Monday, September 25, 2017

A Twitter User's Dishonest Recap of My Debate [Clinton Wilcox]

A few weeks ago, I engaged in a debate with Matt Dillahunty at the Bible and Beer Consortium in Dallas. Our debate resolution was "should we have a right to die?" (I'm not a fan of that resolution; I prefer resolutions to be in the form of a statement.) It was my first live debate, although Matt and I had debated previously on the topic of abortion on a friend's podcast.

The audience I had to present for was definitely hostile to my point of view. I even had someone heckling me during the cross-examination portion (which Matt apologized for during the break) and during the Q&A. Unfortunately this is one topic that's very emotionally charged and it's difficult to get people to think rationally about it. I did have two people come up to me after the debate and thank me for presenting, telling me that it was the first time they'd ever heard a reasonable case for my position. A woman also came up to me afterward and asked for my contact information because she'd like to have me out to present at some point. So I do know that at least some people were positively impacted by my arguments.

But then there's Twitter user Maurice Reimann, who tweeted out the following:
Now, I'm not delusional. I know that not everyone is going to be convinced by my arguments. But the Twitter user above was dishonestly distorting the arguments that were presented. You can watch the debate at the link he provides, but I just want to quickly go over these statements in his tweet and show how dishonest they are. There's also no doubt I could have done much better during the cross-examination portion. I have improvement to make, that's for sure. However, Reimann is completely misconstruing the arguments that were presented.

This is a clear case of poisoning the well. Reimann is trying to present Matt's case as good as he can and my case as ridiculously as he can. If you don't even understand the arguments being presented, though, then you can't say you were not convinced by them.

#1: Matt "talks explicitly about end of life only" and Clinton "equates with abortion, suicidal teenagers, vegetative state, euthanasia"

Matt didn't talk explicitly about end of life only. It would be more accurate to say he talked about end of life barely. As I showed with my arguments, very few people actually end their lives because of severe pain or fear of severe pain. They end their lives because they want to control the timing and method of their own death, and dying with dignity. But Matt refused to talk about any other end of life cases. It was like we were debating abortion and he was only focusing on rape cases and refused to talk about other cases. As I showed, the case Matt wanted to focus on were the extreme minority of cases. He refused to talk about any others.

Now, I didn't equate it with abortion. I did mention a possible abortion case but the reasoning behind it was one of euthanasia -- will you kill the child because of a debilitating illness or allow the child to live? And speaking of that, how can Reimann call this "equating with euthanasia" when euthanasia is literally about end of life? The act of euthanasia is a doctor killing a patient with a debilitating illness. Dillahunty and Reimann may not be familiar with the literature on end of life issues, but I am. And suicidal teenagers and people in persistent vegetative states are very relevant when it comes to the end of life discussion. If there is such a thing as a right to die, that means that everyone has it, and we have no right to tell a distraught teenager that he can't end his own life. People in persistent vegetative states have lost their higher brain function and may never regain it (though some have), so are we permitted to end their lives? These are all relevant questions to the end of life discussion. Matt's incessant focusing on the hard case of people at the end of life in extreme and unrelievable pain wasn't getting at the heart of the issue, to say nothing of the fact that I showed the position I was defending does not necessitate I think it is always wrong to take a human life. But my view is nuanced, whereas Matt's was not, and he tried to sidestep the questions about whether or not we should permit suicidal teenagers to end their lives (and other questions, as well).

#2: Matt "requires heavy regulation and checks" and Clinton "invents arbitrary 'natural right' to life but not to death."

First, Matt may have required heavy regulation and checks, but he was being inconsistent in his views by requiring those. He also refused to take a position on whether or not anyone else, such as a suicidal teenager, had a right to die.

Second, I did not invent an arbitrary natural right to life, nor was I arbitrary in stating we don't have a right to death. A right to life is at the very heart of our judicial system. The Declaration of Independence states that we are endowed by our Creator with natural rights, and among these is the right to life. The Fifth Amendment states that no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law. What generates a presumption against killing you is that you have a right to life.

