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Trevor Stone's Journal
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Killing Shroedinger's Baby 
27th-Feb-2004 12:36 pm
Trevor baby stare
The House recently passed the Unborn Victems Act. (Incidentally, they quote a pro-choice Representative with the ironic last name of Slaughter.) I posted the following as a comment WatchBlog (via wbthirdparty), but I think it deserves to rise above that corner. Also, when asked for a one-word description of my position on abortion, I'll note that I'm pro-death, and I extend that to topics like euthenasia and suicide, but that's a discussion for another day and is intended mostly to be ironic. What follows is not my personal position on abortion, but the way I believe the discussion should proceed. Unfortunately, it rarely does.

Claims like (paraphrase) "scientifically it's not disputed that fetuses are human beings" are vacuous because it's not a scientific matter but a linguistic and legal one. Pioneering computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra said "The question of whether computers can think is just like the question of whether submarines can swim." Both animals and subs move through water; whether we claim that subs can swim or limit swimming to something only animals can do is a matter of linguistic convention.

In law we recongize different types of persons and accord them different rights. Legally, corporations are persons, but we don't try a board of directors for murder if they vote to disband a corporation. We recognize both 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds as persons, but accord more rights to the latter. We don't consider chimpanzees persons (even though they are more than 98% genetically similar to humans), but animal welfare laws give chimps more rights than rocks.

Whether we call fetuses persons is immaterial to the law and is a discussion for other realms. The questions that need to be answered are "What rights, rules, and responsibilities should we assign to fetuses and people's relations to them," "Why," and "What effects will such standing have?" And these questions are for each type of fetus; it seems reasonable to have the law apply differently to 9-month-old fetuses than 9-minute-old fetuses.

Clearly fetuses shouldn't receive voting rights, should not have the right to bear arms, and so forth since they can't use these positive rights properly. Should they have negative rights from harm? This sounds reasonable, but it requires reasoned discussion about intended and unintended effects, among other things. I certainly think that chemicals with no effect on postnatal humans but which harm fetuses should be kept out of the water supply. Should there be legal consequences for intentionally harming a fetus? This sounds reasonable. Should it be the exact same consequence as intentionally harming a 5-year-old or a 50-year-old? That seems a little extreme. Should fetuses have positive rights to life and health? Since a fetus is incapable of reasoning, positive rights like health care choices must be left to a guardian -- what decisions should be left to the parent and what should be left to the state? Should we assume a fetus has a living will, so if something happens and the child would die without intervention, the mother can let it die? Or should medical intervention be mandated, even if it results in maintaining the fetus in a permanent vegetative state? Should a 20-year-old be allowed to sue his parents for improper prenatal nutrition habits? What about suits over fetal alcohol syndrome or crack addiction?

Finally, there are many unanticipated consequences that will spring up if we grant fetuses full personhood. Will a fetus count for population purposes? If you fill out your census form in May of 2010 and expect a child in January of 2011, should you add one to the number of people in your household? Should a pregnant woman need to pay for two people when she goes to an all-you-can-eat buffet? When a pregnant woman records her weight, should she subtract the weight of the fetus? Or does the fetus weigh zero pounds? Or does fetus+mom before birth weigh more than baby+mom after birth? If a woman miscarries twice, does her only child have two dead siblings?

Finally, and directly related to the bill in question, if a man intentionally kills a woman, but doesn't realize she's pregnant, should he be charged with two counts of Murder 1? Or should he be charged with one Murder 1 and one Manslaughter?


<edit> The legislation defines "unborn child" as "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb." This still begs the question of species membership. As I recall, biologists usually define species as an interbreding group, but I'm not sure how they treat entities which cannot (yet) breed. And aren't we homo sapiens sapiens? "Killing of wise men is forbidden, but killing of very wise men is okay." More seriously, on Saturday I attended a philosophy talk about whether a fertilized egg should have the same status as a skin cell, since with the proper assistance (stem-cell in the latter), both can become a full human being. Furthermore, genes can be considered as purely information. If I store all of my genetic information on a microchip and insert it in a woman's uterus, does that count as an unborn child? What if I cyrogenically freze a sperm and an egg (which have not yet joined) such that I could create an embryo after collecting them from the implanted woman's menses? And isn't the requirement for in-the-womb a little arbitrary in this age of test-tube babies? It seems to me that killing a 6-month-old (viable) fetus in a lab ought to carry the same consequences as killing a 6-month-old (viable) fetus in nature's lab. </edit>
Comments 
27th-Feb-2004 07:55 pm (UTC) - Can I sue my fetus for abuse?
Anonymous
I have no questions whatsoever about who is in charge of my body now that I'm pregnant. It's all about the baby. Being pro-death myself, (and I do use the term ironically as well as an effective expression) I've struggled quite a bit with the concept of "life." But what I eat, how I feel, and quite a number of other physical responses are now being controlled by this tiny collection of cells. Frankly, if anyone else was doing this to me, you can bet I'd sue. [giggle]
27th-Feb-2004 07:57 pm (UTC) - Oops.
I hadn't meant for that to be anonymous. [smile]
27th-Feb-2004 07:57 pm (UTC) - A lot of good points and good questions
I don't think that fetuses should be granted personhood. As you may know, a the fetal period of human development is from 8 weeks gestational age until birth. Prior to that is the embryonic period of human development. I feel that the embryonic period should be left entirely out of any discussion regarding the power and responsibilities that a mother has over her unborn child. I don't even think there should be a discussion of the fetus's rights either, because until a certain gestational age, the fetus has little chance of surviving on its own outside the mother's body. (Probably 23 weeks at the earliest)

I'm sure I would have much more to say if I thought about this longer. Unfortunately I have other matters that need to be contemplated at this time. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I plan to read it again later and think more on this subject.

