Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What does it mean to be human?

I've been having an interesting tag-email debate with someone for a couple of weeks now. This is a fellow I've "known" for years on the net. We used to both go to the same political forum before it degenerated into an off-topic arena for guys to simply beat on one another with ad hominem attacks. Before we both baled, we traded email addresses.

This fellow... let me call him Dev so I don't have to keep calling him "this fellow"... Dev is a socially conservative, fiscally moderate Roman Catholic in late middle age somewhere in the US northeast. We've had some spirited public debates over the years, especially about the wisdom of US and Allied efforts overseas. I have noticed a trend in his interests towards withdrawal from the broader political scope, to a tighter focus on morality as the big issue.

Recently, after a gap of a couple of months, I emailed him to inquire into his impressions of his country's election(s). Given the dichotomy of his concerns, I wasn't sure if he'd see the results as positive or negative. There was a lot to talk about, I knew. Obama's record, the health care system, various referendums around the country, this "fiscal cliff" thing, the possibility of Puerto Rico moving on statehood, and so on.

When he replied, it was abundantly clear that for him, the election was about one issue: pro-life vs. pro-choice. Everything hinged on that result. He told me that Romney lost because he didn't take the pro-life constituency seriously and they stayed home. Likewise, that McCain lost the 2008 election for dissing Sarah Palin, whom the voters were really interested in—again, because of her pro-life credentials. I was told that God gave the 2012 election to Obama to punish the people for their loss of faith; hardening their hearts, I suppose, much as he did to Pharaoh.

I've been spending the last couple of weeks debating the nature of humanity with a man who assures me he has personally seen angels and devils, and, if I remember correctly, been addressed by God. Whether this is actually the case or not is sort of beside the point. There's no way he can prove it to me, and I'm certainly in no position to insist it never happened. It may have; I can't honestly say I know it didn't (though I'm disinclined to believe it, not surprisingly). The point is that he believes it. This forms a part of his reality, and he feels compelled, and justified, to act on it.

I think I can sum up Dev's position succinctly and without fundamentally misrepresenting it in its broad strokes. Dev believes in souls, that ensoulment occurs at conception, and that the zygote is a fully human being from the moment of conception, imbued with all human rights and subject to the protection of the law. For him, with only a few humane exceptions, abortion is murder, and the women who avail themselves of it and medical practitioners who assist them, murderers.

I understand this position because it is one that I once held. When I was a teenager, I reached the conclusion that human life was sacred, and no one had any right to end it, at least against the will of its possessor. I'm not sure what, if any, opinion I held back then about assisted euthanasia, but I do know I was adamantly opposed to both capital punishment and abortion. My views were based pretty much entirely on the sanctity of human life in the abstract, and had little to do with the realities of life.

While Roe v. Wade happened early in the 1970s in the United States, a qualified federal law technically permitting but actually strongly limiting access to abortion here in Canada persisted well into the 1980s. One reason is that Canada has had, until recently, a far more anemic tradition of judicial review than the United States. I'm no expert but I think you could count on both hands the number of laws courts struck down in Canada over the years. Even after Prime Minister Diefenbaker opened the door for greater judicial oversight on legislation with the Bill of Rights, the courts were reluctant to step up to the plate. It was really only after Prime Minister Trudeau patriated the Constitution from Britain in 1982 with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms added to it that Canadian courts finally suited up. Long story short, after the repeated actions against abortion crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler, he sued the Crown and in 1988 the Supreme Court held that the law limiting abortion violated section 7 of the Charter. Other court decisions denied the fetus the status of human being, depending on the Common Law "born alive" rule instead. This is where the matter has rested ever since.

The ruling upset me at the time. But somewhere along the line, those "shades of grey" The Monkees sang about crept into my thinking on the matter. I began to see the issue on the basis of practicalities, real demonstrable measures of harm and suffering, and I came to see that if I really thought about these matters instead of simply nailing my flag to a principle come hell or high water, my position wasn't sustainable. I don't know when I came to see abortion as a sad, but necessary fact of life, but I did. My thinking on the matter now runs like this...

