About a week ago William Saletan of The Slate's Science/Human Nature department published an article discussing the Tebow ad aired during the Super Bowl. I had intended not to comment on it because the content is hardly worth the time to write about and ought to be beneath Mr. Saletan. I say “ought to be” because unfotunately more and more of this sort of sloppy rhetoric is showing up in his otherwise well thought out columns. Ultimately, I decided to write this post because I am teaching a class with Megan on the Christian worldview and we are discussing fallacies at the moment. This piece by Mr. Saletan provides a great opportunity to look at a couple of doozies.
Lets start with the title of the article, Focus on Your Family: The pro-life case for pregnancy termination. Hang on folks because as you can see we are in for a wild ride of equivocation. What does he mean when he uses the term “pregnancy termination?” The term "termination" brings to mind either abortion or miscarriage for me; the abrupt ending of the pregnancy through the death, whether intentional or undesired, of the baby. So read ahead and see what Mr. Saletan is referring to as “pregnancy termination.” He follows links provided at Focus on the Family and finds the first person accounts of two women named Laura Huene and Aimee Weathers. Both of these women had pregnancies that involved fatal abnormalities in their unborn children. Both women were advised to abort. Both women carried their children to 32 weeks at which time the risks to the mother outweighed the benefit to continuing pregnancy and their doctors induced labor.
Or in the equivocating article by Mr. Saletan, they terminated their pregnancies. Wow. In case you think I am overstating the impact of the title lets look at some of the gems from the article itself:
“Pam [Tebow] was willing to die, trusting God to take care of her family. Laura seems to have made a more practical decision. She had three children, and by expelling Pearl at 32 weeks, she survived to bear a fourth.”
“Aimee, like Laura, pushed her baby out well before term to protect her own health.”
“Induced delivery at 32 weeks isn't abortion. But it's a compromise. Sophie Ann lived nine minutes. Pearl, too, died quickly. We'll never know to what extent their prematurity shortened their lives. Their mothers, for all their love and devotion to life, couldn't save them. But Laura and Aimee could save themselves. By doing so, they could take care of their surviving children and give life to others.”
So the induced labor of Pearl at 32 weeks is an expulsion? Aimee pushed Sophie Anne out of her body? Do you see how his language is painting a different picture than the stories told by the mothers in question? They expelled children that posed a danger to them. They pushed them out to save their own lives and preserve their families. The terms are technically correct but used in such a way to further the equivocation. Early birth is pregnancy termination in that pregnancy ends at premature birth as is trivially true with all births I guess. But in this case the confusion of the terms only serves to support Mr. Saletan's specious point.
Which leads me to the second point. Mr Saletan is a very thorough and meticulous man in most articles. If there is information out there that strengthens his position and undermines his opponents he will winnow out every little detail to make certain that his readers are not being fooled by a deliberate suppression of evidence. That is why it is impossible for me to believe that he is as ignorant about birth at 32 weeks as he comes across in this piece and I am left to conclude that we have met fallacy number two on our journey. The direct suppression of evidence that would weaken his argument.
Lets look at another excerpt from the article:
"It's a beautiful story. But hold on. Thirty-two weeks is well short of full term. Pregnancy normally lasts about 40 weeks from the last menstrual period, and any baby born before 37 weeks is considered premature. Delivery at 32 weeks is that much worse for the baby."
And lets look at a quote already mentioned above one more time.
“Induced delivery at 32 weeks isn't abortion. But it's a compromise...We'll never know to what extent their prematurity shortened their lives.”
Mr. Saletan provides a helpful link to a page that gives the general list of dangers that accompany preterm childbirth, but is there more to this story? Did our normally inquisitive journalist not ask this basic question, “Why would two different medical professionals independently pick 32 weeks as a threshold?” If you go to the bottom of the information page that Mr. Saletan offers they recommend that you visit the March of Dimes for more information. I did just that and found out the answer to that question.
You see at 32 weeks the survival rate for babies is 98%. Their skin is usually no longer translucent, they have often developed the ability to suck which means they could be fed with a bottle, and they are dramatically less likely to suffer brain bleeds. They do often need help with respiration and are at a greater risk of long term respiratory issues and learning disabilities than babies born later in pregnancy. But what is the baseline risk for those abnormalities?
Lets get some idea about how good medical professionals are at preserving life. Even at 26 weeks preterm birth (less than 1% of all preterm births occur prior to the 28 week mark), the survival rate for the babies is about 80%. This group is at the most risk for long term problems. About 25% will face long lasting disabilities and almost half will suffer more minor issues such as behavioral or learning problems. But look at those numbers again. Our medical professionals are so proficient and accomplished that about 75% of surviving babies born that early will NOT face long lasting disabilities (that is about 60% of all babies born at 26 weeks). And nearly half will not face the more minor issues affecting intellectual and emotional development (about 40% of all children born at 26 weeks).
When you are characterizing a mother's decision to induce labor at 32 weeks as a compromise in the same family as abortion, it might be helpful to present the full story. As Mr. Saletan is apparently unwilling to do so, here it is. A woman that carries a high risk pregnancy to 32 weeks and then induces labor has given her child a 98% chance at survival and dramatically increased their likelihood of avoiding the vast majority of preterm difficulties. She has entrusted her child at that point to medical professionals who use their considerable knowledge to attend to the health and well being of her child and have a remarkable track record of success. A woman that goes to the doctor to get an abortion has about a 100% chance of having her child killed by the medical professionals that use their considerable knowledge and surgical skill to tear and cut her unborn child to pieces and extract it from her womb. Does that clear up the distinction?
The most objectionable aspect of this article to me is his characterization of the women in question as having compromised their pro-life positions by inducing labor at 32 weeks. Yikes! Only someone that has suppressed all evidence that undermines this ridiculous assertion and so confuses his terminology could print this nonsense under the heading of "Science." It is instructive to us all to see how a couple of innocent (or not so innocent depending how you choose to interpret this) fallacies can muddy the waters of reason.
Mr. Saletan had a point to make. In order to support it he confused his terminology with the sloppy use of the word “termination” and he suppressed evidence that would undermine the credibility of his argument. He also outrageously insulted two innocent women, but on that count I guess we can cut him a little slack. He is clearly so confused that in suggesting these mothers made a choice that, in his mind, purposefully harmed their unborn/premature children to preserve themselves he apparently thought he was paying them a compliment. Sure his evaluation of their actions would horrify them, but he almost seems to admire the caricature of them that he has created. That is quite possibly the most disturbing thing about this flawed article.