That a zygote is human does not imply that it is a person


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.

Comments

  1. KG says

    chris61@1,

    Well he could have ended it after the initial “Yeah”. But that, like your suggestion, would have rather vitiated the point he wanted to make.

  2. says

    A lot of human eggs get wasted in in vitro fertilization. The child-obsessives still seem to approve of that process but aren’t those humans?

  3. KG says

    Though in fact, I think “The 96% are correct” concedes too much. It’s not that uncommon for a single zygote to divide into two or more parts, each of which then develops into a baby. Conversely, two or more may fuse and produce a single baby. So at best, the 965 are usually correct.

  4. wzrd1 says

    “From a biological perspective, a zygote that has a human genome is a human because it is a human organism developing in the earliest stage of the human life cycle.”

    So, does that mean he wants to host a cluster of HeLa cells, which are also a human organism, per his definition?

  5. chrislawson says

    Jacobs also misrepresents the pro-choice argument. Gender equality is crucial to understanding the political divide on abortion, and yes it’s critical to women’s rights that abortions be available on demand, but it’s not like legalising abortion ‘equalises’ gender experiences. If I thought abortion was immoral, I wouldn’t support it just to give women more equality. That makes about as much sense as encouraging women to commit more murders to bring the numbers into line with male murderers.

    The core argument for abortion rights is the right to autonomy over one’s own body. It’s the same reason we don’t enforce kidney donation even to savebelievebelievebelieve another’s life. The fact that Jacobs does not acknowledge this fits perfectly with the dishonesty shown in his survey design.

  6. chris61 says

    So, does that mean he wants to host a cluster of HeLa cells, which are also a human organism, per his definition?

    Possibly not the best example given that following Rebecca Skloot’s book, HeLa cells were indeed afforded a special status. I’d stick with HEK293 as PZ did. Although, not being a stage in the human life cycle, neither HEK293 nor HeLa wouldn’t fit his definition.

  7. aspleen says

    The relevant question isn’t about when human life begins, but when a human foetus is considered to be viable. Elective abortions during the first trimester (12 weeks) are legal in the U.S., while elective abortions in the second trimester are legal up to 20 weeks or 24 weeks, depending on state law. Abortions during the third trimester are done if there’s a threat to the life or health of the woman. This the law as far as I understand it at least.

  8. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    when does life begin, is such a loaded question I tend to attempt expanding it to the point the questioner leaves me alone.
    EG:
    1) [ life ] started several hundred million years ago
    2) [human life]: a few million years ago the species branched into one we call human
    3) [life ] has been continuous since then, as it takes a living sperm to fertilize a living ovum to make a living embryo
    4) until birth, the embryo-fetus is a symbiotic organism living off the life of the host, who we call the mother.
    5) after birth, the organism becomes an individual and begins its development into a person,
    –rarely get to step (5)

  9. bcwebb says

    The biologists would have given the same answer about the majority of the feces in our sewers: yes, it is human.

  10. Scott Petrovits says

    Yikes, I looked this guy up on Twitter. He’s all manner of anti-choice moron. Posting links from the Daily Wire and townhall.com. I guess they’ll give anyone a medical degree these days, if, in fact, the “Dr” in his handle is legit.

  11. says

    My views on the matter are influenced by my younger sibling being unplanned. It would have been ok if my parents used an effective method of birth control, but not if they had had an abortion I’d not have a sibling in either case.

  12. bcwebb says

    Is it alive? Is it human? Is it a different than previous to fertilization? Is it a person? yes,yes,yes,no.

    Sell an anti-choicer a stand of oak trees and then hand them a bag of acorns instead.
    You got a lawsuit even though the acorns don’t even require maternal intervention to grow.

  13. brucegee1962 says

    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.

