Billions and billions of yawns: More than once, Carl Sagan's piece on abortion has been called a classic on the subject. Orders of magnitude more profound than what you normally get. I just had to read it to get the final word. But, alas, it was let down. Here are a few quotes and my reaction:
Sagan: Why, then, should it be murder to kill an infant the day after it was born but not the day before? As a practical matter, this isn't very important: Less than 1percent of all tabulated abortions in the United States are listed in the last three months of pregnancy.
Me: Around 20,000 late-term abortions are performed each year in the U.S. That's more than all the murders. It's like Sagan is saying murder isn't very important because that's a drop in the bucket compared to all the people who die each year from smoking.
Sagan: So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg--despite the fact that it's only potentially a baby--why isn't it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?
Me: This is idiotic. What makes us distinctively human creatures is our genome. How far can I possibly go back? To when I was a zygote. I can go back no farther, but I do go back that far.
Sagan: When the unfertilized egg is expelled each month, has someone died?
Me: Again, idiotic. Billions and billions of arguments to make, and you choose this one? We're supposed to rely on THIS guy for deep thought?
Sagan: In its first decade, the AMA began lobbying against abortions performed by anyone except licensed physicians. New knowledge of embryology, the physicians said, had shown the fetus to be human even before quickening.
Their assault on abortion was motivated not by concern for the health of the woman but, they claimed, for the welfare of the fetus. You had to be a physician to know when abortion was morally justified, because the question depended on scientific and medical facts understood only by physicians. At the same time, women were effectively excluded from the medical schools, where such arcane knowledge could be acquired.
Me: So, advances in embryology turn doctors against abortion. Science begins to disapprove of the practice, and our esteemed scientist promptly turns into a flag-waving feminist.
Sagan: When does the fetus become human? When do distinct and characteristic human qualities emerge?
Me: That's an easy one, dipshit. The moment an organism contains a human genome that will build a fully formed person. Sagan continues the rest of his argument as if he were a first grader, describing pictures of an embryo. As you read his points, imagine the voice of little Carl:
Sagan: Every one of us began from a dot.
Me: Genius, and scientifically on the dot. I thought Sagan was an astronomer, but he was clearly an embryologist.
Sagan: By the third week...it looks a little like a segmented worm.
Me: Oh, does it wook like an itty bitty woom, Cawrl?
Sagan: By the end of the fourth week... it looks rather like a newt or a tadpole.
Me: Such a big boy, knowing what a newt is!
Sagan: The trouble with these particular developmental milestones is not just that they're arbitrary. More troubling is the fact that none of them involves uniquely human characteristics--apart from the superficial matter of facial appearance. All animals respond to stimuli and move of their own volition. Large numbers are able to breathe. But that doesn't stop us from slaughtering them by the billions. Reflexes and motion are not what make us human.
Me: Probably a 5,000 word essay that never mentions the word... genome. Or genes. Or chromosomes. His principal approach to the question of what constitutes a human being is what an organism looks like. Betty Friedan doesn't look like a human, but I'm pretty sure she is.
I'm afraid that I failed to find a single fresh idea in the essay. In my view, I can advance the debate farther in 80 words, or with all the words I can say while hopping on one foot. Humans start out as zygotes with all the information needed to build a fully formed person, but there are important developments in between the two points. It simply can't be known at which specific moment the baby is close enough to you and me to count, and if you do not have the knowledge that an organism is not similar enough to deserve the same treatment as you and me, it is immoral to legally allow someone to kill it.
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