Do We Advocate for Life as If Life Matters?

Do We Advocate for Life as If Life Matters? April 12, 2019


Let’s begin with a story. I think about this one often. On March 11, 2017, a landslide in the only trash dump for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, swept dark earth and detritus over 115 human beings, smothering them to death. Most were women and children. Most made their livings picking through the trash that they lived in–and through that labour, many had painstakingly upgraded from fragile shacks to sturdier homes, brick by brick. One of the dead was a sixteen-year-old boy eager to go to university, to become an engineer. Other dreams never made it to Western papers.

The trash dump was about 50 years old, and the only landfill for somewhere over 2.8 million people. The city had tried to open another in 2015, to alleviate the pressure on this first one, where hundreds of human beings lived and scavenged for scraps… but other citizens protested the new dump, not wanting the presence of garbage to diminish the shine of socioeconomic advancement in their neighbourhoods, too.

When the landslide story hit the international news, this last angle was especially critical: the juxtaposition between a rapidly rising and a socially precarious economic market. The rich and the abysmally working poor.

But when I think of this story (and I do often, not fully understanding why this story stands out among so many similar tragedies: the fires that consume overfilled buildings whole, the boats that sink overburdened with refugees) it’s the children who haunt me most of all. Now, that’s not a slight against the adults, whose deaths I find grievous, too… but the adults quite possibly knew a touch more of the world than that landfill. The children? Well, that’s debatable.

And so I can’t seem to shake the idea of human beings born into that refuse, and knowing nothing but that refuse. Toddlers taking their first steps in it, hopefully but not assuredly under someone’s watchful eye. Little ones watching the sun rise and set over its heat stench; bigger children entertaining themselves with bits of junk. And then, one day, all of them catching sight of that incomprehensible tide of dirt and castoffs rising up impossibly fast over them, or around their neighbours. Children crying out from a ground suddenly turned to earthen river, their littles hands outstretched in one last, startled breath before the whole of their inner cosmos fell to silence…

Human Dignity outside Religious Rhetoric

Does a person’s life still matter if their story is lost?

Or if they don’t live long enough to tell their story at all?

These are delicate questions for most of us outside the parameters of faith.

Because faith says, Yes, absolutely, because every human is imbued with a soul by God Almighty!

Meanwhile, we cold dead atheists in a cold dead cosmos clear our throats and raise a finger and hem and haw. “Well…” we deliberate, “I guess you could say that sentience is a precious gift no matter how limited its existence.” But then what does that say about humans with less sentience? Who haven’t the means to tell the rest of us their tales?

It’s not the easiest thing to speak of plainly. I’ve written on the subject more optimistically elsewhere, but today I want to be blunt about the downside: namely, that we atheists tend to be more pragmatic in our sense of limits to the gift of life. It’s why we advocate more for assisted suicide, and the cessation of care to persons in persistently vegetative states, and for terminating pregnancies where there is a high risk of non-viability… or even certain genetic conditions where life is possible, like Down’s syndrome. It’s why we measure the simple fact of life so often against quality of life.

And as such, it’s why we’re more vulnerable to questions about how far that pragmatism should go. Just try to answer the question “What makes a life worth living?” without tripping into counterexamples of lives being lived today that don’t fit your definition due to the impact of racism, classism, sexism, and/or ableism in our world. Black Africans in Libya tortured and enslaved. Male indentured servants in Qatar worked to death and female indentured servants imprisoned for pregnancy, no matter the circumstances that placed them in that state. Child labourers the world over. Sex-trafficking victims the world over. What are you trying to say, Cold-Dead-Atheist? Are you trying to say that those lives don’t have equal value?

Meanwhile, when religious groups rally around the cause, say, of making abortion illegal, they often employ the rhetoric of valuing each and every human being. They claim that every life is precious. Every life a gift.

Which of course yields the obvious counterpoint, that if these groups genuinely care about human life they have an oddly myopic way of showing it. (Nope, I’m not going to talk about the most recent example out of Texas, though oh boy am I still seething over it.) But I’m not so much interested in their hypocrisy as our own.

Because how do we as atheists–and the compassionate humanists especially among us–speak of life’s value without also being selective to the point of contradiction?

