An Abortion Dialogue

Dialogue pointing out some difficulties of materialist objections to abortion.
philosophy, transhumanism, biology, genetics
2008-11-102019-03-05 finished certainty: possible importance: 2

Does dis­card­ing re­li­gious ob­jec­tions to abor­tion like “souls” re­solve the de­mar­ca­tion prob­lems in dis­cus­sions of abor­tion? Can we draw sharp ma­te­ri­al­is­tic bi­ol­o­gy-based lines be­tween “hu­man” moral sta­tus, with such en­ti­ties to be pro­tected as strongly as pos­si­ble, and less-pro­tected sta­tuses which per­mit things like stem-cell re­search, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, or any kind of abor­tion rang­ing from elec­tive to life-sav­ing? Is hu­man­ity based on DNA chau­vin­ism or mere pos­si­bil­i­ty, or is it more fun­da­men­tally based on the mind? Be­low I pon­der some back­-and-forth be­tween some of the in­tu­itive de­fi­n­i­tions and ar­gu­ments I’ve seen peo­ple pro­pose, and some of the bi­ol­ogy which com­pli­cates our wishes for bright-line rules in these ques­tions.


[Con­trar­ian knocks on the door. Apol­o­gist an­swer­s.]

Con­trar­i­an: Greet­ings! Might I ask whether you’ve an opin­ion on abor­tion?

Apol­o­gist: As it hap­pens, I’ve thought about the is­sue a lit­tle.

Con­t.: My friend, the sit­u­a­tion hardly bears think­ing on; this holo­caust de­mands our ac­tion! Ac­cept abor­tion is evil and in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized mur­der of hu­man­i­ty, and let’s dis­cuss what we can do about it.

Apol.: Now hold on—I never said I thought abor­tion is a bad thing. On first glance, it looks pretty good: it’s an aid to fam­ily plan­ning, com­pen­sat­ing for im­per­fect birth con­trol; it re­duces the prob­lem of pop­u­la­tion growth; it can save the lives of wom­en, and so on. Be­sides the risks in­her­ent to a ma­jor med­ical pro­ce­dure, what’s so bad about it?

Ct.: I al­ready said what was so bad—mil­lions of hu­mans have been killed by abor­tion! The sum is now far past any­thing the Nazis dreamed of; as we al­low time to pass with this hor­rific prac­tice un­curbed, even Stalin and Mao’s body-counts will be over­shad­owed. Abor­tion is noth­ing but clin­i­cal­ized mur­der of a hu­man be­ing!

Ap.: But are they?

C: Are who what?

A: Fe­tus­es, I mean. Are they re­ally hu­man be­ings?


C: Of course they are. 2 cells from 2 hu­mans unite in­side a wom­an, they swell and grow, they come out of that hu­man, they are called a hu­man, live a hu­man life, and even­tu­ally die still a hu­man. When ex­actly would they not be a hu­man?

A: Well, when I look at a fe­tus in its first trimester, I don’t see much “hu­man” there. I see a blob of cells, look­ing like a gen­er­ally mam­malian fe­tus. It does­n’t think, it does­n’t feel—it does­n’t do any­thing I rec­og­nize as uniquely hu­man. Heck, it “does” so lit­tle that it can’t ex­ist ex­cept as a par­a­site on the wom­an, and even as a par­a­site, it’s pretty pa­thet­ic. A tape­worm would look down on it.


C: It may be a blob of cells, but it’s a blob of cells with hu­man DNA, from and in­side a hu­man. That’s what makes a world of differ­ence com­pared with a tape­worm.

A: I’m not sure we can equate be­ing hu­man as hav­ing the same DNA as other hu­mans. What about a tu­mor? Each tu­mor has hu­man DNA, is in­side a hu­man and of that hu­man, and so as far as I can see is just as hu­man as your fe­tus. For that mat­ter, tu­mors can weigh dozens of pound­s—­does that mean a gi­ant tu­mor is more hu­man than a fe­tus which weighs no more than 10 pounds? If so, then I guess your claims about a holo­caust are cor­rect, but too low by bil­lions!

C: Can­cers arise of ge­netic mu­ta­tions, do they not?

