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Dimensions of Personhood: Reflections on Penn State and Mississippi

November 12th, 2011 No comments

Last week, pundits and prognosticators were puzzled when Mississippi voters decisively rejected an amendment to the state’s constitution that would have made fertilized eggs persons, presumably entitled to all the rights that human beings enjoy. The measure, which almost surely would have been declared unconstitutional by the courts (I doubt the Supreme Court even would have bothered to weigh in), ended up being too much even for voters in one of the reddest of red states. But let’s not forget that more than four in ten voters said “yes” to the measure.

More than anything else, a “yes” vote required turning a blind eye to the complexities of life. Not only would the measure have outlawed certain forms of contraception (bringing us back to an earlier time when the state’s heavy hand tried to control reproductive decisions), and raise problems for in vitro fertilization (by effectively limiting many women to a single embryo), it would also have denied reality by fully equating even the earliest embryos to the women carrying them. In theory, this would have stopped even abortions needed to save women’s lives — by what logic, other than a utilitarian calculus that seems ruled out by the logic of this measure, could the embryo’s life be affirmatively ended in order to save the mother’s?

Such certainty in the face of such complexity is easy, and cost-free, when you’re pulling a level at the ballot box. But I wonder how those same people would have reacted had they come upon the horrific scene that confronted Mike McQueary that day in the shower at the Penn State athletic facility. Or if they had been told what happened, as was Joe Paterno. How sure are they that they’d have done the right thing? I’d like to think I’d have known exactly what to do, but you never know unless you’re in that moment. It’s humbling to think about, and the reason we need clear and unambiguous rules in place to deal with such cases. Even then, we won’t always get it right.

Perhaps thinking through some of the “what ifs” would have resulted in a different vote on personhood — so easy to state, so hard to define, and so likely to cause terrible difficulties.

What Do Two Issues Have in Common?

May 19th, 2011 No comments

Not much, although you’d never know it by the way the right tries to conflate abortion and gay rights. We shouldn’t let them get away with it, as I explain here.

That Ol’ Humanity Thing

August 7th, 2010 2 comments

Well, I should have expected that re-posting the discussion about late-term abortion from last summer would have reignited the controversy. Here are some excerpts from an especially thoughtful response I just received, focusing on the issue of the humanity (vel non) of anencephalics:

[You] concludes(let’s do this like Questions for the Prime Minister) that “they are human and entitled to respect.” But if that’s the case, then can [you] consistently maintain that “human rights” is a viable category? I use “human rights” here (following Professor Michael Pakaluk and others) as meaning rights that belong to us by virtue of our being human, rights that we have simply “because we are human beings, not because of an acquired characteristic or accomplishment.”

John states — albeit prior to his change of mind — that “[w]ithout any capacity for functioning beyond the most primitive, the anencephalic can’t be distinguished from other species….” But the DNA makeup of the anencephalic is derived precisely from its two human parents, “distinguishing” it as a member of the species homo sapiens. Introduction of “capacit[ies] for functioning” as the criteria for humanity would seem to imply something along the lines of “degrees” of humanity, since “capacities,” alas, are not evenly distributed among the population. Is my neighbor “more” human than I am because she has a doctoral degree and I do not? Is the person who has basked in Proust “more” human than the person who is illiterate?

Finally, John’s respondent, Chris, rightly points out that Andrew introduced religious categories for his point of view (what Chris would apparently call “magical” categories) in his appeal to “souls.” Chris counters with laments about bringing the product of conception to term and then “watching it die.” He speaks of “doomed fetuses.” But we are all born doomed. Last I checked, the mortality rate was still running at 100%. That someone might not have long to live should not affect her human rights. After all, the person on her deathbed who will be dead in several days (or hours) does not, by reason thereof, lose her humanity.

Responses like these, while provocative and thoughtful, may help to explain why folks are reluctant to cede an inch in the dug-in, sloganeering, trench warfare that passes for the abortion “debate” in this country. “See? You admitted they’re humans and therefore (this commenter implies), abortion is simply off the table.

It’s not that simple. Let’s concede, for a moment, that being “human” means being entitled to the full panoply of rights that we all have (at least in principle). It doesn’t follow that aborting anencephalics is therefore an unethical act. In the case of humans who lack the capacity for decision-making, the law has wisely chosen an “best interests” standard for deciding what should — or may — be done for or to them. And in this case, as with a severely ill infant whose choices might be, say, a painful course of chemotherapy and radiation with little prospect of survival even then, the best course might be death — either actively (the aborting of an anencephalic) or passively (as with the cancer-stricken infant). Some would find a morally relevant distinction between the active and passive here, but I don’t.

Second, there’s another human being here  — the mother, whose interests can be known with certainty. My posts were very much concerned about respect for her. Note that her interests aren’t even mentioned in the reader’s response.

