Abortion: The Human/Human Being Distinction

Abortion: The Human/Human Being Distinction March 6, 2020

Every abortion kills an innocent human being…. Biology shows that a “ZEF” (Zygote, Embryo, Fetus – the three distinct prenatal developmental stages) is, in fact, a distinct, unique and individual human being…. The issue at hand is when we are considered human beings. That question can be answered by biology…

-Mark Bradshaw

The question remains, though, whether this degree of cellular interaction is sufficient to render the early human embryo a human being. Just how much intercellular coordination must exist for a group of cells to constitute a human organism cannot be resolved by scientific facts about the embryo, but is instead an open metaphysical question. [my emphasis]

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)

[O]ur concept of a person is an outgrowth or aspect of our concept of a human being; and that concept is not merely biological but rather a crystallisation of everything we have made of our distinctive species nature. To see another as a human being is to see her as a fellow-creature—another being whose embodiment embeds her in a distinctive form of common life with language and culture, and whose existence constitutes a particular kind of claim on us. [my emphasis]

– Stephen Mulhall, Fearful Thoughts

Over on another thread, which has exploded, a sub-thread has developed concerning abortion, and a pro-lifer is having his ass handed to him repeatedly, though it is water off a duck’s back. He, Mark Bradshaw (MB), is making a whole host of claims that fail to hold up to any scientific and philosophical scrutiny, including the first one above. Many people have set him straight, such as (((J_Enigma32))) here (Bradshaw’s writing in italics):

Once again, I’ve NEVER made the claim that human = human being

You have several times. Every time you’ve used “human being” you’ve used it both to mean “genetically human” and “person,” whether you realize it or not. “The discourse” does not draw a difference between these words, but they absolutely do exist, and that they get used interchangeably in casual speech is part of the problem when it comes to expressing technical concepts with precise language.

A human being is BOTH “genetically human” AND a unique, distinct and individual human organism.

Is it? What if an alien walked off a spaceship in downtown New York today? You do realize that under the law, human rights are extended to them despite them not being remotely genetically related to us, right? And presumably the same thing will be true of AGIs when/if we decided to produce them. And if we ever resurrect Neanderthals, you folks will have a field day, won’t you?

And you can dismiss my hypotheticals as fanciful dreaming, but they are no less salient to my greater point: what you qualify as “human” is not nearly as black and white as you seem to think it is. Especially since human in this context is being used to mean “person,” not “genetically human.”

and is thus meaningless when discussing application of fundamental human rights

And as I noted below, personhood is the only metric we have in determining who gets those rights, otherwise you wind up giving rights to cancer cells and cloned tissue. “Human” is used as a synonym for “person” in the term “human rights.”

Bradshaw’s response was:

“You have several times.” —- No, I have NOT – EVER.

“Every time you’ve used “human being” you’ve used it both to mean “genetically human” and “person,”” —– FALSE. A human being is genetically human (DUH) AND an individual human organism. YOU are equating that to meaning “person”, NOT me. A human being is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens. We are individual members of that species at fertilization. This is a biological fact and you are attempting to place meaning in my words that just isn’t there.

“”The discourse” does not draw a difference between these words” —- Except it DOES. I’ve made a CLEAR DISTINCTION.

“and that they get used interchangeably in casual speech is part of the problem when it comes to expressing technical concepts with precise language” —– I agree that the word “human” when prefaced by the letter “A” means “a human being”. However, using the term “genetically human” to mean “a human being” is semantically and factually inaccurate. They mean DIFFERENT things. Skin cells are “genetically human”, but are NOT “a human being”. “A human being” is ALSO “genetically human”. See the distinction?

“Is it?” —– Yes. Biology 101.

“What if an alien walked off a spaceship in downtown New York today? You do realize that under the law, human rights are extended to them despite them not being remotely genetically related to us, right?” —– Because society CHOOSES to extend such rights. Those rights are NOT inherent in those aliens. Just because we CHOOSE to extend rights to something, it doesn’t mean that something is a human being (or even human at all). We extend some human rights to animals – like our pets, or Bald Eagles, or Condors. We, as a civil and humane society, CHOOSE to extend some rights to non-human animals/things. Fundamental human rights are inherent in EVERY human being.

“And if we ever resurrect Neanderthals, you folks will have a field day, won’t you?” —– Really? You CAN’T be serious.

