Friday, April 20, 2007

The Russian Dolls

I was reading Ezra's post on TAPPED, about how five men decided that the health of women doesn't count in the so-called partial birth abortion, unless she is going to die right away without that particular procedure, and I wrote something in the comments of that post which I want to expand on a little here.

The comments turned, as is the case when abortion is discussed, to the question whether abortion is murder. One commenter asked why a child is regarded as a person the second after birth but not the second preceding birth. It's possible to take this question back all the way through the pregnancy, of course, to the point of conception, and this is what many pro-lifers do. But I don't see why we should stop there. Why not take this question even further back in time, to the ova and sperm, and why not decide, as some in the middle-ages did, that it is the sperm which is the person? Then men would be asked to mind what they drink, eat or smoke, how they work and how they exercise.

The usual argument against this little thought experiment I have done in the past several times is to say that conception is when the egg and the sperm join, and that this is where a separate life becomes possible. Now, this is very convenient for those who are not going to be the place in which this joining happens, because they will remain free of all the limitations that follow when another person lives inside you, and they will also remain free to fight for the rights of that inside-person not to get exposed to glasses of wine or tuna with mercury. But it's also not much different from arguing that birth is the point at which a person becomes a person, because it is only at that point that independent life apart from the mother's body is possible. Both these cutoff points are points of convenience for someone. They are also decided on philosophical grounds.

To return to the Russian dolls mentioned in the title, the kinds that nest within each other until all you see is the largest doll, containing all the others. If we accept the extreme pro-life position that a person is created the instant an egg and a sperm meet, then we are going to have a legal situation like the one mentioned here, where a woman can be chained to the operating table for a Caesarian section that she doesn't want, just because some physicians have decided that this is the best thing to do for the fetus. Or we might ultimately have laws which ban pregnant women from doing anything that might endanger the fetus, perhaps even including receiving medical care they themselves need. And we certainly would get a world where most everybody watches what pregnant women eat and drink and where they work and how they exercise or don't, because it's another person they might be harming by whatever they do. In the most extreme wing of the pro-life movement, these restrictions would apply to women who are pregnant from rape, too.

Take this even a step further. Suppose that pregnancy is more dangerous to a fetus if the woman has done certain things before in her life, before she got pregnant. In the so-called pre-conception stage. Now, if it is a full person she might be carrying one day and if her lifestyle today harms her uterus, shouldn't she be restrained from inflicting such harm? Perhaps women shouldn't drink alcohol at all? Perhaps women should never eat tuna. Perhaps women should never box or work at a factory which has chemicals which might harm her future fetus?

We don't live in that world, yet, and I hope that we never will. But the assumption the SCOTUS made that any negative health consequences to the woman short of immediate risk of death don't matter in the banning of one abortion procedure is the first step down that slippery slope towards the Russian dolls.