In the last post, I argued for a spectrum from a single cell (not a person) to a newborn baby (a person). This is in response to pro-life advocates who deny this spectrum to argue that we have a “baby” from newborn all the way back to that single cell.
I’d like to make five arguments in favor of my position. To do that, I’ll try to bypass the intellect to some extent and appeal to emotion.
1. Child vs. Embryos. Suppose the fertility clinic were on fire, and you could save either a five-year-old child or ten frozen embryos. Which would you pick?
Of course, everyone would save the child.
But now imagine the same situation two years later. The ten embryos have become one-year-old babies and the child is now seven years old. Which would you save? Obviously, the ten babies.
As an aside, note that the decision in the second instance is much tougher. In the first, we lost ten insensate embryos, but in the second, it’s a child. No one equates a newborn or a child with an invisible clump of cells.
2. Different Reactions to Abortion Procedures. Anti-abortionists focus on the horror of a late-term abortion. Did you ever wonder why they don’t focus instead on a woman swallowing a Plan B (emergency contraceptive) pill? Or a drug-induced abortion (the most common procedure for first-trimester abortions)? Imagine anti-abortion activists carrying signs, not with a photo of an eight-month-old fetus but with life-size drawings of a 100-cell human blastocyst. The signs would appear blank.
By choosing as they do, they admit that all procedures are not equal and that there is a spectrum. Their story is more powerful the older the fetus is. A blastocyst is very unlike a person, but an 8-month-old fetus is very much like a person.
3. Slaughtering Animals for Food. Which would be more horrible to watch: a woman swallowing a pill of Plan B or a cow going through a slaughterhouse? The cow can experience fear and pain, while the single cell can experience neither. The cell’s claim to superiority is only its potential to be a person.
There’s a big difference from what is and what might be. A blastocyst has impressive potential but has vastly fewer cells than the brain of a fly. The only trait it shares with a person is its DNA, a vague and abstract commonality.
And there’s no guarantee that our imagined cell will develop properly during pregnancy. A single cell might become a human baby or not, just like betting $1000 on black at the roulette table might win or not. With half of all pregnancies ending in spontaneous (natural) abortion, the odds for each are about the same.
4. Cloning and Skin Cells. Imagine that in ten years we are able to clone a human from a single skin cell. Would you never scratch your skin to avoid killing a potential human being, like the Jain who wears mesh over his face to avoid accidentally breathing in a flying insect? And if not—if “potential human being” is very different in your mind from “human being”—then why not see that same difference between a single cell and a newborn baby?
5. Saving Another Person’s Life. If a blastocyst is a person, would you give up your life for it? You might risk your life to save a stranger; is the same true for a stranger’s blastocyst?
What we value changes across this spectrum, and, while we might intellectually argue that a human is a human is a human, emotionally we don’t see both ends of the spectrum the same.
Let me make clear that I’m simply arguing for the existence of a spectrum. We can agree on this and still disagree on when the okay/not-okay line is for abortion. The status quo seems to resolve this well: society decides on the upper bounds and then allows girls and women to choose.
Show me why a single fertilized human egg cell is equivalent to a trillion-cell newborn. It’s not equivalent in any important biological sense; why should it be equivalent morally?
Next time: What’s Wrong with the Pro-Life Position?
Photo credit: ebmarquez
- Find the first post in this series about abortion here: A Defense of Abortion Rights: the Spectrum Argument.
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#3 brings your last post to mind, as well.
Science fiction offers another perspective. Say, for example, the Star Trek universe. Clearly, sentient aliens are also persons, so personhood isn’t based on whether your DNA matches that of the species H. sapiens. At least, at a common-sense level, personhood seems based on some combination of intelligence and the capacity to suffer. I’m not sure how much of each of those contributes, though. (Granted, in the Star Trek universe, most aliens may as well be humans, but conceptually, the same seems to apply.)
The real core of the problem doesn’t seem to be a moral question (because it seems very few people who actually stop and think about it have any trouble coming to the pro-choice conclusion). The core of the debate seems to be religious in nature – that is why conception is the point of no return, not a biologically or morally sensible point like the formation of the nervous system or the first ability to feel pain or the like.
“I argued for a spectrum from a single cell (not a person) to a newborn baby (a person). This is in response to pro-life advocates who deny this spectrum to argue that we have a “baby” from newborn all the way back to that single cell.”
I have a question about this and i am not a scientist, so….bear with me!
Evolutionists believe that all life evolved from a single living cell. So if that cell, from which evolution supposedly began, qualified as life, why are you saying that the single cell in which human life begins (i think it is called a zygote?) is not life?
No, I’m not saying that it’s not life. Obviously, it’s alive. Obviously, it’s a Homo sapiens.
We need to find words that describe the spectrum of development from single cell to newborn. My choice is “person” (it’s not a person as a single cell), but I don’t much care which word is used as long as it acknowledges the spectrum that’s there.
Have you ever played backgammon? (It’s a 5000-year-old board game.) If not, what I’m about to say won’t make a lot of sense to you, but perhaps you can get the general idea.
As a player, you generate resources by rolling a pair of dice. If you roll a pair of 5s, for example, you’ve generated 10 resource units, or twice as many as if you had rolled a 3 and a 2. You then get to spend those resources by moving your markers closer to the goal, which in backgammon is 25 units away from the starting point. What this means is that, the closer a given marker is to the goal, the more resources you’ve invested in it; IOW, the more it’s worth! And thus it makes a juicier target for your opponent to try to take out (or “blot”, as they quaintly call it).
You’ve got 15 markers to move (tho lots of them start out closer to the goal than the home base), so you’re more protective of the most valuable ones (say, a marker only 2 units away from going out) than you are of the less valuable ones (say one that’s only 3 units away from the starting point).
I trust you can see the analogy to the journey from fertilized egg to born baby. Simply put (as Bob has done here, IMHO), we all intrinsically understand that we’d be losing more near the end of the line than near the beginning.
The Supreme Court recognized as much in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Despite the snarky subtitle from the neocons at Free Republic, you can read a fair rendering of the decision here. Notice what the Supremes concluded: that the interest of the state in protecting the life of a prospective citizen grows along with the fetus. Made sense then, makes sense now.
But, just as in backgammon, the choice to sacrifice any given marker remains — as it should — in the hands of the player who owns it, who may have a different idea of its value than some sideline kibitzer.
A zygote is most certainly alive, and if you find someone arguing otherwise they are most unequivocally wrong. But you’re absolutely right that it is alive in much the same way as a single-celled organism is alive. Indeed, in a sense it is a single-celled organism. It is definitely alive, but like any other single-celled organism, it is most definitely not a person. And it’s personhood that’s really important.
To the best of scientific knowledge, every living thing on Earth — every living thing on Earth — is descended from a single cell that was the first form of life as we understand it and which came into existence (nobody’s really sure how) about 3,500,000,000 years ago. The phenomenon of life arising from non-living material is called “abiogenesis”.
Like the wolf turning into the dog, this did not happen at some magic instant in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. It was an extremely gradual process involving the slow build-up of the essential components (much like dust bunnies accumulating under your bed), and it took most of the billion years the Earth had already been in existence to get to that point.
Once life got started, however, it had one of the essential defining features of living beings: It could reproduce itself! And once it attained that vital capacity, it was like clicking past a notch on a ratchet and there was no going back. We were off to the races!
You may have heard the phrase “All Americans are African Americans.” That emphasizes that each and every one of us is descended from a common ancestor who lived in Africa a quarter million years ago. Expand that concept all the way back to the beginning, and you realize that we are all cousins of every other life form on Earth, because every one of them shares a common ancestor with us if you go far enuf back up the line.
Those bacteria who got into your tummy from food poisoning and made you puke? Cousins. That mosquito you discovered in the act of siphoning some of your bloodstream and casually slapped to death? Cousin. The tasty lobster you had for supper? Cousin. All of them very distant cousins, to be sure, but cousins nonetheless.
And, needless to say, all “life”. If what you care about is the question “Is it life?”, you’ve just carved out a huge task for yourself if you want to protect it all. Start by never blowing your nose.
Richard: I’ll just add a bit to your comments above. We’ve all heard that we share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, but the basic functions of the cell (cell wall, metabolism, and so on) is shared by all eukaryotic (cells with a nucleus) life. The fraction of DNA that we share with a banana or an amoeba is substantial. What is it–20%? 30%?
Cindy: Not only does science deliver the goods by informing us about reality, but it’s cool! DNA, black holes, quantum particles–when you get past the mystery of religion and superstition, reality is pretty amazing, and science gives us the worldview.
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