Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lines in the Sand

An extremist paper by two Australian ethicists has been garnering a lot of media attention lately. In the paper, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva declare that neither the fetus nor the newborn “have the same moral status as actual persons.” Pro-Choice activists have been using the argument for some time now that fetuses—though most grudgingly admit they are human—are not persons. This distinction, they feel, is important because, although the biological facts indicating that a unique human life begins at conception are insurmountable, an argument can be made that human rights only come with personhood.

This, my friends, is bullshit.

I need not enter into a debate about the science of “when life begins” because, as most geneticists or biologists will tell you, there is nothing added after conception that makes a rabbit more of a rabbit, a whale more of a whale, or a human more of a human. Science and logic tell us that the offspring of any species is, from its very first moments, a member of that species. That is, rabbits have rabbits, and at no point in a rabbit’s life is it anything less than a rabbit. In the same way, humans have humans, and at no point in a human’s life is it anything less than a human.

This debate is about personhood.

At what point does a human become a person worthy of rights?—most importantly, the right to life?

This question can be answered a thousand different ways by a thousand different people. “When it has a fully-functional central nervous system,” “When it takes its first breath,” and (as Minerva’s and Giubilini’s paper puts it) when it “is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” So, how is the last one different from the first two? (Besides being longer winded?) Well, basically, it’s not. It just draws another arbitrary line in the sand. Which one is right? None of them.

They’re all crap.

And here’s (one of the many reasons) why: They accept the premise of the question.

The question assumes that there are humans who are not persons.

At the very core of the question is a victory for those who wish to decide who deserves rights and who does not. At the very core of the question is a philosophical acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, slavery, racism, murder, or any other sin against human dignity. Once you accept that some humans can not be persons, you have lost. Once you accept the possibility that some humans have rights and others do not, you have given the decision over to whoever wants to make it.

When we’re drawing lines in the sand, all that matters is who is holding the stick.

America once accepted that Africans were not persons, and so enslaved them. Germany once accepted that Jews were not persons, and so gassed them. America now accepts that the unborn are not persons, and so murders them. Who among these can really say that Minerva and Giubilini are wrong? They have accepted their own lines in the sand, who are they to judge someone else’s?

Our very understanding of the issue must be restored. The sand must be smoothed, and we must realize that if some humans can not be persons, any human can not be a person. Even you. Even me. We must realize that either all humans are equal in dignity and rights, or all humans are worthless, and might makes right.

A “person,” as defined by Merriam-Webster is a “human” or “individual.” No ifs, ands or buts—no caveats or exceptions. A person is a human, and a human is a person.

When we accept that human rights apply to all humans, and not just those we choose—when we accept that the discussion is about human rights, and not about personhood—then we can begin to have a discussion of ideas. Before that—as long as the opposition insists that there are some humans who do not deserve rights—no discussion can be had, because no amount of logic can prevail. No line in the sand makes any more sense than any other.

I hope our lives mean more than this. I hope we’re worth more than arbitrary lines in the sand.