Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Humans and Persons [Jay Watts]

As philosopher Christopher Kaczor points out in his book The Ethics of Abortion, once we ask the question if all human beings are persons we already philosophically entertain the premise on which the question is based. “Indeed, in answering this question, one presupposes or reinforces at least implicitly a general theory of personhood.” The idea being entertained is that a being can be a living human organism and yet lack certain capacities that would make that organism a person. Additionally, only persons have rights.

There are sophisticated defenses of this position (e.g. Michael Tooley, Peter Singer, and David Boonin) as well as criticisms of the personhood theory (e.g. Kaczor, Francis Beckwith, Patrick Lee, and J.P. Moreland), but one of the principle problems with performance accounts of human value is who gets to decide what capacities or traits are necessary to be considered a person.  Only persons can be wronged. Once you give authority for one group of human beings to categorize another group as not persons, you give them the authority to say that there is nothing that violates the rights of those other humans. Non-personal humans are simply not subjects of moral consideration.

I was recently working with a group of students on logic. Specifically, we were discussing how to categorize things into genus and species and increasing extension or intension. Not the biological classifications, but the logical categories where an object like an oven could be a species of the broader category (kitchen appliances) that may also include other species (dishwashers, refrigerators, stove top ranges, etc.) while also being a genus with species of its own (microwave ovens, gas ovens, toaster ovens, etc.). I asked the students to give me a thing that we could use to begin increasing extension (moving toward broader categories). One young lady offered up, “Persons.”

I hesitated for a moment and told her, “I’m going to put this up, but this could get interesting from a philosophical perspective.” The class looked confused at my comment.

“Alright, we start at persons. Can someone give me a step up to a broader category? Let’s increase extension.”

A young man spoke up, “Humans.”

“And there it is,” I said. 

I asked the young man, “ So do you think it makes sense to say that there are human beings that are not persons. That person is a proper species of the category of human?”

The class looked uneasy, but the young man hesitantly said, “I think so.”

“Okay,” I nodded at him. “Let’s break this out then.” I drew the diagram on the white board. I wrote “Human” and then drew a segment down and connected to another line that I drew under human. I drew a short segment from then end of that line down and then wrote “Person.” I drew three more segments down from the line. Under the next one to the right I wrote “Human Embryos.” Under the next one to the right I wrote “Human Fetuses.”

“Would you say it is fair to argue that these proposed species are human but mutually exclusive from the category of persons? Is it fair to argue that they are a separate species from persons?”

They looked very nervous. The young man thought about it and honestly answered, “I don’t know.”

“Fair enough. How about I put something up there that was once argued as a mutually exclusive species from valuable persons.” I went to the next segment to the right dropping down from the main line and wrote the word “Jews.” The students were clearly horrified and the room was uncomfortably quiet. “Okay, I understand why that makes you uncomfortable. How about we try a different one. One that our own Supreme Court affirmed in a majority opinion is a species separate from valuable persons.” I erased “Jews” and replaced it with “African Slaves.”

The room was silent and still.

“Do you see why that is so tricky? It sounds reasonable at first, but dividing up valuable human persons from the rest of the non-valuable humanity quickly gets dangerous. We don’t usually begin the whole enterprise because we want to identify non-personal humans for the purpose of being overly kind to them. It is the manner in which we begin to justify the worst things we have ever done to our fellow man.”

Christopher Kaczor sums it up brilliantly:

“Every previous division of humankind into two classes in which one half was permitted to dispose of the other at will – men exploiting women, whites selling blacks, the rich using the poor, the healthy overpowering the sickly – and are universally recognized as evil. In every case, the powerful judged the vulnerable as lacking some characteristic which, in the view of the powerful, made the weaker human beings unfit for basic respect. Do we really have reason to believe that for the very first time in human history we are justified in treating some human beings as less than fully persons? Or will we be judged by history as just one more episode in the long line of exploitation of the powerful over the weak?”

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Arthur Caplan's Reckless Charge of "Dangerous" [Jay Watts]

John Rawls once wrote that he always took for granted that the people that he was reading were smarter than him. If not, then why on earth was he reading them in the first place.

I mention that because I read Arthur Caplan, the head of medical ethics at NYU, precisely because he is a smart man. I often learn something when I read his work though I disagree with him on important issues. His newest offering in Forbes criticizing Senator Marco Rubio’s arguments about when human life begins during a television interview with CNN TV personality Chris Cuomo is a disappointing exception to that rule.