A: That’s no good: some can­cers are hered­i­tary, and every fe­tus car­ries dozens to hun­dreds of de novo . Be­sides if just 1 or 2 ge­netic changes suffice to ren­der some­thing non­hu­man, then does­n’t gene ther­apy be­come mur­der?


C: That’s well-said, but I have to deny the anal­o­gy. It’s true that tu­mors are made of cells with hu­man DNA, but they’re no more hu­man than an E. Coli in my gut which swaps for some hu­man DNA with an­oth­er, or a go­rilla or chim­panzee who both have more than 90% of our DNA, or for that mat­ter, rice and ba­nanas with around 50%. No, the key at­tribute you’re miss­ing is the po­ten­tial. A fe­tus has po­ten­tial to grow into some­thing we both ac­cept as hu­man. No mat­ter how many E. Coli you cul­ture or tu­mors suffer to grow, you’ll never see one turn into a hu­man be­ing. They don’t have the po­ten­tial.

A: So what would be your de­fi­n­i­tion? Some­thing is hu­man if it’s a hu­man be­ing like you or me, or if it has hu­man DNA and is go­ing to be­come a hu­man in the fu­ture?

C: Fair enough.

A: But fe­tuses still aren’t hu­man. Most fe­tuses wind up be­ing shed with the uterus’s lin­ing, or just dy­ing, or are so dam­aged they never come to term. There’s a chance they’ll be­come hu­man, but the cu­mu­la­tive odds are low. Mother Na­ture is the great­est abor­tion­ist of all.1


C: Many things in life are low odds. Let’s just say “is pos­si­ble for it to be­come a hu­man be­ing”. That sounds rea­son­able to me. If you ac­cept that, then you must con­demn abor­tion!

A: I can’t be so en­thu­si­as­tic. Let me offer a thought-ex­per­i­ment. Sup­pose we take a woman from her sub­ur­ban ex­is­tence. Let’s call her… . So, we anes­thetize Sher­ry, crack open her skull, and scoop un­til all that’s left is her spinal cord and brain stem. To be cer­tain, we toss every­thing into the in­cin­er­a­tor. Is Sherry (or her body) still hu­man? Are we guilty of mur­der?

C: Well… the mind is ir­re­triev­ably gone. You can’t re­grow a brain. But peo­ple would still re­act to her as a hu­man be­ing—the is­sue is ob­vi­ous to them—so I would say yes to both.

A: Sup­pose we then hired a mad plas­tic sur­geon to trans­form her body into some­thing non­hu­man. Per­haps a hu­manoid cat. Now if they hap­pened to come across it, her own fam­ily would no longer rec­og­nize her as hu­man. Cer­tainly they would not rec­og­nize her as their Sher­ry. What then?

C: I know the an­swer you ex­pect—“No, since no­body treats her as hu­man, and she has no fu­ture po­ten­tial.”

A: Since the body is no longer hu­man, but some­thing “lower”, some­thing an­i­mal at best, surely it fol­lows we can do any­thing to it that we could do to an an­i­mal. We could con­duct ex­per­i­ments on it, aban­don it in the woods, kill it, butcher and eat it…

C: Stop, stop! Al­right, maybe the ob­vi­ous-and-po­ten­tial cri­te­rion is­n’t ac­cept­able after all.

A: Well, how do you sug­gest we mod­ify it? You can’t aban­don the po­ten­tial­ity cri­te­rion with­out also aban­don­ing fe­tus­es, re­mem­ber.

C: Then I’ll drop the “ob­vi­ous” cri­te­ri­on. It was wrong of me to ac­cept that in the first place: this very dis­cus­sion is proof that what is hu­man is ap­par­ently not ob­vi­ous! Even a sub­set like de­cid­ing “gen­der” is hugely com­plex2, so why not hu­man­ity as well? This cri­te­rion cov­ers adults (as one must have the po­ten­tial to ‘be­come’ hu­man if one al­ready is hu­man), and fe­tus­es, but ex­cludes tu­mors and chimeric bac­te­ria.

A: I am not nor­mally a dis­agree­able per­son, but there must be some­thing in the air to­day. Aban­don­ing the ap­peal to so­cial judg­ment as part of your per­son­hood cri­te­ria seems to me to be quite as wrong as affirm­ing it.

