On Gender Occasionalism

A story from Canada has started making the rounds on Twitter, featuring a family from Canada and their new child, but this particular story features a legal twist: the child has been granted a genderless government health card at the behest of the parents.

The parents’ clearly-stated goal is relatively simple: avoid any and all gender assignment until the child decides if he or she is a he or she, or something else.  That the government granted their wish to avoid such assignment is a bit newsworthy.  Legal descriptions have often been a point of contention for trans individuals and trans activists, so this really is something of a victory to the transgender community.

But the story raises some questions, and in my estimation, the whole endeavor rests upon some metaphysics that may not look so brave or trendy if given closer attention.

The first question: What’s so bad about assigning sex or gender at birth?  Is there something wrong with learning (accurately, in almost all cases) the sex of a child and raising that child in that gender role?   If the child is a boy, is it wrong to raise the child as a boy?  Is there something intrinsically wrong with raising the child as a boy to like masculine things?  The parents have all but taken a belt sander to any indication of the child’s biological sex, short of taking a belt sander to the kid.  Is being identified as a boy or girl really so bad?  If so, why?  As barbara findlay (a lawyer working with the family) says in the article,

“The assignment of sex in this culture is done when a medical person lifts up the legs and looks at the baby’s genitals. But we know that the baby’s own gender identity will not develop for some years until after they’re born.”

Am I to believe that a doctor or nurse–who goes to a great deal of time, trouble, and expense to learn medicine and biology–cannot identify a boy or girl upon sight at birth enough of the time to suggest that common sense is right?

Sure, the parents could be wrong about their child’s gender identity, as could any parents.  But it’s not out of malice to raise a child according to a gender role, and surely it’s not impossible to convey (for the same of the argument) that the parents did what they thought was in the best interest of the child, that the child would be amiss to hold that against them?  Right?

Question two: Why enforce a sort of gender agnosticism on everyone else? Why not apply a “true for you but not for me” rule and get on with life, if it works just fine for the rest of a person’s worldview?  Granting for 1) the sake of the argument, and 2) decency, that persons come to the conclusion that their bodies and minds are in a state of fundamental disagreement, does it necessarily follow that because this happens to a fraction of people that this uncertainty should be applied to everyone?  The child is unlikely to break the gender stereotype he or she was born with.  Possible, perhaps, and with the culture at large changing its views on gender roles, a decent bit more likely; but not necessarily because of an internal sense. If it is acceptable to redraw the lines, then they will get redrawn more often.  The idea that “no one should tell this child what he or she is” is an implicit, if unintentional, challenge to the idea that other people can have an objective, outside perspective, and that perspective might be right, even if you disagree with it.  It seems like a good way to turn an otherwise good kid into an insufferable snot who balks at all criticism or instruction, simply because he or she has been told too many times that whatever he or she chooses is right, everyone else be damned.  Why not allow for the natural consistency of reason to affect the child’s identity too?

Question three: The parents chose to give birth to their child outside of the Canadian health care system.  Was this done to avoid assigning gender?  If so, this could have turned out badly.  What if something had gone wrong during the delivery?  Surely the parents were not willing to risk life and limb simply to avoid someone saying “Oh, hey, congratulations on your son or daughter?” And it’s not like they had to pay a whole lot extra for a hospital delivery in Canada.

The parents raise some metaphysical (and physical) questions with their response to others:

Doty said the goal is for the child to discover their own gender identity — and so far the decision hasn’t been a problem, even when people ask if the baby is a boy or a girl.

“Often I’ll just say I don’t know yet, or I’m not rushing to apply those types of labels on this kid. Right now they’re just a baby.”

What do you mean, “I don’t know yet?”  Is there nothing more to being a boy or girl than a particular state of mind, that may or may not be consistent from one moment to the next?  Does biology play a purely secondary or even tertiary role in gender?  And if the doctors in all their patriarchical malice get the assigning gender part wrong, who’s to say they don’t get other things wrong too?  Like, say, the ‘baby’ part?  If observation isn’t good enough to establish an empirical source for the child’s biological sex, what other biological traits are we similarly confusing?  If not, why not?

The worldview expressed by the parents and their legal advocates can perhaps be described best as “sexual occasionalism,” and in this case, gender occasionalism.  Occasionalism, the old theological view that there is not a causal link between what we perceive as a cause and an effect (which was adapted to skepticism by Hume to deny miracles), has here been applied to human sexuality, the result being not just the disconnect between the body and the mind (or soul), but the obliteration of any link between the child’s biological being and his or her heretofore undeveloped sense of gender, to the point of an ambiguous (but somewhat masculine) name and ambiguous clothing and a simple, flat-out denial of the knowledge of the physical being of the child, not just a mental state or conclusion.  Gender is treated as a sort of momentary phenomenon, with no necessary link between a person’s gender identity at any given time and either a past or future gender identity, or even that individual’s own biological sex.  This is different from claims of a causal link between biology and sexual identity (e.g., “born that way”), but it is in fact the logical conclusion of transgender philosophy, and the enshrining of ‘uncertainty’ and the abolition of common sense.

