Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Michael Brown Was Once a Fetus [James Jenkins]

Unless you have been hiding under a rock or in a coma for the last 9 months, you are aware of the Ferguson Missouri incident which involved the shooting of an unarmed teen, Michael Brown, by police officer Daren Wilson. It became a national story in which the president and the department of justice investigated and it lead to riots in the city of Ferguson. Michael Brown happened to be black and Officer Wilson was white which didn’t help matters much. The incident also touched of a “hands up, don’t shoot” movement which spread from professional athletes to congress raising their hands in the universal symbol of surrender as a symbol of solidarity. The incident and others have culminated in racial polarization and it has re-ignited racial flames in America. Michael Brown and Ferguson Missouri became a rallying point and there were also peaceful marches across the country as well.

What does Ferguson have to do with the abortion issue? It is surely a tragedy when an 18 year old loses his life under any circumstance. But why is it so less tragic for an unborn child to lose his life in our society? There are around 1 million abortions each year in the United States. Despite comprising just 13% of the population, blacks account for 35% of all the abortions in the U.S. Well if my calculations are correct then there are almost 1,000 abortions performed on black women each day. Does that matter to anyone? Should it? If the unborn are not human then the answer is NO: abortion is a private issue and no one outside of the woman’s support network, her doctor and whoever else she decides to share in this decision should be involved in it. If the unborn are not human, then we pro-lifers are sticking our noses into a private matter and we have no business protesting, marching, or trying to change laws or convince others. But are we?

Not according to science. The science of embryology tells us that from the moment of conception, each one of us were complete, living, and whole human beings.  The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, a widely used embryology text, states: “Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete or oocyte(ovum) to form a single cell – a zygote. This highly specialized, omnipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

T.W. Sadler’s Langman’s Embryology states, “The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.” Dr. Watson A. Bowes of the University of Colorado Medical School stated, “The beginning of a single human life is from a biological point of view a simple and straightforward matter – the beginning is conception.”

Of course, science alone won’t satisfy critics of the pro-life view who tell us that being human isn’t enough. What matters is personhood, meaning there are some humans you can’t kill because they are “persons” and others you can kill because they aren’t. “Persons,” so the argument goes, live independent lives and are sufficiently developed to think and feel like we do. But where does personhood thinking leave us? Sure, Michael Brown the fetus was dependent on his mother, but as a matter of principle, how does dependency justify intentional killing? For that matter, Michael Brown the newborn was dependent, but no one suggested killing him because he depended on his mother for nourishment. Does personhood based on location fare any better? When I leave my house, I don’t stop being me. If that’s true, why do I stop being me when I leave my mother’s womb? Or, suppose we make size and development decisive. Michael Brown the fetus was smaller than his adult frame, but as a matter of principle, large humans aren’t more human and valuable than small ones. And while it’s true Brown was less developed in the womb than he was at 19, why is that a good reason for saying he could be killed then but not now? In short, personhood reasoning doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and dehumanizes all of us—born or unborn.

The science of embryology tells us that Michael Brown was once a fetus, meaning that Michael Brown the fetus is identical to Michael Brown the young adult. If as an adult he is identical to his former fetal self, he had the same right to life then as he did on the day he died. After all, he’s the same Michael Brown. How can we be nonchalant about killing the unborn Michael Brown but ready to riot at the perceived injustice of the killing of the 18 year old Michael Brown? Again, he was still Michael Brown. We cannot take the life of the unborn and not expect there to be any repercussions on the value we have on life in general.

We know this. In 1977, a prominent civil rights activist compared abortion to slavery and pointedly asked, “What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the abortion of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience?” Those words belong to Jessie Jackson, who, before running for President as a Democrat, once valued intellectual consistency over political expediency.

Suppose we grant that Michael Brown’s killing was racially motivated and therefore unjust. The question for Jessie Jackson is this: If it was wrong to kill Michael Brown because of skin color and social status, why is it okay to kill him because of size and dependency? Either way, he’s the same Michael Brown.

The Importance of Distinctions [Clinton Wilcox]

Yesterday I was having a discussion with a rather vocal pro-life advocate. He was arguing with a vegetarian, and finally he told this vegetarian that she is confused and should keep her mouth shut. Now, I am not a vegetarian and I agree with the pro-life person's point of view. However, I also believe in civil discourse and this pro-life person was not being civil. It turns out this pro-life person believes that the right to freedom of speech does not entail that people who are wrong have the right to express their views. He argued for this by saying that no one has a right to have their views respected. I agreed with him on this last point and tried to show him that a right to have your views respected and a right to express your views, even if I disagree with them, are two different things. I tried several times to explain this distinction, but he seemed incapable of grasping it.

