Three Chickens Over Easy with Toast

How many chickens did you have for breakfast?

At any opportunity, the righteous send letters to my local paper, lamenting the murder of children. They aren’t concerned with the high school students who are getting their limbs blown off in Iraq, or ten year olds who are being handed machine guns by warlords in Africa, or toddlers who are needlessly dying of dysentery in back rooms in Cambodia. They are talking, of course, of abortion.


At an outdoor rally at Westlake Mall in Seattle, Evangelical women took turns in front of a microphone, lamenting the babies they had murdered. They choked on tears, savored God’s forgiveness, and envisioned the day when they would come face-to-face in heaven with the people they had killed and could ask them forgiveness.

Across the street a thin line of men and women held signs. Familiar, forgettable ones said things like, “Keep Abortion Safe and Legal” or “Hands Off of My Body.” They seemed flat and superficial in the presence of the women’s painful personal stories. On another corner, a small cluster of signs expressed a different sentiment. “An Acorn is Not an Oak Tree,” read one. “A Blueprint is Not a House.” “An Egg is not a Chicken.”

The sign holders were telling the women, “You didn’t kill a person.” They were saying that a fetus is not a child, that personhood is something that emerges. It grows. It becomes. It is solidly present in the opinions of a twelve year old, delightfully emergent in the curiosity and defiance of a three year old, and sweetly latent in a newborn. But if we move back in time far enough, back to conception (the acorn stage), personhood exists merely as potential. Like the house that is conjured by a blueprint or a freshly poured foundation, it exists only in the imagination of someone who has seen the real thing – a full-fledged person or a finished home – and can picture what is possible if things move forward.

I was one of those sign holders. But as a former Evangelical fundamentalist, I should have known better.

Not that the signs were wrong. Personhood --the feeling, thinking, self-aware, intentional part of us that values life-- does come into being gradually, and it often leaves in bits. Religious traditions acknowledge this. Rituals of identity (the Catholic christening) or of covenant (the Jewish bris) often are postponed till after the neonatal days or weeks. Ancient legal codes like the one in the Bible placed monetary on persons and various forms of sub-persons; a fetus was not a person.

These traditions and laws reflected a reality that is visible today in our emotional response to grief and loss. Imagine hearing that your dear elderly aunt has dementia and will soon lose the ability to talk or even eat. Now imagine hearing the same thing about your dear niece, a college student. As people age, we somehow find their infirmity less troubling. Loss of mobility, cognition, or even life seems less grievous when it strikes the nursing home crowd.

Cross cultural research on bereavement suggests that people typically experience the greatest sense of loss when a youth dies just before the child-bearing years. Biologists propose that this is because we are wired to leave a genetic legacy, a little bit of ourselves carried forward in future generations. By adolescence, parents have invested years of their lives in nurturing their offspring. All of that investment, from laundry to love, comes to naught when a young person dies without children of his or her own.

Whatever our genes may value, we are intelligent, self-conscious beings, and we embrace an intelligent and self-conscious sense of personhood independent of our reproductive prospects. We intuitively value life less at both ends because this personhood—the unique sense of ourselves as ourselves-- is first coming into being and then fading.

The pre-natal period is a part of this continuum. Is an infant less valuable as a person two days before it is born than two day after? Not by much. It is true that a sudden death two days after birth is likely to cause even greater grief than a death two days before. But this has little to do with objective substance, the value of the neonate as a latent person. Only the most rabidly dualistic defender of abortion rights would argue otherwise, and I have yet to meet such a person. Conversely, only the most rabid conceptionist would argue that destroying a beaker full of six million fertilized eggs is a crime on scale with the Holocaust. (I have met such a person; in fact, I am related to one.)

Cognitive scientists study something they call “naïve psychology.” Naïve psychology is the values and beliefs that actually govern our perceptions of other people, not the ones that we say do. As the philosopher said, “Tell me what you do, and I’ll tell you what you believe.” At the level of naïve psychology, Evangelicals, just like the rest of us, believe that the value of a fetus grows over time and that it is different than the value of a child.

Consider: Those letter writers who carry on about our “child murder” problem, don’t spend much time lamenting the sixty percent of fertilized eggs that God or nature aborts. By contrast, we might expect them to be horrified if sixty percent of American children were falling dead sometime between their third and fourth birthdays. They would stand beside the rest of us in demanding better medical research and care. We also might expect them to do something other than squawk and work the political process if millions of three year olds were being killed with state sanction. I certainly would.

