Thursday, July 29

Hamburger And Handel, Porterhouse And Picasso

I want to solicit the help of – as strange as this is going to sound, coming from me – conservative, pro-life / anti-abortion, evangelical Christians in understanding something that has happened to me multiple times in debates about abortion. By “multiple times,” I mean so often that I have come to expect some cognate of this pattern to recur as a matter of course. As you might expect, the whole debate turns on the issue of the “ontological” status of the fetus in the mother’s womb:  is the fetus a human person or not, and if the fetus is human, when in the pregnancy does the fetus attain this status of person-hood? As I have said elsewhere, I have no idea what the answer to the above italicized question is, and my entire stance of being pro-choice is predicated on my ignorance as to that issue. I simply do not know, and even if I did know, I would not feel free, in light of what I insist is the ambiguity of the various philosophical and scientific issues involved, to impose that answer on anyone else as a matter of law. I only have an opinion, and opinions are like anuses:  everyone has one. Anyway, this is the pattern. Judge for yourself …

Whenever I express any reservations about deeming the fetus unambiguously human, my pro-life discussion partner always – I can recall no exceptions – responds with a kind of check-list of criteria that any biological organism must satisfy in order for us to classify that organism as a human person. For example:

o The candidate organism must possess a fully articulated genome of DNA that marks it as a human person.

(I keep saying “human person” instead of “human being” in order to exclude from consideration those in a persistent vegetative state that evince no, e.g., consciousness of self, cognitive activity, etc., etc. Even in such “flat-line” cases, I am still not sure whether they qualify as human persons or not. I mean cases like the tragic case of Shelby [Julia Roberts] in the movie Steel Magnolias. I do not propose to resolve that issue here. I am talking now about person-hood, not mere and purely ontological “being-hood”. Nor do I propose to address the issue of the ontological status of advanced primates like the great apes, chimpanzees, etc., etc., whose DNA matches that of human beings in excess of 95% -- other than to say I am increasingly uncomfortable with using such creatures, such close cousins of human beings, in potentially painful and lethal laboratory experiments.)

o The candidate organism must have the ability to engage with homeostasis with its environment.

It must be capable of modifying its environment, either internally inside its own body, and / or by intervening in the environment, in order to ensure conditions capable of sustaining its own life. This is not to say that such homeostatis must be successful. Someone cast adrift in, say, low-earth orbit or on the surface of the moon without a space-suit or similar artificial environment would probably attempt to achieve homeostatis -- but, under those conditions, they would be unsuccessful.

o The candidate organism must engage in cellular reproduction, mitosis, etc., etc., as is the case with all multi-cellular organisms.

It is often asserted that even cadavers, for a certain period of time, keep growing fingernails and hair. I do not know if these specific examples are the case, but one of the universal characteristics of human persons is that they, at some level and to some extent, engage in physical growth and development.

The problem I have with this entire way of addressing the issue of the person-hood of the fetus is that it concentrates exclusively on the properties of mere meat. According to this argument, a live cow or a great ape would have an equal claim to human-person-hood. (Basically, my conservative / pro-life Christian interlocutor is arguing that purely and exclusively phenotypic and genotypic considerations – see the first "Skeptic's" column linked to above for the definitions of these important terms – suffice to distinguish a biological organism as a human person.) Just meat. Just tissue. Granted, meat and tissue with some interesting properties, e.g., human DNA, the ability to maintain homeostasis with its environment, cell duplication / regeneration / mitosis, etc., etc. But still … just meat.

