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March 7, 2006 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Debating the Moral Status of the Embryo. A favorite scenario of some bioethicists in this debate is often a variation of "if a fertility clinic were on fire and you had only enough time to run in once to effect a rescue, which would you grab—the unconscious clinic worker/or a tank full of hundreds of frozen embryos?" Sometimes the debate degenerates...
posted by homunculus (98 comments total)

 
I heard that a few days ago, I think it's a really good question.
posted by delmoi at 7:39 PM on March 7, 2006


I think i heard the guy's head pop on air.

he had a good point about it being a catch 22 at the end though
posted by WetherMan at 7:49 PM on March 7, 2006


Timely -- especially in light of the story from Britain regarding the woman who has been denied access to her frozen embryos due to the protests of the father who no longer wants children (which perhaps he should've considered before the IVF, hmmm?).
posted by scblackman at 7:51 PM on March 7, 2006


I love the way talkback radio hosts can just say goodbye to the caller and just declare to all their listeners that they won the argument.
posted by phyle at 8:00 PM on March 7, 2006


And further along this line ...

If there is a fire at a fertility clinic, what should fire departments be required to do?

Should fire departments and fire fighting personnel be required to undergo new training on the recovery and care of petri dishes that contain "human lives"?

Will fire fighters be able to tell the difference between these petri dishes and other lab gear that only contains, say, a chemical reagent?

If a municipality's fire department does NOT recover all of the relevant petri dishes from a given lab fire, will they be held responsible for their deaths?

If this lab fire is due to, say, a faulty wiring job, could the electrical contractor be prosecuted for the negligent deaths of 1500 "lives"?
posted by Relay at 8:18 PM on March 7, 2006


Interesting video:

Q: Should abortion be legal or illegal?
A: Illegal.
Q: Should women who have illegal abortions be sent to jail?
A: Uh . . . I don't know. I never thought about it.
Q: How long have you been in this movement?
A: About five years.
posted by fandango_matt at 8:22 PM on March 7, 2006


he had a good point about it being a catch 22 at the end though

No, he didn't. The Catch-22 is of his own making. The point is calling them on the contradictions in their own moral claims.

He didn't say, for example, "I would save both, if I could. I can't? Well, then I don't know what I would do in that position." That would have been an honest response. It's true, though, that he was sandbagged -- but that's pretty fair, since sandbagging is very often their stock in trade. The biter bit bit, they say.

Digby has taken this to the next, and a much more pertinent and realistic, level: What crime should a woman who has an abortion be charged with? Digby links to a fascinating video, which I have taken the precaution of putting on a Coral cache. If indeed this society is about to make abortion illegal, we're going to have to face the question of how to handle violations of this new law.
posted by dhartung at 8:24 PM on March 7, 2006


Wow, interesting video, dhartung!
posted by fandango_matt at 8:29 PM on March 7, 2006


I like the intuition pump, but years in philosophy has taught me never to underestimate people's ability to bite bullets.

If you really believe the soul is what primarily gives moral worth and the soul unites with the body at conception, this one shouldn't give you a whole lot of pause.
posted by ontic at 8:34 PM on March 7, 2006


"he had a good point about it being a catch 22 at the end though"

That's the whole point. It's only a catch-22 if your beliefs are hypocritical. Someone who thiks life begins at conception saves the petri dish. Someone who thinks it begins at birth saves the kid. This guy can't decide on an answer because he doesn't really believe the BS he's spouting.
posted by poorlydrawnplato at 8:36 PM on March 7, 2006


"Which would you save?" sounds like a great "gotcha" scenario to answer the question of "does anyone really believe life begins at conception?" But it's not.

Here's why: Replace the embryos with two terminally ill 100-year-olds (they're on gurneys, so they wouldn't be too hard to move), and the unconscious worker with the more common 2-year-old child. You still must choose between either the two dying guys or the one child. Which do you choose? Morally, this is the same rhetorical question.

The answer is that you would choose the child, because it has so much more of a life to lose; its life is being given greater value in this equation than the remaining life of the 100-year-olds. But the fact that in such a matchup their lives have lesser value is not the same as saying they have no value: It does not follow from this that terminally-ill 100-year-olds can be killed with no moral qualms. In short, the difference between these two "lives" is a difference in degree and not in kind.

What we're arguing in the case of embryos, though, is for a difference in kind. That such a "life" has so little value, morally speaking, as to not require the same kind of moral consideration as that of a 2-year-old child. As it happens, I agree with that, but the who-would-you-save question does not succeed in answering, proving or otherwise illuminating that quandary. It's little more than a rhetorical parlor trick.
posted by soyjoy at 8:39 PM on March 7, 2006


"The answer is that you would choose the child, because it has so much more of a life to lose; its life is being given greater value in this equation than the remaining life of the 100-year-olds. But the fact that in such a matchup their lives have lesser value is not the same as saying they have no value: It does not follow from this that terminally-ill 100-year-olds can be killed with no moral qualms. In short, the difference between these two "lives" is a difference in degree and not in kind."

I don't think so. Pro-lifers tend to repeat a hardline "a life is a life" philosophy. So the idea of 5 lives instead of one should make sense to people who actually believe that. In fact, for people who believe life starts at conception, this might be even more valid, because the 2-year-old will die sooner anyway. The 100-year-old to 2-year-old scenario may be a parallel, but for someone who believes the things these people profess to, it may be opposite to the way you drew the parallel.
posted by poorlydrawnplato at 8:46 PM on March 7, 2006


Q: Should abortion be legal or illegal?
A: Illegal.
Q: Should women who have illegal abortions be sent to jail?
A: Uh . . . I don't know. I never thought about it.


There's a number of lessons moderates and lefties could take from this. One possible one is that the righties are total morons and should be mocked. That's great for metafilter, but maybe it ain't for elections.

Another one is how to work with moderates and possibly some opponents on the issue. There's the conclusion on their part that abortion is wrong,and then there's the leap to the conclusion that anything wrong should be illegal. Think about that. The pro-lifer likely wasn't *really* answering the question that was asked ("should abortion be legal?"), but rather, answering the question "Is abortion moral?" And then, when confronted about the policy issues, suddenly their position is less clear and they're talking in terms of help and counseling and letting whatever natural spiritual consequences there may be just happen.

