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03 November 2008

Amendment 48: Burton's Equivocation

By Ari

Reposted:) At least Kristi Burton and I agree on something: the tag line of "it simply goes to far" is a terrible critique of Amendment 48, which would define a fertilized egg as a person in Colorado's constitution. Beyond that, Burton simply refuses to honestly discuss the implications of Amendment 48 or to answer her serious critics.

Burton writes for the October 18 Vail Daily:

It has been interesting to watch the strategy of the "no on 48" campaign. They know if they attempt to contend human life doesn’t begin at conception they’re arguing with virtually every geneticist and embryology textbook available. So instead, they take issue with the dictionary. They concede that human life begins at conception, but claim "personhood" doesn’t begin until some later, yet to be determined, date. They never come out and say it, but they assume it's OK to "terminate" a developing human until he or she reaches that undefined point of "personhood." If they simply pick up any dictionary and look up "person," they will find the definition: "A human being." That’s what it's meant for the last several centuries. "Person" and "human being" have always been the same thing, but the no on 48 folks plan to change all that. And, they do it as though no one should even question their totally illogical and false premise. They simply assume it's true and expect you to do the same.

But Diana Hsieh and I have directly addressed Burton's arguments. Burton cannot have failed to become aware of our paper, as Diana and I have promoted it widely in newspaper columns, letters, online comments to news articles, and the internet. For Burton to completely ignore our arguments reveals her intellectual dishonesty.

Notice Burton's progression: she claims that a fertilized egg is "human life," then she jumps to "person," which she equates with "human being." Burton's argument is incredibly rationalistic, so silly on its face that it obviously disguises her real motive for supporting the measure: she believes the Bible forbids abortion and that God has declared a fertilized egg to be a person, with all the same legal rights as you and me.

Obviously a fertilized egg is "human life." It is alive, and it contains human DNA. Every cell in our bodies is "human life" for the same reason. Burton is quite wrong in claiming that "human life" begins at conception; both the sperm cell and unfertilized egg are also human and alive. What Burton steadfastly refuses to consider are the very real biological differences between a fertilized egg and a born baby. Diana and I discuss these differences at length, and in the process we clearly define the beginning of personhood.

For the answer to Burton's claims, see pages 10-13 of our paper. First Diana and I point out Burton's equivocation:

[T]he advocates of Amendment 48 depend on an equivocation on "human being" to make their case. A fertilized egg is human, in the sense that it contains human DNA. It is also a "being," in the sense that it is an entity. That's also true of a gallbladder: it is human and it is an entity. Yet that doesn't make your gallbladder a human person with the right to life. Similarly, the fact that an embryo is biologically a human entity is not grounds for claiming that it's a human person with a right to life. Calling a fertilized egg a "human being" is word-play intended to obscure the vast biological differences between a fertilized egg traveling down a woman's fallopian tube and a born infant sleeping in a crib. It is intended to obscure the fact that anti-abortion crusaders base their views on scripture and authority, not science.

Here is the most relevant passage on personhood (sans citations):

[S]o long as the fetus remains within the woman, it is wholly dependent on her for its basic life-functions. It goes where she goes, eats what she eats, and breathes what she breathes. It lives as she lives, as an extension of her body. It is wholly contained within and dependent on her for its survival. So if the woman dies, the fetus will die too unless delivered quickly. The same is true if the fetus's life-line to her body is disrupted, such as when the umbilical cord forms a tight knot. A fetus cannot act independently to sustain its life, not even on the basic biological level possible to a day-old infant. It is thoroughly dependent on the woman in which it lives.

That situation changes radically at birth. A baby lives his own life, outside his mother. Although still very needy, he maintains his own biological functions. He breathes his own air, digests his own food, and moves on his own. He interacts with other people as a whole and distinct creature in his own right, not merely as a part of a pregnant woman. He can leave his mother, either temporarily or permanently, to be cared for by someone else. He has a life of his own that must be protected as a matter of right, just the same as every other person. That's why the killing of a just-born infant is immoral -- and properly forbidden by law. However, while just a fetus within the woman, the only person with rights is the woman.