Hint: It’s Not a Standalone Issue

Abortion currently arises more as a political issue than a moral one. If it were otherwise, the groups advocating against it would do a better job advocating for social systems that actually reduce its incidence.

Indeed, it’s because abortion is a political issue that anti-abortion groups don’t focus their activism on making the world itself a better place in which to birth a child. Why? Because that would involve championing people who are already moving through the world of their own accord… and those people are complicated poster-children for the inviolate nature of human dignity. Their life-stories are messy. They exist in specific contexts–of nationality, ethnicity, politics, personality, criminal record, education level, and geographical positioning. You can therefore easily get caught up in arguing over their respective worth in a way that the blank slate of a fetus will never approximate. You’re never going to find a criminal record or a bad Twitter history with an embryo.

Helping a human being outside the womb is thus, by far, the more difficult advocacy challenge. From the moment that a baby is no longer literally tethered to one other human being, it is developing stories all its own. And the older the human becomes, the more its stories gain in dimension and nuance.

Just like that, then, if you really care about other human beings, your job as an advocate becomes less to speak for others, and more to create space for others to speak for themselves. And that just won’t do for many politicians who prefer to use these blank slates (the “unborn”) to create a pool of intractably one-issue voters.

Oh, the Cynicism of Caesar!

I mean, you almost have to admire such political actors, the way you might admire an apex predator or a cancer cell for its efficiency. Abortion, after all, is a tremendously effective way to keep people voting against their interests, because as much as the exploited religious rhetoric suggests that ours is a sexually depraved world needing nothing more than a return of humility and fear for our eternal souls to reset the balance… the actual evidence points starkly in the opposite direction.

Yes, yes, marriage rates have fallen… among the lower working classes, tethering the institution of marriage significantly to pre-existing wealth stability. But also, a lack of marriage doesn’t intrinsically mean hedonism reigns. Quite the opposite! Sex rates have sharply dropped off in the developed world. Moreover, birth rates within marriage have markedly declined as well.

As such, no matter how much politicians try to employ religion to refigure social problems as problems of the flesh (with many religious institutions happy to go along with this gambit), we are not so much lustfully errant as economically overburdened.

The real cruelty, then, of so much political fixation on the supposed “genocide” of the “unborn” is how it permits higher-than-thou deflection from the wealth of concrete suffering that should be receiving our more immediate attention–not just unto itself, but also because fixing worldly desperation reduces the abortion rate in turn.

Abortion, after all, is nothing more than a consequence of unwanted pregnancies. Build a world in which pregnancies are not unwanted–not a punishment, not a socioeconomic and stigma-inducing nightmare, not caused by poor sex-ed and contraception-access among vulnerable youth–and the pressure on people with uteruses to make such a difficult decision diminishes. Abortion, in a more socioeconomically secure world, would simply be a matter for the most grievous cases of wanted but horrifically nonviable pregnancies, or pregnancies that risk the life of the parent.

It should be a no-brainer win-win, right? But it isn’t.

Thinking Outside the… Womb

Now, this isn’t to suggest that all religious organizations aren’t also trying to limit the number of landfill disasters, heinous building fires, and capsized boat incidents that we have to bear witness to as a society. Indeed, many do go to great lengths to try to elevate birthed human beings from situations more conducive to poor health, poverty, and housing and food insecurity. A rare few even do both: advocate for counterproductive anti-abortion legislation and try to improve the lot of birthed humans through aid that will actually help alleviate their suffering.

But among the many reasons that we humanists are by and large frustrated with the exploitation of religious fervour to advocate for the criminalization of abortion… is the fact that this approach to advocacy involves the imposition of stories on those who cannot speak for themselves.

Which is odd, right? I mean, by an Abrahamic anti-abortionist’s own logic (and a hefty cherry-picking of Jeremiah to the exclusion of pro-abortion discourse for the worst possible reasons throughout the Old Testament, as well as Christ’s own “woe to pregnant women” in his failed end-times prophecy), the “unborn” are already in conversation with their god. And that would still be true (to their beliefs) if all the unborn were to die before birth. So… they’re good, spiritually speaking! If human dignity simply lies in being recognized by their god, as many religious people believe, the (unborn) kids are all right.

However, the moment a child is born–viable preemie or otherwise–it enters into a different conversation. A plainly public and more human conversation.

