To be or not to be?
November 8, 2011 72 Comments
Today, the citizens of Mississippi are voting to decide whether a fertilized egg should legally be considered a person. The polls are apparently pretty evenly balanced.
I’ve heard all sorts of discussion on this topic, and on the rare occasions it manages to rise above the level of shouting and name calling, it seems to come to rest instead on the usual cop-out argument of any US political debate: the question of whether such a law is “constitutional” or not.
Huh? I’m sorry? What about the question of whether it makes any fucking sense or not?
I don’t think I’ve heard a single person discuss the biology of the issue. Not one. It’s like it doesn’t matter. I suppose I can understand that (in the sort of way that one might “understand” why a drunk falls into puddles) from the perspective of the Religious Right, for whom the question is presumably theological, not biological. I suppose they have some vague and unsubstantiated feeling that conception is the moment at which God inserts a soul into the cell, and hence from that moment on it’s as much a person as you and I.
But come on! Fertilization is just the moment at which a haploid sperm injects another 23 molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid into an egg cell, returning its complement to the normal 46 molecules so that it can resume dividing. The mechanism for this is really amazing, but it’s not magic. No souls are involved, just chemistry. Where is the “person” in 23 strands of polymer? Or indeed 46?
The sperm cells have half the normal DNA, but they developed from cells that had a full complement, just as a fertilized egg does. So does that mean the billions of spermatogonia in my testes are people too? Those born with Down Syndrome have an extra chromosome 21, does this make them superhuman? Or is it the truth of the matter that this is all just based on some ignorant, ancient belief that men “bestow life” on an egg, which women simply carry in their bellies while it grows up?
It’s not even reasonable to say that fertilization is the “moment at which a cell becomes committed to growing into a human.” Every point before that is equally precipitate: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? You can’t fertilize an egg until you have one, and the switch inside a stem cell that commits it to produce an egg cell rather than any other kind of cell is just as defining a moment. The vast majority of unfertilized egg cells never go on to produce babies, but then neither do the majority of fertilized ones. There’s really no defining point of being; it’s all just a gradual process of becoming.
Clearly an unfertilized egg is not a person, which is quite a relief, given that every woman of child-bearing age would thus be guilty of murder once a month. A sperm had better not be a person either, or I’m guilty of wiping out more people per day than all the wars in history put together. At the same time, an eighteen year-old clearly IS a person. Killing teenagers often seems pretty desirable but despite the temptation I imagine most of us would consider it wrong. So we have a process, at one end of which something is not a person while at the other end it is. If letting a sperm cell die is not murder but bumping off a teenager is, then how do we decide when and under what conditions we handle the legal, ethical and moral transition from the one state to the other?
This is an incredibly difficult question and we REALLY ought to be having a proper grown-up, thoughtful debate about it. But instead we’re treated to simplistic, hysterical dogma from both sides. It won’t be long before we know how to grow one of my cheek cells into another human being. Does that make my body a hundred trillion people? We already know that identical twins are two people borne from a single egg cell, so when is a fertilized egg cell one person and when is it two? How is Mississippi law proposing to untangle that one?
Only the ignorant would think that the moment of fertilization is the “point” at which a cell becomes a person, or even a sensible place to draw an otherwise arbitrary line. The quality of debate is shocking. Meanwhile, every day, EITHER people really are getting murdered in their thousands because women are having abortions at some specified stage of pregnancy OR women (not to mention their partners and perhaps the children themselves) are having their lives needlessly ruined by being prevented from having one. The problem isn’t going away and it isn’t going to get any simpler. We urgently need to find the right answers, but are we even asking the right questions?
What does it MEAN to murder someone? What does it mean to have the right to live? Did the skin cells I rubbed off my foot this morning when I put my socks on deserve a right to live? Perhaps “life” is the wrong question. Perhaps a group of living cells’ collective rights depend on whether they KNOW they’re alive? Perhaps they collectively have to be able to suffer, to have plans and hopes that get thwarted, before killing them becomes wrong. But what does it mean to know? What does it mean to suffer? What is consciousness? What is it like to be an embryo? A baby? A three year-old? An octogenarian with Alzheimers? What is it that murder takes away and from whom or what can it be taken? Is “killing” a three month-old embryo worse than killing a three year-old cow in order to make hamburgers? How do we know?
We really should have answers for this stuff by now. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, for heaven’s sake. But not only do we not know the answers, we barely even understand or take the trouble to think clearly about the questions. Meanwhile, people are walking into voting booths in Mississippi today (and doubtless in many other states in the near future, regardless of what happens in MS today), to make a judgement call that will or will not outlaw all forms of abortion, the morning after pill and many forms of contraception. On the basis of what? Religious dogma that can’t even call on scripture for meaningful comment? Gut feeling? Personal bias? Sympathy for babies? Sympathy for women? Misogyny? Guesswork?
Seriously, ON THE BASIS OF WHAT?