Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What is Personhood?

What is humanity? What is personhood? What makes a human being so uniquely a human being? Are all human beings equal? These are questions we must answer.

Not answering these questions – as individuals and as a society – means we have no way to apply the law equally to all human beings. If we don’t know who is a human, how do we know who has human rights? If we don’t know what a person is, how can we tell if we are mistreating one? There has to be a conclusive answer and we have to find it. It’s not good enough to say that no one knows and leave it at that. If it’s really true that no one knows, then we are guilty of criminal ignorance because we have not answered this extremely important question. How can we even pretend to have a just law or any measure of equality if we can’t even determine who it is that is supposed to be equal?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy question to answer. Defining personhood is difficult. But not because it’s too complicated or esoteric or unanswerable. It’s difficult because we don’t like the obvious answer. We want to make it more complicated so we can avoid the question or relegate it to the realm of unanswerable mysteries. The implications of the obvious answer are as profound as they are unsettling.

The simple truth is that all living biological organisms with human DNA are human persons, regardless of their race, ethnicity, age, stage of development, location, gender, disability, or any other characteristic. Those things are only ways of describing a person. They don’t define one.

The problem is that we humans are really good at ignoring or denying this simple fact. We have a really bad track record when it comes to how we treat other humans. We’re very good at rationalizing our prejudices and bad behavior. One way we rationalize this mistreatment of each other is to deny that the other person IS a person. We tend to explain away the humanity and worth of our fellow humans so as to justify treating them differently. We say we want equality, but we really mean “equality” for people like ourselves.

History is full of examples. Trying to separate humanity and personhood, as if they were different things, has been done throughout the ages by those who wish to trample on the rights of others. In Nazi Germany, it was the Jews, the physically and mentally disabled, and the gypsies (among others) who weren’t “persons.” In US pre-Civil War times, it was the African Americans who weren’t “persons.” Even women were once considered less of a person than men. And those are just a few of the more recent examples. But every time we have tried to separate humanity and personhood, we have been wrong. And it has led to horrific crimes against other people.

On this side of history, we see the mistakes of the past and we wonder how anyone could think it was okay to murder, rape, and enslave other human beings. Couldn’t they see how wrong it was? And yet we still haven’t learned our lesson. We still try to define personhood as some esoteric property that some humans do not possess.

I’m referring, of course, to abortion. The murder of the unborn.

We aren’t as enlightened as we think we are. We’re still trying to pretend that some humans aren’t people so we can justify mistreating them. We just changed the criteria. Rather than looking down our noses at people of another skin color, we are ignoring the rights of the youngest and weakest among us. Why? Well, they look different. Same argument, different wrapping paper.

Not only do we ignore the rights of the unborn, but we pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness in defining personhood in the process. We’re so proud that we’ve given up defining personhood by superficial characteristics like skin color or gender. We have better criteria now.  Personhood has to do with self-consciousness. Or maybe it’s about being able to survive outside a womb. Or maybe it’s a heart beat. Or brain waves. Or eating chocolate. Ok, maybe we aren’t sure. But we are sure that those unborn children aren’t the same as us. The details aren’t important. They don’t have whatever it is that makes us a person, so it’s not like it’s murder to kill one. Until they develop that property – whatever it is – it’s okay to end their lives.

The problem with this argument is that “human-ness” or personhood – this elusive quality that makes us uniquely valuable and gives us human rights – is an either-or proposition. You either have it or you don’t. You either are a person or you aren’t. There are no gradations of humanity. We can’t be partially human or almost human. We don’t have some people that are more of a person than others. We have people that are bigger or older or more developed. We have people that are richer or poorer, taller or shorter, more or less capable. But we’re all equally human and equally valuable. We don’t gain our humanity by gaining any physical or mental abilities; nor do we lose it if we lose those abilities. We have this personhood attribute when we begin to exist and we have it for as long as we exist. There is no in-between.

Since development is a gradual process, taking tiny steps of growing ability, it cannot bestow personhood. Personhood must be gained all at once – going from “not a person” to “person” in one giant leap. It cannot be achieved gradually because there are no gradations of humanity or personhood. You can’t gradually develop personhood as you gradually develop consciousness or body functions.

In the end, we see that all attempts to separate humanity and personhood fail. Race doesn’t provide a logical basis for denying personhood. But neither does development. We have to face the facts, no matter how uncomfortable we find them.

