Before answering this question, it is imperative to truly define murder. To me, “murder” is an intentional, malicious act which serves to terminate the biological functioning of an innocent individual. Of course, this definition then begs the question of what exactly constitutes an individual. Surely plants are not considered individuals, yet a coma patient is. I think that the easiest way to define an “individual person” is both the possession of an advanced central nervous system and the capacity for physiological self-sufficiency. By these terms, a fetus in the first three months of pregnancy is not an individual person.

In the first few weeks of development, the cluster of embryonic cells may divide into two separate embryos and result in identical twins. If an individual person is created at the exact moment of conception, then how is this possible? Were there two individuals encapsulated in that single zygote? Did one more person somehow enter the womb upon the splitting of the embryo? Even more troubling than this split is the subsequent possible fusion of these two identical embryos back into a single embryo. Did two individuals just become one individual? Which one is dominant, then? Another possible scenario is for two fraternal embryos—resulting from two separately fertilized zygotes—to merge into one single embryo; a baby resulting from this is known as a chimera. This scenario is even more dubious for the individualism of embryos, as this is the fusion of two entirely unique genetic combinations. The lack of development of any central nervous system in any of these embryos seems to be the clearest factor in preventing the identification of an “individual.”

But even beyond the status of a fetus as an individual or not, there is still the issue of physiological self-sufficiency. In this respect, I think of certain cases of conjoined twins. Sometimes when two children are born fused together with shared organs, the physiological structures are only able to support one twin beyond infancy. Parents may be faced with the decision to surgically separate the two children, even if the separation will surely result in one child’s death. Is this murder? If one child is separated from another and unable to survive on its own—despite doctors’ best attempts to help the weaker child—can we really say that the child was murdered? The capacity for independence seems imperative in determining whether a death is really a murder. Similarly, when a fetus is aborted, nothing is done to the physical structure of the fetus. All that happens is the dependent fetus’ link to the mother’s womb is severed. Were the fetus capable of self-sufficiency—as is the case in late-term pregnancy—then the fetus would not die. It is this inability for self-sufficiency that causes the death of the fetus, not any harm done to its physical being.

Of course, the issue of self-sufficiency could be seen to raise an issue with the care of disabled people. I fully understand the unfortunate parallels that may be drawn given that many disabled people require varying levels of assistance to complete daily activities. However, I find that the discerning factor is the first criteria of an individual: possession of an advanced central nervous system, particularly the cerebral cortex. Most people with physical disabilities have absolutely no cognitive impairment. But even for those who do, needing physical or verbal assistance in completing a task is entirely different from requiring biological support to complete bodily functions. I think that there is a marked difference between general self-sufficiency and physiological self-sufficiency. Someone may require that I prepare food for their dinner, but they do not require using my physical body to digest the food and extract its nutritional value.

In the end, a fetus in the early stages of pregnancy does not possess a developed central nervous system, nor is it physiologically self-sufficient. Therefore, this fetus cannot be considered a unique human individual; as such, the removal of this fetus from the uterine wall does not constitute murder.

Philosophy class assignment, 18 February 2010

Also, I fully admit that I am not a science major. If I have been inaccurate on any matters of biology, I apologize and welcome any corrections.

Originally posted here.

Views: 22

Tags: abortion, biology, ethics, murder, pregnancy

Comment by Graham E. Lau on February 18, 2010 at 3:48pm
The science sounds good to me.

Individuality is a character that is assigned by humans to describe our human existence. You raise some very good questions considering when a developing zygote becomes an individual person and no religions have offered any substantial means of answering this question. Which is pretty off, since they claim that human fetuses are individuals but have no means of backing this up beyond what they feel rather than what they think. Indeed, most research has actually shown that even newborn infants are not capable of conscious thought. They are responsive biologically, but truly have no conscious consideration of the state of being "I" or "me".

The argument of individuality is a difficult one to work with, because we still really don't have a good definition of when individuality begins.

I support abortion because it should be a woman's choice what she does with her body, it should be consenting adults' choices whether or not they are ready to have children, and society benefits by abortion.

I was a father for three days. When i was 17 my 16 year old girlfriend became pregnant with our son. We talked long and thoroughly about our choices. We decided to give our son up for adoption. I met him for the first time since we gave him to his parents about 1.5 years ago. He looked very happy. When I was 17 I couldn't possibly have provided him with the life he deserved. Though we chose adoption, I am so very glad that abortion was a choice and we had been given the right by our society to consider our choices.
Comment by Skycomet the Fallen Angel on February 18, 2010 at 4:44pm
I agree shine. I think it isn't murder until the "age of viability" or what not. [when the fetus can live outside the womans body by itself] and by then, forcing labor would usually not kill the fetus at all.
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on February 18, 2010 at 4:53pm
Abortion discussions have been a pretty big theme on T.A. Here are a few threads you might find interesting.

http://www.thinkatheist.com/forum/topics/thoughts-from-an-abortion
http://www.thinkatheist.com/group/girlsofthinkatheist/forum/topics/...
(There was also another long one on Anti-Abortion Atheists, but I can't seem to find it now, damnit.)

