When Should a Fetus Be Given Rights?

This guest post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the American Humanist Association. He usually blogs at Rant & Reason.

This is the second time this month I’ve agreed with Steven Waldman. Uncanny and unexpected.

In his piece on Beliefnet, he makes the case that our abortion policy shouldn’t focus on a distinct line between life and not-life. It’s a gradual process in which the embryo develops into a fetus and eventually into a conscious being.

[C]onsider this statistical couplet. According to a 2007 survey commissioned by a progressive think tank called Third Way, 69 percent of Americans believe abortion is the “taking of a human life,” but 72 percent believe it should be legal:

Let that soak in. Most people think abortion is taking a human life and yet favor the procedure being legal. How grotesque! Are we Americans utterly immoral?

Actually, what the data proclaim is something that politicians and activists can’t: Most Americans believe there are gradations of life. Some living things are more alive than others, and so the later in the pregnancy it gets, the more uncomfortable people become with the idea of ending it. But in reality they believe both that a life stirs very early on and that a one-week-old embryo is more “killable” than a nine-month-old fetus. For them, determining whether “life” begins at conception really doesn’t determine anything.

What we should protect is not just “human life” but consciousness and sentience. The more developed the consciousness, the more rights we should grant it. Humans deserve more respect than apes, which in turn deserve more respect than insects.

As a conscious entity, a woman should have right to control her own body — or protect her health if the pregnancy would put her in danger. But as a fetus develops consciousness, we should afford it more rights and protections as well. It becomes a balancing act with no clear-cut moral authority in the middle. But this isn’t reflected in policy discussions.

We debate whether we should have parental notification — not when we should have it. We question politicians on whether they’d provide government funding for abortion, not ever asking whether subsidies should be provided for early abortions but not late.

The debate has evolved that way in part because of the fundamentally religious nature of the pro-life activist position. The essential point about the position of pro-life activists — including the Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals — is not that they believe “life” begins at conception. It’s that they believe a life that God creates on Day One is morally equivalent to a life at month one or month nine or 18 years.

I’ve usually heard this position linked to the existence of a soul. As I’ve previously written, I find the notion of souls to be utterly absurd, but it goes beyond that. This unsubstantiated supernatural belief leads people to equate the non-sentient blastocyst with a fully-functioning adult. As a result, we were unable to pursue stem-cell research.

It’s a great improvement to look at rights along an analog scale instead of a digital one. Of course, there will still be a great deal of moral grey area. How are we to gauge the competing rights of society, the mother, and the fetus? It’s something we as a society need to discuss and figure out.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • David D.G.

    Excellent points all around, and well stated! Thanks for presenting this.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Actually, I recommend that you read ethicist Judith Jarvis Thompson’s piece, A Defense of Abortion. In it, she argues that even if a fetus is entirely human with a 100% human sentience, abortion should still be legal. (The analogy she makes is that, if you woke up one day with a famous violinist surgically attached to you so he can use your kidneys… and he’ll die if you insist on being separated… and he has to stay attached to you for nine months… you are not morally obligated to let him stay attached to you. Read the whole piece for the more thorough and nuanced version of the argument.)

    And the parental notification point is a red herring. The parental notification issue has nothing at all to do with the question of whether abortion itself is ethically acceptable. It has to do with the question of whether parents’ right to decide on medical procedures for their children (or at least to be notified about them) is outweighed by the daughter’s right to not be forced to have children against her will. (And in practical terms, it’s not really about that – it’s about the anti- choice forces knowing that they can’t overturn Roe V. Wade, and therefore trying to chip away at access to abortion by inches.)

  • MWDoc

    Let us not forget that the question “when does life begin?” is a philosophical, not a scientific query. “life” is not a term of science – it cannot be defined quantitatively, and has no consistent, objective criteria. In other words, “life” means anything that you want it to mean.
    Prof. Peter Singer of Princeton comes closest to offering a scientific discussion regarding the presence or absence of life.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    And the parental notification point is a red herring. The parental notification issue has nothing at all to do with the question of whether abortion itself is ethically acceptable. It has to do with the question of whether parents’ right to decide on medical procedures for their children (or at least to be notified about them) is outweighed by the daughter’s right to not be forced to have children against her will.

    Isn’t it ironic, that this “parents’ rights” argument presupposes that adults have more rights than a mere child?

  • Kate

    The more developed the consciousness, the more rights we should grant it. Humans deserve more respect than apes, which in turn deserve more respect than insects.

    Hugely dangerous premise. By this logic, a severely mentally retarded person should deserve less respect than a very intelligent ape, etc.

  • http://idahoev.com IdahoEv

    I’ve always found the argument about a soul to be ironic.

    I mean, if the essential personness of an entity is immortal and is not destroyed at death, wouldn’t that make the death less of a loss, because the person still exists in some sense? If there is no immortal, noncorporeal soul, then destroying a life would be a greater loss because there’s nothing left.

