PZ Myers is at it again, this time ranting about pro-life apologist Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Students for Life of America. I've taken Myers to task before for his dishonest argumentation when he railed against Scott Klusendorf when Scott appeared on the Issues, Etc. podcast. Kristan gave a pro-life presentation at UMM College called "The Ugly Truth About Abortion: How it Does More than Just Kill Babies." Myers apparently attended the presentation, then decided to dismiss Kristan's entire case and write about it on his blog. You can view the article here. Let's take a look at Myers' response.
Regarding one of Kristan's arguments, Myers responded, "Setting aside the loaded word 'preborn', of course a fetus is alive. And of course its cells are taxonomically human -- but that begs the question. Is it a person? I'd say no, not yet, and that personhood is defined by a very fuzzy boundary. Which makes talking about their rights moot."
First, it doesn't beg the question. Begging the question is a specific logical fallacy. What he means is it raises the question. He at least admits that the human fetus is alive and biologically human. That's half the battle. He then asserts that personhood is defined by a very fuzzy boundary, but this is false. The best arguments show that personhood is established at fertilization, when the human comes into existence. There is nothing fuzzy about it, just because personhood is a metaphysical concept (morality and the laws of logic are also metaphysical concepts that are uncontroversial). To claim you must be able to do something before you are a person (e.g. you must be conscious or self-aware) is to put the cart before the horse, since there must be something first in order to do something. Finally, it doesn't make talking about their rights moot. What if Myers is wrong about personhood? Then we are killing human persons, which is a tragedy. Conversely, if the question of personhood is fuzzy, we have a moral obligation not to be killing them, since the benefit of the doubt should always go to life. If a construction worker is about to blow up a building, but someone may be inside, if he blows the building up without making sure, he is guilty of criminal negligence. Or if you are not sure whether the jacket in the middle of the road has a person underneath, would you drive over the jacket or swerve around it?
Myers then says, "The weird thing about her whole argument is that it applies perfectly well to tumors, as well. Cancer is growing, and alive; it has human 'parents', and its cells are human; so if Kristan Hawkins has rights, why doesn't a melanoma? We clearly do not simply give rights and privileges to collections of cells because they have human ancestry -- we have other criteria, often assumed and unstated, that we use to assign rights."
Myers is a biologist. If doctors can tell the difference between a human being and cancer, why can't Myers? I did not attend Kristan's talk, so I don't know how in-depth she went in to the arguments. But arguing that the pro-life position entails that cancers have rights is just philosophically confused and biologically inept.
A cancer does not have human parents (here Myers is guilty of equivocation on the term "parent"). Human life is an unbroken chain, from one person to the next. The parents have sex, they release sperm and eggs, which fuse and create a new, genetically distinct human being. A cancer is not produced like Myers was by his parents. According to the American Cancer Society, "cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal cells. Cancer cells can also invade (grown into) other tissues, something that normal cells can't do. Growing out of control and invading other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell." Cancer cells are different from developing human beings, even ones who are at the early stage of human development inside the mother's womb.
Myers goes on, "She announced that the biology argument was the easiest to rebut. This is only true because being ignorant of biology makes everything simpler. She made familiar arguments: at the moment of conception, a unique whole human being comes into existence, with a unique combination of DNA. To which I say, if uniqueness is the criterion for preserving an organism, shouldn’t she be as vociferous in defending the rights of cows to live? They’re all unique, too. Shouldn’t the anti-choice picketers be out working to preserve unique habitats and endangered species?"
Myers doesn't attempt to refute Kristan's position, he just tries to argue that she is inconsistent. Maybe she is, but if so, how does this refute her position? To say nothing of the fact that many pro-life advocates do, in fact, care about animal rights. Myers is just guilty of not properly understanding his interlocutor's argument. It's not uniqueness that makes the organism valuable, per se -- the uniqueness shows that the individual human organism is a different organism from the parents. Myers picks out one word in the argument and attempts to refute her entire argument by nitpicking a term. He certainly hasn't shown how she is ignorant of biology (in fact, he agreed with her biology earlier in the talk, by agreeing that the unborn organism is alive and biologically human). Myers is just ignorant of philosophy.
