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The Abortion Debate: how do you define a person?
Posted: 15 July 2006 03:23 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I’m a little bored, so I thought I’d throw this out there.

I believe that the upsurge of religious fundamentalism in our politics over the past decade or two is fuelded by the abortion issue. I’ve discussed with people who feel that mass murder is occuring and they are willing to take any political means necessary to end it. So, from a secularist perspective, this issue is especially important to diffuse

The underlying source of the disagreement is lost in the "pro-life" versus "pro-choice" declarations. The underlying source of the disagreement is:  What do pro-life proponents mean by "life" and how does that relate to human beings with legal rights?

Pro-life arguments include the term "life" fequently, but not in the standard dictionary definition. "life" is too generic a term to be useful - what pro-life proponents are actually arguing for when they use the term "life", is something more specific;  they mean a "person" (i.e. a living human being with legal rights).

So, what are the living qualities that exist uniquely in a human being and not in other living things that distinguish him or her as a person?

To be consistent, the answer to this question must relie as much on the threshold that is crossed at the end of human life as it does on the one crossed at the beginning. The defininition of personhood must capture the qualities a living person has during the entire span of life and at the same time parse-out those qualities of life in general that are not an essential part of being a person.

Heres’ some food for thought:

1) Dead people still have all their unique DNA intact.

2) It’s possible through heroic effort to keep a body’s metabolism functioning long after a person is considered dead; the human body in such a state can breath, grow, and digest; the human cells in such a body continue to live.

3) Bodies can, and have, been Cryogenically frozen in the hopes that someday they will be resusitated back to life. These bodies are no longer considered people, but the potential for life still exists.

So, what quality or qualities exist uniquely in a living human person, and not in other living things?


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Posted: 15 July 2006 03:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The Abortion Debate: how do you define a person?

I’m a little bored, so I thought I’d throw this out there.

I believe that the upsurge of religious fundamentalism in our politics over the past decade or two is fuelded by the abortion issue. I’ve discussed with people who feel that mass murder is occuring and they are willing to take any political means necessary to end it. So, from a secularist perspective, this issue is especially important to diffuse

The underlying source of the disagreement is lost in the “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” declarations. The underlying source of the disagreement is:  What do pro-life proponents mean by “life” and how does that relate to human beings with legal rights?

Pro-life arguments include the term “life” fequently, but not in the standard dictionary definition. “life” is too generic a term to be useful - what pro-life proponents are actually arguing for when they use the term “life”, is something more specific;  they mean a “person” (i.e. a living human being with legal rights).

So, what are the living qualities that exist uniquely in a human being and not in other living things that distinguish him or her as a person?

To be consistent, the answer to this question must relie as much on the threshold that is crossed at the end of human life as it does on the one crossed at the beginning. The defininition of personhood must capture the qualities a living person has during the entire span of life and at the same time parse-out those qualities of life in general that are not an essential part of being a person.

Heres’ some food for thought:

1) Dead people still have all their unique DNA intact.

2) It’s possible through heroic effort to keep a body’s metabolism functioning long after a person is considered dead; the human body in such a state can breath, grow, and digest; the human cells in such a body continue to live.

3) Bodies can, and have, been Cryogenically frozen in the hopes that someday they will be resusitated back to life. These bodies are no longer considered people, but the potential for life still exists.

So, what quality or qualities exist uniquely in a living human person, and not in other living things?


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Posted: 15 July 2006 08:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Seems to me that ‘life’ begins either (1) when the baby is able to survive for itself outside the womb, or (2) when the baby’s cognitive capacities reach a certain stage of complexity.

But this is speculative. The fact is that life has vague edges, as do all physical things. Certainly a single (fertilized) cell is no more a human than is a single skin cell a person.

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Posted: 16 July 2006 12:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]The fact is that life has vague edges, as do all physical things. .

. . .  but our laws need to be drawn with clear edges (as clearly as possible). This is a legal question. When is life given rights?

[quote author=“dougsmith”]Seems to me that ‘life’ begins either (1) when the baby is able to survive for itself outside the womb,

When the time occurs that we can grow in a laboratory womb, a fertilized egg into a full grown baby, would that mean that the fertilized egg should be given legal rights?

[quote author=“dougsmith”] [. . . ] or (2) when the baby’s cognitive capacities reach a certain stage of complexity.

What’s the threashold measure of that complexity? And just as importantly, can you apply that same measurable threshold standard to the end of life?

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Posted: 16 July 2006 07:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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[quote author=“Riley”]
. . .  but our laws need to be drawn with clear edges (as clearly as possible). This is a legal question. When is life given rights?

