Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On life and human rights

So, I was innocently scurrying along the intertubes when all of a sudden, I come across a bundle of pro-life talking points, with the article in question specifically mentioning how abortion is somehow making America unable to compete and that women's right advocates from a century ago didn't support it. Obviously, compelling stuff. But, I thought that for posterity's sake, I might just slap down my humble opinion on why abortion, though not a favorable course of action, is not nearly as horrible and immoral as pro-lifers try to make it sound.

Our first area of exploration is life itself. Allegedly, this is what abortion opposers support (and I will not address the hypocrisy of simultaneously supporting war and the death penalty here to contradict this). The assumption is that life is sacred, which is an idea that can be held regardless of religious preferences, but is often supported by such suppositions. Whether it is actually "sacred" or not is irrelevant, since there is no feasible way for us to treat life as sacred without killing ourselves (and thus, throwing away our own sacred lives). By this, I mean to say that life is necessarily supported by the destruction of other life through consumption or competition. Our very existence directly and indirectly causes the death of countless other living organisms due to this, while simultaneously preventing future lives from springing forth from those who have died due to our need to feed, our carelessness, or just our very presence. We have no qualms with ending the lives of nonsentient living matter, be they the vegetables on our plate or the bacteria on our hands. Life itself is apparently not treated as sacred due to our lack of perspective, or is just simply impractical to treat as sacred. So, a paradigm shift is required.

So, perhaps sentient animal life is what we should hold "sacred". That is the kind of life that we should not take away. Of course, we cannot go with too loose of a definition of sentient: otherwise it would be immoral to try to swat flies, bat at mosquitoes, step on ants, and the like. Merely possessing mobility and a nervous system is not enough to warrant having a protected life to us. So, what exactly do we deem worthy of protection? Most of it seems to be animals that can not only feel pain, but can react to situations and express it. The kinds of animals that we tend to keep as pets. But, then again, despite there being protections against causing these animals undue harm or neglecting them, there is very little protecting us from killing them. We casually put them to sleep, or let similarly expressive types be hunted. We, collectively, have no concern for their actual lives. Especially if we are using them for meat supply. So, we must delve further, into the actual domain where life is considered "sacred."

It was pretty obvious from the get-go where this would end up: people only consider human life to be sacred. It is the only kind of life that we can feasibly be expected to protect and not directly cause the death of. It is the only kind of life that needed to be protected in order for society to function. Is there a reason for this protective status, though? In most respects, no. The animals who are granted no such rights and protections that we regularly hunt, exterminate, or carelessly slaughter as a means to an end, or merely by accident, can feel pain much like our own. And humans are not necessarily given exclusive domain of intelligence or thought either. No. Interestingly, we are the only species considered to be worthy of having a "right to life", solely on the basis of our being human.

This makes little sense biologically, and not much metaphysically (barring frantic religious justification, of course), but it does make sense socially. Seeing as how society as we know it is a group construct that was supposed to assure the highest survival rates and productivity of its members, it makes sense that we should care about not killing one another (other group members, i.e. humans), and should not care about killing "the other" (mostly animals, but also members of other groups). As such, life wasn't as much "sacred" as much as an asset.

So, where does this leave us? Life itself has no inherent significance, and is only protected by society because, if it were not, there would be no society. And yet, life is not protected when it is seen as justified. That is, when we kill someone deemed to be a threat.

Now, with that whittled down to the stub of an original premise that it is currently, I would like to add some of my own. We do, in actuality, treat animal life with much more esteem than bacteria, plants, or fungi. And, I posit that this is because of their perceived sentience, as mentioned before. It is obvious that they do not earn the same rights as us due to this, but they still earn a modicum of protections that other non-sentient lifeforms do not. Merely the ability to have some form of thought, reactivity, and ability to suffer is enough to warrant a mild restraint in killing the animal possessing them in most situations. In fact, we may keep them as pets. It appears that we actually give some form of value to life, deserved or not, based upon the perceived ability to think and feel. Their life is valued because we can imagine that they can appreciate it, and that they could be tormented by the process of dying in ways that we cannot imagine for a protozoa. It is not valued if they are already dying, if they are a threat to us, or if killing them achieves a positive goal for ourselves.

And, thus, I reach my conclusion, after an incredibly bumpy ride. The reason why abortion is justified is simply because being human isn't in of itself a sufficient reason to gain the protections of society. A fetus possesses human DNA, and potential to become one, but, aside from that, they do not have any social role, nor do they have any ability to think or feel. They cannot suffer the pains of death, they cannot appreciate being alive, and they cannot mourn their own dying due to the fact that their nervous system has yet to form. They are, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of a small clump of meat that can turn into a human being. And it is just goes to show how disingeuous the pro-life movement is when they want to assure human rights protections to an unthinking, unfeeling human-shaped cluster of cells while eating meals that at one point in time, or even at the time of eating, had more capacity for thought, and felt more pain, than the fetus ever could.

It all comes down to one thing: whether or not you think that merely having human DNA is sufficient enough of a reason to have a "right to life". It is a pivotal point that is ultimately just opinion. Personally, I do not think it is relevant. Our empathy dictates to not cause harm, and society dictates that we do not undermine it, and our own safety, by causing the death of functioning members of it. Abortion is a murder that causes no pain, to a human that has no role, and who will not grieve over dying or be grieved for. It is the killing of an unthinking creature that exists only due to symbiosis with the mother and that regularly perishes without such intervention. And it is only seen as a big deal because it happens to be a potential member of society and biologically independent human being, in much the same way that every sperm and ovum are potential human lifeforms as well.

It is a matter of perspective, I will concede that. But, the facts seem a little one-sided....

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