The pro-choice view survives on widespread ignorance of biology

Through Secular Pro-life I frequently post content about how the human zygote is the first stage of a human being’s life cycle. Often when I point this fact out, people will suggest I’m strawmanning the pro-choice view. They assert that no one really denies the basic biology; the important issues to the abortion debate are personhood [i.e. yes the fetus is biologically human but is she philosophically a “person”?] and bodily rights.

But the longer I participate in the abortion debate, the more strongly I suspect that most people actually care more about the biology than the rest. 
[For any readers who genuinely don’t already know: human sperm and human ova (eggs) are gametes (sex cells). They are not organisms. They are haploid cells (typically have 23 chromosomes each) created through a process called meiosis. A human organism is formed through fertilization; the sperm enters the egg to create a diploid cell (typically 46 chromosomes). This cell is called the zygote and it now multiplies through mitosis. Fertilization is a specific event that marks the transition from multiple gametes to a single organism and from meiosis to mitosis. These are basic biological facts. Read more here.]
To begin with, I’ve had so many debates with countless people who make 100% false assertions in defense of their pro-choice views. Here are some real examples of assertions people have made over the years:
  1. Sperm are organisms
  2. Gametes are organisms
  3. Neurons are organisms
  4. Skin cells are organisms
  5. Literally all cells are organisms
  6. Embryos are made of “non-living” cells
  7. Embryos don’t have heartbeats
  8. Embryos don’t have hearts at all
  9. Heartbeat doesn’t begin until several months into pregnancy
  10. Consciousness is defined as breathing air outside with working lungs
  11. Human life cycles have no specific beginnings or ends
  12. Human embryos are analogous to unfertilized chicken eggs
  13. Human sperm are analogous to frog tadpoles
  14. If abortion kills humans, masturbation is genocide
  15. If abortion kills humans, blow jobs are cannibalism
  16. If abortion kills humans, menstruation is murder
  17. If an embryo is a human organism, so is snot. Or poop.
  18. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is not supported by science
  19. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is a religious view
  20. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is a hotly contested view among many different and equally valid views in embryology
And so on.
I try to be careful not to give too much weight to comments from random people online. It’s a pet peeve of mine when “news” articles allege a new controversial view among a subset of Americans only for the author’s evidence to be screencaps of five otherwise ignored Tweets. You can find anything on the internet, so try not to over-extrapolate.

But the views I’m describing above are a lot easier to find than the 278th comment under a YouTube video. For example here’s a gamete/organisms equivocation that got over 40,000 retweets:
In addition to the countless and popular anecdotes, a recent dissertation out of the University of Chicago (which I’ve summarized in detail elsewhere) found that most Americans think “When does human life begin?” is (1) an important question (2) that people deserve to know the answer to so they can be informed about their reproductive decisions (3) that is best answered by biologists because (4) it’s an objective issue that can be informed by scientific knowledge. And of the Americans who chose biologists as the authority best suited to answer this question, 56% believed the biologists’ answer would strengthen the pro-choice side of the debate! (In fact the biologists affirmed that human life begins at fertilization.)

In other words, in the abortion debate, biology is important to most people, and yet a whole lot of them have no idea what the facts actually are.

This widespread ignorance bolsters the pro-choice side, and that’s why, I think, some abortion rights activists work so hard to obscure the biological reality. Last year multiple activists tried (completely incorrectly) to deny that embryos have heartbeats. When states have passed laws requiring doctors to provide information on fetal development or offer the woman the option to view her ultrasound or hear the heartbeat, pro-choicers have described these regulations as restrictions on abortion. We’ve seen alleged experts muddle the lines between their political views and the scientific facts over and over and over
If the general public already understood the basic biology and cared only about philosophical issues, abortion rights advocates wouldn’t need to do this song and dance. But people do care and don’t know about biology, and that’s why I’m going to keep repeating myself: the fetus is a human organism, and abortion kills humans.

Other Sources:

The pro-choice view survives on widespread ignorance of biology

Through Secular Pro-life I frequently post content about how the human zygote is the first stage of a human being’s life cycle. Often when I point this fact out, people will suggest I’m strawmanning the pro-choice view. They assert that no one really denies the basic biology; the important issues to the abortion debate are personhood [i.e. yes the fetus is biologically human but is she philosophically a “person”?] and bodily rights.

But the longer I participate in the abortion debate, the more strongly I suspect that most people actually care more about the biology than the rest. 
[For any readers who genuinely don’t already know: human sperm and human ova (eggs) are gametes (sex cells). They are not organisms. They are haploid cells (typically have 23 chromosomes each) created through a process called meiosis. A human organism is formed through fertilization; the sperm enters the egg to create a diploid cell (typically 46 chromosomes). This cell is called the zygote and it now multiplies through mitosis. Fertilization is a specific event that marks the transition from multiple gametes to a single organism and from meiosis to mitosis. These are basic biological facts. Read more here.]
To begin with, I’ve had so many debates with countless people who make 100% false assertions in defense of their pro-choice views. Here are some real examples of assertions people have made over the years:
  1. Sperm are organisms
  2. Gametes are organisms
  3. Neurons are organisms
  4. Skin cells are organisms
  5. Literally all cells are organisms
  6. Embryos are made of “non-living” cells
  7. Embryos don’t have heartbeats
  8. Embryos don’t have hearts at all
  9. Heartbeat doesn’t begin until several months into pregnancy
  10. Consciousness is defined as breathing air outside with working lungs
  11. Human life cycles have no specific beginnings or ends
  12. Human embryos are analogous to unfertilized chicken eggs
  13. Human sperm are analogous to frog tadpoles
  14. If abortion kills humans, masturbation is genocide
  15. If abortion kills humans, blow jobs are cannibalism
  16. If abortion kills humans, menstruation is murder
  17. If an embryo is a human organism, so is snot. Or poop.
  18. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is not supported by science
  19. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is a religious view
  20. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is a hotly contested view among many different and equally valid views in embryology
And so on.
I try to be careful not to give too much weight to comments from random people online. It’s a pet peeve of mine when “news” articles allege a new controversial view among a subset of Americans only for the author’s evidence to be screencaps of five otherwise ignored Tweets. You can find anything on the internet, so try not to over-extrapolate.

