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Human Rights: From Fertilized Egg to the Grave
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The abortion issue, now overlapping with issues related to stem cell research, is as contentious as ever. Here's another thing I've changed my mind on: I used to be completely against abortion, but now I'm grudgingly in favor of legalized abortion, restricted based on the level of development of the fetus.

I think using embryos for stem cell research is in an ethically gray area, but I've read comments from other bloggers in the past few days who are blissfully content seeing such issues in completely black and white terms.

Larry Moran has no issues whatsoever with employees of a private research facility creating human embryos for the sole purpose of using them in research:

Researchers from Stemagen a private stem-cell research company in California, have created human clones by the same techniques used to clone other mammals. The clones only went through a few cell divisions before being discarded [Ethical storm as scientist becomes first man to clone HIMSELF].

There's nothing remarkable about the science. It's one step toward cloning humans using standard procedures that have been worked out over the past three decades. What's remarkable is the reaction to this announcement. I'm still having trouble figuring out what is the ethical problem here.

I think it's all related to abortion. If you are opposed to allowing a woman to decide what to do with her own body then you're also against stem cell research. The "ethical issue" is mostly confined to religious people (men?) who oppose abortion. At least that's how it appears to me.

See? No moral complexities here...

Then there's this doozy from Amanda Marcotte over at Pandagon:

“Shades of gray” only comes into the equation for me when actual, feeling beings are killed or forced to suffer for reasons that are understandable,* but as fetuses are unfeeling balls of flesh that have brain activity far below the sort of animals we thoughtlessly kill in animal shelters and farms every day, I find there to be no complexity. In a battle between what is still technically a feeling-free parasite on a woman’s body and a living, breathing, feeling woman, the latter wins hands down, and there’s no complexity or shades of gray there.**

**Later term abortions are a fraction of abortions, and of those, there’s a fraction that are in the gray zone of fetal development where it might feel pain. These are undoubtably uncomfortable, but since most occur when the fetus is already dead or in literal self-defense of the woman, I still feel that there’s no reason for these abortions to be controversial. They are only controversial because anti-choicers who agitate against them lie to people by not telling them the very understandable reasons these are performed. What’s not morally gray? Lying to people to cause unnecessary suffering to others. That’s always wrong.

Nice, huh? Unfeeling balls of flesh. I also like the oft-repeated reference to embryos or fetuses as "clumps of cells." I got news for you, Bud. You're "just a clump of cells." And as far as being parasitic, I don't think most newborns would last too long out in the wild by themselves. They're not exactly bastions of independence.

Anyway, it must be nice to have such moral clarity on the issue of how and when, along the path from fertilized egg to fully-developed adult, a clump of cells should earn legal protections from the government. I have no such clear-eyed wisdom. I've struggled with it in the past, and I expect to continue to struggle with it.

In the meantime, I put together some visual aids to help talk about it.

In terms of individual rights, how about thinking about them increasing gradually from conception through to adulthood (let's call this Figure A):


A young child doesn't have a full set of legal rights. Decisions are mostly made for them by a legal guardian. Around the ages of 16-18, a US citizen begins to gain such rights as consenting to sexual intercourse, driving a car, and voting. Most citizens aren't fully recognized as adults until the age of 21, when you can drink alcohol and pretty much exert full autonomy and engage in any legal vice you like.

Should that incremental accumulation of rights begin from conception or from birth? Maybe it should look more like Figure B:


But wait, what about strictly referring to an individual's right to life, to continue on a normal trajectory of growth and development? Just because 1 year-olds can't vote or buy cigarettes, it's not more permissible to kill them under the law. What about strictly right-to-live graphs? Current law, and my own views, are probably best captured in this, Figure C:


The right to continue living increases gradually from conception to birth, where it is then absolute under the law.

The bloggers mentioned above, and presumably a lot of pro-choice advocates hold a view similar to this one (Figure D):


And strict pro-lifers would believe something like this (Figure E):


So why does it necessarily make sense to confer all other legal rights in an incremental fashion, except for the most fundamental right, the right to life? Again, I'm not as certain as others, and I don't know.

In the meantime, here are some statistics from the study just released by the Guttmacher Institute, which are considered fairly unbiased and reliable.

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