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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Response to a Video on Abortion

This is a response to a video on YouTube entitled RE: Abortion Argument by FredericBayer. In the comments on his video, he claims to “pwn” a pro-lifer at logic. But as I’ll point out, his arguments are rife with logical fallacies and incoherencies.

I haven’t seen the original video, but I’m assuming Frederic is upset by a pro-life advocate saying that if we can’t tell that it’s life in the womb, then the benefit of the doubt should go to life, and using an analogy of someone blowing up a building as an analogy. Basically, if you don’t know if there is anyone alive in a condemned building, you would not blow up the building unless you knew there was no one inside. In the same way, we should not be doing abortions if we don’t know if it’s human life or not (i.e. the benefit of the doubt should go to life).

Frederic doesn’t believe this is applicable at all, but the reality is the situations are. It’s a thought experiment. Pregnancy is not like being artificially connected to a dying violinist, but that analogy is still a powerful one used by pro-choice advocates to support their view. It will not do to dismiss it because it’s “weird” or could never happen in real life. Simply saying that the two situations are not comparable is incorrect. Frederic claims that comparing the two is a non sequitur, which simply means “it does not follow.” This is when a conclusion does not follow from its premises. But I’ll show that the conclusions actually do follow from their premises. I’ll put the two arguments in the form of a syllogism to show that they are morally comparable.

Premise 1: If we don’t know when human life begins, the benefit of the doubt should go to life.
Premise 2: We don’t know when human life begins.
Conclusion: Therefore, the benefit of the doubt should go to life.

This is perfectly sound logic. It uses the form of modus ponens. 1) If P, then Q (or, P implies Q). P. Therefore, Q. Now, it’s actually not true that we don’t know when human life begins. The science of embryology has proven that human life begins at fertilization. But I’m assuming for the sake of argument that this isn’t true. I’ll now show that the argument from the condemned building is morally equivalent.

Premise 1: If we don’t know whether or not the unborn are living humans, we should not abort them.
Premise 2: We don’t know whether or not the unborn are living humans.
Conclusion: Therefore, we should not abort them.

Premise 1: If we don’t know if there is a living human in the condemned building, we should not blow it up.
Premise 2: We don’t know if there is a living human in the condemned building.
Conclusion: Therefore, we should not blow it up.

These are both perfectly valid and sound arguments, and they both are morally equivalent situations.

Next, he makes the claim that a baby is a born child, not an embryo or fetus. But a quick perusal of will show that one definition of baby is “a human fetus,” and one definition of child is “a human fetus.” So at most, you can only say that you shouldn’t refer to an embryo as a baby or child. However, there is certainly precedent for doing so. A pregnant woman is said to be “with child,” and even doctors will call an unborn child a baby. Embryo and fetus are merely early stages of development of a human being. This is like saying that teenagers aren’t children, they’re teenagers.

He claims that the embryo/fetus is only a “clump of cells,” but the reality is that Frederic and I both are just clumps of cells; we merely have more of them than the embryo/fetus does. Plus, it is simply incorrect to state that. Before the earliest surgical abortions, the embryo already begins to appear human. In fact, even though the early embryo doesn't "appear human," it does look exactly like a human does at that age. But it’s not appearance that makes a human inherently valuable so that we can’t kill it. If it were, Joseph Merrick (more commonly known as the Elephant Man) would not have been a valuable human with basic human rights. The unborn are living humans from fertilization, and due to their inherent value as rational, moral agents, they deserve basic human rights. The pro-life position is the inclusive view, and any pro-choice argument for establishing personhood at any other point in human development simply fails.

Now, embryos and fetuses do differ from us, but not in any morally relevant way. Frederic says that embryos and fetuses differ from us due to our consciousness and sentience, but he doesn’t actually tell us why these particular qualities bestow a right to life on us. In fact, as I have previously shown, if you accept these qualities to bestow basic human rights on a human, then humans are disqualified until after their first birthday. This is one reason why pro-choice philosophers like Peter Singer accept infanticide as morally permissible. So you would either have to accept infanticide, or reject these qualities as necessary for basic human rights. Plus, if you tie our basic human rights to an acquired property, then we lose our personhood whenever we lose that quality (for example, if consciousness is the quality, then we lose our personhood whenever we fall asleep, enter a reversible coma, or go under anesthesia so that it would be morally justifiable to kill us for any reason). Additionally, it is not the person who is inherently valuable in this case but the property. It would be morally justifiable to kill one human to bring about two humans who exhibit those properties.

