Thoughts on Choice

My apologies for not posting Wednesday–it’s been hectic. And yes, I’m talking about abortion.

As everyone who reads this blog probably knows, the Texas state legislature recently passed legislation that severely restricted both the sale of abortion services and their acquirement.

As you might be able to guess, this does not fill me with tears and woe. I’ve heard most of the arguments against such restrictions, and they don’t hold up very well. Many of the arguments focus on the motives of the restrictors, which I covered earlier here: Most of the others seem to forget things like adoption. I also refuse to consider statements like “You’ll never be pregnant, so you have no right to speak” to be legitimate argument—largely because it is a curious fact that no one talking about abortion will ever be in a position where they can be aborted.

The only really compelling arguments for circumstances in which elective abortion should be legal can be found in the question of what to do with children resulting from cases of rape and incest. As to these, I am unaware of any current laws that allow executing children for the crimes of their fathers.

I do not include “life of the mother” in this because, as far as I know, all such cases also involve the death of the child if nothing is done. That’s not elective abortion, that’s choosing whether to let two people die or kill one person. Now, you’d better make right sure that two people will die if you don’t kill one before you kill the one, but I’m not willing to make someone die to save someone who probably won’t live anyway. Also, I think that if you at least try to save the kid, then it counts as inducing premature birth.

Which brings me to the question of this thing called “bodily autonomy,” which I ran across during a Facebook debate. Yes, occasionally those are more than just wastes of time. The argument runs as follows: A. Your body is yours; B. No one has the right to use your body without your consent. When used by those who want to see elective abortion remain legal, this is then followed by: C. An unborn child uses a woman’s body to live; Therefore, D. a woman has the right to evict the resident whenever she chooses.

Let me lay out my cards here. I don’t believe in bodily autonomy, but rather the imago Dei as the basis for my opposition to things like slavery, etc. That deserves a blog post in and of itself, but my point here is to say that I may not understand this as well as someone who believes in the notion.

That being said, I think I understand what the concept’s purpose is. It’s a way to have a purely secular argument against things like slavery and such, and I get that. However, even the concept of bodily autonomy really doesn’t explain why elective abortion in all circumstances should be legal.

Here’s why.

First, it’s a misapplication of the principle. The intent of the idea is to prevent other people from intentionally exploiting other people. Forgive me from generalizing from experience here, but when I was conceived, no one asked me if I wanted to be conceived at all, much less whose Fallopian tube I wanted to be conceived in. In other words, the unborn child has not chosen to use the womb it is residing in. Saying that the unborn child is an intruder that may be killed is kind of like saying that I have the right to kill someone if another person kidnaps them, ties them hand and foot and gags them, and then throws them into my house.

Not only that, but it’s not like the unborn one in this situation is simply using the womb for their convenience. They’re literally dependent on the thing. Given the choice, if they could choose, they would be out of there and living.

Side note: One complaint I heard during the aforementioned debate was that such restrictions mean that the unborn have greater rights than their mothers. Yeah, right. The only right they have that they can even sort of use is the right to live. Liberty? Tethered by a literal umbilical cord and stuck inside a space that is maybe a foot square. Pursuit of happiness? See above.

And if you want to get into the Bill of Rights, as near as I can tell, the only right the unborn can actually use that’s in there is the one about no one being “deprived of their life…save by due process of law.” And no one seems to be proposing that women don’t have a right to live.

Secondly, on this argument, let’s talk about the one unborn for a moment, I mean, sure they don’t speak–or, for that matter, really think. But, well, they’re human, right? Doesn’t that mean they might get some say as to what they want done with their bodies? Well, since they can’t have a say in the matter, seeing as they don’t talk or anything, maybe we should err on the side of not killing them.

All of this having been said, there are certain arguments that can be made for abortion, such as lower crime rates, not making unwanted children suffer (a curious argument, since their existence is being cut off, but I digress), and the amelioration of various other social ills. Two things: Almost all of these could be solved via other means, and it is also true that said social ills could be fixed by killing all the poor, sick, abused, and/or physically/mentally unhealthy people. No one is proposing this because everyone knows it’s wrong.

In other words, this isn’t even a wolf by the ears, folks, much less “a good, a positive good!”

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Choice

  1. A good post. Very well put. If I may play devil’s advocate here for a moment, however, I would like to pose the following questions:

    A.) Do you remember your birth? Anything previous to one year of age?

    B.) If not A, then what evidence do you have that a fetus is “sapient?”

    C.) Do you support birth control?

    D.) If C, and if not A, then for what reason do you choose to say that an unborn infant is any more “sapient” than a sperm, or an egg independently.

    E.) Do you support the killing of animals (regardless of reason)?