  • http://RightToBleed.com Issa

    @Kate I worry about that premise, too. I had the same concern about mentally retarded persons, and using that logic to say that parents have more rights than their children when it comes to their child getting pregnant.

    I also worry that the parental notification issue is simply a way to get around existing laws. It’s the same with laws requiring ultrasound viewing.

  • http://idahoev.com IdahoEv

    By this logic, a severely mentally retarded person should deserve less respect than a very intelligent ape, etc.

    The apparent negativity of that thought is created by the language in which you’ve framed it. Make the same statement another way and it is nowhere near so scary:

    “Any ape intelligent and conscious enough to rank within the range of human intelligence should be accorded rights and respect to match.”

    If I showed you an ape with intelligence to match a retarded human, would you be comfortable treating that ape like a “mere animal”?

  • http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com Eamon Knight

    Of course the fetus is a “human life” — it’s alive, it isn’t any other kind of animal, and is in many ways a biological individual distinct from its mother. The question is as you have stated it: when does it become a person with a moral status we need to consider?

    A tangent about the labels used in this debate: if someone restricts themselves to principled arguments that the fetus has (at some point pre-natally) characteristics that when we encounter them elsewhere, we do not hesitate to bestow the status of “person” on their possessor, and that it therefore has rights which are legitimately in competition with those of the mother, then I will be happy to call that person a “pro-lifer”. I may not agree with them, but I will accept that they are arguing honorably about the correct issue. But when I see (and you can find this on a lot “pro-life” sites) fallacious arguments about how abortion harms women, or God is angry about the little babies, or the sluts should stop being so irresponsible, and so on, then I will call the purveyors of such trash “misogynists”, for that is what they are.

  • Nick

    I hope the larger point is that the abortion debate can be had without reducing it to “because God says not to” or “because the soul enters the body at conception.” One could argue that all human life should be protected, regardless of intelligence or functioning level, without making it about religious belief.

  • Shane

    The apparent negativity of that thought is created by the language in which you’ve framed it.

    IdahoEv makes a good point: framing is huge. Would the spectacular chimp deserve fewer rights just because it shares less common genetic material with you?

    We already do relegate certain people to the status of chimps or animals–those who are not mentally capable of taking care of themselves. We may need to feed them, lock them up, and supervise them… With diminished capacity comes fewer rights (not less “respect”). I don’t really see the issue.

  • http://www.limetwists.com Cole

    I’m a minority among minorities, because even as an atheist I am opposed to elective abortions.

    (The analogy she makes is that, if you woke up one day with a famous violinist surgically attached to you so he can use your kidneys… and he’ll die if you insist on being separated… and he has to stay attached to you for nine months… you are not morally obligated to let him stay attached to you. Read the whole piece for the more thorough and nuanced version of the argument.)

    There’s something missing from this argument. That’s choice and knowledge. The person who wakes up with a violinist stitched to him/her didn’t have a choice or a means to prevent the occurrence. Two consenting adults choosing to partake in sexual activity have the knowledge that pregnancy is a possible consequence of sex, and they have the means to prevent a pregnancy from occurring. Choosing to have sex is choosing to accept the consequences – emotional or physical – that come with it.

    I will say, the analogy is fine and dandy if you’re talking about abortion in the event of rape. Because the victim of a rape doesn’t have a choice.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Well Cole, I’m glad to see that you would grant an exception for rape. But:

    1) This means your opposition to abortion is not based on the rights of the fetus (since there is no difference in the fetus between the two cases), but on a desire to punish people for behaviour you don’t agree with.

    2) I hope you would also grant exceptions to cover other possibilities, such as the life and health of the woman.

    3) If abortion were legal only in cases of rape, and the only way women could legally get an abortion was to claim they were raped, the reported incidence of rape would go way up.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Choosing to have sex is choosing to accept the consequences – emotional or physical – that come with it.

    Do you also oppose the use of antibiotics to treat sexually transmitted diseases? Because most of the people who have those brought it on themselves via their behaviour.

  • Erp

    Another situation to be considered is if a third person deliberately causes a miscarriage (without the consent of the mother or those legally allowed to make medical decisions for her if she cannot make decisions) or kills a pregnant woman and her fetus? There seems to be a trend to consider this murder (or a second murder if both die); should it be? Certainly it should be a very serious crime but to the level of murder? Should the seriousness increase depending on the stage of pregnancy?

  • Gordon

    Choosing to have sex is choosing to accept the consequences – emotional or physical – that come with it.

    Is a pregnancy caused by a broken condom the responsibility of the couple, and therefore, no abortion? Or is that pregnancy the result of being raped by the condom manufacturer’s poor product, and therefore, abortion is ok?

