Tuesday, September 15, 2009

You Cannot Reason with a Pro-Choice Atheist (Continued)

What follows is the rest of my correspondence with atheist Marie Castle. She picks up where we left off:
    Here is the bottom line: The woman's welfare is far far more important in these matters. How much damage would you have your wife suffer to continue a disastrous pregnancy? So maybe she might be willing, but does that mean every woman who is not willing should be forced to suffer. A few years ago then-Sen. Dave Durenburger's wife was pregnant and was diagnosed with cancer. The medical opinion was that, to save her life, the pregnancy had to be aborted. She, being a good Catholic, refused and chose to forego cancer treatment and let the pregnancy proceed. She died, the baby lived. That was her choice. However, Sen. Durenburger was staunchly anti-abortion and supported legislation that would force his wife's decision on every woman in similar circumstances. Where is the morality in forcing all women in such circumstances to abide by Catholic doctrine?

    As for abortion and fetal development, Catholic theology is that abortion is wrong primarily because the fetus dies without being baptized and baptism is essential to removing original sin so the soul can enter heaven (I'm remembering my years as a devout Catholic here). That is while canon law prescribes excommunication for having/doing an abortion, but lists infanticide as only an ordinary mortal sin. The teaching has until recently been that unbaptized fetuses go to limbo, described as a place of earthly-type happiness but without the ultimate happiness of heaven and seeing god face to face. Now that the pope has decided limbo doesn't really exist and unbaptized fetuses can presumably go straight to heaven, the theological objection to abortion no longer exists.

    However, there is the matter of when ensoulment occurs. This is another theological problem because Catholic theology defines personhood as occurring at the moment of ensoulment. Before ensoulment, abortion was allowed because of the absence of personhood. Over the centuries, when ensoulment happens has varied. At one time it was thought to occur at "quickening" (about 5 months gestation) because of the Bible story of Mary (pregnant with Jesus) visiting her cousin Elizabeth (who was also pregnant) and Elizabeth saying "the babe in my womb leaped for joy" at the arrival of the in untero Jesus. Another idea was that ensoulment occurred at 40 days gestation for a male fetus and at 80 days for a female fetus. The difference was because it took females longer to become human. The only consistent objection to abortion the Catholic Church has had has been if the pregnancy was the result of sin.

    Lately, the discovery of DNA has led the pope to decide ensoulment and therefore personhood begins at conception. However, this runs up against canon law again, where priests are instructed on baptism. They are told that, in the case of the birth of a severely defective child, a "monstrosity," the baptism must be given only conditionally, just in case the "monstrosity" is human. So it seems that it's not enough to have human DNA to qualify as an ensouled person, one must also be assembled properly.

    The Catholic Church is not really all that concerned with preserving fetuses as it is its claim to infallibility. I talked with a local anti-abortion Catholic leader about what penalties the Church would like to see applied to women who have abortions. He said they weren't much interested in punishing anyone, their main interest was having the law reflect Catholic doctrine. That's true. For many years when abortion was illegal, clandestine abortions were commonly available. I remember those days. Catholic publications went on about the evil of abortion and dismissed the many deaths of women from botched abortions as "the wages of sin." Hardly ever did they make any attempt to shut down the clandestine operations and certainly never, as far as I knew, even editorialize against them. That the law validated Catholic doctrine was really all the Church cared about.

    This figures, given the Church's history regarding women. Let's consider the Council of Ma├žon in France in 585. The bishops gathered there agonized for weeks over whether women could be considered human. They finally voted 32-31 that women were, well, at least not part of the animal kingdom. As recently as 1912, the Catholic Encyclopedia declared that women are inferior to men "both as regards body and soul."

    For a church that has had such a hard time even deciding if women are human, their position on abortion looks like just more of the same desire for absolute control of women.

    Bottom line: You can be just as anti-abortion as you like. All I care about is that you keep your religious beliefs out of our laws. Personhood does not begin with conception. There is no such thing as a single-celled person!
I responded:
    Thanks for the lesson in Catholic church history, but I'm Protestant. We don't much care what the Catholic position is. Our authority is the word of God. Sola scriptura and all that.

    I realize that as an atheist you don't care what the Bible has to say, but what about simple biology? Conception occurs when the egg is fertilized by the sperm. The cells immediately begin dividing, and all of the genetic information that person will have as an adult is already present. If it isn't a person -- whether one, two, or three cells -- then what is it? A kangaroo? A frog? A rock?

    I don't believe size matters in determining personhood. A newborn baby is no less of a person than her mother. Someone who is 5' 3" is no less of a person than someone who is 7' 5".

