After critiquing Libby Anne’s atheism and faulty epistemology in my previous post, I propose to complete my examination of her philosophy by critiquing her views on ethics, and in particular on human persons and the morality of abortion. Readers will recall that a few days ago, Libby Anne put up a post that subsequently went viral, describing how she had lost faith in the pro-life movement. What I aim to show in this post is that her views on ethics (and in particular, on abortion) are riddled with contradictions, and that her philosophical understanding of the pro-life ethic is very poor. I shall also address the question of how a non-religious person might go about trying to determine what is good and what is not. The answer, I shall argue, lies in natural law. What Libby Anne gets right is that natural law is knowable by human beings, even in the absence of religious belief on their part. Where she goes wrong is in concluding that natural law would still be morally binding even if religious belief were false, and God did not exist.
What does Libby Anne believe about right and wrong?
Happy Human logo, white and golden version (not the original). Image courtesy of Andres Rojas and Wikipedia.
It is important for the reader to bear in mind that Libby Anne is a humanist first and an atheist second. In a post entitled, “Humanism” and “Atheism+”: What’s the Difference? (August 20, 2012), she defines humanism as follows:
The philosophy or life stance secular humanism (alternatively known by adherents as Humanism, specifically with a capital H to distinguish it from other forms of humanism) embraces human reason, ethics, social justice, philosophical naturalism, while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience or superstition as the basis of morality and decision-making.
The ethical issues that are of most concern to her are those listed by the American Humanist Association: secular government, scientific integrity, human rights for all, promoting peace, reproductive freedom, women’s rights, LGBT rights and civil rights in America.
Libby Anne on absolute rights
Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and an early advocate of legalized abortion. Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs and Wikipedia.
The reader can see that Libby Anne is very enthusiastic about rights. This becomes even more apparent in another post of hers, entitled Reproductive Rights:
While I was raised solidly in the anti-abortion movement, I am today solidly pro-choice. My transformation took place for three main reasons:
First, I think women should be able to choose when and if to have children, and that means supporting their right to birth control and abortion…
Second, I do not believe that the zygote is a fetus or “person” with moral or legal rights. Determining what is and is not a “person” is obviously complicated, and I’ll admit that late-term abortions can seem morally troubling. However, I don’t believe in the existence of a divine “soul” implanted at conception or any other stage, and I most definitely don’t think a first or second trimester fetus has even a breath of claim to personhood or rights.
Third, I see birth as a firm dividing line because until then the fetus inhabits a woman’s body. A woman’s body is private property – it’s hers. She shouldn’t be forced to let another creature live in it. Once that other creature is out of her body, that’s when it gets rights. Until then, any rights it gets would be taking away from the woman’s rights over her own body. And to me, that matters.
One thing is very clear from the above post: Libby Anne believes that a woman has an absolute right of ownership over her own body. No individual has the right to live inside a woman’s body without her consent, and under no circumstances should she be legally compelled to let another creature live inside her body. It therefore follows that abortion should therefore be legal for any and every reason. The reader might be wondering: “Up until what point? Viability or birth?” Libby Anne answers the question in her post, How I lost faith in the pro-life movement, where she declares:
I no longer believe that abortion is murder because I no longer hold that a zygote, embryo, or fetus is a “person.” I also came to realize that the focus on personhood ignores the fact that a zygote, embryo, or fetus is growing inside of another person’s body. For a variety of reasons, I see birth as the key dividing line.
I take it, then, that Libby Anne believes that abortion should be legal for any and every reason, right up until the moment of birth.
Why two pro-choice arguments? Isn’t one enough?
I’d just like to make a quick comment here, before I go on and critique Libby Anne’s approach to ethics. If Libby Anne really believes that “a woman’s body is private property,” and that “she shouldn’t be forced to let another creature live in it,” then why is she so concerned to argue, in the same post, that the fetus living inside a pregnant woman’s body isn’t a person? If Libby Anne’s “bodily autonomy” argument is a valid one, then it should still hold, even if the fetus is a person. The pregnant woman would then be able to say to her unborn child, in effect: “I know perfectly well that I’m killing you, but it’s my body, and I have every right to do so.” When Libby Anne writes, “I no longer believe that abortion is murder because I no longer hold that a zygote, embryo, or fetus is a ‘person,’” she gives the impression that she does not really believe in her original argument for allowing abortion, which was based on bodily autonomy alone. This is a very important point, because Libby Anne’s whole argument for denying personhood to the zygote, embryo or fetus is that it is “growing inside of another person’s body.” That’s a terrible argument. If it were sound, then it would make no sense to even imagine that one person could exist inside another person’s body and feed off that body. Yet all of us can easily imagine such a case. The fact that the zygote, embryo and fetus exist inside the mother’s body is therefore not a valid reason to deny them personhood. Consequently, if Libby Anne’s “bodily autonomy” argument is flawed (as I shall argue below), the Libby Anne no longer has good grounds for supporting the legalization of abortion.
Why utilitarianism can’t provide support for Libby Anne’s position
Auto-icon of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) at University College, London. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
In the foregoing passage, Libby Anne vigorously asserted her belief in a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. So I find it very puzzling that she “goes wobbly” on the whole notion of rights in her post on Ethics:
While atheism describes my position toward the supernatural and Humanism serves as my worldview, I’m not yet completely sure what ethical system I follow, largely because I have not yet done enough research on them. I find utilitarian ethics intriguing, but I can’t quite give up the idea that humans should have natural rights that go beyond those ascribed by utilitarianism. But I don’t have to have everything figured out all at once, right?
There are two important things that Libby Anne needs to know about utilitarians. First, utilitarians don’t really believe that a woman’s body belongs to her. They believe that it ultimately belongs to society. That’s because the ultimate criterion for deciding who should be allowed to do what is: the good of society, or “the greatest good of the greatest number,” as utilitarians commonly put it. To be sure, most utilitarians believe that society as a whole is generally happier if pregnant women are allowed to have autonomy over their own bodies. But that’s not the same thing as saying that pregnant women actually own their bodies. It’s more like a landlord saying to a tenant: “This is my house, but because I’m a nice person, I’m letting you rent it for free.” What utilitarians are really saying to pregnant women is: “Your body actually belongs to the community as a whole, but because we’re nice people and we understand the acute distress it would cause you if you couldn’t control what goes on inside your body, we’ll let you decide that. You should realize, however, that theoretically, we could over-ride your wishes, if your decision regarding your pregnancy were to somehow place the community’s very survival in jeopardy.” (At this point, Libby Anne may be wondering: “How could that possibly happen?” I’ll answer that question shortly.)
The second thing Libby Anne needs to know about utilitarians is this: their ideology tends to make them adopt views that any sane person would deem morally monstrous. If you want to know where utilitarianism leads, take a look at ex-preacher Dan Barker, who now says (see this video) that child rape could be morally justifiable, if it were absolutely necessary in order to save humanity. The scenario Barker is considering here is one where an evil and technologically advanced alien says he’ll destroy humanity if you don’t rape a child. Because Barker is an act utilitarian, he says he would comply with the alien’s request, although to his credit, he admits that he’d hate himself for doing so. I have to say that while watching the video, I was deeply impressed with Dan Barker’s honesty and his obvious aversion to the idea of performing such a hideous deed. Nevertheless, his utilitarian moral principles are perverse if they lead him to adopt the conclusion that child rape could be moral in an extreme situation.
