Science probably doesn’t support your views on abortion

I’ve recently found myself in an incredibly frustrating abortion debate where the other person got a whole host of basic facts wrong while claiming the mantle of science. Even though I agree with him on major conclusions, I’ve never been one to abide by science being misused in any way. I want to set a few basic facts straight in this post.

First, I think it’s important that I make my position clear on abortion. I found my opponent absolutely refused to do this, and I think the reason was because it’s much more difficult to argue in the positive than it is to argue in the negative. That is, it’s harder to defend one’s own position than it is to attack someone else’s position. So my position is this:

I believe abortion is an issue of choice for the mother up through every moment we can confidently say an embryo or fetus is not deserving of moral protection. However, the moment we are able to say a fetus is deserving of moral protection, the issue is one of life versus choice (medical issues notwithstanding). As one might imagine, this is an incredibly unpopular position because it upsets both major sides of the debate. But it’s the only position that makes sense to me. Its sole flaw is that pregnancy is a process of development, so we can’t point to one individual moment where a fetus suddenly deserves protection. But we can logic out the fact that, yes, there is clearly a point where this developing bundle of cells deserves protection. Let me expand on that briefly before delving into the abuse of science that brought me here.

If we are to agree that a newborn is deserving of moral protection, then we can work backwards to ask ourselves some questions. That is, if a baby deserves protection the moment it has fully emerged from its mother and the umbilical cord has been cut, then we have a mutually agreeable starting point for discussion. Working backwards, we can first ask ourselves if that newborn is deserving of moral protection prior to the cord being cut. I’ve heard some extremists say no, but most people are rational enough to see that a connecting tube doesn’t determine the baby’s worth. Next we can ask ourselves if there is a theoretical situation where it would be okay to kill a healthy baby (who isn’t a threat to the health of the mother) while it’s still being birthed. Again, I think most rational people are going to see that it is a baby. Next, let’s back up to 1 minute prior to the mother’s water breaking. Or 5 minutes. Or an hour. Or a day. At each of these points, yes, that’s still a baby and there’s no significant moral distinction to be made; its physical location says nothing of what it is. Now back up a week. A month. Two months. 9 months. At some point, we really are just talking about cells. And so choice becomes the overwhelming issue. But where does choice give way to life? We can’t pick an exact moment anymore than we can say when adulthood begins, but we can choose a reasonable point. Just as we say adulthood starts at 18 for practical reasons, we can say a fetus deserves protection at the second trimester. Or maybe a month before. Or a month after. Whatever makes the most sense is where that number is found. (For me, that number is 5 months based on issues of viability.)

Now I want to address two key issues of science abuse I saw from my opponent. The first has to do with fertilization, and the second has to do with the definition of life itself.

Fertilization is the short process by which a sperm penetrates an egg so that their DNA can bond together. This isn’t a controversial idea on any level or from any side of any debate. Here’s a video that lays out the process in more detail:

I bring this up because my opponent – who is pro-choice, by the way – argued that fertilization is a 2 week process. It isn’t. He’s wrong. Objectively. There’s simply no way around this. To claim fertilization takes 2 weeks is to be wrong, and to hold on to that claim in the face of tremendous evidence otherwise is to be embarrassed without knowing it.

I also bring this up to address what is perhaps the most fundamental part of the pro-life argument: Life begins at conception. The title of the video (which is the first result in YouTube) couldn’t be more on point here: Fertilization and conception are the same thing. This is important to understand. The pro-life side argues that life begins at conception because they believe that the moment new genetic material is created marks the start of a unique human life. There are issues of twinning that can occur, and I think that undermines their argument to a significant degree, but for the overwhelming number of births, their origin can be traced back to the moment when 23 chromosomes from one sperm and 23 chromosomes from one egg combined.

I believe my opponent was trying to stretch the idea of fertilization into 2 weeks because, to him, that allowed for a host of issues to occur where the fertilized egg would be miscarried. But this is entirely a non-issue for the pro-life side. The ultimate viability of a fertilized egg doesn’t change anything about the merging of two sets of chromosomes. At most, this is an issue for religious people to address in terms of why their god allows so many humans to die before so much as developing beyond a tiny bundle of cells. But we aren’t talking about why gods allow people to die.

I also believe my opponent was discussing this idea of viability because he had a questionable definition of “life”. In his own words:

Showing one example of non-viable life after fertilization defeats the notion of life at conception, because it’s wrong to call dead things life.

Of course, this is nonsense. It’s also dodgy. Throughout my debate, I tried to see if “life” was being used as a substitute for “personhood”. Unfortunately, I was met with the same stonewalling I got when I asked for my opponent to argue in the positive regarding his own position; he simply ignored the repeated question.