Consider: Evangelicals don’t pray over old tampons and panty liners the way they pray at the funerals of deceased children. But if they really believed that fertilized eggs were people, they would. A high percentage of pregnancies self-abort before a woman even realizes she is pregnant. Consequently, if women are having unprotected sex, that menstrual discharge frequently contains little spherical people.

Consider: Middle aged Evangelicals grieve their dead children more than they grieve their dead elders. The loss of a child is more likely to provoke a divorce or a crisis of faith than the loss of a bed-bound demented parent, however well loved.

The point I am making is this. At an emotional level, fundamentalists assign different values to different points along the life span, just like the rest of us.

So why do I say that it was a waste of time to carry the signs at that protest? Why not try to remind those tearful “murderers” of what they know subconsciously to be true? Because too much was at stake, both for them and for their Evangelical community. This isn’t about child development. It isn’t about biology. Here’s the bottom line: Unless fundamentalists want to risk their whole precarious Jenga-tower of beliefs, they cannot afford to consciously admit that personhood exists on a continuum.

Evangelical fundamentalism demands that most everything that matters be divided into tidy categories. It is a world of black and white, with no gray-tones.

There are the male roles and “complementary” female roles. An age of innocence and an age of accountability. One perfect sacred text and a bunch of dangerous fakes. God’s chosen people--the stars of His screenplay-- and millions of Hollywood extras. The saved and the damned. Heaven and hell.

In this dichotomous world, anyone who is not on the side of Yahweh is on the side of Satan. Committing adultery in your heart is as damning as committing it in a back alley at knifepoint. Someone who cheats the paper boy is slated for the same eternity as Hitler.

And sex . . . Well sex. Born-again believers are good marriage material; marrying an outsider makes a believer “unequally yoked.” Whether a sex act is beautiful or vile depends entirely on a marriage certificate. We’re all either straight or disgusting. And that first coital act magically establishes a woman’s virtue and value as an intimate partner.

In this world, all prayers of fundamentalists are answered; no others. Being “born again” trumps any other qualification for public office and being an atheist is an absolute disqualifier. The wisdom of insiders is wisdom indeed; the wisdom of outsiders is foolishness. (For some reason, this doesn’t apply to the office of cardiac surgeon or stock broker.) Money given to Christian ministries goes to God; money invested in secular mercies is a waste. In sum, the whole social, political, moral and financial structure of fundamentalism requires a dualistic world view.

Am I exaggerating? Perhaps. After all, I was nursed on dichotomies, and my own ability to think in shades of gray ought to be in question. In the real world, labels and categories tend to fall short. The tribe of Evangelicals is a fuzzy group, like most others, and a few who call themselves Evangelical are not fundamentalist at all. But if you push past the hazy liberal edge into the Evangelical heartland, you will find yourself surrounded by the kind of fundamentalism I am describing. Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literally perfect and complete revelation of God to humankind. This belief is the cracked granite from which the whole Evangelical movement flows.

One of the root problems with fundamentalism in any religion is that it abhors shades of gray. That is why fundamentalists, whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim cannot accept a developmental sequence in which a blastocyst is a hollow ball of cells, and a twelve year old is a person, and we can’t quite pinpoint when exactly the change happened because it was happening for twelve years straight.

This is also why unending arguments over abortion are only a small sign of a much bigger problem. The really big problem is that the fundamentalist mindset distorts a believer’s perspectives on everything from international relations to science education. Living in a world of dichotomies means that there are good countries and axes of evil. It means that the answers to important questions are static, and that any evolving body of knowledge (aka science) is suspect, especially when it has moral or social implications.

Ultimately, this mindset threatens not only our pluralistic society but also our economy. To the extent that we Americans have earned our prosperity, we’ve earned it largely because our culture values free inquiry. We follow our curiosity where it leads; and then we poke, prod and ask hard questions; and then we innovate based on whatever we discover through this messy process. The unfettered pursuit of “why” and “how” and “what if” has caused our country to flourish. But it is fundamentally at odds with fundamentalism. The heart of America and the heart of Evangelical fundamentalism are at best unequally yoked and at worst hopelessly incompatible.

Around the world, groups that cling to received “truths,” whether religious or secular, tend to be economically delayed. Can we alone close the doors of our minds and somehow avoid this fate? Those who care about the future of American innovation should worry about the growing hunger of fundamentalists in this country for theocracy. As a bumper sticker points out, “One nation under God” is the motto of Iran.

