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An Abortion Dialogue

Dialogue pointing out some difficulties of materialist objections to abortion.

Does discarding religious objections to abortion like “souls” resolve the demarcation problems in discussions of abortion? Can we draw sharp materialistic biology-based lines between “human” moral status, with such entities to be protected as strongly as possible, and less-protected statuses which permit things like stem-cell research, genetic engineering, or any kind of abortion ranging from elective to life-saving? Is humanity based on DNA chauvinism or mere possibility, or is it more fundamentally based on the mind? Below I ponder some back-and-forth between some of the intuitive definitions and arguments I’ve seen people propose, and some of the biology which complicates our wishes for bright-line rules in these questions.


[Contrarian knocks on the door. Apologist answers.]

Contrarian: Greetings! Might I ask whether you’ve an opinion on abortion?

Apologist: As it happens, I’ve thought about the issue a little.

Cont.: My friend, the situation hardly bears thinking on; this holocaust demands our action! Accept abortion is evil and institutionalized murder of humanity, and let’s discuss what we can do about it.

Apol.: Now hold on—I never said I thought abortion is a bad thing. On first glance, it looks pretty good: it’s an aid to family planning, compensating for imperfect birth control; it reduces the problem of population growth; it can save the lives of women, and so on. Besides the risks inherent to a major medical procedure, what’s so bad about it?

Ct.: I already said what was so bad—millions of humans have been killed by abortion! The sum is now far past anything the Nazis dreamed of; as we allow time to pass with this horrific practice uncurbed, even Stalin and Mao’s body-counts will be overshadowed. Abortion is nothing but clinicalized murder of a human being!

Ap.: But are they?

C: Are who what?

A: Fetuses, I mean. Are they really human beings?


C: Of course they are. 2 cells from 2 humans unite inside a woman, they swell and grow, they come out of that human, they are called a human, live a human life, and eventually die still a human. When exactly would they not be a human?

A: Well, when I look at a fetus in its first trimester, I don’t see much “human” there. I see a blob of cells, looking like a generally mammalian fetus. It doesn’t think, it doesn’t feel—it doesn’t do anything I recognize as uniquely human. Heck, it “does” so little that it can’t exist except as a parasite on the woman, and even as a parasite, it’s pretty pathetic. A tapeworm would look down on it.


C: It may be a blob of cells, but it’s a blob of cells with human DNA, from and inside a human. That’s what makes a world of difference compared with a tapeworm.

A: I’m not sure we can equate being human as having the same DNA as other humans. What about a tumor? Each tumor has human DNA, is inside a human and of that human, and so as far as I can see is just as human as your fetus. For that matter, tumors can weigh dozens of pounds—does that mean a giant tumor is more human than a fetus which weighs no more than 10 pounds? If so, then I guess your claims about a holocaust are correct, but too low by billions!

C: Cancers arise of genetic mutations, do they not?

A: That’s no good: some cancers are hereditary or come from fetuses, and every fetus carries dozens to hundreds of de novo new mutations. Besides if just 1 or 2 genetic changes suffice to render something nonhuman, then doesn’t gene therapy become murder?


C: That’s well-said, but I have to deny the analogy. It’s true that tumors are made of cells with human DNA, but they’re no more human than an E. Coli in my gut which swaps for some human DNA with another, or a gorilla or chimpanzee who both have more than 90% of our DNA, or for that matter, rice and bananas with around 50%. No, the key attribute you’re missing is the potential. A fetus has potential to grow into something we both accept as human. No matter how many E. Coli you culture or tumors suffer to grow, you’ll never see one turn into a human being. They don’t have the potential.

A: So what would be your definition? Something is human if it’s a human being like you or me, or if it has human DNA and is going to become a human in the future?

C: Fair enough.

A: But fetuses still aren’t human. Most fetuses wind up being shed with the uterus’s lining, or just dying, or are so damaged they never come to term. There’s a chance they’ll become human, but the cumulative odds are low. Mother Nature is the greatest abortionist of all.1


C: Many things in life are low odds. Let’s just say “is possible for it to become a human being”. That sounds reasonable to me. If you accept that, then you must condemn abortion!

A: I can’t be so enthusiastic. Let me offer a thought-experiment. Suppose we take a woman from her suburban existence. Let’s call her… “Sherry Tiavo”. So, we anesthetize Sherry, crack open her skull, and scoop until all that’s left is her spinal cord and brain stem. To be certain, we toss everything into the incinerator. Is Sherry (or her body) still human? Are we guilty of murder?

