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.

On abortion

Let’s get one thing out the way first. People who view abortion as being the murder of human beings are not inherently anti-women’s rights. Just the same, people who view the issue as being a fundamental choice that ought to be left up to women are not inherently pro-abortion, much less pro-murder. Both arguments are just dishonest rhetoric.

The question of the morality of abortion can be viewed from a number of perspectives, but I want to focus on the most common issue: When does life begin? I don’t think the answer is so clear.

My big motivation for this post comes from a number of red herring theists, none of whom were able to argue in a coherent fashion. Since they insisted on avoiding the topic at hand (the support for their position), instead demanding I answer their questions (about my position), they are welcome over here in order to appropriately address where I stand on abortion.

Perhaps the most tempting way to define the beginning of humanity is the point of conception. And there’s some good reason. It marks the point where the genetic material for a person all comes together. Usually. In some instances of twinning the embyo can split in two up to four days after it was conceived. As a result, we have two groups of cells that, provided everything goes to plan, will end up as two living, breathing newborns. The problem that this raises is that we can no longer call the point of conception the absolute beginning of humanity. In these instances, conception results in one set of cells. It was only after conception that a new set of cells emerged. Unless we’re ready to call that ‘second’ twin non-human, we have to abandon this imaginary line in the sand.

But let’s go with the most logical counter-argument: Okay, it isn’t that conception marks the beginning of humanity; it’s something about conception that makes that mark. In that case, what? I think the best answer is that it is the emergence of cells which can result in the birth of a newborn which defines the beginning of humanity. That covers twinning. (The fact that the aforementioned red herring theists could not articulate something so simple and obvious makes me regret the time I wasted giving them any sort of respect.) But this answer isn’t without its problems.

What is it about this emergence of cells that is special? What makes this moment so important? The most logical answer is that it marks the beginning of development. (The red herring theists confused development for humanity.) It is the point where cells can start to form a full organism. But what more is this than the arbitrary declaration that a certain level of potential development is important? When gametes come together, yes, that marks the start of development, but so what? It isn’t development itself. It isn’t a full organism. It’s just a baseless valuing of potential. I could just as easily point to the emergence of a fully formed gamete and say that that marks a key point in development. “Why, a sperm has the potential to become a human!” And I would be right. The counter-argument would be, “A sperm can’t become human on its own” and the easy response is that neither can two gametes just because they’re combined. The whole process depends on a massive number of factors. That’s why it’s a process.

I like to compare the arbitrary line-drawing to the mark of American adulthood: the age of 18. It isn’t like a 17 year old is appreciably less mature the day before his next birthday compared to the day after. The line is ultimately an arbitrary one. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. The fact is, if we want to have a coherent system of law, we must declare some age as especially important in distinguishing between childhood and adulthood. Eighteen is a reasonable number. Just the same, we need to do the same with how we want to define what it means to be human.

Now I need to clarify even further (or at least re-emphasize). The starting point of development is a technical concept; it isn’t a difficult one, but it is technical. That is when we can say the road to humanity has begun. If we want to go further and say that that is the marker of humanity itself, then we need to explain why. That is, “humanity” isn’t some technical, scientific term we can apply to conception. (We can apply it when we’re talking about species, presuming we’re using it interchangeably with “Homo sapien“, but we can’t go beyond that; we can only say “That is a human egg/that is a human sperm/that is a human zygote.” When we start using “human” as a noun rather than an adjective, we’ve lost all embryological meaning.)

So that brings us to my position. As I said, the line in the sand isn’t clear, no more than it’s clear that an 18 year old is or is not really an adult. I do believe that if an embryo is a human being, then we must protect it. There are persuasive arguments, especially from Judith Jarvis Thompson, which say we don’t have that responsibility even if humanity begins at conception, but I don’t buy into them. I value human life highly and as a result I feel it necessary to protect whenever possible. But I reject the idea that conception is some magical point where some cells go from non-human to human. I still see cells.

I hope it is clear that it is the process of development where I see real value. It is patently absurd to say a human life begins at conception, as if development is unimportant to how a person turns out. Take another look at twinning. There is a point where everything is exactly the same between each set of cells. At that instance, there is no difference between the twins. So how can anyone say we are looking at two different humans? If there is no difference, there is no difference. And if that’s true (and it is), then there must be something else which goes into defining a human. We call that development. And that isn’t without its problems.

Just as the assertion that humanity begins at conception suffers much like the assertion that an 18 year old is an adult, the process of development suffers from a lack of clear lines. But it does offer reasonable lines. We can figure out viability, ability to feel, development of consciousness, and even employ caution. This often brings us to approximately six months. But I’m open to moving that mark. Maybe there are key factors in development which take place by five months, even four. Maybe those factors matter in how we define the important aspects of what it means to be human. A persuasive argument might get me to adjust my position. And in all likelihood, that position will only move down in number of months, if it moves at all. It seems there is too much doubt in moving up beyond seven months. Certainly at the eight or nine month mark that line in the sand has almost completely vanished; it wouldn’t be reasonable to claim a fetus is not a human at 9 months, 1 week, and 6 days, but when it’s born at 9 months, 2 weeks, why, we have ourselves a full-fledged human. That’s just as arbitrary as declaring conception the beginning of humanity.

So discuss the issue. But keep this in mind: while I don’t normally moderate comments except for obvious spam (such as ads), I will be moderating them here for blatantly dishonest (and bad) rhetoric. In other words, don’t call someone pro-abortion or anti-women’s rights merely for holding an opposing view.