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:
- 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).
- Egg implants on the uterine wall.
- 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.
* 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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