I don't know whether or not souls exist. I doubt they do for a variety of reasons, but I don't claim to know. But, since it's not within the power of anyone that I'm aware of to persuasively demonstrate they do, then the claim has no basis in law and can, or at least should be, discounted. And if they do exist, and they are sent into the world by a God reputed to be all-knowing, then he delivers them to ensoulment in circumstances he already knew would result in abortion before the birth of the mother or even the creation of the world, and still chose to do so rather than deliver that soul into other circumstances where it could come to term, be loved, and be provided for. I consider it cruel, even twisted, to say this, then, is the fault of the mother, a biological creature with urges and needs and limited resources and perception of the future, but not the fault of a being that knows everything and can do anything, yet still blithely suffers millions of pregnancies to begin where, for any number of reasons, they really shouldn't.

What does it mean to be human? Is it just having a set of chromosomes unique from everyone else? In that case, it's murder every time you scratch or cut yourself, since every cell, nowadays, is potentially human (or will be, soon enough). While I certainly concede that human life begins at conception, the status of human being is not the same thing as simply being genetically distinct. It has to be more than just that.

Having a legally thorny issue, the courts here have fallen back on being born alive. No one can dispute human status at that point. I think many people, though, suspect that the definition could be pushed back. At what point should the fetus have rights? To me, it makes no sense to speak of rights for anyone or anything that has not yet acquired the ability to suffer: in some sense, to object to its treatment at the hands of another agency. Consciousness, the ability to experience pain and the attendant distress, are the requisite formalities of having rights. Prior to that point, it is a practical absurdity and they can only be asserted on the basis of metaphysical abstractions that, as stated previously, are undemonstrable.

Even having suggested that, at some point, a fetus ought to be seen has having some rights, what are the implications? Does its right to life supersede the rights of the mother to security of the person? Every pregnancy entails an existential risk to the mother. She may willingly assume these risks... obviously, millions of women do, every year. Can can she be obliged? Ultimately, this is to ask the question: does the right of person A to live grant person A rights over the body of person B? I want to explore that. If the fetus has the right to use the mother's body, regardless of her wishes, on the basis that it is human and has the right to life even at her expense, at what point does that right end? Why shouldn't the child have the legal right to some organ in the mother's—or the father's—body, provided its removal is not necessarily fatal (though its removal, like the process of childbirth, may cause the death of the parent)? After all, if the child cannot live without the use of some part of the parent's body, what difference does it make which side of birth that need occurs? And if this is a human right, aren't we all then subject to an organ draft? If it is a right, then it seems to me entirely consistent with that right that a kind of selective service for organ donation is justifiable in law, and that if you match the tissue type of some person in need, you can be called up. So I don't believe the fetus has rights that supersede those of the mother to her own body, or oblige her. Just as any of us might with a kidney or bone marrow, this act must be a gift and a donation, not a legal duty.

The practicalities of it are, it seems to me, that a woman is indisputably a fully human being, possessed of all rights, and fully subject to fear, pain, mental anguish, and doubt. Child-rearing at an inopportune time may not match the realities of her circumstances in terms of her finances, marital status, or education. It may prejudice her ability to look after that child, or those who might have done better being born later when she was better prepared for parenthood. To scold that she should have thought of that before she got pregnant does nothing to address, solve, or even acknowledge these very real issues; to oblige her only brings those problems to bear. If she reaches these conclusions, then she is within her rights to end a pregnancy, particularly if she does so prior to any kind of organized brain activity in the womb. Women have, and always will, be faced with these choices in this very real, very imperfect world, and we do nothing to make the world a measurably better place if we send women and doctors to prison or return them to a world of shady back alley procedures, supposedly for the benefit of beings who cannot suffer. Insisting we do so in the name of purportedly obeying the will of a God who should have known better is, despite all protestations to the contrary, a heartless and merciless recipe for human misery, and the subjugation of others against their own will and better judgement of their own aspirations and circumstances.

I feel that we must let people make the choices they feel they must in the matter. And if there is a God, leave it to him to work out what comes next.


jim said...

