Abortion debate: response to Timothy Dalrymple.

Timothy Dalryple, fellow blogger here at Patheos, wrote a post titled “I Am a Hate-Filled Christian.”  I hated it.  I thought it was awful and without empathy for a lot of people.  I took one paragraph out of it that dealt with abortion and and rebutted it (Christina took care of his anti-homosexual bits).

Now he’s written back, and since Patheos is all about the conversation I’d be remiss as one of their bloggers if I were to let it slide.

First of all, let me say that I, in contrast to Eberhard, do not find many of the opinions expressed at Patheos “bewildering.”  If a belief held by many people seems “bewildering” then it’s likely you simply haven’t understood the issue well enough to place yourself in the shoes of those who believe it.

This is simply untrue.  For instance, the belief that someone rose from the dead in the first century is held by many people.  It’s bewildering.  I do not judge how bewildering an idea is based on the number of people who believe it, but on lousiness of their reasons or the lack of any evidence.  And, let’s face it, the evidence that someone rose from the dead back then is either nonexistent or terrible, especially when you compare it to the galaxy of evidence to support the fact that people do not rise from the dead.  It’s not that I do not understand the ins and outs of Christianity.  In fact, that so many people believe a Canaanite Jew rose from the dead is even more bewildering to me now than when I had a relatively smaller understanding of the faith.

Ridiculous beliefs can be held by lots of people.  Don’t point to the people, show me the evidence.

And, what’s more, if you’re going to say I don’t understand the issues, just say it.  Ditch this passive-aggressive stuff as though it somehow makes you the “nice” half of the debate.

And regrettably, Eberhard makes clear that he has not done a whole lot to understand the perspective of a Christian pro-lifer.

mmmMMMmmm…posturing.  I understand their general position, I just think it’s bankrupt.

We do not use the word “exterminated” when referring to the destruction of dandelions.  True.  We do use the word “exterminated” when referring to the destruction of insects, rodents, and higher life forms.  Is Eberhard suggesting that the destruction of 1000 third-trimester babies/fetuses is not deserving of the word “exterminated,” and by implication less significant than the destruction of 1000 ants?  How far is Mr Eberhard willing to go?

Here Dalrymple shifts the goalposts.  In his original post he said…

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

It was to that point I had responded.  Unless by “unborn children” Dalrymple meant only fetuses rather than zygotes (he distinguishes between the two in his own post), then he wasn’t talking about 1000 third-trimester fetuses; he was talking about all aborted zygotes, blastocysts, and fetuses.

That’s why, to make the point as basically as possible, I even specifically used the term “zygote.”  I said…

My position is that the destruction of a zygote is little more worrisome that the destruction of a dandelion.

I was talking about zygotes, not fetuses, so it’s bizarre that Dalrymple now asks if I think fetuses can be exterminated.

Remember, I’m the one saying that the value of life (human or not) exists on a sliding scale.  I have no problem saying that a fetus is more valuable than a zygote, and hence is a greater moral concern.  But for Dalrymple, he believes that a fetus is equivalent in personhood to the zygote (hell he thinks children are equal in personhood to the zygote), so if the life of a zygote is of approximate concern to the life of the dandelion, that would create problems for his position, not for mine.  That’s why I used “zygote” in that instance.

And yes, I think the word “exterminated” makes no sense in talking about zygotes, blastocysts, or fetuses under certain conditions (more on that in a moment).

In most cases, we’re not talking about a zygote.  And no one has suggested that you ought not abort simply because the embryo/fetus is “alive” (like a dandelion) but because it’s a living human person.

But Dalrymple did not make this distinction in his original argument.  He apparently expects me to be a mind-reader.  What I did was take Dalrymple’s post at face value when he said…

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.

It seemed that life was the important factor.  What is a well-intentioned atheist to do?

Tim asks…

If the destruction of a zygote is roughly the same as the destruction of a dandelion, what about the destruction of a fetus?

