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The Secular ProLife Argument is Poop

Some people are upset with Dave Silverman for Saying Some Things. And with Hemant Mehta for Letting Some Things Be Written. I am one of these people, and for many of the reasons that others have posted. If you want to consider more whether “just asking questions” is a good thing, Stephanie Zvan wrote about this. And Greta Christina has a very good piece on who said what and why none of that shit matters and can we please stop telling those who are under the knife here to be “calm and reasonable” about the real threat to our basic human rights and the ability to make our own health decisions without government interference.

And now I’m going to fly in the face those who say that this isn’t a debate that we need to be having, and that we have already established that there are no humanist pro-life arguments worthy of consideration. I’m going to tell you why the secular pro-life argument is without merit because I haven’t really looked at it before now, and I cannot get over how simple it is to refute.

Human poop refutes the primary premise of the secular pro-life argument.

I know that this will annoy those of you who are enjoying the 3000-word, flowery and academic, reasoned and serious writings on the matter, but really…it all comes crumbling down with just a little bit of poop.

According to the Secular ProLife website, their position rests on four points:

1. The fetus is a human being.
2. There is no consistent, objective distinction between “person” and “human being.”
3. Human beings possess human rights.
4. Bodily integrity is not sufficient to justify most abortions.

I’m striking number four from this discussion because it is a moot point if the first three are struck down. Also, there are entirely different (read: fallacious, spurious, misogynistic) arguments used by Secular ProLife on their website to try to justify this premise. Those are for a different blog.

And before I get started, EVERYBODY LISTEN UP: These aren’t new arguments. The religious anti-choice groups have been making these same “secular” arguments since before Roe v. Wade – and we have answered them! The claiming of these arguments by atheists doesn’t make them any more valid now than they have been previously.

But onto the specific wording in the premises put forth by Secular ProLife:

The first two points are an argument to ambiguity. By conflating the terms “human being” and “human in origin” this specious word garble almost sounds like it makes sense.

Number two happens to be something with which many of us could agree; one might use “person” and “human being” interchangeably in certain circumstances. But using “human being”, when what you mean is “human in origin”, is deceptive and so obviously self-serving that it makes me queasy.

If you replace “a human being” with “human in origin” in the premises, you no longer have a convincing argument.

1. The fetus is human in origin.
2. There is no consistent, objective distinction between “person” and “human in origin.”
3. Things that are human in origin possess human rights.

The first sentence is true. Absolutely. No argument here. They got one right.

Do you know what else is human in origin? Sneezes, tumors, poops, excised warts and that clump of hair that collects in the shower drain catch. These “human” things are not granted human rights or personhood.

And oh yes, I know the prolife rebuttal to this argument: Unlike sneezes, tumors, poops, excised warts and that clump of hair that collects in the shower drain catch, an embryo has the potential to become a person. Bahahahaha! Really? This argument has been laughed at since the “abortion wars” began. An embryo has the “potential” to become a person. So what? So do sperm. So do ova. Let’s ban masturbation and menstruation! Don’t talk to me about “potential” – it’s an untenable position that has already been pounded into the dirt.

And the second argument is now patently false, as PZ Myers explains in his recent post on the subject. And this is not an argument to my FtB overlord’s authority, but an argument made by a subject expert in the field of evolutionary and developmental biology. He describes the biologically distinct difference between an undifferentiated embryo and a mature, developed, self-sufficient person. I would even bet that there is a scientific consensus about this difference among EvoDevo scientists (*gasps* she invoked scientific consensus!)

To recap:

  • The first premise, that a fetus is human in origin, is true but meaningless. In other news, fire is hot and water is wet.
  • The second premise is false – there is a difference between a person and an undifferentiated clump of cells.
  • The third premise is false. Because poop.

Now, I’m not naïve about the human stubbornness that will keep anti-choice atheists from going “OMFSM – poop! You’re so right! Why have I been shaming people who get abortions and wasting my life on this anti-abortion cause!? Here Brianne, let me contribute to your Bowl-A-Thon fundraiser for Pro-Choice Resources!” (Ahhhhh – see what I did there?)

But, there it is. Once again. The secular prolife argument has no legs upon which to stand. None. Zero. Their academic posturing hinges on the idea that human embryos are people with inherent rights. They are not. On a related note, Avicenna points out the real danger in attempting to apply academic reasoning to the real-world situations of those who must make reproductive healthcare decisions.

