Balancing interests on abortion

It’s time we reached some conclusions on our discussion of abortion. I wish to set the context for the discussion which follows by quoting, again, from R. v. Morgentaler. Here, Justice Wilson advocates a developmental view of the fetus:


The undeveloped foetus starts out as a newly fertilized ovum; the fully developed foetus emerges ultimately as an infant. A developmental progression takes place in between these two extremes and, in my opinion, this progression has a direct bearing on the value of the foetus as potential life. …

Both traditional approaches to abortion, the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” approaches, fail to take account of the essentially developmental nature of the gestation process. A developmental view of the foetus, on the other hand, supports a permissive approach to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy and a restrictive approach in the later stages.

In the early stages the woman’s autonomy would be absolute; her decision, reached in consultation with her physician, not to carry the foetus to term would be conclusive. The state would have no business inquiring into her reasons. Her reasons for having an abortion would, however, be the proper subject of inquiry at the later stages of her pregnancy when the state’s compelling interest in the protection of the foetus would justify it in prescribing conditions.

Justice Bertha Wilson


This statement is remarkable, considering its source. Justice Wilson was the most liberal of the Supreme Court judges in her view of abortion.

(There were four sets of reasons given in R. v. Morgentaler. Five of the seven judges agreed on the disposition of the case, but there was some disagreement with respect to the reasons they gave.)

Justice Wilson maintained, alone among her colleagues, that a woman has a constitutional right to abort a pregnancy. She deduced that right from a woman’s right to liberty. The right to liberty is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but it is not absolute:

The Charter is predicated on a particular conception of the place of the individual in society. An individual is not a totally independent entity disconnected from the society in which he or she lives. Neither, however, is the individual a mere cog in an impersonal machine in which his or her values, goals and aspirations are subordinated to those of the collectivity. The individual is a bit of both.

The Charter reflects this reality by leaving a wide range of activities and decisions open to legitimate government control while at the same time placing limits on the proper scope of that control.

So Justice Wilson argues that a woman has a constitutional right to abort a pregnancy; but that some degree of government control is nonetheless legitimate. The question, then, is this:  “At what point does the state’s interest in the protection of the foetus become ‘compelling’ and justify state intervention in what is otherwise a matter of purely personal and private concern?”

Take note of the word “compelling”. It implies that the state has an interest in the protection of the fetus from the moment of conception; but, at such an early stage of the pregnancy, the state is not compelled to intervene on behalf of the fetus.

We ask, then, at what point does the state’s interest become compelling? There are various possibilities, of course:

  • conception (the traditional pro-life position);
  • “quickening”:  i.e., when the pregnant woman can feel the fetus move inside her, approximately 16 weeks into the pregnancy (the view of English common law prior to 1803);
  • sometime in the second trimester of the pregnancy (Justice Wilson’s suggestion, deliberately vague, since she thought it was a matter for the legislature to determine);
  • the point at which the fetus becomes “viable”:  at approximately 25 weeks’ gestation (Roe v. Wade);
  • birth (the point at which a fetus becomes a person, in Canadian law);
  • some time after birth:  e.g., after the baby’s first breath or when the child is named (significant demarcations in some cultures).
This issue, when does the state’s interest in the protection of the fetus become compelling?, can be distinguished from the issue that usually dominates the abortion debate:  when does a fertilized ovum become a human being?

On the latter question, I am firmly in agreement with the pro-life folks. All demarcations are arbitrary, in my opinion, except one:  conception. I am largely in agreement with Dr. John Stott, an elder statesmen in the evangelical church, on this point:


That an embryo, though carried within the mother’s body, is nevertheless not a part of it, is … a physiological fact. This is partly because the child has a genotype distinct from the mother’s….

It was only in the 1960s that the genetic code was unravelled. Now we know that the moment the ovum is fertilized by the penetration of the sperm, the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes are complete, the zygote has a unique genotype which is distinct from both parents, and the child’s sex, size and shape, colour of skin, hair and eyes, temperament and intelligence are already determined.

Dr. John Stott
“Abortion” (pamphlet)


Dr. Stott overreaches on the last point; neither temperament nor intelligence is determined solely by one’s genotype. But his general point is sound. The whole package is present, literally in embryonic form, from the instant the sperm penetrates the ovum.

In a society which puts so much stock in evidence derived from science, this position is virtually unassailable — or so it seems to me. At conception, we have a human being.

For Dr. Stott and other advocates of the pro-life position, this settles the matter. Abortion is morally repugnant and should be illegal. It may even be regarded as equivalent to murder, though I am not sure Dr. Stott would go so far. (If we wanted to recriminalize abortion, it could be placed in a different legal category — something akin to infanticide, for example — with lesser penalties.)

But the matter is not settled yet. There are two parties to every abortion:  the fetus and the pregnant woman. Two human beings, if you will. Both the pro-choice camp and the pro-life camp try to exclude one party or the other from consideration. The goal, in my view, is to balance the interests of the two parties, however difficult such an analysis may be.

In the balancing exercise, we must seriously consider the developmental view of the fetus advocated by Justice Wilson. But there is another valid moral consideration:  the degree of harm to which each party is potentially subjected.

What is the potential harm to the fetus (if society allows an abortion)? Death. What is the potential harm to the pregnant woman (if society refuses to allow an abortion)? The answer to this question is less obvious.

Inevitably there will be some inconvenience:  some disruption to the course of the woman’s life (e.g., education, career). If, after delivery, the woman gives the baby up for adoption, the inconvenience is confined to a short timespan. (Forty weeks, measured against approximately 75 years’ life expectancy.)

Second, pregnancy has emotional consequences, not all of them negative:  mood swings caused by hormonal changes, excitement, fear. In the case of an unwanted pregnancy, the fear will be greater and the woman may experience shame and/or embarrassment. A woman may permit the pregnancy to continue and then give the child up for adoption. That choice, too, will come at an emotional cost.

