You have to draw the line somewhere part 3 – where it gets really controversial…

In my previous two posts, I discussed continua and our apparent need to draw hard and fast lines in them, which causes difficulties – particularly in the case of laws and politics.

In the process of creation of a human being, from conception through gestation and birth to eventual status as an adult human being, there is clearly a continuum. This Aeon article (which actually deals with whether we may already have created self-aware machines) has a list equating some stages in that process to machine examples. The list is as follows:-

Level Explanation Animal Example Human Age Equivalent Machine Example
-1 Disembodied Blends into environment Molecule
0 Isolated Has a body, but no functions Inert chromosome Stuffed animal
1 Decontrolled Has sensors and actuators, but is inactive Corpse Powered-down computer
2 Reactive Has fixed responses Virus Embryo to 1 month ELIZA
3 Adaptive Learns new reactions Earthworm 1–4 months Smart thermostat
4 Attentional Focuses selectively, learns by trial-and-error, and forms positive and negative associations (primitive emotions) Fish 4–8 months CRONOS robot
5 Executive Selects goals, acts to achieve them, and assesses its own condition Octupus 8–12 months Cog
6 Emotional Has a range of emotions, body schema, and minimal theory of mind Monkey 12–18 months Haikonen architecture (partly implemented by XCR-1 robot)
7 Self-Conscious Knows that it knows (higher-order thought) and passes the mirror test Magpie 18–24 months Nexus-6 (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
8 Empathic Conceives of others as selves and adjusts how it presents itself Chimpanzee 2–7 years HAL 9000 (2001)
9 Social Has full theory of mind, talks, and can lie Human 7–11 years Ava (Ex Machina)
10 Human Passes the Turing Test and creates cumulative
Human 12+ years Six (Battlestar Galactica)
11 Super-Conscious Coordinates multiple streams of consciousness Bene Gesserit (Dune) augmented Samantha (Her)

Some people reading this will probably be experiencing a very negative reaction around now, noticing that the list equates a 1-4 month foetus with a smart thermostat. How could I do that? Well, please bear with me. I appreciate that this is one of THE most emotive issues within Christianity (and in the politics of the USA and some other nations), but it does serve to illuminate my point about continua and drawing lines, possibly in the strongest way possible.

The abortion issue is a place where law meets a continuum. We quite rightly wish to make the killing of a human being a crime – but at what point does a conglomeration of cells become a human being rather than something not yet human, which has the potential to become human? The answer to that question has not been the same in all societies and at all times, nor among devout  Christians.

The earliest point ever chosen is, in fact, before even any sexual contact has taken place. Some have argued (from an interpretation of the Biblical story of Onan) that male semen is already worthy of protection (after all, “Onan was killed by God”… though probably for not following Jewish law regarding Levirate marriage rather than for onanism). This has to some extent been the Catholic position from time to time (although even there, I do not see masturbation held up as equivalent to murder), and despite being lampooned by Monty Python, is a viewpoint which is logical, though it takes the question of whether something is potentially a human being almost to its extreme (there have been cultures, or at least subcultures, which have thought that even the urge to have sex should not be restrained, for just this reason…)

The current position of very many conservative or Evangelical Christians (and some Christians who are neither) in the 21st century is that human life starts at the moment of fertilisation of an egg by a sperm. Again, this is a logical viewpoint, though it is worth pointing out both that it is extremely difficult to determine immediately that this has happened (a practical point) and that a large percentage of fertilised eggs never make it much beyond that point (miscarriages, often too early for even the mother to know that she has miscarried). The Aeon article likens this stage to a virus, and it is equally a logical viewpoint to consider the fertilised egg and very early embryo as worthy of as much (as little) protection as a virus, even if this is massively distasteful to some.

A major Catholic point of view, and one which has been widely followed in other cultural milieu, is that life starts at “quickening”, i.e. the point at which the mother first feels the embryo move. Again, this is logical, and has the added advantage that there is some evidence available without the need for scientific tests. That evidence is, however, something which only the mother can know. While the article places the point at which comparison with a smart thermostat is reasonable at 1-4 months post birth, actually the likeness might well extend back to the point of quickening.

