A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 13

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 13 July 8, 2015

This is part 13 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.

Hi Andrew,

Thanks again for your hospitality when I came to visit Indianapolis earlier this month! I relished the opportunity to go (metaphorically) into the lions’ den and speak to some Christian audiences together with you. I got the impression that neither of us were precisely what the audiences were expecting, which is great! I think debates and conversations both are more interesting when they present an unusual blend of ideas and aren’t just two people reciting talking points at each other.

To return (briefly!) to the subject of abortion:

Let’s assume, with these technology advances, that viability is now 5 weeks…. this highlights the issue with viability put forth in Roe vs. Wade. To take a line from Sagan/Druyan, “a morality that depends on, and changes with, technology is a fragile morality; for some, it is also an unacceptable morality.” If viability is a moving target, a more robust personhood criteria is needed.

Yep, I agree with that. Actually, your thought experiment of super-advanced incubators approaches, from the other direction, a case that already exists today: surplus fertilized embryos produced by IVF that can be kept frozen and viable indefinitely. If a couple chooses to implant just one of these embryos and discards the rest, are they acting immorally? Do women have a duty to implant and carry to term every single embryo that an IVF cycle produces?

I’d say no, and this tracks with my position on abortion. Regardless of what technological advances do to change the point of viability, it’s consciousness, or the capacity thereof, that matters when looking at moral status. There may be marginal cases where it’s hard to judge how much consciousness is present (which goes back to what I said last time about the law having to draw sharp lines even when nature doesn’t), but the evidence is unequivocal that a single-celled zygote in a petri dish doesn’t and can’t have the moral standing of a person. The brain architecture that makes consciousness possible just doesn’t exist at that stage, or at the early stages of pregnancy in general.

On the topic of pain, I believe we should always strive not to inflict needless suffering. That said, I have grave doubts about “fetal pain” claims, which often emanate from anti-abortion politicians and pressure groups rather than scientists. The medical evidence suggests that perception of pain is highly unlikely before the third trimester at least. This is about the same time as the onset of consciousness, which isn’t a coincidence. In any case, I believe, that still doesn’t overrule the right of people to control their own bodies and make their own choices about whether to become parents.

There’s something else that I think, judging by your post, we can agree on: whatever the morality of abortion, attempting to ban it outright would require an intrusive police state on a scale we can hardly imagine. I mentioned El Salvador’s forensic vagina inspectors last time. Another method was Communist Romania’s Decree 770, which required women to submit to mandatory state-administered pregnancy tests every month. These appalling violations of personal liberty, combined with the certainty that it would vastly increase the number of women who die from illegal self-abortions, mean that an abortion ban would do far more harm than good even if you believe that abortion is morally wrong.

Since I think we’ve been over this ground pretty thoroughly, I propose we broaden our focus to a larger arena, which is health care. Do you think the government has a role to play in providing and/or paying for health care for its people? How much of a role?

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think the purpose of government is to do for all of us, collectively, what we can’t do for ourselves, individually. Police and military defense fall into this category, and I’d argue, so too does the social safety net, of which national health insurance is a key component. If it’s proper for government to defend us against crime and external enemies, how can it be any less legitimate to protect us against death from disease or starvation? The latter are threats as surely as the former. (What could be more “pro-life” than helping people get access to medicine they need?)

As a matter of cold logistics, I don’t know if we can afford to provide fully for every medical treatment that everyone needs or might want. But America is the richest, most advanced country in the world, and I think it’s indisputable that we can afford to at least guarantee the basics – so that no one has to forsake routine medical care, and no one has to suffer or die from ailments that can easily be treated. Considering that national health care is the norm in virtually every other industrialized society (with both lower costs and better outcomes than ours in most cases), it’s unconscionable how long America refused to act on this problem, and it’s even more unconscionable how bitterly and how long some social conservatives and others fought to prevent the only real legislative solution we’ve had in decades.

I’ve written about Obamacare elsewhere. I think it’s an imperfect solution, full of awkward compromises designed to accommodate the vested interests that had a stake in the system as it was, and unlikely to achieve the ideal of truly universal coverage even in the best case. But compared to the baseline scenario of doing nothing, it’s a vast improvement. I have friends with chronic illnesses who’ve faced the threat of bankruptcy and homelessness from medical bills despite having insurance; people whose well-being was dependent in a very real and immediate sense on the law’s being upheld. Anything that helps people like this makes us a more decent and humane society, and as a humanist, that’s something I’m all for!

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