Maybe that's a clue. Maybe it's a clue that if we could ever get past the kind of debate that encourages individuals to polarize by discarding the value they identify with less and absolutely championing the one they identify with more, and into actually talking about policy, people would be more open to the nuances of the issue and perhaps even possible open to crafting policies that provide reasonable protections for both life and choice.

Or, maybe it's time for another round of godless sex-crazed irresponsible baby-murderers vs. foaming facsist fundie oppressors of women.
posted by namespan at 8:46 PM on March 7, 2006


What soyjoy said is pretty much repeated in the first link:

Probing the assumptions underlying the equal moral status view of the embryo, Sandel asks how a person holding that view would behave if confronted with a fire in a fertility clinic. Given a choice between saving a five-year-old girl or a tray of 10 embryos, which would one choose?

George finds fault with such scenarios for many reasons, including the fact that the little girl "would experience terror and horrifying pain, while the embryos would not." For the same reason, he says, "one might rescue the little girl rather than several terminally ill adults in deep comas without denying that the adult patients are human beings who ought not to be killed and dismembered for their body parts."


George is the one opposing stem cell research. So painting him with the same "these people" brush that poorlydrawnplato is using doesnt advance the argument.
posted by vacapinta at 8:57 PM on March 7, 2006


You know, I'm beginning to think this is no longer my fight. This fight belongs to the kids who will be affected by repealing Roe vs. Wade, and I'm no longer one of them. I'm not going to vote for a pro-life candidate--or any other Christian fundamentalist sack of shit--but if the kids aren't interested in protecting their rights, well, fuck them.
posted by fandango_matt at 8:58 PM on March 7, 2006


the comet that kills us all for no reason , other than we are in its way, will be here any day now.
posted by nola at 8:59 PM on March 7, 2006


fandango_matt, that was a rather humorous clip. But I think many people don't think their opinions through like that anyways, antiabortion or prochoice.
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:01 PM on March 7, 2006


If you really believe the soul is what primarily gives moral worth and the soul unites with the body at conception, this one shouldn't give you a whole lot of pause.

Dude, you schiavoed it. Actually there's so many trite points to consider in that that it will be giving overly thoughtful people pause for some time to come.
posted by nervousfritz at 9:15 PM on March 7, 2006


I think a further question that needs to be considered is if (a) life begins at conception (b) the majority of embryos are miscarried, is heaven (or at least limbo) populated almost entirely by microscopic embryos? Certainly, there is debate on this issue. But if they can't even figure out if fetuses go to heaven or not, who are they to say whether they have a soul?
posted by Jimbob at 9:18 PM on March 7, 2006


posted by Citizen Premier fandango_matt, that was a rather humorous clip. But I think many people don't think their opinions through like that anyways, antiabortion or prochoice.

I'd submit people whose opinions on abortion are rooted in religious doctrine are not people with a rich history of examining their opinons, supporting them with logic, and changing their minds when logic or fact prove them wrong. Toward the end of the clip, did you notice the woman who, when confronted with the glaring inconsistency in her logic, made the sign of the cross with her rosary? These people aren't stupid--they're willfully ignorant, just the way God and Jesus intended.
posted by fandango_matt at 9:18 PM on March 7, 2006


Or, maybe it's time for another round of godless sex-crazed irresponsible baby-murderers vs. foaming facsist fundie oppressors of women.

Hell yeah! Sign me up for the sex-crazed, irresponsible-whatchamacallit team.
posted by rkent at 9:21 PM on March 7, 2006


All I can say is thank god we don't have talk back radio like that in my state. Why does anybody listen to that crap? Who wants to be hectored like that, by a not particularly smart fellow?
posted by wilful at 9:22 PM on March 7, 2006


"Which would you save?" sounds like a great "gotcha" scenario to answer the question of "does anyone really believe life begins at conception?" But it's not.

You miss something very crucial, soyjoy.

The "it's a life from conception" camp is itself playing a rhetorical parlor trick. This rhetorical parlor trick can be effective in pointing that out.

Only the most deranged weirdos or devout followers of religious con-men truly believe a just-conceived embryo is worth as much as a fully realized human life. Yet very many of the so-called "moderate" anti-abortionists will employ the parlor trick of equating all embryos with human beings when it suits their agenda. They know full well that what is aborted in an (early) abortion is not much more advanced than the embryos in a fertility clinic, and they don't think it's a human life, but they don't want you to know they know that.

It's very useful, nay, crucial to point out such logical sleights-of-hand. And for many, this kind of trick is just such the thing to do it.

The rape and incest exemptions also illustrate the same trick — if it’s really a human life, it does not matter. Yet the moderates also often allow for exceptions in those cases, (although not the whackos — see S. Dakota). In which case, they either don’t really believe what they say about fetuses, or they are advocating for murder in certain cases.

And there's another big camp for whom this has nothing to do with life or embryos, and everything to do with sex they don't like. But that's another discussion.
posted by teece at 9:27 PM on March 7, 2006


posted by wilful All I can say is thank god we don't have talk back radio like that in my state. Why does anybody listen to that crap? Who wants to be hectored like that, by a not particularly smart fellow?

Check out Bernie Ward (10p to 1a PST) and Ray Taliaferro (1a to 5a PST) on KGO-AM, and you can listen over the web to smart liberals hectoring dumb conservatives. Good times.
posted by fandango_matt at 9:30 PM on March 7, 2006


The radio bit was a good idea, but I think the caller could've handled it a bit better... He really set himself up for the host to call him on the 'catch-22.' Still, some priceless moments:

Wingnut: Scientifically speaking, when a sperm and an egg come together, what happens? Is death created? What is created if it's not death? [Caller: a blastula is created]

Wingnut: You're the type of person who would burn a cop at the stake for killing someone.....[a minute later] how dare you make assumptions about what I would do?

