Empathy for “Entities”?

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.

  1. Chris
    June 12th, 2009 at 10:55 | #1

    Like the other commenters, I think it is very important not to cede any moral high ground to the likes of Andrew.
    His form of empathy, founded on magic thinking (the concept of a soul makes no sense to me, even less so for a fetus without any brain development), leads to bad decisions, such as asking or requiring a woman to carry an anencephalic fetus to term because it has some “right” to be born or because God demands it.

    Empathy in such cases properly goes out to the parents, who thought they were having a baby but are not–they are carrying a brainless fetus that can never become a baby. Nothing good can come from this kind of cruel accident of nature. The most awful thing about these kinds of pregnancies is that the fetus has developed in a way incompatible with life but keeps developing, almost normally, in the womb. Mercifully, most developmental defects this serious lead to spontaneous abortion early in the pregnancy. I can see no good coming from pretending the brainless baby is a person, carrying it to term, watching it die.

    You contrast the empathy of Andrew and your spouse to a more logical analysis that leads to a “cold place”. I disagree–the cold place is not that cold. It is just a place without misplaced empathy for doomed fetuses at the expense of genuine empathy for the living.

  2. Wallace Paul
    July 30th, 2010 at 07:53 | #2

    Pretty simple here: just ask yourself “what would Hitler do?”

  3. uallen
    August 6th, 2010 at 20:44 | #3

    I admire John’s reasonable plasticity, and courage, to have, and admit, a change of mind that might not be (obviously wasn’t, in all cases) congenial to his readers.

    He 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 John 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?

    Also, I respect John’s decision to forego posting images of anencephaly. At any rate, they could be matched one-for-one with images of the results of abortion. (Frankly, I’m not as sure as John may be that such images might spill over into the pornographic. These facts are what they are; we might as well deal with them as they are.)

    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.

    There is much to be discussed here, and I appreciate the forum.

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