Sunday, September 5, 2021

 Abortion: Analysis and a "Technological-Fix" Thought Experiment

(From 14 February 2009)

 


     The medical problems of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remind us that the lull we're experiencing in the culture wars will soon be over. Before the figurative wars, and very literal tempers, flare up again, I'd like to discuss (calmly) the two most-opposed positions.

     My over-riding points are the unoriginal ones that both sides have their logic and morality, that because of these different "logics" and moralities the most-opposed positions are irreconcilable — but that the majority of Americans can, very messily, compromise.

     For a "Pro-Choice" position in one pure form, note that whatever human beings are includes our bodies, and that control of one's body is central to freedom.

     "Your soul belongs to Jesus," the movie drill instructor yells, "but your ass belongs to me!" So military draftees know a thing or two about bodily freedom and the lack thereof, as do prisoners, slaves, gays, and other oppressed guys. Women know more: control of women by men has rested on control of women's bodies, primarily control of sex and reproduction. Therefore women's liberation requires that women assert control over their bodies, most especially over sex and reproduction.

     If women are to be free, they must be able to avoid pregnancy through contraception and free to terminate unwanted pregnancies, especially those caused by rape or by being denied contraception.

     For one coherent "Pro-Life" position, human beings are essentially souls, in traditional Christianity souls to be saved or damned. In Catholic teaching, such humanity begins at conception: when sperm and egg combine to form a unique human zygote, a new human individual, with a soul.

     As a fact, not a position, "There's always a death in an abortion"; the serious question is "What dies?" In the theory of souls, a human being dies, an unborn human baby, and, for many, an unbaptized human being, releasing a soul laden with Original Sin.

     With both of these clear and coherent positions, abortion is not open to compromise.

     Continued subordination of women will not be allowed by those who want women free of male domination.

     The damnation of a single soul is an infinite loss, and even lowering the stakes to bodily life and death, it is immoral to bargain with the lives of babies.

     So most people who are logically consistent and rigorous on abortion have trouble accepting the trimester compromise of Roe versus Wade: "The Court ruled that the state cannot restrict a woman's right to an abortion during the first trimester, the state can regulate the abortion procedure during the second trimester 'in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health', and the state can choose to restrict or proscribe abortion as it sees fit during the third trimester when the fetus is viable ('except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother')" <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roe_v._Wade>.

     Most of us, though, are fuzzy in our logic, unphilosophical, and conflicted on abortion. And that is where there is hope for a political resolution.

     For most of us, a human being is, among other things, a complex animal with a backbone and brain. And one translation of Ecclesiastes 11.5 in the Bible suggests that how a soul gets into the growing "limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman" — and I assume when — is a formula for something people cannot know. For most Americans, a single-celled zygote with human genetics, or a sphere of human cells (a "blastula") isn't a human being with human rights.

     And so for most Americans, even those who believe in souls, the deaths of zygotes and very early embryos are not a major problem. We can accept stem cell research and contraception that involves the death of very early embryos.

     But also, for most of us, abortion becomes increasingly a problem as embryos become fetuses and develop toward viable and visible humanity.

     The logically consistent will be left out of the compromise, but most of us can live with something like Roe v. Wade along with the long-standing goal of abortion as legal, safe, available, and rare.

     With luck and vigorous programs encouraging contraception, unwanted pregnancies can become so rare that the issue can be resolved, logically messily and only eventually, with a technological fix that allows terminating pregnancies without killing embryos or fetuses: removing and preserving embryos and fetuses for implantation into the wombs of women who want them.

      To spell that out: I'm suggesting a still science-fictional quick fix since, if nothing else, as a thought-experiment it helps clarify the issues.

     When seriously unwanted pregnancies occur only with a failure in robust contraception and are very rare and soon discovered, then they can be terminated by removing the embryo or fetus from the mother and preserving it alive until it can be transplanted into the womb of a willing mother or allowed to gestate in an artificial womb and "decanted" Brave New World fashion and adopted. As the allusion to Aldous Huxley's anti-utopia suggests, this idea raises serious ethical questions but none as severe as those raised by abortion; such a quick fix would reduce the problem to the technical and, very much, the political, including the politics of contraception.

