Hemant Mehta let an anti-choice atheist romp about and make her
secular pro-life argument, but since he thinks it’s important to give a forum to bullshit but doesn’t think it’s important enough to criticize, I guess I have to. It’s by Kristine Kruszelnicki, president of Pro-Life Humanist, and we’ve dealt with her before; she’s the one who debated Matt Dillahunty in 2012, and lost miserably. She acknowledges that right at the beginning of her post, and then proceeds to make the same stupid argument.
Before we address the question of bodily autonomy in pregnancy, let’s meet the second player. What does science tell us that the preborn are? To be clear, science doesn’t define personhood. It never could. When I debated Matt Dillahunty on the issue of abortion at the 2012 Texas Freethought Convention, I’m afraid that as a first-time debater I really wasn’t clear enough on this point — and was consequently accused of trying to obtain rights from science. Science can’t tell us whether it’s wrong to rape women, torture children, enslave black people, or which physical traits should or should not matter when it comes to determining personhood. Science may be able to measure suffering in living creatures, but it can’t tell us why or if their suffering should matter.
Notice what she’s doing here. She recognizes that she totally got skewered on her claim that Science says abortion is wrong, so she’s nominally distancing herself from making moral claims with science. But guess what her very next sentence is?
However, science can tell us who among us belongs to the human species.
She’s doing it again. She’s claiming that science justifies her position.
She is at least aware that the right of women to autonomy is an extremely strong argument against her position — it’s how Dillahunty slammed her in the debate — and the entire post is about how she gets around that tricky problem of denying women control of their own bodies. Her solution? Simply decree by fiat, with the stamp of approval of her version of science, that the fetus and the woman have fully equal status as human beings, and that all discussion has to grant the fetus every privilege we do the woman.
If the fetus is not a human being with his/her own bodily rights, it’s true that infringing on a woman’s body by placing restrictions on her medical options is always a gross injustice and a violation. On the other hand, if we are talking about two human beings who should each be entitled to their own bodily rights, in the unique situation that is pregnancy, we aren’t justified in following the route of might-makes-right simply because we can.
At least this time, she didn’t sprinkle photos of bloody fetus parts in her post, and she avoided the most egregiously absurd elements of her position. This is my summary of what she said at the debate:
She made it clear that she opposes a whole gamut of basic rights: birth control methods that prevent implantation are wrong, because that’s just like strangling or starving a baby; no abortion in cases of rape or incest, because the baby doesn’t deserve punishment; she did allow for abortion in cases that threaten the life of the mother at times before fetal viability, simply because in that case two fully human lives would be lost.
She sounds like a very liberal Catholic atheist.
But that’s the entirety of her argument, both in that piece and on the pro-life atheist web site: the fetus is fully human from the moment of conception, and science says so.
When it comes to normal human reproduction, sperm and ovum merge to form a new whole. They cease to exist individually and become a new substance that is not the mother and not the father but a new body altogether, one that is also human and has the inherent capacity to develop through all stages of development.
When we talk about rights and personhood, we leave the realm of science for that of philosophy and ethics. History is ripe with examples of real biological human beings whose societies arbitrarily decided they didn’t qualify as equals, on account of criteria deemed morally relevant. At one point (and still, in many ways, today), it was skin color, gender, and ethnic background. Now, we can add to that list consciousness, sentience, and viability. We haven’t evolved so fast in 50 years as to be immune from tribalistic us vs. them thinking. If science defines a fetus as a biological member of our species, is it possible that our society is just as wrong in denying them personhood?
What happens when both a woman and her developing fetus are regarded as human beings entitled to personhood and bodily rights? Any way you cut it, their rights are always going to conflict (at least until womb transfers become a reality). So what’s the reasonable response? It could start by treating both parties at conflict as if they were equal human beings.
You get the idea. If she repeats that the conceptus becomes fully human at the instant of fertilization, and that science says so, over and over, we surely must be persuaded that she’s right, and we have to concede that she’s making an entirely secular argument, because SCIENCE. Unfortunately for her, she’s not actually using SCIENCE, but has mistaken BULLSHIT for science.
Let me tell you what science actually says about this subject.
Science has determined that development is a process of epigenesis; that is, that it involves a progressive unfolding and emergence of new attributes, not present at conception, that manifest gradually by interactions within the field of developing cells and with the external environment. The conceptus is not equal to the adult. It is not a preformed human requiring only time and growth to adulthood; developmental biologists are entirely aware of the distinction between proliferation and growth, and differentiation. So science actually says the opposite of what Kruszelnicki claims. It says that the fetus is distinct from the adult.
Of course, science also has to concede that because there is a continuum of transformation from conception to adulthood, it can’t draw an arbitrary line and say that at Time Point X, the fetus has acquired enough of the properties of the adult form that it should be now regarded as having all the rights of a member of society. That’s a matter for law and convention. But we already implicitly recognize that there is a pattern of change over time; children do not have all the same privileges as adults. Third trimester fetuses have fewer still. First trimester embryos? Even less. We all understand without even thinking about it that there is a progressive pattern to human development.