Wingnut: The left thinks killing Tookie Williams was a bad thing... [a minute later] What is the left's love affair with death?
posted by greatgefilte at 9:32 PM on March 7, 2006


I'm guessing that primarily these folks don't want doctors (or pharmacists, or others) to assist or facilitate abortion. It's somewhere along the lines of physician assisted suicide situation, where there's no point to punishment after the fact, but there are legitimate arguments for preventing such an act. But at least the question forces them to confront their concepts of "illegal" vs "immoral."

homunculus, no fair on the title.
posted by arialblack at 10:04 PM on March 7, 2006


transcript from Hardball where Chris Matthews asks this question of Pat Toomey.
posted by arialblack at 10:09 PM on March 7, 2006


Incidentally, does anyone know what the typical punishment for procuring an abortion actually was, pre-Roe?
posted by opek at 10:24 PM on March 7, 2006


The reason I like these sort of debates is that they all boil down to simple questions:

Is life sacred? Is the sanctity of life something that is ageless (ie applies to embryos and full grown humans a like)?

The fact that we live in a culture where children are treated differently from adults (valued less in legal instances) leads me to believe that our culture doesn't value in utero life as much as post pregnancy life - ergo, embryos, fetuses, zygotes, sperm and eggs have less claim to equal treatment as full grown adults (who have jobs, pay taxes, etc.)

In my mind this runs counter to the claims of anti-abortion proponents and thus exposes a weakness on their side.

The salt on the wound is the question: how many anti-abortion folks have actually gone into the inner city orphanages and adopted unwanted black children?

The issue resolves itself when you think about it enough in absence of childish magical thinking.
posted by wfrgms at 10:25 PM on March 7, 2006


Are there really orphanages anymore? I think it's been replaced with foster parenting. But how many of these pro-life activists have done foster care? And, if they haven't, isn't it evidence that they value the idea of life more than the fact or the quality of life?
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:27 PM on March 7, 2006


Well, yes. One of the biggest lies is the title of the movement itself--they call themselves pro-life, when in reality they're merely pro-birth.
posted by fandango_matt at 10:35 PM on March 7, 2006


Everybody's talking. The solution, however, will require you to get off your ass. Make me dictator, and I will send "pro-lifers" to a gulag (that I have already designed) as soon as it is ready. You will get to watch the funniest parts of that week's goings on at the gulag every sunday night on television. So get cracking (and tell your friends)-- make me dictator.

Remember-- you can debate whether life begins at conception, but it definitely ends when you get to Mayor Curley's designer gulag.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:50 PM on March 7, 2006


The safe. I'd save the safe.
posted by sourwookie at 11:03 PM on March 7, 2006


Burn the fetuses.

They're (conservatively) a dime a dozen. Skilled fertility clinic techs--quite a bit rarer.
posted by sourwookie at 11:11 PM on March 7, 2006


Incidentally, does anyone know what the typical punishment for procuring an abortion actually was, pre-Roe?

Some info here and here.

The long and short of it is ... abortionists were rarely prosecuted, and if they were, it was along the lines of performing an illegal medical procedure. So, loss of license and possibly a short jail stint, depending on the state. As a result, most skilled doctors wouldn't take the risk of losing their license amidst the public scrutiny, and therefore most illegal abortions were performed by nurses and midwives, like the famous "Jane" group in Chicago.
posted by frogan at 11:12 PM on March 7, 2006


If abortion is murder, it is murder. It isn't "kind of murder." The punishment for having an abortion should be the same for the mother as infanticide - for both parents if the father is aware. Parents who support their teenage children in getting abortions should be charged as accesories to murder. I think it is all pretty straight forward.

Really, one life should not be more valuable than another life. If we accept this, we can eliminate extra punishment for hate crimes, cop killing, terrorism, etc. Hurray for equal moral status!
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:18 PM on March 7, 2006


Way to run the "what if" into the end zone there...
posted by sourwookie at 11:26 PM on March 7, 2006


They're not pro-life, they're anti-sex.
posted by Malor at 11:26 PM on March 7, 2006


fandango_matt: Hey, I was taking the extra time to make sure the Coral cache worked.

Incidentally, does anyone know what the typical punishment for procuring an abortion actually was, pre-Roe?

Tennessee still has the laws on the books. Performing (doctor): Class C felony. Procuring (mother): Class E felony. Compelling (father of baby / father of mother): Class A misdemeanor (this includes abortifacients). This looks typical.
posted by dhartung at 11:31 PM on March 7, 2006


is heaven (or at least limbo) populated almost entirely by microscopic embryos?

No, no, you missed the really fun bit: they haven't been baptized, so they go to hell.

(IANA Theologist)
posted by jlub at 11:34 PM on March 7, 2006


I think the religious right is bluffing and nobody called them on it. They typically refuse welfare for single mothers and their children, which would give an incentive to reduce abortions. They typically condescend to single mothers as if they are failures before the fact. Whenever I point these out to people who oppose abortion, they like to say one of two things. That the woman shouldn't have gotten pregnant in the first place (and must take "responsibility" for getting pregnant). And that a semi-forced adoption is the way to go to avoid welfare. Never raised is the idea that pro-life apologists should be able to decide for anyone else, as this right is merely assumed in the conversation. Therefore I conclude that the class of people represented by anti-choice forces can't resist the power grab over all women that is being "offered" to them politically.
posted by Brian B. at 11:34 PM on March 7, 2006


Performing (doctor): Class C felony. Procuring (mother): Class E felony.

Nicely found. And according to this, then a Class C Felony "standard" offender = 3-6 years, and you must serve 30% of the time (.9 - 1.8 yrs) before becoming eligible for parole. The punishment is significantly less for a first offender.
posted by frogan at 11:37 PM on March 7, 2006


Hmmm.... Life begins at conception. Terminating "life" is murder. The birth control pill doesn't prevent conception, but merely prevents the fertlized egg from being implanted. So, women who have sex while on the pill are potential murderers. No, not anti-sex at all.
posted by Nquire at 11:54 PM on March 7, 2006


the comet that kills us all for no reason , other than we are in its way, will be here any day now.

Whew. For a while there I thought you said comment.
posted by mono blanco at 1:12 AM on March 8, 2006


soyjoy: "Here's why: Replace the embryos with two terminally ill 100-year-olds (they're on gurneys, so they wouldn't be too hard to move), and the unconscious worker with the more common 2-year-old child. You still must choose between either the two dying guys or the one child. Which do you choose? Morally, this is the same rhetorical question."

Easy: you put the child on one of the gurneys and wheel 'em all out.

