Drawing the line between labels

What is art? What is obscenity? When is someone a child? When does someone reach the age of consent? At what stage during pregnancy does human life begin? Is it music or noise? Or both?

Much of debate in public life is about drawing arbitrary lines between labels. Some people think if you allow gays to marry, that’s only one step away from allowing people to marry more than one person legally or marry their pets legally. Others think it’s the logical next step after getting rid of miscegenation laws. Some people think human life begins at conception (when the sperm and egg meet). Others think it happens some time in the middle of the pregnancy. In many places, the age of consent is 18 years of age. So a 17-year-old in a sexually explicit film is legally the victim of child pornography but an 18-year-old in the same film is a consenting adult in a legitimate industry.

We all know that lines can get blurry and, in fact, much of life isn’t about lines but appreciating spectra and variation. One person may reach adulthood at age 13. Another may reach it at age 23. Still another may not reach it ever. One group of people may consider a certain film art, and another group of people may consider the same film obscenity.

The real problem we face is a discomfort with blurriness, spectra, and variation when it comes to law. We already have many “it depends” situations in law, and we don’t want to have an “it depends” that can’t be spelled out in advance, for some reason. If one 12-year-old is old enough to drive, how can you make the case that another 12-year-old is not old enough to drive? Why does your opinion about each kid’s maturity and skill matter in deciding? Instead, the state decides arbitrarily that 15 or 16 or 18 is the cut-off point where someone under that age doesn’t have the physical and mental maturity to handle a motor vehicle, and someone above that age supposedly does.

I don’t have an easy answer. I do think a 7-year-old, no matter how “mature,” is too young to have sex. And I do think that almost all 50-year-olds, no matter how “immature,” are likely to know what they’re getting into if they engage in sex. I know if we draw a line in between that it’ll be arbitrary and if we don’t draw a line, we’ll basically be condoning pedophilia. Same deal with abortion. If I kill an egg and sperm that have just started dividing into two cells and four cells, I don’t really think I’ve murdered a human being (yes, some fringe conservatives on the extreme right might disagree with me, and I would concede in a British accent that “every sperm is sacred, every sperm is good”). But I also don’t think there’s a definite line you can draw in the middle of a pregnancy that is when human life “begins.” There isn’t a moment. Nor was there a moment when I changed from child to adult. I know when I was 6 I was a child. I know now after 30 I’m an adult. But it’s not as if there was one day or even one year that I can say was the threshold I crossed that changed me from child to adult.

As I said before, there are no easy answers. Nevertheless, people should also stop looking for them. There often is no line in life, even if we must draw a line in the law.

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