    When do YOU believe personhood begins? I think it's important to find that out if you're going to insist on putting YOUR religious beliefs into our laws.
    It's really not realistic to say personhood begins at conception because the whole gestation process can off the track. When a fertilized egg starts developing and attaches to the uterus, the first thing formed is the placenta, without which a fetus cannot develop. Sometimes the process stops there and all you have is a placenta. Very likely these are the very early abortions, maybe so early the woman experiences only a somewhat late period. It's quite a stretch to say that placenta was a person, even though it contains human DNA.

    Sometimes the fetus does start to develop but things go wrong and what should be various body parts ends up looking like a bunch of grapes - nothing remotely human, although still with human DNA. Along the way various parts don't form. When it's the brain (anencephaly), it's hard to say it's a person because the brain is where personhood lies. Anti-abortionists like to point out the early stages when there is a beating heart as a sign of personhood, but the heart develops in stages. The early 2-chamber heart is at the lizard level of evolutionary development. Persons have a 4-chamber heart. Gestation pretty much goes through the evolutionary stages, with a tail, gills and other such things that drop away as gestation proceeds. During the 1st trimester, when the vast majority of abortions are performed, there really isn't enough there to say it's a person, especially since the most significant part - cognitive development, that all-important brain - is still several months away, and a lot could still go wrong that would make "personhood" questionable at best.

    Where terribly wrong things show up is generally at the boundary of the 2nd and 3rd trimesters. By that time, the woman is either carrying a wanted fetus or has decided not to have an abortion. By that time, almost no abortions are performed for other than medical reasons, and it's no fun, believe me. When I was Catholic I had this experience but, being Catholic, continued the pregnancy, carrying a fetus with an 89% chance of being seriously defective. I filled up with 40 pounds of fluid so I could not walk without great pain, and could not lie down without considerable discomfort. My internal organs were being badly compressed so it was hard to breathe. On top of that was the mental stress. By the 8th month the doctor said he would induce labor because there was no point in me going through all that misery for nothing. You should know that abortions are extremely dangerous to perform during the 3rd trimester and they are done only in the most extreme circumstances. What doctors try to do is either induce labor or do a c-section if the woman's condition allows it.

    So my doctor induced labor and I had a 4-pound girl who looked OK until it turned out that her intestines had not formed properly and were almost totally just a fibrous mass. Also, her esophagus was solid instead of hollow. She could not eat. It took her a few days to starve to death. But isn't it wonderful that she got baptized? Yeah, sure. One of those late-term abortions the anti-abortion people so abhor and trivialize and even say (as one did) that women have them just because they are tired of being pregnant and want to fit into their little black dress, would have saved all concerned a lot of pain and suffering. (Want to hear about that little black dress? Go to [http://www.atheistvoices.com/pages/castle.html] and listen to me debate religious right talk show host Todd Friel.

    The bottom line is that pregnancy and childbirth are physically and mentally (in addition to social and economic problems) not a walk in the park. If doctors were required to tell women all the things that could go wrong in a pregnancy (as they are required to "inform" women about abortion, as though women don't know what pregnancy is) there would probably be a lot more abortions. Why do you think obstetrics is a medical specialty? Here's a list of just the problems I can think of, many of which I have personally experienced in the 10 pregnancies I went through (this does not include late miscarriages - at about 4 months - from which I very nearly died. It was a horrendous experience): toxemia, high blood pressure, pernicious vomiting, ectopic pregnancy, hemorrhaging, anemia, breech birth, placenta previa, and eclampsia. All of these can be life-threatening.

    There are also the social and economic realities to consider, which can cause considerable hardship. And all these are borne personally by the woman involved. Giving her a year's supply of diapers and holding her hand and patting her condescendingly on the head as though she's some airhead incapable of running her own life are of no help.

    Please have the decency to respect women's decision as to what they should do about a problem pregnancy. People who don't believe in abortions are entirely free to not have one, but they have no business forcing their shaky philosophical notions about "personhood" on people who think otherwise. The only 100% real person in all this, and the only one who is the 100% sufferer is the woman. Leave her alone.
    You still have not addressed my question about when personhood begins. I am sorry for the hardships you have gone through, but we are still talking about innocent human life.

    Just as in any other medical emergency, I think everything should be done during a problem pregnancy to save both mother and baby. I realize that there are circumstances that may arise in which doctors may have to choose to save the mother's life over the child's, but those are few and far between. No pro-lifer I know would insist on killing the mother to save the child. However, you're arguing a moot point since you believe that all women should be able to have an abortion at any time for any reason.

    Is a baby a person two weeks before it is born? Is it a person two weeks after it is born? Two years? It seems to me that someone who doesn't believe in God, yet believes in a woman's "right to choose," would grant women the "choice" at any point during their role as mother to have an abortion. I am concerned about when personhood begins; you seem to shrug off the issue as if it doesn't exist.

