Why Abortions Are Still Wrong and Should be Illegal (Part One)

Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob recently published a book called Thinking Critically About Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal. The book was designed to teach people on both sides of the aisle, pro-life and pro-choice, how to have better conversations on the topic by pointing out bad arguments, showing why they are bad, and then showing better arguments that should be focused on. The authors then expounded what they believe to be better arguments against abortion and argued against them, then used arguments for abortion and used them to show why they believe most abortions are not wrong and why all of them should be legal. In this article series, I intend to show 1) that the authors’ arguments fail to show why most abortions aren’t wrong and they all should be legal, 2) they fail to interact with some of the best arguments against abortion, and 3) even in the arguments they do give, they present strawman versions of some of the pro-life arguments they examine, and even then they don’t succeed in refuting any of the arguments. Nobis and Grob’s book has been made available to read for free on-line here.



Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob (hereafter NG) have done a service to the abortion debate. I consider any book or article which seeks to advance the discussion on abortion to do a service, but specifically books that help teach critical thinking skills are greatly needed. As such, I commend NG’s desire to want to help people think critically on the issue so we stop hearing the bad arguments and focus primarily on the good ones. Their book is relatively short (being based on an article they wrote together), so it could easily be read in one afternoon.



I want to start out by showing my appreciation to NG for helping elevate the conversation above simple slogans and talking points. It’s an enterprise I wholeheartedly endorse and engage in, myself. However, aside from wanting to elevate the conversation on abortion, NG also attempt to show why most abortions are not wrong and why all abortions should be legal. Their book really starts to come apart here because they don’t provide compelling arguments for their conclusion and they attack a strawman of some pro-life arguments while not looking at some of the strongest pro-life arguments. I am going to attempt to support these claims by going through their book as briefly as I can.

1. Preface



In the preface of NG’s book, they claim their support for abortion rests on less-controversial claims: “adults, children and babies are wrong to kill and wrong to kill, fundamentally, because they, we, are conscious, aware and have feelings.” But this is a seriously controversial claim. Of course, the claim that adults and children are wrong to kill is pretty uncontroversial, but to claim it’s because they are conscious, aware, and have feelings is very controversial. Pro-life people ground a person’s right to life in their biological humanity, personhood, and/or underlying rational nature, and pro-life people are not a small subset of humanity. And considering that many philosophers view infanticide as morally permissible, their claim that babies are wrong to kill may also not be as uncontroversial as they think it is (although it should be).



NG go on to claim that even if fetuses have a right to life, it does not entail they have a right to someone else’s body. In most cases I would probably agree with that. However, I would argue that there are mitigating factors in pregnancy that do grant the fetus the right to use the woman’s body. So I would define “right to life” as a negative right not to be unjustly killed. Abortion would be an unjust killing of the fetus. Unfortunately NG rely on their own understanding of “right to life” in the debate rather than relying on how pro-life people commonly define that term.

2. Introduction and Defining “Abortion”



NG start off the book proper by trying to find some criterion by which we might want to make an act illegal. They claim that it’s not easy to do, but I would disagree with that claim. I think it is easy to do. If we understand that the role of government is to protect the natural rights of its citizens, then that gives us a pretty clear baseline to begin. Now obviously, not every single act may be cut and dry. It obviously takes some philosophical reflection to determine what our natural rights are and what sorts of acts violate those rights. But this makes the question of abortion an easy one, at least as to the legality of abortion. Does abortion violate the natural rights of the unborn? If the answer is yes, then abortion, like murder, ought to be illegal. If the answer is no, then abortion ought to be legal since preventing it would plausibly violate the natural rights of the woman who wishes to procure it. While NG didn’t come to a clear conclusion on the role of government, they are arguing that abortion should be legal because it is not immoral, and the government does not make moral acts illegal (or at least it does not make illegal acts which are not seriously or extremely immoral). That would be a miscarriage of justice.



So I disagree with their conception of government, and I’m also not convinced by their claim that it is a miscarriage of justice to make acts which are generally moral illegal. For example, Thailand and India recently made commercial surrogacy illegal because too many children were conceived and then abandoned by their biological parents. Now I would argue that commercial surrogacy is highly immoral, but even if you think it to be a moral practice, I don’t see how anyone could think Thailand or India to be wrong to outlaw it to protect children from being abandoned. But let’s just say NG are correct about this. I’ll accept those terms for the sake of examining their arguments.



NG continue on by wanting to define the term “abortion.” I agree that it’s always a good thing to start off by defining our terms. They present three definitions:



  1. An abortion is the murder of an unborn baby or child.
  2. An abortion is the intentional termination of a fetus to end a pregnancy.
  3. An abortion is the intentional killing of a fetus to end a pregnancy.



They reject the first two definitions and accept the third as the best.



Definition 1. They reject definition one on the grounds that it is basically question-begging; murder is obviously wrong, so if abortion is murder then it is also obviously wrong. But whether or not abortion is an act of murder is what is up for debate, so calling it murder without arguing for it begs the question at issue. I agree with their assessment here, and so I, too, would reject this first definition as problematic.



However, their discussion about whether or not fetuses count as “babies” or “children” is also problematic, and results in their first real egregious error in the book. They have three basic arguments against fetuses being babies: 1) The beginnings of something are usually not that thing (they use the examples of a pile of lumber and supplies not being a house and fabric, buttons, and thread not being a shirt); 2) If you do a Google image search for “babies” and “children”, and then “fetal development” and “embryonic development”, you’ll see that babies don’t come up for the latter two searches. So clearly they are not the same thing; and 3) If someone says they want a baby, they aren’t saying they want a month-old fetus. All three of these arguments have major problems.



Regarding the “beginnings” argument, it’s true that lumber and the house it builds are not the same thing and that thread and the shirt are not the same things. But here NG are confusing the concepts of active with passive potential. It’s true that the lumber is not the same thing as the house, but this is because that lumber could become anything. It could become a desk or a bookshelf instead of a house. And even if it becomes a house, there is nothing intrinsic in the lumber that causes the lumber to become a house. It requires an outside builder. Living things are not like artifacts. While artifacts (e.g. the house and the shirt) must be acted upon from the outside to become what it will become, living things don’t. A living thing is what it is from the beginning. So a human being is a human being at all stages of its development.



Despite what NG allege, “child” and “baby” are not stages of development. Even if we consider “babies” or “children” to simply be young humans, these encompass several stages of development. Not just the embryo and fetus stage, but also the infant, toddler, adolescent, and teenage (or “young adult”) stages of development. So arguing that things are not what they are from the beginning, aside from being mistaken in the case of living things, is also irrelevant to whether or not fetuses count as children. “Baby” and “child” are emotional terms. An adult is still a baby or child to his parents. When someone refers to a baby or a child, they are simply referring to one’s offspring, and a human fetus is certainly the offspring of the mother and father who contributed genetic material to the embryo that becomes the fetus.



Regarding the “images” argument, no, a two-year-old toddler will not appear at the top of a fetal development chart. In fact, this argument begs the question by assuming that fetuses and embryos are not children (if they are, then babies and children do, in fact, appear at the top of the chart). What NG seems to mean is that infants and toddlers don’t appear at the top of the chart, but why would they? These are later stages in development than the embryo and fetus stages.



Regarding the “I want a baby” argument, this is, in fact, what they are saying. If a woman tells her husband “I want a baby,” unless the couple knows they are infertile, she is not saying “let’s go to the adoption center and adopt a child.” She is telling her husband “I want you to get me pregnant.” So no, she is not saying “I want a month-old fetus” any more than she is saying “I want a two-year-old toddler,” since toddlers eventually grow out of the toddler stage and get older.



So to sum up, I do agree with NG about rejecting this definition of abortion because it relies on emotional appeals, even though I think their view about what “babies” and “children” are is mistaken.



Definition 2. NG reject definition two because of the word “termination”. The word “termination” is not informative so does not work well as a definition of abortion. There is also an issue with calling abortions necessarily “intentional,” but I’ll touch on that more in my examination of the third definition. To their credit, NG reject this definition because the word “termination” simply means to “end it in some way,” which is technically correct as abortion does end the development of the fetus. But it obscures the fact that something is killed in an abortion, which is why there is an ethical debate over it. Not all acts of killing are wrong, so we need to have a discussion over whether or not abortion is an act of wrongful killing or permissible killing. So the definition doesn’t work because “termination” is too vague a term. I agree with their rejection of this definition, also.



Definition 3. The third definition is the one NG likes best because, they say, it is “accurate, informative, and morally-neutral.” I agree that it is informative and morally-neutral, but I take issue with it being called accurate.