         Where the couple — and I definitely include the male here — has failed to use robust contraception, perhaps they should pay back the State (partially at least) for removing, preserving, and potentially implanting the embryo or fetus. Not with money, which would privilege the rich, but by public-service labor such as assigned for misdemeanors

     Meanwhile, for the foreseeable future, we need vigorous programs encouraging contraception, prenatal health, and adoption are important public health and population policies, and having abortion legal, safe, available, and rare is a worthy goal most Americans can support.

 

Abortion and Such Yet Again 

 (January 2016, re-posted 5 September 2021)

 

Once or twice a year I write on the abortion controversy, usually in a small-city newspaper or a blog post. Sometimes, I'm just pedantically correcting the question, "When does life begin?" That formulation is forgivable since common, but pretty useless: one thing the Bible and biology since the late 19th century agree on is that life doesn't begin, but began and has been transmitted ever since. So eggs and sperm are alive, as are zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. "There is always a death in an abortion" — and death with each menstruation and miscarriage and millions of deaths (over 100 million in humans) with each ejaculation. The relevant and crucial question is "What dies?" and following from that, "Is that what to be a human person under the law?" 

My most serious agenda (which I'll follow here in a short form) is to demonstrate that the set of issues surrounding abortion is unresolvable in any philosophically respectable way and recommend a messy, intellectually incoherent, vulgarly pragmatic political compromise. E.g., we may be able to get what looked like might follow from Roe v. Wade. Building upon the feeling of many ordinary Americans that early abortions are okay while late ones are not, and that contraception is a good idea, what we could get are strict restrictions on late-term abortions while contraceptive use by women — and fertile girls and men and boys — is encouraged, along with "Plan B's" of various sorts, plus readily available, safe and legal early abortion as needed, with the goal of making the need for any abortions increasingly rare. 

Meanwhile we'll engage in cycles of unresolvable arguments stemming from radically different premises and competing but complexly-related histories. On the one side, are the history of patriarchal oppression and the control of women's bodies, and the resistance to patriarchy and control. On the other side, this:

 

If "People are the riches of a nation" and a large and growing population the source of a nation's strength and prosperity, then policies of "pronatalism" (also just called "natalism") are essential,and society and State must act aggressively to encourage live births, with the kids raised to where they can be militarily and economically useful, and ready to produce another generation. One obvious wayto this goal: harness sex to reproduction by striving to prevent all sex outside of the reproductive and reproductive in a stable social unit (long-term families) in which the kids can get raised. Under this approach, the sexual "abominations in Leviticus" etc. make sense as do secular-based prohibitions on contraception.

(Whether pronatalism is a good idea in a world of over 7 billion people facing another and particularly serious period of climate change and resource depletion — that's something we need to discuss.) 

 

If the goal (finis, telos) of sex is reproduction, it is unnatural to engage in sex that is nonreproductive. If Nature is part of God's plan, such unnaturalness is sinful. If the State should get involved in prohibiting unnatural acts and/or various kinds of sin, then laws against contraception make sense (and condoms when and where I was a kid were quite properly legally "SOLD FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE ONLY").

 

If a human being is essentially a soul, and if that soul is of infinite value; if that soul enters a zygote at the moment of conception, then anything that destroys a zygote or embryo or fetus is a variety of murder. Worse — maybe infinitely worse — if/since the victims are unbaptized they will join the other unbaptized infants and miscarriages in damnation: perhaps in a Limbo, if that theology comes back into fashion, or in "the easiest room in hell," as in Michael Wigglesworth's teaching-poem, "The Day of Doom" (the Year of the Lord 1662 [the date for the poem, not the Apocalypse]).

 

Given the US First Amendment and at least a fair amount of de facto separation of Church and State, we're not going to have much honest debate on the theology of contraception and abortion and the politics that debate implies. Nor are we going to have an open and vigorous debate on population policy and its implications for and involvement in climate change, resource allocation, immigration, who pays for old people, and tax breaks for families. (Some Americans who are all for population control in theory still want tax deductions for their children, even third and fourth and fifth kids.)

