Choose Wisely (Part 2)

Abortion is a fundamental failure to uphold Human Rights.  If an embryo/fetus doesn’t have the right to life merely by virtue of being human, it’s difficult to say that anyone does.  Being human wouldn’t be enough.  There are some who would want to argue precisely that, but I’m not criticizing them specifically here because they don’t believe in Human Rights either.  If you do believe in Human Rights, abortion ought to trouble you.

An increasingly common way to try to get around the problem is to defend, by one means or another, the claim that the embryo/fetus is somehow less than human, and thus has less of a right to life than other humans would.  There are systemic problems with the approach in general, as well as specific problems with each of the standards raised to define the cutoff of full humanity.

Let me start with the systemic problem, and begin by making some distinctions.  There are two broad categories of qualities that a thing might have; for convenience I’m going to call them indubitable qualities and disputable qualities.

Indubitable qualities are those that are either self-evident in some respect, or factually evident, but at least not contested.  They’re what most everyone grants or agrees upon, independent of how they subsequently interpret them.  (They’re the facts that are interpreted, rather than the interpretation.)  They also tend to have clear Boolean values; they’re either true or false.  (Off or On, like a light switch.)

Disputable qualities are, as their name suggests, those subject to debate, interpretation, or mystery.  Some might grant them while others might not, and whether one grants them largely depends upon secondary concerns.  These also tend to function across a continuum; rather than being either true or false–On or Off, like a light switch–they have gradations of value.

Thus, pregnancy is an indubitable quality–one either is or one isn’t, and one’s view of the subject is not likely open to rigorous debate–while something like maturity is a disputable quality:  different people might be different levels of maturity, and might disagree about how those levels are measured.

All of this is relevant because we have to ask ourselves whether humanity is an indubitable quality or a disputable one.  If humanity is defined in terms of indubitable qualities, it is itself indubitable.  It we define it in terms of disputable qualities, it is itself disputable.

What I want to suggest is that talk of “human rights” is meaningful only if humanity is an indubitable quality.  I should grant rights to a person based upon what I cannot possibly contest, because what I cannot contest is sufficient to guarantee value.  Meanwhile, all claims that an embryo/fetus is somehow less than human largely depend upon humanity being a disputable quality.  We grant rights to a person only once a contestable threshold has been surmounted, and we might change that threshold.

It ought to be evident that the latter method tends toward abuse.  If contesting a quality appears advantageous to us, of course we will be inclined to contest it, to renegotiate it to our own benefit.  Human rights, contrariwise, are valuable only because they’re non-negotiable.  I don’t get to decide whether or not to abuse and harm my neighbor, because I don’t get to decide whether he counts as human.

Nor is suspicion of such abuse mere speculation, or grandstanding, or catastrophizing.  We have in recent history seen the disasters wrought by declaring some people less than human by a contestable standard, but perhaps we think we’re better than that nowadays.  Unfortunately, we are only more subtle.   The abuse is already in the newspapers and ethics journals.  Whereas before we began to think that it would be convenient to kill the unborn, and thus realized that we could declare the unborn un-human, now we’ve begun to think it might be advantageous to kill even the born babies when we discover that they have diseases, or conditions, or are merely unwanted.  Coincidentally, our disputable standard reveals to us that babies are not fully human until they’re a year or two old.

That is to say, we may not be Nazis, but we are only too willing to adjust our standards of humanity for our own convenience, once we believe that the standard is adjustable.  If we are willing to change who gets human rights to suit our own purposes though, it simply isn’t meaningful to say that we believe in human rights at all.  (In fact, at least one of the ethicists behind infanticide admits as much.)  We believe only in the rights of some.

I’m out of time again.  Let me end with the following for now.  One of the usual methods of those who would deny humanity to fetuses is to assert that their standard is not in fact disputable, that it’s obvious in an indubitable way.  They would thus argue that they are not subject to my critique above.  (In fact most are conscious of the weakness of disputable humanity, and thus take great pains to try to avoid being associated with it.)  What I will try to show next time is that the standards they deploy are not as indisputable as they think, that they are in fact both easily contestable and frequently contested.

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