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IEET > Rights > Personhood > ReproRights > Life > Health > Vision > Technoprogressivism > Contributors > Dorothy Deasy

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Cells, Persons, and Emerging Technologies


Dorothy Deasy
By Dorothy Deasy
Ethical Technology

Posted: May 2, 2011

Awareness of anti-abortion legislation should be a priority for those who support the genetic sciences, autonomy, and libertarianism.

Look beneath the surface of opposition to emerging technologies and the question of “What is life?” is often at the root. Closely tied to that question – relevant to issues such as consciousness and AGI, regenerative medicine using embryonic stem cells, ethical issues associated with IVF, concerns about population increases, ethical use of enhancements, and personhood for non-human species – are the moral issues birthed in the abortion debate.

In recent years, anti-abortion forces have tried to reframe the discussion from viability to personhood. The Louisiana bill that seeks to ban all abortions outright, no exceptions, wants to rename abortion ‘feticide’, a designation of personhood, and include penalties for the doctors who perform them.

As gynecological and obstetrics sciences have matured, we better understand that while birds and bees may “do it,” human pregnancy is very different. Like death, rather than simply being on or off, the beginning of human life progresses through stages.
embryo cells
Let’s review a few key aspects of the birth process:

  • “According to both the scientific community and long-standing federal policy, a woman is considered pregnant only when a fertilized egg has implanted in the wall of her uterus; however, state definitions of pregnancy vary widely.”
  • The rate of miscarriage, that is, the failure of pregnancy up until week 20, is about 10% - 15% after the cells attach but “may be around 40% when fertilized eggs that do not implant are taken into account.”
  • According to the site gopchoice.org (in regards to a Colorado ballot initiative on personhood), “30-70 percent of fertilized eggs spontaneously fail to implant within the uterine cavity.” (For religions such as Christianity and Buddhism that consider conception the point of ensoulment, that’s a large number of lost souls.)
  • It is the mother’s hormones that determine the genetic outcome of the child, that is, which genetic predispositions may be activated, or not.
  • Around days 10-12, the placenta and amniotic sac begin to form from the cells of the fertilized egg. These cells are not “people” but are necessary to sustain the embryo. About three weeks, “the area that will become the brain and spinal cord (neural tube) begins to develop.” Until that time, the cells could divide to create twins (or other multiples), or twins could combine to form one individual.
  • According to this article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the biology enabling nociceptive activity begins to develop around the 7th week of gestation. Nociceptive “pathways as well as cortical and subcortical centers necessary for pain perception are well developed late in gestation.”
  • The organ most related to personal identity, the brain, continues to “mature throughout pregnancy.” That brain activity is important. Neurons, dendrites, and axons, with synapses between them “are not present in the human cortex before 20-24 weeks of gestation, it is not possible to record ‘brain waves’ prior to 20-24 weeks… The ’individuating’ function of a person’s brain doesn’t start to come into existence until the outer surface of the cortex begins to develop those deep furrows, grooves, and convolutions (sulci and gyri)… These structures don’t begin to form until the last 2 months of pregnancy.”
  • The process for another key aspect of our personal identity, gender, is not completed until week 16 of the pregnancy.
  • “By about 24 weeks: the fetus has a chance of survival outside the uterus.”

In 2010, the state of Nebraska passed a law “barring abortions after 20 weeks because of the possibility that the fetus could feel pain.” This is a shift in the framing of abortion from viability, a measure of individuation, to the ability to feel pain, a measure of empathy.

The Arizona anti-abortion law passed in February of this year prohibits abortion based on race or gender selection. It is even more directly aimed at both defining the fetus as a person and laying the groundwork to challenge genetic technologies. The next logical challenge, given this law as a precedent, might be to prohibit abortions based on disability.

Those who have lost a wanted pregnancy, regardless of the developmental stage, may experience grief. Love and emotional attachment create a bond. But not all pregnancies are wanted, nor in fact, planned. “In 2001, 49% of pregnancies in the U.S were unintended.” Contraception helps, but inconsistency of use, misuse or failure of contraception happens and contributes to about half of unwanted pregnancies.

It is important to remember that until as recently as 1965 some states prohibited the use of contraception, even among married couples. It was Griswold v. Connecticut that secured “individuals’ right to privacy in deciding when and whether to have a child.” Looking ahead to potential regulation of enhancements, such a precedent for privacy is likely to be important. At the core of the Griswold ruling is whether or not the government has the right to dictate how we use our bodies.

