The abortion threshold

I was listening to Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” broadcast again, and this time he had a pre-recorded speaker (whose name I did not catch) making a–surprise!—evidence-based argument for the pro-life position. He was a lively and interesting speaker, and he raised some non-trivial arguments against abortion that I think are worth a discussion. His basic approach, couched in the form of an argument he once had on a plane, revolves around four points which he reduced to the acronym SLED. According to this fellow, “there are only four differences between a newborn and a fetus: Size, Level of development, Emergence from the womb (i.e. birth), and Degree of dependency. Do any of these give us a reason to say that the fetus is not a person?”

He then proceded to argue that, for example, size should not matter. After all, are the lives of tall people worth more than the lives of short people? Are tall people “persons” to a greater degree than short people are? What about level of development? Is a 24-year-old more human than a 14-year-old? or a 12-year-old than a 2-year old? Teenagers are not quite fully developed yet, let alone younger children. Does that make their lives less worthy than the lives of older, more developed folks? What about birth? Where you are doesn’t change who you are. Why would moving six inches down the birth canal transform you into a human being from…uh, whatever you were before? And what about level of dependency? Are diabetics less human because they depend on medication and/or insulin to stay alive?

In the anecdote he was telling, the two businessmen he was talking to were, not surprisingly, flummoxed. (Not only were they laymen, but the speaker wouldn’t have been telling the story if either of them had responded with a telling and cogent rebuttal!) But I think, nonetheless, that there are some flaws in this approach. For example, in asserting that there are only four differences between a fetus and a newborn, he’s assuming that there’s not a fifth difference (e.g. that one is a person and the other isn’t). His conclusion that both are persons is based on a set of arguments that begins by assuming that both are persons, thus committing a logical fallacy.

Also, he completely omitted any discussion of the entanglement between mother and offspring during pregnancy. If I’d been sitting on that plane next to him, I would have asked him if I could borrow some of his blood, promising to return it to his body after I’d extracted the nutrients and dumped a bunch of toxic waste products into it. If he declined to let me borrow his blood, I’d ask him whether I had a right to take his blood like that despite his lack of consent. This physical impact of the fetus on the mother is something that is not the case with newborns, just as the newborn’s continued existence does not promise to eventually put the mother into painful contractions and eventually result in a birth that will, likely as not, rip open the vaginal opening (unless a surgeon slices her open for a Caesarian section, but either way it’s going to do injury). This difference is completely omitted in his SLED argument.

So the speaker was, in fact, assuming his conclusion and stacking the deck in his own favor by selective omission and biased word use (notice the expression “Where you are doesn’t change WHO–not what–you are”). But picking apart his rhetorical technique does not quite answer the question of whether or not the “unborn child” (another biased term, as is the term “fetus”) is a human being, a person, a member of the social community entitled to the full protection of society’s laws. For that, I’d like to consider the problem of thresholds.

The speaker’s argument treats personhood like a quantity that can be greater or lesser than another. For example, his rhetorical question is, “A 24-year-old is not more of a person than a 12-year-old, right?” That’s true, but misleading. Personhood isn’t something that is measured in “person-volts” or some such, as though one person could have more person-volts than another. It’s like being a legal driver. If you can become a legal driver by passing a driving test on your 17th birthday, it’s quite true that a 27-year-old driver isn’t any more legal than the 17-year-old, but this hardly implies that age makes no difference in whether you can be a legal driver or not, nor does it imply that those under 17 are implicitly legal drivers too. Likewise, the transition from non-person to person is a question, not of degree, but of thresholds.

Pro-lifers agree (or at least, have no grounds for disagreeing) that at some point the cells involved cross a threshold from being a non-person to being a person. It is not “murder” to cause or allow a sperm cell or an egg cell to die, because gametes are not persons. At some point, a sperm cell is absorbed into an egg cell, and conception occurs. Pro-lifers assert that it is at this point that the threshold is crossed. However, two issues remain. In the first place, it’s not quite a “point” in time, i.e. fertilization is not instantaneous. At what point in the process do you demark the threshold between the non-person and the person? Is it the point where the cell walls between sperm and egg begin to merge? That doesn’t seem quite right, since the sperm’s chromosomes are, at this point, still entirely outside of the egg cell. Is it when the cytoplasm from the egg begins to mingle with that of the sperm? But the sperm’s chromosomes are still not paired up with the egg’s. Is it when the chromosomes pair up? Even that’s not a point in time: does the cell cross the threshold when the chromosomes begin to pair up, or not until the chromosomes finish pairing up?

And that brings us to issue number two. It should be obvious that the threshold between non-person and person is something that the organism can and does cross by physical developmental processes. The question is, where is that point, and how do you identify it other than by arbitrary designation? Pro-lifers pick the physical changes within the (becoming-)fertilized egg cell and call that the threshold, but on what basis are inter-cellular changes in a single-celled organism more significant that the development of more distinctly-human changes that occur much later on in gestation?

It is at this point, I think, that the intellectual pro-lifer will begin to regret trying to take an evidence-based approach to complex ethical issues. Not that there’s anything wrong with an evidence-based approach of course, but I can’t help but suspect that the intellectual pro-lifer will begin to feel the temptation to resort to good old “Because God Said So” dogmatic pronouncements, along with the de rigeur indictments of the evils of materialism. If materialism were so evil, though, why would pro-lifers want to appeal to the material evidence in the first place?

The ultimate problem is that reality itself does not give us easy, unambiguous answers to things like the conflict of interests between a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, and the offspring that will perish if she aborts. It’s a legitimate conflict. You can’t break it down into one side being entirely wrong and deserving to be punished, and the other being entirely right and deserving to prevail. So it’s a question of trying to find a balance–a three way balance, because society also has conflicting interests, both in protecting the rights of the woman and protecting the rights of the young and helpless.

I think that the pro-choice position is currently the best way to achieve this balance, provided the pregnancy is still in its early stages. Once the fetus reaches the point that he or she can survive outside the womb, I think the best balancing of conflicting interests is to try and end the pregnancy in a way that preserves the baby’s life. That’s an idealistic answer that fails to address issues like who’s going to pay for the surgery and the neonatal intensive care, but then again I rather doubt that there are any truly good answers to this issue. The best answer is to prevent the unwanted pregnancy in the first place, and for that our kids need access to comprehensive and accurate information about sex, and support structures that will make it possible for girls to avoid becoming pregnant. But that’s a topic for another time.

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