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.


April 25, 2006

Bad Arguments for Abortion

While it may be true that abortion advocacy is about crusading for desired "rights" and freedoms, reason be damned, it is true that they do offer various defenses for their position. Some of these may be well-framed and take a bit of work to unpack, but they are generally academic exercises that don't find their way into the typical "pro-choice" rally.

Most of the advocacy boils down to emotional heat and one-line slogans that lack even the resemblance of a sustainable argument. But since it seems gracious to assume that pro-choice defenders would like us to take the statements on their t-shirts and picket signs seriously, I think we are obliged to reply.

It's my choice

When you wish to portray your position in a positive light, the first thing you must do is give it an attractive name. While it might be accurate to call abortion advocates "those in favor of destroying fetuses if the mood and conditions warrant," this particular issue doesn't win many converts when graphically defined.

By contrast, "pro-choice" has a nice ring to it; everybody likes choice. Only an oppressive tyrant would be against people having freedom of choice in their lives. But choice is exactly not the point in this debate. It is only a feeble parry when thrusting at the heart of the issue. Let me demonstrate this with the following dialog:

Pro-Lifer (PL): "Are you in favor of Slavery?"

Pro-Choicer (PC): "Of course not!"

PL: "Do you mean that you are against my freedom of choice to own a slave?"

PC: "Are you crazy? I think slavery is wrong!"

PL: "But what about 'choice?' Don't I have a right to choose?"

It is insanely obvious that choice has nothing to do with this debate. We can only debate over choice where it relates to those things that are valid and available choices. The issue is not over the nasty pro-lifer's desire to take away freedom; it is about whether or not abortion is a morally legitimate act that one should be free to choose.

I have a right to privacy

Taken at face value, this claim seems to be suggesting that anything done in private is nobody else's business.

PL: "Do you think I should be free to shoot up heroin?"

PC: "Well, I don't think it's a good idea."

PL: "Hmm... Okay, can I beat my kids?"

PC: "Certainly not! I don't even care for spankings."

PL: "How about if I do it in private?"

PC: "That wouldn't make any difference. It's still wrong!"

You can only do in private what it is morally acceptable, neutral, or at least socially tolerable to do in general. Privacy does not sanctify an act, it only offers a context in which some acts are best practiced. Like "choice," the appeal to privacy is a feeble dodge of the real issue — that being the rights and personhood of the unborn.

The really astonishing thing is that "privacy" is the very grounding for the Roe vs Wade ruling on the constitutional right to abortion. Was there not a better basis for this law? If the question before the court were in regards to child abuse, would the debate be centered on the question of privacy?

It's my body, I can do what I want with it

This statement isn't even true on its surface. A woman cannot prostitute herself (in most states), do drugs, go nude publicly, or attempt suicide. But even if we could do whatever we want with our bodies, is it really true that an unborn child is just another part of the woman's body, like a thumb or spleen? If she's carrying a boy does she now have two heads, four arms, and a penis?

PL: "Can I destroy my child after he's been born?"

PC: "Of course not!"

PL: "What if he's still connected to me with the umbilical cord?"

PC: "... No, I don't think so."

PL: "As long as he's in the womb he's mine to kill?"

PC: "I don't like that way of putting it, but yeah, basically."

PL: "So being in the womb is important. Now, if he's born prematurely at 20 weeks that means I can't kill him, but if he's still in the womb at 9 1/2 months he's totally at my mercy, because he's still 'part of my body,' right?"

PC: "Well, I guess I'd have to say that."

PL: "So, arriving out of the birth canal magically transforms him from the equivalent of an appendix to a full rights-bearing person?"

This argument boils down to a legal technicality of control and ownership and simply ignores the issue of the worth and humanity of what the mother claims to own.

Every child should be a wanted child

This is certainly a nice idea toward which to work, but must we kill persons to meet the objective? I am reminded of the time I saw my daughter playing Sim Theme Park and I noticed her dropping occasional park guests into a lake to drown. When I asked her what she was doing she told me that she was eliminating the "unhappy" guests in order to get her park rating increased.

Even if we did eliminate all children of reluctant parents there is no guarantee that the "wanted" children would continue to be wanted.

PL: "What if I give birth to a child but fall on hard times after a year or two and don't want her anymore? Can I still kill her?"

PC: "No! That's a horrible thing to ask!"

PL: "But shouldn't my child be a wanted child?"

PC: "Yes, but you can't kill a child, just a fetus."

PL: "Ah, so the issue is the status and consequent rights of the unborn, not whether she's 'wanted,' as you claim."