Oh, and I'd like to repeat that nidation happens in an estimated 30-40% of all cases; that means a zygote only implants itself in the uterine wall in less than half of all attempts. This means that, by (intelligent?) design it just so happens that something with the potential to become a fully formed human being is usually "aborted" quite naturally; if you're really in the "fertilized egg = human" camp, shouldn't you sift through your menstrual blood to make sure there isn't a little soul in there that might not make it?
I'm not really trying to troll, but if that is your position, shouldn't you act accordingly?
posted by PontifexPrimus at 1:32 AM on March 8, 2006


So by that reasoning, God performs the overwhelming majority of abortions, right?
posted by fandango_matt at 1:48 AM on March 8, 2006


I suppose God would be sitting in a prison in Tennessee then.
posted by Captain_Tenille at 2:00 AM on March 8, 2006


God knew those souls would never be anything but trouble, so he put them down before they had a chance to spread their evil.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:24 AM on March 8, 2006


> if you're really in the "fertilized egg = human" camp, shouldn't you sift through your menstrual blood to make sure there isn't a little soul in there that might not make it?

Absolutely. For coherence, the pro-lifers should organise a system to collect the menstrual blood of all women to pass on to a laboratory for sifting through in search of the magical seed of human life that would otherwise be lost. Problem is how you go about collecting. It needs to be instant, otherwise the little cell will die. Furthermore, the menstrual cycle is not always regular and predictable, so it would be hard to schedule the collection at fixed times for all individual females.

So, I propose women should all be locked up permanently in specific institutions for the collection of potentially fertilised eggs.

See, that's a reasonable answer to the policy question.
posted by funambulist at 2:25 AM on March 8, 2006


At least that explains the whole Bush re-election thing.
posted by surlycat at 2:30 AM on March 8, 2006


> No, no, you missed the really fun bit: they haven't been baptized, so they go to hell.

You might wonder what happens to the souls of aborted fetuses, according to Christian doctrine. Both St. Augustine and the Bible seem to indicate that they go straight to hell—the Bible stresses faith and belief as the only way to get saved. Other Christians concocted an "age of accountability" doctrine that allows innocent infants and children to go to heaven, even though there's no Biblical basis for such a thing. But the Catholic Church was the most inventive—they dreamed up Limbo, a kind of safety net for the souls of stillborn babies and aborted fetuses. Apparently God used Limbo as a temporary holding facility for these souls until he decided what to do with them. But in 1994, the Catholic Church quietly abolished Limbo. They didn't even replace it with anything, so the fate of aborted fetus souls is now anyone's guess.
posted by funambulist at 2:32 AM on March 8, 2006


I have my own rhetorical abortion question that I would like to pose to all of the predominantly white anti abortionist men.

"If your daughter was raped by a large black man would you try to get an abortion?"

somehow i think the resounding issue is yes, which is of course why lots of states play lip service to legal abortions when it is a health risk to the mother, or the result of a violent crime. Of course if no doctors are allowed to practice them on a regular basis I would think that raises questions about the mortality and complication rates of what was once a standard procedure.
posted by sourbrew at 2:49 AM on March 8, 2006


This represents the limitations of American television reporting. Rather than go out and find some facts, which would have required effort and money, MSNBC just took two guys with conflicting opinions and watched them argue for five minutes.

The one that gets off the best one-liner wins. Because the pro-life contestant couldn't come up with a witty retort in the allotted television time, he lost.

We pick presidents the same way, with about the same results. Sometimes I think we should put the whole damn country on Ritalin.
posted by Jatayu das at 3:37 AM on March 8, 2006


if you're really in the "fertilized egg = human" camp, shouldn't you sift through your menstrual blood to make sure there isn't a little soul in there that might not make it?


The real paradox is that menstrual blood is unclean in the biblical sense. Fron Leviticus Chapter 15:

19: And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.
20: And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.

21: And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.

29: And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtles, or two young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:23 AM on March 8, 2006


You all miss the point. Children are a gift from God. Abortion destroys that gift. This culture treats children as unwanted parasites.

If you don't want children, either don't have sex or be very careful with your birth control (good luck with that-all mine were conceived despite bc.)
posted by konolia at 4:34 AM on March 8, 2006


if you're really in the "fertilized egg = human" camp, shouldn't you sift through your menstrual blood to make sure there isn't a little soul in there that might not make it?
Sheesh, anti-abortionist are anti-abortion, not anti-death.

The flaw in the conundrum posed in the FPP is that it presupposes that the greatest number of lives (saved) is always equivalent to the greatest good.
posted by klarck at 4:42 AM on March 8, 2006


konolia

I think you missed the point, there are a LOT of athiests and agnostics here, or secular humanists... i think that's currently viewed, at any rate god is not viewed as a valid argument for much of anything. You will find though that none of us have a problem with you using god to deal with your own life, we just get grouchy when it's aplied to other people's lives.
posted by sourbrew at 4:48 AM on March 8, 2006


damn... must not post before coffee currently viewed = currently in vogue...
posted by sourbrew at 4:49 AM on March 8, 2006


Are there any fundamentalists left on Metafilter? If so, they're keeping pretty quiet. Lots of religious people, though.

Probably better read this comment quickly- the Grand High Censors of Metafilter don't like me very much.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 5:10 AM on March 8, 2006


You all miss the point. Children are a gift from God. Abortion destroys that gift. This culture treats children as unwanted parasites.

Then God is too generous because there are 6 billion people on the planet.

Are you there God? It's me, Mayor Curley. Please stop giving us your precious gifts because we are presently choking on our own shit.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:11 AM on March 8, 2006


Since when was God a valid argument for anything, anyway? Just seems like people needing a crutch for their existence.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 5:12 AM on March 8, 2006


You know, I agree with our culture having a problem treating children like unwanted parasites.

Unfortunately, when they endanger the mother's life or health, they are unwanted parasites.

Is it a gift from god when you're fifteen and terrified and you know you're going to be on your own? Is it a gift from god when you've got six kids already and can't afford to feed them as it is? If so, ah, it's kind of one of those gifts where you ask for the receipt, because one really wishes god would have better judgement.

It's not legal abortion that causes the culture.