To the medical community abortions are not necessarily intentional. That’s why they call miscarriages “spontaneous abortions.” A woman who miscarries obviously did not intend to lose the life of her fetus but nevertheless it prematurely ended. This is why I tend to make distinctions between spontaneous abortions, elective abortions, and therapeutic abortions. I think this is a more specific and accurate way to understand abortions, at least if we’re going to keep in line with the medical community’s understanding of abortion. Now granted, NG did state as a caveat that “spontaneous abortions” are not intentional actions that can be judged morally; they just happen. And this is true, so NG are using “intentional” to indicate that these are abortions specifically caused by the woman and her abortion provider, not accidental cases of embryo or fetus loss. But again, even if this is their intention, it is still not accurate because if miscarriages are a type of abortion (as the medical community considers them), then their definition excludes miscarriages from the set of abortions, which is inaccurate. Plus, as some pro-life people have argued, life-saving abortions are not really abortions at all; they are life-saving medical procedures. This is because they also view abortions as intentional acts (and think the medical community is wrong for considering miscarriages a type of abortion, even spontaneous ones), and since in life-saving abortions the intention is to save the mother’s life, not to kill the embryo or fetus, these life-saving procedures are not actually abortions because the intention is not to kill the fetus to end the pregnancy, it’s to save the mother’s life. However, NG earlier stated that pro-life people even think abortions can be justified sometimes to save the woman’s life if her life is threatened. NG would have to agree that there is no inconsistency here if they insist on using this definition, as life-saving abortions would not count as abortions under their definition, since life-saving abortions are not “the intentional killing of a fetus to end a pregnancy.” The intention is not to kill the fetus to end the pregnancy; it’s to remove the fetus to save the mother’s life, such as using salpingectomy to resolve an ectopic pregnancy, which avoids directly killing the embryo, although the embryo’s death is an unfortunate foreseen consequence of the procedure.


This is why I tend to define abortion as “premature termination of a pregnancy with the result of the fetus’ death.” I think this is a more accurate and informative definition than even NG give, since it covers all the bases. I also think this is what most people tend to have in mind when they actually talk about abortions, even if they’re not quite sure how to articulate it. And this way, if we have a distinction between spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), therapeutic abortion (to save the mother’s life), and elective abortion (a procedure that is not medically indicated to save her life), only elective abortions would be morally problematic. A woman obviously should not be held responsible for a miscarriage beyond her control, nor should a woman be held responsible for a life-saving abortion if her life is in immediate jeopardy. But if her life is not immediately threatened, then having an abortion for any other reason makes her culpable for the act, even if not as culpable as the abortion practitioner who performs the abortion.



In the next part of this series, I’ll respond to NG’s chapter on fetal consciousness and facts of fetal development, and their chapter on bad arguments, if it doesn’t make the article too lengthy.

Why Abortions Are Still Wrong and Should be Illegal (Part One)

Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob recently published a book called Thinking Critically About Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal. The book was designed to teach people on both sides of the aisle, pro-life and pro-choice, how to have better conversations on the topic by pointing out bad arguments, showing why they are bad, and then showing better arguments that should be focused on. The authors then expounded what they believe to be better arguments against abortion and argued against them, then used arguments for abortion and used them to show why they believe most abortions are not wrong and why all of them should be legal. In this article series, I intend to show 1) that the authors’ arguments fail to show why most abortions aren’t wrong and they all should be legal, 2) they fail to interact with some of the best arguments against abortion, and 3) even in the arguments they do give, they present strawman versions of some of the pro-life arguments they examine, and even then they don’t succeed in refuting any of the arguments. Nobis and Grob’s book has been made available to read for free on-line here.



Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob (hereafter NG) have done a service to the abortion debate. I consider any book or article which seeks to advance the discussion on abortion to do a service, but specifically books that help teach critical thinking skills are greatly needed. As such, I commend NG’s desire to want to help people think critically on the issue so we stop hearing the bad arguments and focus primarily on the good ones. Their book is relatively short (being based on an article they wrote together), so it could easily be read in one afternoon.



I want to start out by showing my appreciation to NG for helping elevate the conversation above simple slogans and talking points. It’s an enterprise I wholeheartedly endorse and engage in, myself. However, aside from wanting to elevate the conversation on abortion, NG also attempt to show why most abortions are not wrong and why all abortions should be legal. Their book really starts to come apart here because they don’t provide compelling arguments for their conclusion and they attack a strawman of some pro-life arguments while not looking at some of the strongest pro-life arguments. I am going to attempt to support these claims by going through their book as briefly as I can.

1. Preface



In the preface of NG’s book, they claim their support for abortion rests on less-controversial claims: “adults, children and babies are wrong to kill and wrong to kill, fundamentally, because they, we, are conscious, aware and have feelings.” But this is a seriously controversial claim. Of course, the claim that adults and children are wrong to kill is pretty uncontroversial, but to claim it’s because they are conscious, aware, and have feelings is very controversial. Pro-life people ground a person’s right to life in their biological humanity, personhood, and/or underlying rational nature, and pro-life people are not a small subset of humanity. And considering that many philosophers view infanticide as morally permissible, their claim that babies are wrong to kill may also not be as uncontroversial as they think it is (although it should be).



NG go on to claim that even if fetuses have a right to life, it does not entail they have a right to someone else’s body. In most cases I would probably agree with that. However, I would argue that there are mitigating factors in pregnancy that do grant the fetus the right to use the woman’s body. So I would define “right to life” as a negative right not to be unjustly killed. Abortion would be an unjust killing of the fetus. Unfortunately NG rely on their own understanding of “right to life” in the debate rather than relying on how pro-life people commonly define that term.

2. Introduction and Defining “Abortion”



NG start off the book proper by trying to find some criterion by which we might want to make an act illegal. They claim that it’s not easy to do, but I would disagree with that claim. I think it is easy to do. If we understand that the role of government is to protect the natural rights of its citizens, then that gives us a pretty clear baseline to begin. Now obviously, not every single act may be cut and dry. It obviously takes some philosophical reflection to determine what our natural rights are and what sorts of acts violate those rights. But this makes the question of abortion an easy one, at least as to the legality of abortion. Does abortion violate the natural rights of the unborn? If the answer is yes, then abortion, like murder, ought to be illegal. If the answer is no, then abortion ought to be legal since preventing it would plausibly violate the natural rights of the woman who wishes to procure it. While NG didn’t come to a clear conclusion on the role of government, they are arguing that abortion should be legal because it is not immoral, and the government does not make moral acts illegal (or at least it does not make illegal acts which are not seriously or extremely immoral). That would be a miscarriage of justice.



So I disagree with their conception of government, and I’m also not convinced by their claim that it is a miscarriage of justice to make acts which are generally moral illegal. For example, Thailand and India recently made commercial surrogacy illegal because too many children were conceived and then abandoned by their biological parents. Now I would argue that commercial surrogacy is highly immoral, but even if you think it to be a moral practice, I don’t see how anyone could think Thailand or India to be wrong to outlaw it to protect children from being abandoned. But let’s just say NG are correct about this. I’ll accept those terms for the sake of examining their arguments.



NG continue on by wanting to define the term “abortion.” I agree that it’s always a good thing to start off by defining our terms. They present three definitions:



  1. An abortion is the murder of an unborn baby or child.
  2. An abortion is the intentional termination of a fetus to end a pregnancy.
  3. An abortion is the intentional killing of a fetus to end a pregnancy.



They reject the first two definitions and accept the third as the best.



Definition 1. They reject definition one on the grounds that it is basically question-begging; murder is obviously wrong, so if abortion is murder then it is also obviously wrong. But whether or not abortion is an act of murder is what is up for debate, so calling it murder without arguing for it begs the question at issue. I agree with their assessment here, and so I, too, would reject this first definition as problematic.



However, their discussion about whether or not fetuses count as “babies” or “children” is also problematic, and results in their first real egregious error in the book. They have three basic arguments against fetuses being babies: 1) The beginnings of something are usually not that thing (they use the examples of a pile of lumber and supplies not being a house and fabric, buttons, and thread not being a shirt); 2) If you do a Google image search for “babies” and “children”, and then “fetal development” and “embryonic development”, you’ll see that babies don’t come up for the latter two searches. So clearly they are not the same thing; and 3) If someone says they want a baby, they aren’t saying they want a month-old fetus. All three of these arguments have major problems.



Regarding the “beginnings” argument, it’s true that lumber and the house it builds are not the same thing and that thread and the shirt are not the same things. But here NG are confusing the concepts of active with passive potential. It’s true that the lumber is not the same thing as the house, but this is because that lumber could become anything. It could become a desk or a bookshelf instead of a house. And even if it becomes a house, there is nothing intrinsic in the lumber that causes the lumber to become a house. It requires an outside builder. Living things are not like artifacts. While artifacts (e.g. the house and the shirt) must be acted upon from the outside to become what it will become, living things don’t. A living thing is what it is from the beginning. So a human being is a human being at all stages of its development.



Despite what NG allege, “child” and “baby” are not stages of development. Even if we consider “babies” or “children” to simply be young humans, these encompass several stages of development. Not just the embryo and fetus stage, but also the infant, toddler, adolescent, and teenage (or “young adult”) stages of development. So arguing that things are not what they are from the beginning, aside from being mistaken in the case of living things, is also irrelevant to whether or not fetuses count as children. “Baby” and “child” are emotional terms. An adult is still a baby or child to his parents. When someone refers to a baby or a child, they are simply referring to one’s offspring, and a human fetus is certainly the offspring of the mother and father who contributed genetic material to the embryo that becomes the fetus.