To borrow an argument from Etienne Gilson, it is entirely possible that a child could be born with indeterminate sex, and we might not know at first glance if a child is in fact transgender. It does not follow that it is impossible to know the sex of any child simply because some children grow up and change their minds about their gender identity.  That is sophistry, and basing a person’s identity wholly upon a mental state is the wrong place to start to answer the question of sex and gender, but this particular sophistry is the foundation of transgender metaphysics.  Humans are a composite of body and soul, or body and mind; material and immaterial; but if we start in the mind, we will not get out of the mind, and I am not sure that this child or his parents will be able to get out of this child’s mind now that they’ve gotten there and are actively obscuring the ways out.

Bill Nye Fails at Bioethics

Or, “Bill Nye Ignores Most Pro-Life Scholarship, ‘Science, Bitch’ Crowd Roars in Approval”

So Bill Nye’s new video is making the rounds on Facebook and the internet, in which he DEVASTATES the anti-abortion movement’s unscientific, backward, intolerant, and malicious move to force women to carry every child ever to term, especially if it’s against her will.  Yeah, not so much

With science!   Continue reading

Quick thoughts on Planned Parenthood’s new scandal

So Planned Parenthood is in some really hot water because they got caught explaining how they sell organs from abortions performed at PP facilities.  It turns out evil likes red wine with salad.

The biology of the matter is simply damning for the abortion-choice case.  The “it’s just tissue or clumps of cells” line dies a prompt death when it’s possible to specify particular organs far below 20 weeks of pregnancy.  That tissue has to be alive, which infers that the being that it came from was a living, organized whole that is literally dis-organized–in both senses of the term–for profit.  The essential humanity of the unborn is cast in stark relief because of this practice.

One comment that was food for thought was the question of consent.  Do mothers consent to have the remains of the fetus used in medical research?  Is this on the forms?  If not, why not?  Who would knowingly do such a thing?  And who would willingly try to claim that even though the unborn is a human being that has been dissected for research, that doing so is morally acceptable because they are just at that stage of development?

Planned Parenthood also released a small statement attempting to defend this barbaric practice.  I am sure it sounded better in the original German.  Unsurprisingly they pulled a card from the defenders of embryonic stem cell research, claiming that it is used to create cures and treatments.  News flash: it is still wrong, even if used towards good ends.

During the trial of Kermit Gosnell, PP spent quite a lot of time trying to explain how Gosnell’s practice was separate from PP and their own clinics were held to better standards.  It would seem that the difference between PP’s highest echelons of leadership and Gosnell is that Gosnell kept his own collection of aborted fetuses while Planned Parenthood sold them.  It has been suggested that this is their Gosnell moment and that might well be the case.

The media is silent.  When they do decide to talk about it, they will frame it as an unfair attack on Planned Parenthood.  Those evil Bible-thumping theocrats won’t let them sell aborted livers and hearts and heads for research!

That silence is deplorable since the sale of body parts described both in the video and the statement is patently illegal, and the Senior Director admitted that they were trying to keep the lawyers mostly out of the loop and make it otherwise covert.  I wonder why?  As if we didn’t have enough reasons to consider Planned parenthood a criminal organization, we have another huge reason to consider them one.

I still don’t think I approve of using hidden video for things like this.  I think they weaken (to an extent) the overall moral case of those who engage in it.  Nevertheless it does not affect the case against abortion…and certainly not selling fetal organs.

About that media silence: I cannot help but feel like we have morphed into some sort of cultural Stalinism.  The media has, by and large, become the new Pravda, and their power to declare truths has gotten us to the point where Planned Parenthood can sell aborted fetal remains and it’s only controversial because other people got the word out.  The possibility of truth, it seems, has all but died in American culture, and even if the media parrots some giant lie, people grumble, admit it’s a lie, but they are not challenged.  And so it continues.

Perry Noble’s ignorant, snide comments don’t look so loving now, do they?  I wonder if he considers Planned Parenthood more loving than Christians after this?

On what people want Christians to hear

The scene: some church, some Sunday morning

*Ray slips in the back door, picks a seat towards the middle*

Pastor: Now, according to a few passages in the the Bible, homosexuality is a sin.

Couple of older males in the audience: Amen!

Pastor: Now, wait, I’m not finished.  You know what else the Bible defines as a sin?  Divorce.

*uncomfortable silence*Try this in my church, see what happens

Pastor: There are countless passages that talk about how divorce is wrong, and that there are consequences to getting a divorce, such as the wife should be stoned.  Yet, I witnessed a divorce just this morning.  And I gotta tell you, it was heartbreaking, but I definitely didn’t attempt to throw rocks at the wife, even though she was the one who filed for divorce.

