Two or Three (.net)

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. - Jesus


Citizens for Reasonable Abortion Limits (CRAL)

by danielg [+/-] show/hide

For about a year now, I have been troubled by the argument that embryonic stem cell research has been deemed morally unacceptable by my fellow conservatives. It stems (pun intended) from their logic in the abortion debate. Their logic goes like this (I hope I am not building a straw man here):

  • A young child has human rights
  • The child’s right to life begins before birth. A day before birth is not different from the day after
  • Therefore, their personhood must be defined by some factor before birth
  • We believe that as soon as the zygote is formed, a distinct genetic invidual exists, and must be protected from that point on
  • Therefore, embryonic stem cell research is human experimentation, which is, a priori, wrong
When I did leukemia research, I took human cancer cells (skin cells), and cultured them week after week. They had a complete, unique set of DNA. Why weren’t they considered inviduals with rights? Conservatives counter that they were not trying to develop into embryos. I counter that they certainly could if we knew how to turn on and off the various genes needed – all of the genes necessary are there.

Anyway, that argument could go on ad nasuem, but I'm actually not here to make arguments. My problems with the above logic led me to explore other methods of defining when a fetus’ rights begin.

Also, I am very tired of the very polarized, entrenched viewpoints on both sides, where no one is really listening to one another. They both refuse to budge, both relying on "slippery slope" logic, saying that one step towards the other camp could lead to an inexorable slide all the way to that side. The fact is, despite both sides' work with pregnant women, the conservatives come across as not caring about a woman's plight, sticking to their religious guns, and the liberals come across not caring at all for the unborn baby, sticking to their hyperbolic stands on womens' rights.

Having thought about this some, I thought to create an organization sure to drive both poles of this debate mad. I call it Citizens for Reasonable Abortion Limits.

Here are what I think would be the starting Statement of Beliefs. There are some huge holes here, but I want to open it up to discussion – what is missing? What is poorly said? What seems illogical?

I purposely am NOT going to play out every argument, which could take pages, but rather, want to make statements of belief without indepth apologies at this time.
We believe that:

1. In Any Pregnancy, Both Of The Parents And The Developing Child Have Limited Rights
No one has unlimited rights. An individual’s rights are limited at the point where he is infringing on another’s rights. For example, the right to free speech is limited at slander – one can not knowingly lie about someone else in the media. Similarly, a woman’s right to her body is limited when her developing child has rights that could be taken away.

a. Woman’s Pregnancy Rights
A woman has the right to practice birth control in any legal manner she chooses, including abortive methods up to the Point of Personhood of the child. However, abortive actions are limited by the father’s rights.

b. Father’s Pregnancy Rights
The father of a child has the right to contribute to the decision-making about the welfare of a child. A father can not force a woman to terminate a pregnancy, and a mother should not be able to terminate a pregnancy without permission from the father, unless the father has abdicated his rights [these conditions to be developed].

This permission or abdication does not have to be legally documented, but may be documented through the notarized signature of a Release of Pregnancy Rights form, or if a court has determined that a father has otherwise abdicated through criminal activity or abandonment.

c. Unborn Child’s Rights
After the point of personhood, the child has the right to life and protection of that life under the law.

2. The Developing Fetus Has Human Rights After a Defined Point in a Pregnancy – The Point of Personhood
There are many possible ways to determine when a fetus becomes a person with rights. Many have argued forcefully for defining the starting point based upon genetic uniqueness (fertilization), by discovery time (giving the woman ample to time to discover her pregnancy), by viability (can the fetus survive out of the womb), by actual birth, and by other ethical and moral teachings and standards.

We believe those arguments to be insufficient, and believe that the beginning of human life ought to be defined by the same measure we use for the end of life. However, even this is controversial.

Science has given us at least five early developmental milestones that could be considered as the starting point for life and personhood. They are (reference):

  • Heartbeat
    Today's technology can detect a baby's heartbeat eighteen days after conception. That is only four days after most women miss a period and begin to suspect they are pregnant.
  • Brain waves
    Six weeks
    after conception signals from the fetal brain can be detected. Dream patterns have been discovered around the eighth or ninth week
  • Independent movement
    At about the sixth week, the baby in the womb can move spontaneously: Kicking, swimming, jumping and stretching.
  • Sensory Response
    A baby in the womb is capable of responding to touch and sound by about the eighth or tenth week. A child at that age will move away from painful stimuli.
  • Breathing
    By about the fourteenth week, a baby's lungs are functioning and he or she will practice breathing. Vocal cords are formed by the thirteenth week.
We believe that good persons can disagree on which or how many of these five need to be present before we believe the unborn child has rights. We propose that the ability to respond to pain at 8 weeks sets the latest limit of the abortion timeline, and we should discuss moving it back to 6 weeks, which is when independent movement begins. This 8 week upper limit is a compromise, and not an absolute.

3. Terminating a Pregnancy Based On Physical Attributes such as Gender, Race, Sexual Orientation, or Treatable Medical Conditions is Not Acceptable
Pregnancy termination based on basic physical characteristics amounts to killing for convenience (at best), and at worst, genocidal murder.

