Abortion Rights and the Two-Headed Baby

A while back on an abortion-related thread, one commenter broughtup the old idea that abortion rights could suggest conjoined twins might have a right to kill the twin. That line of argument may no longer be dealing in hypotheticals.

Doctors are now preparing to remove the second head from an infant born with two heads. The second head, while not attached to a body of its own, has a partially formed brain, eyes, ears, and lips, and its mouth moves when the baby breast-feeds.

I am curious as to what status abortion opponents (including Matt, Brent, Adam, and others here) would ascribe to the second head. According to the news reports, the head, which began as a separate embryo and merged at some point, has a partly developed brain, facial features, and it reacts to stimuli. Is it alive? Should it be preserved? (How?) And should any attempt to remove the head be considered an abortion?

70 comments for “Abortion Rights and the Two-Headed Baby

  1. I’ll defer to the perinatologists on the question whether it’s a different person (i.e., is it distinct DNA, etc.).

    Assuming that it is a distinct person and is alive, then I believe removing him from his sister is equivalent to an abortion done to preserve the life of the mother. Only in this case the small person is jeopardizing his sister’s life, not his mother’s. But the justification for allowing him to die is the same: better that one person die than two.

  2. There is nothing objectionable about the surgery. The head is a deformity, and without surgery, it would be permanent (which seperates it from pregnancy).
    I thank God, and the doctors, that this child has access to this type of surgery

  3. While it is a deformity it is interesting because it fits most of the criteria required by anti-abortionists who feel that it is full human life in the first trimester. As Matt said though, in this particular case there is a good chance that it could kill the child. Even most anti-abortionists make exceptions for rape and life of the mother.

    However we could easily conceive of a case where there was unique DNA that was “alive” but would be removed for more cosmetic reasons.

    While common sense would dictate that no one would object to that particular case, I think it does play havoc with some pro-life arguments.

  4. I agree with Matt that the removed child is a child. I see no reason to believe that it doesn’t have a soul, and grace, and resurrection.

    You’ve made similar contentions before. I guess I just don’t understand the reasoning behind them. If one human’s survival requires, either directly or as a side effect, the death of another, that obviously raises some very difficult moral questions, but why does it imply that one or the other aren’t fully human?

  5. Unfortunately, the news services are now reporting that little Rebecca has passed away.
    Goodbye, Rebecca. RIP.

  6. Adam, in this case the tissue in question has no heart, brain or other such matter. If I took a tissue sample from my body and cultured it, it would be alive and would have human DNA. Clearly that doesn’t make it a living human being.

    That’s why I find it so hard to really listen to so many pro-life groups. (Despite being strongly pro-life myself) They hold to arguments which violate common sense so much that it makes me instinctively question everything the movement says.

    I truly wish pro-life sides would avoid those sorts of arguments. The meaning of human life *must* entail more than human DNA and life.

  7. Hi Clark,

    It sounds like the you’ve been sold a caricature of the pro-life position, likely from antagonistic sources.

    You are right to suppose that human life must mean more than human DNA and life. If I donated a kidney to you, the kidney would retain my DNA and would be alive. But pro-lifers would not claim that you now had a distinct human life, or human being, inside you. My kidney is not a distinct organism, it is part of the organism called Matt, and could become part of the organism called Clark.

    The seven embryology texts used by mainstream medical schools in the United States all consider the beginning of human life to be at fertilization, the point when the ovum from the mother and sperm of the father combine to create a single-celled embryo. This has been the consensus view in the medical community since the 1920s. Pro-lifers believe that all distinct and self-directing human organisms are human beings, and that they all start from this single cell.

    The easiest way to understand the pro-life position is to take a non-controversial example of a human being, like Tiger Woods, and work backwards. The organism that we know as Tiger Woods has grown and matured. At some time in the past this organism now known as Tiger Woods did not exist. Where did Tiger Woods begin? Embryologists place that point at fertilization because that is the time when Tiger became Tiger — the DNA from his parents combined to create a Male Homo Sapiens Thai-African-Britt. Most importantly, he was a distinct, self-integrating organism that began to develop. The only thing Tiger needed to develop or would ever need to develop, like every other organism at every stage of development, was nourishment and a suitable environment. His internal constitution did the rest — it self-assembled, interacting and responding with its environment.

    There have been many efforts to distinguish “human being” as a subclass of “distinct and self-directing human organism” rather than coterminous. Every conceivable distinction has been offered, but there is no consensus view. Some of the most common are: implantation (first social interaction), heartbeat, brain waves, response to pain, movement, viability (point when lungs are sufficiently developed to capture oxygen from air), pre-birth personality, birth, first breath, post-birth personality, and mature infant (Peter Singer).

    Mormons generally figure a human organism is a human being in the full sense once it’s inhabited by a spirit. But because there is so little relevant revelation, Mormons usually figure the spirit enters the body at one of the usual demarcation lines.

    Another common theory is that “human being” isn’t binary, it’s incremental — human organisms are human beings by varying degrees. The human organism Tiger Woods is more of a human being now than when he was 10 years old, more a human being 10 than at 3, more at 3 than at 1, more at 1 than at conception. Because this view explicitly denies the universal equality of man, however, few Mormons hold it.

    I believe my spirit entered my body at fertilization; the spiritual “me” was the animating force that unfolded the development of my body.

  8. Actually Matt, I’d probably hold to the incremental view. I don’t really accept the “universal equality of man” as anything more than a useful fiction. However *how* it is incremental will vary. (I tend to see more of the “increments” taking place in the womb)

    I’m also not convinced that spirit enters the body at a particular consistent point.

    I recognize you feel it happens at fertilization. However I don’t think many Mormons hold to that view.

  9. Clark, do you believe all “humans with spirits” (human beings according to LDS theology) are equal? If so, besides pre and post-ensoulment, what other incremental stages might there be?

    And if the spirit doesn’t always enter the body at the same time for every person, unless we can tell which human organisms have spirits, we will have to treat all of them as human beings from the time any of them might have spirits, right?

