As most of you know, I try not to speak up too terribly often on political topics, even if I care about them. Today a friend of mine "liked" this article on Facebook. I've read a number of articles from Everyday Feminism that have been posted on Facebook from one friend or another, and each one is worse than the next in terms of allowing shallow rhetoric to overshadow the need for actual argumentation. This is the first one that was so bad I actually felt it warranted wasting my time with a response. Let me be clear: I do think there are some good (but ultimately unsuccessful) pro-choice arguments out there...unfortunately none of them are used in this article. I would expect a higher standard on a feminist website, but apparently they wouldn't.
I'm debating whether or not I want to respond to the whole article, since to do so would take a ton of time and cause me to write a book. For now, I'll just respond to “Myth #1”. If it turns out people want me to respond to other points, then perhaps I will. I just don't want to get myself in another position where I start a gigantic project I don't have time to finish.
For now, though, I'll just bother with Myth #1.
Myth #1 - Abortion is baby killing. Ms. Erin McKelle begins her article with a couple definitions offered to support this claim:
Fetus: "a developing mammal; in humans, a fetus develops at the
end of the second month of gestation."
Baby: "a human offspring who has already been born."
Dictionary.com is linked for the definition of "fetus." No source whatsoever is given for the definition of "baby."
I thought it was interesting that the very same source wasn't used to provide a definition for "baby" since Dictionary.com is apparently so authoritative. I wonder...why...that...is...
Yeah, that's probably the reason. Well at least we know how paramount intellectual honesty is in Ms. McKelle's book of virtues.
Next on Myth #1 we're told, "a zygote...that has implanted in the uterus just two days ago is not the same thing as a human life that has already come into being." Turns out this is a pretty big, bold claim. In fact, it's pretty much the claim that this entire section is built on, so we should expect a healthy degree of argumentation for it, right? Apparently we'd be wrong if we expected that. In fact, not a single sentence of argumentation for this claim exists after this sentence. How can you call something "debunked" if you don't actually make arguments against it? Let's examine the claim anyway.
First, what would constitute being "the same thing"? Here are some options:
Possessing all the same physical features
Being of the same "type" (whatever that may mean)
Being comprised of the same physical elements
Possessing the same mental properties
Possessing mental properties derived from an unbroken chain of mental properties
Being recognized by the human community as being "the same thing"
I have no idea what is meant here. Say it's "physical features." Well, in that case a 3 yr. old child is not "the same thing" as a 20 yr. old. Near as I can tell, this doesn't typically count against the 3 yr. old's personhood.
Being of the same "type" or "kind"? Well, does this mean "human"? If so, then it would come down to DNA. Clearly the zygote already has human DNA, so its kind never changes. I'm open to other suggestions in this category if anyone has them.
Being comprised of the same physical elements. Obviously this won't work...as we age, we gain, exchange, and lose cells and consequently are never comprised of the same physical elements as at prior stages of development.
Possessing the same mental properties: maybe we're getting somewhere with this, only because it'll lead us to the next option. This option clearly won't work because everyone's mental properties change over time, and none of these changes disqualify the earlier version from being a person.
Possessing mental properties derived from an unbroken chain of mental properties: This is probably the most promising. A couple issues with it. First, it doesn't do what the pro-choicer wants it to do since fetuses develop mental properties as early as 40 days. Surely Ms. McKelle won't make the case that a 40 day old zygote is as much a person as a 40 yr. old adult. Of course, the other problem is that it fails to handle adults who have traumatic brain injuries whose thoughts don't follow from prior brain states. These adults are clearly just as human as they were prior to the injury and I think most people would say they are "the same thing" as well.
Lastly we have, "Being recognized by the human community as being 'the same thing.'" When it comes right down to it, I think this is really what's meant by this statement about the zygote. It's hard to imagine how a mere zygote, so few cells and no brain, could possibly be "the same thing" as a born baby, right? Many, maybe even most, just don't think it is. So the assertion is made that it isn't. What what the hell does the human community's opinion matter for anything? At one point, the human community didn't think slaves were "the same thing" as other humans. Did that community's collective opinion mean jack squat? Nope. Doesn't here either. Make an argument that they aren't the same...don't just state it as fact because it happens to seem like it to you.
Let's ignore the "same thing" comment for now and pretend, whatever it means, it's correct. There's more to the statement. The zygote is not the same thing as "a human life that has already come into being." If anyone has ever wondered what a circular argument looks like, this is Example A. Remember the context: this statement is used to bolster the claim that the zygote is not a baby. A baby a human life that has already been born. This is is to say that it is a human life that has come into being. The zygote statement, then, is used to make the argument that a zygote is not a human life that has come into being because it is not the same thing as a human life that has come into being. So this sentence may as well be ignored.
Ok, moving on. Now we come to the first actual argument in the article, and boy is it an awful one.
“In terms of the person housing the pregnancy, this difference is important: a fetus cannot survive without its mother during gestation – there is no separation. A baby, on the other hand, is an autonomous being.
Therefore, a fetus is a part of its mother. That makes its existence a part of her, making it her choice to terminate; hers, and hers only.”
Cool, let's analyze. If we lay this out in argument form, there are really two arguments here, with one unspoken premise.
- A fetus cannot survive without its mother during gestation. (premise)
- Anything that cannot survive without another being is a part of that other being. (unspoken premise)
- Therefore, a fetus is a part of its mother during gestation.
The second argument is used to show that the baby is not part of its mother:
- A baby can survive without its mother after birth.
- Anything that can survive without another being is not a part of that other being.
- Therefore, a baby is not part of its mother.
Obviously, the first argument is the one that matters here, but both rely on the same (flawed) implied premise.
I'd like to challenge both premises. On premise (1): Sandra Day O'Connor famously said that Roe v. Wade was “on a collision course with itself” due to its reliance on the idea of viability. A fetus is said to be “viable” once it can survive outside the womb. The viability criterion isn't viable, and here's why: the current state of technology becomes the determiner what is and is not a person. In the early 70's, this was about 30ish weeks. So, a fetus was a “person” at 30 weeks. But now it's in the early 20's – 22ish. So does this mean that a 24 week fetus in 1971 wasn't a person, but is now? Does it really make sense that the state of current science determines personhood? Anyway, the real point here is that the point of viability isn't really definable and is consistently changing depending on the state of medicine and a woman's proximity to world class health care. If (1) is correct, it would follow that a premie in the bush deep in the Congo is not a person distinct from its mother, while the same premie born in Rochester, MN is, in fact, a person distinct from its mother. This makes no sense, so the first premise should be rejected.
The second premise, though, fares much worse. It is simply a statement of biological falsehood. The fetus/embryo has an entirely different DNA structure from its mother. Biologically speaking, a tissue sample from a fetus while in the womb will be considered to be an entirely separate and distinct being from its mother when the tissue samples are compared against each other. Different DNA, often different blood types, etc. Many viruses and parasites cannot survive apart from their hosts. Do we imply from this that they are, in fact, part of their host? Of course not! An no doctor would tell the person suffering from pneumonia that her pneumonia is now an actual part of her. This is demonstrably a false premise. That the same person who wrote this argument can turn around and accuse pro-lifers of adhering to pseudo-science for fetal pain arguments is a laughable, rich irony.
Apart from the biological inaccuracy, though, just think about the rationale. An adult human whose kidneys are failing cannot survive apart from a dialysis machine. Does this mean that this adult human's lack of viability makes her a part of the dialysis machine? Seems a little sketchy. Or what about a thought experiment: Say the holy grail of fetal science is developed – an artificial womb. Take a 7 week old embryo that is not viable outside the womb. Move that embryo from its mother's womb into the artificial womb. It's still not viable outside the womb – which womb is the embryo a part of? Its mother or the artificially created womb? It seems as though living location is a determiner of personhood if (2) is accepted. If you live in one place (artificial womb) you're considered distinct from your mother and a viable person, but if you live in a different place (mom's womb) you're considered non-viable and to be a part of your mother, to be cut out at her whim. Again, it's just counter-intuitive to think that location can determine personhood, which is an implication of (2). It should be rejected.
Next we have a one sentence statement: “And the talk about fetal pain? That's just phony science.” Oh, well now that that's settled...
There is a link, thankfully. The link takes you here: an article from Salon.com talking about the psuedo-science relied on by pro-lifers in the fetal pain discussion. Look at what the article actually says! It doesn't even support the claim that the “talk about fetal pain” is “phony science.” It just argues that the fetus feels pain later in its development than previously suspected. “When,” you might ask?
“what we know in terms of the brain and the nervous system in a fetus is that the part of the brain that perceives pain is not connected to the part of the body that receives pain signals until about 26 weeks from the last menstrual period, which is about 24 weeks from conception.”
Oh...soo...that means that during pretty much the entire 3rd trimester, the fetus is able to feel pain. Soo...just so we're clear...exactly what pro-lifers claim when arguing against later term abortions. But hey, if someone were LAZY and didn't actually want to spend the time to FOLLOW LINKS and READ THEM, one may never find out that the article completely misrepresents the claims of the article/research to which it links.
Let's discuss this whole “fetal pain” thing a little further. Why is pain even relevant to the discussion? I agree that pain, in general, is not a good thing, but I think only a very strict utilitarian would make pain the sole determining factor when deciding whether an act is morally acceptable or not. I don't see an argument for utilitarianism anywhere, so this isn't all that important anyway.
One last thing on fetal pain's irrelevance in the abortion discussion. Is it the pro-choice position to say, “abortion is always morally permissible if the fetus doesn't feel pain?” If not, then why bother with the argument? If so, then I would ask, why stop when the fetus is born? What, with regards to pain, changes about a fetus when it happens to exit a vagina? Not a whole lot, from what I can tell. Was it unable to feel pain one minute, then 30 seconds later (post-exit) able to feel pain? Of course not. So if “pain” is a determining factor in whether or not the life can be ended, then why not end the lives of, say, comatose patients who aren't feeling pain, or babies that have been sedated, or anyone at any age who was born with Congenital Analgesia? In my mind, the existence of pain should not be a determining factor for parties on either side of this debate if they're not committed to utilitarianism. In order for the non-existence of pain to be relevant, there must be a prior commitment to the view that outside of the ability to feel pain the fetus has no moral value. It's exactly that claim that is no where defended in this article.