Regarding the “images” argument, no, a two-year-old toddler will not appear at the top of a fetal development chart. In fact, this argument begs the question by assuming that fetuses and embryos are not children (if they are, then babies and children do, in fact, appear at the top of the chart). What NG seems to mean is that infants and toddlers don’t appear at the top of the chart, but why would they? These are later stages in development than the embryo and fetus stages.



Regarding the “I want a baby” argument, this is, in fact, what they are saying. If a woman tells her husband “I want a baby,” unless the couple knows they are infertile, she is not saying “let’s go to the adoption center and adopt a child.” She is telling her husband “I want you to get me pregnant.” So no, she is not saying “I want a month-old fetus” any more than she is saying “I want a two-year-old toddler,” since toddlers eventually grow out of the toddler stage and get older.



So to sum up, I do agree with NG about rejecting this definition of abortion because it relies on emotional appeals, even though I think their view about what “babies” and “children” are is mistaken.



Definition 2. NG reject definition two because of the word “termination”. The word “termination” is not informative so does not work well as a definition of abortion. There is also an issue with calling abortions necessarily “intentional,” but I’ll touch on that more in my examination of the third definition. To their credit, NG reject this definition because the word “termination” simply means to “end it in some way,” which is technically correct as abortion does end the development of the fetus. But it obscures the fact that something is killed in an abortion, which is why there is an ethical debate over it. Not all acts of killing are wrong, so we need to have a discussion over whether or not abortion is an act of wrongful killing or permissible killing. So the definition doesn’t work because “termination” is too vague a term. I agree with their rejection of this definition, also.



Definition 3. The third definition is the one NG likes best because, they say, it is “accurate, informative, and morally-neutral.” I agree that it is informative and morally-neutral, but I take issue with it being called accurate.



To the medical community abortions are not necessarily intentional. That’s why they call miscarriages “spontaneous abortions.” A woman who miscarries obviously did not intend to lose the life of her fetus but nevertheless it prematurely ended. This is why I tend to make distinctions between spontaneous abortions, elective abortions, and therapeutic abortions. I think this is a more specific and accurate way to understand abortions, at least if we’re going to keep in line with the medical community’s understanding of abortion. Now granted, NG did state as a caveat that “spontaneous abortions” are not intentional actions that can be judged morally; they just happen. And this is true, so NG are using “intentional” to indicate that these are abortions specifically caused by the woman and her abortion provider, not accidental cases of embryo or fetus loss. But again, even if this is their intention, it is still not accurate because if miscarriages are a type of abortion (as the medical community considers them), then their definition excludes miscarriages from the set of abortions, which is inaccurate. Plus, as some pro-life people have argued, life-saving abortions are not really abortions at all; they are life-saving medical procedures. This is because they also view abortions as intentional acts (and think the medical community is wrong for considering miscarriages a type of abortion, even spontaneous ones), and since in life-saving abortions the intention is to save the mother’s life, not to kill the embryo or fetus, these life-saving procedures are not actually abortions because the intention is not to kill the fetus to end the pregnancy, it’s to save the mother’s life. However, NG earlier stated that pro-life people even think abortions can be justified sometimes to save the woman’s life if her life is threatened. NG would have to agree that there is no inconsistency here if they insist on using this definition, as life-saving abortions would not count as abortions under their definition, since life-saving abortions are not “the intentional killing of a fetus to end a pregnancy.” The intention is not to kill the fetus to end the pregnancy; it’s to remove the fetus to save the mother’s life, such as using salpingectomy to resolve an ectopic pregnancy, which avoids directly killing the embryo, although the embryo’s death is an unfortunate foreseen consequence of the procedure.


This is why I tend to define abortion as “premature termination of a pregnancy with the result of the fetus’ death.” I think this is a more accurate and informative definition than even NG give, since it covers all the bases. I also think this is what most people tend to have in mind when they actually talk about abortions, even if they’re not quite sure how to articulate it. And this way, if we have a distinction between spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), therapeutic abortion (to save the mother’s life), and elective abortion (a procedure that is not medically indicated to save her life), only elective abortions would be morally problematic. A woman obviously should not be held responsible for a miscarriage beyond her control, nor should a woman be held responsible for a life-saving abortion if her life is in immediate jeopardy. But if her life is not immediately threatened, then having an abortion for any other reason makes her culpable for the act, even if not as culpable as the abortion practitioner who performs the abortion.



In the next part of this series, I’ll respond to NG’s chapter on fetal consciousness and facts of fetal development, and their chapter on bad arguments, if it doesn’t make the article too lengthy.

Are Human Embryos Human Beings from the Beginning?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Pro-choice advocates will insist that the human embryo doesn’t become a human being until birth or at least sometime late in pregnancy. Pro-life people generally agree with the scientific consensus that human life begins at fertilization; once the ovum cell is fertilized by the sperm cell, a new, genetically distinct human organism comes into existence. But I sometimes come across pro-life advocates who believe human life begins at implantation or around that time, not at fertilization.

As an example, Don Marquis, famous for his essay “Why Abortion is Immoral”, believes the view that human life begins at fertilization to have serious problems (“Abortion and the Beginning and End of Human Life”, Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics 34 (1): 16-25 (2006)). His view of personal identity is animalism (aka the biological view of personal identity), which Eric T. Olson argues convincingly for in his books and articles. But Olson, despite believing we are essentially animals and are identical to the embryo as long as we are biologically continuous with it (in other words, as
long as the embryo develops into me in a continuous fashion), does not believe we are identical to the embryo at the single-cell zygote stage for this reason: he believes human beings become individuals after the potential for twinning is lost. Olson writes:

According to the Biological View, I started out as an embryo. Does that mean that I came into existence at the moment of conception? Not necessarily. The Biological View implies that I came into being whenever this human organism did. But it is unlikely that this human organism came into being at conception — that is, that it started out as a fertilized egg. When a fertilized egg cleaves into two, then four, then eight cells, it does not appear to become a multicellular organism — any more than an amoeba comes to be a multicellular organism when it divides. The resulting cells adhere only loosely, and their growth and other activities are not, at first anyway, coordinated in a way that would make them parts of a multicellular organism. The embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization. (Eric T. Olson, “Was I Ever a Fetus?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 57 (1), 95-110, 1997)

Pro-choice philosopher Peter Singer and embryologist Karen Dawson, in an attempt to argue embryonic stem cell research should be pursued, argue an embryo created in a lab is not a human being because it lacks the potential to grow into an older human being on its own. An embryo in a petri dish can survive for about five days and then it will die if not implanted into a uterus. They write,

But can the familiar claims about the potential of the embryo in the uterus be applied to the embryo in culture in the laboratory? Or does the new technology lead to an embryo with a different potential from that of embryos made in the old way? Asking this question leads us to probe the meaning of the term ‘potential’…While the notion of potential may be relatively clear in the context of a naturally occurring process such as the development of an embryo inside a female body, this notion becomes far more problematic when it is extended to a laboratory situation, in which everything depends on our knowledge and skills, and on what we decide to do. This line of argument will lead us to the conclusion that there is no coherent notion of potential which allows the argument from potential to be applied to embryos in laboratories in the way in which those who invoke the argument are seeking to apply it. (Peter Singer and Karen Dawson, “IVF Technology and the Argument from Potential”in Embryo Experimentation: Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues, ed. Peter Singer, et al (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 76-77, as quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics, (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2000) p. 270)

Still other people, even some pro-life advocates I’ve talked with, believe that we shouldn’t consider an embryo at fertilization a human being because it can grow into things which aren’t humans, such as an empty sack or a tumor.

All three of these arguments are seriously flawed and reflect a faulty understanding of how human development works. I’ll briefly reply to each argument in turn below.

Olson


Olson believes that the embryo at its earliest stages is not an organism, but rather the organism exists as a unified whole at around sixteen days after fertilization. Now despite the fact that all embryology textbooks place the start of the organism at fertilization and not at any point after that, occasionally you’ll still have people arguing that it’s not an organized individual until after that point. Olson is simply wrong when he says that the embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization because the entire field of embryology would disagree with him.

He compares the early embryo to an amoeba; as an amoeba does not become a multicellular organism when it divides, neither does the early embryo. But here, Olson is making the same kind of elementary mistake that a pro-choice advocate makes when they assert that sperm and ovum cells are alive but we don’t grant them a right to life, so the embryo doesn’t have a right to life. Olson is confusing the parts of the embryo (the cells) with the whole embryo, itself. An amoeba, by definition, is a unicellular being. So when it divides it only divides into other unicellular beings. And of course, some early embryos have the potential to split when they become twins, and two individuals will exist instead of just one as was the case before the split. So twinning is more comparable to the amoeba splitting. The cells of the embryo dividing are not comparable to the amoeba splitting because these are the cells of the embryo which are dividing while the embryo remains the same kind of thing it has been since day one — a human embryo, whose cells divide because it is in the nature of human beings to grow and develop.