Now suppose instead that the evil alien says he’ll destroy humanity if a pregnant woman who wants an abortion doesn’t carry her pregnancy to term. According to Barker, the woman would be morally bound to do what the alien says. It would be her duty not to have an abortion, and it would be our duty to enforce the alien’s wishes and to physically prevent her from having an abortion, for the good of society. I can’t imagine that Libby Anne would accept that conclusion.
To be fair, I should point out that not all utilitarians would agree with Dan Barker’s remarks on child rape. Rule utilitarians claim that they are not vulnerable to the arguments leveled against act utilitarians like Barker, because the vile actions that act utilitarians would defend as necessary for the good of humanity cannot be formulated into a general moral rule that society would approve of in all circumstances. It might sound sensible to comply with the alien’s wishes, but the general rule that we should always comply with a blackmailer’s wishes if he has lethal weapons, sounds morally dodgy. Adopting such a rule might actually be detrimental for society, as it would encourage every criminal with a gun to make diabolical threats, in order to get his way. If adopting the general rule of giving in to blackmailers with lethal weapons would be bad for society, then a rule utilitarian would say that we are not morally bound to comply with the evil alien’s wishes, after all.
But the rule utilitarian’s reply is still unsatisfactory. For what it says is that the real reason why we shouldn’t comply with the evil alien’s request is that it’s bad for society, and not because it’s bad for the victim – namely, the child being raped, in Dan Barker’s hypothetical case. The real problem with utilitarianism, then, is that it makes “the greatest good of the greatest number” its supreme good. Once you accept that premise, then you can no longer say that a woman has an absolute right of ownership over her own body. Ultimately, it is society that owns her body, and if society decides to formulate laws giving women reproductive autonomy, it is only because society judges that such laws are conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number. So my advice to Libby Anne is: you might want to think twice before committing to utilitarianism, as so many modern atheists do. If you really believe in reproductive autonomy, you cannot be a consistent utilitarian. You could be an Aristotelian or a Kantian of sorts, but not a utilitarian. Nor could you be a moral relativist, for relativists don’t believe in absolute rights.
I’d now like to go back to Libby Anne’s remark in her post on ethics: “I’m not yet completely sure what ethical system I follow, largely because I have not yet done enough research on them.” I have to say I regard this as an appallingly naive statement, for someone in their late twenties. Some decisions are too important to be postponed. By the time an individual reaches their late twenties, that individual really ought to have formed a complete and coherent world-view on matters relating to right and wrong, and on the nature of reality (i.e. Gauguin’s three “big questions”). Doing that is far more important than dating, learning to drive, getting a degree or saving for a house. Those things can wait; sorting out one’s views on right and wrong cannot. I am not saying here that people should never change their views on ethics, after they’ve reached their late twenties. (I certainly did.) What I am saying, though, is that a person in their late twenties should possess a well-thought out view of what it means to say that an action is morally right, and how we can decide whether an action is right or not. That person should also be able to defend their ethical views vigorously in a dinner-table debate, if called upon to do so. Acquiring this ability is a mark of social maturity.
What makes an action right or wrong? Why we need moral absolutes
Socrates (469-399 B.C.) introduced the “Euthyphro dilemma” by asking the crucial question: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century). Louvre Museum, Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities. Image courtesy of Louvre Museum, Eric Gaba and Wikipedia.
Let’s get back to ethics. The big question Libby Anne first needs to address is: what makes an action right or wrong? In a post entitled, On Ethics, Atheists, and “Absolute Morality” (March 12, 2012), she invokes Plato’s Euthyphro argument in order to refute the Divine Command theory of ethics, and concludes that ethics and morality do not require God. Memo to Libby Anne: intelligent 21st century Christians don’t subscribe to the view that morality is grounded in God’s arbitrary commands, and that we would be bound to do what He says even if He commanded cruelty. Even contemporary defenders of the Divine Command theory such as Robert Merrihew Adams acknowledge this point. (And if Libby Anne wants to cite William Lane Craig, she should think again: he’s not even committed to Biblical inerrancy, let alone Biblical morality.) Libby Anne should take the time to read Steve Lovell’s online article, C.S.Lewis and the Euthyphro Dilemma, before putting forward such a “stunningly simplistic and silly” argument (to use her words) against the traditional religious view that morality presupposes God. As against the Divine Command theory, C. S. Lewis advocated what Lovell calls the Divine Nature theory, which says that morality is rooted not in God’s commands, but in God’s necessary and immutable Nature.
After concluding that ethics is independent of God, Libby Anne then points out a difficulty which she anticipates a religious person might raise: “atheists don’t have an actual basis for their ethics, and that their ethics are not absolute.” In reply, Libby Anne argues that religious believers don’t have an adequate basis for morality either: God’s say-so doesn’t make an action right. “That,” she declares, “is a stunningly simplistic and silly basis for ethics.” (On this point, Christians would agree: ethics cannot be based on Divine commands alone.) Then she goes on to argue:
…[T]o some degree ethics and morality are relative. For example, we generally agree that killing is wrong. But what about killing in self-defense, or to save a life? That’s generally seen as okay. Similarly, we generally believe that lying is wrong. But what about lying to save the lives of the Jews you’re hiding in your basement in Nazi Germany? That’s generally seen as the right course of action. Making absolute ethical claims – that it is always wrong to kill, or always wrong to lie – is as simplistic and silly as saying that whatever God commands goes.
All right then, Libby Anne. Just answer me this: is it always wrong for society to force a woman to carry her pregnancy to term? Or is it only wrong in some cases? If you think it’s wrong in all cases, then you have a moral absolute. But if you think it’s only wrong in some cases, then you don’t really believe in reproductive autonomy, as you claim to do.
I’d also like to point out that Libby Anne’s argument against moral absolutism is a flawed one. At most, it demonstrates that there can be no absolute, exceptionless moral rules, as advocates of deontological ethics (see here and here) claim there are. But that does not rule out the possibility that there can be absolute moral values. Lying to the Nazis about Jews that you’re hiding in your basement is right, precisely because it safeguards innocent human beings, who do possess an absolute moral value in their own right. Killing in self-defense is justifiable for the same reason.
It was Immanuel Kant who said that rational human beings should be treated as ends-in-themselves. And now, at last, we come to the crucial question: precisely what is it about human beings that makes them morally valuable in their own right?
Two bad pro-life arguments for the personhood of the unborn child
Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy (edited by Henry Francis, 1892), Canto XXXI. Picture by Gustave Dore (1832–1883). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Libby Anne considers and rejects two bad arguments in her post, Abortion, Heartbeats, and Souls (February 11, 2012):
The vast, vast majority of anti-abortion advocates have a problem with abortion because they believe the zygote/fetus has a soul. When I was anti-abortion myself, I believed that God placed a soul in the zygote at the moment of fertilization. Anything that killed a fertilized egg killed a little person. That is the foundation here…
Anti-abortion activists will often try to mix the soul argument with an argument about the zygote having its own “unique DNA.” These arguments become so entwined they almost become the same, and the benefit of the DNA argument is that it can be couched in scientific, rather than religious, terms. Of course, the obvious flaw in this argument is that cancer also has its own unique DNA, etc.
