Tuesday, 5 February 2013

"Life" is neither telic nor binary-valued

I'm going to be beating a pretty old drum here, but I can't help myself. I've been observing a debate between two anti-choicers, latest contribution by a third intervenor, here. This is the blog of the right-wing US news magazine, National Review, and it serves as a kind of on-going record of general looneyness and sometimes outright mendaciousness, but that's all par for the course.

So. The tale apparently begins (if you have the patience) with one of their bloggers, Avik Roy, suggesting that a better strategy for the pro-life movement is to notice first this inconvenient fact:

It wouldn’t be. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that only 9 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, with another 35 percent believing it should be illegal except in cases of rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life. Another 31 percent believe that abortion should be legal always, with 23 percent believing that it should be legal “most of the time.” In the NBC poll, the percentage of Americans believing that abortion should be mostly legal has increased over time, whereas the percentage believing that abortion should be mostly illegal has decreased.
This is tidily in trend with with what my cobloggers have noticed in Canada, just shifted somewhat rightward.

Roy goes on to argue that the anti-choice movement would make better headway if it were willing to acknowledge that even people uncomfortable with legally unimpeded abortion find that forcing some births on some women is too cruel even for them to stomach.

Predictably, he is immediately opposed by a pair of hard-liners on the NR Corner blog, who hold to the line that "life begins at conception" and that what he is proposing is a compromise with people who think that there is a period when murder is legitimate. To which, he sensibly responds (remember he is the Voice of Reason here):

Elsewhere in her post, Ashley makes the argument that “the scientific community accepts the simple assertion that at the moment of conception, a new human life is created.” My degree in biology is admittedly a few decades old, but I’m not aware of any scientific consensus around when life begins, especially when it comes to the legal rights that embryos should enjoy. If we were to take a poll of Ph.D.-level biologists, I would be surprised if their views on abortion diverged meaningfully from those found in the typical blue state. Ashley and I might believe that life begins at conception, but we should acknowledge that this belief is moral and philosophical, not empirical.

Let us all now pause for our collective scoliosis-inducing wince.

Properly winced? Good. Because you can imagine how well THAT went down with the commenters or with his interlocutors. On reading it, I began to get an inkling that Roy might not really have much experience with this issue, because for the committed anti-choicer, there's nowadays no more fundamental tenet that the addition of a man's sperm makes a woman's body a public park.

So that the phrase "life begins at conception" can be assigned a usable denotation, it is absolutely necessary to define what life is, and the anti-choice movement has decided that "cellular acquisition of a human-inherited genetic complement that is separate from the host organism" is that definition. This is my attempt at putting it as expansively and generously as possible into words, but in reality, there is no real way to do it without some very carefully crafted and rather artificial-sounding caveats, caveats to exclude tumours, identical twins, clones, and so on. All of these caveats have, incidentally, one purpose: to refine it down to the point where it is a man's action that changes the state of a woman's body, because the intended situation is exactly congruent to that one. (Consider the rejection of IVF in some quarters.) This is of course admitting the equivocation between "life" in general and "a life" as a time-series of events in an organism's experience.

Why is this moment so important to them? Well, I'm sure y'all have your theories, but here's one thrown out by one of Roy's critical commentariat:

If it is arbitrary, then we have opted for "might makes right" to define who is and isn't a "person".
Who is the "might" here? The traumatized victim whom hardcore anti-choicers would still see go through with a pregnancy? Well, yes, logically it is. We can infer that the terrorized concern here is quite primal, and yet, in a weird sense, following fully from its premises.

But the real answer is that there is no way to define either "life" OR "a life" that admits the desired properties of "beginning" and "ending", at least not with any appeal to modern science. Life can at best be said to have "begun" when the first self-replicating molecule came into being...if even that. It "ends" when the last one ceases. Otherwise it is a constant uninterrupted flow of cellular division with variable-but-constrained shapes, patterns, and properties. "A life" apart from our conscious experience does not begin or end anywhere in any biologically meaningful sense.

"Worse" still, it's not even clear that there are two specific binary states of being "dead" or "alive". It's not even clear that there is a scalar gradient of "livingness", but a complex property whose many dimensions are yet being enumerated by scientific research.

Where does that leave us and our intrepid Avik Roy? With a likewise complex series of graded moral/ethical judgements, and all we're negotiating about is who gets to make them, and why. Does this mean "might makes right"? THAT depends on which people on Earth you fear, and why.

Avik Roy cannot tell his friends these things, although judging by his puzzlement and naïve tone, he probably hasn't thought it through. But if he did, he still couldn't say it to them, but he must know deep down who on Earth they fear and despise, and how deeply.


Sixth Estate said...

"If we were to take a poll of Ph.D.-level biologists, I would be surprised if their views on abortion diverged meaningfully from those found in the typical blue state."

Presumably because such people are intelligent enough to know that "life began" only once, 3 billion years ago, and that any "beginning point" since then, whether it's conception or birth, is arbitrary.

Somehow I don't think that's the answer Woody hoped his magic debate-opening committee would come up with.

Anonymous said...

Sixth Estate, you are brilliant! Thank you for "life began" only once, 3 billion years ago, and that any "beginning point" since then, whether it's conception or birth, is arbitrary.

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