Friday, December 3, 2021

Abortion Science II

Guest of honor at a Singapore Full Moon party, via


Shorter David F. Brooks, "Abortion: The Voice of the Ambivalent Majority":

No, I don't mean abortion is the voice of the ambivalent majority. I mean I am the voice of the ambivalent majority, and I think the solution to the problem is obviously to be of two minds, which is what all but the extremists want, so I support overturning Roe and Casey without overturning Roe and Casey. This is the only appropriately moderate position.

That is: Brooks believes the Court should uphold the Mississippi ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, in defiance of the finding of Roe v. Wade (1973) that the state's interest in protecting the fetus applies to a fetus that is 28 or more weeks old, and the revision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992) changing that to the standard of "viability", a fetus that is capable of living outside the womb (28 weeks in the received medical opinion of 1973 but by now 23 or 24 weeks, sometimes set as low as 22); or in other words should allow Mississippi to introduce an entirely random standard whose only possible purpose is to reduce the number of abortions overall  (not that much—95% of abortions in the US are before 15 weeks) and then claim they hadn't overturned Roe and Casey even though they obviously had:

"Mississippi's ban on abortion, two months before viability, is flatly unconstitutional under decades of precedent," Center for Reproductive Rights Senior Director Julie Rikelman said during oral arguments. "Two generations have now relied on this right, and 1 out of every 4 women makes a decision to end a pregnancy."

Or, in Brooks's own words,

I guess that means I’m rooting for John Roberts in the current deliberations over Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. He has signaled that he’s open to exploring whether the court could uphold Mississippi’s law banning abortion after 15 weeks, but not overturn Roe and allow states to enact total or near-total bans. But he may be in a minority of one.

I guess that means he hasn't paid enough attention to the issue to find out what "overturning Roe" entails—he wants Roberts to perform a logical impossibility—and we should really stop paying any attention to him altogether, but there's something else I want to criticize in the column, connected to broader Brooksological issues, his long-time fondness for social science references and his more recent attachment to a vague religiosity—and an opportunity for me to further revise and extend my own remarks of the other day. Brooks says:

Experience and the moral sentiments that derive from it have moved me many notches over toward the anti-abortion position. Does that mean I know when life begins? That no longer seems like the right question. I’ve come to believe that all human beings have some piece of themselves that has no size, shape, color or weight but gives them infinite value and dignity, and it is their soul. To me the crucial question is when does a living organism become a human soul. My intuition is that it’s not a moment, but a process — a process shrouded in divine mystery.

The experiences seem to be that once, as a very young man, a college student, he helped a young woman through an abortion (a humane and kind thing to do) and was unprepared to find her deeply upset by it (which certainly does happen—he's never mentioned it before and it could also be fictional, of course, drawn from propaganda); the research on the sensory development of the fetus in utero (which he did seem to be mentioning in a column of 2018 advising Democrats to "compromise" with Republicans by agreeing to a total ban on late-term abortion); and the interest of watching them do things through the ultrasound camera—

Generally speaking, fetal motility can be classified as either elicited or spontaneous, and spontaneous movements may be triggered by either the spine or the brain. Whether a movement is supraspinally determined can be inferred by comparison to movements of an anencephalic fetus [the movements of which are much less fluent and coordinated]..,.[2]

In these early movements, the limbs move together; they begin to move independently by the ninth week as the controlling neurons in the spinal cord develop.[9] At week 11, the fetus can open its mouth and suck its fingers; at week 12, it begins to swallow amniotic fluid.[10]

In addition to sideward bendings of the head, complex and generalized movements occur at the beginning of the fetal stage, with movements and startles that involve the whole body.[11] Movement of hands, hips and knees have been observed at nine weeks,[12] stretches and yawns at ten weeks,[13] and isolated limb movements beginning shortly thereafter.[14]

—and the grief one feels at the miscarriage or stillbirth of a wanted child (which I know about personally; I think I've mentioned it before, but I'm not finding the post).

At some level, he's just doing the thing Douthat was doing in my original complaint—trying to deploy "objective" evidence to demonstrate a religious point—but doing it a lot more openly, for one thing, with the use of the word "soul", so it's possible to argue through it more clearly. And it's a wider and more interesting range of things.

What they all have in common, though, is the same thing I was pointing at on Wednesday—that they aren't really observations of the fetus, but of our relationship with the fetus. We engage with it anthropomorphically (it's sucking its thumb!) without even knowing which part of the neural system, brain or spinal cord, its movements are coming from. We're delighted that the infant responds to the same carrot soup its mother ate when she was pregnant, by the continuity of it, or the reading of The Cat in the Hat. We're desperately sad when it dies, even, sometimes (but far from always), when we really didn't want it to be born. 

It's in that sense, as I was saying, that we create the social person that the baby, when it arrive, will be, and now I can go a bit further, and say that we are, in fact, creating its soul. That's what Brooks sees in these experiences, because he's personally participating in the creation.

This is something that Brooks actually might have been able to understand at some point in his life, with his interest in sociology and anthropology, and his attraction to the rituals and ceremonies that seem to be getting lost to so many people in late modernity. The anthropologist understands that rituals are effective; magic, exorcism, gods and demons, are all real in some sense that the physical sciences can't put a finger on, produced by ritual activity, prayer or meditation, chanting or trance dancing, yoga or distance running or playing an instrument in a flow experience. And it's in this sense, you see, that human souls are really created, at first in private rituals like feeling the kicking of the fetus or singing to it, and public rituals like the shower or the gender reveal party.

And then once it's born and there's no longer a choice, everybody is involved and everybody has a soul-in-the-making, as may be recognized in more important rituals afterwards, like the circumcision (boys only) and naming ceremonies (boys and girls) for Jewish babies (given a Hebrew name after that of somebody who died fairly recently, to emphasize the cyclicality of generation), or the month of sequestration for mother (who's not even allowed to wash her hair) followed by a big party with a roast piglet, head on, for Chinese kids.

Ideally, the pregnant person who really doesn't want to have a baby, who really can't handle it at the moment, should be able to terminate the pregnancy as soon as she finds out, without any of that soul-creation process taking place, or as little as possible. At six weeks, there's really nothing to be sad about, unless you'd already started imagining it as part of your own life, and in that case what you're sad about is the soul-creation you're won't be able to finish.

But the spontaneous abortion, when the gods or demons take away the child you wanted to have, is a tragedy, authentically the loss of a human soul—and a forced abortion really is a kind of murder.

And by the same token, in those rare cases when it can't be done before 15 weeks, because it took that long to realize you were pregnant, or because you learned it was a threat to your health like an ectopic pregnancy and had to give it up in spite of your plans, or because your rapist kept you locked up the whole time—the longer it takes, the harder it might be, and it's especially at such times that the State of Mississippi should not be stepping you in and throwing a rule-book at you. That's just indecent. It's really when authority figures should come in to support you, and take some of the karma-burden of the half-formed soul off your hands.

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