C: Well… the mind is irretrievably gone. You can’t regrow a brain. But people would still react to her as a human being—the issue is obvious to them—so I would say yes to both.

A: Suppose we then hired a mad plastic surgeon to transform her body into something nonhuman. Perhaps a humanoid cat. Now if they happened to come across it, her own family would no longer recognize her as human. Certainly they would not recognize her as their Sherry. What then?

C: I know the answer you expect—“No, since nobody treats her as human, and she has no future potential.”

A: Since the body is no longer human, but something “lower”, something animal at best, surely it follows we can do anything to it that we could do to an animal. We could conduct experiments on it, abandon it in the woods, kill it, butcher and eat it…

C: Stop, stop! Alright, maybe the obvious-and-potential criterion isn’t acceptable after all.

A: Well, how do you suggest we modify it? You can’t abandon the potentiality criterion without also abandoning fetuses, remember.

C: Then I’ll drop the “obvious” criterion. It was wrong of me to accept that in the first place: this very discussion is proof that what is human is apparently not obvious! Even a subset like deciding “gender” is hugely complex2, so why not humanity as well? This criterion covers adults (as one must have the potential to ‘become’ human if one already is human), and fetuses, but excludes tumors and chimeric bacteria.

A: I am not normally a disagreeable person, but there must be something in the air today. Abandoning the appeal to social judgment as part of your personhood criteria seems to me to be quite as wrong as affirming it.

C: A strong claim. May I ask for an example of how “potential” on its own could go so astray?

A: Certainly. But I have some preliminary points. Now, you accept that on the level of individual cells and such-like, everything is determined by physical laws and starting conditions, yes?

C: Yes.

A: By which I mean, an embryo or zygote (which grow into the fetus) is an extremely complex agglomeration of chemicals or atoms in a particular arrangement. If I were to manufacture another such agglomeration, identical down to the molecular level, what I would get is a zygote or embryo which is very similar (if not identical) to the original?

C: Yes. No doubt there would be differences as the cells grew, ways in which the imperfect replication interacted with the varying conditions to produce varying results. If you were not artful enough, the agglomeration might not even be alive.

A: But if I were, it would grow and develop?

C: Yes. I am no mysterian who believes in an élan vital or New Age-y quantum magic or some such foolishness. You put the right ingredients in the right order, and you get life. It’s that simple. Why, we can synthesize simple living cells in laboratories! Synthesizing a fertilized human egg differs only in being much more difficult. It is doable in principle.

A: But do you suppose it would be more or less difficult to turn a random human skin cell into a fertilized egg than to synthesize a fertilized egg from scratch?

C: Less, I should think. The skin cell will have pre-constructed many of the necessary constituents; one wouldn’t have to construct all the common cellular structures like mitochondria or the cellular membrane and cytoskeleton. I believe I have read about skin cells which were made to become stem cells, and I understand stem cells can be made into any kind of cell. We can even convert skin cells to heart cells without converting to stem cells first!3

A: Which finally brings me to my point: so isn’t it true, then, that any cell in the body has the “potential” to become a human? Even the lowly skin cell, shed after just 2 weeks, can aspire to personhood if placed in the right broth of chemicals.

C: To convert a skin cell to a zygote and grow it—that’s some broth.

A: But it can be done!4 And don’t your fetuses need quite a broth as well? Remember that most fetuses never become babies, after all. But to continue: you only mentioned possibility. Your possibility grants personhood to every cell of the body. I don’t think Walt Whitman meant “I contain multitudes” quite that way!

C: That’s a really contrived example. “Possibility” in ordinary language doesn’t include astronomically small odds. If even 1 cell were to be raised in the extraordinary manner you propose, that would be just 1 lucky cell out of literally quadrillions of human cells to have ever existed (inasmuch as every human contains around 100 trillion cells, and estimates of the total human population are over 100 billion).


A: I have another objection, then. No doubt you’ve prepared a slippery slope argument for me: if humanity does not begin at a sharply defined moment such as conception or implantation, then where? At birth? The 2nd trimester? The 3rd? etc.

C: I was merely waiting for the right moment.

A: But I think the slope applies to any idea like yours of humanity as a binary proposition (and not, say, a continuum). In particular, your possibility claim is a slippery slope: at what level of probability do you draw a line such that you include fetuses and zygotes, but exclude human-skin cells outside a broth?