There are no arguments against abortion – secular, religious or otherwise – that justify legislating the healthcare decisions of autonomous individuals, hindering individual access to abortion, or of the ability of professionals to safely provide abortion care.

********

More on this from around Freethought Blogs (pardon me, my fellow bloggers, if I missed any. When did we get so big???)

Ophelia Benson has several posts on Dave Silverman’s statements at CPAC and on social justice and abortion in a broader context between March 10th and today.

Jason Thibeault writes about why he supports the criticism of Dave Silverman’s off-the-cuff, misleading comments about secular prolifers at CPAC.

Dana Hunter shows off the colorfully summarized secular prolife arguments, as written by Giliell,  professional cynic, and calls out David Silverman for throwing reproductive rights under the bus.

Zinnia Jones writes about the idea of competing arguments, and why some ideas (in this case, abortion) are open to disagreement within the atheist community, while others are not.

Lilandra at Ace of Clades writes about the disagreement within the secular community after Silverman’s CPAC statements and why entertaining anti-choice arguments isn’t good for people with a uterus or for our secular community.

Comments

  1. says

    The third premise is false. Because poop.

    Nicely done! And is it wrong that I suspect you took especial glee in being able to honestly use “because poop” in an argument? I know I would.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Sorry, Brianne, but I don’t think your argument here is going to go the distance. Oh, you and PZ do a thoroughly effective job of demolishing the “blastocysts are people too” nonsense from Kristine Kruszelnicki and her ilk. But it still doesn’t handle the central problem that makes this entire debate so intransigent. That problem is that we’ve got a process which at one end involves an egg cell and a sperm cell that everyone agrees are not human beings. And at the other end of the process we’ve got something called a “baby” kicking its legs and screaming, which everyone agrees IS a human being. And so far I’m not seeing anyone from the pro-Choice camp – not you, not PZ – coming up with a scientific definition of at what point along the process humanity occurs. If even the scientific, rational community doesn’t have any consensus on that question, what hope is there for wider society?

    You could argue that the arrival of personhood coincides with the moment of birth and the cutting of the umbilical cord; however, that leaves many people uneasy. Why is the passage through the birth canal any less magical than the moment of conception as an occasion for the bestowal of rights? A case could be made for a kind of “threshold of viability” being that time, when the fetus can survive outside the mother. That’s more of a practical definition than a scientific one, though, because advances in neonatology make the age constantly younger. The actual working definition we have seems to be the end of the first trimester, but that’s the most arbitrary of all.

    The question is important, not just from a philosophical point of view, or in terms of some kind of magical ensoulment, but from a very real legal standpoint (for instance, in a case where a mother survives an assault but the fetus does not, and the prosecutor has to decide whether or not murder has been committed).

    For me, the definition that would make the most sense from a scientific point of view would be if we defined the beginning of life the same way we define its end: by the presence of brain waves. That would be at around 9 weeks, I believe. Isn’t our ability to think what makes us human, after all? I doubt that definition would be acceptable to either side in our current debate, though.

    None of which is to say that I think we should roll back the age at which abortion is allowed to nine weeks. To tell you the truth, I thought your previous post on bodily autonomy, “Should we be forced to donate blood,” was a much, much stronger argument. It actually changed my thinking on the issue. I think the argument that “Even if you believe abortion is murder, the mother’s right to bodily autonomy trumps the fetus’s right to life” is the best one for pro-Choice secularists to concentrate on.

    • says

      That problem is that we’ve got a process which at one end involves an egg cell and a sperm cell that everyone agrees are not human beings. And at the other end of the process we’ve got something called a “baby” kicking its legs and screaming, which everyone agrees IS a human being.

      I agree that at some point during the development of a fetus, that fetus becomes a person. However, I’m not making an argument about at what point abortion starts to squick me out (and I’m definitely not going to engage that wholly separate argument in the comments section of this post). That’s not what this post was about. Here I’m addressing the anti-abortion gang that argues that once sperm hits egg that’s it! We’re done – personhood acheivement unlocked!

      And so far I’m not seeing anyone from the pro-Choice camp – not you, not PZ – coming up with a scientific definition of at what point along the process humanity occurs.

