Wednesday, November 5, 2008

73% of (voting) Colorodans reject basic science

Or perhaps they don't want to put it into their Constitution (a plausible but relatively rare argument)?

In any case, 73% of voters rejected
Colorado's "Amendment 48":

This measure would amend the state constitution to define the term "person" to include "any human being from the moment of fertilization." This definition would be applied to all aspects of the state constitution, including the provisions that ensure that no person has his or her life, liberty, or property taken away without due process of law. Thus, the measure would essentially have the effect of banning abortion.


At November 5, 2008 at 5:20 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric, I believe that science informs the decision as to when personhood begins, but science does not say when personhood begins.

A fertilized egg begins a genetic program that eventually leads to the development of a person. But there is no central nervous system activity until several weeks have passed, and the fetus begins to show movement at week 9 (several weeks before the pregnant woman feels the "quickening").

So, while science can describe what happens after the egg is fertilized, it's up to us to decide at which point personhood begins. I believe it is logical to choose the beginning of central nervous system activity than it is to choose fertilization. This would be a criterion of "brain birth," to mirror the familiar criterion of "brain death" (the permanent cessation of central nervous system activity) for end-of-life.

But there is an interesting argument as to why we can't call a fertilized egg a person. One in 400 live births are of identical twins. A pair of identical twins forms when a fertilized egg fissions into two separate individuals after the egg undergoes its initial division. So an identical twin begins its existence as a single "person" and then turns into two "persons." Of course, after the fertilized egg has fissioned into two separate embryos, they develop into two separate persons—with separate souls and personalities. But they share the exact same genetic makeup. The doctrine that the fertilized egg is a person is really a doctrine that the genetic blueprint, at the point when it is "switched on" (at fertilization), is a person. So we must abandon that doctrine.

The truth of the matter is that the belief that personhood begins at the point of fertilization is really a religious belief. Roman Catholics and others teach that the soul begins at that point. This is an assertion that cannot be verified by science. So I believe Coloradans were correct to reject that amendment.

At November 5, 2008 at 9:24 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

As you note, science has little to say-- and nothing to say definitively about when personhood begins. On when life begins, science is quite clear. (It's funny to me that pro-choicers are the ones who now rely on religious or metaphysical arguments.)

It could be that Coloradans were making such distinctions, but do you think they would have voted for language that substituted "life" for "person"? (And would you support that language as an alternative?)

Egg-splitting is an interesting example that may allow science to push back personhood (if not life) by a very small amount of time.

At November 6, 2008 at 9:26 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

I think we cannot avoid metaphysics or religion in deciding when the beginning of life is; within certain limits, the decision is arbitrary. That's why I'm pro-choice, for early-term abortions. And if the Colorado measure referred to life not personhood, the end result would be the same, and just as problematic. In particular, it would ban oral contraceptives, which allow fertilization but prevent implantation (thus destroying fertilized eggs). So I would expect Coloradans to vote against a measure with that language by about the same margin.

At November 6, 2008 at 10:55 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Bring religion into political decisions! Dangerous ground there, huh? ;-)

Again, it's worth reiterating the (delicious/sad) irony that pro-choicers were allergic to such arguments a few decades ago, but now rely on them &/or ignore what science can contribute to this question.


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