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A Defense of Abortion Rights: the Spectrum Argument

Christianity and atheism debateA typical pro-life position can be stated this way: (1) human life begins at conception; (2) it is murder to take a human life; therefore (3) abortion is murder and should be considered immoral.

We’ll return to that idea shortly, but first let’s look more closely at human life. I argue that there is a spectrum of personhood during gestation.

Consider a continuous spectrum from blue to green. Where’s the dividing line? Where does blue end and green begin? We can argue about this, but we agree that blue is not green! The two ends are very different.

What age is the dividing line between child and adult? Twelve years? Eighteen? Twenty-one? It’s a spectrum, and there is no objectively correct line. Again, the line is debatable but no one doubts that a child and an adult are quite different.

An acorn is not a tree, a silkworm is not a dress, a water molecule is not a whirlpool, a piece of hay is not a haystack, and a carton of eggs is not a henhouse of chickens. Similarly, a single fertilized human egg cell is very different from a one-trillion-cell newborn baby.

Note that this is not simply about the number of cells. At one end of the personhood spectrum, we have arms and legs, fingers and fingernails, liver and pancreas, brain and nervous system, heart and circulatory system, stomach and digestive system—in fact, every body part that a healthy person has. And at the other, we have none of this. We have … a single cell. In between is a smooth progression over time, with individual components developing and maturing. That’s the spectrum we’re talking about.

Let’s approach this another way. Consider a brain with 100 billion neurons versus a single neuron. The single neuron doesn’t think 10–11 times as fast; it doesn’t think at all. The differentiation of the cells into different cell types and their interconnections in the newborn may count for even more than the enormous difference in the number of cells.

Note also that the difference between a newborn and an adult is trivial compared to the difference between the cell and the 1,000,000,000,000-cell newborn.

Some pro-life advocates argue that the humans at either end of this spectrum are identical in every meaningful way and use the term “baby” for every point along the spectrum. I’ve raised babies (with help, of course), and that makes me something of an expert in identifying babies. As an expert, I can assure you that an invisible cell isn’t a baby.

This inept attempt to collapse the spectrum by using the term “baby” for both ends is like the slogan used by the animal rights group PETA: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” In other words, there is no spectrum here: vermin are the same as livestock, which are the same as pets, which are the same as people.

No, a rat is not a boy, blue is not green, and a single cell is not a newborn baby.

A lot revolves around what we call this spectrum. Do we call it Homo sapiens? With this term, there is no spectrum, because the species is the same—the single cell is Homo sapiens, as is the newborn baby.

What about “human”? That seems a good name for the spectrum—that is, we would call the newborn human but not the cell. Or, we might call the cell human but not a human. Pro-lifers typically reject this, wanting to use “human” for both ends of the spectrum.

All right, can we all agree on “person”? I’ve heard pro-lifers reject this as well.

This game where pro-lifers deny names to the spectrum can get tiring. I really don’t care what the spectrum is called—humanity, personhood, human development, like-me-ness, whatever—call it what you want as long as the naming acknowledges the stark difference between the newborn (with arms and legs and a circulatory system and a nervous system and eyes and ears and so on) and the single fertilized human egg cell.

Now, back to the original pro-life argument: (1) human life begins at conception; (2) it is murder to take a human life; therefore (3) abortion is murder and should be considered immoral. This argument is invalid because it is oblivious to the spectrum.

Pro-lifers claim to be celebrating life, but equating a newborn baby with a single cell doesn’t celebrate life, it denigrates it.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • Rick T

    Interesting blog post. Kind of an interesting off topic diversion from your usual fare.

    But I don’t get your conclusion—I don’t see where you identified WHY it is denigrating life to consider a conceived embryo to be LIFE of equal value with a newborn baby. As a pro-life individual, I don’t understand your reasoning. We are not demeaning any post-birth life in considering the embryo in this light. We are simply expanding the protective consideration to include the unborn. Could you expand on why that denigrates life, and what authority or source you use to make that determination?

    Is there any point before travel through the birth canal that you would consider the “thing” in the womb to be worthy of protection? Surely the baby one day before birth as the mother enters labor might be so protected? What about a month before, when almost all babies would be viable and survive if forcibly but carefully removed. Where would you draw the line, and again, on what basis would you do so?