Myers' entire article can be dismissed as an argument from incredulity. He doesn't make any valid points, he just tries to dismiss them because he finds them ridiculous. He goes on to say that Kristan emphasized the claim that a whole human being is created at the "instant" of conception. One argument was that she showed pictures that indicated that once the egg is fertilized, it is no longer a human egg but a human zygote (which Myers unprofessionally dismissed with incredulous flair). But this is a true fact -- once the sperm and egg fuse, the sperm and egg lose their identity, they cease to exist, and a new, genetically distinct human organism comes into existence. It's not just pro-life apologists he's disagreeing with, it's just about every modern embryology textbook on the planet.
Kristan's other argument, which is also true, is that the zygote from the beginning is a whole, individual, separate organism from the mother, only needing proper nutrition and environment to survive and thrive.
What is Myers' response? As an iron ingot is not a car, so is a zygote not a whole organism. But this is a false analogy: it confuses passive potential with active potential. Cars are artifacts. An iron ingot is not a car in the same way that sugar and flour are not a cake. They require an outside baker/builder, and once baked/built, they will lose their identity and become part of the cake/car. The sperm and the eggs are analogous to the iron ingot, not the human zygote. Human development is not like construction of an artifact.
Conversely, human beings are substances, as are all living things. The human zygote is more analogous to a Polaroid picture (an analogy that Richard Stith formulated). The human zygote is already a human being. It's true that the human zygote doesn't look like me, and hasn't developed his/her human parts. But therein lies the difference between a substance and an artifact. Artifacts find their identity in their parts. Substances are ontologically prior to their parts, which is just a fancy way of saying that they exist before they develop their parts. But everything that human being is and will develop is already written in his/her genetic code. He/she just needs time to develop these things. The capacities to develop them are already present. She has the active potential to develop these things. Active potential is a potential that she has inside herself (instead of from outside, as in the case of artifacts with passive potential) to develop, and these potentials are identity-preserving changes (instead of identity-altering, such as the sugar and flour losing their identities in the cake they become part of).
Myers also made some quip about "artificial wombs," since all that is needed is proper nutrition and environment. Perhaps Kristan did not talk about the environment (I wasn't there, so I don't know if Myers is forgetting that part), but there is more to developing an artificial womb than nutrition, although that is a problem, too (you can't just feed it a steak, after all). The environment must also be replicated, and there is the problem of how to transfer it, since it needs to be able to implant into the artificial womb. But all of this misses the point, as once the embryo implants in the womb, all you need to do is give it proper nutrition in order for the embryo to continue to grow and develop normally.
Then he continues by dwelling on something he said he wasn't going to dwell on, such as Jerome Lejeune being the Father of Modern Genetics. It's pretty strange that Myers has never heard of him, despite the fact that Lejeune discovered the cause of Down syndrome. According to the linked Wikipedia article, "In 1969, Lejeune's work earned him the William Allan Award, granted by the American Society of Human Genetics, the world's highest honor in genetics. As of 2013, he was the only Frenchman to have won it." So it's irrelevant to the truth claim of Lejeune that Myers has never heard of him.
Myers tries to assert that the only reason pro-life advocates have accepted him is because he's a Catholic and had "bought into" our doctrine. But the pro-life movement has accepted atheists as our own, such as Bernard Nathanson (who become pro-life while still an atheist, though he converted to Catholicism later in life), and A.W. Liley, the Father of Modern Fetology, who, as an atheist, was also appointed to the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, despite his atheism. Not to mention the modern atheists in the pro-life movement, such as Secular Pro-Life's Kelsey Hazzard, Pro-Life Humanists' Kristine Kruszelnicki, and pro-life philosopher Don Marquis.
Next he brought up the problem of animal rights. There are pro-life advocates who also believe in animal rights, so the pro-life position does not necessitate that animals don't have rights. However, it is not inconsistent to be pro-life and oppose animal rights, since all human beings are persons but animals are not persons. Being human is what matters, but it's not just belonging to our biological species; it's what being human means. Humans are intrinsically valuable because they are made in the image of their Creator, but also because they have an inherently rational nature. I don't want to dwell too much on the differences between humans and animals now, but suffice it to say if there is something intrinsically different about humans by which they are intrinsically valuable, then one can consistently hold that it is wrong to kill human beings but not intrinsically wrong (though it may sometimes be) to kill animals.
