May 08, 2013

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Returning to London from Seville I see that abortion is once again one of the top news stories in what the Spanish still refer to as the Anglo-Saxon world: in the US, Ireland, and even Australia.

Here in Britain we seem to be much more sanguine about it, which is a function of our relative lack of religiosity. This is also why my Spanish friends are anti-blood on the subject, the bullfighting fraternity being archly Catholic. 

I once made the mistake of asking a table of bullfighters and bull-breeders if they really believed in the dogma of transubstantiation, that the Communion wine turns to human blood and the wafer to muscle tissue within them. Following an uncomfortable silence, Adolfo Suárez Illana, son of the first post-Franco prime minister and a noted amateur bullfighter, answered, “€œWhen you fight bulls, you”€™ll believe any f**king thing.”€

“€œAncient Romans didn”€™t seem to mind if you killed anything up until about two years after its birth.”€

I was raised Anglican but slid to atheism the moment I was allowed, and as a student of biology and then philosophy I have remained an atheist. To me it seems such a strikingly simple thing: There is a bunch of cells within a woman that possess only half the usual complement of DNA and when they bump into the bunch of cells that a man produces which are similarly lacking, then, under the right conditions, another person is eventually produced. 

Note the word “€œeventually.”€ The seed is not the crop and what seems to so vituperatively divide people is at exactly what stage among these events does the moral status of that cell and its progeny change. Aristotle said that to perform an abortion from around 40 days after conception”€”which was done using unreliable herbs”€”was murder, but before that it is akin to killing an animal or plant. This came from his studies of aborted and miscarried fetuses. Early Church fathers such as St. Augustine said pretty much the same thing. Medieval English law followed this example, speaking of the “€œquickening”€ which referred to the moment when independent movement of the limbs begins. It was not until modern science identified the undifferentiated clumps of cells from which the fetus came that people seem to have an issue with anything post-conception. 

Ancient Romans didn”€™t seem to mind if you killed anything up until about two years after its birth. Indeed, piles of infant bones are often taken as grim indicators of the presence of a brothel in those pre-contraceptive times.

This controversial view somehow chimes with my own philosophy of killing. It seems to me the reason that I am allowed to slide a blade between the fourth and fifth rib of a fighting bull but not a passerby in the street has nothing to do with their conception or their genetic makeup and a great deal to do with what sort of mental “€œlight”€ I am extinguishing by that act.


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