I would like to see people of faith as a whole just get off the abortion issue, leave it be. It is more complicated than they usually make it. But more than that, God calls us much, much, much more to love one another than to fight for justice. It's not that he doesn't love justice, but that he so much more wants us just to love one another, directly, always. I don't see how fighting against abortion accomplishes that.

barefoot hiker said...

Hi, Jim,

I'd tend to agree. I don't think most people who are pro-choice are actually pro-abortion, just like being in favour of legalized alcohol's not the same as advocating alcoholism or drunk driving. It's about letting people have the option to make an informed choice.

Bridgewater said...

Your thoughtful remarks illuminate a fatal flaw in the logic of those who would force a woman to bear a child at the expense of her own life: namely, since when is a woman's life less valuable than that of a fetus? As Jim says, it's more complicated than they usually make it; the fact is, we are presented with an insoluble moral dilemma. And Jim's point about caring for one another should be the one credo of people of faith, especially since no one can presume to know "God's will," and it is arrogant of "pro-lifers" to presume that they do. I object strenuously to the monikers "pro-choice" and "pro-life" for the same reason--as you observe, "pro-choice" is not the same as "pro-abortion"--yet that is precisely how the "pro-choice" faction is painted, and demonized. Many believe that legions of women get abortions on a whim--too bad, so sad, not convenient, don't wanna ruin my figure--despite overwhelming evidence that this is a traumatic decision for all but the few who think there should be no restrictions whatever and who represent the opposite extreme. Conversely, for many who are willing to kill for the principle of the sanctity of the blastocyst, "pro-life" applies only until you're born, and then, kid, you're on your own, until we need you for cannon-fodder in an unfunded (but patriotic!) war in some godforsaken corner of the world. To forbid sex education and contraception to those who need it most, and then to force them to take the consequences as punishment, is, as you say, a heartless and merciless recipe for human misery. Everyone involved suffers when an unwanted baby is born, but to focus punishment on the mother, either by forcing her to bear the unwanted child, or by criminalizing her for seeking an abortion, is a violation of Jesus's admonition in John 1:1-11: whether it's a sin or not, it ain't up to the rest of us sinners to do the punishing. As you say, if there is a God, leave it to him to work out what comes next, but there is a strong primal belief in the inherent evil of women--Eve and the apple--that may lead Bible literalists to wish, on some level, to bring women to heel. This sense of women as somehow magically dangerous predates Christianity, but the early Church made especial effort to diminish the power of women, emphasizing instead the Biblical imperative to breed more Christians. Which brings us back to the view of women's lives as being of less value than their capacity to produce more lives. This notion is ancient, springing not only from the need of struggling religions to produce little believers, but also from the idea of women as chattel, providing, like so many brood mares, workers to till the owner's land; and of course to prove the owner's manliness by bringing forth SONS!

Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

(Part 1)
Great blog! As you noted, the question of abortion is a difficult one. It's difficult not only from a logical and scientific standpoint, but because it deals with fundamental concepts of personhood and rights, as well as naturalism versus supernaturalism.

The most important thing for all of us to admit, if we can, is that no definition of personhood is dictated to us from on high. Traditional Catholics and evangelical Christians believe that a fertilized ovum is a person because they think that the soul enters the cell at that point. Because they can't state their thesis in any terms that make sense to non-believers, and have no scientific evidence to back it up, it's hard to argue with them on that point.

I do believe in the existence of the soul, though I do not know the exact mechanism and timing by which it becomes associated with a particular physical form. Even if the soul enters the body at the single-cell stage, however, that's not enough to prove the anti-abortion case. If our society almost unanimously believed in supernatural definitions of personhood, then it might be justified to embody them in law; but our society is deeply divided about the issue.

There are both philosophical and practical issues involved. If we define human beings by their capacity for rational thought, then it is reasonable (though not logically compulsory) to say that the fetus becomes a person when it develops all the physical equipment required to sustain a human personality. That happens in the third trimester of pregnancy. Before that, it's not a person. After that, it is a person. But even then, the argument is not settled.