On this point (the matter of emotional consequences), I think there is merit in the position of the dissenting judges in the Morgentaler decision:

The mere fact of pregnancy, let alone an unwanted pregnancy, gives rise to stress. The evidence reveals that much of the anguish associated with abortion is inherent and unavoidable and that there is really no psychologically painless way to cope with an unwanted pregnancy.
Third, I would set post-partum depression in a category all its own. I am not very knowledgeable on this subject, but I suspect it has both a physical and an emotional component; and I know that, in severe cases, the woman may even become psychotic. The risk of such an occurrence is small but, if it comes to pass, the impact can be catastrophic.

Finally, pregnancy also has physical consequences:  weight gain, stretch marks, the need to make responsible lifestyle choices for the good of the baby, etc.:  and the pain of labour and childbirth. After the baby is delivered, the woman’s body may be permanently changed in some respects. More significantly, there is a risk to the woman’s health. The risk is usually small, but there is always some risk, even of death.

However, there are physical risks associated with having an abortion, too. To escape a risk associated with pregnancy only to embrace an approximately equal risk associated with abortion is of no net benefit to the woman.

In some cases, the pregnancy may present a higher risk to the woman, and society should take this into account. (As the Canadian legislature had attempted to do in the abortion law struck down in the Morgentaler decision.)

My point is this. On the one hand, we must take Justice Wilson’s developmental view of the fetus into account. At conception, the “fetus” is fully human (in my view). But, unlike the woman, it is not fully developed. Because of her position in life, the woman has social responsibilities (to parents, a spouse/partner, children, friends). She is emotionally sophisticated, subject to depression, shame, fear, etc.:  i.e., she is capable of suffering and even misery. Even at the end of its gestation, the fetus has not reached a comparable stage of development.

On the other hand, the degree of potential harm is also a valid consideration. For the fetus, the consequence of abortion is death. (Pro-life advocates would say, half of the people who enter abortion clinics do not come out alive.) For the pregnant woman, an unwanted pregnancy is inescapably an ordeal (even if she chooses to abort it). But only in rare cases are there catastrophic consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. (I believe this is an accurate assertion, though I do not have statistics to support it.)

These are the factors we must take into consideration if we set out to balance the interests of the two parties to an abortion.

At last, I will step out onto the thin limb. I offer the reader the following conclusions:

  • I believe it is morally repugnant to carry out abortions after fifteen or sixteen weeks of pregnancy. I say this because of our earlier discussion of the instillation method of abortion:  it is horrific, and it is used as of the 16th week. The very need to resort to the instillation method suggests that the fetus has developed to the point where it is, in fact, a baby. I think it is suggestive that this stage of development is reached at around the same time as the old common law standard of “quickening”.

  • If there is a serious risk to the woman’s life or emotional welfare (e.g. evidence that severe post-partum depression is likely), I would allow a woman to abort at a later stage of pregnancy. I’m not going to suggest an administrative process by which requests for abortion, after 16 weeks, would be considered. It goes without saying that no process will be perfect. But a reasonable solution is surely possible.

  • I am still ambivalent about the recriminalization of abortion, but on balance I favour it.

    To pro-life groups, I would say this:  it is not sufficient merely to say “No” to abortion. Abortion is a social problem, not to be reduced to the supposed sins of an individual, and we must address it by providing social supports for women in this position.

    (Some pro-life groups don’t need to be told. For example, I used to volunteer on the board of a residence for women in crisis pregnancies. The residence was an interdenominational Christian ministry. The women were trained in basic life skills and supported during pregnancy, childbirth, and for a short time after the birth. It was a highly constructive response to an issue that generates a great many purely negative responses.)

    That said, I think social supports alone will be inadequate to discourage large numbers of women from choosing to abort. Some women (and their male lovers) will readily disregard the interests of the fetus. To a detached observer, death is obviously a more catastrophic outcome than inconvenience. But to a young woman who has limited life experience, who is afraid, who feels unsupported and sees her carefully-constructed plans going down the toilet — “inconvenience” may weigh heavily with her.

    On balance, then, I support the recriminalization of abortion. Women would still be free to abort a pregnancy at will, provided that they do so prior to 16 weeks’ gestation. After that, I would recriminalize abortion with the exceptions noted above.

A final comment, and I will invite the reader to respond.

Some people believe that men should have no say on abortion. I will share, as a post script, Justice Wilson’s remarks on the subject. I find her position on this point offensive. Even so, I admit there is some merit to it. I want the reader to understand that I am aware of the issue and, on this point also, I invite your response.


This decision is one that will have profound psychological, economic and social consequences for the pregnant woman. The circumstances giving rise to it can be complex and varied and there may be, and usually are, powerful considerations militating in opposite directions. It is a decision that deeply reflects the way the woman thinks about herself and her relationship to others and to society at large. It is not just a medical decision; it is a profound social and ethical one as well. Her response to it will be the response of the whole person.

It is probably impossible for a man to respond, even imaginatively, to such a dilemma not just because it is outside the realm of his personal experience (although this is, of course, the case) but because he can relate to it only by objectifying it, thereby eliminating the subjective elements of the female psyche which are at the heart of the dilemma.

Justice Wilson
R. v. Morgentaler

Advertisements

21 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Q
    Jun 12, 2005 @ 13:53:00

    This is weird — I’m the first person to comment on my own post.

    Snaars, Mary P., Carolyn, Bill, and Aaron — I’ve added you to my blog roll (“sites of interest”). This is my way of saying “Thanks” for your constructive contribution to the dialogue on abortion.

    Jack, you’ll find yourself on the blog roll too, even though you’ve kept your head down on this topic!

    Thanks, all.
    Q

    Reply

  2. aaron
    Jun 13, 2005 @ 11:05:00

    Here’s an initial response — I may in fact have more to say later.

    Q, great job on attempting to discuss such a difficult subject in a polite and rational matter. It’s so rare to see such discussions on abortion, a subject where absolutism seems to reign supreme. I feel you’ve done a great job of considering the various interests at stake in the subject.

