Framing the abortion debate (part 2): the nonsense of arguing about whether “life begins at conception”

January 10, 2007 | By | 19 Replies More

In part 1 of this series, I pointed out a gaping hole in the argument of so-called “pro-life” supporters:  the missing premise that invalidates their entire argument.  In this sequel, I point out another gaping hole in their argument:  the nonsense of arguing about whether “life begins at conception” or, equivalently, whether a fetus is a “person.”  As I explain below, even if we concede that a fetus is a “person,” the so-called “pro-life” argument is still fatally defective.

I will begin this essay by stipulating, for the sake of discussion, that a fetus is a “person,” that “human life begins at conception,” and that a fetus is entitled to the exact same rights as an adult human.  What people on both sides of the abortion debate seem to overlook is that even if a fetus is given this status — i.e., legally classified as a “person” from the moment of conception — this still is not enough to protect the fetus from abortion.  Why?  Because protecting a fetus from abortion requires the fetus to receive a unique privilege that no other “person” currently enjoys; namely:  the Right To Receive Sustanance From The Blood Of Another “Person” Regardless Of The Objections Of That Person.  In other words, even if we classify a fetus as a “person,” which is equivalent to saying that “life begins at conception,” such a classification is insufficient to preserve the life of a fetus in the manner suggested by so-called “pro-life” supporters.
Let me illustrate this with an example.  Let us suppose I have a rare blood disease and I will die unless I have a blood transfusion from a compatible donor.  Let us also suppose my mother is the only person on Earth who is a compatible donor.  Even though I am a “person,” I have no right to receive sustenance from the blood of another person — including from my mother — without the consent of that person.  However, if I were a fetus, then “pro-life” supporters say I should have this right.  Moreover, paradoxically, I would lose this right as soon as I ceased to be a fetus; i.e., as soon as I am born.  In other words, if a fetus has a rare blood disease that would require it to receive sustenance from the blood of its mother to save its life after it is born, then the “pro-life” argument is that the unborn fetus is entitled to receive that sustenance (i.e., it is entitled to not be aborted), but the baby, after it is born, is not.  Thus, classifying a fetus as a “person” — i.e., equal to a baby after it is born — is clearly insufficient to give the fetus the right that “pro-life” supporters want it to have…and they provide no rational explanation for why a fetus, and no other “person,” should have this unique right.
Simultaneously with wanting to grant all fetuses a unique right that no other “person” currently enjoys, abortion opponents also want to deny pregnant women several basic rights that every other “person” currently enjoys.  These include:  The Right To Terminate A Potentially
Life-Threatening Medical Condition, The Right To Control the Use of One’s Organs, and The Right To Make One’s Own Medical Decisions.
Returning to my example above, even if my mother were to initially agree to donate the blood for my life-saving transfusion, my mother would never lose the right to terminate her participation in that procedure.  At any time before or during the transfusion, she would have the unilateral right to terminate her participation, even if I (as a “person”) would instantly die.  However, if I were a fetus (likewise being kept alive by blood from my mother), “pro-life” supporters argue that my mother should be denied the right to terminate her participation.  Some “pro-life” supporters even argue that my mother should be denied this right even if termination is necessary to save her own life.  Again, “pro-life” supporters provide no rational explanation for why a pregnant woman, and no other “person,” should be denied this basic right.
Indeed, let us consider some examples from recent history where people were denied the rights that abortion opponents want to deny to pregnant women.  In Nazi Germany, many people (mostly Jews) were subjected to medical procedures against their will, and many of these people died as a result of those procedures.  They had no right to terminate the procedure even when termination was necessary to save their own lives, yet this is just what “pro-life” supporters want to do to pregnant women. 

