A recent spat between Barack Obama and James Dobson offers a good opportunity to further reply to Colorado Right to Life and Bob Kyffin on abortion.
Here’s what Barack Obama said on June 28, 2006, in his “Call to Renewal” address:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
I have expressed the same view on this web page. Note that Obama in fact holds a “pro-choice position.”
The problem is that nobody has made an effective, non-religious argument for banning abortion. Instead, Colorado Right to Life (and the Republican candidates who signed its questionnaire) explicitly invoke God’s will as the foundation of their position.
Now Dobson of Focus on the Family has attacked Obama’s stance, saying, according to the AP, “Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies? What he’s trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.”
Notably, Dobson is misrepresenting Obama’s position. Obama did not claim that people must conform their views to what “everybody agrees” is correct; instead, he said people should make “universal” arguments “subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”
Dobson’s dilemma is that no reasonable argument supports the definition of a fertilized egg as a person or the prohibition of abortion. Thus, his only option is to “evoke God’s will.”
As if to further illustrate the point, Bob Kyffin sent in a reply to my criticism of his statements (stemming from my critique of Colorado Right to Life). Kyffin attempts to make a universal, reasonable argument in favor of banning abortion, but his argument completely fails.
Kyffin argues that an embryo, and even a feritlized egg, is a person because, first, “life begins at conception,” and, second, a fertilized egg has “its own DNA” that dictates many of the egg’s future traits, if brought to term.
Life not only begins at conception but precedes conception. Both the sperm and egg are living human entities. But not all living human entities are people. As I’ve mentioned, every cell in our bodies is a living human entity. Every cell is alive, and every cell contains human DNA. Yet Kyffin would hardly argue that we’re committing mass murder every time we take a shower and exfoliate thousands of living, human cells.
Obviously, the mere fact that a fertilized egg contains human DNA does not qualify it for personhood for the same basic reason.
The difference that Kyffin seems to be going for, then, is that a fertilized egg, unlike a lone sperm or egg cell or a skin cell, has the capacity, if attached in a specific way to a healthy female uterus, to develop into an embryo, then a fetus, and finally into a born human being (a person). (We’ll leave aside the complication that it’s now possible to develop a new, independent human being from the DNA of any living human cell.)
But the fact that a fertilized egg has the capacity (in a certain environment) to develop into a person does not imply that the fertilized egg is itself a person. A fertilized egg has none of the relevant features of personhood, other than human DNA. It has no organs, cannot survive independently, etc. It is utter lunacy to call a fertilized egg a person. Kyffin might as well argue that an oak tree is a house, a field of grass a beef steak, or a silk worm a fine suit, because in each case the first thing has the capacity to develop into the second.
A necessary condition for personhood is the ability to survive independently, without any direct nourishment from the body of another. A newborn baby obviously needs a caregiver to provide food, warmth, etc. But a newborn baby is dramatically different than a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus, in that the newborn baby is an independent entity that will continue to live on its own if left by itself. A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus physically cannot leave the mother without physical removal, and, until lates stages, if left on its own it will quickly die. A fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus is radically dependent on its mother’s physical body, whereas a newborn is not.
This radical, physical dependency is a large part of the reason why a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have the rights of personhood. One implication of this is that a pregnant woman has the right to get an abortion. As I’ve said, a woman who has decided to get an abortion is morally bound to get it in the early term whenever feasible. However, even in very-late term pregnancies, in any conflict between the safety of the mother and the safety of the fetus, the mother has every moral right to protect her own life. (She is also properly free to accept increased risk to herself in order to protect the fetus.)
Those who oppose abortion typically invoke the horrors of gratuitous, late-term abortions in order to advocate the prohibition of abortion even of a fertilized egg. But gratuitous, late-term abortions are practically non-existent. Practically all abortions occur in the early terms.
For what it’s worth, here’s what Roe v. Wade has to say on the matter: “State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”
Generally, I oppose restrictions even for late-term abortions, because the practical effect would be to intimidate doctors with zealous prosecution, thereby interfering with their considerations of the “life or health of the mother.”
The essential debate, though, is over abortion in the early terms. Kyffin and Colorado Right to Life (CRTL) hold that a fertilized egg is a person and therefore should be granted full rights.
As I have argued, one obvious implication of the view that a fertilized egg is a person is that doctors would be legally required (or at least bullied) into sacrificing the lives of some women. CRTL’s position is thus morally abhorrent.