Olson’s other point is that the cells of the embryo are not coordinated in a way that would make them parts of a multicellular organism but only loosely adhere to each other. This is a fairly common claim you hear but it’s simply wrong. Olson is misrepresenting the facts of embryology here. Developmental biologist Michael Buratovich addresses this argument. He writes,

The embryo…prepares for future events. For example, at the two-cell stage, the blastomeres synthesize a cell adhesion protein called E-cadherin. E-cadherin acts like cellular superglue, and the two-cell stage embryo makes it in anticipation of compaction, which occurs two days later. (Michael Buratovich, The Stem Cell Epistles: Letters to My Students About Bioethics, Embryos, Stem Cells, and Fertility Treatments, (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR, 2013), p. 58.)

He also shows, referencing philosophers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, that this idea of Olson’s ignores the goal-directed behaviors of the embryo. There are at least three goals of the embryo: get to the uterus and implant, form the structures necessary for successful implantation, and preserve its structure against the many hazards it might encounter. (Buratovich, ibid.) So the early embryo is still a coordinated whole organism, even at the very early stages of development. Olson is mistaken about the facts of embryology.

Singer and Dawson


Singer and Dawson (hereafter SD) argue that because the embryo conceived in a laboratory is completely dependent upon what we do to it, on our knowledge and skills, this means that the potential of an embryo created in a lab is wholly different from an embryo conceived naturally. But this dubious conclusion they draw from the unique circumstances of the conception of an embryo created in a lab relies on a faulty understanding of potential.

It should be quite obvious that SD’s argument is simply a more sophisticated version of the viability argument. The argument is essentially because an embryo is not viable in a petri dish in a lab, creating an embryo in a lab means that it does not have the same kinds of potential as one who is conceived naturally and relies on the natural processes of the mother’s body. But this shows no such thing. As happens quite often, embryos created in a lab can be implanted into a woman’s uterus and then will continue to develop normally, as if they had been conceived naturally in the woman’s Fallopian tube. This shows clearly that the embryo created in the lab has the same kinds of potentialities that an embryo conceived naturally does. It just will not continue to develop because it is not in an environment in which it can survive. An astronaut on a spacewalk or a deep sea diver swimming in the depths of the ocean are both completely dependent on our knowledge and skills to survive, on the technology they use to survive in those harsh environments. But this certainly wouldn’t justify a view that because they are now in environments in which they can’t ordinarily survive they suddenly have lost the potentialities that other human beings their age possess. In fact, it would be absurd to make that argument. Embryos created in a lab have the same potentialities because they are the same kind of entities — human beings.

Miscellaneous


The final argument I will address is the argument that human life doesn’t begin at fertilization because the embryo can simply grow into an empty sac, or some other kind of entity like a hydatidiform mole. But this argument doesn’t work, either. Whatever is human is human from the very beginning. It’s not the case that a human embryo will develop into an empty sac or a mole. If the entity in the womb is an empty sac or a mole, then it was always an empty sac or a mole. We just weren’t able to detect what it was yet. Even so, an embryo is an embryo from the very beginning, even if we can’t know for sure that it’s an embryo until later on, when the pregnancy can be detected.

Maureen Condic explains it like this,

…it is important to appreciate that simply because two living entities share some common elements or overlap in a sequence of biochemical events, they are not necessarily the same kind of entity.

Distinct biological entities that share some initial molecular events are similar to two musical works that begin with the same notes…For example, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The alphabet song” are identical until the fourth measure, yet they are distinct (albeit, very similar) songs. While listening to a CD recording, it would be impossible to determine which work is being performed until the first distinguishing note is heard, yet once this point is past, all prior notes provide clear evidence that a particular song was indeed recorded on the CD and was being played out from the first note. The CD does not begin playing random notes that resolve into a specific song, nor does it begin with one song and later “transform” into the other, nor does it begin playing “both” or “neither” song until the first distinguishing note is produced. From the beginning, it plays the single, specific song that is recorded on the CD. Indeed, prior to the CD being played, a sufficiently detailed examination of the recording (for example, analyzing the data encoded on the disc using a scanning probe atomic force microscope) would determine the precise song it contains without any ambiguity. (Maureen L. Condic, “A Biological Definition of the Human Embryo” in Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, ed. Stephen Napier, (Springer Publishing, Philadelphia, PA, 2011), p. 216, emphases in original)

It’s just simply not the case that the embryo will develop into something non-human later on. A human embryo exists from the beginning, even if we don’t have the ability to tell what it is from that point.

These are not the only arguments I’ve seen for why life doesn’t begin at fertilization, at least in some cases, but instead at implantation (or sometime near). But these are, I think, three of the most persuasive arguments for the position. As I have shown here, each of the arguments rely on fundamental misunderstandings of some element of human development, whether it’s the biological aspects or the philosophical aspects. Once those misunderstandings are resolved, it remains clear that human life does indeed begin at fertilization.

Are Human Embryos Human Beings from the Beginning?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Pro-choice advocates will insist that the human embryo doesn’t become a human being until birth or at least sometime late in pregnancy. Pro-life people generally agree with the scientific consensus that human life begins at fertilization; once the ovum cell is fertilized by the sperm cell, a new, genetically distinct human organism comes into existence. But I sometimes come across pro-life advocates who believe human life begins at implantation or around that time, not at fertilization.

As an example, Don Marquis, famous for his essay “Why Abortion is Immoral”, believes the view that human life begins at fertilization to have serious problems (“Abortion and the Beginning and End of Human Life”, Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics 34 (1): 16-25 (2006)). His view of personal identity is animalism (aka the biological view of personal identity), which Eric T. Olson argues convincingly for in his books and articles. But Olson, despite believing we are essentially animals and are identical to the embryo as long as we are biologically continuous with it (in other words, as
long as the embryo develops into me in a continuous fashion), does not believe we are identical to the embryo at the single-cell zygote stage for this reason: he believes human beings become individuals after the potential for twinning is lost. Olson writes:

According to the Biological View, I started out as an embryo. Does that mean that I came into existence at the moment of conception? Not necessarily. The Biological View implies that I came into being whenever this human organism did. But it is unlikely that this human organism came into being at conception — that is, that it started out as a fertilized egg. When a fertilized egg cleaves into two, then four, then eight cells, it does not appear to become a multicellular organism — any more than an amoeba comes to be a multicellular organism when it divides. The resulting cells adhere only loosely, and their growth and other activities are not, at first anyway, coordinated in a way that would make them parts of a multicellular organism. The embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization. (Eric T. Olson, “Was I Ever a Fetus?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 57 (1), 95-110, 1997)

Pro-choice philosopher Peter Singer and embryologist Karen Dawson, in an attempt to argue embryonic stem cell research should be pursued, argue an embryo created in a lab is not a human being because it lacks the potential to grow into an older human being on its own. An embryo in a petri dish can survive for about five days and then it will die if not implanted into a uterus. They write,

But can the familiar claims about the potential of the embryo in the uterus be applied to the embryo in culture in the laboratory? Or does the new technology lead to an embryo with a different potential from that of embryos made in the old way? Asking this question leads us to probe the meaning of the term ‘potential’…While the notion of potential may be relatively clear in the context of a naturally occurring process such as the development of an embryo inside a female body, this notion becomes far more problematic when it is extended to a laboratory situation, in which everything depends on our knowledge and skills, and on what we decide to do. This line of argument will lead us to the conclusion that there is no coherent notion of potential which allows the argument from potential to be applied to embryos in laboratories in the way in which those who invoke the argument are seeking to apply it. (Peter Singer and Karen Dawson, “IVF Technology and the Argument from Potential”in Embryo Experimentation: Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues, ed. Peter Singer, et al (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 76-77, as quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics, (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2000) p. 270)

Still other people, even some pro-life advocates I’ve talked with, believe that we shouldn’t consider an embryo at fertilization a human being because it can grow into things which aren’t humans, such as an empty sack or a tumor.

All three of these arguments are seriously flawed and reflect a faulty understanding of how human development works. I’ll briefly reply to each argument in turn below.

Olson


Olson believes that the embryo at its earliest stages is not an organism, but rather the organism exists as a unified whole at around sixteen days after fertilization. Now despite the fact that all embryology textbooks place the start of the organism at fertilization and not at any point after that, occasionally you’ll still have people arguing that it’s not an organized individual until after that point. Olson is simply wrong when he says that the embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization because the entire field of embryology would disagree with him.

He compares the early embryo to an amoeba; as an amoeba does not become a multicellular organism when it divides, neither does the early embryo. But here, Olson is making the same kind of elementary mistake that a pro-choice advocate makes when they assert that sperm and ovum cells are alive but we don’t grant them a right to life, so the embryo doesn’t have a right to life. Olson is confusing the parts of the embryo (the cells) with the whole embryo, itself. An amoeba, by definition, is a unicellular being. So when it divides it only divides into other unicellular beings. And of course, some early embryos have the potential to split when they become twins, and two individuals will exist instead of just one as was the case before the split. So twinning is more comparable to the amoeba splitting. The cells of the embryo dividing are not comparable to the amoeba splitting because these are the cells of the embryo which are dividing while the embryo remains the same kind of thing it has been since day one — a human embryo, whose cells divide because it is in the nature of human beings to grow and develop.

