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17 comments | Wednesday, September 28, 2005

While blog hopping, I came across Nick Woomer's blog, an atheist lawyer who wrote “Disconnect in the abortion debate”. Interestingly, he gave a well written defense of the pro-choice movement and pointed out the central argument of the issue—namely: Is the zygote, embryo, or fetus a moral person? According to Woomer—No. Although I may be out of my league (trying to contend with a lawyer), in this blog, I will try to articulate and address his argument.

Let me a blunt as possible. If the zygote or embryo or fetus is not a human being (this includes personhood), no justification for abortion is required and pro-lifers might as well fold. However, if it is a human being, no justification for taking his or her life is adequate. This single issue is adequate to cover contingencies on both sides of the question.

Woomer argues his position (pro-choice) in the following way:

Now, there are plenty of obvious and relevant differences between a fetus and a young child: language; a normative outlook; mutual recognition of other persons by, and of, the child; complex emotions, etc. The pro-life argument can, and must be, addressed on its actual merits.

…human beings do seem to have a particular set of properties that distinguish us from other animals: language, a "conscious life," value systems, plans for the future, the ability to grasp metaphors, etc. What makes us special, then, isn't mere biological human-ness, but a cluster of uniquely human qualities.

True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than you and I. But why is this relevant? Woomer's argument asserts, although the embryo or zygote is a “biological” human, the fetus has none of the aforementioned capabilities; it cannot be a person with rights. But why should anyone accept the idea that there can be such a thing as a human being that is not a person?

If Woomer is correct about the distinction between human being and human person, he fails to adequately tell us why a person must possess self-awareness and consciousness, or other listed qualities in order to qualify as fully human. In other words, he merely asserts that these traits are necessary for personhood but never says why these alleged value-giving properties are value-giving in the first place, other than an insufficient differentiation between animals.

Even Woomer concedes the epistemological uncertainty of what makes human beings “special.” He says:

Why are human beings special? Why do we regard ourselves (rightly or wrongly) as superior to other creatures? The answer can't be determined with any certitude

If the immediate capacity for the listed qualities makes one valuable as a subject of rights, and newborns like fetuses lack that immediate capacity, it follows that fetuses and newborns are both disqualified. You can’t draw an arbitrary line at birth that spares newborns. Hence, infanticide, like abortion, is morally permissible. However, Woomer rejects this notion of infanticide in his post, “Infanticide is still wrong (Disconnect in the abortion debate, part 2)”, and argues that there are still good reasons to keep infanticide illegal.

Woomer gives an E.T. analogy and argues that E.T. is lovable because of his human like qualities. E.T. has the cluster of uniquely human qualities that allow us to identify with him and gain an emotional attachment; this is why it is so sad when E.T. dies in the movie. I am not sure, however, what this has to do with infanticide, since the infant (according to Woomer), does not have the human qualities.

This E.T. analogy can go either way. Take for example the movie, “Where the red fern grows”. The movie was about dogs, but yet, during the movie, many people develop an emotional attachment and they cry their eyes out. It does not follow; however, that the dogs were entitled to full moral personhood.

Woomer also argues that if biological humanness was determinative of moral personhood, then it would be morally permissible to treat E.T.-like beings like any other animal. Since this is hypothetical, it seems premature and morally ambiguous to immediately deduce this principal. There is a strong lack of data in this hypothetical analogy, such as E.T.’s origin and/or theological framework.

In his E.T. argument, he indicates that E.T. has the human qualities that attracts us too him; but according to Woomer, the infant (at least in early stages) does not posses his outlined human properties. Therefore, as suggested previously, the argument does not apply.

When does the cluster of uniquely human properties arise? The property, in which Woomer has listed, as he concedes, is definitely AFTER birth. However, he argues that infanticide is still wrong and would “brutalize” our culture. But why? If human value is based on properties as Woomer has purported, there should be no quarrels on infanticide. However, this is not the case; people on both sides of the abortion debate can intuitively know that infanticide is wrong; regardless of properties outlined by Woomer.

