I have been engaged in a discussion elsewhere regarding my position on abortion. I wanted to run this by the atheistnexus community as the perspectives here are particularly rational and helpful most of the time. Before I start, just know my mind is not made up. That is reason I am starting this discussion. Here are my arguments for my positions, which I openly admit may not be completely sound.

I support the practice of a death penalty. Yet I am resistant to some of the arguments of the pro-choice movement.

Regarding the death penalty, I am aware of the problem of wrongful convictions. This is a problem for the legal system. But in principle, I have no problem putting criminals to death that lack any hope for rehabilitation (mass murderers, genocidal war criminals, etc) if we can know for sure they are indeed guilty. The amount of evidence required needs to be extremely high to justify the death penalty. But if overwhelming evidence exists, then why keep these animals alive?

But abortion to me is the killing of innocent infant humans. It is a matter of location. If the child was only one minute 'old', having exited the womb, then killing the child would be murder. But because it is still inside a woman, we give it a different term 'abortion' and make it a choice. Isn't abortion just a nice way of saying unborn-infant-murder?

A common argument is that of choice. It is a matter of a woman's right to make decisions that affect her body. The pro-choice movement treats the opposition as weirdos that want to pass laws restricting what she can and cannot do with her own body. I feel they miss the point completely. There are TWO bodies in question, and the laws restricting abortions address the OTHER body - that of another human - living inside the woman. 

I understand there is a huge grey area here. When does the fetus become a human with the intrinsic right to life? Is it only when the brain has developed? But at what point in the brain development? I get it. It is not an easy question. That is why I do not actively oppose the pro-choice movement. I am still collecting information on the subject to refine my position. I certainly don't support the pro-life movement either. I am currently unable to form a completely justified position either way. 

I can see abortion as necessary or preferable in the cases of rape or to protect the mother's life. That makes sense. In other cases, where it is just promiscuity that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, I feel a vacuous moral subjectivity seeping into society. 

I also do understand that for the vast majority of mothers, the decision to have an abortion is not an easy one and continues to affect them emotionally well after the event. But that is how it should be. We should not be just OK with the idea of killing infants. It should be taboo. Abortion should be thought of as terrible, whether you support the practice or not. Would this perspective of taboo discourage irresponsible sexual encounters? Would this would discourage inception when not in stable healthy relationships? For some who have abortions for selfish reasons, it certainly does not seem that the taboo nature of the act has any affect on their habits. It is not unheard of for some women to get multiple abortions in their life time. How the heck does that happen? 

And of course, 99% of the time, this only applies to people willing to engage in unprotected sex. Why on Earth would you engage in irresponsible unprotected sex? Accidentally? Broken condoms?

I have no problem with recreational sex. But we have several highly effective birth control methods. If a woman is on the pill and the male uses a condom, the chances for an unwanted pregnancy approach zero. If for some reason a birth control method fails, adoption is an option preferable to the death of a human. 

Abortion is not a birth control method. It is a life control method - the act following a decision to kill an innocent human. It is a decision we give no other person in society. It is illegal in ALL other cases to kill an innocent human. But since it is a woman, and the human in question is inside her, we grant the woman this unique ability, even in cases where the pregnancy was just due to irresponsibility. 

So please be kind and help me out here. I am not going to bash anyone's personal position on the matter as I want my own position to be as sound and fair as possible. I just want to hear the opinions, specifically from people with superior understanding and life experience. I might challenge a bad argument, but it only be to seek clarification, not as an attack on any individuals beliefs.

Specifically, my questions are as follows:

1. In the case of irresponsible conception, why do we permit women to kill another human?

2. If it can even be answered, when does a human fetus get the intrinsic right to life? This is an unalienable right of all Americans (and all humans, I would argue. When does this right kick in?

3. Why are many atheists opposed to the death penalty but absolutely (in all cases/situations) pro-abortion? How is that at all morally consistent?

4. Is the practice of abortion detrimental to the social health of our society? Is the religious right to blame for a lack of sex education?

Tags: abortion, death penalty

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When the right to life kicks in is the central part of the issue.  SCOTUS has said in Roe v. Wade that abortions are legal up through the 12th week--with some exceptions.  The religious right says repeatedly that they should never be legal after the sperm cell bumps into the egg, I think because they believe that an immortal soul is present from the moment of conception.  They are, of course, free to believe that, just as they believe that a snake once talked, but they shouldn't be able to impose these religious beliefs on others.

So exactly when does a fertilized egg become a human being with all the rights of a human being?  No one knows for sure.  If we are going to accept a religious definition that a soul makes one human, then someone ought to be able to find the soul in the body, measure it, weigh it, and study its properties.  If no one can detect its presence, maybe it isn't there.  Since there is so much disagreement about when a blastocyst becomes a person, shouldn't the woman's opinion on this crucial distinction carry any weight?  Her doctor's opinion?

