Posted by: bridget | 25 April 2007

Debunking the Pro-Choice Argument, Part II

Pro-choicers often say that a fetus, without consciousness, feelings, people who love it, or many other abilities shared by humans should not have the trump card against a sentient, feeling woman with the challenges of life in front of her.

Why should a blob of tissue have more rights than I have?

First of all, as a matter of fetal development, the heart beats approximately three weeks after conception (five weeks after last period); at that time, major organs also begin to develop and blood circulates throughout his body. At this time, a woman may not even know that she is pregnant, only being a week past her missed period. So the “blob of tissue” argument isn’t really relevant to the abortion debate.

Even if it were, the underlying idea is that sentience is the standard by which we judge the value for life. A person who is sentient has the moral high ground over someone who is not; the latter person’s very life may be taken away for the mere convenience of the sentient person. There are two problems with this idea: the theory that the person with the ability to make a decision has the moral right to make it; and that, taken to its logical conclusion, the argument results in some gruesome possibilities.

The basis of civilised society is that decisions are not made by physical force. Feminism has, for years, fought the idea that since a husband has the ability to force sex on his wife, it is his prerogative to do so. Abortion is a lot like marital rape: one party asserts a right, based on physical pleasure and higher standing in society, to inflict the most horrific of acts against the other person. We also saw this idea with slavery and child abuse and have long outgrown the idea that physical and political strength results in moral dominance. Abortion is the last great civil rights battle – oddly, one opposed by those who fight for everyone else.

That doesn’t explain why a sentient woman should suffer for this blob of cells, though: the decision to remain pregnant is hardly without complications, health risks, and fear. Yet, taking the idea that the non-sentient may be killed for the sentient, why do we allow people in persistent vegetative states to remain alive? There are between 15,000 and 40,000 people in PVS in the United States every year and another 100,000 who are minimally conscious. There are over 96,000 people on organ waiting lists today, and one will die every ninety minutes (approximately 6,000 per year). Why allow the Terry Schiavo’s of the world to live (well, not in her case, sadly) when there are sentient humans who are dying for lack of organs? That person could save the lives of several loved, productive, and sentient humans.

As a civilised society, we don’t force innocent people to die, even if it would save several lives (see above), and even if the innocent people in question lack basic consciousness and have no hope of leading a full life. There is no reason then that we should allow the killing of a non-sentient human based on nothing more than the desire of another human, especially when that non-sentient human has every chance of growing into a fully functional, emotional, and intellectual person.

Related posts, here:

  1. Part I: If you can’t trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child? And, It’s wrong to bring unwanted children into the world.
  2. Part II: Why should a blob of tissue have more rights than a woman?
  3. Part III: If you don’t support abortion, you don’t support women.
  4. Part IV: Pro-lifers want to legislate morality; you can’t be pro-life and libertarian.
  5. Part V: Since so many babies die of spontaneous abortion, how can you be pro-life unless you want to save them first?
  6. Part VI: What about this violinist? If we don’t force people to donate organs, why do you want to force people to remain pregnant?
  7. Part VII: If abortion is murder, pro-lifers should want to imprison women
  8. Part VIII: Sherry Colb on abortion.

Responses

  1. preach it!

  2. LOL! Thank you. ;)

  3. Well said, as always. However, while I will grant that you and I may “have outgrown the idea that physical and political strength results in moral dominance.” I fear we may not be in the majority when you consider the entire world.

    “the decision to remain pregnant is hardly without complications, health risks, and fear”, true enough; but that would best be considered before getting pregnant.

  4. Sunday School Teacher,

    Good points, as always. :)

    You are correct that the rest of the world hasn’t quite gotten there yet (and we are certainly struggling with that idea ourselves), but it really is the basis of civilisation.

    I completely agree with you re: thinking about that before getting pregnant. A few days ago, I commented that I don’t want kids. Someone said, “You never know; kids aren’t always planned.” I (sort of) snapped back, “Well, unless you believe in the stork, that’s not the case.” I really really HATE the attitude that kids just kind of happen. We all took biology. GRRRR!

  5. [...] More good pro-life reasoning by my favorite elephant. [...]

  6. I think your discussion of people in PVS is very interesting and relevant. Is this commonly used to argue for pro-life? I ask because I don’t think I’ve heard it before despite its potency.

    Your comparison of abortion to child abuse, marital rape, etc. seems to suffer from one problem: those sentient people being abused can experience suffering because they are sentient. The unconscious aborted fetus cannot experience such agony.

    Regardless, I don’t think that undermines all the points you draw from those analogies.

