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Abortion and Personhood: What the Moral Dilemma Is Really About

The reason for the cultural divide ignited by the Roe v. Wade decision is not necessarily that people have intractable opinions. Instead, the issue of abortion is a genuinely complex moral dilemma.

Glenn Cohen:  In the 1970s we have the Roe v. Wade decision in the United States. It was a decision relating to a woman's right to have an abortion. It introduced the trimester framework. It basically allowed first trimester abortions, made it very difficult to have third trimester abortions. And essentially this was really met very quickly thereafter with the sort of backlash. And really the last 40/50 years of American history have more or less been a backlash against Roe v. Wade and an attempt to kind of criminalize abortion in all sorts of interesting ways without overturning the decision.

So that's kind of the legal playing field. I mean we can talk about some of the specifics, but the more interesting question I think is thinking about the morality of abortion. And I'll say that I think abortion is an extremely difficult question. So one of the first questions people have to think about is are fetuses persons? And that's a very important linguistic question, persons. I didn't say human beings. I didn't say alive. Those are three different issues. Something can be alive but not be a person. Your dog is a good example. You love your dog. It's a wonderful thing but it's not a person. Something can be human and potentially not be a person. Some people think the embryo, for example, before 14 days or stem cells being derived are members of the human species but may not be a person. So what do we mean by persons? We mean something that has a certain set of moral and/or legal rights, most important of which is a right against in viability. They can't be killed or destroyed or harmed without very good reason. And we have the attitude that we're all persons so we have an index case we're pretty clear we're persons and the question is who else is a person? Well to answer that you need to have a theory about what makes something a person.

And there are a few different kinds of theories you can have. One could be just to say if X is living and a human being X is a person. Now some people have problems with that. So Peter Singer and some animal rights advocates, for example, think that that's a speciesist attitude, that by saying human equals person it's problematic that we're excluding animals. Instead we ought to have some criteria that looks at capacity. So other people have sometimes what are called a capacity X view where they say in order to be a person you have to have X capacity and then we have to fill in what X is. Is it the ability to think complex thoughts, the ability to plan and look towards the future, the ability to feel pain whether you understand it? Is about continuity of an identity over time or is it merely being alive and breathing? And some people think it's a single criteria, others think it's a compound criteria. And then there are complex questions about what happens for things that have the potential to have capacity X or had a capacity X but lost it.
So, for example, a fetus doesn't have the abilities, early fetus let's just say an embryo just to make it very easy, an embryo before 14 days doesn't have the capacity to think deep thoughts about the future or have future orientation. I think that's pretty well accepted by everyone, but it certainly has the potential to do so. And the question is is that enough? What kind of theory or potentiality? Hydrogen and oxygen each have the potential together to become water. Does that mean that they are water? They have the metaphysical properties of water. Or do we require more of a kind of a potentiality something like in the natural course of things they will become something?

The other difficult set of categories are things that once had the capacity but now no longer have and perhaps never will again. So those that are brain-dead, for example, are a good example. They are certainly human beings. Most cases they have been persons. But now if your capacity for personhood how do you define personhood is something like the capacity to think deep thoughts about the future or do you have future orientation, these are entities that no longer have that capacity and we don't believe will have it again. Do they cease being persons at that point? Let's just say that in order to understand whether a fetus or an early embryo, the kind that are used for stem cell derivation, is a person. You have to do a lot of metaphysical work in understanding what makes something a person and why and what those capacities are.