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Kind of an interesting off topic diversion from your usual fare.

      I see why you’d say that, but I’ve wanted to include commentary on Christianity’s impact on social issues. I’ll have more in this series on abortion rights (and then, perhaps the same-sex marriage question!).

      I don’t see where you identified WHY it is denigrating life to consider a conceived embryo to be LIFE of equal value with a newborn baby.

      If you’re saying that both ends of the spectrum are alive, I agree with you. But the spectrum is so vast that we need some vocabulary to describe the difference. I use “personhood” (that is, a baby has it but a single cell doesn’t), but I’m flexible.

      We are not demeaning any post-birth life in considering the embryo in this light.

      To say to a newborn, “You’re no different than a single cell” is demeaning. But I imagine you agree with me, so perhaps I don’t understand your point.

      Is there any point before travel through the birth canal that you would consider the “thing” in the womb to be worthy of protection?

      You seem to have missed the entire point of the post (could be my fault for being unclear). A single cell has very little inherent value while a newborn has very much, and the personhood gradually increases from one to the other. Every day, it becomes more worthy of protection.

      Note my point about “inherent.” The mother will consider her pregnancy a very good thing or a very bad thing, so she will assign her own value. The pro-choice position argues that her opinion rules until a certain point, at which society says that the fetus is too person-like to abort.

      I have no strong opinion on where to draw the line.

  • Bob Calvan

    Ok I see .. It is Ok to murder 1,000 cells of a human being. But not 100,000,000 cells of a human being. And it is ok to murder the DNA human cell inside the birth canal, But if the DNA human cells move down the birth canal 7 inches, we can not murder the human cells. Gotcha; know I understand? What a arbitrary illogical morality. That is why the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen said the foolishness of the Atheist worldview leads to absurdity.

    • Retro

      Bob C: At least get the math right: Bob S is comparing a fertized egg to a one-trillion cell newborn.

      This is not a 1,000 cells to 100,000,000 cells.

      (Bob S actually underestimated it, and a newborn actually has between 50 and 100 trillion cells.)

      So then, it’s comparing 2 cells of a fertilized egg compared to 50,000,000,000,000
      to 100,000,000,000,000 cells of a newborn.

      Also, what if birth control is used? Is preventing the fertilization of an egg the same thing as aborting a fertilized egg? Condoms are MURDER I tell ya!

      According to the Mayo Clinic: “Miscarriage is the spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week. About 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. But the actual number is probably much higher because many miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy that a woman doesn’t even know she’s pregnant. Most miscarriages occur because the fetus isn’t developing normally.”

      Why, if a God does exist, does He allow such things as 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage?

      According to the Utah Department of Health: “A common overall estimate of birth defect rate is 3 percent, or 1 in 33 births. By including also developmental disabilities, which became apparent often only in the older or school-age child, such rate has been estimated to exceed 10% or more of births. ”

      Why does God, if He does exist, allow such things as birth defects?

      Is it all because mankind has fallen by simply taking a bite out of an apple 6,000 years ago? It’s like I’ve always said, the foolishness of the Theist worldview leads to absurdity.

      (Sorry for any typos or profanities… I’m highly inebriated at the moment)

      • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

        Retro:

        (Bob S actually underestimated it, and a newborn actually has between 50 and 100 trillion cells.)

        I heard 100 trillion cells for an adult. But I might’ve gotten it wrong.

        Why, if a God does exist, does He allow such things as 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage?

        To follow up on your previous source, I’ve heard it’s roughly half end in spontaneous abortion. God is indeed the biggest abortionist.

        Why does God, if He does exist, allow such things as birth defects?

        And if it’s to teach us something (I dunno–humility or something?), why do animals have birth defects?

      • Retro

        Bob S: I heard 100 trillion cells for an adult. But I might’ve gotten it wrong.

        You’re right. I inaccurately quoted my source at Wiki.answers: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_total_number_of_cells_in_a_newborn_baby

        An adult has between 50 and 100 trillion cells, and so a baby has an estimated 1 to 5 trillion cells.

