With the fairly recent deci­sion by the FDA to pro­vi­sion­ally allow dis­tri­b­u­tion of the “Plan B” pill and the atten­dant noise from (what are increas­ingly known as) anti-​​choice activists, it’s easy to see why the sub­ject of abor­tion specif­i­cally, and con­cep­tion con­trol in gen­eral, is on my mind. I’m hardly unique, after all.

(As an aside, the “Plan B” type pills were approved with­out fuss in many other nations which had already set­tled their abor­tion issues. The US is lag­ging in this, quite badly.)

The his­tory of Plan B is painful. Initially the pill was to be freely avail­able over the counter to pretty much any­one who asked for it, but FDA approval was stalled. Minimum age require­ments were then put in place, but approval was still stalled. This con­tin­ued for sev­eral cycles until the min­i­mum age was set to 18, at which point the pill passed the FDA review board.

The thing is that there is no clin­i­cal or med­ical rea­son to keep the pills out of the hands of any­one under the age of 18. Thus, there must have been social rea­sons, which aren’t usu­ally the best things upon which to pred­i­cate deci­sions that affect the health and well-​​being of humans.

It comes back, by long and dis­cur­sive means that include boogey­men such as teenagers hav­ing sex (What? Never!) and the desire by at least some men to have con­trol over women, to abortion.

There are plenty on the anti-​​abortion side who claim that Plan B is an abor­tion pill, but it isn’t. The pill just pre­vents an egg from implant­ing on the uter­ine wall. This actu­ally hap­pens quite fre­quently due to nat­ural bio­log­i­cal processes, and even after implan­ta­tion the zygote isn’t guar­an­teed to sur­vive. About half of all “preg­nan­cies” end some­where in the early implan­ta­tion stage, before the woman could ever know she has a fer­til­ized egg in her.

The only dif­fer­ence between spon­ta­neous flush­ings like this and what Plan B pro­vides … is that the woman decides, in the lat­ter case, that she will take an addi­tional pre­cau­tion against preg­nancy. That deci­sion alone is enough for some to call tak­ing the pill an abor­tion, but that is a seman­tic quib­ble, not a factually-​​valid argument.

I can see the prob­lem, I think. Hardliners who are dead set against abor­tion in any con­text, even in the case of rape, incest or the mother’s life being endan­gered by the preg­nancy, seem to hold as their cen­tral argu­ment that life begins at con­cep­tion — but the clear fact is that con­cep­tion is not a sin­gle point that can be fixed in time. It’s actu­ally a process that requires three stages to be com­pleted before it can be argued to have happened:

  1. Sperm is accepted by egg (the egg chooses the sperm that fer­til­izes it; it doesn’t just go to the strongest swim­mer as was once thought).
  2. Egg implants on the uter­ine wall.
  3. Egg remains on the uter­ine wall long enough to actu­ally form some­thing more com­plex than a mass of stem cells (days, at the very least).

But at any of these three stages, if any­thing goes awry, the fer­til­ized egg or zygote is flushed from the woman’s body, ter­mi­nat­ing the preg­nancy before it can even be detected.

So the prob­lem fac­ing the “life begins at con­cep­tion” camp is twofold; first, when exactly is the moment of con­cep­tion? And sec­ond, does this apply to every con­cep­tion? If so, what about the half or so that never make it past stage 3, above?

These ques­tions have to be asked and answered, and it’s a prob­lem because just as soon as you start ask­ing these ques­tions, anti-​​abortion hard­lin­ers seem to get very hos­tile. They don’t seem to want to have to think about it too much, maybe because what they’re pro­claim­ing sounds like non­sense, even to themselves.

I think — though I can’t be sure — that what is meant by “life” in the hard­line anti-​​abortion camp is closer to “ensoul­ment”. That is, the moment the sperm and ovum join, the prod­uct is some­thing pos­sessed of a lit­eral, actual soul, despite the utter untrace­abil­ity of such a thing.

This is close enough to a belief in magic that it makes many peo­ple feel a lit­tle queasy when they really think about it. It’s only slightly less prim­i­tive than believ­ing a man’s sperm is “seed” that is “sown” into the “fer­tile place” of a woman’s body — that is, the woman is a pas­sive recep­ta­cle for the man’s Baby Juice, and all she really acts as is an incu­ba­tor with legs and a con­ve­nient double-​​spigot milk dispenser.

And this still begs the ques­tion of what it means to the idea of ensoul­ment that half of all fer­til­ized eggs are jet­ti­soned by women’s bodies.

The tan­gen­tial ques­tion — the def­i­n­i­tion of a soul — is cru­cial to this dis­cus­sion as well.