 

There has been some social progress on these issues, certainly with gay rights and, maybe more relevantly here, condoms: which are now advertised, required in LA-produced up-scale professional pornography, and apparently encouraged in some areas of amateur porn upload sites — uh, or so I have heard. On the other hand, there is the logic of abortion = murder, hence large-scale abortion = mass murder, hence … well, hence bombing an abortion clinic or shooting abortion providers can be admitted as an act of terrorism but then defended as a "lesser evil." On the other side, if one just rejects the whole idea of souls and ensoulment and follows a rigorous materialism, then it becomes fairly easy to justify even a late-term abortion but more difficult to condemn killing older human organisms, especially before or after they can talk rationally or after you've been forced to admit that there may be little justification in nature to put so much value on speech or reason or consciousness that "mind" become a kind of stand-in for "soul."

 

I hope Americans will say on the abortion debate and other sex issues, "Screw ideology and intellectual rigor folks! Let's cut a political deal on abortion and sex stuff and move on." As much as Americans are generally anti-intellectual, though, I expect the opposing logics of the abortion debate to continue robust and dangerous — and we'll be cycling back to the topic for the rest of my life.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Meaning of "Life"

I'm the compiler of  <www.Clockworks2.org>, a wiki on "The Human/Machine Interface in SF," which is based on Clockworks: A Multimedia Bibliography of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface in SF — that "Multimedia Bibliography" phrase is the publisher's; we called it a "List" (Greenwood Press, 1993). 

The end of the 20th century was a time when literary studies were getting a heavy dose of Philosophy, and respectable scholars by God were to Define your terms! My writing partner, Thom Dunn, and I hadn't always done so and had taken a little guff for the failure. So in the Introduction to Clockworks, toward the end of our Introduction, pretty safe from the eyes of most readers and, we figured, all those unpaid academic reviewers, we wrote this, defining the last part of our subtitle:

In SF. In our Abbreviations, we differentiate between "SF" and "S.F." "S.F." is "science fiction," and SF is "science fiction" plus related genres such as eutopias, dystopias, some fantasy, and some horror. In our earlier volumes The Mechanical God [Greenwood 1982] and Clockwork Worlds [GP 1983], we declined to define "science fiction" and noted the comparable inability of biologists to define "life," of attorneys to define "tort" let alone Justice, of mathematicians to define "point" — and we noted the generations of literary critics who have discussed comedy and tragedy without ever coming up with standard definitions of those terms. Here, we recommend a definition of "life" Erlich heard somewhere and liked: "The process by which entropy is reversed, locally and temporarily, in a volume both in contact with and set off from surrounding space-time"; but we still decline to define "science fiction."

Although we did give some indications of where we set the SF borders.

It was a joke, with a bit of a "Screw you" to the pedants: we won't define "science fiction," but we will tell you The Meaning of Life.

Over the years, a close friend or two with strong backgrounds in the relevant sciences, and strong tendencies toward the wise-ass, has or have suggested an example or two that fit the definition but are obviously inorganic (crystals forming in a sack or "sac" that's a semi-permeable membrane ... and such). 

Okay, but this much in my defense, sort of, and to complete the story with the probable source of the biology-lore I passed along. From Jessica Riskin's The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, a work I'm annotating for the wiki: "'When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on 'doing something,'" and that "the most salient 'something' that organisms characteristically did was to resist entropy, to avoid decay into equilibrium" (Restless Clock, p. 369; ch. 10). And the source of the quote? Edwin Schrödinger's What Is Life? (Cambridge U Press, 1944).

Ah ha! Sort of. At least the lore I passed on — and I got it as academic folklore, word-of-mouth, a kind of rumor — at least the lore I passed on had a respectable genealogy.