My view of natural rights was also not arbitrary; in fact, it is so commonsensical that many people assume this, even when trying to argue the opposite. Consider when I tried to push back with a thought experiment about our government killing homeless people, who do not contribute to society, away from the eyes of the public. The audience kind of turned on me because it was so hostile (it should have been obvious to any charitable person listening I was not denigrating homeless people but was responding to Matt's view about their lack of rights). Matt responded that they're valuable, but that's my view, not his. My view is that people are intrinsically valuable and so we ought to respect their rights. Matt was borrowing from my view of rights in order to avoid a barbaric conclusion from his own. Unfortunately because the crowd was turning on me and Matt was unfairly criticizing my use of thought experiments, in the heat of the moment I chose to abandon that line of reasoning.

I will add that a friend who had attended my debate suggested I may have made a mistake by trying to argue natural rights at the debate, and he may have been right for a couple of reasons. First, there was not very clear communication about the format of the debate. I thought we only had 15 minutes for opening speeches, when in fact we were given a half hour (Matt was gracious about this and was trying to be conscious about not taking too much more time than I took for my opening speech). If I had prepared for a half-hour presentation, I could have said more about the concept of rights. But at the end of the cross-examination, I ended up having to think about how to connect the dots between having a natural need translating into having a natural right, but we ran out of time before I formulated my thoughts. That was my fault for not having a better answer at the ready in case Matt challenged me on that.

Finally, my view of a "right to death" naturally follows from my position. The government cannot grant a right that violates the natural right of an individual, which means the government cannot grant a right to death because that's a violation of a person's right to life. You may not be convinced by the language of natural rights, but to call them arbitrary is just absurd.

#3: Matt was not arguing "this is a blanket right to die, go ahead" and Clinton made "slippery-slope arguments left and right"

It's true that Matt stated he wasn't arguing for a blanket right to die, but that was part of the problem with his view. He focused on one rare set of people at the end of life, when the debate resolution was regarding a right to die, in general. Matt didn't offer a nuanced view, so it is not clear why his position wouldn't entail a blanket right to die. Simply saying that doesn't make it so.

Additionally, I did not make slippery-slope arguments left and right. I made one slippery-slope argument, and I had to qualify it at the beginning because Matt had talked about fallacious slippery-slope arguments in his opening speech. I qualified my slippery-slope argument by saying that like most fallacies, this fallacy is not always a fallacy. A slippery-slope is not a fallacy if there is warrant for it, and I showed from other countries, such as Belgium and Denmark, that there is warrant for my slippery-slope argument. But again, making one slippery-slope argument is not making them "left and right."

#4: Matt argued "death is an unavoidable consequence of life; you can't avoid it" and Clinton argued "suffering builds character."

It's true that death is an unavoidable consequence of life, but it doesn't follow that we then have a right to hasten it. And again, he never answered the question of why we all don't have a right to hasten it if people who are suffering at the end of their life do.

This is the only argument of mine that Reimann managed to get right (and only half-right). I also added that suffering makes us empathetic to the suffering of others. Of course, these arguments don't necessarily apply to someone who is in extreme and uneasable suffering at the end of life, but again I conceded that my position does not entail that it is necessarily wrong to end these peoples' lives as an act of mercy. But I am familiar with the literature on end of life issues, and I was addressing a right to die in general, whereas Matt was constantly harping on one rare, extreme case.

To reiterate, I know that not everyone will be convinced by my arguments. But I think I was at least clear enough to make my arguments understandable by anyone sufficiently open-minded and willing to treat people charitably.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Book Review: Pro-Choice and Christian: Reconciling Faith, Politics, and Justice by Kira Shlesinger [Clinton Wilcox]

Kira Shlesinger's book is, unfortunately, the latest in a long line of books that don't add anything to the discussion on abortion, don't *really* interact with the pro-life position, and makes an argument that proves too much. If Shlesinger's argument succeeds, then we would have to allow a mother to kill her child of any age, not just while they're still in the womb. Her argument is just a rehash of the feminist argument you can find from other feminist authors, like Katha Pollitt. Even though she mentions reconciling her faith on the front cover, she concedes that arguing from Scripture for abortion is a very weak argument.