    This all goes back to our presuppositions. I believe in God, the Creator of the universe and ultimate Law-Giver. My morality extends from that. You don't believe in God, but you insist on using terms like "right" and "wrong," even though such concepts cannot be accounted for in a naturalistic worldview.
    This is going nowhere. You have a belief based on the idea that there is a god somewhere (what does it consist of and where is it located?) that has set some rules about pregnancy. These amount to a requirement that, where reproductive matters are concerned, it's OK and in fact preferable, to throw women under the bus. Who cares about her welfare? All pregnancies must be brought to term if at all possible, and what happens to the woman is not even a factor. The woman is simple a vessel, and a disposable one at that. She should be only a public utility subject to government regulation. Given the shaky gestational process, the only rational position is that personhood begins at birth. The U.S. Constitution defines a citizen as "a person born or naturalized in the United States." The key word id "born." That is the point where government reasonably steps in to protect that BORN person. Before that, the situation is in the woman's hands because it is her body and her life circumstances being affected and no government or individual can step in to do anything meaningful.

    As for morality, mine is harm-based. It is wrong to cause harm unnecessarily. It is wrong because society cannot function if people go around harming each other. It is a human-centered morality based on human needs an circumstances. Your morality is based on what you imagine some imaginary god wants, with no basis in reality, only in your interpretation of something written 2000 years ago by people who thought the Earth was flat. There is no basis for granting them credibility to determine who we are to live today. Only reason, compassion and real-world consequences can help us develop a moral social system. Your willingness to force women to suffer all manner of harm to satisfy what you think your imaginary god wants show how immoral your views are. You will have to prove to me that your version of a god exists. Tell me what it consists of and where it is located and how you know, and also how you know what it wants and I will consider that you have a case worth discussing. Without that, all I see is a guy so besotted with religious beliefs that he can't see the humanity in women but can see the most sacred and valued and precious humanity possible in a fertilized egg. In any other but a religious context you could be committed to a mental institution for having so thoroughly lost touch with reality.
My concluding remarks:
    You may not realize it, but you just refuted yourself using your own "moral" arguments. Before I get to that, however, let's sum up your position.

    Your "harm-based" moral system is dependent upon "compassion and real-world consequences," yet you have no objective standard by which one can determine the difference between what is harmful and what is compassionate. Someone who kills another person does so after having justified the action in his own mind. Person A may think that his own welfare depends on the death of Person B. B disagrees, naturally, but why should his opinion carry any more weight than A's? In fact, B's death may mean the improvement of the welfare of 10, 100, or even 1,000 people. Such things must be considered when using a purely naturalistic approach to morality. Nothing is wrong just because it is wrong. One person's idea of harm isn't necessarily shared by others, and since you don't believe in an objective moral standard, then you are in no position to tell anyone that their actions are immoral.

    Now, here is where your naturalistic, harm-based morality falls apart when it comes to abortion. You said, "It is wrong because society cannot function if people go around harming each other." (Of course, that all depends on how you define harm, which you have yet to do.) If every woman were to abort each pregnancy, society wouldn't just fail to function, it would cease to exist. You can see the dilemma you have created for yourself. You claim that doing harm to others is wrong because it in turn harms society at large, yet if every woman were to do that which you claim is perfectly moral (i.e. kill the non-person growing inside of her), then that would completely destroy the society you seek to protect. And I'm the one who has lost touch with reality?

    You are correct to point out that this is going nowhere. Ben Franklin* was also right when he noted the futility of trying to reason people out of a position they had not reasoned themselves into.

    I will be praying for you, Marie. No amount of discussion or debate will convince you. Only the Holy Spirit is able to open your eyes and heart to the Truth.
I encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to also pray for Marie and anyone else they may know with similar convictions, because no one can be reasoned or argued into the Kingdom.

* This quote has been attributed to Ben Franklin, but it is probably more accurately attributed to Jonathan Swift.


Anonymous said...

My son, you have become a man!! I thank God every day for you Reason on!!

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Dear Lee,

I haven't visited your blog in a while. Just did today and just read both of your posts about your e-dialogue with ex-Catholic, now-atheist pro-abortionist Marie.

Wow. Thanks for sharing this with the blogosphere. Very insightful and revealing.

Furthermore, it shows that occasionally there are limits to what valid, sound, and solid reasoning can do in terms of penetrating through overwrought emotionalism. When a heart becomes as hardened as Marie's (and others like her), then while it's incumbent upon us to show her the logical and biblical reasons to abandon her pro-abortion position, at some point in time it is appropriate to shake the dust off your feet and pray for her.

Chris Wilde said...