Myers also claims Kristan "dismissed" the criterion of nervous system development, but Kristan presented a good reason for doing so: if all humans are equally valuable, then their value cannot be grounded in something that comes in degrees, such as their development or their intelligence. It must be grounded in something we all have equally, and the only thing that qualifies is our common human nature.
Myers isn't convinced by Trot Out the Toddler reasoning, but it seems more accurate to say he just doesn't understand the philosophical concept of the reductio ad absurdum (which is what Trot Out the Toddler is, at is deepest level). The reason that arguing from circumstances doesn't work is because it does commit the fallacy of begging the question -- you have to assume the unborn entity is not a valuable human being in order for the argument to succeed. Suppose we were considering allowing abortion in the case of poverty. Well, we wouldn't allow a woman to kill her two-year-old child because of poverty, so if the unborn entity is a valuable human being, then we can't allow abortions in the case of poverty, either. So poverty isn't the real issue. The real issue is what is the unborn? If the unborn is not a valuable human being, then a woman could have all the abortions she wants, without needing a good reason. But if the unborn is a valuable human being, then any reason that wouldn't justify killing a born child wouldn't justify killing an unborn one.
Myers asserts, "The problem here is that we’re able to recognize that a fetus and a toddler are not equivalent: one is aware and interacting with the world, the other is grossly incomplete and in a state of total, passive dependence."
It's true that the toddler is aware and interacting with the world. But is that a good reason for allowing abortion? I was not aware nor was I interacting the world last night while I was asleep. So was it justifiable to kill me then? Of course not. If that doesn't work to justify killing someone in their sleep, in a reversible coma, or under general anesthesia, why would it work to justify killing the unborn? Also, to say the unborn organism is "incomplete" is ambiguous. Toddlers are also incomplete. A toddler is different from me because she cannot form complete sentences, she can't read this article that I'm typing, nor can she even feed herself. Yet no one would say those are grounds for toddler-cide.
Myers, again: "That’s what generates her absolutist stance: there is no difference between me, a 57 year old man, and a freshly fertilized zygote. Well gosh, since fertilized zygotes are naturally slaughtered in vast numbers all the time, and reality doesn’t seem to have any special regard for embryos, then the flip side of her conclusion must be that it’s perfectly OK to murder people."
Myers is one of the New Atheists, and considering how poorly they argue against the Bible, pulling statements out of the Bible, out of context, and using them to argue against the Bible, this doesn't surprise me. Kristan's statements need to be considered in context. Now, "philosophically" is probably not the word I would have chosen to use. I prefer to use the term "fundamentally." There is no fundamental difference between the zygote I once was and the adult I am today. There are, of course, differences -- but none fundamental, because I was numerically the same entity then as I am now. All of the changes were identity-preserving, and if you had killed me then I would not be here right now to write this article. But Myers wants to assert Kristan believes there is absolutely no difference between an adult and a zygote. That's dishonest, and ungracious.
Myers continues by railing against more of Kristan's reductios, again missing the point that these arguments show the absurd conclusions that certain pro-choice arguments lead to. He also uses another New Atheist tactic, using the word "magical" to dismiss claims he doesn't agree with. In this case, "magical" really means "metaphysical," and I'm wondering if Myers would say that the laws of mathematics don't exist, since they are metaphysical. Maybe math is just magic and mathematicians its sorcerers. Myers asserts that responses to Kristan's arguments wouldn't rest on the personhood of the fetus, but on the damage done to the fetus. But this just presents a new problem -- if it is okay to kill a fetus, why is it wrong to use Thalidomide to ease morning sickness, allowing the fetus to be born with missing limbs? Or as my friend Josh Brahm once put it, why is it okay to remove all of the fetus' future experiences, but not only some of them, like the ability to walk?
So now we get to Kristan's Ugly Truths. The first one is regarding abortion safety. Myers accuses her of giving a half-truth, but in reality, what Myers quoted only supports Kristan's point. Legalizing abortion did not make it safer -- medical advancements, such as the development of antibiotics, has made abortion safer. There is no reason to believe abortion mortalities will increase significantly if it is made illegal again.