Or should we leave it up to Mitch McConnell?

The big issue is terminology. Person vs blastocyst... fetus vs baby... it is all word games to a certain extent. How about the word human?

At the moment of conception something key does happen. No soul or spirit can be confirmed to exist, but something unique happens nonetheless. At the moment of conception, a new human begins to exist. A unique DNA is formed. Whether you are looking at just a ball of replicating cells or have a body with limbs, it is still another human being. One would have to find a way to justify saying a blastocyst is not a human. I do not think that position is sustainable. 

Another unique human is formed at conception. From then on, it is only a matter of developmental complexity of that human. 

I agree, nobody should be able to force religious beliefs on anyone else. But shouldn't we all strive to at least be more moral than our predecessors? Shouldn't we push for a higher moral standard external to religion?

Is killing a blastocyst different from killing a human? I would love to hear how. What is the difference between a blastocyst, a fetus, and a newborn other than complexity? There is certainly no logical grounds for marking it a human only after passing a certain stage in development.

I do agree there is something about killing a blastocyst that is easier to stomach than ripping apart a fetus with a modified vacuum cleaner. But I think we find one worse than the other because of the anthropomorphic illusion caused by our association of 'person' with the typical shape of 'people'. Killing a ball of cells is thought of as somehow different since it doesn't look like a 'person' yet, even though it is a unique human (just at a very early stage of development). 

"Is the religious right to blame for a lack of sex education?"

Absolutely. I've never seen opposition to sex education that wasn't religiously based.

Conservative religions are control mechanisms.

A church teaches that our strong natural sexual desires, that can lead to unequaled bonding and pleasure, are actually "evil" and "sinful". People will naturally "slip", and "succumb" to their urges, and feel guilty; and then seek forgiveness and cleansing from the church that was the source of the problem in the first place! And the abusive cycle repeats.

How often do those churches hold out pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections as inevitable, "natural" dangers of having sex -- along with lies like condoms supposedly failing scarily often!

Empowering young people to be able to say no or yes to enjoying sex responsibly while avoiding those "natural punishments", undermines the control mechanism.

A pointed satire: "We should ban life jackets and other flotation devices. They only encourage risky behavior. The only 100% effective way to prevent drowning is total abstinence from going in the water."

An example of positive sex education:
Coalition for Positive Sexuality's "Just Say Yes"

(enough of my soapbox for now....)

Cat the water post is the best one I've ever seen. It sounds just like fundies speaking of sex.

That's because the life jacket parody is so rediculously close to the words of fundie Todd Aiken who made his idiotic and profoundly stupid remark about "if it's a legitamate rape" and that cost him the election in Missouri. I think it has ended his political career.

The irony here was that I learned later that he was on a science committee. Republicans tried to protect him, but his remarks show he didn't know much about science either.

I just had an epiphany that may indeed have changed my position on abortion to a complete equivalence of pro-choice. Developmental psychology might very well have answered the question of when a person is indeed a person. This would clearly make a clearly distinct basis for considering the termination of a fetus not equivalent to murder. 

A fetus, and even a newborn, are like computers with un-formatted hard drives. They lack a personality or individuality of any measurable quantifiable sense. They develop a personality later in their development. Up to that point they are calorie-burning biological machines with no subjective sense of self. One might argue that they indeed have an instinctive drive for self preservation (the need to feed) and this might equate to a desire for life in some philosophical sense. But terminating a pregnancy is not killing a person as that biological system is not yet a complete individual any more than a computer without programs is nothing more than a mass of functioning parts without purpose. 

The question of whether abortion infringes on the rights of the fetus can be settled by asking at what point the fetus becomes conscious. 

Actually, the fetus may not be conscious before birth.  It is most likely asleep and is woken up by the stress of birth:

Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.

the fetus is actively sedated by the low oxygen pressure (equivalent to that at the top of Mount Everest), the warm and cushioned uterine environment and a range of neuroinhibitory and sleep-inducing substances produced by the placenta and the fetus itself: adenosine; two steroidal anesthetics, allopregnanolone and pregnanolone; one potent hormone, prostaglandin D2; and others. The role of the placenta in maintaining sedation is revealed when the umbilical cord is closed off while keeping the fetus adequately supplied with oxygen. The lamb embryo now moves and breathes continuously. From all this evidence, neonatologists conclude that the fetus is asleep while its brain matures.

The fetus does have REM sleep, but most likely fetuses aren't dreaming:

considering babies' limited pool of experiences and their brains' immaturity, Foulkes and other neuroscientists think they are actually dreamless for the first few years of life.

Before there's any chance the fetus is conscious - at about 6 months - abortion should be considered the moral equivalent of contraception.  A fetus that hasn't yet been conscious is only a potential person, not a person yet.  And a sperm and egg pair, are also a potential person.  

