Where Does a person’s rights really begin? (Part II)

Now wether we are talking about the pro-choice or right-to-life side I generally see some hypocrisy in dealing with the issue of rights and the unborn.

For example we know that alcohol consumption by pregnant women is likely to result in serious health issues for the unborn child. The pro-choice side has certain shown a desire to regulate this in the name of the unborn child but without ever recognizing that the unborn child’s right have begun. While on the right-to-life-side they’ll insist that the unborn child has rights but refuse to pass laws to protect those rights — such as the drinking example — except where it pertains to abortion. That said I want to look at the situation as if we applied it logically, consistently, and using the most up to date understanding of human biology. This is not an argument to adopt a particular viewpoint, but an exploration of the viewpoint that rights begin before birth and possibly before conception.First we need to take a little diversion into the history of evolution and genetics. Trust me this is all require for my final destination.

Charles Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution, but he did give us the best documentation of it and the best statement describing evolution as he put it The Origin Of Species.  What Darwin did attack and overturn as one of the earlier theories of Evolution is the theory of Lamarckism. What Lamarckism hypothesized is that organisms gained characteristics during life and that these gained characteristics could then be passed on to new generations, gradually modifying the organism until a new species resulted. Darwin suggested that new characteristics were a results of mutation and not acquired during life. These mutations, when proved favorable to reproduction, were passed on to new generations inducing slow modifications over time until anew species would emerge.

We can look at the cheetah for an example of both types of evolution would explain where such a fast beastie came from.

Under Lamarckism we have some fast cats, maybe 30 mph in a sprint. Some of these cats, push themselves to become just a little faster than the others to catch more food. They are not born faster, but rather run harder and try harder until they are faster. This ability to run faster — now acquired through hard work — is passed on to their kittens who are faster from the get go than other kittens. The trait for running fast has been passed on and the cycle begin again. Eventually we get 75 mph cats.

Under Darwin’s theory some cats are simply born faster than others. these faster cats are better at getting food,  this increases their likelihood of reproduction, so we get more faster cats slowly pushing out the slow cats until only fast cats remain. Acquired traits and skills and events have nothing to do with it. All that matters is what mutations you are born with.

Darwin’s theory won out and outside of the Soviet Union Lamarckism was tossed into the waste bin of biological history. The discovery of genes, DNA, and the mechanism of inheritance settled the debate for all time.

Or so we were told in biology class. The truth seems a bit more muddled. There is a new science being born around us, epigenetics and it has quite a Lamarckism twist to it. Epigenetics is the study of things above the genome, and here there is really interesting science being done.

Most people if they think about genes, think that genes control all about what an organism is like, but this is an overly simplistic view of genes and what they do. At their simplest levels genes make proteins,t hat’s all they do. What those proteins do and how they interacts is a very complex process, but if you do not have have a certain gene then you cannot have the protein it codes for.

Now you can think of genes are being like a water faucet, that produces colored water. The gene can be turned on, it can be turned off, and the stream of water can be slight or a torrent. The same is true of genes. In each and every cell in your body are at least 20,000 genes. 20,000 faucets but most of them have been switched off. Skin cells do not need the same genes switched on as liver cell or as never cells. The key to an organism is how the genes are switched on and switched off, for even being on and off is not a constant state with human genes.

So if an organism have an advantageous genetic mutation, then it is likely that they organism will reproduce and pass on those ‘good’ genes. This is the central concept and mechanism of Darwinian evolution. Lamarckism doesn’t postulate the creation of new genes and those seems to fall short in the real world.

Back to epigenetics, this is the study of the signals that turn genes on and turn genes off. Having a ‘good’ gene is useless if the damned thing is switched off. Environmental conditions can effect the signals that turn genes on and off, having powerful health effects for the organism under those environmental conditions. The shocker comes generations later when those environmental conditions are have health effects on generations that were never exposed to those conditions. For example near starvation conditions, which are unable to change a persons genetics does seem to effect the person grandchildren’s life expectancy. (See this article in time for a good general primer.)

Inheritable environmental factors that are not genetic, that’s awfully Lamarckian but the data seems to show that this indeed the case.

What does this mean for the rights of the unborn? That I will tackle in my third and final part.


3 thoughts on “Where Does a person’s rights really begin? (Part II)”

  1. Nolly, so glad you brought up that FAS isabout HUGE, REPEATED concumption of alcohol in the long term, not one or two glasses of wine during the pregnancy. That is the real problem with regulating the alcohol consumption of a pregnant woman – quantity & timing matter.

    I truly doubt those currently campaigning against abortion would start campaigning to protect fetal health. I have read sociological studies (granted, VERY soft science) that seems to indicate that the vast majority of the men in the movement are there because they are concerned their mothers might have aborted them if they’d had a choice. These are not really people who care about unborn children. They are afraid of a perceived powere that women have – the right to chose.

    A better point of discussion for your purposes here, Bob, might be Spina Bifida (neural tube defects), which can be virtually eliminated if pregnant women take a good pre-natal vitamin during the first trimester

  2. To be fair, I suspect that if abortion were ever banned again, many of those campaigning against it now would begin to campaign for other measures to protect fetal health. One problem with any attempts to limit or ban drinking by expectant mothers is tracking / enforcement; it’s pretty much impossible to track how much someone is drinking in their own home. Some of the less nutbar pro-life folks (yes, such exist) do also work on making healthcare available to mothers-to-be and educating them on what they need to do to care for the child both before and after birth. As always, regardless of topic, the nutbars get the media attention.

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