Yes, this is one of the problems with laws; they have to draw sharp edges where none exist. Fortunately I am not a lawyer so can punt.

:wink:

[quote author=“Riley”]
When the time occurs that we can grow in a laboratory womb, a fertilized egg into a full grown baby, would that mean that the fertilized egg should be given legal rights?

Yes, I am aware of this problem. Partly that’s why I brought up #2, but partly we can say something like that the baby has to be able to survive on its own without heroic technological intervention. There is a time when a baby is naturally viable ... I think there’s even a medical term for this.

[quote author=“Riley”]
What’s the threashold measure of that complexity? And just as importantly, can you apply that same measurable threshold standard to the end of life?

 

I am a bit leery of threshold measures like these. First, as I say, it’s a vague issue, so we don’t want the illusion of exactness with some precise threshold. What might be useful is to look at how doctors make end-of-life decisions in hospitals, and see if that helps us decide when life begins.

We can say with certainty, however, that life does not begin before there is a functioning nervous system and brain. Just as we can clearly say that life has ended when there is no longer a functioning nervous system and brain.

So there are clear cut-offs on both sides, and the earlier one clearly cuts off well after the zygote stage.

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Posted: 16 July 2006 07:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]
I am a bit leery of threshold measures like these. First, as I say, it’s a vague issue, so we don’t want the illusion of exactness with some precise threshold. 

I suppose it’s like asking what threshold needs to be crossed before you are considered bald. No one would expect the answer to be ‘42 hairs’, exactly. We would expect an answer with a range - maybe somewhere between 20 hairs and 50 hairs is the threshhold. But when making a law, then we’d need to be more exact - to be safe we might say any person with fewer than 20 hairs is officially considered bald - to be certain that no one who wasn’t really badl was classified as such.

I also realized that this threshold issue is part of the cause in this mess of a controversy and that’s why I was careful to phrase my question (my original question at least) in the following way: What is the measuable quality or qualities that *must* be present for us to recognize that a living human person exists.

In this way of approaching the quesiton, we dont need to know exactly when that threshold was crossed, only that it was crossed at some point - either into death or life.  We take a measurement to detect those qualities we define as being essential and can say ‘yes, they are present’ or ‘no, they are not present’.

[quote author=“dougsmith”]What might be useful is to look at how doctors make end-of-life decisions in hospitals, and see if that helps us decide when life begins.

I totally agree . . . there is far less controversy surrounding the end of life than the beginning. I think we should be able to adopt this less controversial standard for life as a way of resolving the controvery over abortion.

[quote author=“dougsmith”]We can say with certainty, however, that life does not begin before there is a functioning nervous system and brain. Just as we can clearly say that life has ended when there is no longer a functioning nervous system and brain.

So what you are saying is, that the essential quality that must be present in a living human person is:  “a functioning nervous system and brain”


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Posted: 17 July 2006 08:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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it’s amazing that we’re talking about abortion, but what the hey…

i was thinking about the ethical implications of “partially aborting” a fetus

I am not referring to ‘partial birth abortion’ but instead, removing only a section (maybe a hand or foot) of the fetus for whatever reason

is this okay?

if not, why?

i tend to see abortion sort of the way many folks see the OJ Simpson issue.  he’s “innocent” but we all know he’s guilty.

sure, abortion is legal, but deep inside we all feel sort of sick about it

im not advocating for or against here.  i understand the ramifications of banning abortions.  that’d be too high a price to pay at this point.  but in reality, we’ve just sort of let this thing go to a point where we know OJ did it, but we call him innocent anyway.  If we saw him at the grocery store, we’d likely smile and nod, even though we’re looking at a killer.

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What’s the point?

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Posted: 17 July 2006 10:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I dunno, Thakkus, to me it depends entirely when the abortion is provided. If it’s just a cell or a small bundle of cells, I don’t see any difference from killing bacteria with a disinfectant. A single cell or a small group of cells is not a person.

Whatever makes something a ‘person’ must make it more complex than the creatures that we regularly kill to eat. I know that this is a controversial issue, but I am an omnivore, and pigs are certainly more complex than zygotes by many orders of magnitude.

And yes, a functioning brain and nervous system is certainly necessary (if not sufficient) for something to be a ‘person’.

What’s the issue here? A person is essentially a mind. Minds supervene upon (or are identical with) complex brain states. Without the brain, there can be no mind. Without the mind, there is no person. Cells do not have brains, so cannot be persons.

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Posted: 18 July 2006 02:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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[quote author=“thakkus”]i was thinking about the ethical implications of “partially aborting” a fetus… removing only a section (maybe a hand or foot) of the fetus for whatever reason

is this okay?

if not, why?