Frederic begs the question by claiming that abortion is morally equivalent to stepping on an insect. But he doesn’t justify his claim that the unborn are no morally different than an insect. In fact, there are many things different that unborn humans have than insects. The unborn, while not having a present capacity for exercising consciousness or sentience, they do have the inherent capacity to fulfill these functions and will develop them if left on the natural course of development, unless something goes horribly wrong. As Christopher Kaczor notes: “ account of human flourishing allows us to identify and bemoan human mental handicap as a painful lack of flourishing. It is in virtue of an account of species-specific flourishing that we take it as a serious loss for them and the human community that mentally handicapped human beings cannot fully flourish as the kinds of beings that they are. A mentally disabled human being and a normal hedgehog are equally incapable of exercising distinctly human reasoning and freedom, but the handicap of the human is tragic while the rational incapacity of a hedgehog is inconsequential. The difference rests on the fact that the human, but not the hedgehog, cannot exercise his or her species-specific form of flourishing. Since even mentally handicapped human beings share in a species-specific form of flourishing ordered to the goods of rationality and freedom, they are human persons.” [1]

Frederic claims that the embryo's potential to develop more is “not an argument” because everything can become more (e.g. ants could become sentient). Ants cannot become sentient, except in science fiction. I would ask Frederic to justify how an ant could become sentient. It is not in an ant’s nature to become sentient. One could argue that you could transfer a human cerebellum into an ant (forgetting, of course, the size difference). But this wouldn’t be a sentient ant -- more accurately, the person whose cerebellum you transferred would now have a new body, the body of an ant.The fact of the matter is that level of development is irrelevant to a human’s right to life. Otherwise, anyone who is more developed would always have more of a right to life than those who are less developed, and could kill those who are less developed without moral justification.

Frederic makes the argument that becoming sentient is not always good, and reminds us that Hitler, Stalin, et al, were once fetuses that became sentient. I’ve never heard a pro-choice advocate make this argument. It usually comes from pro-life advocates, that abortion kills Beethovens and has possibly killed the next cure for cancer. The reality is this is just a lousy argument on either side. We have no way of knowing who each individual fetus will turn out to be. Plus, sure, we’ve killed Hitlers and Stalins through abortion, but we’ve also killed Beethovens and Einsteins. To say nothing of the fact that now Frederic finds himself in a different moral dilemma altogether: are we morally justified in punishing someone before they have actually committed a crime?

Frederic claims that pro-life advocates believe that everything we do is good. This isn’t true. We recognize there is evil in the world. We believe that humans, due to their inherent value, should not be harmed (up to and including being killed) without a morally justifiable reason. We believe that you can kill a rabid dog if it’s attacking you (or another human), because we agree that you are morally justified in killing someone in self-defense. This is why life-saving abortions (e.g. in ectopic pregnancies) are morally justified.

Killing anyone harms them. The philosophical definition of harm is “to leave someone worse off.” Killing anyone to get them out of a bad situation is no solution. You wouldn’t kill a two-year-old child because her mother is abusive, so you can’t justify abortion for the same reason. You simply remove the child from her mother’s home. Likewise, it is the height of irresponsibility to allow abortion for the possibility that her parents may be abusive. If they turn out to be abusive, you remove the child from the home. You don’t kill her. Also, there is no guarantee the child will grow up to be a psychopath (nor does Frederic provide any evidence that they do). I’ve known people from loving families who grew up to be troubled, and people in troubled homes who’ve grown up to be well-adjusted. We can’t know for sure how someone will turn out, despite (or because of) their home situation as a child.

Even if you look at it from a physical perspective, fetuses do feel pain. There is no scientific consensus on when this happens -- probably between 18 to 29 weeks, maybe sooner, maybe later. [2] But physical pain is not the only pain you can cause. Killing an unborn child leaves them worse off than allowing them to live. Showing that a fetus doesn’t feel pain only shows that it is better to kill a human early in prenatal life rather than later in life. This doesn’t show that you’re morally justified in killing an unborn child just because they can’t feel pain. As I have previously shown, the most reasonable time to place human personhood is at fertilization.

I agree that abortion should not be done casually. It should be a lot more rare than it is (although we would disagree on just how rare it should be). So we have some common ground here. But a lack of contraception is not grounds to have an abortion. Contraception is important because it is far better to prevent conception of a human than to kill it once it has been conceived (after all, you can’t harm something that is not yet in existence). Once a human has been conceived, though, lack of contraception is not a morally justifiable reason for abortion. Would you allow someone to kill their two-year-old child because their parents forgot to use protection when she was conceived?

Frederic also wrongly proclaims that Christians believe sex is only for reproduction. There are probably some very, very conservative Christians who believe this. But most Christians don’t. We do believe that reproduction is an important part of sex (after all, the first commandment from God to man was to “be fruitful and multiply!”). But it’s not the only part. In the New Testament, Paul tells us that when a couple is married, their body belongs to each other and to keep each other apart is only inviting sin into the lives of each person. Humans are sexual creatures and have these needs to be met. Paul also exhorts us to get married so that we don’t succumb to lust and sin through pre-marital (or adulterous) relations. Sex, like anything good, should be respected. But reproduction is not its only function although it is, arguably, its primary function.

Frederic outlines the appeal to nature fallacy. It is true that just because it does or does not happen in nature, doesn’t mean that we can do it. Nature is prescriptive (the way things are), not descriptive (the way things should be). So to say that animals don’t do it means that we shouldn’t either commits the fallacy of appeal to nature (although, I do think there are actually some animals that do abort their offspring). So again, appealing to nature as a model for our morality is fallacious.

Frederic mentions a common objection to the pro-life case, that the fetus is “part of the woman’s body.” This is patently false. The fetus is connected to the woman’s body, but is not a part of it. The fetus often has a different blood type than the mother, as well as having its own genetic code. Not to mention, if the fetus were simply a part of the mother’s body, you would have to say that every pregnant woman has four arms, four legs, two heads, two noses, four eyes, and roughly half the time, she has a penis and two testicles. And you could conceive a white embryo in a test tube, implant the embryo into a black woman, and the child would still be born white.

His claim that a fetus is not there is simply ridiculous. There is a physical entity present in the mother’s womb, the unborn human. In fact, embryos cannot survive without the woman’s body, but with technology the way it is, a fetus after about 22 weeks can be born and has a chance of surviving outside the woman’s body. Viability is not a good measure of humanity because with advances in technology viability changes. It’s a moving target.

So here’s the question: why is their dependency such an important matter? Why is it that the less developed embryo can be killed simply because she is dependent on the mother? What about children who are allergic to formula and must breastfeed by their own mother? Can she have the child killed because he is completely dependent on her? Do two-year-old children deserve less rights as humans than adults simply because they are less developed?

Yes, she can cut off her hand if she so chooses. But here Frederic is making a very elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes. Cut off your hand and the larger organism, you, continues to live and function. Your hand is a part of your body. You are an organism where each of your individual parts work together for the good of the whole. The unborn are the same. They are living human organisms, which direct their own development from within and all their parts work together for the good of the whole.

Frederic makes the case that you are essentially a "new you" every seven years because your cells die and replace themselves. But this is just not true. You may receive all new cells every seven years, but "you" do not change. You are still the same person you were seven years ago, over seven years ago, and when you were conceived. Who you are hasn't changed even though you receive new cells.

Saying that all pro-lifers should be vegetarians is a non-sequitur. I have already illustrated why humans (and unborn humans) are different from animals. In fact, this illustrates even further that we are different. I don’t know any pro-choice advocates who would support cannibalism, but I know many who would eat chicken. Humans and animals are different, and fetuses are unborn humans. Some pro-lifers are vegetarians but it’s not required for being pro-life. To be pro-life in the abortion issue is to believe that abortion should generally be illegal.

I have studied the abortion issue for about twelve years now, and I can say with all confidence that the pro-life position has the best evidence and arguments supporting it. Frederic’s assertion that pro-choicers just refute all pro-life arguments is simply ridiculous. The pro-life position is secure. The pro-choice advocates are the ones who constantly try and refine their arguments in a futile attempt to justify keeping abortion legal. I have read the best arguments on both sides, and the pro-choice side is simply lacking in explanatory power.

[1] Kaczor, Christopher, The Ethics of Abortion, Routledge, 2011, p. 101.

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