And in this conversation, a child does not actually know a god unless adults tell them such a being exists… but they do know the sounds and smells and eventually faces (after a few weeks of working out detail and colour) of the people and places around them.

Which… for far too many human beings, means they’re immediately learning the sounds and smells and appearance of a landfill, too.

Or the underbelly of a refugee boat.

Or the dysentery-ridden wasteland of a refugee camp.

Or an urban-squatters’ residence, surrounded by the detritus of drug-addicted living.

And that’s a conversation about human worth that we all too often let this politicized issue steal from the public sphere.

Do We Advocate for Life as If Life Matters?

Simply put, every time people show up for anti-abortion rallies instead of anti-poverty rallies, they–at best–play into an exploitation of the most superficial forms of Christian fervour to shore up political corruption in Caesar’s realm.

And at worst, for those who have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into the belief that abortion is the most atrocious thing human beings do to other human beings? They shirk the demands of real stewardship in this, our shared and hurting world.

But we as compassionate humanists aren’t doing much better if we let the fight stay on their chosen territory. Because good grief, we know better.

We know–whether we arrive at our compassionate humanism from positions of faith or atheism–that the value of human life is a communicated property: on a day-to-day level with our neighbours; in the legal conversations that frame our geopolitical realities; and (if you’re a religious humanist) in conversation, too, with your notion of a creator.

By that metric, then, we need to stand strong against people who would try to navigate the conversation away from the central struggles for human dignity and worth in the 21st Century. Public figureheads, in particular, who would compel us to spend all our time protecting the last vestiges, say, of abortion rights in our developed world… in large part to keep us too busy to rally effectively against the underlying disease.

Because it’s not really about defending abortion rights, is it?

That’s secondary. That’s staunching a wound caused by a much deeper, much more debilitating social concern.

What really matters, what is desperately needed in our world of 7.7 billion human beings, is building a species-wide culture where no one need hesitate when answering the question, “What makes a life worth living?”

And right now, atheist or otherwise, one needn’t delve too deeply into the news to realize how bloody far we are from achieving that most humanist of aims.

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  • Anthrotheist

    Two things that occurred to me while reading. First is that pro-life politics is a perfect rhetorical device exactly because it invokes moral outrage without requiring economic expenditure. It is free to outlaw abortion, since those efforts do nothing to guarantee food, water, shelter, security, or healthcare to the woman that is carrying the fetus — the one that is supposedly too precious to kill, but no too precious to abandon to the perils of poverty. That brings me to a second point, also about economics, which makes me wonder to what degree we need to adjust the question, “Do We Advocate for Life as If Life Matters?” to something more like, “Do we demonstrate that we are willing to give up some of our comforts and pleasures in order to uphold the sanctity of life?” Asking “Do we need to improve the lives of people in the world?” is easier to answer than asking “Would you be willing to live more like the rest of the world does, so that the rest of the world can live more like you do?” The needs and comforts of all 7.7 billion people in the world could probably be met with our current technologies and methods, but not if everyone demands to live like we do in the West.

  • Because how do we as atheists–and the compassionate humanists especially among us–speak of life’s value without also being selective to the point of contradiction?

    I’ve thought a lot about this too. Particularly when it comes to abortion, we’ve decided to make it all about the ethics of a surgical procedure and ignore the cultural context of the matter entirely. We allow our society to bombard kids with sexual imagery and let every hack writing ad copy bait them with the promise of romance and acceptance, then we act surprised when teens end up pregnant. Women are portrayed as trophies or objects whose victimization can motivate male heroism, not as agents deserving autonomy. The very act of taking part in one of these when-does-the-fetus-become-human debates is making women’s bodies mere game boards for men’s rhetorical battles.

    You’re absolutely right about the fundie’s cheap moralism in idealizing the “innocent” fetus, and I agree with you that the atheist is being no less hypocritical. If the universe is truly our “cold home” and we’re just insignificant bags of biochemicals, what basis do we have for opposing oppression or slaughter other than personal distaste?

    It’s very difficult to analyze and critique the institutional practices that perpetuate poverty and inequity. It’s very easy to externalize blame by pretending that religion is the basis of all the world’s problems.

