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Beginnings of Life, Impossible Issues

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.
  1. Chris
    June 3rd, 2009 at 18:45 | #1

    Sullivan posted an excerpt from this blog post, as you’re probably aware by now.

    His response isn’t very good:

    “I’ve always supported abortion if the life of the mother is at risk. 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.”

    So, rather than debate with you whether anencephalic fetuses should be considered human, he informs us of the “fact” that they are human and have souls. He can’t even imagine thinking otherwise, I suppose–it’s all tangled up in weird theological notions for Sullivan, so he isn’t really able to critique his own position in the manner I think you were suggesting…

    Also, he dismisses your thought experiment as dogmatic (“Culhane’s certainties”). Strange.

  2. Scott
    June 4th, 2009 at 00:21 | #2

    I really appreciate Andrew Sullivan but this issue of “souls” seems to be key to understanding much of how he and lots of others think. Sam Harris has a pretty powerful line about ethics and cells – which is pretty striking in its use of the physical facts that we know about reproductive biology to get at just how radical, and in Harris’ view, unethical, it is to equate a blastocyst with a person. It seems that by putting a “soul” in the very small cellular scale amount of tissue a lot of ethical work is being done. It seems to me that the soul itself is a completely faith based proposition. It admits no form of quantitative or biological inquiry which is to say that there is no evidence that it even exists. Meanwhile there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it was an idea that was “made up” to explain a lot of what is now clearly the province of science – our souls, like god get more distant and less active in our day to day lives the more we know. I would dearly love to understand why Andrew is certain about a “soul” … Andrew talks a lot about faith as essential to doubt – but here at the finest scale at the heart of the matter, in the petri dish is a medieval idea based on nothing but ignorance of reproductive biology the sacred spark of god that squirts out in sacred copulation.

    How can one not understand the biology of this and not admit that as a ethical matter Harris’ position is superior. Why can you be talking about souls and not be as foolish as if you were talking about witchcraft?

  3. Iris
    June 7th, 2009 at 20:49 | #3

    Your blogs are thought provoking and you must get deep satisfaction that you get so many “hits” by people of intellect. Keep doing what you do so well. (witchcraft?)

  4. August 6th, 2010 at 20:01 | #4

    In truth, at first i did understand it. But after re-reading I think i understand

    Sent from my iPhone 4G

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