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Thinking clearly about consciousness and abortion


Imagine a deadly scenario like this: a successful businessman is rendered unconscious by medical professionals to help him heal after a serious car accident, using powerful pharmaceutical agents to cause a medically-induced coma. A few days later, a business competitor, wanting him dead, enters the hospital and kills the comatose patient. During his trial, when questioned about the murder, the competitor tries to argue, with an unnecessarily detailed explanation, that, "the medically-induced coma rendered him quite incapable of feeling any pain, because those parts of his brain involved in sensory processing and pain perception were clearly decoupled from consciousness. So killing those who are unconscious, at least on the grounds that they might feel pain, should not be seen as problematic nor should it be restricted as a personal choice."

Anyone would appreciate the absurdity of such an argument, much as they ought to recognize the unreasonableness of a similar conclusion reached by neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Bor in a recent piece in The Dallas Morning News:

"The evidence is clear that a fetus can respond to sights, sounds and smells, and it can even react to these by producing facial expressions. The evidence is equally clear, however, that these responses are generated by the most primitive parts of the brain, which are unconnected to consciousness, and therefore these actions don't in any way imply that the fetus is aware. Furthermore, the fetus is deliberately sedated by a series of chemicals produced by the placenta, so even if it had the capacity for consciousness, there is almost no chance it could ever be conscious in the womb. Consequently, it can't consciously feel pain. ... There are therefore no scientific reasons for restricting abortion on the grounds that the fetus will experience pain, at least until very late in pregnancy. This evidence has heavily influenced my views here, and consequently I am very much pro-choice."

As a neuroscientist and an ethicist myself, it's clear how Dr. Bor's conclusion does not follow from his premises. He seeks forcibly to crown consciousness as king, turning it into the highest good, elevating it above life itself. Consequently, he misses the deeper truth that human consciousness (and particularly self-consciousness) is a feature of certain kinds of beings, namely human beings, who are valuable in and of themselves. Our humanity precedes our consciousness, and affords the necessary basis for it, with our value and inviolability flowing not from what we might be capable of doing (manifesting consciousness or awareness) but from who we intrinsically are (human beings and members of the human family).

Regardless of whether we might or might not be able to manifest consciousness at a particular moment (as when we are asleep, under anesthesia, in a coma, or growing at early timepoints in utero), our humanity is still present and deserving of unconditional respect. Those who lack consciousness or awareness are still human, and should be cherished and protected as much as anyone else with limitations or disabilities.

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