A typical pro-life position can be stated this way: (1) human life begins at conception; (2) it is murder to take a human life; therefore (3) abortion is murder and should be considered immoral.
We’ll return to that idea shortly, but first let’s look more closely at human life. I argue that there is a spectrum of personhood during gestation.
Consider a continuous spectrum from blue to green. Where’s the dividing line? Where does blue end and green begin? We can argue about this, but we agree that blue is not green! The two ends are very different.
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.
An acorn is not a tree, a silkworm is not a dress, a water molecule is not a whirlpool, a piece of hay is not a haystack, and a carton of eggs is not a henhouse of chickens. Similarly, a single fertilized human egg cell is very different from a one-trillion-cell newborn baby.
Note that this is not simply about the number of cells. At one end of the personhood spectrum, 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.
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.
Some pro-life advocates argue that the humans at either end of this spectrum are identical in every meaningful way and use the term “baby” for every point along the spectrum. I’ve raised babies (with help, of course), and that makes me something of an expert in identifying babies. As an expert, I can assure you that an invisible cell isn’t a baby.
This inept attempt to collapse the spectrum by using the term “baby” for both ends is like the slogan used by the animal rights group PETA: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” In other words, there is no spectrum here: vermin are the same as livestock, which are the same as pets, which are the same as people.
No, a rat is not a boy, blue is not green, and a single cell is not a newborn baby.
A lot revolves around what we call this spectrum. Do we call it Homo sapiens? With this term, there is no spectrum, because the species is the same—the single cell is Homo sapiens, as is the newborn baby.
What about “human”? That seems a good name for the spectrum—that is, we would call the newborn human but not the cell. Or, we might call the cell human but not a human. Pro-lifers typically reject this, wanting to use “human” for both ends of the spectrum.
All right, can we all agree on “person”? I’ve heard pro-lifers reject this as well.
This game where pro-lifers deny names to the spectrum can get tiring. I really don’t care what the spectrum is called—humanity, personhood, human development, like-me-ness, whatever—call it what you want as long as the naming acknowledges the stark difference between the newborn (with arms and legs and a circulatory system and a nervous system and eyes and ears and so on) and the single fertilized human egg cell.
Now, back to the original pro-life argument: (1) human life begins at conception; (2) it is murder to take a human life; therefore (3) abortion is murder and should be considered immoral. This argument is invalid because it is oblivious to the spectrum.
Pro-lifers claim to be celebrating life, but equating a newborn baby with a single cell doesn’t celebrate life, it denigrates it.
Photo credit: Wikimedia
Other posts in this series:
- Five Emotional Pro-Choice Arguments
- What’s Wrong with the Pro-Life Position?
- What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? Not Much.
- 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals
- Why is it Always Men Advancing the Pro-Life Position?
- 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals (Part 2)
- 5 Recommendations to the Pro-Life Movement
- Ray Comfort’s Anti-Abortion Video “180”
- 16 Arguments Against Abortion, Addendum
- Don’t Like Abortion? Then Support Sex Education
This is a good summation of the spectrum argument, but you make the mistake of using the term “pro-life”. With certain exceptions, the very fact that you are alive means that you are “pro-life”. I hasten to add that I never got so “pro-life” as when I realized that this is the one and only life we have to live.
The position you are describing is “anti-abortion”, and this term is not just a simple matter of re-framing. “Anti-abortion” accurately describes the position far better than the current vernacular.
In that vein, and with apologies to Bono, I declare that “pro-life” was stolen, and now it is time to steal it back.
Great point. Indeed, wouldn’t an atheist be far more pro-life than the Christian since the atheist doesn’t pretend that life is eternal?
My hesitation in following your suggestion (and I’m working on a few more posts on this subject) is that this would take us down an unhelpful side trail of what each group calls itself. “Anti-abortion” doesn’t seem especially inflammatory, though I think “pro-life” is the other side’s preferred label. If I demand that they use my definition of “atheist,” I should probably call them what they want to be called (within reason).
But I should at least work your point into the discussion. Thanks for the suggestion.
Yes, it is polite to call them what they want to be called, but politeness stops when honesty stops. “Pro-life” is not an honest label and it is being stolen from those of us who understand that life is a tragically fragile construct.
Yep, I agree with you a 100% Bob. It is absurd to claim a zygote is the same as an infant/baby. Your examples are excellent, and drive that point home very well. The other way pro-lifers ignore the truth is by making it seem like most abortions are late-term abortions. Many religious people become irrational when it comes to abortion and homosexuality. One of the many reasons why I am not religious anymore, or won’t be associated with it.
They do indeed focus on late-term abortions. One procedure has been outlawed (the line has to be drawn somewhere, so this doesn’t bother me too much), but it was used for less than 2000 procedures per year. Compared to 1 million total abortions, you’re right that highlighting that is deceptive.
One thing I’m curious to find is the reasons for later abortions. My hunch is that they’re pretty good reasons (rather than “Wait–this is making me really fat!”).
One reason for later abortions is the need to raise money to get one. Another might be all the hoops the states make you jump thru just to get one. Lastly, might be indecision, wrestling with the emotional aspects that women tend to feel when facing this.
patt: Good points, thanks.
BTW, the blog has moved. Check it out at its new home and see the latest:
Bob: Yes, very true. Anti-abortion people mislead by focusing on late-term abortions, and then they mislead even more by not stating why most late-term abortion are done. I would be willing to bet that most late-term abortions are done to save the life of the mother or to prevent serious harm to the mother.