    Maybe I should skip parts 2-4 lest I be turned pro-life myself…

  7. oh, that was part 2… hopefully the order isn’t too critical…

  8. Order is not important.

    PVS is not used to argue pro-life; that’s why I chose it. As you mentioned in another response, there is the issue of sentience – “why should it matter if the fetus can’t feel pain?” We are horrified when we hear stories about people who abuse the mentally retarded – those who cannot even understand the nature of the abuse perpetrated against them. There was a story a few years back about a girl who was essentially semi-conscious or unconscious who was raped by a health care provider. It was shocking. The fact that she was unaware of the crime and its full meaning did not reduce people’s shock: in fact, it made it worse.

    If you ever head off to law school and take Torts, you’ll learn about assault v. battery. Assault is threatening someone with harm; battery is visiting that harm upon them. There are cases where people (often women) will sue for battery that occurred while they were unconscious. They often did not find out about it until told later. They cannot sue for assault, as they were unaware of the threat of imminent harm. Legally (and morally), we recognise that unconscious people still have a right to bodily integrity.

    I guess the question becomes thus: is there a difference between battering someone who is unconscious and will awake form anaesthesia in a few hours, and battering (here, killing) someone who will gain consciousness in a few months?

    I think not.

    For some interesting reading, check this out:
    http://www.law.wlu.edu/news/storydetail.asp?id=273
    Virginia recently passed a law which prohibits teaching hospitals from using unconscious women as test cases in gynecological exams. Many of the women have never found out that they were exposed to these exams, yet will still find them to be morally rephrensible.

    Some of this gets into the issue of the value of both human life and human dignity. I’ll address those in response to your newest response (10:33 pm PDT).

  9. I think your reliance on analogy is persuasive but your parallels are not strong enough to constitute real proof. There are many differences between those in PVS – who were previously conscious and could make their wishes about organ donation known, for instance – and fetuses. There are also painful medical procedures that are performed on conscious patients on drugs that ensure they will forget their pain. Comparison can be very emotive, but almost always following the comparison to its end will reveal dissimilarities which unwind the foundation of your argument.

    Here is a point of actual evidence that I think neither the pro-life or pro-choice camp touches upon enough. Young people who receive comprehensive (read: NOT abstinence only) sexual education in school have lower pregnancy rates than those who have limited education. There is a way for everybody to be happy in the abortion debate, and that is if we could dramatically reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country – no pregnancy, no abortion, no issue. Yet the same political party that supports banning abortion also supports abstinence only education. And neither political party goes far enough to get more resources into schools which are cutting the arts, music, sports – activities that engage young people and have been proven to reduce the incidence of high risk sexual behavior. I would like to see people on both sides of the isle get together to give young women better self esteem and a future-centered world view (and maybe get the same for young men while we’re at it).

    One more point, while I’m on a roll. People who are pro-choice don’t like abortion. We don’t get a kick out of destroying fetuses. Although I believe a fetus is not a human being, I recognize that it is a living creature with a potential, and would not cast it aside lightly. Therefore, I think another point of agreement between the two sides of the debate would be to support better choices for adoption. There are so many couples having in-vitro fertilization (another procedure which destroys embryos, by the way) or adopting from abroad, why not try harder to give people with unwanted pregnancies an easy route to adoption, with financial and psychological support along the way.

    Two practical issues that almost everyone could agree on are reducing unwanted pregnancies and increasing participation in adoption. However, the debate has become so ideological and polarized that the pragmatic solutions have been thus far ignored. I’m not going to convince you that a fetus doesn’t have a soul, and you’re not going to convince me that it does – this is a religious question, not a political one. But I don’t see why we can’t work together to support both life and choice more than we currently do today.

  10. Ah – I appear to have lost my comment, I apologize if this posts twice.

    I wanted to bring a few ideas into the discussion, the first of which is the persuasiveness of analogy even when in most cases the comparison, when followed further, does not hold true. There may be similarities between A and B, but it is not a logical conclusion that what is good for A is the same as for B unless all assumptions illuminating the comparison have been explicitly stated and the author has made an attempt to wheedle out differences between A and B and explain why they do not pertain to his or her argument. This bloggers analogies throughout the series are convincing on the surface, but suffer from a shaky foundation. For instance, the differences between a fetus and a person in PVS – most notably that a person in PVS was formerly conscious and therefore able to give directives about issues such as organ donation – are just as important as the similarities, and were ignored in this instillation.