Recently Diana posted some comments by William Stoddard along the same lines:

Aside from the question of self-awareness, the other critical point is that the fetus does not meet a necessary condition for having individual rights: It is not an individual.

Individualism works, ethically, because we can draw a line of separation between individuals. It's possible to benefit one individual without doing so at the expense of another; individual rights provide a legal structure that makes such results not merely possible but reliable. We are not forced to trade off benefits to one individual against injuries to another. And what makes collectivism evil is that it does force such tradeoffs on us.

But if ever there was a case of collectivism in human existence, it's in the relationship between a pregnant woman and her unborn child. The fetus cannot be neutral with respect to the woman carrying it; its very existence alters her hormones, her entire physiology, and her emotional state. Even if the woman wants to be pregnant, it's all too possible, despite the achievements of medicine, for situations to arise where a benefit to the fetus entails harm to the mother, or vice versa, and where it's necessary to decide which benefit is more important. Trying to sort this out by applying the concept of individual rights just doesn't work.

And there's only one decision maker there: the pregnant woman. The fetus lacks sufficient rationality, purposefulness, and self-awareness to make choices. The pregnant woman has to decide where her priorities are. Some pregnant women will choose to take terrifying risks for the chance to have a child, and that's their right; they can say "Price no object" if they want. Others will abort, for whatever reason. Either way, they pay the price of their choices. Having someone else, who doesn't have to pay that price, make the decision for them, or tell them what they can and can't do, cannot be expected to produce better decisions.

Burton wishes us to forget the actual language of Amendment 48. It does not merely say, "We think a fertilized egg is human life" or even a person. Rather, it grants a fertilized egg the same rights to life, liberty, property, and due process of law that born babies have. Thus, it would have radical implications for the law. Burton pretends that the measure does not mean what it says. In her Vail Daily piece, she writes:

The rest of the arguments of the no on 48 campaign are designed to convince you the amendment will interfere with women's health care and cause women who have miscarriages to be carted off to jail. These scare tactics aren't true. Dottie Lamm and Linda Campbell go on at length about the possible affects of the amendment. They keep using the term, "it could" do this or that in their attempt to frighten voters.

The amendment merely extends protection to both mother and baby. It recognizes that women also are persons. I’m a woman and will probably marry and have children someday. Would I help create a law intended to unduly endanger myself?

Here we move on from Burton's Equivocation to Burton's Bifurcation. As I've pointed out at length, Burton simultaneously wants to claim that Amendment 48 would lay the basis for banning abortion, but that it would not lead to other nasty implications. Yet, if a fertilized egg is a person, with all the same legal rights as a born infant, and if such a definition is legally enforced, then the logical implications are these: all abortion must be banned, even in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, and health risks that are not immediately life-threatening to the woman; all forms of birth control that may prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus must be banned; all fertility treatments that may result in the destruction of fertilized eggs must be banned; and all abortions and intentional miscarriages must be criminally prosecuted. Burton keeps repeating that these implications are "scare tactics" that "aren't true." Yet they are logical implications of Amendment 48, and Burton has never offered a single argument otherwise.

Burton does let slip a concession, however: notice that Amendment 48 would not "unduly endanger" her life. What does that mean? It means that, if doctors believe that failure to abort necessarily would kill the woman, and they don't fear criminal prosecution if they abort, then Amendment 48 likely would permit the abortion. However, as I've pointed out, rarely are risks so clear cut. Amendment 48 would endanger the health and lives of some women; whether that endangerment is "undue" would depend on how the legislature and courts decided the criminality of abortion. There can be no doubt that, in some cases, Amendment 48 would result in the deaths of women.

While Amendment 48 certainly is no laughing matter, I did get a chuckle over Burton's projection:

Resorting to repetitive use of a meaningless phrase is a propaganda tactic commonly employed when there is no substance to an argument. Opponents of 48 are hoping for what psychologists call a "conditioned response." You step into the voting booth and when you see Amendment 48 that little phrase automatically jumps into your head and you vote no.

Changing "opponents" to "advocates" and "no" to "yes," that pretty much summarizes Burton's case for Amendment 48.

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