Moverover, I usually find that slippery slope arguments aren’t persuasive. If we allow the aborting of anencephalics, the commenter should be read to fear, soon we’ll be offing those without graduate degrees as we begin the grim business of sorting out humans by assessed worth. Law and ethics can do more precise work that this.

Finally, I question whether calling ancephalics commits one — OK, me — to considering them “human” for any and all purposes, in the sense of being entitled to full equality. For me, the questions are: What are their interests? And how does a compassionate society, with limited resources by the way, balance those interests against those of the woman carrying them?

Categories: abortion Tags:

Empathy for “Entities”?

July 29th, 2010 3 comments

The controversy continues, as it must. I recently explored the issue of late-term abortions through a sort of thought experiment, asking whether anencephalics were “human” in any meaningful sense. A couple of posts later, and after a discussion about the point here at home and an internet-mediated exchange with Andrew Sullivan (see here, here, here, and here), I answered my own question — they are human and entitled to respect.

My readers mostly disagreed. Here are some of their responses to my rethinking:

“I think your initial comment was correct, and that you are silly to back down to Andrew Sullivan’s emotional bleating. What makes us human is our brain. A “baby” with no brain isn’t human in any real or significant sense of the term.

“Aborting such an entity raises none of the moral questions raised by aborting a fetus that already has the cognitive equipment of a human, or which will have such cognitive equipment in the near future.

“Yeah, the entities look vaguely human, but they have no brain, dude. They’re not entitled to any respect or empathy, because there’s nothing there to empathize with. You might as well have empathy for your desk lamp.”

This next reader agreed, eloquently:

“[I]…disagree with Sullivan. It’s important to distinguish between empathy, which requires something similar enough that we can imagine what it is like to be that other, from the emotional response to something that is physically similar to us. People cry at funerals, but that corpse is not another person. People sometimes imagine what it is like to be dead and in a coffin, but that of course is a pretense. The fact that our animal brains are cued by a corpse’s appearance to the person who once was doesn’t change that fact. Nor is a brain-dead corpse a person, even if the heart and lung are kept beating by modern medical technology. For all it might look like the person who once was, it isn’t. Nor is an anencephalic infant a person. In all three cases, the appearance of another human organism can tug at our heartstrings and cause us to imagine there is someone there. But there isn’t.”

Finally, this reader, who expressed disappointment in my change of heart:

“I found your original post refreshing and rational….”

“[I]t seems like you’re backing down now. All I can say is I wish you wouldn’t. You shouldn’t have to back down from asking a thoughtful question.”

Thanks to these readers and to others for their comments. Just a few additional thoughts seem in order.

I’d like to think I didn’t “back down,” which suggests some kind of intimidation. (Is anyone really intimidated, short of a threat of litigation or violence, on the internet?) No, I had a change of heart, upon reflection. My earlier position was lifted, more or less intact, from my days as a philosophy student. But I’m no longer than person, and —  when pushed — I discovered that my views had changed, probably without my realizing it. I will confess that when I originally wrote that anencephalics weren’t human in the sense that mattered to me, it didn’t feel…right. There’s a difference in making a logically sound argument and believing it in your bones.

Nor did I — or do I — apologize for asking the question. Just because I ended up answering it differently than I or my readers expected doesn’t mean it was wrong to ask it. Judging from the intellectual firestorm this issue has generated, it seems that my raising it was a great thing.

Of course, I’ve gone back to read my “change of heart post” with Talmudic scrutiny. And I find that I never said that I had “empathy” for anencephalics; the readers’ comments suggest why that term isn’t descriptive. I did say that they are entitled to respect, and I’d say that whether or not I thought they were “human.” As I also stated in that later post (and with apology for quoting myself):

“[P]art of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.”

Finally, I want to bring this conversation back to the women carrying these unfortunate offspring. I think we can agree that they are entitled to respect and empathy. (Here’s Sullivan’s collection of the stories, current as of about a week ago, just in case you need an empathy boost.) Their view of an anencephalic is entitled to respect, and to our deepest empathy: Can any of us really know how we’d feel (or act) in such a situation? And how might we want our own decisions treated in such a case?

As an staunch member of the pro-choice community, it’s important to keep in mind that some have made moving decisions not to abort, even in these cases. Most seem to do so for religious reasons, but…whatever. There should be enough respect go to around.

Anencephalics, Humanity, and Respect

July 28th, 2010 6 comments

For awhile, I wish I’d never written on anencephaly. My first clue should have been that I didn’t know how to describe these unfortunate children, born without most of their brains. Since one of my points was to raise the issue of what counts as humanity, I didn’t want to answer my own question by calling them “babies”; at one point, I used the clinical term entity, which drew a criticism from Andrew Sullivan (one that I now largely accept, as I’ll soon discuss).