  • Lucy

    The thing is, we would need a restructuring of society to do that, so that people can, across the board, live comfortable lives, but with fewer resources per capita. Because if we asked that some people refrain from “living like us”, without such a restructuring, then what we are asking is for some people to be forever relegated to not having a comfortable life. And as for “living like us” as we do now, a lot of the things involved are based on standards that have nothing to do with comfort and everything to do with showing off status. We could do with getting rid of a lot of that stuff, having better public infrastructures so everyone doesn’t need a car, more use of renewable energy as opposed to non-renewable, and various other things that allow for comfort, but with fewer of the superficial trappings that help us “keep up with the Joneses” but do nothing to make lives more comfortable or in some cases actively reduce said comforts (of which there are a lot).

    And a good way to help with that, too, would be to have a system in every community in which not only books and visual media (as in a library like we have now) but tools and various other items that people normally don’t get much use out of (as well as certain toys the are often outgrown) can be borrowed, so everyone doesn’t have to buy an entire set of these things just to do simple projects around the house, or so Junior can try out a toy they might grow tired of in a little while. Because if those things are borrowed, consumption is drastically reduced but people still have access to these things without having to worry they are imposing on someone by asking to borrow these things. And that’s one way that would immediately reduce ecological footprints across the board, too, anywhere people are normally obliged to buy these things.

  • guerillasurgeon

    “Yes, absolutely, because every human is imbued with a soul by God Almighty!”
    Seems to me that many conservative Christians believe life matters in an intellectual way, but act as if it doesn’t. They tend to confine their empathy to people in their immediate circle. A classic case and I may have mentioned this before – is See Nuevo – who is banned on many blogs, but tolerated on the tippling philosopher and one or two Catholic blogs. When I asked hypothetically what policies he would like to see put in place to cope with the unwanted and unable to be cared for children produced by his advocacy of banning abortion and contraception, his answer was “Not my problem.”

    Many atheists, including myself to some extent believe that life doesn’t matter – in a very broad sense. But I act as if it does, because in my day-to-day life it does of course matter. So you donate to charities and to food banks and so on – all of which I’d much rather was done by society/government to be honest – creating a society where people don’t have to forage on rubbish tips to make a living. New Zealand was reasonably successful in having one of the societies from the 1930s until 1984. There was some poverty hidden away in the countryside, but on the whole we seemed to be better off. But neoliberals (because we don’t have much of the religious right) began chipping away at this stressing its inefficiencies. And people fell for it. The problem is of course that businesses need to be efficient, but government needs to be effective – and there is a distinct difference between the two. So not realising this or not caring about this as ladders down the garden path to the somewhat uncaring society we have today, where private charity is meant to take the place of much of what the government used to do. Which doesn’t work, can’t work, and has been known since the 16th century in England at least, not to work. But of course it’s a matter of faith rather than reason.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    which makes me wonder to what degree we need to adjust the question, “Do We Advocate for Life as If Life Matters?” to something more like, “Do we demonstrate that we are willing to give up some of our comforts and pleasures in order to uphold the sanctity of life?”

    Hah! I agree that the second would be one of MANY better and more precise questions–but even I would tremble before making that the headline for a post on Patheos. 😉

    Asking “Do we need to improve the lives of people in the world?” is easier to answer than asking “Would you be willing to live more like the rest of the world does, so that the rest of the world can live more like you do?” The needs and comforts of all 7.7 billion people in the world could probably be met with our current technologies and methods, but not if everyone demands to live like we do in the West.

    Thank you for reminding me that we’re at 7.7 now! Edited the original to reflect that–eesh!

    I live more like a non-Westerner every day… but that’s because I’m in Colombia. The problem with doing the same in North American urban centres especially is that even if individuals want to live differently (and many do!) the system as a whole needs to change, or the penalty for living like “the rest of the world” will be far more dire. Here, living with less… just makes sense. It fits with the cadence of my community. So the scale of the solution is much larger than individual efforts at reduced consumerism in the West (although certainly that can’t hurt!).

    Thanks for reading and writing, Anthrotheist!

