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Every Sperm is Sacred

Over at FaceBook, my friend Edward and I were discussing an article he had posted about the abortion of the disabled. I happened to mention in passing that while I tended to think abortion was immoral in most cases --pro-choice doesn't always mean pro-abortion-- I also didn't think early-term abortions were murder because I didn't think early-term fetuses were human.

Edward asked me a perfectly reasonable question, probably the most common question I get when I talk about my views on abortion: how could a fetus conceived by two humans not be human? My answer got a bit long for a comment, so I thought I'd make it a post. Besides, I thought some people might find it interesting.

I have no problem saying a fetus is genetically human - that it has the genetic code of a human. If that's all it takes to be a human, then I suppose in that sense Edward is right and the offspring of two humans has to be a human. But my understanding of life science --and any scientists, please correct me!-- is that species aren't just determined by their genetic code. Organisms have a structure, an arrangement of cells. After all, I got my hair cut yesterday and shed nary a tear over the mass genocide of split ends. And we don't drag doctors before the review board when they excise a cancer and those human cells die, because cells aren't humans.

That's an intuition I think we all have - that a human involves not just a certain DNA but also a certain structure and (dare I say) a certain set of capabilities. A zygote in the earliest weeks of a pregnancy is a clump of cells. There's no structure, let alone no characteristic functions of being human. So that clump of cells isn't a human, though it may have human DNA.

Our language supports this conclusion. An acorn is not an oak tree, though it comes from an oak tree and will grow into one. Neither is a tadpole a frog in any obvious sense. It lacks critical abilities like the capacity to breathe air rather than air, the existence of legs for jumping, and the like. With humans we tend to use the same word for all stages of development, but I think this is a bit of a misnomer. Or at least it lends itself to misuse.

Here's where things get tricky. When people say abortion is murder, they usually have an argument in mind along the lines of:

1. It's always wrong to kill a human (setting aside self-defense, accidents, etc.)
2. A fetus is a human.
3. So it's always wrong to kill a fetus (setting aside self-defense, accidents, etc.)

Problem is, people are using the word "human" in very different ways here. I'll grant that (1) is true if we're talking about an adult human who's able to think and evaluate the situation - a rational animal, in Aristotle's terminology. I'm even willing to extend that to small children who aren't yet fully rational but are on their way, and to older fetuses that can react to their environments and show signs of self-awareness, decision-making, etc. But a blastocyst can't think.

On the other hand, it's only obvious that (2) is true if we're talking about a genetic human. Young fetuses --before consciousness-- are only human if we understand human in a very different way here than we did in statement (1). Ergo: equivocation. To avoid that, I have trained myself to only use the term "human" in the first sense (a self-aware being, mainly).

Now, Christians (myself included) may want to talk about the soul as well. One definition of human is something that has a soul. That is wonderfully unhelpful to my philosopher's mind because you haven't explained what a soul is, and what reason you have for thinking that humans have one or that only humans have one (making the killing of a human worse than the killing of an ox). But I'll set aside those issues for the moment. What evidence do we have that the soul enters the body at conception, or implantation, or whenever? I have a vague memory of one of the Catholic saints who said that the soul joined the body at quickening - Innocent III, maybe? I remember Gregory VI (1500s) issued a bull clarifying that abortion was only post-quickening, and that that changed the position of an earlier pope who said abortion was at any point in the pregnancy. The idea that death pre-quickening was an abortion was a bit of an aberration at that point, IIRC. So if the soul doesn't enter in right away, then until that happens the fetus is only a potential human, not a full human - even though it has human DNA.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. And yours? Feel free to discuss in the comments.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 24th, 2012 07:19 pm (UTC)
I really like your thoughts on this - but there's one thing I never understood about the Christian perspective. If a fetus has a soul, and that fetus is killed in the womb--doesn't that soul go straight to heaven, do not pass go, do not get a chance to sin, collect eternal life automatically? So why is that such a terrible thing? I guess it might go to Limbo if you're Catholic, but Protestants don't have that. Original sin, I guess? So is it damned by default? If so, wow, that's a really sick, twisted philosophy, sorry.

My reasons for being adamantly pro-choice come at it from a different angle, and to me it's not really all that relevant whether a fetus is a human being or not. For me, it's all about the right to bodily autonomy on the part of the person we know is a fully-fledged human being, the woman. A pregnancy is not a minor inconvenience - it causes major physical changes, can be very damaging or even fatal, and it involves months of the woman giving her bodily resources to someone else. Childbirth doesn't "just sting a little bit," it's one of the most excruciatingly painful things humans ever experience it. And, it means months in which the woman is not alone in her own body. She has a guest who is eating her food and changing her life, and whether this guest is welcome or unwelcome makes all the difference. It is never okay to force this on anyone against her will. EVER.

No one is obligated to give up bodily resources to anyone else, even in a life-or-death situation. If someone is in desperate need of a kidney transplant to survive, and I'm the only possible match on the whole planet, I am still not obligated to give up that kidney. It would be nice if I did, but I must at least have the right to refuse, or else I become a sort of organ-farming slave to anyone who claims need. Rose of Sharon wasn't obligated to breast-feed that starving hobo in The Grapes of Wrath--I imagine many women who have devoted their lives to eradicating hunger would still balk at that!

So do I think it's murder to kill an unwanted fetus? No more than killing someone unwelcome who's broken into your house.
Jan. 24th, 2012 08:19 pm (UTC)
Have you ever read Judith Jarvis Thomson's "In Defense of Abortion"? You might enjoy it, as she develops a lot of the points you mention. It's not a very hard read for philosophy, either. One of the points she makes is that even if we grant that a fetus is a person, she may have a right to life but not to the use of your body.

On the religion issue, for all that Xians talk about heaven, most recognize life as a good thing, a unique opportunity to develop and live on your own before being kind of overwhelmed by God's majesty. So just like Xians are as upset as anyone when someone is murdered in a mugging, they're mad about what they consider a murder here. It's not so much the soul's eternal damnation, as it is the lost life.

(Augustine actually did struggle with the idea of what happened to babies that were miscarried or who died before baptism. At one point he thought they were damned because of original sin, but that really bothered him and he kept struggling with the issue for pretty much his entire adult life. Today, most Xians think that if you die before you reach the age of accountability you go to heaven or at least limbo. Not all, of course. I find the other alternatives pretty repulsive, too.)
Jan. 24th, 2012 10:31 pm (UTC)
For me, it's all about the right to bodily autonomy on the part of the person we know is a fully-fledged human being, the woman.

Exactly. I think the whole "is a fetus 'life'" is a direct result of the Roe v. Wade and the viability test it sets for determining the legality of a termination procedure. Basically, saying that life begins at conception is an attempt to make a zygote "viable" at formation.

I find this whole line of argument a bit of a red herring, because it ignores the philosophical/constitutional underpinnings of the right to choose. It's not about whether a fetus is a legal life. It's about whether a woman, in the exercise of her right to personal autonomy and her right to privacy, chooses to have an abortion. The analysis should begin and end there.

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )



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