I would agree with Libby Anne that basing the value of a human being on the existence of a spiritual soul is an unwise move, precisely because we can’t see a spirit. Morality should be grounded in facts which are publicly verifiable. Likewise, I would agree that grounding the value of a human being in their possession of human DNA won’t work either. There’s no reason why someone’s having human DNA should make it wrong to kill them.
What’s wrong with sentience and self-awareness, as criteria for personhood?
A house mouse is sentient, but has a lifespan of less than a year. There is no evidence to date that it possesses self-awareness, and it is doubtful whether it has a right to life. Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health and Wikipedia.
On the other hand, the answers put forward by secular humanists are even more ridiculous. Sentience, or the ability to have feelings, is commonly advocated by utilitarians as the characteristic that makes an entity matter in its own right. They argue that without the capacity to experience pleasure or pain, an entity possesses no moral value whatsoever, as it has no interests of its own. But there are real problems with the idea of grounding an individual’s right to life in sentience alone. Aside from the fact that this criterion would make killing animals for food, even when one is starving, tantamount to murder, it isn’t at all obvious why it should necessarily be wrong to painlessly kill a creature which has feelings, but which is by nature incapable of entertaining a concept of itself as the subject of a life, and which therefore lacks the natural capacity to formulate a plan for the rest of its life. Would it make sense to regard such an individual as a person? I think not. Nor could we meaningfully ascribe it a right to life. After all, what have we robbed such an individual of, in taking its life?
Even the view that sentience is a necessary condition for possessing intrinsic moral value is mistaken, as any parent knows. In her post, Of pregnancy and parasites: My body is mine! (March 22, 2012), Libby Anne wrote: “I love this potential child already.” If the fetus inside her body had no moral value of its own, then what was she doing loving it? A consistent utilitarian wouldn’t do that. But as I have pointed out already in my discussion of Dan Barker’s bizarre moral views, a consistent utilitarian is someone who has smothered their human instincts.
Personhood, then, is not to be equated with mere sentience. Realizing this fact, some secularists, such as the philosopher Peter Singer, regard an individual’s possession of a self-concept as the defining criterion for personhood. In his own words: “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” (Practical Ethics, 1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 122–23.) And again: “When we kill a newborn, there is no person whose life has begun. When I think of myself as the person I am now, I realize that I did not come into existence until sometime after my birth.” (H. Kuhse and Peter Singer, Should the Baby Live?, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 133.)
But this, too, is a morally absurd view. Libby Anne is the mother of two children. I’d like to ask her to imagine for a moment that she had just one child, who was still a newborn baby. I’m quite sure she can imagine scenarios in which she would be prepared to lay down her life for her baby, if that was the only way to save her baby’s life. Any decent parent would do the same. Yet if Singer is right, her action would be utterly irrational; she would be laying down her life for a non-person.
What about viability and birth?
A new born baby. According to Libby Anne, a human being has no right to life until the moment of birth. Image courtesy of ErnestF and Wikipedia.
Viability and birth are even more flawed as grounds for personhood. Putting it simply, neither the sentence “A can exist outside of B” nor “A already exists outside of B” entail the conclusion, “A is intrinsically valuable,” or if you prefer, “It is wrong to kill A.” At best, independent existence is a necessary condition for being a person with intrinsic value. However, it certainly isn’t a sufficient condition.
But is the capacity for independent existence even a necessary condition for personhood, and for having rights? It seems not: after all, the sentence, “A cannot exist outside of B’s body,” does not entail the conclusion, “A is a part of B’s body.” Still less does it entail the ethical conclusion, “A is not a person,” or “A is not valuable in its own right.” To use a science fiction example: we can all imagine a world in which there are two species of intelligent beings, where members of the first species live inside the bodies of members of the second species. If the two species were able to hold conversations with each other, then it would surely be absurd to deny personhood to the first species. And if members of the first species had thoughts, desires and life-plans of their own which do not require mobility (e.g. to devote their entire lives to contemplating mathematics, or to singing beautifully), then I do not see how anyone could deny that they possessed intrinsic moral value, despite their parasitic existence.
Indeed, Libby Anne herself seems to acknowledge that independent existence isn’t a necessary criterion for having rights, at one point in her writings. At the end of a post entitled, When It Really Is about Controlling Women (September 8, 2012), she acknowledges the intellectual consistency of those pro-lifers who oppose abortion in the heart-wrenching case where the woman has been raped, even as she simultaneously accuses them of “erasing women from the equation and ignoring women’s right to control their own bodies”:
After all, if abortion really is murder (the “save the babies” argument) it doesn’t matter how those babies were conceived or who their fathers are. It’s still murder. In other words, someone who opposes abortion in all circumstances has plausible deniability when it comes to being anti-woman (i.e. they may actually think it’s all about “saving babies” and not realize that they’re erasing women) but someone who allows rape exemptions does not. Weird, I know. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Exactly. I could not have put it better myself.
Are pro-lifers “erasing women”?
A pro-life van parked outside of an abortion clinic. According to Libby Anne, images of the unborn like these ones “erase women from the picture.” Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The reader might be wondering why Libby Anne nevertheless accuses these intellectually consistent pro-lifers of “erasing women.” What does this phrase mean? Libby Anne clarifies her point (and vents her deeply felt moral indignation) in a strongly worded post entitled, Dear Pro-Lifers: STOP ERASING WOMEN (September 6, 2012). In her post, she singles out for criticism the following statement, made by an evangelical pro-lifer:
A zygote, left to develop naturally, will tend to develop into a human being.
Libby Anne was not impressed. She replied:
There, right there, is where women are removed from the picture entirely. Somehow zygotes magically develop into human beings…like, by themselves. Nothing else involved there. No one else effected. But that’s simply untrue. A zygote will NOT develop naturally into a human being if left to itself. Rather, in order to develop into a human being it has to have massive intervention from an outside source. Namely, a woman. Without this intervention, a zygote will not become a human being.
I’m sorry if it seems like I’m splitting hairs here, and I realized perfectly well that the author of that piece probably didn’t even realize he was doing this (which almost makes it worse), but every time a pro-lifer erases women like this, I can’t help but cringe. No, more than that, I want to yell.
I am a person! I matter! You can’t erase me like that!
And yet they do. Over and over and over again. Sometimes I think they are blissfully unaware that they’re doing this. And then they wonder why women get mad. And then they react with confusion when people accuse them of being anti-women.
So, note to pro-lifers: STOP ERASING WOMEN.
…Pregnancy and abortion intimately involve women’s bodies. You can’t separate that out of the equation and just talk about zygotes and fetuses. It’s time pro-lifers realized this. I am tired of being erased. Enough is enough.