        To follow up on your previous source, I’ve heard it’s roughly half end in spontaneous abortion. God is indeed the biggest abortionist.

        The source I used stated that it was just the known pregnencies, and it didn’t give a number for the number of unknown pregnancies that end in spontaneous abortions, so I’m confident that it’d be a lot more.

        And I agree, given the data, God is indeed the largest abortionist, as He allows spontaneous abortion to occur.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Bob C:

      Ok I see .. It is Ok to murder 1,000 cells of a human being. But not 100,000,000 cells of a human being.

      A baby doesn’t have a hundred million cells; it has a trillion.

      And you’re telling me that a newborn baby is equivalent to a single cell?

      And it is ok to murder the DNA human cell inside the birth canal

      I’m pretty sure I didn’t say this.

      That is why the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen said the foolishness of the Atheist worldview leads to absurdity.

      I see absurdity, but it’s not in the atheist worldview. If you want to find a bedfellow, talk to the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen, not me.

      • Retro

        Bob C asked: And it is ok to murder the DNA human cell inside the birth canal,…

        Murder a DNA human cell??? I guess every time you scratch an itch, it removes, and therfore murders, the human DNA in your several of your skin cells?

        You didn’t answer my previous question: Would you consider the use of contraceptives also to be murder?

  • Bob Calvan

    I thought Bob S. Holds to the consensus of science?

    Dr. Robert George wrote his excellent book entitled Embryo . In his words:

    “That is, in human reproduction, when sperm joins ovum, these two individual cells cease to be, and their union generates a new and distinct organism. This organism is a whole, though in the beginning developmentally immature, member of the human species. Readers need not take our word for this: They can consult any of the standard human-embryology texts, such as Moore and Persaud’s The Developing Human, Larsen’s Human Embryology, Carlson’s Human Embryology & Developmental Biology, and O’Rahilly and Mueller’s Human Embryology & Teratology.” – Dr. Robert George

    “Human embryos, whether they are formed by fertilization (natural or in vitro) or by successful somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT — i.e., cloning), do have the internal resources and active disposition to develop themselves to the mature stage of a human organism, requiring only a suitable environment and nutrition. In fact, scientists distinguish embryos from other cells or clusters of cells precisely by their self-directed, integral functioning — their organismal behavior. Thus, human embryos are what the embryology textbooks say they are, namely, human organisms — living individuals of the human species — at the earliest developmental stage.” – Dr. Robert George

    The First International Symposium on Abortion came to the following conclusion:

    The changes occurring between implantation, a six-week embryo, a six-month fetus, a one-week-old child, or a mature adult are merely stages of development and maturation. The majority of our group could find no point in time between the union of sperm and egg, or at least the blastocyst stage, and the birth of the infant at which point we could say that this was not a human life.7

    The Official Senate report on Senate Bill 158, the “Human Life Bill,” summarized the issue this way:

    Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being—a being that is alive and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point in countless medical, biological, and scientific writings.8

    Footnotes:

    1 Report, Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, 97th Congress, 1st Session 1981.

    2Landrum Shettles and David Rorvik, Rites of Life: The Scientific Evidence of Life Before Birth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 113.

    3 Ashley Montague, Life Before Birth (New York: Signet Books, 1977), vi.

    4Bernard N. Nathanson, “Deeper into Abortion,” New England Journal of Medicine 291 (1974): 1189Ð90.

    5Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979).

    6Shettles and Rorvik, Rites of Life, 103.

    7John C. Willke, Abortion Questions and Answers (Cincinnati, OH: Hayes Publishing, 1988), 42.

    8Report, Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, 97th Congress, 1st Session 1981, 7.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Bob C:

      “The changes occurring between implantation, a six-week embryo, a six-month fetus, a one-week-old child, or a mature adult are merely stages of development and maturation. …

      “Stages of development” = spectrum. I’m glad we agree.

      … The majority of our group could find no point in time between the union of sperm and egg, or at least the blastocyst stage, and the birth of the infant at which point we could say that this was not a human life.”