    As to your conclusions, if human life begins at conception, as you argue, then you’re accepting murder as the absolute right of the mother up to a certain point. On top of that, you’re accepting murder as a conditional right of the mother up until the time of birth. I don’t see that focusing on gestational development rather than when the fetus is human gets around this from a logical standpoint. Nevertheless, your rather pragmatic proposal (and I mean this as a good thing) chooses to fuzz such a bright line somewhat in recognition of social reality. Thus, it’s virtually certain that it would sit well with no one. Accordingly, I have to wonder if such a rule did come to pass whether it would constantly be subject to tinkering?

    As to the proposal itself, a problem I find with your dividing line is that while you speak of it in terms of gestational develpoment, it seems dependent on technology. If tomorrow someone figured out a way to safely perform D&Es through the 18th week, would you favor moving the criminal line accordingly? If not, why not? As you can probably guess, I have similar concerns with a viability test, given that technology can move that line as well.

    FWIW, I don’t know if this affects your dividing line, but I always understood quickening to take place later than the 16th week. See, e.g., http://pregnancy.about.com/cs/fetaldevelopment/a/aa082999.htm.

    One subject I don’t recall reading in your posts has to do with birth defects, and whether abortion should be permitted when tests reveal such defects after the 16th week — in your proposal, do such situations automatically induce severe risk to a woman’s emotional welfare? I would assume that pregnancy through rape/incest would, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I guess I’m being somewhat unfair — it’s all too easy for me to criticize your proposal given that all proposals are flawed in some manner or another. You’re simply trying to do the best you can with an impossible situation. And truthfully, I don’t know that I can do better. The most logically consistent positions are the most extreme ones: absolute pro-life and absolute pro-choice. But these are the most untenable ones in terms of social reality (the former) and medical reality (the latter).

    Quibble — while all surgery has risks, I have always understood that abortion is much safer to the woman than childbirth (particularly early in the pregnancy). While I’m not sure it matters to your conclusion, I’m not sure that you are correct to net out those two risks.

    Lastly, with respect to Wilson’s quote at the end of your post, her logic would seem to dictate that only women with unwanted pregnancies can truly understand such a predicament, as other women would no more find themselves in the psyche of an abortion-considering woman than men would.

    Reply

  3. Carolyn
    Jun 13, 2005 @ 12:00:00

    I agree with Aaron, that it’s nice to read/discuss such a sensitive issue without personal attacks or judgement (picture me huddled in a corner, being harassed by my Irish Catholic family for my liberal views).

    Going against what most people who know me well would think I’d believe (I’m definitely a feminist), I disagree with Wilson, that a man couldn’t understand the feelings and issues associated with an unexpected/unwanted pregnancy. I’ve had friends who have had abortions without letting the father know it was even happening…mostly because they knew they would object. I’m sure this happens often, and I’d hate to know what it would feel like to find out my child had been aborted without my knowledge or consent…simply because it wasn’t in my own body. This child isn’t any less the man’s just because he isn’t carrying it.

    This subject does have so much gray area, everyone has a different opinion of when a fetus is viable, or when the fetus is considered a person. Medical research isn’t able to REALLY tell us something concrete, something definite to ensure that we’re not aborting humans that don’t feel the pain of being terminated.

    I still feel more comfortable with abortions being done in the first trimester, but I also don’t feel that this can possibly apply to every person and every situation. It’s unlikely any sort of universal agreement will happen in my lifetime as to when abortions are done and to whom. Until then, demonstrations and pipebombs will be a reality outside Planned Parenthood clinics, and discussions will be had, and possibly legislation made to tweek the system.

    On another note (keeping in mind that I work in social service), I sometimes feel ill talking about the rights of unborn children when I think about how poorly we treat some fully matured citizens. The homeless, the elderly, the poor…I would really like to see these people treated more humanely before the unborn are given TOO much more attention.

    Reply

  4. Q
    Jun 13, 2005 @ 12:11:00

    Thanks, Aaron.

    I’m not going to respond to everything in your comment. (You’ve made a series of good points.) I’ve already provided a 2,300 word analysis, and now I want to see how the thread of comments develops.

    But I’ll respond, briefly, to three of your points, where I need to clarify my position.

    you’re accepting murder
    Maybe. I’m sure anyone with a pro-life perspective would characterize my position that way. But “murder” is a legal category, with specific criteria. “Manslaughter” is a different legal category, but it also involves the killing of a human being. “Suicide” involves killing a human being but it isn’t murder, and it isn’t manslaughter.

    “Infanticide” is yet another legal category. I don’t know the legal history with respect to infanticide, but I assume it came with lesser penalties than killing a fully developed human being. Here’s a legal category, with respect to killing a human being, that pivots on the victim’s developmental stage.

    In my proposal, the legal category would be, simply, “procuring an unlawful abortion”. Whether that is the same thing as murder will depend on one’s perspective.

    it’s virtually certain that it would sit well with no one
    I agree. I’ve figured out a way to piss off people on both sides of the debate.

    FYI, in the aftermath of the Morgentaler decision, the legislature did try to pass a law against late-term abortions. It was opposed by people on both sides, and the vote in the legislature was tied. That’s how close Canada came to implementing a replacement law.

    a problem I find with your dividing line is that while you speak of it in terms of gestational develpoment, it seems dependent on technology
    The need to switch from one procedure (D&E) to another (instillation) is triggered by fetal development. I take your point, that a technological advance might make it unnecessary to resort to such a horrific method. But no, my focus is on fetal development.

    A second indication that the fetus has reached a new stage of development is, “quickening”. But we should focus on the developmental stage, not technology, and not the subjective experience of the mother.

    Finally, I’ll make a general comment. I lack the expertise to determine where to draw the line. Presumably both medical and legal expertise are required; I can only speak as someone with a “lay” interest in ethics.

    I don’t mean to tell anyone what to think, but rather how to think. By that I mean precisely what you have commended me for. I’ve demonstrated that we can approach this subject in a respectful and rational manner, and I’ve tried to sort through the dogmatic crap and identify some considerations in favour of each position.