The editorial is entitled "Marco Rubio and The GOP's Dangerous Misconception On When Life Begins." There appears to be so much to immediately challenge in this article that it is difficult to know where to start. Owing to that, please forgive the length of this post.

He starts out with this:

“Amazingly despite indifference to science regarding other matters like evolution and climate change, they invoke science on behalf of their advocacy of what might best be called ‘conceptionalism.”

Who is “they?” This is an article addressing the specific arguments made by Senator Rubio. When you begin by shifting gears into an act of poisoning the well while dragging in the always easy to disparage “they” you are setting the bar low from the outset.

We will have to wait another two paragraphs to actually address the arguments made by Senator Rubio because Caplan has a little more pre-argument work to do. Before we discuss when the life of an individual human organism begins it is important for you to know that Senator Rubio and the rest of THEM want to force mentally ill 12 year old women raped by their predatory fathers to have babies. He also has a list of other consequences that arise should any reader accept that Senator Rubio’s argument is scientifically correct that run the gamut of fear mongering (the end of fertility treatments!) to ongoing issues of debate (the end of embryonic stem cell research) to quite honestly puzzling as to why it is problematic (if you murder a pregnant woman you will be culpable for two murders). In spite of the fact that all of these issues have been openly argued and discussed for years, Dr. Caplan hints that political defenders of an inclusive view of human value either have not thought about this or are purposely not mentioning it. 

Now we finally get to his position. "Science supports no such view that life begins at conception." His arguments in support of this position are (1) that conception is a fuzzy concept and hard to nail down as a distinct event, (2) the majority of conception events do not produce a viable pregnancy, (3) twinning and recombination raise troubling questions about the nature of early life, (4) and a number of post implantation pregnancies spontaneously miscarry.

His first real argument is that conception is unwise to use as a point of demarcation for the beginning of human life because the boundaries of the event are fuzzy according to Dr. Caplan.  He asks:

"Is conception when a sperm reaches an egg, when it penetrates the shell of an egg, when genetic recombination begins, when a new genome is formed, or, when a functioning new genome is formed?"

This is an interesting question and one that Francis Beckwith addressed in Defending Life. In responding to what he considers an important objection on this grounds offered by David Boonin he says:

"It seems to me that Boonin commits the fallacy of the beard: just because I cannot tell you when stubble ends and a beard begins does not mean that I cannot distinguish bearded faces from clean-shaven ones. After all, abortion-choice supporters typically pick out what they consider value-making properties - for example, rationality, having a self-concept, sentience, or organized cortical brain activity (as in the case of Boonin) - that they justify concluding that a being lacking one or all of them does not have a right to life. But it is nearly impossible to pick out at what precise point in a being’s existence it acquires the correct trait, for example, when it becomes rational enough or has a sufficient amount of organized cortical brain activity to warrant a right to life. But it’s doubtful whether the abortion-choice advocate would abandon her position on those grounds."

These two things can simultaneously be true; that Caplan is correct in the difficult nature of breaking down exactly when conception begins and that once the fertilization process is finished we have a whole, living, and distinct new human organism. This first argument does nothing to defeat the position that nascent human life, even as a zygote, is a full member of the human family.

Second, he argues that the majority of conception events do not end in a human organism. His evidence of this is a study published in the journal Science that seems to show that 75% of conceptions result in chromosomal abnormalities of such an extreme nature that fewer than 30% of conception events lead to viable human organisms and pregnancy. This is interesting information, but it puzzles me as to why Dr. Caplan sees it as a defeater for an inclusive view of human value.

I acknowledge that this raises interesting questions about what we know about human reproduction. Is this new life form a human organism that is suffering from such profound genetic abnormalities that his life ends very early or is it so profoundly chromosomally disordered that it is not properly understood as an organism at all? Does it have more in common with a hydatidiform mole?

If the latter, then this is an interesting objection that has been addressed by Dr. Maureen Condic. (See here for more) As she points out, though these molar pregnancies have human DNA they are never whole, living, and distinct human organisms. They are not healthy human lives that degrade but begin as something entirely different and grow in accordance with what it is.  We have an issue in discerning what they are prior to particular levels of development, but our lack of ability to distinguish what they are doesn’t change the nature of the life. If Dr. Caplan’s more than 70% of conception events that fail to produce whole human life fall into this category, then it is an interesting fact that in no way impacts the nature of those whole, living, and distinct human organisms that are present after the minority of conception events.