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Oh, I should have read your comment before responding to Anthrotheist’s! Thanks Lucy–you outline precisely the sort of systemic and infrastructural transformations necessary to effect a genuine globally minded humanism. The effort can certainly involve individual initiatives and lifestyle changes to some extent, too, but especially in larger urban environments, we need more overarching cultural incentives to achieve our desired results.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Guerillasurgeon, your second paragraph is filled with the kind of insight that reflects a human being who has spent far too long articulating a series of thoroughly evidenced truths that never seem to translate into collective wisdom, let alone coherent public policy. I agree with every word therein–and quite a bit of the weary background sentiment that I suspect went into the writing of them, too. We’re an extraordinary species, aren’t we? But also, even in the face of the obvious, extraordinarily dunderheaded at times, too.

    Thanks so much for sharing your example, too, of the conservative Christian against abortion in theory but not in practice. I don’t remember if I’ve shared this example here yet or not, but I once had a discussion with an emphatically anti-abortion Catholic who, when presented with strong evidence that the path to actual abortion-rate reduction involved universal contraception access and comprehensive sex education in a cultural environment of non-criminalized abortion, responded with a sneering “How pragmatic!” … At which point it first clicked for me that, oh, many in these circles don’t actually give a damn about the efficacy of their anti-abortion policies; just the moral showmanship of being “against” abortion was enough.

    What a world, eh? Well, it does cheer me some to know I’m not alone in the futile struggle. Happy weekend, if you have one!

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    The very act of taking part in one of these when-does-the-fetus-become-human debates is making women’s bodies mere game boards for men’s rhetorical battles.

    It’s no different than any of the other battles many atheists permit, either, when they play into any outspoken theist’s provocations. We really have to stop letting the territory of our most critical debates be set by religious extremists… or our own extremists, the ones seeking to emulate and take the social power from religious extremists rather than eliminating that unhealthy form of cult status entirely.

    You’re absolutely right about the fundie’s cheap moralism in idealizing the “innocent” fetus, and I agree with you that the atheist is being no less hypocritical. If the universe is truly our “cold home” and we’re just insignificant bags of biochemicals, what basis do we have for opposing oppression or slaughter other than personal distaste? It’s very difficult to analyze and critique the institutional practices that perpetuate poverty and inequity. It’s very easy to externalize blame by pretending that religion is the basis of all the world’s problems.

    Bingo. I confess, Shem, that I truly look forward to the succinct and far more eloquent summaries you make of these essays. Your last two lines are bang-on regarding the point I wanted to make. Thanks for sharing them!

  • Lucy

    You’re welcome. And I figure that solutions like those are better than just suggesting “put your money with your mouth is and live more like people in poorer countries so they can live more like us” – for one thing, living poor doesn’t necessarily improve the lives of those in poorer countries (like, that happens in the Quiverfull movement, covered on No Longer Quivering and Love Joy Feminism a lot, where parents have a lot of kids and live in conditions approaching poor country poverty in the worst of ways, but with none of the community supports that you would find in the actual poor countries). And without concrete solutions, that sort of thing would only serve to guilt people into being quiet about these injustices, and that doesn’t help matters, either, especially since such problems really can’t be solved on an individual level.

    But some of these solutions are better, and would be things people here are more willing to accept – though some of them might require getting rid of homeowners’ associations and having zoning laws take care of any and all property issues – homeowners’ associations play a huge role in forcing people to accept features that focus on keeping up with the Joneses and “looking rich” while adding nothing to the comfort of one’s life and in some cases (as with huge drawing rooms that are harder to heat) taking it away. And also homeowners’ associations will forbid pro-environmental measures, which is another good reason for getting rid of them and having zoning laws take care of property issues while allowing environmentally friendly features, be they solar panels, gardens, rain barrels, or whatever.

  • Anthrotheist

    Just for context, I am in my 40’s and just completed my bachelor’s degree. I developed an interest in Anthropology. My step-daughter was part of a “Green Team” group in high school, and I tried to contextualize her experience a bit. Basically, like many things, waste management is a societal-level problem, not an individual-level one. Encouraging individuals to recycle will never address the essential problems of waste management for a large scale society; likewise, individual-level charity will never address the problem of global poverty.

    A world-wide ethos that refuses to permit the least empowered persons to struggle in impoverished squalor is both necessary, and almost entirely unimaginable. And that makes me weep in powerless frustration.

  • “Businesses need to be efficient, but government needs to be effective.”

    Well said! Thank you for pointing this out. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this expressed before, and I plan to use it in the future. I feel enlightened!