    Analogies aside, there is real evidence that people on both sides of the abortion debate can act on that is almost completely ignored. Both pro-lifers and pro-choicers would agree that the best case scenario would be to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place. It is a proven fact that young people who get comprehensive sexual education have a lower rate of pregnancy than those in schools where abstinence-only sex ed is taught. So why is the same party that champions pro-life against better sex ed – although the idea of talking about sex to pre-teens and teenagers may make you squeamish, it is certainly the lesser of two evils. Also, why is our country not making a better effort to get more resources into schools which are being forced to cut sports, arts, music and other enrichment programs, and in which classrooms have over 30 children to a teacher. Self-respect in young people reduces high risk sexual behavior, and having activities to pride themselves in as well as good relationships with adults in their community (such as teachers) increases self esteem. Perhaps encouraging people to define their self worth outside of romantic and sexual relationships and would decrease unwanted pregnancies as well.

    Another issue that both sides might agree on is that of adoption. I am pro-choice, not because I relish the idea of destroying fetuses, but because I believe that sometimes abortion is the best of many bad options. However, I don’t see any real effort to make the other choices better. Giving a child up for adoption after carrying it for 9 months comes with many financial and psychosocial burdens – programs should be in place to counterbalance these effects and make adoption easier. Perhaps more couples could consider open adoption. Maybe support groups of other girls and couples giving their child up for adoption could be encouraged. There are lots of innovative ways to reward young women for choosing adoption over abortion, but they are almost never put into action.

    Preventing unwanted pregnancies and encouraging adoption are two areas where there is clear evidence on how to be effective and opportunities for agreement on both sides of the isle. However, the debate about abortion has become so ideological and polarized that the pragmatic middle-of-the-road solutions are often lost by the wayside. Although it may not satisfy either side completely, finding areas to move forward can give more life – and more choice – than we have today.

  11. Anne,

    My blog occasionally eats comments or puts perfectly valid ones in the spam filter.

    For instance, the differences between a fetus and a person in PVS – most notably that a person in PVS was formerly conscious and therefore able to give directives about issues such as organ donation – are just as important as the similarities, and were ignored in this instillation.

    I simply did not find it to be relevant – in fact, I think it works against the pro-choice argument. If a person could give advance directives, but failed to do so, has he not opened himself up for problems?

    Generally, with children (who are incapable, legally and often mentally and psychologically, from giving such directives), we appoint them a guardian. Biological parents are the default guardians. Once a guardian starts acting in his own interest and not in that of the child, however, we would appoint a surrogate guardian. So I think that issue has only brought us to the point of determining that we ought to appoint surrogates for fetuses when parents don’t act in their best interests.

    I wholeheartedly agree that there are many things that “both sides” can do do help the situation; however, I take huge issue with the pro-choice (occaisonally, pro-abortion) stance that the fetus is not even worthwhile, in of itself. It is an argument that irks my civil libertarian ears – it is the argument that has been made since the dawn of time against any distinct group to whom people want to deny basic rights.

    What I’ve been attempting to do is to chip away at the pro-choice arguments. Once you are left with the (IMHO, plain) fact that abortion is a horrible thing, the strategies change.

    As for pragmatic, middle-of-the-road solutions… Neil has an excellent post about that. Presumably, the “middle of the road” would be safe, legal, and rare.
    http://4simpsons.wordpress.com/2007/05/24/the-safe-legal-and-rare-myth/

    It is a proven fact that young people who get comprehensive sexual education have a lower rate of pregnancy than those in schools where abstinence-only sex ed is taught.

    NO! :) Actually, it’s not. Fact is, sex ed and abstinence ed produce exactly the same results.

    As you mention as a possibility, the things which do have a profound effect upon pregnancy rates are:
    -education of parents; marital state of parents
    -involvement in after-school sports
    -grades and achievement
    -eating dinner with your folks every night

    A stable family unit (one of the things that pro-life conservatives are all about) is pretty much the No. 1 thing that reduces teen pregnancy and risky behaviour. School programmes to combat obesity have no long-term effects; however, parents who advocate for healthy eating and athletics have children who are slimmer than their peers. Fact is, school invovlement sounds like a great thing – you make sure that everyone gets the information – but it has absolutely no effect. None. Zip. It’s a really common fallacy that sex ed reduces pregnancy rates, but it’s simply not borne out by numerous studies.

  12. People who are pro-choice don’t like abortion. We don’t get a kick out of destroying fetuses. Although I believe a fetus is not a human being, I recognize that it is a living creature with a potential, and would not cast it aside lightly.

    Um… I will actually disagree. First of all, you’re supposedly a med student. You should know that the progeny of two humans is ALWAYS a human. That is basic membership in a species.