Friday, March 26, 2021

Race and the Politics of Suffering

The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and
ill together [...]. — All's Well that Ends Well (4.3)

Effective popular politics are coalition politics. — Traditional

 

 

I'm going to sidle in on my topic, starting with a hint or two on, as we used to say, Where I'm coming from. 

Sidle 1
    Part of Where I'm coming from is Chicago ca. 1960 ,when at 17 or so I peaked out, not sexually, as the folklore has it, but in terms of achievement and status. At 17, I was elected President of the high-school charity group, the Merton Davis Memorial Foundation for Crippling Diseases of Children, and since we incorporated shortly thereafter, I may've been the youngest legally-established charitable foundation president in the area, or maybe in the USA. or world.

    It was a transition time for the group, since it had been a long time since Mert Davis had died — long in high-school years — and none of us or our constituents had known him, and enthusiasm was running low.

    And so my first speech to the executive board was a kind of pep talk where I said that I was grateful for the altruism and sense of civic duty they brought to their job but hoped that they also wanted to work on the board for status and an entry on their college applications and other baser motives: because we had a long haul ahead of us, and they'd need all the motivation they could get, and ambition and self-interest are strong motives.

    Year's later I would read T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and see the justifying context of the line — martyrdom and Christian sainthood — but I knew from a blurb on a book I'd read the lines, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason"; and I said at the time, "Bullshit." Outright hypocrisy is pretty nauseating, but I felt then and think now that the key thing always is to do the right thing. And I knew that motives will be mixed and that the tackier ones can be useful.

Sidle 2
    A striking point, mentioned I believe by Timothy Snyder's in Bloodlands and by others elsewhere, is that people who sheltered Jews during the Hitlerian Holocaust usually downplayed their efforts when asked about them, and said that they only did what anybody would do: simple decency. That's beautiful and reaffirms the possibility of heroic decency, but it's blatantly incorrect. People doing the decent thing were rare, and a constant and urgent question is how to get more people to act decently, especially when they can do so with far less danger than in defying the Nazis.

    In terms of what can be done with words, among the most powerful motivating statements is that by Martin Niemöller, rendered in English in one version,

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

This is a fine call for human solidarity; it is also an appeal for behaving decently as a matter of self-interest.

Sidle 3, Getting Repetitious but Closer
    
My cousin (of some degree) Joy Erlichman Miller organized the Holocaust memorial in Peoria, Illinois, and tried to make the body-count more understandable by collecting buttons: eleven million of them. The strategy of collecting buttons is brilliant, and, more to the point I'm slowly moving toward, the number is correct. Humans aren't wired to understand deaths in even the hundreds or thousands, but the sight of millions of buttons can aid our imaginations. More, having kids collect everyday items like buttons is a good way to get them to relate to the extraordinary human costs of slaughters such as the Nazi Holocaust.

         The number, though, may also be unfamiliar to you. The Peoria committee used the figure of approximately eleven million murders, and they were wise to do so: both truthful to the best estimates, and politically prudent. Some five to six millions Jews were murdered in the Nazi extermination programs, plus some five to six million Roma ("Gypsies"), Communists, homosexuals, unionists, and other "inferiors," or real or imagined enemies of the Reich. That adds up to eleven million people, approximately, not the more frequently heard figure of six millions. Some six million Jews died, and even if the actual figure is "only" five million, it is a number to remember in itself and is central to the exterminations: "The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem" was the impetus for large-scale, systematic, routinized massacres. 

    Still, if the Shoah is uniquely Jewish and unique in more than just the technical sense applicable to all historical events — if it's literally and absolutely unique, "sui generis," one of a kind — then the Shoah is of only limited usefulness for historical understanding: There aren't many lessons to be learned from a literally unique event. If it is "The Holocaust," and that is that, there is little to be learned beyond "Sh*t can really happen to the Jews." Using the eleven million figure teaches that once a program of genocide gets started, all sorts of people can be sucked in and destroyed. And that point is crucial; if the Shoah just happened to Jews, why should non-Jews do more than sympathize? Fitting the Hitlerian Holocaust into a larger pattern of massacres, as Hannah Arendt does in detail in Origins of Totalitarianism, makes it historically and politically relevant for many people, and aids building "Never Again" coalitions.

