Arthur Caplan vs. Marco Rubio on Abortion

By Ramesh Ponnuru

Sen. Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio

Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan criticizes Senator Rubio and other “conceptionists,” i.e., people who believe that human lives begin at conception. Argument one:

So is Rubio right? Does science show that life begins at conception? Science supports no such view.

Let’s start with the gnarly matter of what is conception. Science offers no bright line. Neither do Rubio and those in his camp.

Is conception when a sperm reaches an egg, when it penetrates the shell of an egg, when genetic recombination begins, when a new genome is formed, or, when a functioning new genome is formed? Science is not a guide in this conceptual thicket so much as it is a stark reminder that nature rarely has clean boundaries.

This is pointless pedantry from Caplan. Induced abortions take place after all of these events. When they take place, a living human organism exists. The point of the procedure is to change that state of affairs. (For that matter, all the events Caplan mentions take place before there is a blastocyst that could be used for stem-cell research.)

Argument two:

For those trying to invoke science in defense of conceptionalism things only get worse.

Those who say life begins at conception base their claim on the assertion that every human life begins with conception. That is true. But what they fail to acknowledge is that conception does not always create a life.

Arthur Caplan

Arthur Caplan

More pedantry. The key phrase here is, “That is true.” Yes, the meeting of sperm and egg often fails to result in a new organism–that is, an entity that integrates its own organic functioning and directs its own development. Often it does create such an organism. In such cases, the organism’s life begins at fertilization–just as pro-lifers say. This is when things have gotten “worse” for our case?

Argument three:

Many scientists and doctors endorse the view of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which stated in 1981 that the existence of human life at conception is a question to which science can provide no answer.

What the NAS was rejecting was the claim that science can determine when a human organism becomes a person, that is, a being with moral worth and rights and a claim to protection. It is of course true that science cannot answer that question. It remains open to the Caplans of the world to define certain human organisms as human non-persons. Science can, however, answer whether the human embryo is a living human organism and when its life began–which is exactly what Rubio is saying science tells us.

Editor’s note. This appeared at and is reprinted with permission.