C: A strong claim. May I ask for an ex­am­ple of how “po­ten­tial” on its own could go so astray?

A: Cer­tain­ly. But I have some pre­lim­i­nary points. Now, you ac­cept that on the level of in­di­vid­ual cells and such-like, every­thing is de­ter­mined by phys­i­cal laws and start­ing con­di­tions, yes?

C: Yes.

A: By which I mean, an em­bryo or zy­gote (which grow into the fe­tus) is an ex­tremely com­plex ag­glom­er­a­tion of chem­i­cals or atoms in a par­tic­u­lar arrange­ment. If I were to man­u­fac­ture an­other such ag­glom­er­a­tion, iden­ti­cal down to the mol­e­c­u­lar lev­el, what I would get is a zy­gote or em­bryo which is very sim­i­lar (if not iden­ti­cal) to the orig­i­nal?

C: Yes. No doubt there would be differ­ences as the cells grew, ways in which the im­per­fect repli­ca­tion in­ter­acted with the vary­ing con­di­tions to pro­duce vary­ing re­sults. If you were not art­ful enough, the ag­glom­er­a­tion might not even be alive.

A: But if I were, it would grow and de­vel­op?

C: Yes. I am no mys­ter­ian who be­lieves in an élan vi­tal or New Age-y quan­tum magic or some such fool­ish­ness. You put the right in­gre­di­ents in the right or­der, and you get life. It’s that sim­ple. Why, we can syn­the­size in lab­o­ra­to­ries! Syn­the­siz­ing a fer­til­ized hu­man egg differs only in be­ing much more diffi­cult. It is doable in prin­ci­ple.

A: But do you sup­pose it would be more or less diffi­cult to turn a ran­dom hu­man skin cell into a fer­til­ized egg than to syn­the­size a fer­til­ized egg from scratch?

C: Less, I should think. The skin cell will have pre-con­structed many of the nec­es­sary con­stituents; one would­n’t have to con­struct all the com­mon cel­lu­lar struc­tures like or the and . I be­lieve I have read about skin cells which be­come , and I un­der­stand stem cells can be made into any kind of cell. We can even con­vert skin cells to heart cells with­out con­vert­ing to stem cells first!3

A: Which fi­nally brings me to my point: so is­n’t it true, then, that any cell in the body has the “po­ten­tial” to be­come a hu­man? Even the lowly skin cell, shed after just 2 weeks, can as­pire to per­son­hood if placed in the right broth of chem­i­cals.

C: To con­vert a skin cell to a zy­gote and grow it—that’s some broth.

A: But it can be done!4 And don’t your fe­tuses need quite a broth as well? Re­mem­ber that most fe­tuses never be­come ba­bies, after all. But to con­tin­ue: you only men­tioned pos­si­bil­i­ty. Your pos­si­bil­ity grants per­son­hood to every cell of the body. I don’t think Walt Whit­man meant “I con­tain mul­ti­tudes” quite that way!

C: That’s a re­ally con­trived ex­am­ple. “Pos­si­bil­ity” in or­di­nary lan­guage does­n’t in­clude as­tro­nom­i­cally small odds. If even 1 cell were to be raised in the ex­tra­or­di­nary man­ner you pro­pose, that would be just 1 lucky cell out of lit­er­ally quadrillions of hu­man cells to have ever ex­isted (i­nas­much as every hu­man con­tains around 100 tril­lion cells, and es­ti­mates of the to­tal hu­man pop­u­la­tion are over 100 bil­lion).


A: I have an­other ob­jec­tion, then. No doubt you’ve pre­pared a slip­pery slope ar­gu­ment for me: if hu­man­ity does not be­gin at a sharply de­fined mo­ment such as con­cep­tion or im­plan­ta­tion, then where? At birth? The 2nd trimester? The 3rd? etc.

C: I was merely wait­ing for the right mo­ment.

A: But I think the slope ap­plies to any idea like yours of hu­man­ity as a bi­nary propo­si­tion (and not, say, a con­tin­u­um). In par­tic­u­lar, your pos­si­bil­ity claim is a slip­pery slope: at what level of prob­a­bil­ity do you draw a line such that you in­clude fe­tuses and zy­gotes, but ex­clude hu­man-skin cells out­side a broth?

