Saturday, February 12, 2005

I am holed up in the library, where I really should be painstakingly working my way through newspapers from 1918. But instead, I am going to venture into the abortion debate, something which I usually avoid, mostly because I don't think I have anything all that new or interesting to add.

But over on Alas, a blog, amp has linked to a post by John a pro-lifer in New Zealand who initially claimed that abortion is all about control. And that's a bad thing. Pro-choicers can't accept that the world is not entirely controlable, and supporting abortion rights is our pathological response to our need to believe we're in charge of our destinies. Amp pointed out that we try to assert control in many ways: through mainstream medicine, for instance, which tries to treat disease rather than just allowing nature to take its course. The reason that John thinks that it's pathological to support abortion rights is that he, unlike pro-choice people, thinks that a fetus is a person, and therefore that abortion is an illegitimate and not a legitimate means of controling our lives. John has partially conceded the point although he still seems to think that women's desire to control what happens to our bodies is a bit different from his desire to control what happens to his.

Since the "control" issue doesn't really work, he shifts tactics and starts talking about fetal personhood. He says that "From the moment of conception to birth, there is no morally significant dividing line at which the foetus could be said to magically transform herself into a baby." Viability, he says, is not a good dividing line because it isn't static: babies become viable at different stages in the pregnancy depending on the quality of medical care available. Since the only fixed, static, clear moment of magical transformation is conception, we have to accept that a fetus is as fully a person as you or I from the moment it is conceived.

I would argue that this line of thought stems from John's own inability to confront the world. John needs certainty: he's terrified of ambiguity. But sometimes that certainty isn't available. Sometimes we have to make due with imprecise solutions, because certainty and precision aren't the highest goods.

If it's not clear when life begins, it's also no longer clear when it ends. Death used to be pretty straightforward: at some point, you stop breathing, your organs stop working, and everything shuts down. Thanks to modern medicine, that's not true anymore. Certain systems can be kept alive even as others die. There's great controversy over when a person is actually dead: is it when all systems stop, or can we declare someone dead even while machines are still keeping parts of their body alive?

The unambiguous, precise answer to this would be not to declare someone dead until every bodily system had ceased to function. The problem with that has to do with organ donation. If we wait until the entire body has shut down, it's too late to harvest organs for transplant. Instead, when a person's brain has ceased to function, we declare that person "brain dead" and begin the organ donation process. "Brain death" is, according to many medical ethicists, a fiction, but it's a fiction that has saved or improved the lives of countless people. In fact, we routinely harvest organs from people who are certainly dying and who have no chance of recovery but who could be said, in some sense, to still be alive.

It's a little bit scary to confront this ambiguity. It's a little frightening to think that I could be in a car accident tomorrow and someone could cut out and take away my still-beating heart. But we tolerate that ambiguity because almost everyone recognizes that the good done by organ donation outweighs the moral problems associated with killing someone who is, at least according to some systems of belief, still alive.

There are a lot of other complex issues that don't lend themselves to clear, simple solutions. For instance, we have to decide at what age a person is an adult and can be held legally responsible for his or her actions. Sometimes, we set an arbitrary age, even though not everyone is equally developed at 16 or 18. Sometimes we try to determine on a case-by-case basis, but then all sorts of biases come into play. In a perfect world, every person would be evaluated semi-annually by a completely impartial observor who would determine whether that person was old enough to drive, drink, marry, sign a legal contract, give informed medical consent, and/or be punished for committing a crime. But we can't achieve that perfect world, so we do the best we can. We don't do well enough; we will never do well enough; we must always try to hone our systems and make them better. But we're never going to come up with a magical formula for determining when someone is an adult, or when they're dead, or when a fetus is a person. And we just have to have the courage to confront a world in which some really important things will never be clear and certain.

It's scary and it may be sad, but we can't come up with rules that will reduce moral questions to obvious, black and white issues. There will always be shades of gray. We will always, sometimes, have to come up with the best possible but still unsatisfactory solutions to ethical quandries. John seems to suggest that moral certainty is the highest good. He seems to think it's ok to sacrifice people's lives or happiness so that we can draw an absolute line, so that we can reduce complex and possibly unanswerable questions to clear, easily-dilineated categories. And I just don't think that people should be sacrificed to his need for certainty. When the clearest answer produces real suffering, we need to consider that maybe the moral imperative to reduce suffering trumps the imperative to find the solution that is ethically pure.

Comments:
What a twit. I had no idea there were people like that in NZ. Over there, abortion is practically a non-issue. You can't get them for free, but no one will call you a murderer or try to make you feel like shit for wanting one, at least in my limited experience of not having had one, but having gone to support dear friends who were going for them.

I really take exception to men taking stands like this on abortion. I may be overly simplistic to think so, but I firmly believe that no uterus = no entitlement to an opinion.
 
I really appreciate this post. Speaking as a pro-lifer, it gets tiresome sometimes to hear people saying that it's absolutely ludicrous to say that a fetus is a living being and that anyone who claims to believe such is just pretending and really wants nothing but to enslave women.

It's good to hear from someone who understands the concept of the "seamless garment" of life, even if we disagree about whether it's a valid principle to follow.
 
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