The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


Personhood & Abortion Rights
How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue

Although it has been 45 years since Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), abortion continues to be a highly controversial and polarizing issue within the body politic. At the two ends of the continuum are the radical pro-life and radical pro-choice advocates. The radical pro-life position is that from the moment of conception the human organism is a person that should have full human rights, including the right to life, and these rights should be fiercely protected by the state. On the other side, the radical pro-choice position is that the pregnant woman already has full human rights, including the right to bodily autonomy, and that she can freely decide to end her pregnancy at any time she wishes for any reason at all. Many pro-lifers view the zygote—the one-celled human organism resulting from fertilization—as sacred, and believe that causing the death of the zygote, embryo, or fetus, either directly or indirectly, is murder. By contrast, the pro-choicers believe that the organism becomes a person only after it leaves the womb and becomes disconnected from the life support of the mother. The main purpose of this essay is to articulate a third position that falls between these two extremes. Call it the “pro-person” position. Although it leans more towards the pro-choice stance, it has a much stronger philosophical and scientific foundation.

Most of us would agree that all persons should be assigned the full spectrum of human rights, e.g. rights to life, bodily autonomy, property, etc. But what is a person anyway? When does the human organism developing inside a woman become a person? Traditionally, the answer was left to theologians and religious leaders. The prevailing view during the time of Aristotle was that the human soul entered the forming body at 40 days in male embryos and at 90 days in female embryos.1 On the other hand, during medieval times theologians referencing Genesis concluded that the soul enters the body when the baby takes its first breath. Today, many religious people opine that “ensoulment” occurs at fertilization. As efforts to define, identify, or locate the soul have failed, and as religion has declined in its influence, different thinkers have simply pinned the beginning of personhood to different developmental milestones.

The most popular milestones have included: conception, first heart beat, quickening (fetal movement when first detected by the pregnant woman), onset of pain perception, first brain waves, first brain waves in the cerebral cortex, birth itself, and first breath. On May 4, 2018, the governor of Iowa signed into law a bill which bans most abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, occurring usually around six weeks of pregnancy.2 On the other hand, the decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 accorded importance to fetal viability, but this has obvious drawbacks. Viability depends very much on modern medical technology and the skill of physicians and nurses. With the best of technology, a 20-week-old fetus may occasionally be kept alive, but without it even a 36-week-old fetus may perish. In the future it will probably become possible to sustain a human organism in a special artificial incubator from fertilization for a period of nine months, making viability a moot point. Personhood should not be defined by the fetus’ location, dependence, or connection to another human or to machines. Personhood should be defined by the species and the current capacities of the fetus.

Standard dictionary definitions of “person” are simplistic. Two relevant ones from Merriam-Webster are “human, individual” and “one (such as a human being, a partnership, or a corporation) that is recognized by law as the subject of rights and duties.”3 Three from Dictionary.com are “a human being, whether an adult or child,” “a self-conscious or rational being,” and “the body of a living human being.”4 And finally, the Oxford Living Dictionary defines a person as “a human being regarded as an individual.”5 Wikipedia provides more depth, defining “person” as “a being that has certain capacities or attributes such as reason, morality, consciousness or self-consciousness, and being a part of a culturally established form of social relations such as kinship, ownership of property, or legal responsibility,” adding that the “defining features of personhood and consequently what makes a person count as a person differ widely among cultures and contexts.”6

Traditional and Cultural vs. Scientific Developmental Milestones

Click image to download larger PDF version

“What is a person?” is a deep and important philosophical question. When most of us think of a person we think of “the man or woman on the street,” i.e. a human being who is conscious, senses, thinks, feels, behaves, has preferences and values, remembers, learns, makes decisions, communicates, and interacts. Let’s call this paradigm of personhood “the human adult.” And yet, most of us also think that this paradigm does not go far enough. We believe babies and children are persons too. This is probably because they have the rudimentary cognitive capacities that are developed to their greatest extent in the human adult. At the same time, however, we have learned from the biological sciences that the human zygote has none of these cognitive capacities. And so, sometime between fertilization and natural birth the developing human organism acquires a set of basic cognitive capacities that will eventually distinguish it as a human adult from its nearest genetic relative—the chimpanzee. There is one of these cognitive capacities that is easy to understand and appreciate, upon which the others probably depend, and which can serve as our marker of personhood. This is the capacity for consciousness.

We all have an intuitive grasp of consciousness. When we are asleep at night and not dreaming, we are unconscious, and when we wake up in the morning we are conscious. When we are unconscious, we don’t know that anything is happening, but when we are conscious we know that something is happening. William James, known as America’s first psychologist, conceived of consciousness as a stream of experience.7 Now, with this useful intuition, imagine that there was a time when you were in the womb and your brain was so immature that it could not enable consciousness. You had never before been conscious! Now further imagine that your brain, especially your cerebral cortex and thalamus, became large, complex, connected, and structured enough that it enabled consciousness for the first time. Let’s call this event “the onset of consciousness” in the individual human organism. Yes, it was probably a fuzzy or amorphous experience in one or more modalities (hearing, sight, touch, pain, etc.), but nevertheless the “lights were finally on in the house.” I contend that at this time in the 21st century the best answer to the philosophical question “What is a person?” is “any human organism with the current capacity for consciousness.”

A human organism is not a person when it has never before or will never again possess the capacity for consciousness.

An obvious retort to this idea is “That would mean that whenever we go to sleep, we are not persons, but whenever we awaken, we are persons.” This challenge fails to recognize the difference between the capacity for and the state of consciousness. Not until the organism is conscious for the first time may we conclude that it has the capacity for consciousness. After that, the capacity perseveres because it is tied to underlying brain processes, as we shall see later. And so, the sleeping human organism has the capacity for consciousness and is still a person. A related challenge is “That would mean that a person in an extended coma is not a person, and this entails a contradiction.” By the definition I have presented the person who permanently loses the capacity for consciousness would become a human who is not a person. He or she would lack the same defining property of personhood that they lacked earlier as a zygote, embryo, or fetus. These considerations lead to a general principle of “Never Before or Never Again.” This means that a human organism is not a person when it has never before or will never again possess the capacity for consciousness.

Another objection to my definition is that the onset of consciousness must be a process, not a discrete event—a dimmer knob instead of an on-off light switch. This could be, but I doubt it, and if so, it matters little. For now we may just assume that the onset of consciousness is similar to waking up in the morning. There is that first moment when we just know we are aware and are experiencing the world.

Now that we have answered the philosophical question “What is a person?” we may move on to the scientific question of “When in the course of development does the human organism acquire the capacity for consciousness?” One of the most important scientific discoveries of the last 400 years, right up there with the discoveries of the laws of motion, evolution, DNA, and relativity, is the discovery of the dependence of experience and cognitive functions on brain structure. Speaking cautiously by calling it an “astonishing hypothesis” in book title form, Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, proposed that “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”8 Over and over this hypothesis has been supported by thousands of scientific studies, and there appear to be no disconfirmations of it. And so, the onset of consciousness must depend on or be tied to brain structures and processes. This finding forms part of the naturalistic or materialist view of the world. Even dualists and idealists admit that the brain is absolutely necessary for the mind to function.

So, when does the onset of consciousness occur in the fetus with respect to conception? In the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, writing for the majority, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate.”9 The problem here is that Blackmun and his SCOTUS colleagues were addressing the wrong question— “When does life begin?” Depending on perspective, there were two correct answers to that question that were already known in 1973. Life on the Earth began 3.5 billion years ago. The life of a unique human organism, however, does begin at conception. But the right question for the SCOTUS would have been, “When does the human fetus become a person?” Or as we have defined it here, “When does the human fetus acquire the capacity for consciousness?” Perhaps in 1973 there was not a consensus on that question, but now experts in medicine, biology, neuroscience, and philosophy are honing in on the answer. I will first cite the findings and opinions of experts in fetal development of the brain and then tie these together to reach general conclusions.

