Tuesday, September 9. 2008
It is unfortunate that I feel compelled to write this entry at all. The rhetoric surrounding Roe vs. Wade has crippled us in this discussion. It has confused biological fact with questions that cannot be answered by science.
Let me be very clear. The debate IS NOT when human life begins. A new human life identifiable by his or her unique DNA is created at conception.
What we are REALLY discussing is whether or not that life has VALUE.
Now, that IS a question worth debating. If you think that a human embryo does not deserve protection under the law then say so. It does no one any good trying to assert that a human embryo or fetus is not a human life. Focusing on the wrong debate really gets us nowhere.
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I could have WRITTEN this comment. In fact, today I did write a comment that said the same thing, in response to a drive-by flame on my blog.
It does get us nowhere, but asking the real question-- does that human life have no Human worth-- results in folks melting down and calling you a fascist.
Rebecca, your arguments are not valid. You claim that the "real" discussion is whether human life has value or not. That is not a "question worth debating" simply because everyone would agree. By saying this is the real debate you are withdrawing from the actual debate which is: at what point in the development process does an embryo have the right to legal protection similar to the born individual. Dismissing all other opinions by saying this is not the debate we should be having is most definitely not going to get us anywhere.
You are incorrect; her argument is valid, you simply phrase it differently.
Legal protection is an expression of value; thus, shooting a man is different than shooting a cat, and shooting a cat is different than shooting a tree.
You are also ignoring that, right now, the pro-abort side does phrase it as "when does life begin"?
Foxfier. 1) I phrased it like she phrased it ("whether or not that life has VALUE"). 2) An expression of value is a measure of how valuable. Her statement was the question of any value or not, not the amount of value. Thus, anyone would agree that there's value to human life. Your statement on legal protection is on the specified amount of value, which is the real debate. 3) In this real debate the question "when does life begin" is relevant, even if you can dismiss it with scientific semantics. Dismissing this argument by saying that this is not a debatable question, and arguing that the presence or absence, of value is a debatable question, is what makes this post detrimental to the debate. It is at the same time condescending to those with a different view on when life becomes "a person". Anyone looking at cells in a microscope knows that the answer to this question isn't as straightforward as Rebecca Taylor pretends/believes.
Your version of the "real" question:
what point in the development process does an embryo have the right to legal protection similar to the born individual.
Our host put it: What we are REALLY discussing is whether or not that life has VALUE. and If you think that a human embryo does not deserve protection under the law then say so.
Since your version is no more used by the pro-abort than hers is, your claim that it is the real question really is semantics; these are the two sides of the argument we should be having.
The fact that there is life, and it is human, is not "semantics." It is a statement of fact, and it can be scientifically shown--the embryo is alive, and it is human.
Now, if you want to change the question to when does a human become a person-- which, phrased in more legal terms, would be at what point does a human gain legal protection-- then you've come back to the exact point she made in this post, that the argument right now is off based and will get us nowhere.
I think the question of when the developing embryo becomes a legal entity is still unclear. If you bracket out the concept of ensoulment, it seems that perhaps a good criteria is the beginning of sentience, which has been argued to be day 14 post-fert with the appearance of the primitive streak. However, since pregnancies are very difficult to ascertain this early, a good compromise might be the first trimester. After that, the embryo becomes a legal entity.
No dice, Bert. Ensoulment is inexplicable by us here below, thus to give or withold human rights based upon it is entirely subjective. But what you propose instead as a "good compromise" is denying legal protection to a great number of human beings who, apart from size, maturity, and independence differ from you to a very limited degree.
It's not too far from suggesting that it's a good compromise to deny basic rights to a large segment of the sentient handicapped. The only difference is, if we were to start killing off the handicapped, we'd have to watch them die.
Sciphu, please keep in mind that "person" is a legal construct that can be stretched (or not) to cover just whom we please. Callin' a rose a stinkweed don't make it smelly. In the storied legal history of the US, corporations have been defined as persons, and indigenous peoples (or African descendents) have not.
