?

Log in

No account? Create an account
"Life Begins at Conception" and Other Meaningless Crap - Mo's Journal
June 19th, 2009
10:04 am

[Link]

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
"Life Begins at Conception" and Other Meaningless Crap
I really like both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. I think they're funny and have a lot of core truths in them. I also love the guests, particularly the writers. Those two and NPR are my main non-print sources for learning about interesting books.

I watched last night's Daily Show this morning. Jon Stewart was interviewing Mike Huckabee, and they had agreed to debate abortion rights. I found the whole thing really frustrating to watch. Huckabee said that he felt that his "right to life" position came from a belief that every human life has value, and that every human being should be protected, "just like you and me." He said that abortion starts us down the slippery slope where it's okay to kill the elderly and infirm if they're inconvenient and expensive to their children or society.

Stewart - as the supposed champion of reproductive rights - pointed out that the elderly "don't live in our bodies" and went on a bit about the best way to reduce abortion being to make contraception more available, etc. But, as is so often the case, he seemed to share Huckabee's belief that abortion is a terrible thing, that a fertilized ovum is a child, and that as such should have some rights. He seemed to only be arguing that the right of a woman to bodily integrity and reproductive choice should - under some circumstances - trump the rights of the fetus.

How did we get to this point? Why is it that even those who claim to be in support of abortion rights seem to accept the whole "life begins at conception" crap? And it is crap. Well, it's either tautology or crap. If by "human life begins at conception" you mean, "If a human ovum is fertilized and if it implants and if the pregnancy continues and if a live human baby is born, then that baby can be said to have begun with its conception" then it's true, but meaninglessly tautological. You could easily go back further and say that that baby began with the production of sperm and the release of the egg. Or further back and say the baby began with the birth of its parents, or grandparents... It's a meaningless and arbitrary point to assign the beginning of life, but it's harmless if that's all it is.

But it's not all it is and it's not harmless. What the anti-abortion crowd means when they say "life begins at conception" is what Huckabee said last night, that the zygote requires the same protection as "you and me" - that a fertilized egg is to be considered fully human and anything that could harm it must be stopped. But does he really believe that? Does anyone? Half of all fertilized ova never even implant. That's a whole lot more "dead babies" than abortion is causing. Why isn't he out there trying to stop this wholesale slaughter? Because it would be ridiculous to try. Sometimes conception results in pregnancy and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes pregnancy results in a baby and sometimes it doesn't. Do we consider all of those "deaths"? No, of course not.

The idea that "life begins at conception" in the anti-abortion sense is a relatively new one. The Catholic Church first decided that the human soul enters at conception in 1869, and the concept has spread from there to the fundamentalist Protestant denominations that are so strong on denying women reproductive rights, as well. Which is not to say that the church thought it was okay to have an abortion before that. No, abortion was always prohibited by the Catholic Church, but the fetus wasn't considered human until "quickening." Abortion was prohibited just as other methods of controlling fertility were - because they interfere with "God's plan." This is the same rationale by which the Catholic Church orders women whose husbands have HIV to have unprotected sex with them. If God wants them to die, they die. If God wants them to have a baby, they have a baby. Now personally I think it's nothing to do with God and everything to do with controlling women's sexuality and enforcing gender roles, but their stated rationale is a spiritual one.

The vast majority of Americans rightly dismiss the idea that contraception should be forbidden because it violates God's plan. Surveys show that approximately 95% of American Catholics practice birth control. And women of all religions and orientations have come, through the efforts of second wave feminism, to learn to value our sexuality and its expression for itself. People have always had sex outside of marriage, and will continue to do so. The churches aren't winning that one.

So why is it that so many people - politically progressive people, sexually enlightened people - still seem to view abortion as evil? A necessary evil, perhaps, but they are swallowing - without even realizing they are, without even thinking about it - that "life begins at conception" crap. A whole lot of them are parents. You'd think that being a parent - knowing what it's like to have a real baby - would bring into sharp relief the difference between a baby and fertilized ovum. And for some it does. But for others, it goes the other way, because they do feel that their children were babies in some cosmic sense, in some spiritual sense, long before they were born.

I know that feeling. I suffered through years of infertility and definitely felt when I was pregnant that now there was a baby inside of me. But yk, I felt that when I thought I was pregnant and turned out not to be, as well. It wasn't about the reality of what was going on in my body. It was about the hope and sadness and longing in my heart. My children's lives began at conception, nay before. They were conceived of in my mind and that of their other mother well before they were conceived and loved from that moment to this day.

