28 June 2022

The wrong question (or: why the abortion debate may never end)

 I've covered this a couple times before, but it was many years ago, and now is a primetime for a reminder.

The debate over abortion is one of those things to which the correct answer seems mind-bogglingly obvious to everyone - regardless of what their opinion actually is - as well as seeming utterly horrifying that anyone would have a different opinion.

Every time that happens, it's worth taking a step back and searching for the tribalism factor, because its likely there somewhere.  In this case it manifests in one of its more common forms: assuming the motivations, (the "real" motivations), of the other side are something other than what they state, something nefarious, something sneaky.  The assumption is that any reasoning the other side - the bad guys - give is really just an excuse for what amounts to essentially evil for the sake of evil.

When 130 million people disagree with what you think is obviously correct, its worth remembering that nearly everyone considers themselves to be the good guy, everyone imagines themselves to be the hero of their own story.  There are, granted, a fair number of sociopaths in the world - estimates order as much as 1-4% - but that isn't nearly enough to account for the number of people who hold strongly held and opposite views.

The reality is, anti-abortionists are not against abortion as a way to oppress women.  That view doesn't even make any sense.  "The patriarchy" doesn't actually benefit in any way from people having unwanted children, and the whole point of oppression is to derive some form of selfish benefit at someone else's expense.  In fact, nearly half of all anti-abortionists (47%) ARE women - some 60 million of them, give or take.

To be clear: abortion should absolutely be legal.  The debate over exactly when it should stop being legal is a perfectly reasonable debate, with not only no clear cut right answer, but probably no possible right answer, but everything we know about the human brain says that what makes someone sentient and conscious and a "person" is all a manifestation of the materials and patterns in the physical brain, and everything we know about the development process of an embryo says without question that a zygote and a blastocyst don't have one, and an embryo still doesn't in any meaningful sense of the word.  Not until at an absolute minimum of 20 weeks from conception is there enough of a brain and enough brain activity for it to be even remotely possible that it has any meaningful consciousness.

That said, if the goal is to create a society where believing abortion should be illegal is a rare view, it is worth trying to understand the millions of people who hold it, rather than just demonizing them. In that light, it is absolutely vital to point out that it is the anti-abortionists, and not the pro-choice movement, that are actually making any relevant points. 

Not correct points, mind you - they get the answers to the question completely wrong - but they are at least addressing the correct question.  The pro-choice people rarely even address the only relevant issue.
That is true all the way down to the word "pro-choice" itself.  Nobody on the religious right is suggesting that doctors or politicians or male partners or anybody else should have the right to make the choice to force a woman to have an abortion.  It isn't about whether the pregnant woman chooses instead of anyone else.  Nor is the liberal left suggesting that we live in a society of anarchy, where anyone can choose to do anything they want without consequence.  The concept of "choice" is a strawman.

At the core of the debate is just one basic question:
At what point does a developing fetus become "human".
There are only two moments where one can draw a hard and exact line: conception and birth.

Almost everyone agrees that having an abortion during labor is not morally acceptable (with possible exception for saving the life of the mother).
That fact alone undermines nearly all of the arguments pro-choice people make, and underscores the relevance of the arguments pro-lifers make.
We feel intuitively that murdering a pregnant woman is worse than murdering someone who isn't pregnant.  Would be parents mourn late miscarriages.  By 12 weeks the image on an ultrasound looks like a baby, and the common language people use - 'how is the baby doing?' - reflects that.

But the fact that we all agree birth isn't the defining moment does not tell us when that moment is.

According to anti-abortionists, that critical moment is conception.
As stated above, there is absolutely no scientific validity to this view.

What that leaves is a messy, impossible-to-define-precisely somewhere-in-between moment - which is in fact where the opinion of a majority of Americans as well as a majority of state laws put it.

But in order to fight the extreme view that a blastocyst is "human" at the instant a sperm joins an egg, we need arguments that are actually relevant to the beliefs anti-abortionists have, and in order to do that we need to not just demonize them, but actually understand them.

