What are we doing?

22 01 2007

After toting it around with me all week, I finally finished Inside the Animal Mind by George Page, the companion to the PBS documentary of the same name. Overall it wasn’t too bad, describing many interesting ethology studies but coming up always cutting off the story after more than a paragraph. Behaviorists or reductionalists will probably spurn the book as week, being that Page seems to go out of his way to chide those who ally closer with B.F. Skinner than Jane Goodall on the subject of animal intelligence. Although I was indeed critical of Dr. Goodall’s research methods in the last post, she has contributed much to our understanding of chimpanzees and been a vocal defender of the rights of such animals, and I think (if nothing else) she has shown us that Pan troglodytes is a more complex, intelligent, and emotional animal than anyone previously thought.

In any event, towards the somewhat abrupt closing of the book, Page discusses the issue of pain in animals and the odd allowances that are made to use animals for terrible research experiments, finding that it is often legal to deny animals about to undergo painful surgery or experimentation analgesics, anesthesia, or other pain killers if such allowances would somehow undermine the results of the study. The conditions under which many animals are kept are horrific as well, and although one could say that a rat in a lab cage is no worse off than a pet rat in a cage, there is absolutely no excuse for the abominable treatment of primates in medical facilities. I visited the Philadelphia Zoo again yesterday and felt bad enough for the lemurs, monkeys, and gorillas cooped up inside artificial enclosures (concrete walls painted to resemble forest with branches and various hand-holds strewn about), and their care is much better than that any animal about to undergo experimentation ever gets. As the author points out, if we are experimenting on these animals to further our understanding of humans (be it psychological, physiological, etc) does it not follow that there is at least the possibility that they think, feel, and suffer in at least some capacity? The hubris exhibited by defenders of vivisections and injecting primates with viruses like AIDS goes beyond belief, relating back to the mythology that man is somehow separate or above all animals, going all the way back to the opening of the Bible. If, philosophically speaking, I can’t prove that anyone else is actually alive or conscious or that the world isn’t being carried around in a paper bag, how can I prove that animals think and feel, but I am not concerned with such unsolvable philosophical debate; as the book mentions it’s akin to studying poetry under the microscope.

So if I afford the capacity for pain and emotion to animals, what about people? The conclusion of the book definitely made me think about the constant debate on abortion in this country, and my personal standpoint differs a bit from either of the more vocal sides in the argument. I have heard the argument forwarded that up until a certain point, abortion should cause no moral conflict as a developing human has to overcome various hurdles in order to eventually be born (hence miscarriages), so nothing is being done other than the peremptory execution of what may possibly occur. This doesn’t sit very well with me, however, as at what point do you draw the line? The whole process that can lead to a human being being born starts with fertilization, and I do not feel comfortable saying that after an arbitrary number of days or developmental changes the living thing inside its mother is human. To put it shortly, I think that once fertilization occurs, there is life and such life should be allowed to develop and have the chance of reaching its full potential as a human being.

Making abortions illegal, however, would have some horrible consequences. Regardless of what the law might say, abortions would continue in unsafe conditions, putting the mother more at risk and so if this practice is to be done, I would rather it be done by a professional in a safe environment that could refer the mother to some counseling if she needs it. I also don’t contest cases or rape, incest, and pregnancies that put the mothers life in danger. Even so, it would be wonderful is no one felt the need to have an abortion or if its occurrence became more rare. Oftentimes the debate rages around the unborn child, the plight of the mother forgotten. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be 13,14,15 (or any age) and have an unplanned pregnancy, possibly without the support of the family or father. I hate the phrase “I had to have an abortion”, but for young men and women who find themselves in such a situation what are they to do? Try and raise this child when they don’t have any higher degrees and probably can’t even support themselves on their own? Such would be making things worse for all involved. It also bothers me that men are often left out of the debate, the developing infant viewed as part of the mother exclusively with the potential father having no say in the matter. True, he does not have to carry the child and I don’t know the statistics of how many would-be fathers would want to keep the babies, but it’s odd that pregnancy requires two people but if that pregnancy is unplanned the feelings of one can be discounted or ignored.

I’m not a sociologist, but I have a feeling the way sex is viewed by many has contributed to the issue of abortions. Today, the purpose of sex for many is primarily pleasurable, the potential of it resulting in pregnancy often ignored. It’s not viewed as a social contract between two people, saying that “Yes, we both realize that this could result in a baby”, but rather it’s just one of the things that everyone does sooner or later with greater or lesser frequency and is all about pleasure. This is why abstinence-only education is foolish; when you’re young and impulsive you can’t always beat your hormones. Sure, abstinence should be mentioned and discussed in sex-ed class as the only way to be 100% sure not to get pregnant or a disease, but ending it there is incredibly dumb, teaching adolescents the reality of what sex is and how to protect themselves and be responsible about it (when they eventually do) being more important.

Back to the abortion topic; there are many pro-life groups that decry the practice and have harsh words for mothers who have had abortions. One such rally occurred at my university last semester, one protester holding up a banner reading “God is angry with the wicked every day.” Such fire and brimstone preaching doesn’t help things at all, and if groups like this care so much they should organize in a different way. I’m sure there are mothers-to-be who would want to keep their child if they could, but there is no way they can raise the child and giving their child away to adoption would be too traumatic for them, so why don’t pro-life groups raise money to support these mothers? Could they not provide bottles, food, formula, partnerships with child-care centers so the babies could be looked after, etc? That would be a miraculous thing, but it seems that people want to argue more than actually do anything to help the mothers and fathers in the middle of this issue. Such was the atmosphere during the Rutgers rally, a pro-choice group carrying signs like “Abort Everything”, “Darwin was right”, and “Fetuses taste like chicken” and chanting “1,2,3,4,5… fetuses are not alive” making supreme asses of themselves. During the confrontation I took photographs, wondering how it would all end up, but if its indicative of the greater debate at all people on both sides can be equally dogmatic and stupid, and those who need love, understanding, and help (not just prayer or lip-service) are forgotten.

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23 03 2007
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