This defense is pure pragmatism and ignores the possible "personhood" of the unborn child. Indeed, it seeks to work independently of that issue so as to prevail even if it could be said that the unborn is a fully recognized person. For this reason, the defense does too much work and could be equally used against a toddler or any other member of society that could be said to be "unwanted."

If you outlaw abortion then thousands of women will die in back alley, coat hanger abortions

This claim has become the icon of the pro-choice movement, but it turns out to be less of a defense and more of a threat of civil disobedience (and off-loading of blame for the collateral damage) if abortion advocates do not get their way.

PL: "So if abortion becomes illegal, are you saying that doctors will come after unwilling women with coat hangers?"

PC: "No, some pregnant women will be forced to go to secret, unsafe facilities to get abortions."

PL: "You mean they'll choose to disregard the law and voluntarily have those abortions anyway, in spite of the risks."

PC: "Yes, but you'll be making them risk their lives."

PL: "How can you say we'd be making them do that? We don't want them to have abortions. That's why we'd pass the laws to begin with."

PC: "But some women need these abortions and they're going to do it no matter what."

PL: "So you're saying that you are committed to abortion at all costs. Even if science told you your unborn was human, even if reason proved that she was a valuable human person, and even if society agreed that abortion was an evil action against which laws must be passed, then you'd continue to seek out abortions and you're going to blame us for the consequences of your own beliefs and actions?"

This defense is actually similar to that used for the legalization of drugs. If drugs are illegal, then the inevitable drug users will be forced to risk dirty needles, tainted drugs, and crippling prices. As the argument goes, we should legalize drugs to avoid these unacceptable consequences for those who will use drugs no matter what. Some may be compelled by the argument even in the case of drug use, but what if we apply it to robbing convenience stores? Aren't illegal, armed robberies dangerous for all involved? Of course it is absurd to suggest legalizing robbery, but I am merely applying the very same reasoning inferred in the "coat hanger" argument.

This kind of argument only begins to work if the thing being prohibited is small in comparison to the consequences of restricting it. Some actions are so egregious that they must be refused no matter what the effect upon those who are determined to do it. Pro-lifers claim that destroying unborn children is just such a thing, and therein lies the debate.

Stop the war on women

This is just slanderous. This implies that the pro-life movement is nothing more than a confederation of misogynist men. In case no one has noticed, there are women who are against abortion also, and pro-lifers are just as concerned with the substantial role that the fathers play in this drama. This issue isn't really about who happens to carry the child; it is about the child.

PL: "Why do you say that this is a war on women?"

PC: "You're interfering with a woman's right to choose."

PL: "So the father has no rights or responsibility in this at all? That seems pretty sexist."

PC: "He's not carrying the baby; it's the woman's body."

PL: "So if the man carried the baby, it would be none of your business, right? Would this turn into a 'war on men,' or would you then be unbiased enough to be able to talk about the morality of abortion?"

PC: "That's ridiculous! I don't have to answer absurd arguments!"

PL: "Okay, how about a more plausible scenario. What if the fetus were raised in a hi-tech incubator and pro-lifers denied you the option of unplugging it at will? Would you then claim that we had declared war on incubators?"

The issue is the issue. It is not about choice, privacy, consequences of non-conformity, or who's got the ball. It is about the humanity, value, and rights of unborn persons. All the signs and slogans are just so much posturing in avoidance of the real heart of the debate. Which leads one to ask: Are abortion advocates seeking to persuade or just to paint for war and howl battle cries?

(In a followup post I will explore bad arguments against abortion, and suggest some meaningful slogans for use by pro-life advocates.)


April 16, 2006

The Gospel of Judas - An Exercise in Proving Too Much

The much-hyped, recently discovered and translated "Gospel of Judas" has certainly given the Christian heresy hungry media fuel for their spin engines. But is there really anything that this manuscript can add to the critique of classical Christian? I suggest not, and taking this thing too seriously would actually be counterproductive to the stance of most skeptics.

The first thing to point out is that this is not an unknown piece of literature. It was referenced by Irenaeus around 180 AD, who wrote against it as an example of heretical Gnostic thinking. Having a copy of the document in our possession adds nothing to its authority. In fact, it only confirms its Gnostic character and demonstrates that Irenaeus was accurate in his assessment of it.

The second thing to note is that this manuscript dates to around 300 AD, and the original, from which it is assumed to originate, cannot be placed much before 180 AD. This hardly makes this "testimony" of Jesus a credible competitor to the canonical Gospels, which even most critical scholars place in the first century.

