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
), 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>