Olson’s other point is that the cells of the embryo are not coordinated in a way that would make them parts of a multicellular organism but only loosely adhere to each other. This is a fairly common claim you hear but it’s simply wrong. Olson is misrepresenting the facts of embryology here. Developmental biologist Michael Buratovich addresses this argument. He writes,

The embryo…prepares for future events. For example, at the two-cell stage, the blastomeres synthesize a cell adhesion protein called E-cadherin. E-cadherin acts like cellular superglue, and the two-cell stage embryo makes it in anticipation of compaction, which occurs two days later. (Michael Buratovich, The Stem Cell Epistles: Letters to My Students About Bioethics, Embryos, Stem Cells, and Fertility Treatments, (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR, 2013), p. 58.)

He also shows, referencing philosophers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, that this idea of Olson’s ignores the goal-directed behaviors of the embryo. There are at least three goals of the embryo: get to the uterus and implant, form the structures necessary for successful implantation, and preserve its structure against the many hazards it might encounter. (Buratovich, ibid.) So the early embryo is still a coordinated whole organism, even at the very early stages of development. Olson is mistaken about the facts of embryology.

Singer and Dawson


Singer and Dawson (hereafter SD) argue that because the embryo conceived in a laboratory is completely dependent upon what we do to it, on our knowledge and skills, this means that the potential of an embryo created in a lab is wholly different from an embryo conceived naturally. But this dubious conclusion they draw from the unique circumstances of the conception of an embryo created in a lab relies on a faulty understanding of potential.

It should be quite obvious that SD’s argument is simply a more sophisticated version of the viability argument. The argument is essentially because an embryo is not viable in a petri dish in a lab, creating an embryo in a lab means that it does not have the same kinds of potential as one who is conceived naturally and relies on the natural processes of the mother’s body. But this shows no such thing. As happens quite often, embryos created in a lab can be implanted into a woman’s uterus and then will continue to develop normally, as if they had been conceived naturally in the woman’s Fallopian tube. This shows clearly that the embryo created in the lab has the same kinds of potentialities that an embryo conceived naturally does. It just will not continue to develop because it is not in an environment in which it can survive. An astronaut on a spacewalk or a deep sea diver swimming in the depths of the ocean are both completely dependent on our knowledge and skills to survive, on the technology they use to survive in those harsh environments. But this certainly wouldn’t justify a view that because they are now in environments in which they can’t ordinarily survive they suddenly have lost the potentialities that other human beings their age possess. In fact, it would be absurd to make that argument. Embryos created in a lab have the same potentialities because they are the same kind of entities — human beings.

Miscellaneous


The final argument I will address is the argument that human life doesn’t begin at fertilization because the embryo can simply grow into an empty sac, or some other kind of entity like a hydatidiform mole. But this argument doesn’t work, either. Whatever is human is human from the very beginning. It’s not the case that a human embryo will develop into an empty sac or a mole. If the entity in the womb is an empty sac or a mole, then it was always an empty sac or a mole. We just weren’t able to detect what it was yet. Even so, an embryo is an embryo from the very beginning, even if we can’t know for sure that it’s an embryo until later on, when the pregnancy can be detected.

Maureen Condic explains it like this,

…it is important to appreciate that simply because two living entities share some common elements or overlap in a sequence of biochemical events, they are not necessarily the same kind of entity.

Distinct biological entities that share some initial molecular events are similar to two musical works that begin with the same notes…For example, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The alphabet song” are identical until the fourth measure, yet they are distinct (albeit, very similar) songs. While listening to a CD recording, it would be impossible to determine which work is being performed until the first distinguishing note is heard, yet once this point is past, all prior notes provide clear evidence that a particular song was indeed recorded on the CD and was being played out from the first note. The CD does not begin playing random notes that resolve into a specific song, nor does it begin with one song and later “transform” into the other, nor does it begin playing “both” or “neither” song until the first distinguishing note is produced. From the beginning, it plays the single, specific song that is recorded on the CD. Indeed, prior to the CD being played, a sufficiently detailed examination of the recording (for example, analyzing the data encoded on the disc using a scanning probe atomic force microscope) would determine the precise song it contains without any ambiguity. (Maureen L. Condic, “A Biological Definition of the Human Embryo” in Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, ed. Stephen Napier, (Springer Publishing, Philadelphia, PA, 2011), p. 216, emphases in original)

It’s just simply not the case that the embryo will develop into something non-human later on. A human embryo exists from the beginning, even if we don’t have the ability to tell what it is from that point.

These are not the only arguments I’ve seen for why life doesn’t begin at fertilization, at least in some cases, but instead at implantation (or sometime near). But these are, I think, three of the most persuasive arguments for the position. As I have shown here, each of the arguments rely on fundamental misunderstandings of some element of human development, whether it’s the biological aspects or the philosophical aspects. Once those misunderstandings are resolved, it remains clear that human life does indeed begin at fertilization.

The Sorites Paradox as it Pertains to Personhood

My friend and pro-life mentor Steve Wagner introduced me to an article by Lee F. Kerckhove and Sara Waller (hereafter, K&W) called “Fetal Personhood and the Sorites Paradox.” [1] It’s not an argument I’ve seen very often but it was recently expounded by Kate Greasley in her book Arguments About Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and the Law. However, K&W and Greasley actually argue in different ways, so I will address both of their respective arguments in turn and I will show how the pro-life concept of personhood avoids falling into the trap of the sorites paradox that each respective thinker charges it with. As my first response here has gotten sort of lengthy, I will respond to K&W’s arguments in this article and respond to Greasley in a future article.

The word “sorites” comes from the Greek word for “heap,” so-called because it comes from an ancient philosophical puzzle. Suppose you have a heap of sand in front of you. That heap could be made up of 2,000 grains of sand. If you take one grain of sand away, then you are left with 1,999 grains of sand — but the pile of sand is still a heap. Suppose you keep taking grains of sand away. At what point does the heap of sand become a non-heap? Or looked at from the opposite direction, one grain of sand is not a heap. If you add another grain of sand to have two grains of sand, you still would not have a heap. Now suppose you keep adding grains of sand. At what point did the grains of sand go from non-heap to heap? Is there any point at which we could plausibly point to and say, “there. That grain of sand turned it into a heap?” It doesn’t seem we can.

There is also a well-known fallacy called the continuum fallacy (alternatively, the fallacy of the heap or fallacy of the beard). This fallacy is committed when one looks at a vague continuum of states and argues that because there is such a continuum, that one cannot plausibly choose a point at which the vagueness is resolved. For example, a man growing a beard goes through a continuum of stages. He starts off clean-shaven, develops stubble, and eventually a beard develops. But even though there is a continuum of beard growth, that does not mean that we can’t recognize the difference between a clean-shaven and a bearded face. There is one common pro-life argument that commits the continuum fallacy. Choosing a starting point such a birth, assuming the person you’re talking to believes the human to be a person at birth, then pushing the threshold back a day and asking “how about the day before birth? The day before that? etc.” This argument commits the continuum fallacy because it assumes that just because there is a continuum of development that the pro-choice person could not conceivably find a non-arbitrary point along that human’s development and argue that it is definitely a person there. Here’s an article written by Tim Brahm at Equal Rights Institute that goes into more detail regarding this fallacious argument.

Of course, there is a non-fallacious way to argue that pro-choice arguments are arbitrary whereas pro-life arguments are not, and the fatal flaw of Greasley’s argument in her book and K&W’s argument in their paper is they fail to understand the pro-life view of personhood. K&W begin their paper with a discussion of the concept of personhood, asserting that being a person is a vague predicate; in fact, it is so vague that it falls under a particularly pernicious form of vagueness called the sorites paradox (or, as Greasley calls it, “sorites-susceptibility”). But after looking at K&W’s overarching argument, I will show how, exactly, pro-life arguments about personhood avoid the charge of sorites-susceptibility.

1 — Kerckhove and Waller

After expounding the sorites paradox in their paper, K&W then take a look at two separate sorites-based arguments for and against personhood. They argue that the concept of personhood, being vague, leads to a contradiction. Personhood is a vague concept, they argue, because “many competent speakers also disagree about when the predicate ‘is a person’ can be correctly applied.” Personhood could plausibly be grounded in any of one’s properties, but she uses temporal development as an example. This leads to a paradox, because there can be two reasonable arguments made:

1. X is a person at age T (e.g. 21 years old)
2. If X is a person at age T, then X is a person at T-1 second.
Therefore,
3. X is a person at T-1 second.
Repeat steps 2-3.

1. X is not a person at age T (e.g. conception)
2. If X is not a person at age T, then X is not a person at T+1 second.
Therefore,
3. X is not a person at age T+1 second.
Repeat steps 2-3.

