Call and Answer

if you are not in to politics, you may want to skip the rest of this as it will likely seem dull and drone.

My friend and I have been having conversation regarding abortion through his blog and I decided that instead of being a pest I will put my newest response on my own blog.  The original article is here, with my first response here (or you can just scroll down to the comments part), and his second post here.  The following is my reply to his second post.

because this is one of my favorite songs… and because i am the king of wishful thinking

Regarding point one… a fact claim is not a good idea for any type of reasonable argument because it deflects conversation away from what we are actually trying to discuss.  For example, your claim that “abortion constitutes murder” and leaving the burden of proof on anyone who believes otherwise.  Just as easily someone could say “well, abortion does not constitute murder” and the other party would have to prove this is false etc. To wax poetic for a second, a man at the north pole would look out at a sunny, 50 degree day and say “boy it sure toasty today!” while the same weather in Los Angeles would draw winter coats.  If you asked a person in each place what the weather was like, one would say warm and one would say cold, but the only thing they would agree on is 50 degrees. There is no current consensus on when human life begins, thus there are an infinite number of fact claims one could justly make on when human life begins (and therefore when abortion is murder, morally wrong etc).  We can say things like “the heart beat begins at this week” or “the fetus could survive in a hospital outside the mother at this month” or even “the zygote has intact DNA at conception” but even this has holes in it… if a heart beat grants life, does someone with an artificial heart not live? if a zygote has DNA mutations, are they not human?  what im trying to say is defining life is hard; we cannot weigh an objects soul on a scale.  it is no man’s right to declare as universal when a human life begins unless all other reasonable men can look at the same set of facts and agree, yes that is when life begins.  further, claiming abortion is murder simply because it takes a human life is wrong, namely because knowingly taking a human life is not always murder, and even if it is murder it may not always be morally wrong (i.e. killing a maniac on a killing spree is murder but it saves many more lives and thus is not wrong).  many bioethicists have spent entire careers (see: peter singer) debating these same topics and we still have no consensus on the matters.  further more, staking arbitrary things firmly into the ground as the gold standard by calling them “fact claim” and putting the burden on others to refute them is poor practice because, like i said, there are many points which are just as acceptable.  i would venture to guess that since most people in the US do not believe abortion is murder, it is not fair to label it as such knowing that noone can really prove when life begins.

regarding point 2:  the last line of your paragraph on this point hit my argument on the head.  like i said before, since we cannot really establish when life begins, i dont agree that we can always call a zygote a human.  i obviously agree that killing a fly is different than killing a human, the point of that metaphor was to show how exaggeration or non-factual arguments are unfair for argument and can vary from person to person.  destroying the viability (aka killing) human cells – for example removing cancer cells in a tumor – is not fundamentally wrong.  while some people look at a zygote and see a tiny, but nonetheless full-fledged human, others see a clump of cells hardly distinguishable from any other expendable tissues in the human body. the question many scholars/theologians/normal folk ponder is “when do these cells become something more than just cells, and what is the power that bestows them with this grace?” again, the timeline of this sacred transformation is negotiable, and as a cell biologist i can tell you just how fragile and widely varied the process of human development is (and how impossible it is to medically define life).  while i think that this nature of a human zygote is the reason that abortion is not morally wrong, i want to stress that i still believe abortion is a last resort and i will get to that later.

regarding point 3: faith most certainly should play a role in decisions, especially of this nature.  but what is often forgotten is that faith is a wild horse unique to every individual.  whose faith should have the absolute word on this matter?  while i say “your faith is immeasurable to me, and i believe in science, numbers and other things that i can see and feel with my hands” you can just as easily reply “well your science cannot even measure the things i believe are important, and i believe what i think and trust the wisdom of my faith more than these numbers which may deceive”.  an unbiased party may say either one of us is right, neither of us is right or even both of us are right!  how can we resolve this issue?  who gets the final say on this matter – whom owns the moral measuring stick with which all matters must be stretched or squished to fit?  i believe the system we have right now, which allows an individual to make a decision about what they believe is right, is most appropriate.  and we are truly lucky to live in a society where no one is FORCED to have an abortion, but naturally anyone may elect NOT to have an abortion.  In this way, no individual is held to the moral standards of another.  Remember, defining whether abortion is murder or takes the life of a human is not universally set in stone like the morality of shooting a 40 year old man walking down the street.