But the views I’m describing above are a lot easier to find than the 278th comment under a YouTube video. For example here’s a gamete/organisms equivocation that got over 40,000 retweets:
In addition to the countless and popular anecdotes, a recent dissertation out of the University of Chicago (which I’ve summarized in detail elsewhere) found that most Americans think “When does human life begin?” is (1) an important question (2) that people deserve to know the answer to so they can be informed about their reproductive decisions (3) that is best answered by biologists because (4) it’s an objective issue that can be informed by scientific knowledge. And of the Americans who chose biologists as the authority best suited to answer this question, 56% believed the biologists’ answer would strengthen the pro-choice side of the debate! (In fact the biologists affirmed that human life begins at fertilization.)

In other words, in the abortion debate, biology is important to most people, and yet a whole lot of them have no idea what the facts actually are.

This widespread ignorance bolsters the pro-choice side, and that’s why, I think, some abortion rights activists work so hard to obscure the biological reality. Last year multiple activists tried (completely incorrectly) to deny that embryos have heartbeats. When states have passed laws requiring doctors to provide information on fetal development or offer the woman the option to view her ultrasound or hear the heartbeat, pro-choicers have described these regulations as restrictions on abortion. We’ve seen alleged experts muddle the lines between their political views and the scientific facts over and over and over
If the general public already understood the basic biology and cared only about philosophical issues, abortion rights advocates wouldn’t need to do this song and dance. But people do care and don’t know about biology, and that’s why I’m going to keep repeating myself: the fetus is a human organism, and abortion kills humans.

Other Sources:

New Study Sheds Light on Prenatal Cognition

[Today’s guest post by Caitlin Fikes is part of Secular Pro-Life’s paid blogging program.]

I believe that there is a common and insidious cultural misconception with regards to fetuses: the subtle idea that birth is the true beginning of a human’s life, not only because that is when he or she is first socially acknowledged and welcomed by the rest of the species, but also because deep down we assume that birth is when the young humans themselves first experience anything of significance in the world. After all, what could fetuses be doing in there if not sleepily kicking around in the womb, waiting for life to begin? We seem to have this perception that a fetus is utterly unaware of anything, pending the moment of awakening.

By contrast, infants from the very second they emerge are perceived as awake and alert. We marvel that a baby is constantly seeing, hearing, observing, learning, developing, experiencing. It is as if we believe that birth is the moment when a young human is switched from OFF to ON, sort of like a machine you just finished constructing and are now ready to plug in for the first time.

But the truth is rarely so simple, and in actual fact scientific studies are repeatedly demonstrating that there is very little infants do that fetuses haven’t done first (and that the womb may be a more stimulating and interesting place than we thought).

For example, scientific studies have confirmed that fetuses can hear voices and distinguish between unique speech patterns, allowing them to recognize (and prefer) their mother’s voice over any other’s. It has also been shown that a fetus will learn to recognize a song or story repeatedly played/read to them, retaining a familiarity with that tune or story post-birth. This is referred to by scientists as “preconscious learning.” A fetus’s brain will even notice when a familiar song is played slightly incorrectly, requiring some basic ability to remember what the song ought to sound like and then compare the two.

Adding to this list is the latest discovery, and this one’s on the level of groundbreaking: new research out of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom demonstrates that fetuses will react to face-like shapes in the same way infants do. Researchers shone different collections of red dots to fetuses while observing their responses via ultrasound, and the fetuses displayed particular interest in face-like clusters. As the researchers themselves point out, “This tells us that the fetus isn’t a passive processor of environmental information. It’s an active responder.”

This paper is trailblazing because it’s the first real study on what fetuses see, and confirms that they do have visual experiences while in utero. The womb is not pitch-black like many assume (and nor is it silent either). One of the paper’s authors describes what fetuses likely experience as similar to being in a room with the lights turned off and the curtains drawn over the windows, yet it’s very bright outside. Fetuses are thought to begin to see as early as 20-24 weeks gestation, so they’ll have quite a while to watch shadowy shapes pass by before they are even born.

This study is also important because even though it’s been known for a long time that infants are particularly interested in face-like shapes, scientists often speculated if maybe infants prefer those shapes because human faces are what infants see first and most often—almost like imprinting. This study indicates that preference may run deeper than that.

Most important of all, the implications of this successful attempt to visually communicate something to a fetus in a simple way will almost certainly lead to new and extremely exciting studies of fetal cognition—for example, exploring if fetuses can distinguish numbers and quantities, as newborns do.

And once we know more about not only how fetuses are developing physically, but also their cognitive abilities, well… I suspect that it will become harder and harder for some people to insist that a fetus and an infant are worlds apart, or that a fetus doesn’t even count as human at all. And now we come to the crux of the matter: beyond the scientific curiosity of it all, what do studies like these tell us about the topic of abortion?