Most legal jurisdictions which permit abortion at all, however, place the dividing point at a certain number of months’ pregnancy. Actually, this is possibly significantly less logical and more arbitrary, but does have the advantage of being clear if the date of conception is known and at least approximately ascertainable using ultrasound. In general, after this arbitrary point, abortion is only permitted if it is basically a choice between the life of the embryo and the life of the mother, and the mother is favoured. There could be argument, however, that the embryo should be preserved alive at the expense of the mother. In general, the time limit was initially placed at the earliest point at which the embryo and the mother could be parted and the embyo still survive, but that point has been moving steadily earlier as medical science advances; there is, however, clearly doubt as to where this point is – should it be at the earliest point at which any embyo is known to have survived or the point at which there is a significant chance (say 50%) of survival, or at the point where there is real confidence of the embryo making the leap to “baby”?

Perhaps the most obvious point to choose, and that which has been chosen in a lot of cultures at a lot of times, is the moment of birth. Although there can still be some argument, absent a few hours (or, for the lucky, minutes), it is clear to both mother and the wider world when this occurs. Of course, this is the point at which the abortion issue ceases; beyond that, one might think, the foetus has definitively become a baby, and therefore a human.

However, that has not always and everywhere been the case; in the UK, it was noted many years ago that it was incredibly difficult to induce a jury to convict a mother of killing a new-born (and in those days sentence her to death), so the government of the day invented a crime of “infanticide”, which was a lesser offence than murder (and, technically, still is, though I haven’t come across the offence being used for a long time). Though the offence (and its implied defence to a charge of murder) was created before obstetrics  was so well understood, it has sometimes served to avoid extreme penalties for quite a few mothers suffering from post-natal depression who have completely “lost it” when faced with weeks or months of a bawling infant and the attendant sleep deprivation (in UK law, the defence of insanity was prone to produce a very long period (possibly life) confined to a mental asylum if, indeed, a defendant could manage the very strict rules for that defence; the case after which those rules were named, which involved an attempt to kill Queen Victoria, is an example of hard cases making bad law; had the target been a lesser figure than the Queen, I suspect more relaxed rules would have resulted).

Further back in history, much the same thinking has produced reduced penalties for the killing of children much older than the 12 month limit of infanticide. Wergild in Germanic law (the payment due on killing someone) was typically half for an unborn child (as it was in Anglo-Saxon law), but sometimes less than a full amount for children who were not of full age; typically the age of majority was 14. Parents, in particular, could not infrequently punish children even to the point of killing them, as is suggested by certain passages in the Bible for the ancient Hebrews, which is hardly consistent with them being regarded as endowed with full human rights.

Protection against being killed is not, of course, the only issue on which the law has traditionally differed depending on age. The classic dividing point has been the “age of majority”, which in the UK has been 18 for many years, but used to be less, but other ages are in play for other purposes – for example, the ability to consent to sexual relations currently is 16 in the UK and parts of the USA, another dividing line which produces hard cases making bad law, when slightly older adolescents are tainted with a “statutory rape” charge (and sometimes lifetime labelling as a sexual offender) for being intimate with a person slightly under the “age of consent”, but who may have been sexually active for some years. Other countries have younger ages, sometimes as low as 12.

Curiously, 16 is also the youngest age at which conscription into the armed services used to be possible for quite some time in the UK. However, the youngest age for the purchase and consumption of alcohol is 18 in the UK, 21 in the USA, leading to the anomaly of being able to die for one’s country but not to drown the sorrows occasioned when one’s fellow 16 year olds  (or, in the States, 19 year olds) are killed.

Many jurisdictions also have an age of criminal responsibility, below which a child is presumed not to be capable of forming a criminal intent (perhaps thinking in terms of the empathic or social stage in the Aeon article). These ages vary widely, from 6 to 14 (at the least, and using only UK and USA ages – the age even varies within the UK, between Scotland and the rest of the country). This couples with earlier observations in making some things crimes, sometimes very serious crimes, if victim or perpetrator is one day older or younger, but not in the alternative case – and that includes “number of months” cases of abortion, where that is the test.

As an aside, taking into account also ages at which it becomes legal to smoke, to own a gun (well, in the UK, anyhow) and to drive a vehicle, I do get the feeling that we tend to impose responsibility (conscription and criminal liability) before we are willing to give the perks of adulthood.