His third argument relies on the objection from twinning and recombination. Dr Caplan writes:

“Just to reinforce the point that conception is a bad place to begin when it comes to legislating personhood sometimes, conception creates more than one life, twins or triplets, but then one of those lives is absorbed into the body of another–fetal resorption.

Not only is it unlikely that a life begins at conception, even if life begins it really is not clear how many lives start at the moment of conception until later in pregnancy.”

Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen address this objection in their book Embryo. They write:

"This conceptual question of whether an entity of that is genuinely one could be spilt so as to become two has a ready answer. Consider the parallel case of the division of the flatworm. Parts of a flatworm have the potential to become a whole flatworm when isolated from the present whole of which they are a part. Yet no one would suggest that prior to the division of a flatworm to promote two whole flatworms, the original flatworm was not a unitary individual.

Likewise, at the early stages of human embryonic development, before specialization by the cells has progressed very far, the cells or groups of cells can become whole oranisms if they are divided and have an appropriate environment after the division. But that fact does not in the least indicate that prior to such an extrinsic division the embryo is other than a unitary, self-integrating, actively developing human organism."

If Dr. Caplan’s argument undermines the humanity of early human life then it scientifically undermines our ability to categorize any individual planarian as an independent organism. That would be a weird leap to make without having to do so. This capacity is certainly odd, but it doesn’t do the work necessary to support Dr. Caplan’s conclusion.

His final argument is that since 10% to 25% of implanted embryos ultimately miscarry then… well he doesn’t really flesh this one out. He drops it as an afterthought. He is using post implantation events to undermine the humanity of the unborn at the conception event. Why stop there? Why not drag in infant mortality rates? The mortality rate of humanity is 100% on a long enough timeline. Why not mention that? How any of these facts about the death of human life impact the question of when a distinct human organism begins to exist is beyond me, but we will just have to imagine that since we aren’t actually offered any argument.

Dr. Caplan fails to make a persuasive case for his position. That isn’t so bad in and of itself, but he fails to do so while dismissing those who disagree with him as perpetuating a canard into the silence left by reputable scientist too intellectually cautious to declare when human life begins. This is uncharitable. It is also indefensible to claim such silence exists. I will include a handful of quotes to counter his claim in a postscript below on that point, but given the readily available substantive responses offered to his arguments from respected scholars his cavalier attitude on this matter is unearned.   


1. "[The zygote], formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being."
Keith L. Moore, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2008. p. 2.

2. "Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a 'moment') is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte."
Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001. p. 8.

3. "Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the femal gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote."
T.W. Sadler, Langman's Medical Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006. p. 11.

(Items 3 & 4 are admittedly older that 1-3, but I offer them to counter evidence of scientific consensus argued by Dr. Caplan from the same year in quoting the NAS)

4.“So, therefore, it is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of its life.”

Dr. Micheline Matthews-Roth, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, The Human Life Bill S. 158 (US Senate Judiciary committee 1981)

5. “I think we can now say that the question of the beginning of life – when life begins – is no longer a question for the theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life, but it is an established fact that all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception... I have never ever seen in my scientific reading, long before I became concerned with issues of life of this nature, that anyone has ever argued that life did not begin at the moment of conception and that it was a human conception if it resulted from the fertilization of the human egg by a human sperm. As far as I know, these have never been argued against.”
 The late Dr. Hymie Gordon of the Mayo Clinic in the same Judiciary Committee

Thursday, August 6, 2015

3% Matters Everywhere Except Planned Parenthood [Jay Watts]

My son and I were talking in the car the other day. He is 12 years old and a fine young man. The parents of his friends want their children to hang out with him because they trust him. His nickname amongst his friends is Safety Patrol. I told my son that he should feel good that his hard work on his character has built a solid reputation.

I then warned him about something that defenders of Planned Parenthood certainly ought to know. A lifetime of hard work and public service can be destroyed by a few seconds of bad decision-making. If you do something bad enough, then you will always be remembered for the one bad thing that you did and not the lifetime of good. That is the way the world works, and it is fair.

One of the most oft repeated defenses of Planned Parenthood is that abortion only represents 3% of what they do. The claim is misleading (see here for an explanation as to why and here for a funny video that covers it as well, and here for criticism from Slate), but what if it were true. What if we looked past the fact that 1/3 of the income of Planned Parenthood is generated by abortion and accepted at face value this claim as accurate. Abortions make up only 3% of what Planned Parenthood does and the rest of their time is spent offering productive services.

