Friday, October 28, 2011

On "Life"

Republicans in Mississippi (and elsewhere I guess) want to pass a bill that would argue that life begins at conception. They wish to do this, of course, because they want to outlaw abortion completely, and the claim that a fertilized egg immediately becomes a “person” allows them to do that. While I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian I cannot help but reflect on this basic issue (I think, therefore I think that I am thinking).

Of course life begins at conception, all life. But does a fertilized egg immediately become a person and thus entitled to all the laws that protect personhood? I don’t think so. Does an egg immediately become a chicken or a duck or a horse, crocodile or whatever? Of course not, no one believes that as far as I know. It is not the fact of life itself that is at issue here, but, rather, human life. The very same people that want to argue a special status for a fertilized human egg is simply because it is specifically a human egg. To believe a human egg deserves special rights one has to believe that humans are themselves special, that human life is of greater importance than any other life. I understand why humans want to believe this but as they are the ones writing the text it seems to me questionable. I cannot see why The Great Mystery that created all life would have made human life different from all other life. After all, we are all members of the animal kingdom. The primary basis for the claim of human superiority as far as I know comes from the bible, but the bible makes all kinds of nonsensical claims and was, of course, written by humans. There may be other claims for human superiority in philosophy or other religions but they, too, are completely homocentric. This is merely another example of the grandiose ideas humans have about themselves.

I remind you of the several great blows to man’s ego, the Copernican, Darwinian, Freudian, and the fact of cultural relativism. I previously suggested a fifth great blow, the election of President Obama that shattered the myth of the Great Chain of Being with Whites uniquely at the top of the scale. Personally I can see no more rationale for claiming a special status for a human egg than claiming the sun revolves around the earth, or that humans are completely separate from all other animals. We now know these claims to be false and they would not seem to me to allow for a special, higher status for human life as opposed to all other life.

If you consider the human condition as it has developed, evolved, and continues on its course to wherever, it is impossible to make a case for the human belief that human life is uniquely precious. Humans have killed and continue to kill each other in some cases by the millions, and even now are constantly working on newer and even better ways to kill each other. The very people who now want to make human life special in fact are apparently concerned primarily with American life, as they have not hesitated to slaughter other ethnic groups whenever they chose (as we continue to do at this very moment). Indeed, some human groups, like the Tasmanians, certain American Indians, and others have themselves been killed into extinction. Many human groups have practiced various forms of birth control, abortion, different types of infanticide, senilicide, human sacrifice, even headhunting and cannibalism. Different cultures have different ideas and different customs relating to life and death, but I doubt there has ever been one that believes (or practices) in the absolute sanctity of human life (except maybe Buddhists), even though they may claim that belief. It can be argued that even infanticide is sometimes necessary for a group to survive. In the New Guinea Highlands, for example, one of a set of twins is always killed. This is not because they do not love their children but, as they explain, when raided (as they often were) they had to take their children and pigs and flee, and a woman could not manage more than one infant. Other people believe that multiple births are “animal-like” and kill more than one of the infants. Female infanticide has been practiced by a number of societies and still is in at least one, even though it may not always be admitted.

Humans may claim to believe that human life is somehow sacred but obviously the claim is completely out of touch with their behavior towards each other. If human life is not regarded as sacred, life in general is treated even more cavalierly. Consider that humans killed an estimated billion Passenger Pigeons in a relatively short time, causing their extinction. They almost succeeded in completely decimating the buffalo as well. Salmon runs have been destroyed, other species of fish are extinct or rapidly becoming extinct, wolves, grizzly bears, and on and on are threatened. Many species have gone extinct because of human activity and continue to do so. For humans to argue that life is somehow sacred is hypocritical in the extreme and would be laughable were it not so tragic. We engage in killing so routinely we don’t even think about it.

Killing and death go hand in hand with life as virtually all species live off the death of others. This seems to be simply a fact of existence, except perhaps in the case of certain parasites that live off of, but do not kill their hosts (I think this is an interesting life form to which I have not yet given much thought).

The question of life in the abstract is not an issue that the proponents of “personhood at birth” are concerned with, nor, it seems to me, are they are concerned with the implications of what they insist we should do. On the one hand they want all fertilized eggs brought to term, all infants born even out of rape and incest, but do not seem concerned about the future of such infants that sometimes are, I am quite certain, often born into dysfunctional families, neglected, abused, and even abandoned. It is one thing to be opposed to abortion in general, on religious grounds or others, but for them to argue life is sacred and must be preserved at all costs, is totally inconsistent with what humans actually do. To argue that a fertilized egg is a person is simply nonsensical and far-fetched, a feeble attempt to deny reality and accomplish the revocation of an already established law. It also denies our membership in the animal kingdom and continues the questionable belief that humans are somehow uniquely superior and entitled to dominion over all. Look around, stop pretending, reflect on what our dominion has brought us.

- We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach.

Bertrand Russell

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