The fact is, no matter how many of these incredible studies emerge, they can’t definitively answer the ethical and legal questions our society has raised surrounded abortion. Science doesn’t dictate morality. It is absolutely, 100% possible for two reasonable, intelligent, and compassionate people to both read the same studies of fetal development with wonder and fascination, and still reach vastly opposing conclusions about whether causing the intentional death of a human fetus should be illegal.

So if you do draw a line between a human worthy of rights and protection vs a clump of cells that is not—and since the majority of Americans support abortion restrictions at some stage of development, it’s clear many Americans believe a line should be drawn somewhere—how do you decide where? When the heartbeat begins? After the first trimester? Viability? Birth?

Science can answer many of the questions we raise in order to navigate the murky waters of morality, and it can shine a light on crucial truths. Study after study is constantly showing us that human fetuses are hitting many milestones far earlier than previously believed, which ultimately makes it more difficult to argue that society’s insistence of relying upon any of those developmental milestones to tell us when a human life earns acknowledgement is not completely arbitrary.

This most recent study of what fetuses are capable of is yet further indication that as monumental as birth is, it is not the beginning of a human being’s life, learning, or experiences, or the start of anything that wasn’t already happening before. The physical movement of a baby from within the womb to outside the womb does not really endow it with all that many new abilities or change anything intrinsically about it, biologically speaking, so why should that change its worth? A question worth pondering.

References:

 

New Study Sheds Light on Prenatal Cognition

[Today’s guest post by Caitlin Fikes is part of Secular Pro-Life’s paid blogging program.]

I believe that there is a common and insidious cultural misconception with regards to fetuses: the subtle idea that birth is the true beginning of a human’s life, not only because that is when he or she is first socially acknowledged and welcomed by the rest of the species, but also because deep down we assume that birth is when the young humans themselves first experience anything of significance in the world. After all, what could fetuses be doing in there if not sleepily kicking around in the womb, waiting for life to begin? We seem to have this perception that a fetus is utterly unaware of anything, pending the moment of awakening.

By contrast, infants from the very second they emerge are perceived as awake and alert. We marvel that a baby is constantly seeing, hearing, observing, learning, developing, experiencing. It is as if we believe that birth is the moment when a young human is switched from OFF to ON, sort of like a machine you just finished constructing and are now ready to plug in for the first time.

But the truth is rarely so simple, and in actual fact scientific studies are repeatedly demonstrating that there is very little infants do that fetuses haven’t done first (and that the womb may be a more stimulating and interesting place than we thought).

For example, scientific studies have confirmed that fetuses can hear voices and distinguish between unique speech patterns, allowing them to recognize (and prefer) their mother’s voice over any other’s. It has also been shown that a fetus will learn to recognize a song or story repeatedly played/read to them, retaining a familiarity with that tune or story post-birth. This is referred to by scientists as “preconscious learning.” A fetus’s brain will even notice when a familiar song is played slightly incorrectly, requiring some basic ability to remember what the song ought to sound like and then compare the two.

Adding to this list is the latest discovery, and this one’s on the level of groundbreaking: new research out of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom demonstrates that fetuses will react to face-like shapes in the same way infants do. Researchers shone different collections of red dots to fetuses while observing their responses via ultrasound, and the fetuses displayed particular interest in face-like clusters. As the researchers themselves point out, “This tells us that the fetus isn’t a passive processor of environmental information. It’s an active responder.”

This paper is trailblazing because it’s the first real study on what fetuses see, and confirms that they do have visual experiences while in utero. The womb is not pitch-black like many assume (and nor is it silent either). One of the paper’s authors describes what fetuses likely experience as similar to being in a room with the lights turned off and the curtains drawn over the windows, yet it’s very bright outside. Fetuses are thought to begin to see as early as 20-24 weeks gestation, so they’ll have quite a while to watch shadowy shapes pass by before they are even born.

This study is also important because even though it’s been known for a long time that infants are particularly interested in face-like shapes, scientists often speculated if maybe infants prefer those shapes because human faces are what infants see first and most often—almost like imprinting. This study indicates that preference may run deeper than that.

Most important of all, the implications of this successful attempt to visually communicate something to a fetus in a simple way will almost certainly lead to new and extremely exciting studies of fetal cognition—for example, exploring if fetuses can distinguish numbers and quantities, as newborns do.

And once we know more about not only how fetuses are developing physically, but also their cognitive abilities, well… I suspect that it will become harder and harder for some people to insist that a fetus and an infant are worlds apart, or that a fetus doesn’t even count as human at all. And now we come to the crux of the matter: beyond the scientific curiosity of it all, what do studies like these tell us about the topic of abortion?

The fact is, no matter how many of these incredible studies emerge, they can’t definitively answer the ethical and legal questions our society has raised surrounded abortion. Science doesn’t dictate morality. It is absolutely, 100% possible for two reasonable, intelligent, and compassionate people to both read the same studies of fetal development with wonder and fascination, and still reach vastly opposing conclusions about whether causing the intentional death of a human fetus should be illegal.

So if you do draw a line between a human worthy of rights and protection vs a clump of cells that is not—and since the majority of Americans support abortion restrictions at some stage of development, it’s clear many Americans believe a line should be drawn somewhere—how do you decide where? When the heartbeat begins? After the first trimester? Viability? Birth?

Science can answer many of the questions we raise in order to navigate the murky waters of morality, and it can shine a light on crucial truths. Study after study is constantly showing us that human fetuses are hitting many milestones far earlier than previously believed, which ultimately makes it more difficult to argue that society’s insistence of relying upon any of those developmental milestones to tell us when a human life earns acknowledgement is not completely arbitrary.

This most recent study of what fetuses are capable of is yet further indication that as monumental as birth is, it is not the beginning of a human being’s life, learning, or experiences, or the start of anything that wasn’t already happening before. The physical movement of a baby from within the womb to outside the womb does not really endow it with all that many new abilities or change anything intrinsically about it, biologically speaking, so why should that change its worth? A question worth pondering.

References:

 

Dear Bill Nye: Where’s the science, guy?

NARAL
Pro-Choice America posted a video featuring Bill Nye giving his views on abortion. Throughout the
roughly four and a half minutes, Nye says pro-lifers have a “deep scientific
lack of understanding” and hold positions “based on bad science.” He thinks we
anti-abortion folk “apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about”
(as opposed to figuratively not knowing..? Not sure.)
We’d hope,
then, that Nye would go on to explain exactly what scientific misunderstanding pro-lifers
have, but sadly the video contains almost no science whatever. Instead Nye goes
on about “men of European descent” (No, not really accurate) passing ignorant laws based on their “interpretation
of a book written 5,000 years ago” (such a strawman) that apparently makes them think “when a
man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby” (is that a joke?).
He graciously informs us that, in fact, women don’t get pregnant literally
every time they have sex. It’s a good thing we have famous scientists to
explain that to us plebians.
Nye then
meanders into very strange territory:

“You wouldn’t know how big a human egg
was if it weren’t for microscopes. If it weren’t for scientists, medical
researchers looking diligently. You wouldn’t know the process. You wouldn’t
have that shot–the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against
the egg. You wouldn’t have that without science. So then to claim that you know
the next step when you obviously don’t
okay let me do that [take] again.”


It’s hard to
understand how this distasteful mix of elitism and non sequiturs is supposed to
relate to political positions on abortion. It seems like Nye is suggesting that
pro-lifers and scientists are mutually exclusive groups (once again,
offbase), that pro-lifers
should be grateful to scientists for unraveling some of the mysteries of biology,
and that pro-lifers are incapable of understanding the process of human reproduction
beyond fertilization. In fact there seems to be this weird overtone hinting that
science is inherently pro-choice and so pro-lifers have no right to discuss the
scientific backing for our position.
These implications
are especially rich considering Nye never does get around to explaining how the
pro-life position is unscientific. The closest he comes is when he points out
that many fertilized eggs don’t implant:

“Many many many more hundreds of eggs
are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized—by that I mean sperm get
accepted by ova—a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the
uterine wall, the inside of a womb.”

Nye is by no
means the first person to suggest that implantation (attaching to the uterine
wall) is somehow a more meaningful moment in human development than
fertilization. The medical community defines the beginning of pregnancy as implantation,
and plenty of pro-choicers have equivocated between the beginning of pregnancy and the beginning of a human organism.

But the people making this equivocation are the ones misunderstanding biology.
As organisms, every one of us began as a zygote, and that means every one of us had a biological
beginning that preceded the moment we implanted in our mother’s womb. Nye doesn’t
explain how it’s “bad science” to acknowledge that reality. (Actually, I’m not
sure whether Nye understands that’s what pro-lifers are saying. If Nye is aware
of anything more than some pro-choice caricature of an actual pro-life position,
he doesn’t show it.)

Note that even if implantation, rather than fertilization, were the defining moment of new human life, it wouldn’t change the abortion debate very much. Abortions typically happen weeks or months after implantation. So even if Nye’s comments had provided new, insightful information, they don’t come close to demonstrating that an anti-abortion position must be based on “bad science.”

Meanwhile, it’s
true that if zygotes don’t implant they will die and not develop into fetuses. It’s
also true that if fetuses get tangled in their umbilical cords they may be
stillborn and not develop into infants. And infants with congenital heart
defects may die and not develop into toddlers. And really any of us at any life
stage could suffer a natural death and not develop into the next life stage. How
does that fact imply that zygotes aren’t humans, much less that abortion is
justified? Unfortunately, Nye is too busy venting his frustration at our
ignorance to explain the relevance of his rambling. Or maybe he believes that
as long as nature kills us, it’s okay if we kill each other. I mean tsunamis
kill thousands of people, and that’s why we’re fine with genocide, right guys? Right?…No?
Yeah, I guess that makes no sense at all.

The truth is science tells us the fetus is an organism and a member of our species (and it is a “deep scientific lack of
understanding” to suggest otherwise). But science is descriptive, not
prescriptive. Through genetics we know each of us inherits a mixture of our parents’ DNA; through embryology we know that our hearts begin to beat
about three weeks after fertilization; through ultrasound and magnetic resonance technology we can watch the embryo’s movements, which provide sensory input that spurs brain development;
and yet this wealth of information can’t indicate whether or why we should care.
Science
can’t tell us what to value in human beings or when we should protect one
another. Those questions fall within the realm of philosophy, a realm Nye steps
squarely into when he implies a value judgement based on how easily organisms can
naturally die. His implication isn’t a scientific fact, it’s a philosophical
position, and Nye’s famous nickname doesn’t give him the right to conflate those
two completely different approaches. It’s especially loathsome that this
hand-wavy philosophical viewpoint is trying to be passed off as “science” by
one of our country’s biggest science advocates. That’s not okay no matter how
quirky his bowtie is.