C: That seems easy enough, and my po­si­tion seems quite safe: hu­man­ity be­gins at fer­til­iza­tion, the mo­ment of con­cep­tion, and any­thing with the same prob­a­bil­ity counts. Un­less you mean to say the ex­act fem­tosec­ond the DNA atoms unite or the ex­act prob­a­bil­ity down to 20 dec­i­mal places is im­por­tant?

A: No, but I think your cri­te­ria are more il­l-de­fined and us­able only in ret­ro­spec­tive than you think. What ref­er­ence class is any cell in when you try to as­sign it per­son­hood? I’ll il­lus­trate with a spe­cific ex­am­ple: have you ever heard of ?

C: Yes.

A: In partheno­gen­e­sis, there is no con­cep­tion or fer­til­iza­tion: an egg just starts di­vid­ing for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son. Per­haps it will di­vide on­ce, per­haps twice. Per­haps the 2 new cells will never do any­thing more. And so it wends its un­cer­tain way to be­com­ing an em­bryo. Now, sup­pose this hap­pens in a hu­man wom­an, as seems pos­si­ble? Where does the hu­man­ity of the re­sul­tant fe­tus start? The in­stant an egg di­vid­ed? But that would seem to im­ply all the eggs which di­vide are hu­mans who are then in­stantly abort­ed. When the di­vi­sion starts? Or fin­ish­es? Or the sec­ond di­vi­sion? But why not then the third or fourth or fifth?

C: I could not say. But be­cause I am ig­no­rant of some­thing is not a proof of its nonex­is­tence.

Con­sider . As it sails from port to port, first the sails are re­placed, then the rig­gings; in an­oth­er, they reap a bar­gain on nav­i­ga­tional gear; in an­oth­er, they are given a spare rud­der; in a fifth place, a storm forces them ashore to re­place the planks of the hull, and a bad run-in with a reef ne­ces­si­tates re­place­ment of the keel it­self. On their re­turn to Athens, The­seus asks his ship’s in­surer to lower the pre­mium since it is now a new ship, even if it bears the name of the old. Would you have the in­surer charge The­seus old rates for new ships since The­seus can’t tell the in­surer the ex­act sec­ond at which the ship ceased to be “old” and be­came “new”, and there­fore this tran­si­tion could not have hap­pened?

A: No, but your ex­am­ple does­n’t help your case. The in­surer should set a new rate be­cause the ship now, at the time of the pre­mium pay­ment, per­forms like new. It has fresher less-worn parts, all the lat­est im­prove­ments and gear, and so on. It is less likely to sink than when it left, and that’s all that should mat­ter to the in­sur­er. If it acts like a new ship, then ought­n’t we to prag­mat­i­cally treat it like a new ship?

I see peo­ple as be­ing like the ship, and in­sur­ing the ship at a lower rate is like clas­si­fy­ing as hu­man. If they can act all the acts, think all the thoughts, and feel all the feel­ings peo­ple can, then I will treat them the same.

C: Then you would in­sure even a com­put­er!


[Apol­o­gist shrugs.]

A: If it quacks like a duck…

C: And what of my own slip­pery slope? If I have a slip­pery slope for you, and you have a slip­pery slope for me, that does­n’t mean you are cor­rect any more than it means I am cor­rect. It sim­ply means we have a para­dox, and para­doxes can­not be re­solved sim­ply by pil­ing up fur­ther ar­gu­ments on ei­ther side. One cor­rect ar­gu­ment is enough to es­tab­lish truth, and some­thing false must have no cor­rect ar­gu­ments. You must deal with my slip­pery slope. You can­not ig­nore it, you must re­fute it.

A: So, you re­solved my slip­pery slope by bit­ing its bul­let and say­ing there is a sharp dis­con­ti­nu­ity even if you did­n’t know where.

C: Right. How will you deal with mine? If per­son­hood is con­tin­u­ous, and you al­low abor­tion at a far end of the spec­trum, then you must let it creep down the spec­trum. How far and why? You de­fend abor­tion of fe­tus­es, so how about ? How about older chil­dren? Where do you draw the line?

A: I’ll . By my cri­te­ria, in­fants are lit­tle more hu­man than the fe­tus­es.

C: But where ex­actly are you go­ing to draw the line? And why just a sin­gle line?