*Ray raises his hand*  Pastor Redbum?

Pastor: What the—who was that?  Who called me Pastor ‘Redbum?’ Continue reading

PBS, After Tiller, and unpleasant conclusions

No small ruckus has been raised among the pro-life community over PBS’ decision to air the documentary After Tiller on Labor Day.  They have already faced resistance to their decision and have stood by it.

Others, such as Matt Walsh, have argued against the wisdom of airing a deeply controversial film on a network that accepts grants from the federal government that uses taxpayer money.  There is some wisdom in this critique, since an awful lot of Americans might have misgivings about their tax dollars funding the airing of something they deeply disagree with.  Personally, I am inclined to say that PBS’ TV schedule is their own prerogative.  But since they felt resistance to airing After Tiller, they thoughtfully put out a twenty-nine-page guide and discussion booklet about the film for use by groups that choose to air the film themselves.

Except the reasons they give for allowing third-trimester abortions put them on a collision course with some profoundly controversial conclusions espoused by some abortion-choice proponents.

Continue reading

A Modest Proposal

Call it an epiphany, if you will.  A triumphant solution to the issue of abortion!

Since abortion pits the present against the future, our generation versus those unborn, we should start by giving the future a voice in our present politics.

“Even if we can’t know what future citizens will actually value and believe in, we can still consider their interests, on the reasonable assumption that they will somewhat resemble our own (everybody rationally desires to live, for example).”  Since “our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next election,” we  “should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way.”

Wells suggests creating a public “trusteeship” of nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, pro-life groups and nonpartisan think tanks “and give them each equal shares of a block of votes adding up to, say, 10 percent of the electorate,” so they can represent issues like “not being torn limb from limb” and “respecting essential human nature” for the unborn generation that will be deeply impacted but has no vote.

Just kidding.  Someone else came up with it already, except about the environment and not abortion.

But let’s treat it like a thought experiment–and what an experiment it is!  Think of it: a coalition, given the power of 10% of the vote, for the issues that they are concerned with most!  A very large percentage of major elections are won with less than a margin of ten percent; many minor ones fit the bill too.

It would undoubtedly allow for most current abortion law to be swept back to pre-Roe, technologically and scientifically updated, with legal wording that recognizes the human rights of the unborn.

What’s that, you say?  The unborn might not grow up to be pro-life?

Thankfully for us, this proposal addresses that already.  Instead of addressing what views they may have when they reach maturity, it acts in their interest.  That’s what the proposal allows: and if their interest is strong enough to give them a political voice, then their interest is strong enough to allow them to…survive fetal development.

What’s that, you say?  It places undue burden on women?  It doesn’t seem that big of a deal to the esteemed philosopher who thinks that we can burden all of society in the interests of the unborn; would it really be a stretch to burden* society in a lesser way, especially if systems existed to help pregnant women and mothers?  After all, it is in our best interest, and that of the unborn as well.  The philosopher quoted above was kind enough to explain that the conflict of a current lifestyle cannot be rightly pitted against the interest of future generations, which happens to be a decent point as far as it goes.  This author finds it absurdly amusing that it was applied to environmentalism.

I’m sorry?  “That’s completely undemocratic, and is a slap in the face of the idea of self-government?”  Well, this author would have to agree with you on the ‘undemocratic’ thing, and the “We know what’s best for you” thing rubs most everyone that disagrees with it (no matter what that is) the wrong way.

But it all strikes this author as fantastical.  By all means, the environment requires good stewardship; and we do need to think about the future; but if we’re going to use some very important terms in dealing with the unborn, let’s at least see where else that rhetoric and reasoning goes.

And this author suspects that most people who would agree with Wells would probably be able to turn coal into diamonds with their butt cheeks at the thought of using their language to extend the same environmental interests to matters of abortion.

*’Burden’ is loaded language, but I’m using it here since it’s the common (and uncritically accepted) rhetoric.

(Edited to remove incorrect nationality for Wells.  The author regrets the error.)

Perry Noble forgets the words of Jesus

There’s a bee in Perry Noble’s bonnet.

Yesterday he ranted about the effort to boycott the sale of Girl Scout cookies due to their relationship with Planned Parenthood over the latter’s propensity to kill an awful lot of human beings every year.

But what is Noble actually saying?

Some are actually arguing (as mentioned in the title) that if I buy a box of Girl Scout cookies then I am basically murdering unborn babies…because the Girl Scouts supposedly give money to Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice group.

The insanity of that argument is unreal!

But is this insane?  Of course not.  Noble addresses none of the pile of evidence of the cozy relationship between the GSUSA and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

I have mixed feelings about boycotts: sometimes they are appropriate and other times they are not.  In this particular case, the moral severity of abortion–and funding it through an organization for young women that are then the available target audience for their…services…and then obscures the nature and scope of that relationship to the public, then yes, a boycott is most certainly warranted.

