Timothy Dalrymple on abortion.

In preparation for my forthcoming move to Patheos, I started reading some of their other blogs today.  Suffice that there were a lot of opinions being expressed that I found bewildering, to say the least.

So I emailed Dan, who runs the atheist portal over at Patheos, to ask if the posts of my colleagues was fair game for dissection.  To my great elation he informed me that Patheos loves when that happens as long as it doesn’t get personal or vicious.  Sweet!  I suspect I’ll be doing a fair bit more analysis of religious arguments once I’m over there.

And since it’s on my mind, I came across this post by Timothy Dalrymple at Philosophical Fragments and thought I’d comment on part of it.

I hate that unborn children are exterminated before they have had a chance to enjoy the gift of life.  I hate that hundreds of millions of men and women, boys and girls are not alive today because of abortion worldwide, and the world has lost a treasure trove of creativity and joy and ingenuity.  I hate that women are sometimes pressured by men or by parents into abortions they mourn and regret; I hate that women are sometimes misled into believing that abortion for the sake of convenience is okay; as a father of two beautiful girls, I hate that unborn baby girls in particular are aborted in a twisted consequence of the “women’s rights” crusade for abortion.  But I also hate that so many women find themselves in terrible circumstances (I hate too that so many men are deadbeats) where they feel like abortion is their only hope.

Let’s take the first part, where he uses the argument about potential.

I hate that unborn children are exterminated before they have had a chance to enjoy the gift of life.

Tim, you say “exterminated,” but I want to make sure your connotation is clear.  Obviously there is a tremendous difference between exterminating a dandelion and exterminating a human being.  While a dandelion is certainly alive, it has cells that are moving about and what not, nobody really mourns the loss of that life.  This is why nobody would refer to the a dandelion’s loss of life as an “extermination.”  My position is that the destruction of a zygote is little more worrisome that the destruction of a dandelion.  Richard Carrier, I think, said it best:

“From a point of view outside of this affair, the killing of a neurologically inactive fetus is no greater a harm than the killing of a mouse, and in fact decidedly less–a mouse is neurologically active, and though it lacks a complex cerebral cortex, it has a brain of suitable complexity to perceive pain.”

Things that cannot suffer their own loss, though alive, have never really concerned us, whether they are trees, insects, mice, etc.  I see no reason to believe a zygote or a fetus is different in any meaningful way up until they reach that point.

I hate that hundreds of millions of men and women, boys and girls are not alive today because of abortion worldwide, and the world has lost a treasure trove of creativity and joy and ingenuity.

An argument that inevitably comes up in the abortion debate is that a zygote will one day become a child (perhaps the next Beethoven!) if left unchecked.  Tim, do you not realize that every sperm in the male body is a potential human being (it just needs the female egg, itself a potential unique, glorious human being).  Yet the prospect of this lost potential does not seem to frighten you into promiscuity.  Ditto for every other evangelical Christian.  Why not?  Don’t you worry that that particular sperm might have cured cancer one day, and you just let it slip away?

I am certain that if all human beings went Sodom and Gomorrah-style crazy with lust, we would eventually produce a physicist that would dwarf Stephen Hawking or Einstein, or a composer that would reduce the work of Mozart to child’s play. That’s no reason to do it. The dire consequences of augmented, unmitigated population growth are very well documented. A woman should feel no obligation to produce a child she does not want, simply because that kid might be the first John Conner.

Why then do we care about a particular set of cells in the female because they share a similar potential?  Instead of hating this lost potential, which could never even come close to being realized in reality, why not love the fact that an unwilling mother was not burdened with an expensive and lifelong roll of the dice she didn’t want, with equally small chances of making the next Richard Dawkins or the next Torquemada?

I hate that women are sometimes pressured by men or by parents into abortions they mourn and regret

I suspect you also hate it when women get abortions they don’t regret (if I am to take you at your word in previous sentences).  So why point this one case out specifically?  Is it to assure us that you have compassion for the victims of this pressure?  Cool.  How far does your compassion run?  For the ones who wouldn’t regret/mourn their abortion (read: most of them), would your compassion extend to those facing a life-long burden of being responsible for another human being when they know they’re unprepared for it?  Or is your empathy primarily available to the few who wind up regretting the decision?  Which do you think has the greater potential for lasting damage; regret over an abortion or raising a child you didn’t want?  For most people, that should tell them where the bulk of their sympathy should lie.

