Saturday, November 03, 2012

What we should talk about when we talk about abortion, pt. 1

Your correspondent has long been pro-choice, but it's mostly been because of peer-pressure rather than conviction. For years, I've had a harder time than my peers in condemning social-conservatives re: abortion, because the question of fetal personhood seems to me to be awfully complex and muddy. In this post, I'm going to talk about the complications I see in clearly delineating when personhood begins, and in a post to follow next week I'm going to talk about why I no longer think that the question of fetal personhood is the central issue in considering abortion's legal status.

Here's the problem: ultra-conservatives say that "life begins at conception," though what they mean is that personhood begins at conception; sperm and ova are indubitably alive--not to mention indubitably "potential" persons--but no one's clamoring for federal protections for semen. If you can accept the religious fiat of ensoulment-at-conception as a robust answer to the question of "What counts as a person?," then the issue is settled. Of course, that answer has problems beyond simple lack of evidence: for instance, it's not clear that "an embryo" is a reasonable way to speak about what's happening during the first two weeks of pregnancy. Ted Peters writes in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics (see section 59):

In short, within the first dozen to fourteen days after conception, the early embryo can divide and recombine in various ways. There is no established individual human being until approximately the fourteenth day after conception, and this only when the embryo has been implanted in the uterine wall.

The arithmetic of ensoulment just doesn't add up: if two embryos recombine into one, do the souls recombine as well?

If you want better criteria for personhood--if, like me, you think that a collection of a couple dozen or hundred cells sans nervous system or consciousness are decidedly not a person--then the view that personhood begins at conception is plainly untenable: there is a period during pregnancy, however short, when a fetus is not a person.

On the other hand, most of us would agree that a newborn infant is definitely a person with a right to life. And since there's no appreciable difference between that infant on the day of its birth and the fetus which it was 24 hours earlier, it would seem that there is at least a short period, at the end of the pregnancy, when the fetus is a person entitled to protections and rights.

To summarize, then, it seems that 1) since a small collection of cells which have only the potential to become a conscious human being are definitely not yet a person, it follows that there must be an early period of pregnancy when personhood does not hold. But on the other hand, it seems that 2) since a late-stage fetus is pretty much identical to a newborn infant, it follows that there must be a late period of pregnancy when personhood does hold. This brings us to the messy and unhelpful conclusion that 3) there's some point or period during pregnancy when a biological object becomes an ethically-important person (or maybe that's what pregnancy is). When the object becomes a person--which is presumably when abortion becomes unacceptable--is not at all clear.

(Side note to all those people who think that studying philosophy is a wast of time: what we're dealing with here is a situated-version of the question of identity and change, of which the Ship of Theseus and Zeno's paradoxes are well-known examples. It turns out that philosophy is not so much useless as fundamental, like conceptual architecture.)

So that's my take on the problem of fetal personhood: it seems to begin somewhere after conception but before birth. How should that translate into laws surrounding abortion? As I'll explain next week, it shouldn't. In the meantime, I encourage you to read Jacob Kovacs' thoughtful and enlightening take on abortion rights in light of the recent Senate-candidate Richard Mourdock's 'scandal' (which, as Kovacs notes, is a scandal for the stupid reason that Mourdock used an ambiguous pronoun, instead of the smart reason that women's autonomy is important).

Update 11/10/12: Apologies for the fact that part two isn't out yet; I've been busy, and didn't want to rush the writing process. I'll have it out as soon as I can.

1 comment:

Dylan said...

I agree that when personhood begins should not be the basis for the legality of abortion. I'm curious to hear what you will have to say about it.