Vegetable Soul


New at Reason: Here's something that's obvious to anybody who's ever had a kid. To claim that that five-week-old cell cluster or 15-week-old mutant tadpole looks (or feels) anything like a human being is to stretch the limits of credibility. There is, by the way, a pretty rich history of theological debate about when "ensoulment" takes place—and that was before they even knew how freaky a developing fetus looks. Both sides of the abortion debate hope visibility and portability of the fetus will settle the argument in their favor, and the smart money says both sides will be disappointed. Ron Bailey discusses an open secret in the abortion debate

NEXT: Fiery End

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  1. Bailey doesn’t say that a five-week-old cell cluster doesn’t look or feel like a human being, he suggests it doesn’t look or feel like a person. Of course, the five-week-old cell cluster in question is a human being; the question is whether that is sufficient to have rights.

    As for Bailey’s argument that pluralism demands that we not draw lines, I wonder how far he’d take that. I mean, in 1860 many refused to grant the humanity (or was it personhood?) of African-American slaves. Though science told that they were human beings, that wasn’t enough to create an “ought.” But eventually society did impose an “ought” that, despite the pluralism of views, is respected.

  2. Thomas,

    Actually, the science of the times was divided over the nature of the “races.” I’m not going to get into monogenicists, and all that, but to put it bluntly, many scientists at the time saw blacks as inferior versions of whites – which would of course make them inferior persons and thus not as deserving of political, etc. rights.

    Stephen Jay Gould has nice survey of scientific thought at the time regarding this issue in “The Mismeasure of Man.”

  3. Err, actually, it isn’t precisely a “human being” – it could just not substantively different than a collection of skin cells that are simply differently aligned. “Being” implies something greater than simply being capable of judged distinct, otherwise the human body is made up of countless “beings”.

    Which is part of the problem in the whole debate; embryos are human cells, but that does not imply personhood or being-ness.

    Personally, I take something to have the right not to be unneccessarily harmed or killed as soon as it can feel pain; but then, being a primarily Buddhist philosophy in origin, I’m not in the mainstream. I’m never in the mainstream, unless by accident 🙂

    Of course, this doesn’t neccessarily inform one as to whether or not the right to self-protection (expulsion of parasites – people tend to moralize the word “parasite”, but a parasite is simply something which takes away from an organism without giving back, which I believe is precisely what a fetus is) and the about as close to inaliable right of ownership of one’s own body as any right can possibly be trumps any rights a human in a parasitic position in utero might have, or how they can be resolved.

    One possible thing to happen in the future is, after a certain time period of gestation, actual “abortions” are not legal – only “removals” to technological wombs, where one terminates all parental rights if one pleases.

    I’m mainly happy with just permitting early-term abortions, and care far less about the legality of latter-term ones, but am quite against legal abortions of very-late term babies – at that point the difference in being “inside” and a person and “outside” and not is pretty absurdly arbitrary, but simple medical removal (and treatment) does not offend me, regardless of the welfare effect upon the baby.

  4. I watched the PBS Frontline documentary Abortion Clinic online the other day, and have to say that actually seeing the abortion occur, as well as the aborted fetus being scraped on a table in the footage has definitely affected me. If you are on broadband and have a sound mind, give it a watch.

  5. Then don’t have an abortion, Brady, if you don’t want one.

  6. I’m looking forward to the day we can grow humans who lack upper brain functions in artificial wombs, in order to harvest the organs. Heck, maybe we can even figure out some way to use them for energy, or food.

    Can anybody give me one reason that isn’t based in morals or tradition, as to why we shouldn’t?

  7. Blah blah blah – fishcakes
    THE key point on the abortion debate is that the Supreme Court fucked it up for the whole country. This is (one might think, quite clearly) an issue on which the constitution delegates power to the states. This was something that didn’t need fixing. Prior to RvW each state had it’s own policy and the nation struggled with the issue on a more local level. Things were moving in a pro-choice direction but in fits and starts and with plenty of (reasonable?) caveats.

    The finding of a non-existent “right to privacy” is one of the more blatant abuses of power by the SCUS. I mean how does privacy even enter into it? Can I have my kid aborted retroactively? You know as long as I shoot the little bastard in the “privacy” of my own home. Actually I don’t have a problem with that, I say any parent should have the right to plug their own kid until he moves out of the house, or at least gets a job and starts making a contribution. But while that’s entirely consistent with the ruling in RvW I’m sure the arrogant robed bastards would deny having manufactured any such “right”.

    Life, choice, souls, personhood, it’s all just so much navel-gazing. What really matters is not what the law is, but who gets to make it. In this case we all suffer because the law was written by a branch specifically prohibited from doing so.