Fair question.  Would I say that killing a neurologically inactive zygote/blastocyst/fetus is less ethically problematic than killing a mouse?  Absolutely, in most cases.  A mouse can feel pain and actively does not want to die.  You cannot say the same for a fetus before it hits the fifth month when the cerebral cortex begins to develop and the fetus becomes neurologically active.  Can we be sure that this primitive state of the mind is when cognition begins?  No, but we can at least know the hardware is there, which is good enough for me.  This is probably why only 1.3% of abortions occur after this time, and those are almost always unusual circumstances (the baby is dead and cannot be prematurely delivered due to deformity or malfunctions of the womb or to save the mother’s life, etc.).

So, aside from exceptional circumstances like those listed above, I’d place the cutoff for elective abortions at 26 weeks.  Dalrymple is right that we must draw the line somewhere.  My argument is that his is far, far more arbitrary than mine.

Dalrymple tries to separate a fetus from a dandelion in terms of consciousness (and hence, in value) in the following way…

But neurological activity is detectable by about the sixth week, and may well exist (but not be detectable) earlier.

Of course, if the day-old zygote is just as much of a person as the sixth-week fetus, this distinction is moot.

Anyway, without a cerebral cortex these are just stimulus responses, like a plant growing towards the sun.  These responses in no way point to the ability of a fetus to conceive of existing or to feel pain.  In this, they are far more similar to dandelions or sperm than to you or I with our ability to feel pain, to value things, and to actively resist our own demise and to care one lick if we fail.

The differing values of “life” was the main point of my argument and Dalrymple never addressed it.

Why should the potential to suffer your own loss be the decisive criterion?

Well, it can’t be that something is alive, otherwise we’d never swat a fly.  Also, Dalrymple has already said that whether or not something is “alive” doesn’t enter into his argument.

It can’t be that something merely has human DNA, because we can keep someone alive on a pacemaker and a respirator indefinitely, even after the doctor has declared them dead due to the lack of electrical activity in their brain.  Another way we can determine that human DNA does not determine the value of a life is twins.  They have the same DNA, but if one of the twins grows up to be a serial killer and the other a doctor and you must choose which one lives, you’d pick the doctor.  It is the content of the mind, not the blueprints, that determine worth.  After all, if you had a “living” adult body without a brain, who would care if it were buried?

What else remains?  Is the ability to suffer your own loss the only criterion that can add value to a life?  No, but it’s a big one.  Were you in a burning building with a person unconscious from smoke inhalation and someone who has been in a coma for twenty years and could only carry one of them out, the choice is obvious.  One of those two has much more to lose.  I’m not saying that one has zero value, I’m just saying that the one who can consciously suffer their loss has more value (all other things being equal).

And I’m also saying that up to 20 weeks, the worth of a zygote/blastocyst/fetus has a worth far, far less than a human.

In his initial post Dalrymple made the argument from potential.

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.

Ignoring the fact that “unborn children” is a silly euphemism, there can be no doubt that the issue expressed here is that there are lots of potential children who never get to live.  I countered by saying that every sperm is a potential child (who doesn’t get to live unless you get it on), yet this doesn’t make Christians promiscuous (not to say that there aren’t promiscuous Christians, let me assure you that there are, just that worry over potential isn’t what makes them so).

Dalrymple responded…

…there is a key distinction between a sperm and a zygote.  A zygote, left to develop naturally, will tend to develop into a human being.  You can have a tank of millions of sperm, but without an egg not a single one will develop into a human being.  This is because — I hate to give a basic biology less here — the female contributes half the genetic endowment via the egg.  Only at fertilization (i.e., when there is a zygote) does the cell division process begin — and as early as eight cells, the cells begin to differentiate into the different parts of the body.  But more importantly, only at fertilization do you have, genetically, a human being.  (And by the way, it’s John Connor, to keep with the entertainment references.)

But why does the fact that this potential is in a different stage matter?  Why does it matter if the potential is split into two parts?  Is each pig not a potential pork chop even if it’s not lugging the oven around with them?  If lost potential elsewhere doesn’t bother us, why does it bother us if it would manifest if unchecked?  Dalrymple only points out that this potential is different, but he doesn’t say why that difference should matter.  Perhaps it could be argued that this increases the value of a zygote over a sperm, but even if I were to concede that point it does nothing to elevate the value of a zygote over that of an adult.

