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Oct. '04 - Rationally Speaking - Abortion, a philosophical.. 
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Post Oct. '04 - Rationally Speaking - Abortion, a philosophical..
This is thread is for discussing Massimo Pigliucci's October 2004 Rationally Speaking article entitled...



I have often remarked in this column that philosophy gets an unfair bad wrap on the ground that it doesn't solve problems. Indeed, the point of philosophy is more to clarify concepts, ideas, and their consequences, then to solve practical issues. However, it would seem that clarifying things isn't much of a goal if in turn it doesn't help us make some progress. So, let us consider one particularly sensitive debate -- the one about the very idea of abortion -- where philosophy, by claryfying our thoughts, can help reasonable people come to a compromise (philosophy can do nothing for unreasonable people, so if you are among those who scream "murder!" at the thought of someone masturbating, get a life, and while you're at it, make a point of watching Monty Python's Meaning of Life).

Much of the debate on abortion hinges upon what seems to be a scientific question: when does a fertilized egg become a human being? Of course, the answer cannot be entirely scientific, since it depends in part on objective facts about the biology of human development, and in part on what we mean by "human being." Which is where philosophy comes into play. Does a foetus become a human being when the heart starts beating? When there is a recognizable central nervous system? When it can react to external stimuli? When it can feel pain? Any of those answers would put the boundary between unacceptable and acceptable abortion practices at different times during pregnancy, but it seems rather arbitrary to pick one of these developmental milestones and use it as a universal yardstick for moral decisions. After all, many other animals have a nervous system, a heartbit, respond to external stimuli, and can feel pain, but most of us (vegetarians excluded -- but most abortion opponents included) don't seem to have too many qualms about killing such animals.

No, the crucial point must focus on something else that characterizes human beings. Plenty of philosophers, for example Julian Baggini (in his excellent collection Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines) have suggested that the important facts in the debate on abortion (and the parallel one on euthanasia) are not found in the biology of humans, but rather in our (philosophical) concept of personhood. In other words, some of us think a foetus should be protected because it is becoming a person, i.e. an entity that can eventually feel not just pain, but suffering; that can have not just the urge to have sex and reproduce, but may fall in love; a being that could one day write a sonnet, a song, or a philosophical essay.

If the problem is actual or potential personhood, not the developmental biology of our particular species of primates, then we have moved from biology to philosophy, a much more tricky terrain to navigate. Being a person is tightly linked to having the ability to lay down and recover memories (which make up our "identity" as a person), as well as to experience emotions (like love and suffering) and not just feelings (like sexual urge and pain). These characteristics are in turn dependent on being a member of a society, interacting with others, communicating one's thoughts and receiving and understanding information about other people's thoughts and emotions. Yes, all of this is also a matter of biology (after all, these things are made possible only by the presence of certain biological essentials, like a functional body, and especially a complex brain), but taken together they mean that personhood is most of all a question of psychology and sociology.

The problem is that there are plenty of circumstances in which a human being is not, in fact, a person. Foetuses are not persons, and neither are people who survive in a vegetative state induced by a coma. Other cases are more difficult to determine, but one can make a reasonable argument that very young children are only on their way to become persons, while patients affected by advanced stages of some mental diseases like Alzheimer are well on their way out of full personhood. So, while there is very little question that by performing an abortion we are in fact killing a biological being that belongs to the human species, it is an entirely different -- and much more difficult to defend -- proposition to say that we are killing a person.

Abortion opponents may shrug all of this philosophical quibbling as irrelevant on the ground that the procedure -- at whatever stage it is practiced -- kills a potential person. But this is a rather odd argument, with far reaching consequences that should be seriously considered by whoever proposes it. For example, the mass of cells in question will become a person only if many conditions other than biological development are fulfilled, including being raised in a proper physical, psychological and social environment. It is ironic, therefore, that we spend so much energy debating abortion while most of us are much less passionate about more apparently mundane issues such as, say, health care and education for all those non-aborted foetuses.

