The Panda Reflex

Because it’s that special Roe v. Wade anniversary time of year . . .

I once heard somebody refer to “a vegetarian pro-choicer” as a contradiction in terms.  At the time, I chuckled appreciatively, since it made sense to me; how could you feel concerned over the lost lives of chickens, but not unborn human children?  Since then, however, I’ve come to appreciate that there’s no contradiction there at all.  In fact, I would argue that it is logically inconsistent for a pro-choice individual to not be vegetarian, or indeed fail to show what most of us would consider an inordinate concern for animal welfare.

In general, the pro-life stance is based on the idea that fetuses (and possibly embryos, blastocysts, etc., depending how one defines “pro-life”) are human and thus worthy of protection.  In turn, the typical retort from the pro-choice side is that, while a fetus may be human, it has not acquired personhood prior to one particular point in development.  There are other arguments–Post-Abortion Syndrome, the “famous violinist”–but these are largely peripheral.

Let us suppose that personhood is definitely acquired by the time of birth (again, I have read arguments to the effect that infanticide is morally permissible, but that’s thankfully a fringe position).  The notion of personhood, in this context, is usually contingent on the entity in question having reached a certain level of mental sophistication–it has a mind, and is therefore a real person.  So, the intellectual level of a newborn is definitely enough to make you a person.

Here’s the thing: it’s not clear that newborns are terribly bright.  It’s hard to say for certain, since newborns are effectively crippled.  They can barely see and have minimal control over their body parts, so they can’t interact meaningfully with their environment or other people.  They grasp, they suck, they scream, they poop.  My second son is nearly six months old, and he will smile, giggle, track objects visually, reach for them. and recognize certain phrases.  “I’m gonna eat this baby,” for example, is his cue for hysterical cackling, because I’m about to nibble at his belly.  There’s definitely something going on there.  But this is a recent development.  Before four months or so, he couldn’t do much more than flail and grope, and his brain seemed to be a collection of instincts trying to assemble themselves into a working mind.

His older brother was the same way.  While he’s a very bright kid, he took a surprisingly (to this new parent) long time to develop a real will.  When he wanted two things at once–say, to nurse, and to reach for a shiny object–he would look at the two things and simply howl with frustration.  The poor guy couldn’t decide which was more important to him, or reconcile the conflicting urges, so what could he do?  Even when he was older, a year or more, we found we couldn’t train him not to do things.  He could understand, certainly, that some things were supposed to be off-limits.  That didn’t matter.  He’d reach for the forbidden cabinet door, while crying, because he knew he’d get in trouble, but couldn’t stop himself.  The capacity for self-control was simply not there.

By comparison, pretty much any non-traumatized dog is perfectly capable of restraining its urges for some time.  Smarter dogs of the right temperament (I’ve known two) will actually train themselves in response to what they perceive as their masters’ wishes.  Very bright dogs, like border collies, can do amazingly complex tasks.  Pigs are even smarter.  Crows and ravens demonstrate considerable abstract reasoning abilities, such as sitting on top of streetlights and covering the sun-sensor with their wings so the light will turn on and heat them on cold days.  There are plenty of other examples, beyond the well-known chimps and dolphins.

All of these creatures, by comparison to a newborn human, are clearly “people.”  And yet we euthanize unwanted dogs, eat pigs, and treat corvids as pests to be killed whenever they touch our crops.  Why?  The only difference is that these animals are not human, and do not have the innate potential to develop true human intelligence.  But the newborn had both of those from the moment it was conceived.  If only “personhood” matters, why aren’t these animals people, except to a handful of PETA members?

I think the answer is that intellect, or any other abstract benchmark, is irrelevant to our real considerations.  A fetus begins to look very much like an infant around the same time most people are uncomfortable aborting it–the third trimester–and therefore triggers our innate urge to protect infants.  Logic has nothing to do with it.  We spend millions of dollars keeping giant pandas alive for the same reason; anything roly-poly and clumsy with big eyes will do.

Hence the common statement that an embryo is “just a lump of cells,” which is much like saying the sun is “just a big ball of really hot gas” or a bouquet of roses is “just a bunch of dismembered plant genitals.”  The most fantastically important, beautiful and meaningful things can be reduced to nothing by a snide, technically accurate, but minimalist description.  That that tiny little lump of cells is, compared to normal human tissues, a boiling furnace of frantic development, working like mad to reach greater and greater levels of complexity, can be whisked aside.  That it is the same organism at two hours as it is at twenty years–the same biological process, with more or less time to develop–means nothing.  It doesn’t have big eyes and gurgle.  Therefore, it’s not a “person.”

And that is why I am pro-life: I love my species, and I love bacon, and I don’t care for disingenuous arguments.


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