When he says “only at fertilization do you have, genetically, a human being,” Dalrymple has identified one way in which a zygote is similar to an adult human being: they have human DNA.  We’re to believe that this one similarity makes the zygote a person.

So now our chart looks like this:

If you believe that all it means to be a person is within our DNA, see the above example with twins.  Also, stop thinking so little of humanity.

Oh, and thanks for the correction on the spelling of John Connor’s name.  That was a faux paus on my part.  And by the way, Tim…

After I posted ‘I Am a Hate-Filled Christian,” Eberhart was kind enough to respond directly to the paragraph in that post in which I lamented certain facts regarding abortion and the abortion debate.

It’s “Eberhard.”  Not that I’d ordinarily be so pedantic, but you opened the door…

The idea that a fetus is closer in value to a person than to a mouse or a dandelion is just absurd.  What’s more, even the people who say otherwise don’t act that way.  Who has ever asked for a death certificate and a funeral/visitation for a miscarriage?  Meanwhile, I’ve known a couple people to bury pet mice.  And, if zygotes/blastocysts/fetuses are people, then miscarriage is a global health crisis, way worse than cancer and much more serious than the “people” lost to abortion.  Why are we not dumping billions of dollars into researching how to save these poor “people?”

This is because all of this is post hoc rationalization for the real reason most people want abortion to be illegal (and why they really believe a zygote is a person): religion.  It barely takes a developed cerebral cortex to see the correlation between religiosity in this country and being anti-abortion.  But the truth of Christianity is even harder to defend than the personhood of a zygote, so instead we get arguments like the potential argument, or the human DNA argument, or whatever the hell else.

So let’s get Dalrymple on record here.  Tim, do you think that life, all life, human or otherwise, differs in value on a sliding scale such that, say, a serial killer’s life is worth less than a newborn’s?  If you respond to no other argument in this post, make sure you respond to that one.  If you do believe that life differs in value, then we can start to talk about what gives value to life, rather than arguing over whether or not everything with a “human” DNA chain (biologists might wonder about just what that means) is of equal value.  If you don’t think the value of life differs, then you’re simply not being intellectually honest with me or yourself and this conversation might as well be dead.

I wrote that “I hate that women are sometimes misled into believing that abortion for the sake of convenience is okay,” and Eberhard took issue with the use of the word “convenience,” pointing out that “the average cost of raising a child today is almost $227,000.  At some point “convenience” becomes “life-destroying” and ought to outweigh interests of a clump of cells.  Well, I know few people (even the very poor ones) who view the decision to have a child as “life-destroying,” even when they did not think they can afford it.  (Doesn’t everyone think they can’t afford it?)  But more importantly, this is what’s known as a false dichotomy: either have an abortion, or pay the costs in full of raising a child.

Not the costs in full?  Just some costs?  Well, if that’s all the control you wish to exert over another human’s life…

But why?  Even if there are other, less life-destroying options, my point on convenience still holds.

I guess I can’t blame him, because it’s a really new-fangled concept, truly cutting edge.  But there’s this thing called…wait for it…adoption.  In fact, the mother could actually make money by carrying the child to term and then handing the baby over to another couple that is desperate to have a child.  I can give you some movie recommendations if you want to learn more about this adoption thing.  Or you can Google it.

Sure, adoption is grand.  But there are far more kids than willing parents and carrying a child to term is costly and painful.  Why should anyone be expected to do that for a child they don’t want?  Why should one woman have to suffer so someone else can have a kid when there are already more than enough to adopt?  What’s more, the capability of a society to keep population growth in check without abortion has proven to be non-existent.  A few countries exist where abortion is illegal and the product of much greater shame that what Christians have managed here in the states, and all of them have overcrowding problems along with all the economic, criminal, and political troubles that come with it.  This is especially clear when compared to countries where abortion is legal.

Unless Dalrymple can adequately defend the immorality of abortion, which is based on the notion that a zygote is a person of equal (or greater) value than a human adult/child, then he’s insisting we exacerbate a number of problems for no good reason.  Why on earth should we suffer those issues rather than removing neurologically inactive zygotes, blastocysts, fetuses when they’re unwanted?

