I’ve been contemplating pro-choice and pro-life arguments lately. Not that I am anything but staunchly pro-choice, but because I have been trying to tease out the actual points at issue. There are a lot of distracting culture wars issues mudding up the water, but in essence the question itself isn’t all that complex. Here are a few seemingly random, but in my mind connected, items that come to mind:
First, legally, at the moment, death is undefined. Basically, a person is dead when they are so declared by a doctor, and a death certificate is ordered. There are multiple criteria, some of which are rather high tech, like brain death. But a person is not declared dead on the basis of brain activity alone. Rather, a decision is made to end life support, allowing the body to perish, and that decision relies on a definition of life that includes consciousness. Thus a conscious paralyzed adult cannot be ordered off life support. And even the Terry Schivo weirdos based their actions on a claim that she still had brain activity, not that a human vegetable must be maintained indefinitely. Any consideration of when life begins should be informed by our practices concerning when it ends.
Second, you cannot legally be forced to donate a body part, a kidney, say, or bone marrow, to anyone. Even if your sibling or parent will die without it, it remains your right to refuse. Unless you consent to the procedure it will not take place. The decision to donate organs after death is similarly voluntary. Although the deceased might save multiple lives with such a donation, unless the paperwork has been completed, it cannot happen. Yet the desperate people in need such donations are undeniably and fully human. The point of law here privileges the informed “choice” of the person whose physical integrity will be compromised by aiding another, even when the potential donor is no longer alive. That is, when the population in question contains both men and women, no one seems to be arguing that the sacredness of human life demands that every person must sacrifice for another’s need.
Third, the need to define an exact point at which life is said to begin seems to me to be our period’s equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Philosophical discussions of this sort are of interest to them what likes to spend their time spinning these particular wheels, but they aren’t the tool to employ if you want to find an answer. (Hey, when you guys finish hammering out free will versus determinism, get back to me. Meanwhile I have some life choices to go make.) If you have a screw driver, you will make yourself crazy trying to saw wood with it. The point is, that the question of when a sperm + an egg becomes human is a purely semantic one. Any zygote is as alive as Terry Schivo was in terms of vegetative life. And a person with no viable kidney is certainly conscious, and how can a reluctant donor be allowed to cause that conscious human’s death? Looking for a rational answer to the definition of life isn’t really going to get anywhere.Which is to say, this may be an unanswerable question, which is not a good starting point for making decisions.
Fourth. Rather than focussing on the fetus itself, perhaps looking instead at the decision process itself would be helpful. What are the possible ways to determine when animate cells become a person? There have been various possibilities: a Roman father could reject a new infant, and it would be exposed. Or birth itself could be the cut-off point, abortion okay, infanticide not. Or perhaps the unborn fetus is a person once it is viable outside its mother’s body? Or personhood could be pegged in some way to the degree of development of the fetus’ brain? Or, as per the failed Mississippi bill, as soon as the sperm and egg unite? For that matter, who’s wasting all those lovely sperm, or that perfectly fine egg? Hey, if we perfect cloning, then EVERY LIVING CELL IN MY BODY is potentially a new human until it dies naturally.
The extremes seem pretty clear – no one wants infanticide, and people don’t seem to think every fertilized egg is a person, but every stopping point in between is fraught with questions. Maybe if we stop thinking about just words and concepts, and look at the biology, some things become clear. There are definite limits to the miracles high tech medicine can perform. A fetus has a possibility of survival from perhaps 21 weeks at the earliest, certainly 24 weeks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preterm_birth). Before that, it is totally dependent on the mother’s body. And just as no person can be forced to donate marrow, or a kidney, or blood, no matter how grave the need of another, a woman should be free to refuse to donate the use of her body to a fetus if she does not choose to support it. After all, that fetus is no more conscious than the patient awaiting a kidney that never comes. Sometimes existence is hard. In this case, until 20 or so weeks, what happens with any woman’s body would be merely between her and her doctor. And that closed office door should exclude the government, the church, and even her family should she so choose.
After that point? In general, later term abortions are largely performed for medical reasons. For example, ectopic pregnancies are apparently usually only diagnosed at 16-20 weeks. Pregnancies like these that kill the mother mostly kill the fetus as well. One certain death for one unlikely survival doesn’t seem like the proper trade off. I’m not sure how this difficult area is improved by dragging the government into the discussion.
Anyway, rant over.