Monday, September 28, 2015

Responding to Bill Nye's Abortion Video

Bill Nye (AKA The Science Guy) is famous in the US for promoting science and he recently produced an ‘educational’ video where he defends abortion and claims to debunk prolife arguments against abortion.

Nye talks a lot about facts, which is strange because, last time I checked, he was a trained Mechanical Engineer and not qualified to contradict what Embryologists actually teach about when human life begins.

You can watch his video here.

So to demonstrate why Nye does not in fact present anything near a challenge to the prolife position I will go through his key statements point by point.

“Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova a lot.”

Yes, it is true that more eggs are fertilized than grow to human maturity but it would be wrong to finish there. The fertilization process, when finished successfully produces a new, whole, distinct, and growing human life. But when the sperm and egg unite they do not always produce a viable human life. In some cases they can produce non-viable human embryos or non-human entities like hydatiform moles. What this means is that the fertilization process sometimes goes wrong. However, that does not mean that those embryos that did not implant or died shortly afterwards were not human to begin with. We were all once embryos. That stage marks the earliest of our human development because we do not develop into humans but as humans. Any Embryology textbook will tell you quite clearly that the creation of a new embryo marks the first stage of the human journey. You were once an embryo. So was I and so was Bill Nye.

Nye simply begs the question by asserting that the embryo must be in a hospitable environment to be human, one’s environment has nothing to do with what kind of being one is. As a scientist he should know that one’s environment does not determine one’s species, nevertheless, he seems undeterred in making erroneous claims. In some parts of the world new-born infants die at alarmingly high rates. Are we to assume they aren’t human? Like others before him Nye confuses the distinction between the beginning of a human life and the beginning of pregnancy which are defined differently, only the latter beginning at implantation.

“But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb. But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized it’s therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy who’s sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you? It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding and you literally or apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about.”

What do rights have to do with science? Where is Nye discovering these human rights from? Are they hidden in the human ear somewhere? Nye seems to be conflating a number of issues, such as what it means to be human and what it means to have rights (natural or legal, you may ask). You’d think he would answer the scientific question before he steps into the realm of philosophy, another area I’m not sure engineers get much training in. Even the infamous Peter Singer admits that the embryo is a member of the human species, so let’s just answer the easy question first. The embryo is human. After that we can start getting into whether they possess rights or whether others have any duties towards them. Surely one only needs to be human to possess at least some human rights? Unfortunately, Nye doesn’t offer an argument on this, he merely asserts. I’m not sure anyone is sure what Nye is referring to in regards to imprisoning or suing people if we treat embryos as the humans they are. Having a miscarriage is tragic and has nothing to do with the intentional act of killing an unborn human being. The more Nye speaks, the quicker it becomes clear that he doesn’t really know what he is talking about and is just hoping that people believe him because he’s famous.

I feel I should offer a little more clarification (since Nye doesn’t). Using the term ‘fertilized egg’ is a misnomer since the egg and sperm proper no longer exist once the embryo does. Biologically speaking it’s about as accurate as referring to an infant as a fertilized egg. Let me be clear, Nye is asserting that the new embryo is not human and yet embryology textbooks consistently says stuff like this: ‘The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.’ – (Sadler, T.W. Langman’s Medical Embryology. 7th edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995, p. 3). Of course, what does the writer of one of the world’s leading Embryology textbooks know? As Nye says he must just be reflecting a deep scientific lack of understanding.

“And so when it comes to women’s right with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women. This is really – you cannot help but notice. I’m not the first guy to observe this. You have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance. Sorry you guys. I know it was written or your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby. That’s wrong and so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.”

Obviously you have to ignore the irony of a man of European descent displaying his views about abortion whilst telling men not to communicate their views an abortion. It’s also ironic that an all-male Supreme Court decided for Roe in the infamous Roe v Wade case in 1973. I hope Nye will join me in campaigning for this example of male patriarchy to be overturned!

Oh no, you didn’t! Nye seems to think that only European men who believe the Bible are against abortion. Unsurprisingly, he is mistaken. Women actually make the same prolife arguments men do because arguments don’t have genders. You also don’t need to believe the Bible to know that abortion is wrong, any more than you need to believe the Bible to know it’s wrong to strangle an infant. I think Nye should spend a few hours reading the Song of Songs. Nowhere does it say that we ought to believe that every sexual act must always produce children. I’m not sure what point Nye is trying to make because I’m not quite sure how making it illegal to intentionally kill your unborn offspring is consistent with ‘nature’. I would tell you what he means by nature but he never tells us.

“I mean it’s hard not to get frustrated with this everybody. And I know nobody likes abortion, okay. But you can’t tell somebody what to do. I mean she has rights over this, especially if she doesn’t like the guy that got her pregnant. She doesn’t want anything to do with your genes, get over it, especially if she were raped and all this. So it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side. We have so many more important things to be dealing with. We have so many more problems to squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding.”

I must admit, like Bill, I’m struggling to not get frustrated. Why does nobody like abortion? What other ‘human rights’ are there that nobody likes? Of course you can tell someone what to do. Nye is doing it right now and our parents, colleagues, and governments do it every day. Would Nye never tell anyone it’s wrong to steal, cheat, harass, bully, or assault anyone? If something is morally wrong, we ought to encourage people not to do it (e.g. drunk driving). Once again demonstrating his question begging case against the prolife view, he simply assumes without basis that the unborn are not human. We have to remember that women don’t know they are pregnant until after implantation. So Nye’s earlier argument about the early embryo is a red herring because he has offered no argument against the later embryo or fetus not being an individual human who is a bearer of rights. He thinks it’s okay to kill the unborn if you don’t like the father. Would that be acceptable after they were born? Oh no, of course not, because infanticide is much harder to hide and much harder to use bad science to defend. For that, you just need bad philosophy.

So as you can see, it’s the prolife community who doesn’t understand science. What do prolife philosophers or embryologists know when you have mechanical engineers to show you how it is. Clearly it was too much work for Nye to engage with the arguments prolife philosophers actually make. Instead he opted to ignore the work of those like Robert P. George, Patrick Lee, Christopher Kaczor, Stephen Schwarz, Francis Beckwith or any number of others. In conclusion, Bill Nye hasn’t debunked anything, instead he has demonstrated that he doesn’t understand the prolife argument and is ignorant of the basics of modern embryology.

Happy to clarify anything and look forward to your thoughtful comments. This post was originally posted at the Failed Atheist Blog.


  1. Thank you for the blog and providing the link to the video. My opinion after watching the video: Mr. Nye thinks religion opposes science. As an engineer and/or scientist, logic and science form his conclusions. Those promoting Pro Life have both science and logic. Has anyone tried reaching out to Mr. Nye to begin a dialogue and clear the misconceptions? Such a dialogue could result in a better understanding his and other Pro Choice arguments or it could result in a strong ally for Pro Life.

  2. Thanks for this in-depth and excellent analysis! I'll be sharing it on my own site's "Really Recommended Posts."

  3. "Lindor asserts that while personhood is an abstract concept"

    But what is the quality that gives us personhood? One simply can't define personhood as "life with human DNA". Otherwise, if other intelligent life existed in universe, we would have to declare them "non-persons". Also, much of our fictional literature would cease to make any kind of sense. Yoda, Shrek, and Mr. Tumnus would all be "non-persons", and thus no more worthy of our moral concern than ordinary animals. If you're reading Lord of the Rings, why would you say that simply treating Hobbits like animals would be wrong? Hobbits don't have human DNA after all.


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