Saturday, April 25, 2009

Zygotes are Human Too?

Pres. Barack Obama is facing criticism for his decision to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell funding that George W. Bush ordered early in his presidency. He is facing criticism for lifting a similar Bush ban on aid to countries that offer counseling on abortion. The University of Notre Dame has faced criticism for inviting Obama to speak at its commencement and to bestow an honorary degree because of the president’s pro-choice views.

But as irritating as all the criticism is, it just means that the president is doing his job the way it should be done. He is allowing individual citizens to choose for themselves whether or not it’s moral for them to have an abortion. He is allowing research institutions to do their jobs in the best interest of the public. He is placing human interests above ideology.

What bothered me the most about the Bush Administration is that much of its policy was shaped by religious dogma. Bush’s own compunctions against abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells meant that those who did not share these qualms had their freedom restricted. Bush was, in a real sense, forcing the rest of us to abide by his religious views.

Obama is doing just the opposite. If you believe it is ok to have an abortion, then you are free to have one. If researchers believe that embryonic stem cells hold promise for future cures for grave illnesses, they are free to develop those promises with government assistance. But for those who hold the same moral principles as Bush, they are not being denied anything. Nobody is forcing them to have abortions. Nobody is forcing researchers who do not want to use embryos to use them. And for those who feel that the use of embryonic stem cells is immoral, they don’t have to take any future treatments that might one day save their lives; they can opt out.

I always had a big problem understanding the viewpoint of the so-called right to life crowd. They claim that an embryo, even a tiny one-celled zygote, is a potential human and therefore must be granted the same rights as an adult human. That’s just nonsense.

They consider the soul to have been created, or placed into the zygote, at the moment of conception. But just assuming that we really do have souls that live on after our bodies die, what would the soul of an embryo be like? It has no feelings, no memories of any kind, no wants or desires, no plans for the future. So if we deny its existence, what has it lost?

If, as some claim, it will be provided with a new body upon its resurrection, then it still hasn’t lost anything. If a mother really wanted to do what was best for her child, she would have it aborted so it could go on to heaven without having to endure the trouble of living first, with all the hardships that go with growing up, going through adolescence, paying bills and taxes, getting sick, and dying.

Nobody knows for sure if we even have souls. If we do, nobody knows when we acquire them. Nobody knows for sure what happens to them when we die or what they will be like. We only know what our belief systems tell us, and there is more than one belief system.

Do we really want the beliefs of one person in charge to dictate to the rest of us what we should believe, too? Bush didn’t force anyone to believe one way or another, but he did make it impossible for those who didn’t believe as he did to do what they wanted to do with their lives and bodies.

Some people say that the fetus has just as many human rights as the mother who’s carrying it. But does a child of three have as many rights as its parents? No, of course not. A fetus, an embryo, or a fertilized egg should have only the rights that its mother grants it. If the mother is trying to have a baby and wants to be pregnant, then the fetus should have basic human rights. If the mother doesn’t want it, then the fetus has no rights at all.

A potential human is not a human. The potential is only there if the person who is carrying the embryo is expecting to carry it full term and give birth to it. Embryos in Petri dishes that are about to be discarded have no potential. Fetuses that are about to be aborted have no potential. So whether or not an embryo is a potential human pretty much depends on those who are handling it. Its potential for being human is not innate.

We could all get along so much better if we could agree on just a couple of very simple, and seemingly obvious rules of life: A human should have the right to do whatever he or she wishes, in private, as long as it does not deny others the same right. And being human doesn’t start until you are born. Before that you are either a potential human, if your mother is looking forward to your birth, or a lump of tissue, if you’re sitting in a lab waiting to be discarded or if you are in the womb of a reluctant mother.

For those who believe in souls, believe what you will, but don’t force those beliefs on everyone else. That would be violating the first rule of being human.


Chris said...

I’m not sure whether you realize that your views about how the president ought to be doing his job, what serves human interests, etc., constitute an ideology. President Obama is not placing human interests above ideology. He is simply acting in accordance with an ideology that incorporates a different vision from his predecessor of what constitutes human interest.

No one believes that human embryos should be granted the same rights as human adults. (Voting? Buying cigarettes?) That's a strawman. However, that does not mean that pre-adult humans including embryos do not have rights that should be recognized, or that that society does not have an interest in protecting them.

Furthermore, no one needs to believe that a zygote has a soul (and many pro-lifers don't believe it) in order to reach the conclusion that it is worth society's trouble to protect or that it has rights. Likewise, no one needs to believe that a newborn baby or, for that matter, a middle-aged man has a soul in order to believe the same thing about them.

You never seem to articulate a non-arbitrary, ontological basis for why "being human doesn't start until you are born". And in fact, most of the arguments you use do not seem to clarify why infanticide would be wrong, which I assume you agree it would be. By your reasoning, a baby who is about to be drowned in a bathtub has no potential. A thirty year old who is about to be shot to death has no potential either. I think your understanding of what innate potential means is flawed.

Finally, outlawing abortion would not be an instance of forcing religious views on people, any more than outlawing theft or murder. Abortion prohibitions didn’t violate the Establishment Clause when they existed, and they wouldn’t violate it if they were reinstated.

Jerry Wilson said...

An ideology is a strongly-held belief system that becomes a political agenda. Bush had an ideology. Obama does not because he is allowing people the freedom to choose what is right for them based on their own sense of morality, not his.

Regardless of how you justify outlawing abortion, the fact remains that by doing so you are restricting the rights of women who want to have one. And as long as the embryo or fetus is connected to the mother's body, she should be the one who is solely responsible for whether or not it is granted the right to be born.

Chris said...

Even Wikipedia will correctly tell you that "Implicitly every political tendency entails an ideology." The very idea that it is in the public interest, or the interest of good governance, to allow people in a given circumstance the freedom to choose what is "right" for them, or even that "right" is the sort of thing susceptible to subjective determination, are ideas that form part of - you guessed it - an ideology.

I know you think that "as long as the embryo or fetus is connected to the mother's body, she should be the one who is solely responsible for whether or not it is granted the right to be born." I was just noting that you haven't offered any reasoned, non-circular or non-arbitrary basis for thinking it.

Jerry Wilson said...

Well, since this country was founded on the "ideology" of personal freedom, and since most people enjoy having personal freedom, I am in favor of any ideology that allows for the greatest amount of personal freedom. Bush's ideology restricted personal liberties in favor of a moral imperative belonging mostly to the Christian Right. Obama is not basing his ideology, if you insist, on any group's definition of what is or is not moral. Hence, everyone has more personal freedom.