    Why not?
    I mean, if you ask an anti-abortion person “When should a fetus be given the full rights of a human being, including the right to not be killed?” they would all say “At the instant of fertilization.” I agree that this is absurd, but at least it’s consistent.
    But what happens when you ask a pro-choice person the same question? I mean, there’s a timeline of pregnancy, with a fertilized egg on one end and a doctor holding up a baby and getting it to breathe on its own at the other end. But isn’t it just as ridiculous to say that that baby wasn’t human thirty minutes ago when it was in the womb, but now that it can breathe, it is? It’s not like there’s something magical about the vaginal canal that causes it to bestow personhood.
    I’ve been looking in vain for pro-choice people willing to answer this question. I hear

    The “question of when life begins” isn’t a sharp-edged factual question,

    which is really just dodging the question. I mean, we may not be able to pinpoint a precise instant, but surely we ought to be able to get it down to a month or two. I hear “Definitely not in the first trimester, possibly in the second, probably by the third,” but that’s a legal answer, not a scientific one. I hear “Once the fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb,” which is problematic because it makes humanity dependent on medical technology — the age at which a fetus can survive keeps going down as the neonatal technology gets better. When the subject of third-trimester abortions comes up, I hear “Well, those are very rare, and anyway, when they happen, it’s always when something is wrong with the fetus and the mother’s life is in danger,” which doesn’t even try to answer the question. And I hear “It doesn’t matter whether a fetus is a human being or not — my right to autonomy over my own body supersede its right to stay alive,” which is certainly a strong argument in favor of abortion, but has its own weaknesses and also doesn’t address the question.
    My point is, I think it’s a weakness of the entire pro-choice movement that it has no consistent, scientific answer to the question of when a fetus ought to be considered to have rights, and I’d like to put it to the commentariat. I have my own opinion, but I want to hear what others have to say first.

  14. says

    Do you only consider human biology, or look at all life? Bees can develop adult drones from unfertilized eggs. Does this mean life really begins when ovulation occurs?

  15. aspleen says

    @18,

    I’ve already given the answer, which is fetal viability. That was established legally with the Roe v. Wade decision itself. There’s been a consistent legal effort to change that to only requiring that there be no “undue burden” placed on a woman wanting an elective abortion under state law, which has allowed for all sorts of restrictions being required for abortion providers that clearly do the opposite.

  16. Jazzlet says

    slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) @#11

    4) until birth, the embryo-fetus is a symbiotic organism living off the life of the host, who we call the mother.

    I don’t agree that a fetus is a symbiont, what benefit does it’s presence bring to the potential mother while she is pregnant?

  17. Bruce says

    As 17: bcwebb said above, think of oaks and acorns. When did an oak tree get its genes set? Is that acorn a tree? The point is that misleading questions evade the issue, just as would wood biology.
    I think Roe v Wade was right to link it to viability, but a fetus with big defects may not be viable even if that’s not detected until birth and it dies promptly. It would have been more ethical to do a late term abortion. So the question relates to viability, which relates to our capabilities in diagnosing and in supporting preemies. So the answers depend on the medical technology and capabilities that are available. A fetus in a woman in a hospital may be viable while the same in a jungle or desert may not be. Or for a rich vs poor woman or society.
    So those who think they’re pro-life should switch to improving society and funding prenatal health care and nutrition and maternal optimism, which each might enable more real people to be born than their current strategies.

  18. brucegee1962 says

    @23 Bruce
    So you’re really saying that the definition of personhood depends on geography?
    I mean, let’s say there is a pregnant woman who lives in Nairobi. She decides to drive across country, and along the way, her car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere. It sounds as if you’re saying that, at that moment, her fetus loses its rights as a human — and continues to have no rights until she manages to make it back to the city. Is that really a defensible position?

  19. anthrosciguy says

    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…

    …one side being consistently dishonest in its arguments.

  20. drst says

    All of this is irrelevant.

    I am human. I am a fully grown adult human being. That doesn’t give me the right to take PZ’s lung without his consent even if I’m going to die without a lung transplant.

    The government does not have the right and should never be given the power to forcibly use a person’s body against their will without their consent. That is the only issue on the table.

  21. brucegee1962 says

    @26 drst

    Right, that’s the “right to bodily autonomy” argument, and I mention that in my post @18. I think that, overall, there are two main arguments supporting abortion. The bodily autonomy argument is stronger, I think, than the “a blastocyst is not a person” argument, because the latter just begs the question “Ok, so when does a fetus become a person?” I want to be clear — I am pro-choice, but I want to make the pro-choice argument stronger by figuring out a way to patch some of its (to me) obvious holes.

    I also think the bodily autonomy argument has holes as well, but I don’t want to be arguing two threads at the same time.