    If it’s not a human, what is it? A frog? Tadpole? Worm? Non-human parasite?

    It’s hard to believe that some people don’t like abortion. I mean, when people oppose the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, it’s hard to really say that they are against abortion and don’t want to cast aside the human in question without consideration. Now, you may feel differently, but that is not indicative of everyone in the abortion debate, no more than my feelings are indicative of the pro-life side.

    That all said, please think whether abortion will ever be rare if it is safe, legal, and accessible. EVER. No matter how many adoptive services we put in place, no matter how much we discourage teens from having sex (oh, wait, sorry, let’s let them get pregnant on the Pill and not tell them the truth about their likelihood of getting pregnant as teenagers on the Pill, which is radically different from the likelihood of middle-aged, married women getting pregnant on it!), and no matter how easy it is to be a mother, legal abortion will be an easy, cheap, fast option to get rid of a problem.

    Again, about sex ed: there is a common fallacy that liberal programmes actually work. Supposedly, as a pro-lifer, I should love sex and and socialistic solutions (i.e. paying women to stay home with babies). Fact is, I don’t think that stuff WORKS, so I don’t want it. It’s like telling me that, as a pro-lifer, I should be against the Soloman Amendment. It’s so irrelevant to the issue, because 1) it does not address the fact that legal abortion is legal murder; and 2) the proposed solution does not reduce the abortion rate.

    Chance, who occaisonally responds here, has a much better explanation:
    http://sadastronaut.blogspot.com/2007/09/using-your-own-conclusions-to-evaluate.html

  13. [...] Part II: Why should a blob of tissue have more rights than a woman? [...]

  14. [...] Part II: Why should a blob of tissue have more rights than a woman? [...]

  15. “NO! :) Actually, it’s not. Fact is, sex ed and abstinence ed produce exactly the same results.”

    I’m a little unsure where you get your facts. However, the CDC, Planned Parenthood, the WHO and countless independent studies show that comprehensive sexual education delays onset of sexual behavior and leads to lower rates of pregnancy and STIs. In addition, sex ed is most effective in kids who have not yet initiated sexual behavior. And to clarify, I don’t believe that sex ed is letting young people “get pregnant on the Pill and not tell[ing] them the truth about their likelihood of getting pregnant as teenagers on the Pill, which is radically different from the likelihood of middle-aged, married women getting pregnant on it”. I think sex ed should be honest, fact based, and include many methods for contraceptives including the pill, depo prevara, spermicide and condoms (which some abstinence only supporters tell kids have holes, so they are worthless – never mind that the holes are several-fold smaller than sperm).

    I will also stand by my belief that a fetus is not a human being – it is a potential human being. There is a difference.

    I’m glad that you agree that involving students in activities such as sports and improving their relationship with adults (family members and community members alike have been shown to decrease risky behaviors in teens) are good ways to prevent teen pregnancy. I wish more democrats and republicans could find this common ground and work on ways to provide these resources to the teens who sorely need them.

  16. I really liked the piece on Using Your Own Conclusions to Evaluate Other’s Opinions. I think too many people on both sides forget that people with other opinions often have the same objectives, just different ways of going about achieving them. I don’t believe that there is a person in this country who doesn’t want every child to have health care. I can say that conservatives are mean and in the pocket of lobby interests because they oppose universal health care. They could say I only want universal care because I get a power trip off big government and I want to personally control the health care decisions for 300 million American’s. What is missing here is the evidence (in this case, the theoretical and practical failure of private health insurance and health savings accounts and the success of other countries – not Canada in particular, there are others – in using social health insurance and national health insurance in providing better health for all their citizens). So, I would encourage you to take your own advice, step back from your belief that abstinence only and comprehensive sex ed are somehow the same, and look at the evidence. It is abundant and conclusive.

  17. Okay, you’ve violated some of my blog rules. First of all, I put a LOT of time and effort into substantiating the information in my posts. If you make an assertion, YOU have the burden of proof to back it up. Until you back it up, it’s baloney and it gets ignored. Stats, please.

    If your comment gets caught up in moderation because you have links on it (which it should – that is backing it up – and I’m not doing your research for you), drop a one-line, unlinked comment and I will fish it out of my spam filter.

