I lifted that title, word for word, from (atheist, self-admitted man-of-the-left, City College emeritus Professor of Sociology) Steven Goldberg’s article of the same name from his must-read Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences” (chapter 11). From his opening:
What neither the pro-choice nor pro-life advocates wish to face is the fact that the abortion question is inherently and eternally unanswerable, though it can be settled by force, or its modern equivalent, democratic vote.
The abortion question is unanswerable because the question of whether the fetus is or isn’t a person is a matter of the definition of “person.” There is no avoiding this or the fact that this definition determines all that follows.
Goldberg’s implicit argument is this: murder is the unlawful premeditated killing of a human being by another human being. If the fetus is a human being, then killing it is murder. If the fetus is not a human being then killing it is not murder. The only possibility Goldberg missed is the distinction that at some point during a pregnancy, but before birth, the fetus switches (by some unnamed mechanism) from non-human to human.
Goldberg, incidentally, defines a fetus as non-human.
Well, this is the entire argument if you accept the premise that to kill an innocent human being is murder. This premise cannot be modified to say that the killing of a fetus is a lesser kind of homicide, say manslaughter, because to choose to have an abortion is to premeditate (a state which the mother and probably the person performing the abortion share).
The unsolvability of the abortion question is inherent in the fact that (at least on macroatomic level) nature is continuous and words, like all categories, are discrete. Nature does not refrain from making a euglina because we do not know whether to call it a “plant” or an “animal,” or a virus because we will not know whether to call it “living” or “nonliving.”
Let’s not take up the argument about viruses, and instead focus on the question of real importance: is a fetus a human being, or is it not a human being but becomes one at some point before birth? We will not argue that the fetus at any time after birth is less than human, as it appears academic philosopher Pete Singer says.
We are asking here very narrow questions. The reason for asking is this article on HotAir, “The Left’s outrageous outrage at a proposal to require ultrasounds before abortion.” Virginia will require that women, before undergoing an abortion, must first have an ultrasound. A reporter in that state covering this law called this mandated ultrasound “rape.” Let’s not take up her claim. We can, however, talk about the use and ulterior purpose of the ultrasound.
Now in attempting to rebut the argument that a fetus is a human being, some have argued that the fetus is just a “mass of tissue” inside a woman, no different than, say, a cancer that can and should be excised. The point of this argument is to show that removing unwanted tissue is not murder. This is true, but it is beside the point. To say a cancer is not a human being, but only an unwanted growth, does not prove (how could it?) that a fetus is not a human being, individual and separate from its mother. All the argument does is to restate what we all already believed: that some bodily tissue is not an independent, separate human being.
Similarly, others have argued that a skin scraping can, at least in theory, be cultivated into a clone, at which point the clone will be recognized as an individual, separate human being. Thus, as Sam Harris “jokes” to scratch your nose is to commit mass murder. For Harris, but to nobody else, skin scrapings are human beings. But whether skin scrapings are human beings or not, this knowledge does not answer whether the fetus is or isn’t a human being.
Still another argument is to say that a fetus becomes human at that point where it can, by mechanical means, be removed from its mother and kept alive through some technological apparatus, if not kept alive on its own accord. This is an intelligible definition of human being, but it is a highly contingent one. Presumably, if medical technology continues to improve at the same pace, the fetus will become “viable”, which is to say a human being, from the moment of conception. The “test tube”, as happens even now, not only starts as the womb but it would remain so.
This definition also appears location and time dependent. Mothers living in, say, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan will not have access to the same technological facilities as mothers living in, for instance, New York City. So we have to decide if “viability” applies to extant in any place technology, or local technology. What’s local? What happens if the “machine” which extracts and coddles the fetus/now human being breaks, or there is a line such that the wait to use the equipment is too long? And on and on. Viability, then, if it doesn’t almost immediately imply that a fetus becomes a human-being at conception, becomes a morass.