But when you believe, as I do, that the life of a human child is at stake, then you want to protect that life.

But I don’t believe as you do.  Your position on the matter makes virtually no sense and has not been adequately defended.

The people getting abortions don’t believe as you do either.  Sure, some of them claim to, but like every other person who is anti-abortion, their actions say otherwise.

JT apparently believes we have to weigh the value of the fetus over against the value of the mother.

Yes!  Replace the word “apparently” with “obviously” and change “the value of the mother” to “the value of the mother’s well-being” and ol’ Tim has hit the nail right on the head.

Because apparently…help me out here…it’s the life of the mother or the life of the unborn child?

Wrong!  More equivocating.  I have made my position clear repeatedly that the value of a zygote/blastocyst/fetus before 26 weeks is worth less than the mother’s convenience (and/or suffering).  It’s worth less than a mouse at that point, since a mouse has far more in common with a human adult than a zygote/blastocyst/fetus (this includes most of its DNA).  What I have not said is that it’s the life of a fetus against the life of the mother (at least, not always).

The guy who called his blog “Philosophical Fragments” is building a strawman out of false dichotomies.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek, but the point is, the measurement here (at least in the vast majority of cases where the life of the mother is not threatened) is not simply between the unborn and the mother, but between the life of the unborn and the pregnancy of the mother.

Nobody ever said it was between the mother living and the fetus living.  Although, in cases where it is the life of the zygote/blastocyst/fetus or the life of the mother, you’d have to be a cold, cold person to think the mother should be the one to stop living.

No one is asking her to die for her child…

Nobody in this debate is saying that.  Not once.  I don’t know who Dalrymple is rebutting here, but it isn’t me.

Although, in the cases where the mother would die without an abortion, I wonder what Dalrymple would suggest should happen?  If he thinks that in those circumstances the mother should die, as many anti-abortion people do, then someone in the debate is asking this.  And, if Dalrymple believes abortion should be allowed in this case, wouldn’t that mean he can see the difference in value of human life?  If they’re both persons, what would account for that difference for Tim?

…or even to completely overturn her life for eighteen years — just to get the child to birth and give it up for adoption.

You’re just asking, no I’m sorry, you’re “just” demanding she overturn her life for at least nine months to bring a child painfully to term when she doesn’t want to.  That’s still shitty unless you can establish that the life of a tiny clump of cells is worth all that.  You’ve not done so.

Her life does not belong to you, Tim.  You don’t get to decide that people must endure that kind of pain for no good reason.  You don’t get to decide that someone does anything for no good reason, let alone suffer.  You want to frame this debate with you as the protector what’s good.  The irony is that I’m the one standing between you and the suffering of people you clearly care little about.  You certainly care less about those people than an unthinking wad of cells.  Even if it comes back that you do believe the value of life differs from one to the next, your standards for that value are completely fucked.

JT says something sensible when he writes: “You do not get to dictate what other people do with their bodies unless you’re protecting a conscious being from harm.”  Of course, a fetus is not necessarily “the mother’s body,” but let’s put that aside.

Being pedantic doesn’t rescue Dalrymple here.  The fetus is inside her body and she doesn’t want it there.  That’s like saying a stray cat should get to stay in your house against your will because it’s not a a piece of furniture.

Let’s put it this way: if someone believed that another person’s actions were going to take the life of an innocent human person, would that person not be morally allowed, even obligated, to intervene?

Yes, I would.  Of course, I don’t believe that’s what happens with abortions.  If you could come up with a good argument for why that’s the case, I’d change my mind faster than you could blink.

But you haven’t done that, and this goes to the core of what I said earlier about your actions telling me that you don’t believe it either.  You’re not doing everything you can.  If I thought there was a person going around Columbus killing hundreds of babies, if he had confessed to this, if there was video evidence of him doing it and the police were doing nothing, we would welcome the vigilante that ended that monster’s life.  I’d do it myself if nobody beat me to it, even though killing another person is against the law and even though my own morality would ordinarily compel me to guard the life of another person (indeed, it’s that compulsion that would move me to act, because it would be a binary situation where the life of the psychotic is worth much less than the lives of his victims).  Anybody with a brain capable of murdering children without blinking an eye is an alien to humanity.  Whoever stopped that person would be a hero in the eyes of the populace.