Impressive arguments. Lee, your thoughts here are very well-composed. Indeed, your argument about the virtual impossibility of establishing some border at which "life begins" is the reason my agnosticism has not led me to be pro-choice. I still consider the legal and moral matters of protecting life to be more important than those of protecting choice. And clearly your and Dawn's life experiences are a powerful defense against the flawed ideas the pro-choice crowd has about the supposed social pathologies that drive the pro-life crowd.

I would caution, though, against depending too much on the "basis of one's moral beliefs" argument. You tend to use that angle when it comes to a great many issues, and though it may flummox some of the opposition by drawing them off-course into a sort of philosophical "land war in Asia", I think it's objectively flawed. That's because nobody, including yourself, can really explain the foundation of their moral beliefs absolutely. Christians like to point to the Bible, but the Bible is only a couple thousand years old, and it didn't just appear out of the clouds. The Bible's moral ideas ultimately come from older sources, and nobody except someone who already agrees with you for other reasons is going to be content with an answer that the Bible's moral system just "came from God". Non-Christians will try to point some other basis for their moral principles. Some of them older than the Bible, some of them newer, some of them just parallel in time, and all of them equally arbitrary and ultimately circular.

I look forward to seeing whether Marie can actually express some basis for when life begins to deserve protection. But I don't expect either her or your arguments about who has the most absolute moral foundation to be enlightening or productive.

Lee Shelton said...

You say there are sources older than the Bible upon which people have based their morality. However, if the Bible is the inspired word of God, then it just isn't possible to find a source older than that which created the universe. As it stands, the Bible is the most reliable, consistent, and manuscript-supported book in history. By any standard used in a court of law, I think the Bible holds up rather well.

Now, I realize that as fallible human beings we can never "prove" anything 100%. The reason I tend to focus on moral foundations is because every shred of evidence we observe is interpreted according to our presuppositions. In Marie's case, her atheistic presuppositions have virtually destroyed her ability to think rationally. She is making moral judgments with no foundation whatsoever, and her conclusions are completely arbitrary. Our moral foundations inform our entire worldviews, so if that foundation is flawed, everything that follows will be flawed.

Anonymous said...

Marie stated that life begins when one is "born" according the US. Isn't there also a Federal law that states that if one murders a pregnant woman they are tried for the deaths of not one being, but two? These two things seem to contradict eachother.

Samuel Skinner said...

"If it isn't a person -- whether one, two, or three cells -- then what is it? A kangaroo? A frog? A rock?"

A human fetus. Personhood is defined by the mind.

"When do YOU believe personhood begins?"

When the brain starts functioning at a level above that of animals we eat. I believe that is around 8 months, but I'm not positive.

"It seems to me that someone who doesn't believe in God, yet believes in a woman's "right to choose," would grant women the "choice" at any point during their role as mother to have an abortion."

While pregnant a women cannot get rid of a fetus by any means other than abortion. After pregnancy there is no physical connection between a mother and child forcing them together.

"I believe in God, the Creator of the universe and ultimate Law-Giver. My morality extends from that. "

How does that work? I hear it often, but I don't see how believing God is the ultimate law giver provides morality. After all, plenty of people throughout history have believed that and gotten rather different results.

"In fact, B's death may mean the improvement of the welfare of 10, 100, or even 1,000 people."

Isn't that exactly how the military works?

"since you don't believe in an objective moral standard, then you are in no position to tell anyone that their actions are immoral."

That is where reality comes in. We can measure the effects of differet beliefs and the ones that give the greatest benefits are obviously the correct one.

"If every woman were to abort each pregnancy, society wouldn't just fail to function, it would cease to exist."

Correct. And if everyone ate candy until they exploded society would fall apart. Which is why we must ban chocolate.

Anonymous said...

I think this Marie is out of touch with reality concerning the abortion issue. First of all, rather than abortion, Marie should be advocating adoption. Just because it is extremely painful for a mother to give up her own child to adoption, it doesn't mean she will regret her decision later, and it certainly doesn't mean the adoption will end in disaster, either. Most adoptions are successful, by the way. Secondly, what right does Marie have to claim that it is morally wrong to harm others when she turns around and supports abortion knowing full well the harm abortion causes the fetus? And just because we start out as a single cell, and anything bad can happen during the pregnancy at any moment, it doesn't mean the baby should be stripped of its personhood. If two human beings got together and created this child, and these two human beings are persons, then I guess that fertilized egg has become a person, too, since it eventually develops into a human being, capable of feeling pain, by the way, because if this child were born prematurely, it would be able to feel pain, too. This means that an unborn child of the same gestational age as this preemie can also feel pain. Anyway, it is Marie and others like her who are out of touch with reality, not the author of this Blog.

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