  10. No, I don’t believe any two beings are equal, as a philosophical principle. They may deserve to be treated equally under the law. But I don’t think that biologically all people are equally alive. For instance were I in a permanent coma I’d consider my self far less alive than I am now.

    Your other argument is interesting, since it is the argument from ignorance. However I’m fairly sure the spirit doesn’t enter in during the first trimester. I was more speaking of the period of the second or third trimester. And I do agree with your argument there. Although as I’ve said before I think abortion can be wrong for reasons other than it being murder.

  11. My knowledge of formal ethics is cursory too, but from a Mormon perspective I take equal moral worth to mean that God cares about each person equally.

    For example, if a guy in a fit of road rage shoots the driver in front of him, the evil of his act doesn’t depend on the identity of the driver because all drivers have equal moral worth.

  12. Matt: I don’t think that we need to assume that all human beings have equal moral worth. For example, it seems to me that one of the reasons that we punish wrong doers is precisely because we think that they are no longer deserving of the moral respect that we give to non-wrong doers.

    Furthermore, this need not undermine your intution that shooting folks on the high way is wrong, regardless of the status of the victim. Various virtue-based theories of ethics account for this nicely, e.g. shooting indiscriminately is bad because it violates some virtue — peacefulness? — with gratuitious violence, etc.

  13. Nate know far more about formal Ethical theories than I. So I’ll defer to him on that.

    I’d just say that if “moral worth” refers to how I value someone, then clearly I reject equal moral worth. I value my wife far more than I do strangers, for instance. I think we err if we move from love to value. I don’t think they are the same.

    Regarding other terms, I’m not quite sure what “moral respect” means. I know what respect means. But I don’t understand how the term “moral” modifies my respect.

    My sense, and I may well be wrong in this, is that you prepend the word “moral” as if that changes the meaning of these terms. As if it makes the issue more abstract. I don’t think it can. Once again I understand notions like worth, value, respect, and so forth. I don’t see why “moral” somehow changes those.

  14. Nate, I’ve never assumed that we punish people due to a loss of moral respect. I punish my children, for example, when they do wrong, but not from a conscious belief that they now have less moral worth. It’s largely because of their moral worth that they are punished.

    Similarly, if God considers “all flesh as one” and “all are alike unto God”, I’ve always assumed that God’s punishment doesn’t stem from the diminished worth of the punished, either. The reason God weeps before Enoch is precisely because his precious creations suffer, not because his creations are no longer precious.

    People who shoot guns at people are guilty of disturbing the peace and gratuitous violence even if the victim doesn’t die. But we separate teh criminal charges depending on whether he dies or not. So I don’t think this example shows why we treat all murders the same.

  15. Matt, so you feel that “all flesh as one” and “all are alike” refers to moral worth? Does it solely refer to that? If “all flesh” is worth the same, doesn’t that mean any distinction is pointless? It seems such a wide ranging value requirement removes the very meaning of individual worth.

  16. Clark, I think “moral worth” is a term of art. I encounter it regularly in philosophical treatments of abortion. I’ve always read it to mean something like “equal in the eyes of God” for a deistic worldview, or “equal in the eyes of the moral law” or “equal with regard to rights” according to a liberal worldview.

  17. Matt: Your example about differing levels of punishment for wanton shootings proves nothing. First, it confuses moral and legal culpability, which may be but need not be the same. Second, there is no reason that an areatic moral theory would necessarily be unable to account for such differing intuitions.

    Perhaps I too am confused by how your are using the term “moral worth.” First, I think that you need to distinguish between differing theories of punishment. We may punish a person to deter future misbehavior. We may punish a person, however, because they somehow deserve the punishment, regardless of its effect on future behavior. It is the second notion of punishment that I am referring to. If we say that one person morally deserves consequence X because of his behavior, and another person does not morally deserve consequence X because of his behavior and indeed it would be immoral to impose consequence X on them, then I don’t see how we can escape the implication that the moral deserts of different people differ. If this is the case, then I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that different people have different moral worth. Now, it may be that you mean something different by “moral worth” than moral entitlement. Fair enough. But what is it that you mean??

    Note: I haven’t been following the abortion thread, so I am purely interested in the meta-ethical issue rather than the arguments about the moral status of the removed head.

  18. I understand that. But that then seems to entail a problem of circularity. Unless we have a clear moral law that isn’t terribly helpful. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I *think* it is based on the idea of a simple set of moral laws that are universal. Yet if the moral laws are tied to context and the individual, then it seems like your notion of “moral worth” as “equal in the eyes of moral law” is self-refuting.

  19. I always smile when ever I see Clark’s rhetorical style at work. Looking back on Clark’s posts on embodiment http://www.libertypages.com/clark/arc0121.html I get the feeling one side of the discussion is beginning to hinge on the degree to which a spirit is embodied. I won’t try to explain this, as you should only try to interpret people’s ideas for them once they are dead (and then you should get a graduate degree out of it for your creativity). However, I am assuming Clark is basing part of his view on the level with which a living soul is able to function: where a living soul is the combination of body and spirit based from a Cartesian or Heidegger view. I tend to agree with Clark that everyone is at a different level of embodiment, and that there is a great change in this level while in the womb, and even for the first few years outside of it. Thinking about the point at which a spirit is able to interact with our body has always been interesting, at least to me.

    If we use the idea of embodiment to make a results based assessment on abortion we end up in a quandary when faced with “out of the womb” decisions. Cases like this one, and the Latimer case in Canada where a father killed his 12y severely disabled daughter http://www.cbc.ca/storyview/CBC/2003/12/17/latimer031217 seem troubling. If one believes in late term abortions, it is hard to find fault with mercy killings of no hope ICU patients, or individuals in similar situations. Where things get murky is when we add in the potential of what these individuals could do or become.