  22. brucegee1962 says

    @ 19 robertbaden

    Science can’t answer that question. It’s a matter of opinion.

    The problem with this is that the pro-choice movement is supposed to be an actual political force, advocating for a particular set of laws. If we just shrug and say “It’s a matter of opinion,” how are we supposed to work towards an agreed-upon legal framework?

    Let’s say there are two woman, and one says “my fetus becomes a person at 20 weeks,” and the second says “my fetus isn’t a person until its breathing with its own lungs.” If we use the “matter of opinion” belief, then both are equally valid — which means we have, by default, adopted the latter opinion as our own. So really, in my eyes, saying it’s a matter of opinion gets us right back to the magical vaginal canal — which seems, to me, to be just as silly as the “fertilized egg is a person” concept of the anti-abortionists.

  23. Snidely W says

    But abortion is murder!!!

    The cry of the antichoicer.
    Except that even they don’t actually believe it:
    If it is truly murder in their eyes they would be advocating for the same legal penalty as they would for ‘regular’ murderers.
    But if you ask them if they want the same penalty for women who have abortions:

    [Insert any of a variety of rationalizations to justify NOT to have the same penalty as ‘regular’ murderers]

    So there is that inconsistency too.

  24. brucegee1962 says

    @29 Snidely W
    Don’t say that! I think the desire to become more consistent is behind horrors like the current “ectopic pregnancy” bill in Ohio. Also, if you keep on about this inconsistency, they’re more likely to respond by getting harsher on women and doctors then they are to come around to your point of view.

  25. says

    @brucegee:

    I think it’s a weakness of the entire pro-choice movement that it has no consistent, scientific answer to the question of when a fetus ought to be considered to have rights, and I’d like to put it to the commentariat. I have my own opinion, but I want to hear what others have to say first.

    also…

    @ 19 robertbaden

    Science can’t answer that question. It’s a matter of opinion.

    The problem with this is that the pro-choice movement is supposed to be an actual political force, advocating for a particular set of laws. If we just shrug and say “It’s a matter of opinion,” how are we supposed to work towards an agreed-upon legal framework?

    You’re missing the point that robertbaden said that science can’t answer that question. You’ve asked for the

    scientific answer to the question of when a fetus ought to be considered to have rights

    but rights are not scientific facts. Rights are legal and political constructs and so the arguments for and against such rights are legal and political arguments. Frequently those arguments make reference to facts about the world and those facts might be revealed, investigated and/or confirmed by science, but the arguments are not scientific and there can never be a “scientific” answer to “What rights should brucegee have and how easy should it be for brucegee to exercise those rights?”

  26. says

    Lately I’ve taken to pointing out that “pro-life” people look violent in confrontations. Without the social effort people who needed abortions would have their abortions.

    That seems like a useful piece of information. They need to convince other people of things as a basic part of this social situation. They need to justify the use of social force as fellow citizens. I see people trying to prevent suffering when they have their fetuses extracted. It does no harm to society that I can see.

  27. says

    @aspleen:

    I hope you don’t feel like I’m picking on you since I’ve also disagreed with you in another thread, but I had to correct this mistake in your legal history:

    I’ve already given the answer, which is fetal viability. That was established legally with the Roe v. Wade decision itself.

    Roe v. Wade did not establish viability as the test. Roe v. Wade established the so-called Trimester Framework. A later case from the early 1990s Planned Parenthood v. Casey arising out of Pennsylvania is responsible for both the centrality of viability and the new undue burden standard.

    It’s an understandable mistake for those who don’t study constitutional jurisprudence, but I thought it important to correct the information. In PPvC the court used language that easily confuses those not in the know. The portion of the deciding (plurality) opinion, authored by Kennedy, O’Connor, and Souter, that introduced viability specifically said:

    It must be stated at the outset and with clarity that Roe’s essential holding, the holding we reaffirm, has three parts. First is a recognition of the right of the woman to choose to have an abortion before viability and to obtain it without undue interference from the State. Before viability, the State’s interests are not strong enough to support a prohibition of abortion or the imposition of a substantial obstacle to the woman’s effective right to elect the procedure. Second is a confirmation of the State’s power to restrict abortions after fetal viability, if the law contains exceptions for pregnancies which endanger the woman’s life or health. And third is the principle that the State has legitimate interests from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus that may become a child. These principles do not contradict one another; and we adhere to each.

