Sunday, December 16, 2007

Biological imperialism?

Is the prolife stand "biological imperialism?" Is it inconsistent with a Christian perspective? A post to my old Pro Life Views Forum said so. I will respond to some of the issues this thought-provoking post raised.

My opinion of the debate on abortion is that both sides use very poor arguments a lot of the time. Pro-life tends to use the biological imperialism argument, and pro-choice tends to try and frame the argument as a women's rights issue. The latter is simply dishonest. Women's rights have nothing to do with the debate because they are common ground. I won't waste time on that ridiculous argument.


I like this guy already. "Women's rights have nothing to do with the debate because they are common ground." That's what I've been saying for over 20 years. Nobody wants to see women abused or hurt. Where the prolife and prochoice disagree isn't whether women's rights should be preserved and respected, but how. More on this here. For now, back to the post:

Biological imperialism means the inappropriate use and application of biology and biological facts and theory into arguments where it isn't relevant or valid. It's a very odd position for Christian pro-lifers to take up, especially, because biological imperialism is often used in a lazy sort of attack on Christian beliefs. For example, "Science has disproved the Bible."

The standard argument for pro-life is usually something like this:

  • Individuals have rights, including the right to life.
  • In biology an individual is defined thus (in terms of DNA).
  • Therefore a foetus is an individual, and has the right to life.


This is one of the best presentations of the prolife stand I've ever seen coming from a prochoicer. The only bone of contention is that we define the individual in terms of DNA. We present the fact that the fetus has its own distinct DNA to illustrate that the fetus is not part of the mother's body. Identical twins have identical DNA, and prolifers don't consider them to be one entity, even if they are conjoined twins like the Hensel sisters. The DNA is, as it were, a blueprint for in individual. If, as in the case of identical twins, two individuals have the same DNA, that means that they began with the same blueprint. But they nevertheless are two separate and distinct individuals, each with an equal right to life.

Back to the post:

But the abortion debate is not a debate about biology. It is a debate about ethics. Biology is the study of life (complex chemical interactions) and it gives answers to things like "how" and "what" and "when." It does not answer "should" or "ought."


This is true. The study of biology can try to tell us how the gametes become a zygote, what the differences are between the gametes and the zygote, and when the zygote does the things that zygotes do. But biology can not answer the question of whether we should let the zygote be killed.

Abortion is an ethical debate and the starting point of the argument above is a statement of ethics individuals have rights. Not a statement of biology. Therefore the correct definition of what constitutes an individual is not the biological one, but the ethical (moral philosophy) one.


Here is where he and I part ways. I agree that prolifers start with, as their premise, "Individuals have rights." But then, that's the starting point for the prochoice argument. Where prolife and prochoice part ways is in how they define an individual. The post goes on to illustrate this very fact:

I can show this better by varying the argument above a little, showing how a pro-choice argument running on the same lines (and making the same sort of error) would arrive at the opposite conclusion:

  • Individuals have rights, including the right to life.
  • In law an individual is defined thus (in terms of birth).
  • Therefore a foetus is NOT an individual, and has no rights.


Again, a very succinct summation of the prochoice argument, although I've noticed that the prochoice do tend to be a little more varied in terms of defining the individual's point of coming into being. Some draw the line at birth, others at "quickening," others at "viability," others at developmental milestones that they find particularly significant. And herein lies the crux of the matter: the prolife define the individual existentially (He exists, therefore he is an individual), and the prochoice define the individual developmentally or behaviorally (He has X or can do Y, therefore he is an individual).

But this would just by substituting one incorrect field of study (law) for the other inappropriate field of study (biology). Both are invalid reasoning. Certainly both law and, more so biology, can have a lot to say about the abortion debate when valid biological questions arise. For example, if the question, "At what point can a foetus feel pain?" becomes relevant to the debate, biology has an answer. Biology has nothing to say directly about what makes a person a person in the ethical sense. Biology just shrugs and says "a person is DNA." But in ethics someone is a lot more important than their DNA. DNA is not the answer. To say DNA is the answer to what makes a person a person, is to push biological imperialism.