Even more radically, if a fertilized egg is a potential person, so is every single unfertilized one, and every sperm as well. After all, the egg or sperm only needs a gamete of the opposite type to begin the developmental process that will lead to the generation of another person. I suppose that is why the most rabid religious fundamentalists (including the current Pope) are against masturbation or sex that doesn't have the goal of reproduction. But it is hard to see what these people could do to avoid the natural "waste" of unutilized human eggs. Should we explant them from every woman and fertilize them artificially? If your intuitive answer was "no," and yet you are against all types of abortion, you may want to consider the consistency of your philosophy.

Do I have a better and clearer solution to offer that can help us settle the abortion debate once and for all? No, as I acknowledged at the beginning, that isn't the point of a philosophical discussion. Quite the opposite, I hope that people reading this column will feel a bit less sure of their own positions because they have understood that the issue is much more complex and difficult to settle than a simple slogan, or even an introductory course on human developmental biology, allow. And please do check out that Monty Python movie I mentioned in the beginning.







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Wed Oct 06, 2004 4:33 pm
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Post States May Ban Abortion if Roe Overturned
Abortion Bans Coming?

Quote:
WASHINGTON - Thirty states are poised to make abortion illegal within a year if the Supreme Court reversed its 1973 ruling establishing a woman's legal right to an abortion, an advocacy group said Tuesday.


Not good. This is not the way to go. We saw how having a ban on abortion turned out in the past.

We need to push education and contraceptive awareness rather than making a safe procedure illegal.

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Thu Oct 07, 2004 8:30 am
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Post Re: States May Ban Abortion if Roe Overturned
The abortion debate really does revolve around two questions:

1. When does a fertilized egg become a human being?

2. What is a human being?

Religious fundies struggle more with these questions than freethinkers as fundies tend to see everything in life as black or white. Life is much more complex and sometimes we actually have to reason through tough issues.

To many Christians the answer is simple: killing is always wrong. But Massimo tackles this well by showing that these same individuals are comfortable killing other living things without batting an eye. Ahh, but killing humans is evil. But what the hell is a human being anyway? Where do we draw the line?

My opinion is that there isn't a black and white answer. And it isn't as if there ever will be an objective answer. Life doesn't begin at any specific point. Life is a continuum! As Massimo suggests, life doesn't start at egg and sperm union. Both egg and sperm are already alive.

Fundies seek ready-made answers in their religious texts. But this one isn't so easy. I heard a comedian on XM Radio yesterday tell a joke...

Q: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

A: Neither. The rooster came first - that's how the chicken got knocked up in the first place!

I think the chicken or the egg riddle is a classic example of the ignorance many people have of the science behind the miracle of life. Neither came first. The question is downright silly in light of our understanding of the origins and evolution of life.

Massimo would raise some hairs with this statement:

Quote:
Foetuses are not persons, and neither are people who survive in a vegetative state induced by coma.
When one of your loved ones slips into a coma we'll see how quick you are to write them off as a person Massimo. ;) The hope and chance that they will come out of the coma matters doesn't it? So if there is a chance they will come out of the coma they're still a person, right? And if we deem it impossible for them to come out of the coma...they're not a person anymore?

So we are now valuing a potentiality over an actuality. I'm comfortable with this. We all must find our comfort zone. And then we must collectively assign a beginning to personhood. Roe vs. Wade did a fantastic job in my opinion, and I hope it holds up to the test of time.

Chris


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Fri Oct 08, 2004 8:30 am
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Post Re: States May Ban Abortion if Roe Overturned
AS I see it, the issue is one of Class War, and Fetuses are collatoral damage.

I do not support Abortion as a cosmetic response to a technical interference in an otherwise banal lifestyle of greed and ignorance.

Abortion, as a type of "nip and tuck" process, similar to chopping up a nose or chin or filling a breast or sucking out fat because "I want to feel better about myself" or "Improve my ascent up the corporate ladder"...I find aborrhent.

Abortion kills life, mutilates a body, and in some cases is murder.

Since we live in an unjust economic and social system, still poisoned by years of patriarchy, racism and class war...some Abortions are necessary evils in the face of impossible circumstances. Something like being forced to vote for Kerry over Bush.

