Of Apes and Embryos
United States. Colorado voters this November will vote on a proposed amendment to the state constitution, the “Human Life Amendment.” If approved, it will define human personhood as beginning at “the moment of fertilization.” In other words, all fertilized human ova would be persons, presumably with the full panoply of human rights. Abortion would then be tantamount to murder. Out the window would go women’s rights of conscience and some forms of contraception. Women’s lives and health will be put in jeopardy.
Also in November, South Dakota voters will face a referendum on Proposition 11, which would ban virtually all abortions in the state. In 2006, the state’s voters defeated a measure that would have banned all abortions. If the Colorado and South Dakota amendments are approved, they will still run up against the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling. As Roe is hanging by only a thread, whoever is elected president in November will be able to shape the Court and its positions on reproductive choice and other crucial civil liberties issues. The choice for voters will be stark: Obama is clearly prochoice and McCain is clearly antichoice.
Madrid. In June, the Environment Committee of Spain’s parliament (el Congreso de los Diputados) approved a resolution supporting limited human rights for great apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. All parties except the conservatives supported the resolution. And although the vast majority of Spaniards are at least nominally Catholic, most support the resolution, even though the Spanish bishops attacked the measure as “undermining God’s will.” It should be noted that post-Franco Spain has made more progress toward church-state separation than any other country, while the United States, which pioneered secular government, has been slipping backward for nearly eight years.
The Spanish resolution, inspired by humanist ethicist Peter Singer’s Great Ape Project (Proyecto Gran Simio in Spanish), would not grant full human rights to great apes but only the rights enjoyed by children; they could not be killed (except in self-defense), abused, imprisoned in cages, or used for medical experimentation. (No European country presently uses apes for medical experiments.)
How are the above issues related? Because they all relate to how human personhood is defined. This question arises in three contexts. When does personhood begin, when does it end, and when in the course of evolution did our ancestors become “human persons”?
Over thirty years ago, in The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan guesstimated that when our ancestors’ brain size reached about half that of modern humans, they could probably be considered human persons, though of course no one can possibly pinpoint the time with precision. The brains of great apes are about one-third the size of ours. Over the past four decades, studies of chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans have shown that great apes are capable of learning Standard American Sign Language (some with vocabularies larger than that of George Orwell’s “basic English”), using computers, making and inventing tools, showing a degree of self-awareness, demonstrating altruism, making bilingual puns, and more.
Thus, I agree with the Great Ape Project and the Spanish lawmakers’ view that these distant cousins of ours are entitled to the basic rights accorded to very young humans. Genetically, we are more closely related to chimps and bonobos than mice are to rats.
The abortion-rights question hinges on the definition of the beginning of personhood. Religious fundamentalists and the Vatican insist that personhood begins at conception, despite the fact that the Bible itself essentially treats personhood as beginning at birth. Catholic officialdom did not come up with the personhood-at-conception idea until the middle of the nineteenth century, and Protestant fundamentalists did not get worked up over abortion until after Roe v. Wade in 1973, when they recognized that reproductive choice endangers male dominance.
From Hither and Yon
Louisiana’s new anti-evolution law, signed by Governor Bobby Jindal on June 25, is an attempt to sneak creationism into public-school biology classes under the banner of “academic freedom.” . . . Mount Vernon, Ohio, science teacher John Freshwater was fired in June for teaching creationism, failing to remove a Bible and other religious material from his classroom, and for branding crosses on student’s arms. . . . Floridians will vote in November on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow tax support for sectarian private schools. . . . The federally funded Washington, D.C., school-voucher program started in 2004 has been shown by a June report of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to be ineffective in improving student performance. . . . The Texas State Board of Education approved the teaching of elective Bible courses in pubic schools in July. Critics, however, charge that there are not adequate protections against proselytizing or slanting. Further, this writer has yet to see a Bible course textbook that does not violate church-state separation.