A: If there were mul­ti­ple lines, for ex­am­ple, no abor­tion after the sec­ond trimester just be­cause the mother wants, no abor­tion in the third trimester ex­cept to save the moth­er’s life, etc., would you ac­cept the ba­sic prin­ci­ple that some lives get more pro­tec­tion than oth­ers?

C: No, I’m not sure I would. A life is a life.

A: So then where the lines are drawn don’t mat­ter to you. Your diffi­culty is with there be­ing lines at all. Even though in prac­tice you ex­press a line with your ac­tions and words…

C: As early as pos­si­ble, though, as early as con­cep­tion in or­der to not make any mis­takes!

A: But you see the point. There’s an old hu­mor­ous story about a man who asked if a woman would have sex with him if offered mil­lions, she al­lowed she would, then if she would ac­cept an offer of a few hun­dred, which she an­grily de­nied, ask­ing if he thought she was a pros­ti­tute. He replied that she was, and now they were merely es­tab­lish­ing her price.

C: The will­ing­ness to draw any line at all is con­sent­ing to ac­cept­ing some amount of money for sex, I take it.

A: Yes. And then es­tab­lish­ing the price is set­ting the ex­act line—or lines. Where to draw the line be­comes, like crim­i­nal charges, an em­pir­i­cal or eco­nom­i­cal mat­ter of where is prac­ti­cally best for so­ci­ety; no one has shown that so­ci­ety is best off with no abor­tions, and it seems plau­si­ble that al­low­ing some abor­tions is bet­ter than al­low­ing none.

So let’s al­low in­fan­ti­cide! The best amount is less than for abor­tions, though, be­cause ba­bies must be given ex­pen­sive high­-qual­ity care to pro­duce high­-qual­ity adults (if they aren’t in­fan­ti­cid­ed), and be­cause moth­ers are hor­mon­ally bonded to their in­fants. And by the same log­ic, as we in­vest more into the in­fant or child, the harder it should be to kill them, un­til by the time they’re an adult, a ful­l-s­cale crim­i­nal trial with the death penalty is re­quired. It may sound odd, but in some sit­u­a­tions it’s bet­ter to just not have chil­dren, even if one has to do so by killing in­fants.5

C: How ab­hor­rent! But I see there is no con­vinc­ing you. I am sorry for’t. I shall con­tinue be­liev­ing that there is some essence about be­ing hu­man, and you shall con­tinue in your psy­cho­log­i­cal stance that hu­man is as hu­man does. Good day.

[Con­trar­ian sighs and leaves de­ject­ed­ly.]

  1. That is, are more com­mon that most peo­ple are aware of. mis­car­riage en­try writes:

    It is es­ti­mated that up to half of all fer­til­ized eggs die and are lost (abort­ed) spon­ta­neous­ly, usu­ally be­fore the woman knows she is preg­nant. Among those women who know they are preg­nant, the mis­car­riage rate is about 15–20%….The risk for mis­car­riage is higher in wom­en: 1. Older than 35…

    Wikipedia gives specifics about the el­der risk:

    …an­other study found an in­creased risk in wom­en, by the age of 45, on the or­der of 800% (com­pared to the 20–24 age group in that study), 75% of preg­nan­cies ended in mis­car­riage.

  2. “Kudzu and the Cal­i­for­nia Mar­riage Amend­ment” by Rick Moen il­lus­trates the prob­lems with ‘male’ and ‘fe­male’ by list­ing 11 sep­a­rate gen­der-bend­ing con­di­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties, which in ag­gre­gate oc­cur roughly 1 in 1000. (And over a pop­u­la­tion of 300 mil­lion, that’s a lot of peo­ple…)↩︎

  3. See Efe 2011, “Con­ver­sion of mouse fi­brob­lasts into car­diomy­ocytes us­ing a di­rect re­pro­gram­ming strat­egy” (Sci­ence Daily cov­er­age), and later work turn­ing skins cells into heart mus­cle.↩︎