But what about this claim that
science can tell us who among us belongs to the human species?
First question I have is…which species concept are you using? There are a lot of them, you know; I daresay we might be able to find a few, that when inappropriately and too literally applied, would define away my status as a human, which simply wouldn’t do. There are also a lot of non-scientific or pseudo-scientific definitions of what constitutes a human that have been historically abused. Were the Nazis being scientific when they defined sub-species of humans and classed Jews, Gypsies, and Africans as something less than fully human? What, exactly, is Kruszelnicki’s “scientific” definition of human, that she’s using so definitively to declare a fetus as completely human?
She doesn’t say. She can’t say. She’s not applying a scientific test, but a traditional and colloquial one, which she’s then claiming by implication as synonymous with an unstated scientific definition. That’s dishonest and more than a little annoying.
Reading between the lines on her horrible little website, I’m guessing that she’s using a trivial and excessively reductive definition of human: it’s human by descent. The cells come from the division of human cells, so it is by definition not a monkey or a llama or a beetle cell, it’s a human cell.
Of course, that’s not enough: by that definition, sperm and eggs would be fully human, and women would be committing murder every time they menstruate, and men would be committing genocide every time they ejaculate. So she has a patch to work around that:
There is no such species as “sperm” or “ovum”. Sperm and ovum are not distinct unique organisms. They are in fact complex specialized cells belonging to the larger organism, namely the male and female from which they came. In other words, they are, like skin cells and blood cells, alive and bearing human DNA but nonetheless parts of another human being, even when mobile like the sperm.
There is no such species as “man” or “woman” either; we can always find some characteristic of an individual to distinguish them from a species (well hey, just the fact that they are an individual is enough). Her waffling about the status of sperm and ovum is ridiculous; I can give you species definitions that would recognize haploid gametes as fully human. If your restriction is simply that one is a
complex, specialized cell belonging to the larger organism, well gosh, the zygote fits that, too! A fertilized egg is not a generic human cell: it is incredibly specialized and complex.
I can’t help but notice that multicellularity isn’t part of her definition of “human”. Nor does it include any craniate characters, like having a notochord or a brain or branchial arches. There are a lot of scientific definitions of our species that the zygote fails!
If we’re going to emphasize the “not part of a human being” aspect of her fuzzy definition, then we have another problem. If you pooped this morning, that turd contained shed human epithelial cells, now swimming free. I could actually say, with full scientific accuracy, that that was a human turd. Why aren’t you giving it full legal protection?
She has an escape clause for that, too.
Sperm and ovum lose their individual identity and their function as sperm and ovum once they have merged. Instead of being parts carrying 23 chromosomes from two different human beings, the unification and merging of their chromosome pairs has now created a new whole with a new set of chromosomes and a cellular structure that now contains the inherent capacity to grow and develop itself through all stages of human development. This of course is something that neither sperm nor ovum parts had the inherent capacity to do on their own. It’s something that only whole human beings can do.
Oh. So here’s her full definition of a fully human being: it is a totipotent cell with the capacity to develop into a human being. Alas, her last sentence is wrong. Whole human beings cannot do that. It means I am not human, only a few small bits of me can aspire (in vain! I’m done with that) to someday fuse with another haploid cell and briefly become fully human, in the few days of happy cleavage before their cells become committed to specialized fates, which then are not fully human.
The only logical scientific conclusion one can make from Kruszelnicki’s hopeless definition is that blastocysts are fully human, but people are not.
Which actually doesn’t surprise me at all, and fits quite well with what I hear from the fetus-worshippers.
As I said before, there certainly are secular arguments for all kinds of nonsense — “secular” is not a synonym for “good”. We have to do more than simply accept arguments because they don’t mention gods, we also have to apply logical, reasonable philosophical and scientific filters to those secular arguments. The one obvious conclusion from any examination of these so-called “pro-life” arguments is that they are sloppy and dishonest, and not deserving of recognition by reasonable secular people.
Being atheist is not enough. One of the implications of an absence of gods is that revelation is invalid, and that we have to rely on reason and evidence to draw conclusions…and further, I would add, that we have to define values that we consistently and rationally apply, and we have to assess whether our methods appropriately serve those values. I choose to value the equality of a community of living, fully-born human beings, and when irrational superstitious attachment to status of a blastocyst compromises the autonomy and worth of members of that community, I choose to reject that belief. It helps quite a bit, though, that the “pro-life” position is so incoherent and anti-scientific.
Another take: even if you accept Kruszelnicki’s premise that a conceptus is “fully human” (I don’t), her argument doesn’t work and was dismantled over 40 years ago.