Why Sam Alexander is Wrong on ‘Personhood’

In an August 15 letter to the Denver Post, Sam Alexander offers the following argument in favor of Amendment 62, the “personhood” measure that will appear on November’s ballot:

As an obstetrician/gynecologist and reproductive endocrinologist, I can assure [Ed] Quillen [see his article] that human development — from the embryo to the fetus, infant, child and adult stages — is an uninterrupted continuum; a human being is always present. We do not value human beings based upon functional capacity, but upon the intrinsic properties which make us human. Consequently, all human beings in a liberal democracy should be treated with the respect due a person, with full rights and dignity.

Alexander ignores two fundamental facts. First, a zygote is a clump of largely-undifferentiated cells without any human organs or capacities. Second, until birth, a zygote, embryo, or fetus is wholly contained within the woman’s body and utterly dependent on her body for sustenance. Thus, while there is no doubt a “continuum” of development from fertilization through adulthood, an individual person with legal rights emerges at birth. (Until that point, the law properly supports a woman’s desire to protect her fetus from outside aggression, as an extension of her body.) For the more complete case, read the paper by Diana Hsieh and me (or the soon-to-be released updated version of the paper).

I do think it’s worth pointing out the obvious logical fallacies that Alexander commits in his letter.

Consider the following statements: “Stubble grows into a beard; therefore, stubble is a beard.” “An acorn grows into an oak tree; therefore, an acorn is an oak tree.” “A caterpillar develops into a butterfly; therefore, a caterpillar is a butterfly.” “An adult human develops into a corpse; therefore, an adult human is a corpse.”

Like Alexander’s statement, these are all examples of the logical fallacy known as the “argument of the beard” or the “continuum fallacy.” Something can in an “uninterrupted continuum” develop into something else and yet be become a basically different thing. That is precisely what happens when an egg is fertilized and develops into a born infant. The obvious fact that a zygote (in the proper environment) develops into a born infant — a person — does not imply that a zygote is a person.

Alexander’s second logical fallacy is an equivocation on the term “human being.” The cited paper explains:

In fact, the advocates of Amendment 48 [now Amendment 62] depend on an equivocation on “human being” to make their case. A fertilized egg is human, in the sense that it contains human DNA. It is also a “being,” in the sense that it is an entity. …[T]he fact that an embryo is biologically a human entity is not grounds for claiming that it’s a human person with a right to life. Calling a fertilized egg a “human being” is word-play intended to obscure the vast biological differences between a fertilized egg traveling down a woman’s fallopian tube and a born infant sleeping in a crib.

Finally, Alexander appeals to his own authority, when in fact his expertise shed no light whatsoever on the (faulty) conclusions he draws.

Given the obviously deficient arguments Alexander offers in his letter, might I suppose that he has underlying motives for endorsing “personhood” that he did not mention in the letter?



Elisheva Hannah Levin August 20, 2010 at 4:53 PM
Very interesting. No doubt that there is a continuum of development from fertilized egg to a human baby making its way with great help from its mother into the world. But I think the real argument is about the right of the already born woman who carries the child to make determinations about her own health and happiness. Being the mother of two children who made it to birth and beyond, I can say that pregnancy is not easy, and not without risk. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, this last is the reason why the issue of abortion is generally left to the discretion of the mother–she carries the child and she takes the risk. I cannot imagine that someone quite outside of the situation has any say in the matter, since he neither takes the risks nor suffers the consequences of pregnancy.
It is not that I do not value my children, but if push had come to shove, I value my own life more. And in the case of a very risky pregnancy where the mother has other children already born, what of them? She has already put a great deal of energy and effort into their lives and well being, and to choose to risk those lives for the sake of an unknown risk makes no biological sense whatsoever.
My guess is that abortion has been around a very long time.