From the sublime to the grotesque.

Wahey, it’s arrived! The Blog Digest 2007, I mean – and bloody good stuff it is, too (and I’m not just saying that because I’m in it).

Like his predecessor, Tim Worstall, Justin McKeating of the inspirational* Chicken Yoghurt, has done a fine job of collecting together a worthy selection of the year’s finest missives from the blogosphere, some familiar, some new and well worth keeping an eye on (damn, more blogs to add to the RSS reader) and one, at least (World Weary Detective), sadly missed.

*Inspirational is an adjective well deserved, to my mind, as the name of Justin’s blog helped to inspire the best wind-up I managed to pull on my 14 year old son all year, in which I managed to convince him that the hastily scrawled phrase ‘Rooster Pots’ (meaning a variety of potato marketed under the brand name ‘Rooster’), on a shopping list supplied by my partner, referred, instead, to a newly released brand of chicken-flavoured yoghurt. The little sod spent 15 minutes scouring the aisles of Asda for this non-product before realising that I was having him on – I do deadpan pretty well when the need arises.

As for the ‘why’ of this wind-up? Well let’s just say it does teenagers a power of good to be reminded, from time to time, of the virtues of experience and an agile mind; especially by their old man. Call it a form of social darwinism, if you like, much like the old joke about the two bulls in field, where the young bull spots that the gate to an adjoining field fill of cows has been left open and suggests to his older companion that they run over quickly and shag a few of them, only for the older and much wiser, bull to reply, ‘No. We’ll walk over and shag the lot of ’em’.

‘Best’ is a subjective thing, at best – if you get what I mean – and it can be no easy task to compile a ‘year’s best’ anthology of writing from Britain’s 7 million blogs, yet its perhaps a sign of how far blogging has come in such a short space of time that many of the blog (and blogger) names one encounters as one sifts through the book and not only instantly recognisable but provide a clear and comforting reassurance that whatever it is you’re about to read is going to be well worth the effort. Justin, Tim Worstall, Tim Ireland, Rachel North, Jim Bliss, John Band, DK, Mr Eugenides, Daniel Davies (D-Squared), Chris Dillow, the esteemed blogging physician Dr Crippen, Jarndyce, Nosemonkey, Curious Hamster; the names keep coming and every one a “good ‘un”. It’s both gratifying and not just a little humbling to find one’s own work amongst such fine company.

That’s more than enough lionising of one’s (blogging) peers for the time-being; suffice to say that you should go out and buy the book, if only because, as Larry Teabag points out, with all his usual joie d’vivre, ‘it’s truly excellent, and would make an ideal stocking-filler for anyone with 6.1 x 9.2 inch feet.’

Moving swiftly on (sort of), the one thing that shines through most clearly from the book is the sheer quality of the material emerging from Britain’s bloggers, not simply in terms of how well written many of the articles are but – and I do recall saying this of last year’s anthology as well – in terms of the ideas and arguments being advanced by bloggers across a whole range of different topics and themes. There could well be a lot of dross out there in blogland, the kind of ‘verbal diarrhoea of the under-educated and banal’ that Janet Street-Porter railed against, in a column in the Indy, before going on to discuss the joys of porridge (? – go figure…), but I have to say I rarely run across it – which doesn’t prove that its not out there, just that one doesn’t have to look too hard to find the good stuff.

On a few occasions throughout the year, the always thorny topic of abortion and abortion rights has cropped up – there’s at least two ‘debates’ going at present on Comment Is Free, courtesy of Zoe ‘it shouldn’t be stigmatised’ Williams and Mary ‘of course it should’ Kenny – Kenny is, of course, a Catholic, so stigma and guilt are not so much an issue as a way of life.

I’ll come back to the Graun’s contribution to the debate in a moment, but abortion, as one might expect, is an issue that has taxed the minds of bloggers over the course of the last year or two and spawned not only some excellent commentaries, such as these from Dr Crippen, Emily at Doing It All Again (read the comments and this follow-up as well) and even my own humble offering, which I include here only because because the good Doctor liked it. There were also several posts that spawned quite extensive debates, the longest of which was at the Sharpener, this being revisited fairly recently (and at the same venue) by Jarndyce, with other excellent debates having been sparked off by Tim Worstall and Owen Barder.

What makes all these articles worth reading is that they afford the reader a genuine debate, a proper argument. Opinions differ from participant to participant but pretty all  those involved in the discussions share a common understanding that no matter what one’s views on abortion might be are, this is a complex and difficult issue in which there are no easy answers.

This, as I see it, is blogging at its best – a real debate in which, as it ranges from personal experience and opinion to science and on to to philosophy and morality and even the question of what it is to be human, the participants understand that one must do more that simply state ones position, one must also back up that position with real argument and take the time to explain not only how you see this issue but also why see it that way.