Feeling pain is clearly one aspect of consciousness, and the onset of pain may be viewed as a proxy for the more general onset of consciousness. In a 1987 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, K.J.S. Anand and P.R. Hickey summarized findings linking brain structure and pain perception in fetuses and neonates.10 “The timing of the thalamocortical connection is of crucial importance for cortical perception, since most sensory pathways to the neocortex have synapses in the thalamus. Studies of primate and human fetuses have shown that afferent neurons in the thalamus produce axons that arrive in the cerebrum before mid-gestation. These fibers then ‘wait’ just below the neocortex until migration and dendritic arborization of cortical neurons are complete and finally establish synaptic connections between 20 and 24 weeks of gestation.” They continue, pinpointing when, precisely, these neural connections are made:

Functional maturity of the cerebral cortex is suggested by fetal and a neonatal electroencephalographic patterns, studies of cerebral metabolism, and the behavioral development of neonates. First, intermittent electroencephalographic bursts in both cerebral hemispheres are first seen at 20 weeks gestation; they become sustained at 22 weeks and bilaterally synchronous at 26 to 27 weeks. By 30 weeks, the distinction between wakefulness and sleep can be made on the basis of electroencephalo-graphic patterns. Cortical components of visual and auditory evoked potentials have been recorded in preterm babies (born earlier than 30 weeks of gestation), whereas olfactory and tactile stimuli may also cause detectable changes in electroencephalograms of neonates. Second, in vivo measurements of cerebral glucose utilization have shown that maximal metabolic activity in located in sensory areas of the brain in neonates (the sensorimotor cortex, thalamus, and mid brain- brain-stem regions), further suggesting the functional maturity of these regions. Third, several forms of behavior imply cortical function during fetal life. Well-defined periods of quiet sleep, active sleep, and wakefulness occur in utero beginning at 28 weeks of gestation.

Several years later in 1998, D. Gareth Jones from New Zealand summarized relevant findings in his article in the Journal of Medical Ethics.11 “Gertler had proposed 22–24 weeks gestation for ‘brain birth’ on the basis that the neocortex begins producing EEG waves at this time.” “In similar fashion, Burgess and Tawia defined a functioning brain as one where there is identifiable activity of the kind that normal adult brains (cortices) indulge in. They argue that what is required is a critical minimum level of structural organisation, with functional components present and mature enough to perform. On the basis of EEG readings, they conclude that a fetus becomes conscious at 32–36 weeks gestation.” “Also relevant here is the issue of fetal awareness, which has been placed at not earlier than 26 weeks gestation by a 1997 working party of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.”

In a paper sponsored by the Markulla Center of Applied Ethics in 2001, Dr. David L. Perry stated “Partly because of the ambiguity of fetal EEG patterns, it’s difficult to say precisely when consciousness first occurs. But somewhere between 20 and 32 weeks gestation, the cortical neurons become capable of firing in ways that make consciousness possible. The brainstem and nervous system may function before that time, and there may be reflex reactions to stimuli, but there is no one ‘there’ yet to experience sensory inputs—the lights are on, but nobody’s home.”12

In a 2010 newspaper article health reporter Megan Ogilvie nicely summarized much of the scientific work on the onset of consciousness: “What is known is that consciousness cannot occur until the peripheral nervous system joins up with the cerebral cortex, the region of the brain responsible for memory, awareness and language. That connection between the sensory receptors—what allows us to sense the outside world—and the higher brain doesn’t fully occur until about the 26th to 28th weeks of gestation.”13

Again, focusing on pain perception in their 2005 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Lee, Ralston, and Drey concluded: “Pain is an emotional and psychological experience that requires conscious recognition of a noxious stimulus. Consequently, the capacity for conscious perception of pain can arise only after thalamocortical pathways begin to function, which may occur in the third trimester around 29 to 30 weeks’ gestational age, based on the limited data available.”14

Christof Koch, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists who worked for many years with the late Francis Crick, has said “But when does the magical journey of consciousness begin? Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.”15

A comprehensive review of the relevant scientific literature remains to be done. However, based on the evidence presented here, general conclusions may be reached. The best estimate for the onset of consciousness in the fetus (especially the beginning of pain perception) is at 27 weeks gestational age, which is roughly 25 weeks from conception. (Gestational age is defined as the number of weeks since the beginning of the pregnant woman’s last menstrual cycle. The actual age of the embryo will be less than gestational age.) Greater precision in specification of the onset of consciousness is likely to be achieved with advances in neuroscientific theory and methods. Functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) of the developing fetus will undoubtedly play a great role in the next decade.

Although the available scientific evidence does not yet enable a precise answer to our question “When does the human fetus acquire the capacity for consciousness?” we have an adequate answer for now. The formulation of moral rules and laws cannot wait on a final answer from science, if there is such a thing as a final answer. Blackmun and the SCOTUS realized this in 1973 when they laid out the shaky trimester plan that depended so heavily on the concept of viability of the fetus. But since the early 1970s religion has withered, philosophy and science have advanced, and we are now at a point when we can do much better. A valid personhood amendment today would go something like this:

For purposes of this Constitution and relevant laws, a ‘person’ shall be construed to be any human organism that has the current capacity for consciousness. Based on the best available scientific research and theory, the beginning of personhood in the human fetus shall be construed as the start of the 25th week post conception. Furthermore, the end of personhood shall be construed as the permanent loss of the capacity for consciousness in any particular human organism. This amendment should be reconsidered and updated with advances in science after 25 years.

Human organisms are unique, and surely they do not all become persons at the same time since their conceptions. They are not robots designed to unfold on an invariant schedule. Imagine a graph that accurately describes brain development with respect to consciousness for a sample of a thousand human fetuses. On the X-axis is plotted time in weeks since conception (considered at the end of each week), and on the Y-axis is plotted the percentage of fetuses in the sample that have acquired the capacity for consciousness. The graph is likely to resemble an S-shaped curve. It is reasonable to expect data points at zero percent on the Y-axis for the weeks 1–24, marks at one hundred percent on the Yaxis for weeks 28–39, and marks at intermediate percentages at weeks 25, 26, and 27. Drawing a vertical “personhood line” at the 24th week since conception, such that fetuses before then are classified as nonpersons and fetuses after then are classified as persons, is a conservative approach designed to minimize false negatives, i.e. the classification of a particular fetus as a nonperson when it is really a person, which could lead to aborting a fetus “too early.” In this approach doctors could use “the fetus is at least 25 weeks old” as a proxy for “the fetus has acquired the capacity for consciousness and is now considered a person.” And doctors should be able to make sound estimates of the age of the fetus based on physical tests, scans, and interviews of the pregnant woman.

The philosophical and scientific foundation for the pro-person position is now secured. Both the prolife and pro-choice positions are misguided. The zygote, embryo, nor early fetus are persons as here defined, as the pro-lifers have suggested. But contrary to the pro-choicers, the late fetus is indeed a person. In alignment with this new pro-person position I suggest these moral principles and cultural changes:

  1. No human rights, including a right to life, should be assigned to the human organism during development before it becomes a person. And so, a woman should be able to remove or kill the zygote, embryo, or fetus inside her before it becomes a person for any reason at all without penalty to her or to others who help her.
  2. Human rights, including a right to life, should be assigned to the human organism during development when it becomes a person. And so, a woman should not be permitted to remove or kill the fetus inside her after it becomes a person without penalty to her or her helpers, unless she has a very good reason that could only be that continuing the pregnancy would pose significant risk of permanent harm or death to her.
  3. Abortions should be provided only by licensed medical practitioners under safe conditions.
  4. It should be against the law for a woman to perform a self-abortion, get an abortion from an unlicensed practitioner, or to get a late abortion for any reason other than the very good reason specified above, or for any other person to cooperate in or enable these acts. No person should have a right to privacy to commit illegal acts, even if the act happens to be an illegal abortion.
  5. A violation of abortion laws should carry a penalty of one year and one day in jail. This would make the crime a felony.
  6. Legal abortion should be accessible, free, quick, private, and safe.
  7. Gradually cultural changes can and should be made to reflect the new understanding of personhood. Only after their fetuses become persons, parents should name their fetuses, and should talk, read, and sing to their fetuses. Perhaps eventually, birth certificates can be replaced by personhood certificates, with citizenship in the country established at date of personhood.

The pro-person position, as I have outlined it in this essay, recognizes the late fetus and the host woman both as persons with human rights. When these rights come into conflict, as can occur during the last 15 weeks of pregnancy, then the state must intervene through a clear constitution, laws, and/or policies to resolve the conflict. The pro-person position provides a specific path for resolution. The prolife position has been mistaken from the start. It is indefensible to invoke a magical “ensoulment” and to thereby classify the zygote as a person. While more reasonable, the pro-choice position is also off the mark. It has relied on obsolete notions such as trimesters, viability, and privacy implied in or lifted from Roe v. Wade and the premise that a fully conscious fetus is not a person. On the other hand, the pro-person position corrects all these errors and is based on a solid philosophical and scientific foundation, which can still change as new evidence, reasons, and arguments are brought forth. In summary, the core idea of the pro-person position is that the human organism becomes a human person when it acquires the capacity for consciousness at approximately 25 weeks after conception. END

About the Author

Dr. Gary Whittenberger Ph.D. is a free-lance writer and retired psychologist, living in Tallahassee, Florida. He received his doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Florida State University after which he worked for 23 years as a psychologist in prisons. He has published articles on science, philosophy, psychology, and religion, and he is a member of several freethought organizations. He is the author of two books: God Wants You to be an Atheist: The Startling Conclusion from a Rational Analysis and God and Natural Disasters: A Debate Between an Atheist and a Christian.

References
  1. Wikipedia. “Ensoulment.” https://bit.ly/2MzmDsl
  2. CBS News. 2018. “Iowa abortion bill signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds.” 4 May. https://cbsn.ws/2vWzCxb
  3. Merriam-Webster. “Person.” https://bit.ly/2HCXBFa
  4. Dictionary.com. “Person.” https://bit.ly/2vwKWAA
  5. Oxford Living Dictionary. “Person.” https://bit.ly/2vvivmI
  6. Wikipedia. “Person.”Web.17 May 2018. https://bit.ly/2kSnOVK
  7. Carreira, Jeff. 2013. “William James, The Stream of Consciousness and Freewill.” Philosophy is Not a Luxury. 21 March. https://bit.ly/2B6Qwz0
  8. Crick, Francis. 1995. The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Scribner.
  9. Blackmun, Harry. 1973. https://bit.ly/2zpCWSv
  10. Anand, K.J.S., and Hickey, P.R. 1987. “Pain and its Effects in the Human Neonate and Fetus.” The New England Journal of Medicine. Vol. 317, No. 21: 1321–1329. https://bit.ly/2J8fTmF
  11. Jones, D. Gareth. 1998. “The problematic symmetry between brain birth and brain death.” Journal of Medical Ethics. Vol. 24: 237–242. https://bit.ly/2vyn3Zh
  12. Perry, David L. 2001. “Ethics and Personhood: Some Issues in Contemporary Neurological Science and Technology.” Markulla Center of Applied Ethics: Better Choices. 11 December. https://bit.ly/2OWbNOt
  13. Ogilvie, Megan. 2010. “The Life of the Brain: Beginnings.” The Star. 9 July. Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. https://bit.ly/2AXnUYC
  14. Lee, Susan J., Ralston, Henry J. Peter, and Drey, Eleanor A. 2005. “Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence.” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 294(8): 947–954. https://bit.ly/2xRdPe4
  15. Koch, Christof. 2009. “When Does Consciousness Arise in Human Babies? Does sentience appear in the womb, at birth or during early childhood?” Scientific American Mind. 31 August. https://bit.ly/2rKbix5
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Gary Whittenberger
March 23, 2019 11:34 am

GW: This is in response to Alexander at 143. Thanks for your comments.

AA: If consciousness is required in order for a being to be a person, would you then say that animals should be considered persons too? Because in the last few decades we’ve come to understand that animals certainly do have consciousness.

GW: No, because animals do not have human DNA.

AA: And what are your thoughts on killing animals for food? Because if killing an animal, which has in some ways a greater level of consciousness and self awareness then a newborn human baby, is morally justified. Wouldn’t killing a human baby for food be justified too then?

GW: The issue of killing animals for food is beyond the scope of my article, and I have not thought enough about it to offer a public opinion. However, it is always ethically wrong to kill human babies for food.

Gary Whittenberger
March 23, 2019 11:33 am

This is in response to Cynthia at 142. Thanks for your additional comments.

C: I am talking about premature births which do not result from spontaneous labor. Your definition covers induction of labor and c-sections, as you have clearly indicated, at any stage past 24 weeks. I don’t know if you intended to do this, but this is the actual result of your proposal.

GW: Then you are talking about intentionally induced labor which leads to a premature birth. How is this not an abortion? But is it an ethical or unethical abortion? It depends on the reason.

C: Many of these result from risky medical situations where the protocol you describe would result in delay that would elevate risk. In many hospitals, particularly smaller ones, you wouldn’t have 2 OBs on call, for example.

GW: The law should require one attending OB and one other OB on call. If these persons are well trained in medicine, biology, the law, and ethics, there should no increased delay or risk. In general, it takes the same amount of time to decide the right action as to decide the wrong action in difficult situations for well trained people.

C: You also can’t really comprehensively set out all situations in which causing an early birth would be justified. You could set out a general test, but how that test applies will be subject to debate. That’s what the ReWire article shows – if the test is that there is an imminent risk of death, doctors won’t always be sure what that means. Ditto any other test – in countries with more liberal “risk to life or health” wording, almost all abortions are approved because pregnancy, pretty much by definition, will involve a risk to life and health and anyone seeking an abortion would say that their psychological health would be affected by a denial.

GW: Doctors will and should do the very best they can with their knowledge of medicine, biology, ethics, and the law.

C: Assembling a 7 person panel in uncertain cases would be even more onerous, especially in smaller hospitals, and meanwhile a woman’s life or health might be jeopardized.

GW: It would be an extra burden, but it would be rare and still necessary where two OBs could not come to an agreement. You mention the woman’s life and health, but not the fetal person’s. Of course, this reveals your bias. The Hippocratic Oath, applicable in the situation we are discussing, is conservative in nature: “First do no harm.”

Gary Whittenberger
March 23, 2019 11:32 am

GW: This is in response to Cynthia at 141. Thanks for your additional comments.

C: As an update, the author of this piece has apparently just changed his position.

GW: Since I wrote the Skeptic article I have been testing an update to my position. On a couple of blog sites I have proposed and defended the idea that there may be at least one other situation in which a woman’s right to an abortion should be limited. So far, I have heard no good objections to it.

C: He now appears to be arguing that a man has joint “ownership” of a zygote, embryo or fetus, and there should be able to get the government to compel the pregnant woman to continue the pregnancy regardless of what stage it is at. Not because his believes that the zygote, embryo or early fetus is a person, but because the “property rights” of the would-be father can somehow override the rights of the woman not to subject her body to considerable physical strain and risks that include death.

GW: This is somewhat of a distortion of my position, so I’ll try to correct it. The ZEF (zygote, embryo, or fetus) is property jointly owned by the woman and man who had sex, until ownership is fully transferred to one party or until the fetus becomes a person when it acquires consciousness at around the 25th week post-conception (see Skeptic article). At the time the woman discovers she is pregnant and immediately informs the man (or earlier), if the woman wants to abort and the man wants to save the ZEF and he wants to become the resulting baby’s sole caretaker upon birth (these circumstances constituting a small percentage of all cases), then ownership of the ZEF should be transferred fully to the man at that point in time. The state should require the woman to complete the pregnancy and the man to pay “womb rental” not less than $1000 per month. The man’s right to property should supercede the woman’s right to bodily autonomy in this case (and other similar cases) because interference with the man’s right would cause more harm than interference with the woman’s right. “Somehow override” understates my position since there is a strong rational reason for the override. (Of course, you Cynthia do not mention the “physical strain and risks that include death” if an abortion is performed.” These should also fall into the evaluation balance.)

C: I have argued that a zygote, embryo or fetus cannot be property, because children are not property and because once implanted, a zygote, embryo or fetus cannot be bought, sold, gifted, transferred or mortgaged. This example makes no sense outside of a space regime, which is obviously immoral.

GW: I totally disagree with you on this point. Since the ZEF (before consciousness) can be, is, and should be considered property, whether inside or outside a uterus, then it is initially owned and controlled by the man and woman who produced it. In the general case, if two or more persons create, invent, assemble, manufacture, or otherwise cause the existence of some product, then by default the product is property owned by all those persons in a manner proportional to their contributions or to their mutually agreed assignment. Decisions to sell, give away, loan, transfer, modify, or destroy the property must be made by all the owners. Destruction of the property is irrevocable and thus should require unanimous consent of the owners.

GW: I have no idea what you mean by “a space regime.” I am talking about how people should behave in the here and now. This is about ethics.

Alexander Alblas
March 22, 2019 12:22 am

If consciousness is required in order for a being to be a person, would you then say that animals should be considered
persons too? Because in the last few decades we’ve come to understand that animals certainly do have consciousness.
And what are your thoughts on killing animals for food? Because if killing an animal, which has in some ways a greater level of consciousness and self awareness then a newborn human baby, is morally justified. Wouldn’t killing a human baby for food be justified too then?

Cynthia
March 20, 2019 7:45 am

I am talking about premature births which do not result from spontaneous labor. Your definition covers induction of labor and c-sections, as you have clearly indicated, at any stage past 24 weeks. I don’t know if you intended to do this, but this is the actual result of your proposal.

Many of these result from risky medical situations where the protocol you describe would result in delay that would elevate risk. In many hospitals, particularly smaller ones, you wouldn’t have 2 OBs on call, for example.

You also can’t really comprehensively set out all situations in which causing an early birth would be justified. You could set out a general test, but how that test applies will be subject to debate. That’s what the ReWire article shows – if the test is that there is an imminent risk of death, doctors won’t always be sure what that means. Ditto any other test – in countries with more liberal “risk to life or health” wording, almost all abortions are approved because pregnancy, pretty much by definition, will involve a risk to life and health and anyone seeking an abortion would say that their psychological health would be affected by a denial.

Assembling a 7 person panel in uncertain cases would be even more onerous, especially in smaller hospitals, and meanwhile a woman’s life or health might be jeopardized.

Cynthia
March 20, 2019 7:03 am

As an update, the author of this piece has apparently just changed his position. He now appears to be arguing that a man has joint “ownership” of a zygote, embryo or fetus, and there should be able to get the government to compel the pregnant woman to continue the pregnancy regardless of what stage it is at. Not because his believes that the zygote, embryo or early fetus is a person, but because the “property rights” of the would-be father can somehow override the rights of the woman not to subject her body to considerable physical strain and risks that include death.

I have argued that a zygote, embryo or fetus cannot be property, because children are not property and because once implanted, a zygote, embryo or fetus cannot be bought, sold, gifted, transferred or mortgaged. This example makes no sense outside of a space regime, which is obviously immoral.

https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2019/03/09/an-aborted-6-week-old-embryo-got-a-green-light-to-sue-an-alabama-abortion-clinic/

Gary Whittenberger
March 19, 2019 11:35 am

This is in response to Cynthia at 139. Thank you for your additional comments.

C: We do know what the post-24 week abortion situation would look like in a place with both no limits on abortion and universal health care, because that is the situation in Canada.

GW: No limits at all? That seems unwise.

C: The same source quote by the NY Intelligencer, Dr. Jen Gunter, wrote this about Canada: https://drjengunter.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/explaining-ninth-month-abortions-and-feminism-to-the-national-post-and-everyone-else/ Perhaps 60 per year, generally for fetal abnormalities or severe health reasons. So, we know that even without the possibility of criminal laws, there are natural constraints that prevent these abortions except for extreme circumstances.

GW: In typical clinics and hospitals in Canada, how many of these late abortions are performed per year for other reasons? How many are performed “underground” in Canada? How many are performed in other countries for women from Canada? And for what reasons are they performed? The relevant data set is incomplete. The US is different from Canada. My proposal is designed to prevent unethical abortions, regardless of how many now occur.

C: It’s important to keep in mind that this proposal would only address the issue of perhaps 1 or 2 abortions per year in the US being done for reasons that you don’t think are good enough.

GW: How did you come up with that estimate? According to an article I believe I cited to you there were about 600 known abortions after 24 weeks in the US in a recent year. This does not include unknown, underground, or foreign abortions for US citizens. We don’t know what percentage of all these were for bad reasons. It doesn’t really matter much. The main purpose of my proposal is prevention of abortion of fetal persons for bad reasons, i.e. unethical abortions.

C: The flip side is that your proposal, as you mention, would also include inductions and c-sections that could increase danger to the fetus. Unlike 3rd trimester intentional abortions, these are NOT rare. It is the standard method of dealing with maternal health complications, even among those that are staunchly pro-life.

GW: Once again, method of removal is not the concern of my proposal. There are only a few ways to remove a fetus. The reason for removal is the focus of my proposal.

C: Rick Santorum’s wife Karen, and Michelle Duggar are 2 examples – the Santorum’s baby Gabriel was born after Karen had an infection that could have killed her even though he was so premature that he only lived 2 hours, and the Duggars induced labor at 24 weeks because Michelle had pre-eclampsia and their baby Josie spent several months in hospital.

GW: Were these not good reasons for an abortion?

C: The problem with any proposal that potentially bans, with criminal consequences, these births is that you get legislators with no medical background getting into the question of just how close to death the pregnant woman needs to be. This is a current problem in some states: https://rewire.news/article/2019/03/07/not-dead-enough-public-hospitals-deny-life-saving-abortion-care-to-people-in-need/

GW: Not relevant to my proposal. Legislators would not be involved in any day-to-day clinic decisions about abortion. Before they wrote a new law the legislators would need to solicit expert testimony from doctors, developmental biologists, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, criminologists, etc. I propose that they stipulate the good reasons for the abortion of a fetal person, and then the bad reasons would be defined by exclusion, which is what I have done in my proposal.

C: Aside from the horrifying suffering this inflicts upon a pregnant woman who cannot get timely medical care, it also means playing chicken with her very life. The problem is that from a medical point of view, the best practice is to act as soon as you know that there is a potentially fatal risk. If there is premature rupture of membranes, we know that there is a serious risk of infection developing. If there is pre-eclampsia, we know that it won’t go away as long as the pregnancy continues. The problem is that if you wait until death is more imminent, there is no guarantee that the problem can be reversed at that stage to successfully save the pregnant woman’s life.

GW: The proper decision – medically, ethically, and legally – should be made as early as possible, of course. Physicians should be well trained in all these aspects.

C: The other issue is that hospital administrations are naturally risk-adverse. Even if a doctor believes that a birth is medically necessary, it can’t be done if a hospital won’t allow it, and restrictive laws lead to hospitals putting in onerous requirements.

GW: I’ve already presented the desirable protocol to you, but you keep disregarding it or objecting to it. The pregnant woman (and possibly the male sex partner and relevant parents in rare and special circumstances; that’s another discussion) and two doctors should make the decision about the abortion of a fetal person, and all these persons should be well informed about the medical, ethical, and legal aspects of the case. If there is disagreement or moderate-to-high uncertainty among these primary decision makers, then the decision should be handed to a clinic or hospital ethics panel consisting of at least seven experts from different but relevant fields. There needs to be at least one administrator on this panel, but not necessarily more.

C: This proposal wouldn’t just impose that for abortions, but for premature births as well.

GW: Here I assume by “premature births” you are referring to unintended and uninitiated events. Those are not the subject of my essay.

C: Keep in mind that according to the CDC, 10% of births in the United States are premature. This proposal has the possibility of adding layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and regulations which can impact hundreds of thousands of pregnant woman per year and put them at increased risk, for the sake of preventing possibly 1 or 2 3rd trimester abortions. This proposal is more likely to cost lives than to save them.

GW: I believe premature births are beyond the scope of my essay. I am not addressing every ethical dilemma in medicine here.

Cynthia
March 15, 2019 5:24 am

In response to Gary #138:

We do know what the post-24 week abortion situation would look like in a place with both no limits on abortion and universal health care, because that is the situation in Canada.

The same source quote by the NY Intelligencer, Dr. Jen Gunter, wrote this about Canada: https://drjengunter.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/explaining-ninth-month-abortions-and-feminism-to-the-national-post-and-everyone-else/ Perhaps 60 per year, generally for fetal abnormalities or severe health reasons. So, we know that even without the possibility of criminal laws, there are natural constraints that prevent these abortions except for extreme circumstances.

It’s important to keep in mind that this proposal would only address the issue of perhaps 1 or 2 abortions per year in the US being done for reasons that you don’t think are good enough.

The flip side is that your proposal, as you mention, would also include inductions and c-sections that could increase danger to the fetus. Unlike 3rd trimester intentional abortions, these are NOT rare. It is the standard method of dealing with maternal health complications, even among those that are staunchly pro-life. Rick Santorum’s wife Karen, and Michelle Duggar are 2 examples – the Santorum’s baby Gabriel was born after Karen had an infection that could have killed her even though he was so premature that he only lived 2 hours, and the Duggars induced labor at 24 weeks because Michelle had pre-eclampsia and their baby Josie spent several months in hospital.

The problem with any proposal that potentially bans, with criminal consequences, these births is that you get legislators with no medical background getting into the question of just how close to death the pregnant woman needs to be. This is a current problem in some states: https://rewire.news/article/2019/03/07/not-dead-enough-public-hospitals-deny-life-saving-abortion-care-to-people-in-need/

Aside from the horrifying suffering this inflicts upon a pregnant woman who cannot get timely medical care, it also means playing chicken with her very life. The problem is that from a medical point of view, the best practice is to act as soon as you know that there is a potentially fatal risk. If there is premature rupture of membranes, we know that there is a serious risk of infection developing. If there is pre-eclampsia, we know that it won’t go away as long as the pregnancy continues. The problem is that if you wait until death is more imminent, there is no guarantee that the problem can be reversed at that stage to successfully save the pregnant woman’s life.

The other issue is that hospital administrations are naturally risk-adverse. Even if a doctor believes that a birth is medically necessary, it can’t be done if a hospital won’t allow it, and restrictive laws lead to hospitals putting in onerous requirements. This proposal wouldn’t just impose that for abortions, but for premature births as well. Keep in mind that according to the CDC, 10% of births in the United States are premature. This proposal has the possibility of adding layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and regulations which can impact hundreds of thousands of pregnant woman per year and put them at increased risk, for the sake of preventing possibly 1 or 2 3rd trimester abortions. This proposal is more likely to cost lives than to save them.

Gary Whittenberger
March 13, 2019 1:35 pm

This is in response to Cynthia at 137. Thanks for your comments.

C1: Gary and I had extensive discussions on this piece on the Friendly Atheist blog. In summary, the following points were made:

GW1: In general, Cynthia is an articulate and civil communicator, even when she disagrees with me or another person.

C1: 1. I objected to the fact that the article did not deal with the situation of serious fetal abnormalities. Gary acknowledged that this was an additional circumstance that could justify a 3rd trimester termination.

GW1: That is correct. I think there are two additional good reasons for an abortion of a fetal person:
3. To protect the fetal person from intractable suffering.
4. To hasten the death of the fetal person who would survive for only a short time anyway even with the best medical technology.

C1: 2. I made the point that Gary’s proposal, as worded, would actually apply to not just intentional abortions but to any induction of labor or c-sections, which represent about half of all births. Gary acknowledged this. After much further back and forth, he clarified that he would exclude births where the induction or c-section did not increase danger to the fetus.

GW1: My proposal is method neutral. The ethics of an abortion depend on factors such as the personhood of the fetus, the intentions of the host woman and her doctor, and the probabilities of harm to the fetal person and host woman. The ethics don’t really depend on method of removal.

C1: 3. I questioned the need for such a proposal, since 3rd trimester abortions are extremely rare and those that are done very rarely involve healthy mothers with healthy fetuses. He admitted that he did not have any data on this, but didn’t feel that it was needed.

GW1: Yes, I don’t think such data are relevant to the validity of my proposal, and yet, since my last discussion with Cynthia, I found some data: “According to a 2016 estimate: ‘There are approximately 600 abortions a year after 24 weeks and most are for fetal anomalies.’” http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/02/the-big-pro-life-shift-in-a-new-poll-is-an-illusion.html
I would suspect that most of these abortions were performed for good reasons and some were not. Also, these are only the reported abortions. There are undoubtedly some unreported abortions, and I suspect that most of them were not performed for good reasons.

C1: 4. I questioned who would determine whether the abortion, c-section or induction was justified. I didn’t get a clear answer on this, although the most recent response from him seems to be that the opinion of two doctors would be needed. I still have considerable difficulties with this. What happens if there is only one OB on call at night when someone’s water breaks or their blood pressure spikes at 24 weeks?

GW1: My clear answer has three parts: 1) Method of removal is largely irrelevant to the ethics of abortion. 2) A legislature would determine “good reasons” or acceptable ones for an abortion of a fetal person, and the host woman and two physicians would determine whether the reasons existed in a particular case. If there was disagreement about this, then a hospital ethics board would rule. If there was still disagreement, then a judge would rule. And 3) OB doctors would be well trained.

C1: 5. I questioned the unintended impacts of such a proposal. What if necessary medical procedures were delayed by fears of legal problems – could that put women’s health or lives at risk? Could women who had stillbirths or premature births face a risk of being sent to jail? Would this make women who were experiencing problems less likely to seek medical attention? Gary was fairly dismissive of these concerns, arguing that “experts” would be dealing with cases justly and not dealing with the fact that many articles have shown that fetal protection laws have been applied unjustly.

GW1: Q1 – Yes, in rare cases. Q2 – Only if they had abortions for a wrong reason, i.e. not one of the four good reasons. Q3 – Yes, in rare cases. My proposal is that fetal protection laws should be properly designed, implemented, and justly applied. My prediction is that the benefits would exceed the costs or the advantages would exceed the disadvantages. Some people overlook the fact that I have proposed that, in general, women be allowed to have abortions before their fetus becomes a person, for any reason whatsoever.

C1: In the end, I still don’t believe that there is any objective evidence to support such a proposal, since there is no data to show that it would improve overall outcomes for mothers and babies.

GW1: In the end there is objective evidence that punishment works, and this evidence can be reasonably generalized to the problem of women aborting their fetal persons for no good reason. There are fetal persons who are killed who shouldn’t be killed. My proposal would reduce the probability of this happening.

Cynthia
March 11, 2019 1:27 pm

Gary and I had extensive discussions on this piece on the Friendly Atheist blog. In summary, the following points were made:

1. I objected to the fact that the article did not deal with the situation of serious fetal abnormalities. Gary acknowledged that this was an additional circumstance that could justify a 3rd trimester termination.

2. I made the point that Gary’s proposal, as worded, would actually apply to not just intentional abortions but to any induction of labor or c-sections, which represent about half of all births. Gary acknowledged this. After much further back and forth, he clarified that he would exclude births where the induction or c-section did not increase danger to the fetus.

3. I questioned the need for such a proposal, since 3rd trimester abortions are extremely rare and those that are done very rarely involve healthy mothers with healthy fetuses. He admitted that he did not have any data on this, but didn’t feel that it was needed.

4. I questioned who would determine whether the abortion, c-section or induction was justified. I didn’t get a clear answer on this, although the most recent response from him seems to be that the opinion of two doctors would be needed. I still have considerable difficulties with this. What happens if there is only one OB on call at night when someone’s water breaks or their blood pressure spikes at 24 weeks?

5. I questioned the unintended impacts of such a proposal. What if necessary medical procedures were delayed by fears of legal problems – could that put women’s health or lives at risk? Could women who had stillbirths or premature births face a risk of being sent to jail? Would this make women who were experiencing problems less likely to seek medical attention? Gary was fairly dismissive of these concerns, arguing that “experts” would be dealing with cases justly and not dealing with the fact that many articles have shown that fetal protection laws have been applied unjustly.

In the end, I still don’t believe that there is any objective evidence to support such a proposal, since there is no data to show that it would improve overall outcomes for mothers and babies.

Gary Whittenberger
March 4, 2019 11:40 am

This is in response to Linda at 132. Thanks for your comments.

LR: I don’t see GW saying anything in response to my comment:
“From a different perspective on the morality: the world is vastly over-populated by humans, so is it moral to force more reproduction on women? Humans are destroying habitats and using up finite resources. Biologists tell us we are in the Earth’s 6th period of `mass extinction.’ And you are concern about saving [human] fetuses 0-24 weeks old from elective abortions?!”

GW: It is moral to force women to carry their fetuses to term only in the rare circumstances I have described. In the “vastly over-populated world” you mentioned, it is moral to allow women to get abortions during the first 24 weeks for ANY REASON WHATSOEVER.

LR: Nature usually over-produces young in all species, but humans have neutralized many of the pressures that kill off young. We do have birth control to deal with our fertility. But birth control is not perfect.
GW: I agree.

LR: Abortion is humane. Overpopulating the Earth is not.

GW: Overpopulating the Earth is unethical; we agree. Abortion is unethical and should be illegal under specific circumstances which are currently rare.

LR: Thank you, Mr. Day, and hurrah for Canada!

GW: Yes, hurrah for Canada! It gets a lot of things right, but not all.

Gary Whittenberger
March 4, 2019 11:32 am

This is in response to Korky at 131. Thanks for your comments.

KD: Bravo to Cairns Tishman, comment #22, whom the author, comment #33, would like expelled from this e-discussion, because, presumably, he can’t stand the valid criticism and believes not in free speech.

GW: Tishman was engaged in uncivil speech which is totally out of line for this discussion. I believe in free speech which is civil. Your remark is an example of enabling incivility.

KD: I also like comments from LindaRosaRN, #24, 73, 91, and 117; Diana #42; and Ugo Corda #105.

GW: I also like most of their comments. I agree with some of them and disagree with others.

KD: The author is unconvincing, espcially in his rebuttals to the above.

GW: Sorry you aren’t convinced. Many have been.

Gary Whittenberger
March 4, 2019 11:24 am

This is in response to Linda at 129. Thanks for your comments.

GW1: “.I have been talking about the need for ethics and laws to prevent, deter, and reduce abortions when the fetus is a person and the woman does not have a good reason to get an abortion! I think you are missing the point.”

LR2: You are not acknowledging medical realities.

GW2: I think I am acknowledging medical realities. If you think otherwise, then describe one that you think I am ignoring.

LR2: You believe the fetus becomes a person at or about 24 weeks. Well, you should be satisfied that there are no elective abortions after that point, for the reasons I outlined above.

GW2: None! I don’t believe you. But even if there haven’t been, there could be, so my ethical and legal position would cover these.

LR2: It’s too dangerous. No abortion clinics offer elective abortions after 24 weeks. (Very few offer elective abortions from 13-24 weeks.)

GW2: All abortions are elective. None are forced, at least outside China. But I do agree with you that abortions after 24 weeks are dangerous for the host woman and the fetal person. That’s why they need to be very limited.

LR2: It is potentially harmful to have laws that prohibit 3rd trimester elective abortions, even when they don’t exist, because such laws perpetual the *myth* of the elective 3rd trimester abortion.

GW2: It is potentially beneficial to have these laws because they may protect some fetal persons from death or serious injury. Abortions of fetal persons should be prohibited except for four reasons.

LR2: That myth is used by the pro-lifers as the back door to banning the D&E procedure used for elective abortions 12-24 weeks.

GW2: I don’t accept the pro-life position. I accept the pro-person position, as described in my article. In the period 12-24 weeks, I believe any reason a woman offers for an abortion should be sufficient. Abortion should only be limited in the last 15 weeks.

Gary Whittenberger
March 4, 2019 11:15 am

This is in response to Sam at 128. Thanks for your comments.

SW1: I agree that the capacity for consciousness is a reasonable marker for personhood. And the Dr. Whittenberger does a good job of summarizing the current state of scientific knowledge as it relates to this issue. However, this isn’t the innovative stance that he makes it out to be: the bioethicist Bonnie Steinbock, in particular, has defended a very similar position. (At the other extreme, there are pro-choice philosophers who defend the morality of infanticide, so it doesn’t seem quite right to me to characterize the better-known pro-choice position, focusing on women’s bodily autonomy, as “radical.”)

GW1: Good that we agree on some major points. I am not familiar with Ms. Steinbock’s writings (do you have a link?), but I wouldn’t be surprised if other persons have reached conclusions very similar to mine. In fact, I would expect that. Persons who defend the morality of infanticide have made a false assumption about personhood, IMO. A common pro-choice position is radical in the sense that it defends any reason a woman might give for having an abortion of a “fetal person.”

SW1: Moreover, while I’m inclined to agree that personhood should be a consideration when it comes to the morality of abortion, I don’t that believe Whittenberger’s policy prescriptions necessarily follow. If we’re going to let the state force pregnant women to carry fetuses with the rudiments of consciousness to term, then why shouldn’t we also permit it to compel organ donations to fellow citizens, whose personhood no one disputes?

GW1: Because the prospective organ recipients are not directly connected to and not residing inside another person. Also, because those recipients are usually not the child of the prospective donor. However, I think the law should be expanded to cover this case: If a child needs a kidney or some other organ or tissue, if either parent is a perfect match to give one, and if the prospective donating parent would not be significantly harmed by the donation, then the parent should be required to provide the donation. Why? Because parents have special moral duties to their own children. In these circumstances for parents to deny their own child the donation would be a form of child neglect, IMO.

SW1: Even if that objection can be defeated, Whittenberger’s conditions for the permissibility of late-term abortion are overly restrictive. In the real-world United States, women in much of the country face considerable obstacles – financial, legal, social – to obtaining an abortion even in early pregnancy. Further, rare birth defects, some of which entail a short, painful life for a child born with them, are sometimes not detected until nearly the third trimester. Thus, while it may make sense for women to take fetal personhood into account when deciding whether to terminate a pregnancy, it makes little sense for state or federal governments to proscibe termination after consciousness begins to develop, at least not without fairly broad exceptions.

GW1: After the publication of the article, I read more and had more discussions/debates with others, and since then I have expanded the good reasons for aborting a “fetal person” from two to four, which I will include in any later updates or revisions:
1. To protect the host woman from death.
2. To protect the host woman from permanent injury.
3. To protect the fetal person from intractable suffering.
4. To hasten the death of the fetal person who would survive for only a short time anyway even with the best medical technology.
I think these would cover your concerns.

SW1: Finally, I would point out that when it comes to the matter of criminal penalties, Whittenberger seemingly takes a position that is actually to the Right of the mainstream anti-abortion movement. Opponents of abortion have long called for criminal penalties for doctors who perform abortions, but not for women who obtain them. They at least recognize, rightly, that no woman who seeks an abortion does so for fun.

GW1: Actually, my position on the penalty, i.e. one year and one day, is far to the left of those who have recommended penalties. I believe those who recommend no penalty for the host woman are just mistaken. Asking for, ordering, or directing any crime by another person is a crime in itself. For example, even though Osama Bin Laden did not fly any planes into towers, he was clearly culpable since he ordered the attack. Back to abortion, remember how Trump first said that the women should be punished and then later retracted that statement? Usually, these persons are disingenuous, responding to public pressure, hypocritical, and/or philosophically incorrect. A one year sentence should be sufficient to deter wrongful abortions by women and doctors.

LindaRosaRN
February 28, 2019 9:25 am

I wrote: “Perhaps you would like to comment about the moral issues to which I have referred to above which I feel are compelling?”

And GW responded: “I have.”
———————————

I don’t see GW saying anything in response to my comment:

“From a different perspective on the morality: the world is vastly over-populated by humans, so is it moral to force more reproduction on women? Humans are destroying habitats and using up finite resources. Biologists tell us we are in the Earth’s 6th period of ‘mass extinction.’ And you are concern about saving [human] fetuses 0-24 weeks old from elective abortions?!”

Nature usually over-produces young in all species, but humans have neutralized many of the pressures that kill off young. We do have birth control to deal with our fertility. But birth control is not perfect.

Abortion is humane. Overpopulating the Earth is not.

Thank you, Mr. Day, and hurrah for Canada!

Korky Day
February 26, 2019 8:08 pm

Bravo to Cairns Tishman, comment #22, whom the author, comment #33, would like expelled from this e-discussion, because, presumably, he can’t stand the valid criticism and believes not in free speech.

I also like comments from LindaRosaRN, #24, 73, 91, and 117; Diana #42; and Ugo Corda #105.

The author is unconvincing, espcially in his rebuttals to the above.

Korky Day
February 26, 2019 6:48 pm

Dear editor,
‘Abortion Solution’ is your cover headline for Gary Whittenberger’s pseudo-scientific attack on women’s rights in your undated 2018 journal (Skeptic, Volume 23, Number 4, pages 34-39).
He hardly mentions women’s stances, social role, or feelings, except to categorize them as ‘radical pro-choice’. Rather, his allegedly centrist ‘solution’ would reduce many Canadian women to the grovelling status of many USA women who want abortions. We in Canada have been happily living with nearly free abortion on demand for several decades—for any reason at any stage of pregnancy. There is no strong political movement here to alter that.
By pretending his analysis to be scientific, your author plays right into the hands of pro-lifers who have tried to commandeer ‘science’ to prove that a fetus is a ‘person’. He positions himself alongside those religious misogynists, with their same arguments about murder, except to move the date of quasi-ensoulment (‘personhood’) around 5 months later.
There is nothing scientific about that. It attempts to settle a political question with male-dominated scientific decorations built on a foundation of a purely subjective ethics, namely that a fetus with ‘consciousness’ should enslave a woman’s body and life.

Mr. Korky Day,
Vancouver, BC, Canada.

LindaRosaRN
February 26, 2019 1:55 pm

GW: “…I have been talking about the need for ethics and laws to prevent, deter, and reduce abortions when the fetus is a person and the woman does not have a good reason to get an abortion! I think you are missing the point.”

LR: You are not acknowledging medical realities.

You believe the fetus becomes a person at or about 24 weeks. Well, you should be satisfied that there are no elective abortions after that point, for the reasons I outlined above.

It’s too dangerous. No abortion clinics offer elective abortions after 24 weeks. (Very few offer elective abortions from 13-24 weeks.)

MYTH of the 3RD TRIMESTER ELECTIVE ABORTION

It is potentially harmful to have laws that prohibit 3rd trimester elective abortions, even when they don’t exist, because such laws perpetual the *myth* of the elective 3rd trimester abortion.

That myth is used by the pro-lifers as the back door to banning the D&E procedure used for elective abortions 12-24 weeks.

Sam W
February 24, 2019 8:49 am

I agree that the capacity for consciousness is a reasonable marker for personhood. And the Dr. Whittenberger does a good job of summarizing the current state of scientific knowledge as it relates to this issue. However, this isn’t the innovative stance that he makes it out to be: the bioethicist Bonnie Steinbock, in particular, has defended a very similar position. (At the other extreme, there are pro-choice philosophers who defend the morality of infanticide, so it doesn’t seem quite right to me to characterize the better-known pro-choice position, focusing on women’s bodily autonomy, as “radical.”)

Moreover, while I’m inclined to agree that personhood should be a consideration when it comes to the morality of abortion, I don’t that believe Whittenberger’s policy prescriptions necessarily follow. If we’re going to let the state force pregnant women to carry fetuses with the rudiments of consciousness to term, then why shouldn’t we also permit it to compel organ donations to fellow citizens, whose personhood no one disputes?

Even if that objection can be defeated, Whittenberger’s conditions for the permissibility of late-term abortion are overly restrictive. In the real-world United States, women in much of the country face considerable obstacles — financial, legal, social — to obtaining an abortion even in early pregnancy. Further, rare birth defects, some of which entail a short, painful life for a child born with them, are sometimes not detected until nearly the third trimester. Thus, while it may make sense for women to take fetal personhood into account when deciding whether to terminate a pregnancy, it makes little sense for state or federal governments to proscibe termination after consciousness begins to develop, at least not without fairly broad exceptions.

Finally, I would point out that when it comes to the matter of criminal penalties, Whittenberger seemingly takes a position that is actually to the Right of the mainstream anti-abortion movement. Opponents of abortion have long called for criminal penalties for doctors who perform abortions, but not for women who obtain them. They at least recognize, rightly, that no woman who seeks an abortion does so for fun.

Gary Whittenberger
February 24, 2019 5:30 am

This is in response to Sheila Stone at 126. Thanks for your comments.

SS1: Haven’t read all the way down yet, so someone else may have commented on this already. I could not get the “reply” function to work. Comment 11: ” Surely the zygote, if left undisturbed with an ample supply of nutrition that the mother needs anyway,” just hit me, at least, the word “anyway”.

SS1: Is this commenter suggesting that pregnancy is easy, and risk free to the mother? Even in this day and country, and even WITH good prenatal care (which is not equally available in all locations and economic sectors), women die during pregnancy and during childbirth. Actually, motherhood is also significantly associated with poverty and preventable health breakdowns.

GW1: I tend to agree with you on these points.

SS1: The zygote does not develop with just “nutrition”. If it did, we’d be further along with test tube babies. Pregnancy ALWAYS places physiological strain on the mother’s cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal, and endocrine systems, and among the more vulnerable, mental health and economic viability, meaning food and shelter. Lotta jobs you can’t continue when you are pregnant. Prenatal care for risk reduction actually costs money to perform. Pregnancy, not to mention birth, is often accompanied by pain, in some cases unbearable. Women get c-sections at rates that vary by socioeconomic status.

GW1: You are correct. Pregnancy is not easy. Anyone who has been pregnant or has a spouse who has been pregnant would know this first hand.

Sheila stone
February 23, 2019 10:46 pm

Haven’t read all the way down yet, so someone else may have commented on this already. I could not get the “reply” function to work. Comment 11: ” Surely the zygote, if left undisturbed with an ample supply of nutrition that the mother needs anyway,” just hit me, at least, the word “anyway”.

Is this commenter suggesting that pregnancy is easy, and risk free to the mother? Even in this day and country, and even WITH good prenatal care (which is not equally available in all locations and economic sectors), women die during pregnancy and during childbirth. Actually, motherhood is also significantly associated with poverty and preventable health breakdowns.

The zygote does not develop with just “nutrition”. If it did, we’d be further along with test tube babies. Pregnancy ALWAYS places physiological strain on the mother’s cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal, and endocrine systems, and among the more vulnerable, mental health and economic viability, meaning food and shelter. Lotta jobs you can’t continue when you are pregnant. Prenatal care for risk reduction actually costs money to perform.

Pregnancy, not to mention birth, is often accompanied by pain, in some cases unbearable. Women get c-sections at rates that vary by socioeconomic status.

Etc.
SS, RN, MSN

Gary Whittenberger
February 23, 2019 7:41 am

This is in response to Linda Rosa at 124. Thank you for your comments.

GW: “You did not give a yes or no answer to the question. So, you evaded it. It is for you, and me, and everyone else to judge another’s complex life situation or reproductive choices whenever it is necessary to protect the life and well being of another person!”

Me/LR: Ah, you slip in the word “person” into this statement. With elective abortions only medically safe up to 24 weeks, one is hard pressed to make the fetus up to this point a “person.”

GW: I don’t “slip in” words. I use them deliberately, sincerely, and honestly. The fetus becomes a person when it acquires the capacity for consciousness, which occurs roughly at the end of the 24th week post conception. Read my article for more details.

GW: You are still evading! You still didn’t give a direct yes-or-no answer to my question, so I’ll ask it again: “Do you believe the following is a good or bad reason for a host woman to get an abortion of the fetal person inside her? `I want to go back to college, and I see now that having a baby would interfere with that.’” Then explain and defend your answer.

LR: After 24 weeks, abortion is ONLY a medical emergency to save the woman’s life/health, with little or no chance for saving the fetus. (After 24 weeks, the risk is too high for elective abortion, but in late case emergencies, that risk is acceptable.)

GW: Most states already have laws which prohibit abortion in at least the third trimester and sometimes before, except for good reason. These laws are compatible with my position. Women should not be permitted to get abortions after the fetus becomes a person, except for one of four good reasons. Some women violate morality and law anyway.

LR: If you want to get on your high horse to moralize and make laws about these rare emergency abortions, then you also need to take responsibility for the emotional distress you will cause to those who were very likely looking forward to being parents but are devastated by the loss of the pregnancy.

GW: You are moralizing too, so my horse is no higher than yours. I haven’t been talking about “rare emergency abortions” where the woman has a good reason to get one. I have been talking about the need for ethics and laws to prevent, deter, and reduce abortions when the fetus is a person and the woman does not have a good reason to get an abortion! I think you are missing the point.

LR: Perhaps you would like to comment about the moral issues to which I have referred to above which I feel are compelling?

GW: I have.

LindaRosaRN
February 22, 2019 4:15 pm

GE: “You did not give a yes or no answer to the question. So, you evaded it. It is for you, and me, and everyone else to judge another’s complex life situation or reproductive choices whenever it is necessary to protect the life and well being of another person!”

Me: Ah, you slip in the word “person” into this statement. With elective abortions only medically safe up to 24 weeks, one is hard pressed to make the fetus up to this point a “person.”

After 24 weeks, abortion is ONLY a medical emergency to save the woman’s life/health, with little or no chance for saving the fetus. (After 24 weeks, the risk is too high for elective abortion, but in late case emergencies, that risk is acceptable.) If you want to get on your high horse to moralize and make laws about these rare emergency abortions, then you also need to take responsibility for the emotional distress you will cause to those who were very likely looking forward to being parents but are devastated by the loss of the pregnancy.

Perhaps you would like to comment about the moral issues to which I have referred to above which I feel are compelling?

Gary Whittenberger
February 22, 2019 12:01 pm

This is in response to Ugo Corda at 122. Thanks again for your comments.

UC: Responding to Gary at 121: I think we have both expressed our points of view pretty clearly, so there is not much else to say. I would only like to point out something about REASON, which you (and people like Sam Harris) emphatically invoke, because it is crucial in our differences. You believe that most people, once they abandon their passions and other irrational thoughts and start using reason, would inevitably reach the same conclusions as you have.

GW: Yes, I believe most people would.

UC: I think there is a fundamental flaw in that line of thought. Reason is basically the application of the rules of logic to a basic set of foundational assumptions (e.g. all men are created equal, the world essence is materialistic, human essence is spiritual, there is a god, there is no god, etc. etc.). Those assumptions are axiomatic, i.e. not subject to further investigation. You will of course say that your assumptions are perfectly “reasonable”, but people with opposite views will also say that their own assumptions are the perfectly reasonable ones.

GW: I understand what you mean. However, I believe that most of the assumptions you (and others) regard as axiomatic or foundational are conclusions, the result of rational or irrational thinking. This is clear in the case of the assumption “God exists” which is not axiomatic at all, contrary to Alvin Plantingna. The same for “All men are created equal.” Etc.

UC: Those who want to abolish abortion starting from conception, for example, will tell you that they are just applying correct reasoning starting from the most reasonable assumptions: there is a god, there is a scripture, the scripture is correct, god and the scripture tells us that life should be protected since conception (never mind that medieval theologians thought that only at birth does the soul get into the body ;-), etc. etc.

GW: Sure, that’s what they might claim or believe, but they aren’t applying “correct reasoning” or the “most reasonable assumptions”. They never learned sufficient rational thinking, reason, critical thought, skepticism, scientific methodology, logic, proper rhetoric, methods of empirical investigation, weighing evidence, etc., or they have been hampered by learning bad habits.

UC: You might say to them: I am using science and science tells me how the world really is, and your fundamental assumptions are wrong. So then you get into the discussion, for example, of whether science shows us the way the world really is (scientific realism); or instead it shows reality as interpreted by us (scientific antirealism) and “true” reality is unreachable. And your choice of scientific realism vs. antirealism will also be based on some axiomatic assumptions not subject to further investigation. And so on and so forth. I am pretty confident that these discussions will never end, so relying on reason to univocally resolve these conflicts is in my opinion a fool’s errand

GW: I’m sorry, but I disagree. We are all human beings, we live on the same Earth, and we are all more alike than we are different. Except for a small percentage of us, we can all learn rational thinking skills. These are the foundations for a clear understanding of the world and the formulation of CUE.

GW: The consequences of accepting scientific realism vs. anti-realism are probably unimportant. Is the Earth really real? Who cares? We must act as if it is real if we are going to survive.

Ugo Corda
February 22, 2019 10:18 am

Responding to Gary at 121: I think we have both expressed our points of view pretty clearly, so there is not much else to say. I would only like to point out something about REASON, which you (and people like Sam Harris) emphatically invoke, because it is crucial in our differences. You believe that most people, once they abandon their passions and other irrational thoughts and start using reason, would inevitably reach the same conclusions as you have.

I think there is a fundamental flaw in that line of thought. Reason is basically the application of the rules of logic to a basic set of foundational assumptions (e.g. all men are created equal, the world essence is materialistic, human essence is spiritual, there is a god, there is no god, etc. etc.). Those assumptions are axiomatic, i.e. not subject to further investigation. You will of course say that your assumptions are perfectly “reasonable”, but people with opposite views will also say that their own assumptions are the perfectly reasonable ones.

Those who want to abolish abortion starting from conception, for example, will tell you that they are just applying correct reasoning starting from the most reasonable assumptions: there is a god, there is a scripture, the scripture is correct, god and the scripture tells us that life should be protected since conception (never mind that medieval theologians thought that only at birth does the soul get into the body ;-), etc. etc.

You might say to them: I am using science and science tells me how the world really is, and your fundamental assumptions are wrong. So then you get into the discussion, for example, of whether science shows us the way the world really is (scientific realism); or instead it shows reality as interpreted by us (scientific antirealism) and “true” reality is unreachable. And your choice of scientific realism vs. antirealism will also be based on some axiomatic assumptions not subject to further investigation. And so on and so forth. I am pretty confident that these discussions will never end, so relying on reason to univocally resolve these conflicts is in my opinion a fool’s errand

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