Saturday, March 19, 2011

In Which I Talk About Controversial Things

This is a library in Boulder, not the Library of Alexandria. I do like the inscription, though.

In the last episode of "Cosmos," Carl Sagan outlines the story of Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria. If you haven't seen it, it's worth about 13 hours of your time to just go watch the whole series, but the last episode in particular focuses on the absurd way intelligence can be its own existential threat. The cautionary tale goes that the 5th Century Christian leaders in Alexandria were politically threatened by pagan influence, and burned this priceless storehouse of knowledge to the ground to demonstrate their capabilities. It's a grim story, to be sure, but I found Sagan's description of what the mob did to Hypatia more disturbing for some reason. Spoiler warning: people do terrible things to each other, and sometimes do them with abalone shells.

I find Jen Fulwiler's allusion to the burning of the Library of Alexandria in the context of the never-ending abortion debate refreshing, mostly because I agree with her and didn't think of it myself. I've always found it curious how tightly the pro-life (substitute "anti-choice," "anti-abortion," "misogynist," or whatever adjective you prefer for people who oppose legal abortion on demand) movement is bound to outspoken Christianity in the United States. Like all people, I think some of the things I do for very odd reasons, and my befuddlement here is probably a result of rejecting religion and legalized abortion on demand at about the same time while I was in high school. Though I realized I couldn't in good conscience describe myself as a religious person early on in high school, the more I thought of the issue of abortion law the more I felt I had in common with the socially conservative position.

Part of what makes this debate so intractable and prone to collapse into mud-slinging is that our implicit definitions of the boundary conditions of human life lie at the heart of the debate. Put bluntly, is there anything worth protecting in a fertilized human egg? The case against this idea follows naturally from the observation that during the early stages of development, when most abortions happen, there's little there that resembles a human who can think and feel pain and get excited and do other human things. If an embryo a few weeks along in development can't do those things, how does he or she deserve protection?

That argument churned around in my head as my teenage brain carved an opinion into what I'd heard and thought of. Many people find it convincing, but I never did. A serious problem with this argument is the border it requires us to identify. Clearly there is a point where a newly-developing human is recognized as a person and therefore cannot be destroyed. There's also a point where a newly-developing human exists, but is considered a piece of tissue that can be discarded if doing so benefits the current adults and children to a high enough degree. When does the transition occur? Not at birth, since there's no developmentally significant transition that happens there, and not after, since just about everyone seems to agree that infanticide is a heinous act. So when is it an issue of protecting choice and when is it an issue of protecting life? This is a serious question that needs to be addressed by an consistent system of ethics. Well that would be nice anyway.

Fetal viability is a moving and elusive target to pin this transition on. Premature births can be survived at an earlier and earlier stage thanks to intensive medical intervention.  Is it any more morally unacceptable to perform an abortion at 24 weeks of development today than it was in 1973? That argument doesn't make sense to me, and I doubt it does to you either. Granting the idea that abortion is morally permissible up to a certain stage of development will always leave a hauntingly murky and completely arbitrary line. Before this line, it is tissue, after this line, she is a person.

This is not an academic or semantic exercise. If you could boil all of ethics and morality down to a single mission objective "protect human life" wouldn't be a bad summation. The beginning of what a person is, all he or she will become, all the thoughts, the emotions, experiences, the interactions with the web of human life, is launched at conception. This is not a political or religious statement. This is how things work. Denying this truth demeans humanity and chips away at our ability to respect others under all circumstances. The line in the sand is drawn by nature. I argue against the legality of abortion on demand because I don't want anyone to cross that line. You are free to call me a busybody for saying that, but you say the same for your own line.

There's a whole host of other issues that this topic brings up, of course, not least of which the fact that making abortion illegal doesn't seem to do much to reduce its incidence. I don't know what it takes to reduce this practice, but I will argue against its legality as long as I am convinced that it's immorality imposed on others. This is a very uncommon view outside of religious circles, and that puts me in a bit of a bind whenever the topic comes up. I'm still evaluating the religion question, but I don't really see what could convince me otherwise on the abortion one. Perhaps you can show me.

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