Without defining our terms, there can be no hope of rational discussion, so I will give definitions here.

If “life” is to refer to living things, then viability is a non-issue. The cell is the simplest unit of life, and if there’s anything anyone should be able to agree on it’s that fertilization forms cells that divide. That is life. It’s life just as much as plants or bacteria or dolphins are life – even with a lack of viability. Cells that fail to develop are living until they aren’t. A fertilized egg that fails to move through the Fallopian tubes or to implant in the uterus is absolutely, without any shred of doubt, unarguably life so long as the individual cells within it are living.

If “life” is to refer to “personhood” – and I think it is – then we’ve moved from science to philosophy. There is no objective definition of “personhood”, and it certainly isn’t true that viability is the crux by which we must define the term.

Conclusion

I consider myself to be pro-choice for the first 5 or so months of a pregnancy because it makes sense to me that choice is the basic issue at hand. Through that point, I’m not convinced there’s a reasonable argument for a right to life for the fetus. That is, a fetus doesn’t meet my definition of personhood to that point. After that point, however, I fail to see how we aren’t talking about a person. Certainly, there is no moral difference in what a baby is 1 day after birth versus 1 day before birth…or 2 days…or a week…or a month…and so on. And that tells me the issue isn’t one of choice. At least, insofar as choice is an issue at all, it is entirely trumped by the fetus’ inherent claim to life.

I repeat my position because it is informed by science, but it isn’t science itself. That is, science doesn’t tell us when personhood begins. It can’t. That’s a philosophical concept – and it’s not even guaranteed that a given philosophy is going to value personhood over choice. But science can tell us what fertilization is. It can tell us what life is. It can tell us what viability is. These are all important issues in the abortion debate that only science can resolve. And we can use science’s resolutions to inform our views on what level of life matters, or when viability becomes significant enough to draw our personal concern. What we can’t reasonably do is use science to make up definitions of fertilization or life (or maybe “personhood”…who knows).

Catholicism and evolution

I often hear people trumpeting that the Catholic Church supports science because it supports evolution. The usual rebuttal is a terrible one that points to the Church historically denying science, as if that bears any relevance whatsoever to whether or not it supports it now. Let’s stop with that line of bad argument and instead focus on what the Church currently believes – it turns out it, in fact, does not support evolution.

Evolution has no goal. It isn’t conscious. It operates on a combination of natural selection and random mutation (amongst a few other factors). This is necessarily focused on the level of the individual – or gene, if you want to go down that path, but we needn’t – and generation. An organism replicates or reproduces, passing its genes on to the next generation without regard to how well its great-great-great-great-great offspring will fare. Indeed, it isn’t even passing on its genes with regard to how will its own offspring will fare. It, of course, often does make an investment there, but its concern is in and of itself in the passing of its genes. Fundamentally, that is what matters in evolution. The genes that pass through the sieve of natural selection have done so for the sake of continuing to exist. We would be correct to think of the game as resetting in every generation.

What this means is that there is no long term goal within evolution. Genes have unconsciously seen to it that they will get themselves copied for as long as they can. If that ends with a quickly replicating bacterium or something toothy or something small and quick or something intelligent or something simply huge, then so be it. The only way in which it can be said that evolution has any sort of goal is to say that it has generational goals. These are not conscious and they do not come about with any sort of phenotypic effects in mind. That is, the goal is for genes to continue to exist; there is no goal for genes to produce any particular characteristic or trait. Evolution is truly incidental.

This matters in terms of the Catholic Church’s alleged acceptance of evolution because the Church, like most religions, believes that human are special and/or inevitable. We aren’t. As Stephen Jay Gould famously noted, if we re-ran the tape of life, we would get different results every time. The fact that we exist is incidental in the history of life. Change a few factors here or there and humans don’t exist. The same goes for every species. For instance, if an asteroid didn’t hit Earth 65 million years ago, dinosaurs would quite likely still roam the planet. The rise of the mammals probably wouldn’t have happened since we would have remained as small burrowing creatures that kept out of the way of all the big, toothy animals out there.

Human inevitability is necessary for virtually all religions, including Catholicism. If humans are only incidental, then we lose any sort of special status. That’s exactly what reality is, though. We know this for a fact. The only way to reconcile Catholicism and evolution is to say that God guided evolution towards humanity in a way which appears consistent with a natural process. For my money, that’s an unsatisfying God-of-the-Gaps explanation; in this argument, God is indistinguishable from nature.