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!  

Except there’s precious little actual science, and a whole lot of imprecise science and bad philosophy that’s masquerading as science.

He can’t even get his terminology right: the term “fertilized egg” is itself wrong.  The term is a contradiction; once an egg is fertilized it’s no longer an egg.  The term is ‘zygote,’ though he is correct that sometimes a zygote doesn’t always form–sometimes it results in hydatiform moles, or a few other types of nonviable tissue that does not have the hallmarks of a zygote: self-sustaining, ordered development, and is a whole being at the beginning of the stages of development.  A zygote is essentially a new, unique human being.  Except Nye does not even begin to address that question, or the ethical questions that result.

Inexplicably, Nye brings implantation into the mix; other than to try to justify his later comments about “women controlling their bodies” it is irrelevant to the question of when life begins.  By the time of implantation, it’s no longer a zygote but an embryo, and certainly not a “fertilized egg.”  Implantation is only necessary because it is biologically the best way to protect the embryo and foster its development; in the future, technology may well allow for an artificial womb that can sustain an embryo through its development without implantation.  And Nye’s argument will have to change when that happens, because it will be incontrovertible that the unborn are human beings from zygotes on.

This is the end of any science in the video and he’s less than thirty seconds through a five minute video.  That’s it.

At this point, he turns from ‘science’ to legal and ethical issues, and fails miserably to deal with the consequences of pro-life thought.  He immediately raises an objection that we can’t possibly arrest or sue every woman that fails to conceive, miscarries, or aborts, as though this is 1) a new objection or 2) that it even follows from the view he clumsily assigns to pro-life people.

And it wouldn’t be nearly as embarrassing if he had not said “It’s just a reflection of deep scientific understanding, and you literally or apparently literally do not know what you’re talking about.”

Not only does this expose his own ignorance of pro-life thought, it makes him look like an ass as well.  Many pro-life philosophers, including Francis Beckwith, Christopher Kaczor, Christopher Tollefsen, Robert George, Patrick Lee, and many many others have long distinguished between the role of intention and foresight in bioethics.  Since Nye has apparently never heard of these terms, I will explain them.

There is a moral difference between intending a particular outcome and foreseeing a particular outcome.  Intending a particular end means that an act is deliberately taken to achieve that end; foreseeing a particular end means acting with a different goal in mind and allowing something to happen as a result.  An example of this is giving morphine to terminal cancer patients; the goal is the relief of suffering, knowing that the morphine may quicken death.  In this case death is not the intended result, but neither is it delayed.

Nye also pulls out a very old objection, about imprisoning women who miscarry or abort.  What is wrong with a law that says, “If you break this law, there will be consequences?”  What is wrong with a law that has teeth?  It doesn’t follow that because some embryos spontaneously abort, or otherwise fail, that there is no moral difference between intentionally killing the embryo or fetus and allowing spontaneous abortions or miscarriages.  I have yet to come across a pro-life book that fails to make that distinction, so Nye would be well served to trouble himself with what we’re actually saying.

He then launches into a straw-man argument so big that even he should see it’s transparently false: the idea that pro-life philosophy is an essentially religious view, and five thousand years old, and not a basis for law or science.

Two words: [Citation needed]

I do not know if Nye is speaking out of ignorance or dis-ingenuousness, but neither is fitting.  It doesn’t even rise to the level of argument; he speaks as though there is no non-religious reason to think that the unborn are human from conception on, and that there is no non-religious reason to disagree with him.  While there are some pro-life organizations that do claim you have to be a Christian to be pro-life, they are in the minority; you simply do not need to be a theist to conclude (from embryology!) that the unborn are self-directed human beings whose growth is directed toward a specific end that will only end upon the destruction of that being.  Furthermore, pro-lifers love to quote embryology to prove their point. 

Nye then brazenly accuses lawmakers of Lawmaking While of European Descent, as though that has any bearing upon the issue of the unborn or laws regarding abortion.  But last I checked, Science(TM) has a bit of a European Male problem according to the social justice set.  Bill Nye happens to be a Male of European Descent in Science.  So if he wants to play the sexism card, he might want to think again, because that is no less problematic in science.

Lastly, Nye says that “No one likes abortion.”  Which begs the question: Why?  He says it’s important, because sometimes women don’t like the men that get them pregnant; and then, as an afterthought, says “especially in cases of rape.”

This is perhaps the most offensive statement in the whole video.  It is also profoundly unscientific, to the point of dismissing the science of embryology and saying “even if the unborn is a unique individual, I should be able to destroy it if I decide I don’t like the man who got me pregnant.”  And rape is added as an afterthought.  Which is important: for him, elective abortion is itself a good that must be defended, in spite of the nature of the unborn.  If Nye wants to claim that science should determine how we write law and act as human beings, he should damn well get his facts straight about bioethics, especially if he wants to interact with those he disagrees with.

The question has never really been one of ‘liking’ rape, has it?  So for Nye to pose it as a matter of liking rape is to beg the question of the moral status of the unborn and of destroying the unborn.  But Nye never bothered to address the pro-life position on its own terms, with any semblance of moral reasoning other than bodily autonomy.  And, to be sure, he never bothers to accurately state any objection to his position, once again pretending his veneer of SCIENCE(TM) will be enough to quell any objections.

Nye’s video is not science.  It is certainly not philosophy.  It is propaganda and rhetoric that falls apart at the first critical examination.


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