which brings me to my final point, and the point which i believe is most important in this dialogue.  in discussing abortion, we are fighting a straw man… neither side wants abortions to happen, likewise both sides would like to see abortions reduced and ideally there would be no abortions.  instead of fighting over whether abortion is right or wrong we should look for ways that we can change society to reduce the number of abortions sought – both sides can agree that abortions are not fun.  lets make the topic of abortion moot.  the brass tacks of this argument is that one group would like to see it reduced because families (or as the case may be, just mothers) no longer have a desire to seek an abortion.  the other group would like to stop abortions all together, and hope that like trickle down theory partners would then have more conscientiously steer their sexual practices.  any economist will tell you that when you force a ban on something, black markets rise up, and noone wants to see the safety of mother and baby reliant on back alley medicine.  it is not a fact, but i think few would try to refute the claim that even if it were made illegal, abortions would happen.  that does not then by backwards math mean that abortion is not murder, or even that it should be legal, but it may be the case that if we put the collective safety of mother and child in our best interests, legal abortion may be the safest situation.  But there is something we can do about that – namely if we focus on providing safe and reliable birth control to sexually active folks and teach them how to use it properly, we may be able to reduce abortions by 10% or more depending on various cultural differences in populations (see “The Potential Role of Contraception in Reducing Abortion” by Princeton Senior Research Demographer Charles F. Westoff).  This is where i think some religions may do bad while trying to do good.  lots of people think contraception is morally objectionable, but if it is a lesser evil than abortion… I really believe that people who have abortions are not evil. I do not wish to demonize pro-lifers, but I think there is a lack of compassion in labeling pro-choicers as “murderers” – as if everyones standard must be that life begins at conception and if they disagree they are a murderer.  One side could call the other Murderer and the other a Nazi forever but this would get us nowhere.  We need to turn down the volume of our argument and turn up the volume on our listening.  There is one thing I believe, that no two people will agree completely on everything.  There will never be a consensus on whether abortion is murder or a fundamental right.  There will never be a consensus.  Never.  No agreement will ever be met on this, barring some holy intervention or unimaginable scientific breakthrough. I believe Obama’s point (with which I agree) is that we need to stop YELLING about our irreconcilable differences on this matter and start TALKING about how we can fix this situation and LISTENING to why people believe in certain things; i will claim it is fact that all sides want to see more happy families and fewer abortions.


7 responses to “Call and Answer

  1. Answering the question of when life begins is actually quite easy if you want it to be. Many dont’ want the easy answer beacuse it would require them to change their position which is difficult for people to do. Especially, if it is unpopular with their circle of friends. I was on-the-fence 15 years ago, then someone who was pro-abortion challenged me. It took me three nights of thinking, with no consultation, and I came to the conclusion that I was against it. When is the person created? Science shows us clearly when this happens. And, concensus doesn’t make good science.

  2. Good work walth. I will respond shortly.

  3. I don’t think any definition will ever be so black and white as to say the exact moment life begins… and if there ever is such a definition I would be quite terrified to know that either religion or science had the ultimate strong hold on our politics. We are not searching for a simple Webster’s definition, but a charged word that fulfills our personal stance on what it means for life to begin.