“And you can dismiss my hypotheticals as fanciful dreaming” —– Because they are.

“what you qualify as “human” is not nearly as black and white as you seem to think it is.” —– Except that it IS. Biology understands what is, and isn’t, human and a human being.

“Especially since human in this context is being used to mean “person,” not “genetically human.”” —– NO. The term “human” in this context is referencing “A human being” – an individual member of the species Homo sapiens. YOU are attempting to make “human” to mean “person”.

“And as I noted below, personhood is the only metric we have in determining who gets those rights” —– NO it isn’t. the term person is a subjective and arbitrary designator. The ONLY subjective metric is “human being”, which is known in biology to occur at fertilization – when a new, distinct, unique and individual human being is formed.

“otherwise you wind up giving rights to cancer cells and cloned tissue.” —– FALSE. Cancer cells and “cloned tissue” are NOT individual human organisms. A fertilized human ovum (technically not an ovum any more – it is a) is.

“”Human” is used as a synonym for “person” in the term “human rights.”” —– FALSE. Human rights (fundamental human rights) applies to ALL human beings. That is why they are called “fundamental HUMAN rights”, not “fundamental PERSON rights”.

Wow. What a lot of confusion. There are so many comments from this guy that I could have chosen, but we’ll settle for this.

Let me first start by saying that there is a difference between everyday casual language and language that is more technical and required in conversations that are nuanced, conversations of a philosophical nature, such as this one. MB is using the former whilst attempting to join in on the latter and is, therefore, committing the fallacy of equivocation: Using an ambiguous term in more than one sense, thus making an argument misleading. It is not that people don’t use the terms he uses in the way he uses them, it’s just that in forums like these, and in contexts like these, it is vitally important to be as accurate and as technical as possible, and his reeks of serious mission creep.

Indeed, there are even some philosophical writers who use “human being” quite loosely to cover a multitude of sins. But when discussing ideas of, particularly, abortion and human embryonic development, I think it is hugely important to to be as picky as possible with the terminology used. For a good discussion of the nuances of the term “human being”, see “Cognitive Disability and Moral Status” in the SEP. MB seems to think this debate is answered by biology. Alas, no, as seen in the initial SEP quote.

That said, MB is doing what many pro-lifers do, which is to use terms in a way that confer characteristics onto, say, a blastocyst that we would normally consider for, say, an adult human being. This difference is discussed in the sections 1.1 When does a human being begin to exist? and 1.2 The moral status of human embryos in the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry, “The Ethics of Stem Cell Research”.

Although he claims he isn’t, MB is using human and human being interchangeably and then claiming that the argument is not one of personhood. But in essence, it really is, as we shall see.

In reality, he is bastardising language (though you will find plenty similar around the internet, as mentioned):

A human being is genetically human (DUH) AND an individual human organism. YOU are equating that to meaning “person”, NOT me. A human being is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens

So, it appears a human being is an individual member of the species homo sapiens, and this is genetically and organismally defined.

Wow. Okay. Where to start. Let’s try to do this as concisely as possible:

  1. “Innocent” can no more coherently be applied to a blastocyst as to a rock. A group of cells, irrespective of what it is, with no consciousness or volition or intention can in no meaningful way be described as innocent. He claims that it not being guilty means it is innocent. The same applies to a rock, or a chicken egg, or any other such entity.
  2. For him, “human” means something different to “human being” in that a human being is an individual of the human species. So human = homo sapiens, and human being = a human individual. Human being is an instantiation of human. Human is genetically human. He is differentiating “human” from “a human”: I agree that the word “human” when prefaced by the letter “A” means “a human being”. The issue here is that the use of the indefinite article (a) before “human” means “human” is now a noun, rather than an adjective, and implies a singular instantiation. So, really, “a human” should utterly suffice for doing what he needs it to do – being an instantiation of homo sapiens. His use of a “human being” is thus superfluous language, with the “being” bit being redundant. For people interested in accuracy of language (for philosophical and debate purposes), we have human (adjective) denoting of the homo sapiens species, a human denoting an instantiation of that species, and human being as something subtly different, implying personhood or specific human characteristics. Moreover, a blastocyst would be none of these still. A blastocyst is a developmental stage of a human, or of a homo sapiens, organism. It is a nested subset of the reference set “human” but I would contest it can be given the label “a human”. You could say “a human blastocyst” but you can’t say a blastocyst is “a human”.
  3. If he is differentiating “human” from “a human”: A blastocyst is no more a human than an egg is a chicken or an acorn is an oak tree. We need to get technical: an acorn is the seed developmental stage of the species quercus robur, for example. If I said, “Cut down this oak tree and make a bench” and handed you an acorn, you would be confused. Language is important. Chickens and a chicken, as terms, are still markedly and obviously different from a (chicken) egg. If I said, “go cuddle a human”, you would never understand this to mean you should cuddle a Petrie dish.
  4. “Human being” surely has the “being” part as the operative differentiator. In philosophy, this denotes what it means to be human, and this is where personhood usually comes in. By leaving little meaningful difference between terms, MD is ignoring the reams of philosophy devoted to this (even if you deny personhood as having ontic existence) and using his own definition; hence, the equivocation. See “What Is Personhood? Setting the Scene.” See point 6.
  5. A simple dictionary definition of human being is: a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance. Of course, a blastocyst has none of these qualities.
  6. This assumes an identifiable set of genes that equate to human qua homo sapiens. But there is no such thing as a species – known as the “species problem” that even Darwin recognised. As I have countlessly explained, this is an instantiation of the Sorites Paradox where demarcating categories along a developmental continuum is subjective and arbitrary at best, incoherent at worst. See “Species Do Not “Exist”: Evolution, Sand Dunes and the Sorites Paradox”. You cannot objectively state where “human” starts or ends; it is incremental and transitional. Therefore, there is no surefire scientific definition of human qua homo sapiens, only consensus definition used for pragmatic reasons of categorisation. Welcome to fuzzy logic.
  7. What does “genetically human” mean? This can hide a whole range of problems. For starters, a clump of cheek cells of skin cells are genetically of the species homo sapiens, arguably. Are these humans?
  8. He states: However, using the term “genetically human” to mean “a human being” is semantically and factually inaccurate. They mean DIFFERENT things. Skin cells are “genetically human”, but are NOT “a human being”. “A human being” is ALSO “genetically human”. See the distinction? What this then means is that MD believes a human being = human genes + human organismal form. However, this form is very difficult to pin down: it takes on a range from a clump of cells right through to fully formed adult, and every form in between, plus, no doubt, all other forms such as dramatically mentally, cognitively or physically disabled or altered forms. Really, he is co-opting “human being” to mean “a single organism anywhere along the developmental line with the genetic blueprint of the species homo sapiens” even though there is no clear genetic blueprint of homo sapiens. He seems to think all scientists agree with this. They don’t. At all.
  9. Referring back to the previous transitional form problem, if human genes + form refers to a particular organismal form, and since this refers to the entire genetic range of 7 billion people, what are the necessary or essential genes? What could one human and another differ in, in terms of genes, and what genes must they have to qualify as human? What about a neanderthal? What about the transitional hominids that sit before, at and after the arbitrary demarcation line between homo sapiens and the hominid species preceding it? This debate becomes one of essentialism vs nominalism. He would need to establish some kind of Platonic realism where “human being” objectively correlates to a set of essential genes.  Tough gig. See “Natural Law, Essentialism and Nominalism”.
  10. What does this then say about transhumanism – the futuristic, though presently doable, conjoining of humanity and technology?
  11. What if you replaced an animal embryo’s brain mass with human brain cells – would this chimera be seen as a human being?
  12. A blastocyst is no more a human than an egg is a chicken or an acorn is an oak tree. We need to get technical: an acorn is the seed developmental stage of the species quercus robur, for example. If I said, “Cut down this oak tree and make a bench” and handed you an acorn, you would be confused. Language is important.
  13. On the developmental stage from ovum or sperm to adult human being, fertilisation or totipotency is just one arbitrarily chosen stage along the natural mechanism continuum. Why does this get special treatment? See “Life starts at conception, but what about personhood? Revisited.”
  14. In the same way a chicken egg is not afforded the same animal rights as a chicken in most modern societies, and I can throw an acorn in the bin but am not allowed to chop down an oak tree, a human blastocyst does not have and should not have the same rights as an adult human.
  15. As he struggles to deal with in the thread, if other species, including alien species, are ostensibly (in terms of ideas of personhood) similar to humans, do they have the same rights? If so (and considering certain animals already have rights – not depending on their genetic blueprint per se, but their “personhood” characteristics, which themselves will supervene on genetics, admittedly), then this is not a question of human beingness being dependent on human genetic and organismal exceptionalism, but a case of personhood. And, indeed, this is really what is going on. He desperately denies this is about personhood, but every way you slice and dice it, it is about personhood. He simply cannot rationally deny it. I mean, he will deny it, but this denial is invalid.
  16. Because society CHOOSES to extend such rights. Those rights are NOT inherent in those aliens. So humans have inherent rights but every other entity has rights bestowed upon them by humans? Holy special pleading cow. a) Where is the evidence for this? b) How are they inherent for us but rights then become human constructions for others? There are then two different kinds of rights. c) What do rights being inherent actually mean?
  17. Oh righty then. We have an issue because rights have no ontic existence. He needs to read and then refute the following: a) Human Rights Don’t Exist until We Construct and Codify Them b) KNOWING Your Rights, Locke and Other Rights Problems c) Second Amendment: Gun Rights. But What Is a Right, and Do We Have Them? Until then, he really is in a lot of philosophical trouble.
  18. The death of a foetus is qualitatively different to the death of a grown human as seen in the burning clinic thought experiment. He would need to properly deal with this. So even if he could establish some kind of similarity or equivalence between blastocysts and a fully grown human in some sense, they still fail to intuitively and tangibly be qualitatively equivalent.
  19. As 3lemenope stated, “biology doesn’t write law and doesn’t determine morality. At best it can help define terms and describe physical facts that can be put into evidence.”
  20. MD later says: “Potential child. Not an actual child.” —– Nope. An ACTUAL child. So there is no difference between something at the beginning of the continuum and something later on or at the end… But this means a sperm cell is also, being alive, a potential child and thus an actual child (see NOTE 1). A sperm is just a living component on the continuum of natural development separated by some natural mechanism from one stage to the next. So every ejaculation is, therefore, murder of millions, right? And this means breaking a random rock in the wild is identical to breaking a statue in a museum because a potential statue (rock) is qualitatively identical to an actual one. Right. See Note 2.