    F.) If E, and If not A, then what reason do you have for believing that one non-sapient life is more valuable than other non-sapient life (which generally have higher brain functions than a fetus across the scale, a dog has the brain of a 2 y/o even)?

    G.) Final Question, Hypothetical: If your consciousness ceased to be before your consciousness even began to be, then did you “die” or was your “birth” simply incomplete?

    Summary: If a child is not even aware of itself in the womb, then what makes it any different than a sperm, or an egg, even our own skin, or a dog?

    • A. I don’t remember anything prior to the age of three. However, just because I do not remember something being does not mean that it was not.
      B. Since a fetus is human, and humans are sapient, I would assume that a fetus is sapient unless proven otherwise.
      C. I believe it should be legal and widely used. What you do with your eggs and sperm, I think, is your business and no one else’s.
      D. Eggs and sperm, apart from each other, are not completely humman. That’s why, despite the fact that your sperm is made of your own genetic material, there’s a battle going on inside your testicles as your white blood cells try to kill the little critters. Women don’t have that particular problem.
      E. Yes. They are not human.
      F. See above.
      G. I think that would be called “stillbirth,” and was considered worthy of a gravestone in olden times–and is still in many cases today.
      In answer: What it is, and what it can be. And remember, hard cases make bad law.

    • A) I think Lowell addressed this pretty well. The question of what you can remember is a red herring regarding the value of human life.

      B) I’m not really sure what you mean by “sapient.” If you mean self-aware as a person, where personality is defined like so:

      “consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain
      reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems)
      self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control)
      the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics
      the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.”

      then the evidence for personhood of the pre-born and especially the zygote, is difficult to ascertain. HOWEVER, I don’t think these concepts can or should be used to DEFINE personhood “sapience” because they are descriptive rather than ontological. They also happen to lead to some absurdities. For instance, let’s say that we have a 24-week old fetus, a newborn, a 2 month-old, and a toddler. By this sort of definition, each subsequent “step” is more sentient or sapient than the one before. These abilities increase steadily as the child matures along the genetic trajectory from zygote to adult. That is why ethicists who argue for post-birth “abortion” using the moral legitimacy (from similar personhood arguments in part, I suspect) of late-term abortion are being entirely consistent. By these sorts of definitions, the toddler is more “human” than the newborn! Clearly, this is absurd. The basis for human value must be based on something more substantive than conscious characteristics like the above. Traditionally, the faculties that were considered responsible for personal unity and self-awareness throughout life were considered part of the soul. Today, whether or not you believe humans have souls, some unifying aspect seems necessary to ground one’s personhood in a truly meaningful and consistent way. There are not “degrees” of personhood- a newborn is not less human than a toddler, nor is someone with Down Syndrome less human than a “normal” person. We all have equal personal status before God.

      C) I think so, though with qualifications. Birth control can be helpful in preventing pregnancies where there simply aren’t resources to support a child, or there are known dangers of significant genetic disease. However, if the purposes of contraceptives are to prevent children from being born period, then no- they are morally suspect. If a couple tries to separate the procreative and unitive aspects of sexual intercourse completely using birth control, then they are doing wrong. Sex is not meant to be casual, but to unite two persons in self-giving, other-centered love. It is also pretty obvious it is meant to produce babies. In our broken world, not al couples can produce children, but the brokeness of this world is not an excuse to intentionally break it further.

      D) A sperm or an egg is part of the potential parent’s body. It has their DNA and is clearly not a new human life. A zygote, however, does have new DNA that is not identical to the mother’s or father’s DNA. Thus the zygote is at least biologically distinct from the sperm or egg. Since it is a living human organism, and individual human life on a trajectory toward adulthood at least deserves the benefit of the doubt, I think it is entirely reasonable to ascribe human dignity to the unborn at all levels of development.

      E) No. I support killing of animals for a sufficiently necessary reason (i.e. food, shelter, danger, etc.). That said, animals are not persons of the same sort as humans are. I think where you are going with this is to go back to the criteria definition of personhood, or sapience. If human personhood is not based on these elements, but the criteria themselves arise out of a deeper conception of personhood, then killing advanced animals with consciousness without good reason seems to be a different (though still wrong, I would argue) thing than killing a human baby.

      F) As in (E), I do not place human personhood in terms of levels of intelligence- otherwise the toddler would be more human than the baby, which is absurd!

      G) I’m not sure how your consciousness could cease to be unless it had already begun to be. If a zygote dies, then yes, a person dies. Personhood is not based on consciousness, but on the Imago Dei. An unconscious human adult, like the comatose patient who may or may not awake, is still just as human as the conscious. If they do wake, I might add, they are the same human person they were before they were unconscious!

      Well, hope that helps!