    Now, some FACTS:
    Di Censo, Alba, et al. “Interventions to reduce unintended pregnancies among adolescents: systematic review of randomized controlled trials,” British Medical Journal 324, 15 June 2002

    A 2002 study published in the British Medical Journal examined 26 programmes that included school based programmes, multi-faceted programmes, family planning and clinic based programmes, as well as abstinence programmes in the US and Canada. The results: “The interventions did not delay initiation of sexual intercourse in young women or young men, did not improve the use of birth control at every intercourse, or at last intercourse for either men or women, did not reduce pregnancy rates in young women.”

    Sucks for you.

    Here’s more:

    A poor cohabiting teenager using the Pill has a failure rate of 48.4%. You read that correctly: nearly half of poor cohabiting teenagers get pregnant during their first year using the Pill. If she kicked her boyfriend out of the house, or if she married him, her probability of pregnancy drops to 12.9%. At the other extreme, a middle-aged, middle-class married woman has a 3% chance of getting pregnant after a year on the Pill.

    My sex-ed class taught me that the Pill is 99% safe. Good thing I’m abstinent – otherwise, I would have a 12% chance of getting knocked up.

    http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/impactabstinence.pdf
    Finally, the Mathematica study. It compared sex ed and abstinence ed. Pop quiz: what did it find?
    A) Abstinence ed doesn’t work;
    B) Teenagers who were exposed to a variety of sex ed programmes did not have improved outcomes, nor worse outcomes, than the abstinence-education kids.

    Correct answer: B. Media’s answer: A.

    I can’t blame you for thinking the way you do – brainwashing isn’t anything to be ashamed of. ;) After all, very few people want to wade through 150 pages of material to tease out a conclusion. Fewer still will put that conclusion in proper context.

    So, I would encourage you to take your own advice, step back from your belief that abstinence only and comprehensive sex ed are somehow the same, and look at the evidence. It is abundant and conclusive.

    I look at the evidence. I presented it to you. Look at it, cupcake, and get over YOUR incorrect notion that sex ed is superiour to abstinence ed.

    Please don’t patronise me on my own blog. I do not thoroughly research and consider my positions to have some little twit tell me, without evidence (ah, how my chemical engineer soul does love evidence!), that I need to “take my own advice.”

    So, pray tell, what is an embryo? A tadpole? A little puppy? A plant? A “pre-human?” When does it become human? Were 30-week fetuses not “human” in the 19th century, because they weren’t viable, but magically became human now? Wow, that’s a fickle way of defining membership in the species.

    Finally, again, referring back to my blog rules: if the evidence is so abundant and conclusive, post some of it. It shouldn’t be hard. Take pity on the ignorant pro-lifer who doesn’t know any better. It can’t be that hard for you to provide just a little evidence, right? Or are you just talking out of your rear end?

  18. I will also stand by my belief that a fetus is not a human being – it is a potential human being. There is a difference.

    Well, Miss No Evidence, back yourself up.

    Also, if you have a sec, could you answer a simple question: if it’s not a human, what is it? A tadpole? A Venus fly-trap? Bacteria? It’s obviously living… what species is it? What is the common, English name for members of that species?

    If you cannot assign it to a species, why not? Is there a special rule for species membership that excludes embryos, because, after all, you are obviously not just making crappy arguments for abortion?

  19. [...] Part II: Why should a blob of tissue have more rights than a woman? [...]

  20. First off, the Mathmatica study compares 4 abstinence only programs to each other – it does not compare abstinence only to comprehensive sex ed.

    Here are some studies that do compare comprehensive to abstinence only sexual education.

    From the American Psychological Association
    “Both comprehensive sex education and abstinence only programs delay the onset of sexual activity. However, only comprehensive sex education is effective in protecting adolescents from pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses at first intercourse and during later sexual activity. In contrast, scientifically sound studies of abstinence only programs show an unintended consequence of unprotected sex at first intercourse and during later sexual activity. In this way, abstinence only programs increase the risk of these adolescents for pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses, including HIV/AIDS,”
    http://www.apa.org/releases/sexeducation.html

    The American Academy of Pediatrics
    http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/policybrief/pbabonly.pdf

    From Advocates for Youth
    http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/factsheet/fssexcur.pdf
    http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/factsheet/fsmythsfacts.htm
    http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/policybrief/pbabonly.pdf

    Pages 9 and 10 of this UCSF review study are a good summary
    http://www.ari.ucsf.edu/science/reports/abstinence.pdf

    Evidence from the Scientific Integrity in Policymaking website
    http://webexhibits.org/bush/7.html

    Also, the CDC used to have good studies showing comprehensive sexual education lowered pregnancy rates and STIs, but these projects were pulled in favor of subjective studies assessing teen perceptions about abstinence in 2002.