This is not at all hard to do, if we are honest with ourselves.

Just imagine that you believed that humans have a "soul", that individuality and perception and personhood resides not in the brain, but in this "soul", and that it is injected directly into the ball of cells that will eventually become you by God himself (or herself, or fate, or whatever) at the moment the process of creating you gets started.

As crazy as this idea is, it is still incredibly common.  There are few if any religions that don't hold consciousness as something other than a manifestation of a physical brain.  To believe in any form of afterlife, be it heaven or hell, nirvana, rebirth, reincarnation, requires that there be something that makes up us other than our physical body and the patterns in our brains.  Any form of "we are all connected", any spirituality, requires there to be more to existence than just the tangible physical that we can observe and measure.  Depending on the study, anywhere in the range of 60% to 97% of all Americans believe something somewhere along the lines of a God, or an 'essence' or whatever. As obsolete as this view is, it's common, and if there are gods, or spirits, or if everything is connected by some cosmic energy - if there is anything beyond the physical world we can quantify, it is no more of a stretch to say that conscious life is something other than an arrangement of atoms in a brain, and if so, there's no rational argument that can be made that the soul isn't injected as soon as one's chromosomes are settled on and cells start dividing and differentiating.  

So, lets give them the benefit of the doubt, and consider how our own arguments sound if we assume that "fetus" and "person" really are interchangeable.  

Nobody really thinks that a conjoined twin should have the moral and legal right to non-consensually surgically remove their other twin if it means certain death for the one removed, if both of them are fully conscious individuals with their own independent, fully functioning brains.
Which means we don't actually think being physically connected to one's body is the deciding factor.

In fact, we don't even need such an extreme (yet entirely realistic, albeit rare) example - we consider parents to be legally and morally responsible for the wellbeing of their children.  While they may not be physically attached to us, they are dependant on us taking certain proactive steps to keep them from dying.  We have to use our bodies in such a way as to ensure they are fed and temperature regulated and safe.  An expectation that everyone has full bodily autonomy would mean that a parent could spend stick their newborn infant in a closet and spend their time doing whatever they felt like.  We are obligated to do specific actions, with body parts like arms and legs, and that means we don't actually have complete control over what we do mean we don't have complete choice over what we do with our bodies. More specifically, there is an expectation of doing a specific and intimate thing with the body - breast feeding. Infant formula has been around 150 years.  Humans have been around without it for roughly  199,850 years, about 99.93% of our existence. The current baby formula shortage underscores that formula is an artificial and recent creation of a technologically advanced and wealthy society, and in leu of it the only option, since human beings are mammals, is that our offspring drink their mother's milk. 

Even if one wants to relinquish parental rights, at a minimum there is still a moral and legal obligation to take proactive steps to ensure the child ends up somewhere safe with another adult who will take responsibility for them.  One may have amnesty from prosecution if they leave their baby at a hospital or with social services.  Leave a baby by the side of the road, and you'll end up in jail.

The expectation that a person take steps to endure the health and well being of their baby isn't negated if that baby was unintended, even if it was the product of rape or incest. How it was created is not the fault of the child. 

In more ordinary circumstances, it would not be all that outrageous for someone to say something along the lines of "if you didn't want to have to change dirty diapers, you probably shouldn't have had a kid".

Because we understand that an embryo and a baby are quantitatively different things - one is conscious, one is not - that argument sounds totally different than one that says "if you didn't want to have a baby, you shouldn't have gotten pregnant". But if you think that what makes a person who they are is not their brain, but some sort of mystical "soul", and that God implants the soul upon the beginning of the process of development, those two points are exactly the same.


Consider what it would look like if the motivations we ascribe to anti-abortionists were actually true.
If the purpose were really males trying to exert power over females, why wouldn't we just go all the way, and make it law that all women must submit to all demands made by any male, sexual or otherwise, at all times and in all circumstances?  Why not just legalize not just spousal rape, but all rape, make sex a free-for-all, take what you can get without consequence?  The reason this isn't a proposal, here, or anywhere, now, or ever, is because there is not and never has been a society whose primary objective was to oppress all females for its own sake.  Strategies for dealing with the reality of biology and reproduction vary widely, but in every society females are at least half the population, and are a part of deciding the rules that everyone lives by.  The goal is always a stable, successful society that continues to exist generation to generation (and I'll get more into detail on that in a future post...)