I too hate that sometimes people are pressured into doing things they don’t want to do, but let’s not imagine that these are any more than a small minority of abortion cases.  The difference between you and I, Tim, is that I can be happy for the women who experience tremendous relief that they were not saddled with the responsibility for a child they did not want or for which they were unprepared.  Could you look me in the eye and tell me that you hate the ruining of somebody’s life less than you hate the loss of a some incognizant cells?  Would you even want to?  That would tell me all I need to know about the compassion of Christianity.

The whole idea of post-abortion trauma is mostly fabricated anyway.  You see, in 1987 Ronald Regan asked then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to produce a report assessing the possibility of trauma in the would-be mother. Koop’s report concluded that “the available scientific evidence about the psychological sequelae of abortion simply cannot support either the preconceived notions of those pro-life or those pro-choice.” This was as generous as the highly conservative Koop could be without being flagrantly dishonest. However, Regan ordered the report to be re-written to say that women did typically suffer post-abortion trauma.  Though Koop separated himself from it both publicly and during investigation, it was from this re-written report that the idea that abortions induced trauma was born.

Since both the announcement of that one disingenuous paper and the resulting beat down from the scientific and medical communities, all of our credible medical bodies have been in perfect harmony on the facts. The American Psychological Association sums it up nicely:

“The best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.”

All the same, even if a higher portion of women did suffer depression after their abortions, you cannot shackle everybody for that.  Women should still get the choice.  Some people wind up regretting all kinds of things (many of which don’t have the same upsides that abortion does), but you don’t prevent other people from doing them because some regret it.  However, the science is conclusive that no greater threat to mental health exists for having an abortion, so the argument is moot.

I hate that women are sometimes misled into believing that abortion for the sake of convenience is okay

“Convenience.”  That’s an interesting choice of word.  The average cost of raising a child is almost $227,000.  And that’s just the money, this is not including the time you spend raising a child.  In this case, for women who do not wish to raise a child, the convenience of getting an abortion is similar to the convenience of not losing all your worldly possessions in a fire several times over.  At what point does “Holy fucking shit this is potentially life-destroying!!!” become differentiated from “convenience?”  Why would destroying a wad of unthinking cells for the “convenience” of not incurring these costs not be ok?

And even if it was just a matter of convenience, why wouldn’t it be ok then?  Potential?  That argument sucks.  God?  That argument also sucks.

as a father of two beautiful girls, I hate that unborn baby girls in particular are aborted in a twisted consequence of the “women’s rights” crusade for abortion.

Twisted?  She doesn’t want a child.  She shouldn’t be obligated to have one because of your strange moral attachment to that zygote’s potential.  You do not get to dictate what other people do with their bodies unless you’re protecting a conscious being from harm.  Often, it doesn’t even matter that the life form is conscious (this is why you can kill mice).

Look, lots of things are alive that we do not give the first damn about.  Even human life has varying values (if you doubt this, imagine you had to direct a missile to either a kindergarten or a prison).  I admit that a zygote has some worth (I think dandelions do too), but I think that worth is obviously negligible.  And if you’re going to suggest that the value of those unthinking, unfeeling cells is worth more than that of the conscious mother who has memories, a life she has built, love, and the ability to suffer the loss of all of it, as well as the ability to feel resentment at being forced to raise an unwanted child, you need to get a new definition of “twisted.”

But I also hate that so many women find themselves in terrible circumstances (I hate too that so many men are deadbeats) where they feel like abortion is their only hope.

At least we have one piece of common ground.  Of course, abortion doesn’t get you away from a deadbeat or an abusive partner.  I would hope that if a woman doesn’t want a child, she gets an abortion, and that if she’s with a guy who is no good for her that she leaves.

You know what I hate?  I hate that there are some people who think they have enough ownership over someone else’s life to dictate that they bear a child.  And I hate the religion that hands them that privilege as though it’s god’s will.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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