But when an anti-abortionist murders a doctor they are shunned, and even the anti-abortion crowd backs away from them (at least they do so publicly).  Why?  A person committing child genocide has just been stopped.  Another option to save an unborn life would be to women who are about to supposedly murder their child and wait eight months before taking her to the hospital.  Yes, you would go jail, but you would’ve saved a life.  Of course, if someone did this, they would undoubtedly be condemned as the villain by pro-choice and anti-abortion people alike (at least publicly) because nobody actually behaves like a fetus is a person.

The anti-abortion crowd isn’t doing everything they can.  They’re just making bad arguments and spreading misinformation.

Incidentally, it’s that same interest in stopping the suffering of those around me that moves me to protect unwilling or unready mothers from people like Timothy Dalrymple, who would have them suffer to cater to their religious whims.

So there’s really no reason for all the hysteria about the arrogance and misogyny of trying to control women.

Let’s not pretend that the history of Christianity isn’t swollen with attempts to control women.

What’s more, let’s not pretend like the goal changes the fact that anti-abortionists trying to control women.  They are.  In Dalrymple’s case it may not be because the church looks down on women, but they’re still trying to control them.

Christians absolutely ought to take better care of women who find themselves facing unwanted pregnancies — and in fact that’s one of the purposes of the network of crisis pregnancy centers Christians have founded.

If the outlook of those “crisis centers” is anything like what Dalrymple has demonstrated, it’s less about taking care of women and more about taking care of the collection of cells inside them, regardless of what the woman wants or how much she suffers.  When you tell me in one breath that you want to take care of a woman, but in the next you tell me she must endure a nine-month painful pregnancy so she can send that child to foster care, you’ve made it clear just how little “care” means to you.

I’m sure Christians can do more.

Please don’t.

But Christian pro-lifers genuinely believe that there are two people at issue in this equation

They’re wrong.  If you want me to adopt the belief that a zygote is a person then you must adequately defend it, not just assert it.

I wonder, however, how Eberhard knows that it’s only a “tiny minority” of cases where women are pressured into abortions.

What Tim said in his initial post was (bold mine):

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

Which is why I said (bold mine):

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.

And I can say that because of studies like this.

Two years postabortion, 301 (72%) of 418 women were satisfied with their decision; 306 (69%) of 441 said they would have the abortion again; 315 (72%) of 440 reported more benefit than harm from their abortion; and 308 (80%) of 386 were not depressed. Six (1%) of 442 reported posttraumatic stress disorder.

Maybe the argument from Dalrymple is that many women who get abortions are pressured to get one they don’t want and wind up not regretting it, but that makes very little sense.  Even if all the cases of regret, from mild to steep, were the result of someone getting pressured (which is insanely unlikely), it would still be a minority of cases.

I hate it when people get pressured to do things they don’t want to do (as if someone would need to get pressured to do what they wanted…).  Which is why the massive (and deceitful) campaigns by Christian groups to generate shame for every woman who gets an abortion bug me.  They’re pressuring women to endure a pregnancy and to deliver a baby when they don’t want to do it.  I wonder if Tim would call that “doing everything they can” instead of “pressure to do what they don’t want.”

What’s more, I’ll wager the shame campaigns by Christians has much, much more to do with causing regret in the minority of women who do regret their abortions than a normal facet of human psychology.  Most of the women who regret abortions already have issues with depression, which is undoubtedly aggravated by the culture of shame orchestrated by the people who are quick to assure me they “care for the women.”

Apparently (I’m just seeing this now) JT also posted some thoughts on my views on homosexuality, so I’ll respond to those next.  It will be fun.

Actually, that was Christina.  I know, I know, it’s on my blog and the hints are subtle.

1.  The first words in the post are “Christina here.”

2.  The author of the blog is “christinastephens.”

3.  It bears her picture.

But Dalrymple did say something right.  If he responds to Christina, it will be fun.  To keep with the entertainment references, “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.”

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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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