The right to choice is not the right to kill a fetus, per se.  The right to choice comes about because not having the right to kill a fetus inside you, involves a huge imposition.  If you keep the baby, there's a HUGE life change involved.  This baby will occupy the next 15-20 years of your life; more so if you're a woman.  It will age you a lot.  Even if you don't keep the baby, there's the excruciating pain of childbirth and the emotional anguish of terminating the bond with something that has been growing inside you for a long time. 

So, on abortion, I would favor a time limit somewhere between the time the fetus first might be conscious, and birth. 

It truly is a horrendous violation of individual rights and especially women's rights, to prohibit abortion before there's even a chance the fetus might be conscious. 

With the death penalty, I would give people convicted of horrible murders the choice between suicide and life in prison without parole.  With appropriate safeguards, such as a waiting period or counseling. 

Actually, anyone should have the choice to commit suicide, with appropriate safeguards.  The idea that the state has the right to force anyone to continue living, is atrocious. 

Giving convicts the choice of suicide, takes care of another major objection to the death penalty:  Because of all the legal costs involved in the long string of appeals after a death sentence, putting people to death costs a lot MORE than life without parole. 

I understand the perspective that we have the right to kill people who have committed horrible murders.  I've looked at convicts on Dateline etc. who put someone else on death row by testifying against them - and thought, "that person isn't worth the food used to keep them alive".   In wrongful convictions, it seems that often the main prosecution witness is the actual murderer!

However, the state doesn't have the right to vengeance any more than an individual has a right to vengeance.  Just because someone has hurt you, does not give you a right to hurt them.  And the state is just a collection of individuals.  I don't think the state has the right to execute convicts to satisfy their surviving victims. 

The state DOES have the right to protect society from further damage by the convict.  But that can be done by a sentence of life without parole.  I'm fine with putting people who have committed horrible murders in prison for the rest of their lives, but they should have decent conditions in prison. 

Given the huge need for money for GOOD purposes like better public education, spending lots of money just to kill one person, is atrocious, when they can be maintained less expensively in prison for the rest of their lives. 

Also, prisoners do change in prison.  Sometimes for the better.  They're deprived of the freedom to do harm.  The professional con artists can't con people so much.  It's a total change in lifestyle for a lot of people, and it's up to us as a society to make this a change that has good effects on people. 

I would appreciate it if you could argue by focusing on the issues, not by saying negative things about the argument you disagree with, or the person you disagree with. 

Luara, I like your post.  It has a couple of ideas and a lot of information I've never heard before.

The idea of giving a convict the option of suicide is something I've never heard before, and it sounds like a very good idea.  Thanks.

I also strongly agree that "The idea that the state has the right to force anyone to continue living, is atrocious."

That is very interesting. A right to life should also include a right to no life just as a right to practice religion should also include a right to practice no religion. 

I guess it comes down to the social perception (justified or not) that an individual that wants to end their life is irrational and we have a system that attempts to minimize irrational acts (in principle). As living organisms it is, in fact, irrational to end one's own life at some level at least. But as sentient beings with complex self-awareness, it may be possible for humans to make a rational choice to delete their own existence. I guess if I put myself in their shoes, I could see how it might be possible to make a rational choice to end one's own life. 

For example, if for some reason I had to kill someone my freedom would end. Perhaps it was manslaughter, not murder. Perhaps it was a faulty conviction by our wonderful justice system that led me to the destiny that I would spend the rest of my life in prison. At that point, my life and goals are void. My living and breathing become useless acts without purpose. Unless I am going to write a book in prison or make some productive use of my remaining time, I could see suicide as a rational option. 

Something to watch out for: as long as we believe in banning "cruel and unusual" punishments, we don't want to encourage mistreatment and abuse -- by staff or prisoners -- that could encourage a prisoner to end their life.

But about suicide in general: in the book I mentioned previously, Causing Death and Saving Lives, Jonathan Glover advocates rescuing and treating someone who attempts suicide, on the presumption that they're "not themselves", that if we don't know otherwise, it's more likely that they're suffering from treatable depression than that they rationally decided, in character, to kill themselves.

Yes, a sentient being with autonomy and self-determination might make a considered decision to end their own life. That would be generally "unthinkable" given our usual strong desire to continue living -- and it's no surprise that we evolved that way!

(I read about some Roman Catholic leader saying recently that even people experiencing great, intractable suffering still have an obligation to continue living for as long as they can, in order to give glory to God. Their lives are "not their own"; their lives "belong to God". How messed up is that?!

Then again, if the religious believers who preach about the wonders of heaven truly believed in it, then suicide and abortion would be sacraments!)

Then again, if the religious believers who preach about the wonders of heaven truly believed in it, then suicide and abortion would be sacraments!)

THAT would be a way to end religion!

That's true Chris.

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