Regarding treatable medical conditions, the threat of a child’s potential suffering, physical or emotional, does not justify terminating its life via abortion.

We also understand that science is still debating the physical origin of sexual orientation. However, if a proposed physical or statistical measurement of the possibility of same sex orientation is used for fetal testing, the results of such a test could not be used as justification for terminating a pregnancy.

4. Terminating a Pregnancy for Severe, Untreatable Fetal Conditions Must Be Preserved as a Parental Right, but Not Required by Law
Some conditions are not treatable by today’s standards. Untreatable medical conditions that cause intense suffering AND death within the first two years of life (arbitrary?) may be candidates for abortions throughout the term of a pregnancy. However, terminations should not be mandated by law in such cases.

5. Terminating a Pregnancy Based on the Means of Pregnancy (Rape, Incest, Artificial Insemination, Natural Insemination) is Not Acceptable
Beyond the point of personhood, an unborn child has the right to life, and the method of its creation does not diminish these rights.

It is understood that a woman who has an unwanted pregnancy due to rape or incest is under extreme duress, but we propose that abortion will not in any large measure cure her anguish, and may actually create new emotional suffering of its own.

We believe that the best way out of a woman’s emotional duress is for her to make ethical and moral decisions in her pregnancy-related decisions. These include:

  • allowing the child to live
  • working through her anger and hurt to a point of healing and forgiveness of the perpetrators (if any)
  • the pursuit of justice against the perpetrators in a court of law
  • providing or helping the child find a good home where it is wanted and loved.
We also expect that other means of support, both private and public, will be brought to bear to help such women with pre- and post-natal care, adoption services, counseling and other services.

6. Terminating a Pregnancy to Protect the Life of a Mother Must be Preserved
There are some medical conditions where the abortive methods must be used to preserve the life of the mother.

However, mental anguish over a pregnancy, and any resulting physical problems from the mental anguish, are not justification for abortion.

7. Abortion as A Medical Procedure Should be Protected and Taught In Medical Schools, but Should Not Be Mandatory
Due to the remaining cases of early term abortions and rare but necessary late term pregnancy problems, many of the current abortive techniques should be taught in medical schools, at the discretion of the faculty. However, practice of these methods should not be a requirement for graduation or certification in any medical specialty.


  • I realize what you are trying to do and it may well be a worthy and noble thing, but I still have a hard time with a lot of it.

    There needs to be concessions and back-and-forth on political debates, but I just can not place the life of a child in those terms. I don't think I can go through concessions.

    God knows us before he formed us in the womb and He alone has the right to end an innocent life.

    By Blogger Aaron, at 3/11/2005 6:58 AM  

  • I agree with you totally - children are a sacred trust and must be protected. I discussed this whole thing with my brother who is an elder in his own church in Vermont, and he began talking about the "five areas of blessing" (sounds like a teaching from the faith camp). He said that one of God's blessings is on conception.

    I asked him, how does that apply here? He said he believes that conception is something sacred that we should not mess with. Further discussion proved that basically, he feels it immoral to practice artificial (chemical) birth control, but has little problem with physical birth control (condoms, rhythm). He also feels that artificial insemination is immoral, esp. if you leave fertilized eggs in the freezer.

    I want to ask these hard questions and kick the sacred cows here. I haven't gone liberal or anything. It's just that Christians seem overwhelmingly convinced that a zygote is a person with rights, and I want to challenge that perspective. Perhaps they are right, but they have not made a convincing case.

    And I believe that a more convincing case can be made for forbidding abortions sometime early in the first trimester. But no one wants to give an inch. Maybe we are right to say that the zygote is protected, but I want the dialogue to happen.

    It just seems funny to me that we are willing to grow organs and other types of human cells in a dish, but undifferentiated embryonic cells are somehow different. I guess that begs the next question - how differentiated must they be to be considered a person?

    I understand the "no concessions" argument, but then I have to ask. In the long run, will more children be killed by our refusal to take a compromise position like this than are killed if we allow abortion up to 6 or 8 weeks? Is it a matter of just numbers, or principle?

    I also think that the no concessions stance has a logical outcome of being against all birth control. Even that may be biblical - I mean, we're trying to sow without reaping.

    This whole thing may go nowhere, and I don't want to make a mistake, but I do want to think out loud and discuss this.

    By Blogger papa, at 3/11/2005 9:59 AM  

  • I philosophically agree with basically every point you make (though I'd probably argue particulars on point 4), but there's one other argument you need to consider that really transforms the entire debate over point 2:

    What if we're wrong?

    What I mean by that is... what if we assume personhood starts in week X, but it really starts in week Y? Well, if we've assumed it's very early and it's really later, all we've done is made it so that women who are slow to decide to abort lose out on that ability. We've basically rushed the decision. But if we assume it's late, and it turns out to be earlier, well, then we've allowed several people to be killed.

    I think we can all agree that killing someone is far worse than limiting someone's ability to terminate a pregnancy. Because of this, when choosing the date at which to define personhood, we absolutely must not (philosophically) concede ground beyond the earliest reasonable point (we can, of course, legally concede ground in order to create a situation that's closer to the ideal.) If it's at all reasonable to say personhood begins in week 6, we simply cannot negotiate that out to week 7 or 8 or 9.