Woomer also stated the following:

The motivation to legalize infanticide would be rooted in an unwillingness to devote economic resources to the care of unwanted neonates. To put it lightly, it would be beyond crass to kill a biological human that will soon become a moral person just because we'd have to increase taxes to care for it. [Emphasis added]

Again, I would argue, why is this wrong? If this biological human does not have “personhood”, and the cluster of uniquely human qualities is not there, there should not be the conviction that the infant “ought” not to be harmed. However, the convicting intuition is there. Woomer argues against this point by asserting an “unspoken intuition” that neonates really aren't moral persons. He exemplifies this by showing the grieving difference between the death of neonates and toddlers.

The argument asserts that when a neonate dies, the focus is on the mother, and when a toddler dies, the focus is on the child. This argument is far too week. There will clearly be more grieving for a toddler than a neonate. First, this has nothing to do with personhood. It seems self-evident that the toddler would be grieved more (especially as individual), than the neonate because of the built relationship between the child and people around him or her. The emotional attachment that builds after birth is the factor; not whether uniquely human qualities are being developed.

This emotional factor not only applies to humans, but animals too. For example, there would be a clear difference between grieving for a dog you had only one day, or one that you grew up with. The grieving would have nothing to do with the dogs unique K-9 attributes that made it lovable; it would be the built relationship.

Secondly, there are emotive intuitions about neonates. Take for example pictures of aborted neonates. The pictures bring out emotion; even tears. Bluntly, these pictures are disturbing, even for pro-choice activists. These emotive responses are derived from a different intuition; the intuition that this neonate is a child—a person.

Philosophically, I argue there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not relevant in the way that Raleigh needs them to be. In addition, his philosophy untimely leads to infanticide, which; he denies as immoral. His collective argument for infanticide rests on the moral intuition that it is wrong to murder an infant; even though the infant does not possess the unique human qualities he has outlined. This example shows that personhood is not derived of the properties Woomer has given.

The pro-choice enterprise in any of its forms is doomed to fail because it ultimately reduces human value to functional terms. Humans have value simply because they are human, not because of some acquired property that they may gain or lose during their lifetimes.

A line in the sand

There is also another dimension to this argument. This dimension is difference in worldview. The majority (not all) of pro-lifers have a Judeo-Christian worldview (including myself). Thus, we hold the belief that people are created in the image of God, and thus is an answer to the question: What makes us special? This argument is predominately ignored in the public square; nevertheless, it develops the foundation framework of the pro-life argument.

In conclusion, which ever worldview prevails (Judeo-Christian vs. Secular) will determine the future of this and other significant (Homosexuality, Embryonic stem cell research etc…) debates.

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Blogger execution said...

I must admit that you lost me somewhere in that post. So, are you for or against abortion? I am for abortion. Want to argue? I'm ready. That is, if you are against abortion.

9/28/2005 12:03 PM

Blogger Beowulf said...

I am obviously against abortion. The purpose of my post was to respond a pro-choice argument by Nick Raleigh.

9/28/2005 1:18 PM

Blogger Beowulf said...

I am curious, why would you want to argue? What ever happened to “whatever floats your boat?” Are you suggesting that I could be wrong in the ultimate sense? If not—if it’s only a matter of opinion, they who cares what I think? But if there is such a thing a being objectively wrong, let’s dispute the matter!

9/28/2005 1:52 PM

Blogger Mr. WD said...

First things first: I live in Raleigh, it's not my last name. Feel free to call me Nick.

Some brief comments on your argument: First, what is value-giving about the qualities I discussed? Well, we all implicitly value these properties. These are the properties that make life worth living; that make us unique from any other creature; you see them valued in almost every work of art ever produced.

Mere biological human-ness (and really, what is that anyway, other than a certain DNA sequence?) is not valued like the qualities are. Try this thought experiment: suppose you were offered the choice between losing one of the qualities (e.g. memory, or metaphor) or losing your biological human-ness -- everything about you would be the same except that your DNA sequence would be radically different from any other human. For anyone, I think, this would be a total no-brainer: lose the biological human-ness, because it really doesn't have anything to do with who we are or how we perceive ourselves.