This is why Rebecca, Foxfier, and other pro-lifers argue that the basic criterion for assigning human rights and human value should be genetic humanity. Anything else is subjective, with fatal results.
The reply that anything short of “genetic humanity” is “subjective” is confusing. I think you are misusing the term subjective – simply because a decision is not predicated by biology does not make it subjective.
You state: “It's not too far from suggesting that it's a good compromise to deny basic rights to a large segment of the sentient handicapped.” That’s polemics. There’s nothing in my post that would even remotely suggest that.
If we base "person" on something other than species or some other external fact, then we do open the door to marking more and more folks as not people.
I know people who want the mentally disabled folks treated as second class citizens.
The best argument I can offer is "who gets to say who is and isn't a human?"
You can't base personhood on biology. A person is a legal entity, not a biological one. Homo sapiens is a term designating species/genus membership. That is all - it implies no moral status whatsoever. You’re right that historically, denial of personhood has lead to pernicious outcomes.
You state: The best argument I can offer is "who gets to say who is and isn't a human?"
That’s easy to answer – we are all human beings. The more vexing question is: “under what conditions is it appropriate to terminate the life of a human being?”
Actually, you can base personhood on biology.
Because personhood is a legal standing, it can be based on just about anything-- in the USA, we usually hold "human= legal person."
Right now, we are still arguing with people who are saying that a fetus is not a human, which is easily, factually wrong; we are not to the argument you're making, as of yet.
Your reply is very confused. You write: “Because personhood is a legal standing, it can be based on just about anything.” This is incorrect. As a legal concept, the status of personhood is based on jurisprudence. Therefore you will need to explain how a legal concept can be explicated on the basis of biological arguments.
I think you're confused, and I don't have the time to explain.
the problem is, we haven't managed to get to the point to try to figure out where the legal protections should apply, because we're having the wrong conversation.
I happen to be of the view that defining any human as a non-person is rather horrifically wrong, but that's irrelevant to the post's point that the wrong question is being asked.
Foxfier and Bert. I have been following your discussion from the outside, and I think it proves the point that the real discussion is about "when does a (subjective) person gain legal protection". Thus you have disproved the statement made in the original post. Conclusion then: the statement "whether or not that life has VALUE is the real question" is dead (sic) wrong.
Having the discussion suggested by the OP hardly disproves that the majority of discussion ignores said question.
Hello Mary (et al),
It appears I'm late to this party!
Having read all 17 comments thus far, it appears to me that Mary's original point is demonstrated in the semantic gymnastics being played by those who disagree with her.
I've seen the following offered as "the real question":
"At what point does a human life become a person?"
"At what point does a human life gain protection under the law?"
"At what point is a human life 'ensouled'?"
ALL of these questions are predicated on Mary's original question:
"At what point does human life have value?"
Personhood, legal protection, and ensoulment are all means of identifying the inherent value of a human life.
The point at which a human life is deemed to be a "person" is the point at which that human life is deemed to have sufficient, inherent value to be considered to be a "person."
The point at which a human life is granted legal protection is the point at which that human life is deemed to have sufficient, inherent value to be granted legal protection.
The point at which a human life is "ensouled" is, presumably (because I don't adhere to the concept - I believe the soul is present at conception) the point at which God deems the human life to have sufficient, inherent value to be granted a soul.
Those on one side of the debate maintain that ALL human life has equal dignity and inherent worth, regardless of developmental stage.
Those on the other side of the debate try to bring in these other questions in order to define the point at which a human life is deemed to have dignity and inherent worth.
It's really as simple as that.
Otherwise, the "cells in a microscope" imagery would not be so common by those on that side of the debate.
Wow! I think it is time I chimed in with my 2 cents since I started this whole thing. This is exactly the discussion I was hoping to elicit.
