Confronting the Pro-Choice Stance, Honestly

Above: Pro-life youth demonstrate outside the Supreme Court; in the
background, a sign reads “Keep abortion safe and legal.”

Last week, The Atlantic published an article by Caitlin Flanagan entitled “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate: Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side.” I encourage you to read the whole thing. Flanagan, who is pro-choice, did an admirable job of identifying the best arguments on each side of the abortion debate.

For the pro-life side, she gave a heartfelt defense of children in the womb. While there are many other ways to arrive at the pro-life position—such as abortion’s harm to mothers, fathers, abortion survivors, people with disabilities, and society at large—I agree that the harm to the unborn child is paramount. And boy, does she write it well. No one can accuse her of failing to understand the opposing position:

What I can’t face about abortion is the reality of it: that these are human beings, the most vulnerable among us, and we have no care for them. How terrible to know that in the space of an hour, a baby could be alive—his heart beating, his kidneys creating the urine that becomes the amniotic fluid of his safe home—and then be dead, his heart stopped, his body soon to be discarded.

For the pro-choice side, she selected the fear of “back-alley” abortion as the strongest argument. This is apparently the argument that most convinces her personally. She tells the tragic stories of three mothers in the 1950’s who died after attempting to abort their babies with Lysol (which had a different formula than it does today). She concludes:

Women have been willing to risk death to get an abortion. When we made abortion legal, we decided we weren’t going to let that happen anymore. We were not going to let one more woman arrive at a hospital with her organs rotting inside of her. We accepted that we might lose that growing baby, but we were not also going to lose that woman.

It’s the best available argument for abortion. And it’s wrong, for at least three reasons.


(1) Roe v. Wade didn’t reduce the maternal death rate from illegal abortion. 

Flanagan assumes that making abortion legal made it safer, but doesn’t offer any evidence for that assumption beyond a correlation-is-causation argument; since women are no longer showing up in hospitals after surreptitious Lysol abortions, Roe must have been the answer! That’s a weak case, and the data just don’t back it up.

Whenever I give presentations on college campuses, I share this graph from the National Center for Health Statistics, showing maternal deaths from illegal abortions by year—but with the x-axis, the year, erased.

I then ask a brave audience volunteer to guess where 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, falls on the graph. Most select a peak, in line with the narrative that Roe v. Wade caused maternal deaths to plummet. Invariably, they guess wrong:

Roe v. Wade isn’t even a blip on the graph. Forget “correlation doesn’t equal causation”—they don’t even have correlation! The real savior of women’s lives? Advances in antibiotics.

(2) A lot has changed since the 1950’s.

And not just antibiotics. Flanagan herself acknowledges that it “was illegal to advertise contraception nationally until 1977,” four years after Roe; today, you can pick up condoms at any corner drugstore, and prescription contraceptives are widely available. Pregnancy discrimination was perfectly legal at the time of Roe; today, it’s prohibited by federal law. Women couldn’t get credit cards in their own name at the time of Roe; today, it’s unquestioned. Marital rape wasn’t criminalized in all 50 states until two decades after Roe. And I haven’t even mentioned that today, pro-life pregnancy centers outnumber abortion businesses. Using the 1950’s to predict a post-Roe future is wildly unrealistic.

(3) Legal abortion is still killing women.  

Tonya Reaves. Jennifer Morbelli. Maria Santiago. Lakisha Wilson. Christin Gilbert. The list goes on. The pro-life movement can tell stories just as tragic as the “back-alley” stories Flanagan shares. The fact that their abortions were legal doesn’t make them any less dead.

I appreciate Flanagan’s attempt to engage the pro-life position honestly. It’s the best article from an abortion supporter I’ve seen since Shawna Kay Rodenberg’s piece in Salon two years ago. I hope Flanagan will keep digging, keep following her conscience, and become the next convert to the pro-life cause.

Confronting the Pro-Choice Stance, Honestly

Above: Pro-life youth demonstrate outside the Supreme Court; in the
background, a sign reads “Keep abortion safe and legal.”

Last week, The Atlantic published an article by Caitlin Flanagan entitled “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate: Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side.” I encourage you to read the whole thing. Flanagan, who is pro-choice, did an admirable job of identifying the best arguments on each side of the abortion debate.

For the pro-life side, she gave a heartfelt defense of children in the womb. While there are many other ways to arrive at the pro-life position—such as abortion’s harm to mothers, fathers, abortion survivors, people with disabilities, and society at large—I agree that the harm to the unborn child is paramount. And boy, does she write it well. No one can accuse her of failing to understand the opposing position:

What I can’t face about abortion is the reality of it: that these are human beings, the most vulnerable among us, and we have no care for them. How terrible to know that in the space of an hour, a baby could be alive—his heart beating, his kidneys creating the urine that becomes the amniotic fluid of his safe home—and then be dead, his heart stopped, his body soon to be discarded.

For the pro-choice side, she selected the fear of “back-alley” abortion as the strongest argument. This is apparently the argument that most convinces her personally. She tells the tragic stories of three mothers in the 1950’s who died after attempting to abort their babies with Lysol (which had a different formula than it does today). She concludes:

Women have been willing to risk death to get an abortion. When we made abortion legal, we decided we weren’t going to let that happen anymore. We were not going to let one more woman arrive at a hospital with her organs rotting inside of her. We accepted that we might lose that growing baby, but we were not also going to lose that woman.

It’s the best available argument for abortion. And it’s wrong, for at least three reasons.


(1) Roe v. Wade didn’t reduce the maternal death rate from illegal abortion. 

Flanagan assumes that making abortion legal made it safer, but doesn’t offer any evidence for that assumption beyond a correlation-is-causation argument; since women are no longer showing up in hospitals after surreptitious Lysol abortions, Roe must have been the answer! That’s a weak case, and the data just don’t back it up.

Whenever I give presentations on college campuses, I share this graph from the National Center for Health Statistics, showing maternal deaths from illegal abortions by year—but with the x-axis, the year, erased.

I then ask a brave audience volunteer to guess where 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, falls on the graph. Most select a peak, in line with the narrative that Roe v. Wade caused maternal deaths to plummet. Invariably, they guess wrong:

Roe v. Wade isn’t even a blip on the graph. Forget “correlation doesn’t equal causation”—they don’t even have correlation! The real savior of women’s lives? Advances in antibiotics.

(2) A lot has changed since the 1950’s.

And not just antibiotics. Flanagan herself acknowledges that it “was illegal to advertise contraception nationally until 1977,” four years after Roe; today, you can pick up condoms at any corner drugstore, and prescription contraceptives are widely available. Pregnancy discrimination was perfectly legal at the time of Roe; today, it’s prohibited by federal law. Women couldn’t get credit cards in their own name at the time of Roe; today, it’s unquestioned. Marital rape wasn’t criminalized in all 50 states until two decades after Roe. And I haven’t even mentioned that today, pro-life pregnancy centers outnumber abortion businesses. Using the 1950’s to predict a post-Roe future is wildly unrealistic.

(3) Legal abortion is still killing women.  

Tonya Reaves. Jennifer Morbelli. Maria Santiago. Lakisha Wilson. Christin Gilbert. The list goes on. The pro-life movement can tell stories just as tragic as the “back-alley” stories Flanagan shares. The fact that their abortions were legal doesn’t make them any less dead.

I appreciate Flanagan’s attempt to engage the pro-life position honestly. It’s the best article from an abortion supporter I’ve seen since Shawna Kay Rodenberg’s piece in Salon two years ago. I hope Flanagan will keep digging, keep following her conscience, and become the next convert to the pro-life cause.

“Except in the Womb”

Over at Slate, abortion supporter Christina Cauterucci has an article about the phrase “except in the womb.” To call it an “article” is a bit generous. It’s really more of a rant. The thesis is basically “I do not like it when anti-abortion people say this.” Still, her annoyance is at least partially justified. For instance, when she says:

The ultimate message of “except in the womb” is that no one is allowed to try to change the world for the better until they try to criminalize abortion.

I immediately thought, Now you know how we feel when abortion supporters argue that we can’t try to save babies’ lives until we’ve adopted every child from foster care!, or until we’ve reformed immigration!, or whatever the popular distraction of the moment is. No one doubts that foster care and immigration reform are good causes. There’s no need to make it a competition.

Via Dank Pro-Life Memes. Image description: One person says “Killing homeless should be illegal.” A second person responds “How many homeless did you invite to your house?”

The use of “except in the womb” is sometimes perfectly on point, sometimes analogous to the “not until” pro-choice argument, and sometimes completely inappropriate. Surprise: context matters! So let’s consider each of Cauterucci’s examples, and my (admittedly subjective) verdicts on each.

Statement: “Climate change activists want to save future generations, except in the womb.”
Verdict: Mostly bad

In general, using “except in the womb” in connection with climate change is bad form. It’s a classic example of what Josh Brahm calls “fetus tunnel vision,” defined as “the inability to see and/or acknowledge human rights injustices without equating or comparing them to abortion.” The world has plenty of problems to tackle; we can acknowledge them on their merits without twisting everything into an abortion debate.