  • CatBallou

    And here we have Cole, with the “punitive pregnancy” stand. How do I know that you view pregnancy as punishment? Because you would allow a victim of rape to have an abortion. If there’s any reason to oppose an abortion for the sake of the child, it would apply to instances of rape also. So if you don’t object to rape on moral grounds, you’re just being a bully.
    The violinist analogy does include the possibility that you agreed to it. But no court would force you to continue if you changed your mind. The law won’t even force you to paint a house, so it certainly won’t force you to keep someone alive at the expense of your personal autonomy.
    Of course you can quibble about other differences in this analogy, but that’s only because there is no perfect analogy to pregnancy.
    Apparently you aren’t aware that contraception fails, many people are ignorant about contraception (thanks, abstinence-only programs!), and not all women have control over their sexual lives. Additionally, rape convictions are very difficult to obtain. By the time a rape is proved, it’s almost always too late for an abortion. So what’s your standard—”if she looks beat up, let her have an abortion”?
    Furthermore, pregnancy is a result of a small percentage of sexual events; you probably have a greater risk of a car accident, but you continue to drive. And if you do have an accident, we don’t say “tough luck, you knew the consequences!!”
    If it’s just a matter of accepting risk, why should we spend money treating athletic injuries, alcoholism, lung cancer? Except for criminal activity, in almost every other area of risky behavior, we try to mitigate consequences.
    And what, exactly, is the risk that the man accepts? Certainly nothing on the level that the woman does.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-4275-DC-Secularism-Examiner Paul Fidalgo

    I actually took this question on at my column not too long ago, and emphasized Carl Sagan’s take oh-so-many years ago.

    A taste:

    Sagan dismisses the entire notion of a “right to life” not because it is an undesirable idea, but because no culture on Earth seriously enshrines it, at least not for all entities that possess life such as “lower” animals or plants. Even the professed sacredness of human life is dubious in the context of wars and capital punishment, but it is indeed something about humans that we seem to have determined is worthy of the first line of preservation.

    But what about human life is so sacred? Sagan posits that were we to come across a non-human species that had language and art and civilization, we would consider its killing to be murder, so it is not even humanity we are talking about. It’s “intelligence” or “consciousness,” at least of the degree to which such things as self-awareness and culture are possible. For Sagan, this may give us a line to draw in the abortion debate. When a being possesses the ability for such things, they are newly imbued with the right to be born.

    More here.

  • http://www.holycow.com/mel ContainsCaffeine

    I agree that life and setience develop in a sort of analog way, which, as you say, leaves room for a big grey area. The problem is that laws require black and white boundary lines. The notion of a soul in the way that pro-lifers mean it is very silly, and policies informed by that belief are equally as silly. But even dismissing the “life begins at conception” line of thinking, there will always be debates around when a fetus switches from a biological function that a woman has to deal with to a conscious individual with its own set of rights.

    It’s a tough issue, but I look forward to the day where we can spend our time arguing the grey area, and not whether humanity begins with a fertalized egg.

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    The issue is not “when does the fetus have rights”. The issue is “when does the mother’s rights disappear, and her role as an incubating slave begin”?

    Answer that one, and answer what the criminal penalty for “voluntarily ceasing one’s role as a incubating slave” is, and then we can get to matter of the rights of the unable to live.

  • cathy

    Over 88% of abortions occur within the first semester, so let’s not pretend that this consciousness issue is one that pertains to the majority of abortions. And one of the biggest causes of later abortions is lack of access to information, facilities, and finances. Less that 2% of abortions occur beyond 20 weeks. Most reasonable people with a genuine care about conscious life support sex ed, contraception, and (at least) early term abortion. Most pro lifers don’t give a crap about conscious life (or the US’s dismal infant mortality rates, the highest in the developed world, with pockets, such as Detroit, with infant mortality rates as high as those of a third world nation), they care about policing women’s bodies and sexuality, just like Cole. They don’t care about conscious beings, especially not the half of the human species with vaginas.

  • Tom in Iowa

    Not to make light of these thoughtful comments, but I’m reminded of an admonition from a college friend’s mother:

    “You’re a fetus until you graduate from Law School, and I can still abort you any time until then, and don’t you forget it.”

  • Polly

    Over 88% of abortions occur within the first semester

    Sluts!
    Good girls wait until Spring break. :)

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    There’s something missing from this argument. That’s choice and knowledge. The person who wakes up with a violinist stitched to him/her didn’t have a choice or a means to prevent the occurrence. Two consenting adults choosing to partake in sexual activity have the knowledge that pregnancy is a possible consequence of sex, and they have the means to prevent a pregnancy from occurring. Choosing to have sex is choosing to accept the consequences – emotional or physical – that come with it.

    I will say, the analogy is fine and dandy if you’re talking about abortion in the event of rape. Because the victim of a rape doesn’t have a choice.

