By Audrey Wagner
Editor’s note. This appeared in the September edition of National Right to Life News. Please be sure to read it and pass this—and any other stories you like—to your pro-life family and friends.
The Conversation claims to publish “trustworthy and informative articles written by academic experts.” So I was recently disheartened, and not just a little annoyed, when I found false premises, misleading information, and logical fallacies among three of their recent articles discounting the value of unborn humans in the abortion debate.
Sahotra Sarkar: Please disregard a survey of thousands of biologists and focus instead on a single biologist’s lecture on “personhood”
The first of these was shockingly deceptive, as we’ll see.
Sahotra Sarkar’s September 1, 2021 article in The Conversation is titled, “Defining when human life begins is not a question science can answer – it’s a question of politics and ethical values.”
The title alone begs the following questions: Whose politics and ethical values decide when human life begins, and on what basis? And why say that science can’t answer when human life begins, when the answer is provided by textbooks as well as a consensus of biologists?
Sarkar attempts to discount this scientific consensus by begrudging Steven Andrew Jacobs’ 322-page published paper that included results of a survey sent to 62,469 biologists focusing on the biological view of when a human life begins, 5,557 of whom provided analyzable data through their responses. Unfortunately for Sarkar, 96% of them affirmed as “correct” at least one statement that describes the biological view that a human’s life begins at fertilization.
Sarkar says Jacobs’ survey is “not a proper survey method and does not carry any statistical or scientific weight,” on the basis that the survey responders were “self-selected.” He implies the survey responders were biased toward a pro-life conclusion. By a single sweeping condescension, Sarkar hopes to falsify the affirmations of 5,557 biologists in a study that, for those who actually read it, clearly does demonstrate scientific methodology.
Self-selection is an issue only if those who opt to take a survey are not equivalent to those who opt out, thereby skewing responses. Yet, of the 5,557 biologists from 86 countries and 1,058 academic institutions who provided analyzable data, 85% identified as pro-choice (pg. 250). Sarker’s implication of a pro-life bias has no basis.
Not only that, but the email advertising the survey did not disclose that the survey had implications for the abortion debate, so as not to skew the pool of participants (pg 253).
Sarkar then goes on to say (wrongly) that there is no scientific consensus for when human life begins. He says there are actually several possibilities put forth by scientists for when human life begins, including not until birth. He makes these assertions despite previously claiming scientists can’t answer the question in the first place.
It then gets much worse, for this is the point in his article when Sarkar hugely misleads readers. When you click on Sarkar’s reference that supposedly backs up his claim that there is no scientific consensus about when “human life” begins, you are taken to a transcript by biology professor Scott Gilbert. It turns out that Gilbert is not at all talking about when “human life” begins; rather, his transcript is clearly and repeatedly about when “personhood” begins.
Sarkar thereby misleads readers into believing that there is no scientific consensus for when “human life” begins.
Of course, trying to extract “personhood” as something in addition to “human life” is philosophically problematic and empirically impossible. Jacobs said it well in his paper: “notions of sustainability, viability, meaning, and value are non-scientific concepts that adulterate the discussion” (pg. 247). From a purely biological perspective, Jacobs explains, “An organism with a diploid genetic code is present at fertilization, and it did not exist at the moment before then,” (pg 247).
Recall that 96% of the biologists from his survey study agree.
Sarkar concludes by repeating his misleading premise that biology does not determine when human life begins. He says, instead, that our values determine the answer to this question. (One might here recall unfortunate events in history when “values” led to various crimes against humanity, including mass killings.)
Nancy Jecker: Let’s consider the implications of banning abortion–but only the ones that make my point
Nancy S. Jecker’s May 13th, 2022 article in The Conversation also thinks we should shift the conversation to “ethics.” Again, whose ethics?
The ethics of pro-choice ideology, of course.
She points us to the notion of “personhood” in the abortion debate. She says that most philosophers distinguish being a person from being human, while no one disputes the fetus’s species.
(Ironically, she here admits that “no one” disputes that fetuses are human, while Sarkar, also published in The Conversation, insists there is no scientific consensus on this.)
She says that if we can’t agree when personhood begins, then we can consider instead the “implications” of certain views. For example, how should we resolve “conflicts” between pregnant people and the fetuses they carry?
She suggests we should consider the toll that unwanted pregnancies take, financially and circumstantially, on those who are denied abortions. She says we have to ethically consider that the overturning of Roe v. Wade is unfair to poor people and minorities and to the fact that the majority of Americans support abortion rights. She concludes her list of concerns by stating that abortion bans are projected to increase maternal mortality.
Her suggestions are misleading, and here’s why.
She begs the question of how a more difficult life for mothers justifies abortion. Considering the difficult “implications” of denying abortions assumes the moral philosophy of consequentialism, the consideration of which would here imply that we might also kill certain born people in order to make our lives less difficult.
She does not provide readers with facts about the resources available via pregnancy centers, of which there were about 3,000 in 2021. 95 % of abortions occur at clinics, of which there were 808 in 2017. These figures indicate that pregnancy centers outnumber abortion clinics by almost 4 to 1.
She also doesn’t include an important, yet less popular, research finding from The Turnaway Study regarding women who were turned away from abortion clinics and carried their pregnancies to term. By the time their children were five years old, only 4% of those women still wished they could have had an abortion. Is it sensical to only point to the “toll” taken on women denied abortions, without pointing also to the research stating those women largely wanted their children in the years following their births?
