Thought of the day

Science is rarely on the side of the religious, and it is no different with the abortion debate. We hear that life begins at conception because the combination of gametes is the first step in a line to a distinct person. Of course, this is arbitrary. The production of the egg or the sperm could just as easily be called the first step. Or even the consumption of a burger that was later used for a person to be able to produce sperm or eggs in the first place could just as easily be called the first step. Again, it’s arbitrary. Yet, we still get arguments about fertilization being so distinct that it is the true difference maker. Alright, fine, let’s go with that. Then what about twinning? Twinning is known to happen upwards of 4 days after the initial gametes combine. Was fertilization still the first step towards each twin? If so, how?

Of course, my questions are rhetorical. Once we begin defining arbitrary things in arbitrary ways, the rabbit hole becomes very deep.

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A thought experiment on Down Syndrome

I’ve written about thought experiments quite a few times on FTSOS. I think they’re one of the most powerful tools we have in philosophy, yet people unfortunately have a distaste for their occasional inconvenience. That is, thought experiments lay out a host of parameters, generally, and it is often difficult for people to accept them all. This tends to betray a misunderstanding of the entire point of a thought experiment.

I want to present a thought experiment on Down Syndrome, but I need to emphasize the importance of the parameters I’m going to lay out. They are not meant to be realistic at all. They are simply a method for isolating one or two factors in a situation. It’s like someone asking, “If we had flying cars, do you think we would have traffic signals like we do for the roads or would it all be radar?” There are many appropriate ways to answer this, however, one of those ways does not include saying, “Cars don’t fly.” Yes, we know cars don’t fly. This is a hypothetical thought experiment with the key parameter being that cars do fly. Noting that they do not, in fact, fly is the type of comment that should be saved for lazy sitcoms.

So here is my thought experiment. Suppose it is up to you to decide whether or not pregnant women with Down Syndrome fetuses will get abortions. This is your decision, whether you’re a man or a woman. You can say, “Yes, abort them all”, or you can say, “No, don’t abort any”, or you can say, “Abort some given percentage.” An explanation is needed for any answer, but the last one especially requires explaining.

Now, I want to be sure the parameters are clear. This is your decision. Whatever you choose, it will hurt no one. The women involved will take a pill that causes an abortion (provided that’s your choice). They will agree with your decision no matter what you choose. The same goes for the father of the fetus. And the sister. And brother. And cousin. And grandmother and grandfather. And everyone else in the world. Your decision will cause no financial hardship, no emotional or physical pain, and it will take place in a developed nation like the US. EDIT: I should be clear on this point: the lack of financial/emotional/physical hardship only applies during pregnancy, not after. That is, the hardship of pregnancy itself shouldn’t be considered a factor here. Assume all the women are of equal socioeconomic standing. You cannot ask them anything and you don’t know any of them. If you don’t make a choice, the entire planet will be destroyed immediately (and for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that you do no want that to happen). (Some philosophies argue that passive and active decisions are one and the same, but for this thought experiment, you must make an active decision. You cannot stand by idly and let nature take its course; if you stand by, Earth is immediately destroyed.) All the fetuses are no more than 4 weeks along.

Again, let me emphasize: This is your decision to make for every woman. Personal autonomy, liberty, freedom, etc are all irrelevant here. (And if it helps you to recognize that this isn’t an issue having anything to do with women’s rights, pretend this all takes place 100 million years into the future at a time when we’ve somehow evolved into an asexual species, so there are no males or females, but Down Syndrome or the asexual genetic equivalent still exists.)

Finally, if you’re of the position that abortion is always wrong in every situation, then your answer is already known and not especially interesting in this context.

So, what is it? Do you choose to abort (a decision with which everyone, including those taking the pill, will agree) or do you choose not to abort (a decision with which everyone will also agree)? Or do you choose some percentage between 0 and 100?

In which I agree with Nate

Every once in awhile Nate and I will agree on something. Most often that something is beer, but sometimes that something is more political/social in nature:

I saw this on Facebook recently:

Aside from being completely devoid anything even like cleverness, I have a few issues…

First, I’m not interested in what any woman wants to do with her vagina. I may feel that abortion is wrong, I may feel that birth control is wrong, I might feel that abortion should be mandatory, or I may feel that birth control should be, but really I feel like the state should keep it’s nose out of it and you can do whatever you want. Lets be clear on one thing though, I have just as much of a right to have an opinion and express it as you, whether or not either of us have a vagina or not. If you think otherwise you are either an asshole or an idiot.

If you truly think that the chart has it right, lets apply this to a few other things and see what we get:

Do you own a gun? No? Shut up about guns.
Do you own a car? No? Shut up about cars (texting, etc).
Do you have a kid in school? No? Shut up about education.
Do you live in (whatever state is restricting abortion this week)? No? Shut your mouth about their abortion laws.