**”…most late-term abortions are done.”**
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The self-proclaimed “pro-life” crowd is entirely too obsessive about the imaginary people they claim to be concerned about. They need to calm down, switch off their circuit diagrams, get out of their blueprints, sit in the shade of their acorns, listen to the pleasant songs of the eggs, and stop to smell the pollen.
I love what George Carlin said about abortion or how many Republicans are about abortion. If you are a zygote, fetus most Republicans love you, but if you are outside the womb: You are fucked!…lol. They don’t give a crap about you then.
A topsy-turvy view of the world. Maybe, like Alice, we’ve fallen into Wonderland.
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It has been a while since I have commented but I feel compelled to do so on this topic. I think the biggest problem is that you never identify a time when abortion would be unacceptable. If you cannot identify the time a group of cells becomes a baby or human then are you really answering the argument?
Also, from my perspective I find abortion to be murder. Every group of cells that could become a human is made in the image of God. If the growth of the single-celled organism was not aborted then that organism would become a human, in your view. That, I think, is a much better argument than a spectrum argument even though one can’t tell where the line of human starts and begins.
It’s good to hear from you again.
What if it’s just one cell? Is it acceptable then? Isn’t it pretty clear that one cell is not a baby?
Why not become a vegetarian then? The cow or fish were made by God. Maybe it’s against God’s plan for you to destroy their lives.
You could also argue from the other side: who cares about killing people? God’s pretty easygoing about it–he kills people all the time.
True, and if I froze the living skin cells that I scratch off, they could be clonable into humans in ten years or so. Should I do that? Or maybe I should make more babies with my wife–is it immoral for me to deny that potential life?
I think it gets pretty ridiculous the further back in time we go from the newborn baby.
Sorry–I missed the better argument. Could you rephrase?
Travis writes: “I think the biggest problem is that you never identify a time when abortion would be unacceptable.”
Richard suggests: Not Bob’s job. He’s not the one who’s pregnant. Judging from your name, Travis, neither are you.
Think of it this way. Because every cell in your body was created thru mitosis, each and every one of them contains an exact copy of your personal DNA. Every single one of those trillion cells is a potential human being — a possible clone of you — including the cells that turn into inflamed adenoids, swollen tonsils, ruptured appendixes, and brain tumors. So when, in your estimation, does it become immoral to remove a brain tumor because it’s a potential human life? After all, under the right conditions that’s all it’ll ever turn into. Go thru the same ‘pinning it down” exercise that you ask of Bob. Please identify the time when, in your estimation, it becomes unacceptable to excise that burst appendix.
I suggest again that the person who should be making this call is the one with the unwanted thing growing inside her or his body, not some outside kibitzer whose own health and well-being is not on the line.
This gets into an interesting tangent: why is it almost always men who are the anti-abortion advocates? I’ll grant that they can comment on what is and isn’t moral, but a little humility would be nice. They will never, ever understand what it feels like to be a 15-year-old girl trying to deal with all the pressure of an unwanted pregnancy.
A rough analogy: you returned from Vietnam and have (what we now call) PTSD. Your wife is concerned and recommends a doctor she’s heard about. “He’ll fix you right up,” she says. As a young man in 1975, seeing a shrink isn’t on your short list, and you refuse. More nightmares, and more arguments with the wife. Finally, you say, “Look–you’d understand if you spend 18 months in the jungle with people all around trying to kill you. Failing that, you will never, ever understand!”
I think the gulf is similar between the pregnant 15-year-old and 60-something Greg Koukl or some other old guy who’s quick to scold anyone who considers abortion. Frustrating.
It really comes down to misogyny and trying to burden women back into the kitchen. The other two legs of the stool are abstinence only sex education, and getting rid of birth control.
As with all of their tactics (creationism included), they recognize that outright banning is not possible in the United States. Uganda, yes, but not the United States. Thus they use their own “Spectrum Argument” to slowly eat away at availability with seemingly innocuous laws.
Have no illusions, if abortion really were murder, it would come as an instinctive reaction from women. It would come with such force that men would be confused by the average woman’s revulsion towards abortion.
Great point in your last paragraph. Thanks.
I quoted you in my most recent post here. You’re famous!
This is an interesting argument. I think the core point of any argument regarding a spectrum is defining what, exactly, a spectrum is.
We know, for example, it is not acceptable to kill a person, but it is OK to kill a cow, or a dog, or a cockroach (not people).
So the real question is: is a human at conception a person? I argue “no”, probably for the same reasons you do. But pro-lifers frequently argue yes, because of the future potential of the cell.
I usually respond by suggesting that that future potential is just as likely to be a life of suffering in the third world or a hitler as it is to be a first-world citizen. However, I haven’t taken the time to formulate a formal counter-argument.
The pro-choice versus pro-life debate was interesting for quite a while. It stopped being interesting when the Catholic church decided that the foetus is so valuable that even if it means the death of the mother, they will not permit abortion. That sort of irrational thinking is very destructive.
Yes, this is another good example. We all understand the spectrum from vermin to livestock to pet to people. Why not see that single cell to 1,000,000,000,000-cell newborn is also a spectrum?
If you’re simply talking about a random birth around the world, I’ve heard that about 2 billion people live on $1/day or less. That’s pretty abysmal. But if you’re talking about U.S. law, then you’re already (more or less) talking about the first world. Still, even in our world of cell phones and television, there are people who live pretty terrible lives. The burden of another baby for them + the baby being born into a terrible environment is a harm that far outweighs the harm by which you deny that fetus personhood.
You heard about the abortion of the 9-year-old who was raped? The church excommunicated the family and the doctors afterwards.
Praise the Lord.
I’d love to know what it is about personhood that makes one worthy of protection? And, where does this personhood come from? What is the mechanism that bestows personhood?
