First I would like to address once again what I think is a problem of method in the basis of your arguments, that is to say the way in which you tend to base your argumentation on universal statements.
I know I already mentioned that elsewhere, but I would like to do it again, this time with special reference to the body of your message.
“people like Singer are simply regarded as desperate maniacs”
As a matter of fact, I was taught Singer’s theories in philosophy when I was in secondary school and, of course, it does not mean we were actively encouraged to think like him because the whole point of philosophy is to look at authors’ writings critically, but the man was not presented as a raving maniac either. Actually, his ideas on specism left a powerful impression on me and I think he does raise valuable questions about the specificity of humanity.
“There is no legend of exposure that does not involve horror, guilt, and eventual ruin”
There are so many legends, it is rather incautious to make such a claim. I can at least think of one tale in which exposure occurs without any nasty consequence for the child, for the dad who abandoned the mother in the first place, nor for the mother’s father who decided that the child should be exposed. Obviously, the child is rescued and lives on, otherwise there would be no story, but nothing dreadful happens to those responsible for exposure, on the contrary (the tale is that of Thorstein Bull’s Leg, Þorsteins þáttur uxafóts).*
I think the point in these exposure stories, is not so much the fact that exposure is terrible although that’s certainly an element of it. I would rather suggest that it is used because it shows that no matter how drastic the precautions you take are, you can’t guard yourself against the power of a prophecy. And, in occasions where there is no prophecy, it is often a way to create an exceptional origin story for the hero, which sets him / her radically apart from ordinary people, in the same way that many heroes are orphans or unpromising children or, on the contrary, children of aristocrats or exceptional people. The abandoned children plot has the advantage of combining both: usually noble parents but a humble beginning because of their exposure.
I am being awfully long, and I apologise for this: I just wanted to call these points into question because I think they introduce important flaws in an argument which is otherwise interesting. I shall now move to the main point of your discussion, that is, does it make sense to consider that at one point a being is not yet human and can be destroyed without qualms and that at the very next moment it is a human being whose destruction would be murder?
First of all, I completely agree with the idea that humanity understood in its fullest sense is something which is only gained gradually and that there is a continuum between the conception of a cell and adulthood. I find this hard to deny.
At the same time continuity does not mean identity: in a rainbow, there is continuity from one colour to the next, both seeming somewhat blurred where they merge, yet the colours are different.
Now fixing a precise point after which the colour is orange and before which it is yellow is completely arbitrary.
Similarly, fixing such a limit for humanity is completely arbitrary. And yet, isn’t there a point where there is no human life, and one where there is?
I guess most people will agree (and here I’m afraid I’m going to succumb myself to the sin of sweeping generalisations; I shall try not to let it cloud my judgment too much) that refraining from having sex is not destroying a life, even if potentially that act could lead to the creation of life. Tertullian’s view that wasting sperm by masturbation is destroying potential future human beings is certainly not prevalent. The next step is the creation of a cell from an ovule and a spermatozoid. Is that the beginning of life? Obviously it is quite a big step, but is it THE definite step? On the one hand it is the creation of something which, although it lives in the body of another being has a different genetic makeup so I guess it has some independence. On the other hand its properties at this stage are about those of a bacteria. Admittedly, it has greater potential as far as humanity is concerned, but having sex also have greater potential for giving birth to a human being, yet not doing it is not destroying a life.
Basically this part of the argument all depends on whether you think that the creation of a cell from two cells constitutes the creation of a new life or not.
I would say it probably does. After all a bacteria is a life-form too. So this a life form with a potential for humanity, but which is not human yet.
Now I don’t think destroying the potential for the creation of a human being by refraining from having sex is murder.
Is the destroying of a life form which has a potential to develop from cell to human being murder?
This is an incredibly tricky question.
I would say it is not, but many people think otherwise so it would seem we have entered the blurred area where the two colours mingle.
To go back to your point about exposure: is killing a new born child murder? Many civilisations have done it. Even now, in some countries (Benin is one of them), children born prematurely are left to die because the medical means are not there to save them (and I do say ‘left to die’: nurses do not try to save them and fail but they see them, write on the register ‘born alive, non viable’ and throw the body away, which is a bit like exposure).
I know this sounds shocking because it goes against our ideas, but if you want to be thorough with the question of abortion, it is a point worth raising.
I think the fact many civilisations have accepted exposure as normal does not prove it is a good thing, but it does show that it might be close enough to the ‘blurred’ area for people to disagree on this point.
So it would seem to me that we are left with a blurred area between conception and the acquisition of a limited form of consciousness some time before or after the birth (after a few weeks or months, the beginnings of consciousness show in the eyes of a baby I think, and even earlier babies are said to perceive some things when they are still in the womb).
There are several ways of going about it. If you only look at it on principle, every position is possible. You could take it on the safe side and protect the potential child from the moment of conception.
You could decide that as long as a child has no consciousness it’s no more alive than a flower and that destroying it is fine.
Both positions and everything in between have been current in some societies at some point.
All are, I think, arbitrary.
If letting the cell develop into a child had no bad consequences on the mother, the child and potentially other people, I would say let’s be on the safe side and protect it from the first instant.
Now the right of a cell to develop its full potential has to be counterbalanced with the consequences of that decision.
Is it right to potentially bring ruin to a woman’s life just to be on the safe side?
I say potentially because of course in both cases we are dealing with the future which cannot be known. Not all unwanted pregnancies have tragic consequences, thankfully.
That being said, there is a strong risk and giving birth to a child is not a matter to be treated lightly.
As a consequence, I support the opinion that a compromise between those two rights, those of the mother and those of the potential child, should be reached.
According to me, a woman must be given enough time to realise the situation, take a decision and act on it.
On the other hand, a foetus that already moves, perceives some things and is reasonably healthy (I don’t want to go into eugenics but it seems to me carrying on with a pregnancy when the child is going to die a few months after it’s born is just cruel for all parties) should be granted the right to live.
The compromise is necessarily arbitrary, just like most legal decisions when it comes to matters of time. Should rape be punished with 20 years in jail or 19 or 21? That decision is arbitrary even if the decision it should be punished severely is not.
Therefore, some time between 10 and 25 weeks would seem reasonable to me, but the precise time is by necessity going to be arbitrary, and the decision is necessarily going to infringe both on the rights of women and on the rights of foetuses, though in varying proportions. As a consequence, it should be clear that the solution is not perfect, but it seems to me that no perfect solution exists, at least until we can find a foolproof, convenient contraceptive and ensure that all those who need it have access to it, which is far from being the case at present.
I apologise for the ridiculous length of this post, but the topic is rather serious and you seemed to demand your points to be addressed as fully as possible so that’s what I did.
* This point was contested by fpb as he apparently only meant to consider Greek and Roman legends, not those of other cultures. I don't think this affects the general argument all that much though so I did not emend this.