      • I will limit my responses to a few key points each, as not to make this discussion falsely seem like a discussion on 7 distinct points, but rather unite the discussion on the point on which it actually hinges. The original argument can be summed up as follows: Is a child “sapient” (to be of being similar to a person, homosapien). This word sapience is often used in philosophy more specially as the characteristic defined simply as “seeing out your own eyes.” It can also be detailed by Descartes famous words “I think therefore I am!” aptly explaining that in the act of questioning whether or not he exists, he must therefore exist or else who is it doing the questioning? You seem to argue in your post several different definitions: First, the Wikipedia article which more similarly but in an overly precise way reflects my definition. Second, the biological “humanness” or “personhood” of an entity based on either genetics, intelligence, or some other attribute of their biology. Third, the spiritual Imago Dei. You primarily assert the last two, rejecting the early definition quite early in your post, and as such I will attempt respond to each of these two and your objections to the first in kind.

        First, the claim that Wikipedia’s definition of “sapience” is descriptive rather than ontological. As I said above, I would argue for a much more broad spectrum definition of the word “sapience”, as that of “seeing out your own eyes,” “a sensation of personhood.” These definitions are neither nondescriptive nor non-ontological, but rather both. Let me explain, the ontological difference between “non-sapient” beings and “sapient” beings is not “humanness” or “genetics” but rather lies in the fundamental stages of development in an organism’s sense of identity, as observed through the study of children (basically representing “us” in training). First, there is nothing. Of course this is where everything starts. But then, we start with a single cell, this cell merges with another cell and from then on, slowly but surely, a rudimentary body is produced. Motor functions kick in, instincts like kicking, stretching, breathing, a pulse, all exhibited in lower prime apes begin to emerge, and eventually, the baby is born, with little or no functions other than breathing and crying. Many die at this stage, and we mourn their loss, but then, later in life, a moment, maybe a flicker, consciousness, there for a minute and then gone as fast as it appeared, their brain is slowly developing more and more like their adult counterpart. First comes awareness of themselves, their body, their immediate vicinity, discovery! I have toes. Remarkable! Slowly a realization that these things around me are like me, objects, have existence like I do. They exist, even when I’m not there (peek-a-boo)! Even later, the child discovers that other people are like it is, aware, although it has not yet developed a philosophy of mind to determine that they have differing states of mind (I want milk, why don’t you want to give me milk!). This is the point where a child starts surpassing animals of the highest order. It is at this point (around the age of 1) that they become distinctly “sapient” as they are like us more than any known animal. This is not descriptive as you call it, because until this point their ontology, their inner being, was not distinctly different than other known creatures. This is also possibly why most people don’t have memories until that age (although sometimes memories of their environment persist, but rarely their thoughts).

        Thus you raise the objection that this line of thinking can be used to permit post-birth abortion. However, regardless of the ethics raised by the finding of this knowledge, this argumentation does not infact change the facts, rather how we choose to handle them. It is distinctly true that an adult is “more *something*” than a child, simply by the fact that they depend on us rather than the other way around. Possibly you might say, the child and I are ontologically the same, but developmentally different, leading us to your second definition: Biologically we stem from the same “tree” as it were, we both contain “human” DNA. But does similar DNA make us ontologically the same (in our being)? Certainly not! I am clearly ontologically different than my younger self, being comprised of a much greater wealth of personal experience and biological maturity which makes up my being. Am I then a different person? Equally false! I was clearly there, although I dread to relive it in my mind. Do I wish it upon my past self, as many so often quip, that I would have been aborted? Certainly it would have spared me the troubles of much of this life, but it would also deprive me of even a mere moment of joy which others are able to experience. We can argue back and forth on the comparative worth of this moment of joy vs. that sorrow. But certainly no, I am glad I was not aborted.

        Let us even think back then even before my birth. Was my “being”, my ontological “self”, at all present in the embryo, being merely a conglomeration of cells growing in the vat of my mother’s womb? Certainly you could say a part of me was there, just as you might say I was a twinkling in my father’s eye, or an image in the mind of God, but in practice these turn out to be more metaphor than actual ontology. One might be inclined to say to the seed “You are a tree” or to the tree “You are a seed”, but these would be merely shadows of a truth sought deeper within. A tree represents a lifetime of struggle and growth to achieve its stature and might, while to most seeds such stature would be a laughable dream, a fantasy really, based on the struggles that lie ahead. No, a seed is not a tree, and a tree is not a see, but on some level there is a continuation of seed to tree which allows us to trick ourselves into saying “these are the same!”

