Thursday, May 10, 2007

Redefining Personhood

I grew up in the sixties. The end of that decade was a turbulent time, due to the Viet Name war, but overall, it was a simpler time.

Back in those days, for example, the terms "person" and "human being" were pretty much synonymous in the minds of average people.

Then the "abortion rights" movement came along. It was so important to certain people to be able to legalize abortion that they would say just about anything in order to achieve that goal.

Sometimes abortion advocates described the fetus as an undifferentiated "blob of tissue", as if the fetus had no distinguishable facial features or body parts. But that claim wasn't always effective, because anybody who had ever seen a photo of an actual fetus, aborted or otherwise, knew that it was a bald faced lie. When caught in their lies, did they apologize? Of course not. Instead, they merely switched tactics.

The next tactic was to argue that no one really knew when human life began. But that proved to be pretty unconvincing as well. Even prior to the advent of ultrasound technology, "quickening" was defned as that time when the mother felt the baby move for the first time. The actual timing of that moment occurred at different points in the pregnancy for different mothers, but for virtually all mothers, it occurred many months before the time of normal delivery. Once ultrasound became available, it became easy to see the babies moving about in their mothers' wombs well before the time of quickening. If they weren't alive, then why were their movements and responses to stimuli so similar to what one would expect from newborn infants?

Even in those days, there was ample scientific evidence with which to answer the question, "Does life begin at conception?" From a biological standpoint, "yes" was the clear answer.

As time progressed, the developing science of fetal medicine made it abundantly clear that human life began long before the moment of quickening.

Therefore, abortion advocates had to find some way to rationalize and legalize the killing of millions of unborn human children. They did so by redefining the terms of discourse.

At one time, it was thought that any entitity which was biologically alive and genetically human was, by definition, a human being. A person, if you will.

But that definition proved to be rather inconvenient to those who wanted to be free to kill unborn children. So they narrowed the acceptable parameters which were employed in order to qualify as a "person" or a "human being". According to their views, one had to meet a variety of criteria, pertaining to such things as communicative abilities, socialization, dependence upon others for survival (also known as "viability"), physical size, "wantedness", cognitive abilities, self consciousness and on and on, in order to be considered human.

Building on assumptions which had their roots in the teaching of Darwinian evolution, some people argued that even though unborn children were clearly human beings from a genetic and biological point of view, they did not qualify as "persons" because they lacked certain traits which were presumably so essential that the absence of those traits allegedly made them fair game for abortionists. Conversely, many of those same people argued that some animals qualified as "persons" because they did possess those traits to some extent.

An example of the consequence of such ideas (promoted by animal rights activist Peter Singer and others) can be seen in a recent article in which certain activists in Vienna, Austria have recently sought to have a chimpanzee legally declared to be a "person".

In grade school, I was always taught that the plural of "person" was "people". For some strange reason, the teachers of the new ideology decided for the purposes of their argument to turn the plural of "person" into "persons". Why they did that, I'm not sure, but I suspect that it was because they knew that people had become so accustomed to using the term "people" to describe all members of the human race that they needed a new term which could be used in order to deprive certain members of the human race of their divinely endowed human rights. So one had a paradoxical situation in which some people were not considered to be "persons".

The overall effect was to diminish or directly attack the idea that human beings were intrinsicically special and worthy of legal protection --- regardless of their individual traits at any specific point in time --- simply because they were members of the human species.

This led not only to the advocacy of legal abortion, but also to the advocacy of practices, such as infanticide, which had long been regarded as abhorrent by Western society. Michael Tooley, a prominent professor of philosophy at Stanford University, wrote a thesis entitled "In Defense of Abortion and Infanticide". If indeed the distinction between persons and people was a valid distinction, then Tooley's conclusions pertaining to infanticide were predictable and logical. Looked at objectively, the criteria which Tooley cited in order to exclude unborn children from the rights of "personhood" were equally applicable to newborn children.

(Here's one person's analysis of the book which first made me aware of Tooley's views when I found that book in a used bookstore.)

