Pharyngula

Oh gob, the stupidity. The latest wave of anti-choice legislation is based on one trivial premise: it’s got a heartbeat! You can’t kill it if its heart is beating! So stupid bills have been flitting about in the Ohio, Mississippi, Wyoming, Arkansas, and North Dakota legislatures trying to redefine human life as beginning at the instant that a heartbeat can be detected. Here’s Wyoming’s story, for instance:

About two weeks ago, state Rep. Kendell Kroeker (R) introduced a measure to supersede the medical definition of viability. Current state law says abortions are prohibited after a fetus has “reached viability,” and Kroeker sought to replace those words with “a detectable fetal heartbeat.” The Republican lawmaker said the idea for his heartbeat bill just came to him one day because “it became clear that if a baby had a heartbeat, that seemed simple to me that it’s wrong to kill it.” On Monday, a House panel struck down Kroeker’s bill because it was too medically vague. But if Ohio and Mississippi are any indication, this likely won’t be the last time that fetal heartbeat legislation shows up in Wyoming.

It’s a step back from the inanity of declaring that life begins at conception — you can’t detect the heartbeat until 5-6 weeks of gestation — but still, it’s an arbitrary and ridiculous definition that relies entirely on folk knowledge about living things. If we’re going to do that, though, I propose that we go to the One True Source of knowledge and accept the Biblical definition of living creatures: they have breath in their nostrils. Therefore, abortion is legal right up to the instant that the baby draws its first breath.

Don’t argue with me! It’s in the Bible! Do you want to go to hell?

But the heart thing? Nonsense. Here’s what I routinely see:

Zebrafish embryos have a heartbeat one day after fertilization. That one above is a two-day embryo, and it’s even more special and sacred because it carries a heart-specific GFP, so it’s heart glows green. We don’t suddenly think of the organism as complete and inviolate because cardiac cells are twitching.

Or even better, you can dissociate the heart tissue of just about any animal, including humans, and culture single cells in a dish…and look! They beat!

If that were a human cell, does that means we could never throw that petri dish away? Speaking of human, let’s jack up the consequences. Here’s a clump of induced pluripotent stem cells, adult cells forced into an embryonic state by transfection with a few genes that reprogrammed this population into a cardiac cell state. It’s the religious right’s nightmare, transformed by the hand of scientists into living embryonic tissues, growing in a lab under a microscope…and it’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!

Is anyone seriously going to decide that that is human and deserving of all of the rights and protections we accord to adult people?

I suppose it depends on whether those cells are derived from a female or not.

Comments

  1. #1 Lowell Gilbert
    January 31, 2013

    Do you think there exists a useful definition of the start of “human life” that isn’t arbitrary?

  2. #2 MosesZD
    January 31, 2013

    @ Lowell

    He does this all the time. Usually by brow-beating people with dictionary definitions like ‘it’s a fetus’ therefore not a human. Every time one of these anti-abortion groups plays this game he runs for the dictionary to prove his point. But, hypocritically, when it comes to his pet peeve issues, he tells us that dictionary definitions are a load of bunk.

    He also tells us that he believes in robust debate. Until he’s in the cross hairs, then he suddenly adopts Phil Plait’s ‘don’t be a dick’ meme. He also tells us he believes in freedom of speech and the sanctity of intellectual debate. Then routinely quote-mines, brow-beats, censors and trolls creationists.

    I can see why Sam Harris and so many other atheists/skeptics have gotten tired of him.

    (Oh, I am pro-choice. I just don’t play these stupid games. I’m very well aware of the consequences of the choices. And the emotional impacts from either side. I just refuse to play this BS game.)

  3. #3 Mu
    January 31, 2013

    If this wouldn’t just be a “camel’s nose under the tent flap” step but a serious proposal to get to a viable compromise I would be willing to listen. It would mean churches would have to give up their resistance to contraception and family planing, probably making a lot of abortions unnecessary in the first place. Combine it with a woman’s health etc exception, and I could live with it. Alas, I don’t see the churches sign off on it, and without that it would just be another mode or repression.

  4. #4 Boris
    Everywhere
    January 31, 2013

    Yeah, actually with his mistatements and hysterical browbeating of the opposition, he’s just kind of dumb, isn’t he?
    Far from what I would consider science.

  5. #5 Robert
    Denver
    January 31, 2013

    We should start an activist group “to restore the traditional biblical definition of personhood” (just the phrase makes me cringe). You’d probably get a lot of money from people that would otherwise put it toward exactly these sort of legal distractions. Those folks don’t seem to have a tendency to read the fine print.
    The Catholics out here in Colorado might just agree, too:
    http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/26/us/colorado-fetus-lawsuit/index.html
    A Catholic hospital out here has some lawyers arguing that two fetuses in a wrongfull death suit weren’t people, because internaly consistent logic isn’t as important as ducking part of a wrongful death lawsuit.

  6. #6 Kevin
    Louisiana
    January 31, 2013

    PZ you’re poisoning the well here. At some point the fate of a developing human must transition from being under the discretion of its mother and family to being under the protection of the law. Deciding how and when to make that transition is something is something that a society has to do and refine over time, despite the fact that it will necessarily contain many subjective elements (exactly because, as you say, human-ness is an emergent property). It doesn’t help anything to announce that all such exercises are therefore absurd.

    As we have in the past, we will make an imperfect decision based on what seems to be a nexus of the least-subjective traits of our experience and understanding of ourselves, acknowledge that it is in fact a struggle to understand ourselves in a complex world, and adjust our decisions as time moves on, as we change, and the world changes, and our understanding of it all changes.