Let's first talk about a couple of good points. She talks about wanting to find common ground with pro-life people. This is great, since most abortion-choice writers don't seem very inclined to do that. This approach isn't novel -- it is an approach taken by many pro-life people, but it is a novel approach to see from an abortion-choice advocate who is not a philosopher, although some of the things she says in her book makes me think this is mere lip service and she's not being sincere.

Additionally, she is willing to concede the weakness of some abortion-choice arguments, such as arguments that try to appeal to prooftexts from Scripture.

However, despite the fact she can see the weakness in Biblical arguments, she doesn't see the weakness in the argument that pro-life people aren't *really* pro-life, they're just "pro-birth", only interested in birthing children or controlling womens' bodies: they are pro-capital punishment and they oppose government-funded healthcare and access to contraception. This is one of those things that leads me to believe she's not sincere about wanting to find common ground. For one thing, she doesn't understand the distinction between what pro-life people view as killing an innocent human child and putting to death a convicted murderer after being given due process. Second, many pro-life people (especially Libertarians) oppose government-funded healthcare and "access to contraception" (which usually just means "making the taxpayer pay for it") is that they oppose the government stealing money from taxpayers and giving it to someone who doesn't have a natural claim on it. For someone who is an Episcopal preacher and I would imagine takes the Ten Commandments seriously, I would wonder why she doesn't understand why some pro-life people think stealing is wrong, even if it's from the government.

On page 37, she also makes the tired argument that making abortion illegal won't stop them from happening. This is another argument in which she doesn't seem to be able to recognize the weakness of it -- making rape, theft, and murder illegal hasn't stopped them, either. But someone who commits those acts deserves to be punished for them.

Shlesinger's main argument for abortion can be found on pages eight and nine: we do not live in an ideal world, where men and women share equal responsibility for caring for a child, and there are diseases like the Zika virus, so women need contraception, including access to safe abortions (yes, she seems to believe abortion is a form of contraception). This is just the standard feminist argument, that regardless of whether or not the unborn are alive or persons, women need abortion because the world has "stacked the deck" against them. Unfortunately she doesn't seem to realize the weakness of this argument is that it justifies a woman taking the life of any child at any age.

Shlesinger takes two chapters to talk about the history of abortion, and while her history is more or less accurate, she does leave out some things which are detrimental to her case. For example, she tries to argue that the real reason abortion was made illegal in the United States (before quickening, in which it was already illegal) is because of reasons like doctors not wanting the competition from doctors without medical training who were doing abortions, so they formed the AMA. Requiring doctors to have a medical license to practice put these less educated practitioners out of business and they took a strict anti-abortion stance. Of course, this argument doesn't make sense to me, because why wouldn't these doctors continue to do abortions discretely, even while putting these other practitioners out of business? After all, according to Mary Calderone, 90% of illegal abortions prior to 1973 were still done by doctors in good standing in their communities. But Shlesinger leaves out the real reason abortion was made illegal before quickening -- in the 1800s, the science of embryology had discovered that life begins at fertilization. So abortion was made illegal before the point of quickening once when life began was discovered.

She also states, on p. 27, that abortion was illegal for 100 years, from 1873 Comstock Act to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but the reality is that abortion was always illegal in the United States, even prior to 1873, past the point of quickening, because medical science had not yet made the discovery of when life begins. You can read more about refuting some myths about the history of abortion in Joseph Dellapenna's fine book, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History.

She also consistently conflates the issues of life and personhood. Life can be a philosophical concept, but it is also a biological one -- the unborn are biologically alive from fertilization. She argues that there is no consistent position on when personhood begins, as if that means there is no wrong answer.

Shlesinger, also, appears to be quite ignorant of the literature on abortion. She doesn't have a discussion on personhood, only asserting that there is no consensus on it. And the one philosopher she does quote -- Joel Feinberg -- it is not a direct quote, but a quote of Katha Pollitt quoting Joel Feinberg. She does not interact with any of the pro-life thinkers' arguments for the personhood of the unborn (e.g. Frank Beckwith, Christopher Kaczor, Alex Pruss, or Russell DiSilvestro). She also doesn't seem to know what arguments abortion-choice philosophers make for their position. She also quotes another philosopher -- Sydney Callahan -- regarding a statement on feminism, but she refers to Callahan as "him" (Sydney Callahan is a woman, a pro-life feminist, and her husband, Daniel, is an abortion-choice philosopher).

