Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Abortion Science


Image via Ms. Magazine.

Shorter Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, "The Case Against Abortion":

In the bad old days, we were dependent on philosophers, theologians, and lawyers to decide moral issues, which obviously led to a lot of disputes, for example on the question of abortion, but now we have science, which proves unequivocally that abortion is objectively evil.

No, seriously:

There is no way to seriously deny that abortion is a form of killing. At a less advanced stage of scientific understanding, it was possible to believe that the embryo or fetus was somehow inert or vegetative until so-called quickening, months into pregnancy. But we now know the embryo is not merely a cell with potential, like a sperm or ovum, or a constituent part of human tissue, like a skin cell. Rather, a distinct human organism comes into existence at conception, and every stage of your biological life, from infancy and childhood to middle age and beyond, is part of a single continuous process that began when you were just a zygote.

We know from embryology, in other words, not Scripture or philosophy, that abortion kills a unique member of the species Homo sapiens, an act that in almost every other context is forbidden by the law.

This means that the affirmative case for abortion rights is inherently exceptionalist, demanding a suspension of a principle that prevails in practically every other case. This does not automatically tell against it; exceptions as well as rules are part of law. But it means that there is a burden of proof on the pro-choice side to explain why in this case taking another human life is acceptable, indeed a protected right itself.

LOL, it's the "with notably rare exceptions" argument. Executed criminals are not unique members of the species? Enemy troops in war conducted under the laws of war lose their uniqueness? Justifiable homicide is when you kill somebody for failing to be unique? 

No, the law does not forbid homicide on the basis of the uniqueness of the victim, or "distinctness", or permit it in the case of those who are "inert" or "vegetative" either. If a law permits detaching a comatose patient from life support, it's always on the basis of whether the condition is reversible or not, and whether the patient could return to the life "they'd want to live" as the families always say, or the kind of life they might have reasonable expectations of living, which I don't think you can apply to a fetus, especially before viability—whatever fetuses may have, heartbeats or pain or what have you, they certainly don't have "reasonable expectations" or indeed any expectations at all. 

He's semi-right about one thing, at the top of the column, when he complains about "how little abortion itself is actually debated." That is, by "most politicians and even many pundits". But he doesn't explain why that is, or who's responsible for it, which is people like him. It's not really being reluctant to debate abortion, it's being reluctant to argue religion, the thing he's pretending not to do in this piece, with this presentation of the divine personhood of the fetus offered as "science".

One way to clear this threshold [the "burden of proof" mentioned above] would be to identify some quality that makes the unborn different in kind from other forms of human life — adult, infant, geriatric. You need an argument that acknowledges that the embryo is a distinct human organism but draws a credible distinction between human organisms and human persons, between the unborn lives you’ve excluded from the law’s protection and the rest of the human race.

Yes, it might, starting from that lack of expectation that is reversed at the moment of birth, when the infant gets slapped in the ass and takes its first breath, witnesses the first light, sees the first face, feels the first human touch, and (as soon as possible) savors the first, sweet taste, the blizzard of sensory experience that it must now begin sorting out and continue sorting out for the rest of its life (if it doesn't fall into a coma)—it's going to be like this from now on! That marks a huge difference in the brain if you want to talk about physiology, from the prenatal environment of an unchanging warm bath and faint sounds from outside and no structure, walls or floors, responding to your random kicks and yawns. It's the moment the brain starts organizing itself for the future, it's the moment the expectations begin.

But that's not even the most important thing, which isn't about the neonate's physiology at all, but about its relationships with other human beings, when everybody—society—has to start dealing with it, when it becomes what Douthat calls a member of the species H. sapiens

All the exceptions to the rule of homicide are about membership: the hangman can kill the prisoner because the prisoner is an outlaw, the soldier can kill the enemy because the enemy is one of them and not one of us. It's not nice, and it's better to be a liberal and against killing anybody, because we're all of the human "race", but that's the same principle. The rules for unplugging the brain-dead and the vegetative are on the same basis—will we ever be able to interact with them again?—and a social interaction in their own right, as we consider the wishes they expressed in a living will.

I should add that laws we all accept in pet-keeping cultures against killing cats and dogs are also concerned with membership. Your dog isn't a "member of the human species" but it's a member of your family, and that incontestably counts.

At the other end of life—this is stuff I've gone through before, I think—in a desired pregnancy, society, not just the mother but the extended family, begins creating the social person well before it is born, often even before that sperm cell has swum home, talking about it, trying out names, furnishing a nursery, and so on. Did I ever tell you how my old lady sang Cantonese opera to our fetuses in the womb? She'd never sung when her mother did, back in Singapore, but she started learning how to do it in New York's Chinatown, a year or two before our daughter was born (now she's too cool to sing publicly, she's an instrumentalist in the band). 

You don't seriously contemplate an abortion in a situation like that. You contemplate an abortion most typically when you already have all the kids you can handle, or when you're too young and friendless to build that nursery, when you're abused on the one hand or abandoned on the other, when you can't deal with creating that social person, for whatever reason. And incidentally carrying the pregnancy to term and giving up your child for adoption, which Justice Barrett seemed to think was the only sensible approach, is creating a social person but setting oneself up for the grief of losing one, which is probably a big reason why the demand for adoptees so far outstrips the supply, because most women feel they would be less traumatized by an abortion than by going through that.

They understand, as women have understood for millennia, that terminating a pregnancy is not killing a human being unless a human being exists, and the human being doesn't ineluctably exist until the fetus leaves its attachment to a host body and becomes a member, again, with whom the social world has to reckon.

Other, younger faiths may take a different view, but it's got nothing to do with biology. (I contend, of course, that the Roman Catholic view going back a couple of centuries and the American Evangelical view, going back to the Evangelicals' unholy alliance with conservative Catholics under the duumvirate of Jerry Falwell the elder and Paul Weyrich, is to ensure that women are punished for tempting men; if they seriously cared about children, they would show more compassion to children who have been born, as we always say, ensuring a safe and nourishing environment for kids to grow up in, with their biological parents if the latter wish, but they never do.)

There isn't a biological answer to Douthat's question because it really isn't a biological question.

The other thing, I'm sorry to say, is that there isn't any chance these actual issues are going to be discussed by the Supreme Court, because they won't even begin to interest themselves in such things, and the structure of the argumentation in Roe and Casey is meant to ensure they don't have to. It really is a First Amendment issue, as Rabbi Ruttenberg has explained—

—but they can't go there. Ideally, it wouldn't matter, but it matters. 

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