These are both logical arguments in the form of modus ponens, so they are both plausible arguments. But they cannot both be true; hence, the contradiction and hence, a paradox.

There are two ways to avoid this paradox, argue K&W: you can solve the sorites paradox (which seems unlikely), or define personhood in such a way that avoids such vagueness. They also consider this unlikely because they believe that any property you ground personhood in must be vague because it would appeal either to some physical property, or set of physical properties, or to some non-physical property, or set of non-physical properties. Some possibilities for grounding personhood in physical properties are: viability, quickening, consciousness, birth, number of cells, etc. But each of these are vague in the same way: viability is vague because it relies on advancing technology, number of cells would fall victim to asking “what would happen if one more cell was added or removed?” etc.

Some possibilities for grounding personhood in non-physical properties are: the possession of conscious, intrinsic human dignity, a future like ours, etc. However, they don’t believe that these will do the trick, either. They write:

The pressing issue is how any of these crucial properties might be measured. How can we determine the point at which a fetus attains consciousness, or a possible future like ours? If the terms of the measurement are physical, then a continuum develops, and with it develops a sorites paradox. If the terms of the measurement are not physical, then any judgment as to whether or not a fetus possesses the property cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by appeal to facts. Considerations such as these lead to Macklin’s conclusion that an ascription of personhood may be little more than a reflection of moral prejudice. Appeals to non-physical properties will not resolve the debate over the morality of abortion because, to a large extent, the debate is a disagreement over whether or not a fetus possesses such non-physical properties.

So because these properties can’t be measured physically, K&W believe that these properties should be disqualified from the discussion.

2 — Responding to Kerckhove and Waller


It should be fairly obvious that K&W’s response to the non-physical attributes that one might ground personhood in is clearly question-begging. They assume that there is no possible way to know when an individual attains these things because they can’t be measured physically, but this is a false view of how knowledge is attained, commonly called scientism. It’s a self-defeating idea because the idea that you can only find truth through physical investigation is not a claim that can be investigated physically. So non-physical properties are not exempt from the discussion just because they can’t be measured physically.

However, K&W’s response really just misses the point. The pro-life concept of personhood is that one’s personhood is grounded in one’s nature. Nature is an all-or-nothing property; it doesn’t come in degrees. So K&W fail to consider a third alternative to the sorites paradox. We don’t need to solve the sorites paradox. We don’t need to find some property to ground personhood in that avoids vagueness. The third alternative is that we simply need to find some property that doesn’t admit of degrees. If we can find a property that personhood is grounded in that doesn’t admit of degrees, then we can avoid the charge of sorites-susceptibility altogether.

The reason that we place your personhood in your nature is because your nature is the most fundamental thing about you. It grounds your personal identity through time and it grounds the various properties that you have and will have as you continue to develop. The reason that you walk around upright and converse through spoken language rather than walking on all fours, howling at the moon is because you have a human nature, not a canine nature. This is also why severely disabled human beings are still persons and deserving as respect of persons — although they are not a “perfect instantiation” of human, they are still human beings and have intrinsic worth as humans. To say they are not a “perfect instantiation” is not an insulting term (and really, I don’t know if anyone actually lives up to the perfect ideal of humanity — I certainly don’t). It simply means that they are not able to flourish fully as human beings should. If you draw a triangle on a piece of paper, as long as it has three lines on it, it is a triangle. If the lines are crooked, it is still a triangle, just not a perfect instantiation of a triangle. But it is a triangle, none-the-less. And a severely disabled human being is still a human person because being a person is about the kind of thing you are, not the kinds of things you can do.

Now, of course the concept of “nature” is a controversial one among atheists, even though I think it can be rationally demonstrated philosophically. However, if you would prefer, just think of your human DNA in place of your human nature (I tend to think of DNA as the physical expression of one’s metaphysical nature). Having human DNA is also an all-or-nothing property, rather than a degreed property. Either you have human DNA or you don’t, and scientists can tell the difference between DNA of various species. But whether you accept the concept of nature or not, the underlying point is that an argument can be made from the pro-life position that your personhood is grounded in an all-or-nothing property and is not susceptible to charges of being a sorites paradox.


[Today’s guest post by Clinton Wilcox is part of our paid blogging program.]

[1] Kerckhove, Lee F. and Sara Waller. “Fetal Personhood and the Sorites Paradox,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, 32: 175-189, 1998. All quotations from Kerckhove and Waller will be from this article.

The Sorites Paradox as it Pertains to Personhood

My friend and pro-life mentor Steve Wagner introduced me to an article by Lee F. Kerckhove and Sara Waller (hereafter, K&W) called “Fetal Personhood and the Sorites Paradox.” [1] It’s not an argument I’ve seen very often but it was recently expounded by Kate Greasley in her book Arguments About Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and the Law. However, K&W and Greasley actually argue in different ways, so I will address both of their respective arguments in turn and I will show how the pro-life concept of personhood avoids falling into the trap of the sorites paradox that each respective thinker charges it with. As my first response here has gotten sort of lengthy, I will respond to K&W’s arguments in this article and respond to Greasley in a future article.

The word “sorites” comes from the Greek word for “heap,” so-called because it comes from an ancient philosophical puzzle. Suppose you have a heap of sand in front of you. That heap could be made up of 2,000 grains of sand. If you take one grain of sand away, then you are left with 1,999 grains of sand — but the pile of sand is still a heap. Suppose you keep taking grains of sand away. At what point does the heap of sand become a non-heap? Or looked at from the opposite direction, one grain of sand is not a heap. If you add another grain of sand to have two grains of sand, you still would not have a heap. Now suppose you keep adding grains of sand. At what point did the grains of sand go from non-heap to heap? Is there any point at which we could plausibly point to and say, “there. That grain of sand turned it into a heap?” It doesn’t seem we can.

There is also a well-known fallacy called the continuum fallacy (alternatively, the fallacy of the heap or fallacy of the beard). This fallacy is committed when one looks at a vague continuum of states and argues that because there is such a continuum, that one cannot plausibly choose a point at which the vagueness is resolved. For example, a man growing a beard goes through a continuum of stages. He starts off clean-shaven, develops stubble, and eventually a beard develops. But even though there is a continuum of beard growth, that does not mean that we can’t recognize the difference between a clean-shaven and a bearded face. There is one common pro-life argument that commits the continuum fallacy. Choosing a starting point such a birth, assuming the person you’re talking to believes the human to be a person at birth, then pushing the threshold back a day and asking “how about the day before birth? The day before that? etc.” This argument commits the continuum fallacy because it assumes that just because there is a continuum of development that the pro-choice person could not conceivably find a non-arbitrary point along that human’s development and argue that it is definitely a person there. Here’s an article written by Tim Brahm at Equal Rights Institute that goes into more detail regarding this fallacious argument.

Of course, there is a non-fallacious way to argue that pro-choice arguments are arbitrary whereas pro-life arguments are not, and the fatal flaw of Greasley’s argument in her book and K&W’s argument in their paper is they fail to understand the pro-life view of personhood. K&W begin their paper with a discussion of the concept of personhood, asserting that being a person is a vague predicate; in fact, it is so vague that it falls under a particularly pernicious form of vagueness called the sorites paradox (or, as Greasley calls it, “sorites-susceptibility”). But after looking at K&W’s overarching argument, I will show how, exactly, pro-life arguments about personhood avoid the charge of sorites-susceptibility.

1 — Kerckhove and Waller

After expounding the sorites paradox in their paper, K&W then take a look at two separate sorites-based arguments for and against personhood. They argue that the concept of personhood, being vague, leads to a contradiction. Personhood is a vague concept, they argue, because “many competent speakers also disagree about when the predicate ‘is a person’ can be correctly applied.” Personhood could plausibly be grounded in any of one’s properties, but she uses temporal development as an example. This leads to a paradox, because there can be two reasonable arguments made:

1. X is a person at age T (e.g. 21 years old)
2. If X is a person at age T, then X is a person at T-1 second.
Therefore,
3. X is a person at T-1 second.
Repeat steps 2-3.

1. X is not a person at age T (e.g. conception)
2. If X is not a person at age T, then X is not a person at T+1 second.
Therefore,
3. X is not a person at age T+1 second.
Repeat steps 2-3.

These are both logical arguments in the form of modus ponens, so they are both plausible arguments. But they cannot both be true; hence, the contradiction and hence, a paradox.

There are two ways to avoid this paradox, argue K&W: you can solve the sorites paradox (which seems unlikely), or define personhood in such a way that avoids such vagueness. They also consider this unlikely because they believe that any property you ground personhood in must be vague because it would appeal either to some physical property, or set of physical properties, or to some non-physical property, or set of non-physical properties. Some possibilities for grounding personhood in physical properties are: viability, quickening, consciousness, birth, number of cells, etc. But each of these are vague in the same way: viability is vague because it relies on advancing technology, number of cells would fall victim to asking “what would happen if one more cell was added or removed?” etc.