    I would also recommend a documentary called “Sex Ed and the State”, which chronicles how the overwhelming evidence supporting comprehensive sexual education was silenced by ideology and wishful thinking in my home state of Minnesota.

    These aren’t the only studies on sexual education, but please note they are from credible sources, many are review articles citing several other studies, and many are RCTs or cohort studies (rather than the ecological studies which attempt to link abstinence-only to the reduction in teen pregnancies).

  21. Here is the problem with the BMJ review article, which the authors themselves state in the conclusion.
    “In all but five studies, participants in the control group received a conventional intervention rather than no intervention. It is possible that the control interventions had some effect on the outcomes and the tested interventions were not potent enough to exceed this effect.” It is not only possible, it is probable that 21 studies comparing one type of sexual education to another, a total of 41 different programs, do not show a consistent reduction in pregnancy, STIs or initiation of sexual behavior.
    In addition, the article itself criticizes the quality of the studies it is reviewing, giving only eight out of 26 studies a three or four out of four possible points for quality. Studies had problems with improper randomization, unbiased data collection, high difference in attrition between the control and intervention groups and low levels of follow up.

    I also posted a comment with lots of links to evidence favoring comprehensive sex education over abstinence only – I hope it will get through your filter!

  22. I pulled your first out of the spam filter & will look at it later. Currently in the middle of a health insurance post run amok.

    In addition, the article itself criticizes the quality of the studies it is reviewing, giving only eight out of 26 studies a three or four out of four possible points for quality.

    But that doesn’t apply to the studies you cite because….????

    An interesting take on the problem with social science research:
    http://volokh.com/posts/1189863895.shtml

    Fact is, sex-ed studies are ALSO agenda-driven. It’s not like the sex-ed crowd are a bunch of scientifically pure persons who have no ideological bent.

    My quick comment about your studies is that they are obviously biased as well. Thing is, the people who are for sex-ed will say that it has to be comprehensive; there are a lot of characteristics of good sex ed that makes it work well. Then, you go and test against abstinence-only programmes that contain misleading or wrong information. Well, that’s just baloney. I mean, you could test scientifically perfect, comprehensive abstinence programmes (comprehensive would include community involvement and the like) against crappy sex-ed, and guess what? Sex ed will lose.

    The study found that programs had no impact on
    desired behavioral outcomes.

    Compared to what? Yeah, that’s right – sex ed. If the outcomes aren’t better and aren’t worse, aren’t they the same? See, your sources don’t even back up what you are saying. Sigh…..

    I recall seeing, but cannot find at the moment, a study which showed that school cafeteria options, healthy eating seminars, and phys ed had no long term effect on obesity.

    Fact is, schools are just bad places to try to do this stuff. I would much prefer for schools to extend their days to eight hours and mandate two hours of physical, community, or musical participation, rather than displace literature for sex ed. Kids who are in after-school sports have great outcomes – fewer drugs, better self-confidence, better grades, later onset of sexual experience.

  23. PS. Advocates for Youth is so freakin biased, it’s not even funny. I mean, if I had to parody the sex-ed crowd, I would tone down what they say and use that as my skit.

  24. Of course by a strict genetic interpretation fetuses belong to the same species we do, Homo sapiens. However, humanity is most often ascribed as a moral quality, not a biological one, and this is the sense in which I was using the phrase human being.

    Here is a working definition that I use for what constitutes a human being:
    Possessing human characteristics
    Having human form or attributes
    Susceptible to or representative of the sympathies and frailties of human nature

    Now we have to think, what characteristics do we think of as being human? Many of the physical characteristics fetuses share with developed human beings – such as the much trumpeted beating heart, neural impulses, limbs, etc. – we also share with animals, so cannot therby define humanity.

    There are also human characteristics such as the ability to suffer (rather than just sense pain), to empathize, to solve problems, and language skills – the higher cognitive functions that we share with few other species. However, very young children, as well as some mentally disabled people, do not possess these cognitive abilities and yet we still consider them people.

    The most convincing definition to me of what makes a human being is the capacity for self awareness. Even very young babies have concepts of self, of “mine”, and at 15 months babies can recognize themselves in the mirror (which may be a delay due to visual recognition skills rather than self awareness, the research is unclear at the moment). It is unclear when in development this self awareness takes place. However, it is clear that it cannot happen before the developing fetus has a cerebral cortex. The fetuses first neural impulses usually occur around 40 days gestation, and the beginning of ridge formation on cortical tissue doesn’t occur until four months. The cortex itself is not thought to be functional until later still (this development information is from the book Human Embryology, Ed. Larson, Sherman, Potter and Scott, 2001).

