Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More on Colorado's Zygotemania

Diana Hsieh of the Coalition for Secular Government left a lengthy comment on my post on Colorado's proposed Amendment 48, which would give a fertilized egg the full rights of legal personhood. Her analysis is so helpful that I thought I'd better rescue it from the obscurity of the Kittywampus comment corner:
You might be interested to read an issue paper published by the Coalition for Secular Government: "Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person" by Ari Armstrong and myself. It's available at:


We discuss some of the serious implications of this proposed amendment, such as:

* Amendment 48 would make abortion first-degree murder, except perhaps to save the woman's life. First-degree murder is defined in Colorado law as deliberately causing the death of a "person," a crime punished by life in prison or the death penalty. So women and their doctors would be punished with the severest possible penalty under law for terminating a pregnancy -- even in cases of rape, incest, and fetal deformity.

* Amendment 48 would ban any form of birth control that might sometimes prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus -- including the birth control pill, morning-after pill, and IUD. The result would be many more unintended pregnancies and unwanted children in Colorado.

* Amendment 48 would ban in vitro fertilization because the process usually creates more fertilized eggs than can be safely implanted in the womb. So every year, hundreds of Colorado couples would be denied the joy of a child of their own.

Our paper also develops a strong defense of abortion rights -- not based on vague appeals to "choice" or "privacy" -- but on the fact that neither an embryo nor fetus qualifies as a person with a right to life.

An embryo or fetus is wholly dependent on the woman for its basic life-functions. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as an extension of her body, contained within and dependent on her for its survival. It is only a potential person, not an actual person.

That situation changes radically at birth. The newborn baby exists as a distinct organism, separate from his mother. Although still very needy, he lives his own life. He is a person, and his life must be protected as a matter of right.

So, we argue, when a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy she does not violate the rights of any person. Instead, she is properly exercising her own rights over her own body in pursuit of her own happiness. Moreover, in most cases, she is acting morally and responsibly by doing so. ...

The sad fact is that Amendment 48 is based on sectarian religious dogma, not objective science or philosophy. It is a blatant attempt to impose theocracy in America. That's definitely a scary thought.
Many thanks, Diana, for this careful and systematic analysis. I'd add that this is also an attempt to seize control over women's bodies - both our sexuality and our reproductive potential - in a rearguard action to defend patriarchy.


John Pine said...

Let's face it: the prevailing question in deciding whether a baby should be aborted is currently "Is it cute or not?" A hydatidiform mole is definitely not cute. Therefore it should be aborted.

Whether or not the embryo or foetus has its own consciousness or can experience pain is almost exactly the same problem as the problem of creation itself: where did it come from? How come it wasn't there and now it's there? Who did it and how did it happen? Who can take credit for the whole operation? Exactly WHEN did it happen? When did not-being turn into being?

Once we realise that our real criterion is cuteness, we can see what a dangerous question we are dealing with. Who is to decide whether that baby is cute enough to go on living? Is the mother, the empress of life, the proper arbiter? Most people are saying yes to that. Yet if a mother kills her baby after it has come out, that is murder.

Who can believe that a baby's consciousness is switched on just because it has slipped out of its mother? Most people, although they don't articulate it, think a baby's consciousness flies in on a dimmer switch.

Is the strength of consciousness determined by the complexity of its content? Meditators would say no to that.

There are some babies that nobody except the mother thinks are cute. There are some babies which everyone except the mother thinks are cute. There are some babies that nobody thinks are cute.

The cuteness test puts everyone in danger.

Sungold said...

John, we've been 'round the block a few times on these issues already, so I'll just say that I take a developmental perspective: A zygote is so far from being *autonomous* life that I see no reason for the state to protect. As it develops, it becomes appropriate for the state to gradually raise the bar. I don't think a woman should be able to *arbitrarily* abort a fetus past the point when it's viable outside the womb.

However, I mostly want to address your question about cuteness. I agree that our ethics should not be grounded in whether a life form is "cute." Still, I wonder: Are we evolutionarily programmed to respond protectively to cuteness? Because that definitely works to the advantage of babies, those squalling, demanding creatures! I don't have the answer to this, just think it's an intriguing question.

John Pine said...

We have protection societies for dogs, cats, horses and foxes but none for rats, hornets or fleas (that I know of).

Humans used to enjoy immunity from this sort of subjectivity: abortion was not an option.

I remember my own consciousness being even more intense and vivid as a child than now. That's why I can't believe in the fade-in theory. Project consciousness back into the womb and I don't see it getting fainter, just less cluttered.

We're four-dimensional creatures stretching through time and the foetus is one end of it.

Individuality is a centre of awareness and a focus of will: dependence doesn't imply ownership by the mother any more than a husband should be deemed owner of his wife.

The husband has the right to care for his wife but not to kill her. Why can't an inchoate human enjoy the same rights to care from her mother?

Foeticide doesn't square with the Culture of Care that we want to establish. Loving care can't be turned on and off when it's convenient using a toggle switch.

When I was a student I argued pro-abortion. I've changed my mind.

Sungold said...

John, I think you and I can agree that a zygote does not have consciousness. An eight-celled human does not have consciousness.

Nor is the dependence of even the most dependent spouse equivalent to that of an embryo on the woman carrying it.

John Pine said...

Exactly when and how consciousness enters is, I think, life's profoundest riddle (as hard as the Big Bang). Linking psychic and physical processes is Maya's most cunning sleight of hand. But consider this: the same BBC enters my extremely complicated radio as enters my very simple crystal set.