    Abortion at any stage destroys potential. Who knows at what stage embodiment is so complete as to prevent a spirit form getting another crack at mortality? In the case of the two headed baby, there was next to no potential to do anything, or (sticking to my word of the day) to increase its embodiment. ICU patients probably aren’t going to get much more out of life either. However in the case of a fetus, I am not sure that a point time assessment is valid. Clark, I’m just wondering what your views on potential are in the abortion issue?

  20. I actually think that potential is difficult since if you buy into it too much you end up with the Catholic position where even birth control is immoral. (And I think that a perfectly valid and consistent view, mind you) Yet clearly the denial to a spirit by wearing a condom is different from the denial to a spirit when I destroy a body in the 2cd trimester.

    I don’t really have firm opinions on abortion. My view on ethics is to go by the spirit which is why I’m so ignorant on the philosophy of ethics. I don’t think ethics offers many answers. I think abortion is wrong. But I don’t know *why* it is wrong. Were I forced to defend my beliefs I’d probably appeal to a kind of ownership of the body by a spirit as well as the duty we as parents have due to our covenants in the pre-existence.

    I think, however, your bringing in killing of other situations is appropriate. Especially given the thread topic. Afterall in this case of the removed baby head things are even more clear cut.

  21. Yeah, I guess my views to morals are pretty much the same. I think as long as you keep trying to remove hypocrisies from your own views, following the spirit is always the best ethical philosophy. But does that mean that trying to establsih an “ethical standard” in government is improper? There is no question that once a standard is set there will always be ways in which it will be injust. As a teacher I tend to hear lots of complaints along those lines. As I see it, the problem is as follows. Many people believe that motivation, personal experience and frame of reference are huge determinants in any ethical consideration. However, as a large society it is functionally impossible to use these as part of any assesment. Hence we get the arbitrary rules that people complain about.

    I agree with your point that the Catholic position seems to make sense, even if it does seem to carry things a little far from a modern standpoint (most things tend to make sence once you get the original frame of reference). I think as decisions have greater consequence, the more we tend to rely on personal and societal standards. For instance, when deciding how to respond to a student I may be more likely to be swayed by my conscience than I would if I felt like God was telling me to kill someone. Ironically, this may mean that the big issues in life where I want guidance are the ones where I may be most hesitant to follow it.

    Again I think the Latimer case is interesting. What is the culpability of someone who kills an 12 year old child who is totally dependent on technology and other people to sustain their life? Are motivations enough to outweigh the act itself? Are motivations ever enough to outweight certain acts like murder, assault, cheating, etc?

  22. Well, that’s democracy though. The ethics we impose via (and to) government are based upon a kind of consensus of what is right. It isn’t arrived at view arguments. Arguments end up being more a kind of persuasion based upon showing inconsistencies. But for any inconsistency it begs the question of which element is right. We may value one more than the other – but that says nothing about why we do (or whether we should)

    Abortion is trickier because the answers regarding what is right are so inexorably tied up with unprovable metaphysics. Is there a spirit? When is it created/brought? But depending upon how you answer those questions you get very different answers. Which is why those only nominally Christian in terms of metaphysics are unlikely to be pro-life. But how do you pass laws that require one accept a Christian metaphysic of some sort?

  23. BTW – other than that your anticipation of where I was leading the discussion was more or less apt.

    I do, btw, think mercy killing is just. However I recognize the practical problem that once you start allowing it there becomes an economic incentive to kill those who are “expensive” which will lead to killing those who shouldn’t be killed. So I’d only be willing to support its legalization if those issues could be resolved.

  24. As far as mercy killing goes, there tends to be a little bit more involved on the dangerous side of the issue than the economic incentive to kill people (although that is there as well).

    The sad fact is that until people become terminally ill or in some way debilitated, attempted suicide is seen as a “cry for help”. Once a person has, say, lost a limb or contracted cancer the support-system for coping with suicide suddenly evaporates.

    The fact is, however, that most (I don’t have immediate access to the survey I’m referring to) people who express a desire to have their lives ended (people with terminal illness or debilitating injuries) *also* test positive for clinical depression. So are we really treating the real problem if we start to allow “mery killing”? When healthy people receive treatment and concern, mercy killing responds to the exact same problem with a lethal injection. Cleverly disguised, this amounts to nothing other than prejudice against the sick and handicapped. I believe that in the study those who expressed a wish to die recanted that wish after receiving treatment (in the form of therapy) for clinical depression.

    To my knowledge that is the rational for a law against suicide. It’s not that we think legal action is actually going to deter someone from kiling themself (pause for laughter), it’s because we understand that there are rare and exceptional times when society needs to step into preserve a person’s life against their – temporary – will.

    This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone has to be kept alive indefinately. There is a long legal precedent for people having the right to refuse medical treatment. Personally I also think that patients should have the right to request potientially lethal doses of pain medications if that is the only way to handle the pain.

    But in general we need to confront the facts behind the myth of the “right-to-die” movement.

  25. I think mental illness is always a special case since the person is able to decide for themselves. However I also think Depression is way overdiagnosed. Afterall there *are* cases when one is rationally depressed. Spending the rest of my life hooked up to a machine, unable to move, probably is a justified depression. I think that Chris’ comments regarding “potential” probably fit in those regards.

    However I’m not convinced we have the right to do it. It’s something I’m even more ambiguous about than early term abortion. If I had incurable cancer, I admit I’d probably go off on a trek climbing moutains in the Yukon. Well – at least before I was married. I doubt my wife would let me now. But I’d sure not normally choose dying in a bed hooked to a bunch of machines.

  26. I certainly agree that dying hooked to a bunch of machines is not the way anyone wants to go out, but we shouldn’t create a false choice between death slowly in a hospital and pro-active death (right to die). Everyone has a right to refuse medical treatment, or some portion thereof.

    In fact in a perfect world I would be open to the possibility that death would sometimes be preferable to living. I’m sure that it’s possible to find some cases where mercy kililng seems like the right choice.

    It is not a perfect world, however. If the Netherlands, where proactive euthanasia is legal, is any judge, euthanasia leads to fear and abuse. The elderly frequently refuse trips to the hospital, and when they must stay over night it is not uncommon to hire people to watch them in their sleep to make sure that they aren’t killed.

