Saturday, February 18, 2012

In Defense of HB 1

[Today's post is by SPL member Nathaniel.]

A lot of people are outraged, disgusted and alarmed at the recent passage of HB1: a Virginia bill that grants personhood to all human beings from the moment of conception.  As depicted by the media, the whole personhood notion is just a fabricated excuse to ban abortions.  For example:

“A Republican supermajority has muscled two of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in years through the Virginia House…” – Washington Post

“Virginia lawmakers took a step toward outlawing abortion on Tuesday by approving "personhood" legislation that grants individual rights to an embryo from the moment of conception.” - Reuters

“A bill written to outlaw abortion by granting legal rights to fertilized eggs passed the Virginia House yesterday…” – Florida Independent

The assumption in all these articles is that personhood isn’t a legitimate issue.  It’s just a tool to attack abortion.  This is like saying that animal rights activists concocted notions of animal suffering out of thin air just because they really wanted an excuse to protest fur. 

Most people probably agree that PETA’s lawsuit against SeaWorld (they argued that orcas are protected under the 13th Amendment) is a little silly, but I don’t think anyone accuses PETA of making up the whole idea that whales have rights just to cover a secret hatred of large aquariums.  When Dr. Sylvia Earle says “I wouldn't deliberately eat a grouper any more than I'd eat a cocker spaniel,” the consensus is that she’s eccentric but sincere.  No one thinks she’s a closeted anti-fishermen bigot.  No one thinks she says fish are good-natured, curious, sensitive, and have personalities just because she secretly wants to stick it to anglers.

You don’t have to believe that we should treat tuna like people to understand that PETA does, and that they act out of that sincere belief.  So why is it so hard for people who think that a fetus is no more a person than a seahorse to grasp that—right or wrong—that is what pro-life people believe.  Let’s be real clear: Personhood is not an excuse to oppose abortion.  It is the reason to oppose abortion.

I understand that PETA may get something of a pass because the stakes are lower when we’re talking about a decision between faux leather and genuine cowhide.  And I don’t want to let anyone think I’m implying a woman’s right to control her own body is on the same level as a man’s right to buy genuine snakeskin boots.  Laws regulating abortion interfere with the most personal aspects of a woman’s life, and nothing in the world could possibly convince me such laws could ever be justified if it weren’t for the fact that on the other side of the scale is another human life.  (About ½ the time that life is female.)

If you ignore what the pro-life movement actually believes—if you assume our reasoning is just a smoke-screen—then you have to fill in with something made up.  And this is where we get weird ideas that the pro-life movement is motivated by a theocratic conspiracy or unvarnished misogyny.  The reality is simpler: The foundation of the pro-life movement is the proposition that all human lives have an equal right to life.

Although there’s a lot of religion in the pro-life movement, this isn’t a theological assertion.  The science is crystal clear and unambiguous: at fertilization / conception a new human being is created.  Don’t take my word for it.  Here are quotes from embryology textbooks:

"Fertilization is a sequence of events that begins with the contact of a sperm (spermatozoon) with a secondary oocyte (ovum) and ends with the fusion of their pronuclei (the haploid nuclei of the sperm and ovum) and the mingling of their chromosomes to form a new cell. This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning, or primordium, of a human being."
[Moore, Keith L. Essentials of Human Embryology. Toronto: B.C. Decker Inc, 1988, p.2]

"Embryo: An organism in the earliest stage of development; in a man, from the time of conception to the end of the second month in the uterus."
[Dox, Ida G. et al. The Harper Collins Illustrated Medical Dictionary. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993, p. 146]

"The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, thezygote."
[Sadler, T.W. Langman's Medical Embryology. 7th edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995, p. 3]

"Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.... The combination of 23 chromosomes present in each pronucleus results in 46 chromosomes in the zygote. Thus the diploid number is restored and the embryonic genome is formed. The embryo now exists as a genetic unity."
[O'Rahilly, Ronan and Müller, Fabiola. Human Embryology & Teratology. 3rd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001, pp. 8.]

And some scientists too:

"It is incorrect to say that biological data cannot be decisive...It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception." - Professor Micheline Matthews-Roth (Harvard University Medical School)

"After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being. [It] is no longer a matter of taste or is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception." - Dr. Jerome LeJeune (Professor of Genetics, University of Descartes)

"The beginning of a single human life is from a biological point of view a simple and straightforward matter – the beginning is conception." - Dr. Watson A. Bowes (University of Colorado Medical School)

The science is clear: we’re dealing with a human life.  All that’s left is the philosophical questions.  Are all human lives equal?  And, if they are equal, can we infringe on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy in the name of protecting the right to life of the unborn human being within her?