It proves my point. We have stopped discussing at which cell division an embryo becomes a human and are discussing issues of VALUE. i.e. personhood, legal protection, ensoulment etc. This is exactly the debate I want to encourage.
I am just really tired wasting all of our time and energy arguing over whether or not a new human life is created at conception. That is a fact. I want to talk about whether or not people think that life has any kind of value that would require protection under the law.
It was my intention to respond to Bert's comment and rejoinder to my reply. Thus it may seem that I'm coming in skipping over a good bit of discussion that ensued after that post. I've left my response below nonetheless in the hope it will clarify a few things.
On reading further, however, I thought I'd note something about the crux of the problem that was the subject of Rebecca's original post.
As she points out, the issue on a biological level is not one of "when life begins," because biology has a fairly involved answer to that that doesn't really support the pro-choice position. She frames it in terms of whether or not human life is valued; the opposition here counters with, basically, "No it's not, the issue turns on when the entity in question can be assigned 'personhood.'" I contend that "personhood" is mere legal jargon unless it can be backed by objective criteria. In a sense it is a measure of value--what you value versus what we value.
To argue that "it's a person when it's assigned personhood" is not only a tautology, it's a really dangerous legal precedent.
Ideally I'd like to try to get you to understand, even if you do not agree, why we pro-lifers see things as we do. If you can be open to my ideas, I'll do my best not to be inflammatory. I don't think there is anything to be accomplished here by bludgeoning your opposition.
Realize, however, that I feel strongly about this issue, and that I base my view of it heavily on human embryology. Abortion, legal or not, is not a nice thing and I, not being a naturally tactful person anyway, am not inclined to sugarcoat it.
I think the only thing I can do to make sure my views are absolutely clear is to take your comments point by point:
I think that the question of when a developing embryo becomes a legal entity is unclear.
Actually, it's pretty clear. Under current US law, courtesy of the SCOTUS, a developing human embryo is not a legal entity. Neither is a human fetus, up to the point of birth. Neither, if some would have their way, would be any infant born surviving an abortion unless the abortionist chooses to treat it so. That said, in the best of all possible worlds, we try to base legal decisions on something a little more substantive than some vague notion of whether or not they're legal. Something like, maybe...available scientific information?
If you bracket out the concept of ensoulment...
Careful there, bub. Now you're wandering into separation-of-church-and-state territory.
...it seems that perhaps a good criteria is the beginning of sentience, which is argued to be, etc.
Two points here:
1. Note that you yourself fall into imprecision--"it seems"--"perhaps," "which is argued to be." Can you back up any of this (besides the date of primitive streak formation) factually? If not, to use an old analogy, would you shoot at a rustle in the brush on the assumption that it's a deer in there?
2. Sentience = having a soul? Source, please? It sees to me that since Rebecca, being both a religious person and a scientist, uses her blog to explore the scientific underpinnings of religious doctrine, it makes sense to debate issues here based on science, not theology. I'm not going to go to a theologian's blog and start a fight over the nature of Christ based on mammalian physiology.
...since pregnancies are difficult to ascertain this early, a good compromise might be the first trimester.
Thus extending two weeks to twelve and progressing from a human being without a fully developed nervous system to one pretty much equipped. This doesn't bother you?
After that, the embryo becomes a legal entity.
Three points here:
1. Let's get the terminology straight; it's a fetus well before this point.
2. Except that that's not the current legal situation and I don't see pro-choicers falling over themselves to grant rights to fetuses after twelve weeks.
3. Be honest--what magic happens at twelve weeks that makes the fetus suddenly rights-worthy? Conception is a clear line: a new, unique individual (or two or more) forms from haploid cells. Birth is a clear line: location, respiration, and degree of dependence are radically and irrevocably altered. twelve weeks is a fraction devised for human convenience.
The reply that anything short of genetic humanity is "subjective" is confusing.
See above. Conception is a clear line. Birth likewise. What's in between is continuum.