    It is equally true that, for the most part, these fears are unfounded. They are not being killed off in droves.

    But there are equally – if not more – disturbing cases in America already. Take the Hugh Finn case in VA from a few years ago.

    Here you have a man who’s been in a coma for, I believe, two years. The doctors testify that it is a persistant vegitative state with a slim chance of recovery. His wife asks him to be removed from the feeding tube (no other life-support was necessary). His family attempts to intervene. Seems like a tough call, right?

    Well, the truth is that in the past two years his wife, who is now living with another man, has seen him twice and stands to gain several hundred thousand dollars if he dies. His family, consisting of parents and brothers and sisters, on the other hand, visits him frequently and testify that they believe he responds occaisionally. Is it any wonder he might respond more to family than to strangers? And bear in mind that other people who have recovered from “persitant vegatitive states” frequently report that they were aware of suroundings but unable to respond.

    In short, the courts rule for the wife, the Governor attempts to intervene on behalf of the family (and takes a beating in the press), the wife has the feeding tube removed and security guards positioned to keep his family from the room.

    I heard directly from a person who spoke with the priest who administered the last rites that when he asked the extremely dehydrated Hugh if he was thirsty, Hugh began to cry. Non-responsive indeed.

    Of course this is a case-study. As in the abortion debate, both sides have plenty. Policy should never be determined by emotional case studies, and nor should policy attempt to reflect perfectly philosophical points.

    The question you have to ask yourself is how many innocent people need to die in order to justify a system that allows doctors to kill patients? Becaus innocent people will die. That is a fact. I have other case studies, and they are alarming.

    It’s a similar argument in abortion. Who cares when, exactly, ensoulment occurs? Why does it matter what the relative worth of a human life is? The only objective of good government is the protection of its citizens and their rights. We call them human rights, not citizens’ rights for a reason. A human life is irreplacable, and that, to me, seems to be the penultimate factor in making a policy decision regarding abortion and the right to die movement. I have never heard a sane, defensible defintion for human life that put the starting point anywhere but at conception. This shouldn’t be metaphysics, it should be common sense.

    You’d have to come up with something more than a philosophical explanation for “personhood” to explain to me why, in this country, it is legal for baby to be killed at any point before birth, and that is the current status thanks to the definition of “health” the Supreme Court gave us. Statistics for abortions aren’t the most reliable, but all estimates declare that over 90% of abortions are done for elective reasons. In other words, for convenience.

    I feel the same trend would follow any further legalization of “mercy killing”. Incidentally, and just to throw another wrench into the discussion, this is the same reason that I am opposed to the death penalty. Arguments about punishment theory, retribution, deterrence, and justice aside, innocent people are occaissionally execute. If there’s one thing that people should be able to agree on universally, it’s that very little, if anything, is worth the taking of human life.

  27. sorry – “you” in my above epistle (where ever it appears) doesn’t actually point at any other poster… it’s just the literary second person!

  28. I wonder if the Netherlands case study is more indicative of cultural views of death more than anything. Now I am no anthropologist, but I wonder if the west isn’t overly sensitive about this issue. We assume all thoughts of suicide are caused by depression, and yet one of the prime determining factors for diagnosing depression is the degree to which suicidal tendencies are present. In this definition no one who contemplates suicide can ever be considered to be rational. I don’t know if that is true. I am also not convinced that our extreme fear of death is best in all cases. Perhaps it does prevent errors of commission like you mention, but how much needless suffering is also caused by this tendency?

    “The question you have to ask yourself is how many innocent people need to die in order to justify a system that allows doctors to kill patients? Because innocent people will die.” – stormin

    I have always found this argument interesting. It tends to get used lots against capitol punishment. I wonder how readily the converse applies? How many innocent people have to suffer in order to justify a system that doesn’t allow people a choice in ending their life? Personally I have always found this logic interesting when applied to wars. Countless people have given up their lives to protect the freedoms we now have. In peacetime we are quite hesitant to allow the same to happen. Yet I wonder where more of our freedoms are lost, from wars, or through an attempts to eliminate all possible physical harms? For instance in the death penalty, how many of the people that have gone off to war would be willing to die to ensure that those who have committed capitol crimes are punished? I think if we are unwilling to be one of the innocent few who get wrongly punished the question is answered for us. Perhaps a variation to the golden rule is the best bet – if you are unwilling to have it happen to you, don’t support it. However, I think there are quite a few people who are willing to sacrifice everything for the betterment of society – on both sides of most important issues. Perhaps continuing along the topic thread, should this be allowed or encouraged or prevented?

  29. “I have never heard a sane, defensible defintion for human life that put the starting point anywhere but at conception. This shouldn’t be metaphysics, it should be common sense.”

    “Stormin” exactly who is the fetus if the spirit of the fetus is still in heaven and hasn’t entered the fetus? Also you haven’t shown that this isn’t metaphysics but simply what your metaphysical assumptions are. In my opinion I’ve not seen a defensible definition for human life compatible with Mormon views that put the spirit in the zygot the moment of conception. If it is common sense, perhaps you could explain why the spirit would enter then?

  30. BTW – if the spirit enters in a conception, why doesn’t the church consider morning after pills anything but contraception? I’ve never been cautioned not to run to the doctor if a condom broke, for instance.

  31. Clark, how much guidance has the church given you regarding condom use? If none, I don’t see how you can infer their failure to address condom failures implies an underlying principle. The church hasn’t announced a revelation regarding ensoulment or when life begins, but I don’t know that we can deduce anything from God’s silence.

  32. I am afraid I may not have explained my position adequately. I am not going to give a reason for why the soul enters the zygote at the moment of fertilization. That is exactly the kind of argument that I disagree with. One of the chief problems with the abortion debate is that people try to put it in terms of religion or faith claim, and it simply shouldn’t be seen that way. In short: I’m not going to offer a philosophical reason for why the soul enters a zygote at the exact moment of conception because I don’t have one, don’t need one, and think it’s a matter of purely academic speculation.