Time for some straight talk
Official portrait of President Barack Obama. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
All right, Libby Anne. Let me be direct. You’ve had two children of your own. I’d invite you to look at one of them now, and ponder the following thought, which comes from a man whom you probably voted for recently:
You didn’t build that.
That’s right, you didn’t build your child.
Why a pregnant mother doesn’t build her unborn child
You want proof? All right. Ask yourself this simple question: exactly what does a mother do for her unborn child, while that child is in her womb? As far as I can tell, she does three things.
She carries the child, usually for nine months, often at great inconvenience to herself.
She nourishes the child, supplying it with food and oxygen.
And (if she is willingly pregnant) she loves the child she is carrying.
Here’s my point. Carrying a child isn’t the same thing as building that child. Nourishing a child isn’t the same as building it, either: the passive supply of nutrients is not a constructive activity. Nor is loving a child, important though it is, the same as building it.
Let me repeat: mothers don’t build their children. And in case you think I’ve left out something even more fundamental – namely, the mother’s donation of an egg – let me ask my readers if they’d regard the father’s donation of a sperm as a child-building activity. No? I thought not. By the same token, neither is the mother’s donation of an egg. Supplying the raw materials out of which something is made is not the same as the activity of building that thing. If you doubt me, just ask any builder.
The child builds itself, from conception
According to Richard Dawkins (pictured above at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in 2008), the “fact that a single cell gives rise to a body in all its complexity” is “achieved with the aid of DNA instructions.” The human body is built by a process that Dawkins refers to as ‘self-assembly’, “which is related to what computer programmers call a ‘bottom-up’, as opposed to a ‘top-down’, procedure” (The Greatest Show on Earth, Transworld Publishers, London, Black Swan edition, 2010, p. 217). Image courtesy of George HH and Wikipedia.
“So if the mother doesn’t build the child, then who or what does?” I hear you ask. The answer to that question is very simple: the child builds itself, by virtue of its genetic program, which is switched on at conception and which continues running throughout an individual’s life. A human embryo, however dependent it may be on its mother for nourishment and protection, is nevertheless a complete organism, embodying a developmental program by which it regulates its own development into a rational human adult. From the moment of conception, when this developmental program is switched on, a child is assembling itself into a rational human adult. And by “developmental program” I simply mean: a complete set of instructions within the cell(s) of an organism – especially within its genome – which regulate its development into a mature adult.
Readers should understand that a developmental program is not like a blueprint. As Professor Richard Dawkins takes pains to point out in his recent bestseller, The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld Publishers, London, Black Swan edition, 2010, pp. 214-215, 221), a blueprint is a reversible one-to-one mapping from the instructions to the product: not only can you build a house from a blueprint, but you can take a house and then reconstruct the original blueprint, if you want to. The embryo’s developmental program is more like a cake recipe than a blueprint: if you follow a recipe step-by-step, you’ll end up with a cake, but you can’t take a cake and then reconstruct the recipe. Like a cake, the embryo is built according to an irreversible process: we cannot infer the instructions for building an embryo just from looking at its body.
Dawkins also highlights (2010, p. 216) an even more important difference between a blueprint and an embryo’s developmental program: a blueprint is a planned form of architecture, whereas the embryo is characterized by a feature called self-assembly. Blueprints are “top-down” designs – they don’t assemble themselves into houses. However, embryos do assemble themselves into mature humans. Dawkins goes on to say that self-assembly is achieved through “bottom-up” as opposed to “top-down” architecture: “The beautifully ‘designed’ body emerges as a consequence of rules being locally obeyed by individual cells, with no reference to anything that could be called an overall global plan.” (Dawkins, 2010, p. 220.) Dawkins is quite emphatic that “embryology has nothing resembling a previously drawn plan” (2010, p. 221): there is “no overall plan of development, no blueprint, no architect’s plan, no architect” (2010, p. 247) in the rules governing the development of the embryo. No-one puts the embryo together from outside; the process is self-directed. The embryo/fetus is not assembled from outside, like a car; it assembles itself. The development of an embryo/fetus is directed by instructions contained within the embryo. Although external stimuli also have a measurable impact on the embryo’s development, no new developmental instructions are added to the embryo/fetus from outside as it matures – not by the mother, not by the father, and not by anyone else.
Developmental programs: not just a figure of speech
The initial stages of human embyogenesis. Image courtesy of Zephyris and Wikipedia.
I realize that some skeptical readers may be inclined to doubt the legitimacy of the word “program” in a biological context. Perhaps, they may object, the term “developmental program” is merely a poetic metaphor. Not so. It’s a scientifically respectable term, and it has a well-defined meaning. If the reader goes to PubMed and types “genetic program” in the subject field in quotes, over 800 citations will appear. Typing “developmental program” will bring up over 1,100 citations.
But don’t take my word for it. Ask Eric Davidson, Professor of Cell Biology at the California Institute of Technology:
“The body plan of an animal, and hence its exact mode of development, is a property of its species and is thus encoded in the genome. Embryonic development is an enormous informational transaction, in which DNA sequence data generate and guide the system-wide spatial deployment of specific cellular functions.” (Emerging properties of animal gene regulatory networks by Eric H. Davidson. Nature 468, issue 7326 [16 December 2010]: 911-920. doi:10.1038/nature09645.)
And here is a quote from Professor Richard Dawkins, in The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld Publishers, London, Black Swan edition, 2010, p. 217):
“…[T]here is a mystery, verging on the miraculous (but never quite getting there) in the very fact that a single cell gives rise to a body in all its complexity. And the mystery is only somewhat mitigated by the feat’s being achieved with the aid of DNA instructions. The reason the mystery remains is that we find it hard to imagine, even in principle, how we might set about writing the instructions for building a body in the way the body is in fact built, namely by what I have just called ‘self-assembly’, which is related to what computer programmers call a ‘bottom-up’, as opposed to a ‘top-down’, procedure.
It is indeed true, as Libby Anne points out, that “A zygote will NOT develop naturally into a human being if left to itself,” and that “in order to develop into a human being it has to have massive intervention from an outside source” – namely, the mother. But this maternal “intervention,” as Libby Anne describes it, simply cannot be equated to “child-building.” Child support, yes; child-building, no.
“Why should this matter ethically?” you may ask. “What’s the relevance of the distinction?” Here’s why it matters. I take it that many of my readers – secular humanists included – will acknowledge that rational human adults are persons, who possess intrinsic moral value. Someone might still believe that people are valuable in their own right (“ends in themselves,” as the philosopher Immanuel Kant would have put it), even if they did not believe in God or in a human soul.
Anything that’s building itself into an adult, matters just as much as an adult
What I’m proposing is this: anything that’s building itself into a rational human adult is just as intrinsically valuable as a rational human adult. We’ve already seen that an embryo is building itself into a rational human adult – something, by the way, that cannot be said of a cancer or of a skin flake that we shed. It therefore follows that a human embryo matters just as much as you or I do.
