Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Assessing the "Pro-life" Argument from Human Similarity

A common argument among "pro-life" conservatives against abortion rights involves a deduction of the claim that a fetus deserves freedom from fatal coercion, i.e., freedom from being killed, from prior claims asserting that a fetus is a human being and that a human being deserves freedom from fatal coercion. When asked to demonstrate that a fetus is a human being, many conservatives appeal to a claim that identifies the human characteristics of a fetus and a corollary claim asserting that these human characteristics make it a human being. Below is a formalized version of the argument:

1.) A fetus is a human being
2.) A human being is something that deserves freedom from fatal coercion
3.) Therefore, a fetus is something that deserves freedom from fatal coercion

4.) To prove that a fetus is a human being, pro-lifers often emphasize facts about the development of the fetus, particularly the formation of those physiological characteristics present within human beings who have been born already. It is said of the fetus that as it develops, its humanity is expressed ever more vividly. Different sets of characteristics are provided by different pro-lifers and pro-life organizations, but the very brief list offered by ChristianAction.org below is typical:

-The heart starts beating between 18 and 25 days.
-Electrical brainwaves have been recorded at 43 days on an EEG.
-The brain and all body systems are present by 8 weeks and functioning a month later.
-At 8 weeks, the baby will wake and sleep, make a fist, suck his thumb, and get hiccups.
-At the end of 9 weeks, the baby has his own unique finger prints.
-At 11-12 weeks, the baby is sensitive to heat, touch, light and noise. All body systems are working. He weighs about 28g and is 6-7.5 cm long.
-(Often an emphasis on the human DNA of the fetus is offered as well, though ChristianAction.org omitted this detail)

5.) The subsequent premise asserts that anything possessing the characteristics shown within the former premise is a human being
3.) Therefore, a fetus is a human being

One of the propositions I dispute within the above argument is premise #5. I have yet in my participation within the abortion debate to see a demonstration of premise #5. How does the formation of certain human characteristics qualify a fetus as a human being?

But nevertheless, we have a conflict of "interests". If the mother aborts, the fetus dies. If the mother is prohibited by the state from aborting, she is disenfranchised. To whom should legal protection be greater?

It seems to me that women ought to possess the legal right to abort. Consider the following.

On one side, we have the mother. She is a physiologically independent, human entity and she is capable of being rational, i.e., she can make inferences. On the other side, we have the fetus. It is physiologically dependent wholly upon its mother and it most certainly is not capable of rationality. Because of her ability to conduct herself rationally, the mother is capable of being a productive member of society, participating in the division of labour and making positive-sum exchanges with others. By contrast, it will be years, perhaps decades until the fetus develops into a productive, contributing member of society precisely because it is not equipped with a rational cognition. Shall we sacrifice the rational and productive (or those who are currently capable of being so) to the non-rational and the non-productive? I would rather not.

What I would like however from pro-lifers is:

1.) A proof of premise #5
2.) An elaboration on what is it about human beings that make them worthy of freedom from fatal coercion (or a proof of premise #2, in other words)


  1. Yes, but newborn babies are no more capable of rational thought than fetuses. Nor are they able to live independently. Nor are they productive.
    Therefore, you advocate infanticide.

  2. When I refer to the mother as "independent" I mean physiologically, not financially. The fetus is physiologically dependent upon the mother and lives at her expense. Since this is the case and furthermore, a fetus is non-rational and non-productive while the mother is both (or can be), I argue that it is better to "sacrifice" the fetus in favor of the mother than to "sacrifice" the mother in favor of the fetus. I'll make the corrections to make my point clearer.

  3. By contrast, newborns are physiologically independent from their mothers, thus they cannot be killed on the proposition that they are living at the biological expense of the mother.

  4. The distinction between biological and financial dependence is, I think, not as strong as you would like it to be. In both cases what we're really talking about are resources: just as with a fetus, a newborn requires vast resources to keep it alive, from the mother or otherwise.
    But let's accept for the moment that the act of parturition represents a significant change in the relationship of the child to the mother. Why wouldn't we simply deliver the fetus earlier and incubate it? Advancements in neonatal care have already brought the point of viability down to about 20 weeks of gestation, and there is no reason to believe that that number won't continue to go down. Eventually offspring will be viable outside the womb shortly after conception, and we'll have to confront the real question: when do we attain personhood? Unless you're willing to go down the road of pure utilitarianism (with all its moral baggage), what you should really be asking is whether we are killing a mass of tissues or a person. If we are killing a person, there are few if any justifications for it short of saving another life.

  5. The dependence of a fetus upon a mother produces a physiological toll, thus it should fall under the purview of the mother's right to control her body. Ending this dependence requires killing the fetus. As I argued, the dependence of a newborn is financial. Since this is the case and the newborn is physiologically independent, the mother can terminate this dependence by relinquishing guardianship. Proactively killing a new born in order to abolish their financial dependence is unnecessary to say the least.