I don’t remem­ber the moment of my con­cep­tion. No one can remem­ber the moment he or she was con­ceived.* One of the ear­li­est mem­o­ries I have is of hav­ing my lungs scoped to deter­mine the cause of the reg­u­lar pneu­mo­nia I suf­fered from as a child. I would have been around two to three years old at the time. Before that there is noth­ing to which I can attach any sense of recall, con­ti­nu­ity or narrative.

That is, the con­scious­ness I pos­sess now, which appears to be a con­tin­u­ous process, did not exist for the first two to three dozen months that my infan­tile and tod­dling body existed. The aware­ness I hold now, the thoughts, ideas and opin­ions, the mem­o­ries and future ambi­tions were sim­ply not there. I lacked the expe­ri­ence of being I, and my still-​​forming body lacked the cere­bral com­plex­ity nec­es­sary to assem­ble a mind from the mush. So was I really there? Was I some­where inside that gelid, quiv­er­ing body?

What exactly is I?

Where in my body can I find the cen­ter of I?**

If there is no cen­tral­ized loca­tion of I, what does that mean for the real­ity of the thing that thinks of itself as I?

Saying the I that I think I am existed from con­cep­tion doesn’t make sense from a sim­ple per­cep­tual per­spec­tive. I can’t offer proof of my own con­scious­ness exist­ing prior to a period some time after the infant I used to be was born; if I had actu­ally been in full exis­tence prior to that time, why wouldn’t I be able to remem­ber it?

More impor­tantly, why did I crap my dia­pers instead of using a toi­let, like the civ­i­lized and more or less func­tional adult I am now?

It is obvously fool­ish to assert that my mind has remained fixed over all those years, that it emerged from the moment of con­cep­tion as a solid, fin­ished whole. Well, if a soul is some­how attached to this con­scious­ness, wouldn’t it be appar­ent as some kind of eter­nal, unchang­ing thing, or some­thing that has never mod­i­fied itself from that first moment when two gametes met?

Wouldn’t I be aware of it somehow?

Think about that. I’ve been aware of my left big toe ever since I knew what the idea of a “left big toe” was, and prob­a­bly well before then, though I had no real process of aware­ness, and cer­tainly no lan­guage or ref­er­ence frame with which to label it.

But that left big toe has always been there — and yet it has not. It’s much larger now than it used to be, it is cer­tainly not made of the same cells, chem­i­cals or atoms that it was made of just a year ago, and its skin is much thicker and more likely to be mal­odor­ous at the end of the day than was once the case.

Nevertheless, this constant-​​yet-​​changing part of me is some­thing that’s “always” been there, from the per­spec­tive of my con­scious­ness, which is superb at main­tain­ing an illu­sion of con­ti­nu­ity even when it’s not actu­ally record­ing anything.

Is a soul, some­thing eter­nal and change­less and osten­si­bly present from the moment of con­cep­tion (or a moment some­where in the process of con­cep­tion), really that much harder to find than my left big toe?

Or is it pos­si­ble that, if a soul exists, it devel­ops along with the mind, the con­scious­ness, the awareness?

That would be much more con­ve­nient in terms of abor­tion — if we can say that a soul grows, as a body or a mind grows, then we don’t have to explain the fifty-​​percent suc­cess rate of fer­til­ized eggs. We don’t actu­ally have a moment of ensoul­ment, any more than we have a moment of consciousness.

With con­scious­ness there is no clear line of demar­ca­tion. We can’t fix a point in time in any one person’s devel­op­ment and say, “Before that moment, there was no con­scious­ness; after that moment, there was total and fully-​​functional consciousness.”

Rather what we have is a trend, a grad­ual build-​​up, that requires us instead to say, “Before this year or there­abouts, there was no con­scious­ness; after this year or so, most of the consciousness’s ini­tial foun­da­tion was formed, but it was still a num­ber of years before any­thing like a fully iden­ti­fi­able human aware­ness appeared to have devel­oped.” That’s messy, and it’s hard, espe­cially if one is used to hav­ing unam­bigu­ous answers to one’s questions.

Ensoulment, then, like con­scious­ness, becomes an emer­gent prop­erty of a com­plex bio­log­i­cal process, sub­ject to all the fuzz and uncer­tainty that con­scious devel­op­ment holds. The prob­lem there is that hard­lin­ers want to make unam­bigu­ous some­thing that, by its nature, must be uncer­tain. It’s required not just from their reli­gious per­spec­tive, but from a legal point of view as well.

Laws, in order to be uni­ver­sally applic­a­ble and con­sis­tently enfor­ca­ble, seek to place on life the one thing life can’t have: Fixed, unam­bigu­ous cer­tainty. And since nei­ther con­cep­tion nor ensoul­ment nor con­scious­ness can be said to have hap­pened at a spe­cific sin­gle point in time, attach­ing laws to when abor­tion is per­mis­si­ble and when it is not becomes much, much harder.