At some level, CRTL seems to be aware that its position is horrific, or at least at odds with the common decency of most people. And so CRTL has tried to create an escape clause. As I’ve explained:
CRTL uses the same sleight of rhetoric. Recall that the position of CRTL is that “It is… wrong… to kill the baby to save the mother.” CRTL opposes “the intentional killing of the unborn child, for the life of the mother.” CRTL states, “When the mother’s life is seriously threatened by a pregnancy, of course it is morally justified to deliver the baby but not if the intention is to kill the baby. … If the baby dies, it is a tragedy; if the baby is intentionally killed, it is murder.”
CRTL’s position doesn’t hold up for early-term pregnancies. “Delivering” an unformed embryo will kill it. Yet the only way that CRTL can preserve its stance that a fertilized egg is a person and still allow doctors to save the life of the mother is to pretend that “delivery” of an unformed embryo to death is somehow different than intentionally killing it. …
So long as CRTL clings to the faith-based fantasy that a fertilized egg is a person, the group has only two paths. Either it can openly acknowledge that it would sometimes sacrifice the lives of women, or it can allow women to get abortions whenever they see any risk to their lives. This second path, however, is inconsistent with CRTL’s position that “It is… wrong… to kill the baby to save the mother.”
CRTL’s escape clause doesn’t work. If a doctor removes an embryo, the embryo will certainly die. (I’m leaving aside test-tube scenarios.) Any early-term abortion, for whatever reason, is an intentional act that necessarily results in the death of the embryo.
Yet Kyffin tries to exploit the same absurd escape clause:
…CRTL says, “if the baby dies, it is a tragedy; if the baby is intentionally killed, it is murder.” The result may be the same. The intent is clearly different. There is a distinct and critical difference between the unfortunate death of a baby whose life could not be saved, in the course of protecting the mother, and the situation where a doctor goes in and intentionally kills the baby when it is not necessary. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, there is a (presumably) 0% chance of the baby surviving, and that is unfortunate. And yet, CRTL would support a surgery to protect the mother, so long as there is no malicious intent in the doctor’s mind to intentionally kill the baby. … Since the baby needs the mother to survive, then of course CRTL would support taking such actions to preserve her life, even if it may mean the death of the baby…
I note my objection to referring to a fertilized egg or undeveloped embryo as a “baby,” as the term wrongly implies personhood. Also, Kyffin is not, so far as I am aware, an authorized spokesperson for CRTL, so I will treat his comments as one possible interpretation of CRTL’s stated positions.
Kyffin’s intentionality argument is absurd (and could be taken as a reductio ad absurdum of his premise that a fertilized egg is a person). True, intention is an element of a criminal act. For example, one who intentionally fires a bullet into an innocent person is a murderer, while one who thoughtlessly fires a bullet over a crowd and strikes an innocent party has committed manslaughter but not (intentional) murder. But the idea that a doctor might remove a fertilized egg “to protect the mother,” without having the intention to kill the fertilized egg, is laughable.
Here’s an analogy. Let’s say one of the Inquisition’s torturers were brought up on charges according to modern law. If the torturer said, “Look, I didn’t have the intention of inflicting pain on the victim; I had only the intention of saving the victim’s soul, as well as the souls of observers,” that obviously wouldn’t fly. The pain was an obvious and necessary result of the torture; it was intentional. According to CRTL’s premise that a fertilized egg is a person, a doctor who removes a fertilized egg, causing its death but not “intending” its death, should be just as guilty as the torturer. Given that CRTL’s premise is ridiculous, the doctor is morally blameless.
I wish to stress that my case for legal abortion does not rest upon the fact that, if a fertilized egg were legally defined as a person and given full legal protection as such, the result would be the deaths of innocent women. It is true that CRTL’s policies, if fully enforced, would kill women. However, even if by some stroke of a magic wand this were not the case, abortion should still remain legal, based on a woman’s right to control her body. However, the fact that CRTL’s policy would kill women, coupled with the fact that CRTL attempts to evade this fact, helps to demonstrate the weakness of CRTL’s case.
There is no reason, no argument, no universal moral case that supports the notion that a fertilized egg is a person. The contrary claim can come only from faith, the belief that God said so. Such faith-based legal policies have no place in a free society.