An Almost Absolute Value in History

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“An Almost Absolute Value in History,” by John Noonan, argues against the morality of abortion at any time during a pregnancy. According to Noonan (2012) humanity begins at the moment of conception. Therefore, the unborn child has the inherent right to live, and abortion at any stage of gestation would be the equivalent of murder (p. 472). He makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The only exception he makes is when continuing a pregnancy puts the mother’s life at risk.

His arguments are strong against abortion at a later stage of pregnancy, but they are not as strong in arguing that abortion is immoral as soon as fertilization of an ovum occurs. In order to convince us of the immorality of abortion, John Noonan (2012) addresses the question of when a fetus becomes “human” (p. 469). He argues against several popular ideas. One popular position is that a fetus becomes human when it becomes viable (could survive outside of the mother’s womb). Noonan (2012) argues that this position makes the distinction that until viability, the fetus is completely dependent upon its mother.

He argues that even when a child is born, and for several years of its life, it is completely dependent upon another to feed and care for it. In his opinion, if no longer being dependent is the criterion for humanity, then children don’t become “human” until they are able to care for themselves (p. 469-470). The main issue with Noonan’s argument is that he interchanges the terms “viable” and “dependent”. Although an infant is dependent upon another person for survival, it no longer needs to be physically connected to that person. It can be dependent on someone other than its mother.

He also argues that the time of viability varies among races, and that length and weight are better indicators of development and a fetus’s ability to survive outside the womb (Noonan, 2012, p. 470). Here again his argument is weak. Just because “when the baby is viable” might be too vague of an indicator, doesn’t mean it should be discounted out of hand. An argument might be made for the indicator being some specific marker of development, such as when the baby begins “practice breathing,” meaning that its lungs could function outside of the womb.

There could also be fetal length and weight restrictions on abortion. The next position that Noonan (2012) disputes is that humanity is defined by experience. Someone has to have lived and formed memories to be considered human. He disputes this belief in several ways, with varying successfulness. His first argument is that an embryo feels and reacts at eight weeks gestation (p. 470). This argument is strong in supporting abortion bans after 8 weeks or 10 weeks (when the embryo is considered a fetus).

It is not as strong in supporting abortion bans altogether, which is his argument. It does not support Noonan’s theory that an embryo becomes “human” at the moment of conception. Few could argue that a blastocyst (the bundle of cells that will form the embryo) is having experiences. He next argues that the requirement of memories is not a pertinent way to establish humanity. He states that very young children or those who have experienced memory loss would not be considered human under that definition because they have no memories (Noonan, 2012, p. 470).

This argument is weak because those with memory loss did form memories, even if they have since lost them. New research also suggests that young children might actually be forming memories, but that those memories fade quickly with time (Daily Mail Reporter, 2011, para. 1). In both of these instances, these people have the ability to form memories, and have done so in the past. The last theory of humanity that Noonan (2012) rejects is that of social visibility: that a fetus does not have humanity because it is not yet considered a part of society, and it cannot communicate with others.

Noonan argues that by this definition, individuals or entire groups that have lost their position in society would no longer be considered human. He also states that “anyone conceived by a man and a woman is human. ” He cites actual points in history when certain people were “dehumanized” by society (P. 470). These cases are very different from the case of an unborn child. The groups that Noonan refers to were considered human at some point. The question concerning the unborn child is, was it ever human?

Also, individuals that have been “dehumanized” still have the ability to communicate with others, even if they choose not to. An unborn fetus has no means of communication whatsoever. In defending his view that humanity begins at conception, John Noonan (2012) brings probabilities into his discussion. He believes that probability should be a part of all moral reasoning. He reasons that any spermatozoon or oocyte has a very small chance of becoming a human being; therefore it is not immoral for one of these cells to be destroyed.

At conception, however, this probability shifts from less than 1 in 200 million to 4 in 5. Now that the fertilized cell has an 80% chance of becoming a human, it is immoral to destroy it (p. 470-471). This argument would be stronger in banning abortions past certain points in a pregnancy. For example, after six weeks the chance of miscarriage is only 10%, and after nine weeks it goes down to 0. 5%. In order to convince readers that conception is the definitive moment that humanity begins, Noonan (2012) references genetics.

He reasons that because this is the moment that the genetic code is received, and that genetic code will define the characteristics of the new being, this is also the moment that the being becomes human (p. 471). This seems to be a fair argument since the differences between human genetics and animal genetics is what gives us the ability to think, reason and be self-aware. However, it could be disputed, considering that some animals are self-aware. There is also evidence to suggest that some animals can think, make decisions based on information, and even plan ahead (Borenstein, 2012).

Noonan (2012) concludes his argument by putting the Christian commandment to love thy neighbor as thy self into humanistic terms. He relates it as “do not injure your fellow man without reasons,” and goes on to say, “In these terms, once the humanity of the fetus is perceived, abortion is never right except in self-defense” (p. 472). This statement argues against abortion at a certain stage in pregnancy, but not necessarily right after conception. Overall, Noonan’s arguments are strong against abortion once humanity of a fetus is perceived, but he does little to convince me that humanity occurs at conception.

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