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June 03, 2003

The Task

Should Scott Peterson be charged with the murder of his wife's nearly full term fetus? Of course he should.

Should scientists be allowed to do research using fetal stem cells? Of course they should.

Now according to Newsweek, in an article on fetal rights that suggests Americans are being forced into more nuanced positions on abortion without listing what any of them are, I've just alienated both sides on the abortion issue.

Good for me.

I met a pro-choice vegetarian the other day. She won't eat eggs but she's fine with abortions.

Now for the pro-life crowd: What your god has to say about the practice of abortion doesn't matter in the least. It shouldn't. The mutterings of your deity no place in the public policy debates of a non-sectarian country. What gods have to say matter a great deal in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia. Accept that the price for the free practice of your religion is allowing things that are anathema to it to exist, and remove God from the debate on abortion.

Because that's the only way you can win.

My particular stance on abortion, and it shan't change no matter how many aborted fetus photos or coat hanger horror stories people throw at me, so save your efforts, please, is that human rights start at neither conception or at birth, but at viability. If one cannot survive as a human, then rights are somewhat superfluous.

Right now the viability boundary lies between 22 weeks, where no child has survived outside the womb despite the best medical care and technology available, and 25 weeks, with 79 percent of newborns born at that age surviving. A small percentage of infants born as 23 weeks survive, so for the moment I'm opposed to abortions after that time period, and accepting of abortions beforehand, though like most people I am hardly in favor of them.

Note than in 10 years time, it's very likely that the viability boundary will be lower, perhaps at 21 or 22 weeks instead of 23. Also note that all this talk of weeks is shorthand for what is typical in fetal development for a certain time period. Actual viability depends on the physical development of the the fetus, something that can be measured and observed, enough so that any fetus that has reached a set number of developmental goals can be termed viable no matter how many weeks it has progressed.

If the pro-life side of the abortion debate were to adopt viability rather than conception, it could win an strategic victory in the battle over abortion. There's nothing stopping the pro-life movement from continuing to counsel against abortion before fetal viability, but the ever dropping viability line will further restrict the time period in which legal abortion is available with each passing year. The day may eventually come when medical technology ensures viability from the moment of conception, and at that point your battle is won.

I don't expect that the pro-life side will do this any time soon. Compromise is not smiled upon in a religious movement, and the majority of support for the pro-life side of the debate is religious in nature. It would also require an endorsement of science as the solution to abortion, another big stretch for god-botherers in general. As pleasing as the prospect of the Southern Baptist Convention funding biological research is, I don't expect it any time soon.

It's not that the issue cannot finessed religiously. Let's take murder as an example, something scripturally opposed in most religions despite their occasional practice of it. It's also exactly what abortion is according to the pro-life movement.

Suppose God vouchsafed you with a way in which the sin of murder would be vanishingly rare in 100 years, but only if you spend the majority of your efforts in working towards that goal. Some murders may occur between now and then that would not have otherwise, but you have no way of knowing this for sure, even though such sins could probably be assumed. God will deal with those in due time, as he always does, but in the mean time has asked you to work toward a world structured in such a way that the sin is simply unheard of. What problems could you have with that?

Now what if it's just one flavor of murder, and the time period, while not exact, is still finite? What if he asks that?

And don't be too sure he just didn't. I'm pretty sure it's just me, but you can never tell.

Posted by Bigwig at June 3, 2003 03:03 PM | TrackBack
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Hey there,

I tend to be more on the anti-abortion side of things (gasp). My problem with personhood-at-viability is exactly that it creates a "moving target" (it changes with science, making fetuses legitimately aborted today illegitimately so a few years/decades later). My other problem with viability is that it is an extrinsic property assigned to the fetus (i.e. depends on the actions and capabilities of scientists/researchers/physicians, rather than some intrinsic property of the fetus).

I do, however, think that mothers, fathers, and the State can all have legitimate pre-personhood interests in the preservation of the unborn they spawn (ok, the State only "spawns" unborn in a very indirect and shaky sense). It is wrong and should be legally punishable, for example, to force a woman to terminate her pregnancy (cf. China) at any stage exactly for this reason (because the mother has a legitimate interest in her unborn child). The 1992 Supreme Court plural decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey recognized and weighed exactly these interests (thus maintaining the personhood-dodging stance of Roe), declaring that the State's pre-personhood interest in the unborn outweighs the mother's pre-personhood interest at the point of viability. Paternal interests ended up with very little weight, which I disagree with in the sense that I think all people have a right to at least be aware of the by-products of their consensual endeavours, especially those as extremely personal as sexual acts. As to determining the fate of those by-products, I believe that rights in that regard should be assigned according to a willingness and ability of care. Theoretically, then, a father should be able to raise and care for a maternally-unwanted child provided he supplies adequate emotional and financial support to the mother for her far-from-trivial inconvenience, distress, and pain (this includes compensation for time off work, lack of promotion due to pregnancy (though this should be legally punishable as well), and emotional distress from the stigma of unwed motherhood, for example).

Maybe that last sentence is a stretch :(. Men cannot, by definition, failing certain Schwarzeneggerian situations, ever know first-hand the intimate bond between a mother and her child. I do believe, however, that they are still not without rights (and responsibilities!) when it comes to the fetuses and children they take a non-trivial part in creating.

Back to personhood:

As an alternative to personhood-at-viability, I would advocate a theory of personhood at consciousness (about 18 weeks, right?), pre-consciousness (sometime before then), or sentience (some time in the first or second trimester, though the faculties of sentience don't appear overnight at any point therein). You could even make a secular argument for personhood at conception if you think that pre-sentient, pre-conscious entities in discrete, tangible form are persons. But all of these options are probably axiomatic and might best be put to a vote.

But, as stated above, the Supreme Court, perhaps dubiously so, has dodged or avoided the question of personhood and fetal rights by casting the abortion issue as a question of conflicting rights/interests: prior to viability, the mother's right to self-determination/privacy outweighs any interest the State may have in the pre-born human . Throw fathers into the mix and I'd be happier; stop shying away from the personhood issue and I'd be over-joyed.


Posted by: Alien at September 15, 2005 12:37 AM
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