The Science Fiction Case against Abortion
The Bible did not change my mind on abortion. Neither did any inspirational book, religious tract, nor any political argument voiced by the Religious Right. The book which changed my mind was a work of science fiction. To the extent that it touched on religious themes, it was wildly speculative, some might even say sacrilegious. But it was not the religious subtheme in the book that swayed me, nor any explicit argument; it was the consequences of impending technology. Dangerous technologies are coming to fruition, technologies which make nuclear power seem safe and easy to contain by comparison. If we do not put safeguards in place soon, the human race as we know it may soon join the list of endangered species.
Laws against abortion are one such safeguard.
If you are a liberal of the greenish variety; if you shop at Whole Foods and drive a Prius; if you look forward to spending your golden years sipping fair market lattes and eating non-GMO croissants on the street corner café watching the hippies pedal past, beware! Your ecotopian future is in jeopardy. But even if you are more forward thinking; if you consider yourself a child of the Enlightenment and look forward to a Star Trek future, take heed! Your pleasant future is at stake as well. Whereas Star Trek posits advanced starships in the future, it also features natural humans–features,flaws, and all—at the helm. If we continue with legal abortion, if we fail to treat human life as sacred, this feature becomes unlikely.
When I use the word “sacred,” I am not referring to any particular religion. I mean sacred in the same sense that the ACLU considers freedom of speech to be sacred. The danger before us is legal: a slippery slope that could end humanity as we know it. The proper shield is a legal line in the sand, stubbornly enforced, even at significant cost. And yes, I recognize that making abortion illegal and treating human life as sacred entails great cost. Not only would it interfere with our swinging lifestyles, it would require taking care of children unwanted by their parents, including defective children whose care is expensive and often unpleasant. But enforcing freedom of speech and other Constitutional rights also entail significant costs. We forgo security, let criminals loose and tolerate unpleasant behaviors as the price for these freedoms. In theory, we could let the government regulate certain types of speech, search homes for terrorist implements without warrants, and otherwise partially infringe on the Bill of Rights without suffering tyranny. In reality, we know better. We know that the government would eventually overstep, that each excuse to violate a fundamental liberty would lead to another. Useful speech would be suppressed; innocent people would get punished. Liberty itself could be lost. So we draw a thick “do not cross” line, even though it rules out useful actions. Likewise, we could in theory continue legal abortion and remain human. In reality this is unlikely.
Abortion threatens the human race, even if we don’t factor in potential divine wrath. Preservation of the human race is a legitimate function of government by most accounts, so we need not mix Church and State to address the coming crisis. If you are a devout secular humanist, read on and reconsider your position on abortion. Even if you think the Pope is a clown with a funny hat, you might agree with him on this issue after contemplating the words which follow.
The Book Which Changed my Mind
A bit of honesty before proceeding: I don’t think the Pope is a clown in a funny hat, and I have been a Christian most of my life (the exception being a rebellious interlude during my college days). And I have never been pro choice on the abortion question. I was, however, actively indifferent. I didn’t think about the issue except when I encountered what appeared to be a small government conservative, but was actually a single-issue voter who would vote for Joe Stalin over Gary Johnson if Stalin was pro life. This annoyed me greatly! The abortion issue was interfering with the issues I cared about: shrinking government and fighting communism. I wished the issue would go away so we could move on to more important matters.
It still bugs me that many of my smaller government friends will vote for an incompetent RINO over Gary Johnson in the upcoming Republican primaries, and that such votes may render this nation bankrupt. But I have come to respect this decision more, for since I read Destination Void by Frank Herbert, I have slowly realized that the abortion issue could be more important long term than whether the United States goes bankrupt or becomes a has-been superpower crushed by its own welfare state like France is today.
Frank Herbert was a high sigma writer: his works range from brilliant to bad. If you have given up on Herbert after reading the sequels to Dune, give Destination Void a try; it has the same intense pressure of Dune, but is set in a sparsely described near future, instead of a distant future of Tolkienesque depth. But what he did describe of that near future is chilling. And though the computer technology he described is dated, other aspects of his grim future could happen.