    This language, especially the bolded part, understandably lead to confusion. But when the court affirmed the “essential holding” it did so with language that dispensed with the trimester framework and essentially argued that the court only chose that framework because it thought that the trimesters of pregnancy were a good, albeit rough, guide to issues like viability which were, in fact, the core concerns of the court. With advances in medical science as to when viability is achieved and in the technologies that allow tests for individual variation from expected development towards viability, the court thought simply making viability the direct test, rather than using trimesters as a proxy test for viability (as Kennedy, O’Connor, and Souter thought the earlier court did) just made sense.

    Whatever they thought motivated the earlier court, and whether or not they were actually correct (and in fact, I do think that they were correct that concerns about viability were one source of motivation for the creation of the original Trimester Framework), the viability test was nonetheless new – not established by Roe v. Wade.

  28. brucegee1962 says

    @31 Crip Dyke,

    Where I’m coming from is that I’ve been looking at previous ethical and political confrontations in this country — independence, slavery, gold standard — that have now stopped being hot-button issues, and asking if that could ever happen with abortion. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of people on one side yelling “A fetus is a person!” and the other side yelling “No it isn’t!” and neither side seems to have much other than gut feelings to back them up. Thus, no compromise position will ever be possible.
    I have my students write argument papers, and abortion is the only topic of public debate that I explicitly forbid. I just don’t see a lot of evidence being used for either side of the position.
    I’m advocating a scientific approach because it’s the only one that I think offers any hope of finding a middle ground. The only way we could ever move on from this issue as a culture (aside from super birth control that ends unwanted pregnancies for good) would be if we could agree as a society on the definition of what a “person” actually is.
    Here’s my suggestion: why not define the beginning of life the same way we define its ending — by brain activity? Humans are defined by their ability to think. Full stop. If you can’t think, you’re not a person.
    I haven’t read up on developmental stages recently to say exactly when that should be, or what kind of EEG brain waves we could point to and say, “Yup, that kid is now conscious.” My memory from the last time I read up on it was around 20 weeks, but I could be off.
    I realize that this position puts me in pretty much a party of one, but I think it’s more defensible than the “Whenever” that I often hear from other pro-choice people.
    Yes, it still leaves the bodily autonomy argument on the table. I’ll try to address that later today.

  29. aspleen says

    @33,

    The trimester framework established in Roe v. Wade is what established fetal viability as a fact to be considered with respect to the state’s interest in judging a woman’s right to an elective abortion. That it was an approximation or proxy for the actual viability of the foetus does not negate that point.

  30. chris61 says

    @34 brucegee1962

    why not define the beginning of life the same way we define its ending — by brain activity? Humans are defined by their ability to think. Full stop. If you can’t think, you’re not a person.

    Not as easy as it sounds and a seriously slippery slope. The definition of brain death involves an “irreversible” loss of meaningful brain activity. There is nothing irreversible about the lack of brain activity in a zygote.

  31. Snidely W says

    Legal types, please correct me if I am wrong:
    Living outside of a uterus = “human being”
    Still inside a uterus ≠ “human being”
    or
    Still inside a uterus = not yet a human being
    Is this not the current state of the law? And ought not this be the point of law that should be maintained at all costs?

  32. says

    @aspleen:

    Viability was not a legally relevant test before or after Roe.

    Viability was not a legally relevant test before PPvC, but was after.

    PPvC established viability as a test under law in the United States. Whether or not you actually know this stuff, your original statement on the relevance of Roe (in your second comment, #21) was misleading . Roe did not establish viability. Casey did.

    Why not simply be grateful that there’s someone here to help educate the audience that you clearly want to be educated on abortion rights in the US? I haven’t contradicted anything about your values, merely factual statements about the law which sure as heck seem wrong, and would certainly be marked wrong on any law school exam. Though I can kinda see how your framing has some truth to it post-elaboration, I don’t want anyone confused about the facts of the law.

    Can you see how and why your statement would be considered wrong on a law school exam? Can you see why I, as someone who cares about reproductive rights law, might want to make sure that readers have the correct information?

