Here is a wonderful list of the 25 most influential living atheists. Apparently, the IDiots (as PZ calls them) at Uncommon Descent have taken that list and sent each of these living legends a questionnaire to see which one of them will acknowledge the conceptus as a person. PZ Myers ends up as the Bogey Man on this occasion, the headline screaming: Newborn babies: not persons, not fully human — PZ Myers. Here are the questions that were asked of each of the 25 distinguished atheists on the list. The author thinks we have a right to know what these atheists think about the moral status of babies:
(a) Do you believe that a newborn baby is fully human? Yes/No (please see Question 1 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
(b) Do you believe that a newborn baby is a person? Yes/No (please see Questions 1 and 2 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
(c) Do you believe that a newborn baby has a right to life? Yes/No (please see Questions 1 and 3 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
(d) Do you believe that every human person has a duty towards newborn babies, to refrain from killing them? Yes/No (please see Questions 1, 4, 5 and 6 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
(e) Do you believe that killing a newborn baby is just as wrong as killing an adult? Yes/No (please see Questions 1 and 7 below if you find it difficult to give a clear answer to this question).
As I say, we have PZ Myers’ response to the questionnaire. The point that PZ is making is that this is a trick questionnaire. Here’s part of PZ’s response:
As you can see, they’re blinded by an assumption that you can reduce a continuum of potential and actuality to black & white answers, which is the whole problem I’ve complained about before, and what they’ve written is actually a confirmation of my complaint about pro-lifers: they don’t think, and they don’t comprehend.
PZ’s point is thoughtful and sensitive. But the trick is easy to spot if you stop to think. If you answer the questions in the expected way — “Yes, of course, a baby is a person, has a right to life and should never be killed” — then you are forced to extrapolate backwards in time, and the foetus becomes a person, and then the embryo, and then the blastocyst, until you come to the unicellular conceptus that has yet to embed itself in the uterus. And then you have to extrapolate forwards as well, and the one-time person whose brain is almost completely destroyed — as, for example, Terry Schaivo’s was — is also a person, and has a right not to be killed. As soon as you take something on a continuum and fail to make moral distinctions between different stages of its journey, you have, in fact, as PZ says, failed to use your brain and to think carefully about the implications of what you say. And when you do think, using your brain instead of letting your brain use you, perhaps these further reflections might occur to you, as they occurred to PZ:
The dehumanizing aspect of the so-called pro-life position is the flattening of the complexity of humanity and personhood, and its reduction to nothing more than possession of a specific set of chromosomes. To regard a freshly fertilized zygote as the full legal, ethical, and social equivalent of a young woman diminishes the woman; it does not elevate the zygote, which is still just a single cell. It is that fundamentalist Christian view, shallow and ignorant as it is, that is ultimately the corrosive agent in our culture, since it demands unthinking obedience to a rigid dogma rather than an honest evaluation of reality, and it harms the conscious agents who actually create and maintain our culture.
The Vatican has adopted the practice of speaking about human dignity from the moment of conception until “natural” death. Roman Catholic documents speak indifferently of the ”dignity” or “sanctity” of human life. The idea behind this usage is, as PZ puts it, to flatten out the complexity of humanity and personhood, and pretend that there are no important moral distinctions to be made anywhere along this continuum. Yet dignity itself depends upon self-concept, and conceptuses don’t have a self-concept, nor do babies — nor, for that matter, do people with aggravated forms of dementia or mentally challenged infants with no ability to conceptualise. In fact, the development of “the self” depends upon a lot of things, including social relationship, language, and emotional depth, and it takes place over a fairly long period. There is a difference between biological life, and biographical life. As James Rachels puts it:
The sanctity of life ought to be interpreted as protecting lives in the biographical sense, and not merely life in the biological sense. (The End of Life, 26)
Having a life, that is, having plans, projects, hopes, fears, intentions, relationships, etc., is very different from simply being alive. Indeed, sometimes being alive is to experience nothing but extreme suffering, pain and distress. In fact, because life evolves, we know that some organisms will enter life disadvantaged and unable to survive. That is a part of the evolutionary script, which is why, given that life evolves by means of natural selection, the problem of pain becomes even more difficult for religious believers to deal with, since the pain and suffering of being selected out is built right into the process by which life comes to be as it is. To suggest, as the IDiots at Uncommon Descent do, that it is impossible to make moral discriminations along the continuum from conception to “natural” death, is to say that all this planned obsolescence – and the suffering that accompanies it – is itself sacred. They clearly know not what they say.
What they are saying, effectively, is that no matter how much suffering a newborn baby must undergo, we do not have any right not to do everything in our power to preserve it in life, even if that means just preserving it so that it can suffer longer. These are the people, remember, who rail against the Groningen Protocol, the Netherland’s directive which specifies the conditions under which euthanasia of a newborn may be carried out without fear of prosecution. The questions that VJ Torley (of Uncommon Descent) put to the 25 most influential living atheists clearly imply that we cannot make moral distinctions between one newborn baby and another. All have a right to life, and those born merely to go through a period of unrelieved suffering, no matter how long, have as much right to their suffering as other newborns have to their joy in the heart of a loving family.
Once again, Christian fanatics side with the cruelty of their god. Of course, in one sense they have no choice. If God’s ways are loving and good, then every living thing that comes into the world is there because of God’s will and purpose. That they suffer is not our concern. I believe we can do better than that.