    People have to deal with the strengths of the opposing point of view. If there wasn’t some merit to each point of view, we’d have sorted this issue out a long time ago.

    If people agree with that, I can accept disagreement on where the line should be drawn.
    Q

    Reply

  5. Q
    Jun 13, 2005 @ 13:15:00

    Hi, Carolyn.

    Until then, demonstrations and pipebombs will be a reality outside Planned Parenthood clinics

    A great oxymoron: pro-life killers.

    I sometimes feel ill talking about the rights of unborn children when I think about how poorly we treat some fully matured citizens.

    Speaking as a Canadian, it shocks me how polarized American society is. The abortion debate has pretty much fizzled out here — even the UWO decision hasn’t gotten much attention.

    But Roe v. Wade is still a hot political issue in the USA, as far as I can make out. A lot of energy has been spent refighting old battles, while some basic social justice issues aren’t being addressed.

    The parallel in Canada is the threat of Quebec separatism. Quebec keeps threatening to leave Canada to become its own country. The issue has held us hostage for decades.

    I share your concern about social issues. For example, I worked in group homes for developmentally challenged individuals for six years. When my kids are a little older, I think I’ll get some training and work with street people.
    Q

    Reply

  6. Mary P.
    Jun 13, 2005 @ 14:33:00

    I think Q has walked the tightrope admirably. Although he believes the child is a child from conception, he compromises with the realities enough to allow a woman free rights to abortion for a period of the pregnancy. Even though that may well mean the end of the child’s life, something that would have to be abhorrent to someone of his mindset.

    Would that all parties to the debate could be as even-handed.

    I think that Q’s suggestion would be acceptable the majority of people. Ideologues at either end of the spectrum wouldn’t like it, but I suspect that the rest would see it as a reasonable compromise. No one can ever get exactly what they want, but sometimes “as good as can be managed” really is good enough. Though maybe that’s just me, I’d hope not: we Canadians are reputed to be a nation good at compromise, after all.

    A line before which a woman can (unilaterally?)decide; after which the child’s interests have to be taken into account as well. If I understand Q’s position accurately, this would not absolutely preclude abortions further into the pregnancy, only that it wouldn’t be guaranteed: there’d be a process, and particular justification required thereafter. This would address Carolyn’s concern for those women who don’t get one sooner. This process would also likely eliminate the tendency to tinker Aaron suggests – or perhaps it would be the legal and appropriate sublimation of the urge to tinker!

    Once again, congratulations to Q (and the rest of us) for managing such potentially volatile terrain without blood-letting. (Or pipe bombs…)

    Reply

  7. Q
    Jun 13, 2005 @ 16:21:00

    Hi, Mary P.

    something that would have to be abhorrent to someone of his mindset.

    It’s true, all my instincts are pro-life. Sixteen weeks may not look like much of a compromise, but it’s huge for me.

    I think that Q’s suggestion would be acceptable the majority of people.

    In response, here’s yet another quote from the Morgentaler decision. I believe this is Justice McIntyre (one of the dissenting judges), quoting a submission of the Attorney General of Canada:

    The evidence of opinion surveys indicates that there is a surprising consistency over the years and in different survey groups in the spectrum of opinions on the issue of abortion. Roughly 21 to 23% of people at one end of the spectrum are of the view, on the one hand, that abortion is a matter solely for the decision of the pregnant woman and that any legislation on this subject is an unwarranted interference with a woman’s right to deal with her own body, while about 19 to 20% are of the view, on the other hand, that destruction of the living fetus is the killing of human life and tantamount to murder. The remainder of the population (about 60%) are of the view that abortion should be prohibited in some circumstances.

    I don’t know whether that statistic still holds. Anyone who has grown up since 1988, when abortion became a matter solely between a woman and her doctor, is likely to have a different perspective. They may assume, uncritically, that abortion is a right that should not be taken away.

    But I’m pleased with the amount of agreement we’ve had amongst ourselves. I thought I might be lonely, out there at the end of the limb.
    Q

    Reply

  8. Bill
    Jun 16, 2005 @ 15:43:00

    I agree with Aaron that “if human life begins at conception, as you argue, then you’re accepting murder as the absolute right of the mother.” This being said, I do not see the choice the mother makes as murder if she chooses to abort.

    I don’t see it as murder because, I cannot concur with John Stott on when human life begins. Just because the “zygote has a unique genotype which is distinct from both parents, and the child’s sex, size and shape, colour of skin, hair and eyes, temperament and intelligence are already determined.”and “The whole package is present, literally in embryonic form, from the instant the sperm penetrates the ovum.”does not necessarily lead to the collusion that “At conception, we have a human, being.”

    Using this course of reasoning if we have the blue prints, the material, are assured of the labour and time we therefore have a house. No, I think we have the blue prints, the material, are assured of the labour and time we therefore are likely to get a house.

    What we have at conception is everything needed to produce a human, time is the next ingredient, without which a human is not possible. Abortion removes that element and the fetus may never attain the state of development needed to be defined as human.

    I could, and to some degree do concur that abortion after 15-16 weeks is wrong, however part of my reasoning is that while life exists before this point it is not as yet human. Therefore while I find abortion a bad alternative, I can accept it as the right of the mother to choose. As to defending the right of the baby, a point before a fetus can be defined as human needs to be determined, and set as the arbitrary point when abortions must cease. I think this point needs to be identified by more than having all the parts and being differentiated from the mother.

    Over the last few weeks since this discussion began, I have been doing a lot of online reading. (Not having much time to visit the university library)

    Academically we often criticise the web as a source of unreliable or dishonest information. However, one thing it is useful for (like all media) is to gain insights into popular opinion. I am not saying that it is a good place to take the pulse of the situation, as who is winning a debate is rarely based on how vocal they are. (that is why I like the way Q has framed this discussion)

    What I have found is that the Pro-Life side of the debate is losing a great deal of its credibility because of the sheer numbers of websites that are not well thought out. Some are even offensive. Often there are linkages to other unrelated issues, more in line with religious and political agendas. I am going to highlight one of the least offensive, that does not show graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, but does have odd linkages.