So what? This argument is ridiculous and would be openly rejected by all reasonable people if it were offered for almost any other institution in our country except for Planned Parenthood, the Teflon Don of non-profits. It is not and never has been a question of how balanced the percentage of what you do is with good things versus bad. In every case, whether individual, corporation, or non-profit the only relevant question is “How bad is the bad thing that you did?”

We see with absolutely clarity how silly this claim is when we all accept that a given action is grossly immoral. John Wayne Gacy worked to raise money for charities in his various communities, was politically active, was a high ranking member of his local Jaycees, and dressed as a clown to entertain children at local events and parties. He also brutally raped and murdered at least 33 young men whom he proceeded to bury under his house and in his yard. No one anywhere has ever suggested we consider all the good he did, because his evil actions were of such a nature that it overshadowed any positive contributions he made to his community.

We don’t have to go to that extreme. Three percent of a 24-hour day is roughly 43 minutes. What if your neighbor meticulously cared for his lawn, contributed to the homeowners’ association, led charitable efforts, and worked hard at a job that inarguably improved the community. For 23 hours and 17 minutes every day he was a model citizen, but for 43 minutes he viciously abused his wife and children. Again, no one would defend him based on the quality of his behavior over 97% of his life. The 3% of abuse is so obviously evil and condemnable that it would be the sole criteria by which he is judged, and it ought to be.

Right about now the defenders of Planned Parenthood will object that abortion is not the same as serial murder or child and spousal abuse. And now we see that the defender that uses this argument is making the first mistake that most people make when discussing the issue of abortion. They presuppose the truth of the position they defend without argument. I agree that abortion is unlike the two examples I offered IF…if the unborn are not full members of the human family. IF that is the case, then abortion is unlike the moral evils previously discussed and whether it represents 3% or 12% or even 100% of what Planned Parenthood does is completely beside the point. However, that position must be established by argument. It cannot be assumed.

If they are fully human, then the practice of abortion, whether legal or not (see here), is the unjust destruction of innocent human life. It belongs in the category of things that you are rightly judged for based entirely on your participation in such a moral evil, even if it only makes up a small percentage of what you do.

This doesn't even take into account the act of allegedly illegally selling fetal body parts to research facilities, which ought to shut them down no matter how small a fraction of what they do it is.

Which brings us back to the central question of the abortion issue. What are the unborn?

Post Script: The Supreme Court has consistently affirmed that it is impossible to know what the moral status of the unborn is with certainty. I reject that argument, but suppose it is true. Then it is just as likely that those who believe that Planned Parenthood unjustly destroys over 300,000 innocent human lives every year are right as it is those who reject the humanity of the unborn are right. If that is the case, then no U.S. citizen should be compelled to contribute to an organization through federal funding that is just as likely leading our nation in state sponsored homicide, as it is that they are doing nothing morally wrong.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

No Just World Needs Planned Parenthood [Jay Watts]

The world needs Planned Parenthood. The supporters of Planned Parenthood (PP) repeatedly assure us of this fact. With every gruesome video released demonstrating the callous disregard for the lives destroyed through abortion, every legitimate question raised on whether PP profits from the remains of aborted human fetuses, and no matter how often PP seems to be caught dancing on the edges of the law we are assured that such actions are a small part of a larger enterprise that is desperately needed. You can’t throw out all the good with the very little bad because the world needs PP.

This raises a legitimate question, who actually needs PP? They don’t do mammograms, all of the non-abortion related services can easily be supplied by other medical clinics (which far outnumber PP clinics already), and the funding that makes these services available to low income groups can be diverted elsewhere to accomplish the same exact goals. What medical care is it that PP offers that cannot be duplicated elsewhere?

One defender told me that they provide affordable or free STI and STD testing and limited treatment. Again, they are not alone on that front. I serve on the board of directors for a pregnancy center that has expanded their services as a medical clinic under the direction of a licensed physician to offer STI and STD testing and limited treatment. They give all of these services away for free precisely so that the people in our community will not feel that they must go to Planned Parenthood to attain them and do so without taking a single penny of financial contribution from the U.S. government.

