Morality at the Beginning of Human Life

One of the advantages of local conferences with local speakers is adding good speakers and talks as resources in our movement. (Others include decreasing boredom and avoiding holding a small group of speakers up as heroes.) This talk by Chris Calvey was much talked about all weekend at Freethought Festival.

I was still in transit when he spoke, but I can see why people were talking about this. Chris will get more polished as he talks more, of course, but this is a good, thought-provoking talk on a difficult subject. If Freethought Festival had stuck to only already-known speakers, we would have missed it, and that would have been a shame.

Morality at the Beginning of Human Life

4 thoughts on “Morality at the Beginning of Human Life

  1. 3

    Thanks Stephanie (and James) for those very kind comments about my talk!

    On behalf of all of the organizers, we really appreciate all the great coverage/commentary you’ve posted about the Freethought Festival.

  2. 4

    While I don’t think “viability” is all that important myself (even an infant isn’t really “viable” in the sense that it’ll die without aid from some sort of parent, though at least it’s able to survive with DIFFERENT parents, so that may play into things), I’ve always been very moved by the “brain activity” argument. Moral continuums are just plain difficult for people, or at least me, to parse, but in this case it’s the only reasonable solution. Drawing a sharp line at conception is nonsensical. Firstly because there is NO “inner mind” to be worried about snuffing out. Potential future consciousness leads to the absurd conclusion that humanity should always be mating all the time and science has a moral duty to clone absolutely as many cells as possible and vary as much DNA as possible to prevent even one potential form of consciousness from never having come into existence. This is something I came to believe within months of ditching my religion and therefor being free to actually examine my views on this.

    However, there’s another extreme, deciding that “at birth” someone becomes worthy of moral concern, but just BEFORE birth, maybe during labor or maybe a week before labor, it’s just a mass of cells not worthy of consideration. Some sort of gradually raising concern seems appropriate. I don’t really care about lung function, but I do care a lot about consciousness. I think most people would agree that’s the deciding factor.

    He makes very good arguments against all the typical anti abortion stances (I personally don’t like terms like pro life and pro choice, let’s just call it like it is and call them pro abortion and anti abortion). He also camps himself firmly in the “mostly pro abortion, except as the mass of cells starts having capacity for thought”. I have a similar view, but there’s one notable absence from his arguments FOR that particular view. One needs to make an argument about the mother’s rights in this matter. It’s inseparable. When someone says FOR someone else “you can’t do that to that mass of cells, even if it’s in your own body feeding on you”, there needs to be a VERY good reason why, especially for that half of the population that will NEVER have to worry about having to make that call. I personally think maintaining a conscious being long enough for someone else to care for it DOES merit that, and that maintaining a totally non-conscious being based on pure potential to eventually be conscious is NOT a valid reason, and it gets fuzzy in the “between” stages.

    To that end, there’s a clean way out of the majority of these moral dilemmas. Just allow abortion in early stages so people don’t have to worry about moral issues. This will be part public acceptance, part legally allowing it (in other words removing all bizarre laws meant to prevent any abortion clinics from functioning) and part public health care providing this to everyone regardless of class. A huge order to fill in America. However, I must face head on the fact that reality isn’t so quick and clean, and even in this ideal version where the above issues are solved, there will be edge cases. There will ALWAYS be edge cases. There will be cases of people on the fringe of society who were either never taught about the option to abort or simply locked away and prevented from it until one fateful day that was also in the 3rd trimester. Statistically, with 7 billion on this planet, these things are going to happen enough that we need to think of how to handle edge cases in advance. (7 billion people is also why medical books actually HAVE documentation for ridiculously unlikely situations of multiple trauma, which always shocks me but shouldn’t.) Related to that are medical complications resulting in a doctor needing to make a choice.

    I think we can all agree that the choice should be left to the doctor (and to the mother if she is still conscious) based on preserving as much life as possible in the situation. Generally that’ll mean an abortion to save the mother, and every now and then a Cesarian to save an infant from a dying mother. Very clear cut in those cases where only specifically one can be saved or BOTH get lost, but not so much in a hypothetical situation where EITHER can be saved, but not both. That, however, is the sort of choice that has to be made in other medical crisis as well, such as overcrowded clinics. I’m not sure how often the “exactly equal chance of surviving, but only capable of saving one” situation comes up. Save the infant which is conscious and worthy of life by anyone’s consideration, full of future possibilities that could all be snuffed out with barely any chance to experience life at all, or save the mother who comparitively has experienced much more already and doesn’t have as much life ahead, but at the same time has a fully developed adult personality and memories and interpersonal attachments the infant lacks. That’s a damned catch 22, and it should simply be left as a choice for the doctor and mother to make.

    The previous issue of someone somehow prevented from getting access to this perfect health care system by circumstances beyond her control is also incredibly hard. Do you decide on a cutoff point and say “as sad as it is, we can’t just let this fetus that’s reached a point of significant brain activity die and so you will need to endure this forced situation you never asked for for a few weeks or months more” or do you say “you’ve suffered enough and we can’t force you to bear a child on top of all of that”? Future technology may solve this problem, but we can’t count on some sort of high tech future egg to host embryos.

    Personally I can’t reconcile that, and worse, I can’t even bring myself to conclude FROM that lack of reconciliation that I should thus allow it to be a personal choice. I could also conclude from that lack of reconciliation that I should err on the side of consciousness being maintained. But then, where’s the cutoff point? Morally we must admit there’s a continuum, but legally there is no room for continuums. Legally we’ve got to say someone is considered a child until the age of 18 when they suddenly become an adult. It’s a fiction hiding the gradient but a needed one, and here one will be needed too if we’re going to conclude there’s a cutoff point where a being is conscious enough to warrant forcing someone to continue longer with a pregnancy.

    Unlike my diatribe on eternal life over at blag hag, this is a case that actually matters right now in the real world, and late term abortions DO come up for exactly these reasons.

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