Maximum Ambiguity

I'm arriving very late to this argument—in online journalism, as in presidential campaigns, two weeks is an eternity—but I'd like to add something to what Matthew J. Frank and Ross Douthat have already written about this very stupid post by a very smart man. Commenting on Paul Ryan's answer to the question about abortion in the vice-presidential debate, the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik writes:

[Ryan] talked about how, looking at a first sonogram of his daughter, he was thrilled by the beating heart in the tiny bean on the image, so much that he and his wife still call that child Bean.... But Ryans moral intuition that something was indeed wonderful here was undercut, tellingly, by a failure to recognize accurately what that wonderful thing was, even as he named it: a bean is exactly what the photograph shows—a seed, a potential, a thing that might yet grow into something greater, just as a seed has the potential to become a tree. A bean is not a baby.

The fundamental condition of life is that it develops, making it tricky sometimes to say when its fully grown and when it isnt, but always easy to say that there is a difference and that that difference is, well, human life itself. It is this double knowledge that impacts any grownup thinking about abortion: that it isn't life that's sacred—the world is full of life, much of which Paul Ryan wants to cut down and exploit and eat done medium rare. It is conscious, thinking life that counts, and where and exactly how it begins (and ends) is so complex a judgment that wise men and women, including some on the Supreme Court, have decided that it is best left, at least at its moments of maximum ambiguity, to the individual conscience (and the individual consciences doctor).... Ryan talked facilely of what science says in this case. But what real science has to tell us, of course, very different; it says that life has no neat on and off, that while life may in some sense begin at conception, the moment when the formed consciousness that distinguishes human life from bean life arises is a very different question, not reducible to a dogma or a simple claim. A bean isn't a baby; a baby was once a bean, and between those two truths it is, or ought to be, every woman for herself.

In response to which, Douthat makes an obvious but important point:

Gopnik is taking the congressmans nickname for his unborn child and literalizing it.... On the one hand, calling an embryo a bean makes embryonic human life sound like a form of vegetative life—not an uncommon rhetorical move in these debates, but also one that collapses on the barest scrutiny. A bean is not remotely like a baby, certainly, but neither is a baby remotely like a full-grown bean plant, and that difference has a more obvious bearing on the debate over embryonic and fetal rights than the facile comparison between plant embryos and human ones. Outside of the world of level five veganism, neither the bean nor the plant have a strong moral claim on us, and its their essence as vegetables, rather than their level of development, that makes all the moral difference. Not even the most ardent enthusiast for the idea that ontology-recapitulates-phylogeny has ever argued that developing human life passes through a vegetable phase on its path toward full adulthood. Biologically speaking, we begin as we end up—which is one reason why any normal person would be rightly horrified to find the beans switched out for human embryos in their favorite cassoulet.

The more obvious point, though, is that Gopnik's argument entails a conclusion that he would almost certainly reject were it put to him plainly. If the difference between a life that's "fully grown" and one that isn't were, as he says, "human life itself," then children and adolescents, being not yet fully developed, would not yet count as "human life." And, in that case, why should their not-quite-human lives count for as much as those of their parents in the eyes of the law?

Gopnik might reply that this isn't exactly what he means, since he goes on to write that "life has no neat on and off...while life may in some sense begin at conception, the moment when the formed consciousness that distinguishes human life from bean life arises is a very different question." But this sentence is no less perplexing than the first. After all, a "formed" consciousness is a developed consciousness, and its development continues over many years, most of them post-natal. On the other hand, if what distinguishes human life from merely potential human life "arises" in a "moment," then it does indeed have a "neat on and off," even if it may be hard to place with satisfactory precision.

It is the impossibility of such precision that really seems to backstop Gopnik's complacency on this question: "It is conscious, thinking life that counts, and where and exactly how it begins (and ends) is so complex a judgment that wise men and women, including some on the Supreme Court, have decided that it is best left, at least at its moments of maximum ambiguity, to the individual conscience (and the individual consciences doctor)." But of course the ambiguities of "conscious, thinking life" extend well beyond birth. Infants aren't conscious the way adults or even two-year-olds are, and such consciousness as infants possess does not begin the moment they are born. If humanity is reducible to "formed consciousness," why shouldn't the law reflect these facts too?

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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