    I will give an analogy (although I believe comparisons have limited use as evidence this one doesn’t have to stretch very far). A baby is born without a forebrain (a thankfully rare condition called anencephaly). This baby has no ability to gain consciousness, yet (in the absence of infection) could theoretically live for several years. Is this baby worthy of the same moral consideration I would give a human being? I would say no, and the medical community agrees – anencephalic babies can be harvested for organs and denied nutritional and other medical support. I appreciate that the fetus is different in that, although it does not yet have consciousness it has the potential for consciousness. So I also make that distinction in my definiation – an anencephalic baby is not a human being, a fetus is a potential human being, and a member of the species homo sapiens which can be reasonably assumed to have the capacity for self awareness is a human being.

    Also, I didn’t intend to patronize by asking you to take your own advice – as I said, I agree that being able to step back and evaluate our own biases before we make judgments is a good thing. I wasn’t trying to imply you don’t routinely do that, simply suggesting that you consider it when you do review the evidence about sex ed (which I have now provided in a prior post, per your request).

  25. I totally agree that the school day should be longer and be based around activities that engage kids – sports, music, arts, nature, community involvement anything that draws on exuberance and creativity. We currently offer most kids seven hours of sitting in a desk staring at a teacher, with minimal class participation. I think we need more teachers, we need to pay them more, and we need to stop unions from keeping bad teachers in schools just because they have tenure. I believe in school competition, and although I don’t think vouchers go far enough I would certainly give them a try.

    Also, I got the original Advocates for Youth link through the CDC, so although it may have a bias compared with your point of view it is a mainstream and well trusted source.

  26. Also, I just realized that I put the wrong post for the American Academy of Pediatrics. The link to their policy is here:
    http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/pediatrics;108/2/498.pdf

  27. The most convincing definition to me of what makes a human being is the capacity for self awareness.

    WHY? Great – a fish might have more rights than a baby. Way to give dignity to those who are mentally retarded (apparently, they are “people” much later than everyone else), brain damaged, and those in comas.

    So I also make that distinction in my definiation – an anencephalic baby is not a human being, a fetus is a potential human being, and a member of the species homo sapiens which can be reasonably assumed to have the capacity for self awareness is a human being.

    What is so freakin special about self-awareness? I’m not aware of myself in my sleep. So someone can kill me, and it’s okay?

    Time to reason with you. You are drugged. You are groped while drugged. Had you been violated? You had no capacity for self-awareness, let alone awareness of the violation, when it happened. When you wake up, there is no physical change to your body.

    You draw convenient, but incorrect, inferences. So long as our personhood depends on our state, there is no such thing as human dignity – a particular entity could have it, could lose it, and could regain it. If a newborn baby were to fall into a coma, but the medical establishment were absolutely certain that it would regain consciousness and the capacity for life in five months, there would be a public outcry if someone ended its life, not for its own sake, but for selfish motives.

    Again, we forbid desecreation of the dead. Perhaps there is something about humans that is special – something that is not about how sentient, cognisant, smart, or self-aware we are, but the fact that we are, indeed, humans?

    Also, I didn’t intend to patronize by asking you to take your own advice – as I said, I agree that being able to step back and evaluate our own biases before we make judgments is a good thing.

    Nice bait and switch, hon, but no dice. Your first snarkiness was aimed at me; this little pseudo-apology is about “us” and “our” biases. Your first insult was aimed directly at me. General platitudes don’t change that.

    such as the much trumpeted beating heart, neural impulses, limbs, etc. – we also share with animals, so cannot therby define humanity.

    Only if you are impervious to reason. Once the heart stops beating and there are no brainwaves, we consider humans to be dead. Yet, living plants don’t have brainwaves and heartbeats.

    A sterile human is a living human, even though one definition of “life” is “capable of reproducing.” Women do not lose their membership in the arena of living things once they hit menopause. The fundamental issue is not whether or not one particular human has the characteristics of a mammal, living being, or other, but that it is a member of the biological species which does.

    By virtue of being part of the classification of homo sapiens, fetuses, embryos, the mentally retarded, and the sterile inherit the properties of life – and human dignity – from their parents. Human dignity, if you will, is part of our DNA.

    By the way, your definition of “human” fits well on a Hallmark card, but gives us no functional way to determine who is a human and who is a “potential human” or the like. One out of three? Two out of three? Do severely deformed, brain damaged people not count, even if they exhibit more love than Mother Teresa? Or is that a convenient definition that justifies killing your child? By a few weeks after a woman misses her period, the fetus has all the parts of a grown human.

