Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, April 29, 2013

Abortion Presentation Follow-up

Hey guys I just wanted to continue this discussion a little bit to clarify some things that I was saying as well to try and better understand what some of you were saying.

So I was presenting the idea that life begins at conception and that based on the very basic points of our constitution (i.e. the right to life) abortion violates the rights of the child and also that abortion being legal contradicts these basic rights that our country was founded on.  I also brought up that while a pregnant woman who is murdered constitutes double murder, the destruction of just the child does not constitute murder.  So I ask why is it that you do give value to the life of the child in one instance and not the other?

Some of you made the distinction between human life and human "personhood" (a distinction that I do not believe exists). And based on this distinction said that children still in the womb do not deserve these rights because while they are alive they do not poses whatever quality it is that determines "personhood".

This is my interpretation of some of what was said in class.

So my question to those who make a distinction between life and "personhood" (a distinction that you believe carries with it the right to life) is how do you define "personhood".  What is it that determines that a child in the womb has no right to life but that an infant does? How do you define personhood?


  1. Regarding "...the distinction between human life and human 'personhood' (a distinction that I do not believe exists)..."

    The distinction obviously "exists," since Michael Sandel wrote of it and I articulated it in class this afternoon. But you don't like it. I get that.

    So, I'd like to throw the question back to you. As Sandel writes: "it is undeniable that the blastocyst is 'human life'... But it does not follow that [it] is a human being, or a person. Any living human cell... is 'human life'..."

    Why should we suppose that any and every form of human life is a "person," a bearer of rights entitled to claim our acknowledgement and our deference? What makes it inviolable? As Sandel points out, we don't acknowledge skin cells as bearers of rights. They're "alive." No?

  2. I don't consider the Constitution a valid argument because that would also mean the mother has a right to life and liberty. And this is the life who is an uncontested person...
    And why should we determine the ethicality of abortion based on America's laws? Are we only arguing abortion in America?

  3. That still does not answer my question ... how do you define personhood? What makes you a human person if not being human and being alive?

    As far as saying that the distinction necessarily exists because you believe that it does and because Sandel wrote of it would be similar to me saying that a Trinitarian God must exist because I believe that it does and many people have written about it ... however I do not believe that you would agree with that statement.

    In response to the Blastocyst vs. Skin cell statement I would say that there is a huge distinction there because at that point in development that human life consists only of one cell that goes on to diversify into many different kinds of cells. Therefore destroying that one cell would destroy the entirety of that unique life where as destroying one skin cell is destroying an infinitesimally small part of a "fully developed" adult like you or me, and a part of that being that will not continue to develop and diversify.

    Mary… I absolutely agree that the constitution argument means that the mother has a right to life and liberty. I do not believe that it is really possible to be pro-life without being for all life including that of women. It would be pretty close to impossible for me to be pro-life without being pro-women. But it is also important to realize that less that 1% of all abortions are performed to save the life of the mother. I presented this topic in the framework of science and the law because these are the two aspects that govern the legality of abortion and everything to do with abortion in our day-to-day lives. The ideas based on the constitution would only be truly applicable to America however the argument of murder of human life would apply in most cultures. The other reason for discussing this in the framework of our law is to point out that our current laws contradict our basic “unalienable” rights.

  4. Austin, you get credit for standing by your convictions. I can't imagine ever challenging one of my professors quite so publicly, while the grade-book remained open. Of course, I also can't imagine one of my professors running a public blog either. The times they are a-changin'...

    But I'm feeling a bit like a straw-man: I did not claim that the life/person distinction was "necessarily" correct just because Sandel and I have affirmed it. I do insist that it's a real distinction, commonly acknowledged by bioethicists across the spectrum including those (like you) who reject it. I simply invite you to acknowledge and address (and not casually dismiss) it by declaring that it "does not exist." It exists. Those who affirm it (like me) and those who reject it (like you) are equally obliged to recognize the conceptual difference it attempts to delineate. I think what you mean to argue is that the difference is not morally relevant. Therein lies our dispute, and it's a tough one. As I said in class, there are no shortcuts to resolution. The facts of science (and constitutional law) are not going to settle the issue of what value we should place on life pre-and post-partum.