    Ideally, we'd just know -- personhood begins in week X. But because we *don't* know, we have to go with the earliest reasonable date, because the consequences of being too late so vastly outweigh the consequences of being too early.

    By Blogger LotharBot, at 3/12/2005 12:01 PM  

  • You make a good point about the consequences of being wrong. We do not want to kill people by calling them non-persons. But I can tell you now that no one in this life will ever be able to prove when personhood begins, by science or philosophy and reason.

    My related question is, how many children are killed each year because we are not willing to compromise? Do we need to stick to our guns until we win the abortion legislation we want, which is no abortions ever? Is that practical?

    I hate to be practical on points of principle, but I guess I am reacting to the all or nothing stance of evangelicals, whose logic seems to not only outlaw abortion, but in-vitro fertilization, some or all types of birth control, and research on cells that aren't that differentiated.

    If a zygote is a person because it has a unique genome, tell me why I can experiment on any kind of human cells, like skin cells?

    My point is that, until the cells reach a certain level of differentiation, is it a person? And what is that point? Admittedly, it should be early on - but is it one week or 8? And by what measure?

    Also, I am thinking of my proposal as an interim proposal. I proposed 8 weeks as the absolute outer limit, but I certainly think that it should be pushed back as our science and ethic reveal the humanity of the fetus at earlier stages.

    But maybe we should not mess with procreation at all. Which of these are objectionable and why?

    - mehanical/physical birth control
    - chemical birth control that prevents fertilization
    - invitro fertilization
    - destroying zygotes (unimplanted)
    - birth control that prevents implantation of zygotes
    - "abortifacients" - chemcial pills that force a woman's uterus to eject its lining with implanted zygotes

    After that, we have to start looking at developmental milestones
    - 2, 4, 8 cell stage
    - morula stage
    - early and late blatocyst (first appearance of proto-endo, meso- and ectoderm)
    - formation of the neural tube

    The question then is, when does this mass of cells become a person? And if you argue that it already is a person, how do you counter the argument that any human cell has the exact same DNA and could, under the right conditions (i.e. the surrounding chemicals in the ovum and in the zygotes environment), become a person?

    That's what I am thinking about.

    By Blogger papa, at 3/12/2005 8:24 PM  

  • "I hate to be practical on points of principle"

    That's why I made the point to differentiate between the philosophical and the legal. I could agree to a legal compromise if it meant saving more babies, but I'm not going to agree to a philosophical compromise that says "well, 8 weeks is OK even though it should probably be 6."

    "I guess I am reacting to the all or nothing stance of evangelicals, whose logic seems to not only outlaw abortion, but in-vitro fertilization, some or all types of birth control, and research on cells that aren't that differentiated."

    My dad, who is (or at least was for a long time) a state president of Right to Life, recently wrote about the desire of some in the pro-life movement to shift from the current position (opposing killing) to a weaker position (controlling sexuality).

    There might be good arguments for other positions -- opposing other forms of violence, or opposing other abuses of sexuality, or supporting other religious causes -- but if you're going to argue for a pro-life framework, stick to being pro-life and anti-killing.

    This seems to be similar to the place you're coming from. Let's focus the argument on the core issue of killing people and try to define policy and philosophy from there, instead of getting caught up in arguments about sexuality.

    "until the cells reach a certain level of differentiation, is it a person? And what is that point?"

    I would say it's definitely before 8 weeks, but we don't know exactly when. The safest thing (as I described before) is to err toward an earlier date.

    "maybe we should not mess with procreation at all."

    By even framing the issue as one of procreation, rather than one of personhood and killing, you've stepped away from the core of the pro-life position. It's not a question of procreation; it's a question of when something becomes a person and if you can kill it after that point.

    "if you argue that it already is a person [when it's a single cell], how do you counter the argument that any human cell has the exact same DNA and could, under the right conditions... , become a person?"

    I don't bother with the question. It's not relevant, because I can't state for sure when it becomes a person. Why counter an argument that assumes a claim I don't make?

    My only claim is that we know an upper limit on when it becomes a person, and because of how bad it would be to set the date too late, we should pick the lowest possibly-reasonable lower limit.

    Is "any human cell" a reasonable lower limit? No -- I don't think anybody can even pretend to attribute personhood to skin cells; they're pieces of a separate person who probably doesn't miss them. Is "unfertilized egg" a reasonable lower limit? No -- it doesn't have the full set of human DNA yet. Is "fertilized egg" a reasonable lower limit? Maybe. It has a full set of human DNA, and it's not just a part of some other human. I can't say for sure it's a person, but I can't say for sure it isn't, either. Given that, I'd think any form of *birth control* that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting, growing, and eventually being born (as opposed to something like a condom, which should be called *conception control*, since it stops the egg from being fertilized) -- anything like that is questionable, and therefore, should be avoided due to the severity of the error if we turn out to be wrong.

    By Blogger LotharBot, at 3/12/2005 10:33 PM  

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