I'm personally seeing about volunteering as an escort at the closest woman's clinic as soon as we get moved and settled.

Graham-
Kudos for sharing your story, and kudos for supporting your then-girlfriend in her choice.
Comment by Mike Donohoe on February 18, 2010 at 6:00pm
I think it could be a matter of degrees. Contraception prevents lives from coming to be but is in many respects I think more compassionate than the alternatives, including bringing more innocent lives into the world. I felt like a murderer quite honestly when I did my part to bring my son into existence. As you might imagine this was not entirely intentional on my part. On that note I love him very much and do all I can to be a good dad to him, yet all who live must one day die, and I am very concerned about population in relation to the environment, among other things.
Comment by Michel-san on February 18, 2010 at 6:51pm
I agree with your article, and it's very well written. It expresses the main ideas and the spirit of when a human begins while highlighting the difficulties inherent in writing down an exact definition and addressing them. Something I've not seen in similar articles.

I like the way you also argue a lower bound for the problem at the end. A stronger argument can be put forward for a lower bound than can be put forward for an exact time so that was well worth adding! This is also something I do not often see.
Comment by Wesley on February 18, 2010 at 7:06pm
I wrote a story about this once.. In the story I turned everything upside down. It was called LIFE 101... That was the name of the incubator. Developed by a doctor to help save premies....it kept getting revised to save them earlier and earlier until it could take a fetus to full term.

What's more, with the complete human genome mapping and genetic manipulation and the accessibility to the developing fetus that the incubator allowed, it became possible to prevent all known birth defects and diseases. It turned the pro-life and pro-choice groups on their ears. Radical pro-lifers started demanding that ALL natural pregnancies be aborted with the zygotes/fetuses placed in the Much safer incubator... Anyone who didn't comply was unnecessarily risking the potential childs health, and future happiness and fullfilling life.

This caused the religious right to switch sides from pro-life to pro-choice... for they believed in 'natural' pregnancies..even if they weren't as safe and their babies might be born with birth defects or disease.

The pro-lifers picketed outside the doors of hospitals that performed natural birthing. They harassed pregnant women telling them they were risking their childs life and health by CHOOSING to have that child naturally.

Pro Choicer's demanded the right to have their babies like God wanted them to!... Anyway I thought it was an interesting play on the idea..
Comment by a7 on February 18, 2010 at 7:46pm
abortion is not murder. end of, no matter what picture is painted.
Comment by Mike Donohoe on February 18, 2010 at 7:58pm
Sounds like a very cool story, Wesley. I write them myself among other things and now and again see publication.
Comment by Shine on February 18, 2010 at 8:27pm
Thanks to all for reading. :)

Graham, that is a powerful story. I know that it takes a phenomenal amount of strength to do what you and your girlfriend did. And I love that although you made that decision, you are appreciative that other options were at least available for your choice. That is really reflective of a wise perspective. Of course, I'm not surprised in the least that you would have such a reasonable stance, even if you do support the green ketchup. :D Also, thanks for checking on my science for me.

Sky, I agree that viability is the key issue here. However, I still have not really figured out where exactly I stand on near-viability, as in 20 weeks or so. I almost want to think that beyond the development of a full-fledged CNS, maybe the fetus does have some right to continue its development even if it means being physiologically dependent upon the mother. Of course, I would never suggest that the fetus has any right to develop that would excuse a significant health risk posed to the mother. (I really haven't thought this area through to well, and I'm veering off into an area I'm really not well-read on.) I guess I just wonder if there is "tipping point" where it would be wrong to deny the fetus its very final stages of development.

Misty, thanks for the links! I decided to flesh this essay out into my term paper for the class, so I am happy to have some extra resources.

Mike, I agree that contraceptive is always preferable. What drives me insane is that most pro-lifers also promote abstinence-only sex education, when this has been proven to be utterly ineffective against teen pregnancy. It's like they don't want to properly teach teens how to prevent pregnancy, and then they want to punish them for making an uneducated mistake.

Michel-san, thank you. :) I really try to at least address the opposing argument, or think through the possible counterpoints to my own argument.

Wesley, how long is your story? Can you post it, or at least an excerpt, somewhere? (There was a thread on the Atheist Writers group for peer review at one point.) I love the plot twist, very interesting.

a7, straight and to the point. Perfect. :)
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on February 19, 2010 at 12:25am
I agree shine. I think it isn't murder until the "age of viability" or what not.
Even after the age of viability, there are still distinct medical reasons for late term abortions.
Here is a good list of why some women decide to end their pregnancies at a later date. I would think very VERY carefully about calling them murders.
http://prustice.wordpress.com/2009/04/26/medical-reasons-for-late-t...

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