The principle that “anything that’s building itself into an X is just as intrinsically valuable as that X” sounds reasonable, as a general moral principle. To see why, it’s important to understand that nothing really gets added to a thing that’s building itself. Everything that the thing receives from outside (raw inputs, such as food) is transformed by the thing’s self-building program into part of the thing itself. The thing doesn’t just sit there and receive these inputs; it acts upon them. Without the program inside the thing that transforms the raw inputs, they would be utterly useless to the thing itself. (Food would be no good to you, if your body lacked the power to digest it.) So what’s really important here is the program itself, which uses the inputs. The inputs are merely useful; their value is merely conditional. The program within the thing, on the other hand, is intrinsically valuable; its value is unconditional.
The self-building program that we have in our bodies is the same program that we had at conception. That’s why we possess the same intrinsic value that we had when we were conceived: not a jot more and not a jot less. Everything that we receive from the outside world in the course of our lives – from the food we eat to the language we are taught, to the education we get at school – has to be filtered and processed by that program before it gets incorporated into our bodies, our brains and (in the case of information) our memories. Our internal developmental program isn’t just some kind of genetic information; it’s one level higher than that. It’s meta-information, because it’s able to process information from the outside world. That’s what makes it intrinsically valuable.
Do the people looking after a baby turn it into a person by communicating with it?
That, incidentally, is why the argument that the developing child becomes a person by virtue of its interactions with other persons, is a flawed one. According to this argument (which used to impress me at one point, many years ago, but which I now reject), other people literally personalize the developing child: they make it into a person by communicating with it. Aside from the fact that this argument fails to explain how the first person on Earth came into existence (and we know there must have been one, as the Earth has a finite age), the argument overlooks the fact that the interactions between the developing child and the outside world take place not through the transmission of meaningful information holus bolus, but rather through the transmission of raw sensory data (sights, sounds, tastes, smells and tactile sensations). These sensory data have to be processed by the recipient’s brain and nervous system before they can be reconstituted as meaningful information. In other words, the process of assigning meaning to an outside signal is one which occurs entirely within the child; for what reaches its eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin is not information, but raw data. But if the child is not a mere recipient of meaningful information but an entity that creates meaning from the sensory data it receives, then it must already be a person in its own right. Other people cannot “personalize” the developing child, then; rather, it already is a person, by virtue of its internal developmental program. Putting it another way: you can’t talk an individual into becoming a person, for the very simple reason that conversation (whether one-way or two-way) presupposes the existence of someone who can understand what you’re saying.
The verdict of science: a zygote really is building itself into a human adult, from day one
By the way, I should like to reiterate that I’m not making this stuff up about embryos and fetuses having their own internal programs. It’s solid science. Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, explains why a one-cell embryo is a true organism, with its own developmental program, in an online paper titled, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper, Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):
A car is not a car until it rolls off the assembly line – until then it is a bunch of parts in the process of becoming a car, but not there yet. Similarly, a cake is not a cake until it comes out of the oven – until then it is a variously gooey mass of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter that is gradually becoming a cake. (p. 11)
However, a profound difference exists between manufacturing and embryonic development. The difference is who (or what) is doing the “producing.” The embryo is not something that is being passively built by the process of development, with some unspecified, external “builder” controlling the assembly of embryonic components. Rather, the embryo is manufacturing itself. The organized pattern of development doesn’t produce the embryo; it is produced by the embryo as a consequence of the zygote’s internal, self-organizing power. Indeed, this “totipotency,” or the power of the zygote both to generate all the cells of the body and simultaneously to organize those cells into coherent, interacting bodily structures, is the defining feature of the embryo. (p. 11)
From the moment of sperm-egg fusion, a human zygote acts as a complete whole, with all the parts of the zygote interacting in an orchestrated fashion to generate the structures and relationships required for the zygote to continue developing towards its mature state. Everything the sperm and egg do prior to their fusion is uniquely ordered towards promoting the binding of these two cells. Everything the zygote does from the point of sperm-egg fusion onward is uniquely ordered to prevent further binding of sperm and to promote the preservation and development of the zygote itself. The zygote acts immediately and decisively to initiate a program of development that will, if uninterrupted by accident, disease, or external intervention, proceed seamlessly through formation of the definitive body, birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity, and aging, ending with death. This coordinated behavior is the very hallmark of an organism. (p. 7)
Subsequent to sperm-egg fusion, events rapidly occur in the zygote that do not normally occur in either sperm or egg. The contents of what was previously the sperm, including its nucleus, enter the cytoplasm of the newly formed zygote. Within minutes of membrane fusion, the zygote initiates changes in its ionic composition that will, over the next 30 minutes, result in chemical modifications of the zona pellucida, an acellular structure surrounding the zygote… These modifications block sperm binding to the cell surface and prevent further intrusion of additional spermatozoa on the unfolding process of development. Thus, the zygote acts immediately and specifically to antagonize the function of the gametes from which it is derived; while the “goal” of both sperm and egg is to find each other and to fuse, the first act of the zygote is immediately to prevent any further binding of sperm to the cell surface. Clearly, then, the prior trajectories of sperm and egg have been abandoned, and a new developmental trajectory – that of the zygote – has taken their place. (p. 3) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Readers can learn more about my argument that a one-cell embryo is just as valuable as we are by perusing my online book, Embryo and Einstein: Why They’re Equal.. Common objections to the view that embryos are people with a right to life are answered here.
What about the soul?
In arguing that the developmental program which an adult shares with the embryo he/she developed from is what makes that embryo just as valuable as the adult, I have put forward an account of what makes us morally valuable which even a materialistic atheist could subscribe to, if he/she believes that rational human adults possess intrinsic moral value. (Of course, if we don’t possess intrinsic value, and our values is merely conferred on us by society, then I fail to see how anyone could be said to have human rights, as Libby Anne evidently believes they do.)
But it might be asked: if (as religious believers like myself maintain) human beings possess an immaterial soul, where does it fit into this account of what makes us morally valuable? Good question.
I would answer this question as follows. What makes us morally valuable is whatever it is that ultimately controls and directs our development into rational human adults (who undeniably possess value). If you’re a materialist, then you’ll think that this “something” is just our genetic program, which each of us has possessed since the moment of conception. But if you’re religious, then you’ll believe that this program, in turn, has something else directing its development: a spiritual human soul. And there’s absolutely no reason why this could not also be present from the moment of conception. (I address all the objections relating to twinning in my book.)
A weakness in the “bodily autonomy” argument?
Hoverflies mating in midair. Photo taken in October 2006 at Swifts Creek, Victoria, Australia. Image courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos and Wikipedia. One critic wrote to Libby Anne, saying, “When YOU do the thing that makes babies, don’t be surprised when it makes a baby — INSIDE YOU.”
I’d now like to address Libby Anne’s ”bodily autonomy” argument in favor of keeping abortion legal: “We don’t force people to donate bone marrow, even if they are the only match and the other party will die without the donation, so why would we force a woman to donate her nutrients, oxygen, and body itself to sustain a zygote, embryo, or fetus?” Libby Anne expresses her argument more forcefully in her post, Reproductive Rights:
I see birth as a firm dividing line because until then the fetus inhabits a woman’s body. A woman’s body is private property – it’s hers. She shouldn’t be forced to let another creature live in it. Once that other creature is out of her body, that’s when it gets rights. Until then, any rights it gets would be taking away from the woman’s rights over her own body.