Destination Void is about future experiments in artificial intelligence. In the scenario therein, computers are still inadequate for extremely complex tasks, so they use Organic Mental Cores – brains harvested from defective fetuses – to do the job. The problem is that even an Organic Mental Core is inadequate for some tasks, so work proceeds on purely electronic consciousness. However, this proves to be dangerous, so clones are dispatched to do the experiments. For clones are dispensable…
I don’t think we’ll be resorting to Organic Mental Cores in the foreseeable future, if ever. Binary logic computing has advanced enormously since Destination Void was written. (Then again, artificial intelligence research has been about as unsuccessful as predicted. We still have no clue as to how to make machines conscious, and to run a slower-than-light starship filled with frozen humans, we might well need a conscious entity to handle unforeseen problems…) The bit about clones, however, hit a nerve. A clone is disposable. Break one? Make another. What happens to society when we—atheist humanists included—stop thinking of each human life as unique and precious? What happens when people become commodities?
We can hope that clones will be better treated than in Herbert’s dystopian future, and it is possible. But they will be treated differently even under the most benevolent scenarios. A Michael Jordan clone will be given extra basketball coaching. A Stephen Hawking clone will get early physics lessons. A Jessica Alba clone will be expected to be beautiful. We run up against issues of free will even under the more benevolent scenarios.
And we cannot rule out the malevolent scenarios. It wasn’t that long ago that the Land of the Free treated many of its citizens as not quite human, much to their detriment. The world still suffers an illegal slave trade for sex workers; a Jessica Alba clone would have a high market value indeed. And there is a more serious temptation: spare parts. With a clone there is no tissue rejection, no need for immune suppressing drugs. Imagine having the heart of a 50 years younger you.
The temptation is no mere fantasy. Look at the promises made by embryonic stem cell advocates. Read the texts of today’s immortalists. Intelligent people walk the earth today seriously believing they can live forever, that life extension technology will proceed faster than they age.
The history of commodity humans is grim indeed. Unspeakable acts were done to render dark skinned people docile, just to have cheap housekeepers for the rich. In the Middle Ages blacksmiths quenched blades in the bodies of living slaves on the off chance that this was the secret to making Damascus steel. What happens when we have a real temptation: immortality?
And cloning is one of the tamer technologies on the horizon. A future filled with a return to slavery and despicable acts may be grim, but it is still a human future. Humans have been doing unpleasant things to members of other tribes/castes/religions all along. But what happens when the dominant caste isn’t truly human?
A future with human clones might be morally sick, but it still might be a human future. But why stop with cloning? Some people would argue that the human animal has room for improvement.
Suppose we find the genes that make people fat on a modern fast food diet. Should we tinker with them? How about the genes for racism, for truculence, for sexism? What about the genes that make a man a Tucker Max? Would a modern feminist cull such a beast? Then again, a military man might want some extra aggressive males to put on the front lines. And what megalomaniac could turn down the possibility of more docile factory workers?
Don’t laugh. Caste systems have a long history of success and stability. Imagine the possibilities if the overlords were truly superior, and the servant castes genetically docile. It works with dogs, given generations of breeding. What took centuries with dogs could take a few generations with GMO humans.
GMO humans. What can be done with farm animals can be done with humans. The only thing to stop us is moral taboo. And this brings us to the abortion issue. Meditate deeply upon this question:
If it is legal to kill an embryo, why can’t you tinker with an embryo?
This, my forward-looking progressive friends, is why even you should take seriously the idea of declaring human life to begin at the moment of conception. It is not a matter of when or whether the body is quickened by a spirit, or even when the heart beats, pain is felt, or the baby-to-be first has a cute face. It is about defining humanity – and preserving it.
If you are an Arthur C. Clarke liberal, if reading Childhood’s End passes as religious experience for you, if you look forward to a Post Human future, then you may downplay my warnings. (But still: think hard on what you think you want. And do you trust Monsanto or your government to guide the Post Human transition in a manner you see fitting? Think of how beneficial we once expected nuclear to be.)
