Thursday, May 9, 2013

Williams: How many fetuses can dance on the head of a pin?

The Courier's current bearer of the torch for reactionary anti-thought on the editorial page, retired cop Buz Williams, pulls another index card from his box of right-wing talking points and compares fetuses to slaves, building on this an argument that they deserve legal protection as full citizens.

The magical thinking begins in the first sentence, where Buz disregards the blood, sacrifice and hard work of our forebears to ascribe the rise of this nation to magical intervention, fairly warning that the column will not be about logical thought.

So why even read it, let alone respond? It's not as if the people like Buz, who've bought deeply into this circular mind-trap, will ever be convinced otherwise. But I have to believe that there are far more people who are not so committed and would like to see a path to resolving this persistent open wound in American political discourse.

After spending half the column on an embarrassing logical failure to equate the enslavement of black people with sensible family planning, he builds his argument on the idea that a fetus has human DNA, and so must be a citizen. Logical reduction leads to giving my fingernail parings the vote. But it's interesting that even in his bleary attempt to be expansive in his definition of what is legally human, he chooses an arbitrary, science-based limit, which is fertilization.

Digging a little further into this line of thought shows that any choice like this is equally arbitrary. In reality the reproductive process is a smooth continuum in which a woman and a child slowly diverge, starting while she is still a fetus and her eggs are developing with her. It's only our perceptual decisions that make a child separate at any point.

For the time being we are guided by millennia of tradition in recognizing the new human upon its successful birth, as seen in our Constitution, which assigns citizenship rights based on being "born." But we have to admit that this is as arbitrary as any other choice.

We are in a time of transition for women from essentially zero control over conception to, at some point in the relatively near future, complete control. Once a woman can and does consciously determine whether she will conceive, the barbarity of abortion will recede into history. But in the meantime we have to make a choice in law about how to deal with the conflict inherent in an unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy.

That choice is well established and I have little fear that the magical thinkers will do anything but harm their cause by insisting that fetal rights have priority over the mother's.

But I have a suggestion for the transition period. I would happily support a law reassigning the arbitrary choice of when a person begins to exist from the state to the mother. In other words, if you believe that your fetus should be recognized as a citizen, you can make that choice and accept the associated responsibilities and risks. Not fathers, because they risk much less, only mothers, and only their specific fetus, not someone else's. Birth becomes the outside limit at which the state takes over.

Accepting this compromise would give the religionists the beginning of the legal structure they want and show their commitment to a solution.

They won't, of course, because their objection to abortion and contraception has never been about the rights of the child. It has always been about paternalist control over the woman. It's not that they want  new rights for fetuses, rather they want fewer rights for women. As long as this is the basis for the conflict, it will not end, and sensible people will continue to resist it.

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