What does? How about a rotten social welfare safety net, rampant consumerism, employment that doesn't afford sufficient protections for mothers, and bad definitions of success that are more commercial than conservative or liberal.
posted by Jeanne at 5:33 AM on March 8, 2006


Which culture treats actual children like unwanted parasites anyway? The one where people frame their ultrasound scans, spend billions of dollars in toys, and fertility clinics are thriving?
posted by funambulist at 5:38 AM on March 8, 2006


"Unfortunately, when they endanger the mother's life or health, they are unwanted parasites."

That is a potentially dangerous attitude to take to the culture war.

Of course children are a gift from God. Parents should view their children as little miracles - as anyone who's ever lost a child can tell you.

Honestly, I think namespan nailed it, waaay up at the top of the thread.

Conservatives equate laws with morality. And this is a huge problem.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:24 AM on March 8, 2006


I'm going to preface this by saying that I'm pro-choice, except that I'm a little bit squicky about third-trimester abortions.

But this debate, I think, is somewhat easy for most moderates when you are talking about blastocytes and first trimester embryos. Don't you think it gets harder as the embryo develops more?

It's easy to laugh at people defending blastocytes as human lives, but becomes a lot harder when you see pictures like this.

No, that's not a particularly offensive, gross or disturbing picture, but it did really shake my pro-choice stance when i saw it, and it is real. It really made me back off from my personal casual fuck-the-fundies stance about abortion.

That said, I recognize that just because something maybe undesirable or immoral, that doesn't necessarily mean it should be illegal. I just don't think the 'blastocyte' argument is as slam dunk as you guys think it is when there are things like that picture going around.
posted by empath at 6:33 AM on March 8, 2006


And before I get jumped on by the knee-jerk liberals, I really am pro-choice, even third trimester. I just think that we should enact policies that help prevent pregnancies in the first case and make it easier to get ealier abortions so we have as few people having later abortions as possible. I wouldn't be in favor at all of making them illegal or difficult to get though.
posted by empath at 6:36 AM on March 8, 2006


Pro-lifers tend to repeat a hardline "a life is a life" philosophy. So the idea of 5 lives instead of one should make sense to people who actually believe that.

Right. Got it. I understand the central conflict being set up, believe me. What I'm saying is that a pro-lifer answering this question by saving someone other than the embryos does not logically succeed in contradicting the "a life is a life" stance.

To put it more starkly, the right-wing also says "honor thy father and thy mother." Now the scenario is you can only save either your father or your mother from the fire. Does choosing one mean that the other has no moral value to you? Does this choice somehow contradict your professed value of "honoring thy father and thy mother?" Because that's the logic this scenario attempts to convey.

You miss something very crucial, soyjoy.

The "it's a life from conception" camp is itself playing a rhetorical parlor trick. This rhetorical parlor trick can be effective in pointing that out.


I disagree. "Life begins at conception" is not a trick; it's simply an over-broad generalization. Even if it were, rhetorical parlor tricks are not what defeats rhetorical parlor tricks; sound logic is. And what I'm saying is that the logic behind this thought experiment is not sound.
posted by soyjoy at 7:11 AM on March 8, 2006


dhartung writes "If indeed this society is about to make abortion illegal, we're going to have to face the question of how to handle violations of this new law."

Is there any other law that is inherently sexist?

teece writes "The rape and incest exemptions also illustrate the same trick — if it’s really a human life, it does not matter. Yet the moderates also often allow for exceptions in those cases, (although not the whackos — see S. Dakota). In which case, they either don’t really believe what they say about fetuses, or they are advocating for murder in certain cases."

I can't believe it I've just seen an insight into the abortion debate I'd never seen before.

opek writes "does anyone know what the typical punishment for procuring an abortion actually was, pre-Roe"

Often death or sterilization.
posted by Mitheral at 7:44 AM on March 8, 2006


You all miss the point. Children are a gift from God. Abortion destroys that gift. This culture treats children as unwanted parasites.
posted by konolia at 4:34 AM PST on March 8


Don't forget to not read the thread as well as not respond to the very interesting points your fellow posters have put forth. What you should do is just have Notepad open and mindlessly Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V anytime you see the word "abortion" anywhere in any context. You and bevets can have a Ctrl-V-ing contest and see who can ignore the context the best. So far you're only going to get the silver, but I believe in you.

That said, how would you punish women who have illegal abortions? Extra points if you tell us how to punish women who had them because of rape or incest, which is no longer an excuse in the great progressive state of South Dakota.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:04 AM on March 8, 2006


Optimus, I think the no-exceptions clause is more fundamentally honest. If it's REALLY about the life of the fetus, and not about punishing the woman for having sex, then there should be no exceptions, period.
posted by Malor at 8:17 AM on March 8, 2006


Brian B. writes "I think the religious right is bluffing and nobody called them on it."


The Religious Right is anti-sex. Anti-abortion isn't about the fetus's life -- if it were, the Religious right would be advocating rasing taxes to provide prenatal care and post-natal welfare.

Anti-abortion is about punishing "unchaste" women by forcing them to bear the child resulting from "fornication". If the "fallen woman" provides them with the satisfaction of wailing repentance for her "sins" and accepting Christ, the Religious Right may condescend to providing a few dollars for diapers and baby food, while smugly congratulating themselves on their compassion for people less able to subdue their "animalistic lusts of the flesh".

And each Sunday, the good church-ladies can have the satisfaction of tut-tutitng and gossiping about the "slatterns" and "whores" they've "saved".
posted by orthogonality at 8:18 AM on March 8, 2006


That said, how would you punish women who have illegal abortions?

I wouldn't punish them at all. But a "fair" punishment might be to assess a fine based on an actuary's estimate of the potential value of the life of the child who was aborted. Admittedly, an actuary would have very little to go on, so maybe to be really fair, we could cut whatever number they come up with in half. That said, if abortion is illegal and there's some dilemma about punishment, I'd resolve it by punishing the doctor, not the patient. Of course, I don't really think there's a dilemma, but whatever.
posted by JekPorkins at 8:19 AM on March 8, 2006


I wouldn't punish them at all.

So it would be illegal for a doctor or third party to perform an abortion but not for someone to perform it on herself? That is a well-thought out plan. It is fair and compassionate and would cause absolutely not problems whatsoever. I now know that self-mutilation is a safe alternative to seeing someone with medical training, staff, and equipment.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:54 AM on March 8, 2006


> on an actuary's estimate of the potential value of the life of the child who was aborted

Wow, way to go in protecting the sanctity of life. Put a price on it! Awesome.

