Egnor lays an egg; or Wrong to life

Shortly after Michael Egnor launched his first defense of creationism at the Disco. ‘Tute’s blog, the wags at Panda’s Thumb coined the term “egnorance,” to describe “the egotistical combination of ignorance and arrogance.” It was funny, and remains so years later, because it’s true.

Which brings us to Egnor’s reply to me, about the morality of abortion, etc.. His first basic error lies in the opening words of his title: “NCSE’s Program Director Josh Rosenau: Human Dependency Obviates the Right to Life.” It’s true that I work at NCSE, but this blog is not an NCSE product, there’s a clear disclaimer over in the sidebar making clear that the opinions here don’t reflect NCSE’s positions, and so forth. NCSE has taken no position on abortion, and the only references to abortion on NCSE’s website are in articles written for NCSE’s journal, court documents, and creationist manifestos. Nonetheless, Egnor tries consistently to tie my blog post to NCSE, referring to me by my job title throughout and alleging some link between the views expressed on my personal blog and my profession.

Why make a fuss? Because I don’t think his views, as expressed at the Disco. blog, reflect on his employer. He is by all accounts a competent surgeon, and that’s why they hired him. That’s he spews vitriol on the internet but can’t stand people saying mean things about him is presumably unconnected to his competence as a surgeon, and so irrelevant. It seems only fair for him to extend the same courtesy to me and NCSE that commenters on his creationist wingnuttery extend him and Stony Brook. I also spelled his name right, a courtesy he might extend me as well. An early draft of his post referred to me as “Jason,” and he twice misspells my last name: “Rosneau.” I’m not of French extraction, and that isn’t how you spell “Rosenau.”

Rather than engage in a close reading of his post’s many other errors, let’s just survey his basic line of argument. I have, he insists “made disturbing arguments in favor of abortion.” I supposedly “asserted” that embryos “are indistinguishable from cancer.” This is clearly disturbing to Egnor, as he repeats the point several times, as if that would make it true. I am alleged to have compared the relationship between mother and embryo to “a host and a parasite.” He is under the impression that I argued “dependency obviates the right to life,” and therefore I must reject “full humanity for the weak.”

Needless to say, this is all wrong, and could have been corrected if Egnor were a more careful reader. I did not compare embryos to cancer or a parasite; I did suggest that Egnor’s criteria for “personhood” invite such comparisons. I noted, after all, that it is “obvious that they are spurious”; neither Egnor nor anyone else thinks that way. The problem is with Egnor’s claim that the moral status of “personhood” invests itself at conception. This view obliges us to ask what magic happens when sperm meets egg. He insists that this is not a metaphysical argument (ensoulment or some such), but simple biological fact. But what makes a fertilized egg biologically a “person,” in a way that an unfertilized egg isn’t, or that a cancer isn’t, or that cell cultures in the lab aren’t? I happen to think personhood is defined differently, and so these problems don’t emerge for my definition. Egnor egnores this distinction, and fails in any way to clarify his own views, and how he would rescue them from what amounts to a reductio ad absurdum disproof.

What he refers to as “dependency” is drawn from my attempts to parse a key term in his definition of “personhood.” To be a person, Egnor demands that a being must be “discrete.” I noted that an embryo is not only surrounded entirely by a woman’s body, but is physically entwined with it, with nutrients and other products of the woman’s body supplying all of the embryo’s needs. This does not strike me as “discrete.” He objects that this relationship is “dependency,” but that the woman and fetus are not “indiscrete.” Because he offers no clear definition for “dependency” or “discrete” in this context, I’m inclined to think this is simply moving of goalposts, not an actual argument. When I eat an ear of corn, I don’t think I’m eating hundreds of individual plants, even though each kernel is a fertilized egg. By taking the question outside the morally fraught context of an embryonic human, we get a useful insight into how we tend to think about the onset of independent life, and it doesn’t support Egnor’s attempt to treat every zygote as a morally distinct human being.

Similarly for Egnor’s claim, “An old-fashioned term for the ‘living host’ of an embryo is… mother.” When friends of mine have gotten pregnant, they tend not to say “I’m a mother!” They say “I’m going to be a mother!” At some point in the pregnancy, or shortly after, they start talking differently, and refer to themselves as mothers in the present tense. At its onset, pregnancy implies possibility, but not actuality. Egnor’s handling of the issue collapses that 9 month (or less) transition. And as I noted before, for all Egnor’s apparent concern over how we refer to pregnant women, he seems to have no interest at all in their moral status and wellbeing, even though they are unambiguously persons. By his lights, a woman must be forced through a life-threatening medical procedure (birth, c-section, and the many medical interventions necessary with high-risk pregnancies) and maintain what can be a life-threatening medical condition (pregnancy itself, often compounded by complications ranging from pre-eclampsia and hemophilia to more obscure and complex situation, or simply the obligation to forego necessary medicine – e.g. chemotherapy – to preserve the pregnancy) in order to accommodate the dubious personhood of a fetus. For Egnor, it seems, personhood has a clear rank order: men > fetuses > women. I disagree with him, with this treating of women as means rather than ends unto themselves.