Second, I think you misunderstand the ET discussion. The purpose of bringing ET into the debate is to demonstrate that killing an ET would be just as bad as killing you or I because the ET has the same bundle of valuable properties. I think we'd all agree that if ETs existed, they should be afforded all the basic moral considerations human beings have since they're human in all respects but one: biology.

You can't ignore the ET part of the argument by saying 'well, ETs don't exist, so I don't have to worry about that.' Moral facts are not like physical facts -- they're more like mathmatical facts; therefore they must apply not just in this world, but in any potential world. The moral maxim "gratuitous torture is morally wrong" is true on earth but it is also true on any other planet or in any other universe; just like 2+2=4.

In short, I don't think you can win this argument unless you take a different approach. You could try using Marquis' argument or you could try arguing that all biological humans have souls, but either way you're going to have a tough time.

9/28/2005 1:56 PM

Blogger execution said...

Well, maybe not argue. The word I was looking for was discuss. I wasn't suggesting that you were wrong. I just thuoght we could talk about why you are against it and I am for it. The reasons why, to be more exact. No offense was intended.

9/28/2005 3:59 PM

Blogger Beowulf said...

No offense taken, actually to be honest, my point was to go the other way. If you are pro-choice, I thing your wrong! Not only wrong, but objectively wrong. However, this does not mean I do not respect your opinion or you as a person. I just think we both can’t be right on this issue; one of us is wrong. Also, “argument” is not a bad word; it just represents the action of us bringing countering points between each other (of course respectfully). So, feel free to argue and make your case.

9/28/2005 6:18 PM

Blogger Beowulf said...

For Nick

I apologies for the name confusion, it was not my intent to do so. Make no mistake about it; the qualities you discussed are important valuable characteristics that are unique to persons; but not deterministic. If we do use your criteria, what follows? Young infants, comatose patients, severely retarded individuals, and even those who are temporarily unconscious do not qualify as persons, Clearly, we know intuitively that killing babies, the disabled or unconscious individuals is wrong.

I concede your thought experiment, but how can you loose your biological humanness and still be you with out a soul? I would not dichotomize humanness and soul. (Which I did not argue as you pointed out). Also, given the E.T. example (after you offered more clarity), it does indicate the non-physical quality (the cluster you outline) initiates the moral intuition that it’s wrong to kill E.T. But what initiates the moral intuition for infanticide, or those without the specified qualities?

In reference to “biological humanness” just being a certain DNA sequence, I think there is a missing factor. What is personhood but the unfolding of potential from the actual? The "person" cannot exist without the human being; it arises from it and is dependent upon it.

I don’t know Marquis’ argument; however, your suggestion about arguing for the soul makes valid point. Through all the rhetoric of “personhood,” I did not make a case for the soul. Also, on a side note, I found it interesting how you reference universal laws (mathematics) and moral absolutes and are an atheist. I guess you have some way of reconciling these laws without a “Lawmaker.” Nevertheless, I do appreciate you critique. You have helped me to see some weaknesses in my argument that I shall revise; given some thought. Again, I want apologies for gaffing you name.

9/28/2005 6:20 PM

Blogger execution said...

How am I wrong? What makes you against abortion?

9/28/2005 6:43 PM

Blogger execution said...

I have a question. Are you against ALL abortion under ANY cicumstances? If that is the case, then I think you are wrong.

9/28/2005 6:47 PM

Blogger Beowulf said...


I am against abortion for the following reasons.

(1) killing defenseless innocent human beings is wrong (I suspect you concur)
(2) The unborn are human beings; persons, moral agents, whatever you want to call them.
(3) Therefore, killing them is wrong.

That is why I am opposed to abortion

9/28/2005 7:50 PM

Blogger Mr. WD said...

B.F.: Don’t worry about the name thing – it’s not a big deal.

As to your contention that my theory allows the killing of “young infants, comatose patients, severely retarded individuals, and even those who are temporarily unconscious do not qualify as persons,” that’s just wrong. You have not addressed my four arguments, which I contend, when taken together, still make killing “borderline” individuals wrong (obviously, in the case of the temporarily comatose, additional concerns creep in). The bottom line is, just because killing a particular biological human isn’t murder in a strictly philosophical sense, that doesn’t prevent us from treating it as such.