Similarly, in America during the early twentieth century, many people (in particular, “persons” who were mentally retarded, mentally ill or convicted of rape) were surgically sterilized against their will.  In each of these cases, people were denied the right to make their own medical decisions, just as so-called “pro-life” supporters want to do to pregnant women.  Of course, we see these examples today as barbaric and unthinkable, yet “pro-life” supporters want to subject pregnant women — all of them — to a similar denial of rights…a denial of rights that the mentally retarded, the mentally ill and rapists no longer face. 
Likewise, let us consider organ donation.  There is a box on my driver’s license where I can indicate whether or not I consent to having my organs harvested for donation to another “person” if I am dead.   Using this box, I retain the right, even after I am dead, to control the use of my organs, even to prevent them from being used to save the life of another “person.”  However, so-called “pro-life” supporters want to deny pregnant women this same right.  They argue that a pregnant woman should have no right whatsoever to control the use of her organs.  They argue that a pregnant woman should have fewer legal rights over her organs than a corpse has over its organs.  Indeed, they argue that a pregnant woman should be treated exactly the same as if she were brain dead; i.e., with no capacity to make her own medical decisions and who, therfore, must succumb to medical decisions made by other people.

In sum, even if we classify a fetus as a “person,” we are no closer to resolving the abortion debate.  So-called “pro-life” supporters want to give fetuses unique rights that no “person” currently enjoys, and they also wish to deny pregnant women basic rights that every other “person” — even every dead “person” — currently enjoys.   In the former case, their position is arbitrary; in the latter case, it is barbaric.


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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (19)

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  1. Deb says:

    Great arguments, and decent analogy. I would make a couple of points before the anti-choice make them (although I have no doubt you already know this):

    1. There is no blood transfusion between a pregnant woman and her embryo or fetus. The embryo develops their own blood system, hence a child with a different blood type than the mother. But your point is still well taken.

    2. Nutrients are passed through osmosis from the mother's bloodstream to the vessels in the placenta, assuming the mother has sufficient blood volume and hydration (and salt) for that to happen. The embryo or fetus is a parasite, stripping nutrients from the mother. It isn't clear (at least to me), whether if the mother has some nutrient needed by the fetus stored in her body, for example calcium in her teeth or bones, if the mother's body will actually break that down to provide to the fetus. There is an old wives' tale that a mother loses a tooth with every child she has. If that is indeed the case, it would harm the mother even more.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Deb's point is well-taken. Indeed, I took some liberties with the biology to illustrate my argument, but I thought the analogy worked well enough to overlook this minor flaw. In an earlier draft of this essay, I used the phrase "biologically interconnected" in lieu of "blood transfusion," but I thought the former expression might sound too vague, even if more technically accurate. I can change it back if more people take exception.

  3. Tia says:

    I take exception to sophistry.

  4. Jason Rayl says:

    I must quibble. Your initial proposition, while true as far as it goes, ignores one crucial difference–that while no one currently ambulatory has a right to expect a life saving blood transfusion, they do (theoretically, in the West) enjoy the assumption that life saving efforts will be made on their behalf, given the availability of means. If blood is available, we don't withhold it simply because said person has no "right" to it. It also does not translate into a presumed right to hasten said individual's demise because he or she is dependent on the visceral support of other people.

    It is, however, as you suggest, the classification of the fetus as a "person" which is principally at issue. This is arbitrary, since we don't actually have much of a designation in law of what constitutes A Person. (Hell, we conveniently label corporations as "Persons" for legal reasons, but I see no one being tried for murder if one is material damaged to the point of death, vis a vis Enron.)

    Crude as it may sound, we nevertheless have a viable legal basis for dealing with this issue even in the instance that a majority might deign to assign Personhood to a fetus. It's called Justifiable Homicide, and applies in instances of home invasion, immediate threat to life and limb, and a variety of legal conditions between the two.

    This should also answer those who object to sophistry.

  5. eric says:

    There is one layer missing from the discussion that, although it doesn't invalidate your conclusion, makes things a little muddier.

    Your illustration doesn't address the cause of the life-threatening disease. In the case of a fetus, it finds itself in this situation because of an act where the mother is a participant. A closer illustration would be a car accident.

    Say a woman is in a car accident. A person in the other vehicle is seriously injured. They are both of the same rare blood type. The hospital does not have enough blood to save the person.

    Again, your conclusion is still valid. Regardless of who is at fault for the accident, no one can sanely say that the woman should be forced to donate her blood to save the other person.

    It becomes muddy, however, if the woman had, say, been driving drunk. And this is how it can be framed by the pro-life side. Having willing, unprotected sex could be seen as a reckless act which leads to the death of another person. This could be seen as a form of manslaughter.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Thank you all for your comments — I have edited my post accordingly and believe I have addressed your concerns. If not, please let me know.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Eric writes: "Having willing, unprotected sex could be seen as a reckless act which leads to the death of another person. This could be seen as a form of manslaughter."

    It seems unlikely that a "pro-life" supporter would describe willing, unprotected sex as a reckless act, since so many of them also oppose birth control.

    In any case, the analogy fails because the fetus would never have existed *but for* the willing, unprotected sex. Therefore, it is unreasonable to approve of the sex for purposes of creating the "person," but then condemn the sex for purposes of establishing manslaughter.

    Similar cases already exist in tort law. They are known as "wrongful life" cases and they involve situations where medical testing errors cause a fetus with a genetic defect to be born that the parents would have aborted if the medical tests had revealed the defect. Although such medical testing errors can result in the responsible party paying the *medical costs* that the parents incur to support the child, courts will not award damages for the *pain and suffering* which the child experiences as a result of having the defect. Courts simply cannot competently weigh the child's pain and suffering against the non-existence that the child would have experienced had the medical error not happened. The same problem would exist in Eric's example.

  8. Scholar says:

    Here is an interesting statistic which could be relevant to our futures…

    Number of children born per woman in Africa is about 6.

    Number of children born per woman in the USA is 2.

    Based on the numbers, believer in God would have to conclude that God loves Africa more than the USA. However, this Christian God you all have come to worship has a depraved and cruel way of showing his love to these babies… by starving a third of them to death before they reach the age of 1.

    It would seem that "life" is not a given, even if the "person" makes it out of the "womb".

  9. Grumpy, was that you who had started this analogy with this piano player who woke up one day with another person hooked up on his life system? It used a similar argumentation.

    What would you think about a woman who does not use birth control and ends up being pregnant a couple of times and always decides to terminate her pregnancy like a month or two before the set birth date? Sure, I understand that a born baby can survive without her and that an unborn baby at thist stage can not and is therefore equivalent to a parasite, but at this point does it really not matter at all at where to place the beginning of life? Even if the mother did not decide to have the baby, it might survive once it was outside her body. Should she be forced to get a C-section?

  10. Dank says:

    Absolutely ridiculous. I stumbled upon this website and read this blog…disturbing. The mere idea of a woman (assuming you are a woman) comparing the living, breathing life of an unborn in a mother's uterus to an unwanted, blood-thirsty parasite makes me sick, and it is unbelievable to me that some one can have been crafted to be so selfish and self-richeous as to think this way as a result of one's own mistakes. Are we a bit in denial, perhaps? I'm almost positive that at some point in time a girl who is having sex has heard that it can and will lead to pregnancy. What ever hapened to responsability for one's own actions? I do not care if you run about and get ridden like the town bicycle (I'd advice not to) but please realize that if you're going to, you might create something whose ticker of life begins at conception, which happens at *ding, ding ding!* intercourse! So don't say "Oh it's okay, if I get pregnant I'll kill it." And even if you're not saying it, you're thinking it before you have sex with that special some one who is ever so worth the trouble of getting pregnant and suffering an emotionally painful abortion for a wonderful night of hot steamy passion. It is an unborn baby for God's sake! It feeds and GROWS and becomes alive, give it a chance to come out and have an identity! Does no body believe in souls anymore? What kind of shallow world do we live in?

  11. Dan Klarmann says:

    Dank says both that a human blastocyst or zygote is a living breathing person, and also that it later "becomes alive" to later gain an identity. Pick a philosophical position, please. We agree with the latter.

    Yes, abortions are emotionally painful. The many women I know who've had them agree. That's why we regulars here support comprehensive sex education and laws that prevent back-alley abortions. This combination has been repeatedly proven worldwide to reduce the actual abortion rate more than any other strategy.

  12. Dank says:

    Pardon the choice of words, Dan. What I'm saying is that the embryo is indeed living, as it grows and its cells multiply. By saying it "becomes alive" I merely meant it "wakes up," if you will, and essentially becomes a baby, immediately before and/or after it is born. Either way, I believe a baby is alive and equipped with a soul at the moment of conception, even before you may classify it with the word "baby." Just because it does not think does not make it unhuman. Would you call a person hospitalized in a state of veggetation unhuman, or not alive?

  13. Dank says:

    One more thing…I just can't percieve that the person who wrote this article and followers are advertising their tolerance for carving out something alive and growing inside of them that is as much a part of them as the uterus itself (but with life and potential) in order to preserve their right to do whatever the hell they want with themselves. I understand that a right is a right and cannot and will not be taken away from a person, and I am not here to tell you to give anything up. I just wanted to point out that with right, as well as with power, comes responsibility, and that responsibility is that with the power to do with your uterus what you damn well please, you must also accept the concequences that if you fuck up and therefore create something unwanted inside of you, you must accept that you've brought it on yourself and cannot get rid of your problems with a scoop, a doc, and a biohazard trash bin! Because this bad decision has not only affected the pregnant woman, but also the child inside! The life that HAD a chance to live a full life, to learn, to love, to experience, untill the person that created them, the mother, ended that chance! Responsibilty! It comes with your rights! All of them! The right to bear arms, does it mean you can carry your gun and accidentally shoot some one and just get rid of the body with out a trial? If the judge says jail time, it is jail time. No body forced you to play with that gun. Does ANYONE recieve my meaning?

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    Dank: Do you see any difference between a two-day old blastocyst and a nine month old fetus? I do. . Nor is an acorn the same thing as a tree. And I have never yet heard of a funeral for the miscarriage of a blastocyst, or a 7-week old fetus or a 10 week old fetus.

    How about this: Do you see any difference between a two-day old un-implanted blastocyst and a baby who has already been born? If not, are you one of those people who believes that we ought to outlaw birth control pills, which will undoubtedly increase the number of abortions?

    I refuse to take the woman out of the equation when we're talking about early term pregnancies. I believe that a woman, even one who is negligent getting pregnant, is a real person, while a fetus is not yet entitled to that status or the rights that go with that status.

    Is the life in the womb human and alive? Yes, of course it is, in my view. It is a "human life." But this does not make it a "baby" to me, not in a way that I am willing to enforce upon woman by use of the police power of the state.

    Here's another thing that informs my view of abortion. More than 15 American women are raped every hour in the U.S.. Every year, an estimated 25,000 U.S. woman are impregnated by their rapists. Ninety percent of these rape pregnancies can be prevented with the prompt use of the morning after pill. I do wonder what kind of moral monster one has to be to force a woman to give birth to what will be the child of a rapist, when very early term abortion is an alternative.

    Did you now that six in 10 U.S. women having abortions are already mothers. More than half intend to have (more) children in the future. Do you think that woman who have abortions hate children? Do you think that woman who have had abortions can be good mothers? I do. I know many of them.

    Did you know that one American woman out of three has an abortion in her lifetime? Are you willing to throw millions of women into prison as murderers, just because they have early term abortions?

    Here's another thing: Half of the fertilized human eggs never implant (that’s about 15,000 each day in the U.S.). How much do you mourn this well-established occurrence? How does it make you feel that God is such a proficient abortionist?

    There are currently 15,000 unwanted and un-cherished children (these are euphemisms for abused and beaten) currently in Missouri foster care (Missouri is an average sized state). How many of those real children are you willing to take into your own home to raise as your own? And please don't claim that this question is irrelevant.

    Your argument about "nobody forced you to play with a gun" only has merit if you believe that an early term pregnancy should be treated, legally speaking, as a child who has been born. I don't believe that early term pregnancies should be endowed with these legal rights. I know you disagree. Let's agree to disagree.

    But given that lots of reasonable people disagree on this issue, it is presumptuous of you to claim that you should hold everyone who disagrees with you in moral contempt as though they were cold and calloused "baby killers."

  15. Dank wrote—"I just can’t percieve that the person who wrote this article and followers are advertising their tolerance for carving out something alive and growing inside of them that is as much a part of them as the uterus itself (but with life and potential) in order to preserve their right to do whatever the hell they want with themselves."

    A tumor fits that description as well. Are you perchance a Christian Scientist?

    Once an emotional position is taken on this issue it seems impossible to change one's mind. Abortion is one of those consequences of the collision of biology and community standards that has had a uneasy history. Biblically, btw, it seems not to have been such a big deal, although one wonders how safe it was for the woman back then.