In any event, Egnor then tries to argue that my position denies the personhood of various classes of people in hospitals or under extensive medical treatment. It doesn’t, because I reject his definition of personhood. The fact that his definition would move those classes of people into an ambiguous moral realm hardly strikes against my definition! To avert that moral ambiguity, Egnor is obliged to create an arbitrary bright line, rather than acknowledge that the limits of life are not simple, and rethink his views on abortion.

To top things off, Egnor misconstrues my point that “his [Egnor's] definition of ‘personhood’ ignores the cognitive traits that make humanity distinctive among known living things.” I wasn’t talking about developmental disabilities and the neurodiversity of human society. I’m saying that an embryo takes a while to develop any brain at all. It takes several months to develop sensory nerves, and the brain structures to process their signals. But humanity as it is conventionally understood requires more than stimulus-response. What separates humans from other animals can be hard to specify, but part of that definition lies in self-awareness, in a capacity for abstract reasoning, for forming memories and applying lessons extrapolated from those memories to new challenges. An early fetus cannot do any of those things. By some measures, basic sensations like pain are not processed in a fully human manner until several months after birth. Self-awareness and abstract reasoning come even later. And so forth.

This hardly means that a person with massive brain injuries is no longer human if he or she loses those abilities. The point is that acquiring the suite of traits that we associate with personhood takes time. There are some developmental stages at which no fetus has the traits that we think of as defining the human condition. This creates a problem for Egnor’s insistence that personhood inheres in the act of fertilizing an egg.

There are lots of ways to deal with that in the abstract, with bioethics in general, and with abortion in particular. But to assert a bright line and then offer no basis for drawing that line at that place gets us nowhere.

Even worse is Egnor’s attempt to draft “Judeo-Christian morality” into his argument. As I pointed out before, the Bible does not draw this clear line between personhood and non-personhood, nor does it place any special significance on the moment of conception. Jewish tradition treats a pregnancy of less than 40 days as “mere water,” and is not accorded moral status until after 40 days. It is not regarded as “autonomous,” though Egnor may quibble that autonomy and discreteness are not the same. While there aren’t stats on abortions before 40 days, roughly 2/3 of abortions take place before 9 weeks, and I’d wager than roughly half take place before 40 days (within ten days of the first missed period). That makes this distinction highly relevant.

Even after 40 days, the laws of Moses specify that an attack which terminates the pregnancy is punishable by a fine, far more gentle punishment than for an attack which kills a pregnant woman. There is general agreement that Jewish tradition allows abortion, especially to save the life of a pregnant woman. Regardless of invocations of “Judeo-Christian morality,” Egnor’s argument is actually at odds with Judeo-Christian tradition (not least in his refusal to acknowledge the woman’s moral status). We’ve written about this before.

So where does this leave Egnor? His opposition to abortion is rooted in a muddled definition of personhood, it ignores the moral stature of women, it misrepresents my views, it misrepresents the relationship between my views expressed here and NCSE, and, heck, it misrepresents my name. It is egnorant of Jewish and Christian legal tradition, not to mention the diversity of views among other religious and moral traditions. It egnores basic biology. It is misleading, irrational, inaccurate, distracting, insulting, moralistic, ideological, anti-science, and pettily sectarian.

In those ways and many more, it is the perfect encapsulation of all that’s wrong with the Discovery Institute.


  1. #1 russ
    December 12, 2010
  2. #2 Zeno
    December 12, 2010

    The unsuccessful “fetal personhood initiative” on Colorado’s general election ballot last month contained a convenient definition of personhood that explicitly cited the state constitution’s provision that declares persons have a right to possess property and go to court. What fetus wouldn’t want to own a nice piece of land? (The measure was defeated by a huge margin.)

  3. #3 russ
    December 12, 2010

    apologies for comment #1, multiple open tabs are to blame :(

  4. #4 Mike from Ottawa
    December 14, 2010

    Don’t worry, russ, in any discussion that touches on abortion, Godwin’s Law is bound to come into play sooner or later. You’re not off-topic, just suffering an incident of premature explication.

  5. #5 Mike from Ottawa
    December 14, 2010


    To save our hunting out your definition of “personhood”, could you perhaps outline it here?

    BTW, it is my hope that if we keep using egnorance enough, it may find its way into the OED some day.

  6. #6 Josh Rosenau
    December 15, 2010

    Mike: I tend to think “personhood” is complicated and ill-defined. There’s a big gray area, and we should leave people to make their own decisions about how to think about that gray area. At the extremes, a differentiated skin cell is not a person, and an adult human being is.

    Fortunately, in the case of abortion, we don’t really have to resolve where the limits of that gray area might be. Assuming that there is a continuous and monotonic gradient across the gradient from conception to birth, then we can balance the needs of the woman (on whom the fetus depends) against the needs of the fetus. In an early pregnancy, the woman’s needs will carry much more weight, in proportion to our sense of the fetus’s ambiguous or incomplete personhood. By the end of the pregnancy, we should give their needs nearly equal moral weight. I would tend to think that a tie or unclear result would oblige us to favor the woman’s needs, as her personhood is unambiguous.