What I think the folly of the “personhood” defense is the list of what it is that qualifies someone as a person is wholly arbitrary. No one has a master list, or can show with arbitrarity that the things on the list are required.
What this defense actually does is value “personal” qualities rather than the being that possess them.
Not to make this comment too long, but I couldn’t let these slide:
An acorn is not a tree
An acorn is an oak. Just not a mature oak. An acorn is but a stage in the life cycle. The difference between the acorn and the tree is a matter of maturity, not quality.
a silkworm is not a dress
Dresses are not made from the worms, but the silk from the silkworms. A collection of silk could be spun to make silk material for a dress. But this comparison is a matter of quantity, not quality. Silk is silk.
a water molecule is not a whirlpool
Same as above
a piece of hay is not a haystack
and a carton of eggs is not a henhouse of chickens.
Same as the silk worm, you are comparing two different things. Its like saying, a tv is not a couch
Similarly, a single fertilized human egg cell is very different from a one-trillion-cell newborn baby
The single fertilized egg is a “whole”, though not mature yet. Parts of a human being are not added, they are self developed as a system, not merely a collection of the same kinds of cells. You are wrongly comparing a single piece of hay with a haystack, to a fertilized egg to the fully mature human being. But a fully mature human being is not a mere collection of single fertilized eggs.
The argument you make could be used to dehumanize someone with no arms or legs. Because they do not possess the colplete body, they are less human.
Human beings are valuable because of the kind of thing they are, not for what they can do or what they look like or how mature they are.
Sounds like a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” kind of question. If this is an important question, I don’t see it.
Arbitrary? You can’t see any important differences between a microscopic cell and a baby?
You were concerned about something, but I’m not sure what. If we see the difference between an acorn and a 100-foot oak tree, then I guess we’re on the same page.
So we agree on the differences?
Agreed. The baby is far more complex than simply the difference in the number of cells would suggest.
Nope. The difference between an amputee and a baby is trivial compared to the difference between a baby and a single cell.
The differences are that of maturity, not ontology. You are trying t portray the fertilized egg as a different kind of thing than an infant. It isn’t. It is the same kind of thing at different points in maturity. Likewise, an infant is different than a teenager, but not because of its nature, only its age.
The degrees of and qualities which make up “personhood” are in fact arbitrary and not in the least necessary. “Personhood” is a concocted concept and not an actual state or stage of anything. Qualities such as consciousness, or intention, or reflection can be added or removed depending on who it is that is needed to fail the test. How do we know this? Because special exemptions are made for people who are sleeping, comatose, or under anesthesia — all of whom do not meet personhood qualifications.
A dog is a different kind of thing than a wolf, but somewhere in the past there was a gradual transition from one to the other. Day is a different kind of thing than night, but somewhere between midnight and noon, one turns into the other.
The problem with all analogies is that they’re not identifies. That is, an analogy makes the case that certain characteristics (not all) are shared between 2 things, and to the extent that something is true of one thing with respect to that characteristic, it’s probably true of the other as well. That does not mean that the 2 things are identical in every other respect.
Here, for example, the fact that the single cell of a fertilized egg contains Homo sapiens DNA is indisputably identical to the fact that the trillion cells of a born person also all contain Homo sapiens DNA. To that extent, your analogy is correct. But why should that be the primary (let alone sole) criterion involved? To be specific, why should that one single point of exact congruence be more important than the many other aspects where there is wildly different incongruity?
To cite an example, a single sperm is a cell. That’s the exact same kind of thing (a cell with H. sap. DNA) as a fertilized egg. Using your own standards of thingness, am I a mass murderer because I whacked off last night and killed about a million sperm cells?
A single rock may not be a different kind of thing than a planet, but I think we respect the difference. And a water molecule vs. a whirlpool, and a single brain cell and a working brain. At what point do you admit that there’s a difference?
I return to my point: you’re saying that you can’t see any important difference between a baby that has arms, legs, brain and nervous system, heart and circulatory system, stomach and digestive system, skin, pancreas, and so on … and a single cell?
Fine. Give me a better term for the spectrum then. Tell me what the baby has that the single cell doesn’t.
The reason it is adequate is because (to use your terminology, not mine) the fertilized egfg doesn’t “turn” into something else. It stays the same “thing” from fertilization to death. Not just the same kind of “thing”, either. The same thing. In otherwords there is a continuum of the fertilized egg’s identity –> adult. The only property change is that of age and maturity. The egg gets older and more developed. This happens outside the womb as well, from infant to todler to adolescent to adult. Zygote, embryo and fetus are merely states of maturity, not ontological changes. Z, E, and F are not different things, they are different maturities.
There is no time at which there is an identity change like there is from day to night, or wolf to dog, The fertilized egg and mature adult are the same being.
Wow–you’ve got a pretty high bar for something turning into something else. Or maybe it’s convenient for you at this time to have a high bar.
Can you tell me a label that would satisfy you for this spectrum? For what the baby has and the newborn doesn’t? Or do you simply refuse to participate?
John writes: “… the fertilized egfg doesn’t “turn” into something else. It stays the same ‘thing’ from fertilization to death. Not just the same kind of ‘thing’, either. The same thing.”
As I tried to point out in my discussion above as to what constitutes an analogy, your statement is true only for certain definitions of the word “thing”. If a bunch of pranksters arrive in the middle of the night and disassemble my car into its various components — 4 tires, steering wheel, transmission, pistons, radio, etc. — and leave them lying in a pile where the car was parked, it’s all still there, isn’t it? Does that make it the same “thing”? No, because it’s lost a very important part of its identity: the interrelationship between the parts that makes it a functional vehicle.