Let’s nail down just what biological human-ness isn’t. It’s not anatomical structure: there are humans who are born without arms or legs (and the great apes share most (maybe all) of the human anatomy – just in different proportions). If a fertilized egg is a biological human, then an object that looks nothing like us is still human. In fact, biological human-ness actually isn’t even DNA structure – we share something like 98% of our DNA with the great apes. So really, when you’re talking about biological human-ness, you’re really talking about the 2% of DNA we don’t share with our nearest relatives. That’s not a very impressive foundation to build an ethical theory on – instead, it’s better to focus on those uniquely human qualities that really do separate us from other creatures.

I submit that personhood probably needs some biological medium to take place in – but that medium (theoretically) need not be human: it could be in something that has DNA significantly different from that of any human being. I could easily imagine my brain or my consciousness somehow being transplanted into a body that was exactly like my present one – except with a totally different DNA sequence.

The intuition against infanticide is culturally rooted. There have been societies that have practiced it (e.g. ancient Sparta).

I definitely don’t think you need to have a lawmaker to establish morality. Why would something be the right thing to do just because a powerful being says so? Plato discusses this in the Euthyphro: does God love what is good, or is the good what God loves? I’m glad I don’t have to worry about that question.

9/28/2005 8:48 PM

Blogger Beowulf said...

Thank you for your thoughts Nick, you gave me some interesting points I have not thought about, and if I continue to be pro-life, I will have to address them…sooner or later.


9/29/2005 8:37 AM

Blogger execution said...

Good morning, all. Taking a break from writing my paper. Now, I am curious, so you don't approve of abortion for any reason?

9/29/2005 9:15 AM

Blogger Beowulf said...

Perhaps (1) Circumstance: which, I have not thought long enough about yet. But, during a significant threat to the mother and child’s life, such as a tubular pregnancy, makes an abortion a necessary exemption. This is saving one life, rather than loosing two.

9/29/2005 10:37 AM

Blogger execution said...

That is the reason I am for abortion. I'm not for it when the woman says,"Well, I don't think I am ready for a family now." She knew the risks and so she should live with it. A baby is a baby, no matter how small or how far it has developed. If she doesn't want the baby, there are lots of people who want kids but can't have them. She can put it up for adoption.

Personally, I think if the woman doesn't want to be a mother, then she shouldn't have to raise it. I wouldn't want to have a woman try to take care of a baby that she doesn't care about. It wouldn't be right for the baby. It SHOULD have a caring mother. But this isn't a perfect world. I realize that.

But if the pregnancy involves a life or death decision, then I am okay with that. A friend of mine brought up a good point a while back. She said that the government is either for or against pretty much anything. They will either outlaw abortion or just let it happen. Since there is that minority that needs that option, then I say be for it. Because in our society it's all for one or all for none. Granted there will be the majority that takes advantage of this option, but if it helps those few that actually need it, then it is worth it.

So, if I was given the choice of all for one or all for none (being totally for it or totally against it)then I would choose to be for it, even though I disagree with the majority using it when it is not needed. In THIS kind of life or death matter, I am for life, be it the mother's or the child's. But that's just me.

9/29/2005 1:55 PM

Blogger Beowulf said...

Like you said, “A baby is a baby, no matter how small or how far it has developed.” As far as the legality of abortion, I would totally outlaw it, with the exception of the one clause I mentioned.

9/29/2005 2:22 PM

Blogger execution said...

I agree with you. There should be limits on abortion.

Yes! It's FINALLY Friday. I am still working on that darn paper. It's frustrating. I showed my prof part of my final draft and he didn't like it. He said that this paper is going to be graded on form rather than content. So, apparently he doesn't like my form. However, he didn't give us any guidelines because he wants to give us room for creativity. I wish profs would just tell us what they want. Instead we have to actually write the paper and show it to them, and THEN they'll say, no, that's not what I wanted. Uggh. I need a break. Preferably a long one. So, how 'bout you? Anything good/interesting happen lately?

9/30/2005 10:03 AM


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