But to address Noble’s other point about the insanity of boycotting the Girl Scouts, let’s ask a question.  If it is insane to forgo tasty cookies because they are used to fund an organization that is rather friendly with an abortion provider, what happens to the money when we do not forgo them?  Planned Parenthood will get more funds. Noble seems to think that he’s making a good argument in suggesting that we’d have to make decisions about who makes everything.  To which I say: What seems to be the problem?  As has already been said, we already do this and it’s a good thing to do.  But it doesn’t mean that we have to become the hermits Noble seems to think we’d have to become because not all causes are as clearly immoral as abortion.  Some are a matter of tolerance.  Noble makes no distinction in his ham-handed argument.

Noble then goes into theological territory and makes some terribly egregious mistakes.  So why did I say in the title that Noble forgets the words of Jesus when he quotes Jesus?

Noble references John 3:17, but misquotes it to serve his argument.  What did Jesus mean when he said he did not come into the world to condemn it?

Noble then goes on to lambaste pro-lifers for their treatment of women who have had abortions:

We don’t know each and every story that goes along with why a woman chose to have an abortion, but, I have spoken with several ladies in my church who have had to deal with the fact they chose to abort a child.  They were all very scared at the time, fear consumed them and many of them were driven to the abortion clinic by their parents with no choice but to go through with the abortion.

Which makes me wonder.  Has Perry Noble really spent a lot of time around pro-lifers?  I have seen many pro-lifers who have stood patiently and quietly outside of abortion clinics to pray: are they guilty of the iniquity Noble accuses all pro-lifers of?  What about the women–many post-abortive themselves–who plead with women going into clinics not to abort?  Are they also guilty of Noble’s accusation of insensitivity?

Noble then launches into his piece de resistance:

It really is sad when Planned Parenthood and The Girl Scouts are actually acting more Christ like than many of the people who are taking aim at them through this boycott!

Well then.

That’s why I said that Noble has forgotten the words of Jesus.

” Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”–John 7:24

What does it mean to be like Christ?  Simply being nice?  Being understanding?  Listening?  Are those the hallmarks of Christlikeness?  Or rather:

 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”–Matthew 7:9-11

It is to Noble’s grievous discredit that he mistakes the composure of those who kill the unborn for Christlikeness.  Anyone can be nice if they think they’re doing the right thing in helping others through hard times, but that nicety is not evidence of Christlikeness.  It is false virtue to appear loving in the commission of a grave moral evil.  How did that fact escape Noble?

The difference is the understanding of love.  Love is looking out for the best interests of another.  Sometimes that means graciously telling an uncomfortable truth.  Sometimes it means warning people of the evil committed at an abortion clinic.  It is by no means loving to graciously commit evil.  In this, Noble has failed to heed the rebuke of Jesus to make a right judgment, one not based on mere appearances.  Are there really evil pro-life people out there?  Yes, and they need to repent.  Noble is right to criticize those who simply tell others they are murderers, but very few of even them would not be kind in face-to-face, one-on-one meetings with those who consider or who have had abortions.  And Noble doesn’t seem to realize that most of what he terms “hate” may in fact have certain theological underpinnings in certain forms of Presuppositional apologetics.  But he fails to realize that the pro-life movement is more diverse than what he seems to think it is.

On a more practical level, Noble can be answered by summarizing his own arguments.  Where does he draw the “condemnation” line of what counts and what doesn’t?  Is the statement “abortion is wrong” a bad thing for Christians to say?  If the unborn are human, and this can be ascertained with science and philosophy apart from the Gospel, then why not seek to outlaw the destruction of the unborn for any reason?  He speaks of ministering to those who have had abortions, but is this the only permissible way to deal with the issue?   More troubling is that his arguments are not new; they are, in fact, common pro-abortion arguments.  His line about how we don’t know the story of every woman who has an abortion is most often followed by the phrase “Therefore we should not judge them for having abortions.”  How would Noble respond to such a common argument?  What logically follows from the presence of unkind pro-lifers?  I’ve seen them, and they do the movement much harm.  But what follows?  That we should not say that abortion should be outlawed?  He says that he wishes we did not live in a world where so many abortions take place, but this too is common pro-choice rhetoric: safe, legal, and rare is the usual form it takes.  What are we to make when the same line gets used by different sides?  Moreover, how would he respond to Biblical arguments in favor of abortion made by those from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice?  In his haste to hypocritically malign Christians, he parrots more than a few pro-choice arguments.  Unfortunately he ends on a terrible note: by saying that adoption is a “far better” option than abortion, he blunts the moral force of his opposition to it.  If abortion is the unjust taking of a human life, then it is not one option among many.  Morally impermissible acts are not options when the choice is between a morally brave, even heroic, act and one that is evil.  The entire crux of the pro-choice argument rests on abortion being worse than the other options, even much worse, but that it should be an option by virtue of the complex moral difficulty facing the women who have to choose.

To which I say: considering this wording, and the line about legislation having little impact (which is by no means the case), this is essentially a pro-choice argument with a few scattered, neutered, and ambiguously used pro-life platitudes.

He then careens across the philosophical divide to make a few very bad common pro-life arguments, namely that legislation won’t fix it and that it will take a conversion to change minds about the issue.  But this too is sloppy: it is not a theological position that the unborn are unique human beings worthy of human rights.  It can be concluded based on uncontroversial science and ethical conclusions that he himself appeals to in his own post!  Ironically, Noble is using the exact same reasoning that he accuses pro-lifers of: some who use harsh words and means to demean those who have abortions also believe that only conversion can change the entire issue for good.

Noble then says most Christians treat abortion as a “sin category” (scare quotes included) and that they don’t understand how justification works.  Of course abortion is not the unforgivable sin: and Christopher Kaczor makes this point eloquently in the beginning of his book The Ethics of Abortion.  We need not condemn individual women for seeking to better their situations, but that does not mean that all solutions are morally equivalent, and the law needs to take that into account.  But this is offered without a shred of supporting evidence and in fact parrots the typical slander against pro-lifers.  Again: I would submit that had Noble spent a fair amount of time around pro-lifers, say the 40 Days for Life crowd, he would see that he has untruthfully slandered fellow believers.   Thus he is actually quite guilty of the thoughtless judgment he accuses others of.

But suppose we visit another era, the Antebellum South.  Let us suppose that there are a group of kind slave-owners who are being boycotted by a mix of kind and unkind abolitionists, replete with boycotts and protest signs.

Which of the two is Christ-like?

And that is the answer to Noble’s pronouncement.

And let us further suppose that there is another person who opposes slavery who says that legislation cannot help it, and that it will take a conversion of the heart for someone to realize that it’s wrong, and that there are far better options than slavery but there are many highly charged emotional factors that can go into the choice to keep slaves.

Compared to the above-mentioned abolitionists, which of the two is more Christ-like?

Let us further suppose that the abolitionists win and the slaves are freed.  Let us ask these abolitionists, then,  Noble’s question of “What did you win?  You have not made a difference!”

And that is also the answer to Noble’s failed rhetorical flourish.

When the choice is between “eating cookies that fund the killing of unborn humans” and not, there is no dilemma.

The President’s reckless rhetoric

 […] This is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfill their dreams.

–From the Statement by the President on Roe v. Wade Anniversary, January 22, 2014

So end President Obama’s remarks about Roe v. Wade and his administration’s official stance on abortion, released on the 41st anniversary of the decision.  Unfortunately, the President’s remarks are deeply problematic, for reasons he probably didn’t intend.

The problem lies with the rhetoric: it is broad.  Too broad.  Much too broad.  So broad that an aircraft carrier can be parallel parked in the gap it leaves.  The logic of the statement is quite simple: abortion is a good thing because it helps women maintain equal footing and allows them to pursue their goals.  What could possibly be wrong with such a statement?

In his article for the Christian Research Journal, bioethicist Scott Klusendorf quotes several ethicists who defend the position that newborns and infants may be terminated on the basis of disability or a simple lack of development, or simply because they are not considered persons who have human rights until a given point after birth.  Klusendorf quotes Singer:

“Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

Consider also, from his textbook Practical Ethics:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.

To be fair, Singer says that in most cases infanticide may be morally wrong–but that claim seems dubious in light of his much earlier claim about the moral worth of the lives of newborns.  But Singer is not alone.  Other ethicists have echoed Singer and have gone farther than him.  Klusendorf quotes Michael Tooley from 1972, the year before Roe, and draws the logical conclusion:

“[A human being] possess[es] a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.”  Infants do not qualify.

Klusendorf’s discussion of another ethicist’s comments deserve attention as well.

More recently, American University philosophy professor Jeffrey Reiman has asserted that unlike mature human beings, infants do not “possess in their own right a property that makes it wrong to kill them.” He explicitly holds that infants are not persons with a right to life and that “there will be permissible exceptions to the rule against killing infants that will not apply to the rule against killing adults and children.”

So with these philosophers in mind, let’s revisit the President’s remarks.  The logic is unambiguous: if abortion can allow a woman to achieve her goals, it should be permissible.  But the President’s rhetoric is careless: these ethicists have given reasons why they think infanticide should be permissible, and all of them are grounded in the same defense of abortion that Obama has appealed to.

Which raises some uncomfortable questions for President Obama.  What reasons can he give for his stated defense of abortion that do not equally apply to Singers,’ Tooley’s, and Reiman’s defenses of infanticide?  If abortion–the act of ending a human life–is acceptable at one stage based upon the physical attributes of the unborn, as far as the ambitions of women or families are concerned, then Singer’s point that the newly born are developmentally similar to the unborn means that Singer and company can (and has)  use that very same rhetoric in the defense of infanticide on the basis that it will allow for the very same goals and opportunities to be pursued.

Which is surely not what the President meant to say, but the logic of his statement is unavoidable.  Why not follow Singer, Tooley, and others in their arguments about abortion and infanticide?  Would not more goals and ambitions be pursued by allowing infanticide?  Surely the good would outweigh the bad in such a scenario.  If size, location, or degrees of dependency or development can be appealed to to terminate a human being so that another can achieve a particular objective, why not grant more achievement?

But Singer is right in pointing out that newborns are developmentally similar to their unborn counterparts, and there is something of a circular firing squad within pro-choice philosophy.  To quote Christopher Kaczor, “Arguments against infanticide often apply equally well to abortion while arguments in favor of abortion often apply equally well to infanticide (The Ethics of Abortion, p. 41).”

And it is into this disturbing philosophical tempest that the President deploys his remarks.  Surely President Obama does not mean to allow such an application of his statement, but his sentiments are not used by defenders of abortion alone.  When his rhetoric can be used–and is used–by those defending infanticide, that rhetoric needs to be critically examined.

Is human life a spectrum? Responding to Seidensticker

Clinton Wilcox over at his blog is currently examining a collection of responses made to common pro-life arguments by one Bob Seidensticker at his own blog at Patheos.  While many of Seidensticker’s responses merit further discussion, many of them rely upon what he calls the “spectrum argument.” It comprises the backbone of his arguments in favor of abortion and for responding to anti-abortion arguments.

He then gives quite a few examples of what this spectrum looks like, as well as analogies that he asserts proves his point.  He argues from examples of a spectrum from blue to green, where colors in the middle of the spectrum are both blue and green, that the ends of the spectrum are definitely blue and green.  He makes his point concerning the question of when adulthood begins:

What age is the dividing line between child and adult? Twelve years? Eighteen? Twenty-one? It’s a spectrum, and there is no objectively correct line. Again, the line is debatable but no one doubts that a child and an adult are quite different.

Eventually he applies it to the question of the unborn:

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.

Therefore, according to Seidensticker, because the properties that humans have at one end of the spectrum are not at the non-human end of the spectrum, that it is permissible to abort before human characteristics can be identified.

He continues:

Let’s approach this another way. Consider a brain with 100 billion neurons versus a single neuron. The single neuron doesn’t think 10–11 times as fast. It doesn’t think at all. The differentiation of the cells into different cell types and their interconnections in the newborn may count for even more than the enormous difference in the number of cells.

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.

But is this an accurate critique of pro-life arguments about the nature of the unborn, and human nature in general?  I argue that it is philosophically and scientifically imprecise to regard the earliest stages of development as less than human.  Here’s why. 

To begin, embryology paints a different picture of the earliest stages of development than how Seidensticker treats them.  While he does mention cell differentiation as well as totipotency, I’m not sure he understands how they affect his argument.  In fact he accidentally gets it right by discussing making individual cells totipotent, which is to say that the entire genetic code of a cell has been activated so that it has become, in effect, a zygote: it will begin developing as a unique human being instead of developing its original particular type of tissue.

That totipotency makes the scientific difference for his case.  The zygote, by virtue of self-directed development, has the capacity to develop into a fetus, and the process by which one cell becomes many pluripotent cells that in turn become the myriad tissues that comprise the developing human.  By failing to acknowledge the ability of the zygote to ‘unfurl’ into a complete human being with no outside assistance (except by accident while trying to make trouble for pro-life arguments), his comparison to individual cells in a child or adult fails in its objective.  If the zygote is a human being at a particular stage of development (as an awful lot of embryology textbooks attest to), then his spectrum argument misses the point.

Seidensticker also attacks a strawman argument by carping about what the unborn is called at various stages of development, and references a common pro-choice argument: that a blueprint is not a house, that an acorn is not a tree, and that a cell is not a baby and a cell is not an adult.  Again, by failing to account for what kind of cell it is–that is, one that has the innate capacity to exercise self-development, as opposed to one that can only develop into a very specific type of tissue–his argument fails.  He is right to describe the differences between a zygote and a newborn as a vast degree, but attempting to show a difference in kind he misses the point.

As most any pro-lifer would argue, of course a cell isn’t a newborn and an acorn isn’t a tree and a blueprint isn’t a house.  But this is a misunderstanding of what the embryo actually is.  An acorn is very much not a tree, but there is no question that an acorn and the tree it may become is not a member of a particular species.  We can identify a type of acorn as belonging to a particular kind of tree; similarly we can identify an embryo as belonging to a particular species of animal.  (More on that later.)  But the analogy with the blueprint and the house falls flat: the zygote (and later embryo) are not just the ‘plans’ for a living human being, but have the capacity to develop as long as that process is not interrupted.  A blueprint cannot potentially become a house; it will always be a blueprint.  An embryo, by distinction, has the capacity to develop by virtue of what it is.