And, in mentioning the unfairness of abortion bans on the poor and minorities, she leaves out that low-income people are more likely to oppose abortion than high-income people. Why propose abortion as a solution to poverty rather than societal solutions and the resources already available for whose who are low-income and pregnant?
Her concern that abortion bans increase maternal mortality begs the question of whether abortion kills a morally valuable life.
What readers are unlikely to know is that the maternal mortality rate is extremely low; in 2017, a pregnant woman had a 0.017% chance of dying from a pregnancy-related complication (17.3 deaths per 100,000 live births). This is 1 out of every 5,780 women. This means that one is 10 times more likely to die from a pedestrian incident than from a pregnancy-related complication.
Jecker also neglects to mention the experience of Chile, which saw maternal mortality substantially decrease after outlawing abortion.
Maternal mortality, therefore, seems just another point that conveniently ignores that millions of unborn babies die by abortion.
Finally, Jecker commits the logical fallacy of appealing to the majority when she argues that the majority of Americans support abortion rights.
So far, we are 0 for 2 in finding “trustworthy and informative articles” on this topic in The Conversation.
Amanda Roth: Let’s define a human by its stage of development, not by its humanity
Let’s look at a final recent take by The Conversation on the value of the unborn, via an article published on June 30th, 2022 by moral philosopher Amanda Roth. Roth offers the theory of gradualism to explain why we can be morally unconcerned about abortions that take place in early stages of pregnancy.
Roth laments that the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade means, for some states, that restrictions and out-of-state travel needs will delay abortions and therefore increase the second-trimester abortion rate.
This is important, she explains, because losing a pregnancy, or aborting a fetus, are commonly felt to be more tragic later in pregnancies than earlier in pregnancies. This sense of tragedy is explained by the philosophical theory of gradualism, she says.
(It’s questionable whether Roth’s assertion is even true. Prior research has found, in the context of miscarriage, that “gestational age was not shown to affect the degree, intensity, or duration of the grief, anxiety, or depression” for those who had miscarried.)
According to gradualism, Roth explains, the moral status and value of a fetus increases slowly and steadily, parallel to its “physical, cognitive and relational development.” A 6-8 week embryo might therefore have very minimal moral status. Yet a 32-35 week fetus has the same moral status as a newborn. Mid-pregnancy fetuses are morally “in between.”
She said that gradualism gives us reasons to fight for easy access in every state to early abortions, since early abortion is not very morally concerning. Roth expresses that “it is morally abhorrent to deny anyone the ability to access abortion in their own state, no matter why they are seeking one,” so it’s not surprising that Roth puts forth a means to justify abortion via the philosophy of gradualism.
I find gradualism to be illogical and lacking in any empirical foundation.
First, we circle back to the idea of “personhood” as an additional feature that humans can have on top of being human. Gradualists find “personhood” to develop slowly throughout gestation; therefore, it doesn’t really exist at conception or in the first several weeks of pregnancy. Gradualists cite “physical, cognitive and relational development” as what distinguishes a person from a human.
This fails when you consider that infants and small children are also quite early in their physical, cognitive, and relational development; and persons of all ages or with various disabilities also have varying abilities in these areas of development. Yet infants, children, and disabled people have full moral status. In Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law, law professor Kate Greasley admits that “The problems associated with adducing a universal criterion for personhood do not just disappear when one adopts a gradualist account of fetal moral status” (pg 150).
“Personhood” can therefore only really be “determined” by the varying subjective feelings of born people, a basis that is not scientific. Such subjective feelings and views are then imposed upon unborn humans in their early stages of development, “justifying” their death by abortion.
Secondly, gradualism fails to consider that a human at all stages of development is an organism. Regardless of its physical, cognitive and relational development, by virtue of continuity a human organism is the same organism at every stage of its development.
More pointedly, gradualism takes a snapshot of a human organism at an early stage of development and considers it not morally valuable. The sinister conclusion is that this human organism, who would have full moral status and value just months later, is sentenced to death right now. This “snapshot approach” confuses a human organism with its stage of development. I don’t look at a photo of myself as an infant and say that I’m essentially an infant. Rather, I say I am essentially a human.
Gradualism thus discriminates against a human being based on his or her location in time. It says, “This human doesn’t matter… yet. Let’s kill her before she does.” That is akin to saying, “Let’s kill this human while her future has not yet arrived.” But preventing someone’s future value is not a justification for killing; it’s a definition of killing. Killing, after all, prevents someone’s future and all the value that would lie with it.
We don’t kill young children because their adult selves have not yet arrived and therefore have no value. Killing unborn humans on this basis makes no more sense.
Gradualism, while explaining the common sentiment that abortion should take place as early as possible, is, upon further inspection, simply the exploitation and killing of the very youngest among us.
Do better, The Conversation
The Conversation claims to share researcher’s expertise. Yet these three recent articles failed to provide relevant, fair, sensical, or sometimes even accurate premises, or else they failed to provide conclusions that logically followed from their premises.
What these articles have in common is that they leave the realm of empiricism and science and enter the subjective realm of “values,” “ethics,” and “moral philosophy,” but only, of course, where those values support the killing of the unborn.
Editor’s note. This appeared at Secular Pro-life and is reposted with permission.