Yeah, well, it’s Quillette. Steve Jacobs Asked Thousands of Biologists When Life Begins. The Answer Wasn’t Popular. He doesn’t understand why, even though this was the subject of his doctoral thesis, and his own obtuse inability to recognize that he was asking a bad and misleading question is his problem.
Let’s cut to his shocking result.
I reported that both a majority of pro-choice Americans (53%) and a majority of pro-life Americans (54%) would support a comprehensive policy compromise that provides entitlements to pregnant women, improves the adoption process for parents, permits abortion in extreme circumstances, and restricts elective abortion after the first trimester. However, members of the media were mostly interested in my finding that 96% of the 5,577 biologists who responded to me affirmed the view that a human life begins at fertilization.
It was the reporting of this view—that human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are biological humans—that created such a strong backlash.
It wasn’t a backlash. It was a reasonable response to a provocative and misleading question. I notice a significant omission in his list of “zygotes, embryos, and fetuses” as biological humans (what the heck is a non-biological human, by the way?): why doesn’t he mention gametes? If you ask a biologist whether sperm and ova can be classified as “biologically human”, he’d get the same answer: YES. The taxonomic status of gametes is a non-issue here in any discussion of abortion.
The person who brought this article to my attention was all wrapped up in this idea that a fertilized zygote is human, as if that somehow magically conferred a privileged, protected status on it; when I mention that HEK293 cells, a common line of cultured cells derived from human embryonic kidney, are also classified as “human”, it was remarkable how quickly his brain fritzed out and he refused to even consider that as relevant. If you’re going to try to borrow the authority of biologists to justify a position you’ve already made up in your mind to be absolutely true, though, you’ve got to at least listen to what a biologist actually says.
Instead, he presented this Quillette article to show that biologists agree with him.
Wrong. It’s a crude and biased study designed to elicit a specific answer to an ambiguous question. All it is is a survey, built around the premise that determining when “human life begins” will have some power to resolve the debate around abortion. It doesn’t. It’s enlightening to see the authors description of his protocol, though.
I led discussions between pro-choice and pro-life law students. Little progress was made because both sides were caught up with the factual question of when life begins.
And right there is the problem. That isn’t the truth. Anti-choice proponents bring up the question of when life begins as an obfuscating tactic — that’s why little progress was made. Talk to pro-choice people, and you won’t find them arguing that we need to find the magic moment when an embryo becomes “human”, the instant when abortion becomes unethical. The “question of when life begins” isn’t a sharp-edged factual question, and when someone pretends that it is, they’re just looking for a blunt instrument to shut down the conversation. That this author thinks this is a fair and important question exposes his anti-choice bias, which he’s going to propagate throughout his “study”. His entire conclusion is based on the ambiguity of the words he uses, interpreted to fit his preconceptions!
So his first quest is to find who the authorities are.
I surveyed thousands of Americans using Amazon’s MTurk service. I found that most Americans believe that the question of “when life begins” is an important aspect of the U.S. abortion debate (82%); that most believe Americans deserve to know when a human’s life begins in order to give informed consent to abortion procedures (76%); and that most Americans believe a human’s life is worthy of legal protection once it begins (93%). Respondents also were asked: “Which group is most qualified to answer the question, ‘When does a human’s life begin?’” They were presented with several options—biologists, philosophers, religious leaders, Supreme Court Justices and voters. Eighty percent selected biologists, and the majority explained that they chose biologists because they view them as objective experts in the study of life.
Nice to know I’m regarded (in a general sense) as an impartial expert. Not nice to realize that’s only so he can distort my opinion to fit his conclusion. So let’s look at his unsurprising results.
As the usable responses began to come in, I found that 5,337 biologists (96%) affirmed that a human’s life begins at fertilization, with 240 (4%) rejecting that view. The majority of the sample identified as liberal (89%), pro-choice (85%) and non-religious (63%). In the case of Americans who expressed party preference, the majority identified as Democrats (92%).