Here is where we again start drifting apart. Biology doesn't say a person is DNA. Biology says that a distinct individual being comes into existence when the two gametes merge and form a zygote. So here we have the individual. What type of individual the entity is depends upon the DNA -- is this an individual chimpanzee, rainbow trout, or human?

The prolife view isn't that the person is his or her DNA. It is that the person is a person as soon as he or she comes into existence, and not at some other arbitrarily chosen point later.

What does ethics (moral philosophy) say about what constitutes a person? There are two types of person (I'm using the terms Tom Regan uses in Animal Rights here). The normal adult human would be called a moral agent. A moral agent is someone who has moral duties. They are smart enough to be aware of the likely outcome of their acts, and they know the difference between right and wrong. They are morally culpable if they fail to do right. They have duties.

A second type of person in ethics is the moral patient. A moral patient has rights. They may not have the sense to know what they are doing, they may not even be self-aware, but they are capable of suffering the harm of others actions. They have sensitivity to their environment. They can be hurt.

On the basis of these definitions of "person" --- the valid ethical definition, not a biological or legal definition --- you can see that a foetus is not a moral agent. In fact some laws say children don't become fully moral agents (held responsible for their actions) until they are teenagers.


I'll buy the distinction -- Moral Agent is one who is aware of the consequences of his or her actions and is therefore responsible for his or her actions; Moral Patient is one who may not be self aware, but is capable of being impacted by the actions of others.

It's also clear that at conception a foetus (zygote) is not a moral patient. It is a moral patient before it reaches birth. At what point it becomes a moral patient is a question of biology and it is somewhere around 10-14 weeks. I think this vague range provides a better starting point to the debate than the day-zero advocates at either end.


But from conception the zygote, thought not self-aware, can suffer from the actions of moral agents. He or she has an entire natural lifespan that belongs to him or her morally. A moral agent harms the zygote if he or she kills the zygote, thereby denying him or her the lifespan that he or she should have had. If the zygote is killed before he or she becomes aware, then the zygote is harmed more, not harmed less, because he or she is denied the opportunity to become aware of and purposefully interactive with his or her environment.

The day-zero advocate says that up until a certain point in time the foetus (zygote / baby / whatever it is at the time) is worthless junk. So much spare parts. At a certain point magically the same chemicals are pronounced to have the full rights of a normal adult human being. This is the position shared by both pro-life advocates and pro-abortion advocates. Pro-life wave the magic wand over the zygote and say that upon fusion of DNA the zygote gains rights. Previously it was so much chemical mush. Pro-abortion advocates wave the wand at birth. Again both these arbitrary dates are defended by invalid applications of biological or legal definitions of "person" (respectively). A valid treatment of the definition of "person" leaves no fixed date, no day-zero to hang a nail on in this way. Life just isn't that simple.


This is a misconception (ha!) of both the prolife and prochoice perspectives. To the prolife person, it's not that the fetus has the same rights as an adult human being. He or she does not have the right to vote, own property, marry, et cetera. He or she merely has a right to exist and to not be deliberately harmed by others. More clearly, we hold that moral agents have duties toward the zygote: duties to protect and nurture him or her until he or she matures enough to be entrusted to the care of other moral agents, or to his or her own care. It is his or her value, not rights, upon which we focus. Our personal preferences, we hold, are just preferences, with no moral standing. We may prefer Jay Leno to David Letterman, but each has equal moral value as a human life. We may prefer the child with Down Syndrome to the healthy adult who refuses to hold down a job, but each person is of equal moral worth as a human life. One or the other may contribute more to, or take more from, the community, but neither life is more expendable.