      Humanity? I assume you mean the point at which, as I put it in the previous paragraph, the fetus becomes a person? Again, not the argument I’m attempting to address with this post. Although, I am struggling to not engage in that argument right now. I want to keep it clean and tidy. An embryo is not a person, and does not have rights. Note: I use embryo in its technical definition: the time between fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation. If I could get anti-abortion atheists to just agree that embryos are not people, then we’d be a lot closer to having this not be an issue. After we get THAT down, then we might talk about the “scientific definition” at which point a fetus becomes a person and your resulting questions.

    • Menyambal says

      Can you define humanity for us please? Quantify it nicely, while you are at it.

      The one clear point along the progression is birth. It may be a bit arbitrary, maybe, but it is natural, obvious, traditional, legal and logical.

      If you want to start defining humanity with sperms and eggs, we’d get into some damned messes deciding what to do with the extras of each, the non-combined ones. Combine them?

      If you decide to start life with a sperm combining with an egg, well, how do you detect that it has happened, in a free-range woman? What are you going to do about all the fertilized eggs that fail to attach? Can you reliably detect it happening, and what the woman did to affect it?

      Ooo, a spontaneous abortion took place! That happens around 50 percent of the time. Did you detect it? Was the woman responsible?

      So you set some arbitrary dates to quantify the woman’s crime. First trimester, second, third. How do you know when the pregnancy started? Ask the woman? Check her every few hours?

      You cannot criminalize abortion without making an unjeezly muck of everything.

    • Anthony Burber says

      brucegee1962:

      I think the argument that “Even if you believe abortion is murder, the mother’s right to bodily autonomy trumps the fetus’s right to life” is the best one for pro-Choice secularists to concentrate on.

      I agree with this. To take an extreme example, what of an advanced pregnancy within days of delivering naturally, that would survive unassisted if delivered by Caesarian Section?

      I like the bodily autonomy response to this, which says that it may be fully aware of its surroundings, and capable of feeling agonizing pain, yet the mother should not be forced to put her health or life at risk for its sake, ever.

  3. octopod says

    PZ’s definition is basically “brain death in reverse”, isn’t it? And he puts that cutoff at 25 weeks.

  4. Wylann says

    I think the argument that “Even if you believe abortion is murder, the mother’s right to bodily autonomy trumps the fetus’s right to life” is the best one for pro-Choice secularists to concentrate on.

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with this, but….

    “Because Poop” fits on a bumper sticker! ;-)

    Yes, I’m being silly about a serious topic….

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    brucegee1962 @ # 3: … what point along the process humanity occurs.

    Why do you think a gradual process needs a “point” to divide it into separate categories? Dichotomous thinking is is fundies, not grown-ups.

    To grasp reality, all we need is to understand we have a *gradual process* going on. For legal purposes, we can do as the law usually does by default and go with tradition – which relies on *birth*.

    … the presence of brain waves.

    You do know that you can get a reading of “waves” by sticking EEG sensors onto a cauliflower, right? “Brain waves” are about as meaningless as the “fetal heartbeat” – a muscle that will eventually become part of the cardiac system starts twitching after 7 or 8 weeks: Big French Deal.

  6. exi5tentialist says

    Not quite sure that Brianne has successfully dismissed the concept of a human being a fetus here. Also not sure why it matters. A woman has absolute rights over what happens to her own body, she is an autonomous human being. I don’t see that the rights of any other human being takes precedence over that, whatever their brainwaves are doing.

  7. says

    Why doesn’t anyone agonize over their cancers? I mean, everyone seems fine with chopping them out, poisoning them, irradiating them — but for some reason everyone is worried about the host and not the cluster of growing cells.

  8. ema says

    …at what point along the process humanity occurs.

    Define “humanity”.

    …the arrival of personhood…

    Define “personhood” and compare/contrast with humanity.

    Why is the passage through the birth canal any less magical than the moment of conception as an occasion for the bestowal of rights?

    Biology, not all that magical. There is no such thing as “the moment of conception”. Fertilization isn’t a momentary process. It takes ~24hrs and results in a bunch of totipotent cells, each with the potential to develop into a neonate

  9. ema says

    Ugh, to continue:

    It takes ~24hrs and results in a bunch of totipotent cells, each with the potential to develop into a neonate. How many of these cells get the rights, what criteria are used to include/exclude cells, and, most important of all, since placentas are such awesome products-of-conception, do they get extra rights?