Run the videotape of that prank backwards and you’ve got the process of assembling a complete functional unit from component parts. That’s the essence of what’s going on as the fertilized egg turns into a born baby, except that (as Bob rightly points out) along the way the zygote acquires a trillion times more material than it had to begin with. It gets this material by leeching off the pregnant woman.
So, John, if we were to draw a different analogy, and I were to come into your home with my scalpels and forceps and syringes and excise, say, 8 pounds 7 ounces of selected components out of your skin, liver, bloodstream, esophagus, adipose tissue, etc., and do so against your will and despite your protests, isn’t that the same “thing” as theft? (Or perhaps worse?) That’s what your typical fertilized egg does to the host organism. (Perhaps we should be grateful that so few of the parasitized women press charges.)
That’s why I am not persuaded that a born baby is, indeed, the same “thing” as a fertilized egg.
But the suspense is starting to get to me. When do we get to the part about its immortal soul being the essential component of its thingness?
You are reducing the fertilized egg and the concept of a mature infant to a collection of cells. You keep trying to compare a single rock to a bigger rock, or a single piece of hay to a stack of hay. But the difference between a fertilized egg and an infant (or adult for that matter) is not merely the difference in the number of cells. The fertilized egg is more than the sum of its parts.
Your whole spectrum idea is false. Because of the syllogism you are using:
(1) human life begins at conception;
(2) it is murder to take a human life; therefore
(3) abortion is murder and should be considered immoral.
You’d have to actually show that a fertilized egg is not alive and human at the point of conception. Which medically you can’t, it is a well established fact of embryology. You would have to argue that some (as I put it earlier) arbitrary set of cognative or personality traits is required to make a human worthy of protection. But then you are essentially arguing that the qualities (hope, consciousness, reflection, etc.) are what is valuable, and not their carrier. You then run into the problem of having to make special pleading exemptions for people under anesthea, sleeping or in comas, since they would not fit the personhood standard while in those states and could be killed. If you then make exemptions for those people, then you are undermining your own argument, showing you really arent concerned with the qualities at all. That you really just don’t want to be pregnant.
Your syllogism also imports morality into its conclusion, so its also an invalid syllogism. You’d have to include into one of the premeses that murder is wrong. You cant make a moral conclusion ffrom non moral claims. The syllogism I use is this:
— To intentionally take the life of an innocent human being without proper justification is murder and is morally wrong
— Elective abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being without proper justification
— Therefore, elective abortion is murder and is morally wrong.
(Did you mean “the baby is more than the sum of its parts”?)
I agree and made this point in the post.
I reject that syllogism.
It’s alive, and it’s human.
Arbitrary? I gave you the list of things that the baby has that the single cell doesn’t: arms, legs, digestive system, nervous system, circulatory system, and on and on and on. That’s what the newborn has that the cell doesn’t have. This list is not arbitrary, is one that we can all understand and appreciate, and is hugely important.
No. In the list of (let’s imagine) 200 critical body components that the single cell doesn’t have, if you remove one from an adult (someone has a gall bladder or arm removed, say), you’ve made an almost-trivial change in that adult’s personhood. That person is still far, far, far different from a single cell.
What is “human being”? Presumably, it’s convenient for you to define it as the same as Homo sapients.
Again: I’m not wedded to “person” as the name for the spectrum. If you don’t like it, give me a better name. Give me something that acknowledges the vast difference between a baby and a single cell.
My prediction is that you won’t because it’s inconvenient for your argument to acknowledge this difference.
Of course there are differences, in that they aren’t identical. But the differences betweem the fertilized egg and an infant arent such that justifies killing one and not the other. I’m not sure what it is you think I ought to be condeding.
And you seem to keep relating the value of a human being to how many fully functioning parts it has. Am I right? You are focused on this. But my point earlier was that a baby (yes that was a mistake when I said fertilized egg) is more than the sum of its parts, but you seem to be deriving value in possessed parts. So I ask, is one human that is less developed or an amputee less worthy of protection? If a less developed embryo is worthy of death because it does not have all its parts, why not someone outside the womb without all its parts?
I don’t really care what you call your spectrum. It fails to get you to the conclusion you’re looking for. It makes many fatal reasoning errors. Call it personhood if you want.
I understand that you don’t want to kill a fertilized egg, but I don’t see why. More importantly, you agree that there are differences, but you’re saying (1) you think that it is immoral to kill the egg and (2) you think it is immoral for anyone to kill the egg. You think that the differences from egg to baby are so trivial that their identical-ness (for all practical purposes) is an objective moral truth that is binding on everyone. Right?
That there is a spectrum. I call it “personhood,” but you can offer a different label.
Not really. It’s not the value of the human being but its personhood. Demanding that a single cell be given human rights gets into slippery territory. When we can clone a single cell into a full human being, are the skin cells that I scratch away now in this same protected category?
Didn’t I already answer this?
Your comparison is an adult without one part versus a cell without any parts!! No, this does not pose a tricky ethical problem for me.
Fair enough–it’s a spectrum of personhood. The baby is a person and the single cell isn’t. Now you see why the protections aren’t the same along the spectrum.
Run the videotape of that prank backwards and you’ve got the process of assembling a complete functional unit from component parts. That’s the essence of what’s going on as the fertilized egg turns into a born baby, except that (as Bob rightly points out) along the way the zygote acquires a trillion times more material than it had to begin with. It gets this material by leeching off the pregnant woman
This is actually wrong. Humans in the womb are not put together piecemeal like a car is. Each organ and system is developed by the fertilized ovum from its own. It does not get any material from the mother, the mother doesnt produce the babys organs and tissues, it is self contained. Where did you get the idea from? It gets nutrition from the mother. Geting nutrition and getting its material are two wholly different things.