However, Libby Anne herself acknowledges that the argument has a weakness, in her post, When you do the thing that makes babies… (October 20 2012). One reader wrote the following reply to her “autonomy” argument:
I can’t even be bothered to read the long responses to pro-life arguments here in the comments since so many start with the illogical thought process of something like the following: “A fetus is a person, but no person has the right to live inside another person’s body without that person’s ongoing consent.” Newsflash: When YOU do the thing that makes babies, don’t be surprised when it makes a baby — INSIDE YOU. Stop hating your biology and deal with it, without shooting the messenger, so to speak.
Libby Anne admits that even she was hard-pressed to respond to this argument, when she first came across it:
… [Initially] I was a bit stumped by the argument outlined in the beginning of this post. As I thought about it I realized that the fact that having sex does naturally lead to getting pregnant does in some sense make it look silly when a sexually active woman seeks an abortion for an unintended pregnancy. Didn’t she know that having sex is “the baby-making thing”? Didn’t she realize that getting pregnant was a real possibility of being sexually active?
Libby Anne’s analogy: Is getting pregnant from having sex like crashing a car while driving?
Libby Anne’s analogy for pregnancy: a car wreck, resulting from a head-on collision of two cars. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
But then Libby Anne came up with an ingenious analogyof her own, which she thinks blows the reader’s response right out of the water: driving a car. We don’t accuse a driver of being responsible for her car crashing later on when she gets into a car, even though she knows that there’s a small risk of a subsequent car crash. Likewise, we shouldn’t accuse a woman of being responsible for her subsequent pregnancy, when she has sex using contraceptives which have a small risk of failure. And even if the driver were negligently careless (e.g. in not bothering to put on a seat belt), bystanders would still be wrong in refusing to help her. Likewise, society is wrong in refusing to allow a woman who gets pregnant after having sex without using birth control, to have access to abortion. In Libby Anne’s words:
But the reality is that just like getting in a car does not have to result in a wreck, so too having sex does not have to result in getting pregnant, and just like getting in a wreck does not have to result in bleeding to death on the side of the road while passers by refuse to help because “he knew that was a possibility when he decided to get in a car” or “he wasn’t wearing a seat belt so it really was his fault,” even so becoming pregnant does not have to result in carrying the pregnancy to term because “she knew that was a possibility when she decided to have sex” or “she wasn’t using birth control so it really was her fault.”
The problem with this argument is that it treats pregnancy as nothing more than a condition of the woman’s body. If it were just that, then I agree that society would be churlish in refusing the woman access to medical services that could relieve her of her unwanted condition. It may surprise some readers to learn that I was pro-choice for a few years myself, from around 1992-1996, after being actively pro-life in my earlier student days. During that interval, after having been influenced by books like The Women’s Room, I argued that pregnancy was an inherently burdensome condition, that it was wrong for society to force someone to continue to endure a burdensome condition against their wishes, and that it was therefore wrong for society to force a woman to remain pregnant against her wishes.
But pregnancy isn’t just a condition. It also involves another person who is just as valuable as the woman herself: her embryo/fetus. And the “natural consequence” of sex isn’t merely pregnancy; it’s the creation of a human person.
Libby Anne also fails to notice a second disanalogy between driving a car and getting pregnant. She writes:
In some sense, getting in a wreck and thereby being injured can be seen as the natural consequence of getting in a car. After all, without precautions, wrecks and injuries sustained from wrecks would be quite common…
Having sex is similar in several ways. After all, without any precautions, pregnancy and having to carry to term would be the natural result of having sex.
Let’s now imagine that the (female) driver is traveling with a passenger on board, to make the case as similar to pregnancy as possible. Let’s also imagine that another car crashes into the driver’s car, and that the passenger dies. How is this different from abortion? It’s very simple. In the car crash, the driver is not the originator of the fatal sequence of events that kills her passenger. The driver of the other car is. In the case of an aborted pregnancy, however, the woman is the originator of the fatal sequence of events that kills her unborn child.
But what if the car crash occurs because of a freak circumstance – for instance, a very slippery road? In that case, Nature could be described as the originator of the fatal sequence of events that kills the passenger. But we still couldn’t say that getting in a wreck is the natural consequence of getting in a car, because the circumstances that caused the wreck were exceptional and abnormal.
If the death of the passenger occurs because of the driver’s negligence – for example, if the driver has been drinking – then of course, the driver is the originator of the fatal sequence of events that kills her passenger, and she should be held legally responsible for the passenger’s death. But even in this case, it would be quite wrong to say that getting in a wreck is the natural consequence of getting in a car, because the passenger’s action of getting into a car, per se, does not place him/her in a fatal sequence of events. To get a road fatality, an additional causal factor is required: the driver’s drunkenness. It is this factor which initiates the fatal sequence of events that kills the passenger.
We can now (hopefully) see what is wrong with the following argument, put forward by Libby Anne:
Saying that pregnancy is simply the consequence of sex is like saying that getting in a wreck is simply the consequence of getting in a car.
Saying that having sex means giving consent to carrying a pregnancy to term is like saying that getting in a car means consenting to bleeding to death without assistance in the case of a wreck.
In her post, Libby Anne attempted to bolster her argument for legalizing abortion, which is based on the right to bodily autonomy, by appealing to a parallel case. We don’t tell people to stop driving just because it’s risky; and we shouldn’t tell people to stop having sex just because it’s risky, either. We don’t prevent doctors from cutting a driver free from a car wreck even if the wreck is the driver’s fault; likewise, we shouldn’t prevent doctors from performing an operation to free a pregnant woman from an unwanted pregnancy, even if the pregnancy is the woman’s fault. That was Libby Anne’s argument, and as we saw, it ignored the personhood of the fetus, as well as the fact that driving doesn’t lead to car wrecks in the same way that sex leads to pregnancy.
But Libby Anne might reply that she is not beaten yet. All I have done is to discredit her analogy between pregnancy and driving. Perhaps there is a better analogy. Well why don’t we have a look at the philosophical literature?
Judith Jarvis Thomson: Unplugging the Violinist
Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), the most famous violinist of all time. A violinist figures in philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous “Unplugging the Violinist” argument, which was designed to show why abortion should be legal. This portrait of Paganini is from a coal drawing by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, c. 1819. Source: Wikipedia.
Readers of a certain age will recall a now-famous essay by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, entitled, A Defense of Abortion (Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 47-66, Fall 1971). In her essay, Thomson grants for the sake of argument that the embryo/fetus has a right to life, but defends the permissibility of abortion by invoking the following thought experiment:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you. (Thomson, 1971, pp. 48-49.)
Thomson assumes that you may now unplug yourself from the violinist, even though this will cause his death. The right to life, asserts Thomson, does not entail the right to use another person’s body. Hence by unplugging the violinist, you do not violate his right to life but merely deprive him of something – the use of your body – to which he has no right. “[I]f you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due.”
