Saturday, November 24, 2012

No Obvious Line

(Note: for a non-colorized version of this post, click here)

I was listening to a debate on abortion recently, and it got me thinking about the whole idea that life begins at conception. As far as I can tell, the whole idea of claiming that life begins and conception is to draw a line in the sand as to where abortion is permissible. If we declare the fetus to be alive, then aborting it is tantamount to murder. On the other hand, if it is not alive, we are merely performing a medical procedure. I would argue that there are a number of spots during the pregnancy where we might consider claiming life. Perhaps it is the moment of birth, perhaps it is once nervous system can feel pain, there are probably several level of brain development that would make a certain amount of sense, perhaps it is when the heart has reached a certain level of development, maybe it is just the moment of conception. How do we choose where to draw the line?

I would argue 
that it is really not obvious where this line should be drawn, it seems like it should be somewhere in the middle, but I have no idea exactly where. If we think about the 
extremes it seems pretty obvious, a single cell, or just a handful of cells, no big deal, clearly not murder. You are not talking about a life, you are talking about a little lump of practically nothing. On the other hand, consider a fetus that is almost ready to be born, is aborting that baby murder? It certainly feels like it to me. Does something magical happen when it is born? Not really, it's essentially the same the day before and the day after birth, and it seems obvious that late-term abortion is a thing to be avoided. Put another way, what is the difference between a baby that was born 2 days early and another baby that is 2 days late, on the day they were expected to be born, is it moral to abort one, but immoral to kill the other? They should be treated the same right? I would argue that the point where abortion should no longer occur is somewhere in the middle, but it's not really a line, there's a sort of moral grey scale. The farther along the pregnancy gets, the 
more uneasy the idea of an abortion makes me. But my understanding is that this is reflected in how abortions are performed in practice, getting an abortion early on is no big deal, and late term abortions really don't happen unless there is something severely wrong (like if the baby didn't develop correctly). If we have to draw a line somewhere legally, it seems to make the most sense to me to put it at the point of birth.

But this is the 
kind of thing we should be used to, we see it all over the place. What happens the day you turn 16 that makes it reasonable for you to get a drivers license? Why is it that we are wildly irresponsible when we are 15 years and 364 days old, and yet when we turn 16 we can drive safely? Obviously nothing, but legally we have to draw the line somewhere. Some kids would probably be great drivers at 12, while other probably shouldn't be allowed to drive until they are 20, somehow the law wound up at 16. The same thing is true for drinking, the day we turn 21 we can drink ourselves into a stupor, but one day earlier a single drop touching our lips is illegal. It's kind of silly, but it's just the way we have to write the law.

It also reminded me 
of assigning grades for a class. Why is an 89.99% a B while a 90% is an A? To think about how fair this is, 80% is also a B, so the 80% and 89.99% students are counted as having equal mastery of the material. We can help this a bit by adding pluses and minuses, but you still have 82% and 87.99% being the same grade. For practical purposes, we have to draw these lines in the sand somewhere, but no matter what you do you get these jumps that don't seem quite fair.

Another big place this 
shows up is in evolution, if we say that X evolved into Y, it's not like there are a bunch of species X around, and then suddenly the next generation is a bunch of Ys. It's gradual change over time, that's really the point of the whole thing. There's no obvious point where the changeover happens, it's just that if we look at a line of descendants it's obvious that at the beginning we have a bunch of species X, and at the end we have a bunch of species Y. The organisms in the middle will look like a mixture of the two species, the closer you are to the start the more it looks like X, while the closer you are to the end it will look like Y. Unfortunately, we are used to looking for a place to draw a line and it even permeates our language, when a new species is created we call it a speciation event, this suggests there is a moment when a new species is created. Of course the reality is much more muddy than that. Abiogenesis has the same problem, we talk about the origin of life and the way people talk about it, it seems that in one moment there is just mud, and the next moment there is life. Really there are some things that we would probably call proto-life which have some properties that we would require of something we would call alive which gradually assembled into life. Pointing to a single moment where you have the first thing ever that is alive would be impossible, there is no obvious first life-form.

And of course there is 
the color thing. The first word of this post we can all agree is red and the last one is blue, and the middle is somewhere in between. Identifying the first blue word or the last red one is pretty difficult. We could each pick a word, and if we compared we would probably be in the same ballpark, but I'm pretty sure we would not all pick the same word. That's because there is no obvious line between red and blue here, the change is gradual and differentiating between them is messy, like so many other things in life.


  1. All kinds of great comparisons in this post. I agree that it is hard to ethically decide when abortions suddenly become bad. I figure it is somewhere in the second trimester, but I have no idea when. I think there should be lines drawn legally, one line somewhere in the second trimester for when the mother can decide if they want an abortion--purely for her own reasons, and another line at birth when the mother should be able to decide only with a doctor's approval due to risk to the mother or something seriously wrong with the child.

    They can keep early births alive at hospitals today long before they used to, this further blurs the line in my opinion.

    1. I would tend to agree with somewhere in the second trimester in principle, however, I would be afraid to set a law there because of unintended consequences (or perhaps intended consequences from certain parties). It reminds me of some laws they were talking about on Godless bitches a while ago, something about specifications for buildings where abortions take place. To me, a person who didn't really know about such things, it sounded like the laws were intended to make things safe and sanitary. However, it turned out that it was designed to sound that way, but really it was specs that wouldn't typically be built into a medical office which would be very expensive to change, and many abortion clinics had to shut down.

      I know this isn't quite the same as that, but I would be afraid someone would try to sneak in something.

  2. Great post! One thing I think gets overlooked in the abortion debate is the fallacy of persuasive definition. It's where you win an argument by defining terms in the beginning which should be the subject of the debate. "Abortion is the murder of unborn children." No one is going to try to argue against that. What should be discussed instead is when the fetus becomes a child or when its okay to abort and when its not.

    1. Interesting way to put that "persuasive definition"

    2. I said fallacy but its more of a misuse of language.


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