John writes: “It gets nutrition from the mother. Geting nutrition and getting its material are two wholly different things.”
Okay, I’ll play your silly little game. If nutrition and material are two wholly different “things” (using your idea of what constitutes a “thing”), and if the only “thing” the growing fetus gets from its mother is nutrition, then where does it get its material?
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Sorry to revive this, but I can’t help but to respond. I’ll start with the spectrum itself. It begs the question, because in order for it to have any merit, one must first assume that the prenate is non human or a non person or whatever you want to call at the point of conception. Of course this resonates with people who already share the pro-choice sentiment, but it will obviously never hold any weight for someone who doesn’t already accept this opinionated premise. Your dependency on this faulty premise is egregiously apparent when you have to defend your argument with lame rhetorical questions such as “Isn’t it pretty clear that one cell is not a baby?” when you know for fact that you are talking to a pro-lifer that obviously doesn’t think so. To put it in terms of the spectrum itself, you are assuming that the color you start with is a shade of blue, and then becomes green at some point, however about half of the audience is certain that the hue you started with is in fact already a shade of green. And this is entirely ignoring the scientific, medical, and biological consensus that a zygote is a human being from day 1.
What’s more, to assert that human hood or personhood progress in the same way as hues in a spectrum is to suggest that the conceptus becomes “more human” as time goes on. Does this mean that 30 year olds are “more human” than 20 year olds? Of course not. And by the way, you keep pestering Mr. Barron about renaming your spectrum (which shows that you yourself don’t even understand what it measures), yet if you had been paying any attention to his argument, you would understand that he views it as a spectrum of “age and maturity” and nothing more.
My point is the everyone sees the difference. See the next post, Five Emotional Pro-Choice Arguments for more on this.
Agreed. I’m talking about it not being a person.
All I’m asking you to do is to look at the spectrum from one cell to a trillion cells. You tell me what exists when the baby is all put together (with eyes, ears, brain, arms, legs, liver, etc.) but doesn’t when it’s just a single cell. I’m flexible on the name, but we need some way to talk about this remarkable change.
I’ve raised two babies and that makes me something of an expert, and a single cell is definitely not a baby.
Obviously not. It becomes more of a person as time goes on. (Or whatever word you’d prefer.)
Of course not. Indeed the difference between a newborn and you is trivial compared to the difference between that newborn and a single cell.
Fred, let me shoot one back at you that illustrates the principle of the old switcheroo. After the Civil War, the US adopted the so-called Reconstruction Amendments to ensure that there would never again be any question as to who was or wasn’t entitled to be considered a citizen and thus entitled to human rights and dignity. The 14th Amendment was explicit: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Did you notice the key word there? “Born”! Not born —> not a citizen —> no rights.
Do you find this a compelling argument? Well, I’m pro-choice and think that abortion is a perfectly fine medical option, and even I don’t think this is a relevant issue. We’re talking philosophy here, not legalisms.
Do you not see that the same objection applies to your insistence on the biological definition of what constitutes being human? Having the DNA of homo sapiens is an issue of biochemistry and is no more relevant to morality or ethics than the legalism of what constitutes citizenship.
It seems that semantics are a huge part of your argument. You choose the word “person” because unlike “human” you can manipulate its definition to mean whatever you want. Since there is no empirical or scientific measurement for personhood, its meaning is always subjective, and therefore useless as a qualifier for the objective endowment of rights. This same wordplay was used to justify slavery and the holocaust; victims of both were undeniably human, but were denied personhood by those in power, just like the unborn today. If you still feel that personhood is a better qualifier for rights than human hood, please explain how and why.
About the differences between the single cell and “all put together” baby, none of them are relevant to whether or not the right to live exists. Let me the ones I am aware of: size, age, maturity, number of cells, complexity, level of development, number of parts, cognitive ability, location. Feel free to add more if you wish. The burden rests on you to prove why these differences are relevant for the endowment of rights. For instance, age and maturity are used in many countries to deny people the right to vote and consume alcohol, but this is under the basis that they cannot responsibly make use of these rights. However it would be bizarre to suggest that a zygote is not yet old enough to make responsible use of its right to live, and should therefore not yet be endowed. You must also explain why these differences cannot be used to justly deny rights to infants.
By the way, raising two babies does not make you an expert on what qualifies as one; I’m not sure why you keep bringing this up. Are you suggesting that if someone has raised three babies, their opinion of what one is automatically trumps your own?
I think flexibility is a huge part of my argument. I don’t care what word you use, just give us something we can use to describe what a baby has that the single cell doesn’t. Going from a single cell to a trillion is a big change. Also, going from zero person-like features to arms, legs, hands and fingers, brain and nervous system, eyes, ears, skin, stomach, heart and circulatory system, and so on is perhaps a bigger change.
Obviously the species doesn’t change, so that wouldn’t be it. If you don’t like “person” (a baby looks a lot more like a person than an invisible cell, but that could just be me), give me something else.
If past experience is a guide, my guess is that you’ll have no pro-life response and so will give some variant of “I won’t play your game.” That would simply be an acknowledgement of the spectrum IMO.
I’m simply pointing out what we all recognize: that there is a huge spectrum from single cell to newborn. You might conclude that the right to life extends all the way back to that single cell. I can accept that–that’s your choice. All I would ask is that you let other people conclude a different way rather than impose your approach on them.
My claim is quite simple: raising two babies makes me an expert on what a baby is. Another area of expertise (if you’ll excuse my boasting) is that I know how to look up “baby” in the dictionary.