That the debate remains unresolved at the point it leaves off and no single consensus of opinion is formed does not really matter, as in any debate where there are strong, opposing and even incommensuable views on display, the most one can ever hope for is that people will agree to disagree. But that does not mean that readers leave the debate having gained nothing from it. Far from it, if just one person reads these articles and comes away from the debate feeling that they understand just little bit more about the many and varied views that different people hold on the subject of abortion, and more importantly, why they those views, then the debate has served its purpose, their understanding of world has increased just a little and they are just that bit better informed for the experience.

By way of contrast, the most notable thing about the two debates on CiF, aside from the generally poor overall ‘signal to noise ratio’ of the discussion, is just how poor much of the argument is, on both sides of the debate, and this has, sadly, long been a facet of the wider public debate surrounding abortion.

Even if one can wrestle one’s way past the inevitable and vitriolic slanging matches that break out at the drop of a hat – abortion is well known to experienced internet trolls as being precisely the kind of lightning rod issue that provides a whole cornucopia of malicious entertainment on online forums – one find that with rare exceptions, the vast majority of the arguments put forward are such debates are, not to put too fine a point on it, crap.

Before going any further I should, perhaps state my own position on this issue.

I am pro-choice, to a point, that point being 24 weeks gestation, after which I consider it right an proper that abortion be restricted to situations in which there are clear extenuating circumstance, be they medical necessity, serious disability or a genuine risk to the mental health and well-being of a pregnant woman.

That I choose 24 weeks gestation as the cut-off point at which I consider an absolute right to abortion on demand to be acceptable is, for me, based on a rational transaction that is derived from my knowledge and understanding of foetal development and, in particular, neurological development.

As an atheist and a humanist. my view of the nature of what it is to be human is bound up in the concept of the mind. That which makes us definably human, in my estimation, is our capacity for thought, reason, emotion, empathy, compassion, love, hate, aggression and so many other things besides, subjective qualities that derive primarily from high brain function and our capacity for conscious thought.

A foetus, prior to 24 weeks gestation, has no such capacity, for that portion of the brain from which it stems has not yet begun to develop. A foetus to that point in time has no capacity for understanding and those facets of its development that are most often portrayed as being ‘human’, images of a foetus seemingly walking, the capacity to experience pain, etc. are no more than autonomic responses deviod of consciousness, understanding or meaning. This I know to be a biological fact, at least inasmuch as we currently understand the process of foetal development, and, as such, it affords me a point from which I can make a value judgment as to my opinion of the moral and ethical acceptability of abortion. It is not perfect, by any means, but it is the best that I can do in terms of reconciling my own views on this complex issue.
I do not agree with the concept of an unfettered and absolute right to abortion right up until the point of birth. I feel that this fails to take into account the moral questions that arise from the point at which a foetus begins to develop the capacity for consciousness upon which I based my personal assessment of the nature of humanity, but I understand why it is that some take that view.

And I certainly do not accept the views of those who would seek to restrict access to abortion below 24 weeks gestation or prohibit it entirely, whether those views are expressed in terms of moral objections founded on religious belief or by way of any number of a trojan horse arguments that purport to be based on science, biology or the advancement of medical technology. This, again, ignores important moral, ethical and practical  questions, not least of which being that of the restriction of personal liberty and the unilateral imposition of the beliefs of a particular social group on those who do not share those beliefs, which I consider unethical unless one can show both clear benefit to the common good and a democratic acceptance of such a position by the majority. Arguments for prohibition in the case of abortion, to my mind, demonstrate neither when properly assessed against the ramifications of prohibition.
To tackle head on, one of the most popular of these trojan horse, that of the presumed ‘viability’ of the foetus, this is a view that I do not like at all as it amounts to nothing more than a definition of humanity based on the viccisitudes of medical technology – that which makes one human does not depend on the quality or availability of an incubator. The concept of viability is not merely weak, but is wielded most often by those whose real intentions are merely to restrict or prohibit abortion in line their moral/religious beliefs and to chip away at our current abortion laws to a point where they are rendered near worthless. Such tactics are both disingenuous and hypocritical, not least as, for the most part, those who cite viability and the advancement of medical technology as grounds for restricting abortion are, equally, those who would throw up their hands in absolute horror at the prospect of following this argument to its logical conclusion, which would lead one inevitably to foetal transplantation and to forms of mechanical gestation that take place entirely outside the human body, after the fashion of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.

