September 9th, 2012


the headaches of jumbled abortion debates

For all that I find the debates over abortion fascinating philosophically, I always end up with a first-class headache by the end of them. Case in point: the recent back-and-forth between JT Eberhard and Timothy Dalrymple over at Patheos.

It started out with a comment well into a post on another topic, where Timothy noted that he hate[s] that unborn children are exterminated before they have had a chance to enjoy the gift of life. J.T. responds by questioning the use of the word "exterminate":

Tim, you say “exterminated,” but I want to make sure your connotation is clear. Obviously there is a tremendous difference between exterminating a dandelion and exterminating a human being. While a dandelion is certainly alive, it has cells that are moving about and what not, nobody really mourns the loss of that life. This is why nobody would refer to the a dandelion’s loss of life as an “extermination.” My position is that the destruction of a zygote is little more worrisome that the destruction of a dandelion.

At which point Timothy responds on several points. First, that very few if any abortions occur in the zygote phase, which lasts in Dalrymple's words only a few days, and is followed by the blastocyst phase, and weeks 3-8 are the embryo phase, and thereafter the fetus phase. So before you're even out of the first trimester you're into what scientists would call a "fetus," making JT's use of "zygote" pretty disingenuous. Second, while anti-abortion advocates label themselves pro-life, of course they're talking about human life and not just any life. And finally, if you don't say human life begins at conception, where do you draw that line?

I haven't read JT's piece yet, so I don't want to pass judgment too harshly on him. Nor do I want to jump all over Timothy, because his arguments are (sadly) pretty much par for the course on abortion. I'm talking about both the pro-life and the pro-choice side to this position, to say nothing of the growing number of third-wayers like myself who think abortion is often wrong (if not always, and if not always constituting murder) - but who think it's also wrongheaded to try to outlaw it. When abortion is mentioned emotions run high and people have a hard time thinking through whatever's being said. This issue seems to drive people to extremes. And extremes with little middle ground make it hard to have a fruitful discussion.

Ergo the headache. Because here, as in so many places there are lots of arguments getting jumbled together and thrown (if I may paraphrase Veggie Tales) as so much mashed potatoes against the wall, trying to see what will stick and what won't. I want to try to unravel things a bit, for my own mental health if nothing else.

First, there's the dandelion argument. We don't really cry over the death of a dandelion because while the dandelion's alive it doesn't really have a lot of actual worth at that point. It can't experience pleasure or pain --a rather utilitarian approach-- or it can't make a choice --more in the mode of Kant and Aristotle. It is not self-aware. Now, with abortion, the question becomes: is the fetus/embryo/unborn child/whatever like the dandelion in this regard?

(For simplicity, I'll use "fetus" to refer to any conceived homo sapiens individual after it develops a functioning brain but before birth, and "embryo" to refer to any conceived homo sapiens before that point. I'm not necessarily talking about the scientific meaning, and hope that's not too confusing.)

Timothy seems to simultaneously reject and accept this argument. On the one hand, he says that most abortions are clearly wrong because they happen long after we've crossed over into fetus territory. So the dandelion comparison isn't fair. But at the same time he also says that he rejects abortion even of embryos. While he didn't mention it specifically, I'm fairly confident he'd be very much against the moral behind this meme. That makes the whole fetus/dandelion distinction redundant. He seems to be saying that it doesn't matter whether a fetus is like a dandelion in terms of its actual traits (as opposed to potential) - fetuses embryo are always human, so killing them is always murder.

Here we get into the second jumbled argument. Neither Timothy nor (so far as I saw in the bits Timothy quotes) JT makes this one explicit, but it's important to tease it out. Timothy notes that of course pro-lifers aren't calling all killings murder - they're pro-human life, not necessarily pro-all life. The problem is that people don't always use "human" in the same way. Let me quote the bioethicist Mary Anne Warren here, since she explained this issue quite well:

One reason why this vital second question is so frequently overlooked in the debate over the moral status of abortion is that the term 'human' has two distinct, but not often distinguished, senses. This fact results in a slide of meaning, which serves to conceal the fallaciousness of the traditional argument that since (1) it is wrong to kill innocent human beings, and (2) fetuses are innocent human beings, then (3) it is wrong to kill fetuses. For if `human' is used in the same sense in both (1) and (2) then, whichever of the two senses is meant, one of these premises is question-begging. And if it is used in two different senses then of course the conclusion doesn't follow.