    The American Life League looks like a legitimate pro-life organization. They define themselves as follows.

    The mission of American Life League is to serve God by helping to build a society that respects and protects innocent human life from fertilization to natural death – without compromise, without exception, without apology.

    Though you may, or may not agree with connecting the will of God to the issue, this for them is a legitimate position.

    However, they also run a campaign called STOPP designed to defeat planned parenthood (as PP is a humanist plot so says STOPP/ALL) http://www.all.org/stopp/

    There a few good sites without hidden agendas, one is Life News (http://www.lifenews.com/bio981.html) Who describe themselves as “ An independent news agency specifically devoted to reporting news that affects the pro-life community.”

    However, they don’t seem to report on any debate on the issue. Possibly that is because they deem it out of their mandate?

    Where Q’s blog debate diverges is that it is rational. One side does not see itself as 100% right on all things (like Life News) and no one seems to have introduced unrelated political or religious agendas. The debate has stayed on topic and been flexible.

    Now, can this sort of debate take place among those that are at the forefront of the issue? If what is online is a representative sample of their opinion, I don’t think they are capable. Luckily, I hold to my first my first premise, that winning a debate is rarely based on how vocal you are.

    Though I am not wholly in agreement with your conclusions, thanks for a rational debate.

    Reply

  9. Bill
    Jun 16, 2005 @ 16:06:00

    I just realize what I was saying in response to John Stott.

    A Human is more than the sum of his/her unique parts.

    Reply

  10. Q
    Jun 16, 2005 @ 17:00:00

    Hi, Bill. I appreciate you taking the time to think about the issue and share the results of your research with us.

    I’ll respond mostly to the following paragraph:

    Just because the “zygote has a unique genotype which is distinct from both parents, and the child’s sex, size and shape, colour of skin, hair and eyes, temperament and intelligence are already determined”, and “The whole package is present, literally in embryonic form, from the instant the sperm penetrates the ovum.” does not necessarily lead to the collusion that “At conception, we have a human, being.”

    “Just because”? Haven’t I said something hugely significant here? (Or rather, John Stott and I have said it in concert.)

    Your house analogy doesn’t work for me because houses are not organic. Let’s talk, instead, about fruit flies, mice, and apes.

    What is it that sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? (Or the vegetable kingdom, for that matter.)

    I’m dredging up these facts from memory, so I hope I get it right. If memory serves, 50% of our genes we have in common with fruit flies. 95% of our genes, we have in common with mice. More than 98% of our genes, we have in common with certain apes.

    Evolutionary theory says that all life descended from a single ancestor, which is why so many of our genes are also present in “lower” life forms. We even have, in common with mice, the gene to grow a tail. But in human beings, the gene is “switched off”.

    What sets human beings apart from apes is precisely the 2% difference in our genes. A fruit fly is a fruit fly because of its genes. A human being, likewise.

    Stott goes on to talk about how early in fetal development the heart begins to beat, and there is measurable brain activity, and the fingers and toes are individuated.

    In my opinion, such information is utterly irrelevant. Toes do not make one human. The toes are there because the DNA contains the code to grow them. It all goes back to the genes. Nothing that happens after conception changes our essential nature.

    I also want to respond to your comment about murder. I’m offended that you’ve raised it. It’s a very emotive charge, so my emotional response is understandable, I think.

    I know why Aaron raised this point, so I took it seriously and provided a clarification. But it comes very close to an ad hominem argument. I’ve gone to some trouble to explain my position carefully and defend it rationally. To have it dismissed in these terms, you’re condoning murder, is cheap.

    I could go back to my earlier, pro-life view. But then I’d be characterized as anti-choice. That’s why labelling people’s positions is not constructive. No matter what position anyone takes on the abortion issue, it can be dismissed with an unsympathetic label.

    Clearly all positions are equally faulty, since they can all be dismissed rhetorically. Since that’s the case, let’s set aside the labels and focus on meaningful data.

    (Sorry to be so tough on you here, Bill. I know you’re a kind individual, and it wasn’t your intention to offend me.)
    Q

    Reply

  11. snaars
    Jun 16, 2005 @ 23:51:00

    I would like to join in on the mutual back-patting and pass out some kudos and brownie points to everyone that has taken part in this discussion. And thanks, Q, for adding my blog to your sites of interest list. It’s an honor.

    Q, I think you are on the right track with your strategy of balancing the interests of the unborn child and the mother. Your conclusions are modest and, as Aaron said, pragmatic.

    That being said, I think accusing Bill of committing an ad hominem attack against you was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction on your part, albeit an understandable one, given your strong convictions and the sensitive nature of the topic.

    I think that your treatment of the issue suffers from a serious moral ambiguity. You say that On the one hand, we must take Justice Wilson’s developmental view of the fetus into account. At conception, the “fetus” is fully human (in my view). But, unlike the woman, it is not fully developed. Because of her position in life, the woman has social responsibilities …. She is emotionally sophisticated … she is capable of suffering and even misery. Even at the end of its gestation, the fetus has not reached a comparable stage of development.

    So it’s not clear to me whether or to what extent you see the fetus as a developing human, and/or what “fully human” means.

    Additionally, your answer to Aaron, involving legal categories, to the question of whether all abortion is murder, did not clarify the issue. Murder and manslaughter are distinct legal categories because they correspond to relevant moral differences between crimes. I don’t understand what relevant moral difference there is between aborting a fertilized ovum, aborting a full-term baby, and murdering an adult, if all are fully human (all else being equal). I don’t see how you can account for this unless you tacitly shift to a developmental view.

    In response to Mary’s post, you write “It’s true, all my instincts are pro-life. Sixteen weeks may not look like much of a compromise, but it’s huge for me.

    I believe you to be completely sincere. But this does not help the moral dilemma.