Now, at this point, I must be careful in my response not to overreach by claiming I know more than I do. Again:  I have no idea when in pregnancy a fetus assumes full person-hood. My consciousness of that ignorance, of my "known unknowns," is why I am content to leave the abortion decision up to the pregnant woman, her partner, and her doctor, at least up to a certain stage in the pregnancy, i.e., until that stage of the pregnancy when the person-hood of the fetus is difficult to argue against. (For the Roe Court, this would be sometime during the third trimester.) All I claim to know is that, as I said in the second column I linked to in the first paragraph, my knowledge of biology – not that I claim competence as a professional biologist or geneticist:  I do not – leads me to conclude that the person-hood of the fetus must be assessed as a phenomenon that occurs along a continuum, not as a digital, on-off phenomenon like flipping a light switch. (Actually, even turning a light on is likewise a continuum:  it just seems to occur instantaneously. A better example would be certain quantum phenomena, like certain phenomena associated with quantum "entanglement". But let’s not go there.) The becoming-human of a fetus is like the coming of the dawn. Dawn occurs along a continuum.  The dawn … well … the dawn … dawns. (Not for nothing do we say that, when a person gradually arrives at some crucial realization or insight that “It dawned on them” or “It dawned on me”. Not for nothing did Aeschylus say "Pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until ... against our will, comes wisdom." Yes. Exactly. ) I admittedly belabor this point only so that you will not read into the following more certitude than I claim to possess.

Pablo Picasso

Even with all the above phenotypic and genotypic considerations in place, even with all the check-boxes ticked off in the purely physicalistic / phenotypic / genotypic inventory of fetus-as-meat, I would notwithstanding argue that there is still something missing, something critical, in fact, something sine qua non in terms of the definition of what constitutes a human person. Without that critical item – without that All-Important Great Cosmic Check Box, if you will – a human being would still be merely what I call a “meat doll”:  basically, a department-store mannequin made of flesh.

What is that missing sine qua non, that je ne sais quoi?

Different cultures, different philosophical traditions, different religions have different names for this Check Box. Some call it “spirit”; some, “soul”; some, elan vital; some, nefesh; some, ruach; some neshamah Adonai (those last three are intimately related in the Jewish understanding); some, sentience; etc., etc., etc., etc. Pick your own word. It is revealing that, in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Dr. Victor Frankenstein had to introduce electricity into his composite cadaver – i.e., something not accounted for in the meat of the corpses – in order to endow his creation with self-consciousness, sentience, or … call it what you will … something else more than and in addition to mere meat was required.

This is the conundrum faced by all pro-life people who yearn to encode the person-hood of the fetus into civil law: the person-hood of the fetus, that which makes the fetus a person endowed with rights, is essentially and incorrigibly and irreducibly religious. Therefore, being religious, this missing element may not be inscribed into the civil law. Why? Because the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment prohibits writing religion into the law. Various religious traditions are quite free -- under the co-equal "free exercise" clause -- to oppose abortion for religious reasons. But writing those purely religious reasons into the law of the Nation is a Rubicon whose crossing is sternly forbidden by the US Constitution.

Georg Friedrich Handel

All these expressions, as different as they are otherwise, have in common that that missing ingredient is whatever it is that distinguishes Handel from hamburger, Picasso from porterhouse, Bach from brisket, Mozart from meat. Whatever that missing element is enables what would otherwise be a mere meat doll to become Antonio Allegri and write the great Miserere; to become Stan Getz and play a foot-stomping, finger-snapping tenor-sax riff; to become Einstein and formulate General Relativity; to become Picasso and paint Guernica; to become Bach, instead of beef, and to write The Brandenburg Concertos; etc., etc., etc., etc. No meat doll will ever write Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G; will ever become Franz Josef Haydn and write String Quartet in F-major. No meat doll could ever sing the great Edith Piaf's La Vie en Rose.

And here is the crowning irony:  whenever our debate / discussion reaches this point, I find myself in the anomalous position of being the on-again / off-again atheist (or maybe agnostic) and half-assed Buddhist who is arguing in favor of the existence of the soul / spirit / … pick your own word ... whatever ... over the opposition of my conservative Christian debate partner, who only wants to talk about meat. I always thought, and was brought up to believe, that Christians were supposed to be in the business of saving souls, not in the business of needing souls’ existence proven to them by someone they would consider an apostate. But I find myself, of all people, cast in the latter role.

How did that reversal of positions occur?

That is what I would like to have explained to me.

Any takers?

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Hamburger meat … Alpha Stock Images … CC BY-SA 3.0
Handel portrait … DisCogs … Public domain
Porterhouse steak … Flickr … Public domain
Photograph of Pablo Picasso … Photographer anonymous … Public domain
Female mannequin … Pixabay … Public domain
Man and woman mannequins … … Public domain
Fetus … suparna sinha … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Flying doll … … Public domain

Leave a Reply