Now even if you think something is a person that doesn't necessarily mean you've solved the abortion problem. So it's possible, although popular among philosophers not so popular in the political process, to say fetuses are persons and yet abortion is still legal and justified. How does that argument go? The suggestion is that there is a right of another entity that has overcome whatever interest the fetus has and that is the right particularly of the mother who is gestating the fetus. So they claim is yes a fetus is a person. Yes abortion will cause the death of a person. But that doesn't mean that abortion is wrong because a woman gestating the fetus has a right to stop that gestating, even if it will result in the death of a person. And the most famous versions of this argument comes from Judith Jarvis Thompson, a very famous I thought experiment about the worlds most famous violinist. And she says imagine you find yourself a heavy night of drinking; you got drunk; you blacked out and you wake up the next morning and you find yourself a human dialysis machine hooked up to the world's most famous violinist. Nobody doubts the violinist is a person. He's not only a person, a great person, the world's most famous violinist. But she says don't you have the right to unplug yourself from that person even if it will turn out that it will result in the death of the violinist? And she says if you think the answer is yes then you think that even though the entity is a person you may have a right to cause its death, a right to unplug itself. And she analogizes that to the right of a mother to unplug herself from her fetus who is a person.

Now there's lots of contestation about that thought experiment. You might say you got drunk no fault of your own somebody kidnap you. Is that really the situation of all women who become pregnant or is it the situation only of women, for example, who are raped or who are impregnated in an unconscious state? But this is just to show that there's some complexity.
Okay, one more point. That is that the stem cell question looks different on in this regard. Remember when we we're talking about embryos we're talking about embryos that are frozen that are in a lab. Nobody is gestating them. If embryos have the rights of persons, unlike in the case of abortion because nobody has a contrary right to stop gestating them, so you might actually think the argument for prohibition against destroying early embryos is easier than the argument or prohibiting abortion for this reason. Now, on the flipside you might think the early embryos have even less of the capacity X, whatever that is, than does the fetus. But this is the way in which bioethicists and lawyers think about these problems.

The landmark Roe v. Wade decision, handed down by the United States Supreme Court in 1973, touched off a divide deep within the American culture that shows little signs of healing. The reason is not necessarily that people have intransigent views when it comes to abortion. Instead, the issue is genuinely hard to grapple with, even from a moral standpoint, as Harvard Law Professor and bioethicist Glenn Cohen explains.


The first question we face when deciding whether abortion is immoral is this: are fetuses persons? That may seem like a straightforward question, but determining personhood requires understanding the distinction between a person, a human being, and being alive.

Certainly not all things that are alive are persons. A dog, for example, is very much alive and very lovable indeed, but not a person. As simple as this distinction seems, it has its detractors. The philosopher Peter Singer, for example, says that distinguishing between what is human life and inhuman life is an example of speciation — an act of discrimination that is ultimately logically untenable (and we should therefore abandon it).

According to Cohen, some scholars say that stem cells and embryos are human beings, but not persons. They are made of human being stuff but they do not have the moral and legal rights — namely, the right of inviolability — that we accord to individual persons.

Those who believe the granting of rights is more a political act than a natural one may look toward what Cohen calls a "capacity 'x'," i.e. some other quality that more accurately defines what a person truly is. Examples of such a capacity 'x' include experiencing a continuity of identity, or possessing self-knowledge. While these qualities form more naturally than the granting of political rights, they open the door to difficult-to-justify actions like infanticide (since the infant brain is insufficiently developed to have the concept of an identity, or to articulate self-knowledge).

If one decides to stick with a definition of "person" that is determined by the existence of moral and legal rights, thinkers such as Judith Jarvis Thomson point out that the rights of a mother countervail — she is a person, too, after all. Thomson's famous thought experiment, "the famous violinist" has become perhaps the most recognizable philosophical defense of abortion.

Glenn Cohen's book is Patients with Passports: Medical Tourism, Law, and Ethics.

How accountability at work can transform your organization

If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

Videos
  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Future of Learning
  • Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
  • There is a shift starting, Richardson says, in terms of how we look at grading and assessments and how they have traditionally dictated students' futures. Consortiums like Mastery.com are pushing back on the idea that what students know can be reflected in numbers and letter grades.
  • One of the crucial steps in changing how things are done is first changing the narratives. Students should be assessed on how they can apply what they've learned, not scored based on what they know.
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