To the individual who really wants a baby, that fertilized ovum is very much a baby. A miscarriage can certainly feel like a death. And if they've been trying for a long time, even the loss of a biochemical pregnancy feels like the loss of your child. BTDT. But you know, that's about your feelings - it's not about reality. I know women who had a condition called "blighted ovum" where they were pregnant without conception. The body mistakenly thought there was a conception, an unfertilized egg implanted, they had a pregnancy of a few weeks. And then of course they miscarried, because it could not grow into a baby. Is that miscarriage less of a loss than one where there was an actual embryo? No, of course not. It's about how you feel, not about what's happening, and certainly not about who should have rights.

And that's where Jon Stewart - and many like him - gets it wrong. He said that because he has kids, because he saw them on ultrasound, he feels like they were people when they were conceived. And his feelings need to be respected. But he needs - we all need - to not impose those feelings on public policy. I think Stewart gets that - he does say he's pro-choice. But what he doesn't get, what the "safe, legal and rare" folks in general don't get, is that feelings aren't biological reality. They may be spiritual reality; it's fine if they're theological reality. But in a religiously pluralistic society, we should not be imposing our theological reality on others' physical bodies.

The problem isn't a conflict between rights of babies and mothers. The problem is that too many of us have lost sight of the fact that this





isn't this.


(18 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
[User Picture]
From:executrix
Date:June 19th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
(Link)
One of my first published articles suggested that what we really need to do is get moving on better methods of fetus transplant so any woman who is pregnant and doesn't want to be can make sure that a random right-to-lifer gets forcibly implanted with the embryo.

At the other end of the age scale, I'm disturbed that we really focus our medical attentions on people who can't benefit from them anymore (as it said in the NYTimes a couple of weeks ago, why do they nail down coffin lids? So the doctors won't say "let's try one more round of chemo".) I wish that we put more effort into, say, finding little old ladies who need cataract surgery or knee replacements or day care and providing them with services instead of making sure they spend their last weeks in a coma in the ICU having every possible treatment performed.

All too often, the "pro-life" case boils down to favoring the alternative that maximizes instead of minimizes suffering.
[User Picture]
From:executrix
Date:June 19th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
(Link)
ETA: also, originally US laws forbidding abortion were passed pre-asepsis, so the reason for outlawing abortion was the degree of danger to the mother, not the status of the conceptus as human.
[User Picture]
From:ringthebells
Date:June 19th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
(Link)
That's interesting; I didn't know that!
[User Picture]
From:ringthebells
Date:June 19th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
(Link)
So why is it that so many people - politically progressive people, sexually enlightened people - still seem to view abortion as evil? A necessary evil, perhaps, but they are swallowing - without even realizing they are, without even thinking about it - that "life begins at conception" crap.

I have a theory about that!

Well, okay, it's not actually my theory, it's Richard Dawkins', but I've been mulling it over since reading The Ancestor's Tale a couple of weeks ago.

The book is about evolutionary biology. At one point Dawkins talks (with examples) about how the idea that animals can be completely separated into disjoint "species" is actually just an illusion brought about by the fact that most of the intermediates (between species) are dead. There are a few examples of living types of animals, called "ring species," where animal A can mate with animal B and animal B can mate with animal C but animal C can't mate with animal A. (I oversimplify, of course; see The Salamander's Tale in The Ancestor's Tale, if you're sufficiently curious and can get ahold of a copy.)

Dawkins characterizes the mindset that animals must be separable into disjoint species as "discontinuous thinking" and goes on to say:

"Exactly the same limitation of thought hamstrings the endless debates about exactly when in the development of an embryo it becomes human (and when, by implication, abortion should be regarded as tantamount to murder). It is no use saying to these people that, depending upon the human characteristic that interests you, a foetus can be 'half human' or 'a hundredth human.' 'Human', to the qualitative, absolutist mind, is like 'diamond'. There are no halfway houses." (Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale, pages 312 - 313.)

So, I think he's right, and I think this may provide the answer to your question.

We start with the (probably unconscious) assumption that human life must start at some distinct moment. In a certain legal sense, that moment is birth, but I don't think that there are many (or any?) pro-choice folks who would say it's okay to abort a healthy fetus at 39 weeks gestation.

But if we don't draw the line at birth, where do we draw it? How can we pick some number of weeks (days, hours) of gestation and say "Okay, up to week 23 it's not human but from week 24 on, it is"?

Well, we really can't—it doesn't make sense. (One could argue that we should draw the line at the point of earliest viability outside the womb, I guess, but medical technology keeps pushing that line back.)

Facing that dilemma, I think people tend to grasp at the one really obvious moment of discrete change from one state to another: conception.

And I think that what we've got to do is admit that there is not an exact moment when the entity that starts as a fertilized ovum and ends up as a grinning baby becomes human. It's gradual.