    I can furthermore not agree with labeling someone who is personally pro-life, but believes in pro-choice for the general public as being someone who is trying to appease the masses or avoid confrontation. This is my personal stance, as I could never personally bring myself to have an abortion; I believe I am privileged to be able to make this decision. This is because I have been educated on the topic, I do understand the ramifications of my actions and I have the social support to be able to handle a pregnancy if it were ever the case. But, who am I to judge someone on their education, social class and moral upbringings? I know a lot of people with a pro-life, religious based stance are probably boiling at this comment, but for one second try to look at the world through unprivileged eyes… what if you were born into an environment without parents or role models? What if the ideas of abstinence or any form of birth control had never been introduced to you? What if religion was as unfamiliar as a foreign language to you? What if from day one you were taught sex was a means of survival rather than an act of love? Just try to take yourself deep into that mindset and though anyone from a privileged environment will never truly understand more than an ounce of this lifestyle, how could you judge to say based on this knowledge that their decisions are comparable to a murderous killing.

    Then we must bring up topics such as rape, when the creation of another human being is not consensual. The act of rape itself is a severely overwhelming psychological and physical burden for a woman; we could go so far as to say rape is a form of murder- to a person’s trust and views of mutual love. Who are we to force a victim to endure more pain by forcing them to bare their rapist’s child? And if we are to excuse them under this one clause, then the pro-life definitions of murder may become null and hypocritical to allow particular forms of so called murder.

    I could go on and on with the devil’s advocate questions, but my stance is we are taking our societal cohort standards and imposing them upon others as though we all have equal advantages and understanding in the world. If we were to ever make abortion illegal, it would never come to a complete halt. Abortion could become an underground problem with uneducated friends as doctors and surgical “tools” such as hangers, which inevitably would create more problems for not just the unborn child, but mother as well.

    I do not believe this stance is ‘having cake and eating it too.’ I believe its derived in the understanding that we are not all brought into the world under equal circumstances. At some point, we have to look at what the overall best option for society is and not what the best option personally is to make us feel content in our moral and ethical beliefs. I believe it is a heated topic that will never completely satisfy a majority, but in any decision we must look through the eyes of everyone’s life struggles and not make a decision of law based on how we personally could handle the situation. In my utopia, we would all be brought into the world surrounded by mutual, loving relationships and I truly wish that there were not problems that forced abortion to be a considerable option. But, we unfortunately have not reached that point and can never if we avoid the education on this topic and fight for legality issues rather than equality of our nation.

  4. When I was challenged to consider the right or wrong of abortion, I was given the following argument. The unborn are a clump of cells until some point, which no one can define, when they can be called a person. This is not unlike cutting off your thumb and having it lay on the floor. If you leave it lay on the floor you could be killing the potential for human life, given that today’s technology allows DNA from that thumb to become a person . . . cloning. (This may not be the most sound argument, but it made me seriously consider the topic and come to a conclusion).

    So, I went to work on the topic of abortion. Where do I stand? The first question I had was: Why can we define when life ends, but claim it’s impossible to define when life begins? This is irrational. I thought about my challenger’s thumb scenario and decided to pick up the thumb and put it on life support. I came back and looked at the thumb after 10 years and noted that it was still a thumb. So, I got out a piece of paper and drew a historical line of the severed thumb and noted that after 10 years, 50 years and 100 years it always remained a thumb. But, if this thumb had the potential for human life when was it going to happen? Something has to change in order to create a human from this thumb.

    Well, let’s step back and look at how this compares to the creation of a human. I took a male sperm and put it on life support. Not to my surprise it remained a sperm after years. And I grabbed the previously used piece of paper and drew a timeline for it as well. I did the same with the female egg and it too remained an egg, year-after-year. I also added it to my chart. Then, I joined the two together, provided life support and started my timeline. It began changing almost immediately (within 24 hours) and I logged the changes. It was obvious that something new was created. After a day, I couldn’t tell what it was. After a week, I still couldn’t tell. Even after weeks it was difficult to describe, but something was definitely growing day-by-day. Soon, I could plainly see that this was a human being growing. There are several names for the early stages of human growth, but unusual sounding words or lack of a visual human outline doesn’t define what is human. The DNA will be differnet from those that provided the sperm and egg, so we know right from the beginning that it’s human and that it’s a different person from the mother, if she’s the one providing the life support.

