Saturday, February 17, 2007

Tackling the big questions



They're apparently having controversy week over at Catallarchy, and Scott's latest contribution- a post about abortion- reminded me that I think I may know of the best Pro-Choice argument you've never heard of. Maybe even the two best, as follows:

1. Consider the modern hospital. Life isn't determined by a heartbeat in a modern hospital; it's determined by deep brain activity, as commonly measured by an EEG. So, you take a man whose heart is kept artificially beating (from what I understand that's done in emergency situations, anyway) into an emergency room without any deep brain activity and he'll be pronounced dead. Anyway, fetuses have no brain stem until about 5 1/2 months into the pregnancy, and so therefore were we to take a fetus into an emergency room in the exact state in which it exists in a mother's womb at 3 months they'd simply declare it dead, end of story. This nicely evades the common slippery slope argument against abortions by simply proposing a reasonable common-sense bright-line definition of death, and moreover one that we use regularly in our society without qualm. Abortions which take place roughly within the first 2 trimesters are morally sound and should be legally protected.

2. This is a bonus argument: because the potential to create human life using a single human cell will almost certainly be attained within our lifetimes (if it isn't possible already) a good reductio ad absurdam/slippery slope argument can be made in the reverse direction. When a woman washes her hands she kills thousands of living cells, and since we know that these cells can very probably be turned into people under the right circumstances she would be in violation of destroying the "potential for life" merely by the act itself. So if, as many pro-life advocates will tell you, destroying the potential for life is wrong then you've either had thousands and thousands of immoral abortions yourself or I wouldn't want to shake your hand.

Postscript: In keeping with the logic of 1., I tend to think that voluntary 3rd trimester abortions are wrong. The violinist argument makes a good case that they should be legal but without a threat to the mother's health I think this rare procedure is highly questionable.

The new Arcade Fire album is all about the religious right and one of my favorite tracks from it is called "My Body is a Cage." The title has obvious significance for this issue, without taking it too lightly.

1 comment:

Matt said...

for posterity's sake:

I wrote a further defense of this post on another board and thought it was pretty good, so I'm posting it here so I'll always have it.

My argument about abortion (posted on my blog) gets its intuitive force from the underlying assumptions behind the concept of brain death (that deep brain activity is relevant in determining life or death) and it’s applicability to fetuses who have no brain stem (that is, fetuses in the first 2 trimesters.) In that argument I make a procedural claim as sort of a rhetorical flourish, regarding an actual fetus being brought into an emergency room. Simply dropping my rhetorical flourish about a fetus being brought into an emergency room would eliminate the present substantive disagreements between constant and I- and my argument would be intact. Nevertheless, Constant is not wrong in making his case as he is because my claim that “a fetus brought into an emergency room would be pronounced dead” is a procedural claim, and one that merits discussion as such. Nevertheless, even arguing on such narrow grounds, I think a vigorous defense can be provided of such a claim.

A. As Constant has now admitted, taking the standard definition (the first one from the dictionary) of “reversible” implies a former state in which the being was conscious. As we will see below this definition makes intuitive sense as well, but simply by definition my use is consistent: there is no former state of consciousness that a 4 month old brain-stemless fetus can return to.

B. The process of determining irreversibility in a hospital is one of ruling out certain conditions (like hypothermia) as the cause of a temporary cessation of consciousness. Not only would the tests prove negative for the important “reversible” states (the fetus doesn’t have hypothermia and isn’t on muscle relaxers) but- more importantly- there’d be an overwhelming fact in favor ruling out a secondary condition even if one was present: the fetus simply has no brain stem. Surely a patient- even one with hyothermia and on 1000 grams of Skelaxin- wouldn’t be thought to be reversible if he/she simply did not have a brain stem.

C. A rational consderation of the concept of “irreversibility” is one that concerns the individual’s “ability to restart itself” (Hershenov, Bioethics, 2003.) In the above-cited paper, he argues that assuming any other definition leads to ridiculous conclusions- namely that were our technology to advance sufficiently everyone may have the ability to recover, meaning that no one should be pronounced dead. This is what I’ve argued above (citing my argument #2 to back me up): the fetus has no “ability to restart itself.”

D. The intuitive force behind the concept of irreversibility is lacking insofar as a fetus is concerned. One should respect situations in which a formerly living being is temporarily “brain dead” in the same way that one should respect the wishes of a conscious person even when they are unconscious (i.e. we shouldn’t steal from them simply because they can’t realize we’re stealing from them at the moment.) However, a robot that has not yet been given consciousness (obviously this is a hypothetical- crazy people go away) and/or the piece of steel that will become that robot would not be considered alive or to have defacto preference rights simply because they may some day become conscious. The latter example seems especially obvious when one considers that the very question of whether or not the steel will be made into the robot is exactly what’s under discussion. If one were to conclude the the thoughts of a potential future robot should be considered, then it seems would would be ethically unable to use steel for any other purpose. The potential child of you and Natalie Portman may well wish you were having unprotected sex with Natalie right now (and you may too)- that doesn’t morally compel Natalie Portman to have unprotected sex with you.

PS- Hi Star Wars fanboys- this isn’t the google result you were looking for.