So what pro-life arguments does Shlesinger interact with? Not the argument that abortion is wrong because it intentionally kills an innocent human being. Not the argument that the unborn are persons because they are individual substances of a rational nature. Not even the Biblical argument that abortion is wrong because the unborn are human beings, and God has commanded us not to murder Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17), that God hates the shedding of innocent blood (Proverbs 6:16-19), and that child sacrifice had never even entered into God's mind to command (Jeremiah 19:5). These are the arguments that she does interact with:

-Ultrasound technology has made personhood arguments more persuasive to people. While this is true, this is certainly not the argument pro-life people make for why the unborn are persons. Personhood depends on what something is, not what it looks like.

-Psalm 139; while Shlesinger is right to criticize the use of this passage, what she fails to take into consideration is that the psalmist considers himself to have been himself while in the womb. In other words, this inspired psalmist taught a continuity of identity from the womb.

-Jeremiah 1:4-5; she is also right to criticize the use of these verses. After all, taken literally it would seem that God was saying we existed prior to our conception, which is not an orthodox Christian view. It would seem that the point of these verses is not to teach that unborn children are alive so much as to show God's foreknowledge.

-Amos 1:13; now we're getting a bit more murky. This verse says "Thus says the Lord, for three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory." Shlesinger asserts that we need to look at the context, and the context is that God is proclaiming judgement and destruction of Israel's neighbors for their wickedness and brutality. The punishment is for war crimes, not for surgical abortions chosen by the woman and performed by a licensed professional. I haven't really looked into this, so I'll take her word for it. As I mentioned above, there are better verses to use, ones that Shlesinger doesn't respond to.

-Third trimester John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth's womb at the approach of Mary with first trimester Jesus in her womb. Shlesinger's response here is that John the Baptist was past the point of quickening, and this was a special one, as the one chosen to herald the arrival of Christ, so using it to support fetal personhood is a stretch. At least for this passage, Shlesinger's response is less than persuasive.

That should suffice. So to quickly recap, this is a book to skip. Not only is her argument just a rehash of the feminist argument and she doesn't add anything new to the discussion, but she also doesn't have knowledge of the literature on abortion. There are better books out there.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Kids Aren't Alright: Should We Set a Limit on Having Kids? [Clinton Wilcox]

Anne Green and Carter Dillard, executive director and president, respectively, of an organization that bills themselves as “pro-family,” called Having Kids, wrote an open letter to Prince William and Duchess Kate on July 25th after Kate joked about having another kid. Apparently this didn’t sit well with this organization, whose mission statement is to “promote a sustainable and child-centered family planning model.” By that they mean limiting yourself to only having a small number of kids in an effort to reduce your carbon footprint and to give them a fairer start in life. Large families, they reason, are one of the leading factors in global warming, so to combat global warming, we should limit our family sizes to two children.

I’m not going to respond to everything this organization believes. They do have a white paper on their website which I may read and analyze at some point, but for now I’m only going to respond to their statements in this open letter. They also don’t mention abortion on their website, so it’s not clear what they think about abortion or whether or not abortion fits into their “family planning” model, as it does the “family planning” model of Planned Parenthood.

First, I’ll just point out how bold it is to tell anyone how many kids you think they ought to be having, especially the Royal Family. But even just a cursory reading through this letter shows that not only are their arguments faulty, they’re not supported very well.

Second, I do want to point out that having a child-centered family planning model is admirable, as so many people don’t take kids into consideration when having sex or getting married, so as long as their model doesn’t involve abortion, then I think it’s a good thing to consider the kids you will potentially have in your marriage.

But therein lies one of the problems: how many kids should each family have? It seems like each couple is different, depending on their circumstances. So while one couple might only be able to have one or two kids, some could have eight, nine, or even more and be able to give all the kids the individual attention they need. I know people who have a lot of kids and their children are not suffering in any way.

