Sunday, January 21, 2007

Happy Birthday, Sanity

Monday is the 34th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, in which a Texas law banning abortions was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Opponents of choice have always had to argue that the fetus is a person. You may find it instructive and/or fun to read the transcript of the original argument of the case, which took place on December 13, 1971. You can read even more discussion of the fetus’s personhood in the transcript of the reargument, which occurred on October 11, 1972. (The reargument was scheduled to allow Justices Rehnquist and Powell to hear what the lawyers had to say; it's clear that most of the other justices had already made up their minds.) If you have time, you might enjoy listening to Texas’s nonsensical claims by clicking the appropriate audio button on the Oyez web site.

Whether or not the fetus is a “person” could not then, and still cannot now, be considered a scientific question. It is a lexico-theological issue, over which hovers the religious concept of “soul.” In the first argument, lawyer Jay Floyd, appearing for Texas Assistant Attorney General Wade, slipped in that very word near the end of his allotted time. To their discredit, none of the justices challenged him.

In the second argument, Robert C. Flowers replaced Floyd. Early on, Flowers said “... it is the position of the state of Texas that, upon conception, we have a human being; a person within the concept of the Constitution of the United States, and that of Texas, also.”

Justice Potter Stewart jumped on this statement: “Now how should that question be decided? Is it a legal question? A constitutional question? A medical question? A philosophical question? Or a religious question? Or what is it?”

Flowers waffled by placing that decision on the shoulders of first, “the legislature,” and, ultimately, the Court. The justices let Stewart’s pointed query die a-borning. He raised it again later, but Flowers continued to pass the buck. The Court cravenly ignored the religious implications; there was not even a pregnant pause. No one on the bench pointed out that none of the framers was a fetus.

If you don’t believe in a soul, you’ll have trouble accepting the personhood of a bundle of microscopic goo. Yes, it contains human cells, the building blocks of a person. But a Lego set isn’t the Taj Mahal.

A toenail clipping, a stray hair, an invisible droplet of saliva—all of these contain human DNA. Are they persons? Not to anyone who’s sane.

Soldiers, on the other hand, are clearly persons. But again, only to those who are sane.

Unfortunately, sanity may no longer be a desideratum, as it was when Roe v. Wade was correctly decided. Today, a son of Texas, having attained high office, has honed irrationality to an art. He opposes the aborting of cell clusters, as his state’s governmental forebears did, but asks the American public to extol the aborting of young people in uniform.

If Justice Stewart were still alive, he might wonder: "Now how should that question be decided? Is it a philosophical question? Or a religious question? Or what is it?”


Bequeeth The Masses said...

Agreed. What would you say about so called "partial birth" abortion? I tend to think a direct line needs to be created and while I agree that that line is certainly not conception, it may be at the beginning of the third trimester.

However, the entire argument, it seems to me, has developed into a religious one more than a practical one. If this was practical, all those "pro-lifers" would have to agree that birth control, condoms, natural family planning, etc... are just barriers in front of "God's Plan." Growing up as a Christian, I heard these arguments, and now as an Atheist I laugh at them. But there is a vast amount of people out there that are so morally confused that the extreme voice of "no abortion regardless" may prevail. We may have to admit there is a line in order to move it forward.

The Exterminator said...


A term like "partial-birth" is loaded. Those of us who believe that women have a right to their own bodies shouldn't use it.

I agree that late-term abortions are more troubling than those performed earlier in pregnancy. Perhaps, at some point, the country will be ready for a reasonable, scientific dialogue on the issue of personhood--with some honest input from non-religionists in the medical field who can eschew the superstitious mumbo-jumbo thrown out there to color the facts and skew our views.

However, no matter how advanced biotechnology becomes, I don't think I'll ever be able to refer to a fetus as a "person." That's a bastardization of the language.

The bottom line is that the embryo, no matter how developed, is not a baby. If we grant personhood to fetuses, shall we also grant it to corpses? Where do we stop? Are all DNA-carrying materials to be granted personhood by fiat of the theocrats? As humankind's life-creating capabilities grow, shall we start worrying about the pain felt by our scratched dandruff flakes, and accuse people of murder each time they flush away their shit?

You're right: the entire anti-abortion argument is a religious one. No soul, no problem.

Bequeeth The Masses said...

Well, I think there is quite a difference between a fetus that is 6 months along and a corpse, not to mention a flake of dandruff. Such an argument is only going to polarize the sides further and result in an outright ban.

I think we can agree that a blastocyte or a 6 week old "fetus" is not objectionable, but my neice was born premature by 3 months. This would still be considered legal under late term abortions, no?

The Exterminator said...


I would never equate a person who was actually born, no matter how prematurely, with an embryo. So yes, obviously there's a huge difference between an actual baby--like your niece--and a non-person. But at what moment did that difference occur? The instant she was conceived? Six days? Six weeks? Six months? And who's going to be empowered to decide that? You? Me? An ignorant majority? An elitist minority? Shall we put it to a vote in the nation's churches, mosques, and synagogues?

As science pushes the envelope on its ability to sustain independent life to earlier and earlier stages in a fetus's development, are we to force women to be the vessels for these protopersons? I think the rights of an actual living woman should ALWAYS outweigh any imagined, religiously imposed, "rights" of a fetus.

As I said in my previous response to you, absent a consensus medical definition of "personhood," I would not draw any lines. And even given such a definition, I would still be opposed to compelling a woman to, in essence, bear a child for the state.

As far as "polarizing the sides" goes: they have been polarized for ages, without any help from my or your blogging, and will remain so as long as there's a rabble to be roused by the godpushers.