The one exception I’ll allow is when climate change activists promote abortion as a form of population control, particularly for low-income minorities, to save the planet—as Sen. Bernie Sanders recently did. It’s completely appropriate (indeed necessary) to call out the eugenicist roots of that thinking, and “save future generations, except in the womb” is a fine start.

But the usage Cauterucci cites was directed at Greta Thunberg, not Sen. Sanders, and it’s pretty blatant fetus tunnel vision. Cauterucci’s annoyance is understandable. I share it.

Statement: “Abortion care coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in the field? That’s supporting peace, except in the womb.”
Verdict: Spot on

I have no complaints about this use of “except in the womb.” Abortion is an act of violence, completely incompatible with any institution claiming a mission of peace. And it’s obviously not a case of fetus tunnel vision since, as Cauterucci herself acknowledges, it directly concerns abortion policy.


Statement: “Opposed to Indiana’s ban on abortions sought due to fetal genetic disorders? That’s celebrating people with disabilities, except in the womb.”
Verdict: Also spot on

You can’t celebrate people with disabilities if you think they’re better off dead. You really think people with disabilities don’t notice your “fetal anomalies” abortion advocacy? It’s hurtful. “Except in the womb” is great in this context; better yet, let’s point ableist abortion supporters to pro-life statements from folks with disabilities.


Statement: “When Kamala Harris called for stricter gun laws after the Parkland shooting, it showed she cared about children being slaughtered—except in the womb.”
Verdict: Borderline

If a pro-choice Joe Schmo brings up gun control and a pro-lifer responds with “except in the womb,” that’s clearly fetus tunnel vision, and also wildly insensitive to the families who have lost children to gun violence. The loss of life at Parkland is horribly tragic, full stop. Turning it into an abortion debate benefits no one.

The one reason I call this borderline is because it is not Joe Schmo; it’s Sen. Kamala Harris, a public figure with a long history of hostility to unborn babies. Her political hypocrisy is gross and rage-inducing. Still, there’s probably a better way to make this point.

Statement: “When Nancy Pelosi condemned Basher al-Assad for killing children with chemical weapons, she said she told her grandson the victims were ‘children wherever they are’—except in the womb.”
Verdict: Also borderline

Same as above.


Statement: “In replies and quote tweets on Twitter, conservatives regularly append the phrase to anything a perceived liberal says that rests on human decency or a shared set of morals. They’ve tacked it onto a March for Our Lives sign that said ‘I don’t want [kids] to die’…”
Verdict: Definitely inappropriate. 

This is akin to the “Joe Schmo” hypothetical above—except that, for all you know, the person at the March for Our Lives is pro-life on abortion! That’s just tribal antagonism for the sake of it. Knock it off.

Statement: “…to Rep. Eric Swalwell’s claim that he wants to protect children’s dreams…”
Verdict: Probably inappropriate. 

You can make the borderline case as with Sen. Harris and Rep. Pelosi above, except that Rep. Swalwell and his abortion advocacy are less prominent.

Statement: “… to Planned Parenthood’s post–Christchurch massacre tweet that said, ‘we all deserve to live free from fear and violence’…”
Verdict: Absolutely fine.

C’mon. It’s Planned Parenthood. They killed 332,757 helpless human beings last year. They don’t get a pass.

Statement: “…and to many, many invocations of #BlackLivesMatter.”
Verdict: NO. NO NO NO. NO.

Fetus tunnel vision and racist undertones? Not a winning combination. Please, for the love, do not do this.

Do you agree with my verdicts? Let’s hear your arguments in the comments.

“Except in the Womb”

Over at Slate, abortion supporter Christina Cauterucci has an article about the phrase “except in the womb.” To call it an “article” is a bit generous. It’s really more of a rant. The thesis is basically “I do not like it when anti-abortion people say this.” Still, her annoyance is at least partially justified. For instance, when she says:

The ultimate message of “except in the womb” is that no one is allowed to try to change the world for the better until they try to criminalize abortion.

I immediately thought, Now you know how we feel when abortion supporters argue that we can’t try to save babies’ lives until we’ve adopted every child from foster care!, or until we’ve reformed immigration!, or whatever the popular distraction of the moment is. No one doubts that foster care and immigration reform are good causes. There’s no need to make it a competition.

Via Dank Pro-Life Memes. Image description: One person says “Killing homeless should be illegal.” A second person responds “How many homeless did you invite to your house?”

The use of “except in the womb” is sometimes perfectly on point, sometimes analogous to the “not until” pro-choice argument, and sometimes completely inappropriate. Surprise: context matters! So let’s consider each of Cauterucci’s examples, and my (admittedly subjective) verdicts on each.

Statement: “Climate change activists want to save future generations, except in the womb.”
Verdict: Mostly bad

In general, using “except in the womb” in connection with climate change is bad form. It’s a classic example of what Josh Brahm calls “fetus tunnel vision,” defined as “the inability to see and/or acknowledge human rights injustices without equating or comparing them to abortion.” The world has plenty of problems to tackle; we can acknowledge them on their merits without twisting everything into an abortion debate.

The one exception I’ll allow is when climate change activists promote abortion as a form of population control, particularly for low-income minorities, to save the planet—as Sen. Bernie Sanders recently did. It’s completely appropriate (indeed necessary) to call out the eugenicist roots of that thinking, and “save future generations, except in the womb” is a fine start.

But the usage Cauterucci cites was directed at Greta Thunberg, not Sen. Sanders, and it’s pretty blatant fetus tunnel vision. Cauterucci’s annoyance is understandable. I share it.

Statement: “Abortion care coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in the field? That’s supporting peace, except in the womb.”
Verdict: Spot on

I have no complaints about this use of “except in the womb.” Abortion is an act of violence, completely incompatible with any institution claiming a mission of peace. And it’s obviously not a case of fetus tunnel vision since, as Cauterucci herself acknowledges, it directly concerns abortion policy.


Statement: “Opposed to Indiana’s ban on abortions sought due to fetal genetic disorders? That’s celebrating people with disabilities, except in the womb.”
Verdict: Also spot on

You can’t celebrate people with disabilities if you think they’re better off dead. You really think people with disabilities don’t notice your “fetal anomalies” abortion advocacy? It’s hurtful. “Except in the womb” is great in this context; better yet, let’s point ableist abortion supporters to pro-life statements from folks with disabilities.


Statement: “When Kamala Harris called for stricter gun laws after the Parkland shooting, it showed she cared about children being slaughtered—except in the womb.”
Verdict: Borderline

If a pro-choice Joe Schmo brings up gun control and a pro-lifer responds with “except in the womb,” that’s clearly fetus tunnel vision, and also wildly insensitive to the families who have lost children to gun violence. The loss of life at Parkland is horribly tragic, full stop. Turning it into an abortion debate benefits no one.

The one reason I call this borderline is because it is not Joe Schmo; it’s Sen. Kamala Harris, a public figure with a long history of hostility to unborn babies. Her political hypocrisy is gross and rage-inducing. Still, there’s probably a better way to make this point.

Statement: “When Nancy Pelosi condemned Basher al-Assad for killing children with chemical weapons, she said she told her grandson the victims were ‘children wherever they are’—except in the womb.”
Verdict: Also borderline

Same as above.


Statement: “In replies and quote tweets on Twitter, conservatives regularly append the phrase to anything a perceived liberal says that rests on human decency or a shared set of morals. They’ve tacked it onto a March for Our Lives sign that said ‘I don’t want [kids] to die’…”
Verdict: Definitely inappropriate. 

This is akin to the “Joe Schmo” hypothetical above—except that, for all you know, the person at the March for Our Lives is pro-life on abortion! That’s just tribal antagonism for the sake of it. Knock it off.

Statement: “…to Rep. Eric Swalwell’s claim that he wants to protect children’s dreams…”
Verdict: Probably inappropriate. 

You can make the borderline case as with Sen. Harris and Rep. Pelosi above, except that Rep. Swalwell and his abortion advocacy are less prominent.

Statement: “… to Planned Parenthood’s post–Christchurch massacre tweet that said, ‘we all deserve to live free from fear and violence’…”
Verdict: Absolutely fine.

C’mon. It’s Planned Parenthood. They killed 332,757 helpless human beings last year. They don’t get a pass.

Statement: “…and to many, many invocations of #BlackLivesMatter.”
Verdict: NO. NO NO NO. NO.

Fetus tunnel vision and racist undertones? Not a winning combination. Please, for the love, do not do this.

Do you agree with my verdicts? Let’s hear your arguments in the comments.

“I believe you’ve killed someone, but I will fight for your right to do it!”

Pro-choice Democrat Conor Lamb is the newest member of the House of Representatives, having squeaked out a special election win in Pennsylvania with just 641 more votes than his Republican opponent. The race was seen as a referendum on President Trump, who won the conservative district by 19 points in 2016.

There has been no shortage of commentary about what this means for the 2018 midterms, and in particular, whether Lambs’ “personally pro-life, politically pro-choice” schtick should be replicated by Democrats in other red districts. But much of this coverage has ignored a key variable, namely, the reason Pennsylvania was having a special election in the first place.