The 96% are correct in a limited and specific sense. This is a retrospective opinion. If you asked me when I came into existence as an individual, I’d probably say the same thing, that the earliest moment the unique genetic combination that led to me was generated at fertilization. That does not imply that the zygote was me — it was going to take months of development to produce baby me, and then it was going to take years of learning to produce a functioning human being. But not every zygote is going to develop and grow; not every zygote is viable; the entirety of human nature is not inserted into a single cell at the instant of fertilization. He is intentionally compressing the whole loaded complexity of a human life into a single cell, and that is not true. I’m a biologist, we’ve already established that I am the expert, so you have to believe me.
His entire argument relies on the fuzziness of the terms “human” and “life”. We use “human” as both a label for a genetic lineage and for a complex being with rights and a role in society, and Jacobs loves to intentionally flip-flop between those definitions. When I say a zygote is “human”, I’m saying something about its parentage, but not about its cognitive abilities or contribution to culture. He wants to pretend biologists are saying the latter when they’re actually saying the former.
The 4% who reject his assertion are interesting: I suspect that they’re the ones who saw the trap coming. And, oh, it was a trap.
After getting the general answer he wanted, the trap was sprung, and his questionnaire then mentions that the survey “relates to the controversial public debate surrounding abortion.” And then the 96% realized how they’d been had and reacted appropriately.
Unfortunately, that did not stop some academics from being angered by the very idea of being asked about the ontogenetic starting point of a human’s life. Some of the e-mails I received included notes such as:
- “Is this a studied fund by Trump and ku klux klan?”
- “Sure hope YOU aren’t a f^%$#ing christian!!”
- “This is some stupid right to life thing…YUCK I believe in RIGHT TO CHOICE!!!!!!!”
- “The actual purpose of this ‘survey’ became very clear. I will do my best to disseminate this info to make sure that none of my naïve colleagues fall into this trap.”
- “Sorry this looks like its more a religious survey to be used to misinterpret by radicals to advertise about the beginning of life and not a survey about what faculty know about biology. Your advisor can contact me.”
- “I did respond to and fill in the survey, but am concerned about the tenor of the questions. It seemed like a thinly-disguised effort to make biologists take a stand on issues that could be used to advocate for or against abortion.”
- “The relevant biological issues are obvious and have nothing to do with when life begins. That is a nonsense position created by the antiabortion fanatics. You have accepted the premise of a fanatic group of lunatics. The relevant issues are the health cost carrying an embryo to term can impose on a woman’s body, the cost they impose on having future children, and the cost that raising a child imposes on a woman’s financial status.”
Some of those responses are clearly just pissed off people annoyed at the dishonesty of the survey. Others clearly get to the heart of the problem. “its more a religious survey to be used to misinterpret by radicals to advertise about the beginning of life and not a survey about what faculty know about biology”…exactly. “The relevant biological issues are obvious and have nothing to do with when life begins. That is a nonsense position created by the antiabortion fanatics. You have accepted the premise of a fanatic group of lunatics.” Yes! He willingly accepted the faulty premise of a derailing tactic used by anti-choice zealots, and designed a survey to reinforce the claim that their red herring is the most important question to be settled. It’s not.
He’s going to completely ignore the fact that a majority of his trusted authorites are pro-choice and that they can recognize the rhetorical games he’s playing to misinterpret their position to be in support of his implied claim that personhood is generated at the instant of fertilization. It’s a terrible, biased article and a bad study that’s only going to be appreciatd by propaganda outlets like The Daily Wire, The College Fix, Breitbart, One America News, and the Patriarchy Research Council — all sources that he brags about featuring his work. And now Quillette. Has he considered the idea that who finds his work useful is telling?
Also telling is that he flat out admits his preconceptions.
I have concluded that one of the biggest reasons the abortion debate can’t be bridged is mistrust. I think this is primarily due to the stakes being so high for both sides. One side sees abortion rights as critical to gender equality, while the other sees abortion as an epic human rights tragedy—as over a billion humans have died in abortions since the year 2000.
Meanwhile, uncountable trillions of human cells have been cut out and discarded in cancer surgeries. Every gall bladder operation destroys precious human cells. When you heedlessly stub your toe, you have personally murdered millions of human cells.
Try this. Rephrase his statement to read “over a billion people have died in abortions since the year 2000″. Does that sound true to you? That’s what he wants to imply, but if you ran that by the 5,577 biologists he surveyed, I promise you that the majority would say that that is false.