Finally, returning to admitted adults, we make exceptions to “thou shalt not kill”, at the very least for war, in the States for persons convicted of murder (or a few other offences – in the UK, it was until relatively recently possible to be executed for “arson in Her Majesty’s Dockyard”). It also seems to me that in the popular imagination as passed to us in TV and film programmes, killing someone for being a bad person (or, in the case of “collateral damage” for being somewhere near a bad person) is regarded as OK. The guys wearing the white hats (as it were) in film seem to have a licence to kill which the real equivalents of 007 can only dream of. It seems to me that this applies also to American law enforcement officers… Some of us, indeed, seem to regard killing people who are not of “their group” to be justifiable in a way they would not feel for someone more like them.

The trouble is, the debate between “pro life” and “pro choice” advocates has become extremely heated. This is not altogether surprising; as soon as you determine that at a certain stage of development a foetus is fully human, abortion becomes murder, and the term “baby-killer” is certainly frequently in use among “pro life” campaigners. It is a hugely unhelpful term to bandy about, because in all probability no-one among the “pro choice” camp thinks of what they propose as killing babies – they just set the dividing line between “on the way to being human” and “actually human” in a different place, and “on the way to being human” does not, to them, deserve the same protection as does “actually human”.

We have also seen a shift in the value we place on children since the days when England invented the offence of infanticide; in those days, a huge proportion of children never reached adulthood, dying of many childhood illnesses – or, indeed, accidents, because we once were not nearly so protective of children. Now, medical science can save the vast majority of those children (or foetuses), and we have developed a rather misty eyed view of children, at least in the general case (it is still the case that most parents and teachers have at some point entertained the idea of just doing away with the disruptive youngster…)

The chain of reasoning which considers abortion to be murder seems to end with a willingness to vote for Grishnak (a hobbit-eating orc from Lord of the Rings), as this article indicates. I rather suspect that those in the States who consider it not to be murder occasionally voted on much the same basis, thinking that voting for any Republican would lead to a huge reduction in womens’ rights.  Rachel Held Evans gave considerable thought to the issue when deciding to vote Clinton rather than Trump. This just illustrates the huge emotive weight which comes with being the wrong side of a line drawn in what is a continuum.

This heartfelt piece by Andy Gill is an attempt at a Jesus-centred response to the abortion issue, which (as pointed out here) has not always seen the line as drawn where evangelicalism would now see it.

What do I think? It isn’t an issue which I’ve ever had to make a hard decision on, thank God. I do, however, very much see the continuum rather than the hard line drawn across it. I’m a mystic, and therefore a panentheist, and I therefore see all life (not restricted to human life) as worthy of preservation, but having done a reduction ad absurdum, I cheerfully kill off bacteria in my body with antibiotics whenever they prejudice my health, and I eat meat – let’s face it, I couldn’t survive at all without eating things which used to be alive. I regard consciousness as more worthy of preservation, however, so animals are more worthy of preservation than are plants (absent a sound ecological reason), and humans more worthy of preservation than are animals, at least for the most part, as I see them as having a greater consciousness than animals.

But I also see adults as having, in general, a greater consciousness than infants or sub-infants. I would, therefore, unhesitatingly agree an abortion if the mother’s life was endangered by a pregnancy continuing. I would see that as a wrong, but as a lesser wrong than the death of the woman.

I recoil at the idea of “abortion on demand”, thinking that if a child can be born viable, it should be – there are, after all, many people looking to adopt, and if there is anything wrong there, it is that adoption is too difficult, expensive and time consuming. There, however, I am looking not just at birth, but at the upbringing of the child. I am very sceptical that we are doing a favour for the unborn by forcing them to be born into a family which can’t or won’t care for them adequately.

But then I have to ask myself how much of a favour we are doing in forcing them to be born into a society which won’t or can’t care for them adequately.

There are no easy answers when you draw lines across a continuum.

4 Responses to “You have to draw the line somewhere part 3 – where it gets really controversial…”

  1. Chris Says:

    This is a really good article suggesting that “pro-life” is just a smokescreen:-

    If it has a failing, it’s that it does not address the issue of whether something even further down the spectrum than an implanted ovum should be regarded as a human person – the “every sperm is sacred” or “glint in daddy’s eye” attitude. I have known people who genuinely think that this is the correct moral position to take, generally Roman Catholics. Generally, “be fruitful and multiply” is quoted.

  2. Chris Says:

    I’ve since found this fascinating article, which starts on the presentation of abortion as an act of self-defence. It could be fleshed out further, but the argument seems to me basically sound.

  3. Chris Says:

    While I’m gathering materials, also this:-

  4. Chris Says:

    Interesting article at

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