    I think I did answer your question, or at least commenced an answer: personhood (as distinct from bare living existence) is a cultural achievement, a social status, a recognition by one's peers. http://osopher.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/a-person-in-full/

    And I do think you've missed Sandel's very simple point about skin cells etc. Personhood is a complex status reflecting both biology and culture. Skin, at least 'til the cosmetics industry gets involved, is just biology.

    I do appreciate your attempt to clarify one of our knottier ethical problems, and your passion on this issue. We'll agree to disagree, at least for now.

  5. I thought of something. So if an armed robber broke into a house and a family was inside, and the robber pointed his gun at the family... a parent would begin begging for the life of their children- Begging please do not harm them... please take me but leave them alone.
    In the same way I try to invision myself in this scenario: would I throw a child infront to take a bullet for me? or throw myself and save a young life?
    I do not understand in the same way how, if there was any chance that a child of mine would live, and I could die that it might live....
    that I would choose myself over him/her. (this is of course in reference to contemplating abortion because of medical complications)

  6. While I have very little better when if comes to actually defining what constitutes personhood, you have acknowledged the separation.
    You have even started applying qualifiers (the beginnings of finding a definition)such as the ability to develop and diversify.
    Other methods I have seen to try and clarify the distinction include levels of physical development, physical "completeness," levels of intelligence or ability, and interaction with the community. Each qualification attempts to quantify the difference between the skin cell and the Zygote, because as far as your presentation you did only place 2 requirements (human and alive,)But each qualification also has problems because they each rule out individuals who many would consider persons.
    defining by ability rules out the handicapped, by sound mind rules out those with dementia, "completeness" those with injuries our were born without certain organs/limbs, and so on.
    But even simpler, on your example of the zygote. what about it's viability? Just because an ovum is fertilized does not mean it is a viable human life, many fertilized egg-cells are not. As such, many fertilized cells are naturally destroyed at some point of development, where and when depends on how bad the defect that made it non-viable is. Some don't make it far past a blastocyst, and some make it to near birth and as such can be a terrible burden on the mother or may be completely unnoticeable.
    That is one of the problems of defining the zygote as both a human and person, it allows justification of murder charges for miscarriages, which is not unheard of as several states require medical proof that a miscarriage was natural or the mother could be charged for murder when it was simply a matter of a non-viable zygote. (georgia tried to pass such a bill in 2011)

  7. I'm sorry that I haven't responded in a while, I have been swamped with other classes. However I wanted to thank all of you for this discussion. It is really interesting to see how people with differing opinions look at this topic and at how I look at it. Thanks and have a great summer!

  8. Thank you, Austin. I think this has been a helpful discussion, though so much more could be said. And will be, though not this semester.

    The abortion issue is notoriously elusive. From a non-sectarian, ethical point of view there are no shortcuts(via religion,science, philosophy, whatever)to a simple solution.

    One can be very clear in his own mind as to what he thinks conscience and ethical propriety require, with respect to incendiary questions about when "life" begins; but conscientious people differ. If we're to have constructive ethical dialogue around them, we must address one another's proposals in good faith. We must acknowledge the differences, conceptual and valuational, between us.

    So, when you said the distinction between human life and personhood doesn't exit, that sounded to me as outrageous as it would to you if I'd said that belief in pre-natal life doesn't exist. Obviously both the distinction and the belief do exist. Our job, as ethical inquirers, is to negotiate our respective positions on that distinction and that belief without implicitly impugning one another's intelligence or loyalty to life.

    Bottom line: we've all given one another a lot to think about. Let's just all agree to keep on thinking. And let's all have a great summer.