Our stagnant battle over fetal personhood may portend a more ominous stagnation. Together we face global challenges of our own making: climate change, resource depletion, and mutually destructive military capacity. We are up against questions about the future of living, breathing, self-conscious, opinionated twelve-year-olds. Unless we can find a way to challenge the growing appeal of fundamentalism, questions about emerging personhood may become obsolete.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Perceiving humanhood in the seed of life is a matter of faith - Loving the unseen and understanding the potential and the value of small beginnings is what faith is about. We do not have to believe or have faith - we can objectify what is not understood or valued by us. We can justify doing away with what is inconvenient and do as we please with life. We are absolutely under no obligation to live by faith, but we ought not complain when the practices of devaluation surface in our own personal lives in ways we did not anticipate.

Anon 1035

Ruffkin said...

Hi Val, Listen, as human being, I am very concerned about these trajedies. I hate this war. I hate suffering where ever it is especially when it is of children.
Abortion is something that I disagree with, however I think that a society where a woman beleives that abrtion is her only hope, has gone terribly wrong.
I understand that it is a womans body and it is thir choice. I just don't agrre that it is the right choice. The people that I know who have had abortions regreted it and now have a lot of emotional pain from the experience. They went on to have children the first chance they could. The nativity story is important in this issue. Perhaps because of the regrets and emotional problems people have after an abortion, these letter writers ascribe to the beleif that abortion is bad for the well being of people and that people would be better off with out abortion andsinse society is made up of people, then society would be better off with out abortion. Also society would be better off with out war and poverty and sickness and hunger.

Anonymous said...

Within a community of faith, the truth can be honored. In other words, it should be acknowledged if one does not, say, have a witness in their heart for unborn children, or hungry children in Africa or even wartime victims. But our small level of faith should not be exemplified as a virtue (righteous indignation) and used as a stone to throw at those who do not share the same level of faith.

Anon 1035

Kyle said...

Here's an idea for ya! Rob a liquor store and when the cops come to gitcha, hold up a sign 'hands off my body'. I mean we all have a right to our own bodies right? Or do those rights end where others begin. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Speedwell said...

Kyle, if there was a liquor store that was doing business out of my uterus, I think I would be entitled to rob it, manage it, or evict it if I chose. Hmmm, etc.

Kyle said...

Speedwell,
HUH? Liquor store in your uterus?

I was offering much deserved scoff to the idea that 'it's my body, I'll do what I want' line of reasoning which would be plain silly if it weren't intentionally blinded to the real baby growing in the womb.

Do you accept that your rights end where another's begin? If so, then the moral basis you use to define what we can and can't do with our bodies, depends on how it affects others (well being, bodies, property, etc.). Or are you an Anarchist?

So the real question is what is IT? Is it another person? It is living tissue growing into a human being. Can you prove that a pre born human is not yet a person? Are person and being seperate? If you cannot demonstrate that the fetus is a non-person, I cannot support the willful killing of it.

As Greg Koukl says so well, "If it is not an innocent human being, no justification is necessary. If it is an innocent human being, no justification is adequate."

Jim Jordan said...

They aren’t concerned with the high school students who are getting their limbs blown off in Iraq

Valerie, how does being pro-life equal "not being concerned about students whose limbs are being blown off"? I hear this non-sequitir all the time and quite frankly it doesn't make any more sense through repetition.

I do not see how your argument for abortion can be enough to convince anyone that this issue is settled. It's weak, although I feel better about giving up eating eggs.

BTW, how's your personhood emerging? When did you first become aware that you were a person? Note that this isn't a theistic debate as many atheists are pro-life based on scientific evidence.
Regards.

Michael Ejercito said...

As Greg Koukl says so well, "If it is not an innocent human being, no justification is necessary. If it is an innocent human being, no justification is adequate."
Actually, there is one justification for killing innocent human beings.

If those innocent human beings are foreign invaders, then it is justified to kill them. This has been a longstanding ethical principle.

Anonymous said...

Michael says
If those innocent human beings are foreign invaders, then it is justified to kill them. This has been a longstanding ethical principle.

Oxymoron alert!

Marty said...

Excellent post.

As for the vocal opponents of abortion rights, they need to be balanced vocally by those who know the facts.

Here is a copy of the letter to the editor I had published in The Buffalo News on Memorial Day:

What exactly is this ‘moment of conception?’