I think you are misusing the term subjective
subjective: 1. of, affected by, or produced by the mind or a particular state of mind; of or resulting from the feelings or temperament of the subject, or person thinking; not objective; personal...4. Philos of or having to do with the perception or conception of a thing by the mind as opposed by its reality independent of the mind. Webster's New World Dictionary, William Collins Pubs. 1979
I respectfully differ with your assessment. See my arguments above and below.
...simply because a decision is not backed up by biology does not make it subjective
Nor did I say it was. But if there is no factual backup other than your opinions or mine, it's subjective indeed.
You state, "It's not too far...sentient handicapped." That's polemics. There's nothing in my post that would remotely suggest that.
Polemics: the art or practice of disputation or controversy (Webster, 1979) Yep, I guess you've got me there. I was disputing (using an analogy that puts the reality of the thing squarely in your face instead of hidden in the womb) and I was being controversial. But just because it's polemics doesn't mean there's no objective reality to the analogy. Call it slippery slopeism if you will. In my lifetime we've already slid a good distance: early abortion, late-term abortion, denial of care to handicapped newborns, wrongful life suits, assisted suicide, denial of food and fluids without a written directive. And don't get me started on recent historical (as in, there are still folks alive who remember them) instances of ethnic and eugenic dehumanization that led to genocide. You can argue that there's no connection between any of these horrors and abortion, but I think you're mistaken. I think at the root of all of them lies the dehumanization of another unquestionably living, inarguably human being--often accomplished with full support of the law.
Does this make any more clear why I (and Rebecca, and Foxfier, and many others) maintain that the definition (and consequent assignation of value and rights) of human status has to be based on the objective criterion of genetic humanity rather than a subjective legal definition that can change at any time, and has often been used to exclude fellow human beings?
If I seem curmudgeonly, it's because I'm a little raw-nerved this morning, having spent a good bit of last night at the emergency vet's with a young dog who decided to sample the contents of my husband's pill minder. Please assume noble intentions--I try to.
Thanks for your detailed post. I’m sorry to hear about your dog, I hope he/she pulls through. I am open to your position and since you brought it up, I hope that you reciprocate the sentiment to my position. I do assume noble intentions, but because of people’s involvement in this issue, I’ve found that some take comments more personally than they were intended. That being said, I hope you take my replies not as personal attacks, but as attempts to find some rapprochement.
You’ve raised a host of criticisms that I will try to address:
1. Legal status of the fetus (for the sake of space I will just refer to the embryo or developing human as a fetus). I agree that technically the fetus is not a human subject. But I thought the whole argument was in support of this position?
2. Beginning of sentience. I think you’re misunderstanding me. Sentience has nothing to do with a soul. It is the appearance of the primitive streak, which will become the nervous system. The canonical statement is the findings of the Warnock commission in the UK
3. You write: “Conception is a clear line: a new, unique individual (or two or more) forms from haploid cells. Birth is a clear line: location, respiration, and degree of dependence are radically and irrevocably altered. twelve weeks is a fraction devised for human convenience.” But this gets muddy very fast. Why is conception more significant than the formation of the primordial germ layers? Or organogenesis?
You might reply because conception is an unambiguous start, the formation of a complete human genome. But this would be wrong – it is now understood that conception takes 48 to complete. See this paper http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=694102
for all the relevant science. Undoubtedly as science changes, even this will change as well.
You see we’re back to the starting point. There are no clear unambiguous lines in science – reproductive biologists make reasoned choices based on the best available experiments. Human development is a process, not a set of clear lines.
The reason that you think there are clear lines is that we have chosen to make certain events significant. A good description of this is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argues that at one point, humans were convinced that we lived in a geocentric or Ptolemaic universe. Then people believed we lived in a Newtonian universe. Now the reigning view is quantum mechanics, and that is even being challenged. Science continually reveals that the world is much more complex than we ever thought, and reigning paradigms will eventually fall apart. Your view of conception as a clear line is a product of an older model of human development, one that no longer holds sway.