But then “becomes a human being at some point before birth” is not that different than viability. Famously, some (but not all, and the number and names of who did so argue are irrelevant) have argued that “the quickening”, the point at which the mother first feels movement is that moment when the fetus “switches” to human being. This allows a pregnant woman to fib, if she likes, for who will know if she is lying? And then we have heard of those odd cases of women, typically morbidly fat, who give birth who did not even know they were pregnant. This is important because, for example, if somebody were to kill a woman’s fetus (perhaps in a mugging), we need to know whether that fetus was a human being or still just a mass of tissue.
The other solution is to just dictate: After N weeks comes the Switch, at which point the fetus becomes, by vote, a human being. There is still some fuzziness here, but much less so than for viability or quickening definitions. We still have to decide N. If you like this definition consider, as Goldberg does, that Jews were once classified by vote as being less-than-human. If voting can decide what is right, then it was not wrong to have made this classification. Our current laws are something like this: the N weeks, I mean, but the real question is never tackled.
Now, if you say that after N weeks (or whatever), the fetus does in fact switch to human being, you beg the question how this happens. What essential fact has changed that turned the non-human into a human? Something must have. It cannot be that nothing did. This is a necessary truth. It is a particular chemical measure? A requisite number of brain cells forming? What? To dodge this question is to commit a fallacy and say a fetus is a human being after N weeks because a fetus is a human being after N weeks. You have said nothing. More is needed. I haven’t any idea what this something is, but it has to be a contingent something: a physical and not a metaphysical change.
The metaphysical argument, as typically made, is to say that a fetus becomes a human being at the point of conception. This, even to those who do not agree with it, is at least an intelligible, unambiguous position. Further, there are a number of ways to reach this position, the most well known being to argue from theological principles. But this is not the only way: we could, say, use Aristotle’s argument from final causality. We needn’t go into these here.
The last position is to hold to another contingent event and say the fetus does not become a human being until birth. There are still a number of contingent facts to be decided. Does birth mean a complete exit from the mother, up and until the umbilical cord is cut? Is just, say, one toe out enough to define birth? And so on.
These are not questions which can be evaded because if, say, birth means a complete exit, then at any point during the birthing process, even after the full nine months, even as the woman is wheeled into the OR fully dilated, etc., the woman could say to the physician, “I decided to kill the fetus. I don’t want to be a mother.” And the physician could oblige and not be said to commit murder because, after all, we have decided that a full exit is birth, and that at any point earlier the fetus is not yet a human being.
So if not a full exit, perhaps the definition “anytime before labor begins” is our point of demarcation. That means a woman can have an abortion the full nine months minus one day and it would not be murder. If you don’t like “minus one day” then perhaps you prefer “minus two days” or whatever. As you can see, this is logically no different than the “N weeks” definition. You are still left with answering why the definition should hold.
Enter the ultrasound. It is clear that those who say the fetus is a human being from conception would like women who say it is not to look at the ultrasound and so become convinced that what they see is, in fact, a human being. This makes advocates of fetuses-as-not-human-beings nervous because they fear that some women will be convinced, hence their vehement opposition. But this is all this law means: it is an attempt from one side who hold to a metaphysically argued position (human from conception) to use a contingent fact (picture of a fetus in the shape of a baby, even shortly after infertilization) to change minds.
Regardless whether this works (it appears to), it is still only tangential to the main questions. Indeed, we have only two questions to answer: (1) at what point does a fetus become a human being? (2) Why?
Absolutely no shouting, name calling, nor ungentlemanly or non-ladylike behavior will be allowed in the comments. This subject, above all others, is too apt to degrade into babble the moment the first person slips.
Update I want to save all comments I can, but if we stray (it happens), I will make editorial changes in the comments put in bold and in brackets [like this].
Update I have to leave the computer for a while (6:40 pm Eastern). But my heart soars like a hawk to see so much intelligent discussion. Thanks to everybody for keeping their tempers.