On the other hand, if you envision some future humanist utopia, you might want to populate it with humans. And this goes doubly so if you envision a more natural future.
Dreams of the future can be nightmares. Some of these are mere entertainment. Others are legitimate warnings of futures we might wish to avoid, or at least postpone until we attain sufficient wisdom. Progress is not always positive (cf. Hiroshima). Here is a sampling of science fiction books and movies on the subject for your contemplation and enjoyment:
Brave New World by Aldoux Huxley. Perhaps the most famous of the lot. With babies grown in vats and nonaddictive happiness pills freely available, there is no excuse for being unhappy…
Hellstrom’s Hive, by Frank Herbert. A secret Gregor Mendel cult has bred specialized subspecies of humans and is now ready to take over. Very creepy!
Friday by Robert Heinlein. A future spy thriller where the heroine is genetically enhanced: with special powers and without human rights.
The Futurological Congress, by Stanislav Lem. A comic dystopic future in which the drug companies manufacture hallucinogens capable of producing specific hallucinations. Want to experience what it’s like to be a Methodist? Take Methadone! An amazing number of puns, especially considering the book was originally written in Polish.
Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds. The first of five novels set hundreds of years in the future, featuring assorted machine-human hybrids, human-animal hybrids, machine-uploaded consciousnesses, nanotechnology run amok, and more. Well written hard SF, yet very unpleasant in many respects, with some rather sick protagonists. Recommended only for those who like that sort of thing.
Gattaca. How do ordinary humans get treated when genetic filtering is the norm? Very tense drama and very little special in the way of special effects.
Despite recent incredible advances in computer technology, the moral and physical threats of electronic consciousness may not be imminent. Raw computing power appears to be following an S curve at last, and artificial intelligence research has hit many snags. But it still bears thinking about.
”With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson. Benevolent robots “take care of” humans whether they like it or not. (The plot of the movie I Robot draws as much from this story as it does from Isaac Asimov’s I Robot stories.)
“I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison. Part of the inspiration for The Terminator movie, only more horrifying. (If you like horror, by the way, read Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories. He puts Stephen King to shame.)
Total Recall. And over the top violent Schwartzeneggar film which brings up some serious ethical questions about brain-machine interfaces.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. An artsy romantic drama touching on similar issues.
Robocop. Campy action flick that raises some interesting questions about man-machine interfaces and just exactly when do we die.
Sometimes science fiction portrays futures where humankind has consciously avoided certain technological pathways in order to remain human.
Star Trek (the original series). Notice the lack of robots aboard the Enterprise, and the incompetence of the ship’s doctor. Star Trek gets much of its charm because it portrays a positive starfaring future in which humans are still very much humans; the Singularity is not near – at least for humans – in the Star Trek universe. And this is not due to lack of imagination on the part of the writers; it is a conscious theme, stated repeatedly. Research on human genetic manipulation ended after a bad experience in the 1990s. An attempt to run the Enterprise with an advance computer ends in disaster. The Enterprise encounters the remains of civilizations wrecked by robotics and/or attempts at immortality (as well as a few that appear to have successfully transcended their biological origins).
The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. One of a series of stories in a future which humankind intentionally suppresses science to avoid creating super weapons for a time, and then gets a reboot when genetically altered super soldiers wreck civilization for a time. This novel has a bit of a Star Trek feel.
The Demon Princes, by Jack Vance. Despite the name, this is a science fiction series, not fantasy (though in some ways it reads like fantasy). The “Demon Princes” refer to five quirky interstellar criminal masterminds. The five short novels follow the hero’s quest for revenge against these masterminds, and in many respects this is a mystery series as much as a science fiction series. But lurking in the background of these books is a mysterious foundation known as The Institute which intentionally suppresses certain technological avenues, which allows humans to be all too human while spreading out into the stars.
And there are also science fiction stories where we do successfully tamper with our biology and with artificial intelligence.
I Robot by Isaac Asimov. Positive stories with artificial electronic people.
Beyond this Horizon, by Robert Heinlein. A quirky utopia featuring universal side arms, social credit economics and a very gentle eugenics program.