    (I say “killing your child” because it’s completely accurate. At conception, the man and woman have reproduced. It does seem like a joke – Top Ten Signs That Your Country Has Thrown in the Towel – #6: the most fought-after right is the right to kill your kids – but, unfortunately, you people are serious about this.)

  28. I do not believe a fish should have more rights than a baby, and this absurd supposition is not based on any of the argument I actually made. A fish may be alert, or awake, but it does not have self-awareness. As for the mentally retarded, those in comas, people who are asleep and the other groups you mentioned, I don’t think they are not human – these people all have the capacity for self awareness, whether or not they are exercising it at any given moment. I would be willing to give total benefit of the doubt to any member of the species Homo sapiens that could make even the smallest claim to self awareness and, therefore, person-hood. I do not want to cast around in shades of gray in determining who has it and who hasn’t. Anybody with a cortex qualifies here, because although we know that self is a property of the frontal cortex, we know very little about what it is about the cortex that determines our sense of self, and how that perception might be turned on and off. However, the fetus does not have the capacity – meaning, the necessary equipment – for self knowledge. This cannot develop until the cortex has at least rudimentary functioning. Therefore, I cannot believe the fetus has moral characteristics of being human.

  29. As for the mentally retarded, those in comas, people who are asleep and the other groups you mentioned, I don’t think they are not human – these people all have the capacity for self awareness, whether or not they are exercising it at any given moment.

    Thing is, they are incapable of self-awareness – no amount of willpower will overcome the current brain injury or impairment that prevents them from exhibiting those qualities of self-awareness and sentience.

    You are taking a very strange view of capacity. I don’t see how you get from “feelings” to “frontal cortex” to morality.

    I mean, there isn’t much about the frontal cortex that makes us humans who are worthy of life. With just a frontal cortex, we aren’t going to live long (Roald Dahls’ short stories aside); there is nothing about it that gives us moral sanction for our existence. Cortex does not = moral.

    I’m still curious as to why you place such a high emphasis on self-knowledge. If we find, through rigourous scientific study, that self-knowledge does not happen until 5 weeks after birth, would you be in favour of a law which would allow us to expose infants? to starve them?

    How do you feel about desecration of the dead?

    Barring miscarriage, the fetus WILL become a sentient, loving, self-aware human. The only thing which changes that is abortion. It is incredibly circular to justify abortion on the grounds that the fetus is not sentient and isn’t guaranteed to become sentient because abortion can take care of that.

    “Potential” is accurate but incomplete.

    Unlike your gamete example, the fetus need not undergo any fundamental change to become a human infant. In fact, that is the raison d’etre of abortion: to prevent the fetus from becoming a toddler. If the fetus were like gametes – not their own human without a superseding, intervening event – abortion would not be necessary. If the fetus were not human, abortion would not be necessary – the body would reject it. If the fetus were not alive, there would be no point to abortion – the woman will have miscarried.

    The purpose of abortion is to end human life. There is no other rational reason for it.

    Now, you argue that the human life is only technically human, and make up a rationalisation that fits fetuses and adjust to ensure that it doesn’t get any other group (although, in fairness, those in comas are fair game for the butcher block under your theory).

    Do you really want to go down the road of parsing out the value of human life? Thankfully, I live in America in 2007. I’m not living under the Taliban, where their religion tells them that my word is not good; that I am less than men. I’m not black and living in slavery in the antebellum South. I’m not a Jew during the Holocaust years. People don’t question my claim to human dignity.

    Until you somehow equate the presence of a cerebral cortex with human dignity – the former somehow being a requirement of the latter, and vice versa – you are reiterating the arguments of slave-owners, Nazis, and the Taliban. They all manage to find biological distinctions between the dominant and oppressed group, and, starting with their conclusion, argue that the biological difference equates to a moral difference.

    It is a textbook civil rights violation. Women were once considered to be too emotional to be able to vote; they were once thought to be too weak to marathon, too irresponsible to own property, and too sinful to participate in religious ceremonies. It is all based on a very clear-cut biological distinction. The logical error is that the biology doesn’t correlate to the disparity in rights.

    Likewise, it is terribly convenient for women (and men!) to deny rights to humans in the earliest stages of development. The justification for the denial of rights is that the developing humans in question aren’t really “people” or are “potential humans” or whatever. As women, it’s hard to think that we would do something like that to another group in society – we know that our ability to receive educations, live without sanctioneed domestic assault, and the like, are all very recent and very rare in the world. But we deny developing humans basic dignity because it benefits us.


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