The ONLY event that objectively and categorically produces a new human being where there wasn’t one before…

The radical event that we can all point to as the beginning of life…

The time when development starts and a new and unique individual is formed…

…is fertilization.

Only fertilization meets the criteria for an event that creates a new human life. All humans must be persons. Fertilization creates a human. So at fertilization we achieve our humanity and our personhood. The two cannot be separated.

Nothing else makes sense.

Note: This post first appeared on Lindsay's Logic on Dec. 19, 2013.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pro-Life Thought of the Day

I've never understood why people fall for horoscopes and other hocus pocus ideas that focus on when you were born, as if the arrangement of stars on the day of your birth has serious long-term implications for your life. If the stars had anything to do with our lives and what happens to us (which they don't), it should go by our conception date, not our birth date.

After all, birth is just one event in the life of a human being. One might as well look for the constellation under which a person cut their first tooth, started kindergarten, or had their first menstruation as to place emphasis on birth.

Every human individual begins life at fertilization, not birth. That's just scientific fact. Birth is something that happens to all of us, if we live long enough. But it certainly isn't when our life begins.

Of course, what stars we are born under at birth matters as little as what they look like on any other day of our lives. But while most of us see how silly it is to think the formation of stars in the sky on the day of our birth is significant, we too often place far too much significance on birth in other ways. The truth is that birth isn't magical. It doesn't bestow any new destiny or rights or personhood that wasn't already present. The same person exists before and after birth. Birth simply changes a person's location.

Because of these facts, we shouldn't view birth as the beginning of life or speak of it as if it were. Words matter. Ideas matter. It's inaccurate to view birth as anything more than an event that happens to a person. It doesn't define a person.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why Abortion is a Federal Issue, and Should Not be Left to the States

Some people, mainly in the Libertarian camp, say that they are against abortion, but believe we should leave the legality of abortion to the states. While I understand their desire not to have the federal government overreaching into the lives of the citizens, I ardently disagree about abortion being a state matter. Abortion is one of the few things which does properly fall under federal jurisdiction.

Here’s why.

The most fundamental purpose of government is to protect the inalienable rights of the people. The most basic of these rights is the right to life. Thus, all government – federal, state, and local – MUST protect the right to life of all people (including the unborn) in order to be a legitimate government. (Read this for further discussion of just government and inalienable rights.)

No state should have the option to allow abortion any more than a state has the right to allow murder of those already born or to allow theft or rape or any other violent crime. While the states may have different punishments for murder, theft, and rape, and while these crimes may be prosecuted and punished at the state level, none of the states allow these behaviors. Furthermore, all states must make these behaviors illegal because these behaviors are violations of inalienable human rights. Human rights are protected by federal law, including the Bill of Rights, and no state may allow them to be violated without consequence. Because abortion is a violation of the inalienable rights of the child, it must be treated the same way.

The right to life has already been established as being protected at the federal level, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The protection of the law is simply not being applied to the unborn as it should be. We don't need individual states to decide on the issue of abortion. We need to simply apply the protections already in place on a federal level to all persons – including the unborn.

How would this work? Well, let’s take a lesson from history where the same sort of thing happened before.

At one time in U.S. history, the protections of the Constitution were applied only to white people. Thankfully, our country realized its error and recognized that blacks and other minorities were also human beings and thus entitled to the same protection under the law. When that happened, we didn't write a new Bill of Rights. We didn't leave it up to the states to decide if blacks were people. We made it official law, on the federal level, human beings of all races were persons, and the protection of our existing laws was then applied to them. The same needs to be done for the unborn, and this must be done at the federal level. Abortion, because it is a violation of inalienable rights, falls within the jurisdiction of the federal government and should be illegal in all states.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fertilization Produces a New Human Individual: Scientific Support

In our last post, we pointed out what science tells us about the identity of the unborn. To recap, science informs us that zygotes, embryos and fetuses are:

1. Fully HUMAN (i.e. as much of a human being as you or me).

2. NEW human individuals who did not exist before fertilization. 

3. New INDIVIDUALS who have a body of their very own (i.e. are not a part of their mother's body). 

Now, we would like to provide a couple of sources which support these claims. These two sources are actually university level biology textbooks which we used as biology students in college. We contend that these are just representative examples, and that one could easily find similar statements in most other biology textbooks which address human or animal reproduction. In other words, the principles stated here are not under contention by educated biologists. They are perfectly consistent with what is known and universally accepted from science.
In our first example, we have a science textbook clearly pointing out that fertilization produces the first cell of a new individual.
This textbook, by the way, is a typical biology textbook used in a General Biology course in college.