But wait, wasn't it a gift? If you throw away a gift, you're not usually required to pay for it. It's yours to keep or not.

Of course in case people are turning metaphors in literal statements only when convenient, then, well, nevermind.
posted by funambulist at 9:09 AM on March 8, 2006


Orthogonality writes: The Religious Right is anti-sex. Anti-abortion isn't about the fetus's life -- if it were, the Religious right would be advocating rasing taxes to provide prenatal care and post-natal welfare.

I don't disagree at all but I wonder why it is. The religious right is a product of a de facto breeding program and what they believe often comes naturally, so maybe anti-choice is plan B. Is it the case we are dealing with a latent misogny that has genetic roots from a male insecurity? Is it natural? This debate also seems to have the major characteristics of cognitive dissonance. A medieval belief is outmoded economically and environmentally, therefore they must proselyte to overcome the dissonance.
posted by Brian B. at 9:14 AM on March 8, 2006


...the right-wing also says "honor thy father and thy mother." Now the scenario is you can only save either your father or your mother from the fire. Does choosing one mean that the other has no moral value to you?

Is it the purpose of the fertility-clinic-on-fire scenario to show that anti-abortionists place no moral value on embryos? I didn't get that impression. I think the purpose is to show that anti-abortionists do not really hold the absolutist view that they often lay claim to, that all lives are equally sacred. And to demonstrate the repugnance of following such a view to its logical conclusions. I think the scenario does that pretty effectively.

"Which would you save?" sounds like a great "gotcha" scenario to answer the question of "does anyone really believe life begins at conception?" But it's not.

I think the fertility clinic scenario very effectively addresses a slightly different and (IMHO) more precise question: "Does anyone really believe that the destruction of an embryo is morally equivalent to the destruction of a fully functional human being?"
posted by Western Infidels at 9:18 AM on March 8, 2006


exactly - there is no question the life of two adults is equal, or the life of an adult and a child. So that example of choosing between your mother and father is completely different. It addresses no issue, no moral dilemma other than having to choose between two conscious human beings indisputably defined as such. (More interesting question would be having to choose between saving a family member and a stranger, but for different reasons than what's being discussed here).

That kind of scenario has nothing to do with the definition of what makes a human being as such.

Unlike the clinic on fire one. I don't take it as an attempt to prove anything other than this: the absurdity of even spending a second considering whether those cells in a petri dish are worth saving, at all, nevermind worthier than an actual child.
posted by funambulist at 9:28 AM on March 8, 2006


For the sake of adding a bad taste pseudohumorous argument with no content at all...

If a fertility clinic is on fire, with only an unconscious worker and 1000 embryos inside, and a tree falls (don't ask me where it came from), does it still make any sound?
posted by qvantamon at 9:58 AM on March 8, 2006


Why don't we put just as much emphasis on the importance of saving these already-developing embryos? It might sound silly, but it isn't as if these things aren't going to develop into adult humans some day.
Of course, the little kid is much, much cuter, and says cute things and is nice to look at -
but given equal chance, 5 developing embryos = 5 adult humans, 1 developing child = 1 adult human.

It's not like these embryos are going to develop into ducks, or trees, or something. They will be adults, some day.

I suppose, if I knew for 100% that each of these embryos would grow to adulthood, I might be tempted.

I'm pro-choice - not because I don't believe embryos are human - but because I believe it is the mother's choice if she has the resources necessary to care for her young. Mother Nature often makes that decision for us - thus we have unnaturally skinny women failing to concieve and a myriad of other factors contributing to miscarriage.

But to say that these embryos are somehow 'morally' less than human is silly. What are they, if not just really, really young kids?

Of course, I also think parents should be allowed to return their babies to the hospital after the first few months if it isn't working out for them.
"oh but babies are cute how could you say that icky."
Babies are cute out of necessity. They only get cute because their unique dependency isn't automatically satisfied once they're outside of the womb.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:09 AM on March 8, 2006


What if you’re the one who set the fire?

/too many damn people on the planet

It’d be interesting if population pressure forced the demonization of having children and ‘breeders’ were the one’s in fear of being socially ostracized (at the least) and had to fight to keep the government off their backs if they want kids.

I never understood why other conservatives don’t pick up on Ford’s: a government big enough to give you anything you want is big enough to take away everything you have, observation.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:12 AM on March 8, 2006


Western Infidels and funambulist, even if the view the clinic scenario was supposed to knock down is specifically restricted to the equality of lives, it still doesn't succeed logically. No matter what components you stick in the "Save either A or B" equation, chosing A or B does not address whether you value them equally - since it's a dilemma, you're forced by the scenario to treat them unequally. Again, it's simply rhetorical sleight-of-hand, an interesting way to frame a debate, but not proof of any hypocrisy or logical inconsistency.
posted by soyjoy at 10:30 AM on March 8, 2006


Even if it were, rhetorical parlor tricks are not what defeats rhetorical parlor tricks; sound logic is.

Oh, if that were true. Sound logic quite often is soundly ignored.
posted by teece at 11:10 AM on March 8, 2006


> No matter what components you stick in the "Save either A or B" equation, chosing A or B does not address whether you value them equally - since it's a dilemma, you're forced by the scenario to treat them unequally.

soyjoy, that's true, you're right about that part. Of course, it is a rhetorical trick. You're asked to imagine really extreme scenarios in which your choices are extremely limited. Everyone is aware of that. *Still*, a hypothetical forced choice between your mother and father, and a hypothetical forced choice between your father or stranger or child and a petri dish, are *not* the same kind of forced choice.

In the first case, you'll be more likely to choose randomly. Or maybe, even there, you'll start making some judgements about whose life is more 'worthy' of being saved, not based on absolute value of their lives, which is equal, but on discriminating factors, like who is younger; or healthier; perhaps your father already has cancer and six months to live, so despite the heartbreaking thought of having to choose, you'll chose your mum.