And then we have to pick a point during gestation at which we can collectively say "Okay, we're comfortable declaring that at this point the fetus is still sufficiently not-human that killing it is not murder," and that'll be the upper limit for abortion. And that point will be no more or less arbitrary than the driving age or the voting age. We gotta draw the line somewhere, y'know? (Or maybe it'll be more than one different point depending on circumstances—I don't know, I'm not an expert on abortion ethics!)


[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:June 19th, 2009 06:38 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Well, personally I draw the line at birth. I think it's an arbitrary line, but so is conception. And I don't agree with you that conception is a really obvious moment. For one thing, you don't know when it happens. For another, there's that thing about half of those conceptions never actually turning into a pregnancy. If anything is "obvious" it's live birth. You can't miss it.

My concern with viability as the demarcation point is not that it changes, but that it's basically meaningless. What does it mean to say that a 24-week fetus is viable? That there have been some people born at 24 weeks who have survived. But no one's deciding between aborting the pregnancy or giving birth to a living, damaged, possibly able to live with a lot of medical intervention baby at 24 weeks. That's not the choice for any pregnancy and no one *wants* to have a 24-week baby. If you want a baby and you go into labor at 24 weeks, you try to stop it! So I just don't see viability as a reasonable line to draw.

Personally, I think the whole anti-abortion movement is all about sex, about controlling women's sexual behavior. And that's why they make this unseen, unknown until much later moment the point at which the soul enters the body (body that doesn't yet exist). Because for the vast majority of people it happens with sex, so controlling it lets you control sex.
[User Picture]
From:brak666
Date:June 19th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Personally, I think the whole anti-abortion movement is all about sex, about controlling women's sexual behavior. And that's why they make this unseen, unknown until much later moment the point at which the soul enters the body (body that doesn't yet exist). Because for the vast majority of people it happens with sex, so controlling it lets you control sex.

I honestly don't think it's that complex or malicious. It's a very simple mindset. Abortion kills babies. Killing babies is wrong. Ergo abortion is wrong. I don't imagine many of the people with strong views against abortion have actually given a lot of thought to its effects on women's sexual expression.
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:June 19th, 2009 07:24 pm (UTC)
(Link)
There are a few problems with that view:

- most of the anti-abortion forces are also anti-contraception and in favor of abstinence-only education
- no one thinks of all those zygotes that never implant as dead babies
- there's huge support, even among those who consider themselves "pro life" for exceptions in the case of incest and rape. Yet none of those people would think it was okay to kill an actual baby who was conceived through incest or rape
From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 20th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)
(Link)
This makes sense to me!
[User Picture]
From:marag
Date:June 19th, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC)
(Link)
For the record, if life begins at conception, then Barak should get his driver's license at age 12. I'm just sayin'...

My father and I want to know where Barak's "soul" was while he was frozen. Do souls freeze? Do they hover above the freezer doing, uh, soully things?
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:June 19th, 2009 07:41 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Well, souls are by their soulful nature :-) incorporeal. Which is why they can fit into a zygote. So I guess they can just hang out in the frozen embryo, without even getting cold.

To me if "soul" means anything it means the essence of a person, what makes that one person distinct from others. And if that resides anywhere, it's in the brain.

[User Picture]
From:were_lemur
Date:June 19th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
(Link)
We live in a society that, in many cases, privileges feelings over fact. For all our talk about getting the best facts and our belief that we're rational creatures, it's emotion, not logic, that sways us.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 19th, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Okay, but people have lots of feelings about other people's decisions that they don't want enacted into law, yk? So why some feelings and not others?
[User Picture]
From:skyline3way
Date:June 19th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Please, madam, may I pimp your post of great logic?
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:June 19th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Oh please do.
[User Picture]
From:talktooloose
Date:June 19th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Oooh, I've never heard that tautology chain argument. That's good!

Strangely enough, I just read the same idea in reverse in a novel. A woman is explaining why she can't have an abortion because of chains of circumstance that lead to a human life. No, it's not a counter to your argument (which is, as you point out, about biology, not spirituality) but it was an interesting corollary.
[User Picture]
From:talktooloose
Date:June 19th, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I'm also reminded of a one of James Kochalka's diary strips where his wife miscarries early in the pregnancy and they're at an ultrasound with the obstetrician.

We overhear James's thoughts as they become increasingly hysterical: "Omg, I think his face looks just like Eli's (their older child)! OMG, HE'S SMILING!!"

And then we hear the doctor speaking, "So, as you see, the cellular mass was not reproducing in any organized way..."
[User Picture]
From:alilypea
Date:June 20th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Can I please just have some of your intelligence?

The way you talk about such things always astounds me. But I agree pretty much with everything you've said.
[User Picture]
From:mofic
Date:June 23rd, 2009 05:14 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Thanks for the kind words!
Mofic Powered by LiveJournal.com