"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Parsing Abortion Arguments

Recently, the head of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, said that the discussion of when life begins was not really relevant. She said her children's lives began at birth. Many people were horrified. They shouldn't be.

Christians shocked by Cecile Richards' response perhaps aren't used to hearing the Jewish viewpoint: True, there is a fairly wide range of opinion on the subject within the Jewish community, but Reform Judaism is the largest bloc in the United States and they generally argue that life begins at first breath.

Unless you understand other people's arguments better than they do, you won't succeed in changing their minds. Many Christians believe a human person begins at conception.

Hindus and Buddhists argue that human beings pre-exist conception, Muslims define the beginning as a certain number of days after conception (depending on whether the child is male or female).

People who argue abortion often make little headway because they compare apples and oranges. Here's a scorecard to help you keep track of what the subject is. Arguments about abortion generally revolve around three areas:

1) being alive vs..
2) being a human person vs.
3) the rights inherent to a human person.


1) Being Alive

When people say "We don't know when life begins", they aren't making a statement about evolution.

The sperm is alive, the egg is alive, the fertilized egg is alive. the embryo alive. All of it is alive. When we discuss abortion, we aren't discussing when "life" begins. What people really mean to say is "We don't know when the human person's life begins."

But, since you DO know when the human person's life begin, and they claim not to know, they actually mean, "We can't agree on when the human person's life begins." Correct them immediately and verify that this is what they meant. Definitions matter. This is why:


2a) Personhood: Biological tests

In almost every case, they will then insist on some biological test to establish personhood. Some popular biological tests are listed below.
  • Size – is it too small?
  • Appearance – does it look human?
  • Heartbeat (not all living persons have heartbeats, yet all living snakes do)
  • Brainwaves (you don't need brainwaves, to be alive. Cows have brainwaves but are not persons)
  • First breath (Jews believe no child exists until the first breath after birth infuses the soul)
  • Physical suffering: Cannot feel pain, so killing is justified (neither can surgery patients)
  • Viability (depending on time period considered, none of us is viable)
  • Birth defects (what counts as a birth defect? Two X chromosomes?)
The problem, of course, is that science cannot even consistently define what life is, much less specify the kind of life which is personhood.

These are all external tests. None of them really demonstrates personhood; at best, they are all merely proxies for personhood. After all, if external tests were sufficient to know a person, then the most efficient way to get to know someone would be to meet them, and then immediately vivisect them: slice open their chest, examine their stomach contents, crack open the skull and verify brain structures, etc.  Every biological test - stethoscopes, EEGs, MRIs, etc. - are all forms of painless or virtual vivisection by which we verify the integrity of various bodily structures.

Yet, for some odd reason, people rarely take their first dates to an MRI scanner or have their EEGs checked. If these tests were really efficient tests for determining the quality of personhood, everyone would subject each other to these tests all the time. If you want to know what a person is, consider whether there can be such a thing as a person who has absolutely no brain. Such persons do exist.


2b) Personhood: Communication tests

Most people don't even realize that they require a communication test for personhood. They think they are demanding some inherent quality of being, such as:
  • Self-Awareness
  • Social capability: can embryo make decisions?
  • Rationality vs. non-rationality
  • Sense of morals and/or ethics
  • Presence of Ego/soul
  • Sense of humanity
Unfortunately, it is impossible to demonstrate any of these attributes unless the entity is capable of communicating. Someone who possesses one or more "inherent" attributes but cannot communicate them to the outside world will be judged a "non-person". Many people who were thought to be in comas turned out not to be - they simply were unable to move the muscle systems necessary to establish communications with others, and so were misdiagnosed. 

Persons can only be known by self-revelation. You can't know if I like Snickers bars simply be examining my stomach. You might see that I have eaten one, but you don't know if I like it until I tell you. I have to reveal myself to you.

One of the reasons the Romans considered everyone else to be barbarians is that no one else spoke Latin. They couldn't communicate with them, therefore they considered them subhuman. This was a common conceit in early history - most peoples considered themselves human and everyone else subhuman barbarians for the same reason. Modern people make exactly the same judgement: if you can't communicate, you aren't a person. 

The triumph of Christianity was exactly the realization that communication doesn't matter - others are fully human even when we can't communicate with them. What matters is the presence of the human soul, which is comprised of the human intellect and human will. Whether the soul can successfully use the tool of the human body to communicate is irrelevant. Non-Christians don't understand reality well enough to accept this understanding, so they revert to a variation of the pagan view: "If you can't talk to me, then you aren't human."