(I remember seeing some documentary on the Asian tsunami, where they interviewed a woman who was on the beach with her two kids, and how she had to make a decision to rescue only one because she couldn't hold on to both; she decided to let the older one go. I don't remember if she later found him or not. Obviously she described it as an awful choice; just imagine the guilt. It doesn't mean she loved the younger one more, just that she had to make some decision so she rationalised it by going for some kind of instinctive logical argument: the older one may be able to swim or find something to hold on, the younger doesn't stand a chance unless I grab him. - I'm not sure I'm recalling the story correctly, but it was something like this.)

In the second case, the way you consider the contents of that petri dish will be essential to how difficult the choice will be. Of course, those embryos are human; they are alive; but they're not conscious of being either alive or human, as they haven't developed a brain or any cognitive or sensory function, so they're not actual "human beings", they're only a potential of human being; they cannot become human beings unless implanted in a woman and carried to term. That, everyone can agree on, right? Those are the fact, right? So, their life is valuable in some kind of purely potential sense; they're not yet a child. They won't become a child if left in that dish.

The actual child is there, scared by the fire, knowing that she'll die, knowing you can save her. There is no debate on her status as a developed, conscious human being. She is not a potential child. She is already in the world.

How can it not be a substantially different choice than the one between your father and mother, or you two born children -- even within the extreme rhetorical constraints of a hypothetical forced dilemma?

I don't really care to define what sort of believe that dilemma highlights. I just know that anyone choosing to save a bunch of frozen embryos instead of that child has their priorities completely screwed up. Even if I accepted their equivalence between those lives, in some absolute sense, as a principle, even if I accepted there is no difference in value between potential and actual, it'd still be screwed up to even hesitate in saving the child, because absolute principles cannot come in the way of the rights of living, conscious beings, already endowed with all the faculties that make humans humans.

Which in a way is the real argument why abortion cannot be banned. You cannot favour the absolutely posited rights of a potential life over the very real rights of a living, sentient being.
posted by funambulist at 11:57 AM on March 8, 2006


er, by "discriminating factors" I meant, factors that your mind will try and find, due to the fact of being forced to choose; factors allowing you to avoid a complete random choice, allowing you to give yourselves reasons for making a choice that you know will have terrible consequences (I think randomness is scarier in those scenarios); so, more like contingent factors.
posted by funambulist at 12:03 PM on March 8, 2006


...but given equal chance, 5 developing embryos = 5 adult humans, 1 developing child = 1 adult human.

It's not like these embryos are going to develop into ducks, or trees, or something. They will be adults, some day.


Bringing it back to policy issues, what's the policy for "pulling the plug" on someone in a coma? In Schiavo's case, the likelihood she would recover was virtually zero - her cortex was mush. In the case of embryos, I doubt that the embryo makes it to full term 100% of the time (miscarriages).

On a purely secular note, people don't start developing memories and experiences until they have a working brain, and the cortex doesn't start developing until the third trimester. Children in the third trimester learn to recognize their mother's voices and can even be classically conditioned, just like Pavlov's dog. With that said, I'm quite comfortable with the current laws - a fetus doesn't start to have its own memories until the third trimester. Late term abortion icky - 6 months and earlier, there's no capacity for establishing long term memories. And before I get called out on it, yes, I'm equating "personhood" with a previously active "mental life".
posted by Nquire at 12:11 PM on March 8, 2006



Which in a way is the real argument why abortion cannot be banned. You cannot favour the absolutely posited rights of a potential life over the very real rights of a living, sentient being.


But isn't that exactly what's happened in SD? that the woman--a living, sentient being--has lost her legal rights?
posted by amberglow at 12:13 PM on March 8, 2006


Yes, precisely...
posted by funambulist at 12:16 PM on March 8, 2006


funambulist, thanks for taking the time to reply in such detail. But now I think you're missing a crucial point: It's not that the fundies will pick the embryos; it's that they, like any thinking, feeling human, will pick the child, because they will, in fact, bring to bear considerations above and beyond the theoretical principle of "life begins at conception" or "equal sacredness of all life" or whatever. And then you (the interlocutor) say, "Aha! Gotcha! You don't believe what you're saying!"

So, my point, once again, is that for all its entertainment value, this imaginary, extreme, thought-experiment type question does not actually succeed in proving they don't believe what they're saying. All it proves is that you can set up a dilemma where comparing two things brings out a certain difference between the two.

Much more useful is the non-rhetorical question of "how should the woman be punished?" It's something that does expose their hypocrisy and it's thoroughly grounded in the real-world consequences of this ban.
posted by soyjoy at 12:35 PM on March 8, 2006


No matter what components you stick in the "Save either A or B" equation, choosing A or B does not address whether you value them equally - since it's a dilemma, you're forced by the scenario to treat them unequally.

I don't see how the scenario forces any such thing. One might honestly answer "Oh my goodness, I don't know what I would do in such a dilemma," or "I'd take whichever was closer to the door," or "I'd flip a coin."

You seem to be drawing a distinction between the fertility clinic scenario's dressed up question of "Which will you save?" and what I see as the underlying question of "Which is more important or valuable?" If we assume that the questionee is a non-malevolent person who wants to minimize the damage the fire will cause, I don't see how those are any different. It seems to me that the dressed-up fertility clinic scenario is exactly this question, and consequently addresses the value issue in just about the most direct way possible.

...not proof of any hypocrisy or logical inconsistency.

I agree. It's perfectly possible to take the position that N fertilized embryos are N times more valuable than a single human being, and answer that one should save the embryos and leave the human to burn to death. There is no logical inconsistency or hypocrisy there. In my view, that is in fact the very point. Taking the "Culture Of Life" premise that all living pieces of potentially-human tissue are equally valuable to its logical conclusion leads in this case to a decision that is horrifying, repulsive, monsterous, and not actually pro-life at all. Perhaps this will lead some to think about the pro-life premise more carefully.
posted by Western Infidels at 12:39 PM on March 8, 2006


Oh, another thing (continuing the response to soyjoy) - if someone who's declaredly anti-choice in the abortion issue ends up answering "of course, in that unlikely forced scenario, I'd pick the child", maybe by adding "even if it's very very sad I can't also save the embyros etc.", I don't think the point is that their answer would highlight some hypocrisy or inconsistency; on the contrary, I think it highlights how they instinctively know there is at least some difference there. They just won't acknowledge the premises, and consequences, of that instinctive judgment.