Fertilization produces the first cell of a new individual

Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life, 10th edition, Page 163
By Cecie Starr and Ralph Taggart
Published in 2004 by Thompson Learning 

Our second example shows another textbook clearly pointing out that the single-celled zygote is the first cell of a new human being. This textbook, by the way, is a typical biology textbook used in a Human Anatomy and Physiology course in college.

The zygote is the first cell of a new individual

Human Anatomy and Physiology, 3rd edition, Page 1000
By Elaine N. Marieb
Published in 1995 by Benjamin/Cummings

We should point out that in these examples, the authors do not explicitly state that this new individual is a human being. However, it should be obvious that this new individual is of the same species that its parents belong to. Since we're talking about human reproduction, this new individual is universally recognized by educated biologists as a human. Moreover, this new individual is a living organism which has human DNA, which follows the unique pattern of human development, and which develops into a human adult. There is no question (among the educated) that this new individual is, in fact, a human.

It should also be noted that the zygote is not an "imaginary person" or a "potential human." These terms are merely euphemisms which are intended to hide the fact that we're talking about actual human individuals.

Finally, these examples show that the zygote is the first cell of a new individual. This single-celled organism has his own unique DNA which can easily be shown to be different from that of his mother. So the fact that he has his own body, which is not a part of his mother's body, is a fact that is not really debatable - at least not by any educated person.

The point is that these science textbooks clearly contradict what many abortion proponents have said regarding whether or not an unborn baby is a separate and distinct human being. This is just one example of how those who defend legal abortion contradict science.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

What Does Science Have to Say Regarding Abortion?

A secular argument for the right to life position is one that depends on reason and what is known from science. While a perfectly good case for the right to life of the unborn can be made from the Bible as we show here, here, and here, such an argument is insufficient for making law. Thus, in the coming weeks, we will show that a perfectly sound argument can be made which does not rest on Biblical doctrine or authority.

Here is the first of many elements which support that secular argument in which we review what is known from science:

Science informs us that zygotes, embryos and fetuses are:

1. Fully HUMAN (i.e. as much of a human being as you or me).

2. NEW human individuals who did not exist before fertilization. 

3. New INDIVIDUALS who have a body of their very own (i.e. are not a part of their mother's body).

Therefore, using science and logic alone, one can show that the law should provide the same legal protection to unborn human individuals that it provides to all other human individuals.

You should note that this is an argument from science and logic alone. We are not "forcing our religion" or our religious beliefs on anyone. Shouldn't we use science and logic in the formation of our laws?

In the coming weeks, we will develop each of these points and also present additional elements which support this overall argument. Some of them will be short and easily understood like this one, and others will be longer summary articles which show how all of these fit into a comprehensive secular argument for the right to life of the unborn.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mississippi to Ban Abortions after 20 Weeks

According to this article, the Mississippi legislature passed a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks on Tuesday. Pro-life Governor Bryant has already stated that he intends to sign the bill. The bill prohibits abortions after 20 weeks gestation, but contains exceptions allowing late-term abortions in cases where the mother faces death or permanent bodily injury or where the fetus has severe deformities.

This news is good from a practical perspective. Restrictions on abortion means more lives saved. We should take every bit of ground we can and save as many lives as possible. Of course, we should also press on in order to stop all abortions. The babies at 20 weeks gestation are no more human than those at earlier stages of development. We aren't done until every human life is protected.

Not only does this law fall short by only protecting humans after 20 weeks, but I would have liked to see the exceptions removed, especially the one for fetal deformities. If human beings are protected under the law at 20 weeks, their physical disabilities should be irrelevant. We don't kill born people for having a disability, or even a fatal condition. Why should the unborn be any different? Their lives may be shorter or more difficult than others, but we have no right to cut their lives short - either before or after birth.

All human life is equally valuable and should be equally protected by law. But in a country where, sadly, many do count worth by age, ability, and stage of development, and where the law is currently allowing millions of the unborn to be killed, this is a step in the right direction. For that reason, I'm proud of Mississippi (my former state) for taking this step. May the rest of country follow suit.