    It should not matter “who” is being killed or how human that individual is. I don’t feel any obligation to prove that an unborn child is “as human” as another human being. I certainly feel that the intuition that the loss of a zygote is not as significant as the loss of a husband and father has reasonable grounds. On the other hand, I’m sure that the loss of a two-year old is not as significant as the loss of a husband and father either. But here’s the crux of the issue: I feel passionately that that argument should never be allowed as grounds for making infanticide legal.

    Do you see the different argument I am constructing? My essential point is that from any rational and scientific point of view we know that at the moment of conception a new life has been formed. It’s a matter of philosophy whether or not this new life is a “person”. It’s a matter of theology whether or not this new life has a soul. But it’s a matter of common sense that this new life is human. I object to any policy that legalizes the destruction of human life except in extraordinarily compelling circumstances – to preserve another life, for example.

    So I’m afraid that you are quite wrong to suppose that I have revealed anything about my own metaphysical theories when I strongly oppose abortion. I know and respect a very determined atheist who is equally as adamant as I am on this issue for exactly the same reasons that I am – and we don’t have a common metaphysical world-view to account for this. What I believe is that consideration for metaphysical theories pales in comparison to deference to respect for human life: especially when human lives are being wantonly destroyed at a horrific rate. What I’m trying to express, quite clearly, is my objection to any policy that is based on the arrogant presumption that one human can determine the worth of another human’s life.

  33. On “moral worth”:

    Here’s my working definition (really a contextualization) of the content in the term “moral worth”.

    “Moral worth is the intrinsic, metaphysical essence that Lincoln believed blacks and whites held in equal degrees even though he believed blacks were inferior to whites in every measurable dimension.”

  34. Stormin, I completely agree with your conclusions, thank you for your comments. But you did reveal a metaphysical theory: you believe all human lives, even single-celled human lives, are extraordinarily precious.

    Many people don’t care if a human embryo is created and killed in a petri dish, and can’t imagine that you ascribe extraordinary value to this entity they can’t even see, let alone empathize with. Their error, which I’ve seen repeatedly, (I’m not saying you made it) is the suggestion that because we mourn more when a 14- year-old dies unexpectedly than when an 84-year-old or 24-day-old does, this tells us something about the worth of the person who dies.

    But we should be especially suspicious of this reasoning because society mourns the death of a young white girl more than it does the death of a young black girl. This fact doesn’t prove that these girls have different moral worths. It shows that society fails to understand that they have equal moral worth or feels badly based on other factors unrelated to moral worth (ability to identify being one; loss of investment and degree of shock being others).

    “Human being” isn’t a social construction — it’s an ontological category. Blacks didn’t become full human beings in the 19th century. They were always human beings, even when society failed to see or admit it. So are all other human organisms.

  35. “It should not matter “who” is being killed or how human that individual is.”

    But surely it matters whether the object in question *is* a who. And if who we are is fundamentally associated with our spirit, then we can’t say the zygot is a who. I’m not sure how you can think this irrelevant.

    “If none, I don’t see how you can infer their failure to address condom failures implies an underlying principle.”

    Your argument is that abortion is murder. Clearly the church has not taken that position. Further the church is opposed to abortion. Yet it is not opposed to morning-after treatments. I’m not exactly sure how you can’t see that as significant. The issue isn’t condom use but rather a rather common treatment by doctors for avoiding pregnancy *after* sex. This can take place over a week after sex.

    I’m quite shocked that the church’s position in these matters is irrelevant to both you two.

  36. Matt, your definition seems circular. It reduces to moral worth is what makes us equal and we are equal because of moral worth.

    Do you have a reason why those of us who disbelieve in this metaphysical category ought to believe in it?

    I also think you neglect intuition too much. Certainly our intuitions are wrong and often biased by our culture. But to simply assume this demonstrates them wrong seems incorrect. What is surprising isn’t how often our intuitions are wrong but how often they are right. And yes, it is very hard to convince most people that a collection of cells with no brain or heart that they can’t see without a microscope is human in the same sense a baby is. I think most would think that after there is a heart and a brain that there is more reason to think it is.

  37. Clark, you’re right, as I posted it the definition was circular. I meant to write it as:

    “Moral worth is the measurement of the intrinsic, metaphysical essence that Lincoln believed blacks and whites held in equal degrees even though he believed blacks were inferior to whites in every measurable dimension.”

    If our moral worth is equal, then it becomes hard (impossible, according to pro-life philosophers) to pin moral worth on a feature that some people have more of than others. If our moral worth comes from our brains, for example, then it’s hard to say why someone with a better brain isn’t better. Or to say that an intelligent monkey doesn’t have more moral worth than a human infant (Peter Singer’s argument).

    Another mental exercise, when confronting definitions of human being in the variety of “human being = human organism plus X” is to imagine a person without feature X. If our intuitions (nod to your comment) and common sense (thank you Stormin) tell us a person is still a person if they’re heart is removed and their blood is pumped by machine, then we can say having a heart isn’t a necessary component of “human being.”

  38. What I’m trying to do is avoid the entire question of relative worth between humans. I’m not taking a position on whether or not a 14-year old, 34-year old, or 84-year old (black or white) is really more or less valuable than any other human life. I believe that that discussion is moot (although fascinating in itself) because destruction of any life, once it’s a human, is immoral (with the usual caveats for self-defense, etc.).

    It’s like if I were to say “don’t destroy cars” and people started bickering about the relative merits of new and used cars, domestic and foreign. Maybe there are differences in worth, maybe it’s perspective, but the point is that I don’t care. I said “don’t destroy cars” and that’s all I meant. Thus: “It should not matter “who” is being killed or how human that individual is.”

    Which leads us to clark’s question: “But surely it matters whether the object in question *is* a who.” For example, what if a person breaks into the factory and starts destroying car parts on the assembly line. He would argue they are not cars, and therefore they are not subject to the “don’t destroy cars” injunction. And, if they are not cars, he would be right. The central question is: is a zygote a human?