  33. aspleen says

    @38,

    Again, the trimester framework was devised as a proxy for fetal viability, and it most definitely became the legally relevant test after Roe v. Wade.

  34. monad says

    @18 brucegee1962: To the extent that the pro-choice side has a weakness here, it’s that they sometimes let the question be framed as “when is this a person”, because in no other case is that what bodily autonomy is actually about. For instance, the reason viability comes up is not because it has anything to do with the nature of the fetus, but because it has to do with what is being imposed on the mother.

    If there was an adult who was dying and needed my blood to save them, certainly one could argue that I should give blood, but very few would say that the government should require me to do so – especially not in the anti-abortion crowd, who often don’t think I should even be required to give money for their care. Bodily autonomy means it’s my choice whether I give up my body fluids to help them. There are risks involved, and it’s up to me if I think I should endure them

    So why then would it be ok to require when it’s not an adult but a fetus, and it’s demanding not just blood but time, care, and internal space, with way more health consequences and potential risks than simply donating blood to an adult? Wouldn’t insisting on that be saying that the fetus has way more rights than an ordinary adult, who you have the right to refuse?

    The trick being played by the anti-abortion crowd making everything about the nature of the fetus in the first place. The answer isn’t to try to come up with some alternate threshold for the gradual change from cell to person, it’s to remember that they aren’t the only one involved in pregnancy.

  35. says

    @aspleen, #39:

    So the answers are no and no.

    Kentucky fried Jesus, I’m trying to help you here. Don’t you have the decency to thank someone when they chime in with information that adds accurate information on a topic you want more people to accurately understand? Or at least not tell them they’re wrong when they’re right? You don’t have to be bashful, you don’t have to be fawning, but when you make a mistake and someone helps you out, shutting up is an option.

  36. Zeppelin says

    Asking “at what point should a fetus be granted full human rights”* is like asking “at what age should people be allowed to drive a car”. We can pass any law we like on the matter, and clearly some cutoffs are more reasonable than others, but it isn’t a question with an “objective” scientific answer.
    “People gain the right to drive at conception” is based on a single measurable and observable biological event. In this sense it’s more “objective” than “people gain the right to drive at age 16/18/whatever”, using age as a proxy for general neurological and social development. But the latter law broadly works, while the former would be a disaster.

    Same thing with abortion. Any honest person capable of critical thinking will acknowledge that whatever cutoff we choose that actually allows for any abortions to take place will be somewhat arbitrary. And so they’re unlikely to have a very strong opinion on precisely where it should go (something monad seems to be frustrated by).

    Opponents of abortion meanwhile are attempting a bit of sleight-of-hand — they’re trying to slip in, alongside the true claim that science can objectively detect their cutoff, the lie that science supports their choice of cutoff.

    *Ignoring for now the question of how to weigh the rights of two people, one of whom is growing parasitically inside the other

  37. says

    @Snidely W:

    Legal types, please correct me if I am wrong:
    Living outside of a uterus = “human being”
    Still inside a uterus ≠ “human being”
    or
    Still inside a uterus = not yet a human being
    Is this not the current state of the law? And ought not this be the point of law that should be maintained at all costs?

    Your question is badly formed since the law is very different in different countries. I’m best qualified to speak on Canadian law, but I can speak knowledgeably about US law as well, though I’m not an expert there.

    In US law the 14th amendment clearly establishes “birth” as the moment a natural person attains legally and constitutionally relevant personhood. The US has established that it has an interest in potential citizens, a somewhat creepy framing used in Roe, but no branch of the federal government has ever determined that personhood exists in any legally relevant sense before birth. Thus your statement

    Still inside a uterus = not yet a human being

    is closest to a succinct lay articulation of the state of US law on natural persons’ status with respect to legal and constitutional personhood. In fact, it’s not only closest, it’s actually IMO as close as it needs to be for communication with or between non-lawyers.

    As for whether or not this standard should be defended, well, yes. US lawyers do that all the time when (for example) they resist bills creating a crime of “fetal homicide” and such that don’t immediately criminalize abortion but instead criminalize acts of violence that cause miscarriage, but use the language and punishments associated with the law of homicide. Defended at all costs? That seems extreme to me if you’re being literal about it, but I think I can understand that as a bit of rhetoric.