    This is very important, because central to your position is the idea that abortion is always morally wrong unless some interest of the pregnant woman outweighs it. If, on the other hand, it could be shown that prior to some phase of development abortion is not morally wrong, then your whole treatment of the issue will be in need of serious revision.

    You wrote: “ It all goes back to the genes. Nothing that happens after conception changes our essential nature.” Respectfully, Q, you couldn’t be more wrong! The biological evidence demonstrates otherwise. Genes do not have, nor do they confer on us, the things that make us uniquely human: consciousness, emotions, desires, expectations, rationality, intentionality, frustrations, our sense of moral duty, etc., etc, …

    Having a full set of human chromosomes is not enough to endow a cell or cells with moral rights; all of my blood, skin, and hair cells, for example, have full sets of DNA, and they do not have moral rights. What sets a fertilized ovum apart from these is the fact that it has the potential to become a human being. One question central to the issue is, ‘Is it wrong to destroy something that, if nurtured, is very likely to become a person?’ And if it is not always and in all cases wrong to do so, then, ‘When does this thing with potential actually become a person?’

    At this point I would like to give you and your readership a chance to respond to this comment before I go any further.

    Reply

  12. Mary P.
    Jun 17, 2005 @ 08:06:00

    I will not be posting after this, because I’m finding this discussion tremendously distressing.

    Bill says that a baby is like a house, that if we don’t allow it time to develop, it is of no more significance than a pile of lumber.

    Snaars asks, Is it wrong to destroy something that, if nurtured, is very likely to become a person?

    I am distressed that this seems to be leading, inevitably, to an all-or-nothing response. Either it is a human, and we forbid all abortions except, perhaps, where the pregnancy might kill the mother; or it’s not human, and we can kill it at will, at any stage of gestation.

    Before we began this discussion, I was of the opinion that, though regrettable, and hopefully only used as a last resort, abortion before a certain gestation is acceptable. Morally ambiguous – of course! How can you not be with this topic? But, as Aaron says, pragmatic.

    But now, my response, as a result of these comments is to say, “No!” It is not merely a clump of “undifferentiated cells”, for if it was left alone, a human being, and nothing other than a human being would emerge from the woman. Not a monkey, not a fruit fly, not a house, but a Human Being.

    I don’t really want to have to say that. I think of a confused, frightened, traumatised woman, and my heart clenches up.

    But the direction of this discussion is forcing me to defend the humanity of that “fetus/baby/zygote”. If it must be one thing or the other, if there is to be no moral ambiguity (ha!) – then IT IS A HUMAN BEING!

    Okay. I’m crying now. I’m outta this discussion.

    Reply

  13. snaars
    Jun 17, 2005 @ 10:07:00

    Mary (if you read this) I completely sympathize with you. This can be a very distressing thing to talk about. In fact, my wife and I had a very distressing discussion about it the other night. (I almost had to spend the night on the couch. Thanks a lot, Q!)

    This is not an issue to be taken lightly. Life-and-death decisions should be made with the utmost caution.

    I have done a lot of soul-searching on this issue, and since Q opened the topic for discussion I have gone through some of that again. I think we need to ask ourselves, “why do I feel such-and-such about this topic?” I think that for those of us that have vehement reactions to this issue, it is because we all value human life so much. The thought of destroying a human being, especially a child, is so abhorrent that it can cause us to feel physically ill.

    I believe in erring on the side of caution where human life is in the balance.

    I did not mean to suggest that an all-or-nothing response is the best one. I do not believe that it is morally permissible to “kill [a baby] at will, at any stage of gestation.”

    Nevertheless I do believe that the moment of fertilization is every bit an arbitrary point at which to call something a human being, despite Q’s (understandable and forgiveable) assertions to the contrary. Soon I would like to post a comment explaining this in more detail.

    Because of the seriousness of the issue, I am always open to new evidence and alternative evaluations of the existing evidence that could convince me otherwise.

    Reply

  14. Q
    Jun 17, 2005 @ 12:38:00

    Some emotions have been tweaked, which results from me putting a specific proposal on the table. I’m still pleased with how well we’ve done. Even when the dialogue has edged into emotional territory, everyone has exercised commendable self-restraint.

    Mary P. makes an important point — an essential point, from my perspective. We cannot eliminate the moral ambiguity from the abortion debate, no matter how we frame the issue or what position we ultimately take.

    The only people who think they’ve eliminated all moral ambiguity are the ideologues at one extreme or the other. And they only think they have eliminated it.

    That said, let me engage with Snaars’ original comment.

    Murder and manslaughter are distinct legal categories because they correspond to relevant moral differences between crimes. I don’t understand what relevant moral difference there is between aborting a fertilized ovum, aborting a full-term baby, and murdering an adult, if all are fully human (all else being equal).

    The key is that last phrase, “all else being equal.” Abortion involves the killing of a human being, in my view, even if it is carried out at eight weeks. But I deny that it constitutes murder.

    Lurking in the background is a syllogism:

    (a) All killings of human beings are murder.
    (b) Q thinks abortion involves the killing of a human being.
    (c) Therefore Q thinks it is okay to commit murder.

    I deny proposition (a). Manslaughter involves the killing of a human being. So does suicide. So does euthanasia. But these acts are not legally equivalent to murder, nor are they morally equivalent to murder.

    Why not? Because all else is not equal between the various acts. Murder involves premeditation, for example. Manslaughter may be committed spontaneously, in a firestorm of passion.

    Euthanasia is premeditated, but it differs from murder on other grounds. Euthanasia is a compassionate response to someone’s suffering, when there is no hope of a cure.

    Like manslaughter and euthanasia, abortion involves different circumstances that distinguish it from murder. The circumstances include the different developmental stages of the pregnant woman (who is capable of suffering and even misery) and the fetus (who may not be capable even of feeling physical pain, if the abortion is carried out early enough).

    Snaars, you write:

    I don’t see how you can account for [a moral difference between abortion and murder] unless you tacitly shift to a developmental view.

