Sunday 22 March 2009

Contraception, Abortion and Vegetarianism

I like to think that one's opinions do not remain static.
If they did, it would demonstrate we were idiots.

We can only ever hold an opinion on the basis of what knowledge we have, what facts we are aware of, and the degree to which we have thought something through.

I like to think it is POSSIBLE to base morality on common sense and the best scientific knowledge we have.

I think long term readers will be aware that abortion has been a sensitive subject for me, partly because I was brought up within the Roman Catholic faith, but also because I have personally lost what I considered to be a son to the practice.

I suppose I have always found it a tricky subject, precisely BECAUSE, strong though my feelings are in favour of the right to life, I can also see some sound points being made on the other side.

I would agree to a certain degree that a woman does have the right to decide what happens to her body. Where does one draw the line?
When does it become murder?

Does a woman who is carrying a rapist's baby have the right to abort?
Or a mother carrying a severely deformed child?
Should stem cell research be banned, when it's possible benefit to the human race could be huge?

It's actually a topic which has been on my mind a lot of late. And it was actually the post I did a week or two ago on sperms and ova that got me pondering.
And it occurred to me that there are in fact dividing lines where we can make value based judgements.

In other words, both pro life and pro choice camps have it wrong, in a sense. Both, in extreme, are out of kilter with science and what we know of the pregnancy process.
There is a compromise position between the two which actually reflects the real life judgements we apply to living things.

To start with, it is worth looking at a little aside, one of the main reasons that the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews and some other denominations are against contraception. Contraception was disapproved of because it was going against the idea that sex is only for making babies. But there was also two schools of thought about where babies come from.
Some anatomists held that women did indeed have tiny eggs in their womb. But the more common theory was that the entire embryo came from a tiny Homunculus swimming in the sperm. Thus; the Homunculus was already a human in miniature. The womb was simply a kind of greenhouse for growing mini-people in.
Therefore, contraception was murder.

We now know this not to be true. But it is the reason secular states still prosecuted people for encouraging birth control even in the nineteenth century. Wasting sperm, was wasting lives.

Now I guess one can say that wasting sperm IS wasting lives. But no more than having a period is wasting lives. Sperm cells and egg cells die. They are lives. Lives of single celled organisms. But not human lives. We do not regard single celled lifeforms as sacrosanct. God know how many we unthinkingly kill every day.

This raises of course, the question of what degrees of sanctity we should attach to other lifeforms in general.
I have to admit to having become somewhat of a convert to the 'Great Ape Project'. This takes the view that we should regard our near cousins as being so emotionally similar to us, that in effect they are human without conceptual ability. And thus have an extended version of the idea of human rights. Great Ape Rights. This would mean that all Great Apes would have right to Life, freedom from torture, freedom from captivity, etcetera.

One might see that as unnecessary altruism. We as a species have no loyalty to them. Loyalty to bonds of kinship only has a value when your own genes are the ones at stake.
Actually, I would say it DOES have a value. It has a value in raising the threshold of the value of life. And empathy for life in general. I think there is actually something to be said in us a species using our knowledge of how life works to make existence for ALL, not just ourselves, a little better than 'nature red and tooth and claw'. Rather than other groups armed with our knowledge have done, sought to make 'nature red in tooth and claw' the laws of society.

If we are going to, as a species, change the world beyond recognition, it might be an idea to make being alive a more worthwhile experience for everyone who has to go through it.
That surely, is what marks as apart from the animals.

As regards plants, we have no particular qualms about tearing them up and eating them. And I'm not sure there is any particular reason why we should. But animals, animals raise pertinent points.

It is hard to be objective about using other animal life. I guess the honest to God truth is, we have no alternative but to balance our own needs against that of causing suffering.

The main factor determining the abundance or otherwise of large mammals on the face of the Earth is; utility to man. There aren't many Tapirs or Rhinoceruses left. Or Pandas. Or Grizzly Bears. Or Tigers. And I guess the day will come when most of these species really do only exist in artificially preserved habitats.

But sheep, cows, pigs, these are, in Darwinian terms, highly successful today. But it's an odd survival skill. Their survival skill is that they provide tasty dinners for us.
I suppose their genes might well be grateful to us. Evolution is a blind watchmaker.

One looks at Amphibians as a Class. The entire class is rapidly declining in numbers. It's a tight niche. Being a creature that relies on freshwater. Not sea, not land, freshwater.

It's unrealistic to say any of this is going to radically change. We can, now we're aware of this, show some concern for species whose habitats we have destroyed and are destroying. We can preserve them, and I think we're making an effort to do that. But it's unrealistic to suggest that animals like Tigers CAN ever exist in numbers more than a few thousand in the Earth any more. Not unless you were to completely remove human civilisation.

Whereas sheep, pigs and cows, will continue to exist by the million.

In other words, the vast majority of animals on this planet bigger than a shrew, are either us, our pets, or our food.

Many animal behaviour experts believe that if some disaster did wipe out humanity, these species would die off as well. Because they have now been bred to be docile and incapable, basically. They exist by the million, but as we desire them to be.