  38. brucegee1962 says

    @40 monad, @26 drst

    Here’s the problem I have with the “bodily autonomy” argument for abortion.

    I’ve seen the argument used in PZ’s comments before. As you both state it, it assumes for the sake of argument that a fetus really is a person. The argument is based around this analogy: someone will die without some body part from me, but in a free society I shouldn’t be forced to surrender my bodily autonomy by giving them the part they need. It can be framed as “My right to maintain control over my own body supersedes your right to live.” Is that the gist?

    At first, I found this analogy quite convincing. But the more I thought about, the more it seemed like a poor analogy to pregnancy because it leaves too much out. I came up with this one instead:
    PZ has fallen into a coma due to a rare blood disease. Oh no! But his colleague, the mad scientist Dr. Graboznyk, has determined that you and only have the antibodies in your blood that will save him. So he kidnaps you and operates on you, and when you wake up, you find that you’ve been connected to PZ by a host of wires and tubes.
    “All you have to do is lug his comatose body with you everywhere you go for nine months,” says Dr. Graboznyk. “After that, he’ll be completely fine, and you’ll be free to carry on your life.”
    “Screw that,” you say. “PZ is a great blogger and all, but there’s no way I’m going to be tied to him for nine months. I’m out of here.” And you get ready to rip out all the tubes.
    “Oh no!” says Dr. Graboznyk with a smile. “I put in failsafes, and those tubes are hardened steel. If you separate the two of you, then you’ll both die.”
    Then he hands you a gun. “There’s only one way you can be free,” he says. “If you take this gun and shoot him, then you’ll be able to walk out of here today. Are you willing to do that?”

    If you’re going to analogize, do it right. A fetus isn’t something you can just walk away from and leave to perish on its own. As far as I know, there aren’t any methods of abortion that don’t involve violence. So you can reasonably argue that your right to bodily autonomy supersedes my right to live — but can you also argue that your right to bodily autonomy supersedes my right not to be murdered by you?

  39. dianne says

    @3: A lot of human eggs get wasted in in vitro fertilization.

    True, but incomplete. A lot of eggs, fertilized and unfertilized, get wasted in in vivo fertilization as well. Up to 80% of fertilizations do not result in a baby, the majority of the losses being failed implantations and very early pregnancy loss, usually before a “clinical pregnancy” is established. If we really believed that the conception was a baby, we’d be spending a massive amount of our economy* on trying to prevent those deaths. The very fact that the anti-choice crowd is NOT calling for this is pretty much proof that either they don’t really think that a fertilized egg is a baby or they’re just fine with babies dying.

    *And by “massive” I mean spending the majority of our economy on it. As in, more than half of the money in the country goes to the NIH specifically for the purpose of learning how to prevent early miscarriage. Because babies. Dying babies. Maybe that’s important?

  40. dianne says

    As far as I know, there aren’t any methods of abortion that don’t involve violence.

    Seriously? Have you never heard of mifeprostone? Methotexate? Misoprostol? I suppose you could call it “violence” in the sense that cellular apoptosis is being induced, but in that case I’d like to talk to you about your small intestine’s violent behavior and as for your immune system…

  41. dianne says

    @44: I’d also note that Prof Graboznyk is going to be having some long discussions with the IRB, the FDA, his funding agencies, the police, and probably the manufacturers of plasmapheresis machinery. All but the last* are going to have considerable issues with his behavior. So, by your analogy anyone trying to enforce a pregnancy on another should be facing the wrath of a number of ethical, regulatory, and legal authorities because they have behaved in an extremely unethical manner. Thank you for highlighting the extremity of the anti-choice position’s lack of ethics so clearly.

    *They’re just wondering why he didn’t buy their equipment and pherese the relevant antibodies out and provide them more safely and conveniently to PZ. Because Prof G seems quite unfamiliar with the literature. One wonders where he got the funds to do these experiments.