Why start at fertilization? Why start with the zygote? Why not start with the sperm or the egg? Is not the sperm a human cell? Is not an egg a human cell too?
Why not also make contraception illegal because it denies a human being a life?
Why should a sperm or an egg cell not receive the same rights as a zygote? I believe the burden rests on you to prove why fertilization is relevant for the endowment of rights.
Great point. Fertilization is not the start of life; it’s merely a continuation of life in a slightly different form.
I’ve always said that masturbation should be a crime. Maybe now people will listen to me!
And is it similarly not immoral to deny life when you abstain from sex? The quiver full movement has it right!
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Okay, I’m really not sure what to say to you, because you keep dodging my arguments and demanding answers to questions that I have already given them to. Here goes: “I don’t care what word you use, just give us something we can use to describe what a baby has that the single cell doesn’t.” I listed the numerous differences in the last post, but apparently you skipped over that part. Now you know. “A baby looks a lot more like a person than an invisible cell, but that could just be me.” It is just you. First of all, you are using the term “baby” when you mean “infant.” Second, this statement just reveals the subjective nature of personhood. You are using your own image as the standard for comparison, and the less something resembles you, the less human it is. Again, slave owners of course thought that a white man looked more like a person than a black one. But that was just them, I guess. According to your own logic, however, you have no right to force your opinion of equality on them by banning slavery. Personally, I don’t care whether or not someone else believes in equality and inalienable rights, so long as they don’t oppress others. “If past experience is a guide, my guess is that you’ll have no pro-life response.” I’m genuinely unsure what you’re referring to. You probably seldom get a response, because your arguments are not very straightforward. Please outline exactly what you want me to respond to, and I’ll try my best. “I’m simply pointing out what we all recognize: that there is a huge spectrum from single cell to newborn.” As I said before, I listed the differences that progress as time goes on. You assume that personhood is included without stating it, and then you act as if everyone agrees that it is. PLEASE DEFINE PERSONHOOD. In a concrete manner that can be given a litmus test. For it to be such a huge part of the pro-choice argument, it’s surprising how few can actually say what they mean by it. And don’t dodge this one. If you can’t say what it is, then you have no way to justly say that an adult is one, but a zygote is not (I define a person as a human being). “All I would ask is that you let other people conclude a different way rather than impose your approach on them.” Does this count for newborns as well? How about adults? Are you suggesting that everyone should have the right to choose whatever they determine to be a person, and be able to deny them rights if they deem appropriate? “I know how to look up “baby” in the dictionary.” What, do you want me to clap for you?
Furthermore, neither a sperm nor an egg are comparable to a zygote. Here’s why: the zygote contains a set of human DNA that it uses to build an entire body, the sperm and egg contain random sequences of human DNA, most of which they don’t even use. Sperm and eggs have a completely separate life cycle to follow, which only involves creating a human if they have a chance encounter with each other. Meanwhile, a zygote is a stage of human life no different from adulthood. Each person alive was once a zygote, but they were never once a sperm or egg, or even a sperm and egg. If anything, the true spectrum is between the point where you have a sperm penetrating an ovum, and the point when you have a fully functional human zygote. But of course that is absurd because either something is a person or it isn’t; there is no in-between.
I did skip over it because it didn’t answer my question. Let me try again: a baby has what trait that a single cell doesn’t have? My proposal was “personhood.” If you want to label it something else, I invite you to do so.
Your list of differences was: “size, age, maturity, number of cells, complexity, level of development, number of parts, cognitive ability, location.” That doesn’t tell me what a baby has that a single cell doesn’t.
They’re synonyms in my dictionary, so if there is a relevant difference, you’ll have to point it out.
The less of a person it is.
The difference between the slave owner and a slaver is trivial compared to the difference I’m talking about.
You apparently don’t understand my logic. If something I’ve said compels this position on me, show me.
The question I asked in my second sentence above.
A waste of time. That could take years and cost thousands of lives. Much more efficient: you tell me. You tell me what trait a newborn has that a single cell doesn’t.
I’m flexible. If you have a word for the spectrum that works better for you, perhaps we should use that instead.
So person = human being = anything that has the DNA of a H. sapiens?
OK, that’s not my definition, but let’s not quibble. You tell me what term we should use for the spectrum.
No. As I’ve said before, the difference between you and a newborn is trivial compared to the newborn and the single cell.
Clapping is optional. Realizing that a single cell isn’t a baby … not so much.
Fred writes: “Furthermore, neither a sperm nor an egg are comparable to a zygote. Here’s why: the zygote contains a set of human DNA that it uses to build an entire body, the sperm and egg contain random sequences of human DNA, most of which they don’t even use. Sperm and eggs have a completely separate life cycle to follow, which only involves creating a human if they have a chance encounter with each other.”
Richard hauls out the biology of it: This is flat-out false. Each cell in your body — YOUR body, Fred — contains a very specific DNA molecule. It’s the same DNA sequence in every single cell, and it’s not random at all, nor is it jumbled or assembled from scrap components that just happen to be lying around. It’s the blueprint for YOU.
And we can take ANY ONE of those cells and, UNDER THE PROPER CONDITIONS, create a clone of you, with the exact same DNA.
Are there parts of the DNA molecule in sperm cells and egg cells that don’t get used? Absolutely! It’s like all the accumulated crap in your attic or garage that once had utility but is now just sitting there idle, waiting for your heirs to sort it out after you kick off. And EVERY SINGLE MULTI-CELLULAR ORGANISM on the entire planet has this so-called “junk DNA” as well. Every sperm cell. Every egg cell. Every cell of my body. Every cell of your body. It’s goes with the biology. The mere fact that such stuff exists is a natural consequence of the way we evolved.