It is ironic to me, therefore, that so many advocates of legal abortion objected strenuously when they were called "baby killers" by their political opponents. The fact is that when such people were asked to explain why unborn children did not possess the innate right to life which other human beings possessed, they often answered by citing the exact same criteria which people such as Michael Tooley had cited in order to rationalize and justify infanticide. The only difference between them and Tooley was that Tooley had the insight and honesty to recognize and acknowledge that the consistent application of such criteria to the question of the right to life logically led to societal acceptance of infanticide, whereas most advocates of legal abortion strenuously denied that there was any connection between their arguments and arguments which would have legalized infanticide.

As appalling as most people would consider Michael's ultimate conclusion to have been, at least he was willing to acknowledge that the entities he advocated killing were biologically alive. In that respect, he was similar to many other people who have subsequently identified themselves as pro-choice.

Bill Clinton, for example, wrote the following on page 229 of his book entitled "My Life": "Everyone knows life begins biologically at conception. No one knows when biology turns into humanity." Similar statements have been made by other Democrats such as John Kerry and Jesse Jackson.

In the past, the abortion debate was characterized as a disagreement between people who believed that human life began at conception and those who believed it began at some other point. However, as time has gone by, fewer and fewer pro-choice people have continued to make such an argument.

It's pretty hard to look at a 3D ultrasound of an unborn children and then continue to argue, in defiance of the evidence, that it's merely a blob of tissue. It's pretty hard to watch as the fetus sucks its thumb, reacts to light and sound and does other things very similar to what a newborn child would do that it is not biologically alive! So even there continue to be a few poorly educated people who insist in defiance of the scientific evidence that unborn children are not biologically alive, more and more people have changed strategies, by arguing that biological human life and "personhood" and "humanity" are two entirely different things. Clinton obviously buys into that argument.

If indeed it's true that "no one" knows when biology turns into humanity, then why stop at abortion? Why not argue, as Michael Tooley and Peter Singer and others have done, that infanticide is permissible in some circumstances? For that matter, why stop at abortion and infanticide? Surely there are some folks, such as the old and the terminally ill, whose lives have become so difficult and devoid of happiness that they are no longer fully human. Do they really deserve unconditional governmental protection against those who would murder them? Some, such as Dr. Jack Kevorkian, would argue that they do not deserve such protection, and that in fact we are doing them a favor when we kill them.

And why stop there? Why not argue, for example, that people living in poverty cannot possibly live meaningful lives, and that they are such a burden on the members of "normal" society that they have no right to expect governmental protection against murder? Ditto for the handicapped, the retarded and the mentally ill. And one might then proceed to argue that certain ethnic and religious and political groups are so far removed from the mainstream as to cause them to forfeit the right to life.

In short, it seems to me that we have two choices here. The one choice is to accept the classic definition of personhood, in which a "person" is any biologically living member of the human species. The other choice is to accept the idea that all kinds of arbitrary conditions have to be met before one is welcomed into the human community.

What I find particularly ironic is that those who fall into the latter camp often describe themselves as liberals. Ironic, because the term "liberal" means "generous". Yet, such people are anything but generous to unborn children. Rather than giving unborn children the benefit of the doubt by granting them the rights of personhood in spite of occasional disagreements about the precise moment when human personhood begins, today's so-called liberals insist upon knowing with absolute certainty when personhood begins before they will extend legal protections against murder to unborn members of the human species.

Our society increasingly accepts the idea that a person's humanity is contingent on whether or not other people wish to acknowledge that humanity. This is particularly evident in the facile manner in which some people change the terms they use, depending on whether or not their unborn children are wanted.

But an entity is what an entity is. If it's a baby when it's wanted, then it's also a baby when it's unwanted. If it's a meaningless blob of fetal tissue when it's unwanted, then it's also a meaningless blob of fetal tissue when it's wanted. There is something incredibly egotistical about thinking that one's desires are capable of determining the objective truth regarding whether or not unborn children are "persons".

When abortion was legalized, it opened a Pandora's box which threatened and continues to threaten the divinely endowed rights of every human being on the planet. It is time that we stopped trying to rationalize feticide with rhetorical nonsense. As Shakespeare said, a rose by any other name remains a rose. A human being by any other name remains a human being.

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