Remember Tim Murphy? He held the district and was forced to resign after he was revealed to be Lamb’s polar opposite: politically pro-life, but personally pro-choice. Pro-life organizations and voters alike were outraged when it came to light that Murphy had not only had an extramarital affair, but had encouraged his mistress to have an abortion. (She turned out not to be pregnant.)

There is no data to suggest that the district’s residents suddenly abandoned their pro-life principles en masse, but such a betrayal from a traditionally pro-life candidate could have made Lamb’s “personally pro-life” pitch more appealing. That doesn’t make either Lamb or his voters correct, of course—Lamb’s claim that he must vote pro-choice for reasons of church-state separation is particularly laughable—but I can understand why voters might have felt their vote wouldn’t necessarily lead to a truly pro-life legislator anyway, so why bother.

Abortion extremists, of course, are busy eating their own. At Slate, Christina Cauterucci writes that “personally pro-life” politicians have been known to back Choose Life license plates (the horror!) and popular, common-sense limitations like parental consent for abortions on minors and prohibitions on taxpayer subsidies to the abortion industry. Cauterucci also makes this interesting point:

By broadcasting his belief that, lawmaking aside, a fertilized egg is a human life, he’s essentially scolding women who’ve had abortions. “I believe you’ve killed someone, but I will fight for your right to do it!” may be the best progressives can hope for from those who are morally opposed to abortion, but it’s also a good way to alienate people on both sides of the issue.

While I obviously disagree with Cauterucci on the morality of abortion, she’s hit upon a critical insight here. In recent years, the abortion movement has been trying to distance itself from its traditionally anti-science lines of argument (e.g. “it’s just a clump of cells”) in favor of a more modern approach that acknowledges the lethal reality of abortion but justifies it anyway. Salon‘s 2013 article “So what if abortion ends life?” is a paradigmatic example. If Cauterucci is right that “I believe you’ve killed someone, but I will fight for your right to do it” alienates people, what messaging options does the abortion lobby have left?

The fundamental problem is that, in the long run, there is no way to both be honest and portray abortion in an attractive light. Abortion kills. Abortion targets the most vulnerable members of our human family. We must demand politicians who wholeheartedly oppose abortion—both personally, and politically.

“I believe you’ve killed someone, but I will fight for your right to do it!”

Pro-choice Democrat Conor Lamb is the newest member of the House of Representatives, having squeaked out a special election win in Pennsylvania with just 641 more votes than his Republican opponent. The race was seen as a referendum on President Trump, who won the conservative district by 19 points in 2016.

There has been no shortage of commentary about what this means for the 2018 midterms, and in particular, whether Lambs’ “personally pro-life, politically pro-choice” schtick should be replicated by Democrats in other red districts. But much of this coverage has ignored a key variable, namely, the reason Pennsylvania was having a special election in the first place.

Remember Tim Murphy? He held the district and was forced to resign after he was revealed to be Lamb’s polar opposite: politically pro-life, but personally pro-choice. Pro-life organizations and voters alike were outraged when it came to light that Murphy had not only had an extramarital affair, but had encouraged his mistress to have an abortion. (She turned out not to be pregnant.)

There is no data to suggest that the district’s residents suddenly abandoned their pro-life principles en masse, but such a betrayal from a traditionally pro-life candidate could have made Lamb’s “personally pro-life” pitch more appealing. That doesn’t make either Lamb or his voters correct, of course—Lamb’s claim that he must vote pro-choice for reasons of church-state separation is particularly laughable—but I can understand why voters might have felt their vote wouldn’t necessarily lead to a truly pro-life legislator anyway, so why bother.

Abortion extremists, of course, are busy eating their own. At Slate, Christina Cauterucci writes that “personally pro-life” politicians have been known to back Choose Life license plates (the horror!) and popular, common-sense limitations like parental consent for abortions on minors and prohibitions on taxpayer subsidies to the abortion industry. Cauterucci also makes this interesting point:

By broadcasting his belief that, lawmaking aside, a fertilized egg is a human life, he’s essentially scolding women who’ve had abortions. “I believe you’ve killed someone, but I will fight for your right to do it!” may be the best progressives can hope for from those who are morally opposed to abortion, but it’s also a good way to alienate people on both sides of the issue.

While I obviously disagree with Cauterucci on the morality of abortion, she’s hit upon a critical insight here. In recent years, the abortion movement has been trying to distance itself from its traditionally anti-science lines of argument (e.g. “it’s just a clump of cells”) in favor of a more modern approach that acknowledges the lethal reality of abortion but justifies it anyway. Salon‘s 2013 article “So what if abortion ends life?” is a paradigmatic example. If Cauterucci is right that “I believe you’ve killed someone, but I will fight for your right to do it” alienates people, what messaging options does the abortion lobby have left?

The fundamental problem is that, in the long run, there is no way to both be honest and portray abortion in an attractive light. Abortion kills. Abortion targets the most vulnerable members of our human family. We must demand politicians who wholeheartedly oppose abortion—both personally, and politically.

The Plot Thickens: Rasanen on Ectogenesis

I recently wrote an article responding to Joona Rasanen’s arguments regarding ectogenesis. Ectogenesis refers to an organism growing in an artificial environment outside the body in which it would normally be found. In this context, it refers to the human embryo or fetus gestating in an artificial womb rather than the woman’s womb who conceived the child. That article was, itself, inspired by comments that I left on an earlier article on BioEdge. Rasanen, who is apparently a reader of BioEdge, responded to my comments in general. He wrote,

Thanks for your comments. However, I suggest you, and others, to [sic] read my article… I have not argued that a genetic mother has a right to the death of the fetus. I claimed that the right to the death of the fetus is couple’s [sic] collective right which they can use together.

A right to genetic privacy should be understood not as an individual but as a collective right. That is because reproduction is not an individual but a collective action. Even though a fetus shares 50% of its genetic material with each genetic parent respectively, 100% of the fetus’ genetic material comes from its genetic parents.

Also, I do not believe that we have full moral status from the moment of conception. Elsewhere, I have argued against such views (but if I am wrong it probably [sic] change the outcome of this debate).

I e-mailed Rasanen and he was kind enough to provide me with a copy of his article.[1] To recap, the four arguments I presented against his view on ectogenesis are:

  • Considering the embryo/fetus the property of the mother is dehumanizing.
  • The genetic material is not identical to the mother’s genetic material but is a combination of the mother’s and father’s genetic material.
  • This argument proves too much (it would justify coerced abortions in some cases)
  • A violation of this nature would justify killing a person at any age if it justifies killing the embryo/fetus

Rasanen’s thesis is that despite the views of abortion-choice thinkers, and despite the possibility that ectogenesis for the human embryo/fetus may become a reality one day, a pregnant woman doesn’t just have a right to be unpregnant, she also has a right to the death of the fetus. I have perused Rasanen’s article and now I intend to show that the arguments he provides don’t justify the woman having any sort of right to the death of the fetus, even if we grant her the right to removal of the unborn child from her uterus (and I would only grant this for the sake of this particular discussion — I obviously do not hold this position).

Argument #1: The right not to become a biological parent


Rasanen spells out his argument as follows:

1. Becoming a biological parent causes harm to the couple because of parental obligations to the child.
2. The couple has the interest to avoid the harm of parental obligations.
3. Therefore, the couple has a right to the death of the fetus to avoid the harm of parental obligations.

This argument is a non sequitur just on the face of it. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. If we assume that both premises are true, then one can avoid the harm of parental obligations simply by abstaining from having sex. Like bodily rights more generally, if the argument succeeds, then it only justifies abortion in rape cases, not in non-rape cases, which make up the vast majority of abortions.

However, let’s examine his reasons for believing the premises to be true. He only offers reasons to accept the first premise, and they are: 1) even if the child is adopted out, if the fetus is allowed to survive the biological parents will always feel morally responsible for the child, which then could cause them significant psychological harm, and 2) he believes that biological parents actually do remain obliged, life-long, to their birth children, even when adopted out. Adoption doesn’t resolve this issue, he says, because parental obligations cannot be fully transferred or delineated to adoptive parents. They are, by nature, non-transferable according to his view. However, Rasanen doesn’t justify these two supporting arguments; his justification is simply that as there is no alternative ways to avoid the harm of parental obligations, then the parents have a right to the death of the fetus.

Even if we accept Rasanen’s view as correct, that the responsibilities of parenthood cannot, by nature, be transferred (and I would argue he is wrong about his view of the non-transferability of parental obligations via adoption), his argument would not succeed. My counterargument is simply that Rasanen’s argument is invalid because its conclusion doesn’t follow from its premises. There is, in fact, an alternative way to avoid the “harm of parental obligations” — to abstain from having sex. If you don’t have sex, you don’t get pregnant. Now I know that many readers of this blog might not find this an altogether appealing response (you should hear some of the things I’ve been called due to holding this view). But it doesn’t matter whether or not this response is ultimately appealing. All that matters is that it is an alternative way to avoid this harm. Rasanen’s argument is dependent on there being no alternative to avoid it, so by presenting a valid alternative, Rasanen’s argument is also shown to be unsound.

Argument #2: The right to genetic privacy


Rasanen’s second argument is formulated as follows:

1. People have a right to genetic privacy.
2. Ectogenesis abortion violates the genetic privacy of the genetic parents of the fetus.
3. Therefore, genetic parents have a right to the death of the fetus.

