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Saturday, May 25, 2019 - 21:59 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Future Peek

In the interests of rehabilitating my reputation slightly (but not really), this blog post will be about improving the world - and in serviceable ways, mind. Fittingly given that this was written on Vesak Day, the first item on the menu is plant-based meat, with Our Most Successful Investment Firm having picked the right horse for once with their backing of Impossible Foods, who are rolling out their burgers locally to rave reviews.

The environmental benefits of faux meat over meat-meat are obvious - it begins with a close to 90% reduction in carbon footprint - more or less inevitable given the huge inefficiencies involved with using plants as animal feed - without even considering animal suffering. While there remain certain nutritional concerns, particularly about the use of soy leghemoglobin, I'd gather that mass-produced plant-based meat would be the most significant agricultural development since the Green Revolution of the 1950s (but please do not push vegan sensibilities on babies). And unlike solar and other renewables, there appears rather less handwaving over reliability concerns and the like.

Ideally, prices would continue to fall as the faux meat producers scale up and refine their techniques, given that there's no lack of demand currently. Who knows, in the near future, there may be no difference when ordering veg or meat for cai png (a sure marker of social, or at least financial, class) at the economy rice stalls, since they would be the same...

Revisualizing Transport

Not long after the collapse of the bike-sharing industry here, Grab's been introducing electric scooters on campus (safety helmets included recently). I'd expect would-be riders to come to the same realization, however: much of Singapore is simply no place for bikes/e-scooters - in the absence of dedicated bike lanes, cyclists and scooterists would have to either weave between pedestrians (which has seen its fair share of accidents), or risk the ire of motorists (to similar road rages). We've covered this some seven years ago, actually, and it's no surprise that cycling has never quite taken off on campus, even as scooters have had their speed capped at a sad 10km/h.

To reiterate the main observation then: modern conventional vehicles are ridiculously over-engineered. To move a human (average weight: 80kg) from point A to B, the average car hauls along a frame of some 1400kg; the robustness afforded by such vehicle designs are basically overkill in well-maintained urban environments. What really makes sense would be far lighter and cheaper go-kart-style builds, which would be particularly suited to autonomous operation from a safety perspective (getting hit at 80km/h by a 100kg+ payload is much preferable to that from a 1400kg+ one), without even going into the energy savings (both in construction and operation) for the environmentally-conscious.

The problem, of course, is the initial buy-in: even relative visionaries such as Tesla have remained wedded to the traditional concept of unnecessarily-weighty cars, given the necessity of fitting into the existing road use paradigm. As such, implementation of electric karts would probably be most suited to the campuses of rich tech firms... or alternatively, countries with a meek, captive citizenry that would tamely go along with whatever their government mandates. I say that we should not pass up on this incredible opportunity.


This blog has never shied away from presenting opinions on controversial topics, and today's pick is - abortion. Before the discussion, I will first present my currently-held stand, which I believe happens to be quite close to the status quo: abortion should be allowed in the first trimester for any reason, and in the second trimester under extenuating circumstances (health of mother, rape, incest). I am aware that this opinion is fundamentally subjective - but, on with the background.

The evergreen debate over abortion has reignited over the passing of new abortion laws by several U.S. states, but most prominently Alabama, which moved to impose a total abortion ban with no exceptions; in contrast, other states such as Missouri have set the limit at eight weeks, with Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio basing their bills on the presence of an embryotic heartbeat, i.e. six weeks (N.B. coming to Singapore too!). These proposed laws have all been contested by pro-choice groups, on the basis that such restrictions on abortion are illegal under Roe vs. Wade. The objections were in fact entirely expected by the various bills' sponsors, whose not-so-hidden intentions are to use the challenges to bring the matter of abortion before SCOTUS for a second hearing.

Before continuing the discussion, we define two extremal stands on abortion. The strong pro-life stance asserts that a fetus is human at the moment of conception, and any efforts to remove it from that point onwards would therefore be considered murder. At the other end of the spectrum, the strong pro-choice stance has the fetus not being a person, until birth. Given this, the mother is free to abort it at any point prior to that, for whatever reason at all. All other possible stances on abortion then fall between these two limiting points, disregarding preventive contraception and the killing of viable babies after birth (which, it seems, is a thing for today's Democrats)

Oh, okay then.
(Source: r/politicalhumor)

We might as well delve into the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling here. Contrary to popular understanding, it doesn't grant a blanket right to abortion come what may, and instead sets parameters that individual states have to obey. No prohibitions could be imposed in the first trimester (i.e. abortions had to be allowed in the first three months), and abortion could only be permitted to save the life of the mother in the third trimester (from the seventh month onwards, i.e. effectively prohibited). This left the widest latitude for interpretation with regards to the second trimester. This middle three months has been where most previous activism has raged around, with more liberal states tending towards allowing abortion during this period, and more conservative states towards preventing it.

It might be noted that this trimester-based classification aligns quite closely with my current view, which is no coincidence. In practice, setting a cutoff much earlier than three months would be effectively banning abortion, since it is quite possible that a pregnancy can go unnoticed for some time. At the other end, fetuses are generally acknowledged to be viable after the second trimester, with a 50-50 chance of survival at 24 weeks, and a greater than 90% chance at 27 weeks.

Note that the polarization of attitudes on abortion has also seen pro-choice legislators push on third trimester abortion rights, with a Governor copping much derision for his statement that, if a baby were born after a failed attempt at abortion, that "the infant would be resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother". This was quite understandably taken as a licence to kill perfectly-healthy babies, which thankfully remains distasteful to the population at large.

Slippery slope...
(Source: baby-lonbee.com)

This scenario, as it happens, relates to perhaps the strongest defence for abortion - the mother's bodily autonomy. Once the baby is born - whether intentionally or due to a failed abortion - the autonomy argument no longer applies. Definitely, there can still be a hardship argument, in that the baby imposes time and financial costs, but such costs cannot justify the death of the child, whether a day old, or ten years old. Personally, if such a thing as morality exists, not murdering newborns must be some sort of a minimal baseline to meet.

Still on bodily autonomy, I must confess that I had never been very convinced by the famous violinist thought experiment, in which it is argued that a woman kidnapped to provide dialysis for an unconscious violinist for nine months, is not actually obliged to do so. In most cases, a more accurate refinement of this analogy would have the woman meeting the violinist at a party, and the duo fooling about with melding their circulatory systems, with full knowledge of what could happen (i.e. said violinist becoming dependant). Further on this, it can be noted that restrictions on bodily autonomy have commonly been imposed by the state (e.g. imprisonment, conscription)

Related to this is the self-harm argument - so the logic goes, if abortion were outlawed, unwilling mothers could simply attempt it themselves in an unsafe manner (e.g. by coathanger), and possibly perish. Here, it might again be noted that the crux of the argument remains the status of the fetus - if the fetus is a person, then abortion is unjustified. For the sake of argument, consider an adult that hates a child for some reason. The adult credibly threatens to cut himself, or otherwise attempt suicide, until the child is killed. While a regrettable state of affairs, this does not appear valid justification for killing the child. Of course, if it were merely a clump of cells, then anything goes. Note that the "mother's health" exception tends to be viewed with suspicion by pro-lifers, who regard it as allowing an easy cop-out for late terminations.

While this is no place to delve into all the intricacies, suffice to say that the pro-life stance, as I understood it, is pretty straightforward: the fetus is a human as much as any helpless quadriplegic in a coma, full stop, and any attempt to define a cut-off point in the development of the fetus would be arbitrary. Consider a comatose person whom qualified doctors have judged to be almost certain to recover consciousness within nine months. Is there any call to take him off life support now?

Photos of mum not included
(Source: r/videos)

Recall, the pro-choice counter to this would be the bodily autonomy of the mother, which is where futurology comes in. Roe vs. Wade, in considering fetal viability as a key concept in their ruling, has also opened the door to reinterpretation as viability improves with technology - the current record is just under 22 weeks, but one can envisage the possibility of extracorporeal pregnancy with artificial wombs becoming commonplace. Frankly, if the tech becomes established, carrying babies to term the natural way could well be considered regressive, like how hardcore anti-vaxxers are regarded today (though making them would probably still be done traditionally, because fun); if and when this happens, we might discover exactly how far the autonomy reasoning goes.

And a final thought experiment to end off: one five year-old, against a thousand viable frozen embryos. Or three non-pregnant women with the five year-old, against three pregnant women. Does it matter? What's the difference?

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