So what do I mean by “the proper conditions”? Well, it basically involves the chemical environment in which the cell is placed. Obviously, the womb of the human female is far and away the best environment in which a fertilized egg can grow up to be a fully equipped baby, but it’s not the ONLY way it can happen. What’s necessary is to start with the DNA blueprint and then provide the proper kind of building materials at the proper time to have them incorporated into the growing structure. Nature has had a couple of billion years to practice this, and it’s gotten quite good at it. We humans have been at it for less than a century, and we’re not. But IN PRINCIPLE it’s the same process, and ANY CELL will do to get it started.
Fred adds: “Meanwhile, a zygote is a stage of human life no different from adulthood.”
Richard goggles: This is such a staggeringly obvious absurdity — like saying that a sack of concrete is no different than the Empire State Building — that I cannot imagine anything I could say to get thru to somebody who actually believes it.
My guess is that Fred didn’t mean that zygote = adult but rather that zygote is a stage and adult is a stage.
That may have been what he MEANT, but that wasn’t what he SAID. If he means something other than what he writes, let’s let HIM clear it up rather than just giving him the benefit of the doubt with an underlying assumption that he’s being rational about this.
Random sequences of DNA? I’d like a reference for this claim.
And a zygote will only create a human if it by chance implants itself and doesn’t spontaneously abort.
Each person alive came from a sperm and an egg, each person alive came from a zygote… I don’t see any real difference.
Unless you believe that a person has an immaterial soul, and this soul is injected at the instant of fertilization, then you have no basis to say there is no in-between.
I would like to point out: If you believe in the immaterial soul that survives death, then you don’t even need a functioning human body in order to be a person.
Rather than making it a simpler, the idea of an immaterial soul actually blurs the line between person/non-person even further.
Okay, to save time and space, I’ll have to pass on addressing the two yes-men putting words in my mouth. (Souls? Really?) “Your list of differences was: “size, age, maturity, number of cells, complexity, level of development, number of parts, cognitive ability, location.” That doesn’t tell me what a baby has that a single cell doesn’t.” Yeah it does. The problem is that you are assuming that the zygote and the infant have some fundamental difference. If everyone agreed with you on that, there wouldn’t be any pro-lifers. As I said, the differences I listed were the only ones I was are of. Personhood is not one of them. And since you have dodged my request for a definition, you haven’t shown me “what a baby has that a single cell doesn’t.” Why can’t you tell me? I thought you meant personhood, but since you won’t tell me what that’s supposed to mean, the assertion is meaningless. It’s your argument, and if you can’t even understand what it’s supposed to say, maybe it’s time you throw in the towel and admit that it just doesn’t work. “They’re synonyms in my dictionary, so if there is a relevant difference, you’ll have to point it out.” Human and person are synonyms in mine. And? “The difference between the slave owner and a slaver is trivial compared to the difference I’m talking about.” Of course it is. Anything that doesn’t measure up to your almighty standards is trivial. Listen close: your opinions don’t matter to other people as much as you think they do. Your response to my slaver analogy is essentially “it’s not the same thing, because I say so.” In fact, the only differences between the two situations are from my list above. They are all less drastic differences. But you said that you don’t care about those. So tell me; what are you measuring the differences in, that makes the two cases so different? “You apparently don’t understand my logic. If something I’ve said compels this position on me, show me.” Well, you said: “You might conclude that the right to life extends all the way back to that single cell. I can accept that–that’s your choice. All I would ask is that you let other people conclude a different way rather than impose your approach on them.” I assumed this to mean that I shouldn’t impose my views by trying to ban abortion. I was merely pointing out that the same argument defends the right to hold humans that you don’t regard as people as slaves, regardless of what others believe. “the difference between you and a newborn is trivial compared to the newborn and the single cell” According to what? What are measuring the difference IN? “If you have a word for the spectrum that works better for you” MATURITY, AGE, NUMBER OF CELLS. These are the differences between a zygote and a newborn. But I don’t even see why you keep asking when you always ignore my suggestions in favor of the immeasurable, undefined “personhood.”
Yes! Really! From your reaction I’ll take it that you don’t believe in the soul?
This doesn’t answer my question: what property does a newborn have that a single cell doesn’t? I call it personhood; give me a better term. Maturity, age, and number of cells are not what I’m looking for.
Surely that’s not what you think of when you see your newborn child. “Oh, he has so many cells!” “Isn’t it marvelous–she’s nine months older than when she was conceived!” “He’s a Homo sapiens–the very species I hoped for!” I’m looking for something that’s not simply a restatement of the fact that the baby is human. If “person” in your mind is equivalent to “is a Homo sapiens,” then let’s find something better. I’m sure that you don’t think “is a Homo sapiens” when you look around at friends and family–what term would you use? Surely you’re more sentimental than simply labeling everything with its species.
I offer a definition of “person” and then you tell me why it’s wrong. And round and round we go. Sounds like a waste of time to me.
A baby is a person; a single cell is not. A baby has arms, legs, brain, eyes, ears, and so on; a single cell does not.
But I’ve said that before, many times. Don’t tell me that I didn’t tell you; instead, offer your own term for what a baby has and a single cell doesn’t.
I’ll go further: everyone understands that the difference between a slave and slave owner is trivial compared to the difference between a newborn and a single, invisible cell.
And I’ll repeat: I’m talking about a big difference; the slave holder was talking about a trivial difference.
Retro wrote: “Unless you believe that a person has an immaterial soul, and this soul is injected at the instant of fertilization, then you have no basis to say there is no in-between.”
There’s no intermediate between being a human/person or not, your either one or the other.
And your reasons are…? (A claim without reasons is not an argument.)