    And this is where I want to avoid “ensoulment” and other such issues. I don’t think they’re necessary because the very fact that we have an argument of “how” human a zygote is seems a pretty glaring implication that we already think of them as human to at least some degree. My point is that, once we know a human exists, we are responsible to treat that human with the bare minimum of respect we accord all human life. If there is no such bare minimum, then the divide is much, much deeper than that over the policy of legalized abortion.

    There are of course, stronger arguments for the humanity of the unborn. The simplest, and perhaps most common, is age regression. You just start with a human we can all agree is human (say an 29-year old healthy female) and work backwards. At what point is there any possibility for a “switch” from human to non-human? What possible, rational event or characteristic could indicate such a change? Or even, to be more liberal, what possible framework can be proposed to explain a gradual transition? If there is one, I haven’t seen it. And I’ve seen a lot. This is where I get my statement that no rational position exists for refuting the humanity of the unborn. The best you ever get is an appeal to intuition. Which, while worthy of discussion, hardly constitutes an intellectually defensible position. If anyone thinks intuition is always right, they should remember some of their college-level physics. We have the ability to reason *because* intuition, while grand, doesn’t always work.

    Parting shot (I can’t resist) – “A person’s a person, no matter how small”

  39. Matt, your argument about removing a heart doesn’t make person a human is inapt. Afterall during a heart transplant a person has an artifical heart of some kind to keep them alive. (i.e. something putting blood into them) I can guarantee no one would think someone going for a week without some heart mechanism is a human.

    But lets leave the heart out. Can we possibly conceive of something being human without a human *brain*?

    Perhaps the way we ought to understand when life begins is instead to understand when life *ends*. Doctors do not consider a brain dead person alive. I’ve never heard even right to life groups arguing that a brain dead body ought to be kept alive just because the heart is beating.

    If that works for *death* why not *origin*.

    Regarding moral worth being equal. Certainly if moral worth applies to all *regardless* of feature then those features don’t matter. But of course you’ve begged the question. What is the argument for common moral worth? Secondly, and more importantly for this discussion, what is the argument that moral worth doesn’t depend upon features. Simply arguing that age and race don’t affect moral worth is not to say nothing affects moral worth. Clearly, for instance, brain activity affects moral worth as does metabolic activity in the body.

  40. Stormin, I don’t buy your argument. The car analogy fails since the issue is property rights not carness. Your main argument is simply the slipperly slope fallacy. (If we can’t pick an absolute point of difference there is no difference — I can expand on this if you wish)

    Your other argument is related to this. If we can speak of how human something is it clearly is fully human. i.e. if something is partially X it clearly is X. But this seems hopelessly confused since it clearly avoids the central issue: if partial Xness matters ethically.

    By the same token I can say that any cell of mine is in some degree human. Yet I’d never call it a “who” or give it ethical rights.

    Your final issues seems little more than an argument of burden of proof. You’ve not seen an argument providing positive evidence for when something is human. But arguments from silence are always week. Further I think I’ve provided one. If the fetus is *fully* human then abortion is murder but the church doesn’t consider abortion murder, then clearly the fetus isn’t fully a human being in the eyes of the church. (Which isn’t to say it isn’t wrong, merely that your line of thinking seems somewhat off) Most significatly the church doesn’t consider morning after pills wrong. As I mentioned, no one has addressed this issue. Indeed it seems like the church’s actual positions are being completely ignored.

  41. I’m not sure if a slippery slope approach here isn’t more valid than usual. Normally a slippery slope argument fails because a small change in position doesn’t lead to much of a change in result. In terms of abortion, though I am not sure this is the case. As Clark has stated, and most agree, there is a significant rate of development in unborn humans. A slippery slope agument applies because a small change in postion (or in this case timing) may make a huge difference in the consequences. If that is the case, it is better to err on the side of safety. Perhaps the physicists out there would file this argument in terms of perturbation theory.

  42. Clark,

    I don’t have time for a full response now, but where did you learn that the church welcomes or doesn’t oppose the morning after pill? I’ve never seen anything about it and would definitely like to read it.

    Oh, and before I run, the rape exception hinges on the duties of the mother, not the status of her child. Abortion is can be an omission — a refusal to carry a child — which is not the same as the affirmative act of killing the child. (It’s morally worse to push a child into a river than to refuse to pull one out.) We tell women who are raped that they don’t _have_ to carry the child, because they didn’t voluntarily assume the risk of becoming a parent and the assumption of parental duties that come with it.

  43. Matt, the lack of comments on the morning after pill by the church is my point. It has never been distinguished from birth control and is treated as such by every leader I’ve talked to.

  44. Actually I found one reference Matt. In the Salt Lake Tribune on April 11, 2002 they asked the church about the morning after pills. The church representative’s answer (quoted in the article) was

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, calls the contraception method for married couples “extremely intimate and private” and takes a neutral stance, according to a LDS spokesman.

  45. Oh — one more thing. The reason no one complains about brain death is that it’s irreversible. If we develop technology that can recuscitate a stopped brain, a person with a stopped brain will no longer considered dead.

    An embryo, on the other hand, has the animating force and is in the process of developing it’s brain (i.e., recuscitating it’s brain). The different potentialities is significant.

    (And I believe the force that self-develops and self-directs the human embryo is something special, is worthy of being treated like a brain. I’d never thought of this before, but it’s Mill’s argument against the teleological theory — if a watch implies a watchmaker, what does a watchmaker imply? If a brain is to be respected, what about the brain that creates it?)

  46. Chris, the slippery slope fallacy is actually different from its use in physics. (Usually tied to perturbation theory as you note) The fallacy would be more akin to asking specifically about the boundary between two objects in terms of physics. Of course physics can’t specify such a boundary. It gradually blurs between the two.