We hear a lot about the “moment of conception” when discussing abortion rights. Religious opponents believe this is the instant when a full, ensouled human being comes into existence.
But when is this moment? When the sperm enters the egg? No, that’s an unfertilized egg with a sperm inside it. No guarantees. How about during mitosis, when the two halves of DNA fuse together? That happens in minute increments over a full day—hardly a moment. No bell rings signaling a miracle like during Catholic transubstantiation.
Has this “moment” passed when the cell divides to two, or four, or a hundred? If you say yes, remember that twinning often takes place well after the stem cells become uncountable. Which lucky twin gets the soul? Don’t forget that upwards of half of these “full human beings” are naturally flushed out in the first 20 weeks, even after implanting in the uterine wall. “Chromosomal abnormalities” are the cause in 50 percent of these, suggesting mitosis—that is, conception—may not have completed correctly or at all (see “guarantee” above).
The fact is that there simply is no neatly packaged “moment of conception.” Stop saying it.

Of course I got some opposing replies, but they were both silly. One claimed that the moment of conception was when a couple decides to have a baby. That is, when the idea was conceived. The other tried desperately to deconstruct my position, assuming I didn't think of the first meeting of the sex cells and declaring in the end that the moment of conception is when the sperm enters the egg--the very moment my letter pointed out to NOT be the moment.

Kyle said...

Marty said:
"As for the vocal opponents of abortion rights, they need to be balanced vocally by those who know the facts."

Oh, now I see the light! There are 'opponents of abortion rights' and 'those who know the facts.' I reckin I should do some more book lernin' so I can see that killin' babies is OK, too!

But seriously, it is pretty simple when life begins. Fertilization. The 'moment' as you said may last a day for the DNA halves to fuse but by the time you have signs you are pregnant, the egg is fertilized. So equivocating about how long the moment takes does nothing but distract from the main issue: what is it?

I reject the idea that an acorn is not an oak. What is true is that an acorn is not a full mature oak tree, but it is still an oak. The essential oakiness (information in the cells, or the blueprint for that oak) exists inside the acorn. Nothing else on earth will grow an oak except an acorn, because nothing else is an oak. No other substance on earth will grow a human being except a fertilized human egg.

It must be hard for you to live with the cognitive dissonance of knowing that it is a growing human being. You know it is a growing human being or else you wouldn't try to kill it. You wouldn't have to kill it if it weren't alive. So we are dealing with living, growing, human beings in the earliest stages. Pointing out how the physical egg undergoes change, does not do anything to show that the egg is not human or cannot have a soul. If it is an innocent human you don't have a right to kill it.

Twinning is not a problem for people who believe in souls. The body is simply the vessel which the soul possesses. If the egg will divide to create two seperate bodies, then two souls are given because God knew the egg would split.

Citing cases where the body naturally rejects a fertilized egg does nothing to lend a moral capacity to humans to go into the womb and stop the process. God gives life, and God takes it away.

Logismous Kathairountes said...

Where is the line between a human being who can be murdered and an object which can be owned, or disposed of?

Nobody knows. Currently, in the US, the line (legally speaking) seems to be somewhere between six months after conception and the moment of birth.

Christian Fundamentalists are scared to death of committing murder - So we try to move the line backwards in time, just in case. If the line were at 3 months after conception, we would be scared that maybe some 2 months and 20 days fetus would count as a person (in God's eyes), and that we would have accidentally treated a person as an object, and murdered an innocent when we thought we were disposing of an object. So we always try to move the line backwards in time, just in case - because we understand that it's a gray area, and we believe so strongly in protecting the innocent.

We're horrified that the political left wing seems to want to move the line forwards in time. We simply cannot understand it. You guys always talk about protecting the innocent, right?

You know, there was a time when it was in question whether black people were people or objects to be owned. There was science behind it, called 'Eugenics'. It seemed plenty scientific at the time, at least. Don't you want to be on the side that, when it's a question of what's a person and what's an object, errs on the side of 'person', just in case?

It seems to us that you're being ageist the same way they were being racist back then.

We just don't understand it.

Benny said...

A person is classified as dead, both legally and scientifically, when s/he enters the state of permanent brain death. In the US, brain activity or the ability to resume brain activity is a necessary condition for legal personhood. Applying this standard to the other end of the life cycle yields a scientific method for determining when a fetus achieves personhood. As it turns out, the brain structures necessary for brain waves are not present before 20-24 weeks, meaning it is flat out impossible for brain waves to exist prior to this time. Thus, we can say that personhood does not begin until after the 20th week of gestation.

Those who wish to object because they believe a fetus possesses a soul from the moment of conception, must first convince the rest of us of the existence of souls.

Anonymous said...