    But there’s nothing tacit about it. I was quite explicit about taking the developmental stage of the fetus into account, both in my original post and in my reply to Aaron (i.e., in the parallel I drew between abortion and infanticide).

    I base the distinction between abortion and murder on the higher levels of human functioning you listed:

    Genes do not have, nor do they confer on us, the things that make us uniquely human: consciousness, emotions, desires, expectations, rationality, intentionality, frustrations, our sense of moral duty, etc., etc, …

    We’re close to agreement here, but not quite. You use the above attributes to distinguish human being from non-human being. I disagree. I use the attributes only to distinguish murder from not murder.

    At a very early stage of development, the fetus may not be able to experience physical pain, let alone suffering/misery. The killing of such a being, even if we acknowledge it as a human being, is less horrific than the killing of a conscious, terrified adult.

    Manslaughter is distinugished from murder because it is not premeditated. Euthanasia, because it is motivated by genuine compassion. Abortion, because the fetus has not developed to a point where it can experience pain, or at least not suffering/misery.

    In all cases, we are talking about killing a human being. But all can be distinguished, legally and morally, from murder.

    I think every woman who considers having an abortion should face up to the fact that she is about to kill a human being. She can comfort herself with the knowledge that the fetus is not yet conscious (assuming it is not a late-stage abortion) and may have limited capacity to experience physical pain. On that basis, she can tell herself that it is not murder; and she can decide whether to proceed with the abortion or continue the pregnancy.

    Now we return to Mary P.’s profoundly important intervention. Those of us who are pro-choice — I suppose I am in that category now — cannot comfort ourselves by denying the humanity of the fetus. With respect, Bill and Snaars, you’re looking for an easy way out, and I would close that door to you.

    I can tolerate the moral ambiguity of being pro-choice. Can you do the same, instead of dismissing the fetus as non-human?
    Q

    Reply

  15. snaars
    Jun 17, 2005 @ 13:33:00

    Q said: I can tolerate the moral ambiguity of being pro-choice. Can you do the same, instead of dismissing the fetus as non-human?

    Q, our language has become inadequate in some respects when it comes to this issue. I think you and I are using the word “human” in two different senses.

    In one sense, “human” has a broad application, and can be applied to any cell with human DNA, or even something created by a human being.

    In another sense, a “human” is some entity endowed with certain characteristics (“consciousness, emotions, desires, expectations, rationality, intentionality, frustrations, our sense of moral duty, etc., etc, …, as I mentioned before). Arguably, something that has never had any of the relevant characteristics cannot be “dehumanized”, in this sense of “human”.

    I readily admit that the fertilized ovum is human in the first sense; I find it extremely unlikely that a fertilized ovum is human in the second sense.

    Not everything with human DNA is a human. It is very conceivable that something could lack human DNA and still be considered “human” in the second sense.

    I think you are equivocating on the two senses of the word. That is why I prefer to refer to someone that has moral rights as a “person”.

    Is the position I have described ambiguous? Yes it is, I still have a lot of unanswered questions.

    Reply

  16. Q
    Jun 17, 2005 @ 13:59:00

    If you’re prepared to acknowledge that the fetus is human in the broad sense of the word, that’s a significant concession.

    And I obviously concede that the development that takes place post-conception, adds something of fundamental importance: of such fundamental importance, that it is not murder to abort the fetus before that development takes place. As I’ve said before, our respective positions are not very far apart.

    Now I have a question for you. At what stage of fetal development do these attributes take shape? Consciousness, for example. Arguably a child is not very self-conscious even at, say, eighteen months of age.

    At what point in a pregnancy would you place limits on abortion? Does a child have consciousness, desires, expectations, rationality, intentionality, or a sense of moral duty at, for example, seven months’ gestation?

    I am still of the opinion that only one line is not arbitrary: conception. But I know you have more to say on the subject, and you believe you can make a case from biology. I’m interested in knowing where you would draw the line, and how it would be less arbitrary than the line I’ve drawn.

    A post script —
    You may want to keep in mind that I spent six years working with developmentally challenged individuals.

    Such individuals may never develop consciousness in the sense you mean it. But it is my conviction that they are fully human beings.

    Hence I cannot agree to narrow the word “human” to the meaning you suggest.
    Q

    Reply

  17. Anonymous
    Jun 17, 2005 @ 15:40:00

    We can no longer say for a fact that the moment the ovum is fertilized by the penetration of the sperm, the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes are complete, the zygote has a unique genotype which is distinct from both parents, and the child’s sex, size and shape, colour of skin, hair and eyes, temperament and intelligence are already determined.
    The recent work in the human genome project has identified the approximate number of genes that are in human DNA. The big surprise was that the number of genes is far fewer than were predicted.
    Genetics does not ordain human form. Genetics ordains the mathematical principals of how nerve cells relate to each other and how nerve cells relate to information and how they grow (and divide) in response to various kinds of activity. From the first days of the formation of a nervous system, thought is occurring in a simple form and the colony of nerves grows itself according to its response to influences in the same way that nerves in an adult respond to influences as a course of thought.

    Reply

  18. Q
    Jun 17, 2005 @ 16:26:00

    Anonymous —
    Thanks for joining us in our attempt to solve the insoluble riddle. For the record, I have no objection to you posting as “anonymous”, so long as you are respectful of other participants in the debate. (As you were on this occasion.)

    I have done a little study of human genetics, but I am hardly an expert. The information I have doesn’t correspond to what you’ve written at a couple points.

    The big surprise was that the number of genes is far fewer than were predicted.

    That’s true, but I believe it was only the number of genes that was at issue, not the number of chromosomes. Until recently, it was estimated that humans had 80,000 to 100,000 genes; now scientists believe that the number of functional genes is 30,000 to 40,000.

    As far as I know, there has been no reversal on the other facts you mention: that, at conception, the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes are complete; the zygote has a unique genotype which is distinct from both parents; and the child’s sex, size and shape, colour of skin, hair and eyes (plus temperament and intelligence, according to Dr. Stott) are already determined.

