I have been engaged in a discussion elsewhere regarding my position on abortion. I wanted to run this by the atheistnexus community as the perspectives here are particularly rational and helpful most of the time. Before I start, just know my mind is not made up. That is reason I am starting this discussion. Here are my arguments for my positions, which I openly admit may not be completely sound.

I support the practice of a death penalty. Yet I am resistant to some of the arguments of the pro-choice movement.

Regarding the death penalty, I am aware of the problem of wrongful convictions. This is a problem for the legal system. But in principle, I have no problem putting criminals to death that lack any hope for rehabilitation (mass murderers, genocidal war criminals, etc) if we can know for sure they are indeed guilty. The amount of evidence required needs to be extremely high to justify the death penalty. But if overwhelming evidence exists, then why keep these animals alive?

But abortion to me is the killing of innocent infant humans. It is a matter of location. If the child was only one minute 'old', having exited the womb, then killing the child would be murder. But because it is still inside a woman, we give it a different term 'abortion' and make it a choice. Isn't abortion just a nice way of saying unborn-infant-murder?

A common argument is that of choice. It is a matter of a woman's right to make decisions that affect her body. The pro-choice movement treats the opposition as weirdos that want to pass laws restricting what she can and cannot do with her own body. I feel they miss the point completely. There are TWO bodies in question, and the laws restricting abortions address the OTHER body - that of another human - living inside the woman. 

I understand there is a huge grey area here. When does the fetus become a human with the intrinsic right to life? Is it only when the brain has developed? But at what point in the brain development? I get it. It is not an easy question. That is why I do not actively oppose the pro-choice movement. I am still collecting information on the subject to refine my position. I certainly don't support the pro-life movement either. I am currently unable to form a completely justified position either way. 

I can see abortion as necessary or preferable in the cases of rape or to protect the mother's life. That makes sense. In other cases, where it is just promiscuity that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, I feel a vacuous moral subjectivity seeping into society. 

I also do understand that for the vast majority of mothers, the decision to have an abortion is not an easy one and continues to affect them emotionally well after the event. But that is how it should be. We should not be just OK with the idea of killing infants. It should be taboo. Abortion should be thought of as terrible, whether you support the practice or not. Would this perspective of taboo discourage irresponsible sexual encounters? Would this would discourage inception when not in stable healthy relationships? For some who have abortions for selfish reasons, it certainly does not seem that the taboo nature of the act has any affect on their habits. It is not unheard of for some women to get multiple abortions in their life time. How the heck does that happen? 

And of course, 99% of the time, this only applies to people willing to engage in unprotected sex. Why on Earth would you engage in irresponsible unprotected sex? Accidentally? Broken condoms?

I have no problem with recreational sex. But we have several highly effective birth control methods. If a woman is on the pill and the male uses a condom, the chances for an unwanted pregnancy approach zero. If for some reason a birth control method fails, adoption is an option preferable to the death of a human. 

Abortion is not a birth control method. It is a life control method - the act following a decision to kill an innocent human. It is a decision we give no other person in society. It is illegal in ALL other cases to kill an innocent human. But since it is a woman, and the human in question is inside her, we grant the woman this unique ability, even in cases where the pregnancy was just due to irresponsibility. 

So please be kind and help me out here. I am not going to bash anyone's personal position on the matter as I want my own position to be as sound and fair as possible. I just want to hear the opinions, specifically from people with superior understanding and life experience. I might challenge a bad argument, but it only be to seek clarification, not as an attack on any individuals beliefs.

Specifically, my questions are as follows:

1. In the case of irresponsible conception, why do we permit women to kill another human?

2. If it can even be answered, when does a human fetus get the intrinsic right to life? This is an unalienable right of all Americans (and all humans, I would argue. When does this right kick in?

3. Why are many atheists opposed to the death penalty but absolutely (in all cases/situations) pro-abortion? How is that at all morally consistent?

4. Is the practice of abortion detrimental to the social health of our society? Is the religious right to blame for a lack of sex education?

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The death penalty is clearly the killing of a human person with an awareness of life, (usually) a desire to continue living, and a claim to autonomy.

I'm an atheist who's opposed to the death penalty (given the probable occurrence of deadly miscarriages of justice, and the lack of significant deterrent effect), and who's pro-choice on abortion.

