Dealing with some Pro-Life Arguments: Human Individuals

Dealing with some Pro-Life Arguments: Human Individuals February 7, 2019

Vincent Torley recently hit a thread with a sizeable comment regarding his pro-life stance. I will post the whole comment here, and will try to deal with most of it, though it might take some unpicking, so if I miss some pertinent aspects, be sure to let me know.

Let me say, first of all, that I have no interest in defending the Catholic Church’s dismal record relating to the sexual abuse of women and children. I see it as utterly irrelevant to the issue of abortion, as I have long maintained that a strong philosophical case can be made for regarding embryos and fetuses as human beings with a right to life, regardless of whether or not God exists, and regardless of whether or not the human soul exists. I wrote an e-book on this topic about eight years ago, titled. Embryo and Einstein: Why they’re equal. As an eighteen-year-old, I remember listening to Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who personally performed 5,000 abortions and supervised another 70,000, and later came to change his mind on the issue, lecturing to a packed audience at the Albert Hall in Canberra, Australia. “God is not real,” he declared, “but the fetus is.” (Many years later, he came to believe in God, but his change of heart on abortion was not prompted by religious considerations.)

The reason why conception is important is not that it marks the beginning of “life” (which actually began on Earth four billion years ago), nor the beginning of “human life” (a vague term which could be applied to anything containing human DNA, including sperm cells, ova, hair follicles and skin flakes), but because it’s the beginning of a human individual. A few quotes from medical text books on human embryology and from peer-reviewed scientific literature will bear me out on this point:

The importance here is given to the term “human individual”, and one retort to this instantiation of morality or rights or value/importance to such an organism is…so what? I don’t mean to be overly dismissive here, but establishing that such a conglomeration and organisation of cells is automatically worthy of the aforementioned properties is somewhat problematic. As C Peterson retorted:

It is only your personal values that place any importance on the creation of a human individual. I see nothing of value in that at all. For me, what is important about a human isn’t the existence of a unique genome, but of the products of sentience… something that does not appear until after birth sometime.

If you place value on a zygote as a unique organism, that’s fine. It just means that you should not have an abortion. But you should not force that view on those with different values through public policy. The reality is, nearly everybody agrees that adult women have rights. Far, far fewer think the zygotes, embryos, or fetuses do.

In other words, we can grant the human individual for the sake of argument, but this does not invalidate abortion as a (morally neutral/morally less-worse) option.

Human development begins at fertilization, when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, the zygote (one cell embryo). This highly specialized, totipotent cell (capable of giving rise to any cell type) marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” (The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, Saunders 2016).

Although life is a continuous process, fertilization… is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.” (Rahilly, R.O. Human Embryology and Teratology. Wiley-Liss, 2001).

Fertilization–the fusion of gametes (sperm cell and oocyte / egg) to produce a new organism – is the culmination of a multitude of intricately regulated cellular processes.” (Fertilization. Marcello MR et al. Advances in Experimental Medicine & Biology, 2013).

You can find many more here. I would also recommend the following article: When Do Human Beings Begin?
“Scientific” Myths and Scientific Facts
 by Dr. Dianne Irving, M.A., Ph.D., a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH; philosopher and medical ethicist. Dr. Irving is a member of Libertarians for Life, an organization founded in 1976 by Doris Gordon, a Jewish atheist, whose article, How I Became Pro-Life, is well worth reading.

I have not had time to peruse the links, but the point I and C Peterson have made remains the same.

But what is it, exactly, that makes the one cell embryo so different from a sperm cell or an ovum? Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the Utah School of Medicine, explains, in her online paper, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper, Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

“From the moment of sperm-egg fusion, a human zygote acts as a complete whole, with all the parts of the zygote interacting in an orchestrated fashion to generate the structures and relationships required for the zygote to continue developing towards its mature state. Everything the sperm and egg do prior to their fusion is uniquely ordered towards promoting the binding of these two cells. Everything the zygote does from the point of sperm-egg fusion onward is uniquely ordered to prevent further binding of sperm and to promote the preservation and development of the zygote itself. The zygote acts immediately and decisively to initiate a program of development that will, if uninterrupted by accident, disease, or external intervention, proceed seamlessly through formation of the definitive body, birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity, and aging, ending with death. This coordinated behavior is the very hallmark of an organism.” (p. 7)

The question here is one of what this fusion entails. If it is merely the emergence of a human individual, then as mentioned, so what? If the human individual is otherwise a label for personhood (or the potential thereof), then we have another interesting emergence. I will defer to Andy Schuler, here at ATP, for the next section:

However one chooses to define “personhood”, if one argues that it starts at conception, one reduces it to a biochemical triviality.

