Monday, October 1, 2007

Beckwith #8: Science and the Unborn [SK]

Previous Posts on Beckwith's Defending Life:

#1 Overview of major themes
#2 The nature of moral reasoning
#3 What Roe said and did, part 1
#4 Roe, part 2: Blackmun undercuts his own case
#5 Roe, part 3: Blackmun's viability errors
#6 Metaphysics and abortion debate
#7 Thomson's 'Equal Reasonableness' Isn't Reasonable

Chapter 4:
Before launching a sophisticated philosophical defense of the pro-life position grounded in the substance view of human persons (the subject of chapter 6), Frank summarizes what science tells us about the unborn and why popular objections to that science don't work.

The scientific case goes like this: From conception (or the completion of a cloning process), the unborn are living human organisms. Unlike bodily cells which are merely part of a larger human being, human embryos, from the beginning, are whole human entities (though they have yet to mature and grow). True, science can't tell us how to value the unborn (any more than it can tell us how to value a 10-year old), but it can give us the facts we need to determine the kind of thing that's killed by elective abortion. (You can see a summary of the scientific evidence here.)

Frank then deals with objections to the scientific case for the unborn. Three of the most popular (Frank deals with 5 in particular) are as follows:

1) Twining. Cloning advocates sometimes claim that because an early embryo may split into twins (up until 14 days after conception), there is no reason to suppose that it’s an individual human being prior to that time. Hence, early embryo research (prior to day 14) is morally permissible. The flaws in this argument are easy to spot. First, how does it follow that because an entity may split (or even recombine) that it was not a whole living organism prior to the split? As Patrick Lee points out, if we cut a Flatworm in half we get two flatworms. Would advocates of destructive embryo research argue that prior to the split, there was no distinct flatworm? I agree that twining is a mystery. We don’t know if the original entity dies and gives rise to two new organisms or if the original survives and simply engages in some kind of asexual reproduction. Either way, this does nothing to call into question the existence of a distinct human organism prior to splitting.

(FYI, Ramesh Ponnuru asks a great question: If the early embryo prior to twinning is merely a hunk of cells and not a unitary organism, why doesn’t each individual cell develop individually?)

2) Miscarriage. Abortion and cloning advocates cite the high number of miscarriages as proof that embryos are not individual human organisms, but what follows from this? Suppose miscarriages are indeed common: How does this fact refute the claim that embryos are human beings? Many Third-World countries have high infant mortality rates. Are we to conclude that those infants who die early were never whole human beings? Moreover, how does it follow that because nature may spontaneously abort an embryo that I may deliberately kill one? Admittedly, these miscarriages are tragic events. But just because natural disaster happen doesn’t mean massacres are justified.

3) Ignorance. Philosopher David Boonin discounts the pro-lifer’s claim that the newly conceived zygote is a distinct, living, and whole human organism. How can this be, he argues, when we don’t know the precise moment during the conception process at which the new zygotic human being comes into existence? Here Boonin is both right and wrong. True, we don’t know exactly when during the conception process that the zygote comes to be. Some embryologists argue that it happens when the sperm penetrates the ovum while others point to syngamy, when the maternal and parental chromosomes crossover and form a diploid set. But as Beckwith points out, although Boonin raises an important epistemological question (When do we know that sperm and egg cease to be and a new organism arises?), he’s mistaken that his skepticism successfully undermines the pro-lifers strongly supported ontological claim that the zygote is distinct, living, and whole human being. “It may be that one cannot, with confidence, pick out the precise point at which a new being comes into existence between the time at which the sperm initially penetrates the ovum and a complete and living zygote is present. But how does it follow from this acknowledgment of agnosticism that one cannot say that zygote X is a human being?” Boonin, writes Beckwith, “commits the fallacy of the beard: Just because I cannot say when stubble ends and a beard begins, does not mean I cannot distinguish between a clean-shaven face and a bearded one.”

Moreover, Boonin’s skepticism cuts both ways and serves to undermine his own case. Abortion advocates typically claim that until a fetus has value-giving properties such as self-awareness, rationality, and sentience, it does not have a right to life. But since when can we know the precise moment that those properties come to be in the fetus? That is, at what exact point in the pregnancy does the unborn become rational enough to warrant a right to life? No one can say, though abortion advocates suggest that it’s somewhere between 24 weeks to 30 weeks. Despite their lack of certitude on these questions, few abortion advocates are willing to surrender their views. However, if the pro-life position is refuted by a lack of certitude, so is the pro-abortion one.

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