C: That seems easy enough, and my position seems quite safe: humanity begins at fertilization, the moment of conception, and anything with the same probability counts. Unless you mean to say the exact femtosecond the DNA atoms unite or the exact probability down to 20 decimal places is important?

A: No, but I think your criteria are more ill-defined and usable only in retrospective than you think. What reference class is any cell in when you try to assign it personhood? I’ll illustrate with a specific example: have you ever heard of parthenogenesis?

C: Yes.

A: In parthenogenesis, there is no conception or fertilization: an egg just starts dividing for no particular reason. Perhaps it will divide once, perhaps twice. Perhaps the 2 new cells will never do anything more. And so it wends its uncertain way to becoming an embryo. Now, suppose this happens in a human woman, as seems possible? Where does the humanity of the resultant fetus start? The instant an egg divided? But that would seem to imply all the eggs which divide are humans who are then instantly aborted. When the division starts? Or finishes? Or the second division? But why not then the third or fourth or fifth?

C: I could not say. But because I am ignorant of something is not a proof of its nonexistence.

Consider the ship of the Argonauts. As it sails from port to port, first the sails are replaced, then the riggings; in another, they reap a bargain on navigational gear; in another, they are given a spare rudder; in a fifth place, a storm forces them ashore to replace the planks of the hull, and a bad run-in with a reef necessitates replacement of the keel itself. On their return to Athens, Theseus asks his ship’s insurer to lower the premium since it is now a new ship, even if it bears the name of the old. Would you have the insurer charge Theseus old rates for new ships since Theseus can’t tell the insurer the exact second at which the ship ceased to be “old” and became “new”, and therefore this transition could not have happened?

A: No, but your example doesn’t help your case. The insurer should set a new rate because the ship now, at the time of the premium payment, performs like new. It has fresher less-worn parts, all the latest improvements and gear, and so on. It is less likely to sink than when it left, and that’s all that should matter to the insurer. If it acts like a new ship, then oughtn’t we to pragmatically treat it like a new ship?

I see people as being like the ship, and insuring the ship at a lower rate is like classifying as human. If they can act all the acts, think all the thoughts, and feel all the feelings people can, then I will treat them the same.

C: Then you would insure even a computer!


[Apologist shrugs.]

A: If it quacks like a duck…

C: And what of my own slippery slope? If I have a slippery slope for you, and you have a slippery slope for me, that doesn’t mean you are correct any more than it means I am correct. It simply means we have a paradox, and paradoxes cannot be resolved simply by piling up further arguments on either side. One correct argument is enough to establish truth, and something false must have no correct arguments. You must deal with my slippery slope. You cannot ignore it, you must refute it.

A: So, you resolved my slippery slope by biting its bullet and saying there is a sharp discontinuity even if you didn’t know where.

C: Right. How will you deal with mine? If personhood is continuous, and you allow abortion at a far end of the spectrum, then you must let it creep down the spectrum. How far and why? You defend abortion of fetuses, so how about infanticide? How about older children? Where do you draw the line?

A: I’ll bite your bullet. By my criteria, infants are little more human than the fetuses.

C: But where exactly are you going to draw the line? And why just a single line?

A: If there were multiple lines, for example, no abortion after the second trimester just because the mother wants, no abortion in the third trimester except to save the mother’s life, etc., would you accept the basic principle that some lives get more protection than others?

C: No, I’m not sure I would. A life is a life.

A: So then where the lines are drawn don’t matter to you. Your difficulty is with there being lines at all. Even though in practice you express a line with your actions and words…

C: As early as possible, though, as early as conception in order to not make any mistakes!

A: But you see the point. There’s an old humorous story about a man who asked if a woman would have sex with him if offered millions, she allowed she would, then if she would accept an offer of a few hundred, which she angrily denied, asking if he thought she was a prostitute. He replied that she was, and now they were merely establishing her price.

C: The willingness to draw any line at all is consenting to accepting some amount of money for sex, I take it.

A: Yes. And then establishing the price is setting the exact line—or lines. Where to draw the line becomes, like criminal charges, an empirical or economical matter of where is practically best for society; no one has shown that society is best off with no abortions, and it seems plausible that allowing some abortions is better than allowing none.