As you said, there isn't that much difference between a fetus one minute away from being born and a one-minute-old baby. Yet there's no bright line, no clear, sudden demarcation between "this is a potential person developing in the womb" (obvious at the early stages, yet erased by pro-life* / anti-choice language of "children" and "unborn babies" at any stage of pregnancy) and "this is a baby" (towards the end of the pregnancy).

* (Too many "pro-lifers" apparently couldn't care less about kids' lives once they're born.)

Jonathan Glover's book Causing Death and Saving Lives, written from a completely secular perspective, deals with many issues, including abortion as well as capital punishment, euthanasia, triage, and war and assassination. Glover concludes that abortion becomes gradually more wrong as the fetus develops. If I recall correctly, he argues that even birth is more an arbitrary, socially useful dividing line than an "objective" one. Yet going with our instincts that recoil at killing a visible baby is better than trying to ascribe a right to life only at some later point!

In terms of the awareness of life, desire to continue living, autonomy, and living a "worthwhile" life -- if the fetus that went on to become me had been aborted, I wouldn't have been around to care. Just as if it had miscarried, or died shortly after birth. (My parents would have been devastated at losing their cherished, hoped-for potential child, but that's a separate issue.)

Something else to consider, that put me firmly in the pro-choice position: an argument articulated by Eileen McDonagh which makes any possible fetal "personhood" irrelevant.

  1. Consent to sex doesn't imply consent to pregnancy.
  2. Pregnancy is a massive, intrusive, risky transformation of a woman's body and liberty, not only causing prolonged discomfort (I don't think I or any other man can truly "get it"), but sometimes giving rise to major medical complications. If, hypothetically, someone caused such massive bodily changes by putting poison in her food, it would clearly be an assault. If the woman didn't consent to the pregnancy, she is entitled to defend herself, just as she would be if attacked on the street -- whether by a person with a knife (mentally competent or not) or by a "nonperson" such as a rabid dog.
  3. The only effective self-defense is terminating the pregnancy.

(I read about this in McDonagh's "Abortion Rights after South Dakota", Free Inquiry vol. 26 issue 4, May 17, 2006, currently behind a paywall. Her Emory Law Journal article is accessible.)

I agree it is possible that an innocent man could be given the death penalty. But I would not think it is probable that a death penalty will be unjustly applied.

Bad assumption.  I started a thread on wrongful convictions and the death penalty. From that thread,

Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, in 1976, more than eighty death-row inmates have been freed from prison, their convictions overturned by evidence of innocence. That may not sound like many, given the huge U.S. prison population, but it is more than one percent of the 6,000 men and women who were sentenced to death in that same period, and equal to almost 15 percent of those actually executed.

Probably many more of the death-row inmates are actually innocent, but don't have the strong evidence of innocence required to vacate their convictions. 

A 1996 Justice Department report, Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial, found that in 8,048 rape and rape-and-murder cases referred to the FBI crime lab from 1988 to mid-1995, a staggering 2,012 of the primary suspects were exonerated owing to DNA evidence alone.

There is no logical reason to think that police-error rates in criminal investigations lacking DNA evidence are any better than the 25 percent error rate in those where it is present.

There are probably fewer wrongful convictions now, because of better DNA evidence gathering techniques.

But juries are truly frightening in how arbitrary they are.  I would absolutely quake in my booties if I were accused of murder, even if I was innocent and even if there were no good evidence against me.  Because I've seen too many crime shows about people who were convicted on crappy evidence. 

And the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory way - primarily to people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Like most criminals, most people sentenced to death come from a background where they were severely abused and had severe money stress as well.  It's a lot easier to be "good" in the eyes of the law if you aren't poor or horribly afflicted by abuse.  That's why the criminal justice system acts as an instrument of class (and thus racial) oppression.  And it acts to hurt people more, who have already been damaged as children. 

But why does our criminal justice system have a punishment mentality, when the people who commit crimes are doing so, largely because of a bad background - having gotten into bad company, having been abused as children, living in a high-stress situation? 

People say "there's a choice and not everybody from a bad background turns into a criminal".  The presumption is that what differentiates those who became criminals and those who didn't, is their choices - and therefore we are justified in punishing those who made bad choices. 

But in reality, people's choices are also caused, by their genes and their environment.  Each person has their unique experiences and genetic makeup.  Most or all of what differentiates the ones who becomes criminals from the ones who didn't, is genes and environment. 

The criminal justice system punishes mostly those who already have been damaged. 

As well as acting as an instrument for class discrimination, racial discrimination enters into criminal justice, because the people involved have prejudices.