The main differences between a fertilized and an unfertilized egg is, that the fertilized egg possesses now 46 chromosomes instead of 23 and is “totipotent”. Having a full human complement of 46 chromosomes cannot possibly be a criterion for distinguishing personhood from non-personhood because this attribute is shared by virtually all human cells (all except for red blood cells and gametes).

So, if “personhood” indeed starts at conception, it must be a consequence of totipotency, since this is the only attribute that distinguishes a fertilized human egg from most other human cells. The “potency” of a cell specifies the different cell types a particular cell can differentiate into and “totipotency” means that the cell can divide and produce all differentiated cell types of an organism and thus ultimately develop into an adult form of the organism. Changes in potency are based on epigenetic “reprogramming”, which could also be induced in the lab. It has already been demonstrated that pluripotency (similar to totipotency, pluripotent cells can differentiate into all cell types except for extraembryonic tissues like the placenta) can be reactivated in specialized cells – the 2012 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine has been awarded for this discovery. Recent research indicates that reactivating totipotency is also possible.

If “personhood” starts at conception – it is a consequence of triggering the right genetic switches, which is a process that is reversible in principle. Assigning “personhood” to a fertilized egg detaches “personhood” from everything that we commonly associate with it – perception, feelings and emotions, consciousness, desires and fears, memories – all attributes that the egg doesn’t have, never had, and is not going to have unless it survives a long and failure-prone developmental process. Personhood is reduced to a biochemical triviality.

A religious person would probably disagree with my assessment of personhood being trivialized by assigning it to a fertilized human egg – (s)he might argue that “personhood” is a consequence of possessing a human “soul” and (s)he might further argue that conception is the precise moment where a developing human is granted a “soul” by his / her favored deity. Since the existence of a “soul” cannot be demonstrated (and is incredibly implausible based on a modern understanding of physics as brilliantly argued by Sean Carroll here), it cannot possibly be a foundation for secular law. However, even if one would grant a believer the existence of “souls” and the notion that “personhood” is a consequence of possessing a “soul”, the idea that ensoulment happens at the precise moment of conception is still absurd.

All cells in the developing embryo are identical copies of the zygote until the 16-cell stage. Each of those cells is totipotent. Each of those cells has the potential to develop into an adult human being! In fact, it is quite common that more than one adult human beings can trace their origin back to the same zygote – monozygotic twins (aka identical twins) are not uncommon and even monozygotic triplets exist.

Does this mean that whatever deity grants “souls” at the moment of conception is giving the zygote two souls at conception if it knows that it will develop into monozygotic twins (and three “souls” for monozygotic triplets)?

And if “personhood” is based on having a “soul”, does that mean that such zygotes are actually two / three persons all condensed into a single(!) cell? This view is obviously incoherent.

But it gets worse. The development of monozygotic twins can be induced by embryo splitting, a technique that is actually used in reproductive medicine (see here). What does God do when we apply this technique? Does he create a second soul for the split embryo that we created (note that we are already at the embryo stage, several days after conception)? Could we really force almighty God to create souls that he didn’t plan in advance? Or does one of the identical twins grow up without a soul?

Personhood starting at conception is a hopelessly incoherent position – even if one would grant believers the existence of “souls” and would further grant them that ensoulment happens at the precise moment of conception.

Professor Condic goes on to explain (on page 11) that the embryonic development differs in one crucial respect from the manufacture of a car – a process which is not really completed until it rolls off the assembly line. The car’s manufacture is controlled by an external process, whereas “ the embryo is manufacturing itself.” There is no external “builder” controlling the assembly of the components. “The organized pattern of development doesn’t produce the embryo; it is produced by the embryo as a consequence of the zygote’s internal, self-organizing power.”

By the way, conception takes only one second, as Professor Condic shows in her white paper. Thus we really can speak of a “moment of conception.”

But we can take that manufacturing process back to the earlier stages and forward to later stages. The embryo in utero absolutely still requires a builder (the mother), as a builder is also required one for the sperm and egg. I see the above as pretty problematic.

And so we get on to the heart of the matter:

All very well, you may object, but what does this have to do with human rights? Here’s my case in a nutshell.

1. Any organism whose development into a rational human adult is internally regulated is a human individual. (Definition)

Ah. That word rational. First of all, is the implication here is that if a human isn’t rational, then we can kill it? What if we can show other animals as having rationality? And, as I hope to set out in my second piece on personhood in a short series (the first is here – apologies for forgetting to do the second so far!), rationality is itself on a continuum that requires an arbitrary cut off point. These labels are fraught with issue. But, as mentioned, there is a problem with insisting it is internally regulated when that regulation appears to be rather dependent on the mother carrying it.

2. By this criterion, a one-cell embryo is a human individual.
3. Rational human adults possess an intrinsic moral value: that is, their value is not conferred on them by society, or even by God. (Assumption.)