In fact, this is arguably why the "biological test" for personhood is so popular. The culture would like to retain the Christian insight (communication doesn't matter), so it uses tests that do not require the subject to communicate (EKG, EEG, etc). Unfortunately, by treating the subject as an object, those tests throw away one central aspect of personhood: self-revelation.

However, this raises another problem. What if the entity can talk to you, but it isn't a human person? 

Within a few years, we will have a different kind of misdiagnosis: the Turing test. Machines may soon be able to communicate in ways that make them hard to distinguish from persons. If a machine does communicate in this way, is it a person or the illusion of a person? We can create auditory, visual and tactile illusions. Would this be a kind of logical illusion? After all, the machine is really just following a program written by a real person or group of persons. So are we communicating with the machine? Or are we communicating with a group of persons, some who may even be dead? Is a computer that passes the Turing test really just an interactive book, a cell phone conversation once removed, or is it something more? 

And given the fact that the machine is created by a group of persons, will it be a walking, talking example of a corporation, the "legal person" idea dreamed up by lawyers and judges in the late 1800s? To Christians, it is obvious that computers which pass the Turing test are really just rather complicated phone calls to recording machines. But others won't see it that way. 


3) Personhood: Rights

Even if you can agree on how to define the existence of a person, what rights does a person have? Are rights inherent to the individual (e.g., granted by God or ontology), or are rights granted by society?
  • Does society grants rights? 
    • Can we kill it if its existence would make us feel guilty:
      • for refusing to care for it as we should (it would suffer)
      • for not being able to care for it as we should (it would suffer)
      • if someone else could care for it as we should have (e.g., abort rather than adopt)
      • That is, do others have a right to make us feel guilty by volunteering to care for it? 
  • Can we replace it?
  • We have already granted society the right to take away other people's lives (death penalty).  
Arguments about death penalty vs. abortion are merely arguments about whether society's right to take human life is limited (to the guilty) or unlimited (government can kill whoever it chooses). For instance, the Chinese agree that women are persons, but deny that women have the right to choose the number of children they bear. The government does. Belgian doctors agree you are a person, but you don’t choose when your life ends. They do.

So, Planned Parenthood doesn't really care about biological tests nor communications tests. By their lights, personhood is granted by society through society's delegate: the woman who gives birth. If society (the woman) denies you personhood, then you are a non-person, subject to whatever future society (the woman) deems appropriate.



If one person mentions brainwaves while the other insists on a woman's right to choose, the two people are talking past each other. One wants to know what constitutes a person, the other wants to know what rights a person has. Point this out. Ask them to settle on one discussion or the other, and then stick to that discussion.

If you are trying to define when personhood begins, then don't discuss personal rights until the definition is agreed upon. If you want to discuss personal rights, there is no point bringing in a discussion of when personhood begins. They don't care when personhood begins - they just care what rights a person has. 


Tom Van Dyke said...

Magnificent piece, Steve.

Of course, you are forced to attempt to define human life and personhood in purely scientific--that is to say materialistic--terms, thus having already ceded the ontological premises.

Somewhere along the line we lost the ability to discuss what is right and wrong, good or evil and abolished philosophy and theology via contentious interpretation of the 14th Amendment.

Indeed, we have abolished morality in favor of "rights talk" and the power of the state--not of the people, mind you--to enforce it.

As for Judaism, it would be well to examine Jewish tradition and moral reasoning. Pro-lifers seldom overshoot their case by claiming abortion is murder--that argument is dishonestly put in their mouths. But that it falls short of murder does not mean it shouldn't be [at least largely] proscribed.

The easiest way to conceptualize a fetus in halacha is to imagine it as a full-fledged human being – but not quite.

In most circumstances, the fetus is treated like any other "person." Generally, one may not deliberately harm a fetus. But while it would seem obvious that Judaism holds accountable one who purposefully causes a woman to miscarry, sanctions are even placed upon one who strikes a pregnant woman causing an unintentional miscarriage.3 That is not to say that all rabbinical authorities consider abortion to be murder. The fact that the Torah requires a monetary payment for causing a miscarriage is interpreted by some Rabbis to indicate that abortion is not a capital crime4 and by others as merely indicating that one is not executed for performing an abortion, even though it is a type of murder.5 There is even disagreement regarding whether the prohibition of abortion is Biblical or Rabbinic.

Nevertheless, it is universally agreed that the fetus will become a full-fledged human being and there must be a very compelling reason to allow for abortion.


Mark D. said...

Also helpful in this debate to remember that many of the first generation feminist activists where staunchly pro-life. Here's a post over at The Mirror of Justice that makes just that point looking at the work of Alice Paul as an example: http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2016/04/alice-paul-abortion-is-the-ultimate-exploitation-of-women.html