      OK, it’s a human life at all stages. Now tell me what it’s not at all stages. Is it not a “person” as a cell but is a person as a newborn? The word doesn’t much matter as long as it accounts for the spectrum that we agree exists.

  • Bob Calvan

    Ever consider state laws that determine if a pregnant women is murdered at any stage of her pregnancy..It is considered a double murder..The fetus is considered a murdered human being. So much for Bob S. arguments.

    Retro asked these three questions.

    “…..Why, if a God does exist, does He allow such things as 15 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage?”

    “….Why does God, if He does exist, allow such things as birth defects?”

    “….Is it all because mankind has fallen by simply taking a bite out of an apple 6,000 years ago? It’s like I’ve always said, the foolishness of the Theist worldview leads to absurdity.”

    God has predestined all things for the good pleasure of His will. Even the fall of Adam.. God has a perfect means to His ends, and God uses the sinful acts of men to accomplish His will and purpose which is all good for the glory of Himself.

    Retro mentioned

    “…(Sorry for any typos or profanities… I’m highly inebriated at the moment.”

    That’s ok! Keep in mind Retro that you once told me that you sincerely asked God to save you and reveal Himself to you. Am I correct as this is what you told me?

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Bob C:

      So much for Bob S. arguments.

      Yep, you demolished them without even addressing them.

      God has predestined all things for the good pleasure of His will.

      I interpret this to mean: “Be a good boy and don’t ask pesky questions. Just trust that everything is happening according to God’s plan (despite the lack of evidence).”

    • Retro

      That’s ok! Keep in mind Retro that you once told me that you sincerely asked God to save you and reveal Himself to you. Am I correct as this is what you told me?

      Yes, that’s correct.

      If it matters any, I didn’t drink at all back then. I was stone cold sober, and struggled with my unbelief much as the father in Mark 9:24 did.

  • Bob Calvan
    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      OK, what’s the point? Is there anything particularly compelling here? This seemed to be an ungrounded transcendental “if you can’t answer it, I can!” claim.

      He gets an A for bluster, but I don’t see an argument.

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  • Bob Calvan

    Bob asked

    “OK, what’s the point? Is there anything particularly compelling here? This seemed to be an ungrounded transcendental “if you can’t answer it, I can!” claim.”

    I thought you were familiar with the atheist Eddy Tabash? He debates Christians often..

    My point is in this debate Eddy got destroyed..What it came down to was Eddy Tabash just doesn’t like the God, that Eddy believes does not exist.

    And the brilliant philosopher, logician, theologian Dr Bahnsen reduced him to absurdity..As He also did with the Atheist Dr. Gordon Stein.

    Maybe you should listen to those two debates, but something tells me you have.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Yes, I’m familiar with Tabash, although he wasn’t in your clip.

      My point is in this debate Eddy got destroyed.

      Well, that’s one opinion! I wasn’t all that impressed with the snippet you gave us.

      How could you conclude Tabash lost by listening to just one side of the argument? Or did you listen to the whole thing?

  • Matt Yester

    Anyone who has voted for abortion…has already been born.
    The hypocrisy on that side is astounding.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      I’m not quite sure what you’re saying. Could you elaborate?

      Should every parent have as many children as possible, or are some limits OK?

  • Bob Calvan

    How could you conclude Tabash lost by listening to just one side of the argument? Or did you listen to the whole thing?

    Yes, that was Bahnsen’s closing argument..I have heard the bebate about 4 times.. Give it a listen

  • Matt Yester

    My point was very concise Mr. Seidensticker.

    You or anyone else that would defend abortion rights can only do so because you were not aborted yourself. It’s a hypocritical position for any pro-choice person to take.

    • http://galileounchained.com Bob Seidensticker

      Is it also hypocritical to be satisfied with your life when you haven’t brought as many children into it as possible? If you’ve had four kids, do you think for a moment you wouldn’t love a fifth? Of course you would–so have five, six, seven … twenty.

      Or is it OK to limit children?

      I don’t see the hypocrisy you refer to. Some pregnancies are wanted, and some are not. Maybe I’m the result of a wanted pregnancy. If I’d been aborted, I wouldn’t be here to complain about it (just like that baby #5 that didn’t happen).

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