Another pretty glaring problem is, how do you plan for these families? Christians believe that we are called to “be fruitful and multiply,” which was the first commandment given to the first humans in the book of Genesis. So having a small family is not part of the Christian model, and the fact that any time you have sex it can result in pregnancy seems to indicate that small families were never intended for us. It’s also true that pregnancy can take a long time because certain factors have to obtain before pregnancy can occur, which may also be nature’s way of making sure we don’t get too overrun with people. But if, for example, Catholic moral philosophers are right and using contraception is immoral, then limiting your family through contraceptive means would also be immoral. Again, I’m not sure if they’ve addressed these questions elsewhere such as in their white paper, but in the course of this open letter they don’t address many of the potential responses to their views which they should anticipate due to how controversial their views will be to the majority of people who read their letter.

They argue that large families are not sustainable and limiting our family sizes has the most potential for mitigating climate change and its effects. They claim that multiple studies have shown this, except that they link to an article on The Guardian which talks about one study that showed that having one fewer child will help lower your carbon emissions. Of course, this study also says that the next best things you can do are sell your car, avoid long flights, and eat a vegetarian diet. So why isn’t Having Kids advocating for people to stop driving and ride bikes, to stop flying long distances, and to go vegetarian? Why is it just reducing family sizes that they are interested in pushing to fight carbon emissions, considering that what they’re asking of people actually goes against human nature and considering the fact that many countries are actually below their replacement rate? So clearly their claim has not been adequately supported.

One objection they did anticipate is that considering this is the Royal Family they’re talking about, their children will, of course, receive love, care, and attention from their parents. But this isn’t true of all children, so William and Kate should keep their family size low as an example to the rest of us. Of course, this ignores the fact that you don’t have to be “Royal Family” rich in order to give a large family your attention, love, and resources. It seems, at the very least, that the “ideal number” of children would be relative to the financial situation of their parents. Instead, Having Kids would rather you keep your family small and give your resources to other families who need them to provide a fair start for their kids. But this, now, seems inconsistent -- they should be saying that if you can’t afford to have any kids, you shouldn’t be having any kids. They seem to believe that even if you can afford it, you shouldn’t have a large number of kids. But now they’re saying even if you can’t afford it, you should still be able to have kids. This is inconsistent reasoning.

Taking kids into consideration when planning a family is a good thing. Telling people they should limit the number of kids they have when there are other alternatives to achieve your desired result is not.

Monday, September 4, 2017

How to Be An (In)Consistent Moral Relativist

The fall 2017 semester is now in full-swing at colleges nationwide! Among the many activities students are participating in, from starting new classes, "crashing" other classes, moving into dorms, getting to know one another, and attending fall semester orientations, the ideology of moral relativism(the idea that all moral rules and standards are to be viewed subjectively, relative to individual persons and cultures) is being promoted wholesale. From class syllabi to course materials, moral relativism is the primary moral system in many colleges, even if students and faculty don't realize it.

There are several major problems with a worldview that leaves moral and ethical rules to be decided by an individual student or cultural group.

1. Relativism makes social justice an oxymoron

Many colleges and universities have changed from institutions promoting the search for truth into camps for training so-called "social justice warriors". Indeed, my own local university, CSU San Marcos, openly promotes social justice oriented events every year, promoting "social justice" within the local community. For an example, the textbook from one of my courses, A New History of Asian America, unintentionally highlights this. In the first chapter of the book, the authors lay out an overview of interactions between the United States and various Asian countries and cultures throughout history, and attempts to argue that the values of the West were "imposed" on those within these cultures, instead of allowing those cultures to promote and thrive according to their own views of the world and cultural values. Worldviews like Christianity, capitalism, and the English language are all scorned as being "forced" upon those living in Asia at the time.

There is a problem, however. If cultural values(including moral rules and standards) are all determined by the individuals and cultures in distinct times and places, by what standard then are we supposed to condemn these acts of cultural imperialism? The American missionaries and businessmen sincerely thought that they were acting in the most morally superior way, such as promoting Christianity and the economic values of the United States and Europe. If cultural values are what determines morality, then there is no standard by which to condemn even the most heinous acts of imperialism throughout history. Doing so would, in turn, simply be imposing one subjective cultural standard(ours) on another culture(theirs), with their own distinct, subjective standard. And there is no standard by which to determine that this is even wrong to begin with.

