Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The question of when a person becomes a person, raised again by Amendment 62 on this year’s Colorado ballot (defining personhood as beginning at conception), provides a good example of basing one’s notion of truth on one’s political preferences rather than vice versa.

What raises the issue today is Susan Greene’s column in yesterday’s Denver Post (, in which, despite Greene taking the position that Amendment 62 would be disastrous public policy, she was booed by a pro-choice audience for even admitting to any complexities or subtleties to the issue. The audience’s approach is the wrong one; Greene’s is the right one. Explore the issue thoroughly, with the courage to confront the complexities and subtleties, and then arrive at conclusions which are the result of that process.

Before I delve deeper into this issue, a couple of disclaimers: 1) I fervently believe that doing it “the right way” (reasoning applied prior to and informing conclusions, rather than mobilized afterward as rationalizations for them) leads to, in this case, the conclusion that, for legal purposes, personhood should be defined as vesting at birth rather than at conception (or at any intermediate point), despite the fact that I’m about to point out the legitimate ontological counterpoints to that conclusion; and 2) As a matter of political strategy, it is undeniably true that once you form a position on a controversial issue, admitting to some logical validity on the other side does more to shore up the opposition than to increase your own credibility and the strength, through a demonstration of moderation and subtlety, of your own position (as should be the case, in a world that applied reason more scrupulously to political issues). This latter fact is a direct result of the privileging of political strategizing in all-out political warfare: Admissions and concessions provide ammunition for opposing zealots to a greater extent than they generate goodwill among them, and that ammunition is then used in sophisticated propaganda techniques to play on the cognitive dissonance and other psychological vulnerabilities of those in the middle to convince them of the opposing view.

Even so, as tempting as it is to get sucked into this logic, and to “do what it takes” to ensure that we arrive at “the right” political conclusions, I think that, all things considered, it vastly diminishes our ability to progress toward governing ourselves ever-more  intelligently. By reducing politics to a battle of more-or-less arbitrary ideological certainties, rather than trying to raise it to a process of collectively searching for those policies that are best informed and most conducive to the public interest, we obstruct rather than facilitate the deep structural political development that will serve us best in the long run.

On so many levels, in so many ways, politics imposes a constant pressure to continually disregard long-term goals in favor of short-term ones. This is a pressure we have to resist and transcend.

Ontologically, two things regarding the definition of when human life begins seem abundantly clear: 1) A zygote isn’t a “human being” in any legally relevant sense, and 2) The only significant difference between a late-term fetus and a newborn baby is location.

A zygote can be defined as a human being by means of either a religious/mystical assumption or a rigidly typological approach, but both are irrelevant to the legal and moral issues involved. It’s true that, even in a political system which separates church and state, those moral convictions that are nearly universally held by all members of all faiths, rooted perhaps in those faiths, can inform our legal structure (e.g., “thou shalt not kill”). Even if a separate utilitarian argument can’t be made (as it can in the case of a prohibition against murder), if it is something that is a non-contested interfaith moral conviction, then certainly it can be incorporated into law. But once there is significant disagreement, a fundamentally religious belief cannot be incorporated into the law that governs us all, without both violating the First Amendment and undermining the public interest that it protects.

But there is a non-religious justification for defining human life to begin at conception: Conception is the one and only truly bright-line change of state that demarcates the boundary between non-existence and existence. Prior to conception, there is the sperm, which belongs entirely to the father, and the egg, which belongs entirely to the mother; it is only after the former fertilizes the latter that you have a new and distinct full complement of DNA in a single entity that defines the new human being.

But that bright-line change of state, while very convenient, has no relevance to the purposes of the laws regulating the social relationships and interactions among human beings, since that single-celled entity bears no resemblance whatsoever to a socially incorporated human being. It has no consciousness, no independent existence, no attributes of a human being as a member of a society. Conception may be the most logical scientific threshold for defining the beginning of the development of a human being, but it is not the most logical legal or moral threshold.