  4. There has been re­search on just this top­ic: tak­ing mouse skin cells, turn­ing them into em­bry­onic stem cells, and then into vi­able em­bryos. Ad­mit­ted­ly, this break­through re­search is from Chi­na, and is diffi­cult to repli­cate else due to ethics guide­li­nes; so there is a non­triv­ial chance this will turn out to be over­stated or fraud, like some of the Ko­rean . But even if it has not ac­tu­ally been done, the point is that it is most cer­tainly pos­si­ble, and may well be a use­ful tech­nique! See ’s 2009-07-27 “Chi­nese Sci­en­tists Re­pro­gram Cells to Cre­ate Mice”, dis­cussing Zhao et al 2009 and Kang et al 2009:

    Two teams of Chi­nese re­searchers work­ing sep­a­rately have re­pro­grammed ma­ture skin cells of mice to an em­bry­on­ic-like state and used the re­sult­ing cells to cre­ate live mouse off­spring…Re­pro­gram­ming has be­come the hottest area of stem-cell sci­ence. For more than two years, sci­en­tists have been re­pro­gram­ming ma­ture mouse- and hu­man-skin cells and re­turn­ing them to a pri­mor­dial, em­bry­on­ic-like state. The ap­proach has taken off be­cause it side­steps the cloning and em­bry­o-de­stroy­ing tech­niques tra­di­tion­ally used to de­rive true em­bry­onic stem-cell lines. How­ev­er, one big ques­tion has been whether re­pro­grammed cells are as ver­sa­tile as true em­bry­onic cells, and whether they can form all of the cells in an em­bryo. Us­ing re­pro­grammed cells to cre­ate live off­spring with nor­mal or­gans and body tis­sues has been con­sid­ered an im­por­tant test. Chi­nese sci­en­tists now have shown that this is pos­si­ble in mice.

  5. Gre­gory Clark writes in A Farewell to Alms that played a ma­jor part in re­duc­ing pop­u­la­tion growth in pre-in­dus­trial China & Japan, both be­cause there were that much less adults in the pop­u­la­tion and more sub­tly, be­cause women and their child-bear­ing ca­pac­ity are the bot­tle­neck to any pop­u­la­tion growth; lim­it­ing pop­u­la­tion growth pushes up av­er­age in­come & longevity since the ex­ist­ing pop­u­la­tion can ben­e­fit longer from new tech­nol­ogy or trade be­fore growth dri­ves av­er­age wages back down to :

    An ad­di­tional fac­tor dri­ving down birth rates (and also of course dri­ving up death rates) was the Chi­nese prac­tice of fe­male in­fan­ti­cide. For ex­am­ple, based on the im­bal­ance be­tween recorded male and fe­male births an es­ti­mated 20–25% of girls died from in­fan­ti­cide in Liaon­ing. Ev­i­dence that the cause was con­scious fe­male in­fan­ti­cide comes from the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the gen­der im­bal­ance of births and other fac­tors. When grain prices were high, more girls are miss­ing. First chil­dren were more likely to be fe­male than later chil­dren. The chance of a fe­male birth be­ing recorded for later chil­dren also de­clined with the num­bers of fe­male births al­ready recorded for the fam­i­ly. All this sug­gests fe­male in­fan­ti­cide that was con­sciously and de­lib­er­ately prac­ticed.

    …Fe­male in­fan­ti­cide meant that, while nearly all women mar­ried, al­most 20% of men never found brides. Thus the over­all birth rate per per­son, which de­ter­mines life ex­pectan­cy, was re­duced. The over­all birth rate for the eigh­teenth cen­tury is un­clear from the data given in this study, but by the 1860s, when the pop­u­la­tion was sta­tion­ary, it was around 35 per thou­sand, about the same as in prein­dus­trial Eu­rope, and less than in many poor coun­tries to­day. Ear­lier and more fre­quent mar­riage than in north­west­ern Eu­rope was coun­ter­acted by lower mar­i­tal fer­til­ity and by fe­male in­fan­ti­cide, re­sult­ing in equiv­a­lent over­all fer­til­ity rates.

    Nor was it only China which ben­e­fit­ed:

    But where na­ture failed them, the Poly­ne­sians seem to have sup­plied their own mor­tal­i­ty. The rea­son for their high liv­ing stan­dards, as we shall see in chap­ter 5, seems to have been high death rates from in­fan­ti­cide, in­ter­nal war­fare, and hu­man sac­ri­fice. Poly­ne­sia was par­adise for the liv­ing—but a par­adise with a cost.