Some anti-abortion people argue that because a fertilized egg has all the information necessary to grow into a human being, it is therefore a human being itself. This is not a very good argument, since by analogy, an acorn would then be an oak tree and sunrise would be the same thing as noon. Both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas recognized the difference.

Some pro-abortion people argue that even a newborn baby is incapable of rational thought and cannot participate in society, so it is not a person. That's what the ancient Greeks believed, and I used to know a very thoughtful Unitarian minister who agreed with them. I can't prove that they're wrong, because we'd be arguing over our preferred definitions of personhood. *De gustibus non est disputandum.*

Even if one believes that a fetus in the third trimester is a person, there's still one more point to address: Under what circumstances is one person (such as a mother) obligated to preserve the life of another person (such as a fetus in her womb)?

Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

(Part 2)

These are fundamental moral questions, and their answers cannot be proven to anyone who is determined to see things a different way. My answer is this: If the mother had the opportunity to obtain an abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, and chose not to do so, then she has voluntarily undertaken the duty of carrying the baby to term. On the other hand, if the mother was coercively denied the opportunity to have an abortion during the first two trimesters, she cannot be held to have voluntarily consented to complete the pregnancy, so she could -- even if we might hope she wouldn't -- have an abortion at that point.

And rounding out all the theological, moral, and biological questions, there is the question of practical politics. The United States is bitterly and about evenly divided over the abortion issue. For some, the availability of abortion at any time for any reason is a sacred right: to me, it seems almost to be a sacrament of the secular state. For others, abortion is murder of the most innocent and helpless human beings, a moral abomination of unimaginable seriousness. There is no way to resolve the argument between these two factions. They will never see eye to eye.

That's where the genius of the American founders comes into play. Federalism means that legal decisions -- especially difficult and controversial decisions -- should be handled at the lowest level of government that's practical. Even if the American population as a whole can never reach consensus about abortion, the populations of New York, Utah, Idaho, California, and other states could do so. Letting abortion be regulated at the state or local level would defuse the issue. Zealots on both sides would get something but not everything. People in conservative states would not live in communities that allowed abortion. However, women who wanted abortions could still get them by driving to nearby liberal states.

Most people do not know that the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade did not legalize abortion: it was already legal in some states and illegal in others. What the Supreme Court did in that case, unwisely and on specious legal and Constitutional grounds, was to ban state laws against abortion. It thus converted a manageable local issue into a bitter, violent national controversy. The most sensible solution, whether one supports abortion or not, is to overturn Roe v. Wade. I'm not holding my breath until that happens, but it's our best solution.

Bridgewater said...

Astute comment, Dr. Palmer. Roe v. Wade has indeed been among the most divisive decisions in US political life, and the solution you favor might well defuse this issue on the national level. I can't help but wonder, though, about the consequences of returning the authority to legislate abortion laws to the states, given the current political climate. As the recent elections have amply illustrated, there is a particularly strong division on the issue between red and blue states--a geographical division. Of course there are people in blue states who are "pro-life" and folks in red states who are "pro-choice," but both demographic patterns and gerrymandering have tended to put birds of a feather together, with a great swath of the middle of the country heavily red and more likely to outlaw abortion altogether. That might be dandy for the majority in those states, but might also exacerbate the estrangement between those states and the rest of the country. Never having faced the dilemma, I nonetheless believe that both men and women have a stake in finding a least bad solution. Having lived in several progressive states and considering myself progressive, I'm with the solid majority in the country that support the right to abortion but with restrictions. Roughly another quarter advocate the right to an abortion at any time and for any reason--although rates of abortion by trimester would indicate that the number of late abortions is diminishingly small and not undertaken on a whim--and roughly a quarter are against under any circumstances. Many in the red states identify abortion and even contraception as being in conflict with "traditional" values, but are also vehemently opposed to sex education and Obamacare, ignorant though they be about the reality of abortion in human history, the herbal abortifacients and contraceptives known at least from Bronze Age times, and the hypocrisy of trying to stifle the sexual behavior of half the population while surreptitiously approving of the same behavior in the other half. He's a stud; she's a slut: now, that's "traditional." Catch-22 and a scarlet letter for sinful red state females? Not to mention the movements in several red states for secession that Barefoot has noted. It's a small but vociferous minority who see Obama as The End of the World as We Know It, and cooler heads will prevail even in Texas; in opposing secession, Governor Perry has shown that he at least has a cabin in the reality-based community. However powerful the temptation to say, buh-bye, don't let the door hit you on the way out, secession of any state could cause a cascade of secessions over this or other issues--like gun control--and The End of the United States as We Know It.

barefoot hiker said...

