Smashing the spectrum of pre-born personhood denial

Wabbit Season Duck SeasonHaving dissected both the facts and the reasoning behind pro-abortion writer Bob Seidensticker’s characterization of the pro-life movement as dominated by insensitive males, I’d like to take one last post to examine his central theory of pre-born life, the “spectrum argument.”

It’s basically a repackaging of philosophical fallacies pro-lifers are well-acquainted with, but it still highlights some useful opportunities to clarify the important concepts involved.

Consider this figure of the blue-green spectrum. We can argue where blue ends and green begins, but it should be easy to agree that blue is not green.

The same is true for a spectrum of personhood. Imagine a single fertilized egg cell at the left of the spectrum and a trillion-cell newborn on the right. The newborn is a person. And it’s far more than just 1,000,000,000,000 undifferentiated cells. These cells are organized and connected to make a person—it has arms and legs, eyes and ears, a brain and a nervous system, a stomach and digestive system, a heart and circulatory system, skin, liver, and so on.

This is entirely an appeal to subjective intuition based on appearance, something which anyone who truly values reason should know better than to blindly follow. While a newborn is obviously far more developed than a zygote, that doesn’t tell us why developmental level is what defines personhood. And Bob’s talk of cells being “organized and connected to make a person” misses the fact that once sperm and egg have joined, everything constituting that newborn is already there, developing from within, without new “parts” added from outside.

Let’s consider the brain by first considering an analogous situation with water. A single molecule of water does not have the properties of wetness, fluidity, pH, salinity, or surface tension, but these and other properties emerge when trillions of trillions of water molecules come together.

Wetness is an emergent property—we see it only when enough water molecules get together. Similarly, thinking and consciousness are emergent properties of the brain. A single neuron doesn’t think slower; it doesn’t think at all. A “brain” that doesn’t think is not a brain—immature or otherwise.

This is merely a biological description – it doesn’t tell us someone wouldn’t be a living human being prior to their brain developing, or why he or she shouldn’t have their basic human rights respected. So we’re still waiting to see the spectrum’s value as a guide for ethics.

A future baby is not a baby. It’ll be a baby in the future.

This is another popular rhetorical dodge, but it’s too clever for its own good. “Baby” may not be the technical term for the unborn, but y’know what? It’s not the most technical medical term after birth, either. They’re technically “neonates” when newborn, but last time I checked, nobody goes around complaining about that. If calling the unborn “babies” is good enough for the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, Johns Hopkins, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, then it’s certainly good enough for the abortion debate.

Not that semantics change the ethics of the situation, of course. A rose by any other name…a zygote is still “the developing individual produced from” the “cell formed by the union of two gametes.” An embryo is still a “developing human individual.” And a fetus is still “a developing human.”

The difference between newborns, teens, and adults is negligible compared to the single cell on the other side of the spectrum, which has nothing that we commonly think of as a trait of personhood.

Nobody’s denying that there’s a vast spectrum of biological complexity or developmental maturity, but those are just that – descriptions of developmental stage. Stating the obvious doesn’t show that personhood is tied to some particular milestone somewhere along that spectrum.

Bob can breezily deny that there’s anything “that we commonly think of as a trait of personhood,” but that’s the entire area of contention – we do deny that personhood is dependent on maturity or developmental level, we do assert that personhood is an intrinsic quality of every human being at every stage. Restating one’s position is not, in and of itself, a case for that position. You have to show your work as to how you got there and why others should, too.

The commonality across the spectrum is that they all have eukaryotic cells with Homo sapiens DNA. That’s it. That’s not something that many of us get misty-eyed about. Very little sentimental poetry is written about the kind of DNA in the cells of one’s beloved.

This lazy dismissal of the idea that humanity intrinsically possesses any special significance clarifies an important facet of the debate. If your worldview is purely materialistic, defines life’s value by the sum of one’s parts, and really sees the differences between humans and other species as merely differences of degree rather than of fundamental kind, then of course you’re not going to care much about humans too young to think, feel, or want, any more than you care about animals with comparable capacities. But at the very least, you should be self-aware enough to recognize that you’re operating from a radically different moral/philosophical starting point from what the rest of us use.

Take the spectrum from single cell to newborn. [Clinton Wilcox of Secular Pro-Life Perspectives argues] that it’s not a spectrum of humanness because a single cell and a newborn are both human. But it’s a spectrum of something. I call it a spectrum of personhood, but I’m flexible. You tell me: tell me what a newborn is that a single cell isn’t. I say that a newborn is a person and the single cell isn’t, but I’m open to better terms.

You know we’re in the shallow end of the intellectual pool when somebody challenges you to support his own argument. It’s completely illogical and incoherent to demand that pro-lifers “tell me what a newborn is that a single cell isn’t” because we’re not the ones arguing that a single-celled human being and a newborn are two different things! He is! We’re the ones against the idea that any of the differences between the two matter to their shared personhood.

Frankly, it seems like Bob’s trying to pull a slightly more sophisticated version of “Wabbit Season! Duck Season!” on us.

Even so, I’ve got an answer for him: “newborn” is my word for what a newborn is that a zygote isn’t. That’s it. But both are living human beings (the consensus of embryologists and serious secular philosophers alike, by the way), which means both are people.

PETA tries to collapse a spectrum with this slogan [“a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”]. They want to argue that, no, we shouldn’t put animals into bins along a spectrum (in this case: vermin, livestock, pet, and human). Animals are animals—all the same.

Does Wilcox accept this? If he rejects PETA’s attempt to collapse or ignore this spectrum, then perhaps he sees the problem with ignoring the vast difference between newborn and cell.

Bob’s response seems to amount to little more than “you didn’t get my brilliance,” without actually substantiating that brilliance or addressing Clinton’s solid rebuttal:

Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, did not appear human, and yet he clearly was. Being human in appearance does not make one a human person. What makes one a human person is their inherent nature as rational agents, a nature that is shared with the unborn. The reason that you have the present ability to think rationally and to even read this article is because the zygote that you were at the beginning of your life had the inherent capacity to develop it. As Christopher Kaczor notes, hedgehogs don’t develop rationality because it’s not in a hedgehog’s nature (Sonic notwithstanding).

Yes, there is a spectrum of animal sophistication – but it’s not the same spectrum as zygote-to-newborn. Zygote-to-newborn all denote different stages of the same thing; heck, every single animal on the former spectrum has its own zygote-to-newborn spectrum. The animal spectrum Bob talks about is simply an organizing of different things.

Bob’s view of humans as but a segment on some single, larger moral spectrum, higher than animals but not really on a fundamentally different plane from them, is ultimately what the entire abortion fight boils down to. Either you recognize that humankind’s nature as moral agents is dramatically, fundamentally unique, and utterly incomparable to the animal kingdom – and I honestly cannot fathom how anything but ideology could keep someone from seeing something so blindingly obvious – or you don’t.

If you do, wondering how to account for that uniqueness, what it is about that boring old Homo sapiens DNA that gives us something no other living species can approach, is unavoidable. Suddenly, the question of whether there’s something in there worth “getting misty-eyed about” takes on a whole new vibrancy…and the question of whether it makes us worth protecting even at our youngest, simplest stages becomes more urgent than ever.

And if you don’t recognize any of that, well, then the hard truth is that you may be the one stuck on a spectrum of ideological blindness.

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