Is a dead human body a person?
No, I don’t believe in souls. Pro-life atheists are more common than you think. But that’s beside the point. Must I remind you that you never argued that there has to be intermediate levels of personhood? You just sort of assumed that it was the default and expected everyone to agree with you. It isn’t though; this post is the first time I’ve ever heard of someone touting such a concept: pro-life, pro-choice, atheist, or Christian alike. And of course a corpse isn’t a human or person. It’s not alive, and therefore not a life-form.
I’m certainly not pro-abortion. I hate the idea that some people would be so irresponsible as to use abortion as a contraceptive. The best way to fight against abortion, IMO, is to reduce the number of abortions by reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Just like other problems, prohibition as a solution doesn’t actually work.
Isn’t the topic at the moment the “spectrum argument”?
If there are not any intermediate levels, then what is the deciding factor that flips the switch from a non-person to a person?
I brought the soul up for a reason. The Hebrew and Greek words for “soul” or “spirit” literally mean “wind” or “breathe”. Biblically, if you’re breathing, you have “a soul”. When you die, you stop breathing, and your “soul” leaves your body.
So we agree then, a human body that doesn’t breathe is dead.
Biblically speaking, babies were not considered alive until they were born and breathed their first breath.
Great! Glad I could bring up something new for you to consider.
“A baby is a person; a single cell is not.” Here is the flaw in your argument. This premise is not a fact, but your opinion. And according to millions of people, a single cell is a baby if it is a zygote. And according to millions of people a zygote is a person. You are free to hold this opinion, however you must first convince people that the premise itself is true before you can pile a convincing argument onto it. “This doesn’t answer my question: what property does a newborn have that a single cell doesn’t? I call it personhood; give me a better term.” What you’re not getting is that not everyone believes in this mysterious difference you are referring to. I find it ironic that you taunt my Christian allies for bringing their religion into the moral debate of abortion, and yet when I ask you for a quantifiable or verifiable difference between an unborn and born human, you insist on some ethereal quality that cannot be substantiated by anything other than your own personal beliefs. Pro-lifers don’t share your idea that a zygote and infant are fundamentally different by any measure other than the ones I outlined above. Actually, the mere fact that I and the millions of people in the pro-life movement don’t see this “difference” makes your claim that “everyone sees [it]” demonstrably incorrect. “A baby has arms, legs, brain, eyes, ears, and so on; a single cell does not.” I will not strawman you by pretending that this is your definition of personhood. We both know it’s not. Millions of animals have these parts. Heck, even an embryo has all of these only a few weeks after conception. “everyone understands that the difference between a slave and slave owner is trivial compared to the difference between a newborn and a single, invisible cell.” The slave owner would disagree. During the time period when slavery was still in question, the difference was certainly a big deal to people, and they would likely respect a white human being at any stage of development more than a black one who is fully grown. But let’s ignore who’s right about which difference is bigger; how are the two issues different in principle? If you can’t distinguish them with logic, then it is true that it is merely up to the slave owner to think that the difference isn’t trivial to justify owning slaves.
I think Fred makes a good point here, and the hang-up is that people on both sides of this issue keep trying to find a SINGLE ESSENTIAL CHARACTERISTIC on which to hang their opinions. I don’t think there is one. I fall back on the economic analysis that, the more time, effort, money, and material you’ve invested in something, the more it’s worth, regardless of whether it’s a different “thing” (for whatever definition of “thing” you prefer) at the end of the process than it was at the beginning. And more valuable things are more worthy of care, protection, and preservation than less valuable things.
How are day and night different IN PRINCIPLE? Surely this is the wrong question to be asking.
(Your comments would be easier to read with a few line breaks …)
I disagree, and so does the dictionary. Some people have tried to twist the definition of “baby” to suit their political or religious agendas, but you’ll have a hard time finding your definition as the common one in dictionaries.
If you say it’s a “baby” all across the development spectrum, give me a better word to use. That is, what is it at 9 months that it isn’t as a 100-cell blastocyst at day 5?
This “mysterious difference”? Not everyone sees the difference between holding their newborn son or daughter for the first time and seeing a single cell through a microscope? I bet they do.
Huh?? Append “and is a Homo sapiens” to my definition. Better?
I think you need to do a little research.
Look at a newborn. It has working eyes, ears, arms, legs, and so on. It breathes. It thinks. It sees. It hears. The digestive system works. And so on. As you go farther back in time, this becomes progressively less true.
And the loser in a civil trial always thinks he was wronged.
You’re saying that to an objective third party we couldn’t make the argument that the difference between the slave owner and his slave is trivial, developmentally, from that between a newborn and a cell? If you’re saying that every American slaveholder in the 1840s was unconvinceable, I disagree, but who cares? Let’s focus on an objective third party today.
Fred – I have been watching this discussion for a while with a bit of amusement. I was going to stay out of it, but now I feel I must interject…
It appears to me that you got Bob to start arguing for a negative position. As we all know, it is impossible to prove a negative. “Prove that god does not exist” is a classic example of a negative proposition. Thus in an attempt to get this debate back on track…
It is not up to Bob to prove that a single cell is *NOT* a person. It is your job to prove that a single celled Zygote *IS* a person. You are making the positive claim, thus you must support it.
Personally, my view is a bit more nuanced.
(Whoops, that last line was part of a different post. Please ignore it…)
This story appeared today in my hometown newspaper:
Personally, even tho this girl lived, I am about 1000 times more concerned for her than I am for any abortion that results in the death of an embryo.
Incredible story. It is bizarre that many people focus on cells rather than on the very real problems within society. Let’s improve society so that babies have decent environments to grow up in.
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