    It is also useful for "Stop Now" coalitions.

    And here I am going to give some free advice, which can be received with, "And worth every penny we paid for it," or as a free gift, freely given, to accept, modify, or reject.

    When we get serious and start talking reparations, who suffered what at the hands of whom will be contentious. For now, though, and outside of politics, suffering is not a zero-sum horror, and books like Nell Irvin Painter's popular study, The History of White People (2010), can be useful for Black Lives Matter and other parts of the the continuing movement for Black liberation.

 The year 1616 was not the beginning of slavery in the Americas, African slavery was not America's Original Sin (dispossession and extermination of Indians preceded), some Whites as well as many Blacks were kidnapped to the New World and unfree in British America and the early United States — Painter's calls attention to classifications of Whites in the first couple of US censuses: and such points can be useful in expanding support for Black liberation. On the solid grounds that who gets exploited by whom shifts over history and it takes an only mildly enlightened perception to catch on that it is in the self-interest of most people most of the time to disassemble systems of exploitation and oppression. Check out the numbers: the usual rule is a large class of the exploited supporting a small group of the elite. 

    But note that elites over the centuries have evolved ways to make the system more subtle, primarily a hierarchy that — in its most respectable form — became a Great Chain of Being that put human society within Nature and a divine order, and provided a place for everyone and everyone in their places: some high and some low, as a couple famous sermons had it, some rich and some poor, some in authority and some in subjection/subjugation — but most poor, and many (often a majority) unfree. At that best, in theory, it was a truly Great Chain held together by love; at its more usual worst, what nasty-minded guys of my generation recommended we picture as a multistory outhouse, with most people well-trained to kiss up and shit down. 

    Parallel to this, there were tribalisms and nationalisms and most recently hierarchies of races that allow people to feel themselves parts of the Arya, the noble people, the Herrenvolk: one Master Race or another. Except, as usual, of course, most members of the group were not masters at all. Most people, most of the time, would do better with equality, equality under the law, to start with, and then more social equality. 

    And why has equality even just at law been so rare in human history? That old conservative, in most ways, Sir (and Saint) Thomas More could think through to an answer both traditional and revolutionary, as that fictional traveler Raphael Hythloday tells us in the conclusion of Utopia (1516), about a country where there was imperfect but wide-spread equality.

I cannot think but the sense of every man’s interest, added to the authority of Christ’s commands [...] would have drawn all the world over to the laws of the Utopians, if pride, that plague of human nature, that source of so much misery, did not hinder it; for this vice does not measure happiness so much by its own conveniences, as by the miseries of others; and would not be satisfied with being thought a goddess, if none were left that were miserable, over whom she might insult.  Pride thinks its own happiness shines the brighter, by comparing it with the misfortunes of [others ...]. 

 Translating out of the Hebrew and Greek, "Raphael Hythloday" means something like "speaker of healing nonsense," and More in Utopia is both ironic and quite serious ... and logical and politically astute, what might be called in the time of More (more or less), "politic."

    My free advice, freely given (and, like most unsolicited advice, arrogantly given) is that Black Lives Matter and others striving for Black liberation, and reparations, should make that appeal to self-interest. That History of White People includes many Whites who were enslaved or "enserfed," indentured or transported for crimes — and remained in servitude for life: given in British America how many people expired — as in died — before the expiration of their indentures.

    "White" in a racial sense has been a flexible term over time, usually taking in more people over time, but subject to change over time. And what gets defined as race, and as human can change radically and quickly, as the Nazis and others have demonstrated quite strongly. 

    In the US and the colonies before that, mostly, "They came for the Blacks"; but some poor Whites early on were kept in subjection, and radical immigrant Whites later on were lynched. This should be understood by First Peoples-Americans (Indians), massacred and removed, and by Chinese, once excluded, and Japanese, once interned. (Jews who don't get it are a special kind of stupid.)