But let's pretend for the moment that the Gospel of Judas does represent a more authentic portrait of what Jesus was about and what Judas' role was in all this. Isn't this the idea being proposed? But if this is so, why stop at vindicating Judas as a good guy, why not look at what else this book claims Jesus taught as the truth about reality?

Let's just review a few excerpts from the so called Gospel of Judas.
The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week three days before he celebrated Passover.
Right off the bat this document distinguishes itself as Gnostic. Gnosticism teaches that there are deeper, hidden truths that only those in the know can comprehend or are worthy to receive. The mainstream Gospels document only the truth fit for the average man. Not a very egalitarian belief system, and kind of hard to falsify when it's based on sayings that are too private to make it into common oral and written tradition.
When Jesus appeared on earth, he performed miracles and great wonders for the salvation of humanity.
Uh oh, miracles and "salvation" talk. Even the Gnostics claim that Jesus was something beyond a merely inspired teacher. Liberals will have to look elsewhere for their support of the notion of a non-supernatural Jesus.
[Jesus] began to speak with them about the mysteries beyond the world and what would take place at the end. Often he did not appear to his disciples as himself, but he was found among them as a child.
This goes even beyond what the four Gospels teach regarding the humanity of Jesus. Gnosticism has real issues with a genuinely human Jesus, since it holds matter to be evil. Often I see the Gnostic competition of orthodox Christianity referenced as though it lends support for a more palatable Jesus. Certain Gnostic conceptions, such as our having the "divine spark," are attractive and the main point of focus, but what is forgotten in the shuffle is that the Gnostics did not craft a more human Jesus, they rejected His humanity and had Him fully divine. He might be described by some Gnostics more as a spirit having only the appearance of human form.
Judas [said] to him, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.”
The Gnostics had Jesus preexisting this earthly visitation and arriving from the heavens. In many essential points of data they agreed with the orthodox writings. It was often simply a matter of detail and interpretation of what that meant. For example, here they would differ on where and who Jesus was prior to being "sent" to earth and in what manner and form He was sent.
[Jesus said], “What are [the priests] like?”

They [said, “Some …] two weeks; [some] sacrifice their own children, others their wives, in praise [and] humility with each other; some sleep with men; some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness. And the men who stand [before] the altar invoke your [name], [39] and in all the deeds of their deficiency, the sacrifices are brought to completion […].”
Strong words against the priests! They seem to be committing sins and lawless deeds. Unfortunately, even this Gnostic writer has issues with men (the priests) sleeping with other men. No help here for the pro-homosexual crowd.
Jesus said, “[Come], that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen. . . . A great angel, the enlightened divine Self-Generated, emerged from the cloud. Because of him, four other angels came into being from another cloud, and they became attendants for the angelic Self-Generated. The Self-Generated said, [48] ‘Let […] come into being […],’ and it came into being […]. And he [created] the first luminary to reign over him. He said, ‘Let angels come into being to serve [him],’ and myriads without number came into being. He said, ‘[Let] an enlightened aeon come into being,’ and he came into being. He created the second luminary [to] reign over him, together with myriads of angels without number, to offer service. That is how he created the rest of the enlightened aeons. He made them reign over them, and he created for them myriads of angels without number, to assist them."
It goes on to discuss luminaries and angels creating more like themselves, with Christ (called Seth here) being somewhere down the chain, and that humans are merely the creation of one of the lower-order angels, Saklas. This metaphysic is no better than the Christian model for those who are inclined toward liberalism. It is far more convoluted, in fact, and demonstrates only the radical difference between the Gnostic and canon documents, which have Christ being eternal and co-creator of ALL things in the universe. Gnosticism isn't a "deeper" truth; it is a different truth.

So, what does this "Gospel" prove? I think the most that can be said of it is what was expressed in this National Geographic News article.
"To today's biblical scholars, the Gospel of Judas illustrates the multitude of opinions and beliefs in the early Christian church."
While this is certainly true, it is not as though diversity was previously unknown to informed Christians. One has only to read the Church Fathers to see their writings against the various heresies. But the early date of the canon Gospels, their apostolic pedigree, their overwhelming support by the global church, and the fact that even most heretics used them as their starting point makes the eventual rise and defeat of diversity a mere historical curiosity.

It is truly ironic that skeptics will receive with open arms even the most spurious and eccentric of materials while going above and beyond the normal means of discernment for anything that smacks of orthodoxy.


Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN