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.)