    As an aside, not only is the potential irrelevant for most of those cells, but even for the most potential of potentials (full term pregnancy stage, young/healthy everything) there is no way to tell if that particular pregnancy will result in a non-plant person baby. As the saying goes “the only normal pregnancy is one that’s delivered, with good Apgars”.

    On the other hand, delivery = essential step for the anatomical/physiological changes required for circulation/respiration/etc.

  10. ChasCPeterson says

    Where did you get the idea that by “is a human being” anti-abortionists mean “is of human origin”? That’s not what they mean at all, so the whole poop metaphor is facile.
    And no, individual ova and spermatozoa are not “potential human beings” in anything like the same way that an implanted fetus/placenta is.
    There are good arguments and crappy ones, and this post is chock full of the latter.
    Stick with the bodily autonomy thing.

    Fertilization isn’t a momentary process. It takes ~24hrs and results in a bunch of totipotent cells,

    No it doesn’t. Fertilization produces a single-celled zygote. If you have a bunch of cells, the process that produced them was ‘cleavage’, not fertilization.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    ChasCPeterson @ # 11: Where did you get the idea that by “is a human being” anti-abortionists mean “is of human origin”? That’s not what they mean at all…

    Haven’t done much field research (e.g., talking to the jerks harassing patients at women’s clinics), have ya?

  12. ema says

    Fertilization produces a single-celled zygote. If you have a bunch of cells, the process that produced them was ‘cleavage’, not fertilization.

    The result of fertilization is a bunch of distinct, undifferentiated, totipotent cells ( blastomeres)
    that have the capacity to develop independently.

  13. exi5tentialist says

    Does a woman have to know what a zygote is to make a decision about her own body? This is biology overload – I don’t get the need for it.

  14. Jackie, all dressed in black says

    I’m listening to Caustic Soda and they are listing off the horrible ways in history women have tried to induce abortion. The things women have done to themselves out of desperation when they could not get safe abortions are horrific. I hope everyone keeps those women, many of whom died horribly because legal abortion was not available to them in mind. I hope no one has forgotten the women who still do not have access to safe, legal abortions. I hope no one is dispassionately, breezily, debating women’s rights without considering the context of that debate.

  15. says

    To address exi5tentialist and Jackie – 14 an 15: Yes, this is biology overload. Keeping abortion legal and accessible is first and foremost about respecting women and respecting bodily autonomy. When we limit abortion we are giving half the population the finger. Hopefully by pulling out the rug on bullshit anti-abortion arguments like “fetuses are people and deserve protection”, we can show that’s all that remains is “What we really want is to tell women how to behave and dictate what they can do with their bodies.”

    • exi5tentialist says

      Thanks, but if a fully conscious, adult, intelligent human being, totally viable except for no heart, had somehow been grafted onto my arm to receive an ongoing blood transfusion, assuming no alternative means of life support were available… even if it meant the death of that person, I would still have the right to a medical severance on demand, wouldn’t I?

      The way these comments are going it sounds like I wouldn’t, because the person really would unarguably be a human being with consciousness, sentience, all the things that seem to qualify to take human rights away from the host being. I would have to sit it out, till a life support machine arrived, perhaps never. I just don’t know how to deal with that thought.

  16. says

    Greetings,

    With all due respect, Brianne, I have to take issue with some of your statements.

    “According to the Secular ProLife website, their position rests on four points:

    1. The fetus is a human being.
    2. There is no consistent, objective distinction between “person” and “human being.”
    3. Human beings possess human rights.
    4. Bodily integrity is not sufficient to justify most abortions.”

    In general, premises 1-3 are false due to the ambiguous use of the term “human being(s)”, as you already noted.

    To deal with each specifically…

    Premise 1 implies that the term “fetus” is unique to humans – whether members of our species or persons. This is false. The term refers to the prenatal developmental stage between the embryo and birth. This term applies to all viviparous vertebrates – it is not uniquely applicable to us. Your later comment appears to make this error – or, at least, may lead to readers inferring this:

    “The first sentence is true. Absolutely. No argument here. They got one right.”

    Premise 2 is also false because “person” is not a uniquely human term: there can be “non-human persons”.

    Premise 3 is also false because the terms “possess” and “human rights” are ambiguous.

    Premise 4 is also false due to the ambiguous use of the term “bodily integrity”: does this mean “survival” or “autonomy”, as in self-governance?

    Kindest regards,

    James

  17. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve been thinking some more about the “bodily integrity” argument. I like the reasoning, and I intend to use it next time I’m in a debate with an anti-abortionist. However, when I use an argument, I always try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and try to guess how they might counter it. This is what I came up with.