    Sigh.

    Read the essay, Cole. The author addresses all of these issues at length. (For one thing: Do you really want to say that a fetus conceived by rape is less human, with fewer rights, than a fetus conceived consensually, even if by accident?)

  • http://www.holycow.com/mel ContainsCaffeine

    Quoting RC Moore: “The issue is not “when does the fetus have rights”. The issue is “when does the mother’s rights disappear, and her role as an incubating slave begin”?”

    This is a very good point. And it also highlights the importance of reproductive freedom including easy access to birth control and sex education. The more control that a woman has over getting pregnant, the more comfortable I feel about giving rights to the baby (as it grows). It seems fair to give this responsibility to a woman (and the man involved) who made a deliberate choice to get pregnant. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where pregnancy is always deliberate, or even consensual. And as long as that is true, we need to err on the side that the rights of a woman outweigh the rights of the fetus/baby.

    RC’s comment also points out the inequality that exists between men and woman by our biological nature. As it stands, even when it’s a deliberate choice, women are the ones that have to choose “incubating slave” status. Men never have to share their body with another living human. Maybe someday in the future technology will solve this inequality too.

  • Ron in Houston

    I just wanted so spew bile and hatred toward Bush for the damage he did in the area of stem cell research.

    OK – spew over.

  • cathy

    Woops, I meant trimester. Finals have destroyed my brain…

  • Max Exter

    Statistically, something along the line of 75% of pregnancies end in miscarriage within the first month (usually coinciding with when the first post-conception period would be). So if life begins at conception, God is one hell of an abortionist.

    I also have a child on the way, which does change my perspective a bit. I’m still all for legal abortions, but I have a better understanding of why many find them to be horrible. If something were to happen now (3.5 months) I think I’d probably go into a violent rage / collapse helplessly.

    – me -

  • Jim

    I have to disagree. I’m currently debating someone about this very topic using the same argument used above.

    In order to draw a line between the woman’s body and the unborn baby, you have to ignore the rights of the woman.

    Yes, it is uncomfortable to think that an 8 month old fetus could be aborted but you have no choice.

    Also, what standard is being used to determine whether human rights are being violated? I would assume that the United Nations carries a pretty good and well rounded definition of it. If you read those declarations, they apply to those who are born, not unborn. It specifically uses the word, born. So are they wrong? Who else carries a more advanced and better version of what defines human rights? Or is the definition completely subjective?

    Again, I dislike the idea of ending the biogenesis that is taking place inside a woman’s body when she becomes pregnant but the rights of the woman take precedence and if the woman wants to abort, so be it.

  • Athonwy

    “Humans deserve more respect than apes, which in turn deserve more respect than insects.”

    No, we don’t. All sentient life is deserving of equal respect, or none at all is. From invertebrates to mammals, insects to avians, ALL life deserves to be respected.

    Your basic premise is flawed, and thus your whole argument is as well.

  • Nick L

    Ah the abortion issue. You could listen to George Carlin on his position here: Back in Town videos

    I agree with George on this. The key thing to keep in mind is that abortion happens naturally anyway (better known as miscarriages), we just make a big deal out of it when it’s done purposely.

    The other thing I would like to point out is that I believe in most cases that abortion should be the last option in termination. We have enough available to us to prevent pregnancy before it gets too far, I think this should be the key point as far as I’m concerned.

  • LunaGal

    What about the issue of pain? Fetuses do feel pain at some point. Not sure if this co-occurs with consciousness or not. As a woman who has had both a first-trimester abortion and borne a child, this is a very difficult issue. While I am for abortion rights, I don’t think abortions should occur after the fetus is able to feel pain—unless the life of the mother is at risk or the fetus is not viable.

    http://discovermagazine.com/2005/dec/fetus-feel-pain

    Personally, I feel that our country could be more family/child–friendly (walk the talk [WTF does "family values" mean anyway?]– make family leave available to all and for longer, make quality child care available to all, and in general make caring and educating our children (i.e., our future) a real priority. We’re willing to incarcerate our children and send the older ones off to war, but really, truly, care for them as children?—some how, we don’t seem to be able to pull this off….

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    While I am for abortion rights, I don’t think abortions should occur after the fetus is able to feel pain—unless the life of the mother is at risk or the fetus is not viable.

    Then you have made the decision that a woman is an incubator without rights, that her very biology gives her less status than men.

    If she decides to not be an incubator at some point, then how will you punish her? Do you sentence her to death for making the decision later rather than sooner? Who will be the judges in this? Men?

    Fetal pain is the least of your problems.

  • Aj

    What about the issue of pain? Fetuses do feel pain at some point. Not sure if this co-occurs with consciousness or not. As a woman who has had both a first-trimester abortion and borne a child, this is a very difficult issue. While I am for abortion rights, I don’t think abortions should occur after the fetus is able to feel pain—unless the life of the mother is at risk or the fetus is not viable.