  8. Uh, lefty, i didn’t say i thought it should be illegal did i? affecting me simply meant it put a lot of realism into what is usually a philosophical debate. i didn’t even say HOW it affected me, you just assumed.

    i don’t have to be PRO-abortion to think it should be legal do i? by the same theory i am for drug legalization, but don’t look highly upon shooting smack. they are called “opinions”.

    my post was only to educate not to tell anyone what to do.

  9. The only one sure thing within the abortion debate is that the issue of when life begins is not settled.

    Seeing as the subject is the life or death, you’d think we’d err on the side of caution to not off an innocent human being.

    Just in case you know.

    For the pro-abortion crowd who have no doubts; what is the difference between a partial birth abortion and someone putting their baby in a dumpster because they can’t afford to give it a good life anyway?

  10. Steven Fetchit:

    Your questions have reminded me of two Larry Niven stories:
    “A Gift From Earth” and a short story from “Tales from the Draco”!

    A Gift From Earth: organ cloning technology causes revolution in a caste-stratified earth colony; where the crew caste had used draconian laws to turn the passenger caste into organ donors.

    The short story: am anecdote with a twist ending about a human first-contact expedition who met up with a civilized, technologically advanced, carnivorous alien species. Very free market. Definitely squirm factor. “They’ll get Campbells. And like it.”

  11. I read a while ago that something like 1/3rd of all fused sperm/egg cells don’t implant in the wall of the woman’s uterus. They are instead “lost” the next morning in the toilet or shower.

    This has lead to the somewhat crass phrase, “God is the biggest abortionist of them all.”

    Religionist just bump their definition up a notch to “life begins at conception — and with a successful implant in the wall of the uterus.”

    I love the abortion issue – it’s SOOO simple yet incredibly deceive. It’s got everything too! Religion, sex, legal battles, protests and civil rights… it’s jam-packed!

    When I meet an anti-abortionist I often rope them into this hypothetical situation:

    What if you’re 17 year old, straight A, daughter (basically a good kid) comes home one night and in between sobs admits that she was fooling around with her boyfriend (earlier in the evening) and one thing led to another.. and well she had unprotected sex (it was both their first time – and since abstinence only education had been at work neither knew anything about prophylactics.)

    Do you as her parent choose: A) Your daughter has to accept “personal responsibility” for her decision… you call off college and start buying baby clothes.


    B) The next morning you take your daughter to your trusted family physician who administers a “morning after” dose of birth control – purging her of any potential fused sperm/egg cells and preventing pregnancy. Remember – only a few hours have transpired.

    Most people squirm at the prospect – the hard core ones choose A. Personally I can’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t choose B.

    Wanna spice it up? The boyfriend is a swarthy day laborer of questionable citizenship.

    Further, another thing I’ve noticed for a while is that it’s not rural, white Christians who are having the abortions — it’s the urban minorities. So in many ways you have one group stepping in and trying to exercise legal control over another, separate group.

    See? It’s an awesome topic.

  12. Will–Thanks for putting the lie to the old canard about a woman’s choice. In your example, it is clearly a parent’s choice.

  13. Ray: you’d use that same tortured logic to argue against RU486 wouldn’t you? Come to think of it, some people buy machine guns and use them to massacre their families, we better ban all guns too. Good point Ray.

  14. To all those saying it’s a local decision (state or otherwise) I hope you are arguing the same position on gun control.

  15. All I know is, at 6 weeks into my wife’s pregnancy I referred to my future daughter as a “blob” because, at that stage, that is what they look like. Around Kindergarten my penance was done. Hail baby.

  16. “what is the difference between a partial birth abortion and someone putting their baby in a dumpster…”

    You would actually have to make a medically informed decision, for one, Ray. If you believe anyone would do a late term abortion for fun, you are deluded.

  17. Pick your poison:

    If control of one’s body without the interference of the state is paramount, then abortion is fine, until such time as the parasitic nature of the relationship is over. At that point, removal becomes preferrable to destruction. If, however, existence is paramount, then abortion is not fine, and whatever other options are explored, the fetus must be protected from harm.

  18. Personally, I’m kind of fond of tadpoles. Used to be one myself.

  19. The difference between “the right to provacy” and the 2nd amendment is simple. One is in the constitution and one was invented by justices looking to make law.

    I like the effects of the right to privacy, but it is a bogus right nonetheless.

  20. EMAIL:

    DATE: 12/10/2003 07:41:25
    Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.

  21. EMAIL:
    DATE: 12/20/2003 10:53:11
    Underestimation is a two-way street.

  22. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/09/2004 07:30:53
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  23. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/19/2004 05:06:09
    Communism has nothing to do with love. Communism is an excellent hammer which we use to destroy our enemy.

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