Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pro-choice or Pro-life? How about: when does it become a matter of two lives rather than one?

I am curious how people answer the following question:

Q1.  At what point (if any) would you say that a human fetus/infant/child becomes a human being deserving equal protection of the right to life (right-to-life equal to the mother's)?  Note that I am only talking about equal right-to-life, not necessarily any other rights.

Some possible options: 
   (-e) 18 years old
   (-d) 4 years old
   (-c) 1 year old
   (-b) 1 month old
   (-a) 1 day old
   (a) first breath
   (b) umbilical cord cut
   (c) moment of birth
   (d) moment of crowning
   (e) 1 minute before crowning
   (f) 5 minutes before crowning
   (g) 1 hour before crowning
   (h) 1 day before birth/beginning of labor (whichever is last)
   (i) 1 day before/beginning labor (whichever first)
   (h) 2 days before birth
   (k) 1 week before birth
   (l) 1 month before birth
   (m) 2 months before birth
   (*) when the fetus is viable outside the womb without intervention (beyond C-section)
   (**) when fetus is viable *with* intervention/life support
    ...and so on... (set your own time or conditions)

Q2.   At what point does the fetus/infant/child have right-to-life that outweighs a mother's *pure* choice (*not* a case of rape, incest, nor any known health risk to mother beyond normal risks of normal pregnancy)?
(use same options as above or make your own)

Q3.  How far into the pregnancy to you feel absolutely certain that the fetus is *not* a human being with a right-to-life?
   (0) 5 minutes
   (1) 1 day
   (2) 1 week
   (3) 1 month
   (4) 2 months
   (5) 3 months
   ... and so on... (set your own time or conditions)

My answers:

Q1:  I'm definitely not comfortable any later than 1 week before birth, but really later than 1 or 2 months before birth makes me pretty squeamish.

Q2:  Somewhere from 1-3 months before birth is very uncomfortable to me.  Or somewhere between viable-without-intervention and viable-with-intervention.

Q3:  I think up to about 4 months, I feel 'certain' not a human being.

So from about 4-8 months, it gets blurry for me.

I err in my opinion on the side of choice where it is blurry.  But putting it in plain terms, I would not oppose a law that basically said "after 8 months, you better have a damn good reason".  I'm sorry if that offends anyone -- but the whole point is the question of "when are their two people to consider and not just one".  And thinking "1 minute, 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week... before birth", has got to get you thinking.

Where would you draw the line(s)?  At what point is there a human being there such that the law should have a say in protecting it?

Please answer and give your thoughts in the comments.


theiceman said...

I'm glad you are in favour of a carefully considered approach to this issue, and are encouraging dialogue. Please let me know what you think or if you have questions.

The way I see it there are two issues. At what point a fertilised egg becomes a 'human being', and at what point we have to give it the same moral and legal status that you or I have.

Part 1:
You are right that it is very difficult to demarcate a point in time. I believe that in light of this, the point at which it becomes a human life is at implantation.

a) Many fertilised eggs do not manage to implant on the uterine wall, and so I think it is reasonable to say that implantation is the point where the pregnancy is likely to be successful.

b) As you pointed out elsewhere, to say a baby becomes a human at birth is simply absurd- if you cut the mother in half the day before birth and took the baby, it would be fine. To me, 1 week before birth is morally the same as 18 months old.

c) I can see the logic behind the "survival with intervention" point. However this is very subjective. The earliest babies that survive at the moment are around 22 weeks- but a few decades ago they would have all died. Does that mean that babies born at 22 wks in the 1900s weren't humans, but now they are?

d) "Survival without medical intervention" also has logic behind it- the point at which it would definitely survive outside, given feeding and care. However that is still saying that if a baby needs any intervention to survive, it's not human. 32 week olds haven't produced surfactant in their lungs yet, so if they are born they need medical treatment or they will die. But if most people saw a 32 week old out of the womb it would be hard to convince them it wasn't human.

e) A common view, and one which I think you have expressed (correct me if I'm wrong) is essentially "it's ok if it doesn't look like a baby". We all get squeamish when we think of full-term abortions because it actually looks like a little person, and to think that they're killing a little person offends our innate morals. The trouble is, we are so strongly taught to judge a book by its cover (and necessarily so- we have to be visually discerning to get by in life). But even though an earlier foetus may not look like a person, it still has the blueprints of a person in its DNA and all the cellular architects to build the person. To say it's ok just because it looks less recognisable is a mistake in my opinion.

f) I think most people would agree that Peter Singer's "independent survival" and "rational self-aware thought", while nice in theory, are pretty radical. If they were the criteria for being human, then many people with physical or mental disability (even temporarily) would cease to be human and we could dispose of them. Seems a bit freaky.

theiceman said...

Part 2:
So at what point do we afford a human moral and legal status? We can either say it is the same point (every "human" deserves legal protection), or that protection comes later. Perhaps the embryo is technically a 'human being' but because it only has the potential to become a rational, self-sufficient adult, it shouldn't have the same rights as one? I am of the first view- that once you're a human, you are that way until you're dead, and that all humans are morally of equal value.

a) I think that even humans who are physically unable to look after themselves deserve protection and support. I am more convinced of this by my Christian faith than anything else, as the evolutionary view would be to give protection based on the quality of one's genetics and ensure survival of the fittest. This opens up a whole can of worms but I won't go there.

b) I respect Peter Singer's argument as being cohesive. If you believe that a human only becomes a human when it is self-aware and able, in some form, to survive independently, then there's no reason not to argue for infanticide up until 2-4 years old. But of course I reject his initial premise!

Part 3: Other considerations

Legal protection of a developing baby isn't just about abortion. There are many cases where an assault or an accident has resulted in miscarriage, causing much anguish to the parents-to-be. Can you imagine if it was your wife, and the criminal received a slap on the wrists for assault and battery, but not a sentence for manslaughter?

Anyway, I hope you can see why I hold the view that I do, and I'm happy to further discuss whatever comes up.

Scott Graham said...

theiceman, You bring up some good points. However, for me, the definition of what is 'human' is arbitrary, so I do not necessarily have a problem with drawing a line that might change depending on medical technology and scientific knowledge. Actually, it is not so much 'what is humn" but the full question of "what is human with X degree of huan rights".

'Implantation', while a very clearly identifiable line, is still an arbitrary choice. You could still have gone with fertilization. Why not?

Consider historically there are cultures where 'abortion' after the birth was acceptable (Sparta, for example).

Can you really look at a clump of a few hundred undifferentiated cells and feel the same need to protect and nurture it that you do for an infant or child? Put it another way, if that clump of cells spontaneously aborts, will you grieve the same was as if a 4 year old child had died? It is possible that you would, because it is possible to form an emotional bond with *anything*. Some people can grieve the destruction or loss of a historical landmark or a treasured sentimental object.

I do think that once a pregnant woman chooses to keep it, it should at that point be accorded a legal status almost equal to a day old infant. But if the mother chooses to flush the clump of cells -- then it was just a clump of cells.

Early in the pregnancy, it is, to me, clearly the mother's choice. Late in the pregnancy, I think it should be assumed that the mother has already made a choice -- made a commitment -- that she cannot (without good reason) unmake.