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It’s Blog for Choice Day: why I’m pro-choice.

by Bill Prendergast on January 23, 2013 · 5 comments

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Here’s why I’m pro-choice, and have been for more than thirty years: it’s not a human being.

If we were talking about protecting the life of a human being, then we’d have to admit that Roe was incorrectly decided and a woman has no fundamental right to choose to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. The purpose of law is to protect human life, interests, and rights.

But when we’re talking about protecting life in the womb, we’re not talking about protecting a human being–we’re talking about a fertilized human egg (a zygote,) a blastocyst, an embryo in the first trimester. Those things aren’t human beings.

I’m going to tell you why I’m sure a fertilized human egg isn’t a human being. But first: let me tell why some pro-life physicians think they are. (CONTINUED)
From a pro-life physician’s standpoint, the fertilized egg is a human being from the moment of conception. Here’s why:

Pro-life physician argument one: It’s the result of mating between two human beings, therefore the resulting living thing must be considered human. (Paraphrase: If its mom was a human and the dad was a human, the thing growing in mom’s womb has got to be human–right? I mean–it’s not a chicken…)

Response: Even if the mom was human and the dad was human…the result of that union does not necessarily constitute a human being. A hypothetical to demonstrate: A man is decapitated in a horrible traffic accident. Via some miracle of cooincidence, physicians with the proper equipment are on the scene, and via another medical triumph: they manage to keep the victim’s heart beating, blood pumping, lungs breathing. They take the victim back into the hospital–and there, with the help of medical equipment of the future: they are able to enclose and stabilize the victim–and keep the heart beating, the blood pumping, the lungs breathing.

Unfortunately the victim’s head was destroyed in the accident. So even though the physicians can continue to keep the victim “alive”: there is no technology or chance that the victim’s mind and consciousness can ever be restored.

Question: in that state we’re imagining–can the victim be considered “a human being?”

It’s a philosophical question and it’s a matter of opinion, but I think most of us would answer “no.” Even though this thing is “alive” (heart beating, breathing, etc.) and even though it is undoubtedly human as a matter of species (the offspring of a human mother and father)–I think that those facts alone are not enough to qualify this entity as “a human being.”

(If you think my gory hypothetical story is too far-fetched to be relevant: consider the philosophical and moral dilemma regarding the fate of human beings who have irretrievably lost mind and consciousness and self-awareness through illness and accident. Consider the questions facing surviving family and care-providers and society in those cases, and you will see that my gory hypothetical about “what constitutes a human being,” is far-fetched but quite relevant.)

For the same reason that most people would say the victim in my story is no longer a human being: I believe that that “human life” does not “exist from the moment of conception.” Just like the victim in my story: no mind, no consciousness, no self-awareness–none of those things, at this given point in time…means that the thing the thing we are talking about is not “a human being.” The fact that it was a human being or will become a human being (because its progenitors were human) doesn’t mean that it is a human being, regardless of stage of development or circumstance. And the fact that the tissue is human as a matter of species isn’t determinative either: as we saw with the headless, breathing victim, “species” isn’t the essential determinant in concluding something is a human being.

2) Pro-life physician argument two: It’s alive, it’s a living thing. When you terminate a pregnancy, you’re killing a living thing.

Response: True, but irrelevant. If the thing that you are terminating is not a human being, there’s no real moral or philosophical issue to quarrel about. (Unless you believe (as some minorities around the world do) that killing any living thing is a transgression.) The entity growing in the womb from the moment of conception is living, but so are the carrots growing in my garden, so is the fish I’ll have for dinner next week, so is a dog that I might have to put down due to serious illness. Killing a human being is usually objectionable; ending life that isn’t human is permissible in countless circumstances.

So I concluded that a thing without mind or consciousness or self-awareness is not “a human being” (or “person” if you like the relevant constitutional language.) Even if it is the living result of human procreation–these facts, by themselves, are enough to qualify it as “a human being.”

Now an opponent of Roe would say: that’s just your opinion. Yes. That’s my opinion, that’s my conclusion–in the same way that a Roe opponent’s opinion or conclusion is “just his philosophical or religious or logically derived opinion; his conclusion.”

There is no reason why a Roe opponent’s opinion about “what constitutes a human being” should trump mine, and become law. But there are at least two reasons why my opinion about “what constitutes a human being” should trump that of a Roe opponents.

The first reason is the Roe decision itself. It is the law of the land, handed down by a lawful government. It indicates that my opinion is supported by law and that the opinion of Roe opponents is wrong. (If the courts and legislature believed that Roe opponents were right, and that a fertilized egg or blastocyst or embryo is indeed a human being or “person”: these officials would end the Roe policy. And they haven’t. Thus: my opinion that an embryo is not a human being “trumps” the opinion of a Roe opponent, as a matter of law.)

The second reason my opinion seems to trump that of a Roe opponent: the verdict of the American people on the issue. For forty years the American people have accepted the Roe decision and stood by it. They’ve stood by the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion in the first trimester (despite strenuous and chronic attempts of Roe opponents to end that right.) Once again: if the American people believed that a fertilized egg or embryo in the first trimester constituted a human being–in the same way that they are human beings–they would demand that Roe be overturned.

They haven’t demanded that and they’re not demanding that now. On these grounds, my personal opinion once again “beats” the opinion of a Roe opponent, in that my personal opinion on this matter has more societal support.

I understand: just because my opinion coincides with that of officials who regularly consider the matter, that doesn’t end the controversy over “what is or is not a human being.” In our culture personal moral, philosophical and religious matters of opinion are not decided by elected officials and judges. And they shouldn’t be. But when there is a disagreement about which choices are prohibited and which are permitted–elected officials and judges are charged with deciding that. So as a practical matter, their opinion as to “what is/is not a human being” is authoritative.

And I also understand: just because my opinion coincides with that of that of the majority that condones and supports Roe: that doesn’t end controversy about “what is or is not a human being.” The fact that an opinion enjoys widespread support doesn’t mean it’s correct. But in a representative democracy, the majority’s opinion counts for a lot in determining which rights we have, which choices are permissible.

So a Roe opponent has a right to maintain their opinion as to “what is or is not a human being”–regardless of the fact that the law says otherwise and society at large says otherwise.

But a Roe opponent does not have the right to use law to force a Roe supporter to act in accordance with that opinion–against the verdict of officials recognizing Roe as law, against the verdict of fellow citizens who continue to support Roe. Roe opponents have no such right…

…no matter how fervently they are convinced that “a human life is in existence from the moment of conception.” That is their personal or philosophical or religious belief; Roe opponents have no right to bind the choices of fellow citizens who disagree with their personal, philosophical, or religious beliefs. (I wouldn’t use law compel one of them to choose abortion despite their personal belief on this matter of “what is a human being.” So why do they assume they have the right to use law to prevent fellow citizens from acting on their personal belief on the same matter?)

Those are some of the reasons I’ve always supported reproductive choice. There are other, equally important reasons. For example: I believe in the right of a woman to control decisions affecting her own body, health, and life.

If I’m sure–as sure as I can be–that a fertilized egg is not “a human being” in the same sense that you or I are human beings…what makes Roe opponents think they have the right to force me (or anyone else) to behave as if it is a human being? The truth is: they have no such right; not as a matter of law, logic, or public morals.    

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