If the purpose was to punish people for having sex, the focus wouldn't be on abortion, it would be on banning all forms of birth control and overturning Lawrence v Texas and Griswold v. Connecticut, (re)outlawing adultery and fornication.  There would be a push to raise the age of consent to 21, making all porn illegal, and perhaps a call for head-to-toe clothing at all times in public.  While the religious right has never been a fan of recreational sexuality, none of these things have anywhere remotely near the movement behind them as the anti-abortion one does.

If the purpose was to encourage or force fertility, so that humans (or perhaps a particular race?) can "populate the earth", and "go forth and multiply", their would be a campaign to make it a crime to not have children continuously.  There could be tax penalties for not having a child, starting at 19, and increasing in every year a couple doesn't have either a baby 2 years old or less, or a pregnant female partner. Abstinence would be a crime. 

The fact that no one holds a funeral every month for the egg and the millions of sperm that didn't become a blastocyst shows that the issue isn't the loss of a  potential human.

The reason all of the above ideas are ridiculous yet there are still nearly 150 million anti-abortionists is because they aren't lamenting the loss of a "potential" human.  In their minds, they are lamenting the loss of an actual human.

To them, arguments about choice, or about women's freedom or bodies, all ring totally hollow, because talking about the freedom to end a "life" is no different than claiming a mother should have the freedom to neglect their newborn until it dies. Similarly, no one would suggest that a woman should have the choice to leave an infant in a closet to starve even if it is the product of rape or incest.

If we make the assumption that a fetus is a human, none of the arguments made by the pro-choice movement sound the least bit reasonable.  
If, on the other hand, we make the assumption that a fetus is unquestionably not a human, than the same arguments are simply unnecessary.  Either way, they aren't relevant.

So if the anti-abortionists are the ones asking the right question, but they are getting the answer wrong, how do we help society get the answer right?

Well, to start with, we should be actually listening to them.  Instead of just shouting them down and drowning them out with slogans and catch phrases of our own, assuming that everything they claim to believe is a lie and a trick, actually listen to what they are saying and try to understand it.  If we don't start off with the mindset that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys, it really isn't at all hard to understand and even sympathize with.  And then, instead of repeating all the specific reasons it is practical and ideal for individuals to be able to get safe abortions,  just address the points they make.
Shift the focus away from "freedom" and "choice" and "oppression" - topics American's are obsessed with but which aren't at all convincing when used to justify harmful outcomes (no more than when the same arguments are made by the right regarding gun control); and bring the focus onto the science.  God, if there is one, created humans with brains.  Whether it was God or evolution or aliens or the programmers of our simulation, whatever designed us, it was with a physical brain with billions of neurons and trillions of connections with incredibly complex patterns, with chemical and electrical energy flowing through it in their own complex patterns.  
This has been shown very conclusively and consistently, from the case of Phineas P. Gage to the examples of Oliver Sacks, and nearly 100 years of increasingly sophisticated brain surgery, from lobotomy to deep brain stimulation and focused ultrasound.  
Change the brain, change the person. 
No brain, no person.

Maybe we should stop allowing people to teach impressionable young children ridiculous ancient mythologies as though they were factual histories, and relegate religion to where it belongs, a subject of anthropological study.  At least, start calling them out on the ridiculousness, the absurdity, of believing in "the Bible" in 2022.  Point out the emperor has no clothes, it gets harder for everyone else to keep ignoring it, and all the people who secretly held the same opinion can start admitting it.  Once we're done with Noah's flood and Sodom and Gomorrah and pillars of salt and rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, then we can all settle down to the hard science question of when exactly does the brain make the transition from random noise to conscious thought, and perhaps endlessly debate the subtleties of that question, but with far less at stake.