Two Court Decisions for Science

There have been two interesting court decisions, I think both decided correctly for science this week. In the first, a federal court has decided states may regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. In particular, one statement from the judge seemed to come straight from the deck of cards.

“There is no question that the GHG (greenhouse gas) regulations present great challenges to automakers,” Judge William Sessions III, sitting in the U.S. District Court in Burlington, wrote at the conclusion of his 240-page decision.

He added, “History suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges. In light of the public statements of industry representatives, (the) history of compliance with previous technological challenges, and the state of the record, the court remains unconvinced automakers cannot meet the challenges of Vermont and California’s GHG regulations.”

Exactly correct. They raised the same complaints for seatbelts, crumple-zones, airbags, and CAFE standards, and each time their claims of imminent bankruptcy have been shown to be overblown. If anything, it should be good for the industry. As Toyota has become the largest automobile manufacturer in the world with consistently rising profits, the American car manufacturers have locked themselves into making bigger less efficient cars and consistently show losses and diminishing size. If anything, this kick in the pants will help car manufacturers in this country survive and compete with the cars from Japan.

The second, from the NYT, a New Jersey court has refused to decide that life “begins” at conception.

A doctor is under no obligation to tell a pregnant woman that she is carrying “an existing human being” before performing an abortion, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled today in a decision that had been eagerly awaited by both foes and supporters of abortion rights in this country.

The 5-to-0 decision came in a case brought in 1996 by Rosa Acuna, who was 29 years old and married when she and her husband, who already had two children, agreed to an abortion about six to eight weeks into her pregnancy.

People on both sides of the abortion debate said that Mrs. Acuna’s medical malpractice case was essentially asking the court to weigh in on the long-debated issue of when life begins.

Mrs. Acuna charged that the doctor, Dr. Sheldon C. Turkish, did not provide her with “material medical information” before she and her husband signed a consent form allowing him to perform the procedure. Specifically, she said in her lawsuit, the doctor had a duty to tell her that the procedure would “terminate the life of a living member of the species Homo sapiens, that is a human being.”

Because there is no consensus within the medical community, or even in the general public, about when life begins, the justices wrote, there is therefore no legal basis for requiring doctors to tell patients “that an abortion results in the killing of a family member.”

Not only is this fundamentally stupid claim on the part of the plaintiffs, like this 29-year-old woman did not know what an abortion is, but the idea of a court decided when life begins is offensive. I also disagree that there is no consensus (or that there can not be one) within the scientific community. Scientists should acknowledge that life does not “begin”, but is instead continuous from parent to child, and the real question is when we consider a human life to have value. There is no stage in human reproduction in which the components are not living. The real issue is fundamentally religious, and should therefore be outside the purview of the courts, that is when does someone get a soul? Or in more secular terms, become a human being? That is unanswerable, unmeasurable, and should not be determined by any court or government.

So good news from the courts this week, stepping in where they should, and staying out of where they don’t belong.