Abortion involves killing. The zygote, which fulfills the criteria needed to establish the existence of biological life (metabolism, development, the ability to react to stimuli, and cell reproduction), is indeed terminated. Abortion kills human beings. The child that is terminated is the product of human parents and has a totally distinct human genetic code. Although the emerging embryo does not have a fully developed personality, it does have complete personhood from the moment of conception.

It's really not suprising that Darwinists support the holocaust and the eating of babies.

Benny said...

Abortion involves killing. The zygote, which fulfills the criteria needed to establish the existence of biological life (metabolism, development, the ability to react to stimuli, and cell reproduction), is indeed terminated.

Yes, a zygote is a living organism. So are dairy animals, trees, and bacteria. The question is, does abortion necessarily involve killing of *human beings*?

Abortion kills human beings.

Nice, way to skip the whole "discussion" thing by asserting your conclusion as fact :)

The child that is terminated is the product of human parents and has a totally distinct human genetic code.

If the zygote doesn't have personhood at the time of abortion, it's not a child.

Although the emerging embryo does not have a fully developed personality, it does have complete personhood from the moment of conception.

Again, you simply assert your conclusion as if it's fact. I've described my definition of personhood. Tell me why I'm wrong, and why you're right.

It's really not suprising that Darwinists support the holocaust and the eating of babies.

I've seen a lot baseless statements before, but this really takes the cake! I nominate this for the "statement pulled out of thin air" award! Exactly who do you see supporting the Holocaust and baby-eating?

LivingDust said...

Benny,

A zygote, left undisturbed to term in a mothers womb, becomes what?

Answer - an infant human being.

Your death culture logic is quite sickening. Abortion is a convenience killing. Rarely are abortions to "save the mother".

Benny said...

A zygote, left undistubed in a mother's womb, dies in up to 50% of the cases:

LINK

It doesn't seem like God cares all that much about zygotes, eh?

And once again, potential for X != X. Or do you think super-markets should charge as much for a single egg as they do for an entire chicken? If so, you should really act on your convictions and go give your grocer all the money you've been with-holding from them by under-paying for your eggs all this time!

If you still want to insist that personhood begins at conception, please address my argument that personhood only exists when brain waves exist.

Abortion is a convenience killing. Rarely are abortions to "save the mother".

Would you care to back this up?

LivingDust said...

Benny,

Here's some data for your Benny:
http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/psrh/full/3711005.pdf

I repeat - abortion is a convenience killing. You can't refute the data.

A zygote cannot have brainwaves until it DEVELOPS to a certain point. It must be ALIVE to develop. Abortion kills DEVELOPING HUMAN BEINGS.

I know its hard for you Benny. The brainwashing you have undergone is difficult to overcome.

Benny said...

Thank you for your willingness to support a statement with concrete data. The data does indeed show that only a minority of abortions are performed due to "save the mother", as you put it. However, the data doesn't seem to support your charge of "convenience killing":

Yet some broad concepts emerged from the study. A cross-cutting theme was women’s responsibility to children and other dependents, as well as considerations about children they may have in the future. Most women in every age, parity, relationship, racial, income and education category cited concern for or responsibility to other individuals as a factor in their decision to have an abortion. In contrast to the perception (voiced by politicians and laypeople across the ideological spectrum) that women who choose abortion for reasons other than rape, incest and life endangerment do so for “convenience,” our data suggest that after carefully assessing their individual situations, women base their decisions largely on their ability to maintain economic stability and to care for the children they already have. (pg. 117)

Do you consider having an abortion based on consideration of the ability to maintain economic stability and care for the children one already has a "convenience killing"? If so, then by your reasoning using any type of birth-control also constitutes a "convenience killing", does it not? After all, sperm and eggs, in the natural course of things, become what? Answer - a zygote. So unless you use no form of birth control whatsoever, I guess you are also a convenience killer?

You said:

A zygote cannot have brainwaves until it DEVELOPS to a certain point.

Agreed!

It must be ALIVE to develop.

As mentioned before, I also agree that a zygote constitutes living matter.

Abortion kills DEVELOPING HUMAN BEINGS.

Developing, yep, but human beings? Please tell me by what standard a zygote qualifies as a human being. Telling me it has a soul doesn't work, since you haven't given me any evidence for the existence of souls. And the argument that a zygote = a human being because it has the *potential* to become a human being doesn't work, unless you've already gone to your grocer to give back all the money you've withheld from them by under-paying for your eggs, I mean potential chickens, all this time? And I'm still waiting for you to give me a convincing reason why my brain-wave standard of personhood doesn't work.