Of course, this “devel­op­ment of soul” out­look will be resisted by the mag­i­cal thinkers, who aren’t com­fort­able with ana­lyz­ing their “life begins at con­cep­tion” claims too closely — but it will also be rejected by insight­ful faith-​​holders, who under­stand that by sug­gest­ing a soul is an emer­gent process like con­scious­ness, it’s an easy step to sug­gest the soul itself just doesn’t exist. It’s an unnec­es­sary com­pli­ca­tion; human life and aware­ness doesn’t need a soul to be understood.

Now for many a soul is a nice idea, a com­fort­ing thought; how­ever, it is not nec­es­sary. There is no aspect of human behav­ior that requires the pres­ence of a soul to be under­stood; there is no part of human life that is com­pre­hen­si­ble with the idea of a soul but incom­pre­hen­si­ble if the idea of a soul is taken away.

I’m not try­ing to con­vert any­one to athe­ism, so I’ll leave this part of the dis­cus­sion and move on to life — which is ever so much eas­ier to define.

Life’s tricky. I see it as a kind of stand­ing wave in oth­er­wise unre­mark­able mat­ter. After all, liv­ing things absorb chem­i­cals, keep those chem­i­cals for a while, and then pass those chem­i­cals along; there’s no clear bound­ary with the body of a liv­ing organ­ism, any more than there is no clear point at which it can be said con­scious­ness has come into being.

Even label­ing the process of life itself is tricky. We can say for cer­tain when a cow is alive, or at least we think we can (chew­ing cud on the prairie); and we can say when it is dead (slabs of cellophane-​​wrapped steak in the meat sec­tion); but there’s a remark­ably large neb­u­lous zone when we can’t be totally sure about our­selves, when we have to become arbi­trary about our def­i­n­i­tion of alive ver­sus dead.

Maybe it would be eas­ier to use a grad­u­ated scale. When the cow is more like a cow, it’s alive; when it’s more like the wrapped meat, it’s dead. When it’s some­where in between, it’s some­where in between … but it’s likely to be more like one thing than the other at any given point when we look at it.

Of course, this can be related back to the abor­tion dis­cus­sion. There is def­i­nitely a time when a fetus is more like a new­born infant than not, in terms of devel­op­ment and abil­ity to sur­vive with­out its umbili­cus and mother’s body; and there is a time when the fetus is much less like a new­born infant. Most peo­ple would prob­a­bly be com­fort­able agree­ing that abor­tion is more accept­able in the lat­ter time, and pro­gres­sively less accept­able the closer the fetus comes to being like a new­born infant. But again we have the prob­lem of fix­ing an arbi­trary point when we say “This fetus may no longer be aborted.”

Unless we do one of two things: Make all abor­tion ille­gal, or make all abor­tion legal.

Neither alter­na­tive is palat­able to a sur­prius­ingly large num­ber of peo­ple, but from a stand­point of human health and dig­nity alone, I think it’s wiser to slip to the side of total legal­iza­tion than a total ban. If we’re caught hav­ing to decide one or the other, with no mid­dle ground or com­pro­mise, I think the major­ity would agree — how­ever grudg­ingly — with that assessment.

Which brings us back to Plan B, as well as abor­tion, as well as other means of con­tra­cep­tion. It’s irra­tional in the extreme to impose egre­gious lim­i­ta­tions on indi­vid­u­als based on unprov­able asser­tions, or worse, on arbi­trary deci­sions made that attempt to fix in time some­thing that sim­ply can­not be estab­lished (the moment that “life” “begins”, since nei­ther term has any concretely-​​derivable definition).

Part of being a civ­i­lized soci­ety includes pro­tect­ing inno­cents — but I have to decide that a func­tion­ing, preg­nant human being is more “alive” than the fetus she has and does not want or can­not bear; in my view, this means the mother’s needs must always mat­ter more than the desires of those who do not want her to end her pregnancy.

That aside, we will never be able to reach a completely-​​satisfying con­clu­sion, because in order to do so we’d have to be able to say, with absolute cer­tainty, when life begins, when it ends, what it means to be alive, what the nature of con­scious­ness is … and what it actu­ally means to be human.

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* There are some who have claimed they could recall the event, but there is absolutely no reli­able evi­dence to sup­port such a claim.

** The brain? Which cells? Which clus­ter? What parts can I lose before I’m no longer I? What if I lose a lot of those parts but am still func­tional, and unaware of the parts I have lost? Am I still I? The brain — pfft.

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