Dear Bill Nye: Where’s the science, guy?

NARAL
Pro-Choice America posted a video featuring Bill Nye giving his views on abortion. Throughout the
roughly four and a half minutes, Nye says pro-lifers have a “deep scientific
lack of understanding” and hold positions “based on bad science.” He thinks we
anti-abortion folk “apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about”
(as opposed to figuratively not knowing..? Not sure.)
We’d hope,
then, that Nye would go on to explain exactly what scientific misunderstanding pro-lifers
have, but sadly the video contains almost no science whatever. Instead Nye goes
on about “men of European descent” (No, not really accurate) passing ignorant laws based on their “interpretation
of a book written 5,000 years ago” (such a strawman) that apparently makes them think “when a
man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby” (is that a joke?).
He graciously informs us that, in fact, women don’t get pregnant literally
every time they have sex. It’s a good thing we have famous scientists to
explain that to us plebians.
Nye then
meanders into very strange territory:

“You wouldn’t know how big a human egg
was if it weren’t for microscopes. If it weren’t for scientists, medical
researchers looking diligently. You wouldn’t know the process. You wouldn’t
have that shot–the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against
the egg. You wouldn’t have that without science. So then to claim that you know
the next step when you obviously don’t
okay let me do that [take] again.”


It’s hard to
understand how this distasteful mix of elitism and non sequiturs is supposed to
relate to political positions on abortion. It seems like Nye is suggesting that
pro-lifers and scientists are mutually exclusive groups (once again,
offbase), that pro-lifers
should be grateful to scientists for unraveling some of the mysteries of biology,
and that pro-lifers are incapable of understanding the process of human reproduction
beyond fertilization. In fact there seems to be this weird overtone hinting that
science is inherently pro-choice and so pro-lifers have no right to discuss the
scientific backing for our position.
These implications
are especially rich considering Nye never does get around to explaining how the
pro-life position is unscientific. The closest he comes is when he points out
that many fertilized eggs don’t implant:

“Many many many more hundreds of eggs
are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized—by that I mean sperm get
accepted by ova—a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the
uterine wall, the inside of a womb.”

Nye is by no
means the first person to suggest that implantation (attaching to the uterine
wall) is somehow a more meaningful moment in human development than
fertilization. The medical community defines the beginning of pregnancy as implantation,
and plenty of pro-choicers have equivocated between the beginning of pregnancy and the beginning of a human organism.

But the people making this equivocation are the ones misunderstanding biology.
As organisms, every one of us began as a zygote, and that means every one of us had a biological
beginning that preceded the moment we implanted in our mother’s womb. Nye doesn’t
explain how it’s “bad science” to acknowledge that reality. (Actually, I’m not
sure whether Nye understands that’s what pro-lifers are saying. If Nye is aware
of anything more than some pro-choice caricature of an actual pro-life position,
he doesn’t show it.)

Note that even if implantation, rather than fertilization, were the defining moment of new human life, it wouldn’t change the abortion debate very much. Abortions typically happen weeks or months after implantation. So even if Nye’s comments had provided new, insightful information, they don’t come close to demonstrating that an anti-abortion position must be based on “bad science.”

Meanwhile, it’s
true that if zygotes don’t implant they will die and not develop into fetuses. It’s
also true that if fetuses get tangled in their umbilical cords they may be
stillborn and not develop into infants. And infants with congenital heart
defects may die and not develop into toddlers. And really any of us at any life
stage could suffer a natural death and not develop into the next life stage. How
does that fact imply that zygotes aren’t humans, much less that abortion is
justified? Unfortunately, Nye is too busy venting his frustration at our
ignorance to explain the relevance of his rambling. Or maybe he believes that
as long as nature kills us, it’s okay if we kill each other. I mean tsunamis
kill thousands of people, and that’s why we’re fine with genocide, right guys? Right?…No?
Yeah, I guess that makes no sense at all.

The truth is science tells us the fetus is an organism and a member of our species (and it is a “deep scientific lack of
understanding” to suggest otherwise). But science is descriptive, not
prescriptive. Through genetics we know each of us inherits a mixture of our parents’ DNA; through embryology we know that our hearts begin to beat
about three weeks after fertilization; through ultrasound and magnetic resonance technology we can watch the embryo’s movements, which provide sensory input that spurs brain development;
and yet this wealth of information can’t indicate whether or why we should care.
Science
can’t tell us what to value in human beings or when we should protect one
another. Those questions fall within the realm of philosophy, a realm Nye steps
squarely into when he implies a value judgement based on how easily organisms can
naturally die. His implication isn’t a scientific fact, it’s a philosophical
position, and Nye’s famous nickname doesn’t give him the right to conflate those
two completely different approaches. It’s especially loathsome that this
hand-wavy philosophical viewpoint is trying to be passed off as “science” by
one of our country’s biggest science advocates. That’s not okay no matter how
quirky his bowtie is.

Three-Parent Babies: A Pro-Life Ethical Analysis

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

The UK Parliament voted early last month to allow for the creation of children using the biological DNA from three people, effectively becoming the first country to officially approve this technique. The aim of this technology is to allow parents with a high likelihood of passing down genetic diseases, particularly mothers who carry genes coding for mitochondrial disease, to have healthy biological children. Mitochondria, which are essentially the energy “power houses” of our cells, are passed down to children by only the mother. A child with an inherited mitochondrial disorder will likely not survive long after birth, or will be severely disabled if he or she does. Proponents of the three-parent measure point to Sharon Bernardi, a UK mother who lost seven of her children to mitochondrial disease, as the type of person who would benefit from the technique, along with an estimated 150 eligible parents in the UK each year. The three-parent method of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) would not only allow parents to have children free of certain incurable genetic diseases, but would essentially eradicate mitochondrial disease from a genetic line. Sounds pretty great, right? But like with all technology involving the creation of new human beings, it’s not that simple.

For pro-lifers, the primary issue is that the three-parent IVF process can involve the destruction of human life. There are actually two methods: “egg repair” and “embryo repair.” Both are modifications of IVF (which is controversial in its own right). Briefly, in “egg repair,” two eggs are involved: one from the mother, and a donor egg that has healthy mitochondria. The nucleus of the donor egg is removed and discarded, and the nucleus of the mother’s egg is inserted into the donor egg. The new egg, which contains the mother’s nucleus but the donor’s healthy mitochondria, is now ready to be fertilized by the father’s sperm before being inserted into the uterus.

The “egg repair” three-parent IVF method

The second approach, “embryo repair,” is more complicated as it involves two embryos: one created from the egg and sperm of the intended parents, and a donor embryo created using the father’s sperm but a healthy donor egg. The nuclei of both embryos are removed, but the intended parent’s nucleus is inserted into the donor embryo while the donor nucleus is destroyed. This results in an embryo with the parents’ nucleus and the donor’s mitochondria that is then ready to be inserted into the uterus.

The “embryo repair” reproach is undeniably immoral from a pro-life perspective because it involves the destruction of an embryo, a new human life. Furthermore, the destroyed embryo was created solely for the purpose of creating a healthy embryo; do the ends justify the means? While the “egg repair” method is certainly controversial too, it does not require the destruction of embryos and could be considered an acceptable moral option if appropriate protocol is implemented. Caution must be taken, however; if typical IVF protocol is followed in order to increase the chances of a successful pregnancy, then several embryos could be created while only some are implanted, leaving the rest to be discarded, frozen indefinitely (with few being adopted), or donated to science.

Moreover, while the destruction of human embryos is the main area of concern from a pro-life standpoint, other ethical concerns are worth mentioning, including the potential slippery slope towards “designer babies” and eugenics. To be clear, only about 0.1% of the child’s DNA would be from the donor woman’s mitochondria, and it would not affect traits such as personality or physical appearance, which originate from nuclear DNA. But despite this small percentage, it is still a permanent change in DNA which would then be passed down to subsequent generations through the female line, a fact that has some bioethicists concerned due to the lack of research on the outcomes. 

A precedent has undoubtedly been set with the UK’s approval of this technology. Mitochondrial donation methods were banned in the US at the turn of the millennium during controversy over trials that used a similar cytoplasmic transfer technique (read the scientific publication here), but this issue will surely resurface as the process in the UK continues. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Institute of Medicine have recently been holding meetings to discuss the ethical issues brought up by mitochondrial donation techniques.

While I understand and appreciate that this IVF procedure has many potential benefits, extreme caution must be taken to avoid the destruction of human life in the quest to create human life free of debilitating diseases. I would encourage my fellow pro-lifers to also question the ethics of current mitochondrial donation methods (particularly the “embryo repair” method), and to make our voices heard: methods involving the destruction of human embryos are immoral, even if they do result in a healthy embryo. We must ask ourselves just how far we will go to achieve our ends.

Three-Parent Babies: A Pro-Life Ethical Analysis

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

The UK Parliament voted early last month to allow for the creation of children using the biological DNA from three people, effectively becoming the first country to officially approve this technique. The aim of this technology is to allow parents with a high likelihood of passing down genetic diseases, particularly mothers who carry genes coding for mitochondrial disease, to have healthy biological children. Mitochondria, which are essentially the energy “power houses” of our cells, are passed down to children by only the mother. A child with an inherited mitochondrial disorder will likely not survive long after birth, or will be severely disabled if he or she does. Proponents of the three-parent measure point to Sharon Bernardi, a UK mother who lost seven of her children to mitochondrial disease, as the type of person who would benefit from the technique, along with an estimated 150 eligible parents in the UK each year. The three-parent method of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) would not only allow parents to have children free of certain incurable genetic diseases, but would essentially eradicate mitochondrial disease from a genetic line. Sounds pretty great, right? But like with all technology involving the creation of new human beings, it’s not that simple.

For pro-lifers, the primary issue is that the three-parent IVF process can involve the destruction of human life. There are actually two methods: “egg repair” and “embryo repair.” Both are modifications of IVF (which is controversial in its own right). Briefly, in “egg repair,” two eggs are involved: one from the mother, and a donor egg that has healthy mitochondria. The nucleus of the donor egg is removed and discarded, and the nucleus of the mother’s egg is inserted into the donor egg. The new egg, which contains the mother’s nucleus but the donor’s healthy mitochondria, is now ready to be fertilized by the father’s sperm before being inserted into the uterus.

The “egg repair” three-parent IVF method

The second approach, “embryo repair,” is more complicated as it involves two embryos: one created from the egg and sperm of the intended parents, and a donor embryo created using the father’s sperm but a healthy donor egg. The nuclei of both embryos are removed, but the intended parent’s nucleus is inserted into the donor embryo while the donor nucleus is destroyed. This results in an embryo with the parents’ nucleus and the donor’s mitochondria that is then ready to be inserted into the uterus.

The “embryo repair” reproach is undeniably immoral from a pro-life perspective because it involves the destruction of an embryo, a new human life. Furthermore, the destroyed embryo was created solely for the purpose of creating a healthy embryo; do the ends justify the means? While the “egg repair” method is certainly controversial too, it does not require the destruction of embryos and could be considered an acceptable moral option if appropriate protocol is implemented. Caution must be taken, however; if typical IVF protocol is followed in order to increase the chances of a successful pregnancy, then several embryos could be created while only some are implanted, leaving the rest to be discarded, frozen indefinitely (with few being adopted), or donated to science.

Moreover, while the destruction of human embryos is the main area of concern from a pro-life standpoint, other ethical concerns are worth mentioning, including the potential slippery slope towards “designer babies” and eugenics. To be clear, only about 0.1% of the child’s DNA would be from the donor woman’s mitochondria, and it would not affect traits such as personality or physical appearance, which originate from nuclear DNA. But despite this small percentage, it is still a permanent change in DNA which would then be passed down to subsequent generations through the female line, a fact that has some bioethicists concerned due to the lack of research on the outcomes. 

A precedent has undoubtedly been set with the UK’s approval of this technology. Mitochondrial donation methods were banned in the US at the turn of the millennium during controversy over trials that used a similar cytoplasmic transfer technique (read the scientific publication here), but this issue will surely resurface as the process in the UK continues. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Institute of Medicine have recently been holding meetings to discuss the ethical issues brought up by mitochondrial donation techniques.

While I understand and appreciate that this IVF procedure has many potential benefits, extreme caution must be taken to avoid the destruction of human life in the quest to create human life free of debilitating diseases. I would encourage my fellow pro-lifers to also question the ethics of current mitochondrial donation methods (particularly the “embryo repair” method), and to make our voices heard: methods involving the destruction of human embryos are immoral, even if they do result in a healthy embryo. We must ask ourselves just how far we will go to achieve our ends.

Contraception, abortion, and the importance of control groups.

Some pro-lifers point out that many women seeking abortion were using (or misusing) some type of contraception when they conceived. Sometimes pro-lifers cite this fact as evidence that contraception does not decrease, and may even increase, abortion.

But this conclusion is misguided. It seems likely that women who don’t want to be pregnant are more likely both to use contraception and to seek abortion than women who actively want to be pregnant or women who are ambivalent about pregnancy. If that’s the case, we have a correlation/causation problem.

Which means I get to use an XKCD comic in my blog post!

In order to talk about whether contraception increases, decreases, or has no effect on abortion, we need to look at studies that have control groups. Ideally, a control group is identical to the experimental group in every way except for the one factor you want to analyze. As my beloved Wiki explains:

Scientific controls allow an investigator to make a claim like “Two situations were identical until factor X occurred. Since factor X is the only difference between the two situations, the new outcome was caused by factor X.”

In the case of contraception and abortion, ideally we would have research that compares a control group of women to an experimental group of women. The two groups would be identical in terms of relationship stability, financial status, beliefs about abortion, feelings about pregnancy, and any other relevant factors. The control group of women would use no contraception, and the experimental group of women would use contraception. Then we could compare the rates of unplanned pregnancy and abortion for each group, and we could more reasonably talk about how contraception affects abortion rates.

A big part of the contraception debate is whether contraception actually decreases unplanned pregnancies. One side cites research showing the rate of unintended pregnancies is much lower for sexually active people who use contraception than for those who don’t.

The other side counters that not everyone would necessarily be as sexually active if contraception wasn’t so widely available. This side talks about risk compensation – the idea that if people believe contraception makes sex less risky, those people will make riskier sexual decisions. For example, they may choose to have sex more frequently, in less committed relationships, or with less careful attention to the woman’s cycle.

The fact that many women who have abortions were using contraception when they got pregnant doesn’t tell us anything about how contraception affects pregnancy rates. To illustrate the problem, here is a hypothetical situation using entirely made up numbers:

Suppose we have two groups of 100 women each. The first 100 women, called the Nope group, really don’t want to be pregnant. 90% of them use contraception, and 100% of them will choose abortion if pregnant. The second 100 women, called the Meh group, are either open to or ambivalent about pregnancy. 10% of them use contraception, and 17% of them will choose abortion if pregnant.

Each symbol represents 10 women.

Now let’s say 20 of the Nope women and 60 of the Meh women get pregnant, so 20 of the Nope women and 10 of the Meh women choose abortion. So 30 women are abortive.

If 90% of Nope and 10% of Meh used contraception.

For simplicity, let’s assume their abortion decisions aren’t related to whether they used contraception, so 90% of abortive Nope women (18 women) and 10% of abortive Meh women (1 woman) were using contraception. That means 19 out of the 30 abortive women were using contraception when they got pregnant, or 63% of abortive women were using contraception when they got pregnant!

Yet, in this scenario, contraception did greatly decrease pregnancy rates. The Meh women were three times as likely to get pregnant as the Nope women. If, like the Meh women, only 10% of the Nope women used contraception and 60 of the Nope women got pregnant, all 60 of those Nope women would have chosen abortion. Then there’d be 70 abortions instead of 30.

If 10% of Nope and 10% of Meh used contraception (scenario 1).

From this perspective, using contraception decreased abortions by 57%!

Yay contraception!

Alternatively, what if less contraception meant less risky sexual choices? Suppose again only 10% of Nope women use contraception, but this time suppose they’re so careful about sex that only 10 of them get pregnant. Then there’d be only 20 abortions instead of 30.