Okay, that’s enough for now.
For some reason, some the links won't post. For the Warnock report:
Darn--the italics didn't work. Hope it doesn't make things too confusing.
Thanks for your concern. The dog is all right; I may have taken a couple of years off my life, however.
I think I need to address a couple of points you brought up. After that I'm declaring a personal moratorium; though the discussion has been good exercise it's occupying more time than I really want to spend at it, and I feel we're starting to go in circles anyway.
1. Re legal status of the fetus: I was describing the present legal status of the unborn in the U.S. in response to your assertion that you believed the legal status of the fetus to be unclear. If you were describing your personal viewpoint I don't think legal status is the term you would want to use. If anything I said could have been construed as an endorsement of the current legal status of the embryo or fetus, believe me, it was not intentional.
2. Re beginning of sentience, it's entirely possible I misunderstood you. But I'm not sure why ensoulment was introduced into the discussion to begin with.
Not being in Britain, I'm not especially inclined to look to the Warnock commission for guidance. From what little I've read about it, I have the impression that its positions are by no means universal among embryologists.
3. Re conception: I'm not sure why the amount of time involved in the completion of conception should be seen as making it anything other than the starting point of an individual human (or two.) I suppose if somebody ever comes up wth a method of zapping the ovum in mid-process there may be some controversy regarding that particular moment, but I don't see it altering pro-life arguments in general.
(BTW, I think there are some fundamental problems with the paper you cite. First of all, it's written by a lawyer, not an embryologist. Second, it appears to be concerned primarily with in vitro fertilization, which is not the normal case. Figuring from penetration of the ovum by the sperm to zygote formation is about 24 hours, not 48.)
I get that throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater feeling whenever you use this line of argumentation. Even if we were to assume for the sake of argument that the pre-14 day embryo could somehow be classed as less than human, I fail to see how that assumption would logically extend to include a nine-, twelve-week, or later fetus. Yet you stated that you considered denying "personhood" up to twelve weeks a "good compromise," for reasons you have yet to make clear. It makes even less sense if you really do believe, as you say, that "there are no clear unambiguous lines" (a view, by the way, I am disinclined to endorse. There are lines we devise for our own purposes, to be sure. But there are also turning points that stand out in and of themselves.)
I'm really not sure what point the quantum physics analogy was supposed to make other than that scienists change their minds sometimes. Whether the universe is quantum or Newtonian, we're all still stuck on the same chunk of rock with all the other members of our species. And as far as I'm concerned, if it's all right to brand some of those members "less than persons," the door is open for denying personhood to any of us.
Thanks for your reply, and I’m glad to hear you dog is okay. I’m not sure why you say the discussion is going in circles – we’ve only just begun. If you don’t have time I understand, but don’t make claims intended to discredit my position that do not reflect the status of the debate.
1. What I meant by saying the legal status of the fetus is unclear is this: you want this status changed. Therefore, you are unhappy with the current status, and want to provide reasons why it should change. This is perfectly fine, and it means that the predicate to your position is that the current status is illegitimate.
2. If you re-read my statement, I say we should “bracket” the question of ensoulment. Bracket means to temporarily ignore the consequences or debates about ensoulment. I was suggesting that we ignore it.
3. Are you suggesting that since the Warnock report was not written by Americans it’s not valid? I guess you don’t respect the Nobel Prize either, since that’s given out in Sweden.
4. I’m not clear what you are claiming. First, the fact that the paper I cited is written by a lawyer does not make it invalid. Second, the reason I cited that paper was to reference the author’s sources, many of whom are developmental biologists.
You state: “But there are also turning points that stand out in and of themselves.” Perhaps, but not in science. For example, certainly your birthday is an important turning point to you and others. But there is no scientific reason why birthdays are significant.
You state: “I'm really not sure what point the quantum physics analogy was supposed to make other than that scienists change their minds sometimes.” The issue is much more complex than individual scientists changing their mind(s). Again, to paraphrase Kuhn, individual scientists comprise a scientific community (he drew this idea from Ludwick Fleck, who also wrote a great book entitled “Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact” which I highly recommend). In other words, scientific knowledge is not an individual-level phenomenon, but a collective enterprise.
I brought Kuhn’s argument up to show that your claim about clear lines in science is not correct.
All right, I'll take the bait...this time.
1. Legal status is only unclear when it hasn't been defined. Most countries, if not all, have abortion statutes on the books. Therefore, legal status of the embryo or fetus, while it may vary from country to country, is certainly clear.
If the word you were groping for was "personhood," we could have discussed (I already did, some) what exactly that means and what the implications of assigning rights based on a legal definition of "personhood" are. Instead, we just went back and forth over the meaning of "legal status."
2. In fact, I didn't catch the meaning of your reference to "bracketing out" ensoulment at first. But if you go back over my comments, you will hopefully notice that all I said about ensoulment was that it shouldn't be a bone of contention in this discussion. So I was in agreement with you on that. Why bring it up in the first place, if the original post didn't and it hadn't been mentioned up to that point? It wasn't relevant.
3. No, I'm suggesting that I don't think U.S. law should be based on opinions produced in other countries, for those countries. And please note that I wasn't objecting to it on that basis, merely stating that it wouldn't have been anything to which I'd have looked. I did object to it on the basis that a number of embryologists don't agree with it scientifically.
My view of the Nobel Prize is mostly neutral, for the record, but that's also irrelevant.
4. The paper is written from a legal standpoint, to defend a legal position (not a biological one,) and it attempts to define a natural process by an artificial one. Defining the rule by the exception, by the way, is bad policy generally and bad law specifically.
Your last argument (leaving out the tangential physics,) as I construe it, runs about thus: "We might find out next week (next year, three centuries hence) that that upon which we based our definition of humanity is wrong."
Do we base laws on the facts we have, or the possibility that at some unspecified time in the future people may have different notions?
Bert, you may not see us going in circles, but your last post clinches it for me. I'd say useful dialogue ended a while ago; what remains is niggling.
Thanks for your reply, but I’d have to say the only person “niggling” here is you. Again, it is bad form to misconstrue another’s position as “going in circles.”
You state: “I'm suggesting that I don't think U.S. law should be based on opinions produced in other countries, for those countries.” You may want to go back and look at exactly where law in this country comes from. Not only is it derived from Roman and early English legal ideas, but many of the legal notions we hold dear are not native. Where did you think the term “habeas corpus” comes from?
You write: “The paper is written from a legal standpoint, to defend a legal position (not a biological one,) and it attempts to define a natural process by an artificial one.” This does not make any sense. Obviously it is written from a legal standpoint. And I guess you didn’t read my post. The point of my bringing it up was to provide you relevant scientific sources, which you insisted upon.
Also, what do you mean by “define a natural process by an artificial one”? This is completely opaque to me.
You ask: “Do we base laws on the facts we have, or the possibility that at some unspecified time in the future people may have different notions?” This is partially true, but I would recommend that you look into how laws are actually made. They are based on facts, but more importantly, they are based on legal principles (such as doctrines of equity derived from English common law) and good argumentation.
Summary statement: Facts are not self-evident in arguments for moral or legal standing.
American law did develop from English common law, which itself drew from several sources.
That is very, very different from importing something when American law is already established; one is a tree planted in various soil, the other is trying to graft on a limb.
You can certainly make that distinction. However, it’s not the case that American jurisprudence is some how isolated from the world. Judges and law-makers read the decisions of their peers from other nations. Whether they should or should not do this (as cminor asserted) is debatable.
Trying to bring this discussion back on-topic:
What does any of this back-and-forth (as much semantics as content) have to do with Mary's original assertion?
All this discussion of personhood and/or "legal standing" exists only in the context of that which as sufficient worth to be accepted as a "person" or to be granted "legal standing."
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