    Yes. We really do know when life begins.

  5. sklcolorado, i would like to thank you for your post, however the quasi-scientific delivery of your thesis is the crux of the beef i have with the abortion issue. as a phd candidate currently working in cellular biology, i am very familiar with the mechanics of what goes on in the body, especially during cellular development and embryogenesis. there are several scientific generalizations or flaws in your argument which i would like to discuss, as they may change how you consider your opinion on the beginning of human life.
    first, your generalization that since a thumb does not become 1.) a differentiated being and 2.) something which changes spontaneously is not entirely true. in fact, your argument even suggests that we must nurture and treat a fertilized egg very specifially in a lab in order to make it turn into human life – this is very true, but the same can be said of the thumb. while obviously there is no research done in cloning humans, it would not be entirely impossible for someone to be cloned from the thumb under the right conditions – the potential for differentiated life resides in the thumb just as in the embryo. you will likely suggest ‘yes, but the thumb can not change SPONTANEOUSLY and thats how it is different from the fertilized egg’ and you are correct, the thumb can not change spontaneously. but neither can the embryo; a very precise and ordered set of chemical events from the host mothers body must occur perfectly in order for said embryo to develop… with the right set of chemical events and host the same could be done with the thumb. just as surely you could suggest that the combination of DNA marks the beginning of life, since this combination had never occured before. but DNA undergoes changes all the time so it is an inexact marker for the beginning of life; furthermore a fertilized egg only becomes an embryo some of the time, so its not really a precise measurement of the beginning of life i.e. how can it be the beginning of life if fertilization does not regularly become life? there are a lot of ways to make different DNA combinations, so surely making new ones is not the beginning – what part of the combination instills life? it seems in your reply that you frown upon trying to define life in any scientific way – you say there are unusual sounding words etc. that does not mean that simpler words like fertilization therefore are the defining quality of the beginning of life. i think this over-simplifies the problem and presents no direct reason why we should accept the beginning of life as fertilization. at the end of the day, both the embryo and thumb have the potential to become human life and both require careful attention and a specific set of events to become life. what is unique about fertilization compared to severing the thumb from the body? scientifically, there is not much difference between the thumb and embryo on a cellular level, its really that straightforward.
    further, i would like to present this argument. we define life on an abstract level as the ability to exist. the existence of an embryo relies on whether a host mother remains healthy enough to give birth and also whether the embryo receives the correct sequence of signals to develop. on a cellular level such as the one you have presented, i would go so far as to say life truly begins when this embryo can develop independently, seperate from the whimsy of the hormonal system of its mother. just as my life is no longer defined by chemical signals released from my mother. this would be a more accurate depiction of the beginning of life in the thumb/embryo case you have presented, not fertilization. i think if you are really trying to think deeply about the subject with an unadultered view, you are not trying hard enough, or you are not really trying to think on a pure level, or you do not have a firm enough understanding of human development. i do not mean to come across as flippant or rude to you but its obvious you either have a bias on the matter or have not thought about the situation (or learned enough about the human development) as thoroughly as you have suggested.
    in accordance, i still believe that the case is not closed on when life begins; we cannot define the creation of life. because the matter is (and in my opinion will always be) an arbitrary compromise of scientific and other opinions, its moot to try to define the beginning of life.