For emerging technologies, the abortion debate and legislation may be important for four key reasons:

1. Asserting “all abortions should be banned” or “life begins at conception” suggests that each person has a pre-ordained destiny. Determinism—whether coming from religion, socio-biology or government—is a form of authoritarian control. It is ideological rather than scientific.

2. Undoing Griswold vs. Connecticut may also harm privacy rights needed to support the use of enhancement technologies. Emerging technologies such as enhancements support a right to use available resources to improve the quality of our lives.

3. Genetic technologies may substantially improve the quality of life. The genetic sciences are helping us to understand the nature of genetic diseases and are showing potential for treatments. Embryonic stem cells are being used in developing a wide range of medical treatments. Geron Corp., for example, “is developing cell therapy products from differentiated human embryonic stem cells for multiple indications, including central nervous system (CNS) disorders, heart failure, diabetes and osteoarthritis, and has initiated a Phase 1 clinical trial in spinal cord injury.”

4. Ensuring social justice relative to genetic sciences means creating an environment for R&D to continue and the associated watchdog mechanisms to prevent a biological caste system from taking hold. Legislation aimed at undermining genetic technologies will have the opposite effect of what is desired. It may mean that these technologies become more expensive to acquire and it is then, when we create road blocks for equal access, that a harmful eugenic pattern can take root.

As our knowledge and understanding of the mechanism of life increases, the complexity of what to do with that knowledge also increases. The challenge for bioethics is to use this knowledge to make nuanced, considered decisions that respect life while avoiding coercion and supporting equal access.

I believe it is in the self-interest of those concerned about emerging technologies (both genetic and computational) to demonstrate a respect for life. Prior to week 24 of gestation, the fetus represents the potential for human life but it has not fully formed nor fully individuated. That potential needs to be treated with respect, and every effort possible should be taken to ensure the fetus does not suffer.

  • What bioethical standards might be suggested?
  • Should techno-progressives take a stand for men and women having control over reproduction (e.g. access to contraception, emergency contraception, abortifacients, etc.) and a stand against forced or coerced abortions?
  • What does our understanding of fetal development suggest regarding abortion?
  • What other developments might techno-progressives suggest to reduce or eliminate the need for abortion?

Dorothy Deasy is a freelance design researcher with a Masters of Applied Theology and a BS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.
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COMMENTS


I personally feel that a new human being is not an individual until the umbilical cord is cut.

Regardless of one’s actual belief about when “personhood” begins, I think it is pretty obvious by now that the methods we use to prevent abortions are outdated.

Banning abortions pushes them underground.

We now have countless studies that show that authoritarian measures simply do not work, are not cost effective, and in nearly all cases cause more harm to people than the good they do.

So, while preventing abortion is a worthy goal, banning the practice is infeasible.

Education and access is paramount.





breaking news:

Weeks after a nationwide ban on abortions, coat hanger sales inexplicably sky rocket.





“The organ most related to personal identity, the brain, continues to “mature throughout pregnancy.” That brain activity is important. Neurons, dendrites, and axons, with synapses between them “are not present in the human cortex before 20-24 weeks of gestation, it is not possible to record ‘brain waves’ prior to 20-24 weeks… The ’individuating’ function of a person’s brain doesn’t start to come into existence until the outer surface of the cortex begins to develop those deep furrows, grooves, and convolutions (sulci and gyri)… These structures don’t begin to form until the last 2 months of pregnancy.” “
 
The ability to feel pain should not be the defining criteria by which society determines if an organism can be killed.  Pain as it is defined in the paper you cite requires nociception and a conscious emotional response.  Using this definition of pain and an over emphasis on using pain sensation ability as the criteria for protecting life I should be able to kill people in there sleep as long as I do it fast enough that they don’t wake up to feel conscious pain. 

Further the conscious perception of nociception is not required for physical injury to cause lasting psychological/cognitive trauma on the individual.  This is also true for fetuses (and likely implies that inducing nociception on fetuses can have a lasting impact on neural development much earlier than when the fetus can conscious experience pain). 

no one knows what causes consciousness.  It is certainly plausible that other neural processes are what causes consciousness.  Gap junctions are one possiblity.