Access to contraception is not a difficult thing to manage without PP. New York City runs a condom project that provides condoms to any business or organization that wants to operate as a location for people to walk in off the street and have access to free condoms. I searched for the sites (here hit the plus sign on condoms in the column on the left) in Manhattan alone and was offered 27 pages of results, each page holding ten locations, including clinics, bars, tattoo parlors, beauty salons, barber shops, banks, etc. Clearly PP is not necessary to distribute free condoms. Given the large numbers of medical clinics on this list it is hard to imagine why anyone couldn’t just as easily go to one of those numerous clinics for their other contraception needs.

In fact, the only thing that I know for certain that PP does more than anyone else in the Unites States is perform abortions.  As near as I can tell, when Elizabeth Warren, Barbara Boxer, and other Democratic Senators take to the floor and declare the need for PP they are talking about the need for abortion. When actress Kerry Washington tweets about repro rights and feminism she is tweeting about abortion. Though they are as afraid of saying the word abortion as the characters in the Harry Potter series are of saying Voldemort, they are almost always talking about the Procedure That Must Not Be Named.

This isn’t a new argument and it even has some gravitas to it offered by no less than the Supreme Court. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern PA v Casey (1992) Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter wrote in the majority decision:

The Roe rule's limitation on state power could not be repudiated without serious inequity to people who, for two decades of economic and social developments, have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives. The Constitution serves human values, and while the effect of reliance on Roe cannot be exactly measured, neither can the certain costs of overruling Roe for people who have ordered their thinking and living around that case be dismissed.

Here is the argument in all of its glory. Women have learned to make sexual choices with the knowledge that should the foreseeable consequence of pregnancy occur they have the ability to end the life of their unborn child without either the pregnancy or that child impacting their lives or their professions. Abortion empowers a certain way of living while affirming a certain personal identity and role in society. In order for those sexual ethics to continue and those ideas to prosper, abortion must remain legal. Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest abortion provider therefore we need Planned Parenthood.

Utterly absent from this is any discussion on what exactly is the moral status of the lives we see torn apart in these videos. When Kerry Washington declares “AMEN!” on Twitter to the defeat of the effort to defund PP, she doesn’t explain why the torn apart nascent human bodies being rummaged through for usable parts don’t deserve her passionate advocacy. When Elizabeth Warren jokes about Republicans falling down and hitting their heads and thinking it is 1950 or 1890 she doesn’t explain why the more than 300,000 lives destroyed by PP annually haven’t earned the services of her unfettered snark. Even if we granted that PP and abortion have contributed to making some great society, where is the argument that explains what the unborn are and that we are justified building this society on their corpses?

Eric Metaxas shares an exchange in his book Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. Henry Dundas suggests that, rather than abolition, the focus ought to be more moderate. They should look to regulate slavery by putting into place protections and assurances of ethical treatment of the slaves rather than push for radical changes that may destabilize their entire way of life. Charles James Fox replied eloquently:

“I believe [the slave trade] to be impolitic… I know it to be inhuman. I am certain it is unjust. I find it so inhuman and unjust, that if the colonies cannot be cultivated without it, they ought not to be cultivated at all…”

If the unborn are human in the same way that you and I are, if they matter and we have the same basic human obligations to them as we do any other uncontroversial member of the human family, then abortion is a great evil. If they are fully human then any institution, self-belief, system of sexual ethics, or way of life that is dependent upon the freedom to kill them isn’t worthy to continue to exist. PP defenders need to stop dancing around the issue and answer the question.  What are the unborn? If they are human life that doesn't matter, then make your case that we are justified in tearing them to pieces and divvying up the leftover human body parts. If Planned Parenthood is truly essential to our public good because of their commitment to abortion, then just admit that you are arguing that our way of life in some way depends on federal funding for an institution that helps build this great society on the willful destruction of the next generation. We are unapologetically a culture of death.

They must not be surprised, though, when this fight doesn’t go away. However much indignation and incivility Elizabeth Warren can muster, it will not shame those committed to an inclusive view of human value into silence. The best arguments confirm what the horrified reaction of the public to these videos corroborates, the unborn are full members of the human family and their destruction and medical exploitation is inhuman and unjust. (here, here, here, here, here, here) Any and all institutions built on this injustice must fall. I return again to Mr. Fox and how he ended his response to the call to compromise:

“As long as I have a voice to speak, this question shall never be at rest… and if I and my friends should die before they have attained their glorious object, I hope there will never be wanting men alive to do their duty, who will continue to labour till the evil shall be wholly done away.”