If you’re just joining in it probably be helpful to read my last post: That Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is (or what is the definition of person) Part I
*Trigger Warning – This is a difficult, complex, controversial, and divisive subject. As such people become highly impassioned. For that reason I’m going to ask that if you can’t be respectful please move on. This is the final installment of a two-part series.
So when exactly is a person a person? Does it help to define it? Does it even matter? In the last several days I’ve come across new information. It’s not really new information but it is new information to me. Not even so much new information as a new perspective. It is a perspective that has caused me to re-think my unabashedly pro-choice position. Have I learned nothing from my Fundamentalist Christian group-think days? Don’t important positions require re-examination? Have I not just become a fundamentalist of another kind if I’m not open to new information?
There are a number of distinct moments that can be thought of as the beginning of personhood and there is no scientific consensus. Personhood is a question of philosophy – not science. As an atheist shouldn’t science inform our philosophy – especially if we also call ourselves Humanists? It is a question of ethics. So what does science tell us about the beginning of human life?
Embryologists agree that human development, and thus human life, begin at fertilization. How could development occur without it being a living organism? A human living organism. Did we really need an embryologist to tell us this? Not really. We know that’s when life begins. A sperm and ovum meet, become a unique living organism, implant themselves(if they are healthy) to a woman’s uterus, and begin growing(again, if they are healthy). There are terms for this. Zygote, Embryo, Fetus. These are stages of maturity within the human life – the birds and the bees; the facts of life.
The conversation about abortion is not one of life but of one personhood. If a human being is a person and a person is a human being then how is a zygote not a person? Just because there are medical terms for these stages of development do not mean they are any less human or any less a person. There are medical terms for every stage of human development. Infant, toddler, adolescent, adult.
We would call a brain-dead individual a brain-dead person. They don’t cease being a person because they are dead. On the whole we would agree that even a brain-dead individual should be treated with respect. Would we dismember them? Typically not without their consent obtained beforehand. Even when it isn’t obtained before hand family members make this decision based on what they know of the individual and their wishes. Even in death we take their well-being into consideration. We are, rightly, mortified when we hear of cases of illegal organ harvesting or postmortem dismemberment. It is a question of ethics.
According to Wikipedia Humanism is a movement of philosophy and ethics that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).
Being pro-life, in my opinion, has more of a basis in Humanism than any other. We should be ever evolving based on what we know based on facts. Scientific fact is that human life does begin at conception. And this human being is a unique individual – not just a part of the female. It is completely separate and whole, though not mature. A fetus is a human being at the very beginning of maturity. Human beings do not begin at birth. Shouldn’t we protect the weak? Does personhood even figure into the equation, then? In my personal opinion a human being is a person regardless of status.
What does that mean for legalized abortion, then? Does that mean we should criminalize the practice? Throughout history, in every civilization, in every era there has been the practice of abortion. Women have undertaken the risky practice of drinking all sorts of concoctions, using crude and unsterilized tools, and enlisting the help of others to perform abortions. Women have both obtained abortions legally and illegally. Isn’t criminalization really just an interest in punishing the participants? Laws against abortion seek to penalize practitioners and not necessarily women who obtain abortions but, either way, it really is only dealing with punishment. What should we conclude about this? Criminalization doesn’t work. It is like treating the symptoms of a disease with no cure. It is much like America’s War on Drugs and it’s War on Poverty.
I don’t think that abortion will ever be eliminated completely. For all their religiosity and their piety concerning abortion between 1973 and 2008 Protestants make up 37% of women obtaining abortions and Catholics make up 28%. That’s more than half. These are women who, while the practice isn’t illegal, supposedly violate their own consciences. Is a law going to change that? As a pro-life advocate shouldn’t the goal be reducing the number of abortions – not punishment?
I submit that the answer lies in our attitudes toward women and their rights and autonomy before pregnancy occurs. If you want to reduce or end abortion ask yourself why a woman feels the need to have an abortion in the first place and address those needs.
I would suggest that we stop, as a society, slut-shaming women who enjoy sex. Stop making women feel as if having sex in general is wrong and something to be ashamed of regardless of marital status. If you belief that every life is valuable don’t you think it devalues a woman when you make her feel ashamed of her own body and her own sexuality? Isn’t that committing murder in and of itself? Many religious women consider having or do have abortions because they know that the world will know that have have been having sex.
If you want to make laws regarding reproductive rights start with requiring employers, regardless of religious affiliation, to cover contraception as part of their insurance coverage. Let contraception be between a woman, her partner, and her God or lack thereof. Start effective sex education which includes abstinence and proper use of contraception. Prepare people to be responsible with decisions with regards to sex, not as a matter of religion, but as a matter of pragmatism. Let people who can’t afford contraception know that there are options. In my particular state the Department of Health issues contraception to those who are unemployed and minors free of charge. This is not a known fact. Advertise it. Contraception is less expensive than pregnancy. My state’s Department of Health also provides prenatal care on the same basis.
Offer practical solutions to women who are not prepared to be mothers. Sometimes, even used correctly, contraception fails. Stop being so high and mighty, get off your high horse, put your damn picket sign down and put your money where your mouth is. Begin to act with compassion instead of judgement.
*Edited to add: If you would like more information about arguments from pro-life humanists please visit http://www.prolifehumanists.org/.