Summary of John T. Noonan’s, “An Almost Absolute Value in History”

John T Noonan Jr.jpg

Over the next few days, I will outline two famous pro-life and two famous pro-choice articles. For the record, a strong majority of professional philosophers support the pro-choice view. My own views can be found here and here. Also, one issue to get out-of-the-way before we start, as it is so commonly misunderstood:

“…research on human reproduction shows that the ‘moment of conception’ is not a moment at all. Sometimes several sperm penetrate the outer membrane of the egg and it takes time for the egg to eject the extra chromosomes … but even when a single sperm enters, its genes remain separate from those of the egg for a day or more, and it takes yet another day or so for the newly merged genome to control the cell. So the ‘moment of conception’ is in fact a span of twenty-four to forty-eight hours.” – from Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

“An Almost Absolute Value in History” – John T. Noonan

A fundamental question: How do you determine humanity? In Christian theology, this is the question of “ensoulment,” but Noonan (N) does not defend this idea arguing instead that: “If you are conceived by human parents you are human.” He also quickly attacks other criteria of humanity like:

  1. Viability – the idea that one becomes human when one can live without, and is not absolutely dependent upon, the mother. N counters: 1) viability depends on the current state of technology hence is not a good guide; and 2) even when viable, fetuses and young children are dependent suggesting that the lessening of dependence does not confer humanity.
  2. Experience – humanity depends on the formation of experience and memories. N counters: 1) fetuses have experiences from about 8 weeks; 2) even if all memories and experience is lost, say in total amnesia, humanity is not lost; and 3) it is not clear why experiences make one human since many humans fail to have important experiences.
  3. Less sentiment – We suffer more grief at the loss of a child compared to a fetus. N counters: 1) feelings toward others is not a good guide to their humanity; and ) the ability to sense a thing is not a good guide to its humanity.
  4. Social visibility – fetuses do not communicate with other persons so they are not members of society. N counters: 1) humanity does not depend on social recognition and when it does grave consequences follow for human beings.

N acknowledges that many philosophers may hold that humanity is not an objective concept that can be discovered. N argues briefly that morality demands we assume an objective sense of humanity in order to answer moral questions. [This is hugely debatable; moreover, objective conceptions of humanity have led to monstrous results.]

Now N considers the following. The chance of a sperm becoming a person is about 1 in 200,000,000; the chance of eggs becoming human nearly 1,000,000 to 1. But the chance of a fertile egg becoming human is about 80%. (The actual probability is much less— “between 2/3 & 3/4 of the fertilized eggs never attach to the uterine wall.” Steven Pinker The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. So it seems that nature, or god if you will, is a great abortionist.) This dramatic change in probabilities does not definitively establish humanity but does suggest a non-arbitrary point at which we might assume it. We would hold you responsible for shooting something that was probably a human, but not for shooting something that was almost certainly not human. What this argument shows is that conception is the most plausible marker of humanity. Destroying a sperm is a lot different from destroying a fetus. In addition, after conception, there is a human genetic code.

Still, none of this means that abortion is never justified, only that the rights of the fetus are important and need to be balanced with other’s rights. So abortion is justified to save the life of the mother since this is a case of self-defense.

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