Wow, cross-talk in the comments; I think that's a first for this blog. :D

I understand Scott's sentiments and I recognize they're kind-hearted, but I have to confess myself suspicious of, for lack of a better way of putting it, federalizing human rights. I'm fine with states (provinces) setting the drinking laws, managing school curriculums, setting and maintaining vehicle safety standards, etc., etc. But I'm less convinced it's a good idea for subnational jurisdictions to be setting the rules for what constitutes a recognized human right. Letting the US South run with scissors on matters of race relations and voting eligibility, for example, was clearly not in the interests of the general welfare.

Now, again, it's not my country, and even if it were, I'm no expert, but I think letting states decide whether or not women have the right to abortion could be challenged under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. It a woman has a demonstrable right to security of the person guaranteed in New York, but not Alabama, how is that markedly different from the right to vote on the basis of race in those two states? Either a human being has a certain right or not, and that ought to be consistent throughout a nation (and, arguably, throughout a particular civilization, if not the world).

While I can agree in the abstract that the door being open in one state technically means it's open to those from other states, in practical terms I don't think that suffices. The 16-year-old who gets caught up in the moment and lets things go further than she really meant to may not have the time, resources, or even the personal liberty to just head off to another state, perhaps several days away, in order to act in accord with her own conscience and circumstances. Even much older women may not have such options. But finding help in the city in which one lives, or a day trip to nearest large town, far more readily avails such people of their constitutional rights. For these reasons, I don't feel that this matter is a good fit for the states' rights doctrine. It should come down to, if you oppose abortions, don't have one.

Scott Palmer, Ph.D. said...

With regard to Barefoot Hiker's comment (LP?), I would say that my suggestion is less "kind-hearted" than it is practical, realistic, and to a certain degree, humble.

It is practical because in the United States at least, there is no national consensus about the issue of abortion. Furthermore, the population seems about evenly divided between those who zealously support abortion and those who zealously oppose it. There is no way to resolve that issue without either (a) assuming that one group Has God On Its Side and can impose its views on everyone else, or (b) by splitting the difference with a compromise solution that gives everyone something but not everything.

It's realistic because the belief in one correct theory of "human rights" or One True Religion has spawned countless wars and created great suffering. In my view, human rights are a means to maximize human happiness in the aggregate.

It's humble because it recognizes that nobody is infallible or has a monopoly on the truth. We always think that we're right and those who disagree with us are wrong; but they think the same thing about us. If we cannot reason our way to an agreement, then we have only three choices: compromise, fight, or let the stronger side impose its view on the weaker side -- adopting the view of Thrasymachus in Plato's Repubic that "justice is the interest of the stronger party."

Compromise resolves the issue peacefully. Fighting results in violence and social disruption. Brute force imposition of the stronger faction's viewpoint invites the weaker side to do the same thing if it ever gets into power as well as to seek revenge for its humiliation. Neither of the latter two solutions is much of a solution. Compromise seems to me to be the only reasonable and practical long-term solution.

barefoot hiker said...

It isn’t so much a matter of whose side God is or isn’t on, but a more mundane one: the principles to which a country is pledged. As for consensus, we shouldn’t ask for a show of hands when it comes to rights. There was undoubtedly a serious lack of consensus on rights in the 1960s, but the United States was pledged in the Declaration of Independence to the equality of human beings, and to have given it the force of constitutional law in Reconstruction era amendments. Where God stood on the matter was anyone’s guess, but not where the law stood, and if consensus was lacking, it could be demonstrated that some people were right with the Constitution, and some were not.