    The slippery slope fallacy basically just says that unless you can point to a specific point where change occurs that we can’t say there was a change. However this is obviously false since we may be able to say at point A it is X and and point B it is Y but be unable to say where in between A & B it changes. (And, in matters of degree, the very question would be meaningless)

    The way this is usually presented is in terms of the bald man fallacy. “Suppose that you remove a single hair from the head of a man who is not currently bald. Now is he bald? Of course not. In fact, it is impossible to make a man bald by simply pulling one hair out of his head. But this implies that you can pull a single hair out of a man’s head ad infinitum and he will never become bald, which, of course, is false.”

  47. “I believe the force that self-develops and self-directs the human embryo is something special, is worthy of being treated like a brain.”

    Umm. Chemistry?

  48. On another point, stormin, I am not sure it is always immoral to kill. While it is possible to say that by never killiing you will never make any mistakes, I am not sure this is always the case. Mistakes occur both in commission and omission.

    I have a feeling Clark has mainly been trying to play with the idea of ensoulment, to which few have followed. I think Stormin’s argument on avoiding the whole issue is intereseting, and definitely a safe way to go. With fertilization being a stand out event, it is a safe place to regress. I think Clark’s comments on there being numerous other events that may be almost as important in the development of the fetus also has merit. Coming from a scienc perspective, I find it hard to say that fertilzation is a clear starting point, well at least when we through in our religious ideas.

    Does the sperm have half a soul, and the egg the other half. Of course not. When they mix, does the sudden chemical changes happen as a result of the soul’s directing influence? Do the changes allow ensoulment, or is the first mixing of two seperate DNA a trigger? If it is what happens if I mix distinct haploids in a petri dish? Does this not have a good enough key to activiate the spiritual trigger?

    It appears there are two distinct ways of viewing the issue. Either there is a certain trigger which allows ensoulment, or it is a more gradual process. If it is the latter, then other significant events, like a functioning heart, a functioning brain, etc will be relevant alongside fertilization.

  49. The other big problem for the “life begins at conception” view is the technology of cloning. We are fast reaching the point where any cell can be the chain of events leading to life.

  50. The church pretty clearly does not oppose the use of birth control pills. See http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/47736 (link via Dave, http://radio.weblogs.com/0128987/2004/01/28.html#a139 ). (The story also has a great quote from an LDS student, showing the world how cosmopolitan we are as a church — “When I was younger, I assumed methods of birth control were only for promiscuous people . . . It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that people use birth control to plan for their families.”)

  51. Clark,

    Okay, the way you view the slippery slope failing seems to make perfect sense. However I wonder how the pertubation approach woks in this case. If there are substantial changes in the consequences of an action for relatively little initial change, shouldn’t we always take a conservative approach to judgements (at least ones that have negative consequences)? If this is the case, does it change the logic behind black and white decisions? Like you, I don’t tend to view things so cut and dry. I am starting to think of embodiement more along your lines. I think it is quite an empowering way of viewing things. It means that righteousness isn’t an end to itself, but a way to actually change who you are. Thus a soul becomes irreversibly altered upon embodiement. I always thought this was a good reason why spirits don’t go around possessing people (in a literal sense). Once changes occur in a body or spirit, they are fundamentally intertwined. Of course this view eliminates the convenient categorizing of Cartesian thought. It also means that for embodiement to occur, a body has to be “supple” enough to allow a merging of spirit and body. What really gets me in this way of thinking though, is how violent death must be. I have also been wondering if this is the reason for a prepatory time before the ressurection. How hard will it be to find a physical substance that is compatible with our post-existent spirit, especially if we view the changes that occur during mortality as being so dramatic. Obviously we can’t get our old body back (the molecules are spread far and thin, and don’t have any meaning when separated). I just wonder how similar / dissimilar ressurection is to birth?

  52. Kaimi, what was significant about the quote from the church wasn’t just neutrality on birth control but neutrality on morning after pills. (Which can be used up to I believe a week and a half after conception)

    Chris, basically the argument I think you are heading towards is that since we don’t know for sure when life begins, it is dangerous to make any decision and thus should treat it all the same. I agree up to a point. And that point is the point where there is compelling reason to think there is a difference. Thus I have no idea when life (in significant terms) begins. But I clearly think it is fully human in the 3rd trimester and clearly think it isn’t in the first few weeks of the 1st trimester. So I apply the appeal to ignorance in the 2cd trimester.

  53. Clark,

    Chemistry. — Chemistry?! By this standard, *nothing* in the body is worthy of respect, because nothing in the body is ever anything but chemistry. Is the brain not special or worthy of moral respect? If the brain’s special despite being “just chemistry”, then saying the embryo that self-directs the brain’s formation is “just chemistry” is unresponsive to the question of the embryo’s moral worth.

    Cloning. — Cloning is done by removing the DNA from an egg, injecting the egg with a full complement of DNA from another cell, and turning it into a single-celled human organism — an embryo. I can’t see how this responds to the question of the moral worth of single-celled human organisms.

    Morning after pills. — Thanks for the reference on morning after pills. Four points: First, to the degree the church has a policy legitimating the morning after pill, I agree it undermines the contention that all human organisms are human beings. The morning after pill makes the uterine lining inhospitable to the embryo, preventing it from attaching. It’s hard to think this is a moral if the embryo is a human being in the full sense. Second, it appears that the church doesn’t have much of a policy about the morning after pill, and haven’t acknowledged the distinction between pre-conception and post-conception birth control. Third, the church claims to not know when the spirit enters the body, and I don’t know to which revelation they would point to say that they know the spirit _isn’t_ in the body for it’s entire existence. Fourth, the ridiculous “non-statement” on stem-cell research clearly expresses a tolerance for experimenting on embryos, further buttressing the claim that the church doesn’t regard human embryos as human beings.

  54. Chris, even if the soul gradually enters the body (I see no reason to suppose this, but it’s raised regularly so I address it), there has to be a point at which the threshold is met and the spirit is “sealed” to that particular body — the point when the spirit enters mortality and is subject to death. At that point it can no longer be “re-assigned” to a different embryo with different parents, it will be forever tied to the specific body and it’s parents.

