Fighting Reason Tooth and Claw: Contra JT Eberhard on Abortion

Fighting Reason Tooth and Claw: Contra JT Eberhard on Abortion September 5, 2012

Atheist blogger JT Eberhard recently joined the Patheos stable, and as a Director of Content at Patheos I welcome him happily and hope (and know) that he will that Patheos is an excellent place to share his thoughts.  Our intention has always been to host the whole conversation on matters of religion and spirituality, and to make that conversation better.  Sometimes improving the conversation means finding common ground, and sometimes it means clarifying distinctions.

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.  I respond, of course, merely on my own behalf.

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.  And regrettably, Eberhard makes clear that he has not done a whole lot to understand the perspective of a Christian pro-lifer.  My own post did not much help.  For one thing, it was not intended to educate on why a pro-lifer believes what a pro-lifer believes.  For another, only one paragraph really concerned abortion, and it’s a complex issue that strains against the limitations of blogging.  I’d recommend that JT look to folks like Francis Beckwith and Scott Rae, or even to the Pope’s Humanae Vitae, for a clearer articulation of the ethics of abortion from a Christian point of view.

In the “Hate-Filled” post, I lamented how “unborn children are exterminated before they have had a chance to enjoy the gift of life.” Eberhard responds:

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.

I chose the word “exterminated” advisedly.  I choose most of my words advisedly.  Nearly all of them, in fact.  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?

If the destruction of a zygote is roughly the same as the destruction of a dandelion, what about the destruction of a fetus?  The zygote phase, after all, only lasts for a couple days.  (If I give the benefit of the doubt and assume that JT knew this, then I find the consistent use of “zygote” throughout a little disingenuous.)  Then there is the blastocyst phase, and weeks 3-8 are the embryo phase, and thereafter the fetus phase.  When we talk about abortion procedures, in most cases we’re not talking about a zygote, because women rarely know they’re pregnant so early.  Roughly 30 percent of abortion procedures take place within the first four weeks after conception (which is six gestational weeks, measured since the woman’s last period), and another 30 percent or so take place in weeks 5 and 6 (the embryo phase).  Another 26% take place in the following four weeks (transitioning from embryo to fetus) and then another 10.5% or so happen afterward (although it would be plausible to suppose that there are a fair number of unreported later pregnancies).  So Eberhard has managed to combine a couple red herrings here.  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.

Eberhard goes on to quote Richard Carrier, who states that “the killing of a neurologically inactive fetus is no greater a harm than the killing of a mouse, and in fact decidedly less” since the mouse is neurologically active.  But neurological activity is detectable by about the sixth week, and may well exist (but not be detectable) earlier.  So is Eberhard willing to oppose abortions after the sixth week?  Permit me to doubt — but the point is that we all, pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike, have to come up with some criterion for what we can kill and what we cannot.  I draw the line at conception, and many pro-choicers draw the line at birth — but I would maintain that my criterion, in terms of the nature of the thing, is a much more significant criterion.  Being inside or outside of the womb does not much change the nature of the thing.  (And even then, can you kill a full-term baby inside the womb? What if its head is still in the womb? Its foot?  What about after birth, but before first breath, or before cutting the cord?)

Eberhard tries another criterion when he says we’ve never shown much concern for things that “cannot suffer their own loss,” but this is a strange suggestion.  Why should the potential to suffer your own loss be the decisive criterion?  Either he means that we should only be concerned about those things that can suffer in dying (taking “suffer” in the more common, current sense)–which would suggest that we ought not to be concerned with killing others as long as the death were sudden and did not allow them to suffer, or if they were drugged in such a way that their potential for suffering were eliminated.  Or else he meant that we should only be concerned with things that have achieved a sufficient maturity of self-consciousness to contemplate their own loss (taking suffer more in one classical sense of “experience”).  This is a rather high bar, and suggests that we might be justified in taking the lives of children well after birth.  Is it morally permissible to take the life of a mentally handicapped person who cannot “suffer her own loss”?