So on and so forth – you get the picture. It is summed up by this further comment: A fetus (not merely fetal tissue) is as much of a human being as you or I are. Again, this is a biological fact. This is like saying an acorn is as much of an oak tree as this oak tree here. That’s a biological fact. No, it’s not; only if you totally smash up the English language. It is only an oak tree if you change the definition of some or all of the words, and then you lose meaningful distinction. An oak tree suddenly becomes synonymous with an acorn, and we lose an awful lot of distinction and conversation become as confusing and inane as the thread here mentioned.

A limited analogy (stripping away ideas of sentience and so on) would be that an oak tree crushing an acorn is meaningfully the same as it uprooting a whole grown oak tree. There is a false equivalence here.

The problem is that this man thinks that us calling him out on his equivocation of terms and language is denying biology. No, we are denying his use of language as being sound.

NOTES:

1) Is a sperm cell alive? 

Yes, it’s certainly as alive as any other cells in a male body. Since it can have a life of its own outside the body, each sperm is really an independent single-celled organism – like a living amoeba, but differing in locomotion and lifestyle.

From an evolutionary viewpoint, it’s the other cells in a male animal that are pretty much dead: only the sperm can reproduce.

2) The moral status of human embryos: potential vs actual.

Given that a human embryo cannot reason at all, the claim that it has a rational nature has struck some as tantamount to asserting that it has the potential to become an individual that can engage in reasoning (Sagan & Singer 2007). But an entity’s having this potential does not logically entail that it has the same status as beings that have realized some or all of their potential (Feinberg 1986). Moreover, with the advent of cloning technologies, the range of entities that we can now identify as potential persons arguably creates problems for those who place great moral weight on the embryo’s potential. A single somatic cell or HESC can in principle (though not yet in practice) develop into a mature human being under the right conditions—that is, where the cell’s nucleus is transferred into an enucleated egg, the new egg is electrically stimulated to create an embryo, and the embryo is transferred to a woman’s uterus and brought to term. If the basis for protecting embryos is that they have the potential to become reasoning beings, then, some argue, we have reason to ascribe a high moral status to the trillions of cells that share this potential and to assist as many of these cells as we reasonably can to realize their potential (Sagan & Singer 2007, Savulescu 1999). Because this is a stance that we can expect nearly everyone to reject, it’s not clear that opponents of HESC research can effectively ground their position in the human embryo’s potential. [SEP]

 


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