Monday, 20 February 2012

Faith, Pretence and the Tragedy of Abortion

     In my first posting to this blog, I spoke about the difference between faith and belief, and argued that faith is a matter of acting as if some proposition is true, regardless of whether or not one actually believes it to be so. It's a matter of acting in good faith, even if one suspects that one's counterparts may not live up to their own obligations. In such cases, it's a matter of suspending one's personal judgments (such as if a defence lawyer happens to believe her client is guilty despite his claiming otherwise) and acting in accordance with the "belief" that duty requires (the assumption the client is not guilty, and that the court will reach the correct conclusion in light of all the evidence).
     However, the line blurs sometimes, especially when some people have trouble with that level of abstraction. It's not easy for everyone to believe one thing and act as if they don't; indeed, it may seem dishonest to them to do so. ("What kind of lawyer could, in good conscience, defend a client he believes is guilty?" is a question I'm often asked, and my answer is always that a good lawyer suspends judgment, and recognizes that her own gut feelings about something might well be wrong.) Perhaps it's simpler for such people simply to believe the article of faith, and not worry about such distinctions.

     This ties into abortion with respect to people's beliefs about the personhood of the fetus. If one believes that personhood begins at conception, then it follows one would believe that abortion is murder; if one believes personhood begins at birth, then abortion is not murder.
     Now, I think we ought to err on the side of caution, especially when what's at stake is something as serious as killing a person, but the experience of watching my own son's personhood emerge has shifted the boundaries of the debate somewhat. While I used to accept unreflectively that obviously a newborn baby had to be considered a person, and so the question for me was at what point during pregnancy does it become a person, it now seems to me that the morally relevant characteristics of personhood aren't really all there at birth. Conscious thought? Moral accountability? No, probably not. Or at least, for the first several months, the personhood claims of a human baby don't appear to be significantly weightier than the personhood claims of any other mammal, some of which we happily kill and eat. Just about any objective trait we might point at and say "A human baby is a person because it can do X," would also commit us to recognizing as persons some animals we might not want to grant legal personhood. So, my own powerful emotional entanglements aside (I adore babies), I have had to conclude that objectively, these little bundles of joy probably aren't actually persons yet.
     But at the same time, it's extremely useful to their development into persons that we treat them as such from day one. It's true, of course, that trying to engage a baby in meaningful conversation is futile; the baby won't understand a word you say, and won't be able to respond with anything intelligible. Yet we have to treat babies as persons, and talk to them and pay attention to them and all that entails, in order for them to learn and develop healthily. We owe it to the persons they will become to treat them as persons now, even if they aren't actually persons yet.
     Indeed, it's almost certainly a good thing that we develop these habits of treating them with love and affection even before they are born. I confess that we put earphones over my wife's belly when she was pregnant with our son, though not out of any belief in the "Mozart effect"; it was just one of many acts of belly-interaction (patting, talking, feeling for little baby-kicks) that formed the foundation of growing relationship with what we would eventually come to know as our son. And when he was born, of course, we adoringly held him and cuddled him and talked to him and treasured every little hint of a response, conscious or not.
     To be sure, we didn't act this way out of a conscious choice to act "in good faith"that he was a person, despite objective evidence to the contrary. We instinctively identified him as our son, a distinct individuated person, and bonded with him on that basis, regardless of whether or not it was objectively accurate.

     So I am torn about the whole abortion debate. On the one hand, I think it is objectively incorrect to characterize the unborn fetus as a person in the moral sense, and I now strongly suspect that actual, genuine, honest-to-goodness capital-P Personhood doesn't really emerge until a baby is several months or even a year old. It follows from that that strictly speaking, I cannot call infanticide murder. But I still want to err on the side of caution, and so it seems to me eminently reasonable and practical to establish the moment of birth as the onset of legal personhood.
     On the other hand, the emotional and developmental benefits of starting early on bonding with and establishing a personal relationship with a pre-person are so great that I do not wish to upset the belief by many that a fetus is a person. It's a good belief for parents to act upon, even if it's not objectively true. It would be nice if we could encourage the behaviour without the belief, but I'm not sure that's possible for everyone. Our natural and healthy parental instincts will make it impossible for some people to acknowledge, even intellectually, that a fetus could be anything other than a person. Abortion is legal, as it should be (and like root canal, no one should ever want to need one), but I don't think we'll ever truly be at peace over that. And in a strange way, I'm sort of glad about that, because I want everyone who will become a parent to love their future children from even before the moment of conception.


  1. I wonder if the recognition of *potential*, possibly even an assumed bit of inevitability, factors into this.

    A newborn may not be fully a person yet, but where do we draw THAT line - is an ex-astronaut with fully developed Alzheimer's still a 'person'?

    So that someone was - or will soon be - a citizen makes them a person, where a smart animal does not have this potential (or history). Same applies to your previous "Stupid" topic: at what IQ do we deny someone personhood.

    Useful morality seems to come down to a being's *humanity*, as citizen or person-hood is just a subset of human, and involves shades of grey amongst humans we are loathe to impose/define.

  2. That's certainly been part of the discussion, the idea of potential. But I've never been satisfied that potentiality by itself was a morally relevant detail. At best, potential beings possess potential rights. I think we owe duties to future persons, those persons who actually will come into existence, but we don't owe a duty to any particular potential person to make sure they are among that number; there's an infinite number of potential beings, and I'm not sure I see any real basis for favouring some over others.

    And your point with respect to IQ is well taken. But I think we have to treat personhood as a binary, all-or-nothing trait, not dependent on degrees of intellect. Certainly some basic capacity is necessary for personhood in the first place, but that's in general. We can say that humans as a species typically meet that test, and so erring on the side of caution, extend legal personhood to all humans at birth until proven otherwise (such as when it becomes an issue whether or not to disconnect someone from life support).

  3. Could we look at it as a issue of sovereignty? That a women's sovereignty extends within her physical boarders? So the personhood of the foetus is not necessarily at issue, as much as the state's power is limited by the women's personhood? Once the child leaves the physical borders of the mother, they join a polity.

    Not the most developed argument, but perhaps a start.

  4. Heh. The fetus IS a boarder of the mother, so to speak.

    Interesting idea, though. Do you mean to suggest that prior to birth, the fetus (whether or not it is a person) would be a "citizen" of its mother and subject to her laws rather than those of the state? So, while we Canadians might disapprove of some other country carrying out sentences of capital punishment on its criminals, we're not going to interfere because it's out of our jurisdiction.

    The problem, however, is that it's emerging as a principle of international law that a nation that the community of nations may intervene when a country commits flagrant human rights abuses against its own citizens. Capital punishment doesn't seem to reach that threshold (though I wonder if it might if the U.S. and China didn't practice it?), but there's never even been a pretence that abortion is the lawful execution of a convicted criminal. If a fetus is a person (even if its legal status is only as a citizen of its mother), then killing it could count as a human rights abuse warranting sanction against its mother "state". Unless we really want to say it's no one's business that some nation across the sea is carrying out a deliberate genocide against its own people, I don't think the mother's sovereignty argument really settles the matter. We still have to address the question of personhood.