Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Moral Values

God's anointed Leader of the Free World is preparing to veto a bill that would have relaxed existing restraints on federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells. So, time once again for me to revist the endlessly fascinating subject of Christian morality. A while back I had occasion to visit Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and there was a guy standing outside with a sandwich board reading, "In the court of God, abortion is murder." This is, of course, by far the most important issue to the people the pollsters call "values voters," and the Christian preachers who tell them what to think, even more important than discriminating against homosexuals.

God's other son has no choice but to veto the bill because it appears to sanction the destruction of human embryos, and that is indistinguishable from the murder of human beings. Now this is a very curious belief for people who claim to base their morality on the Bible, because of course there is not one word about abortion anywhere in the Bible, Old Testament or New. It's rather embarassing for the faithful, in fact, that they can't come up with any Bible verses to demonstrate God's thinking on this. After all, they get their hatred of homos from Leviticus, shouldn't there be something in there somewhere that they can at least twist or torture into a semblance of condemnation of abortion? But there is absolutely nothing. And I should tell you that abortion, and for that matter infanticide, were commonplace in the ancient world.

In fact, Christians did not decide that abortion was sinful until the late 19th Century. And it was impossible for anyone to claim that "human life begins at conception" until people understood what conception was. The ovum was not even discovered until 1827, by Karl Ernst von Baer, cell division was first recognized in 1832 by Dumortier, and the moment of conception was not observed until 1856 by Nathanael Pringsheim, in plants, although he did not understand what he was seeing. In 1883 Edouard van Beneden reported the reduction in chromosome number with the generation of the germ cells and the restoration of the diploid chromosome number upon fertilization. At this point we can say that a small number of human beings -- specialists in the cutting edge of biological science -- had at least a limited understanding of the nature of conception, but even so this understanding unfolded very slowly from then on and did not become in any sense complete until the elucidation of the nature of DNA as the carrier of inheritance in 1953.

Until very recent times, I would venture to say that people in general had a very different understanding of what constitutes a human being with moral status. A human is an entity that can perceive, feel, and behave as a human. We treat humans with respect because we can empathize with them; it troubles us, or at least most of us, when others suffer, and when others are bereaved. Apart from the psychological mechanism of empathy, we also benefit from a social contract. We agree that people should be respected and valued because we wish to benefit from that agreement ourselves.

Now, I agree that there are a lot of fuzzy boundaries and slippery slopes built into this ethical construct. For one thing, people have tended to put whole groups of other people outside of it -- enemies in war, despised castes and races. Only some humans have truly been human. Historically, many if not most cultures did not give full human status to infants, and surplus or defective ones were smothered or left to die. (Viz. Oedipus.) That offends us deeply today, but it did not offend our ancestors -- including the people in the Bible. And it's never been clear what to do about people who are severely debilitated, unconscious, or who don't honor the social contract themselves.

But wherever you want to draw the line on moral agency, embryos clearly don't have it. They can't feel, think, or act, and if nobody is bereaved by their loss, there is nothing left of moral status for them at all. And by the way, if you believe in God, I can tell you right now that he agrees with me about that. As I wrote some time back, "Out of 100 zygotes, about 50 fail to implant in the uterus and uhh, well, there goes a Sacred Human Life down the toilet with the tampax. Of the remaining 50, 30% (that's 15, according to the Satanic Laws of Arithmetic) are simply sloughed off in what appears to be a normal, perhaps late, menstrual cycle and the woman probably will never know that she was preganant. The remaining 35 embryos will last at least 35 days, after which pregnancy may be recognized. Of these, 25% will die in utero, perhaps recognized as a miscarriage. That leaves about 26 of the original 100 zygotes unslain by G. Almighty. Now that is one hell of a prolific baby murderer."

Now, people get a lot queasier about abortion as pregnancy progresses and the embryo becomes a fetus, and over time comes more and more to resemble an infant. I'm not going to argue about that here, since it isn't directly relevant, except to say that there is no specific or definite point or line to be crossed unless you want to make birth the essential event. Probably -- although who really knows? -- fetuses develop some form of sentience and perceptions of relative comfort or discomfort gradually. Given what we know of cerebral anatomy, it seems pretty clear that development of the cerebral cortex, and particularly the frontal lobes, is essential to whatever it is that makes a fetus like a baby, in having conscious awareness. Embryos, for sure, don't have that.

So, from whence do the passionate believers in the so-called "right to life" get their very curious ideas? It is trite to observe that they obviously care far less about people who have actually been born, and who manifestly do feel and suffer and possess moral agency. The same (putative) president who they adore for vetoing embryonic stem cell research doesn't give a damn about sick children (see yesterday's post) or the 29,000 children under five who die every day in poor countries from easily preventable causes such as contaminated water or malaria or starvation. So what the hell, you should pardon the expression, is going on here?

I believe I know the answer, but I'll stop there for now. If anyone cares to supply their own, go for it.

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