So let’s allow infanticide! The best amount is less than for abortions, though, because babies must be given expensive high-quality care to produce high-quality adults (if they aren’t infanticided), and because mothers are hormonally bonded to their infants. And by the same logic, as we invest more into the infant or child, the harder it should be to kill them, until by the time they’re an adult, a full-scale criminal trial with the death penalty is required. It may sound odd, but in some situations it’s better to just not have children, even if one has to do so by killing infants.5

C: How abhorrent! But I see there is no convincing you. I am sorry for’t. I shall continue believing that there is some essence about being human, and you shall continue in your psychological stance that human is as human does. Good day.

[Contrarian sighs and leaves dejectedly.]

  1. That is, miscarriages are more common that most people are aware of. PubMed’s miscarriage entry writes:

    It is estimated that up to half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Among those women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15–20%….The risk for miscarriage is higher in women: 1. Older than 35…

    Wikipedia gives specifics about the elder risk:

    …another study found an increased risk in women, by the age of 45, on the order of 800% (compared to the 20–24 age group in that study), 75% of pregnancies ended in miscarriage.

  2. “Kudzu and the California Marriage Amendment” by Rick Moen illustrates the problems with ‘male’ and ‘female’ by listing 11 separate gender-bending conditions and possibilities, which in aggregate occur roughly 1 in 1000. (And over a population of 300 million, that’s a lot of people…)↩︎

  3. See Efe2011, “Conversion of mouse fibroblasts into cardiomyocytes using a direct reprogramming strategy” (Science Daily coverage), and later work turning skins cells into heart muscle.↩︎

  4. There has been research on just this topic: taking mouse skin cells, turning them into embryonic stem cells, and then into viable embryos. Admittedly, this breakthrough research is from China, and is difficult to replicate else due to ethics guidelines; so there is a nontrivial chance this will turn out to be overstated or fraud, like some of the Korean cloning results. But even if it has not actually been done, the point is that it is most certainly possible, and may well be a useful technique! See The Wall Street Journal’s 2009-07-27 “Chinese Scientists Reprogram Cells to Create Mice”, discussing Zhao et al 2009 and Kang et al 2009:

    Two teams of Chinese researchers working separately have reprogrammed mature skin cells of mice to an embryonic-like state and used the resulting cells to create live mouse offspring…Reprogramming has become the hottest area of stem-cell science. For more than two years, scientists have been reprogramming mature mouse-skin and human-skin cells and returning them to a primordial, embryonic-like state. The approach has taken off because it sidesteps the cloning and embryo-destroying techniques traditionally used to derive true embryonic stem-cell lines. However, one big question has been whether reprogrammed cells are as versatile as true embryonic cells, and whether they can form all of the cells in an embryo. Using reprogrammed cells to create live offspring with normal organs and body tissues has been considered an important test. Chinese scientists now have shown that this is possible in mice.

  5. Gregory Clark writes in A Farewell to Alms that female infanticide played a major part in reducing population growth in pre-industrial China & Japan, both because there were that much less adults in the population and more subtly, because women and their child-bearing capacity are the bottleneck to any population growth; limiting population growth pushes up average income & longevity since the existing population can benefit longer from new technology or trade before growth drives average wages back down to subsistence wage:

    An additional factor driving down birth rates (and also of course driving up death rates) was the Chinese practice of female infanticide. For example, based on the imbalance between recorded male and female births an estimated 20–25% of girls died from infanticide in Liaoning. Evidence that the cause was conscious female infanticide comes from the association between the gender imbalance of births and other factors. When grain prices were high, more girls are missing. First children were more likely to be female than later children. The chance of a female birth being recorded for later children also declined with the numbers of female births already recorded for the family. All this suggests female infanticide that was consciously and deliberately practiced.

    …Female infanticide meant that, while nearly all women married, almost 20% of men never found brides. Thus the overall birth rate per person, which determines life expectancy, was reduced. The overall birth rate for the eighteenth century is unclear from the data given in this study, but by the 1860s, when the population was stationary, it was around 35 per thousand, about the same as in preindustrial Europe, and less than in many poor countries today. Earlier and more frequent marriage than in northwestern Europe was counteracted by lower marital fertility and by female infanticide, resulting in equivalent overall fertility rates.

    Nor was it only China which benefited:

    But where nature failed them, the Polynesians seem to have supplied their own mortality. The reason for their high living standards, as we shall see in chapter 5, seems to have been high death rates from infanticide, internal warfare, and human sacrifice. Polynesia was paradise for the living—but a paradise with a cost.


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