  42. dianne says

    @34: You’re off. The short answer is “we don’t know”. EEG monitoring of a fetus is extremely technically difficult, for reasons that are obvious (how do you connect an electrode to a fetus’s head?) and less obvious (there’s a lot of extraneous electrical activity in the uterus that interferes with the EEG reading). We can say for certain that there is no brain activity in the embryonic period when most abortions occur because there’s really no brain yet, in terms of stationary neurons and connections. Another point is that the uterine environment is hypoxic. The cerebral cortex doesn’t do well with hypoxia. Most people lose consciousness very rapidly under hypoxic conditions. (That’s why they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first.) It is likely that no fetus has significant consciousness due to the hypoxic environment, so the mental state of a fetus is probably somewhat equivalent to that of a person in a coma. Who decides whether a person in a coma receives heroic medical care or comfort care only? The nearest relative. In this case, the pregnant person. Oops, here we are back with the choice of the pregnant person mattering again!

  43. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    brucegee1962 #44

    No analogy is perfect, they are tools to help folks understand concepts. The medical one used to explain bodily autonomy isn’t perfect, but yours is a disingenuous straw stuffed fever-dream.

    By splitting what in reality is a fetus into PZ and an evil doctor you’re creating a situation that maximises the ‘innocence’ of the parasitic party. And let’s be clear here: PZ is not a fetus. He’s a fully realised human, with thoughts, memories and community. A fetus is only a potential human and is not equivalent to an adult, and recognising that distinction is important.

    And by adding the ridiculous stipulation that the doctor cannot separate them without killing both is another dodge that has no analogy in reality. You had to do that because anyone can see that in reality your doctor is evil and demanding they undo that shit at gun point would be morally justifiable.

    But in the end the important thing to remember is that the analogy is not the thing. Analogy will always be flawed. In this case the thing is the absolute right of humans to say how their body is used, and inventing impossible fantasy situations tells us nothing useful about the reality of unwanted pregnancy.

  44. monad says

    @44 brucegee1962: It’s not a case of “my right to maintain control over my own body supersedes your right to live”, it’s a case of “you don’t get to decide what risks are acceptable for me”. Weird that your “better” analogy tries to make abortion akin to the most violent act possible – not letting someone die or euthanasia but a brutal and painful murder – yet somehow doesn’t bother recognizing pregnancy as having any kind of risk beyond inconvenience. Unlike framing everything to be about when the fetus becomes a person, at least you recognize that the mother exists, but still not that she might have anything real at stake. Can you really not see how that results in a very warped perspective?

  45. Saad says

    brucegee1962, #44

    “All you have to do is lug his comatose body with you everywhere you go for nine months,” says Dr. Graboznyk. “After that, he’ll be completely fine, and you’ll be free to carry on your life.”

    There’s another problem with your analogy. Getting an abortion and giving birth to your baby and then giving it up for adoption are two very, very different options for being “free to carry on your life” (both physically and emotionally).

  46. rrhain says

    Regarding the claim that over a billion people have died since the year 2000, I decided to look up the death rate.
    According to the World Population Clock, approximately 55M people have died in 2019. It’s about 20 years since 2000. So 20 * 55M = …
    1.1 billion people.
    And we don’t consider that to be the end of the world.
    That so many women have needed an abortion indicates to me that we need to make sure the process is safe and available to all who need it.

  47. embraceyourinnercrone says

    @Snidely W –
    Not at all a legal type, but having been pregnant 3 times and miscarried 2 of those time, with one requiring a D&C to removed the dead fetus personally I really don’t need someone else’s religious/personal/whatever ideas of fetal brain activity or when life begins deciding whether I am entitled to requested or required medical care. Side note, I also think if one decides to continue a pregnancy one has a responsibility to the growing fetus to try not to damage it, but that means help for people who are pregnant and struggling with addiction etc, not punishment.

    Physically the embryo/fetus is a parasite. Pregnancy and birth can kill or permanently damage the person carrying the pregnancy. Whether a person decides to continue a pregnancy should mostly be up to the person taking the risk. From a interesting post that details just some of the physical dangers of pregnancy
    https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/4/15/1082439/-The-fetus-is-a-parasite

    Hyperemesis gravidarum

    Temporary and permanent injury to back

    Severe scarring requiring later surgery (especially after additional pregnancies)

    Dropped (prolapsed) uterus (especially after additional pregnancies, and other pelvic floor weaknesses — 11% of women, including cystocele, rectocele, and enterocele)