        Your friend brings up the topic of law, the idea that because we mourn the death of the stillborn, we should also mourn the death of the fetus. This must also be considered. Just as myself as I am, and my previous self as I was, are certainly different even ontologically, yet I perceive this as a continuation of evolving being, the mother of the stillborn morns her child’s death as if her child had ever lived to begin with. Often mothers will picture their children growing up, the joys of raising them, the satisfaction finishing college, the joys of getting married, and possibly, one day having children of their own, just as she has done up until this point, and suddenly in stillbirth these dreams are snatched from her cold hands. The joys of having a child are no more, and it is as if someone had just “broken her heart” smashing the very essence of her being, the memories she has associated with this child.

        This leads us to a greater philosophical point. The mourning of death is the mourning of a legacy no longer with us, as well as the mourning of a dream no longer able to be realized. When the mother’s stillborn child is buried, it represents the burying of all the dreams this child held in her mind, as well as the legacy of the mothers own life, and the life of her ancestors, which brought the potential for those dreams to be realized in the child. Even though there is no instantaneous ontological distinction between the child, and the household dog until the ages of 1 and 2, there is the dream of this distinction being realized, and this is what leads to sorrow when the child is unable to develop past that point. One might say, but what if there is no one around to dream (this includes the mother’s unwillingness to dream)! Surely then, the killing of the unborn is justified! This, you might say, brings us to our third definition, the Imago Dei.

        It is like Jesus said, “In order to follow me, you must be like these little children.” It is almost as if, before we contain the Imago Humanus, “sapience”, of or being like the nature of human, we first contain the Imago Dei, and slowly but surely our human nature slowly but surely beats out this Imago Dei as “sapience” rules our mind. Of course, this is not the same definition of sapience as I was using previously, that of “seeing out your own eyes,” otherwise we would be like puppets to God in the most literal of sense, thus destroying our train of thought. However, it is relevant in the fact that the mother’s will not to dream in no way impedes God’s will. One could argue that the destruction of life in the absence of a dream with no legacy yet to destroy, is wrong for the sheer fact that God has a dream for this child, and woe to anyone who attempts to interrupt God’s dream (Matthew 12:31)! However, returning to a merely human schema, one should also say woe betide the mother, who in absence of a dream for her child instead dreams of her own self-interest! We ought not to extend this argument out to include those who choose not to have kids, as the dream of a child has no object on which to latch onto until the formation of a host. One cannot die before they are alive, as you have said. Similarly, a dream cannot be mourned until its realization has become eminent, and then passed away.

        As I have demonstrated, all other arguments fail to hold water, they consist merely of a chasing after of wind, an appeal to spiritual forces (“soul and spirit”) and elements we know not how to describe (“sapience”). It is very important not to pursue argumentation then that cannot hold itself up, and which leads to hypocrisy (birth control, animal death). On many of these I am glad your argument held true, and reflected many of the points I myself would make. However, I do not like making myself the judge of other people’s morality, and I do not ontologically hold the position that a child pre-birth is “like man”, any more than a seed is “like a tree”. Therefore, much like I do not attribute the crime of “theft” to the action of “pirating music” since no music is lost, I don’t attribute the crime of “murder” to the act of “killing that which has yet to be born”. It is solely a religious argument that it is abhorrent to the eyes of God, and one day I expect God will bring his justice down in righteousness much better than I myself ever would. It is also solely an argument of woes to say that a woman shouldn’t act out of self interest in this or any case. It is her “life support system”, and to respond to 60guilders, it is also the law that removal of life support, even by force (think of a homeless man trying to steal your food for his family), is not murder. Still, a vote is a vote, and I certainly prefer a candidate who is pro-life, and express my distaste for abortion still just as strongly.

        Sorry it’s so long, not going to bother to re-read. Gotta go! Did this in Word, 3 pages.

      • I would like to clarify. I have in the past couple of days come into a greater understanding of the meaning of the word ontology. It may certainly be used as I have used it (the instantanious nature of being), but it may also be used as you have used it (to group two things of similar roots together). I believe your “ontology” from the Imagio Dei, and my metaphysical “dream” both qualify as this “seed” of our being which qualifies even the undeveloped to the same status of “humanness”. Also, I wanted to clarify that I am not in my last paragraph saying that I justify abortion by saying it is not murder, but rather due to uncertainty about the nature of its being I do not think we should classify it as such (until it becomes sapient, it remains either a crime against the mother, or a crime against God, possibly a crime against its inbuilt “seed” or “dream” but even that is getting a little too abstract for me). I would also err on the side of caution not to ascribe non-sapience to merely children under the age of 1, I would say rather that there are cases where sapience can emerge much sooner, as it is an important emergent property that appears early in a child’s development. Since we can not even justly determine if animals are “sapient” I would personally only support abortions which take place in the first couple months of pregnancy at most, as the fetus bears more resemblance to a grouping of cells than it does even to an animal at this stage, with no distinct “brain” at all which could in any way display sapience. I hope this clarifies my position a little more justly.

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