    Genetics does not ordain human form. Genetics ordains the mathematical principals of how nerve cells relate to each other and how nerve cells relate to information and how they grow (and divide) in response to various kinds of activity.

    Your knowledge may be superior to mine, and I’m always open to learning something new. I know that at a very early stage of development, cells begin to differentiate from one another and specialize to perform discrete bodily functions. And my understanding is, it is the DNA which directs the cells to differentiate and specialize in this manner. Can you refer me to an authority who can set me straight on this?

    From the first days of the formation of a nervous system, thought is occurring in a simple form.

    Until this point in your comment, I assumed you were pro-choice. But this point argues in the other direction — that abortion, even at an early stage of pregnancy, involves the killing of a (thinking?) (feeling?) (conscious?) human being. Of course, the nervous system does not develop at conception, but some weeks into the pregnancy. I forget exactly how early, but I believe it is not far removed from 8 weeks. In other words, quite early.

    Assuming you come back to read my response, I’d like to draw you out some more. Are you pro-life? Pro-choice? Do you think abortion should be permitted at any stage of a pregnancy, or would you limit access to abortion at some stage of fetal development?

    The more opinions, the more informative the discussion.
    Q

    Reply

  19. Q
    Jun 17, 2005 @ 22:49:00

    According to John Stott, “At six or seven weeks brain function can be detected.” Now that I’m at home, I thought I would look this information up.

    Not that Dr. Stott is an expert on genomics. (He’s a theologian, not an MD.) But I assume his information is reliable. I offer the quote because recently our discussion seems to be preoccupied with the question of brain function.
    Q

    Reply

  20. Tzipi
    Jun 19, 2005 @ 22:58:00

    Hi Q, and the others who are participating in this discussion. My name is Tzipi, no, not my real name -my blog name.

    I am snaars’ wife; and it is true he almost had to sleep on the couch the other night after a heated debate over this topic, lol.

    I am a childbirth educator and labor doula (doula- professional childbirth assistant). It is very difficult for me to say that a life can be taken away for the sake of convenience; and even when the mom’s life is threatened that we can take the baby; most of the time I try to stay away from such debates because it is very difficult for me to not get emotional.

    My mind does not work the same as snaars, and apparently others who are in this discussion on this blog. I relate to Mary P. I get frustrated and emotional, and often will cry as a result. Although, I hate to admit that! I wish I could debate issues with such ease.

    I have assisted many couples in their journey through pregnancy and childbirth; and have helped them in breastfeeding and other postpartum areas. Watching a woman work to give birth to her child, watching that child come forth makes it very hard for me to say anyone can/should abort their unborn child. I would rather people abstain from sexual intercourse, use some type of birth control, or place the baby into adoption.

    I wish people were told the facts; that just one abortion can cause emotional trauma, that just one abortion makes it difficult to conceive and carry to term; and that just one abortion can actually mean a life has been taken away because there are partial birth abortions, and there are times when babies are born and neglected until they starve to death.

    If a person wants an abortion than earlier (first week or two) I think would be the best time to do it. However, personally I can not even agree with that.

    I also realize that not every woman is affected emotionally after having an abortion; not even years later.

    I worked with a young woman who had an abortion (first pregnancy; at the time she was not ready for a child. Years later and in her second pregnancy, which is when I was working with her, she had a difficult time coming to terms with the abortion. She said if this is a baby than that was a baby too. The only thing I could say was at that time you made the best decision with the information you had at that time. She still felt that she should not have had the abortion; it took her a long time to forgive herself for aborting her baby.

    Working with expectant women and couples is very rewarding. Watching people enter this world is an amazing experience that never looses its appeal. I am always honored to be chosen as the labor doula; and I view every birth as a miracle. I can’t say that life can be terminated and then look at these beautiful perfect little people.

    -Tzipi

    Reply

  21. Q
    Jun 20, 2005 @ 09:22:00

    Hi, Tzipi — I’m very pleased you took the risk of offering a comment.

    My mind does not work the same as snaars, and apparently others who are in this discussion … I wish I could debate issues with such ease.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t debate this issue with ease. It takes an effort of will to set my emotions to one side and provide a rationale for my position. And sometimes I don’t feel very good about setting my emotions to one side, so I’m grateful for the more emotive comments of people like you and Mary P.

    I believe it is a helpful exercise to compartmentalize, keeping our rational analysis separate from our emotional response. If we can’t compartmentalize in that way, our thinking will not be clear and we’ll lose the valuable data that can come from clear thought.

    But I believe both the rational analysis and the emotional response are valid considerations.

    I don’t wear my faith on my sleeve, but I am a (liberal Protestant) Christian. Love is a core Christian value, and rightly so. Love is not merely an emotion; it must also manifest itself in our conduct.

    Your comment illustrates love in both senses: your compassionate emotional involvement in the baby’s welfare, but also your practical support of couples in pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, etc.

    For cerebral people like Snaars and myself, it is important not to lose sight of the emotional side of the equation. “The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing” (Pascal).

    Balance is the ideal, in my view, and none of us achieve it perfectly. Some of us begin with the emotional response; some of us begin with cold-blooded reason; but anyone who stops with one or the other is missing half of the data on which a decision should be based.

    Clearly you have an emotional response to the issue: Watching a woman work to give birth to her child, watching that child come forth makes it very hard for me to say anyone can/should abort their unborn child … I view every birth as a miracle. I can’t say that life can be terminated and then look at these beautiful perfect little people.

    But your position is not unreasoned: I wish people were told the facts; that just one abortion can cause emotional trauma, that just one abortion makes it difficult to conceive and carry to term….

    I am deliberately keeping my emotions off to one side, for the reasons that others have remarked on: we haven’t had much rational debate on this topic, and it’s sorely needed.

    But my emotional response is pro-life, like yours. And I genuinely value the emotional input from you and Mary P., because otherwise we’re neglecting an essential part of our human response to the issue.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. I imagine it wasn’t easy.
    Q

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: