April 28, 2006

Life Begins at Conception

One of the comments on my last blog post (Bad Arguments for Abortion) had some good follow-up questions and thoughts, mostly in reaction to the pro-life belief that life begins at conception. I've lifted most of these comments and included my own responses below.

Are we really going to hew to the most restrictive definition [of personhood]: when egg meets sperm?
Restrictive? If you want the least "restrictive" definition why not say you can kill the child up until the time they move out of your house? "Restrictiveness" is not one of my moral criteria. Pro-lifers are looking for relevant biological and metaphysical factors. Conception is the point at which a distinctly human organism comes into being, i.e., unique DNA, self-directed growth, identity, being. Perhaps it will be helpful to ponder the question of when "you" came into being. Can you not say that you were once an embryo? Perhaps you simply believe that "you" are no more than a collection of properties, so you can be less you and more you over time, but there is no transcendent identity/entity that you can call "me." If you believe yourself to be more than a mere bag of properties (some can have more than others, which is a problem if you affirm human "equality"), then you need a point at which you can say that "I came into existence." Conception is a clear delineator, while things like viability are arbitrary and floating points, e.g., did you become "you" on day 140 or 141, and at what time?
I think most reasonable people would agree that there is at least a bright line at the point of viability. I think arguing much beyond that is probably treading in the sticky morass of morality.
It's easy to say what "most reasonable people" would think when you get to define what is "reasonable." Unfortunately, there is a large chunk of the population that thinks life begins at conception. Even Senator John Kerry says as much, but he doesn't follow through on the logical conclusions, meaning to me that he doesn't really believe it but he thinks it will win him support (which means that he knows there are a lot of people out there that do believe it).

Again, I think you understand that viability is a moving target with a lot of fudge factor, e.g., do we go by time (some babies, like twins, are "viable" much later); do we go by the ability to live without medical assistance; on what day and hour is it illegal vs. legal to terminate the child; how do we tell if they are viable when they are in the womb; etc.? And there ARE many people trying to argue for unrestricted abortion beyond the stage of viability. Unfortunately, many of these are people with very powerful voices. It is already a sticky morass simply because society has determined to make this up as we go along.
I'm not prepared to argue the case against eugenics for every moral system, but from what I understand of Social Contract theory, if society decides that viability is the bright line, then viability is the bright line. And I think any good philosopher/ethicist could destroy your contention of the slippery slope towards eugenics. Well, even I know that's a logical fallacy.
There is a difference between the slippery slope fallacy (SSF) and reductio ad absurdum (RA), which I am employing. The SSF is arguing that if one event is allowed to occur, then it increases the likelihood of a second, undesirable event to occur (though it is not an actual fallacy if a legitimate causal connection can be established). On the other hand, RA is a valid rhetorical device to demonstrate the "absurdity" of a particular idea. Where it fails to be effective is if the "ridiculous" conclusion being offered is not agreed to be ridiculous by the target of this tactic, e.g., if you thought eugenics was acceptable then my argument would fail.

I'm not saying that if we allow abortion to happen, then eugenics will definitely follow. I don't even need to go there, because abortion is already legal. I'm saying (perhaps not having phrased it in the best way) that your subjective, arbitrary measure of personhood is the same as that which is used by those who want to make post-birth humans into non-persons. It is philosophically the same ground tread by the Nazis and is being tread in our time in the Netherlands, and just happens to begin with terminating fetuses (which the public has the easiest time accepting). You may personally find "viability" to be a good hedge, but you have already admitted that your philosophical grounding is problematic, and it just so happens to be shared by people like Peter Singer, who thinks that monkeys are more "persons" than infants, and infants should have no legal right to life until some agreed upon number of weeks after birth.
I guess the question is, who gets to be the decider in a diverse society? I actually have an idea about that. The law. This is a country of laws, after all.
So law equals morality then? I guess if all us pesky conservatives can get abortion made illegal, you'd be just fine with that. Or does our vote not count because we have a "religious bias?"
I will agree that [life at conception] pretty much clears things up. Certainly gets that pesky "science" out of the way.
As far as I can tell, science is on my side here, i.e., life begins at conception. To disagree is merely to assume that your view of degreed personhood is indeed the measure of life. I don't think the question is really when "life" begins, but when rights should be granted to that life.
I'm not going to try to go into all the implications of this - but think about the humble blastocyst - a group of cells not yet implanted. Is this "human?" It stretches credulity to believe it to be so.
So, because you cannot conceive of the blastocyst being anything of intrinsic value, and you cannot make the mental connection between the blastocyst that you once were and the adult you are now, you are going to declare a scientific, philosophical, and religiously coherent view untenable? I suppose just because I cannot muster up the proper sense of grief and horror when thousands of people die of starvation in a distant country, I am justified in thinking that they are not valuable persons. (Hmm...not my best argument.) Please consider that it's possible that we can be emotionally unconvicted by something that is intellectually reasonable. Which leads to your next point.
If it *is* human, then it becomes a crime to destroy unused blastocysts resulting from fertility treatments. (For fun, we could play the "who do you save in the burning fertility clinic game - a thousand blastocysts, or one baby!")
Now you're catching on and you're beginning to understand the basis for the outrage over embryonic stem cell research, which requires the destruction of blastocysts. Perhaps you are thinking that it is ridiculous to think that all those "unused/surplus/unwanted" embryos are persons that we ought to care about and find homes for (and some are doing just that). This reductio ad absurdum argument will not work on me because I believe it is inappropriate to treat embryos as so much chattel. And the situation we're in does not vindicate the cause of that condition.

I think that a consistent application of the pro-life view would fail to produce unused embryos, and "unwanted" children as well. And the fact that one might inconsistently save a baby they see and know vs. a thousand blastocysts they have no attachment to does not negate the logic of the position.
I can't help thinking that abortion laws that allow women of means to get abortions while making it harder for poor women to get abortions are flawed, as they allow two standards.
Couldn't agree more. I'm not supporting the rich over the poor. Let's not take real or potential misapplications of laws as grounds for disputing the very basis of those laws.
I'd suggest considering public policy considerations, as well. If the laws are, as a practical matter, forcing poor women to have children - then doesn't social spending go up? Unless we aren't going to help maintain those children if their mothers can't. (I appreciate the irony that many of those in the pro-life camp are also in the cut social spending camp.) And to just let these children founder seems unethical and immoral.
This is social justice? You're suggesting we kill children for economic reasons? Why stop with fetuses; why not include toddlers and homeless adults too? Just think what we could do if we eliminated all the poor and indigent people in the country! Just think of the reduced taxes and healthcare costs! I'm sure you want constraints to your pragmatism. We're talking about what those constraints should be here. Since pro-lifers believe that the unborn are persons too, then any argument you use against them had best work against toddlers as well.

Perhaps if people are forced to live with the consequences of their actions, then those actions will change. If we just throw away the excess children of the poor, then we don't have to worry so much about why they have so many children with so many different fathers. And while I heartily agree that we should provide some means of care for the underprivileged, I think that the liberal solutions tend to be naïve and often the cause for further descent into poverty and reprobation (I'm not here to debate that though).

But the biggest irony of all is that liberals, who tend to have a very different grounding than I (if any) for their morality, have the audacity to assume that other people ought to give a fig about the poor by sacrificing time and money on their behalf. In your own words, that seems rather "restrictive" on one's own personal pursuit of happiness. And what reason can be given to care for others, no matter how humble, helpless, or small, that is not hollow platitude or self-serving? Especially if such persons have no intrinsic value beyond what the ruling class assigns to them.



At 5/01/2006 6:18 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Hi thought I would stop by. I must say that I am impressed by the standard of apologetics over the pond there. You and Sam certainly know how to fillet an argument.
I will come back to the abortion issue but I want to look into your archives first. I'll have a look at, hmmm, let me see, homosexuality first.

At 5/01/2006 8:44 PM, Blogger Roger Yang said...

Technically a fertility clinic is also immoral. Besides, we all know that abortion basically falls onto your definition of science. And since science really doesn't have a good effect on the definition, it's basically a philosophical conversation between the two.

Mind you, I'd rather not get into that messey debate (I partially support abortion. However, when the baby can sustain life on itself, I believe abortion should not be done).

MY question is, what happens if the child had a genetic disorder? For example, Tay Sachs? Would it then be moral to abort the baby?

At 5/02/2006 9:06 AM, Blogger Paul said...


Going for the juicy stuff first, eh? Proof that the issue of homosexuality is one of the primary fronts in the culture war.


First, you tell me what we should do with a post-birth infant, youth, or adult who contracts this disease?

At 5/02/2006 2:25 PM, Blogger Roger Yang said...

I'd bury them if they weren't buried already.

I'd probably have to start planning on a funeral.

At 5/02/2006 3:49 PM, Blogger Paul said...

You'll have to define "dead" first. And from what little I know about this particular disease, it doesn't immediately kill the patient. Do we then kill them before death arrives (if it always indeed does)?

At 5/03/2006 4:11 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Can’t help myself. *grin*

Who determines when life starts?

Science? (Which field?) A large chunk of the population?

At 5/03/2006 8:51 AM, Blogger Paul said...

That's a very good question and the very thing in dispute here. The pro-choice camp seems to be of the opinion that it is the mother who decides that question. Consequently, it is a matter of convenience and desire, not a matter of science or reason.

As far a science is concerned, I know that I had always been taught in my science classes that life begins at conception, and I believe that most academic texts say as much. It is only in the context of the discussion over reproductive rights and embryonic research that the issue is obfuscated. It is really the issue of "personhood" and the rights that are implied by that which is under dispute. It would be nice if we could at least admit this. Beyond that, I think maybe the underlying question is whether life has intrinsic value or whether its value is defined by the state.

At 5/04/2006 10:56 AM, Blogger Paul said...

What's going on over in the UK? I keep getting visitors from there arriving via web searches on strings like, "Christian view of when life begins."

At 5/04/2006 1:43 PM, Blogger Roger Yang said...

Tay Sachs, kills the person within I think...3 years tops?

It's a genetic malfunction of an enzyme which dissolves the building fat in your brain. The brain is basically crushed during growth.

Now, that seems like a hediously painful process. Why? Same reason why getting a spinal tap is incredibly painful. Your brain is a huge bundle of nerves. Imagine having a burning sensation in your brain, only getting worse and worse.

At 5/04/2006 2:06 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Which position are you taking: that parents wouldn't want such a burden, which avoids the issue of "personhood" for the child, or are you allowing that the child could have value and rights but that we might kill them anyways as an act of mercy?

At 5/06/2006 9:19 AM, Blogger Roger Yang said...

It would go both ways.


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