I agree with Rasanen’s first point. I think that people do have a right to genetic privacy. After all, if someone steals your DNA and clones you, it seems that two wrongs have been committed: first, in stealing your DNA, and then in cloning you. So I’ll accept Rasanen’s first premise.

However, even if I, again, grant Rasanen’s second premise for the sake of argument (which I do not grant otherwise), his argument is, again, a non sequitur. It doesn’t follow from the first two premises that the genetic parents have a right to the death of the fetus. Here are a few reasons why:

1) This argument proves too much. The fetus is already in existence. The parents’ DNA has already been used to conceive a new human being. If we accept that this violation of the right to genetic privacy grants the parents a right to the death of the fetus, there is no principled reason why this would not grant them the same right when the child is older. Some women are not aware they are pregnant until they give birth (as incredible as this is to believe). Why wouldn’t the mother have the right to kill her infant if she gives birth to a child she didn’t even know she had? Or what if she gives birth to the child, but a couple of years down the road decides that it’s just too difficult and wants to claim her right to genetic privacy? What principled reason is there to deny this? If your response is that the child is a person at that stage, then it’s not a right to genetic privacy that is doing the work of justifying the death of the fetus but the argument that the fetus is not yet a person. So in that case, this argument doesn’t justify the conclusion.

2) This argument again proves too much in the fact that it would justify coercive abortions. Now, Rasanen justifies his right to genetic privacy by saying because procreation is an act that requires two people, the right to the death of the fetus is not an individual right but a collective right. So the decision must be unanimous in order for the fetus to be killed. However, I’m not sure there are such things as collective rights, and the concept is a controversial one. It seems to me that all rights are reducible to individual rights, and any supposed right a group might possess must never infringe on the individual right of a human being, certainly not if the infringement is a greater harm than the prevention of being able to act in some way. So even if we conceive of the “right to genetic privacy” as a collective right, that collective right must never infringe on the individual right of a human being, so it still would not justify a “right to the death of the fetus.”

Now, if both parents have a right to genetic privacy, then the child would be violating the father’s right to genetic privacy just as much as the mother’s. So he would have the right to force her to have an abortion. Or if they do give birth to a child, any grandchild that their child eventually conceives will also have come from their genetic code, so this would also justify the grandparents forcing their daughter to have an abortion for whatever reason. Rasanen apparently believes that when the child is still in the uterus, the choice to terminate the pregnancy is the mother’s and the mother’s alone to make. But this doesn’t make sense considering his argument that reproduction is a collective act. If reproduction is a collective act, and the death of the fetus a collective decision, then the right to terminate the pregnancy must also be a collective act, requiring the permission of both parents because removing the child from the natural environment of the uterus would present a harm to the developing embryo/fetus. So while the embryo/fetus would not die, this would be allowing the mother to harm the child against the father’s wishes.

3) The child is not violating the right; the perpetrator of the act has violated your rights and must be punished for it. The child is doing nothing wrong by merely existing. The harm of violating the right to genetic privacy has already been done. The DNA has already been used to produce an embryo from the parents’ DNA, and even after you kill the child, that won’t undo the conception. There will still be a dead human being with the combined DNA of the parents. Only now a child has been punished for these circumstances beyond his control.

So again, his conclusion doesn’t follow. The fact that their right to genetic privacy has been violated does not justify a “right to the death of the fetus” because the harm has already been done, and because this would allow killing a person at any age, not just while in the womb. Also, there is simply no causal link between the violation of the parents’ genetic privacy and the right to the death of the fetus as killing the fetus will not remove her genetic code or undo the conception.

Argument #3: The right to property


Rasanen’s third argument is formulated as follows:

1. The fetus is property of the genetic parents.
2. People can destroy their property.
3. Therefore, genetic parents can destroy their fetus.

Now this is the most barbaric of the three arguments. I can cite numerous examples where human beings were considered property in world history, with disastrous results. This is simply dehumanizing and not an argument that a person concerned with ethics ought to be making. An embryo/fetus is a human being at an early stage of development. Even if the fetus is not a person, there is no justification for considering it of such low status as to be simply a piece of property. So this argument is unsound because premise one is simply not true (and oddly enough, this is the only one of his three arguments that is actually logically valid).

However, aside from the previous paragraph, this is also an instance in which Rasanen just didn’t seem to be paying close attention to what he was arguing. The only justification he gives for the two premises is that common intuition supports them (for example, many people have an intuition that a couple who uses IVF to get pregnant can destroy the excess embryos if they wish, and no one can use them against the couple’s consent). This is despite the fact that many people have strong intuition in the opposite direction, such as myself and most pro-life people, that a couple who conceives through IVF does not have the moral right to destroy the excess embryos (to say nothing of whether or not it is even ethical to conceive them artificially in the first place, but that’s irrelevant to the present discussion). This is, frankly, shocking since in his discussion of the “right not to become a biological parent” he chides two abortion-choice philosophers, Eric Mathison and Jeremy Davis, for arguing that intuitions against the claim that gamete donors and surrogate mothers have rights toward the child means that there are no such rights, and thus there are no ethical problems with those practices. He scolds them because of the numerous philosophers who argue that they do, indeed, have rights toward the child, so intuition, alone, cannot justify their argument. So Rasanen is making the same kind of argument, that common intuition, alone, justifies that the fetus is the property of the genetic parents despite the fact that numerous philosophers have argued that human personhood is established during fertilization.

In fact, to make matters even worse, he concedes that older children are not property because they are persons, and persons cannot be property. But he doesn’t justify his position that early fetuses are not persons. Despite conceding that if the early fetus is a person, it might change the outcome of the debate, he makes no attempt to justify his position, instead stating that it is outside the scope of his article. Under ordinary circumstances, I would agree. But since his third point literally rises or falls on whether or not the early fetus is a person, it is well within the scope of his article to address it. In fact, it is mandatory, if he expects his arguments to convince anyone.

Post Script


Rasanen finishes up with a discussion about what happens, in his view, when biological parents disagree over the fate of the fetus. I have already argued that all rights are reducible to individual rights, so there may not be any such things as collective rights, but even if there are, they certainly could not infringe on the individual rights of a human being, especially if that infringement is a greater harm than being prevented from acting. So I need not comment on this section, as I believe the discussion in this section of his paper to be without merit or meaning.

But something needs to be said. Apart from the lack of awareness of what he’s writing in his own article, one of Rasanen’s supporting points is that “when a man and woman are having sex, they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity.” This is quoted verbatim from his article. He is meaning this to show that we should accept the status quo — the fetus is alive, and killing it would change the status quo. So we should protect the life of the fetus if the genetic parents are in disagreement. But the problem is that Rasanen’s statement basically negates the whole abortion debate. I agree wholeheartedly that when a man and woman are having sex, they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity. But this includes conceiving a child! When a man and woman have sex, which results in the conception of an embryo, they now bear a responsibility to care for this embryo because they engaged in an act which leads to the creation of a naturally needy child. So they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity.

It gets worse for Rasanen, and this one I’m going to quote at length:

…in cases where genetic parents disagree, I believe we should follow what can be called the status quo approach. According to this approach, change needs a stronger justification than keeping things as they are. 

As long as there is no intervention to the pregnancy, the fetus will naturally develop inside the woman’s womb. This means that there is no change to the status quo and the fetus’ naturally probable potential to develop into an infant would be actualized. Following the status quo approach would mean that when one parent wants the death of the fetus and the other does not, the fetus should not be killed or left to die. Therefore, when, for example, a pregnant woman wants the fetus to die, but the father wants it to live, the fetus should be detached and implanted into an artificial womb where the fetus would continue its development into an infant. Thus the status quo should be understood from the point of view of the fetus: an already developing fetus would continue its development in a womb — albeit an artificial one.

Did you catch that? There are several things wrong with his statements here. First, there’s a fairly obvious one. Rasanen is essentially arguing that a woman should be forced to have an operation (i.e. “detach the fetus”) against her desires. This is unethical medical practice. Second, if the fetus is not a person and is merely property of the genetic parents, then on what grounds should we understand the status quo from the point of view of the fetus? I have never asked my car whether it prefers 10W-30 or 5W-30 motor oil. I’ve never asked it whether it would be willing to give me a lift to the store or if it would prefer to stay at home, or even acted in such a way, from its perspective. It’s my property; it has no say in the matter. In fact, it has a specific purpose that I own it for. When it can no longer fulfill that function, I sell it off for parts. Third, if the fetus is merely property and is not a person, then on what grounds should we accept the status quo argument? Why not allow the mother to kill the fetus against the father’s wishes? He could, after all, find someone else to have children with. If the fetus is merely property, it isn’t being harmed by being killed. I’m not harming my wall when I take a sledgehammer to it. The status quo argument implicitly assumes personhood of the fetus. But fourth, if changing the status quo requires a stronger argument than keeping it the same, it’s not obvious why the woman should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy at all, especially if the pregnancy is a normal, healthy pregnancy. If the status quo should be understood from the point of view of the fetus, and it takes a stronger argument to change it than keep it the same, there is no reason why a woman in an average pregnancy should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy (and note: I’m not saying that pregnancies are easy, I’m simply saying that barring cases in which the pregnancy presents a danger to the life or serious health of the woman, the status quo argument would not justify terminating the pregnancy).

Conclusion

I have examined four arguments by Rasanen (the right not to become a parent, the right to genetic privacy, the fetus as property, and the status quo argument) and shown them all to be flawed for various reasons, either because they are logically invalid and unsound, simply logically unsound, or they actually argue against his position rather than for it. For these reasons, Rasanen’s arguments cannot be seen as weighing in favor of a right to the death of the fetus, even if we grant a right terminate the pregnancy but keep the fetus alive.

[1] All quotations and paraphrases from Joona Rasanen, unless otherwise noted, are from his article “Ectogenesis, abortion, and a right to the death of the fetus,” Bioethics, 2017, 31:697-702, DOI: 10.1111/bioe.12404.

The Plot Thickens: Rasanen on Ectogenesis

I recently wrote an article responding to Joona Rasanen’s arguments regarding ectogenesis. Ectogenesis refers to an organism growing in an artificial environment outside the body in which it would normally be found. In this context, it refers to the human embryo or fetus gestating in an artificial womb rather than the woman’s womb who conceived the child. That article was, itself, inspired by comments that I left on an earlier article on BioEdge. Rasanen, who is apparently a reader of BioEdge, responded to my comments in general. He wrote,

Thanks for your comments. However, I suggest you, and others, to [sic] read my article… I have not argued that a genetic mother has a right to the death of the fetus. I claimed that the right to the death of the fetus is couple’s [sic] collective right which they can use together.

A right to genetic privacy should be understood not as an individual but as a collective right. That is because reproduction is not an individual but a collective action. Even though a fetus shares 50% of its genetic material with each genetic parent respectively, 100% of the fetus’ genetic material comes from its genetic parents.

Also, I do not believe that we have full moral status from the moment of conception. Elsewhere, I have argued against such views (but if I am wrong it probably [sic] change the outcome of this debate).

I e-mailed Rasanen and he was kind enough to provide me with a copy of his article.[1] To recap, the four arguments I presented against his view on ectogenesis are:

  • Considering the embryo/fetus the property of the mother is dehumanizing.
  • The genetic material is not identical to the mother’s genetic material but is a combination of the mother’s and father’s genetic material.
  • This argument proves too much (it would justify coerced abortions in some cases)
  • A violation of this nature would justify killing a person at any age if it justifies killing the embryo/fetus

Rasanen’s thesis is that despite the views of abortion-choice thinkers, and despite the possibility that ectogenesis for the human embryo/fetus may become a reality one day, a pregnant woman doesn’t just have a right to be unpregnant, she also has a right to the death of the fetus. I have perused Rasanen’s article and now I intend to show that the arguments he provides don’t justify the woman having any sort of right to the death of the fetus, even if we grant her the right to removal of the unborn child from her uterus (and I would only grant this for the sake of this particular discussion — I obviously do not hold this position).

Argument #1: The right not to become a biological parent


Rasanen spells out his argument as follows:

1. Becoming a biological parent causes harm to the couple because of parental obligations to the child.
2. The couple has the interest to avoid the harm of parental obligations.
3. Therefore, the couple has a right to the death of the fetus to avoid the harm of parental obligations.

This argument is a non sequitur just on the face of it. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. If we assume that both premises are true, then one can avoid the harm of parental obligations simply by abstaining from having sex. Like bodily rights more generally, if the argument succeeds, then it only justifies abortion in rape cases, not in non-rape cases, which make up the vast majority of abortions.

However, let’s examine his reasons for believing the premises to be true. He only offers reasons to accept the first premise, and they are: 1) even if the child is adopted out, if the fetus is allowed to survive the biological parents will always feel morally responsible for the child, which then could cause them significant psychological harm, and 2) he believes that biological parents actually do remain obliged, life-long, to their birth children, even when adopted out. Adoption doesn’t resolve this issue, he says, because parental obligations cannot be fully transferred or delineated to adoptive parents. They are, by nature, non-transferable according to his view. However, Rasanen doesn’t justify these two supporting arguments; his justification is simply that as there is no alternative ways to avoid the harm of parental obligations, then the parents have a right to the death of the fetus.

Even if we accept Rasanen’s view as correct, that the responsibilities of parenthood cannot, by nature, be transferred (and I would argue he is wrong about his view of the non-transferability of parental obligations via adoption), his argument would not succeed. My counterargument is simply that Rasanen’s argument is invalid because its conclusion doesn’t follow from its premises. There is, in fact, an alternative way to avoid the “harm of parental obligations” — to abstain from having sex. If you don’t have sex, you don’t get pregnant. Now I know that many readers of this blog might not find this an altogether appealing response (you should hear some of the things I’ve been called due to holding this view). But it doesn’t matter whether or not this response is ultimately appealing. All that matters is that it is an alternative way to avoid this harm. Rasanen’s argument is dependent on there being no alternative to avoid it, so by presenting a valid alternative, Rasanen’s argument is also shown to be unsound.

Argument #2: The right to genetic privacy


Rasanen’s second argument is formulated as follows:

1. People have a right to genetic privacy.
2. Ectogenesis abortion violates the genetic privacy of the genetic parents of the fetus.
3. Therefore, genetic parents have a right to the death of the fetus.

I agree with Rasanen’s first point. I think that people do have a right to genetic privacy. After all, if someone steals your DNA and clones you, it seems that two wrongs have been committed: first, in stealing your DNA, and then in cloning you. So I’ll accept Rasanen’s first premise.

However, even if I, again, grant Rasanen’s second premise for the sake of argument (which I do not grant otherwise), his argument is, again, a non sequitur. It doesn’t follow from the first two premises that the genetic parents have a right to the death of the fetus. Here are a few reasons why:

1) This argument proves too much. The fetus is already in existence. The parents’ DNA has already been used to conceive a new human being. If we accept that this violation of the right to genetic privacy grants the parents a right to the death of the fetus, there is no principled reason why this would not grant them the same right when the child is older. Some women are not aware they are pregnant until they give birth (as incredible as this is to believe). Why wouldn’t the mother have the right to kill her infant if she gives birth to a child she didn’t even know she had? Or what if she gives birth to the child, but a couple of years down the road decides that it’s just too difficult and wants to claim her right to genetic privacy? What principled reason is there to deny this? If your response is that the child is a person at that stage, then it’s not a right to genetic privacy that is doing the work of justifying the death of the fetus but the argument that the fetus is not yet a person. So in that case, this argument doesn’t justify the conclusion.

2) This argument again proves too much in the fact that it would justify coercive abortions. Now, Rasanen justifies his right to genetic privacy by saying because procreation is an act that requires two people, the right to the death of the fetus is not an individual right but a collective right. So the decision must be unanimous in order for the fetus to be killed. However, I’m not sure there are such things as collective rights, and the concept is a controversial one. It seems to me that all rights are reducible to individual rights, and any supposed right a group might possess must never infringe on the individual right of a human being, certainly not if the infringement is a greater harm than the prevention of being able to act in some way. So even if we conceive of the “right to genetic privacy” as a collective right, that collective right must never infringe on the individual right of a human being, so it still would not justify a “right to the death of the fetus.”

Now, if both parents have a right to genetic privacy, then the child would be violating the father’s right to genetic privacy just as much as the mother’s. So he would have the right to force her to have an abortion. Or if they do give birth to a child, any grandchild that their child eventually conceives will also have come from their genetic code, so this would also justify the grandparents forcing their daughter to have an abortion for whatever reason. Rasanen apparently believes that when the child is still in the uterus, the choice to terminate the pregnancy is the mother’s and the mother’s alone to make. But this doesn’t make sense considering his argument that reproduction is a collective act. If reproduction is a collective act, and the death of the fetus a collective decision, then the right to terminate the pregnancy must also be a collective act, requiring the permission of both parents because removing the child from the natural environment of the uterus would present a harm to the developing embryo/fetus. So while the embryo/fetus would not die, this would be allowing the mother to harm the child against the father’s wishes.

3) The child is not violating the right; the perpetrator of the act has violated your rights and must be punished for it. The child is doing nothing wrong by merely existing. The harm of violating the right to genetic privacy has already been done. The DNA has already been used to produce an embryo from the parents’ DNA, and even after you kill the child, that won’t undo the conception. There will still be a dead human being with the combined DNA of the parents. Only now a child has been punished for these circumstances beyond his control.

So again, his conclusion doesn’t follow. The fact that their right to genetic privacy has been violated does not justify a “right to the death of the fetus” because the harm has already been done, and because this would allow killing a person at any age, not just while in the womb. Also, there is simply no causal link between the violation of the parents’ genetic privacy and the right to the death of the fetus as killing the fetus will not remove her genetic code or undo the conception.

Argument #3: The right to property


Rasanen’s third argument is formulated as follows:

1. The fetus is property of the genetic parents.
2. People can destroy their property.
3. Therefore, genetic parents can destroy their fetus.

Now this is the most barbaric of the three arguments. I can cite numerous examples where human beings were considered property in world history, with disastrous results. This is simply dehumanizing and not an argument that a person concerned with ethics ought to be making. An embryo/fetus is a human being at an early stage of development. Even if the fetus is not a person, there is no justification for considering it of such low status as to be simply a piece of property. So this argument is unsound because premise one is simply not true (and oddly enough, this is the only one of his three arguments that is actually logically valid).

However, aside from the previous paragraph, this is also an instance in which Rasanen just didn’t seem to be paying close attention to what he was arguing. The only justification he gives for the two premises is that common intuition supports them (for example, many people have an intuition that a couple who uses IVF to get pregnant can destroy the excess embryos if they wish, and no one can use them against the couple’s consent). This is despite the fact that many people have strong intuition in the opposite direction, such as myself and most pro-life people, that a couple who conceives through IVF does not have the moral right to destroy the excess embryos (to say nothing of whether or not it is even ethical to conceive them artificially in the first place, but that’s irrelevant to the present discussion). This is, frankly, shocking since in his discussion of the “right not to become a biological parent” he chides two abortion-choice philosophers, Eric Mathison and Jeremy Davis, for arguing that intuitions against the claim that gamete donors and surrogate mothers have rights toward the child means that there are no such rights, and thus there are no ethical problems with those practices. He scolds them because of the numerous philosophers who argue that they do, indeed, have rights toward the child, so intuition, alone, cannot justify their argument. So Rasanen is making the same kind of argument, that common intuition, alone, justifies that the fetus is the property of the genetic parents despite the fact that numerous philosophers have argued that human personhood is established during fertilization.

In fact, to make matters even worse, he concedes that older children are not property because they are persons, and persons cannot be property. But he doesn’t justify his position that early fetuses are not persons. Despite conceding that if the early fetus is a person, it might change the outcome of the debate, he makes no attempt to justify his position, instead stating that it is outside the scope of his article. Under ordinary circumstances, I would agree. But since his third point literally rises or falls on whether or not the early fetus is a person, it is well within the scope of his article to address it. In fact, it is mandatory, if he expects his arguments to convince anyone.

Post Script


Rasanen finishes up with a discussion about what happens, in his view, when biological parents disagree over the fate of the fetus. I have already argued that all rights are reducible to individual rights, so there may not be any such things as collective rights, but even if there are, they certainly could not infringe on the individual rights of a human being, especially if that infringement is a greater harm than being prevented from acting. So I need not comment on this section, as I believe the discussion in this section of his paper to be without merit or meaning.

But something needs to be said. Apart from the lack of awareness of what he’s writing in his own article, one of Rasanen’s supporting points is that “when a man and woman are having sex, they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity.” This is quoted verbatim from his article. He is meaning this to show that we should accept the status quo — the fetus is alive, and killing it would change the status quo. So we should protect the life of the fetus if the genetic parents are in disagreement. But the problem is that Rasanen’s statement basically negates the whole abortion debate. I agree wholeheartedly that when a man and woman are having sex, they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity. But this includes conceiving a child! When a man and woman have sex, which results in the conception of an embryo, they now bear a responsibility to care for this embryo because they engaged in an act which leads to the creation of a naturally needy child. So they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity.

It gets worse for Rasanen, and this one I’m going to quote at length:

…in cases where genetic parents disagree, I believe we should follow what can be called the status quo approach. According to this approach, change needs a stronger justification than keeping things as they are. 

As long as there is no intervention to the pregnancy, the fetus will naturally develop inside the woman’s womb. This means that there is no change to the status quo and the fetus’ naturally probable potential to develop into an infant would be actualized. Following the status quo approach would mean that when one parent wants the death of the fetus and the other does not, the fetus should not be killed or left to die. Therefore, when, for example, a pregnant woman wants the fetus to die, but the father wants it to live, the fetus should be detached and implanted into an artificial womb where the fetus would continue its development into an infant. Thus the status quo should be understood from the point of view of the fetus: an already developing fetus would continue its development in a womb — albeit an artificial one.

Did you catch that? There are several things wrong with his statements here. First, there’s a fairly obvious one. Rasanen is essentially arguing that a woman should be forced to have an operation (i.e. “detach the fetus”) against her desires. This is unethical medical practice. Second, if the fetus is not a person and is merely property of the genetic parents, then on what grounds should we understand the status quo from the point of view of the fetus? I have never asked my car whether it prefers 10W-30 or 5W-30 motor oil. I’ve never asked it whether it would be willing to give me a lift to the store or if it would prefer to stay at home, or even acted in such a way, from its perspective. It’s my property; it has no say in the matter. In fact, it has a specific purpose that I own it for. When it can no longer fulfill that function, I sell it off for parts. Third, if the fetus is merely property and is not a person, then on what grounds should we accept the status quo argument? Why not allow the mother to kill the fetus against the father’s wishes? He could, after all, find someone else to have children with. If the fetus is merely property, it isn’t being harmed by being killed. I’m not harming my wall when I take a sledgehammer to it. The status quo argument implicitly assumes personhood of the fetus. But fourth, if changing the status quo requires a stronger argument than keeping it the same, it’s not obvious why the woman should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy at all, especially if the pregnancy is a normal, healthy pregnancy. If the status quo should be understood from the point of view of the fetus, and it takes a stronger argument to change it than keep it the same, there is no reason why a woman in an average pregnancy should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy (and note: I’m not saying that pregnancies are easy, I’m simply saying that barring cases in which the pregnancy presents a danger to the life or serious health of the woman, the status quo argument would not justify terminating the pregnancy).

Conclusion

I have examined four arguments by Rasanen (the right not to become a parent, the right to genetic privacy, the fetus as property, and the status quo argument) and shown them all to be flawed for various reasons, either because they are logically invalid and unsound, simply logically unsound, or they actually argue against his position rather than for it. For these reasons, Rasanen’s arguments cannot be seen as weighing in favor of a right to the death of the fetus, even if we grant a right terminate the pregnancy but keep the fetus alive.

[1] All quotations and paraphrases from Joona Rasanen, unless otherwise noted, are from his article “Ectogenesis, abortion, and a right to the death of the fetus,” Bioethics, 2017, 31:697-702, DOI: 10.1111/bioe.12404.

Revisiting the Spectrum Argument

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

A few years ago, Bob Seidensticker, a Patheos blogger, wrote about an argument he called the Spectrum Argument. I wrote an article in response. Seidensticker just updated a response to me a few days ago, which you can read here. I’d like to respond to the points he’s raised in his new article. To summarize his argument, there is no dividing line between “person” and “non-person”. It is a spectrum, and the embryo begins as a non-person and eventually becomes a person once it reaches a certain developmental milestone, and this milestone is the number of cells that go into making up a human person. As he says in his original article,

But the vast difference in the number of cells only begins to define the vast difference between the two ends of the spectrum. At one end, we have arms and legs, fingers and fingernails, liver and pancreas, brain and nervous system, heart and circulatory system, stomach and digestive system — in fact, every body part that a healthy person has. And at the other, we have none of this. We have…a single cell. In between is a smooth progression over time, with individual components developing and maturing. That’s the spectrum we’re talking about…Note also that the difference between a newborn and an adult is trivial compared to the difference between the cell and the 1,000,000,000,000-cell newborn.

He makes several comparisons. A brain with only one neuron doesn’t think at all, which is a huge difference between it and the brain with one million neurons, which does think. There is a continuous spectrum from blue to green, but blue is not green. There is no objective dividing line between child and adult.

A refutation of his argument, generally

The argument can really be refuted right away. Seidensticker here completely ignores the fact of human development. Once we develop enough cells, these other structures don’t mysteriously come into existence. They develop gradually: a heart develops at around 22 days in utero, arms and legs start to form around the second month, etc. Seidensticker says “this is the spectrum we’re talking about,” but in what sense is this a spectrum? The reality is we don’t exist on a spectrum — what is human is human from the beginning. It has a human nature which directs its development and grounds its ultimate capacities, and all physical parts of the embryo eventually develop into the adult. Blue may change from green on a spectrum, but green didn’t start out as green — it starts out as blue. A human doesn’t start out as a non-human, it starts out as a human and remains human. The single-celled zygote is a fundamentally different entity than the sperm and ovum cells that went in to make it — and from then on, there is a continuity of existence from the single cell zygote all the way through that embryo’s life. The zygote doesn’t go out of existence once the cell starts to divide, it develops along the path of human development. But Seidensticker never gives us any sort of argument as to why he believes humans develop on a spectrum — he only tries to argue for it by pointing to other things that are spectrums and saying “see, they’re the same.”

Even if we consider Seidensticker’s argument as an argument of personhood, he still has to argue for why personhood is a spectrum. This would commit him to a gradualist position, similar to the likes of Wayne Sumner, who believes that sentience (i.e. the capacity to feel pain) is what grounds personhood. However, while Sumner’s argument from sentience makes sense (it is at least intuitively plausible that the reason it’s wrong to kill someone is because they can feel pain, but of course, this position is open to several counterexamples), Seidensticker’s doesn’t. Seidensticker places the value-giving property on the number of cells the entity contains because of the differences between a single-celled zygote and a one trillion celled newborn. Of course, if the pro-life position is successful, then these differences are trivial because it’s the same individual through all points in its development. After all, although I may be qualitatively different than an embryo (I’m older, I am presently rational, I can talk, etc.), I am quantitatively the same embryo that was in my mother’s womb.

