Friday, March 11, 2016

Wired for Abortion: Responding to Erroneous and Incomplete Arguments from "Wired" Magazine

I was recently part of an informal discussion on the topic of abortion.  I made the statement that scientifically we know when human life begins--at conception.  The larger issue is whether we will grant "personhood" to that life and seek to protect it.  As a result of that one of the participants sent me an article Why Science Can't Say When A Baby's Life Begins by Sarah Zhang (10.2.15).  This was supposed to counter my claim.  However, reading Zhang's piece it quickly becomes clear that it is filled with fallacious reasoning with the result being obfuscation rather than clarity.

First, the essay is filled with one major fallacy that runs through the entirety of the article.  The author continually equivocates between "life" and "person(hood)."  Conflating these two concepts is the central fallacy of this essay.  Consider the following examples drawn from throughout the essay.

From the first two paragraphs:
SCOTT GILBERT WAS walking through the halls of Swarthmore when he saw the poster, from a campus religious group: “Philosophers and theologians have argued for centuries about when personhood begins,” it read. “But scientists know when it begins. It begins at fertilization.” What troubled Gilbert, who is a developmental biologist, was the assertion that “scientists know.” “I couldn’t say when personhood begins, but I can say with absolute certainty scientists don’t have a consensus,” he says.

When life begins is, of course, the central disagreement that fuels the controversy over abortion. Attacks on abortion rights are now more veiled and indirect—like secret videos pointing to Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donations, or state legislation that makes operating abortion clinics so onerous they have to shut down. But make no mistake, the ultimate question is, when does a fetus become a person—at fertilization, at birth, or somewhere in between?
Under the section heading "The Quickening" we find these comments:
Before ultrasounds and long before Roe v. Wade, it was obvious when life began.  The "quickening," the first time a woman felt her baby's kick, was the moment the baby came alive, the moment it got a soul.
In a way, science made possible the argument for fetal personhood.  It's only tenable because people can peer inside the womb, at one time a black box.  Indeed, when American physicians began collecting human embryos and charting embryonic development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they began considering fertilization as the beginning of fetal life.
Later we find this comment under the section on fertilization:
Assuming that fertilization and implantation all go perfectly, scientists can reasonably disagree when personhood begins, says Gilbert.  An embryologist might say gastrulation, which is when an embryo can no longer divide to form identical twins.  A neuroscientist might say when one can measure brainwaves.  As a doctor, Horvath-Cosper says, "I have come to the conclusion that the pregnant woman gets to decide when it's a person."
The Wired piece ends with these words:
 To doctors and scientists, the question of when life begins isn’t a matter of gathering more evidence. “The science has very little to do with the answer,” says Gilbert. Every iteration and advance in the lab make the question even more the purview of philosophers and theologians. And lawyers.
Recognizing this equivocation is important.  Conflating the issues of "life" and "personhood" creates confusion.  If the question is, "When does an actual human life begin?"--the answer to that question is provided by science.  The answer, of course, is fertilization.  Consider the documentation provided by Patrick Lee, Christopher O. Tollefson, and Robert P. George in their piece at Public Discourse entitled, "Marco Rubio is Right: The Life of a New Human Being Begins at Conception."
 “Human life begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).” Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003. pp. 16, 2.

“Fertilization is the process by which male and female haploid gametes (sperm and egg) unite to produce a genetically distinct individual.” Signorelli et al., Kinases, phosphatases and proteases during sperm capacitation, CELL TISSUE RES. 349(3):765 (Mar. 20, 2012)

“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a ‘moment’) is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte” (emphasis added; Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Mueller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000, p. 8). (Many other examples could be cited, some of which may be found here. )
Lee, Tollefson, and George go on to argue:
 That is the authority of science. On request, we can cite dozens more examples. The authorities all agree because the underlying science is clear. At fertilization a sperm (a male sex cell) unites with an oocyte (a female sex cell), each of them ceases to be, and a new entity is generated. This new entity, initially a single totipotent cell, then divides into two cells, then (asynchronously) three, then four, eight and so on, enclosed all the while by a membrane inherited from the oocyte (the zona pellucida). Together, these cells and membrane function as parts of a whole that regularly and predictably develops itself to the more mature stages of a complex human body.

From the zygote stage onward this new organism is distinct, for it grows in its own direction; it is human—obviously, given the genetic structure found in the nuclei of its cells; and it is a whole human organism—as opposed to what is functionally a part of a larger whole, such as a cell, tissue, or organ—since this organism has all of the internal resources and active disposition needed to develop itself (himself or herself) to the mature stage of a human organism. Given its genetic constitution and epigenetic structure, all this organism needs to develop to the mature stage is what human beings at any stage need, namely, a suitable environment, nutrition, and the absence of injury or disease. So it is a whole human organism—a new human individual—at the earliest stage of his or her development.

This is why it is correct to say that the developing human embryo is not “a potential human being” (whatever that might mean) but a human being with potential—the potential to develop himself or herself (sex is established from the beginning in the human) through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages and into adulthood with his or her identity intact.
Human life begins at conception.  The scientific evidence is clear.  But what are we to make of this comment in the Wired article?
 As the fertilization researcher Harvey Florman has said, “Fertilization doesn’t take place in a moment of passion. It takes place the next day in the laundromat or the library.”
This is irrelevant.  The fact that fertilization does not take place immediately does nothing to overturn the fact that it does take place and when it does this is the beginning of an individual human life.

The Wired essay goes on to further muddy the waters with irrelevant facts.  Consider these words:
But even fertilization isn’t a clean indicator of anything. The next step is implantation, when the fertilized egg travels down the fallopian tube and attaches to the mother’s uterus. “There’s an incredibly high rate of fertilized eggs that don’t implant,” says Diane Horvath-Cosper, an OB-GYN in Washington, DC. Estimates run from 50 to 80 percent, and even some implanted embryos spontaneously abort. The woman might never know she was pregnant.
From the fact that there are human embryos that do not attach it does not follow that "fertilization isn't a clean indicator of anything."  This is simply a non sequiturPhilosopher Francis Beckwith effectively argues:
Some estimate up to thirty percent [of all conceptions] die before implantation.  Some people argue that these facts make it difficult to believe that the unborn are fully human in at least the very earliest stage of their development prior to implantation.  But this is clearly an invalid argument, for it does not logically follow from the number of unborn entities who die that these entities are by nature not fully human.  To cite an example, it does not follow from the fact that underdeveloped countries have a higher infant mortality rate that their babies are less human than those born in countries with a low infant mortality rate.  (Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1993], 96)
An individual human life begins at conception.  But what about "personhood"--when does that come about?  It is important to grasp that the answer to this question is not given to us by empirically testable processes such as science deals in.  The words of Lee, Tollefson and George are, again, instructive:
 Science reveals empirical facts. It cannot tell us who, if anyone, is a “person,” morally speaking—which beings, if any, have fundamental dignity and basic moral rights. There are correct answers to these questions—they are not merely subjective issues—but they are not answered by application of scientific methods of inquiry. We cannot determine whether there even is such a thing as human rights, or whether slavery, or Hitler’s genocide against Jews, was morally wrong, by conducting laboratory experiments or constructing mathematical models.
Often those who are in favor of abortion-on-demand will argue for the separation of life from personhood.  Most will acknowledge the scientific fact about when human life begins but they will want to withhold the idea of "personhood" from this human life.  Separating human life from human personhood potentially brings with it some radical consequences.  For example, there are those who argue that infanticide is justified on such grounds.  In a 2012 essay--"After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?-- Albert Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argued this exact point.
 The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.
Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, neither is a "person" in the sense of "subject of a moral right to life".  We take "person" to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.  This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.  Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.  (p. 2)  [see my blog posts "After-birth Abortion": Politically Correct Infanticide and Evolution and Infanticide--The Deep Connection for a link to the original article as well as analysis]
 Notice that according to this reasoning "many non-human animals" are "persons" but a healthy newborn child is not a "person."  Thus the "personified" animal has a "right to life" but the healthy newborn does not.  All of this is pushed forward under the banner of a functionalist criteria of "personhood."  Personhood is a function of being able to "form an aim" that the individual wishes to accomplish.  There must be capability "of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her."  Because the newborn child cannot do this they are not "persons" in any moral sense.  They are only "potential persons."

The concluding words of Lee, Tollefson, and George's essay are helpful in countering the above separation of human life and personhood.
The real question is whether human beings have inherent worth and dignity—and a right to life—or whether their value and right to life depends on factors such as age, size, stage of development, or physical health. Do all human beings have a right to life, or are some “not yet persons” (the unborn, the newly born), or “no longer persons” (those suffering from severe dementia or in minimally conscious states), or lifelong “non-persons” (those congenitally severely cognitively disabled)? Are all human beings equal in worth and dignity? Pro-lifers say yes. Professor Singer and other honest, informed abortion advocates say no.

Science cannot settle that dispute. It cannot tell you that it is wrong to kill the physically handicapped on the ground that they are, as the Nazis said, “useless eaters.” For that matter, it cannot tell you whether people may be enslaved or pillaged on account of their language or race.

But for those who reject sorting human beings into “superiors” and “inferiors”; for those who embrace the principle at the heart of our civilization—the equal dignity of all human beings—science can reveal something crucial indeed: namely, who is a human being.
Sarah Zhang of Wired is simply wrong--as are a number of the people she quotes in her essay.  Science does tell us when an individual human life begins.  The larger philosophical question concerns whether we will value that human life and to what extent we will offer protections for that life.