    There’s no reason to believe pain coincides with consciousness. Is “feel pain” the right phrase to use here? Simple animals have pain responses, but we wouldn’t say they “feel pain” because that’s something different to pain responses. All we have now with regards to fetuses are pain responses, we don’t have consciousness, or “feeling pain” as we would know it.

    Also, are you going to base the right of life in law on pain? Many animals feel pain, they do not have the right to life. We eat animals that feel pain.

  • GullWatcher

    @Jim and R.C.Moore

    Yes, it is uncomfortable to think that an 8 month old fetus could be aborted but you have no choice.

    and

    Then you have made the decision that a woman is an incubator without rights, that her very biology gives her less status than men.

    Think of it as similar to common law marriage or tenant’s rights, in that time matters. It’s easy to make a case that a woman may have (and I believe does) a right to have an abortion for, say, the first six months, but if she does allow the fetus to stay for six months, at that point, she has no right to evict it (so to speak) until it’s born, at which point she may keep it or give it up for adoption. That, to me, seems a reasonable balance between rights and responsibilities.

  • Jim

    @GullWatcher

    That compromise is enticing and appears to be reasonable but in the end you are still making the statement that the woman, after a certain amount of time, suddenly looses the rights over her own body. I think that once you give up a little, you’ve given up too much.

    Adoption would be my preference as well and I would encourage it over abortion but having the choice is important. As is not condemning the woman who makes that choice.

  • Epistaxis

    Hugely dangerous premise. By this logic, a severely mentally retarded person should deserve less respect than a very intelligent ape, etc.

    Then as atheists, we must force ourselves to believe that human beings have souls (and other animals don’t). Otherwise, it would become unethical to wear fur or eat meat, and that’s obviously ridiculous.

  • jemand

    *sigh* Cole, to be tenable you’ll have to oppose gay rights, because it is not fair THEY get to separate the pleasure of sex from the possibility of a “punishment pregnancy” but straight women aren’t allowed this.

    Actually I DO think this is part of the opposition to gay relationships is because people WON’T allow the separation of the pleasure of sex from an unwanted pregnancy.

    And yet– consent to sex is NOT at all the same thing as consent to pregnancy, and I’ll put cole’s argument firmly down in the “misogynist” rather than “pro-life” camp…

  • jemand

    @Jim, as long as 5 months or so are given as free to make up one’s mind, and free abortions would be provided before then to enable women to not be financially burdened by the policy, and post that decision line a woman could terminate if her life were in danger or for fetal malformation…

    I would think that it would not relegate women to the class of “incubation slaves” if abortion were restricted in that fashion.

    But I would prefer still to have abortion remain legal after that date, but perhaps have no financial incentive to do so– free abortion before 3 months, half price up to 5 months, full payment afterwards…

    that would probably be fair. This of course assumes a national health policy but you could make insurance cover under these rates as well if you wanted a private system.

  • Jim

    @jemand

    Now that is a better idea. Good thinking!

  • Vincent

    I always make that point when I get into an abortion debate. People ask when do pro-abortion people think life begins and I (after explaining that they are pro-choice and nobody is “pro-abortion”) say we all disagree and it doesn’t really matter because the question is when do the rights of the fetus outweigh the rights of the mother.

    Besides, the real answer is: Life began 3.5 billion years ago and hasn’t stopped yet. There is no point at which the sperm cell or egg cell is not alive. In fact, there is no point at which any cell of your body was not alive then became alive.

  • cathy

    jemand, I knew a young teenage girl who didn’t even know she was pregnant until six monthes along, would this girl then have no rights to choose under your system? The lack of access, funding, and information insures that women aren’t unrestricted in early abortion access (especially young girls. Btw, you do know that 98% of all abortions already occur before 20 weeks, which is not a viable fetus, right?). And half priced on a procedure that can cost 4000 dollars means nothing to a poor woman (when you are making 15,000 a year, 2000 is not something you can just dish out on demand). Medicaid does not cover abortion thanks to the stupid Hyde amendment. There are also states which only have one abortion provider and waiting period laws, which means even taking the time to make the two seperate clinic trips can mean losing your job, and the means to care for yourself and your family. I think you just have to accept the .05% of abortions that occur after 20 weeks and are non medically nessecary abortions (this factor can be tricky, because some states do not take mental health or high risk of social violence as a factor at all) as part of ensuring a system that respects women’s bodies.

  • River

    Quibble: the term is “sapience,” not “sentience.” (“Thinking” vs. “feeling.”) (We are Homo sapiens.)

  • GullWatcher

    @Jim

    That compromise is enticing and appears to be reasonable but in the end you are still making the statement that the woman, after a certain amount of time, suddenly loses the rights over her own body. I think that once you give up a little, you’ve given up too much.