    Pre-eclampsia (edema and hypertension, the most common complication of pregnancy, associated with eclampsia, and affecting 7 – 10% of pregnancies)
    Eclampsia (convulsions, coma during pregnancy or labor, high risk of death)

    Gestational diabetes

    Placenta previa

    Anemia (which can be life-threatening)

    Thrombocytopenic purpura

    Severe cramping

    Embolism (blood clots)

    Medical disability requiring full bed rest (frequently ordered during part of many pregnancies varying from days to months for health of either mother or baby)

    Diastasis recti, also torn abdominal muscles

    Mitral valve stenosis (most common cardiac complication)

    Serious infection and disease (e.g. increased risk of tuberculosis)

    Hormonal imbalance

    Ectopic pregnancy (risk of death)

    Broken bones (ribcage, “tail bone”)

    Hemorrhage and numerous other complications of delivery

    Refractory gastroesophageal reflux disease

    Aggravation of pre-pregnancy diseases and conditions (e.g. epilepsy is present in .5% of pregnant women, and the pregnancy alters drug metabolism and treatment prospects all the while it increases the number and frequency of seizures)

    Severe post-partum depression and psychosis

    Research now indicates a possible link between ovarian cancer and female fertility treatments, including “egg harvesting” from infertile women and donors research also now indicates correlations between lower breast cancer survival rates and proximity in time to onset of cancer of last pregnancy. Research also indicates a correlation between having six or more pregnancies and a risk of coronary and cardiovascular disease

  48. embraceyourinnercrone says

    @brucegee1962 – Birth control fails, genetic abnormalities cause sometimes horrific birth defects (No forebrain, Brittle bone disease, organs developed outside the body, I could go on for paragraphs) , current testing is not instantaneous which can cause delays in finding out your fetus has problems, current state laws in the U.S. at least, cause delays in being able to obtain an abortion if you want one, once you find out,

    Six states are now down to one abortion clinic — Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia. Some states require a waiting period, meaning you go to get an abortion you have to wade through all the protesters, then all the questions they are required to ask and then you have to come back days later to get the actual abortion. If you have to travel hundreds of miles to the clinic, then get a hotel room for several days AND pay hundreds of dollars for the procedure, that’s more than many people can afford.

    SO basically I’m sorta done with thinking it’s OK for people to decide that people who can get pregnant don’t have a right to decide what is best for their body and their life. “Just have the baby and give it up” does not take into account the person’s circumstances or desires.

    Many people who want abortions are married, many of them have kids already, they don’t want any more. And before you say “Just get your tubes tied” a lot of doctors will not perform tubal ligation if you are under a certain age, if you don’t have children, if you are not married, if you are married and don’t get your spouses permission. If the hospital available to you when you deliver a baby at is a Catholic one, you CAN NOT get your tubes tied when you deliver for instance.
    Many health plans lock you into specific hospitals and specific OBs.

    Pregnant women have been refused drinks in restaurants, Arrested and forcibly hospitalized because they refused a bedrest order, jailed because they attempted suicide while pregnant, jailed because they miscarried and had drugs in their system, been refused an abortion that was needed so they would not die .

    Pregnant people have already had a lot of their bodily autonomy taken away.

  49. says

    So there’s a blog post over at We Hunted The Mammoth that just hit the internet. it seems quite relevant here.

    The money quote:

    We must overturn Row V. Wade. [But] let’s be real, it’s not about killing babies. I only really care if a woman kills my kid, I don’t care about anyone else’s. [Banning] abortion is about making it so women are scared to have more than one sexual partner.

    We can argue about ethics if we like (I’ve done quite a lot of that over my lifetime), but we’re not really speaking the language of most of the people who actively oppose abortion (as opposed to those who generally do nothing on the topic but might express humbugs when someone else broaches it).

    And even with the people who are only interested in humbugging, it’s hard to know how many of those have an actual, coherent ethical objection and how many of those, as well, simply feel that women should be afraid of having sex.

  50. smrnda says

    So he argues that ‘human life begins at fertilization’ is an argument against abortion, but notes that a majority of the biologists surveyed are pro choice.

    He’s sort of conducting 2 surveys where he’s hoping to make an argument that group 1 is locked into being against abortion because they want opinions from group 2, but where group 2 is actually majority pro choice.

Leave a Reply