the absurd observers

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Abortion and consciousness


Slate has an article on the coming ability of science to determine when consciousness begins.

Sometime in the next decade or so, neuroscientists will likely identify the specific neural networks and activity that generate the vague but vital thing we call consciousness. Delineating the infrastructure of awareness is biology's most difficult problem, but a leading researcher like Christof Koch, Gerald Edelman, or Stanislas Dehaene could soon solve it. Science will then possess what might be called a "consciometer"—a set of tests (probably an advanced version of a brain scan or EEG) that can measure consciousness the way kidney or lung function is now measured.

The implications on the abortion debate strike me as profound. Bizarrely the debate is currently framed in absolutes. Pro-life activists oppose all abortions whereas pro-choice advocates resist any state regulation. Meanwhile a majority of Americans seem stuck in between, opposing such things as partial birth abortion, while supporting abortion rights when there is less clearly a life at stake.

With the ability to determine when consciousness begins, science will finally have the ability to determine when meaningful life begins. (Although surely fundamentalists on both sides will continue to dispute equating consciousness with life). This shifts any analysis of the abortion issue into two separate questions.

The first question will be whether women ought to have the right to terminate potential life that is itself not yet life. To me, this seems like a no-brainer. If there is no life with competing rights actually in existence, then it seems impossible to justify imposing an obligation upon a woman to maintain her pregnancy.

The second, and much harder question will be whether once there is a human life inside a woman, she has the right to terminate it. Judith Jarvis Thompson has famously argued that there is a moral right to terminate a life in such circumstance. Other proponents argue that in terms of social policy, it is better to have legal safe abortions than illegal unsafe ones. Yet ultimately it seems to me government has a compelling mission to protect life whenever it exists. The rights of an actual human to live trump a woman's right to bodily integrity. (When the life of the mother is at stake, it seems she ought to have the right to protect her life by seeking an abortion)

My hope is that the coming of this ability to measure consciousness will shift abortion policy and attitudes so that women seek abortions prior to consciousness forming. Undoubtedly since the legalization of abortion, women have terminated fetuses that were conscious after being morally torn and unable to decide while the fetus had still not attained consciousness. Perhaps with the ability to measure consciousness, women will be less timid about earlier abortions and less willing to engage in late term abortions. I can only hope this happens.


  • So I skimmed the Slate article, but I didn't see a good explanation of how this consciousness meter is supposed to work. I haven't studied much philosophy, but isn't consciousness inherently beyond measurement? We might find brain functions that seem to be correllated with what people report to be consciousness, but it would seem very difficult to generalize or to make causal connections. Especially in the case of fetuses, it seems very difficult to come up with a test that would be falsifiable. It might not be so much that fundamentalists reject science, as that they (rightfully) doubt whether a consciousness-meter really IS science.

    By Blogger James, at 11:31 PM  

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