  6. walthers2. I don’t consider it rude or flippant, but could easily, if I chose, consider it plain and simple narrow-mindedness on your part. Or, I could have claimed that you’ve been indoctrinated and fail to see a logical point of view. Either way, I’ve got thicker skin that that, so don’t fret. It’s your blog so, you can say what you want. I did find it interesting that in the first post you mentioned that you didn’t care for this sort of argument but when replying to me you said, “i think if you are really trying to think deeply about the subject with an unadultered view, you are not trying hard enough, or you are not really trying to think on a pure level, or you do not have a firm enough understanding of human development.” But you did it anyway. I could have easily said the same about you. And, been just as correct.
    You claim my argument has flaws, so lets take a look at your responses to my argument and I’ll try to clarify some things. I put your comments in quotes, while mine follow with skl – andwithout quotes:
    “there are a lot of ways to make different DNA combinations, so surely making new ones is not the beginning – what part of the combination instills life?” skl – It’s not what part of the combination, it is the combination. Can we see when life begins? When it begins. Not when it moves from one stage to the next.
    “it would not be entirely entirely impossible for someone to be cloned from the thumb under the right conditions”. skl – I agree, and call me cynical, but I think someone may have tried this already. This is my own personal belief and I’ve never heard anyone say that it’s been done, but it seems like the temptation is sooooo tremendous. I’ll bet someone tried it.
    “the potential for differentiated life resides in the thumb just as in the embryo”. skl – Not true. Provide what the embryo needs to survive and grow and then give the thumb what it needs to grow. The potential is positively not the same.
    “it seems in your reply that you frown upon trying to define life in any scientific way – you say there are unusual sounding words etc. that does not mean that simpler words like fertilization therefore . . . “. skl – Frankly, just the opposite. I’m saying there is a logical/scientific place where we can say life begins and I also said that it is irrational to believe otherwise. I made the particular statements concerning unusual scientific terms after reading Macon’s response that he/she would be terrified if science ever “had the ultimate strong hold on our politics.” I lose a point here for trying to straddle Macon’s realm and yours. It’s your blog. Onwards.
    “but neither can the embryo; a very precise and ordered set of chemical events from the host mothers body must occur perfectly in order for said embryo to develop”. skl – Here you are once again making the assumption, based on your belief, that the fertilized egg is not human, but the embryo is human. You’re admitting that you have a point where you can say that life begins. So I’m thinking that the problem you have with anti-abortion folks is when the precise event occurs. They think conception, you think embryo. I’m thinking . . . that neither a sperm nor egg can become human on their own but when combined something new is created. Given the correct orderd set of chemical events we can come back a little while later and see what we’ve got . . . if it didn’t die in the meantime or the mother’s chemistry wasn’t “right” for it to move to the next stage of development (also causing death). We all need the right stuff to grow and develop up until the moment we die. Doesn’t matter if you’re minus 8 months or plus 90 years.
    “but DNA undergoes changes all the time so it is an inexact marker for the beginning of life”. skl – What are you trying to say here? I think that you’re referring to mutations, but that wouldn’t factor into a discussion on the beginning of life.
    “furthermore a fertilized egg only becomes an embryo some of the time, so its not really a precise measurement of the beginning of life”. skl – Life can begin and end without a child being born, or in your case become an embryo. Dying before life-support can be removed doesn’t define life. Additionally, as noted earlier, you’ve already decided for yourself when life isn’t . . . fertilized egg. But this belief isn’t scientific . . . regardless of your up-and-coming degree.
    “how can it be the beginning of life if fertilization does not regularly become life?” skl – And, now you’re proved my point. Examine your language.
    You say, “an arbitrary compromise of scientific and other opinions”. This does not pass for science in my book.
    Thanks for the replies. Someone once said, “as steel sharpens steel, so do men sharpen men.”