What rights does this give us?

In one sense, that question is utterly meaningless. We have any right we choose to give ourselves.
As regards whether or not we should be vegetarian, the question is a tricky one. I think if we actually had to face the fact that life had to be taken every time we had a fry up, we'd be less keen on having the fry up. I had a sausage and bacon sandwich earlier, but it's only as I type this I think of the fact it was a pig once. We have become detached from the slaughter process and in a way, that's had a good effect on us. Sensitised us a bit more, I guess.

It's true that our ancestors didn't rely on meat to the degree we did, but we really have to go back a few million years to find them. We have evolved our big brains, three times the size of the chimpanzee, partly as a result of eating so much more meat. Our brains cost us a lot of energy to run. Human beings have evolved as meat eaters and as yet we haven't really found a successful way of living without having meat as part of our diet. I include fish here, obviously. Vegetarianism is one of those things that seems to be the right thing to do, but so few of us can do it, and the evidence suggests it's not actually that healthy.

It's no accident meat tastes so good. Usually, things taste good because they're hard to get, or were. This is actually a bit of a problem today. Carrots don't really get our juices going because it was easy to find carrots. But sweet things were hard to find and meat needed a hunt. Now these things are easy, but we still have taste buds designed to make us think 'Must go find these things, have a real taste for some meat now. And then some sweet berries'.

The ethical argument that more cows and pigs would live if we didn't eat them is, paradoxically, untrue. Not being food for humans actually renders an animal less useful, no need to devote human time to breeding them in huge numbers. I don't know whether one could say that cows and pigs are lucky that we eat them, but in a sense, I guess they are. Millions and millions of them exist, simply because we do. Being eaten is the price they pay for being alive.

I guess if one takes the view that essentially, we have now bred these animals so he happiest way they can fulfill their natural lives- natural the way they have now come- is by allowing them to live a stress free life chewing cud or eating swill, then maybe one could take the view that the trip they will one day take to the Meat Packing Plant is, for their species, their natural end. It is, today, their natural life cycle.

But I still think one should accord a certain set of rights to them. Their end is Euthanasia, perhaps. But their lives should not contain suffering. Wilfully torturing an animal shouldn't be allowed. Keeping an animal in inhumane conditions shouldn't be allowed. And animal testing that wilfully causes pain shouldn't be allowed. And common sense should rule here. Growing a human ear on the back of a mouse is bizarre, but not cruel. Pouring acidic cosmetics into the eyes of a mouse, is something we should not tolerate. Killing animals isn't wrong, I don't think, as long as it really is Euthanasia. And not a slow and painful death.

How far do we go here? I admit, there has to be limits. One can't start prosecuting kids for pulling legs off Daddy longlegs. I guess I would say we adopt these standards as regards all Vertebrates. There seems to be a general consensus that this is our sort of life, our family. We all feel at least some of the same emotions. The pain of a tortoise is something that is probably akin to ours, in at least some ways.

I think generally, when people take about Animal cruelty, that is what they mean, cruelty to Vertebrates. Creatures with brains. Brains of our type. How can we emote to the grasshopper, the slug, or the woodlouse? It might as well be an alien.

So how does this all fit in with abortion?

Well, it's about setting criteria. The value we put on living things. And when something acquires certain rights, by our standards, as a living thing.

Pro choice activists would say that the embryo is not a life, it is merely a ball of cells. Now that statement is in a sense, complete drivel. Each cell is alive. So it is, even at the embryo stage, a lifeform.

What it isn't at this stage, is a HUMAN lifeform.

For the first eleven weeks of pregnancy it remains classed as an embryo, after that point it will be classed instead as a foetus. By this point, it has already developed the rudiments of most organs, indeed at that point it actually passes the point where it can be distinguished from the foeti of any other species on the planet, even that of a chimpanzee.
So that point, when it changes from being an embryo to a foetus is when it moves from just being indiscriminate Vertebrate life, to being specifically human life.

I would argue that up till that point, it doesn't matter what the future holds. It's what it is.
At eight weeks, looking at the embryo, it is indistinguishable from that of a cow. We know that if both embryos progress, one day one of them will have full human rights, the other will be his sandwich filler. But that future has to come to pass first. At this point, their senses are the same. The decisive changes that will mark their differing destinies out, have not yet taken place.

The human embryo contains the codes to become a human foetus, just as the bovine embryo contains the code to become a bovine fetus, but it isn't yet something they have done. A human embryo can perhaps better be seen as an indeterminate vertebrate embryo which, due it's parentage, WILL join the human race- but hasn't yet.

At which point therefore, it has the same rights we accord any other vertebrate life outside the human species.

Taken from that point of view than yes, stem cell research is perfectly moral. And so is abortion practised up till that point. After all, we reserve the right to decide when a non human vertebrate life comes to an end, as long as that end is painless.