I feel like the Storm Trooper to Obi Wan: This isn’t the criterion we’re looking for.

In response to my lament for the hundreds of millions of people who are not alive today due to abortion policies in various countries, and the consequent loss of creativity and life, I’m afraid Eberhard rather embarrasses himself.  He writes:

“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.”

I’m sure evangelical youngsters everywhere would rejoice if their elders decided that they should have sex with great frequency because “if a sperm is wasted, God gets quite irate.”  But alas, 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.)

When I said that I “hate” (and the context of the post was a play on the word “hate”) that “women are sometimes pressured by men or by parents into abortions they mourn and regret,” Eberhard makes the point that I probably hate it when women have abortions in general.  I certainly regret it — but I find it especially unfortunate when women are pressured into decisions they regret.  Of course I’m aware that many do not regret it, or do not report regretting it.  That’s obvious.  I wonder, however, how Eberhard knows that it’s only a “tiny minority” of cases where women are pressured into abortions.  I remember one study claiming that 64% of women who had abortions felt pressured to do so, but I won’t place much weight on that because it’s easy to form studies that produce the results you want.  But when you consider prostitutes who are frequently forced into abortions, young women whose parents may pressure them into abortions, unmarried women (or married women, but 84% of abortions are to unmarried women) who may feel pressured by the father, or women who may feel pressured by friends in order to achieve their professional dreams, I don’t find it implausible that quite a few would feel pressure.

Obviously, women choose to get abortions without pressure too, or against pressure in the opposite direction.  None of this is news to me, or to anyone else.  But if Eberhard has a source for his “tiny minority” claim, I’d like to know what it is.  It wouldn’t change the fact that “I hate that women are sometimes pressured…into abortions they mourn and regret.”  And I’m not talking about post-abortion trauma or depression, so you can let that red herring drop as well; I’m just talking about regret.  I’ve known many, many women who regret their abortions.  It must be tough to admit that, given all the intrinsic pressure to self-justification.  No one wants to think that they took the life of a baby.  But there are women who, in retrospect, feel (even when they take responsibility for their actions) that they were manipulated or even deceived by a pro-choice culture around them, into decisions they mourn with every pore of their being.

For the grand finale, I want to point out some false dichotomies at the end of Eberhard’s post.

FIRST: 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.  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.

Granted, carrying a child to term is still a tough thing to do.  I’ve seen it twice, up close and personal.  It’s a lot to ask.  But when you believe, as I do, that the life of a human child is at stake, then you want to protect that life.

SECOND, JT wrote:

“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.”

This is like when Al Gore said that every woman who might have breast cancer should have access to a sonogram.  JT apparently believes we have to weigh the value of the fetus over against the value of the mother.  Because apparently…help me out here…it’s the life of the mother or the life of the unborn child?  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.  No one is asking her to die for her child, or even to completely overturn her life for eighteen years — just to get the child to birth and give it up for adoption.

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.  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?  Apparently you would agree with this.  Yet that’s precisely what pro-lifers, on their own reasoned judgments regarding the nature of an innocent human person, are doing.  So there’s really no reason for all the hysteria about the arrogance and misogyny of trying to control women.

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.  I’m sure Christians can do more.  But Christian pro-lifers genuinely believe that there are two people at issue in this equation, the mother and the child, and the life of one takes precedence over the pregnancy of another.  It’s not at all bewildering.

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.  But I would also press back against JT: Where do you draw the line, if you do, between what can be aborted and what cannot?  If you want to stick with being “conscious” or “able to suffer your own end,” flesh those out and explain why they’re morally significant.  Are some forms of abortion permissible and others not?  Do you think, like former President Clinton, that abortions should be “rare”?  Why or why not?  What about babies that survive attempted abortions and are delivered safely?  Can they still be killed?

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