Even within our modern day culture, this view(subjective moral rules) would make any effort towards a more just and equal society meaningless. As Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith write in their book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air:
"What sense can be made of the judgement 'Apartheid is wrong' spoken by a relativist? What justification is there to intervene? Certainly not human rights, for there are no objective rights in relativism because there are no rights or wrongs of any kind...It would be inconsistent for the same car to sport the bumper stickers 'Pro-Choice' and 'End Apartheid'. Relativism is the ultimate pro-choice position, because it legitimizes every personal choice-even the choice to be racist."
2. There is no absolute "right" to anything if moral rules are subjective

During pro-life outreach last year on campus, a very adamant feminist student(who was loudly protesting our pro-life display, the Genocide Awareness Project) made the assertion that abortion was a right that should not be interfered with, because the Supreme Court had already recognized it as such. Very politely, I asked why it would be wrong for the same Court to turn around and take away that "right". She was unable to answer.

This raises an important question: Are there "rights" that civil government should recognize as objective? Or are rights only created by the government? If the former, then relativism is false. If the latter, then a moral relativist is caught in the ironic position of having to explain what is wrong with the government taking away abortion, same sex marriage, and re-instituting slavery. If the relativist thinks abortion and same sex marriage are things that all adults have the right to, then he is abandoning his own worldview of relativism in favor of objective moral rules. If not, he has no business complaining.

3. Students abandon relativism outside the classroom

This occurred to me the other day while looking for a parking space on campus. Virtually every parking spot was taken, and cars were circling the lot looking like hungry sharks. Whenever a spot opened up, drivers would rush to fill that spot.

Keeping in mind the philosophy that is embraced by almost the entire campus community, I almost decided to see what would happen if I cut off another student and took the empty parking space in front of us. I am sure they wouldn't be happy, and would call me all sorts of names that should not be repeated on a Christian apologetics blog.

Why though? What's unfair about stealing a spot from another student and thus making them late for class when "fairness" is a cultural concept? Suppose I grew up in a culture where you take the opportunities before you by being assertive. Is the cultural relativist going to do the horrific, blasphemous, triggering sin of telling me I was wrong to take their spot from them? Are they going to impose their cultural values on me? Drive on any freeway in southern California and you will see that no one is a true moral relativist.

Even the course syllabi in the philosophy classes promoting relativism will turn around and refute moral relativism on the first day by listing class policies:

Nothing more needs to be said about that.


An ethical worldview that leaves it's moral standards open to cultural or individual interpretations is impossible to live by. This seems to have escaped the vast number of social justice oriented professors, however, who make their livings by bashing Western norms and views on objective morality, while at the same time forgetting that this is only possible if there are objective moral truths that we are capable of knowing, that exist independent of our immediate acknowledgement of them(the so-called "First Things" that Hadley Arkes has called them)

Until these "First things" are remembered and recognized, students and professors within society will continue to suffer under the dictatorship of being inconsistent moral relativists.

Not Exactly Good Samaritans [Clinton Wilcox]

Hurricane Harvey pummeled Houston last week and left much of the city underwater, as well as cities closer to the Gulf of Mexico, such as Rockport, Port Arthur, and Bridge City. Naturally, people are banding together to help the people affected by these hurricanes. When you think of sending in much needed supplies to help the victims of a hurricane, what do you ordinarily think of? Food? Clothes? Money? How about abortions?

Pro-abortion organization Lilith Fund posted on Twitter that they’ve been raising money to give free abortions to women affected by Hurricane Harvey and who can’t afford an abortion. Call me old-fashioned, but when I think of rebuilding after a hurricane, my thoughts turn to banding together as a community and working to overcome the hurdles in front of you. They don’t turn to killing people. This has caused some pro-life people to make the comparison to Lilith, the demon in Jewish folklore who steals babies in the darkness. This is likely not who they’re named after, but the comparison is apt. And one critic of Lilith Fund’s tweet on Twitter said that one problem Lilith Fund sees with Hurricane Harvey is that it didn’t kill enough people.