  7. #7 Ethelred the Unready
    January 31, 2013

    Kevin,

    How about viability? When a fetus can survive outside of the womb, then it stops being a fetus and becomes a person. Until then, the mother should have full rights to terminate the pregnancy. Note that some fetuses with major congenital or other defects would never be viable, which would allow late abortions to be legal.

    What PZ is complaining about are the blatant attempts to make any and all abortions illegal. This would not lessen the number of abortions, just make them much more dangerous. But then (and here’s my well poisoning) many forced-birthers (I call the anti-abortion people by a more truthful name than “pro-life”) don’t really care about the fetus/baby, they want to control women and punish them for having sex.

  8. #8 Leah
    January 31, 2013

    “Here’s a clump of induced pluripotent stem cells, adult cells forced into an embryonic state by transfection with a few genes that reprogrammed this population into a cardiac cell state. It’s the religious right’s nightmare, transformed by the hand of scientists into living embryonic tissues, growing in a lab under a microscope…and it’s alive! IT’S ALIVE!”

    This is genius. Someone write an SF thriller about this, now.

  9. #9 Nightjar
    February 1, 2013

    At some point the fate of a developing human must transition from being under the discretion of its mother and family to being under the protection of the law.

    It’s simple. If it’s inside the woman’s body and the woman doesn’t want it there, then she has the right to terminate the pregnancy by the most appropriate procedure given her specific clinical situation. Whether the fetus survives or not is not really relevant to this discussion, and all medical decisions concerning the procedure to be followed should always be between the woman and her doctor.

  10. #10 longlook
    February 1, 2013

    being human is not a biological. it is the result of biology mixed with experience. this is why some people can be grown up but not human.

  11. #11 Dark Star
    February 1, 2013

    I would think that HeLa cells would also be a nightmare for these arguments but I don’t see them mentioned very often (except by me). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HeLa

    It’s human DNA, it’s also a single-celled organism, it’s clearly alive — does it get a vote? Is killing it murder? Or is a ‘human being’ really that collective action of trillions of differentiated cells acting in a specific way?

    Beginning of life should, at least, be treated consistently with end of life, and this is generally related to brain function/activity (definitely NOT heartbeat). Can you imagine if they just said “well, no heartbeat, this dude is dead” and stopped there?

    I also think that modern medical science has spoken on the issue and the debate there centers more around the 20-24 week mark (related to pain sense, perception, brain function, etc).

    Anyone proposing otherwise needs to seriously look at the logical legal consequences (and this is not merely theoretical http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/24/america-pregnant-women-murder-charges ) – every miscarriage becomes a murder/manslaughter investigation. And if society doesn’t provide EVERY necessary component to maximize the survival of the conception (exactly the optimal shelter, exactly the optimal food, exactly the optimal vitamins, exactly the optimal rest) is that society not responsible for that murder?

    If you say no, that’s a personal responsibility, then you’ve just made ~130 million women a year (the approximate number of miscarriages annually) into murderers because they could not provide the best shelter, food, vitamins, and rest — because anything less would be to contribute to the chance of the miscarriage and thus the person would be responsible.

    That is not the world I wish to live in.

    And if neither extreme is tenable then there has to be a compromise somewhere in the middle, even if it is imperfect and we should err on the side caution when looking to turn average, honest, law-abiding citizens into criminals on a theological whim:

    Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics
    By Jonathan Dudley (page 42, link may or may not work but that’s the reference):

    http://books.google.com/books?id=cf5RFWIMJugC&lpg=PA42&dq=%22God%20does%20not%20regard%20the%20fetus%20as%20a%20soul%2C%20no%20matter%20how%20far%20gestation%20has%20progressed%22&pg=PA42#v=onepage&q=%22God%20does%20not%20regard%20the%20fetus%20as%20a%20soul,%20no%20matter%20how%20far%20gestation%20has%20progressed%22&f=false

    A conservative evangelical seminary professor wrote:

    God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: “If a man kills any human life he will be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22-24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul

  12. #12 jspreitz
    United States
    February 1, 2013

    Great comments from good thinkers. I would like to pull back from the pit of “baby murder” and “Godlessness” to address a very simple reminder from our Founding Fathers, who drafted our Constitution – by law we have a separation of church and state. Simple, to the point and needs to be repeated about 10 million times. Keep your church out of our bedrooms. PERIOD!

  13. #13 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    February 1, 2013

    Is killing it murder?

    I’ve done it, BTW. I’ve driven HeLa cells into suicide. Triggering apoptosis is part of an obligatory lab course for students of molecular biology where I come from.

  14. #14 GregH
    February 1, 2013

    “Anyone proposing otherwise needs to seriously look at the logical legal consequences (and this is not merely theoretical http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/24/america-pregnant-women-murder-charges ) – every miscarriage becomes a murder/manslaughter investigation.”

    And here’s an article about three Conservative politicians in Canada trying to work the same tactic:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/editorials/mps-request-to-have-rcmp-investigate-abortions-is-way-off-base/article8103078/

    This from a group of people who claim, time after time, that they have no intention of changing our current law regarding abortion. I’m adding this because I’m pretty sure this story is just part of the US Evangelical anti-abortion campaign.

  15. #15 imr90
    Massachusetts
    February 1, 2013

    When anti-abortion people use in vitro fertilization they freeze the unused fertilized eggs and save them rather than destroy them. This appears to satisfy their aversion to abortion because the eggs have the potential to be thawed and implanted to continue developing. Given current cloning technology there are many cells in a human being, alive and uniquely human, that have the potential to become a full person. Here’s a proposal. When a fetus is aborted take a small tissue sample and freeze it. It then has the potential to be thawed and cloned, producing an exact copy of the original fetus. Abortion is then equivalent to freezing eggs from in vitro, and rather than destroying an individual it merely delays the development.