Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Using science to prove when life begins

That's a position that too many pro-life advocates don't take, but I think it's the best way to discuss the issue in a society that rejects religious arguments out of hand.

And no one should know that better than John Podhoretz of the New York Post, who got into a Corner Fracas yesterday (mostly) with Robert P. George. George is a law professor at Princeton, and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, and he started this fracas by inviting a discussion on issues such as stem-cell research or abortion without any reference to religion. "Let's agree to resolve our difference of opinion," he wrote, "strictly on the basis of the best available scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins."

And Podhoretz jumped in with both feet. The problem is, he was arguing like an unarmed man in a shootout — he flat out admitted he was "not a scientist and not fit to examine the evidence that says 'life begins at conception.' "

He began by arguing that the "life begins at conception" argument is illogical because 25 percent of all pregnancies end in natural miscarriage, which "suggest[s] a kind of vicious brutality in nature -- Hobbes at his most Hobbesian -- that in turn leads us to a social Darwinism in which literally only the strong survive even to be born?"

However, he never explains how a natural pregnancy termination has anything to do with the argument of whether life begins at conception, and that might be because there is no correlation. People at all stages of development die before society thinks they should, and it has no bearing on the origin of life. A friend of mine just lost his wife to a freak aneurism at the age of 41, which no one would argue was a sufficient length of life, but her early death has nothing to do with when her life began, or whether she was fully human. It's no different with a fetus — whether the fetus dies two days or 20 weeks after conception, it still had all the building blocks of humanity intact and in place. (This includes a unique human DNA, not that of its mother, so any claim that the embryo is just a part of its mother like the spleen or liver is flat-out wrong.)

This "25 percent of pregnancies spontaneously abort" argument also doesn't explain why human efforts to mess with embryonic life are appropriate. A certain percentage of pregnancies end because of causes outside man's control (call it God, call it nature, call it a fluke, whatever), but that doesn't give man license to take nature's controls and steer humanity in a different direction. By that definition, I could say that whales spontaneously beach themselves on occasion, so that means I can harpoon the next pod I see and sell the blubber on the open market.

To further explain, Podhoretz said an embryo is "a seedling of a human being. Until a fetus is six weeks old it doesn't even have a gender. If you believe it to be fully human, you believe it not because of logic or science, but because of BELIEF -- which I respect and which is why I don't think Professor George's original proposal can do the trick to reconcile opposing views on stem-cell research."

Remember, it was Robert George who invited discussions based on scientific fact, yet it is John Podhoretz who is throwing out the faith card. The fact that a fetus has no gender until several weeks into development still has no bearing on its humanity, as 1) gender is determined at (here's that word again) conception thanks to the X vs. Y chromosome (something several e-mails reminded him about), and 2) using such an argument would imply that those who don't fully develop a gender due to some chromasomal abnormality are not human (which is clearly not a supportable position).

At what point do you define humanity? When it has a beating heart (at about 20 days, and by the way, with its own blood, which is often a different type from the mother)? When you can measure brain waves (six weeks)? When its organs are functioning (about eight weeks)? Those are important milestones in human development, but they are just that — milestones. Just as changes from infant to toddler to child to preteen to teen to adult are additional milestones in human development. They are insufficient for defining humanity, as humanity has already happened. When the sperm and egg merge into a human zygote, they shed the human markers of the parents and are transformed into a new life — one with its own DNA, its own characteristics. Any subsequent changes in development have no bearing on its humanity.

Scott Klusendorf at the Life Training Institute has a great acronym for explaining how pre-born children are no different in their humanity from infants. The acronym is SLED, and it stands for:
  • Size: We don't discriminate based on size. The size of a man vs. a woman does not impact whether men should have more rights than women, and the size of the fetus at any stage of development does not impact its humanity. Size does not equate to value.
  • Level of Development: Just as a teenager does not have more rights to humanity than a newborn because of its stage of development, the same is true of a child at any stage of development in utero. The development of self-awareness is not valid for defining humanity, as it would eliminate newborns and those in reversible comas.
  • Environment: A person's location does not impact his or her rights. You don't become more of a person by moving from the living room to the kitchen, from high school to college, or from the womb to the crib.
  • Degree of Dependency: Our reliance on outside assistance for life does not detract from our humanity. If that were the case, then those on dialysis or life support could be killed without a second thought. Similarly, a child relying on its mother through the placenta does not forfeit its humanity because of that reliant relationship.
Podhoretz displays an interesting definition of words like "facts," "science" and "faith" with this concluding paragraph:
What astonishes me in the course of this discussion (to judge from the blizzards of e-mails and other blog items done on this debate) is that I, a relatively secular person, am arguing the position that we cannot understand the mystery of life without faith -- and that a great many pro-llfers, whose commitment to life is religious in nature and whose religion plays a far more central role in their lives than it does in mine, are arguing with me on the grounds that the whole business can be discerned entirely through reason and science.
There are two reasons for that: 1) Robert George laid those out as the ground rules from the start. Podhoretz was the one who brought faith into the discussion; and 2) The whole business can be discerned entirely through reason and science. Robert George laid out the scientific reasons why this was so, and Podhoretz refused to listen.


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