Some possibilities for grounding personhood in non-physical properties are: the possession of conscious, intrinsic human dignity, a future like ours, etc. However, they don’t believe that these will do the trick, either. They write:

The pressing issue is how any of these crucial properties might be measured. How can we determine the point at which a fetus attains consciousness, or a possible future like ours? If the terms of the measurement are physical, then a continuum develops, and with it develops a sorites paradox. If the terms of the measurement are not physical, then any judgment as to whether or not a fetus possesses the property cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by appeal to facts. Considerations such as these lead to Macklin’s conclusion that an ascription of personhood may be little more than a reflection of moral prejudice. Appeals to non-physical properties will not resolve the debate over the morality of abortion because, to a large extent, the debate is a disagreement over whether or not a fetus possesses such non-physical properties.

So because these properties can’t be measured physically, K&W believe that these properties should be disqualified from the discussion.

2 — Responding to Kerckhove and Waller


It should be fairly obvious that K&W’s response to the non-physical attributes that one might ground personhood in is clearly question-begging. They assume that there is no possible way to know when an individual attains these things because they can’t be measured physically, but this is a false view of how knowledge is attained, commonly called scientism. It’s a self-defeating idea because the idea that you can only find truth through physical investigation is not a claim that can be investigated physically. So non-physical properties are not exempt from the discussion just because they can’t be measured physically.

However, K&W’s response really just misses the point. The pro-life concept of personhood is that one’s personhood is grounded in one’s nature. Nature is an all-or-nothing property; it doesn’t come in degrees. So K&W fail to consider a third alternative to the sorites paradox. We don’t need to solve the sorites paradox. We don’t need to find some property to ground personhood in that avoids vagueness. The third alternative is that we simply need to find some property that doesn’t admit of degrees. If we can find a property that personhood is grounded in that doesn’t admit of degrees, then we can avoid the charge of sorites-susceptibility altogether.

The reason that we place your personhood in your nature is because your nature is the most fundamental thing about you. It grounds your personal identity through time and it grounds the various properties that you have and will have as you continue to develop. The reason that you walk around upright and converse through spoken language rather than walking on all fours, howling at the moon is because you have a human nature, not a canine nature. This is also why severely disabled human beings are still persons and deserving as respect of persons — although they are not a “perfect instantiation” of human, they are still human beings and have intrinsic worth as humans. To say they are not a “perfect instantiation” is not an insulting term (and really, I don’t know if anyone actually lives up to the perfect ideal of humanity — I certainly don’t). It simply means that they are not able to flourish fully as human beings should. If you draw a triangle on a piece of paper, as long as it has three lines on it, it is a triangle. If the lines are crooked, it is still a triangle, just not a perfect instantiation of a triangle. But it is a triangle, none-the-less. And a severely disabled human being is still a human person because being a person is about the kind of thing you are, not the kinds of things you can do.

Now, of course the concept of “nature” is a controversial one among atheists, even though I think it can be rationally demonstrated philosophically. However, if you would prefer, just think of your human DNA in place of your human nature (I tend to think of DNA as the physical expression of one’s metaphysical nature). Having human DNA is also an all-or-nothing property, rather than a degreed property. Either you have human DNA or you don’t, and scientists can tell the difference between DNA of various species. But whether you accept the concept of nature or not, the underlying point is that an argument can be made from the pro-life position that your personhood is grounded in an all-or-nothing property and is not susceptible to charges of being a sorites paradox.


[Today’s guest post by Clinton Wilcox is part of our paid blogging program.]

[1] Kerckhove, Lee F. and Sara Waller. “Fetal Personhood and the Sorites Paradox,” The Journal of Value Inquiry, 32: 175-189, 1998. All quotations from Kerckhove and Waller will be from this article.

The Stockman Test

I grew up in Britain in the 1970’s, a time when there was still some residual ethos of empire in a country that had not entirely emerged from World War II. I attended a high school in London which was founded sometime in the late 18th century and, despite the fact that it had been taken over by the state, retained some of the trappings and rubrics that it inherited from ages past. Hence it was an all-boys school, we wore uniforms, played cricket and rugby, and were required to address the teachers (nearly all men) as “sir.”

One of the staff teachers was a man called Stockman. I recall him as a tall, heavily-built man with a military background and a slight limp that nobody had the courage to ask him about. He taught history and Latin. He also had a fondness for posing philosophical questions to his pupils that had (on the face of it) very little or nothing to do with the subject being taught.

I was 14 years old when I was sitting in Class 4 with my classmates awaiting Stockman’s appearance for a history lesson which was supposed to focus on the Napoleonic Wars. I recall that it was raining heavily; long spears of cold water dashed against the rattling windows. Stockman walked in, put a pile of books down on the desk without so much as a “good morning,” and limped over to the window where he stood with his hands behind his back, gazing broodingly out at the rain-lashed roofs.

“Boys” he said, “a question for you: a woman comes to you for advice. She is married and has five children, all of whom are afflicted with physical and/or mental disabilities of some sort. He husband is an alcoholic and has syphilis. They are grindingly poor. So poor, in fact, that she struggles to feed the children she has. She is now pregnant, expecting her sixth child. Advise her.”

Silence followed. As the rain continued the break upon the windows in sheets, we dumbstruck little boys all looked around at each other, scanning each gormless face for a clue as to what to say next.

“Come on,” said Stockman, “tempus fugit.”

Finally, the boy sitting next to me, Bobby Harkness, raised his hand. He was a small, mousey kid with hair that flopped over his eyes and a temerity that belied his slight frame.

“Sir,” said Harkness, “she should get an abortion”.

“Hmmmm…” was the response from Stockman who was still contemplating the vista, his hands behind his back, as immovable as a statue.

“Anybody else? What do the rest of you say?”

One by one, every boy’s hand climbed hesitantly aloft.

“Yes, sir. She should get an abortion.”

“No sense in her bringing another kid into the world, sir.”

“Abortion, sir. No doubt about it.”

“She can’t even feed the kids she’s got, sir.”

Stockman let out another pensive hum before turning smartly on his heels and heading for the desk where he picked up a book, an thumbed through it until he reached the required page and at which point, he looked out at us and said:

“Congratulations, Class 4: you just killed Beethoven. Now, let us begin.”

We all quickly glanced round at each other again like a room full of meerkats; some blushing, some chuckling a little and others bemused. I have no idea what expression was visible on my face, but I can tell you that Stockman’s little test made a deep impact on me that has lasted all of my life. How can the consensus get it so wrong?

I have no idea as to whether or not Beethoven’s family circumstances were quite as dire or grim as Stockman had claimed them to be. But it hardly matters really and that is far from the point. The point he was making was as pinsharp clear to me then as it still is today.

I was raised in a very secular family and I continue to live a very secular life. On the issue of abortion, I have always been rather agnostic, campaigning neither for nor against it. But Mr. Stockman’s test imprinted itself on my motherboard and now, over 40 years later, whenever I hear the word abortion, I have the “Pastoral” playing in my head.

How many Beethovens?

[Today’s guest post by David Carr is part of our paid blogging program.]

The Stockman Test

I grew up in Britain in the 1970’s, a time when there was still some residual ethos of empire in a country that had not entirely emerged from World War II. I attended a high school in London which was founded sometime in the late 18th century and, despite the fact that it had been taken over by the state, retained some of the trappings and rubrics that it inherited from ages past. Hence it was an all-boys school, we wore uniforms, played cricket and rugby, and were required to address the teachers (nearly all men) as “sir.”

One of the staff teachers was a man called Stockman. I recall him as a tall, heavily-built man with a military background and a slight limp that nobody had the courage to ask him about. He taught history and Latin. He also had a fondness for posing philosophical questions to his pupils that had (on the face of it) very little or nothing to do with the subject being taught.

I was 14 years old when I was sitting in Class 4 with my classmates awaiting Stockman’s appearance for a history lesson which was supposed to focus on the Napoleonic Wars. I recall that it was raining heavily; long spears of cold water dashed against the rattling windows. Stockman walked in, put a pile of books down on the desk without so much as a “good morning,” and limped over to the window where he stood with his hands behind his back, gazing broodingly out at the rain-lashed roofs.

“Boys” he said, “a question for you: a woman comes to you for advice. She is married and has five children, all of whom are afflicted with physical and/or mental disabilities of some sort. He husband is an alcoholic and has syphilis. They are grindingly poor. So poor, in fact, that she struggles to feed the children she has. She is now pregnant, expecting her sixth child. Advise her.”

Silence followed. As the rain continued the break upon the windows in sheets, we dumbstruck little boys all looked around at each other, scanning each gormless face for a clue as to what to say next.

“Come on,” said Stockman, “tempus fugit.”

Finally, the boy sitting next to me, Bobby Harkness, raised his hand. He was a small, mousey kid with hair that flopped over his eyes and a temerity that belied his slight frame.

“Sir,” said Harkness, “she should get an abortion”.

“Hmmmm…” was the response from Stockman who was still contemplating the vista, his hands behind his back, as immovable as a statue.

“Anybody else? What do the rest of you say?”