    There are actually quite a few ways in which none of us have legal rights over our own bodies. We can’t sell our organs, except under certain circumstances in a few places. We can’t legally kill ourselves, ditto. This would just be one more instance, and a temporary one at that.

    Also, it’s not an uncommon thing for people to lose their right to do something if they don’t do it inside of a certain period of time. Again, this would just be one more instance.

    Take those two things together, it still seems a fair compromise to me.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the thoughtful article, Hemant.

    I had a first-trimester abortion, and while I felt sad, I do not regret doing it. All I regret is getting pregnant in the first place.

    What has bothered me *the most* about the abortion debate is the lack of distinguishing between an early abortion and abortion towards the end of the second trimester.

    During my consultation, I was given pictures of the fetus at various stages, from 6 weeks LMP to complete gestation. I had my abortion very early, ASAP (3 weeks gestational, 5 weeks LMP… actually a week earlier than the booklet had a picture for.)

    When I looked at the first picture, 4 weeks gestational, I couldn’t understand how anyone would protest a clinic for aborting something less than 1/4 of an inch long, with no limbs, head, eyes… It was a collection of cells with a heart sticking out. It didn’t look remotely human, and I highly doubt it felt pain. (Calling it an “unborn baby”, as the booklet did, is downright crazy.) Needless to say, that is never the picture pro-life groups use for their cause. It doesn’t stir the emotions.

    What is interesting is that, even knowing how badly I did NOT want a child, I can’t imagine ever aborting a fetus at 20 weeks. Why? Because I looked at the picture. It broke my heart, because it did look human… human enough. It even makes me wonder (a little) if the cutoff date for legal abortion should be pushed back to 18 weeks or so, even though the fetus wouldn’t be viable.

    Perhaps I’m being hypocritical, putting myself on the safe side of morality while pointing the condemning finger at those having later-term abortions.

    But the reason behind my feelings is just what this article said. We DO view people on different degrees of human-ness. I didn’t see my 3 week old embryo as being sufficiently human to drastically move my life in a direction I did not want. We deal in gray areas.

  • Epistaxis

    Quibble: the term is “sapience,” not “sentience.” (”Thinking” vs. “feeling.”) (We are Homo sapiens.)

    That’s not a quibble; there’s a serious philosophical issue here.
    A nonhuman animal or a severely mentally retarded human may be as sentient as a normal human, even though he/she/it is less sapient. Where many people disagree is on which of those should be the criterion for ethical consideration. Some utilitarians feel that the capacity to experience suffering (sentience) is all that matters when considering how to treat another entity – we have no reason to think that being mechanically dismembered without anesthesia feels any different to a nonhuman animal than it does to a human, even though the human would become distressed immediately upon realizing he/she is on a conveyor belt in a slaughterhouse. Others, possibly even other utilitarians, require some level of cognitive self-awareness (sapience) to consider another being as an agent whose interests must be respected.

    Of course, neither of those two positions seems to lead to a pro-life view on abortion. That requires some kind of essentialism, like a soul.

  • jemand

    @ cathy, I wouldn’t support any such restrictions until after:

    1) repeal of the Hyde amendment and the full covering of early abortion services by Medicaid
    2) the availability of free pregnancy tests to poor women
    3) approximately as many doctors offer abortion services as believe it’s morally allowable to do so (probably similar to the general population, 70% or so, there could be incentives for a doctor to increase his offerings to include abortion in as many instances as he felt morally comfortable)
    4) legal protection against losing one’s job due to pursuing abortion-related care.
    5) ending of all “abstinence only” education and the beginning of an education program that ensures all girls understand their bodies and how they work
    5) proof that waiting laws do not reduce access, or that if they do they are repealed

    If all those things are done, I would be comfortable restricting non-medically necessary abortions in the third trimester.

    I don’t LIKE that restriction but as a carrot-and-stick to those who are pro-life but understand early abortions are not immoral.. I think it would be acceptable. We might get more allies for doing all the things listed above, which I would very much like to see done.

    and I think that if everything there was done, the young teen you knew would not have ended up in the predicament she did, so I do believe she would have the right to choose, because she would have learned of her pregnancy earlier and been given financial help for whatever her decision was.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    This whole line of reasoning also applies to cases like Terri Schiavo and other cases where the brain is essentially dead but the body alive. Mercy killing. With pretty much the same folks lining up on either side of the debate.

  • Margaret

    I find it interesting that people like Cole think that having a child you do not want and cannot support is more responsible than choosing abortion. Many teenage mothers who “accept the consequences” as Cole says they should end up in a downward spiral of poverty, while those who abort are free to pursue higher education and employment opportunities. They ultimately are then able to provide a better standard of living for the children that they choose to have later when they can provide for them.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Another argument against deadlines: some anti-abortion nut cases have set up phony pregnancy clinics and have strung along patients with promises of health care until the legal deadlines have passed.

  • GullWatcher

    @Reginald Selkirk

    Another argument against deadlines: some anti-abortion nut cases have set up phony pregnancy clinics and have strung along patients with promises of health care until the legal deadlines have passed.

    Now there’s a stumbling block… I was, I think, the first on this thread to suggest a deadline as a compromise. That’s what it was: a compromise, not an ideal solution.

    There are a couple of answers to the phony pregnancy clinic problem. The first would be regulating what pregnancy clinics must do to be able to call themselves as such (provide a basic set of services) and what they can’t do (lie), and then shut down the ones that don’t comply.

    The other thing would address the false promise made in your example. Of all the reasons to have an abortion, not being able to afford or obtain health care is the saddest. It’s also not really a pregnancy-related problem, but part of a larger one. Fix the larger problem, and you have fixed both.

  • cathy

    Again Jemand, you want to restrict women further because of .05% of abortions. 98% of abortions already occur in the first 20 weeks (88% within the first trimester). And 8% of women live at least a hundred miles from the closest abortion provider. So the cases about young girls who didn’t know they were pregnant, domestic abuse victims, etc. are exactly who you do have to talk about, because these are the people utilizing this incredibly rare procedure. Young girls,those under fifteen, are fifteen times more likely to get a later abortion than their older peers. Amoung women under the age 15, about 1 in four abortions are performed after 13 weeks. Parental consent laws and having to fight through a court battle further delay the problem. So when you talk about an after 20 weeks non medically nessecary abortion, the cases of pregnant very young girls who often don’t understand that they are pregnant until later are generally the rule, not the exception.

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    For all those who think they have an answer to this issue, look back at how you pick through the issues, ignoring what you find inconvenient:

    For those who think forced incubation = tenant rights: make tenant rights only apply to men, to make the analogy fair. I have posed the problem of inequality more than once.

    For those who think a woman somehow can lose rights at some point: answer me, death row for violators? I have posed the question more than once.

    The woman is alive, she has rights. The fetus is incapable of survival without her. Every cell, every molecule of its existence is really the mothers.

    I have decided long ago I do not have an answer to the problem of when the fetus is human. I do have an answer to the problem of when the fetus is a child.

    When the mother says it is.

  • jemand

    cathy, you misunderstand me, I do not WANT this situation, and I would fight it in the current situation. But, if we can fix the access and information problems inherent in our current situation… then I would be willing to allow restrictions for non-medical, later abortions. In other words, I would stop FIGHTING the restrictions if the current access problems were solved. Still wouldn’t really LIKE them but if it was the popular opinion I could live with them.

    And death row for penalty? No way, maybe a fine or community service and possibly some mandatory classes on sexual health plus a required consultation with a doctor with regards to obtaining birth control.

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    jemand said:

    And death row for penalty? No way, maybe a fine or community service and possibly some mandatory classes on sexual health plus a required consultation with a doctor with regards to obtaining birth control.

    Ignore the father of course. Only women are to be ordered around. Their fault for having a uterus I guess.

    I have an idea. Forced reversible vasectomies for all 8 year old boys. They are only sperm incubators after all. Their rights end at the moment of ejaculation.

  • GullWatcher

    @R.C. Moore

    For those who think forced incubation = tenant rights: make tenant rights only apply to men, to make the analogy fair. I have posed the problem of inequality more than once.

    No one has answered it because there is no answer, except reality. You can’t legislate equality when it doesn’t exist. Men don’t get pregnant, and no law is going to change that.

    For those who think a woman somehow can lose rights at some point: answer me, death row for violators? I have posed the question more than once.

    Traditionally, penalties have applied to the people who actually perform the procedure, not the one who requested it.

    This is a odd one – if you ask the idiots protesting outside women’s clinics, even the most diehard will just say the women need counseling and prayer, not punishment. They too want the doctors punished, not the person whose decision it ultimately was. When pressed, they can’t really defend this stance – if it’s murder, why not punish it as murder, why even have a separate law? They had no answer for this in the video of someone interviewing them (linked to in a previous post on this blog, sorry, not sure which one). The obvious answer (which may or may not be the true one) is that on some level, even they don’t think it’s really murder.

    Still, it’s a good question. If we have a definition of when a fetus becomes a person with rights, then we don’t need a law about abortion, because it’s murder, and there’s a law for that already.

    I have decided long ago I do not have an answer to the problem of when the fetus is human. I do have an answer to the problem of when the fetus is a child.

    When the mother says it is.