Several WordinEdgewise readers commented on the issue, with most taking the position that anencephalics prove the point that “human” is really just a category that we use for our own purposes; by creating anencephalics, the universe is reminding us that it doesn’t care about our efforts at taxonomy. One reader invited me and others to take a look at some of the images of anencephalics, and I did. I had planned on posting a couple of these here, but decided that it could too easily be taken as a kind of pornography. Those who are curious about exactly what these tragic babies look like can go to Google images.

I’d really just wanted to raise the issue in the context of the late-term abortion controversy so respectfully unfolding over at the Daily Dish. But the whole discussion has been valuable to me, and I hope to others, as I sort through the intractable complexity of these issues that are so central to our humanity. One immediate result was a conversation with my spouse, David, who is the one in the family with true empathy. He was astonished that I’d even raised the question of the humanity of anencephalics, uninterested in the logical case I was able to build for that possible conclusion. Eschewing metaphysical terms like “soul,” he simply stated that these babies were entitled to respect.

It’s really impossible for me to argue with that. I realized that part of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.

But there’s more to it than our connection with other species. Logic only gets one so far. I’m not religious, but perhaps the combination of being a bit older and having kids of my own makes me realize that membership in the human race, defined broadly enough to include anencephalics, is important — even if I can’t exactly say why. Maybe it’s just the way we’re wired. (Ask Edmund O. Wilson, or some other brilliant and delightfully controversial sociobiologist.)

And every one of us is entitled to respect, which is at least to say serious consideration in any moral decision. That doesn’t necessarily lead to any particular conclusion; it may be that respecting the interest of an anencephalic, or other grossly deformed fetus, is to abort. It seems to me that reasonable people can disagree here, and it also seems to me apparent that the humility of uncertainty requires giving the woman carrying this life — who, it should go without saying, is also entitled to respect — the right to resolve these impossible  questions according to her best judgment.

I still don’t believe in the “soul,” or any such dreamed-up construct. But there’s a kind of poetry of the shorthand in the term, as it captures something vital about our shared humanity. As long as it’s not used as a trump card, it can be used to express the ineffable.

Props

July 27th, 2010 1 comment

Since I posted yesterday on my puzzlement over Andrew Sullivan‘s unwillingness to support late-term abortions despite his obvious and eloquent empathy, he’s continued to post heart-stopping testimonials from readers about their own experiences. Then I was brought up short by his just-issued post:

“A reader writes:

The posts from real women who have had to ponder and in some cases have late-term abortions has really changed my thinking.  It may be the early term abortions that are most morally problematic, not the late term ones that arise under the most excruciating of circumstances.  My own feeling is that our moral duty is to agonize and struggle over the serious choices we make, not always to make the usually unknowable “right” choice.  By this standard, the women you have posted have more than done their duty.  I would not want to second guess them.

Thank you for posting these messages, and especially thanks to the people who wrote them and were willing to have them posted.  Just as gays coming out and being known destigmatizes you and them, getting these abortion stories out takes away the cartoon quality of the whole abortion debate.  There just is very little black and white in the world and loads of gray.

“My feelings entirely.”

The blogosphere is often seen — sometimes caricatured — as thousands of loud partisans screaming at each other, with few listening to what others are saying. Read over the last few days of the Daily Dish, especially on this abortion issue, and be heartened.

Originally published on June 3, 2010

Categories: abortion Tags: ,

Certainties? If Only

July 26th, 2010 2 comments

Responding to my first post on the subject of late-term abortions, Andrew Sullivan takes issue with me on anencephalic fetuses (i.e., those whose brains will not develop to enable cognition, and most of whom will die shortly after birth). In the context of questioning his opposition to late-term abortions even in such cases, I had asked whether anencephalics are “human” in a morally relevant sense. After a long quote from me (see the earlier post), here’s his response:

“I am just aware that another human life is at stake here and I find describing such infants as “entities”, as Culhane does, misses an essential fact about them: their soul and their humanity. Our view of what is human “in the sense that matters to me” is where we differ. From reading the emails, it seems the mothers are actually closer to my conflicts than Culhane’s certainties.”

Yeah, I did describe them as “entities,” recognizing of course the response it would likely (and with some justification) elicit. But I did so because to have referred to them as “babies” or “humans” would have begged the very question I was seeking to raise, somewhat in the spirit of a thought experiment: What does it mean to be human? I don’t know, and I’m not even “certain” that even these most tragic figures shouldn’t have at least some rights. But why? What makes us human? Should we accord rights to anencephalics even if we decide, pace Sullivan, they’re not human in some morally relevant sense? If so, why? And, right to the point, should these rights outweigh those of the mother who makes the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy under such circumstances?

These complex issue vex moral philosophers, and I make no claim to certainty. So, to the extent that my point was presented syllogistically, I went further than I should have.