It is worth noting that the term ‘baby’ is indeed scientifically imprecise and can refer to both born and unborn, but scientific precision doesn’t seem to be in sight with this particular argument–in fact, it depends on the science not being precise.  If the science of embryology is precise on when a distinct human being comes into existence where none was before, then his argument is imperiled.  The embryology textbooks above gravely imperil the argument.

The philosophical problems with the case fare much worse.  Seidensticker completely fails to account for the concepts of act and potency, and ‘essential’ and ‘accidental.’  (From the sound of things, some of the arguments he responds to don’t account for them either, or do so very poorly.)

As regards act and potency: Any potency that a thing has is derived from what it is–which is to say, its actuality determines its potentiality.  What it is determines what it can do.  By simply dismissing the zygote as a ‘cell,’ he fails to account for the actuality of that particular cell as compared to the actuality of other cells.  The blueprint mentioned above does not have the potential to become a house by virtue of what it is: a fancy piece of paper.  A zygote has the potential to become a fetus, then a child, and then an adult by virtue of what it is: a human being at a particular stage of development, complete with everything it needs to develop.  That is why the blueprint argument fails, and the acorn argument is not an accurate representation of development within species.  All the characteristic organs he mentions as belonging to humanness are contingent upon the makeup of the zygote; they cannot therefore be what constitutes our humanity.  On that note:

As regards essential versus accidental properties: An essential property is exactly that: without an essential characteristic, something becomes something else.  An accidental property is one that does not change the essential nature of a thing.  For example, a human can have hair, but does not lose humanity by losing hair, or by having lighter or darker hair.  A human can lose fingers or limbs and still retains a human nature, because fingers or limbs are accidental, rather than essential, characteristics of a human being.  This is the key (essential, if you will) question: what makes us human?  If it is not our sensory organs, or if we are still human without particular functioning organs (heart, liver, lungs, with a few exceptions I’ll mention in a moment), then can we really say that our humanity arises somewhere on a spectrum?  It does not; it is the case that the spectrum of human development itself depends upon our essential human nature, which can be found from the very first distinct cell on.  Everything he appeals to, with a few anticipated exceptions, is contingent upon the actuality that the zygote already possesses.  This is why his argument fails, philosophically and scientifically speaking.  The zygote and embryo are very different in degree from a fetus, child, or adult; but it is not different in kind.  At every stage of development, the human being is a “unified entity” in the words of Christopher Tollefsen and Robert George.  That crucial difference is ignored by the spectrum argument, to its failure.

As to the exceptions I mentioned above: In one example responding to pro-life arguments, he mentions a hypothetical where only a person’s head was kept alive and suggests that of course he or she is less of a person.  This raises serious questions about the ability of the ‘spectrum’ to accurately determine humanity, by virtue of begging the question of what makes us human in the first place.  Naturally, I anticipate consciousness asserted as an essential characteristic of personhood, as well as the primacy of the brain as the control center of the body, but applying the spectrum to the ‘living head’ would not be pretty to the person whose body simply comprises a head.  Is the ability to immediately exercise a capacity, with the use of a whole human body, the requirement for determining humanness?  Can the ‘spectrum,’ with its lack of objectiveness, be trusted to provide the right outcome for the question of whether or not a technologically-augmented head is deserving of full human rights?  That answer is ‘no.’  But the pro-life argument can be trusted in such a case, by virtue of its philosophical understandings of act and essence.

For what it’s worth: Seidensticker mentions pro-lifers who say that “Some pro-life advocates argue that the humans at either end of this spectrum are identical in every meaningful way […].”  This is puzzling.  Who says so?  What does he mean when he says “identical in every meaningful way?”  Does he mean morally meaningful?  Identical as far as species and kind go?  That the embryo is genetically identical at all stages of development?  Or identical in some other sense?  Inquiring minds want to know.  Because without further substantiation, this looks suspiciously like a straw-man argument.  Which does not seem surprising considering that sophisticated pro-life philosophy seems absent in this particular critique.

(Sort-of-edit: Wilcox has responded to this as well at his own blog here.)

On Arguing Against “Anti-Choicers”

Early this month, Amanda Marcotte published a blog entry at RH Reality Check entitled “Anti-Choicers Can’t Get Around It: Their Arguments Have No Standing.”  This blog was linked on Twitter and elsewhere by a group out of St. Louis called Faith Aloud.

Marcotte mentions a particular lawsuit regarding the contraception mandate and the issue of legal standing, and then makes some sweeping generalizations about those she disagrees with.

To wit:

All their beliefs go back to the conviction that what other people, even perfect strangers, are doing in bed somehow affects them and so needs to be stopped by any means necessary.


The problem with this belief is self-evident. What other people are doing with their bodies does not actually affect anti-choicers, and so their standing—not just legally, but morally—is always hard to impossible to establish. Thus, the never-ending parade of bad faith arguments and outright lies that come from anti-choicers.