Thankfully pro-life organizations and legitimate charities are doing actual work in getting much needed supplies to victims of the hurricane. If you’re going to give money or supplies, make sure you’re giving them to an organization that is doing actual good. Don’t give your money to Lilith Fund or any organization that puts abortion advocacy over the needs of people. Or if you feel so moved, donate to a pregnancy care center which has been affected by the hurricane. Pregnancy care centers specialize in helping pregnant women in getting resources to help them keep their child. That's a cause worth supporting.

Friday, September 1, 2017

A Humanist's Response to the Sanctity of Human Life Act [Clinton Wilcox]

Ken Burrows, writing for the blog The Humanist, in an article titled "Politicians Playing God," tries unsuccessfully to give arguments for why the proposed bill, H.R. 586, should be rejected. A summary of the bill states: “This bill declares that: (1) the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human and is a person’s most fundamental right; (2) each human life begins with fertilization, cloning, or its equivalent, at which time every human has all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood; and (3) Congress, each state, the District of Columbia, and each U.S. territory have the authority to protect all human lives.” The bill has been co-sponsored by 31 Republicans.

The bill, of course, is correct. It is scientifically uncontroversial that each human life begins at fertilization. And it is also true that the unborn have a natural right to life that is protected by the Constitution. In 1973, the Supreme Court invented a “right” to abortion, but the reality is that the unborn were full human persons under the law and protected by the 14th Amendment for almost 100 years after the 14th Amendment was ratified, and then before that in American and British common law. But what arguments does Burrows provide us with? Let’s briefly examine them.

Burrows decided it was important to look at the gender of these 31 Republicans and accuses them of being men. Of course, this is irrelevant to the truth of their arguments. The bill isn’t a bad one just because it’s supported by all men.

He goes on to state that “such ‘personhood bills’ are almost always religiously driven.” So this is irrelevant statement number two. If these 31 Republicans really are motivated by their religion, that doesn’t prove the bill false. Most slavery abolitionists were also religiously motivated, but I’m sure Burrows doesn’t believe we should make slavery legal again because of that. Instead of arguing why this bill should be opposed, Burrows goes on to attack certain characteristics of these 31 co-sponsors that he doesn’t like.

Burrows next makes a fallacious appeal to consequences. The consequences he laments are: that it doesn’t accommodate any special-circumstance exceptions, not even in the case a mother’s life is threatened; it misinterprets the Fourteenth Amendment which does not guarantee a “right to life” but that a person cannot be deprived of life without due process of law; it would outlaw some popular birth control methods, such as the IUD which prevents a “fertilized egg” from implanting; and it would open an unfathomable conundrum as to the fate of excess embryos created with the goal of aiding pregnancies immediately or preserving them for later.

But appealing to consequences is not a way to prove the bill is wrong. These consequences are not illegitimate -- indeed, they are the logical conclusion of the pro-life argument, if the pro-life argument is successful. Any special circumstance that would justify killing someone outside the womb would justify killing someone inside the womb -- if the pregnancy is life-threatening, doctors would be able to perform a life-saving medical procedure, even if it’s not spelled out in the law. And other “special circumstances,” such as rape or fetal deformity, do not actually justify abortions. Saying that it misinterprets the Fourteenth Amendment is just splitting hairs -- if you cannot be deprived of life without due process of law, then you are guaranteed a right to life. What else does Burrows think a right to life is? Any birth control methods which commit an early abortion should be outlawed -- this would not be controversial to a pro-life advocate. And finally, pro-life people already accept the full humanity of excess embryos -- it is not a conundrum at all. That is why pro-life people oppose IVF, cloning, and other methods that create embryos artificially. Creating excess embryos is highly unethical.