    To recycle and redirect my rhetorical question on Jews, the Holocaust, and non-Jews: If the massacre of Jews was a uniquely Jewish problem, why, beyond decency, should others care a whole lot, and why not take Jewish suffering as a pressing reason to remain silent and safe? If racism in the US is a uniquely Black problem and systemic; if racism is based in privilege that profits all Whites — why, beyond decency, should others care a whole lot? 

     As much of the history of the Hitlerian Holocaust teaches, and the history of race in America teaches for a longer period — don't count heavily on the power of decency and the higher virtues.    

     If there is White privilege and hegemony, and racism is systemic, then the answer to why Whites should help probably lies in some combination of the sacrifice of a lot of young Blacks in attempts to force Whites to concede power — and in less costly ways to get large numbers of Whites to see that greater freedom and equality for all, as a general principle, is in their enlightened self-interest long term, and quite possibly in their self-interest pretty immediately. 

    Crudely put, there's very little room at the top of that multi-story outhouse. More elegantly put, there are the words of Martin Niemöller (or the fine animation, The Hangman). 

    Patriotism to American ideals, however poorly realized; decency, morality, ethics: all these demand support of the principle that Black Lives Matter. So does self-interest. That "web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together [...]," and the combination shouldn't bother us. When something is right to do, and pretty directly in our interest, then we should bloody-well just do it. So while stressing the right, do bring in when you can, self-interest.

 

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 


Friday, February 26, 2021

CoViD-19, School Re-Opening, 55 MPH Speed Limit, and "Acceptable Casualties"

 

Responding to a letter to the editor of my local newspaper in south-central-coastal California (we're a big state)



SUBJECT: "What 'death rate' is acceptable?"
Ventura County Star 20 Feb. 2021


Writing about opening schools in the time of the CoViD-19 pandemic, George Maguire of Ventura notes that he has "never heard of what death rate” is acceptable and asks if "someone" can write in and tell teachers and students what death rate is acceptable," adding that "That data is available somewhere" (February 20). 

I’m writing in to compliment Mr. Maguire on raising the old and important question I’ll call "acceptable casualties" and to note that relevant data are available for CoViD-19 and school re-opening but such questions are never just factual. To start, "Acceptable to whom?" and then on to "What values are to be applied?" with one big area, "What is the value of human life?"

Here’s an example from the past that illustrates the point. From Wikipedia (and my memory): "The National Maximum Speed Limit was a provision of the […] 1974 Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act that effectively prohibited speed limits higher than 55 miles per hour. It was drafted in response to oil price spikes and supply disruptions during the 1973 oil crisis and remained the law until 1995." The data get complicated, but a case could be and was made that "there was a decrease in [traffic] fatalities of about 3,000 to 5,000 lives in 1974, and about 2,000 to 4,000 lives saved annually thereafter through 1983 because of slower and more uniform traffic speeds since the law took effect."

The final repeal of the law in 1995 was very popular. 

Now, let’s say the net savings in human life was a tenth of the estimates, some 300 lives a year: Would 300 additional dead people (and injured and maimed) be "acceptable casualties" for the additional convenience and efficiency of higher speed limits? Would the mere risk of avoidable deaths (injuries, maiming) be acceptable? Ethical decisions either way required making a conscious judgment, and among the Americans ethical enough to think it through — at least with Americans who accepted the conclusion of greater safety — a good number thought the casualties acceptable. 

Or we can look at drug legalization, such as the end of alcohol Prohibition in 1933, and the obvious costs of easier access to alcohol beverages, along with obvious benefits. Of those who think about it at all, most of us think ending capital "P" Prohibition was a good idea, and many would legalize other recreational drugs, with any increase in deaths (addiction, violence) acceptable when weighed against other gains.

It is necessary for practical ethics and politics to think humans special among all the life on Earth, and good to believe that "Every human life is sacred and of infinite value" — but actual ethical decisions in real-world politics often require doing bloody arithmetic, and infinities don’t work there. 

We need a mature conversation on the gains and losses of opening schools to various degrees and in various ways, including what sometimes competing groups can agree would be "acceptable casualties" from doing so.