If 10% of Nope and 10% of Meh used contraception (scenario 2).

In this scenario, not using contraception decreased abortions by 33%!

Boo contraception!

The point is, without control groups, we don’t know which way it would go. We can (and do) have strong opinions about how we think it would play out, but until we cite research with control groups, we’re really just guessing. Simply saying “most of the women who got abortions had been on birth control” doesn’t tell us one way or another how the abortion rates would be if less women used birth control.

404 Error: Insufficient Data

That doesn’t mean the fact is irrelevant. If nothing else, we know contraception alone will not eliminate abortion. And I think it’s true that there are plenty of pro-choice people who implicitly understand this idea, and see abortion as the “safety net,” a back up form of birth control.

But there’s a big difference between saying “contraception won’t fully eliminate abortion” and “contraception makes no difference in abortion rates” or even “contraception increases abortion rates.” The point about abortive women using contraception only speaks to the first statement, not the second two statements. For those statements, you need more information.

Contraception, abortion, and the importance of control groups.

Some pro-lifers point out that many women seeking abortion were using (or misusing) some type of contraception when they conceived. Sometimes pro-lifers cite this fact as evidence that contraception does not decrease, and may even increase, abortion.

But this conclusion is misguided. It seems likely that women who don’t want to be pregnant are more likely both to use contraception and to seek abortion than women who actively want to be pregnant or women who are ambivalent about pregnancy. If that’s the case, we have a correlation/causation problem.

Which means I get to use an XKCD comic in my blog post!

In order to talk about whether contraception increases, decreases, or has no effect on abortion, we need to look at studies that have control groups. Ideally, a control group is identical to the experimental group in every way except for the one factor you want to analyze. As my beloved Wiki explains:

Scientific controls allow an investigator to make a claim like “Two situations were identical until factor X occurred. Since factor X is the only difference between the two situations, the new outcome was caused by factor X.”

In the case of contraception and abortion, ideally we would have research that compares a control group of women to an experimental group of women. The two groups would be identical in terms of relationship stability, financial status, beliefs about abortion, feelings about pregnancy, and any other relevant factors. The control group of women would use no contraception, and the experimental group of women would use contraception. Then we could compare the rates of unplanned pregnancy and abortion for each group, and we could more reasonably talk about how contraception affects abortion rates.

A big part of the contraception debate is whether contraception actually decreases unplanned pregnancies. One side cites research showing the rate of unintended pregnancies is much lower for sexually active people who use contraception than for those who don’t.

The other side counters that not everyone would necessarily be as sexually active if contraception wasn’t so widely available. This side talks about risk compensation – the idea that if people believe contraception makes sex less risky, those people will make riskier sexual decisions. For example, they may choose to have sex more frequently, in less committed relationships, or with less careful attention to the woman’s cycle.

The fact that many women who have abortions were using contraception when they got pregnant doesn’t tell us anything about how contraception affects pregnancy rates. To illustrate the problem, here is a hypothetical situation using entirely made up numbers:

Suppose we have two groups of 100 women each. The first 100 women, called the Nope group, really don’t want to be pregnant. 90% of them use contraception, and 100% of them will choose abortion if pregnant. The second 100 women, called the Meh group, are either open to or ambivalent about pregnancy. 10% of them use contraception, and 17% of them will choose abortion if pregnant.

Each symbol represents 10 women.

Now let’s say 20 of the Nope women and 60 of the Meh women get pregnant, so 20 of the Nope women and 10 of the Meh women choose abortion. So 30 women are abortive.

If 90% of Nope and 10% of Meh used contraception.

For simplicity, let’s assume their abortion decisions aren’t related to whether they used contraception, so 90% of abortive Nope women (18 women) and 10% of abortive Meh women (1 woman) were using contraception. That means 19 out of the 30 abortive women were using contraception when they got pregnant, or 63% of abortive women were using contraception when they got pregnant!

Yet, in this scenario, contraception did greatly decrease pregnancy rates. The Meh women were three times as likely to get pregnant as the Nope women. If, like the Meh women, only 10% of the Nope women used contraception and 60 of the Nope women got pregnant, all 60 of those Nope women would have chosen abortion. Then there’d be 70 abortions instead of 30.

If 10% of Nope and 10% of Meh used contraception (scenario 1).

From this perspective, using contraception decreased abortions by 57%!

Yay contraception!

Alternatively, what if less contraception meant less risky sexual choices? Suppose again only 10% of Nope women use contraception, but this time suppose they’re so careful about sex that only 10 of them get pregnant. Then there’d be only 20 abortions instead of 30.

If 10% of Nope and 10% of Meh used contraception (scenario 2).

In this scenario, not using contraception decreased abortions by 33%!

Boo contraception!

The point is, without control groups, we don’t know which way it would go. We can (and do) have strong opinions about how we think it would play out, but until we cite research with control groups, we’re really just guessing. Simply saying “most of the women who got abortions had been on birth control” doesn’t tell us one way or another how the abortion rates would be if less women used birth control.

404 Error: Insufficient Data

That doesn’t mean the fact is irrelevant. If nothing else, we know contraception alone will not eliminate abortion. And I think it’s true that there are plenty of pro-choice people who implicitly understand this idea, and see abortion as the “safety net,” a back up form of birth control.

But there’s a big difference between saying “contraception won’t fully eliminate abortion” and “contraception makes no difference in abortion rates” or even “contraception increases abortion rates.” The point about abortive women using contraception only speaks to the first statement, not the second two statements. For those statements, you need more information.