One by one, every boy’s hand climbed hesitantly aloft.

“Yes, sir. She should get an abortion.”

“No sense in her bringing another kid into the world, sir.”

“Abortion, sir. No doubt about it.”

“She can’t even feed the kids she’s got, sir.”

Stockman let out another pensive hum before turning smartly on his heels and heading for the desk where he picked up a book, an thumbed through it until he reached the required page and at which point, he looked out at us and said:

“Congratulations, Class 4: you just killed Beethoven. Now, let us begin.”

We all quickly glanced round at each other again like a room full of meerkats; some blushing, some chuckling a little and others bemused. I have no idea what expression was visible on my face, but I can tell you that Stockman’s little test made a deep impact on me that has lasted all of my life. How can the consensus get it so wrong?

I have no idea as to whether or not Beethoven’s family circumstances were quite as dire or grim as Stockman had claimed them to be. But it hardly matters really and that is far from the point. The point he was making was as pinsharp clear to me then as it still is today.

I was raised in a very secular family and I continue to live a very secular life. On the issue of abortion, I have always been rather agnostic, campaigning neither for nor against it. But Mr. Stockman’s test imprinted itself on my motherboard and now, over 40 years later, whenever I hear the word abortion, I have the “Pastoral” playing in my head.

How many Beethovens?

[Today’s guest post by David Carr is part of our paid blogging program.]

Are viruses “alive?”

The fetus is a living human organism.

When I state this long-standing and (at least in the field of biology) undisputed fact, pro-choicers usually have one of three reactions:

Reaction 1: They argue the point based on ignorance of basic biology. “A single cell is not an organism.” “A zygote is no different than your skin cells—they’re both human.” “Human life doesn’t begin at fertilization; it began millions of years ago.” (Here is our summary post dispelling these and other common pro-choice misconceptions.)

Reaction 2: They concede the point and get philosophical. “Sure, biologically the fetus is a ‘human being,’ but philosophically, morally, the fetus is not a person, i.e. a human of value who merits protection.” (Here are a few of our past posts about different concepts of personhood, and I highly recommend the Equal Rights Institute’s Zoo Shooting analogy testing people’s intuitions regarding personhood.)

Reaction 3: They argue the point by getting philosophical. “There’s no consensus on what it means to be ‘alive.’ By some definitions advanced artificial intelligence is alive. Is the Earth ‘alive?’ What about viruses? Are viruses ‘alive’?”

In my opinion this third type of response is actually pretty interesting, in a way. It’s true that we don’t have one universal definition of “life” that applies to all fields of inquiry and accounts for all of our intuitions about what might be considered alive and what probably isn’t. Here is a great video by “Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell” exploring these questions:

The video explicitly addresses the conundrum of whether viruses are alive:

This is where viruses make everything more complicated. They are basically strings of RNA or DNA in a small hull and need cells to do something. We’re not sure if they count as living or dead, and still there are 225M cubic meters of viruses on Earth. They don’t seem to care what we think of them.

The video doesn’t offer a definitive answer, only (fascinating) questions to ponder. But in terms of the abortion debate, this response is hardly the “gotcha!” argument some pro-choice people seem to think it is.

The fetus is a living human organism just as you and I are living human organisms. If we can’t know whether living human organisms are “really” alive because of deeply philosophical questions about viruses and the earth and aliens and AI, then we can’t know if you and I are “really” alive. Just like the fetus, we too are organisms made up of living cells that are made up of non-living microscopic machines.

So, at least as far as I can see, the pro-choice person making this argument has two options:

A. Assert that because we have no universal philosophical definition for “life,” we can’t really know if any human anywhere is truly “alive.” This strange premise leads to two implications that undermine the pro-choice argument:

  1. We don’t have to know if a human is “alive” in order to assert that human’s rights. The pro-choice person is asserting the right to an abortion even though the same person doesn’t seem sure whether the women seeking abortion are “alive” (since the pro-choice person isn’t sure what “alive” means in the first place).
  2. Uncertainty about whether a human is “alive” is not justification for killing that human. The pro-choice person is not (we hope) arguing that it’s okay to kill anyone at any time since we don’t really know what “alive” means.

B. Explain why these questions about “life” are profound only when it comes to the fetus and irrelevant when it comes to born humans. I strongly suspect this route will just lead us back to Reaction 2 above, but if anyone knows of a different response, I’d be curious to hear it.

In any case, when I say that the fetus is a living human organism, I am not implying that biology has answered all of life’s mysteries. I’m explaining that—to the extent you and I are biologically “alive”—so is the fetus. This statement is not a pro-life belief; it’s a long-standing well-established biological fact, and in stating it pro-lifers aren’t “twisting science” any more than are the countless biology and embryology texts which have explained for decades that, as organisms, we humans begin as zygotes.

The pro-choice people who are firm in their stance don’t tend to have a problem with this concept, because they believe merely being a living biological human is not enough to merit human rights. That’s fine—that’s a worthy discussion which we’ve tackled before (see above links). But I’ve long suspected that many pro-choice people are not nearly so confident in their position. How fragile does your view have to be if it only works as long as we can’t really know if anything at all is “alive”?

“Viruses may or may not be ‘alive,’ so abortion is probably fine I guess.”

Are viruses “alive?”

The fetus is a living human organism.

When I state this long-standing and (at least in the field of biology) undisputed fact, pro-choicers usually have one of three reactions:

Reaction 1: They argue the point based on ignorance of basic biology. “A single cell is not an organism.” “A zygote is no different than your skin cells—they’re both human.” “Human life doesn’t begin at fertilization; it began millions of years ago.” (Here is our summary post dispelling these and other common pro-choice misconceptions.)

Reaction 2: They concede the point and get philosophical. “Sure, biologically the fetus is a ‘human being,’ but philosophically, morally, the fetus is not a person, i.e. a human of value who merits protection.” (Here are a few of our past posts about different concepts of personhood, and I highly recommend the Equal Rights Institute’s Zoo Shooting analogy testing people’s intuitions regarding personhood.)

Reaction 3: They argue the point by getting philosophical. “There’s no consensus on what it means to be ‘alive.’ By some definitions advanced artificial intelligence is alive. Is the Earth ‘alive?’ What about viruses? Are viruses ‘alive’?”

In my opinion this third type of response is actually pretty interesting, in a way. It’s true that we don’t have one universal definition of “life” that applies to all fields of inquiry and accounts for all of our intuitions about what might be considered alive and what probably isn’t. Here is a great video by “Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell” exploring these questions:

The video explicitly addresses the conundrum of whether viruses are alive:

This is where viruses make everything more complicated. They are basically strings of RNA or DNA in a small hull and need cells to do something. We’re not sure if they count as living or dead, and still there are 225M cubic meters of viruses on Earth. They don’t seem to care what we think of them.

The video doesn’t offer a definitive answer, only (fascinating) questions to ponder. But in terms of the abortion debate, this response is hardly the “gotcha!” argument some pro-choice people seem to think it is.

The fetus is a living human organism just as you and I are living human organisms. If we can’t know whether living human organisms are “really” alive because of deeply philosophical questions about viruses and the earth and aliens and AI, then we can’t know if you and I are “really” alive. Just like the fetus, we too are organisms made up of living cells that are made up of non-living microscopic machines.

So, at least as far as I can see, the pro-choice person making this argument has two options:

A. Assert that because we have no universal philosophical definition for “life,” we can’t really know if any human anywhere is truly “alive.” This strange premise leads to two implications that undermine the pro-choice argument:

  1. We don’t have to know if a human is “alive” in order to assert that human’s rights. The pro-choice person is asserting the right to an abortion even though the same person doesn’t seem sure whether the women seeking abortion are “alive” (since the pro-choice person isn’t sure what “alive” means in the first place).
  2. Uncertainty about whether a human is “alive” is not justification for killing that human. The pro-choice person is not (we hope) arguing that it’s okay to kill anyone at any time since we don’t really know what “alive” means.

B. Explain why these questions about “life” are profound only when it comes to the fetus and irrelevant when it comes to born humans. I strongly suspect this route will just lead us back to Reaction 2 above, but if anyone knows of a different response, I’d be curious to hear it.

In any case, when I say that the fetus is a living human organism, I am not implying that biology has answered all of life’s mysteries. I’m explaining that—to the extent you and I are biologically “alive”—so is the fetus. This statement is not a pro-life belief; it’s a long-standing well-established biological fact, and in stating it pro-lifers aren’t “twisting science” any more than are the countless biology and embryology texts which have explained for decades that, as organisms, we humans begin as zygotes.

The pro-choice people who are firm in their stance don’t tend to have a problem with this concept, because they believe merely being a living biological human is not enough to merit human rights. That’s fine—that’s a worthy discussion which we’ve tackled before (see above links). But I’ve long suspected that many pro-choice people are not nearly so confident in their position. How fragile does your view have to be if it only works as long as we can’t really know if anything at all is “alive”?

“Viruses may or may not be ‘alive,’ so abortion is probably fine I guess.”