Human Beings Don’t Roll Off an Assembly Line
by Richard Stith
Think of a car on an assembly line. At what point in the line would we first say, “There’s a car”? Some of us would no doubt go with appearance, saying there’s a car as soon as the body is fairly complete.
Most of us would look for something functional: We would say there is a car only after a motor is in place, or the wheels, or even the wipers (so it can be driven even in the rain). And a few might say, “It’s not a car until it rolls out onto the street.” But nobody is going to say “There is a car” at the very beginning, when the first screw or rivet is put in or two pieces of metal are first welded together.
I think this is exactly the way many people see the embryo. As a New York University sociologist, Dalton Conley, noted in the New York Times, “Most Americans . . . see a fetus as an individual under construction.” In the first stages of construction, you don’t have a car; neither do you have a human individual. You don’t ever have what you’re making when you’ve just started making it.
This does not mean that our “constructivist” friends are anti-life. They may believe that a baby should have absolute protection once it’s been fully fabricated. But until that point, for them, abortion just isn’t murder.
What happens when a constructivist hears a pro-lifer argue that a human embryo has the same right to life as any other human being? Let’s listen to a couple of commentaries on President Bush’s opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, research in which human embryos are killed in order to obtain their stem cells.
Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Kinsley expressed his utter bewilderment: “I cannot share, or even fathom, the [pro-life] conviction that a microscopic dot—as oblivious as a rock, more primitive than a worm—has the same rights as anyone reading this article.”
Writing on the website The Huffington Post, Geoffrey Stone took a common next step, the accusation of an improper religious doctrine. The President, argued this University of Chicago law professor, referred to the “conflict between science and ethics,” and clearly
the “ethical” side of this conflict derives from the belief that an embryo smaller than a period on this page is a “human life”—indeed, a human life that is as valuable as those of living, breathing, suffering children. And what, exactly, is the basis of this belief? Is it Science? Reason? Logic? Tradition? Morals? None-of-the-Above? What the President describes neutrally as “ethics” is simply his own, sectarian religious belief.
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