However, there's a corollary we, the prolife, tend to embrace as well -- that the more vulnerable the person, the greater the duty of moral agents to protect that person from harm. And the more powerful the person, the greater his or her duty to protect others from harm. Therefore, from the prolife standpoint, the fact that the fetus is small and immature and dependent confers upon those with power over him or her a duty to protect and nurture him or her. And if there are even further vulnerabilities, such as congenital conditions, then there is an even greater duty to protect, to offset that person's greater vulnerability.

In a more concrete example of how this principle plays out, if there's a tornado heading your way, you have a greater duty to help the infirm, elderly, and children to get to shelter than you do to help the able-bodied and intelligent adult to find shelter. The able-bodied intelligent adult has his own strengths to get through the crisis and seek shelter from the tornado, so we have less of an obligation to him. But by the same token, his life is of equal value, so we may not deny him entrance to the tornado shelter purely because he is a healthy intelligent adult, even if he is an adult that neglects his duties. He would have a duty, though, to give up a space in an overcrowded shelter to the infirm, elderly, and children. It's the old "Women and children first" credo. When the ship is sinking, the children, being the most vulnerable, go in the life boats first. They need adults to care for them, so we must put adults in the life boats as well. Since the men typically are stronger and more likely to be able to fend for themselves (clinging to drift wood, building a raft out of deck chairs, whatever), the women go into the boat to care for the children. It's not a matter of who we value more, but to whom we have the greater duty. (An infirm man, say, Stephen Hawkings, would go into the lifeboat before a healthy woman -- Hillary Swank, perhaps -- not because we value Hawkings more than Swank, but because being stronger and more capable, Swank has a duty to protect Hawkings.)

The prochoice, on the other hand, hold that the newly conceived entity has variable value, depending upon many things that each prochoicer formulates in his own way. The value they place on the entity depends upon the entity's age, developmental milestones, health, proximity to society's ideal of human perfection, and attitudes of the moral agents, particularly the mother. In other words, different prochoice folks give different weight to the entity's age, developmental milestones, health, proximity to the current ideal of perfection (smart, tall, attractive, etc), and attitudes of the moral agents who have power over that particular entity. The heaviest weight tends to be given to the attitudes of the moral agents who have power over the new entity, with the entity's mother holding all the aces. If the moral agents who have power over the new entity place no value on it, or hold animosity toward it, this outweighs almost all the value conferred upon it by age, health, development, and proximity to the ideal of perfection.

The "official" prochoice stand is that the will of the moral agent --most typically, the mother -- is absolute and will utterly trump anything else as long as the decision made by the moral agent as to the fate of the unborn entity is made prior to birth. (I say "moral agent" rather than "mother" because if the mother is in some way incapacitated or has been decreed "unfit" by powerful moral agents around her such as psychiatrists treating a mentally ill mother, the official prochoice stand is that her spouse, parents, physician, or the courts can make the decision to have the unborn entity put to death on her behalf.) The will of the moral agent is absolute. There is no degree of developmental sophistication, proximity to societal ideals of perfection, et cetera, that could trump the decision by the moral agent with power over the entity if they want that unborn entity to die. Should the unborn entity survive the attempt to kill it prior to its full emergence from the uterus, those carrying out the execution are obligated to ensure that the entity dies through neglect or whatever other means are necessary.

Most rank-and-file prochoice citizens have an age, developmental milestone, or other measure that at some point overrides the decision of the moral agent to have the unborn entity put to death. Some draw the line at birth, saying that if the entity survives the attempt to kill him or her in utero, he or she should be spared -- like the tradition of allowing the condemned man to go free if the rope breaks while you're trying to hang him. Others draw the line at some other developmental milestone such as "viability" or "12 weeks." And it is not at all uncommon for prochoice citizens to draw a grey zone during which the unborn entity's ailments or the degree to which he or she falls short of the societal ideal of perfection lowers his or her value to the point where the mother may, if she wishes, kill that unborn entity as if he or she were younger or less developed.

Life is a process and the foetus doesn't suddenly become anything. It gradually develops hardly changing from minute to minute, but changing vastly over the nine months. Any arbitrary point chosen to say that the foetus has rights after that point, would be subject to an argument of "Well what about the same foetus 2 minutes earlier? Doesn't that have the same rights? What's the difference?!?"