A response to Seidensticker’s other points


But now let’s turn to Seidensticker’s other points. It’s trivial, but I want to start out by pointing out how amusing it is that Seidensticker claims that conservatives are trying to get votes by making an issue out of abortion, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign ran mostly on her support for abortion rights (and ultimately ended up losing the election). Donald Trump made a few comments but for the most part, his campaign was silent about the abortion issue. Was Seidensticker living in an alternate reality last year during the presidential campaign?

Cutoff line


The problem with Seidensticker’s argument here is that since we are dealing with the life of a human individual, then we must be able to make a determination. One advantage that the pro-life argument has over the abortion-choice argument is that the pro-life argument presents a clear dividing line between non-human and human: fertilization. But abortion-choice advocates generally disagree over when the dividing line is. Is it when sentience is sufficiently present, as Sumner argues? When cortical brain activity is present, as David Boonin argues? Is it when the human is sufficiently rational, as Michael Tooley argues? And even if we can decide which one of these thinkers is correct, there’s no clear dividing line at which point the developing human being attains personhood, under that conception of “person.” It does not disprove Seidensticker’s argument that he can’t come up with a clear dividing line (to argue that it does would be to risk committing the sorites fallacy), but it is a disadvantage that it has as compared to the pro-life argument.

Potential

Seidensticker responds to my arguments simply: “No, an acorn is not a tree, it is a potential tree.” “No, it is a potential brain.” Seidensticker presents no new arguments, so I can only point him to Monty Python to show why this isn’t an appropriate way to argue. The reality is that yes, the acorn is an immature oak because all of its physical parts will develop into the mature oak tree, and all capacities that mature oak will have are present in the acorn in a latent form (or it might be more accurate to say that it’s not the acorn, per se, that is the same as the mature oak tree because the acorn actually contains the oak embryo, and that oak embryo is the same individual as the mature oak tree it will become).

Simply repeating “no it isn’t” isn’t an argument, it’s contradiction.

Personhood spectrum analogy


Something similar to the acorn happens with the brain. Now, I’m not an expert on the brain or how it develops, but according to my research, a single neuron is not the brain itself, but the gray matter of the brain is made up of neurons. The neuron is only a potential brain in the sense that all the neurons will develop into the gray matter of the brain, but the gray matter and white matter must be present for the brain, itself, to actually function as a brain should.

Seidensticker tries to show why his brain analogy works by analogizing it to water. A single water molecule does not have the properties of wetness, fluidity, etc., but these are emergent properties that emerge once a sufficient amount of water molecules are present. Now, let’s set aside for a moment that the concept of emergent properties is controversial among philosophers, Seidensticker seems to be conflating the development of the brain with the development of a human. The human being is a human person from the beginning because from that single cell develops everything that the human will eventually be and have (including the brain). However, from that single neuron does not develop the brain — the neuron must be combined with other neurons in order to form the gray matter of the brain. This is the main, and important, difference between the development of the human and the development of the brain.
Seidensticker finishes off this section by asserting that the embryo is not a baby now but will be in the future. I don’t believe I ever used the term “baby” in my response to him, but the unborn child can certainly be seen as a baby. After all, what pregnant woman tells people she’s “with clump of cells”, or is having a “parasite shower”? She’s with child, and has a baby shower. The term baby can be used to refer to a lot of things, including an unborn child or child after he has been born. Many mothers still think of their adult offspring as their “babies.” “Baby” does not describe a stage of development of the human being, so it is not technically incorrect to refer to the unborn child as a baby. But neither does it add anything to the pro-life argument to use that emotionally loaded term.
The vastness of the spectrum

For this next section, I’ll simply respond to Seidensticker on a point by point basis:
1) Between a newborn baby, a teenager, and an adult, they have the following in common: a brain, a pancreas, skin, eyes, nose, bones, muscles, hands.
The problem is that these are all arbitrary commonalities. If I set a newborn and an adult down in front of me and ask, “raise your hand if you understand this command,” how many will raise their hand? One. There are large differences between an adult and a newborn: the adult can engage in rational thought. The adult can read this article. The adult can use language with intentionality. The newborn can’t do any of these things. To say that these are negligible differences would simply be an ad hoc defense of Seidensticker’s argument. Yet none of these differences justify killing the newborn and protecting the adult. Why? Because the newborn is a human being and has all of these capacities the adult has presently inherently (i.e. latently), just as the human embryo/fetus is and has. In fact, just as a late-term fetus has. The difference between a late-term fetus and newborn are negligible (hence why philosophers like Tooley and Peter Singer support infanticide), but Seidensticker hasn’t told us if he believes late-term abortions are wrong.
2) “The commonality across the spectrum is that they all have eukaryotic cells with Homo sapiens DNA. That’s it.” That’s an important commonality. But there are others: the unborn embryo has a human nature (in other words, even at the single-cell stage, the zygote behaves exactly as all humans do that early in their development). The developing embryo also has all the capacities the adult will develop at a latent level. Human embryos develop the ability to have rational thought because they have this capacity inherently. Human embryos never develop the ability to breathe underwater because they do not have this capacity inherently.
3)  “That’s not something that many of us get misty-eyed about. Very little sentimental poetry is written about the kind of DNA in the cells of one’s beloved.” This is a non-point. I don’t get misty-eyed when I think of homeless people on the streets. But that doesn’t mean those homeless people are any less human or valuable because of it, and it doesn’t mean I have any less of an obligation to help them. Just because I don’t have an emotional attachment to the developing embryo does not give me justification to kill it. Humans are rational animals and should use their rational faculties to rise above their emotional, animal instincts.

What do we call the spectrum?

Here’s where Seidensticker really seems to misunderstand my response to his spectrum argument. I fully concede that there are differences between a single-cell zygote and the newborn or adult it will one day become. But my response is philosophically nuanced and Seidensticker’s argument conflates many ideas together and fails to make important distinctions. Of course there are differences, differences in size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency, between a zygote and an adult. But these are all qualitative differences and don’t justify being able to kill the developing embryo.
So it’s not about needing to “rename” the spectrum to show why the spectrum is a determiner of personhood. It’s about no matter what name you give it, none of the differences Seidensticker fixates on are enough to justify killing the embryo in the womb.
Miscellaneous arguments

1) PETA: Seidensticker points to the fact that PETA uses their slogan, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” and argues they are trying to “collapse the spectrum” between these animals. The problem is Seidensticker, again, never addresses why he thinks this is a spectrum at all. He seems to assume that everything is a spectrum. But why assume that animal DNA exists as a spectrum? Certainly arguing that a member of a different species, say comparing a dog with a fish, is a fundamental difference and not a spectrum. Yes, they are all animals, but in what sense does fish and dog exist on a spectrum? Perhaps Seidensticker would do well to define what, exactly, he means by “spectrum.” But whatever he means, it is clear that human person is not a spectrum, it is an all-or-nothing thing. Either you are a person or you are not. Seidensticker has yet to refute the pro-life argument.
2) Evangelicals thirty years ago supported abortion: This is, again, irrelevant, but Seidensticker tries to save it by saying it’s not irrelevant to people who use religious arguments in this discussion. Except that it still is irrelevant. What matters is the truth of the arguments, not whether the group, as a whole, have switched their positions.
Again, Seidensticker misconstrues human development by asserting humans develop along a spectrum and fails to take into account that what is human is human from the beginning. He fails to make several important distinctions which show his argument to be faulty. It’s clear that Seidensticker’s argument fails to do the work of justifying abortion.

Revisiting the Spectrum Argument

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

A few years ago, Bob Seidensticker, a Patheos blogger, wrote about an argument he called the Spectrum Argument. I wrote an article in response. Seidensticker just updated a response to me a few days ago, which you can read here. I’d like to respond to the points he’s raised in his new article. To summarize his argument, there is no dividing line between “person” and “non-person”. It is a spectrum, and the embryo begins as a non-person and eventually becomes a person once it reaches a certain developmental milestone, and this milestone is the number of cells that go into making up a human person. As he says in his original article,

But the vast difference in the number of cells only begins to define the vast difference between the two ends of the spectrum. At one end, we have arms and legs, fingers and fingernails, liver and pancreas, brain and nervous system, heart and circulatory system, stomach and digestive system — in fact, every body part that a healthy person has. And at the other, we have none of this. We have…a single cell. In between is a smooth progression over time, with individual components developing and maturing. That’s the spectrum we’re talking about…Note also that the difference between a newborn and an adult is trivial compared to the difference between the cell and the 1,000,000,000,000-cell newborn.

He makes several comparisons. A brain with only one neuron doesn’t think at all, which is a huge difference between it and the brain with one million neurons, which does think. There is a continuous spectrum from blue to green, but blue is not green. There is no objective dividing line between child and adult.

A refutation of his argument, generally

The argument can really be refuted right away. Seidensticker here completely ignores the fact of human development. Once we develop enough cells, these other structures don’t mysteriously come into existence. They develop gradually: a heart develops at around 22 days in utero, arms and legs start to form around the second month, etc. Seidensticker says “this is the spectrum we’re talking about,” but in what sense is this a spectrum? The reality is we don’t exist on a spectrum — what is human is human from the beginning. It has a human nature which directs its development and grounds its ultimate capacities, and all physical parts of the embryo eventually develop into the adult. Blue may change from green on a spectrum, but green didn’t start out as green — it starts out as blue. A human doesn’t start out as a non-human, it starts out as a human and remains human. The single-celled zygote is a fundamentally different entity than the sperm and ovum cells that went in to make it — and from then on, there is a continuity of existence from the single cell zygote all the way through that embryo’s life. The zygote doesn’t go out of existence once the cell starts to divide, it develops along the path of human development. But Seidensticker never gives us any sort of argument as to why he believes humans develop on a spectrum — he only tries to argue for it by pointing to other things that are spectrums and saying “see, they’re the same.”

Even if we consider Seidensticker’s argument as an argument of personhood, he still has to argue for why personhood is a spectrum. This would commit him to a gradualist position, similar to the likes of Wayne Sumner, who believes that sentience (i.e. the capacity to feel pain) is what grounds personhood. However, while Sumner’s argument from sentience makes sense (it is at least intuitively plausible that the reason it’s wrong to kill someone is because they can feel pain, but of course, this position is open to several counterexamples), Seidensticker’s doesn’t. Seidensticker places the value-giving property on the number of cells the entity contains because of the differences between a single-celled zygote and a one trillion celled newborn. Of course, if the pro-life position is successful, then these differences are trivial because it’s the same individual through all points in its development. After all, although I may be qualitatively different than an embryo (I’m older, I am presently rational, I can talk, etc.), I am quantitatively the same embryo that was in my mother’s womb.

A response to Seidensticker’s other points


But now let’s turn to Seidensticker’s other points. It’s trivial, but I want to start out by pointing out how amusing it is that Seidensticker claims that conservatives are trying to get votes by making an issue out of abortion, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign ran mostly on her support for abortion rights (and ultimately ended up losing the election). Donald Trump made a few comments but for the most part, his campaign was silent about the abortion issue. Was Seidensticker living in an alternate reality last year during the presidential campaign?

Cutoff line


The problem with Seidensticker’s argument here is that since we are dealing with the life of a human individual, then we must be able to make a determination. One advantage that the pro-life argument has over the abortion-choice argument is that the pro-life argument presents a clear dividing line between non-human and human: fertilization. But abortion-choice advocates generally disagree over when the dividing line is. Is it when sentience is sufficiently present, as Sumner argues? When cortical brain activity is present, as David Boonin argues? Is it when the human is sufficiently rational, as Michael Tooley argues? And even if we can decide which one of these thinkers is correct, there’s no clear dividing line at which point the developing human being attains personhood, under that conception of “person.” It does not disprove Seidensticker’s argument that he can’t come up with a clear dividing line (to argue that it does would be to risk committing the sorites fallacy), but it is a disadvantage that it has as compared to the pro-life argument.

Potential

Seidensticker responds to my arguments simply: “No, an acorn is not a tree, it is a potential tree.” “No, it is a potential brain.” Seidensticker presents no new arguments, so I can only point him to Monty Python to show why this isn’t an appropriate way to argue. The reality is that yes, the acorn is an immature oak because all of its physical parts will develop into the mature oak tree, and all capacities that mature oak will have are present in the acorn in a latent form (or it might be more accurate to say that it’s not the acorn, per se, that is the same as the mature oak tree because the acorn actually contains the oak embryo, and that oak embryo is the same individual as the mature oak tree it will become).

Simply repeating “no it isn’t” isn’t an argument, it’s contradiction.

Personhood spectrum analogy


Something similar to the acorn happens with the brain. Now, I’m not an expert on the brain or how it develops, but according to my research, a single neuron is not the brain itself, but the gray matter of the brain is made up of neurons. The neuron is only a potential brain in the sense that all the neurons will develop into the gray matter of the brain, but the gray matter and white matter must be present for the brain, itself, to actually function as a brain should.

Seidensticker tries to show why his brain analogy works by analogizing it to water. A single water molecule does not have the properties of wetness, fluidity, etc., but these are emergent properties that emerge once a sufficient amount of water molecules are present. Now, let’s set aside for a moment that the concept of emergent properties is controversial among philosophers, Seidensticker seems to be conflating the development of the brain with the development of a human. The human being is a human person from the beginning because from that single cell develops everything that the human will eventually be and have (including the brain). However, from that single neuron does not develop the brain — the neuron must be combined with other neurons in order to form the gray matter of the brain. This is the main, and important, difference between the development of the human and the development of the brain.
Seidensticker finishes off this section by asserting that the embryo is not a baby now but will be in the future. I don’t believe I ever used the term “baby” in my response to him, but the unborn child can certainly be seen as a baby. After all, what pregnant woman tells people she’s “with clump of cells”, or is having a “parasite shower”? She’s with child, and has a baby shower. The term baby can be used to refer to a lot of things, including an unborn child or child after he has been born. Many mothers still think of their adult offspring as their “babies.” “Baby” does not describe a stage of development of the human being, so it is not technically incorrect to refer to the unborn child as a baby. But neither does it add anything to the pro-life argument to use that emotionally loaded term.
The vastness of the spectrum

For this next section, I’ll simply respond to Seidensticker on a point by point basis:
1) Between a newborn baby, a teenager, and an adult, they have the following in common: a brain, a pancreas, skin, eyes, nose, bones, muscles, hands.
The problem is that these are all arbitrary commonalities. If I set a newborn and an adult down in front of me and ask, “raise your hand if you understand this command,” how many will raise their hand? One. There are large differences between an adult and a newborn: the adult can engage in rational thought. The adult can read this article. The adult can use language with intentionality. The newborn can’t do any of these things. To say that these are negligible differences would simply be an ad hoc defense of Seidensticker’s argument. Yet none of these differences justify killing the newborn and protecting the adult. Why? Because the newborn is a human being and has all of these capacities the adult has presently inherently (i.e. latently), just as the human embryo/fetus is and has. In fact, just as a late-term fetus has. The difference between a late-term fetus and newborn are negligible (hence why philosophers like Tooley and Peter Singer support infanticide), but Seidensticker hasn’t told us if he believes late-term abortions are wrong.
2) “The commonality across the spectrum is that they all have eukaryotic cells with Homo sapiens DNA. That’s it.” That’s an important commonality. But there are others: the unborn embryo has a human nature (in other words, even at the single-cell stage, the zygote behaves exactly as all humans do that early in their development). The developing embryo also has all the capacities the adult will develop at a latent level. Human embryos develop the ability to have rational thought because they have this capacity inherently. Human embryos never develop the ability to breathe underwater because they do not have this capacity inherently.
3)  “That’s not something that many of us get misty-eyed about. Very little sentimental poetry is written about the kind of DNA in the cells of one’s beloved.” This is a non-point. I don’t get misty-eyed when I think of homeless people on the streets. But that doesn’t mean those homeless people are any less human or valuable because of it, and it doesn’t mean I have any less of an obligation to help them. Just because I don’t have an emotional attachment to the developing embryo does not give me justification to kill it. Humans are rational animals and should use their rational faculties to rise above their emotional, animal instincts.

What do we call the spectrum?

Here’s where Seidensticker really seems to misunderstand my response to his spectrum argument. I fully concede that there are differences between a single-cell zygote and the newborn or adult it will one day become. But my response is philosophically nuanced and Seidensticker’s argument conflates many ideas together and fails to make important distinctions. Of course there are differences, differences in size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency, between a zygote and an adult. But these are all qualitative differences and don’t justify being able to kill the developing embryo.
So it’s not about needing to “rename” the spectrum to show why the spectrum is a determiner of personhood. It’s about no matter what name you give it, none of the differences Seidensticker fixates on are enough to justify killing the embryo in the womb.
Miscellaneous arguments

1) PETA: Seidensticker points to the fact that PETA uses their slogan, “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” and argues they are trying to “collapse the spectrum” between these animals. The problem is Seidensticker, again, never addresses why he thinks this is a spectrum at all. He seems to assume that everything is a spectrum. But why assume that animal DNA exists as a spectrum? Certainly arguing that a member of a different species, say comparing a dog with a fish, is a fundamental difference and not a spectrum. Yes, they are all animals, but in what sense does fish and dog exist on a spectrum? Perhaps Seidensticker would do well to define what, exactly, he means by “spectrum.” But whatever he means, it is clear that human person is not a spectrum, it is an all-or-nothing thing. Either you are a person or you are not. Seidensticker has yet to refute the pro-life argument.
2) Evangelicals thirty years ago supported abortion: This is, again, irrelevant, but Seidensticker tries to save it by saying it’s not irrelevant to people who use religious arguments in this discussion. Except that it still is irrelevant. What matters is the truth of the arguments, not whether the group, as a whole, have switched their positions.
Again, Seidensticker misconstrues human development by asserting humans develop along a spectrum and fails to take into account that what is human is human from the beginning. He fails to make several important distinctions which show his argument to be faulty. It’s clear that Seidensticker’s argument fails to do the work of justifying abortion.