Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Beginning of Life and The "Potential Argument"

We're gonna talk about abortion for a minute. Yep. But not in the usual way; I'm not going to debate the pros and cons thereof, or make my case for or against it. Rather, I just want to address one small facet of a particular argument --- actually, two small facets of two different arguments that are basically two sides of the same coin.

Confused yet? Well, I'm referring to the "Potential Argument." It goes something like this:

"Life begins at conception. Once an egg is fertilized by a sperm and becomes a zygote, if it's left alone, it will eventually become a person with thoughts and feelings. Therefore, a zygote is equivalent to a person."

This argument seems to have a logical ring to it on the surface, but for some reason I've always been reluctant to accept it --- it's as if my brain senses some illogical, irrational quality beneath the surface of that soundbyte exterior. I could never really put my finger on why, until my girlfriend and I were talking the other day (about what, I don't recall) and, in the process of trying to make some point to her, I stumbled upon an unfamiliar analogy (note, I don't speak quite this formally in person, this is sort of a reconstruction for clarity):

"I think people who use the potential argument are committing a basic logical fallacy in equating the zygote with the human. For example, when they portray parents as irresponsible for wanting to have an early-term abortion, they often use examples that apply specifically to actual, "born" children --- they might say, for instance, that it's tantamount to emotional child abuse to tell, say, a five-year-old, "I shouldn't have had you." And they'd be correct on this count. That's a cruel thing to say to a child, that you don't want them, or that they were a mistake. But then, let's put the shoe on the other foot: let's re-wind to the night the child is conceived. The parents are about to have sex and one says to the other, "you know what? Let's wait, I'm not ready to have kids yet," or perhaps, "I don't want a kid right now."

Is that the same thing as telling a child you've already had that you "don't want" them?

If you answered yes, then I disagree. I think it's rather different because, in the former case, we're speaking of a person who exists now and thus has consciousness and feelings and such. In the case of the latter, we're speaking of an event which has yet to take place. That may seem like a semantic distinction, but I do not think I'm being wildly impractical when I say that we should wait until a given person exists in order to bestow him or her with, say, legal rights. Otherwise we are faced with the criteria of how to determine when and where a person will guaranteed to come into existence in the future (which is itself impossible, as it requires us to foresee the future with certainty). This opens up an entirely new debate in and of itself, which I won't go into here for reasons of brevity. But suffice it to say that, whichever side of this argument you find yourself on, it should be agreed that waiting until a person actually exists is the best, most guaranteed way to know that they are alive. Otherwise we must afford an infinite number of "potential citizenships" to an infinite number of people who may or may not one day be born and given names and such. This line of reasoning goes on and on...but it's beside the point.

If your answer to the original question is "no," then why? Is there some fundamental difference between a child and a zygote, such that telling a zygote you "don't want" it before it exists is different from telling a child you "don't want" it before it exists?

We can say that a human child is just a different stage of a zygote....but then, why this distinction? What does it matter whether I'm talking to a zygote or a child, if they're the same thing? Furthermore, if a zygote is a child because of the potential argument --- if we determine that a zygote is now a human child based on the argument that, if left alone, it will eventually become a human child --- then how is it that it is not, for example, just as much of a crime to not conceive a child as it is to terminate a pregnancy that has already been conceived? If two people, who are attracted to each other, are left alone in a room and left to their own biological designs, they will procreate and conceive offspring. So using this same reasoning, can we also not confirm that this "child" exists in some abstract, metaphysical sense before the pregnancy even begins? Is it then a "crime" to interrupt the two as they attempt to reproduce? Does that constitute "playing god" with nature?

I guess a simpler way of putting it would be....it seems to me that this argument, the "potential argument," relies on the establishment of the "child" not just as a physical thing that exists, but also as a conceptual entity. Some of the claims take into account the beginning of the physical entity ("life begins at conception"), while others refer to the "person" in the abstract (for in what other sense than the abstract is a feelingless, psycheless, consciousness-less mass of cells equivalent to a human being with feelings, a psyche and a consciousness?). The problem is then exacerbated when people equivocate between these two concepts --- the physical "child" and the conceptual "person" --- and argue from either point as though they are one and the same. I think that's the reason this argument doesn't float in pro-choice circles; because, on some level, people are aware of this equivocation, they sense it, and they innately understand that it is wrong, even if they don't understand why. And they, like myself, may become temporarily misguided and fall for other arguments as they try to understand why they feel that nagging sense of "wrongness." There may be some crude "life" which begins at conception, but the conceptual "person" that we "know" begins once the fetus has achieved maturity and is capable of interacting with us socially.

So in closing, you might say that my conclusion is thus: Life, in some sense, does begin at conception. But a person does not begin until the conceived organism has developed the capacity to maintain an ego. The zygote, then, could be described as the "shell" that the person itself will someday inhabit, but not the person him- or herself. For if we ignore the significance of the ego in determining what is a "person" and what is not, then we could simply say that bacteria (or any other non-human organisms) are "people" too, because they are alive, even if only in a most primitive sense.

"Life" is, quite simply, not the only issue here. And a failure to recognize this is almost a sure-fire guarantee that any given argument --- for or against abortion --- will also be a failure.

--Tim D.

1 comment:

  1. Well done. Woot! This is the reason why a good number of people are pro-choice. We can clearly discern the difference between a clump of cells and an infant. Flour, water, salt, and yeast has the potential to be bread, but it won't be unless you let it rise and then cook it. That's why it's dough vs bread. They're distinct. That's why it's zygote vs embryo vs fetus vs infant.