  • Jim Baerg

    A big part of the solutions is intelligent use of technology.
    The book ‘Prescription for the Planet’ tells about 3 technologies that could greatly help give everyone a decent life without trashing the planet.
    The pdf version can be downloaded for free from a few websites. Google it.
    One of the technologies is the ‘plasma torch’ which can turn trash into useful stuff without requiring the cheap (near slave) labor of people like those who died in the trash dump slide.
    A second is a variety of nuclear reactor to provide cheap electricity.
    The third is the use of boron as recyclable fuel. While the 1st two look ready to use, this one needs some R&D to determine whether it is really workable.

  • GW1: This is a provocative article. I like it.

    MLC1: Are you trying to say that those lives don’t have equal value?

    GW1: Not necessarily. They may or may not have equal value. Value for what? But we can’t save every life. The task is too great.

    MLC1: Meanwhile, when religious groups rally around the cause, say, of making abortion illegal, they often employ the rhetoric of valuing each and every human being. They claim that every life is precious. Every life a gift.

    GW1: Every human living organism is not a person, and these religious people extend the circle of caring too far. Every life is neither precious nor a gift.

    MLC1: From the moment that a baby is no longer literally tethered to one other human being, it is developing stories all its own.

    GW1: Actually it is developing stories before the tethering ends. This begins when consciousness begins, around the 24th week post conception.

    MLC1: Because it’s not really about defending abortion rights, is it?

    GW1: It really is PARTLY about defending abortion rights, isn’t it? In a world which is vastly overpopulated and troubled and in a world in which people unready, unprepared, or unwilling to be parents still produce pregnancies and babies, the defense of abortion rights is really important. Please don’t minimize this.

  • I think we agree that the serious problems of the world cannot be solved with charitable giving or volunteering.

  • “The very act of taking part in one of these when-does-the-fetus-become-human debates is making women’s bodies mere game boards for men’s rhetorical battles.”

    The zygote, embryo, and fetus are always human. There’s no debate about that. The debate is about when the ZEF becomes a person. Women’s bodies are not game boards. The debates aren’t rhetorical battles. These are serious discussions which you seem to be oblivious to.

  • guerillasurgeon

    Don’t thank me, thank 52.241 – Government Administration. I’d never considered it before then, but there were several examples given in one of the journal articles I read some years ago about someone being efficient but not effective. Every so often one of the courses I do to keep myself from going senile comes in handy. 🙂

  • San_Ban

    “The zygote, embryo, and fetus are always human.” Aw, poor Gary! Wrong again! Every sexually reproductive animal has a zygote stage. Most plants and all animals have an embryonic stage, and all vertebrates have a fetal stage.

  • San_Ban

    “Actually [the fetus] is developing stories before the tethering ends. This begins when consciousness begins, around the 24th week post conception.” Fetal medicine specialists dispute your claim. The structures that would permit such consciousness only develop several weeks later in the third trimester, and the fetus remains in an anesthetised state right up until birth.

  • Aw, poor San Ban, wrong again! You have not been following the discussion. If you had, you would see that we have only been discussing the human organism.

  • GW1: “Actually [the fetus] is developing stories before the tethering ends. This begins when consciousness begins, around the 24th week post conception.”

    SB2: Fetal medicine specialists dispute your claim.

    GW2: Evidence?

    SB2: The structures that would permit such consciousness only develop several weeks later in the third trimester, and the fetus remains in an anesthetised state right up until birth.

    GW2: This claim is almost certainly false. For relevant references, please read my article here:
    https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/how-science-might-inform-personhood-abortion-rights/

  • San_Ban

    You what you meant was “the human zygote, embryo, and fetus are always human.” Why make such a redundant statement? Ah, you think “are human” means exactly the same as “have (claims to) humanity” but you’re wrong. Otherwise, anything that could be described with the adjective “human” could be said to “have humanity” — one could say “human excrement has humanity” or “human fingernails have humanity” or “human parasites have humanity” or “human tumours have humanity.” Silly Gary!

  • Silly, San Ban. We are talking about human DNA. If you had been following the discussion, you would know this.

    Do you have anything relevant to say about the original essay?

  • San_Ban

    “We are talking about human DNA.” So human excrement, human fingernails, and human tumors also have humanity? You’re setting the bar for humanity pretty damn low! I’m sure even you have much more claims to humanity than my shit.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Thanks for writing, Gary!