At the other end of pregnancy, birth is not a significant change of state for the fetus (though it is for the mother!). The fetus in the womb when contractions begin is really pretty much the same being as the newborn baby held in the nurse’s arms at the end of the process (here’s a link to a description of the changes that a fetus does undergo at birth: This poses a real dilemma: We as a people, probably fortuitously, are not willing to reexamine our nearly universal moral conviction that infanticide is wrong, but are then left with the reality that there is no functional difference, except for the form of the mother’s connection, between a late-term abortion and infanticide.

I believe that this dilemma is a function of human conceptualization, rather than the result of an actual moral imperative. In reality, our moral and legal universe is laden with arbitrary lines in the sand, and really must be. For instance, at what point does expressing anger and hostility toward another person become unacceptable? (Or, where is the line between just being a jerk, or a person acting on their own insecurities and hurt feelings, and being a bully?) It depends both on the relationship to the person, and the form and strength of the expression of anger. There is no bright-line change-of-state boundary involved: Calmly saying “that makes me angry” is acceptable in most contexts, while red-faced rants are unacceptable in most contexts. Somewhere between those two is a not very clearly demarcated line which one can cross, one which is defined by a sense of what best serves the pragmatic purpose of the normative prohibition.

Since there is no legally or morally useful clear line when a fetus becomes a baby, we need to draw the line according to other, similarly pragmatic, considerations. Certainly, there’s a moral argument that can be made for drawing that line somewhere between conception and birth, according to some notion of when the fetus is less like a mere cluster of cells or mass of organic material with a full DNA complement, and more like the baby that eventually emerges. It’s an argument by logical extension: If it’s wrong to kill babies, then it must be wrong to kill them wherever they are located.

Personally, I’m not such a moral absolutist: We’ve drawn the line at defining post-birth infanticide as morally unacceptable, and that’s good. We aren’t therefore under some moral obligation to define anything and everything that logically follows from that moral precept as also morally unacceptable. The moral and legal prohibition of infanticide is a moral line in the sand, no more, and no less. Some hypothetical historical figure might have argued, when moral and legal prohibitions against infanticide were taking root, “Ah, but that’s a slippery slope! If you outlaw infanticide, someday people will insist that we outlaw abortion as well, and think of what havok that would wreak on society!” I say, let’s not slide down any slopes. We can pick where to draw the line, and not be obligated to follow indefinitely the path that we imagine it carves for us.

There are overwhelming practical reasons to define life as beginning at birth for legal purposes. Doing otherwise reduces pregnant women to the legal status of incubators, denying adult human beings the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. It denies those who do not want to give birth -many of whom are teenagers, poor, facing challenges and constrained opportunities of their own- that choice, and leads to all of the problems frequently associated with children born into such conditions, particularly if truly not wanted. (Many readers are probably familiar with the theory from the book Freakonomics that, despite almost universal predictions to the contrary, U.S. crime rates began dropping in the early 1990’s because of the legalization of abortion in the early 1970’s). And it drives women seeking abortions into back alleys, creating what has been in the past a public health nightmare.

Even if one rejects my argument about drawing moral lines in the sand, and takes instead the stand that it is a moral bad to abort late-term fetuses, one can still weigh that against all of these considerations and say, “some bads are worse than others.” If the balancing test has any degree of practicality to it, then the complete protection of a woman’s right to choose is the inevitable outcome.

I am an advocate for moving political discourse in the direction of what I just exemplified above, and away from the no-holds-barred cage matches between precipitous oversimplified absolute certainties. We need to invest in the process by which we arrive at our individual and collective cognitive conclusions, as well as the process by which we select from among them what to implement as public policy. Just as in science and in courts of law we adhere to methodologies and procedures to our great benefit, we need to improve our political procedure as well.

We have developed a pretty good procedure for resolving our differences of opinion in the political arena, but apply almost no procedural discipline to how those competing opinions are formed, or how they compete for adherents. Extending the progress we’ve made in the fields of science, law, and electoral politics to the realm of cognitive politics would be an enormous step forward, and one each of us can choose to advance, both by advocating it, and by modeling it as our own individual approach to political discourse.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.