Nate then makes his point more about when the government is involved with spending money on abortion and other services rather than about what a women should and should not be allowed to do under the law. I’m less concerned about that and more concerned about the idiocy of telling half the population that any opinions any of its members may hold are invalid on reproductive rights because they have a member. Let’s work this out.

Presumably the picture isn’t trying to imply that women’s opinions are inherently more valuable than the opinions of men. That would be horribly sexist and wrong. So what is it saying? (This is the point where I accurately describe what it is necessarily saying, only to have some random person on the Internet incorrectly nitpick.) It is saying that the reproductive rights of women are only the concern of women because we’re talking about their bodies; it is taking the libertarian position that one’s body is sovereign and should not be subject to the whims of others. That raises the interesting issue of whether or not a woman is allowed, under the rules of the picture, to have an opinion about other women’s reproductive rights, but I’ll skip that here because the point that interests me is, Are women who cannot reproduce entitled to have an opinion on women’s reproductive rights?

Let’s review real quick: Presumably, the picture is not implying that women’s opinions are inherently more valuable than the opinions of men. And why is that important? It’s important because it means having a vagina isn’t the real crux of ‘How to Have an Opinion on Women’s Reproductive Rights’. The real crux is that, following along with the position I described earlier, what matters is a woman’s ability to reproduce. It is her body, a sovereign place. Not only should no one else be able to tell her what to do with it, but she’s the only one who knows best. And why? Because, aside from it being her own body, she’s the one who will be doing the reproduction. It isn’t, per se, that she is a woman. It’s that she’ll be reproducing.

So where are we now in this argument? Simple: Women who cannot reproduce should “shut up”. It isn’t about being a woman – if it was, that would mean that the opinions of men are inherently less valuable, a surely sexist and idiotic position. No, it’s about the ability to reproduce. If you can’t do it, you aren’t allowed an opinion on that matter. Got it?

I wish I could say this was simple reductio ad absurdum, but I’ve barely gone anywhere with what the picture has presented us. All I’ve done is summarize what it said and taken a single step to what it concludes: The ability to reproduce entitles one to an opinion on women’s reproductive rights, so women past menopause or who are otherwise infertile do not enjoy such an entitlement.

Now, back to where people think things through before writing them down, the reality is that anyone who gathers their facts together, thinks about said facts, and then forms a reasoned opinion is doing it right. The person’s sex isn’t relevant in the least. And if you think it is, well, I’ll let Nate say it:

Don’t have a blog? Shut up about what I put on mine.

That goes double for those of you who don’t have my blog.

Thought of the day

I recently saw a poll showing that some crazy percentage of Republicans – 67% – believe abortion is okay in instances of rape. That’s hilariously inconsistent with the argument that a fetus is a full-fledged human life and thus deserving of protection. What the hell argument distinguishes between a fetus conceived via consensual sex versus one conceived via rape?

This is the logic of anti-abortionists

According to anti-abortionists, the first four parts of this process is just sperm doing what sperm does. The fifth part, however, shows a human being:

http://www.bio.davidson.edu/courses/molbio/molstudents/spring2005/dresser/review%20paper.htm

Let’s break it down:

  1. Not a person.
  2. Not a person.
  3. Not a person.
  4. Not a person.
  5. Person.

I would normally like to add a bit more to a post on a big topic like this, but I think it speaks for itself.

Abortion and the concept of humanity

I have written about my stance on abortion in the past, but there is one thing I would really like to emphasize: the concept of humanity.

Everyone likes to claim the mantle of science. It’s very alluring, after all. Unfortunately, plenty of people are willing to claim it without a rightful basis. That especially includes so many anti-abortion folks. Just take a look at this site and scroll down to the excerpts from various biology texts. Again and again, the quotes say that human development begins at conception. However, that is not how they are being understood in the given context. The way the site (and those who cite it) are understanding the quotes is that they have definitively found a number of sources which say that humanity begins at conception. It’s just too bad that that is not a scientific concept. At least not here.

The important issue within the abortion debate is when humanity begins – and that is not something which can be determined scientifically. We can certainly say when development begins – that’s what all those quotes have done – but that is only an illuminating factor, not a definitive conclusion. That is, development is the joining of gametes and the process that takes place within the womb thereafter and we can thank science for the shedding of that light, but a human it does not make. We’re only picking out an arbitrary point; we may as well say the emergence of a new sperm or egg is the beginning of a human since each one contains its own unique DNA and a potential pathway to birth. The only difference is that a sperm or egg have less potential on their own than together because they haven’t an ability to appreciable change based upon their environment.

Anti-abortionists are muddling the debate when they claim development is the same thing as humanity. The first is a distinct, clear scientifically determined issue whereas the latter is only a scientific concept when we’re talking about species and evolution. The fact is, “humanity” is a subjective idea which only bears a relationship to development by virtue of human rationale.

Doonesbury and abortion: day 5

Here is the fifth comic in the Doonesbury series:

Click to enlarge.