This is indeed an assumption. Morality is, as I have amply set out in any other places, a conceptual enterprise. That said, I think most other than the most ardent moral skeptic would argue for the moral worth and capability of a rational agent.

4. No abilities or qualities (e.g. sentience, rationality, self-awareness, knowledge of other minds) which are subsequently manifested in a human individual can add to its value as an individual, because their manifestation is the result of an internally regulated process, where any new information imparted to the developing embryo/fetus/infant from the outside world has to be absorbed by the individual in accordance with its internally regulated plan of development. (Just to be clear: I’m assuming this plan is purely chemical.) Putting it another way: value derives not from the information added to a developing individual, but from the meta-information embedded within it, without which it could not make use of this information. That’s primary.

Torley initially states in 3. “Rational human adults possess an intrinsic moral value” and then says that further abilities (“sentience, rationality, self-awareness, knowledge of other minds”) cannot add value. But he does not define moral value in the first place; each of those things arguably are different sources of moral value. He also uses rationality twice here, as if a rational human adult can subsequently manifest rationality…? In this way, he has a problem in that he appears to conflate rational human adult with an embryo/fetus/infant because he makes the assumption that rational adults have intrinsic moral value, but then talks in terms of the value being a singular thing that must pre-exist adulthood. I think 4. has a confused chronology at best. The only other option is that 3. is entirely superfluous and merely adds confusion.

I’m again uncertain as to why an internally regulated process is at all important. It seems to be the lynchpin of the argument. I would like him to explain why it is such a good or valuable process.

This, to me, also looks pretty close to the potentiality argument. Moreover, I would disagree with the claim because I do think all of those things add further value to an individual. Someone who can only marginally do one of those things and none of the others I do think has less value than someone who can. This is partly because they are less able to be moral themselves and do moral actions. Indeed, they become more animalistic and rather closer to a situation-action machine. This sounds harsh, but is the honest truth. A human who is in a vegetative state and unable to convey any personhood (under most definitions thereof) will have less value than, say, an active policy-maker who is striving to make the world a better place.

What we do with these instances of human individuals with lower levels of personhood is attribute the same level of personhood as a rule of thumb to make the world a more compassionate and equitable place. We do this for moral reasons (a mixture of “there by the grace of God go I” and a desire to live in a world where we are compassionate to those individuals out of empathy etc.).

There is a development of personhood over time, and we set the demarcation lines rather differently over societies, cultures, groups, religions etc. I draw it at birth even though I recognise that, on almost every model of personhood, a newborn will not possess the requisite properties of personhood. But there is enough there to denote value such that I certainly to not advocate baby-killing. I set my level of acceptable abortion earlier still because of the development of pain etc.

However, this can be problematic if one advocates eating meat as we will kill and eat animals with higher pain sensitivities and experiences, greater memories and more personhood than late-term foetuses. This is the contradictory and messy world of ethics we live in. Thank goodness I had to become vegan, right…?

I will look to set this out in more depth in my piece on personhood, forthcoming.

5. Since this meta-information is present from the moment of conception, and since nothing of any value is added to the embryo subsequent to conception, it follows that a one-cell embryo is every bit as valuable as the rational adult it develops into. Embryo and Einstein are equal.

As mentioned, I simply disagree here. Firstly, things of value are added. This meta-information looks rather similar to DNA and potential (or, rather than potential, perhaps Torley is accepting some kind of necessary playing out of genes + biology + environment and denying libertarian free will…). Of course, there could be potential for all sorts of things. It is interesting he chooses Embryo and Einstein, not Embryo and Hitler.

I’d like to finish with a closing quote from a 1979 address given to Congress by Doris Gordon, founder of Libertarians for Life, titled, How I Became Pro-Life (and please remember, she was a Jewish atheist):

“I seldom see any mention of parental obligation in pro-life literature. I wonder why it is not emphasized more. Sometimes I read that there is a conflict of rights between mother and child. There may be a conflict of needs, but not of rights. I also hear pro-lifers say in response to the “woman’s right to control her own body” argument that life is a higher value than liberty and, therefore the child’s rights come before the mother’s. But again, it is not a matter of the child’s rights vs. the mother’s. It is a matter of the child’s rights and the mother’s obligations. The child has two rights against the mother: the right to life, that is, the right not to be killed, and the right to parental care. And the mother has two obligations: her obligation not to kill the child and the obligation to care for her child. Libertarians for Life thinks this is an important argument and would like others to try it out.”


I know I have been a little rushed here, but hopefully there is enough to discuss below, and a chance for Vincent to clarify where I may not have properly understood or where ambiguity or confusion exists.

Lastly, thanks to Vincent for commenting. Always a pleasure!



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