things that pass in the night on this issue. The first is my unwavering commitment to the personal sovereignty of human beings and the other is my inability to scientifically pinpoint where life begins. I can't really, ethically, accept the idea that it's OK to kill an innocent human being, and particularly just for the purpose of being able to deny responsibility for your actions. But at the same time, pin-pointing when a being actually becomes human is somewhat troublesome. It would seem that simply assigning a particular passage of time as a guideline would be pretty irrational. If nothing else, for the exact same reason that saying something is human only after birth is ridiculous. To look at a creature at 11:59 and claim it's not any more human than a virus and then at the stroke of midnight to declare that it's a human with inalienable rights seems terribly inadequate. At the same time, simply guaging a being's humanity on physical capacity and personal dependency doesn't seem adequate enough either.

That being said, it's possible that saying that something is human from conception may be inadequate as well. And so here I sit on the scientific and ethical sidelines on this one. I'm willing to be moved but no one seems to be willing to come up with a good enough notion to move me. I'm practically begging you to change my mind here.

Where does life begin?

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