So what moral justification is there for executing murderers, when they can be given life without parole?  Looking at it from a non-religious point of view, what is the justification for the state being more violent than is necessary to avert further harm?

The death penalty results in murder by the state, when innocent people are executed.  It's more expensive than keeping people in prison for life.  It results in the state executing preferentially people who have been damaged somehow. 

I see no good argument in its favor.

I'm wondering if the people who work in the criminal justice system are more likely to be conservative than liberal, that conservatives are more likely to be racist, and that conservatives are more likely to impose harsh penalties which they think function as deterrents?  Statistically, black men get the worst sentences for the same or similar crimes.

One thing that puzzles me, though, is that death row inmates usually seem to have been in prison 15-20 years before the sentence is carried out.  Wouldn't a justice system that actually wanted to find the truth actually be able to find it in all that time?  If we have the wrong man in prison, doesn't that mean that the real killer goes unpunished, free to kill again?  If we have the wrong man, we could let him out.  If he's already been cremated, there's not much we can do for him.  Statistically, there may not be very many wrongly convicted death row inmates, but does it matter how few there are if one is your father or mother, your son or daughter, brother or sister?  Or you yourself?

Just a thought. 

I'm happy we have no death penalty in this country, so I won't talk about that.

Ending a pregnancy is a woman's own choice - no one else should have the right to make decisions about her. But she must make her choices knowing her responsibilities, having had sex education and having access to different birth control methods.

I've lived by these rules, and found that abortion is unnecessary when you're careful - or perhaps I was lucky. There are treatments to prevent a fertilized egg from nestling when you've had a broken condom. And getting your tubes tied is a secure way of having freedom without hurting something else - a tiny clump of cells cannot be called someone.  

I'd say that it's all about responsible behaviour, but that is easier at 60 than at 20.

1 Teach your young adults to act responsible, give them access to all the information they want and the birth control methods they want.

2 I don't know the difference between American and other fetuses - I vote we treat them all gently, but we shouldn't worry too much when a clump of cells is aborted.

3 The practice of abortion is as bad as selling sex (not just in the streets but also in the ads) or any other act that degrades another human being. It should be used as a last resort. And the religious right is certainly to blame for witholding information.

And how would you feel if an alien entered your body and started to grow there? Accept the alien and take care of it? Allow it to be born and have it adopted? You wouldn't give up the right to decide about your own body, let alone allow another person to decide about your body. I've coloured this a bit stronger to make you feel the problem - it's an impossible choice. That is why I always took care to stay on the safe side. Many women have great difficulty in accepting fetuses; it's not a pink cloud at all but a heavy responsibility. No one can bear a heavy responsibility without having to say something herself - so when a woman decides she can't bear it, she should be respected and have help.

A clump of cells can't have the same rights as an adult person, so the woman's rights must have precedence while respecting the fetus' right as much as possible.

Glad to be of help. Greet your family from me!

When the right to life kicks in is the central part of the issue.  SCOTUS has said in Roe v. Wade that abortions are legal up through the 12th week--with some exceptions.  The religious right says repeatedly that they should never be legal after the sperm cell bumps into the egg, I think because they believe that an immortal soul is present from the moment of conception.  They are, of course, free to believe that, just as they believe that a snake once talked, but they shouldn't be able to impose these religious beliefs on others.

So exactly when does a fertilized egg become a human being with all the rights of a human being?  No one knows for sure.  If we are going to accept a religious definition that a soul makes one human, then someone ought to be able to find the soul in the body, measure it, weigh it, and study its properties.  If no one can detect its presence, maybe it isn't there.  Since there is so much disagreement about when a blastocyst becomes a person, shouldn't the woman's opinion on this crucial distinction carry any weight?  Her doctor's opinion?

Or should we leave it up to Mitch McConnell?

"Is the religious right to blame for a lack of sex education?"

Absolutely. I've never seen opposition to sex education that wasn't religiously based.

Conservative religions are control mechanisms.

A church teaches that our strong natural sexual desires, that can lead to unequaled bonding and pleasure, are actually "evil" and "sinful". People will naturally "slip", and "succumb" to their urges, and feel guilty; and then seek forgiveness and cleansing from the church that was the source of the problem in the first place! And the abusive cycle repeats.

How often do those churches hold out pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections as inevitable, "natural" dangers of having sex -- along with lies like condoms supposedly failing scarily often!

Empowering young people to be able to say no or yes to enjoying sex responsibly while avoiding those "natural punishments", undermines the control mechanism.

A pointed satire: "We should ban life jackets and other flotation devices. They only encourage risky behavior. The only 100% effective way to prevent drowning is total abstinence from going in the water."

An example of positive sex education:
Coalition for Positive Sexuality's "Just Say Yes"

(enough of my soapbox for now....)

Cat the water post is the best one I've ever seen. It sounds just like fundies speaking of sex.

That's because the life jacket parody is so rediculously close to the words of fundie Todd Aiken who made his idiotic and profoundly stupid remark about "if it's a legitamate rape" and that cost him the election in Missouri. I think it has ended his political career.

The irony here was that I learned later that he was on a science committee. Republicans tried to protect him, but his remarks show he didn't know much about science either.

The question of whether abortion infringes on the rights of the fetus can be settled by asking at what point the fetus becomes conscious. 

Actually, the fetus may not be conscious before birth.  It is most likely asleep and is woken up by the stress of birth:

Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.

the fetus is actively sedated by the low oxygen pressure (equivalent to that at the top of Mount Everest), the warm and cushioned uterine environment and a range of neuroinhibitory and sleep-inducing substances produced by the placenta and the fetus itself: adenosine; two steroidal anesthetics, allopregnanolone and pregnanolone; one potent hormone, prostaglandin D2; and others. The role of the placenta in maintaining sedation is revealed when the umbilical cord is closed off while keeping the fetus adequately supplied with oxygen. The lamb embryo now moves and breathes continuously. From all this evidence, neonatologists conclude that the fetus is asleep while its brain matures.

The fetus does have REM sleep, but most likely fetuses aren't dreaming:

considering babies' limited pool of experiences and their brains' immaturity, Foulkes and other neuroscientists think they are actually dreamless for the first few years of life.

Before there's any chance the fetus is conscious - at about 6 months - abortion should be considered the moral equivalent of contraception.  A fetus that hasn't yet been conscious is only a potential person, not a person yet.  And a sperm and egg pair, are also a potential person.  

The right to choice is not the right to kill a fetus, per se.  The right to choice comes about because not having the right to kill a fetus inside you, involves a huge imposition.  If you keep the baby, there's a HUGE life change involved.  This baby will occupy the next 15-20 years of your life; more so if you're a woman.  It will age you a lot.  Even if you don't keep the baby, there's the excruciating pain of childbirth and the emotional anguish of terminating the bond with something that has been growing inside you for a long time. 

So, on abortion, I would favor a time limit somewhere between the time the fetus first might be conscious, and birth. 

It truly is a horrendous violation of individual rights and especially women's rights, to prohibit abortion before there's even a chance the fetus might be conscious. 

With the death penalty, I would give people convicted of horrible murders the choice between suicide and life in prison without parole.  With appropriate safeguards, such as a waiting period or counseling. 

Actually, anyone should have the choice to commit suicide, with appropriate safeguards.  The idea that the state has the right to force anyone to continue living, is atrocious. 

Giving convicts the choice of suicide, takes care of another major objection to the death penalty:  Because of all the legal costs involved in the long string of appeals after a death sentence, putting people to death costs a lot MORE than life without parole. 

I understand the perspective that we have the right to kill people who have committed horrible murders.  I've looked at convicts on Dateline etc. who put someone else on death row by testifying against them - and thought, "that person isn't worth the food used to keep them alive".   In wrongful convictions, it seems that often the main prosecution witness is the actual murderer!

However, the state doesn't have the right to vengeance any more than an individual has a right to vengeance.  Just because someone has hurt you, does not give you a right to hurt them.  And the state is just a collection of individuals.  I don't think the state has the right to execute convicts to satisfy their surviving victims. 

The state DOES have the right to protect society from further damage by the convict.  But that can be done by a sentence of life without parole.  I'm fine with putting people who have committed horrible murders in prison for the rest of their lives, but they should have decent conditions in prison. 

Given the huge need for money for GOOD purposes like better public education, spending lots of money just to kill one person, is atrocious, when they can be maintained less expensively in prison for the rest of their lives. 

Also, prisoners do change in prison.  Sometimes for the better.  They're deprived of the freedom to do harm.  The professional con artists can't con people so much.  It's a total change in lifestyle for a lot of people, and it's up to us as a society to make this a change that has good effects on people. 

I would appreciate it if you could argue by focusing on the issues, not by saying negative things about the argument you disagree with, or the person you disagree with. 

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