    I contemplated that story-begins-after-birth bit awhile, and decided on it because of the actual /boundaries/ of self that emerge with birth. I don’t doubt that a third-trimester human is conscious–they recognize distinct languages even in the womb!–but I suppose I’m a touch Lacanian in this regard: the self and the need for /language/ about the self begins with the recognition of /other/… and a human still in the womb does not yet have any means of recognizing /other/.

    Also, what I was pointing to with “it’s not really about defending abortion rights” is that when we’re arguing about abortion rights we’re already arguing in the secondary realm–a world in which abortion is frequent because the underlying conditions that make for unwanted pregnancies still exist in staggering abundance. We would have to argue /less/ for abortion if we as a culture valued preventing unwanted pregnancies /more/.

    But I wholeheartedly appreciate your thoughtful and measured responses. I was, as you might imagine, a little apprehensive about posting on this theme. Cheers, and all best wishes.

  • MLC2: Thanks for writing, Gary!

    GW2: You are welcome.

    MLC2: I contemplated that story-begins-after-birth bit awhile, and decided on it because of the actual /boundaries/ of self that emerge with birth. I don’t doubt that a third-trimester human is conscious–they recognize distinct languages even in the womb!–but I suppose I’m a touch Lacanian in this regard: the self and the need for /language/ about the self begins with the recognition of /other/… and a human still in the womb does not yet have any means of recognizing /other/.

    GW2: It depends on how we define “story.” In my view, although a story requires concepts in sequence, it doesn’t require words. I believe that in the third trimester the fetus begins to have concepts in sequence and thus primitive or immature stories.

    MLC2: Also, what I was pointing to with “it’s not really about defending abortion rights” is that when we’re arguing about abortion rights we’re already arguing in the secondary realm–a world in which abortion is frequent because the underlying conditions that make for unwanted pregnancies still exist in staggering abundance. We would have to argue /less/ for abortion if we as a culture valued preventing unwanted pregnancies /more/.

    GW2: I certainly agree with your idea of preventing unwanted pregnancies, but I thought your particular comment “it’s not really about” was quite odd and a little misleading.

    MLC2: But I wholeheartedly appreciate your thoughtful and measured responses. I was, as you might imagine, a little apprehensive about posting on this theme. Cheers, and all best wishes.

    GW2: Overall, I appreciated your essay. Thanks for writing it.

  • I’d been vaguely puzzled about the difference between a womb & a uterus for years but kept forgetting to look it up until now. In case anybody else is curious, the distinction is that a uterus is a physical structure (like a house) and a womb is the role it can play (like a home).

    I like your analogy about banning abortion being aking to treating the symptom instead of the disease; rather like prescribing only painkillers to a patient with appendicitis.

  • Those aren’t mutually exclusive though, nor are they entirely sufficient in the absence of the other!

  • The generalization of borrowing from just books to most infrequently used items is already starting to happen. Think of AirBnB & Uber as the most visible vanguards of this movement.

    But I’m not convinced it’s practical to create a world without status games, since humans are too hardwired to seek status. What may work is to find a better way to seek status that isn’t rooted in material hoarding.

  • Zoning laws have their own problems though; limiting the growth of housing supply being the primary one.

  • Yes, living more efficiently is (at least partially) a coordination problem. It therefore requires government orchestration to solve it.

  • Using even the safe Thorium nuclear reactors to displace the far more dangerous coal as the primary source of energy hinges on an electorate capable of getting past its own cognitive biases. I.e. we’re doomed.

  • I can see how it may come off as a false binary, but it isn’t actually stated as a binary. I agree that each needs to keep both principles in mind, but government more than business may have to accept inefficiencies in order to get the job done, and businesses may have to accept that there are some things they can’t accomplish because they’re too inefficient and thus money-losers. Of course they can, and do, engage in money losing projects for the greater good and for the resulting goodwill.

    If I’m reading you right, we are in agreement.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Oh, that’s a good corrolary. I might use that one myself, thanks!

    Are you back from vacation now? I was holding off on a response to your two emails, but this slew of posts seems to suggest a happy and successful return from your first grand family adventure with the two sprogs!

  • We are.