    Suppose my hypothetical opponent uses this analog to post 16.1 above: “In a remote area, a woman passes by a slumped-over beggar with a sign out saying he needs food. The person indeed looks very skinny, and is clearly unable to look after himself. However, the woman makes no effort to help the man, and the next day it turns out he has starved to death. The woman argues that her right to autonomy means that she is under no legal obligation to help the guy (regardless of whether she has a moral obligation). And our legal system would probably agree. We’re under no legal compulsion to help the helpless or the dying.

    “Now suppose the same woman has a baby, and leaves the baby by the side of a road where it dies. If your analogy is apt, then the woman should also be under no legal compulsion to see that the birthed child gets to someone who can take care of it. The helplessness and dependence of the child have no bearing; if your analogy is correct, then the woman has no more responsibility to her offspring than she does to a random stranger. So,” (he concludes smugly) “if you argue that the right to bodily autonomy trumps the child’s right to life, then you should logically oppose laws against maternal abandonment. Do you?”

    How should I respond? Is he right? Obviously if the mother drowns the baby then that’s still murder, but if she just walks away and leaves it to die, should that be legal? Or am I missing a counter-argument?

  18. Anthony Burber says

    @brucegee1962 #18:
    In most societies, we have the role of being a child’s guardian. Most of the time parents take this role, but in the event of adoption, the adopters become the guardians.

    Being a guardian should always be voluntary, but in accepting it the guardian becomes obliged to keep the child fed, clothed and housed to some minimum standard. Hopefully society provides schools, hospitals and similar support when they’re needed.

    If the role becomes too much, good societies provide a way to hand the child over to new guardians, with no risk to her health, life or resources.

    So, if the mother has accepted the role of guardian, she does have “more responsibility to her offspring than she does to a random stranger”.

  19. brucegee1962 says

    But (my imaginary opponent says) it’s possible that a woman can be put in the position of being an involuntary legal guardian. For instance, if a child is born in a remote area without medical assistance, then the mother has a legal (not to mention ethical) responsibility to either care for the child, or get the child to someone who will be able to care for it. If she does not do so and abandons the child to die of starvation or be eaten by wolves, then she can be charged with a crime (at least as I understand the law).

    But if I accept that such a law is reasonable, then my opponent smugly replies that if I can accept that a mother can be an involuntary temporary guardian in that case, then why shouldn’t we also treat her as an involuntary guardian during the time the child hasn’t been born yet (assuming we consider a third-trimester fetus to have rights)? So (he concludes smugly) if I say that the right to autonomy trumps the right of the child to live, then I would logically have to conclude that a mother in such a situation should be legally allowed to abandon her child.

    What counter-argument should I use against this line of attack? I want to use the autonomy argument, but I’d like to be prepared when I do.

  20. Pteryxx says

    brucegee1962: looks like you (or your imaginary opponent) are failing to distinguish between autonomy and bodily autonomy. This hypothetical woman doesn’t need to give up blood to feed either the starving person or the infant.

    Also, the birthed infant example assumes the woman just bore this infant herself, which I think is adding unnecessary baggage to the thought experiment. (How dare a woman (or girl) not have motherly instincts and be ruled by them immediately no matter how much pain she’s in! and the usual.) The comparable situation should be, what if a random stranger finds a newly born infant, alone in a remote area. Do they have an obligation to get that infant to somewhere it can be cared for? Does a stranger have any more or less obligation to a random infant than the hypothetical birthing woman would? Does the stranger have more obligation to the infant than the starving adult? (Consider – picking up a baby in a remote area is a lot safer for the stranger than trying to carry or care for a strange adult.)

    In the real world, safe-haven laws and baby hatches exist. There’s no reason to assume a random woman is going to be more likely to casually walk past a newborn than a random gender-irrelevant person – but someone giving birth in a desperate situation has a lot more to lose.

    Heck, would your opponent expect a woman who had just given birth all by herself in a remote area to be in any condition to take care of an *unrelated* infant that happened to be nearby? Then why expect her to take care of one that *is* related?

  21. Anthony Burber says

    @brucegee1962 #20:
    Since your question built on my comment #19, I’d like to acknowledge that @Pteryxx #21 saved me some typing by describing my position on the subject. Thank you, Pteryxx.

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