Chemical synapses are not the only way that CNS cells communicate, gap junctions also allow the formation of hebbian circuit formation?  This is relevant because gap junctions are present (and are functionally important in CNS development) in the fetus.  Further, gamma synchrony mediated by gap junctions is seen as a likely contender as the neural correlate of consciousness.  See “Involvement of gap junctions in the development of the neocortex” and the gap junction section of “the emerging physics of consciousness”. 

Given the tremendous difficulty in determining what the defining aspects of personhood are along with the difficulty in determing when a fetus meets these criteria society should adopt a precautionary stance in creating legal definitions for when a fetus has a right to life.





@iPan
“Prior to Roe v. Wade, as many as 5,000 American women died annually as a direct result of unsafe abortions”
“Approximately 219 women die worldwide each day from an unsafe abortion”
source: http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book/companion.asp?compID=100&id=20

@Karl Hedderich
What standard are you using? It sounds like you are using personhood, but you say:
“Given the tremendous difficulty in determining what the defining aspects of personhood are along with the difficulty in determing when a fetus meets these criteria society should adopt a precautionary stance in creating legal definitions for when a fetus has a right to life”
What do you think the precautionary stance suggests (e.g. conception, implantation, individuation, brain stem development, etc.)?
Why is the standard not viability since personhood can not be defined?





Conception is not a “point of ensoulment” in Buddhism, since the Buddha very clearly taught there is no such thing as a “soul.” Conception is thought to mark the beginning of an individual life, but there are no souls involved. How Buddhism understands the nature of “individual” and “life” is considerably different from how those words commonly are understood, but that’s way too big a topic to launch into in a comment.

Generally, abortion is thought to be a violation of the First Precept, against taking life, and it is discouraged. However, Buddhist views on morality (again, another big subject) tend to be less absolutist than what is found in the Abrahamic religions, and there is a great reluctance among many Buddhists to criminalize abortion. Some more conservative Asian Buddhists do favor criminalization, however.





“Conception is not a “point of ensoulment” in Buddhism, since the Buddha very clearly taught there is no such thing as a “soul.”

Thanks Barbara, for the clarification on that. I should not have used the term ensoulment; it was sloppy shorthand on my part. My source, “Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions”, in the section on Buddhism, says “Buddhists believe that the individual human being comes into existence at fertilization or conception” (88).  That said, there is much more nuance, as you point out, than my comment implies. Further, rather than saying “religions” I should have referenced “some adherents” as in all faiths, including Christianity, beliefs may differ even within the faith.
It should be noted that faiths (and adherents) differ on dealing with the life issues raised by abortion. According to the same source, for Islam, “there is no consensus about when exactly this ensoulment happens during pregnancy” and “most Muslim scholars recognize that there may be extenuating circumstances where the health or well-being of the mother may be endangered” (315, 314). In Judaism “acceptability or otherwise of abortion centers on when a foetus becomes a person, not just a “life”-or in religious terms, when the soul enters the body….The rabbis consider that there seem to be only two logical moments for deciding that a foetus becomes a person: either at the moment of conception or at the moment of birth…They decided the foetus became a full person at the moment of birth, so that an accusation of murder cannot apply in the case of abortion” (187). That said, because the fetus represents “an emerging potential human life…as time goes on more and more care should be taken to avoid harming the foetus” (187-188). Up to 40 days, it is “mere fluid” and “people need not be particularly careful to avoid a miscarriage before ninety days” (188). This source also says that at birth, if the mother’s life is endangered, deferral is in favor of the mother if the fetus “is still in her womb” but if “the greater part of the child has already emerged it may not be damaged” (188).
I cite these references to make the point that not all faiths agree.  In a pluralistic society, setting conception as the gold standard is a violation of religious freedoms (not to mention secular freedoms). 
My comment above about “ensoulment” was to make the point that conception is biologically arbitrary given the rate of flush-through. It should also be noted that the data on flush-through rate also varies, depending on source and how it is calculated. There is agreement, however, that some percentage of fertilized eggs pass through without implanting.
Thank you, Barbara, for shedding more light on Buddhist POV. Perhaps others from different faiths might comment or clarify?
Of course, any contributions to the discussion (not limited to faith issues) are welcomed.





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