And so, for me, 24 weeks it is and it will stay until and unless clear evidence of earlier neural development persuades me to reconsider my position – and I should, perhaps, also add that in concert with this position I also support the provision of high quality sex education in schools and ready access to contraception and take the view that abortion services in the NHS should be geared towards ensuring that those who seek an abortion are dealt with as speedily and as early in their pregnancy as possible. 24 weeks may be my preferred upper limit, but I would still prefer to see the vast majority of abortions taking place before 9 weeks, at which point the procedure afford the least degree of (physical) trauma to the patient. I would also like to see considerable and wide-ranging improvements in after-care including ready access to counselling and support services.
That, is what I consider an argument – a commodity in desperately short supply in the comments in both Guardian articles and, more often than not, in the debate in general.

Tempting as it is, I won’t spend time picking apart some the arguments advanced in these threads, suffice to say that one does not need to look very far or very hard to find stellar examples of bad science and piss-poor logic, themes than run inexorably through both threads.

I will, however, address one final point to Mary Kenny.

You may, because of your background and beliefs, be entirely comfortable with the use of guilt and stigma as whips to goad the faithful, and not-so-faithful, down the path of (self) righteousness. I, most certainly am, not.

Anyone who suggests that the decision to have an abortion or the process of reconciling one’s feelings after having an abortion is somehow easy, comfortable or guilt-free is a complete and utter idiot. An abortion is always a difficult and traumatic experience, for all that individuals surface reactions may vary considerable and create impressions to the contrary. No one who has an abortion has it easy and there is no justification for seeking to compound their personal trauma by heaping one’s own sense of guilt and stigma upon them.

Which reminds me of yet another reason why I dislike religion and religious orthodoxy.

I never could stomach the sight of those who profess to follow a credo of compassion and forgiveness  treating others with such abject inhumanity and poverty of feeling simply to bolster their own feeling of self-righteous superiority.

10 thoughts on “From the sublime to the grotesque.

  1. Well, I am also a psychologist and psychotherapist. I find totally unsatisfactory your opinions on abortion. It is totally gratuitous to claim a human being starts being a human being at 24 weeks. One could equally choose, 8 weeks, 12 weeks,viability, birth, 3 months, crawling, language, walking as turning points…You seem to ignore much that has been learned in recent years about the sensitivity, activity and humanity of the unborn.
    I recommend to you the Rosalind Hursthouse book, chewy but very rigorous, teasing out the proabortion philosophical arguments. She found them so poor she had to become prolife as a consequence.(Beguinning lives. OUP.)

  2. Juan:

    The point I’ve made whenever I’ve tackled this subject is that there are no easy answers/solutions – the best one can reasonably do is try to arrive at an accommodation that one sees as the least worst scenario – that for me rests in the development of the capacity for cognition, which begins at around 24 weeks.

    Yes, one can choose other arbitrary developmental points if one wishes, it just so happens that one I find most compelling is that which is most in keeping with my monist views on the nature of mind – whatever a foetus may ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ prior to 24 weeks it has, so far as we understand foetal development, no capacity to understand or comprehend those sensations and, to be frank, I doubt very much that Hursthouse has anything to say that will change my views on the subject, unless she can demonstrate that the capacity for cognition begins earlier that is currently thought.

    My views aren’t perfect, by any mean, but they are consistent and open to falsification within the normal parameters of the scientific method – and that will do for me.

  3. Well,Unity, your views are nothing but “scientism”. The attempt to disguise a moral prejudice-against the humanity of the unborn- as ascientific fact.
    Psychology,as the rest of the human sciences, is ridden with such. I myself have a lot of problems with accepting the dominant,so called, scientific theories of child development. Neither Freud, nor Piaget, nor the behaviourists seem to me nothing else biut ideologues in the most pejorative sense, and antichild ideologues at that.
    As for fetal development, biology is on firmer grounds, and the only BIOLOGICALLY relevant fact is that a human individual starts life at conception. For anybody that should be the moral starting ground, to respect and give value from the beginning to this human being with potential. The alternative, which is to dehumanise people by stages of development,dependancy,viability,cognitive condition,colour of skin, disability etc… is part of the ages old nightmare of arbitrary discrimination. Peter Singer makes the same arguments you make,but claims SCIENCE proves they can be postponed till after birth, hence he supports infanticide. How on earth you know that the feelings of pain of an unborn child can be dismissed is beyond comprehension and has nothing to do with science. People with high intelligence might claim they are so far superior in CONSCIENCE, COGNITION etc.. to the rest of humanity that only them have a right to life, the rest could be “aborted”.But then there is the added complication that it is extremely difficult to define intelligence, since there are plenty of moral and emotional imbeciles who have very high IQs and even are Nobel prize winners.
    As a matter of fact I don

  4. Juan:

    What I attempt to do is in addressing difficult questions such as abortion is use science as guide to making a human decision as to where I stand, one that tries to consider the full spectrum of complex moral and ethical questions the issue raises.