Burrows then argues that perhaps the most contemptible aspect is that politicians are playing God, “arrogantly insistent on defining a debatable concept like personhood by their perspective only.” Burrows echoes the argument of the Supreme Court that religious, philosophical, and legal authorities have had difficulty with defining personhood. Of course this is an extremely specious argument: Burrows, for some reason, thinks that preserving fetal life is playing God but taking fetal life is not. We currently have a situation in which doctors are allowed to play God and take the lives of innocent, defenseless human beings all because they can feign ignorance about personhood. So no matter which side wins out, they will be “playing God” as Burrows understands it.

Burrows then repeats the oft-made argument that early church thinkers, like Augustine and Aquinas, did not pronounce on when ensoulment occurred. Of course, the people who make this argument always leave out two critical details: 1) these Christian thinkers still opposed abortion because they recognized that if you don’t know whether or not they have a soul, you ought to err on the side of caution and not take their life, and 2) the science of embryology determined human life begins at fertilization in the 1800s, several centuries after both of these gentlemen lived. If they had known the scientific information that we know now, they would certainly have opposed abortion in no uncertain terms from fertilization. After all, one of the earliest Christian documents, the Didache, unequivocally condemned both abortion and infanticide.

Burrows goes on to make a similar argument from English and American common law regarding quickening -- but of course, the same response holds here. Quickening was seen as the point at which an abortion could be prosecuted as a crime because the science of embryology had not yet proven the unborn are human from fertilization. It was a crime after quickening because that was the point that we could know the unborn were alive, because dead things don’t move under their own power.

Burrows then goes on to argue that there is no religious unanimity regarding personhood today. This, of course, is a terrible argument. For one thing, if personhood really does begin at fertilization, then the fact that you disagree does not justify you taking their life, just like no one was justified in enslaving black people, even when it was legal in the United States. Additionally, personhood is not a religious matter -- it is a philosophical one. Constantly repeating that pro-life people are just basing their views on religion doesn’t make it so, even if Burrows thinks it does.

Burrows’ next argument is from the Constitution: He argues that the Supreme Court reasoned that the Constitution doesn’t define the term person literally and that "in nearly all instances, the use of the word is such that it has application only postnatally. None indicates, with any assurance, that is has any possible prenatal application.” But this is just incredibly poor reasoning on the part of the Supreme Court and on the part of any who take its decision seriously. No, the Constitution doesn’t actually define the term person, but the unborn were considered persons for almost 100 years after the 14th Amendment was ratified. The only reason they are not considered persons now is because Justice Blackmun, et al, redefined the concept of personhood specifically to exclude the unborn. But Blackmun’s argument could justify killing just about anyone. You could argue, for example, that in nearly all instances, the use of the word person is such that it only has application to adults. Therefore, anyone under the age of 18 does not have constitutional rights.

Burrows continues that the court concluded viability is when they have a “compelling” interest in protecting fetal life because that’s when it has the capability to live outside the womb (though Burrows is wrong -- it’s not at the end of the first trimester when the fetus is currently viable, but at almost the end of the second trimester -- around 22 to 24 weeks). But again, this is a specious argument. First, to the medical community, viability is not the ability to survive outside the womb but the ability to live, grow, and develop.[1] So any embryo that implants in the womb is viable. Second, viability, as the Supreme Court intended it, has nothing to do with the fetus and everything to do with the current state of medical technology. So personhood cannot be dependent on viability. Third, everyone lacks viability somewhere. This argument would justify allowing NASA to murder an astronaut they don’t like by intentionally giving him a faulty spacesuit and then telling him to take a spacewalk. Or it would allow you to kill someone by taking him out to sea and then drowning him.

Finally, Burrows states that this kind of bill overreaches by violating the First Amendment of all those who disagree with pro-life people. This kind of argument always baffles me. The pro-life position is based on science (that human life begins biologically at fertilization) and human rights, neither of which I would think humanists would want to claim are religious. At any rate, Burrows clearly is not very interested in logical reasoning, as all of his arguments are nothing but clear cases of logical fallacies. He doesn’t even attempt to address the pro-life position that abortion is immoral because it intentionally kills an innocent human being. Unless an abortion-choice person addresses that argument, their responses will always be unpersuasive.

[1] Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary 1992 (1989), as quoted in Joseph W. Dellapenna, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2006.