Monday, April 14, 2008

Hillary Clinton on the Beginning of Human Life

Yesterday Hillary Clinton was asked if she believed that life begins at conception. Here's her response.

"I believe that the potential for life begins at conception. I am a Methodist, as you know. My church has struggled with this issue. In fact, you can look at the Methodist Book of Discipline and see the contradiction and the challenge of trying to sort that very profound question out.

But for me, it is also not only about a potential life; it is about the other lives involved. And, therefore, I have concluded, after great, you know, concern and searching my own mind and heart over many years, that our task should be in this pluralistic, diverse life of ours in this nation that individuals must be entrusted to make this profound decision, because the alternative would be such an intrusion of government authority that it would be very difficult to sustain in our kind of open society.

And as some of you've heard me discuss before, I think abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare.

And I have spent many years now, as a private citizen, as first lady, and now as senator, trying to make it rare, trying to create the conditions where women had other choices.

I have supported adoption, foster care. I helped to create the campaign against teenage pregnancy, which fulfilled our original goal 10 years ago of reducing teenage pregnancies by about a third. And I think we have to do even more."

(For the full text of her responses go here.)

Clinton is correct that the United Methodist Church has struggled with this issue.

Does human life begin at conception? Clinton's answer is "No." Human life does not begin at conception, but the "potential for human life" begins at conception. Which means that, somewhere along the way, the conceptus changes from non-human life to human life. I find this kind of thinking the least reasonable among options. Here are the options, as I see them.

1. Human life begins at conception. Which means: the conceptus is a "person." Both Christian theists and atheists can believe this. The Christian theist holds that each of us was "formed and knitted together in our mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13). The atheist, not believing in the idea that persons have souls, will not agree that, somewhere along the way, the some special "ensouling" happens. The conceptus is as much "human life" as you and I are.

2. Human life happens somewhere along the way. At, let's say, time T. Which means that at time T-minus 1 second, there's no "human life."

Regarding position 2, who could ever decide? Such a decision seems arbitrary. If it regards a human life, why not err on the side of humanity rather than non-humanity? Clinton says, "I think abortion should be legal, but it needs to be safe and rare." I assume she would think that, if we knew the thing in the mother's womb was a human life, a person, she would not support taking the life of a person. The idea that the conceptus suddenly becomes, at some magic moment, "human life," is fraught with philosophical difficulties. The idea that the conceptus is, not potentially human life, but human life, is something that both theists and atheists could support.

For some fuller remarks search my blog using "personhood" and "abortion."