  7. im really not that interested in arguing about this matter, in fact i think i might delete this post at the end of the week because i dont feel like talking about this. first i would like to say that ive never been one to put much weight into semantics, so i may have already and will indubitably again mince my words by saying things such as “embryo” “fetus” “human” or other things that may in some way imply life or “adultness” of the clump of cells that are sprouting from conception but i probably dont mean to. science defines these words one way, but the public attachs different connotations to the same words so i apologize for the confusion. so far it seems that you believe life begins at conception, i believe life begins roughly 6 months into pregnancy when a fetus can survive outside the mother. most of the rest of the argument is fluff, this discrepancy is what matters. anyways, im 100% with you that science should not be an arbitrary compromise between science and other opinions – and for the most part the good science that takes place in the US and EU and is in its infancy in other places does not compromise. however it is unavoidable that in the public realm the true understanding and definitives found through good science will be bastardized, sometimes to the point of no recognition. for example, your belief that the thumb fertilized egg are different in some way is correct in some ways and not correct in others. when an egg is fertilized, it does not just follow some signaling cascade that automatically leads to becoming a baby at 9 months. it receives specific signals (from the mother) at precise moments at all times during development, as well as some signals amongst its own clump of cells, and without them would not become a child which we can both agree is alive and human. furthermore, without these signals the fertilized egg would be destroyed by the host mother as a foreign invader, but thats neither here nor there. in a test tube, we would not be able to make a child… it simply cannot be done without a mother, however fertilization can be done in a test tube and then the resultant fertilized egg can be implanted. again, neither here nor there, but when in-vitro fertilization occurs, dozens of eggs are fertilized in a test tube and only the best are chosen for implantation, while the rest are either frozen forever (effectively ending their chances at life without specifically ending their chances of life). some are also used as embryonic stem cells in research. i think in a way its kind of sad that if people think abortion is murder, no one considers the ramifications of in-vitro fertilization (which i dont think carries the same stigma as abortion) again, neither here nor there though, just food for thought. lastly, mutations are one modification to DNA that occurs in our lifetime and they occur ALL THE TIME (like everyone who reads this has had cancer, likely multiple times, but our bodies are good at stomping that out real fast). but there are more important events in the lifespan of our DNA, like viral injection (we have chickenpox DNA in our cells our entire lives but we have learned to suppress it). also, something hugely important but harder to understand is methylation – how our cells package our DNA like in a filing cabinet or library, making some easier to find (and thus more expressed) or harder to find (and thus more protected from damage). it might sound irrelevant, but methylation is probably just as important as the actual code of our DNA – check out the wikipedia page some time. and i think the real heart of my argument is this: in the grand scheme of human life, the initial combination of mothers genetic code with fathers genetic code to make offspring during conception is only one of several important but relatively equal events in the development of human life. first of all, there is that instant when conception is inevitable – that “gleam in the eye” so to speak – which is more of a philosophical check point than anything else. there are many checkpoints following conception that must be met accurately and on time or else development will not occur – implantation in the womb, when it is assured a developing blastocyst (small clumping of divided cells after fertilization) can receive the essential nutrients and signals from the host mother. roughly the 6 month period when a developing set of cells can live on its own outside of the mother (with help of life support). the actual moment the cells leave the mother, alive and well. there are many others, but these are some more familiar ones that people may know. i understand that among these events, fertilization is the only time that combination of DNA occurs, and that this combination is unique, but again what i dont understand is WHY this is the defining moment. like i said, i see equal weight for at least 5-6 other events in the development of a living breathing human from the “gleam in the eye”. a lot of people put specific weight on this event because its easily understood, but again with my experience in human development i think this event (while vastly important) weighs equally with 4-5 other vastly important events, and i believe the most important that occurs latest on the timeline (which makes it the most important in my book) is the moment a developing set of cells has enough organ development to live on life support outside the mother. i realize we will probably never come to an agreement on this barring some massive scientific discovery or divine revelation or something of the ilk, but again i feel like we have strayed from what i think is most important: there are a lot of questions about when or if abortion is actually killing a human life, at least we can agree that some people are uncertain about whether it is murder or not. beyond that THOUSANDS of living breathing children die EVERY DAY from lack of sanitary water. this is a travesty and what i believe to be the true crime. there is no doubt these children are victims, i just wish we could solve the tangible and completely fixable problems like drinking water before we move on to more abstract, conceptual and arbitrary conversations. to put it simply, with $100 billion i could save almost every child dying of unclean drinking water but with $100 billion of research on the beginning of life i would probably still be uncertain about whether abortion was actually killing a human life. that is all, and im signing off from any more personal comments but i welcome comments from others

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