All Hail the Consciometer

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

All Hail the Consciometer

David Dobbs has an interesting article in Slate predicting that, in the near future, science will be able to "measure consciousness the way kidney or lung function is now measured."

As an atheist growing increasingly weary of conservatives' increasingly absurd "culture of life" stance on everything from Terri Schiavo to stem cells, this is certainly welcome news
The consciometer will strengthen this authority further. Families won't have to agonize over whether an unresponsive loved one is conscious; the consciometer will tell them. People filling out living wills will be able to specify their wishes based on measurable levels of conscious function. Ethical and legal precepts will rest on a clearly defined framework. Most people may welcome an end to torturous end-of-life ambiguities; religious conservatives probably won't.


The consciometer may not put the abortion issue to rest—given the deeply held religious and moral views on all sides, it's hard to imagine that anything could. But by adding a definitive neurophysiological marker to the historical and secular precedents allowing abortion in the first two-thirds of pregnancy, it may greatly buttress the status quo or even slightly push back the 23-week boundary. There is another possibility. The implications of the consciometer could create a backlash that displaces science as the legal arbiter of when life ends and begins. Such a shift—a rejection of science not because it is vague but because it is exact—would be a strange development, running counter to the American legal tradition. Should a fundamentalist view of life trump rationalist legal philosophy? Roe v. Wade considered this question explicitly and answered no. For nonfundamentalists, that probably still seems right.

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