But if someone refuses to answer altogether, claiming it's a trick, it's implausible, it's a catch-22, then I do think that is hypocrite and inconsistent, because it may be a rather extremely unlikely scenario, but it's not an impossible one, and it does illustrate one's priorities in value judgements, in having to come to terms with reality, and having to think in terms of actual rather than absolute and potential.
posted by funambulist at 12:47 PM on March 8, 2006


soyjoy, I posted before I could see your last comment - I just answered that part about a 'prolifer' choosing the child. I hadn't really missed your point there, I just didn't really clarify that for me, the point is not "winning" an argument or even going "aha gotcha, you're a hypocrite". (And if I were to do that, actually, I'd be more likely to have that reaction to someone choosing the dish - because it would show they're willing to let a child die, which is not a very pro-life position is it?)

But anyway, the reason I find this dilemma interesting and revealing, even more so when the answer is prolifer choosing the child, is more like the fascination of seeing people make choices by a kind of instinctive assessment of *reality* whose implications they will not really acknowledge in their ideological positions, becaused their positions are dogmatic.

I don't think it's hypocrisy, it's not even conscious; I think it's more like a resistance. That's what dogma does. It clashes with real life. Even when only considered in a hypothetical.
posted by funambulist at 1:02 PM on March 8, 2006


If one truly believes that an embryo is a living human being, that it has just as much value as a human that has already been born, then it isn't a choice between a child and fridge of petri dishes. It's a choice between one child and a thousand children. To choose the one child over the thousand is to say that each of those thousand is, at least under those circumstances, worth less than a tenth of a percent of a 5-year-old child, and that's counter to the belief.

So, if one actually believes the "Embryo = Human Being" line, then one must choose the embryoes. Therefore, if one chooses the child, they must not really believe that. That's what the scenario demonstrates. And if your choice proves that you don't believe the line, and you claim to believe it anyway, that's where you become either hypocritical or a flat-out liar.
posted by kafziel at 1:32 PM on March 8, 2006


Exactly, kafziel.

That is - contrary to funambulist's understanding - that's exactly the conclusion most people using this thought-experiment are drawing. But wrongly.

Even if one believes "Embryo = Human Being," choosing the child does not prove hypocrisy. I believe serial killers are human beings, but swapping them in for the embryos, I'd still go for the child. That doesn't contradict my belief that they're human beings, i.e. worthy of moral consideration. It only means that in this artificially manufactured dilemma I'm forced to value something else more highly. I would also save my own child before saving a group of five I didn't know (who are also on a gurney, of course, so that logistics is not in question). That choice does not imply that I believe children I don't know should lack protection against murder.

So, again, it is completely possible to believe life begins at conception and choose the child, without being a hypocrite or liar.
posted by soyjoy at 2:08 PM on March 8, 2006


> It's a choice between one child and a thousand children.

I'm picturing this scenario being submitted for consideration to, say, my grandma, for whom even a vcr was sort of voodoo, let alone a technology that can identify the very first stages of development of a fertilised egg, and produce and store it in a laboratory. If it had been my grandma in that fire, she wouldn't even know what's in that dish. And if you explained it to her, she wouldn't believe you. Because all she's seeing is a dirty piece of glass or plastic, those possible future thousand children there are only microscopic cells for now, invisible to the naked eye. Unlike the breathing 2 year old.

We take for granted that kind of scientific progress now.

Ironically, when you think about it, science is exactly what's given some religions the grounds to claim – today – that that the soul enters matter at conception; it wasn't so originally, when the process of fertilisation in humans was still far from being discovered. It used to be breath that infused the spirit of life; or some vague notion of quickening occurring some time during pregnancy.

I'm wondering why not make DNA itself endowed with soul, at this stage. Or even single genes and cells. They seem to behave very intelligently after all...
posted by funambulist at 2:09 PM on March 8, 2006


I believe serial killers are human beings, but swapping them in for the embryos, I'd still go for the child. That doesn't contradict my belief that they're human beings ...

ok, soyjoy, I do get that. you choose your kid to strangers or killers because of relative judgements; so does the prolifer choosing the kid over embryos. True.

thing is... the embryo situation is the only one related to a wider debate on the status of human life itself, not on relative matters like the morality and legality of some humans' behaviour (serial killers) and how they should be treated as a consequence, or on the higher attachment to one's own family.

that debate is one where the terms themselves are highly disputed; the different stages of becoming of a human being are ignored; life, consciousness, soul are swapped indifferently; and an embryo effectively given priority over the rights of a grown woman. this is what the unlikely scenario illustrates best, imo, when translated on that level.

Much more useful is the non-rhetorical question of "how should the woman be punished?" It's something that does expose their hypocrisy and it's thoroughly grounded in the real-world consequences of this ban.

Yes, agreed, but it's one question they seem even more resistant to answer. I don't know what good words and logical arguments are anyway, when things get that bad.
posted by funambulist at 3:20 PM on March 8, 2006



Even if one believes "Embryo = Human Being," choosing the child does not prove hypocrisy. I believe serial killers are human beings, but swapping them in for the embryos, I'd still go for the child. That doesn't contradict my belief that they're human beings, i.e. worthy of moral consideration. It only means that in this artificially manufactured dilemma I'm forced to value something else more highly. I would also save my own child before saving a group of five I didn't know (who are also on a gurney, of course, so that logistics is not in question). That choice does not imply that I believe children I don't know should lack protection against murder.


I really like your serial killer example as i think it puts it into perspective for me a bit more. Are the serial killers comparible to hitler or are they poor misguided souls with some good left in them.

I normally call myself pro-life when it comes to the death penalty, without really thinking about it. But thinking about this example I really dont value the serial killers lives much at all, I would almost always choose the baby.

I wish I was a die hard (death-penalty)pro-lifer because if I was I beleive the two anolagies would be more comparable.

So in summary- the anology made me think about my position, it is not black and white, it is not an easy decision, I had to rethink the values that I thought I held.

I wish abortion pro-lifers were this open minded when answering the question, it is designed to make you question your beliefs.
posted by phyle at 7:03 PM on March 8, 2006


Twenty Questions -- Baby Killing Edition
posted by homunculus at 8:02 PM on March 10, 2006


The second link is meant to go to this piece.
posted by homunculus at 9:43 PM on March 22, 2006


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