Sunday, February 3, 2013

Abortion, Animal Rights, and Levels of Consciousness

By Tom Kando

In 1973, the US Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion. Back then, the country was relatively rational. America was a modern, scientific, pragmatic country, not unlike Western Europe, Canada and a dozen other parts of the world. In the words of the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, we had a sensate, materialistic, empiricist culture.

Since then, a sort of counter-revolution has gained momentum. Over the past few decades, church attendance has remained stable or according to some reports, increased.  Creationism is as popular as ever. Nearly a century after the Scopes “Monkey” trial (1925), almost half the population continues to believe in it, and to reject evolution. Concern about climate change has declined a great deal since the 1990s (Gallup). Fewer people now accept the fact that man-made global warming has been scientifically proven. The number of pro-choice Americans is at an all-time low (Gallup). Clearly, America has become a less “scientific” and a more irrational, absolutist country. In Sorokin’s words, we have become a more ideational, faith-based culture based on belief rather than on fact.

Take abortion: I realize that this issue is a minefield, fraught with moral and logical pitfalls. For one thing, one’s position on abortion depends in part on whether one judges it pragmatically or morally. If one does the former, there is no argument. However, I will now try to look at the practice morally (a risky thing to do):

The pro-lifers’ criterion is an unprovable metaphysical one: The sacro-sanctity of the “human being,” who is defined as anything from the fertilized ovum onward. “Human being” is an abstract concept. Pro-lifers argue that within seconds of conception, we have a “human being.” But the reality is that the empirical characteristics of such a microscopic human being are nil.

The pro-choice position is more science-based, based on empirically observable knowledge. The main question in the abortion debate should be: what are we killing? The criterion should be: If we kill a conscious, sentient life, we do evil. The more conscious and sentient the organism is, the greater the evil.

Now, I don’t want to spout nonsense, for example implying that infanticide is less immoral than killing adults, because newborn babies’ minds are less developed. All people are created equal.

But consider inter-species differences. I am not a biologist, but I have dabbled in science and philosophy. A brilliant book on this subject is Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon of Man.” He was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who was also a professor of paleontology and geology and was one of the discoverers of Peking Man. He traces evolution from matter, to the emergence and expansion of life, the birth of thought and consciousness, what he calls the noosphere.

Another great book is Ernest Becker’s "The Birth and Death of Meaning." This Berkeley anthropologist distinguishes between four ascending levels of “reactivity:” The simplest level is the passive and automatic response to environmental stimuli. Simple life forms such as amoebas are capable of this. A higher level of reactivity is the conditioned response, which indicates learning. A dog’s Pavlovian reaction illustrates this. Even more sophisticated is the reaction of which chimps and other higher primates are capable, namely a response based on a Gestalt, i.e. a perception of configuration in the environment. Finally, at the highest level, there is symbolic interaction, - language. Only man is capable of this.

So what I am talking about are levels of consciousness. Organisms are on a continuum. Simple life forms are more dispensable than highly sentient and conscious ones. The moral issues involved in abortion are not unrelated to those of animal rights. The criterion for destroying life should be: The higher the level of consciousness and sentience of an organism is, the more evil it is to kill it. It is one thing to destroy bacteria, unicellular amoebas, even mosquitoes, but another to kill mammals, higher primates, great apes. It is hardly evil to mow grass and to pick cherries and tomatoes, but eating mammals is somewhat bad. Vegetarians are right.

A fertilized sperm/ovum is not a conscious, sentient organism, let alone a full-fledged human.  The level of consciousness and sentience of an embryo is still very low. A fetus is more highly developed and capable of pain, after the first trimester.

Here, you get the nitty-gritty of abortion ethics. At what stage does abortion become murder? Thank God, there has been progress. Past civilizations have used post-natal infanticide as a form of birth control. But practices range from barbaric to acceptable. Strict pro-lifers now claim that US abortions have “murdered 56 million people since Roe v. Wade (1973).” That’s not true. Any reasonable discussion of the destruction of life - human or other - must be based on the empirical recognition that the higher the level of consciousness and sentience of a life is, the more immoral it is to kill it. leave comment here