Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A new, old argument

There is a medical term, "brain dead", that is often confusing to people. Brain death is when the brain no longer sends signals required to keep a person alive. If you don't keep such a person on a ventilator, they will die, because they won't breathe.

It's been quite a long time that we've accepted that as the point of essential death; the brain will no longer keep the person alive. We might keep the person alive at a cellular level, keeping a respirator going, trying to keep the heart going, to carry out the person's wishes to donate organs (or let a family member say goodbye), but we've accepted that the brain dead person is no longer with us. If we found a way to keep a decapitated person's oxygenated blood flowing (from the neck down) with the assistance of a heart-lung machine, we'd accept that the person was more than just brain dead... they are, to quote The Princess Bride, "all dead"... we're just keeping the meat fresh.

Here, we find that there are people who presumably would wish to contest this claim. A lack of a brain is not sufficient for them to decide that there is no further personhood.

The link leads to a part of an ongoing discussion (this particular discussion was started by a book) about a really silly argument that's been gaining in popularity for a while, the idea that personhood and humanity are inextricably linked. If a cell or group of cells has human DNA, they are human (from a scientific perspective) and therefore people. Unite a sperm cell and an egg cell in a dish, and you have a person, with rights to demand certain behaviors from us.

It probably seems like a cunning ploy. Any moral judgment must be based upon some first principle. While we can expect almost any society to accept certain first principles (murder, assault and rape, theft, etc.) are wrong, there are other principles that we recognize are so subjective that we can't expect them to be the basis for law. For example, the Catholic church feels that birth control is wrong, but that's a clearly so incredibly subjective that it is not a sound basis for lawmaking.

The idea that we can't destroy a fertilized egg (or use it to harvest stem cells, etc.) based upon a soul is also clearly so subjective that we can't use it as a sound basis for lawmaking. So, what do these folks do? They figure if they change the argument slightly, they can eliminate that pesky first principle problem!

Alas, all they do is push the first principle elsewhere. They are now saying that their first principle is "a fertilized egg is a person, because we've said a lot of scientific-sounding stuff (NB: sound scientific reasoning is a proper subset of "scientific-sounding stuff") and don't we all agree that it's wrong to kill persons?"

But we don't agree that a fertilized egg is a person. A fertilized egg is missing almost all of the qualities we expect in a person. It doesn't look like a person (except under magnification, it doesn't look like much of anything at all); it doesn't have a brain; it doesn't have a heart, blood, lungs, or any other organs.

I'm sure some folks would criticize me because I haven't read the book that started this discussion, but extraordinary claims (like "this book might counter my claims") require extraordinary evidence.

Look: the authors of the book feel that a fertilized egg should have rights. They write a lot of stuff that feels extremely satisfying to them, and feel that it's conclusively proved their point. But it's clear that no one can get around the main point: a fertilized egg has no hallmarks of personhood. However many words you use, no matter how emotionally or rationally engaging you try to be, you'll never get past that simple fact. If you don't have a brain, if the brain simply does not exist, you don't have a person... whether it's "not yet" (in the case of a fertilized egg) or "any more" (in the case of our hypothetical decapitation victim).

I will admit, I sympathize with some anti-abortion folks, because I don't like the thought of abortion. But in the end, the woman is the one who must carry the burden and risks of pregnancy. In the end, she must decide whether that burden and those risks are ones she is willing to accept. In the early stages of pregnancy, certainly up to twelve weeks, it must be her choice.

While one can argue more strongly against stem cell research (the burden is a lost opportunity, not the burden of carrying a baby to term), I don't think any argument can carry the day (legally speaking) because of the same issue: there is no brain; there is no person. There are just human cells being grown in a lab.

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