Yes; but the fetus was the entity he or she is ever since he or she came into existence. There is a point before which the zygote did not exist. One can not have rights when one does not exist, and one can not have obligations and duties toward a specific entity that does not exist. "Thou shalt not kill" can't apply if there isn't any entity to kill.

If anything birth is the better choice of the two for a "day-zero" because at birth a baby suddenly has to start breathing and experiencing the real world for the first time. There are a lot of very rapid changes within minutes. But its clearly far too late, and hardly anyone would want abortion on demand up to birth.


Why is it "clearly far too late?" After all, there are some moral agents that hold that we have no obligations toward born humans unless those humans meet certain ideals of perfection, such as intelligence, health, and soundness of limb. There are some who would hold that humans with IQs of less than 40 are not "moral patients," and that they have no rights, and we have no duties toward them. The full prochoice spectrum does include those who hold that even after birth, the parents (now both parents rather than just the mother) should still have full rights to demand the death of the new human entity if he or she lacks certain criteria of health, intellect, and soundness of limb. Once we say that the mere existence of a human being does not confer any rights upon that human being, and that we have no duties to that human being just because he exists, what reason is there to draw the line at any particular point?

From a Christian (religious) point of view you could argue that God "does something" at a particular moment. I've noticed Christians tend to avoid using religious based arguments like that (I don't know why).


We don't use that argument because it's not the basis of our stand toward protecting the vulnerable. It's not a question of what God does; it's what He expects of us: to love our neighbor as ourselves. We don't see any reason to start nit-picking about who constitutes our "neighbor," because we were told not to. If a vulnerable person crosses paths with us, we're not to sit around debating, "Is this our neighbor or not? Does he or she meet a list of neighbor criteria?" Since it's been clarified throughout the Bible that our neighbor includes our enemies, people of other cultures and faiths, the battered and sick, the naked and hungry, little children, and "the least of these, my brothers and sisters," there's no point in letting ourselves get side tracked on what's a purely intellectual exercise. Is this a human being? Yes. Is this person in need? Yes. Then do for this person what he or she needs. We're not to pick and choose. It's as simple as that. We're not supposed to check creed, IQ, or health status. (In fact, the Apostles were sent forth with instructions to heal the sick and raise the dead, so lack of a pulse or respiration is clearly no excuse for just throwing somebody away; we're required to at least try to help the person. That is the point at which God either does something or not; if He answers the prayer and the dead person arises, then give him a bath and a meal and a change of clothes; if not, give him a decent burial.)

So all questions of DNA or whatever are irrelevant from a Christian perspective. If we're even supposed to give raising the dead a shot before we dig a hole and bury them, what possible excuse could we have for getting into debates about "ensoulment?" If the lack of pulse and respiration in what looks to be a dead body doesn't shed us of our duties toward that individual, why should the lack of sophistication in a fetus? He or she is there; that's all we need to know. If he or she is destined by God to die, then our efforts to nurture and protect will fail. But it will be through God's soverign will, not through our choice to ursurp that will and substitute our own.

So please, no more "day-zero" arguments unless you can show the day in question is not arbitrary on ethical grounds. Don't tell me a man is no more than his or her DNA. I am more than my DNA.


Exactly. The Bible never mentions DNA or "quickening" or "ensoulment" or "viability." Christ's life as a man began at the Annunciation; the Birth was just the announcement to the world. Science can tell us the how and when of the miracle of two diploid cells that would die coming together into a new man or woman, made in the image of God. It's not our place to draw a line, to make a value judgment based on human criteria. If Christ was the Messiah from the moment He was engendered in Mary's body, who are we do decide that our own sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aren't people just because we don't see them through God's eyes?

2 comments:

sarah faith said...

I love this post

GrannyGrump said...

(In bad Boris Badenov accent) Stop! You'll turn my pretty head!