Out From Under the Umbrella

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That Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Is’ is (or what is the definition of person) Part I

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*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 first installment of a two-part series.

As a Christian I was unapologetically pro-life. Every life was precious because every life was God’s.  I knew without a doubt that life began at conception, not because of science, but because of scripture.  Specifically Psalm 139: 13-16:

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.

When I say that I was unapologetically pro-life I mean that I didn’t see any wiggle room.  There was no gray area;  no exceptions for rape or incest. Convinced that abortion was tantamount to murder,  I was loud and proud.  It never occurred to me that the person sitting next to me could have had an abortion for any reason; that my words were probably like daggers to their heart.  Every life was precious in God’s sight, right?  And if it did hurt their feelings, then so be it.  Sometimes the truth hurts.  That right there is how you show that Christian love and compassion.  Come on in and get you some.

Most conservative evangelicals say they believe these things.  The reality doesn’t bear that out, though.  I posted about my teenage friend whose parents thought she had been raped so they had the fetus aborted. Her father was a deacon in the church.

Then there was my Christian friend who had IVF.  She was implanted with five fertilized eggs.  They all implanted, but it made her pregnancy high risk, she had three of them selectively, therapeutically aborted.  I remember wondering how she decided which ones to abort.

Finally there was the conversation I had with my (then)husband, also a deacon, about abortion in the case of rape.  I posed the hypothetical that I had been raped and remarked that even if I were raped I didn’t think I could have an abortion because the fetus was an innocent. I would carry to term and then place for adoption. He informed me that I would have an abortion. His rationale was that if I didn’t have an abortion he couldn’t be certain I was raped, most certainly not since I wanted to have the baby.  Even if I had been raped, if I didn’t terminate the pregnancy, he’d be resentful and man to me about it.  Didn’t he mean even more mean?

I also hadn’t considered these scriptures:

11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 12 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13 so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14 and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah[c] of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing. 16 The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. 17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries. Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”~ Numbers 5

22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” ~Exodus 21

The religious really don’t have a leg to stand on where abortion is concerned. Apparently their own God doesn’t give the same value to the unborn as the born. As atheists, though, is that the measuring stick we would want to use to decide the value of human life?  Where does that leave us?  Are religious considerations the only reasons to be pro-life?

When I left Christianity I rejected that idea.  I decided that individual autonomy and women’s rights were more important.  Then I became unapologetically pro-choice, believing that women should have access to abortion on demand and that it shouldn’t matter what her reasons for abortion are.  Isn’t it a private matter, after all?  Shouldn’t this be between her and her physician?  A woman should not be coerced into – nor out of – the decision whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.

My consideration for this came from the viewpoint that while, yes, some form of life does begin at conception, that fetus doesn’t become a person until an EEG pattern can be detected.  We consider a person who has no brain activity to be brain-dead. In the same regard life doesn’t begin until brain activity occurs.

But is that true?  A person who is brain-dead has no potential to be brain-alive again.  Even then sometimes we want to hang onto them – not willing to give up hope – as exampled by the Terri Schiavo case and more recently the Jahi McMath case.

How does Merriam-Webster define person?

per·son

noun \ˈpər-sən\: a human being

Okay.  Descriptive.  Helpful.  How does it define human being?

human being

noun

: a person

Delightful.

How, then, do we define personhood? Just when does a person become a human being? Or when does a human being become a person?

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15 thoughts on “That Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Is’ is (or what is the definition of person) Part I

  1. Great topic! I look forward to part 2.

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  2. Very provocative. I happen to agree with most of what you wrote. I, too, am looking forward to the next installment.

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  3. I have and will continue to defend a woman’s right to make decisions concerning her own body, but the question of personhood is valid and vital to understand from a humanist position. Simply put, sustained EEG activity is the key. Something cannot be turned “Off” until it is turned “On,” and in this instance that is sustained EEG activity which begins around week 25. Something cannot be considered “alive” if it cannot “die.” To argue against this is absurd.

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    • I agree with you John, but I think as Ruth pointed out the argument for a lot of anti-abortion people is that a process has begun that will inevitably turn on. That being said, very strictly it is not murder in the present, but you are snuffing out a future person. To me the issue also goes to the very heart of how future oriented we are. Our ability to project far into the future has seems to me a bit of a double–edged sword and perhaps is not helpful here. I know when we found out we were pregnant, my mind started to imagine all sorts of wonderful future moments. Of course I never imagined my son become a meth addict or anything. And that’s the part of the problem with the anti-abortion argument. What is the future of unwanted child? It probably depends on the environment, but there is no guarantee that it is going to be a wonderful happy life. Even those that that are anti-abortion could not guarantee that will be the future of their own children. But I would say the odds are in favor of a more negative attitude if a woman hasn’t the necessary resources to care for her self during pregnancy and caring for the child post pregnancy.

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  4. Just to throw more into the mix. Consider all the babies that are born prematurely. One can only wonder at the impossibility of survival at all. If not for modern medicine they’d never make it . . . and even with modern medicine, many don’t. Is the premature baby a person? Is it a human being? If it dies is it a fetus or is a human being who was born too early and then died?

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  5. I’ve gone from strongly pro- life ( as an atheist) to strongly pro- choice ( also as an atheist) to the understanding that this issue is much more complex and, now, more personal than I ever thought it would be. Now, no longer an atheist, I see it as some thing that has no easy answers and is in fact an entire grey area.

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  6. I don’t know. I look forward to part two.

    I also wondered about that Psalms passage. If life begins at conception and so many pregnancies end in natural miscarriages, then what the heck is God doing?

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  7. Pingback: That Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is (or what is the definition of person) Part 2 | Out From Under the Umbrella

  8. And instead of something clicking inside of me saying, “Nonsense, this is not your fault.” . . . I stepped further into the world of coming back to “God” and right into 16 1/2 years of literalism/legalism/born-againism/fundametalistic conservative evangelicalism.

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  9. Pingback: Suggestion Saturday: February 1, 2014 | On The Other Hand

  10. Thank you for sharing your journey on this issue. I think this will always be in an issue in which their is no neat and tidy solution. Because as you’ve pointed out the definition of a person, a human being, life in general is not so easy to determine. In a couple of my blog posts I talk about the fallacy of perfection. This is one situation where I don’t think any real perfect solution exists. But even if perfection doesn’t exist, we can still strive for something better, and that’s all we should be concerned about. There are definitely ways in which we can reduce abortion, and it doesn’t involve labeling people who get them as immoral, or by banning them.

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