  55. Clark,
    You appear to be taking a Church position of neutrality as an implicit statement that the young embryo is not a human. I disagree. When the church refuses to take a position on morning after pills, they are, how shall I say this, not taking a position. Refusing to give a directive on birth control is not implicit approval for birth control; refusing to make a statement on morning after pills is not the same as legitimating their use. As I see it, God may well have kept back direction in this matter (not because it is unimportant, but because he wants to leave us some room to prove ourselves) or else the leadership may have some direction but are holding back on the principle of not getting too far ahead of the people.

  56. “Chemistry?! By this standard, *nothing* in the body is worthy of respect, because nothing in the body is ever anything but chemistry”

    By your logic, yes. But remember I don’t share your logic. I think there is an already embodied spirit (embodied in terms of living spirit matter) who enters in. Until that point, yes, it is merely chemisty. A tool for the forthcoming spirit. Just as any cell of my body is a tool.

    As for whether this entails it being worthy of respect, clearly I disagree with you. But I don’t think respect comes about due to some “moral worth” as you do. Rather I think respect comes about because of our relationship with the thing respected. I don’t respect other human beings because of some metaphysical “moral worth” that is a transcendent yet absolute value. Rather I respect others because of the fundamental nature of relationships. To disrespect is to miss the nature of relations. In the same way I don’t respect my dog because of his moral worth. (Which I suspect you’d say might not even be there) Rather I respect him because of our relationship. And the ideal relationship is the relationship of love and unity. My ultimate relationship with my body is that of unity. And so yes, I see matters of degree. As Chris foresaw, I see it inexorably tied up with notions of embodiment.

    To be quite frank, I think my embodiment and relationship with my body will be much *better* in the resurrection when I have a greater unity with it than I do now. The issue is the degree of estrangement or unity within this combination of body and spirit we call soul.

  57. Clark wrote, “what is the argument that moral worth doesn’t depend upon features. Simply arguing that age and race don’t affect moral worth is not to say nothing affects moral worth. Clearly, for instance, brain activity affects moral worth as does metabolic activity in the body.”

    Matt now responds: the argument that moral worth doesn’t depend upon features stems from our inability to find any features that alter moral worth. The two you raise don’t do it, either.

    People with above-average brain activity don’t have more moral worth than those with below-average brain activity, and a person who had no brain activity, but who’s brain we knew would function shortly, would still be treated as a person. It’s not until their condition is irreversible — that someone is considered dead.

    If by metabolic activity you mean “being alive”, then I agree that live persons have more moral worth than dead ones. But everyone agrees that human embryos are alive, and require energy to divide and grow, so it doesn’t help us determine if all human organisms are persons.

  58. Chris,

    On your tongue-in-cheek comment about sperm and egg having “half-souls” (I bring this up mostly to clarify a point that confuses some people).

    The reason a single-celled embryo is considered a human organism, whereas eggs and sperm are not, is because it is capable of reproduction. Sperm and eggs are not organisms because they are not capable of reproduction.

  59. “Cloning is done by removing the DNA from an egg, injecting the egg with a full complement of DNA from another cell, and turning it into a single-celled human organism — an embryo.”

    That’s the method now. However advances are coming that likely will lead to being able to activate sections of the DNA. The point is that every cell is fully human and fully potentially able to be a new human body. What distinguishes them is not the DNA nor even being a fetus. It is what unifies them as a unique creature. That’s why twins are two separate beings. For Mormons their spirits. (For atheists probably different world-lines)

    Regarding neutrality being pure neutrality. I can understand that position. However the issue is that the church doesn’t consider it a formal sin whereas abortion is a grevious sin. No offense, but that is a big difference. I don’t buy the idea that neutrality entails it being open.

  60. “the argument that moral worth doesn’t depend upon features stems from our inability to find any features that alter moral worth.”

    The bit about reversibility seems a tad odd. Since it seems to be a bit circular. You’re dead if you’re dead, all the while avoiding the question of what dead is. So when is someone dead?

    The problem with “moral worth” is that it seems circular. There is no way to really determine moral worth beyond what someone claims. And those who appeal to moral worth claim it universal. Those of us more skeptical of the very notion of moral worth tend to be somewhat dubious when it appears a concept made anything people want.

    But we’re probably just going around and around on that issue. Clearly you accept as a kind of metaphysical principle the idea of real moral worth associated with any human reproducing tissue that is reversible if it ceases functioning. To me that just begs the question. You don’t see me providing any reason for you to change your belief and I don’t see you providing any reason to accept your belief.

    I’ll repeat my main arguments and then let it drop:

    1. the church treats morning after pills as birth control and not abortion. (Depending upon method this is either 72 hours or 5 days)

    2. if life begins at conception and spirits are assigned, then many, many, many more spirits never have a chance at real life outside of the womb due to the relatively low rate of fertilized eggs that end up born. It seems intuitive to me that God would wait until there is a reasonable chance of life.

    3. intuitively we don’t think a collection of cells without any organs is a human being

    4. we don’t believe such tissue can think but to me it appears purely an ongoing chemical reaction at those early stages

    5. many LDS women I’ve talked to claim to feel a “quickening” and it’s not until around the time of the heart starting. (Of course that is fairly weak evidence – but I know it is very convincing to some including the women I’ve spoken to)

  61. Clark, once again, you’re trying to make a refusal to comment into a statement of policy. Silence is not approval. Your argument depends on the proposition that any serious sin will be so treated as the church. This is wrong on two counts: first, the church may not know yet whether a sin is serious; second, the church may know but hesitate to impose a moral requirement too far in advance of the people. Ignorance can be bliss, oftimes.

  62. One brief reply to Adam. You are right. My reading does rest on the assumption that the church would tell me about a serious sin. I find that a reasonable expectation given its consideraton of abortion and the widespread media on the two birth control methods in question.

  63. I agree with the absurdity of saying life begins at conception because of the DNA. If I cut off a small piece of my skin, does it have a life? The standard for life should be the same before of after birth–brainwaves and a heartbeat.

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