Thus, (1) is a self-evident moral truth,' and avoids begging the question about abortion, only if `human being' is used to mean something like `a full-fledged member of the moral community.' (It may or may not also be meant to refer exclusively to members of the species Homo sapiens.) We may call this the moral sense of `human.' It is not to be confused with what we call the genetic sense, i.e., the sense in which any member of the species is a human being, and no member of any other species could be. If (1) is acceptable only if the moral sense is intended, (2) is non-question-begging only if what is intended is the genetic sense.

Philosophers really struggle to nail down just what it means to be "human." Is it a member of the homo sapiens species? Something with the ability to think? Something that deserves moral consideration? Or what exactly? Timothy says that this point about dandelions often being alive is a red herring because we have no real problem squashing a bug or snapping a mouse's neck in a trap. The difference, he says, is that pro-life really means pro-human life. But even here, the question is unanswered because the syllogism Warren lays out (essentially, that abortion is wrong since it involves killing an innocent human) is only obviously true if we define "human" in a way that doesn't apply to most abortions. By talking about pro-life you gloss over this point (because who could be against life, in the abstract?) At the same time, JT does seem a bit disingenuous here, at least as presented by Timothy - because the pro-lifers obviously aren't taking the route of vegans and Sikhs, treating any animal's death as a cause for mourning. Here I'd like to propose a useful rule, for both sides: say what you mean, and mean what you say.

On a related point, Timothy defends his use of "extermination" language in a way I found a bit mind-boggling:

I chose the word "exterminated" advisedly. I chose most of my words advisedly. Nearly all of them, in fact. We do not use the word "exterminated" when referring to the destruction of dandelions. True. We do use the word "exterminated" when referring to the destruction of insects, rodents, and higher life forms. Is Eberhard suggesting that the destruction of 1000 third-trimester babies/fetuses is not deserving of the word "exterminated," and by implication less significant than the destruction of 1000 ants? How far is Mr Eberhard willing to go?

We're getting into connotations here, and that's tricky because they're often fluid and vary from person to person in subtle ways. But would Timothy really be happy saying he exterminated a beloved family pet, much less a human fetus? We exterminate ants and cockroaches and rats - but when my family recently had to "exterminate" a pet, that word extermination was probably one of the more inappropriate words I could imagine. You exterminate things that can be used instrumentally and that are "pests" or things we would (rightly) exclude from our lives if we could, even at the cost of their own. You "put down" or "put to sleep" a higher animal, one capable of the kind of brain processes --or at least the appearance of them-- that allow an emotional connection between humans and the animal. As for a homo sapiens fetus, if Timothy really believes that's a human and worthy of moral rights, I can hardly think of a less appropriate word.

The only way I can read this language usage here as being reasonable is if Timothy is accusing the abortive mothers (or other people pressing them into that decision) as exterminating the fetus. Perhaps if he was saying a fetus couldn't be exterminated but a mother or whoever was pushing her into it was treating the fetus like something we could exterminate as easily as a bug... then the language would make sense. but he seems to be doubling down on this idea that extermination is the kind of thing we do to higher animals, even to humans who have full-fledged rights not to be exterminated. That just strikes me as wrong.

There's one last jumbled argument that needs addressing: the argument about potentiality. He first quotes JT as saying

An argument that inevitably comes up in the abortion debate is that a zygote will one day become a child (perhaps the next Beethoven!) if left unchecked. Tim, do you not realize that every sperm in the male body is a potential human being (it just needs the female egg, itself a potential unique, glorious human being). Yet the prospect of this lost potential does not seem to frighten you into promiscuity.

... and then replies himself:

I’m sure evangelical youngsters everywhere would rejoice if their elders decided that they should have sex with great frequency because "if a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate." But alas, there is a key distinction between a sperm and a zygote. A zygote, left to develop naturally, will tend to develop into a human being. You can have a tank of millions of sperm, but without an egg not a single one will develop into a human being.

Here's the thing, though. In much the same way that a sperm will not develop into a person without an egg, a fetus will not develop into a person without a fetus. In particular my fetus, or the fetus of whatever woman it happens to find itself in. You may argue that by choosing to have sex (or being raped, or whatever) I have consented to free room and board for nine months. I don't necessarily buy that, but it's also not really the point. Even if I'm somehow obligated to provide that care, you can have a tank of millions of zygotes, but without a womb not a single one will develop into a human being.

Here we need to be careful about language, because some might say that a zygote is already human. After all, it has human DNA. If that's all that it takes to be human, though, an organ transplanted out of me but before being implanted into someone else would be its own unique human being - meaning that organ transplants would involve murder (the intentional killing of a human). Maybe you mean that a human is anything with human DNA that is distinct from any other human's DNA. Two main problems there, though: (a) identical twins and (b) genetic mutations that mean some of my cells don't have the same DNA as others do.

I'm honestly not trying to be flippant or trite here, though I suspect it may come across that way. My point is that these are substantial problems that need addressing. Science fiction actually has grappled with very similar issues, in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Tuvix". I think there are ways of explaining why a zygote is a unique individual while unfertilized sperm and eggs aren't, and I think it has to do with the Aristotelian concept of the soul: a fertilized egg has its own form, its own unique possibilities and telos, that a sperm doesn't have. (Note, for Aristotle anything alive has a soul - it's not a unique human-making trait the way Christians use the word.) My point is that saying a "tank full of sperm" won't develop into a human whereas a tank full of embryos will doesn't quite cut it.

(Good news for Timothy, though: this provides a nice tidy answer to the question of how far women can go to kill their fetuses. Even if they have the right not to let the fetus use their body, they certainly don't have the right to kill it if it can survive on its own. Abortion rights, if they exist on this picture are about self-integrity not some kind of a license to kill.)

So to summarize, I think many pro-lifers (and to be fair many pro-choicers as well) have a few muddled arguments going on:

  1. Is the actual development of the fetus/embryo relevant, or not?
  2. Is abortion about killing a life, or killing a human?
  3. Does a fetus have a special potential because it can develop without any further outside events, or for some other reason?
  4. Are women obligated to provide the nurturing a fetus needs to develop, or not?

There are good (at least in the sense of having enough meat to debate) answers to all of these questions. I welcome those debates on what it means to be human, to be a person, to be an individual - not only because I'm a philosopher and I thrive on these kinds of issues, but because I think it's a way of showing respect to everyone involved in these issues. But the thing is, these issues really are separate, and we need to be careful not to conflate them. If you think life begins at conception, then you need to make clear why the further development of the embryo/fetus matters. If you think abortion is wrong because it kills a human, you need to work out what you mean by human and why things like organ trnasplants and rutting out cysts don't also count as murder. If you think women are obligated to nurture the fetus, you need to be able to handle the case of rape where the woman didn't do anything to take on that obligation.

These are serious problems, and they may have answers, but they require serious consideration to work those answers out. They're also > complex --even before we get into the whole how to regulate it politically issue!-- and we owe it to everyone with a position on this side to take their positions seriously. Just like we all owe it to each other to have a serious position if we're entering into this debate. You know, move beyond the false dilemma that is the pro-life/pro-choice dichotomy, roll up our sleeves, and get down to business with some serious armchair heavy lifting. :-)

P.S.: One thing I would like to thank Timothy for: his choice of language at the beginning of his post. He spoke of "the perspective of a Christian pro-lifer," and also described Humanae Vitae as "a Christian point of view" on abortion. So often Christians talk like their position on abortion is the only authentically Christian one, and for the most part I didn't get that vibe.

P.P.S.: For those that are wondering, I don't think of myself as either pro-life or pro-choice in the way those terms are used in American politics. I think abortion has serious moral implications and shouldn't be done lightly. (Not that I think women don't take it seriously.) I also think that the further a fetus develops the more reason you need for an abortion to be at all moral - because the fetus is becoming increasingly more human as it develops throughout pregnancy. (Morning-after pills don't require nearly as much justification as abortions 3-4 months into the pregnancy.) I tend to look at the harm done, both to the fetuses, to the born humans affected by the abortion (primarily the mother), and to society in general, and in a lot of cases I think the moral thing really is to carry the child to term. Safe, legal and rare is a good starting place; personally, I'd add "as early as possible, when necessary" to the list as well.