Abortion debate

There’s an absolutely fascinating abortion debate here. It’s between a pro-choice atheist and… a pro-forced-birth atheist!
It was pointed out to me by a friend, and I read it with great interest. I have a significant disagreement with the pro-choice guy, but I liked how he defined “person” and I like how he dismantled the pro-forced-birther’s arguments.

Firstly, the stuff I took issue with.
Mr. Carrier claims that

What is rarely understood in this issue is the fact that the most popular means of birth control actually partly relies upon inducing early abortion, and is very likely responsible for many times as many abortions as occur in counted procedures. Hormonal medications of this sort include “The Pill,” and Norplant, as well as the numerous herbal solutions which share the same or similar chemical properties and are thus employed in third world countries as a less expensive alternative to the manufactured pharmaceuticals that they mimic. All these chemicals operate simultaneously on many levels, primarily by preventing ovulation and hindering sperm, but also by preventing implantation (and thus causing expulsion) of an egg that, despite all else, is fertilized anyway. In other words, all chemical forms of birth control, including the pill, cause abortions–and no one can know whether or when they have worked by their primary means or in this last-resort manner.

However, this goes against what I have always understood as the definition of abortion, which is the act of ending a pregnancy before gestation is complete. Pregnancy, I have always been told, begins when the fertilized egg implants in the lining of the uterus or fallopian tube. My understanding is that over-the-counter pregnancy tests test for that event, not for the presence of a fertilized egg. I am also under the impression that the vast majority of fertilized eggs do not implant – if memory serves, my ObGyn has a poster saying that something like 80% fail to implant in a non-contraceptive treated womb.
The argument over when pregnancy begins, though, has the same problems as the argument over when life begins – it’s a matter of semantics and value judgements. Personally, I feel, as Mr. Carrier does, that prior to the development of a cerebral cortex, there’s no person, just a mass of potential. He defines a person as “an individual human personality,” and I agree – infants have personality traits, old people have personality traits, etc. A person who is braindead does not have personality traits and will only get them back if they get a brain transplant – but they will be different personality traits. Most people, I think, would say that if that happened, there would be a different “person” in the body than their was before.
No complex cerebral cortex = no human personality = not a person. For example, my cats have simple cerebral cortices and thus have personalities, but I don’t think they each count as “a person.” I care for them a great deal, of course, but I don’t think they have the same rights as I do. If I did, I wouldn’t keep ’em as pets.
I like Mr. Carrier’s definition because it puts into words what I’ve held as a not-well-formulated opinion for some time, and I give him kudos for it.

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2 Responses to Abortion debate

  1. agengrgal says:

    Once again, excellent and well thought out points. Thanks! The funny thing is I finally caught you using “their” instead of “there” in the end of paragraph “The argument over …”. :o) Caught ya!

  2. Alex Summers says:

    Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t even be commenting since I haven’t had time to read all of the debate, but something struck me in the bit I did read, so I’m going to comment to organize my own thoughts if for no other reason.
    I’ve held the position for some time that abortion is morally permissible even if it is true that the thing which is aborted is a person. In other words, while I believe it is true that the aborted thing is not a person (in the sense of being the sort of thing that has a right not to be killed), I do not believe that fact is necessary to support the argument that abortion is morally okay.
    The argument runs like this: even if this thing is a person (has the right to not be killed), it does not have the right to use my body in order to do so. (Okay, not MY body since I have no uterus, but that’s hardly the point.) Therefore, I have the right to terminate its use of my body, even though doing so will terminate its existence (kill it).
    The counterargument I’ve heard in the past seems to draw on the position that parents have a special obligation to their children. In the same way that the parents of a two-year-old are obligated to take care of it, the argument runs, the parent (okay, mother) of a newly-formed proto-person has a special obligation toward it, which negates the argument, above.
    I consider that argument to be bollocks, since the obvious difference between the two situations is that the parents of the two-year-old have taken that special obligation upon themselves, whereas the woman who’s just missed her period simply hasn’t. Further, the idea (implicitly or explicitly) expressed in the obligation argument–that having sex is tantamount to accepting that obligation (should one happen to become pregnant)–smacks of puritanical punishment for having sex.
    So I’ve been fairly comfortable in my position up until now, when I noted that Ms. Roth took a slightly different tack, and argued that the mother is responsible to the proto-person, not because of the special bonds of parenthood (which she has shouldered by virtue of daring to have sex), but merely because pregnancy is the natural result of her actions, and one is generally responsible for the effects that naturally result from one’s actions and which affect other people.
    So, in the same way that I take responsibility for car accidents even though I only intended to drive, I must take responsibility for the existence of this new person even though I only intended to have sex.
    This doesn’t change my ultimate position on abortion, of course, since I do not recognize the proto-person as being a person with the same right to continued existence. However, it does seriously call into question my position that the personhood of the proto-person has no bearing on the morality of abortion. I’m not sure if it changes my mind on the point–it still seems to me that there is a morally significant difference between having sex and driving–but it’s making me rethink my position.