But, I think the solution is a just economic system that provides ample resources for women and families (inculding education, medical assistance, child care, etc.) in democratic ways, for democratic purposes, with democratic ends in sight.

Until then, when bread is scarce, folks get sacrificed.




Fri Oct 08, 2004 8:35 am
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Post Re: States May Ban Abortion if Roe Overturned
It's a difficult issue, but not a complex one. At least in my eyes it's not.

I believe in human rights. Not person rights, human rights.

There is no real difference between a zygote and an adult human. Genetically, both are the same. Our genes never change.

When people talk about rationality, pain and viability, they speak of attributes that they value. They might just as easily suggest that we use skin colour, sex, height or weight as the criteria for person-hood. Most of the more vocal anti-abortion activists make the same mistake. They speak of the soul as the definitive criterion.

From what I've observed, the thing is that some people empathise with the neonate to varying degrees. Sometimes, people empathise more with the mother than with the child. These people tend to support abortion. But why can't they empathise with the child. It doesn't think like them. It doesn't feel like them. It doesn't live like other humans. Others see the unborn in the same way that they see any other child. That's why anti-abortion posters tend to use pictures of the developing fetus. They want to emphasise just how like us it is.

The thing is, people seem to behave as though the more similar a person is to themselves, the more they are entitled to life. Just watch the news if you disagree. No doubt we've all crushed a few bugs in our time, but we'd probably think someone cruel if they treated a dog in the same way.

There are dangers in choosing rationality and viability as the defining characteristics of human life. If you say that the neonate is not human because it is not viable, then you suggest that the healthier you are, the better able you are to survive on your own, the more human you are. If you choose intellect, then you suggest that a person with an IQ of 140 is more human than some kid with an IQ of 80. In effect, you claim that we should not be viewed as equals. Our value, the strength of our claim to personhood, is dependent on out ability.

If it be hard to decide what constitutes a person then that is because personhood is a human construct. Objectively speaking, there is no such thing as a person. Humans are a different story. Nothing ambiguous about it.




Fri Oct 08, 2004 11:19 am
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Post Re: States May Ban Abortion if Roe Overturned
Niall

Quote:
I believe in human rights. Not person rights, human rights.
Are you sure this is what you believe in? Or should we be adding an adjective on there to make the statement...

"I believe in living human being rights"

Surely you mean living human beings, not dead or nonliving human beings. Ok, so where do we start to exist as a living human being? I don't think your rewording of the subject frees you from the stickiness of the debate at all.

Chris


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Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 10/8/04 1:28 pm



Fri Oct 08, 2004 12:26 pm
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Post Chris

Could you clarify please?
Are you suggesting that a zygote is not alive? If that is the case, on what grounds?

The zygote has its own unique human DNA. It is not the father. It is not the mother.

"Individual life begins with conception by the union of gametes or sex cells. A spermatozoon (paternal) fuses with an oocyte (maternal) to form a zygote. Growth and development continue thereafter until a sexually mature adult is formed." (M. Brookes and A. Zietman, Clinical Embryology, Florida, CRC Press, 1998 p.2)"Zygote: This cell results from fertilization of an oocyte by a sperm and is the beginning of a human being. Development begins at fertilization, when a sperm unites with an oocyte to form a zygote. Each of us started life as a cell called a zygote." (K.L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 2nded., WB Saunders Publishers, 1977)

"For each of us life begins at an unfelt, unhonored instant when a minute, wriggling sperm plunges headlong into a mature egg. The quiet egg, destined to die and rot unless it fuses with the sperm, reacts with vigorous activity and a spurt of energy. At this moment, known as fertilization, not only does a separate entity come into being, but also its unique individuality. This entity has been endowed with a mysterious but important quality that is called viability, or the ability to live, able to survive the trials and adversities of life before birth, as well as life after birth in nine months hence." (Dr Tony Lipson, From Conception to Birth, Our most important journey, Millennium Books, 1994.)

