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 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. 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.