Michael Egnor is trying to pick a fight over abortion with P.Z. Myers. Egnor is building a bog-standard argument that every human zygote has an inherent right to life, therefore abortion is immoral (the unargued assumption being that a woman’s right to life doesn’t really matter). It’s a reminder why the Discovery Institute, whose website Egnor clutters up with his occasional screeds, has been overtaken in media attention by old-school young earth creationism: Disco. and ID creationism are static, while young earth creationism always finds new ways to surprise you.
Anyway, in reiterating for the gajillionth time the same old anti-abortion, anti-woman catechism, creationist surgeon Egnor writes:
Human cells — skin cells, gametes, hair follicles, etc — are not human beings. A human being is a discrete organism. A human being is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens from conception to natural death.
There’s a problem here, in that sentences 2 and 3 here both seem to offer definitions (“A human being is…”), yet when we use them to test the question at issue – the fundamental personhood of a fertilized egg, fetus, or embryo – they give us different answers. The third sentence declares by fiat that every fertilized egg is a human and entitled to all the rights associated with personhood (Egnor later insists that being human inherently grants personhood, so we’ll treat these terms as equivalent for the sake of argument).
But what about that second sentence. Is a fertilized egg “a discrete organism”? What about an embryo? A fetus? You could say that they must be discrete because they have genetic differences from either parent, but then you have to ask whether cancers caused by certain mutations are also discrete organisms, and whether they, by virtue of possessing human DNA and therefore being human, are also entitled to a right to life. You could point also to dermoid cysts, and ask whether they are discrete human beings, entitled to the same protections Egnor wants for every fertilized egg. Or what about HeLa cells, and other human cell cultures capable of existing independently in the lab?
But let’s suppose some sophistry gets us past these objections. It is, after all, obvious that they are spurious. We know, intuitively, that there must be a distinction between an egg cell gone wild and a baby. That it’s hard to come up with a clean, uncomplicated distinction shouldn’t persuade us that there’s no distinction at all. But it should give us pause whenever someone claims that it’s easy to draw a line between human life and everything else. And if that line is hard to draw, we may have to accept that fertilized eggs and embryos and fetuses fall on that border, and that there are a range of plausible ways to handle the cases on the border, and that this is a choice best left to individuals.
Is an embryo a discrete human being? I think not. An embryo is dependent on its living host, a woman whose nutrients it relies upon, whose immune system protects it, whose lungs provide it with oxygen, and whose body carries out every other essential function. If the woman dies, an embryo cannot survive (medical intervention alters this case somewhat, but a reliance on medical life support hardly vitiates questions about the embryo’s discreteness). By the standard Egnor offered, a human being does not acquire the moral status Egnor is describing above until well into the pregnancy, and acquires it only gradually, with different organ systems becoming capable of independence at different points, and with full independence from parental support not coming until several years after birth.
In other words, even Egnor’s seemingly simple criterion that a human being must be “discrete” generates not a bright line, but a continuum. That his definition of “personhood” ignores the cognitive traits that make humanity distinctive among known living things is relevant, but secondary.
And to repeat myself, none of this gets to the really interesting moral challenges around abortion, which require some consideration of the fact that, whatever moral status we accord an embryo, the woman carrying the embryo is definitely a human, a discrete human being with a host of rights recognized in law and in most religious traditions. In traditional Jewish law, a woman who ends a pregnancy that endangers her life is treated the same way as anyone else who kills in self-defense. A pregnancy before the 40th day is considered only to be water, and an act which ends such a pregnancy is not punishable. In traditional Jewish law, full personhood only applies when either the head, or a majority of the fetus, has been delivered. The Torah assigns only a modest fine for someone who attacks a woman and terminates her pregnancy against her will, while prescribing death if the woman herself is killed, clearly showing that the Bible itself accords less moral status to the fetus than to the mother.
The political debate about abortion won’t go anywhere any time soon, and there are interesting discussions to be had about it. Stale, internally contradictory, and ultimately useless definitions of personhood don’t help things, nor does a simple recitation of anti-abortion dogma. This is a serious matter, and can’t be resolved with abstractions. We have to contend with the reality that biology is messy and complicated, and that the morality of the situation involves the pregnant woman’s rights, not to mention the needs of her family (including other children she might have who might not be entirely discrete from her). We have to be prepared to accept that different people give different moral weight to the fetus, and they change that weighting differently as the fetus develops. We have to accept that these moral weights are not assigned by scientific measurement, though they may be influenced by new scientific results. And that’s OK. Imposing someone else’s weightings on everyone is not OK, which is why I think this decision is best left to a woman and her doctor.