The reality is that the First Amendment gives us the freedom not just to hold unpopular views but the freedom to express them, as well, even if I disagree with them. And the way that rights work is if I want my rights to be respected, I have an obligation to respect the rights of others, as well. There's an idea that's going around Facebook that a right to free speech doesn't entail freedom from the consequences of your views. But this is only partially right. A right to free speech does entail a freedom from being jailed for my views, or from being shouted down, or otherwise disrespected for trying to express my views. If I don't have the right to talk about my views, then speech really isn't free. However, there may be natural consequences to holding an unpopular view, such as no one listening to me.

There are many important distinctions that need to be made in the abortion issue that are often overlooked. I don't know how our culture got to a point in which people are generally incapable of making basic distinctions, but it seems we've gotten to this point. Making distinctions is absolutely critical to clear thinking. Aside from the distinction I mentioned earlier, here are two more that need to be kept in mind in our discussions about abortion:

The distinction between types of potentiality. One popular pro-choice mantra is that the unborn are not humans, they are "potential humans." The problem is this confuses active potentiality with passive potentiality. A sapling is a potential mature tree. It is also a potential desk. But these are two different kinds of potential. A sapling has the active potential to develop into a fully mature tree because it is on a self-directed path of development. It develops itself from within because its essence is treeness. However, its potential to become a desk is a passive potential. It will not become a desk on its own. It must be cut down, undergoing a substantial change, and made into a desk by an outside builder. This is a critical distinction because active potentiality is identity-preserving, and passive potentiality is not. The unborn are not "potential humans", they are actual humans with potential.

The distinction between different senses of "human". Like most words, the term "human" can have multiple definitions. The two that are usually seen as important for the abortion debate is human in a genetic sense, that the unborn are biological members of species Homo sapiens, and human in a moral sense, that the unborn are persons (i.e. members of the moral community so that it is wrong to mistreat them or take their life). I still do encounter people who don't believe that the unborn are biological members of our species, but usually when someone denies that the unborn are human, what they really mean is they are not persons. It's up to the individual to clearly present their own arguments, but if we hope to change people's minds, it helps for us to be aware of the way in which people conflate two different ideas, usually without even realizing it. If someone denies the unborn are human, usually a clarifying question is in order: "Do you mean they are not biologically human, or do you mean they are not human beings with a right to life?" This helps to avoid attacking strawmen unwittingly.

There are many more distinctions that need to be made for clarity of thought in the abortion issue. But this should help as a basic primer in how to think more clearly in the abortion issue. If we don't keep these distinctions in mind, the argument starts to get muddled and we won't be able to reliably come to the truth of the matter.

Edited the fourth paragraph for clarity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Going Ape" [Megan]

The struggle over what, exactly, gives human beings value was given a nod — a dismissive one  — when an April 21st decision by a New York judge granted a right to chimpanzees that had hitherto only been granted to legally recognized "persons."

A judge granted Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees that currently reside in a research facility at Stony Brook University, New York, the right to challenge their "unlawful" imprisonment (respective writs of habeas corpus). The decision is preceded by numerous attempts to have the chimps' case heard over the last year and a half.

According to the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Hercules and Leo, in addition to two other chimpanzees being held privately elsewhere, are "too cognitively and emotionally complex to be held in captivity." The group claims the apes should be moved to a chimpanzee sanctuary.

According to Science magazine, the decision is the first that effectively grants personhood status to animals in the U.S.

To be very clear, I do not oppose the promotion of respectful treatment — humane treatment — to animals like Hercules and Leo. Indeed, I expect the pursuit of such from human beings.

I do, however, oppose legal rights that recognize chimpanzees as persons when those rights are not observed for many human beings — especially, in this case, unborn ones.

The inconsistency is ghastly but not surprising in a culture that grants "personhood" — or value — according to function over nature.

According to the article, the chimpanzees were deemed valuable persons because of an unspecified level of cognitive and emotional complexity.

Who decides what level of complexity is sufficient?

How does that practically effect human beings, whose cognitive and emotional abilities/expression vary from person to person? Must those whose cognitive function is higher be granted a superior "person" status over others? The same applies to emotional complexity. Is the stoic personality a lesser degree of person? What of children, who are cognitively and emotionally immature in comparison to their parents? It could be argued that, in some scenarios, those attributes vary for a single person. Would that individual's status then fluctuate, his/her rights wax and wane?

Beneath that jumble is the grounding question — the kicker, as it were. Why should cognitive and emotional complexity ground valuable personhood and not some other function/trait/ability? And who gets to decide? Discomfort is the tip of the iceberg if that decision rests in the hands of one New York judge.

There is no morally relevant difference between unborn human beings and born ones that justifies the killing of the former. Certainly not a difference that gives two apes a voice in the court of law while unborn human beings continue being silently slaughtered by the thousands each day.

A robust understanding of the intrinsic value of human life is inclusive. It affords animals like Hercules and Leo a sanctuary. And it affords unborn humans the simplest and most profound right — to live.