The 23 Week, 8.6 Ounces, Baby and Late Abortion

The basic moral question at the heart of the abortion debate is what is a human being? This is one of those things where Peter Singer is analytically correct – we face a Sorites problem here. That insight being some thousands of years old. Here’s a “pile” of sand. Moving one grain over to there doesn’t create two piles. We’ve not stopped our pile being a pile by removing one grain, one grain is not a pile either. But as we continue to move grains from one to t’other at some point we do indeed have two piles. And at some point in the process our first pile will stop being one.

OK, when?

A San Diego hospital on Wednesday revealed the birth of a girl believed to be the world’s tiniest surviving baby, who weighed just 245 grams (about 8.6 ounces) before she was discharged as a healthy infant. The baby, named Saybie, was born at 23 weeks and three days and was sent home this month weighing 5lbs (2kg) after nearly five months in the neonatal intensive care unit, Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns said in a statement.

We say that there’s a something called a human being. Which has certain inalienable rights – not being killed being one of them. Exactly where that dividing line is between a not-human being and a human being is a tricky point. It’s a Sorites problem. We don’t accord full and all the inalienable rights until – in the US at least – they’re 21 years out of the womb. We accord some rather earlier than that – not being killed perhaps the earliest of them.

The human/non-human distinction is thus important. We protect non-humans very differently. We can be done and jugged for fighting with dogs – Michael Vicks was – and for torturing them etc. We can’t be for euthanising them. We can be for killing humans.

Different attempts are made at drawing that line. Ancient Greek – in fact most pre-modern societies we believe – culture saw nothing very wrong with exposing unwanted infants on a hillside. The Catholic Church currently insists that the moment of conception creates that human with rights. UK law seems to be based upon “viability” – at least in the absence of deformity. If it could survive outside the womb then it’s protected.

Which makes it all a bit tricky, doesn’t it? Because we’ve now evidence that survival outside the womb starts rather earlier and smaller than current law insists…..

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KiwicatloverQuentin VoleLeo SavanttJonathan Harstonthammond Recent comment authors
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Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Singer’s conclusion is that if you agree with abortion roughly along current lines (he does), then you must logically support infanticide up to around 18 months (the earliest point at which babies begin to form permanent memories).

Leo Savantt
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Leo Savantt

There are plenty of neuroscientists who argue that permanent memories are formed intrauterine.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

If that’s the case, I suspect neuroscientists must be using the word ‘memory’ in a rather different sense to the rest of us. Prof Singer chose 18 months as a conservative estimate, since it’s generally considered to be 2-4 years:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childhood_amnesia

Leo Savantt
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Leo Savantt

Perhaps, but from what I have read experiences much earlier than 18 months have been recalled with great detail and were veritably completely accurate.

The Mole
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The Mole

There is also immense amount of research around the impact of trauma and neglect on babies (e.g. parents arguing, being left to cry or passed around different carers) and how it can have a profound long term impact even if the child can’t consciously recall the memories.

Leo Savantt
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Leo Savantt

Yes, just because you can’t remember doesn’t mean it did not impact on you or isn’t actually a memory.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Good point, Leo. But Prof Singer is considering memory in the context that it’s what makes an individual person. If you lose all your memories, who are you? And if it’s the case that no permanent memories are formed much before the age of 2 years, he claims that such ‘persons’ are not yet individuals who would be entitled to protection of life.

I recommend reading his (very accessible) book Practical Ethics (which is where I assume Tim got his argument from).

thammond
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thammond

So a severely disabled child unable to form memories can be killed at any point? We do not judge humans in this way. It is a faux scientific way of justifying current abortion laws.

If we had no idea when memories are formed, we would still say killing humans was wrong.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Singer is somewhat arguing against his own position. Having concluded that abortion on demand can be ethically justified (i’m not claiming to agree, but it is a least a defensible argument), he points out that if you accept the moral arguments for this proposition, it follows logically that you should also support infanticide up to (say) 18 months. And very few do, in fact, accept the second proposition, or realise that it is entailed by their support for abortion. If you’re interested, read his book – I see there’s a new second edition, which I haven’t read. It covers far… Read more »

Leo Savantt
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Leo Savantt

I must admit to being somewhat a fan of the late Dr. Arthur Janov, his book The Biology of Love is for me the psychological/neuroscientific equivalent of the sociological/economic wonder that is Friedrich Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom. I met Janov once at a dinner with the French advocate of ensuring birth is as positive as possible, Dr. Michelle Odent (my wife was his research assistant). In light of Janov’s work, I must disagree vehemently with Singer’s assertion, Janov shows that pain and trauma are imprinted in foetuses and neonates and that those imprints define character, neurosis and illness in… Read more »

thammond
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thammond

Anybody who thinks neuroscientists know even the tiniest fraction about our brains is being sold a very large fib.

Dodgy Geezer
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Dodgy Geezer

If the distinction is “If it could survive outside the womb then it’s protected.”, then I suspect that we’re talking about someone of the age of 5 or 6. Assuming that ‘survive outside the womb’ means ‘without any other human helping them. Very dependent on the environment, of course. But a child that could not walk and obtain food and shelter would soon die on its own… if we are talking about ‘survive outside the womb with reasonable medical care’, then we have moved into the field of current technology, which is constantly changing. So we have a Sorites problem… Read more »

thammond
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thammond

What possible relevance has forming permanent memories? This is sophistry of a very dangerous kind. A human is a human is a human. Alive is alive is alive.

The question is far harder to answer if put differently: if a foetus at say 16 weeks is not human and is not alive, what then is it?

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Is someone in a PVS alive or fully human? You may wish to answer ‘yes’, in which case good for you, but I’m not convinced the position is quite as clear-cut as you seem to imagine. The point Singer is making is that if we accept the arguments for abortion on demand, then logically we must also accept infanticide.

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

There was a good discussion of the issues of human vs nonhuman in one of the spin-off stories set in the Asimov universe. This core issue was how do the robots define “human” in their “must do X regarding humans” laws, with the added issue of augmentation of in-utero fetuses.

Kiwicatlover
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Kiwicatlover

Arguing over when a foetus is human is a losing argument for the pro side. The key argument is whether enslavement of the mother until birth is acceptable (does the baby’s right to life trump that?). I would argue no, such enslavement is not acceptable, even at the cost of a new life. So the legal limit is a movable feast of when the state has the capability and desire to induce an early delivery and take on responsibility from that point on.