    The time until viability manifests has been steadily reduced, but I still do not see how this would put my argument in danger. I have yet to see pro-lifers prove premise #5.

  6. may i just say that premise five can apply to many other animals within the biological kingdom to which belong. Among these are chickens, dolphins, some species of amphibians and several other mammals. As a point of exaction, a human embryo, for that is what a "fetus" is known to be prior to eight weeks gestation, is hard to distinguish from several of our evolutionarily similar cousins within the animal kingdom. Nearly all the points raised to assess the humanity of said embryo apply equally to these other animals as well. So tell me, if society is so concerned with the sanctity of human life how can we be so crass as to now apply the same standards of life care to other animals. As George Carlin once jested: Why is the ending of a human pregnancy called an abortion, while the end of a chicken's is an omelet?

  7. Anonymous, I am similarly puzzled by the insistence of pro lifers that a human fetus is uique enough to deserve freedom from fatal coercion. To be sure though, premise #4 is but one list of supposedly relevant biological facts regarding the development of a human fetus. Different pro-life groupsboffer different lists (though most perhaps emphasize the sharing of DNA with physiologically independent human entities as a relevant fact). I imagine that a pro-life rebuttal to your objection would include an emphasis on the fact that human fetuses possess human DNA unlike chicken or dolphin fetuses. However, I've already considered this fact and have yet to see how it proves that human fetuses are worthy of freedom from fatal coercion.

  8. I've omitted the bit about "physiologically independent human entities" to make my argument simpler.

  9. 1) Premise 5 is pretty straightforwardly incorrect. Having those characteristics does not in itself guarantee that said organism is a human being (or more correctly, a "person.") That said, the mere possibility that we are sanctioning infanticide is so disagreeable that we should ban the procedure outright.

    2) Here we run into real, inevitable philosophical differences between Christians and unbelievers. There is no way, so far as I'm aware, to have a totalizing moral framework that respects human life without first subscribing to Christianity. Many intellectuals who have an acute sense of morality (e.g. Hitchens) have tried to justify humanism without the bedrock of religious belief. I find their arguments unconvincing.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Premise #5 is implicit within every argument from human similarity. Pro-lifers do not list the development of human attributes within the fetus as trvia. It is a proposition from which they believe they can derive the claim that a fetus is a human being. Very often, pro-lifers will identify details about the development of human features by the fetus and omit the conclusion that the fetus is a human being, as if such a conclusion followed self-evidently. But nevertheless, without premise #5 emphasizing the human features of the fetus during development is pointless. I too disagree with premise #5.

    There certainly is no infanticide involved in abortion however, as this is the killing of a newborn.

    Now concerning morality there are better authorities than myself. But I don't see religion as sufficiently solving the problems posed by morality. How do Christians prove normative propositions like "Thou shall not steal"? How do they derive normative claims from descriptive claims?

    Some are content with saying the injunction against stealing is true "because God says so." This implies that the truth value of normative propositions is dependent upon God's will. If such a dependence exists, then morality is merely whatever God declares it to be, turning morality (ironically) into a subjective endeavor. I say this is ironic because Christians often claim that atheism commits its subscribers to moral subjectivism.

    Alternatively, a Christian may argue that the truth value of normative propositions is independent of God's will, that stealing is wrong regardless of God's opinion. In this case, the Christian still has to prove how normative propositions can be derived from descriptive propositions. If normatives do not rely upon God's will, then do they rely upon anything or are they facts of reality waiting to be discovered?

    Furthermore, I'll wager that there are already normative propositions within the Bible that you and I reject. Leviticus chapter 20 lists a series of requisitions that it seems people should be opposed to, including a swath of commands to murder people because of certain sexual relationships they have participated in. These relationships may be less than savory, but they are hardly grounds for capital punishment; they are real demands to commit homicide and they come from the God of Abraham.

    Some may object that I'm referring to the Old Testament and that it does not apply to Christians. I disagree. Christians very often extol the wisdom of Judeo-Christianity, not merely Christianity and are prone to emphasizing the fact that Christianity is a product of Judaism, of which the Torah is an element, often in an attempt to reinforce Judeo-Christian solidarity. In addition, it is argued that Christians and Jews worship the same god, thus the god that Christians pledge their allegiance to is supposed to be the same god under which the normative propositions of Leviticus were offered.

    The Bible offers no meaningful argumentation or proofs, endorses crude types of social behavior, makes myriad claims that contradict the conclusions of chemistry and physics, contradicts itself, and its respect is contingent upon the existence of a god, an allegation which has been scrutinized and disputed by non-believers ad infinitum. I don't see how it can help us resolve our moral dilemmas.