Hot ethical topics such as abortion usually provoke controversy and noisy debate. But often these debates can be long on emotion and short on fact and reason. The truth is, like all important issues, the abortion controversy deserves careful and considered reflection and understanding. But what is most needed here is often what is most lacking.
And it is not just one side or the other that can be intellectually lazy and ethically cloudy. Religious and non-religious people, pro-lifers and anti-lifers can all be guilty of muddled thinking. So the call to think more carefully and reflect more seriously on the critical issues of the day applies to all of us.
A good example of where rampant emotion and truncated reason are manifest can be found in various blog sites. Commentary on the worldwide web is like the old wild West: it tends to be a place where there are no rules, and it’s every man for himself.
It has been my experience when I post an article on some public website that hordes of critics come out of the woodwork, more intent on causing mischief than offering rational debate. Many of these writers seem totally incapable of putting together intelligent articles of their own, so they go around pontificating on those of others. They think they are clever by throwing up some sloppy and ill-informed comment, usually laced with venom and nastiness, but filled with very little substance or coherence.
But such is the price one pays for making use of the blogosphere. A good example of some very confused thinking can be seen in a comment about an abortion article that appeared recently. The comment was quite frightful, and one could simply dismiss it as yet another not-very-bright blogger trying to get into print.
But as bad as the comment is, it unfortunately is quite reflective of how many people think – or rather don’t think – about an important issue like abortion. So while anyone with a second grade education should be able to pull apart this rather poor attempt at making a point, let me deal with it anyway.
The comment reads in full: “When human life begins, I believe, is a matter for personal conscience. Not the type of conscience that is profounded from the pulpit or screeched from the streets by various influence groups, but the kind of conscience that the individual themselves can discover via education.
Research the issue – the facts are everywhere and easily available – read them and make up your own mind. If you believe that life begins when the glint appears in the fathers eye, or any time in between then until the newborn draws their first breath, then that, for you, is when life begins and you cannot be wrong. Take the science route to awareness or the personality route, it doesn’t matter. It’s like religion, the belief is in the personal observance not the method.”
As can be seen, this is a very confused and vacuous bit of commentary. It is poorly expressed and even more poorly thought through. But since it does correspond to how many people tend to think about abortion, it is worth doing a bit of dissection work here.
The first and most obvious problem is the total confusion between objective truth and subjective feeling. Put simply, something is not true or false by what we happen to think of it. Truth is not determined by our preferences or tastes.
And while there is a place for subjective tastes – as in the kind of ice cream one prefers – this is not to be confused with how truth is determined. Truth is not determined by our feelings or preferences. The law of gravity still stands, regardless of how we feel about it, or whether we believe in it or not.
Stand on the top of the Empire State Building and jump off: your opinion about gravity will not change the fact that within seconds you will experience a very hard introduction to the pavement below. We are all welcome to have preferences for subjective matters, but we do not have that luxury for matters of fact. Thus the claim that when human life begins is a matter of “personal conscience” is patently absurd. It is a matter of fact, as any standard biology or embryology textbook will demonstrate. At the moment of conception, the 23 male chromosomes and the 23 female chromosomes come together to form a totally unique set of 46 chromosomes. A genetically new, unique and distinct entity is thus formed.
And as I argued in my previous article, it is a wrong question to be asking anyway. Both sperm and egg are already alive, and both are human. But when brought together, we have a living, human person. This is where the geneticist I critiqued in that article got it wrong. Sure, a sperm is not a person, just as a clipped finger nail or a removed tonsil is not a person. Both are human and alive, but neither are persons.
But what happens at conception is altogether different. There we have not only something that is alive and human, but a person as well, because of the new genetic entity that has been formed.
This commentator then says the facts are readily available, so make up your own mind. But if the facts are available, there is no need for minds to be made up. One might as well say that the fact is, we need to go two blocks directly north to reach the Sydney Opera House. If that is the case, there is no need to make up one’s mind. One simply takes action based on the facts.
And if the fact is that the newly formed human embryo is a distinct new individual, then there is no need to “make up our minds”. The case is already settled. The commentator waffles on about people believing life begins at various stages, and one is as good as another: “and you cannot be wrong”. Sorry, but it does not work that way.
Not all opinions are true, especially if they are mutually exclusive, or logically contradictory. And not all opinions are helpful; there can be wrong opinions leading to bad results. As mentioned, if it is your opinion that the law of gravity is not objectively true, then acting on that faulty belief will get you into big trouble.
And the law of non-contradiction tells us that if life indeed begins at, say, childbirth, then it clearly does not begin at, say, two weeks after conception. This commentator is so soaked in relativism, that he or she cannot even see that two contradictory claims cannot both be true at the same time. But such is the spirit of the age we find ourselves in, that logic and clarity have become the victims of personal opinion.
So the abortion debate needs to be decided on the facts, not on emotion, personal feelings, and fuzzy thinking. And the fact of the matter is, a new human life which we call a person is formed at conception.
That fact stands, but what we do with that fact is of course another matter. If we believe that not all persons deserve protection and respect, then we will continue to champion the pro-death agenda. But if we believe that all persons have inherent dignity and the right to life, then the pro-life position will be the only viable option.