By the same token, argues Thomson, abortion does not violate the right to life of the embryo/fetus, but merely deprives it of something to which it has no right: the use of the pregnant woman’s body. In choosing to terminate her pregnancy, a woman does not violate any of her moral obligations. Instead, we should say that a woman who carries the embryo/fetus to term performs a noble act, which goes beyond her obligations.
The atheist philosopher Philippa Foot subsequently replied to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “Unplugging the Violinist” argument in her essay, Killing and Letting Die (in Joy L. Garfield and Patricia Hennessy, Abortion: Medical and Legal Perspectives, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1984, pp. 177-185).
In her essay, Foot draws an important distinction between originating a fatal sequence (which is always wrong) and allowing one to continue (which may in certain circumstances be morally permissible). Having formulated this distinction, Foot then proceeds to refute Thomson’s argument:
In an influential and widely read article, Judith Jarvis Thomson has suggested an argument for allowing abortion…
Thomson suggests that abortion can be justified, at least in certain cases, without the need to deny that the fetus has the moral rights of a human person. For, she says, no person has the absolute right to the use of another’s body, even to save his life, and so the fetus, whatever its status, has no right to the use of the mother’s body. Her rights override its rights, and justify her in removing it if it seriously encumbers her life. To persuade us to agree with her she invents an example, which is supposed to give a parallel, in which someone dangerously ill is kept alive by being hooked up to the body of another person, without that person’s consent. It is obvious, she says, that the person whose body was being used would have no obligation to continue in that situation, suffering immobility or other serious inconvenience, for any length of time. We should not think of him as a murderer if he detached himself, and we ought to think of a pregnant woman as having the same right to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy…
Thomson’s whole case depends on this analogy. It is, however, faulty if what I have said earlier is correct. According to my thesis the two cases must be treated quite differently because one involves the initiation of a fatal sequence and the other the refusal to save a life. It is true that someone who extricated himself from a situation in which his body was being used in the way a respirator or kidney machine is used could, indeed, be said to kill the other person in detaching himself. But this only shows, once more, that the use of “kill” is not important: what matters is that the fatal sequence resulting in death is not initiated but is rather allowed to take its course. And although charity or duties of care could have dictated that help be given, it seems perfectly reasonable to treat this as a case in which such presumptions are overridden by other rights – those belonging to the person whose body would be used. The case of abortion is of course completely different. The fetus is not in jeopardy because it is in its mother’s womb; it is merely dependent on her in the way children are dependent on their parents for food. An abortion, therefore, originates the sequence which ends in the death of the fetus, and the destruction comes about “through the agency” of the mother who seeks the abortion. If the fetus has the moral status of a person then her action is, at best, likened to that of killing [someone] for spare parts… (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Foot concludes that the only possible way of defending the morality of abortion is to show that the fetus does not have the status of a person, after all:
It appears, therefore, that Thomson’s argument is not valid, and that we are thrown back to the old debate about the moral status of the fetus, which stands as the crucial issue in determining whether abortion is justified.
I submit that a fair-minded individual, after reading Foot’s rebuttal, would have to concede that Thomson’s case of the violinist constitutes a very poor analogy to pregnancy, and that Thomson has failed to show that the obligations are equivalent in the two cases.
Why the unborn child is not a parasite
Giardia lamblia, a protozoan parasite. Courtesy: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S.A. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Finally, I’d like to make a point about parasites.In her post, Of pregnancy and parasites: My body is mine! (March 22, 2012), Libby Anne wrote:
As most of you know, I am currently pregnant. I’m very pleased to be pregnant. The pregnancy was planned and intended from the get-go. There’s just one little thing.
I don’t like sharing my body!
When you’re pregnant, your body is invaded by what is for all intents and purposes a parasite. Here, I’ll define parasite for you:
An organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense.
And so, as you can see, I am currently inhabited by a parasite. I’ve voluntarily letting this little parasite feed off of my body – it was my choice to invite it in – but that doesn’t make it any less a parasite, technically speaking…
I miss my figure. I miss being able to eat whatever I choose. I miss my body being only and completely mine.
However, Libby Anne’s assertion that the embryo/fetus is some sort of parasite is decisively refuted by the online article, Why the Embryo or Fetus is Not a Parasite, written by Dr. Thomas L. Johnson, Professor of Biology, Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (My grateful acknowledgements to Libertarians for Life and to Professor Thomas L. Johnson.) Professor Johnson has identified no less than eight significant differences between an embryo/fetus and a parasite:
1 a) A parasite is defined as an organism of one species living in or on an organism of another species (a heterospecific relationship) and deriving its nourishment from the host (is metabolically dependent on the host). (See Cheng, T.C., General Parasitology, p. 7, 1973.)
b) A human embryo or fetus is an organism of one species (Homo sapiens) living in the uterine cavity of an organism of the same species (Homo sapiens) and deriving its nourishment from the mother (is metabolically dependent on the mother). This homospecific relationship is an obligatory dependent relationship, but not a parasitic relationship.
2 a) A parasite is an invading organism – coming to parasitize the host from an outside source.
b) A human embryo or fetus is formed from a fertilized egg — the egg coming from an inside source, being formed in the ovary of the mother from where it moves into the oviduct where it may be fertilized to form the zygote – the first cell of the new human being.
3 a) A parasite is generally harmful to some degree to the host that is harboring the parasite.
b) A human embryo or fetus developing in the uterine cavity does not usually cause harm to the mother, although it may if proper nutrition and care is not maintained by the mother.
4 a) A parasite makes direct contact with the host’s tissues, often holding on by either mouth parts, hooks or suckers to the tissues involved (intestinal lining, lungs, connective tissue, etc.).
b) A human embryo or fetus makes direct contact with the uterine lining of the mother for only a short period of time. It soon becomes isolated inside its own amniotic sac, and from that point on makes indirect contact with the mother only by way of the umbilical cord and placenta.
5 a) When a parasite invades host tissue, the host tissue will sometimes respond by forming a capsule (of connective tissue) to surround the parasite and cut it off from other surrounding tissue (examples would be Paragonimus westermani, lung fluke, or Oncocerca volvulus, a nematode worm causing cutaneous filariasis in the human).
b) When the human embryo or fetus attaches to and invades the lining tissue of the mother’s uterus, the lining tissue responds by surrounding the human embryo and does not cut it off from the mother, but rather establishes a means of close contact (the placenta) between the mother and the new human being.
6 a) When a parasite invades a host, the host will usually respond by forming antibodies in response to the somatic antigens (molecules comprising the body of the parasite) or metabolic antigens (molecules secreted or excreted by the parasite) of the parasite. Parasitism usually involves an immunological response on the part of the host. (See Cheng, T.C., General Parasitology, p. 8.)
b) New evidence, presented by Beer and Billingham in their article, “The Embryo as a Transplant” (Scientific American, April, 1974), indicates that the mother does react to the presence of the embryo by producing humoral antibodies, but they suggest that the trophoblast – the jacket of cells surrounding the embryo – blocks the action of these antibodies and therefore the embryo or fetus is not rejected. This reaction is unique to the embryo-mother relationship.