Aside from the loaded language of “anti-choice” (most advocates of abortion choice dislike being called “pro-abortion,” after all), is this really the case?  Last I checked, the argument about abortion hasn’t been that it hurts us but that it hurts someone in particular: the unborn.  Does it surprise Marcotte that we don’t buy the “If it doesn’t hurt us personally” argument?  Could it be that it’s just not a solid argument?

Moving along:

Unable to come right out and say that they don’t want it to be too easy for women to have non-procreative sex, anti-choicers have instead latched onto this “religious freedom for employers” argument. Unfortunately, the argument doesn’t work without the assumption that your employer has some ownership over his employee’s private life, including her own religious beliefs.

Might it possibly be that “anti-choicers” don’t come right out and say they don’t want it to be too easy for women to have sex because…that’s not actually their concern?

The objection to the religious liberty of employers is mystifying.  In trying to assert that employers cannot tell employees how they can use their paychecks, she unwittingly makes the case that employers ought to be told how to use their own payrolls.  Why not go varsity with her own argument and apply it to everything else?  Why not food?  Utilities?  Gas?  Daycare?  Surely birth control is less important than all of that.  It would be a pleasant surprise if Marcotte answered the actual argument: that people should be free to use their paychecks as they see fit, not as how they think their employer should see fit.  If an employee at Hobby Lobby wishes to purchase birth control, well and good.  But the language of ‘imposition’ should apply to employers as well as employees.  If Marcotte applied her own standard to her own argument, this would be the result.

She then switches gears to discuss “standing” as the legal concept of a party to a legal case having actually been affected adversely by something.  She appeals to the criticism by conservatives of Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 VMA show as evidence of people being upset about something not hurting them, and suggests a new reason we should be upset with Miley: ‘cultural appropriation.’

And what a criticism it is.  She links to a piece that, like several in the academic left after the performance, complained that Miley was wrong to 1) twerk, 2) slap the behind of her black backup dancer, and 3) a few other things I can’t describe here, not because they were wrong, but because she is white.

Last I checked, racism is telling someone they cannot do something because of their skin color.  Which is precisely the complaint against Miley by Marcotte and Friends: it wasn’t because it was demeaning to her as a woman, it wasn’t because it was appalling in general, it was because she lacked the appropriate skin pigmentation.

This is, essentially, a racist argument used by Marcotte and others.

Though, perhaps, Miley Cyrus could simply suggest that she is approaching race as others see fit to approach gender: malleable and ‘what we make of it.’  Who are they to judge her?  This critique of Miley is not the point; the point is that conservatives used it to once again tell women what they should do with their bodies (nevermind that Marcotte has a problem with it on basis of skin color rather than morality).

Marcotte then continues her screed by complaining about the complaints about Miley Cyrus: that it’s ‘slut-shaming’ and that women who do such things will be raped, or worse, get pregnant.  She then brings her blog full-circle by repeating her assertion: that at the core, the “anti-choice” cabal has nothing other than the desire to control the bodies of others and that they have no “good argument” for why we say what we do.  Everyone does metaphysics; to describe it as “people who want to control others” and “people who do not want to control others” misses the point entirely.  It’s not even applied fairly.

To be fair, I’m not sure Marcotte has tried very hard to look for any good arguments.  She does us a service by pointing out the bad ones (of which there are regretfully many).  Granted, she focuses more on the legal battle over the contraception mandate and not the philosophies in conflict, but in saying there are no good arguments for the conservative position, she is expressing ignorance about the philosophy with which she disagrees.  If David Boonin can write a very good blurb for Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion, I think Marcotte can do her homework and avoid saying regrettable things like this (or that it’s morally impossible to make such claims at all).

But Marcotte’s article brings its own criticism full-circle as well.  The argument goes that contraception doesn’t hurt “anti-choicers” who so bitterly and irrationally resist the calm and steady voice of reason.  I’m sure the folks that run Hobby Lobby don’t feel particularly ‘hurt’ by the multi-million-dollar fines they are racking up by disobeying the mandate.  I’m sure they’ll also not feel particularly ‘hurt’ by HHS and its supporters who so eloquently tell them to figure out what they’ll have to disobey to satisfy the demands of Marcotte and others.  Thomas Sowell describes at length in Vision of the Anointed how society as a whole has been adversely affected by the drive for sex education from the 1960s on, particularly in terms of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy.   And they certainly will not be ‘hurt’ by the imposition of a wishful, immature, half-baked philosophy that is wrecking our culture sexually (see Cyrus, Miley).  Except that we’re all being hurt by that.  And all the while, the most basic questions about the morality of actions is not even considered.

But until Marcotte critiques her own starting point and actually considers the good reasons for disagreeing with her, ultimately her position is a fundamentalist one.  Others have critiqued her work in the past, and things haven’t really changed since then.

Edit: Nick pointed out that others made a complete mockery of Marcotte’s attitude towards men with whom she disagrees.  I’d say it’s pretty accurate.