Right to Life

So, I'm going to approach a very delicate subject from an angle that I rarely hear expressed coherently.

The abortion debate is very contentious, with members on both sides railing about rights to life and quality of living and such.  A quick question - really, the question - is whether or not the foetus has the same rights as the carrier.

I'm going to side-step the moral questions for a moment and merely tackle this specific question.

First off, we have to understand what we mean when we refer to the rights of the carrier.  As I'm in the U.S., my viewpoint will, be skewed slightly towards that political climate, but that should have little impact eventually.

The ethology of the U.S. states that various rights - life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc. - are imbued in all humans; this isn't stated in the Constitution, mind you, but it's often used as a governing principle when interpreting the meaning of the Constitution.  So, from a legal aspect, we can state that "humanity" is one required principle for a certain level of rights.

Obviously, there are rights imbued to citizens, who are classified as natural or naturalized - both of which are specific processes or conditions.  The easiest way to qualify as a citizen is to be born in the U.S.; since the foetus obviously isn't born yet and, furthermore, likely hasn't gone through a naturalization process, it cannot be a citizen.

Furthermore, there are certain "rights" viewed as existing to "all living things", generally enforced or seen as dictated a reduction of animal cruelty and such.

So, that gives us a framework for the "rights" aspect of a "thing": if it's alive, it has a certain level of "rights" that aren't necessarily universally enforced; if it's human it has other "rights"; and if it's a citizen, it has even more.

The carrier obviously qualified for all of the above without question.  So, we focus on the foetus.

The foetus is, as stated, not a citizen since it has never been born and has never participated in naturalization.  So, the rights of US citizens to not apply.

Is the foetus alive?  In some sense, yes.  However, as stated, this does not guarantee a granting of rights: we kill living things all the time, and very rarely is an ethical question raised.  Usually such ethics are only called in when the living thing is capable of demonstrating a sensation of pain; it's questionable at what stage a foetus is able to do so, though observation seems to indicate that such sensation is possible only at around the start of the third trimester.

However, again, that isn't necessarily sufficient justification for the absolute prevention of killing; we still kill/harm living things that can feel pain, often for seemingly "trivial" reasons.

The third criteria is the crucial matter and the hardest to gauge: is the foetus human?  To do so, we have to define what it means to be "human", something that is very difficult to do.

Inarguably, for most of its life, a foetus has little resemblance to a born human being beyond the biochemical - even once tissues start differentiating, the physical anatomy takes weeks to become recognizable.  A foetus that is delivered before the end of the second trimester is not likely to live: survival rates, even with the best medical care, are barely 50% at 24 weeks (two weeks before the end of the second trimester).  (This fact, combined with the development of the ability to feel pain, is generally why there is the current "third trimester" limit on elective abortions.)

Many people, mainly the religious, argue that a foetus is human from the moment it is conceived; the justification for this appears entirely religious, but I'll try to tackle it from an evidence-based perspective.

Merely having the genetic material of a human does not make something individually "human": cancer cells, for example, have all the genetic requirements for "human" but are killed all the time.  Many even have slightly different genomes (usually through mutation) and thus might actually qualify as a separate life form from the host, but this doesn't stop us from killing said cells.  Clearly, society as a whole uses some other criteria for judging the "humanity" of a being.  Formalizing that criteria would go a long ways towards clearing up the abortion issue.

As a final consideration, it can be argued that, until the foetus is independently viable (again, around the start of the 3rd trimester), it cannot be truly considered an "independent life" and is instead either part of the carrier (as an organ or other growth) or a parasite.  Carriers regularly excise either from their bodies, sometimes under medical requirement and sometimes electively.

If the foetus is not independent, it has no "rights" as an entity.  If it is independent but isn't human, it has no rights normally associated with humanity.  Even if it is human, it has no rights associated with citizenship.

It's clear that, if society could formulate answers to the first two questions (those of independence and humanity), the issue of abortion could be solved ethically once and for all.  From the known evidence, I currently think the current 3rd-trimester limit is the most scientifically justified ethic, but it is society as a whole that needs to resolve the issue on the basis of all evidence.


Planetx_123 said...

Nice treatment. I enjoyed reading this. I share the opinion that 'we kill off living things all the time and no ethical question is raised'.


Austin said...

I started formulating this argument in a conversation with a staunch anti-abortion supporter; about half-way through, when he realized how I was approaching it, he paused for a moment and said, "You know, I never thought about it like that. It's always been such an emotional issue for me, I never looked at it logically."

I think, in the end, he ended up agreeing with me logically but still felt uncomfortable about it emotionally. However, it seemed a "successful" enough approach that I thought I'd formalize it a bit.

Oh, and, thanks for the first comment I've ever gotten here :)

A Wandering Pom said...

Hi there, Austin

You may remember I said some while ago that I wanted to comment here; I've finally got round to it...

This is a very interesting treatment of the subject, and it's very refreshing to see someone approach it from a wholly logical point of view - many thanks for posting.

I think I see a possible difficulty in the argument. During the abortion process, the foetus is born. If it is still alive, does it then acquire rights as a human? If so, there may be some interesting parallels with people on life support.

Take care


Austin said...

AWP: I'm not sure that it entirely applies - being "human" requires more than the mere presense of human DNA, though exactly what the defining limit would be is probably beyond my pay grade.

After all, any cells taken from a body are generally "alive", and most have the same basic makeup (though generally things like cancer have mutated slightly). I still think the question comes down to whether or not the entity is functionally viable as an independent life, even with life support.

Most premature babies are only barely so if born at the earliest ends; as I stated, if it's born 3 more months early, it's not likely to survive even with the best we can do - the body just isn't well-enough developed to survive independently of the host(mother). Anything earlier than 5 months' gestation has almost zero chance.

So, I think the basic argument still holds with the possible exception of the 5-6 month gestation period; that could he handled by an "official" legal or ethical definition of "human".

I don't think, however, the position of potentiated viability can really be limiting on the issue - after all, we're at the point where we can likely start "growing" humans in vitro from stem cells; since stem cells can be forced to generate from pretty much any precursor cell, it would get a little ridiculous to try and argue that all cancerous tissue or removed organs have to be treated as human beings (since they'd all, technically, have the potential to be cultured into a living human).