Saturday, July 15, 2006

'How would Jesus vote?' continued: would Yeshua condemn abortion?

In this continuing discussion between my ministerial friend Brian and I on the trueness of the left and right in approaching the virtue of the teachings of Jesus, or Yeshua, I’m going to break my response into two parts based on subject. In this post, I will address the abortion debate. The next post will take on the discussion of the proper role of government.

Originally, Brian wrote:

“One cannot oppose war and capital punishment and be consistent if they also support abortion. The termination of all human life is wrong, despite the wishes of the child's mother. The government doesn't really control a woman's ability to make personal choices about her body - it protects the life of the one in side her, who has a separate body, separate mind, separate personality, separate emotions, etc.”
To which I replied:

“The same principles that apply to abortion cannot and do not apply to capital punishment and war, because capital punishment and war concern sentient human life, which has consciousness, and therefore, an identity, personhood, and rights. A ‘person’ doesn’t exist without consciousness; it follows from Descartes’ one certain truth, cogito ergo sum: ‘I think, therefore I am.’”

Brian writes, in response:

“My wife teaches special needs children. At times she has children with an IQ of less than one. These are children who are unable to do little more than lay on a mat on the floor and respond to external stimuli. The only identity-personhood-rights they have are those which are provided for them by their parents. Their consciousness is next to nothing. Those children who are blind and uncommunicative are nearly entirely isolated. How does the standard of 'sentient' life apply to those children?”

If there is truly no consciousness, then it is not a person. How can there be a person who does not exist as a conscious entity? It may be a living organism, but it cannot even consider itself or its world, or anything. However, the IQ is not really good for determining consciousness (I personally don‘t even think it‘s that great for determining intelligence). You have to ask yourself, “does it have even the slightest capacity to care what happens to it?” If it does, then I say it has personhood rights. And don’t misunderstand--like the inspiring Helen Keller, blind, uncommunicative and nearly isolated children may be conscious and sentient, and may become free from their internal prison.

I wrote:

“A fetus does not have a separate mind, personality, or emotions from the mother until it develops the neural capacity for consciousness (and what is a “soul” but mind, personality, and emotions?).”

Brian responds:

“Ask any woman who has had more than one child if this is true! Even in utero some children are active, some passive. Unborn children respond to light, music, touch, voices, affirmation, negative remarks, etc. And each unborn child responds differently. (What is a 'soul' will need to wait for abother blog!)”

The fact that a fetus is merely unborn, still in the mother’s womb, is not what the issue of personhood and rights is about! The issue is about sentience and consciousness. By the time the fetus has developed a personality, and is able to consciously respond to stimuli, the time for legal abortion has passed. I’m not, nor are pro-choice activists, talking about aborting the baby that is deliberately kicking around in mommy’s tummy!

I wrote:

“As that happens, of course, the fetus does gain the rights of personhood, and by the time the brain has developed to that degree, near the end of the second trimester, the legal abortion term limit has passed. The same goes for embryos used in stem cell research and treatments--an embryo is a clump of cells; it doesn’t think, and doesn’t have an intrinsic value greater than that of any other simple multi-celled organism.”

Brian responds:

"Please clarify for me how a fetus at three days is a different entity than the same fetus at three weeks, three months, and three trimesters. That 'clump of cells' is part and parcel of what the child is on its birthday. When the 'clump' is destroyed, the child is destroyed. Everything about the child's 'personhood' is in the genes and chromosomes of those cells.”

No, the ‘clump of cells’ is not part and parcel of what the child is on its birthday, and everything about the child’s personhood is certainly not in the genes and chromosomes of those cells! You’re missing, I think, what personhood is. It isn’t a set of chromosomes; it isn’t simple genetic identity. When a woman’s eggs are fertilized, it happens to several of them, and most, having deleterious genes, lead to the zygote’s failure. It has 46 chromosomes, yes, just like you and me, but it is not a tragedy, because it has never had a thought at all. Even a viable embryo’s potential to become a person does not make it a person. Your personhood is in your brain, your mind, your thoughts, memories, emotions, habits, your existential identity--not your genes. Even at the very beginning of the development of mind and awareness, I argue that there are rights, but not until then. Having 46 chromosomes of certain genes means nothing for identity--I could have an ‘identical’ twin with the exact same genes that not only is not me, but is nothing like me.

I originally wrote:

"The concept of 'personhood' is really what theories of ethics and rights arise from. A woman has personhood, and the rights over her body until that body carries something that is a person in its own right."

Brian’s response:

"I agree with this, but the unborn child is not 'her body.' In the crudest terms, a fetus is a foreign organism in her womb, but it is an organism none-the-less. In an abortion, no part of the woman is removed . . . but all of the foreign organism is. It ceases to exist.

"In any other procedure, part of the woman is removed - a cancerous tumor, an amputated toe, an unwanted wrinkle. Left unattended, a tumor grows into a larger tumor, an unamputated toe might grow into a case of gangrene, an unwanted wrinkle into a full blown sag. BUT, left unattended, a united egg and sperm become a clump of cells that becomes a fetus that is a child."

A woman can have any number of foreign, parasitic organisms living in her body, but it doesn’t mean she can’t rid herself of them! It doesn’t make sense to say “it ceases to exist,” if, in the sense of being a person, it never existed in the first place.

Brian also writes:

"That the unborn child is a person in its own right is different from the fact that the child is dependent on its mother. All human children are entirely dependent on their mothers, from conception through at least the first 18 months. They are mostly dependent on their mothers from 18 months through the next several years, and the still partially dependent through adolescence.
"According to your definitions of 'personhood,' a human child isn't really a person until it is an adult. This can't be really what you think, is it?"

No, of course not! Again, basic misunderstanding of what I’m saying personhood is. Personhood is not independence, it is not being in or out of the womb, it is not anything like that. It is having a mind, having and being a self.


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