It would depend upon the reason, of course.  We do it to people all the time, removing diseased or cancerous tissue, or performing biopsies.  I’m not sure I see any “ethical implications” in your question.

i tend to see abortion sort of the way many folks see the OJ Simpson issue.  he’s “innocent” but we all know he’s guilty.

That’s a pretty good example, because I DON’T “know” that OJ is guilty. I did not bother to follow the trial when it was in the news, and more importantly, I was not on the jury (therefore I do not have access to the information and testimony that the they did).  So I do not have an opinion.  I accept that he was acquitted by the jury and that is good enough for me.  If I met him in the street, I would probably tell him I liked him in those “Naked Gun” movies, but I would not think of him as a killer.

sure, abortion is legal, but deep inside we all feel sort of sick about it

Sure.  I kind of feel sick about the existance of the Department of Defense, too, but it’s necessary.

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Posted: 18 July 2006 11:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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here’s my two cence worth, currently i believe abortion is murder once baby gains any brain cells.  Why? That is when i believe that is when one gains an intellegence.

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Posted: 18 July 2006 09:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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[quote author=“theatheistheretic”]here’s my two cence worth, currently i believe abortion is murder once baby gains any brain cells.  Why? That is when i believe that is when one gains an intellegence.

I think that’s too restrictive. One brain cell doesn’t make a mind. Certainly brains are like piles of sand, vague objects. One sand grain doesn’t make a pile. 10,000 grains does. There is no obvious dividing line between non-pile and pile, so any rigid distinction:

x grains isn’t a pile
x+1 grains is

will be false.

But certainly to be a funcioning brain there have to be a large number of cells that are in communication with one another.

And do recall that we kill bugs that have functioning brains. We kill and eat animals that have even larger functioning brains ...

Food for thought.

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Posted: 28 October 2006 03:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Conceptualize, if you can, the tree of life on earth starting from a single self-replicating compound three billion years ago with its various branches to the few billion or trillion individuals living today.  Millions of new branches are being formed and equally millions are ending at every moment. 

We contribute to the ending of many of them or the death of millions of individuals every time we get an infection and take antibiotics or even let our immune system kill the bacteria.  No matter what we eat, we are killing life, either plant or animal. 

One question is, is any major branch or specific twig more worthy of life than any other? 

Many women have miscarriages because of malnutrition just as many infants die because of inadequate food and medical care.  Shouldn’t those who rail against abortion be putting their finances and energy into protecting the lives of all those who are dying because of the above causes?  Until theatheistheretic can say he’s doing this, it seems his arguments against abortion are questionable at best.

Occam

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Posted: 29 October 2006 04:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Not certain who made the argument first, but it’s the best position I’ve heard advanced, and it concerns the emitting of brainwaves, not viability.  The position goes that as soon as the brain begins to emit brainwaves that are recognizably human, you have a person.  There’s never been any legitimate argument that it’s a human life in my view.  Human life doesn’t begin at conception, it continues.

So if the brainwave position is adopted, abortion can be better defined.  Of course, in my view the life and health of the mother is always the more important consideration.  I see, for example that the state of Nicaragua has legislated that all abortion is illegal.  I don’t know the specifics of the law but it would certainly be murderous to not abort something like an ectopic pregnancy, so I’m guessing that such medical procedures do not fall under their legal definition of “abortion.”

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Posted: 30 October 2006 03:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I think it’s quite clear that abortion is murder and destroys a living human being, especially when you define the act in legal terms—i.e. the willful termination of a life.

However, there are many circumstances where murder is justifiable—i.e. self-defense, acts of war, death penalties.  So, it is the circumstance which determines whether the killing is warranted and justified.  Perhaps a woman’s right to govern her own body outweighs the right of a fetus to go on living.  It seems cruel, but that is the real decision to be made.

I think that it is pretty clear that abortion IS murder.

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Posted: 30 October 2006 05:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Well, I don’t think it’s clear at all—in fact it seems to be false, certainly at any time before the appearance of a functioning nervous system or brain. Before that happens, aborting a fetus is like killing cells on your arm by scraping yourself, or like taking a brain-dead person off of life support. No brain, no murder.

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Posted: 30 October 2006 09:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Maybe at a very early stage it could hardly be considered a lifeform.  However, if the fetus has developed long enough, even within the first trimester, then it could display many of the characteristics of a human being, albeit an underdeveloped and miniature version.

I’m pro choice so I’m not defending the prolife argument.  However, if we could change the focus of the argument onto justifying the death of the fetus, then we wouldn’t need to even debate whether or not the fetus is “alive”.

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