Whether or when the fetus becomes the moral equivalent of a baby is only one of the issues involved in the debate over freedom of choice, but it’s a big one. Michael Gazzaniga, in The Ethical Brain, looks carefully at the stages of fetal development to consider when and how characteristically human capacities develop. The scientific facts are enlightening. For example, a fetus looks human quite far in advance of its having a capacity for any consciousness of anything, pain included. Those pictures of those very tiny fetuses blown up in a way that disguises the fact that one of them would fit on the head of a pin? They’re also misleading about the stage at which one has anything that is more than superficially like a baby.
This is not to say that Gazzaniga’s book gets an honorable mention in feminist literature, and his views about the extent to which “neuro-logic” can issue the right decisions may strike one as misguided at some important points. Ditto for his convictions about the lack of value of thousands of years of philosophical thought. At the same time, he has the facts and he uses them to take on some of the biggest bioethical issues of our times.
The book is also a document about an important period in America’s history. One can get from it a picture of the debates that informed the commission on bioethics that Bush convened, of which Gazzaniga was a member. He leaves us with the sense he was appalled by what sort of view dominated in decisions, and rightly so. The book is disturbing in its picture of the extent to which, under the guidance of the current president, government laws and practices are driven by conservative religious values.
We have to stop this.