Saturday, September 19, 2009

Abortion Is a Political Hot Button Only Because Humans Are Mammals

I don't identify myself as either pro-life or pro-choice, and I don't lose much sleep thinking about abortion. But debates and discussions about abortion fascinate me. The question of when and whether abortion is morally acceptable is a unique ethical dilemma. It is a dilemma that arises when one distinct human organism lives entirely within another distinct human organism and depends entirely on its host for sustenance and protection. It is a dilemma that must acknowledge that a new human life begins at conception but that, in most human cultures, personhood begins at birth. (We celebrate birthdays, not conception-days; we issue birth certificates, not conception certificates; etc.) It is a dilemma unlike any other; and it is a dilemma that exists because human beings are mammals.

Were humans birds or reptiles or amphibians, debates about the morality of destroying a fertilized egg would be much different than what they are now. The rights of the unborn human being would not conflict with the rights of its mother—a human person—if the unborn human were living in an eggshell outside the mother's body. I'm sure someone (Peter Singer, perhaps) would construct a compelling argument in favor of destroying the occasional fertilized human egg, but I would assume that most cultures would outlaw or frown on such a practice. (That's probably a dangerous assumption to make considering how we treat baby chickens who actually have hatched from their eggs.) While we likely would have intense discussions about how best to care for orphaned eggs, we would be spared vicious fights about abortion.

Alas, humans are neither birds nor reptiles, so I guess our political discourse will forever be poisoned by a painful ethical debate for which there is no antidote.


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