Kristan's second Ugly Truth is that abortion harms women. Myers quoted some statistics he believes refutes Kristan's claims, but what Myers actually means is that statistics he found he agrees with "refutes" this claim. Consider the source. Myers posted an article from Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice institute in league with Planned Parenthood that has a vested interest in promoting abortion. I'm still dubious about whether or not there is such a thing as Post-Abortion Syndrome, but there is such a thing as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Since a large number of women are coerced or otherwise forced into having an abortion (whether by a parent, boyfriend/husband, or life circumstances), if her abortion is traumatic then it's entirely likely she'll develop PTSD. Ignoring this only does a disservice to women, whom pro-choice people claim to want to help.
Now regarding the breast cancer link, I've seen studies that suggest there is such a link, but I don't have them handy. I don't know which sources Kristan was using, so I won't speak to this issue.
Kristan's third Ugly Truth is regarding the money-making potential of abortion. Myers repeats the untrue "only 3% of Planned Parenthood's services are abortions" claim. For why this claim is false, see this video. I don't know what the percentage of abortions done is, but considering that there are over a million abortions every year, it has to be pretty high (though of course, Planned Parenthood isn't the only abortion provider out there). Again, check Kristan's sources. Don't just take Myers' or my word for it.
Kristan's fourth Ugly Truth is that early feminists opposed abortion and thought women's reproductive ability was beautiful and wonderful. Myers concedes this point, so moving on.
Kristan's fifth and final Ugly Truth is that abortion exploits women and enables cover-up of abuse. Incidentally, Myers doesn't contest this point. He just says "pro-choice people think this is horrible, too." That's great, we have common ground there. But the argument is that legalized abortion allows this to happen, which not even Myers disagrees with. So Kristan's argument here succeeds.
Now, Myers does say this is a non-sequitur because even if this is true, that doesn't mean abortion is wrong. He's right. The problem is he's misunderstanding the argument. There's a difference between why abortion is wrong and what's wrong with abortion. He'd have a point if Kristan's argument was "abortion allows cover-up of abuse, therefore it is wrong." But what Kristan seems to be making (based on Myers' article, since I wasn't there) is that legalized abortion allows these things to happen, so it should not be legal. That's a different argument. Myers even admitted, at the beginning of his article, that Kristan's first argument is that abortion kills a living human being, and that is a sound argument for why abortion is wrong.
Myers then gives his thoughts on some questions. He agrees the first question was best avoided as off-topic. But for the second question, Myers doesn't seem surprised that she's religious. But as I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of pro-life atheists. In fact, the only people in the abortion issue for whom religion is consistently a problem are pro-choice people.
Regarding the third question, I generally agree with Kristan's answer here, but with some caveats. Abortions need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. As it was before abortion was made illegal in 1973, the woman should be granted full immunity with an eye to bringing down the abortionist and putting him/her in jail, since that will do the most good (it will save more lives to stop an abortionist than to simply put a post-abortive woman in jail). Second, women who abort (save women who self-abort) are not guilty of murder. At worst, they'd be guilty of accessory to murder, like the wife who hires a hitman to kill her husband. Third, many women are not morally culpable for the abortion. There are women who have been lied to by society and the abortion providers into believing she's just having a "clump of cells" or "mass of tissue" removed. Plus, many women are coerced into it. Every abortion is different, and as we have different degrees of murder of people outside the womb, each abortion needs to be considered on its own.
With question number four, I don't know the circumstances surrounding it, so I have nothing to say on the matter. Question number five, there's not much to say. I've heard that women do get some counseling, but it's biased counseling -- Planned Parenthood is there to sell abortions, so if a woman doesn't want to go through with an abortion, they don't help them. I've heard stories about women who wanted to keep the child turned away and actually referred to a Pregnancy Care Center because Planned Parenthood couldn't help them. That doesn't necessarily mean it's true of every Planned Parenthood. I can't speak to that.
Finally, number six was a statement, not a question. I'm not even sure what was meant by "Roe v. Wade" changed the conversation about abortion. I'm not sure if it did or not. Myers is somewhat correct in that a couple of states did lessen their restrictions on abortion before Roe v. Wade was decided. And there were always pro-life advocates who cared about the abortion issue (though it wasn't until the late 20th century that a movement started to emerge to liberalize the United States' abortion laws). But Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion across the board did cause pro-life advocates to organize.
This was just more of what I expected from Myers, more misunderstandings of pro-life arguments, bad biology, and a confusion of philosophical ideas. It's good that pro-choice people are trying to have a discussion about this, but if we could get less vitriol and more educated arguments from their more vocal proponents, that would go a long way toward advancing the conversation.