27th-Feb-2004 08:46 pm (UTC)
This might be the most thought-provoking thing I've read all month. Way to take the simplicity out of the abortion debate. Black & White it ain't.
27th-Feb-2004 11:34 pm (UTC) - Interesting note completely unrelated to the meat of this entry.
I actually read an article recently that a group of scientists re-evaluated the genetic makeup of chimpanzees. In the article the revised genetic similarities ended up being arund 95 percent, not the 98 or 99 that most people accept.

As for the rest of your entry, I just thought that I'd offer my take on it.

I believe that the argument for and against abortions are often divided along two lines: the emotional and the rational. While some aspects of both intertwine, its often that you can see the lines drawn.

While the emotional side tends to steer towards the anti-abortion side of the fence; meaning that abortion is an affront to women, that it is an affront to god, and that it is by and large a legalized version of murder, it rarely takes into account the other issues that are represented in the rational side of the argument.

Pro choice advocates tend to recognize that in fact, the world is not a cut and dry place. That in fact there are times in which a child is concieved and for any number of reasons, should not have been. (Rape, incest, molestation...or even simply in many cases, the parents being unable to care for an nurture a child in a way that it deserves.)

Being that I'm fairly non-religious as well as not having the capacity of mothering a child, I have a very difficult time understanding the reasons behind the stonewall hatred of abortion. Being that a fetus has no capacity to exist outside of the environment of the uterus until many weeks into a pregnancy (much less even recognizable body parts) it is difficult for me to see granting such a organism the same rights as say, 1 one year old baby. Part of this are the statistics that show a fairly high rate of miscarriage in women, even if the fetus was not aborted, the chance of survival may not even be that high anyway. Granted that argument could be used on both sides...but I find it hard to believe that a mother with an "unwanted" child could find it easy to hope/pray for a miscarriage.

I personally fear for America...not simply for such arguments over the rights of an unborn fetus, but for the rights that are attacked of a grown human adult by according said fetus rights. As well as all the rights that many who are in power right now seem dead-set on reducing, restricting, and even in some cases, removing entirely.

Sorry, that got long. :)
28th-Feb-2004 05:51 am (UTC)
The extra sapiens refers to a "subspecies" so all Homo sapiens sapiens are covered under the act. However, I suppose this means that if we found a frozen cavewoman of subspecies x that was pregnant, her frozen cells would be protected also?

I couldn't tell if you were being theoretical or not, but the test tube babies that you speak of (that are viable in a lab at 6 months) don't actually exist out of Brave New World and other such science fiction yet... that I know of. Though the fertilization and beginning cell division happen in a lab, the embryo is then implanted into the uterus of a woman who has been injected many times over with hormones to make the uterus a comfortable home for the cells to attach.

Your stem cell point is well taken however. If it is first degree murder to kill the 64 cells that make up a blastosphere, is it manslaughter if a woman, who doesn't yet know if she is pregnant, goes for a strenuous ride on her trusty stallion and doesn't provide a hospitable environment for the embryo to latch on? If the embryo is considered human, then this is no different from a mother who neglects her home and kids because she doesn't know how to take care of them. Social services would definitely step in. Is it also first degree murder to use a loofah which removes many hundreds of skin cells from my body in the shower? With the right techniques, these too could be human. Or, because a sperm can combine with an egg and is therefore a potential human life, should it be illegal for men to masturbate? Or women to menstruate without first trying to conceive?

29th-Feb-2004 04:19 am (UTC)
Do you extend your pro-death stance to the death penalty?
29th-Feb-2004 04:31 am (UTC)
Kinda. I think prisoners should be allowed to volunteer for the death penalty certainly, since I'm in favor of suicide. And in a society without decent prisons (think hunter-gatherer), I think the death penalty makes sense if outcasting doesn't. However, I think the death penalty, as practiced in the U.S., should be abolished. I'm not aware of anyone doing a jail break from death row in the last 50 years, so as far as the safety of society is concerned, the death penalty and life without parole are equivalent. Further, many Americans on death row are there because they had lame attorneys, biased juries, or in the extreme cases were so insane they insisted on represented themselve and calling witnesses who don't exist. An astonishing number of Death Row inmates have been set free after new evidence came up, or people realized not all evidence was presented originally, and so forth. The cost of imposing the death penalty -- largely consumed in the extensive appeals process -- is rather shocking. As a utilitarian, I think we could get more out of such criminals by keeping them alive -- keep poundin' those license plates, son!

So in short I'm not opposed to the death penalty in principle, but strongly opposed in practice.
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