There’s plenty of room left for debate here.  I’m not trying to twist anybody’s arm into implicitly accepting my position.  On the one hand you have Judith Thompson’s famous “A Defense of Abortion” where she created the well-known thought experiment of a woman who finds herself mysteriously attached to a concert violinist.  Does she have a moral or legal obligation to keep him alive for 9 months?  Camille Paglia goes much farther than this, stating:

As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice. Every individual has an absolute right to control his or her body… Hence I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful. Liberals for the most part have shrunk from facing the ethical consequences of their embrace of abortion, which results in the annihilation of concrete individuals and not just clumps of insensate tissue. The state in my view has no authority whatever to intervene in the biological processes of any woman’s body, which nature has implanted there before birth and hence before that woman’s entrance into society and citizenship.
Peter Singer offers yet another alternative pro-choice argument that doesn’t require denial of the humanity of the unborn human being:

[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life.
He went on to argue for not only abortion, but also for infanticide on the basis that “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons… the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”  Philosophy Michael Tooley made a similar case with his philosophical definition of personhood, stating that a human being “possess[es] a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.”  Thus, unborn human beings are not persons.  Neither are newborns.  There are many ways in which a pro-choice position can be made without rejecting the scientific humanity of the unborn human being: either by rejecting the personhood of the unborn or by accepting it and then stating that the right to life doesn’t trump the right of (born) women to self-determination.

In short: there is no need for pro-choicers to pretend that the pro-life position has to boil down to religious fanaticism or woman-hating.  There is no reason not to accept that pro-life people sincerely view this issue as one of civil rights and then reject their viewpoint, just as you might reject PETA’s viewpoint.  The only thing you cannot do, however, is pretend to be having an honest discussion about abortion if your first assumption is that the pro-life movement can’t possibly be serious and honest when it makes a law based on personhood.


Anonymous said...

Philip K Dick wrote a short story of a dystopian world where you weren't deemed to be a person until you could do algebra! Thank you for the quotes on when human life begins. Very useful

M said...

I didn't realize someone else had come up with that idea. I have a friend who used to joke that you can't be a person until you can do integral calculus.

Anonymous said...

"George Carlin: If you're pre-born, you're fine, if you're pre-schooled, your ****ed. Conservatives wan't live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers. Pro-life, these people aren't pro-life, they're killing doctors, what kind of pro-life is that? What, they'll do everything they can do save a fetus, but if it grows up to be a doctor they just might have to kill it?"

Jameson Graber said...

George Carlin was hilarious, but sometimes he was an idiot.

Anonymous said...

George Carlin was also a high school dropout. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

George Carlin was an idiot for revealing the cognitive dissonance between pro-war, pro-torture,and pro-death penalty attitudes of pro-lifers.

In other words he's an idiot for calling pro-lifers hypocrites.

Vegan Phil said...

George Carlin was foolish for his failure to actually observe actual individuals involved in the pro-life movement, and not just the compromised politicians he hated anyways.

Pro-life advocates are more likely than the general population to oppose the death penalty, and if you (Anonymous) were actually involved in efforts to eliminate it (besides trolling online), you'd know that the DP abolition movement is filled with pro-lifers.

Anonymous said...

still no cure for war, torture, religous bigotry.

xalisae said...

Nope. We'll just have to hope that the future generations we prevent from being killed in abortions are able to figure out the remedies for those. ;)

Anonymous said...

Let's start by forcing people to procreate against their will. We'll cover the despicable nature of our behavior by telling people that they should only have sex for the purposes of procreating. We'll be in control of things! just like the Church.

Oh wait this is secular pro life. We're not religious (just kidding, we're religious)

Ok lets tell people that the fetus has a beating heart and that's why we want to control people's sex lives. Much better!


Coming soon.


Simon said...

Popped in to see what is happening. So we have at least one troll on the board I thought there used to be a policy not to feed them lol.

HAs there been any attempt to actually get Pro-Choicers to discuss identity and personhood in a meaningful matter? Still looks like the usual hysterics.

xalisae said...

Right, because there are so many people here advocating forced insemination and the like. And I can't blink twice without seeing an article about how we want condoms to be banned. Riiiight.

If you think the "beating heart" thing is the ONLY reason we want to protect the lives of gestating human beings, your reading comprehension is terrible.

Anonymous said...

No... Government interference in people's sex lives means that if you want to have sex, it better be for reproduction-- because republicans are trying to outlaw contraception and abortion.

They don't want you having sex unless you plan on populating the earth. Just like the bible.

And if you disagree and you're a woman, they'll say you're a slut.

Anonymous said...

LN said...

Oh my goodness, guys, he has us figured out. He is so clever and witty. We've been exposed. Games up. Shut down the site.

And by this I mean please do not feed the troll. Some trolls are hard to identify, but I'm pretty sure this guy has "troll" tattooed on his knuckles.

Honesty on Both Sides said...

"The only thing you cannot do, however, is pretend to be having an honest discussion about abortion if your first assumption is that the pro-life movement can’t possibly be serious and honest when it makes a law based on personhood."

Very true. Of course, it's not just the pro-choice side that says hysterical things about the pro-life side: the reverse is true as well. I've seen plenty of pro-lifers whose only argument for certain laws is that Planned Parenthood (or any ob/gyn who performs abortion) is clearly motivated by nothing more than greed and can't possibly be sincerely trying to provide help to desperate women. They must endure those death threats just for the fun of it, or because abortion-doctoring is so much more profitable than "regular" doctoring...

The first step to an honest discussion is trusting that your opponents are sincere. The second step is uncovering their premises. The third step is usually either uncovering blatant contradictions in those premises, or discovering none and resigning yourself to the fact that people have different values and moral codes, and that those are (or can be) just as legitimate as yours.