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Push and Poll

Recently, a creationist forum decided to send a poll to a variety of prominent atheists on things relating to abortion. My thoughts on their poll questions, which were meant as yes/no but merit deeper examination (and an evolution of my thoughts on abortion):

  • Do you believe that a newborn baby is fully human?
    • Simply, yes. To me, every organism with human genetics is human (adjective form). Organs outside of a self-contained human organism that have human genetics are also human (in this sense). I probably would grant that a sufficiently developed embryo is "a human" too, although the lower bound of that will be fuzzy.
  • Do you believe that a newborn baby is a person?
    • I don't think this has a yes or no answer - personhood is something that develops, and it's also partly a social concept.
  • Do you believe that a newborn baby has a right to life?
    • Legally, yes. Morally? Maybe, although if so, not as much as a person with self-awareness. I'll discuss this more later.
  • Do you believe that every human person has a duty towards newborn babies, to refrain from killing them?
    • Legally, yes. Morally, I'd probably assign some duty but not the same level of duty as is due a self-aware human. I am somewhat reluctant to do this because I know several cultures have historically had little issues with letting unwanted newborns die, and I don't think that's necessarily horrific (While doing the same to a 6 year old would definitely be).
  • Do you believe that killing a newborn baby is just as wrong as killing an adult?
    • No. It may share the same legal penalty, and I'm ok with that, but by my values it is not as wrong.

What is this quiz getting at? I believe it's a poke at the event of birth as a marker of when a human merits consideration. I agree with the premise that the event is not itself morally significant, but I don't think we should give up on that event as a marker. To explain where I stand, I offer (in modified form) the idea of gezeirah (or fence) - a useful concept in Judaism. In that faith, it is recognised that in some circumstances, prohibited acts might merit additional protection with more rules (e.g. if X is prohibited, the rabbinate might ban people from doing things that might lead people through accident, distortion of rules over time, or slips of piety, to do X - these additional rules are "fences" around Torah). In this case, the fence we recognise is not around something clear - we have a desire to value and protect the vital interests of intelligent and self-aware beings (so far only humans fit in that category, and only usually). Because that quality does not develop instantly (a fertilised egg is not intelligence, the moment of birth does not lead to a burst of brain development, and even after birth an infant is not yet self-aware, etc), we need some kind of fence around this edge case of humanity. Deciding that birth is the beginning of full legal rights is a fence. Not all societies place the fence there, some place it after birth, some well before it.

With that fence, we recognise that our values and our laws may diverge; even if every person in a nation had agreement on the values that should go into the laws (which they don't), this is necessarily divergent. This is not the only edge case - when people suffer significant to total mental impairment due to disease or accident, similar issues arise, likewise with those who wish beforehand or at the time to end their lives.

As potential locations for the fence, I hold that:

  1. Assigning full rights at birth is one reasonable/actionable framework for handling abortion.
  2. Having a more gradual fence at the beginning of the third trimester (where there is significant brain development) would be a reasonable alternative. The gradualism presumably would involve either penalties or light (perhaps scaling with time since the trimester marker) criminalisation after that point
  3. Placing the fence after birth is not appropriate in western culture, because after that point society can arrange for care independent of the parents, and there are no vital interests of the parents that come into play against the not-yet-entirely-established value-interests of the infant.
  4. We should reject as immoral any culture/legal system that would permit death of children that have developed theory-of-mind.
  5. We should reject as immoral any culture/legal system that would force/push/encourage women to attempt births where there is a reasonable medical likelihood/expectation that that birth would be dangerous to their health.
  6. We should reject as immoral any culture/legal system that assigns full or significant rights to a human at conception. At that point, there is no reasonable personhood, no brain development (no brain), and any assignation of rights is a subtraction of autonomy from the mother with no counterbalance.
(I abandon my earlier, more specific positions on the legal side of the topic)

On the lighter darker side of things, this is not how encores are supposed to work. On the lighter lighter side of things, this may make milk come out of your nose. I'm not sure why I find those mashups so funny/awesome, but I've saved more of them as OGGs than is probably healthy.

I hope that this concern over whitewashing of history is exaggerated, but knowing what national pride and the desire for heroes can do, I suspect not. Also, I like this analysis of some of the emotional aspects of liberal/conservative tension in the US.



My impression, fwiw, is that there IS a burst of brain development at birth because the newborn is suddenly having a plethora of sensory experiences they've never had before. I also read an article while I was pregnant that said that fetal brains are active less of the time than newborns' brains because oxygen saturation is so much lower in utero. I can't find that article again now, unfortunately.

Then again, we do know that babies' brains are processing their environment in utero: newborns demonstrably recognize music and stories they heard in utero, and I read last week they even mimic their parents' accent already.

I'm intrigued that the date of viability doesn't figure into your musings. A 36-week fetus has not had the burst of brain development that occurs at birth (if there is one), but if removed from the womb he or she would. Does that make a difference to your view of their humanity, or is it having HAD the experience that makes a baby (at least slightly) more human than an embryo?

(This is not a leading question -- I do not have very firm opinions on the humanity of fetuses at the moment.)
I don't use the idea of humanity as morally significant - to me it's all about the brain (a brain-dead human ceases to be a person). That said..

I do think that viability figures in - that's why I'm really uncomfortable with infanticide - at that point there's a lot of opportunity for others to care for the infant. This feels a bit academic to me while it's in the womb - viability doesn't say anything about the mental state (especially as technology pushes that date back earlier), but once out, it eliminates most of the other side of the conflicting interests. While in the uterus I see it as academic because I don't think removing the embryo from an unwilling mother is appropriate. Maybe birth is slightly morally significant in terms of that kind of development, but to me birth as a marker is mostly a fence.

There is a lot of brain development that I care about - I care most about "theory of mind" (which doesn't develop very early), but the other development matters too. (The initial narrowing of sounds towards phonemes is very cool).