On the subject of certainty, though, what about Sullivan’s citing of the “fact” that humans have souls? And their humanity, while it would likely be debated by fewer people, isn’t a “fact” either, but a proposition in need of argument. Otherwise it’s an article of faith (yes, that kind) — take it or leave it.

Let me end this on a more conciliatory note: After yesterday’s post, I continued reading the many Dish entries on the issue; as I said earlier today, I was taken aback by the stories of the women who’d undergone late-term abortions and by Sullivan’s obviously  sympathetic view of their situation. That remains true. Whatever our disagreements about  abortion (in the abstract or otherwise), the Dish has contributed an important element to the often dispiriting debate: nuance.

Beginnings of Life, Impossible Issues

July 24th, 2010 4 comments

I’ve got two somewhat related topics to discuss today. Let’s start with the unpleasant subject of late-term abortions: On Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” last night,1 Andrew Sullivan said that he was moved by the tragic testimonials of those who’d had such abortions when faced with the prospect of giving birth to seriously disabled children, some of whom were destined to live very short, painful lives. Yet virtually in the same sentence, he added that he opposes late-term abortions; he later reiterated that statement in the Daily Dish, in the most sympathetic way I’ve ever read:

“I am immensely grateful to those readers who have shared such personal, painful experiences with such candor and open hearts. I have to say that I remain somewhat shaken by the emails…. They reminded me of the human beings behind these tragedies, and forced me to reassess my own certainties and beliefs. I still cannot in good conscience support these abortions; but I can offer my profound gratitude for the readers who have forced this blogger to see things I had not fully grasped so keenly before; and to return to them respect and empathy in the particulars, even while we may disagree in the abstract.” (emphasis added)

I’m not clear as to whether he believes that such abortions should in all cases be illegal, or that he can’t support them morally. In either case, though: Why? Why doesn’t that empathy, so eloquently expressed, translate into a change in the “abstract”?

Let’s take the most extreme case, as the statement in opposition isn’t qualified in any way: A woman is to give birth to an anencephalic, a (human?) being without a functioning brain, or perhaps with nothing but a brain stem. What justifies the abstract position against abortion in this case? We’re talking about an entity that will live for only a few hours, often, and which isn’t human in the sense that matters to me from the point of view of moral philosophy: as a rights holder. Without any capacity for functioning beyond the most primitive, the anencephalic can’t be distinguished from other species to which we afford far less sympathetic (sentimental?) treatment.  I do think the cases are different, somehow, but it’s hard to say why. Is this tragic being one of us? Are we so clear about that to oppose a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy that will have this result, with the visual image of this unfortunate being likely to be seared into her brain forever?

To his credit, Sullivan acknowledged that in some of these cases the women’s lives will also be placed at risk. Yet his position was stated without an exception to cover such cases, thereby placing him beyond even those who favor legislation prohibiting late-term abortions, where such exceptions are routine. (I’d welcome a contrary clarification, of course.)

On the subject of tragic lives, what should the law do about a sperm bank that negligently fails to screen its donors for various kinds of genetic abnormalities, and then sells the “product” to a woman whose child then ends up seriously disabled? I’m about to be interviewed on this very subject (by WHYY, the local Philadelphia affiliate of NPR) later this afternoon. The woman’s claim, which likely would have focused on the increased expenses of raising and caring for such a child, was barred by the statute of limitations, but her daughter — now a teen with serious mental disabilities — is able to sue, as the statute doesn’t start to run against kids until they achieve majority.

But what are the child’s damages? Her “choices” were this life, or none. Can she sue for something called “wrongful life”? Most states say no, and go all metaphysical in the knees: “It’s impossible to weigh even an impaired life against the inky void of utter non-existence, only God knows, etc.” Is this child a “defective product”? What a horrible thing to say, to think. But if she can’t raise a claim, where’s the accountability?

As a parent of young twins with my own difficult story to tell (but I’m not going to), all of this makes me uneasy. How do we respect life without being (effectively, if not intentionally) punitive?

Originally published on June 2, 2009

  1. The link will take you to the video, too.

A Real Vacation (I Think)

July 23rd, 2010 No comments

I’m to get up in about six hours, shovel whatever still needs to be packed into our trunk, and get out of here: Two weeks up in Cape Cod, and with little or no internet access. (What kind of monsters are these realtors?)

So I won’t be blogging — unless I do. A decision in the Prop 8 case, for example, could probably get me to figure out a way to do so.

While I’m gone, I’ve scheduled some repostings, starting with my several posts on late-term abortion where I was drawn into a discussion with Andrew Sullivan. (There are several links to his responses.)

Thanks to everyone for the continued — and growing — support. But I really do need this break.

Categories: abortion, blogs Tags:

My “Pro-Life” v. Pro-Life Op-Ed

March 22nd, 2010 5 comments

It was published today, a day later than expected. Here‘s the link.

Categories: abortion Tags: