Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Richard Carrier on why abortion does no harm

Carrier: From a point of view outside of this affair, the killing of a neurologically inactive fetus is no greater a harm than the killing of a mouse, and in fact decidedly less--a mouse is neurologically active, and though it lacks a complex cerebral cortex, it has a brain of suitable complexity to perceive pain (and I would argue that the mouse deserves some moral consideration, though less than humans). A fetus cannot perceive pain (and perception is not quite the same thing as sensation: sensation can exist without a brain, but perception cannot). The neural structures necessary to register and record sensations of pain transmitted by the appropriate nerves either do not exist or are not functioning before the fifth month of gestation. A fetus can no more feel pain than a surgical patient under general anasthesia, or a paraplegic whose lower-body nerves continue reacting to stimuli, but cease sending signals to the brain. And we have already established that a fetus does not contain an individual human personality of any kind, any more than a brain-dead adult does. With no perception of pain, and no loss of an individual personality, the act of abortion causes no immediate harm.

This is a line of argument often used on the pro-choice side of the debate. Bonnie Steinbock uses this line of argument in her case against Don Marquis' anti-abortion paper.

36 comments:

Edward T. Babinski said...

The zygote is not human in the quality that most defines who we each are as persons, our brains, our wealth of learning and life experiences. A zygote has no brain, even over a month later the neurotransmitting chemicals are not fully in place. Even at semi-functioning levels you've got a blank slate whose neurons are not firing in a coordinated fashion. So morning after pills, and early pregnancy detection along with early term abortions all end the life of something that is on the road to becoming a person, but not a person, not yet.

Stopping the reproduction process at ANY point along the spectrum, even by wearing a condom, murders cells on the way toward becoming a person (as Catholic theologians stress).

I'm no Catholic, but if Beethoven's mom and dad had worn a condom then Beethoven with his specific genetic characteristics would not be here today. Same goes if his mom and dad had merely assumed a different sex position, then a different sperm probably would have reached the egg than the one that conceived Beethoven, and a different child would have been born.

NOTE: There are millions of sperm with different genetic makeups in each milliliter of ejaculate and they do not compete by swimming to the egg so much as get shoved toward en masse by muscles insider the woman's tubes via a peristaltic wave, the same kind of muscular push that makes each swallow of our food go down our throats. It would take one of those microscopic sperm a long time indeed to "swim" the distance from uterus to egg--an enormous distance for even the largest of sperm to traverse). So an abortion, a condom, and even something as inconsequential as a different sex position, or making love a little later or sooner, would all have the effect of thwarting the birth of a human with Beethoven's exact genetic makeup.

Nature or God allows fertilized eggs (known as zygotes) to die all the time. Estimates vary but many agree that pregnant women may not even know they are pregnant when such a spontaneous abortion takese place and the zygote passes out of her with her monthly cycle.

Is God inserting a soul at that point, knowing it's going to die soon anyway?

What exactly does it mean to speak about God inserting a soul at conception? Can you measure it?

Does the soul have to WAIT AROUND until a fully functional brain develops before it can begin gathering sense data?

And what about frozen zygotes? Where is the "soul" then?

Frozen sperm will only last so long, but if the egg is fertilized by the sperm and then frozen, it lasts much longer, so a lot of eggs are fertilized and then frozen.

Is there a soul stuck inside the zygote and then frozen, so the soul has to WAIT AROUND FOR YEARS?

And then there's the "twinning" that often takes place during early embryogenesis, when a stem cell starts forming another whole embryo on its own, but the twinning process ceases and the twin dies without even leaving a corpse, but is reabsorbed back into the older embryo. If God inserted a soul in the original zygote then what happened when the twin started forming? Did God insert another soul, a second one, or was the original soul also undergoing "twinning?"

Lastly, it's been shown that after a woman bears a child and is lactating, the very process of lactation often maintains hormones in the woman's body that does not allow implantation of another zygote in her uterus. If she conceives during lactation her hormone levels may NATURALLY not allow that zygote to implant in her uterus. It's similar to "the pill" in its effect. The zygote simply passes out of that lactating woman.

Edward T. Babinski said...

So why not keep options open when it comes to a woman's choice whether or not to bear a child. It's her womb, it's her blood. You can't force someone to sit still and give blood no matter whose life is at stake.

Forcing a person to give bodily room and board and birth a zygote seems a bit extreme especially in light of how easily and often nature deletes zygotes as discussed above.

Secondly, calling a morning after pill, or an an early term abortion, "murder" means treating it like murder, arresting doctors and the woman and imprisoning them for a premeditated crime of murder, perhaps even imprisoning them or executing them. What percentage of pro-lifers believe it's premeditated murder and ought to be treated like that under the law?

Imprisoning women has been tried in some countries. In some South American countries where they do have such anti-abortion legislation like in the Catholic-majority nation of Nicaragua they even found they had to hire people to investigate female uteruses to determine whether or not an abortion had taken place. And if you leave open a single legal exception for abortion, such as a young girl being raped by her father or a stranger, then you come to the point where you admit that the woman's choice means something more than the life of a zygote.

I would prefer a world where people take responsibility for the numbers of human beings on the planet, rather than the current wish, which seems to be the abortion of civilization itself via turning more and more of the planet into more and human beings.

China has a one-child policy, but even Pat Robertson admits that's not necessarily bad in China's case with so many mouths to feed and a history of famines from thousands of years in the past right up till the 20th century.

India has no such policy and it's population will soon overtake that of China. Did you see the film Slumdog Millionaire? A lot of Indians still don't have indoor plumbing, which is known to shorten a person's average lifespan by about two decades (though NPR mentioned recently that there's a movement among wives in India not to allow their daughters to marry any man who cannot provide them with indoor plumbing).

SteveK said...

So Carrier is saying that it's OK to kill an innocent human being as long as they don't feel any pain. He approves of it for the fetus, so I have to ask, does he approve of it for the child or the adult? My guess is no.

unkle e said...

I think he also ignores that many women who have abortions seem to suffer later - perhaps "just" because our culture makes them feel guilty, but arguably the angst goes deeper than that.

SE said...

It's certainly okay to expel an invader, and that's the real issue, not whether or not the uninvited guest is human.

Of course at the same time I agree with Babinski on the zygote, but knowing a friend who was raped and got pregnant as a result, and who had no qualms about aborting the product of her encounter with her violator, it seems clear to me that she had the right to claim sovereignty over her own body and to decide whether or not it would be used by someone else for something she did not agree to.

SE said...

So Carrier is saying that it's OK to kill an innocent human being as long as they don't feel any pain. He approves of it for the fetus, so I have to ask, does he approve of it for the child or the adult?Uh, no, that's not what he said. Please try reading it again:

And we have already established that a fetus does not contain an individual human personality of any kind, any more than a brain-dead adult does. With no perception of pain, and no loss of an individual personality, the act of abortion causes no immediate harm.

Matthew said...

So Carrier is saying that it's OK to kill an innocent human being as long as they don't feel any pain.That was my impression, too. I would like to see him giving a deductive argument for this. I'm pretty sure this would be a premise.

Ilíon said...

It was just such "reasoning" (along with socialized medicine) which contributed to this situation -- There have doubtless been other French persons who were still alive at the time their organs were removed; this particular man is alive today because they didn't rip out his organs *immediately* after pronouncing him dead according to the French government's new and relaxed "definition" of when death occurs.

Ilíon said...

Intellectually Dishonest Individual: "And we have already established that a fetus does not contain an individual human personality of any kind, any more than a brain-dead adult does. With no perception of pain, and no loss of an individual personality, the act of abortion causes no immediate harm."

Oddly enough: "... Velma Thomas, 59, had been clinically brain dead for 17 hours after she had a heart attack ..."

Aren't individual human personalities the most amazing things? Not only can they pop into and out of existence, but the very same one which has previously popped out of existence can sometimes pop right back into existence.

SE said...

That was my impression, too.

Well, Matthew, then your reading skills are just as poor as SteveK's.

As for Carrier, his position is not mine necessarily, but to Ilion, Carrier in the quote does not say "clinically" brain dead, just "brain dead", assuming that term applies to an actual situation.

Clinically reminds of me all those NDEs where the person in question was clinically "dead", when of course they didn't die, for if they had they wouldn't have "come back". So perhaps, then, being really brain dead is not the same as being clinically so.

Ilíon said...

SE: "Clinically reminds of me all those NDEs where the person in question was clinically "dead", when of course they didn't die, for if they had they wouldn't have "come back". So perhaps, then, being really brain dead is not the same as being clinically so."

SE, but now you're engaging in question begging and goal-post moving (and perhaps other things I don't care to spend the effort to tease out), are you not?

AND, even should it be that you not engaging in fallacious reasoning, you certainly appear to be avoinding thinking about the important moral implications raised by these two cases.

Anonymous said...

I know lots of people with no individual personalities.

Gordon Knight said...

C was not saying its okay to kill a human being if they feel no pain. he was saying that a non-conscious biologically human being, one that has never been conscious is not of any special moral value. And in this I (alone among the theists here, methinks), think he is correct.

Let us take Marquis' argument, which is a GREAT ARGUMENT, the best pro life one around, though I disagree.

He argues that it is wrong to abort a fetus because it deprives the fetus of its future. but it order for this to be right, it must be the case that it is the fetus that has this "future." and in the case of early abortions at least, this does not seem correct.

Take the limiting case as an example, the early embryo. In order for the early embryo that was implanted in my Mother's uterus to have the future of me writing this in a coffee house, it must be true that I was that embryo.

But was I? Well what am I? If dualism is true, i am a spirit or soul, if property dualism is true i am collection of psychological states. In both cases we have extremely strong empirical evidence that, in this life, the existence of psychological states and/or souls is dependent on a functioning brain.

If that is correct, then it turns out that I cannot have been the very early embryo, because a necessary condition of my existing, the capacity for having psychological states, was absent.

The only view that may lead me to think that i was the embryo is the view that Marquis might have--that I am a living animal of a certain kind. Ironically for most theists, it is the materialist view of the human person which is most compatible with the pro-life argument.


Does anyone really believe a permanently brain dead individual, who is still alive, has a 'right to life" What would such a right even MEAN?

having taught this a bunch of times, I am also always struck at the number of students who are pro life with respect to abortion and yet not so pro-life when it comes to non-human animals (even apes and dolphins!) I would think a consistent pro life argument would be one that affirms all conscious beings, not merely humans.

Ilíon said...

Oh? Do you mean something like this?

Ilíon said...

Intellectually Dishonest Individual #2: "C was not saying its okay to kill a human being if they feel no pain. [blah, blah, blah] ..."

Choose your poison carefully, GK: if you're not demonstrating a disinclination to reason properly (to put it bluntly: intellectual dishonesty), then you're demonstrating an inability to reason properly (to put it crassly: stupidity).

Anonymous said...

“With no perception of pain, and no loss of an individual personality, the act of abortion causes no immediate harm.”

For those of us who were circumcised a day or so after we were born, I wonder if anyone of us remember the pain?

I wonder if any of us has the ability to look in a hospital nursery full of newborns and discern who has what kind of personality?

Let’s just say that there is no harm and no foul in terminating a worthless “thing” that cannot perceive pain and which has no personality. This should be ok a least a couple of weeks if not more after the thing is born.

I mean hell, since we are making up the rules anyway…

Unreal.

The Family said...

== quote ==

C was not saying its okay to kill a human being if they feel no pain. he was saying that a non-conscious biologically human being, one that has never been conscious is not of any special moral value. And in this I (alone among the theists here, methinks), think he is correct.

== end quote ==

By this definition, the fetus might be considered a person by day 30 or 40, after the brain has formed, since brain activity is then present, though of course there is no cognition as such. Unfortunately most abortions are after the 6th week, and people like Carrier would like us to believe that even late term abortions can be done without killing a person (even though the pain system in the fetus is provably operational by the 16th week).

Clayton said...

Carrier doesn't deny anything that Marquis asserts in his argument for the impermissibility of (some) abortions. I'd be interested to know whether people thought that Marquis' argument showed that:

(i) Carrier's points, while true, do not decide the case.
(ii) Carrier's points, while false, still wouldn't decide the case even if they were true.
(iii) Carrier's points, while false, would decide the case because you can't argue for the impermissibility of abortion in terms of facts about the fetus' future.
(iv) Carrier's points, are not only true, you cannot decide the case by appeal to facts about the future and that means C wins.

I'm guessing (iv) won't be a popular option around here, but I'm interested in (i)-(iii).

Gordon Knight said...

I was going to add to my earlie way too long post that pro choice people ought not be cavalier with respect to late term abortions. It is highly unlikely that a 6 month fetus is unconscious, and while I do not think I was a fertilized egg, I am not so sure that i did not exist in utero prior to my birth.


Illion: what is intellectually dishonest about what I said. I may have been charitable to C, but my interest is not in interpreting him correctly (I really don't care), but about the issue at hand.

Ilíon said...

Yes, The Family: such facts as Mr Carrier uses in his argument just ain't so.

Moreover, it's common knowledge that his factual assertions are false. Thus, one must conclude either that:
1) Mr Carrier is incapable of understanding that his factual assertions are false;
2) or, Mr Carrier deliberately chose to base his argument on factually false assertions.


Now:

IF one opts for option 1), then one is saying that Mr Carrier is stupid.

On the other hand, IF one opts for option 2), then one is saying that Mr Carrier is intellectually dishonest.

The only other possibility -- that is, that he's ignorant -- has already been ruled out by noting that it is common knowledge that his factual assertions are false.

Ilíon said...

To be a bit more clear on that last, if one *still* tries to claim that Mr Carrier is making his false assertions out of simple ignorance, then, in this particular circumstance (that is, that the corect knowledge on the matter is common and freely available), one is *actually* asserting that he's stupid.

Ilíon said...

GK: "Illion: what is intellectually dishonest about what I said. I may have been charitable to C, but my interest is not in interpreting him correctly (I really don't care), but about the issue at hand."

Good night!

SteveK said...

SE
The fetus is an individual human being - a fact of science. It's an innocent one at that.

What kind of person argues in favor of killing innocent human beings, with or without a certain kind of personality?

I can't believe you're arguing for the ability to kill a human being based on personality-type, rather than something important like self-defense or guilt.

Clayton said...

"I can't believe you're arguing for the ability to kill a human being based on personality-type, rather than something important like self-defense or guilt."

It's not uncommon for people to distinguish individual entities that are biologically human from persons on the grounds that the latter has moral characteristics that the former might lack. So, while it's self-evidently wrong to kill an innocent person for no good reason, it's not self-evidently wrong to end the life of just anything that is living and biologically human (e.g., Orrin Hatch, Leon Kass, and George Bush are not opposed to destroying embryos left over from IVF treatments).

SE said...

I can't believe you're arguing for the ability to kill a human being based on personality-type, rather than something important like self-defense or guilt.Steve, I see that your reading comprehension skills are worse than I feared. Please show me where I said any such thing and then get back to me

Ilíon said...

A lie must always be covered with another lie.

Eric said...

"It's not uncommon for people to distinguish individual entities that are biologically human from persons on the grounds that the latter has moral characteristics that the former might lack. So, while it's self-evidently wrong to kill an innocent person for no good reason, it's not self-evidently wrong to end the life of just anything that is living and biologically human"

Clayton, I agree, but it's also not self-evident that the fact that a characteristic isn't yet instantiated outweighs the potentiality that it has to be instantiated, especially in cases like abortion where such potential characteristics will almost certainly be actualized in the absence of interference. In other words, I don't think it's at all clear that the fact that (a) no merely potential properties can be said to be actualized (by definition), overrides the conditional that (b) a potential property will very probably be actualized in the absence of interference. This is especially clear with examples that involve the killing of the fetus by another person against the consent of the woman. It seems to me that in such cases we can at least say that our intuitions tell us that such a person is (morally) guilty of much more than assaulting the woman, causing her psychological anguish, and what -- the destruction of property? The latter charge strikes one as absurd, but it seems to be roughly where Carrier's reasoning (broadly, the notion that (a) outweighs (b)) leads, viz. not to the notion that it is the destruction of property, but to the notion that it's not at all absurd to characterize it in that way. However, since such a characterization is obviously absurd, we have grounds for questioning Carrier's reasoning. (This also explains the intuitive sense we can make of the fact that more than half the states in the U.S. have fetal homicide statutes that they apply to the murderers of pregnant women.)

Ilíon said...

No doubt everyone rejoices that, and in contrast to me, SE is such a "nice" person.

And, is it not a wonder, a marvel to behold indeed, that "nice" persons may frequently say, "You're stupid," and with the meaning, "You're intellectually dishonest," and yet remain forever "nice?"

Ilíon said...

Sarah Palin, Vanderburgh County Right to Life Banquet (4 part video)

SteveK said...

SE said:
"With no perception of pain, and no loss of an individual personality, the act of abortion causes no immediate harm."You said this for a reason so please finish your thought so it's clear to everyone what your position is.

SE said...

SteveK, that was a quote from Carrier, NOT MY WORDS. I was simply pointing out that he didn't seem to be saying what you thought he did, that's all.

SteveK said...

SE,
Fair enough. My apologies to you. My questions remain directed at Carrier and those who agree with his reasoning.

Clayton said...

"Clayton, I agree, but it's also not self-evident that the fact that a characteristic isn't yet instantiated outweighs the potentiality that it has to be instantiated, especially in cases like abortion where such potential characteristics will almost certainly be actualized in the absence of interference. In other words, I don't think it's at all clear that the fact that (a) no merely potential properties can be said to be actualized (by definition), overrides the conditional that (b) a potential property will very probably be actualized in the absence of interference."

Simple case.

Q1. Do you save first a woman in the earliest stages of pregnancy or a woman carrying an infant?

Eric said...

"Q1. Do you save first a woman in the earliest stages of pregnancy or a woman carrying an infant?"

Hi Clayton

First, I'll answer your question directly: I'd save the woman carrying an infant.

Now, I'm not sure if that gets at the distinction I was making. Take another case: Do you save first a pregnant woman who is going to have an abortion, or a pregnant woman who is going to have the baby? (I said 'I'm not sure' if your question gets at the distinction I was making because you labelled it Q1 and thus may have further questions in mind. I so, ask away!)

Clayton said...

Eric,

I was trying to see if you held the view that there's no moral difference between an infant and any identifiable biological individual that precedes the infant developmentally. Your response suggests that you don't think that potentiality counts as much as actuality, but your earlier post suggested you might have thought otherwise.

As for your case, I'd flip a coin.

Eric said...

Clayton, let me try to clarify the distinction I was making.

We can say that a fetus both (1) hasn't instantiated its 'moral agent making' properties, and that it (2) has the potential (in the broadly Aristotelian sense) to instantiate these properties. My point is not that potentiality and actuality count equally, but that it's not obvious that the fact that a potential property hasn't been instantiated counts more than the potentiality it has to be instantiated. In other words, I'm making a distinction between two ways of looking at a potential property. Maybe I could put it this way: I don't think it's obvious that the fact that a property *is* potential (i.e. not actualized) outweighs the fact that it is *potential* (i.e. will be actualized).

Re your response to my question, why isn't it morally relevant that your decision about whom to save will in one case ultimately be a decision to terminate two lives, and in the other one life?