Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Immorality of the “Pro-Life” Movement

Those who advocate the extreme religious “pro-life” position regarding the sanctity of human life, i.e., those who want to ban virtually all abortions, prolong life regardless of the person’s condition (e.g., Terri Schiavo), and ban stem-cell research, turn to morality to justify their stance. Even the “pro-life” label carries a profound sense of righteousness; after all, how could “pro-life” be anything but good? However, under close inspection the “pro-life” position is no such thing; in fact, its logical conclusions are immoral.

According to the “pro-life” position, you and I are morally equivalent to a microscopic embryo in a Petri dish, or a person in a vegetative coma, simply because we share human DNA. Think about the implications of this position: it is worse to destroy an embryo that we can barely observe with the human eye than to torture or maim a living human being, the former being murder and the latter being a lesser crime according to the “pro-life” worldview. Interestingly, even the most ardent “pro-life” advocates don’t truly believe their own rhetoric and its perverse conclusions. For example, exceptions for abortion are usually made in cases where the woman’s life is in jeopardy. But wait a moment: if the embryo or fetus is 100% morally equivalent to a full human-being, isn’t it selfish for a mother to choose her life over the life of her child? A woman who ran out of a building during a fire in order to save her life, while leaving her child to die, would in most circles be considered a monster. For those extremists who believe that abortion should be outlawed even when a woman’s life is in danger, consider the “pro-life” message that sends: Attention women! Pregnancy may be a death sentence; approach at your own risk!

Stem-cell research is the arena where the illogic of the “pro-life” position is most evident. The embryos that scientists require for stem-cell research are microscopic. To put things in perspective, they are about 1/1000th the size of a fly’s brain. And yet the “pro-life” movement wants to impose on society the view that the rights of these microscopic cells trump the rights of the millions of living people who are suffering and dying from some of the world’s most debilitating diseases. Yet these same “pro-life” people sanction dubious medical research on primates who are highly sentient, and thus suffer immensely in medical labs throughout the country. This is human exceptionalism brought to a chilling conclusion; no cruelty inflicted on non-humans is ever considered worse than what is done to a few human cells under a microscope.

Ironically, “pro-lifers” criticize those who advocate animal rights based on the belief that the case for these rights is founded on purely biological notions of identity; in other words, that apes should be afforded similar rights to humans because they are nearly genetically equivalent. In truth, however, animal rights’ advocates base their claims on the fact that humans are much more than their biology, that what defines us is our ability to learn, to feel pain, our sense of identity, our social relationships, our complex emotions, and that the animals who share these traits (as well as most of our DNA) should be afforded greater protection under the law.

It is the “pro-life” movement which uses only crude biological arguments on which to base its moral claims: that because an embryo and a brain-dead coma patient share the same DNA as you or I, we are all morally equivalent. This is an almost complete denial of what it means to be human, and is such a low common denominator that it degrades our humanity. It is also poor science since there are large genetic differences even among humans. My DNA exists in my skin, which through technology will no doubt one day have the potential to form the building blocks of an entirely new human being, but that doesn’t make this sliver of biological mass a moral entity. It is my ability to think, feel, and my sense of identity which does.

“Pro-lifers” argue that anything but their extreme position eventually leads to moral relativisim, in which certain groups get to decide which “others” are actually human. While, no doubt, a morality that takes into account the full spectrum of consciousness, identity, and sentience must be approached with great care, and has the potential to lead to abuse, it ultimately rests on objective facts and science. Arguments that blacks, women, gays, or Jews are inferior have been forever relegated to the dustbin of disrepute and have no chance of resurfacing with significant force in a society dedicated to reason (unfortunately, they still thrive in circles where dogma and religion reign). But societies dedicated to reason and scientific progress will ultimately judge the extreme “pro-life” position harshly as well; it relies on purely reductionist genetic arguments that put the interests of human DNA, no matter what its form, over the interests of all other sentient life, including that of living, breathing human beings.



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