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.)

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