Adam Gopnik is a silly-clever at the New Yorker who thinks he has something to teach us all, and especially to teach Paul Ryan, about what Gopnik calls condescendingly "grownup thinking about abortion."
According to Gopnik, Paul Ryan said something very telling when he stated that his unborn daughter looked like a tiny bean on her first ultrasound and said that he and his wife have since then given her the nickname "Bean." This sets Gopnik off as follows:
But Ryan’s moral intuition that something was indeed wonderful here was undercut, tellingly, by a failure to recognize accurately what that wonderful thing was, even as he named it: a bean is exactly what the photograph shows—a seed, a potential, a thing that might yet grow into something greater, just as a seed has the potential to become a tree. A bean is not a baby.
The fundamental condition of life is that it develops, making it tricky sometimes to say when it’s fully grown and when it isn’t, but always easy to say that there is a difference and that that difference is, well, human life itself. It is this double knowledge that impacts any grownup thinking about abortion: that it isn’t life that’s sacred—the world is full of life, much of which Paul Ryan wants to cut down and exploit and eat done medium rare. It is conscious, thinking life that counts, and where and exactly how it begins (and ends) is so complex a judgment that wise men and women, including some on the Supreme Court, have decided that it is best left, at least at its moments of maximum ambiguity, to the individual conscience (and the individual conscience’s doctor).
But what real science has to tell us, of course, very different; it says that life has no neat on and off, that while life may in some sense begin at conception, the moment when the formed consciousness that distinguishes human life from bean life arises is a very different question, not reducible to a dogma or a simple claim. A bean isn’t a baby; a baby was once a bean, and between those two truths it is, or ought to be, every woman for herself.
Wow, Mr. Gopnik, thanks for setting us straight on what "real science" says. Is it really true that "real science" tells us only that life "may in some sense begin at conception"? Does "real science" tell us that there is no "neat on and off" (such as, you know, conception) for the beginning of a new, individual human life? Really? Maybe in Gopnik-world. But in the real world, real science tells us quite unequivocally that at conception a new human being, in the sense of a specific new human organism, comes into existence, and that that specific new human being was not in existence before. That specific new human individual then develops into a more and more mature human individual. This isn't actually that hard. It's real science, but it's not rocket science. It wouldn't even be controversial if we were talking about pig embryos or cow embryos. But since we're talking about human embryos and human fetuses, our pundits tell us, dismissively, that real science tells us only that "life may in some sense begin at conception" and, inaccurately, that science tells us that "life has no neat on and off."
Then there is the blatant equivocation on the term "life" when Gopnik tells us that "the world is full of life" and includes trees (which Grinch Ryan wants to cut down) and animals (which Evil Ryan wants to devour). Gopnik moves from life (or perhaps we should say Life) in this incredibly broad sense to "conscious, thinking life" with such blazing speed, asserting that it is "conscious, thinking life that counts" that we may momentarily miss the fact that he has presented us with a false dichotomy. This false dichotomy is emphasized by his unscientific insistence on conflating "human life itself" with a particular degree of consciousness.
It is not true that we must either be vitalists and treat every blade of grass as having equal value with ourselves or else adopt Gopnik's strategy of writing out of the human race everyone who isn't "conscious and thinking" (sufficiently to make him happy). What about, you know, individual human lives being what count? This is an option Gopnik doesn't consider, though I suppose we could guess that if he did consider it, he would bestow upon it the same shallow dogmatism that we see reflected here already.
"Conscious, thinking life," is it? Well, what about the standard pro-life point that a newborn baby is not conscious and thinking to anything like the degree that most personhood theorists are looking for? (That is why Peter Singer says that newborns don't have a right to life.) What about the fact that the newborn baby was an unborn baby just a few hours before and has not become more "conscious and thinking" merely in virtue of being born? If it is the mere fact that Ryan's unborn child didn't look like a baby that (for some implausible reason or other) has Gopnik's mind all twisted out of shape, what would Gopnik say to a ban on all abortions after, say, eight weeks' gestation or so, when the unborn child looks, by golly, just like a baby? Hint: He wouldn't go for it.
Then there is the arbitrariness argument that pro-lifers have been making ad infinitum--namely, that it is arbitrary to pick some particular level of present consciousness in the individual human being upon which to bestow the accolade of "life worthy of life." The human level of manifested, on-line consciousness ebbs and flows with various physical conditions, with anesthesia, deep sleep, or mental impairment, which may be either short-term or long-term.
Of course, one could go on and on, and this is all familiar ground to pro-lifers. Gopnik thinks he can get past it by a sneer, by stomping his foot, and by uttering, "A bean is not a baby." That's great, Mr. Gopnik, and fetal pigs aren't immature pigs either, then, I suppose? And this is science?
Let me raise a question here, preceded by a little background: The personhood theorists have been working in overdrive for several decades to find some way to cope with the manifest scientific facts to which Paul Ryan alluded. What they have come up with is the following silly-clever move: Pro-lifer points out that the unborn child is undeniably a new human being, a new biological individual of the race homo sapiens. Instead of denying that, pro-abort shifts to saying, "Yes, yes, but it's not a person. It's a person only if it has x or y degree of self-consciousness, and if you push the infanticide argument, you may discover to your surprise that I will bite the bullet on that one." This sort of pro-infanticidal personhood theory discussion has been entrenched in academic bioethics for several decades.
Why, then, in popular articles like this one and like the one I discussed here (and in the comments thread there as well) do pro-aborts still try so hard to obscure the scientific facts? Gopnik is handing us a sort of mish-mash of personhood theory and scientific obscurantism, but the obscurantism is still there. Why, if personhood theory will do the work? Why not just tell the whole world, openly, "The unborn fetus is a baby, but it's still okay to kill it"? Why not say, "Yes, of course, it's an unborn human being, an immature human being, but we say it's still okay to kill it, because we want it to be more self-conscious than it currently is"?
I submit that the reason we don't usually get such brutal honesty in the popular press is because too many members of the public haven't yet done enough work to suppress the natural law, the law written on the heart. They still know that killing babies is wrong, so pro-aborts have to try to confuse them and bamboozle them by saying that "life is everywhere," that "maybe in some sense life begins at conception" (as though the science on this question were uncertain), that "real science shows us that there is no neat on and off for life," and so forth. Let's hope that at least a few people who haven't yet got all their thoughts in order on the murder of the unborn are more put off by Gopnik's condescending air than they are befuddled by his silly-clever fog. Meanwhile, the fog is a testimony to a niggling sense among some abortion advocates that they can't quite afford to be too forthright.
Not quite yet.