7 a) A parasite is generally detrimental to the reproductive capacity of the invaded host. The host may be weakened, diseased or killed by the parasite, thus reducing or eliminating the host’s capacity to reproduce.
b) A human embryo or fetus is absolutely essential to the reproductive capacity of the involved mother (and species). The mother is usually not weakened, diseased or killed by the presence of the embryo or fetus, but rather is fully tolerant of this offspring which must begin his or her life in this intimate and highly specialized relationship with the mother.
8 a) A parasite is an organism that, once it invades the definitive host, will usually remain with host for life (as long as it or the host survives).
b) A human embryo or fetus has a temporary association with the mother, remaining only a number of months in the uterus.
Why is a pregnant woman morally obligated to carry her baby to term?
We’ve shown that the embryo/fetus is not a parasite, and that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist” analogy for abortion is a poor one. But Libby Anne could still argue that in refuting Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist” analogy, we still have not provided a positive reason showing why a pregnant woman is morally obligated to carry her pregnancy to term. All we have demonstrated is that one well-known argument purporting to show that she isn’t obligated to do so, fails because its analogy for pregnancy is a poor one.
So I’d like to meet her challenge. Let’s imagine the case of a woman living in a backward, patriarchal society. Her (much older) husband impregnated her by raping her. For the next few months she was confined indoors, under the watchful eye of relatives, until she finally gave birth. She did not want the baby, and she still does not want it. She did not want to breast-feed the baby, either, but her husband threatened to thrash her if she didn’t.
A few days ago, a terrible plague swept through her village. Her abusive husband died of the plague. So did most of the people of the village. The few survivors, fearing infection from each other, rapidly scattered in all directions. The woman is now walking alone in the wilderness, with a baby who is a few days old. There is no-one around who is willing or able to feed her baby – a baby whom she never wanted.
I’d now like to ask Libby Anne: is the woman obliged to feed the baby? If she is, then why? She did not at any stage consent to the obligation of parenthood. What care she has provided until now was provided entirely under duress.
Let’s remember that although the baby is not inside the woman’s body, the woman still has to provide the baby with milk from her body, in order to nourish it. On top of that, the woman has to carry the baby around with her, wherever she goes, which is bound to be extremely burdensome on her, physically. If Libby Anne really believes that a woman has absolute autonomy over her own body, then I find it hard to see how (on her account) the woman could be morally obligated to feed a baby whom she never consented to feed in the first place.
And yet all of us would say that the woman, on hearing the baby cry, is morally obligated to feed it. Why?
(1) The baby needs milk, and it is utterly unable to look after itself.
(2) The baby’s dependence on its mother was caused by external circumstances beyond its control.
(3) The baby’s needs are natural, for its stage in development.
(4) The mother is able to feed the baby and keep it alive.
(5) No-one else but the mother can feed the baby and keep it alive, at the present time. In other words, the mother is the most proximate individual who is able to care for the baby.
I can’t think of any other facts that are pertinent here.
From these five facts, I would argue that if the word “should” has any objective meaning at all, then the mother should feed her baby, no matter how unwillingly it was conceived. But by the same token, I would argue that the mother had an obligation to continue to support her unborn baby, while she was pregnant. For at that time, the baby needed food and oxygen, which it was unable to obtain for itself. Its dependency on its mother was caused by circumstances beyond its control. Her unborn baby’s needs were natural. The pregnant mother was able to nourish the baby and keep it alive, and nobody else could have done that. So by parallel, even though the mother was forcibly impregnated, she was bound to care for her baby and carry it to term.
Philippa Foot: moral oughts are grounded in natural needs
Two Nepalese children playing with cats. Atheist philosopher Philippa Foot (1920-2010) reasons as follows: “From the fact that human children are not born able to do things, from this fact that they are born helpless, I get an ought: that they are to be looked after.” Image courtesy of Nancy Collins and Wikipedia.
Libby Anne might like to read what the “card-carrying atheist” philosopher Philippa Foot (1920-2010), who was one of the greatest moral philosophers of the 20th century, had to say on deriving an “ought” from an “is”:
“Practical rationality is taking the right things as reasons,” says Foot, “so ‘the child is hungry’ is a reason to feed it, and ‘smoking will kill you’ is a reason for not taking up smoking.”
“From the fact that human children are not born able to do things, from this fact that they are born helpless, I get an ought: that they are to be looked after. Human beings need to look after children. That’s an example of an is that gives an ought.”
“So I’m really talking about a general concept of ‘good’ that applies to plants, animals and human beings. You can’t understand what I mean when I say I think it is acting badly to break a promise until you first understand that ‘good’ is used of living things in a particular way. It’s not like ‘oh good’ which is speaker relative and it’s not like ‘good vacuum cleaner’ either, which really depends upon the interests of people who use these things. But it belongs only to living things.
“So first I identify this very general sense of good then I try and explain it by its relation to the particular way in which things of that kind, living species, need to do just to survive. You’re defective if you don’t do that. A hedgehog that ran from a predator would be defective, a deer that made itself as small as possible would be defective… It’s an objective fact that a fleeing hedgehog would be a defective hedgehog.”
(Excerpt from an interview with The Philosophers’ Magazine, originally given in 2003 and republished on October 6, 2010.)
Those who are curious can read more about Foot’s ethical philosophy in my post, Death of a grande dame: can we build morality on the foundation of natural goodness?
If (as I have argued above), the embryo/fetus is a human person, and (as Philippa Foot argues) if the way we ought to treat persons is grounded in those persons’ natural needs, then as far as I can see, the embryo/fetus is just as entitled to sustenance from its pregnant mother as a newborn baby is from the mother who has just given birth to it.
Can there be morality without God?
The intellectual tussle between theists and atheists on the relationship between God and morality stems from the fact that they both make valid argumentative points. I believe that atheists are quite right when they argue that: (i) we can know what is right and wrong (at least in broad outline) without having to explicitly assume the existence of God; and (ii) the moral rightness of an action does not derive from some arbitrary decree of a Deity. To say that we can know what is right is to say that natural law can tell us what is right and wrong.
On the other hand, theists are right when they argue that: (iii) if (per impossibile) there were no God, right and wrong would no longer have any meaning, with the consequence that “all is permitted” (Dostoyevsky); (iv) God’s wanting us to perform an action does make it morally right.
These apparently contradictory positions can be reconciled once we realize that God is someone who by nature loves perfectly – in other words, God is necessarily and essentially good. God’s moral commands spring not from God’s whims but from God’s nature.
In the end, it’s all about love
Finally, I’d like to make a point about love. Most parents-to-be love their unborn child. You loved your unborn child too, Libby Anne. In your post, Of pregnancy and parasites: My body is mine! (March 22, 2012), even as you wrote that the life growing inside you was “a parasite, technically speaking,” you also acknowledged that you loved that “little parasite”:
Don’t get me wrong, I love this potential child already, it’s just that I’d rather him be in my arms than inside of my body.
So I’d like to ask: does it even make sense to love a potential person? If we can truly love the unborn child, aren’t we thereby implicitly acknowledging that it is a person? I’ll let Libby Anne think that one over.