Where the right to access to and procurement of abortion is concerned, the US is pledged to the equal protection of the law in the Constitution and the security of the person in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which it became a signatory in 1948. Those are binding on the United States as a whole. Even if that weren’t so, again, I don’t think we want places deciding piecemeal what rights people have. That should be a national responsibility, as should be seeing to it everyone in the country can avail themselves of them.

Compromise sounds like a nice word. Ken Burns did one of his wonderful documentary treatments on the US Congress some years ago. One important part of it was the long struggle of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, nobly working themselves to the grave to stave off a civil war by leading compromise after compromise. It’s lovely in its way, if you can overlook the deeper principle involved: that the country was being held together by compromises that kept millions in bondage and carefully and quietly mapped out the slow expansion of that institution. There was no long-term solution to be had from any of this. All it really meant was two more generations of black people suffered in slavery than would have if the free states had stood on principle at the same time as the British Empire. This unfortunate tradition of compromise where the rights of other people, usually not at the negotiating table, are concerned has led to some of the more regrettable chapters of modern history. What could be more odious than the Three-Fifth “Compromise”, by which two opposing groups of wealthy white men decided that black people, given no say in the matter, would be counted as three-fifths of a “person” for the purposes of taxation, for, best of all, for the election of representatives who would never represent them or be elected by them? Or the century-long compromise that Jim Crow laws were fine as long as there was a more moderate north to migrate to? Or the rather one-sided “compromise” men imposed on women that they were “represented” by voicing their opinions to their husbands and sons before they, and they alone, went to the voting booth? There simply are some principles that do not invite compromise on behalf of the convenience of others, if and when some truths are indeed held to be self-evident.

Recognizing the right of other people to make their own choices where they themselves are concerned, particularly when they aren’t the ones you’d make (or legislate), is also a demonstration of humility. Recognizing the right of women to end a pregnancy is not imposing anything on anyone; no one’s obliged to have an abortion, after all. Denying them the determination of what will happen with and to their own bodies, on the other hand, is an imposition, and it does entail compulsion that culminates in the threat of force. Being opposed to abortion entitles one to choose not to have one, but not to make that choice for someone else, personally or legislatively. I don’t see where allowing states to force women to bear unwanted children under penalty of law is any more a compromise where the women are concerned than allowing some states to force uncompensated labour out of some people was a compromise where black people were concerned. In each case, someone’s fundamental rights are overridden in the name of the expediency and harmony of others.

Bridgewater said...

OK--glad to see you're good with cross-talk--not that I expected you to snarl, "Gitcher own blog!"
Much as I favor the principle of compromise, your response to Dr. Palmer is a convincing argument against compromise on a state-by-state basis over this issue. In any event, a compromise system is already in place; it's called "majority rule." About a quarter of the population think there should be no abortion under any circumstances. There are roughly the same number who think there should be no restrictions whatever. Altogether, a clear majority think abortion needs to be permitted, at least until a less-bad solution appears. A clear majority of that majority favor restrictions; they say that twelve to fourteen weeks should be the outside limit, with later abortions only for compelling reasons--and this is exactly what is happening. There is a recognition that, as awful as abortion is, some other outcomes might be worse for all parties concerned. At the same time, abortion after the stage of viability feels wrong, wrong, wrong; it seems to me that there has to be a powerful reason, such as the discovery of a catastrophic or fatal condition in the fetus that would make continuing the pregnancy pointless--anencephaly would be one of those conditions--nor should parents be forced to endure the emotional, physical, and financial consequences of Tay-Sachs or similar time-bomb diseases. A threat to the mother's life, such as a diagnosis of cancer and the need for chemotherapy, would also be justification. But there is a difference between abortion and slavery: just the same there is another life of some sort in the balance, a fact that no-restrictions folks seem to consider merely a nuisance and no-abortion folks use to justify murdering doctors, with no scientific answer to the moral dilemma--only beliefs. As with Truman and the Bomb, when we face a terrible choice, we can only do the best we can with what we know.