In which case, we also answer any of the other moral questions regarding abortion. Any woman has a clear window within which to make her choice. One is aware that it does happen that women DO get the foetal stage without realising, but it is a tiny minority of cases.
Up until that point I think we can say the mother has the right to choose, as much as any pet owner has the right to have an animal humanely put down.

But after that point, then one should say that one values the life of the foetus as being of equal worth to that of the mother. The argument that it cannot fend for itself, is meaningless. Nor can a two month old baby, but that has a right to life. Once it has joined the human race- by being a recognisable foetus of the human species, it has human rights. The right to life.

And I don't think from this point on anyone has the right to make choices concerning it's valid right to exist. In essence, it has 'chosen'- or it's genetic makeup has- to be human, and not a cow, or a pig, or a three toed sloth. And we must respect it's decision.

One can say it could not have chosen otherwise, it was programmed to make that choice. This is undeniably true. But by the same token, one can say that a woman does indeed have a right to choose, before the embryo she is carrying makes the inevitable choice of joining the human race. At which point, it's one of us.

And once this point has been passed, I would say that arguments about whether it will be born handicapped have no necessary relevance either, particularly. Perhaps if it could clearly be demonstrated that the life of the child in question would be such that allowing it to live would be forcing a life to exist in conditions that replicated torture. A life that really would be day to day agonising pain. Perhaps in those circumstances it might be ok to second guess the unborn on what choice they'd make.

But Down's Syndrome and the like certainly do NOT come into that category. As I say, before eleven weeks, than if a woman chooses to abort a child she perhaps shouldn't need a reason at all, but after that point, Down's Syndrome is not a reason. A child born with Down's Syndrome will indeed need care. Lot's of it. But it can certainly enjoy quality of life.

It would be inconsistent to my view that we should extend the right to life to all Great Apes to then say I thought that human life that didn't meet the standards of human perfection was LESS valid than that of a 'perfect' chimpanzee.

I guess what I'm trying to work towards is a kind of tier of rights.

The lowest, the rights of a Vertebrate. The basic rights of any vertebrate. Freedom for torture or undue suffering.

Then the rights of a Great Ape (including humans), acquired once the foetus is identifiable as that of a Great Ape. The right to life, unless otherwise expressed, or where it can be certain that if power to express were there, the subject would wish not to live. The right to freedom for torture. The right to free expression. The right to sustenance. The right to freedom from captivity, where the subject is no harm to themselves or others.

Then the rights of a sentient citizen of humanity. Acquired by reaching a set standard of adulthood and maturity and filling a role within human society. All the rights of citizenship, basically.

I guess the post has seemingly moved amongst apparently unrelated topics.

But I do think we DO need to apply scientific knowledge of how animal life works to deciding what is right and wrong and how we accord rights.

I DO think we badly need to apply some sort of systematic reasoning to the rights of living things and deciding when human rights apply and what those rights to be.

And I like to think that the reasoning I have put forward in this post might go some way towards clarifying the sort of ethics that are appropriate in the sort of enlightened era that one hopes will succeed when the last vestiges of superstitious ignorance that still marked this era have finally gone for good.


Judith said...

You failed to say a single thing about the rights of the woman carrying this to-be human.

There was a recent story linked through Feministing by a woman who both had an abortion and gave up a child for adoption. It was an interesting read on how each affected her.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

Interesting post. It goes round the houses a bit, but makes sense in the end. I even broadly agree with most of it.

I do think we share a lot of genetic material with apes, so why not some 'duty' to them, like we might care to give a distant cousin, they are that in a way.

Eggs and sperm, on their own are not people. It is always difficult to say where a ball of cells crosses the line that makes it a viable human being. Maybe it it the point when without truly heroic measures it can survive outside the womb?

I do very strongly believe a woman should have the right to say if she should carry a child or not. So contraception is absolutely no brainer for me and early abortion should be a woman's choice, not necessarily undertaken lightly, but a real choice as a right. She should not have to justify it.

I don't imagine many women would undertake such a decision at all lightly, no matter appearances.

Things that influence that are how she came to conceive, Is there loving and full support and assistance from the father? Is the child likely to be viable, healthy?

I have heard it argued it would be doing humankind a favour to abort all rapists foetuses. Depends on where you stand on the Nature/nurture argument I guess.

Princess Banter said...

First of all -- I love you for putting up Robert Miles' Children. That is one AWESOME piece of music! He's such a great musician.

Secondly, as a fellow Catholic, I myself have very similar views as you with regards to abortion. I ask the same questions, and I face the same dilemmas. It's just really tough to find the healthy dividing line between reality and morality...

I'm still very hazy on the so-called "morning after pill" as well...

Chris Benjamin said...

"But it's unrealistic to suggest that animals like Tigers CAN ever exist in numbers more than a few thousand in the Earth any more. Not unless you were to completely remove human civilisation."

-Not a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

It took me a good while...but I'm really glad I read this.

Good job Crushed!

Thank you my friend.

gnataes said...

I was wondering what you'd think of the murder of Dr Tiller in the states. He performed late term abortions. I read about him from this article: