"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is A Fetus A Person? Abortion And The Pain Defense

What if you knew that the fetus growing in your body could feel pain - that it responded to various aggressive stimuli in a reactive way and was trying to move out of harm’s way? Would you reconsider the abortion you had planned?

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In an article in the New York Times (10.30.12) William Egginton explores the issue and speculates on whether neurological findings such as the one suggested above could be the final necessary argument to overturn Roe vs. Wade.  If science were to conclude that the fetus in fact does feel pain, then it is a sentient being – a human being – and it then has equal rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Not so fast, argues Eggington.  The definition of a human being is not determined simply by neuro-transmitters, synapses, bio-chemical transfers, and involuntary reflexes.  Philosophers have debated the question of Being for centuries and until now the discussion has focused on consciousness.  “I think, therefore I am”, said Descartes in the 17th Century, suggesting that the best, if not only proof of existence, was awareness of one’s own consciousness. 
While Descartes considered whether a neonate or even young children might have consciousness of this kind, in the end he rejected this hypothesis, insisting on the “reflective” nature of consciousness… “I call the first and simple thoughts of children, that come to them as, for example, they feel the pain caused when some gas enclosed in their intestines distends them, or the pleasure caused by the sweetness of the food that nourishes them…. I call these direct and not reflexive thoughts; but when the young man feels something new and at the same time perceives that he has not felt the same thing before, I call this second perception a reflection, and I relate it only to the understanding, insofar as it is so attached to sensation that the two cannot be distinguished.”
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In the ensuing years, philosophers continued to focus on the nature of Being.  Although most assumed that a human soul – a more religious way of describing Being - was given by God, it was up to Man to describe its character and dimension.  This conception became increasingly important in the Age of Enlightenment, an era where God’s will and purpose was subjected to rational scrutiny.  There was never any question of either God or his intent; but it was Man’s duty to try to understand both.

In her book, Bodies of Thought: Science, Religion, and the Soul in the Early Enlightenment, Ann Thomson provides a detailed review of the debates about the nature of mind and soul from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
In spite of the fact that Willis [a 17th Century Cambridge physiologist]  subscribed to the doctrine of an immaterial soul to account for the higher intelligence of human beings, Thomson argues that ‘Willis’s work ... attracted the attention of those wanting to elaborate a [purely] material account of the mind divorced from an immaterial soul’. In her view, Willis developed conceptions of active matter which could account for the higher functions of the mind, and dispense with the need for an immaterial soul (Reviews in History, May 2010)
These debates became even more fundamental and focused on the nature of matter and whether or not the soul was material or immaterial:
Like, Locke later, Baxter [17th century theologian] argued that one would be limiting the divine power by denying that God could super-add thought and perception to matter…A consensus was gradually built up during this period among most philosophers and scientists that matter, generally conceived as consisting of inert atoms, is in itself inactive. What becomes philosophically interesting and up for debate is the question what further entities one must add to the universe to account not only for thought..(Reviews in History, May 2010)
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The Age of Enlightenment was also the age during which the concept of individual and human rights emerged, and the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution were based on the philosophy of the age.  The Founding Fathers, although schooled in rationalism and bred on an unshakeable belief that there is a Creator, and that he is the source of our ‘inalienable’ rights, had to translate these principles into legal precepts. The new American was a human being, created by God, endowed with a soul which defined his humanity; and that society – and government - should facilitate his knowledge of both God and Man.
The brain sciences, like all branches of the natural sciences, are immeasurably useful tools for individuals and communities to deploy (one hopes) for the improvement of our understanding of the natural world and the betterment of society. The basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution, however, have nothing at all to do with the truths of science. They are, to use Karl Popper’s terminology, non-falsifiable, like religious beliefs or statements about the immortality of the soul; to use Thomas Jefferson’s word, they are inalienable. Like the equality of its citizens, in other words, the basic liberties of Americans should not be dependent on the changing opinions of science
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Later in the 19th Century when rational science was emerging as a new tool to help understand the universe, Kant dismissed its ability to answer basically philosophical questions:
More than 200 years ago the German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued, in his “Critique of Pure Reason” that, while science can tell us much about the world we live in, it can tell us nothing about the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, or the origin of human freedom; moreover, he demonstrated with exquisite precision that should it try to come to conclusions about these questions, it would necessarily fall into error.
Deliberations today are no different and scholars and scientists agree on the indefinable nature of soul, self, or Being:
Current neuroscience distinguishes a spectrum of degrees of  “consciousness” among organisms, ranging from basic perception of external stimuli to fully developed self-consciousness. Even the idea of self is subject to further differentiation. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, for instance, distinguishes degrees of consciousness in terms of the kind of “self” wielding it: while nonhuman animals may exhibit the levels he calls proto-self and core-self, both necessary for conscious experience, he considers the autobiographical self, which provides the foundations of personal identity, to be an attribute largely limited to humans.
Which brings us back to the issue of abortion, fetuses, and pain reflex. Egginton argues that while three centuries of philosophical deliberation have concluded that a human being becomes a person when he becomes actively sentient, aware of his surroundings and from the first moments of life, tries to make sense of it all.
Consciousness, in other words, presents a much higher, and much harder-to-establish, standard than mere potentiality of life. Therefore, implicit recourse to the concept fails as a basis for replacing viability as the line dividing the permissibility of abortion from its prohibition. For a fetus to be conscious in a sense that would establish it as a fully actualized human life, according both to current neuro-scientific standards and to the philosophical tradition from which the concept stems, it would have to be capable of self-perception as well as simple perception of stimuli.
Science is and always has been one way of illuminating the search for truth, but not the only way; and to assume so is to ascribe to it a dictatorship of pseudo-rationality. Scientific ‘proof’ is an ephemeral and unattainable goal.  Even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is being re-examined today.
When science becomes the sole or even primary arbiter of such basic notions as personhood, it ceases to be mankind’s most useful servant and threatens, instead, to become its dictator. Science does not and should not have the power to absolve individuals and communities of the responsibility to choose.

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