    That’s nice and all, but what is the significance of calling it a child rather than human? Changing the word doesn’t really help. There are many cases of mothers killing their infant children. If they did it because they didn’t consider it a child, that doesn’t make it ok. I doubt very much that was where you were going with this, but I’m not sure exactly what you did mean.

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    That’s nice and all, but what is the significance of calling it a child rather than human?

    I have children. I don’t have humans. I do have dogs.

    If you don’t see the significance, I can’t help you.

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    This is a odd one – if you ask the idiots protesting outside women’s clinics, even the most diehard will just say the women need counseling and prayer, not punishment. They too want the doctors punished, not the person whose decision it ultimately was.

    You may use the viewing of one video as the basis for your viewpoint. I recommend however, you spend your time escorting women through the picket lines. The protesters are not only screaming jail and death, they are screaming eternal damnation in hell. And they don’t want the doctor’s punished, they want them dead. Except for a very brave few, doctors who perform abortions live in anonymity, under constant fear of a sniper shot. Planned Parenthood staff live with regular bomb threats and stalking, and the new favorite, attack by automobile. My family has lived with this for over 15 years. Downplaying the serious of this, thinking that tweaking a few rules here and there is going to change anything is hopelessly naive.

    First step: restore the protections Planned Parenthood had under the RICO act (taken away by Bush).

    Second step: remove the tax protections from any organization the supports the anti-abortion movement. I don’t get a tax deduction for atheism, they don’t deserve tax deductions for issues not religious.

    Third step: Apply terrorist laws to any anti-abortion group that suggests any violence towards those seeking or assisting in abortion services (including threats screamed at picket lines). If we have to have the draconian Patriot Act, put it to some good use. See how they like having all their assets seized.

    Fourth Step: Make detailed, explicit, family planning a requirement, just like English, Math and Science every year, in every Public School, to be taught by Planned Parenthood (not the school teachers). The bonus may be progress towards zero population growth.

    Others may have even better suggestions, that do not evolve around punishing women for being women

  • GullWatcher

    The protesters are not only screaming jail and death, they are screaming eternal damnation in hell. And they don’t want the doctor’s punished, they want them dead.

    I know, I’ve seen. But I stand by what I said – there are very few calling for imprisonment for the pregnant women. The protestors may talk about eternal damnation, but they do not campaign for judicial punishment for the mother. They prefer to think of her as a sinner (for god to judge), but the doctor as a criminal (and yes, that is based on more than just one video). And I have the utmost respect for the doctors and clinic workers who put themselves on the line like that.

    Frankly, I think your solutions are great. I also don’t think they are going to happen, at least not in this decade or the next. That’s why I suggested what I did as a possible interim compromise. It would still be more liberal than the laws as they exist now.

  • http://www.cvaas.org R.C. Moore

    But I stand by what I said – there are very few calling for imprisonment for the pregnant women.

    This link may help. From the comments here, it is clear a fine line is being walked.

    http://www.theinterim.com/2007/nov/05considering.html

  • GullWatcher

    Thanks, I had already seen that article. Notice it mentions the video and the media response to it. Now that the question has been raised, AFTER the video, they are starting to think about it, but even so, they still reserve their hatred for the doctors. Their logic for their decisions is impeccably fuzzy.

    Of the five anti-abortion leaders asked in the article, the breakdown of what should happen to the mother was as follows:

    one said ‘jail time’, length unspecified
    one said no punishment
    two said mental health treatment
    one wanted punishment only if the mother ‘knew’ it was a baby and not a ‘blob of cells’ (good luck writing that law).

    On the legal front, you may be in luck. Or, rather, we may all be in luck. One of the people said to be likely as a Supreme Court pick, Diane Wood, has a nice record. The bit I’m about to quote is from a conservative blog, so it’s phrased negatively, but I’m sure we can all read between the lines.

    -If nominated to the Supreme Court, Judge Wood will have some substantial questions to answer regarding her judicial philosophy based on her work as a circuit court judge.

    Judge Wood’s judicial views have on occasion been far outside mainstream legal thought and appear driven by her personal policy views. In NOW v. Scheidler, she wrote an opinion applying RICO – a statute designed for mob prosecutions – to prevent pro-life activists from engaging in protests. The Supreme Court reversed with Justices Ginsburg’s and Breyer’s concurrence. NOW v. Scheidler, 537 U.S. 393, 402 (2003).

    -Judge Wood has betrayed a consistent hostility to religious litigants and religious interests. For example, Christian Legal Soc’y v. Walker, 453 F.3d 853, 867 (7th Cir. 2006), she would have voted to allow a public university to revoke the student organization charter of the Christian Legal Society because it declined to extend membership to homosexuals.

    She also authored an opinion refusing to allow prisons to require inmate participation in drug rehabilitation programs that used “explicit religious content,” even where such programs were the only ones available, effectively allowing inmates to refuse treatment entirely. Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (7th Cir. 1996).”


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