The term conception refers to the union of the male and female pronuclear elements of procreation from which a new living being develops. It is synonymous with the terms fecundation, impregnation, and fertilization ... The zygote thus formed represents the beginning of new life." (J.P. Greenhill and E.A. Freidman, Biological Principles and Modern Practice of Obstetrics, Philadelphia, WB Saunders Publishers)

"it is the penetration of the ovum by a spermatozoa and the resulting mingling of the chromosomal material each brings to the union that culminates the process of fertilization and initiates the life of a new individual. Every one of the high animals starts life as a single cell



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Post definition

Nia:
I agree that abortion is a difficult ethical issue.

But somehow I do not feel to agree with your statement:

:There is no real difference between a zygote and an adult human. Genetically, both are the same. Our genes never change.

Are really willing to define a human being by the genes? But then, if a chimpance has 99% equal genes as ours... do you give him 99% equal right as humans? What if black people have other genes as white people?

In my opinion there are a lot of differences between a zygote and an adult. These are obvious. But on the other hand, the conversion of a zygote to an adult is a gradual process... and I agree that it is very dificult to draw a line... when is it abortion? and from which point on should legal rights be granted to developing human embryos...?
Fecundation is a possible timepoint, I agree.

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Mon Oct 11, 2004 4:49 pm
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Post Re: definition
Doc, I agree that there are differences between an adult and a zygote, but as I'm sure you recognise, there are differences between adults and elderly people, teenagers, children etc. And there are differences, real differences between males and females, between the sick and the healthy, between the old and the young, but (legally) we don't discriminate. Human development is not stage like. As you've said it's a gradual process. We aren't any less human as children than we are as pensioners. We aren't any more human when the umbilical cord is cut than we were the day before. My theory is that people just can't imagine themselves as a single celled organism. They can't empathise with what they once were. And all humans begin their life as a zygote. Its only a different stage of development. I was a zygote and so were you. I was never a sperm. Or an egg.

Race is a social construction. Species is not. We cannot mate with chimps. While I'm against cruelty to animals and empathise more with chimps than with wasps, a chimp is not human. There are many things that I value about chimps. Mostly, those aspects which I recognise as being almost human.

But, I repeat, a chimp is not human. It may be similar to us in many ways. I might consider it immoral to kill the creature for sport. But I don't believe that the creature should be entitled to human rights.

It may be that genetically the similarity is 99%. But its pretty much an all or nothing deal. The alternative is to create degrees of humanity, to create a hierarchy in which retarded kids rank below smart animals and athletes, musicians, scholars etc. are considered to be super-humans with a greater right to life and happiness than average Joe. I believe that inspite of the inequality that occurs naturally via nature and nurture, all humans should be treated equally in the eyes of legal systems.

Now we could go down the path of saying that humanity is a 'human' construct. It exists only in our own minds. But this is the case for rights and morals also.

And if there is no right, no wrong and no entitlement to existence, well then we might as well just forget about law in the first place.

And that is what this is all about. Law. I don't want to impose my morals on anyone. I don't want to force others to believe what I believe. But I believe that a legal system which is used to govern a society should allow individual humans to live as they want provided they do not interfere with another human's right to live as they want. And I believe that all humans should be considered equal (in the eyes of the law) regardless of their sex, intelligence, heritage or developmental stage.

Last, I'd just like to add that if there were any doubt as to the humanity of a zygote, should we not exercise caution? If there is a doubt as to the humanity of the human in it's earliest developmental stage, then surely we should treat it as though it were human until it is proven otherwise?

I'll try editing this in the morning to make it a little more coherent. If I get the time. :b




Mon Oct 11, 2004 6:51 pm
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Post Re: definition

Nia,

I agree.
All humans should have equal rights. I would also give the children the right to vote. I do not see why children should not be part of our democracy. The future belong to them... we should let the have a word on political issues...

Diversity is Good!




Tue Oct 12, 2004 9:15 am
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Post Re: CHildren
Doc, I've believe that anyone over the age of 14 should have the right to vote. Before that, I'd hope that the legal gaurdians of the child be allowed vote in the name of the child.

Oh, and I just thought I'd clear up that my name is actually Niall. ;)




Tue Oct 12, 2004 11:11 am
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