    That the capacity for cognition and sentience does not develop until around 26 weeks gestation is a matter of scientific fact, and its that that I use as a guide to arrive at a position in which there is both a balance of notional rights between woman and foetus based on an assessment of where there is the greatest likelihood of causing the least harm.

    Note also that I refer only to the capacity for consciousness and sentience, I make no value judgements as to the worth or value of individuals based on the individual ‘quality’ of that capacity that someone may or may not possess – oh, and I’m certainly no fan of Piaget either.

    Its all very well to talk about the potential of a foetus, but what of the potential (and actuality) of the mother? What are the consequences to her of being compelled to continue with an unwanted pregnancy. How does that affect her life, her chances, her mental and – sometimes – physical wellbeing and how, in turn, does that impact on the potential of the foetus and on their life and life-chances, if they are born. Where does any of this factor into your calculations?

    The ‘issue’ of foetal pain is, I’m afraid, a complete chimera and mere emotional nonsense – a foetus has no capacity to experience pain, even as an autonomic response, until at least 18-20 weeks gestation and no comprehension of pain until after 26 weeks. It’s just not an argument for restricting access to abortion, its at best an argument for the use of anaesthetic is late second trimester abortions to offset the squeamishness of those carrying out or undergoing such abortions.

  5. Unity; you should be aware that your assertion as to the inability to feel pain of the unborn under the age your nasty arbitrariness decides is total PSEUDOSCIENCE.Prove it,prove the unborn doesn

  6. Unity; you should be aware that your assertion as to the inability to feel pain of the unborn under the age your nasty arbitrariness decides is total PSEUDOSCIENCE. Prove it,prove the unborn doesn

  7. Unity,do you call that a proof? How on earth can these emotionally frozen autistic scientists claim that the absence of the changes they can measure at this technological state of scientific development in the level of oxygenation in the cortex proves the sensation of pain does not exist?Maybe tomorrow a more sophisticated brain scanning device will be developped that will show such changes. And, in any case, it has yet to be proved that there is no pain without cortex changes of whatever kind.That is a gratuitous prejudice, nothing else.

    As well as that,where the hell are their ethics, causin potential pain-i.e.noxious stimuli- to newborns? The psychologist Watson is well known for having induced a phobia on a baby using frighteningly loud sounds. Where the hell were the parents of these babies that allowed this cruel game by these bunch of certifiable psychopaths with an academic degree?
    You see, as regards babies, you, whoever you are, and I, Juan Campos, inhabit moral universes separated by millions of light years.Not much point in arguing with somebody who, on hearing the cry of a newborn, of whatever number of gestation weeks, doesn

  8. Juan:

    You quite obviously haven’t read the information provided.

    What the researchers in question measured was the reaction to routine heel prick tests carried out not for the purposes of the research but for the purposes of monitoring the medical condition of the baby.

    Such test are carried out as a matter of routine for a variety of valid clinical reasons, from checking on the oxygenation of the blood in premature infants to the standard test for Phenylketnuria, a genetic disorder that affects 1 in 15,000 live births, causing an enzyme deficiency which, if undiagnosed can result in brain damage even though the condition can be controlled simply by avoiding phenylalanine in the diet.

    I agree we do inhabit different universes – mine includes an education in foetal neurobiology and the development of the brain, cerebral functions, etc. that seems entirely absent in yours.

  9. No indeed,I just read your mail and the summary it included,where the only relevant information was noxious stimulation. In my day I studied a bit about the brain, and I knew of these tests.Also my interest in the abortion debate keeps me moderately well informed on foetal development.
    However, that is not the issue. The issue is the value you attach to an unborn of whatever age. Let me remind you that brain waves start much before your famous 24th week. Have you or anybody any idea of the SUBJECTIVE side of these brain waves? What do they tell us about the kind of EXPERIENCING involved? Obviously neurobiology can only say that much, the internal side, the subjectivity that correlates with these physiological data is a matter of debate. But, whatever it is, it is not open to debate that the unborn is alive, an individual and a member of the humam species. That is the ESSENTIAl, the secondary qualities are his sentience capacities,cognitive,emotional,etc,,,What VALUE has the unborn qua living member of the human species. What kind of respect should we socially and legally adscribe to him? Many adults have poor sentient,cognitive or emotional capacities, provisionallly or permanently, yet homicide is called homicide in their case.
    And just to be smart,you may know about neurology, but you make no reference to all the psychological research that has shown unborns can sense,taste,feel,hear,remember and even learn in the womb.

    And, finally,speaking as somebody who has fought for the humanisation of birth,even a clinically necessary pinprick might make me feel uncomfortable.The last thing I would do in any case is to suggest that the UNMISTAKABLE behavioral signs of pain the baby displays at such and other moments can be morally dismissed away beacause some scientific schizoid has failed to find a change in his levels of oxygen somewhere in his brain.

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