    Since you seem to have a religious viewpoint, you might consider that miscarriages are basically "natural" D & Cs, which would make God the number one abortionist, as miscarriage far outnumbers clinical abortion.

    The other thing you might consider is that the frenetic attitude you seem to possess regarding so-called "responsible behavior" oozes disgust over sex, which, imho, is the chief target of most anti-abortion rhetoric.

    Thirdly, we have a legal concept of justifiable homicide, which loosely means we have a right to defend ourselves from certain levels of personal attack and the invasion of our homes and persons. Label the blastocyst, embryo, fetus what have you whatever you wish, but if its presence is unwanted and unwelcome (regardless of the circumstances by which it came about, either through rape, incest, or a one night stand) it is an invader. If I were a woman I would resist absolutely anyone's claim of authority to tell me I have to incubate something I do not want. Until that right is unquestioned, we will continue to have Gender Equity problems in this society, because men simply do not (as a rule) get pregnant.

    So, the bottom line is, if you oppose abortion, don't have one.

    Have a nice weekend.

  16. RealityCheck says:

    Go back to grumpypilgrim's orignal argument and the first rebuttal, after which grumpypilgrim conceded that the blood transfusion story was a false analogy. The fetus does not rely on a blood tranfusion from the mother, but does rely on nutrition from the mother. I assert that a more appropriate analogy would be to consider grumpypilgrim as a child (perhaps two years old for illustration purposes) and his mother intentionally withholds nutrition, with the result that grumpypilgrim starves to death. The mother would most certainly be subject to a murder charge of some sort.

  17. grumpypilgrim says:

    RealityCheck suggests, "I assert that a more appropriate analogy would be to consider grumpypilgrim as a child (perhaps two years old for illustration purposes) and his mother intentionally withholds nutrition, with the result that grumpypilgrim starves to death. The mother would most certainly be subject to a murder charge of some sort."

    Given that U.S. law *already* distinguishes quite easily between the situation RC suggests and the situation that actually confronts the abortion debate, there is no valid basis upon which to assert that RC's example is "a more appropriate analogy." Plainly, if it *were* an appropriate analogy, then it would present the same sort of controversy that the abortion debate generates. Since it doesn't, I reject RC's premise.

  18. TheThinkingMan says:

    What I think RealityCheck purpoted IS in fact "the situation that actually confronts the abortion debate." To say that it is not obviously would be false, because the entire premise of the pro-life argument is that it is murder to abort an un-born fetus because it is considered a person and, more importantly, a child whose life is dependent upon the actions of the mother. A mother who intentionally witholds nutrition from her child would most definitely face criminal charges. The same is true for those mothers who kill their children or who leave them in trash bins somewhere. If they were to then claim that the reason for their action was because the baby "was a parasite" and that they didn't "have the resources" to provide for the child, most people would absolutely disagree with them.

    Do not get me wrong, I am a pro-choice person, however personally I believe that the more important issue is about comprehensive sex education and personal and parental responsibility. While I think that a woman should be held responsible for their actions, I also believe that they have the choice not to be.

    However, this is the what the entire debate is centered around. So, even though I have the opposing viewpoint as the pro-choice argument, I still want to understand (and indeed, do understand) their position. Grumpypilgrim, please explain to me how the preceding analogy is *not* appropriate. I think it is. And I think it is *The* Defining Argument.

  19. grumpypilgrim says:

    Responding to TheThinkingMan: The analogy that RealityCheck asks us to accept is that aborting a zygote is equivalent to withholding food from a two-year-old child. This analogy fails because it ignores this critical difference (among others): the mother of a two-year-old child has the option of having someone else feed the child, either temporarily or permanently, whereas the mother of a zygote has neither of these options. This difference is critical for exactly the reason I mention in my post: since a two-year-old child can be fed by anyone, it does not have the right to force its mother to be its sole source of nourishment. However, a fetus can only be fed by its mother, so it would require this additional right — a right that no two-year-old child has. Thus, even if we accept, for the sake of discussion, that "life begins at conception," a zygote would require additional rights that a two-year-old child does not have.

    BTW, I notice that none of the people who have so-far commented to my post have addressed the second part of my argument: that so-called "pro-life" supporters want to deny pregnant women basic rights that every other person — even every *dead* person — currently enjoys.

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