That great and arbitrary abortionist in the sky

Great stuff from Majikthise,
Pandagon, and
Shakespeare's Sister on this fairly obvious paper (pdf) that argues that the rhythm method kills more embryos than contraceptives. It's straightforward: by avoiding sex during the prime time for ovulation and fertilization, there's a greater likelihood of fertilization occurring when the egg is past its sell-by date…it's increasing the chance of spontaneous abortion and birth defects. The paper is all speculative and philosophical about it all, but there are actually some suggestive epidemiological data that suggest it is true. A study by Jongbloet describes a doubling of the frequency of Down Syndrome in young Catholic mothers. Gray and Kambic say:

There is an excess of male births conceived during the least fertile days, and the risk of spontaneous abortion doubles outside the period of peak fertility. Furthermore, there is growing but inconclusive evidence linking chromosome abnormalities to aged gametes.

(I have to offer a few caveats. There are also studies that report no deleterious effect of the rhythm method, and I also suspect that studies that show a change in viability are more likely to be published than those that don't—that file drawer effect. But when the Bovens paper says there is no empirical evidence for his speculation that conception outside a "heightened fertility" interval would be more likely to be problematic, it's not quite right.)

I think the argument is a little bit irrelevant for the same reason Amanda states: pregnancies fail all the time anyway, even if the eggs are fertilized at the optimum time. Trying to get pregnant is always going to be an exercise in baby killing, if you believe that a freshly fertilized zygote is a a fully fledged human being—that baby is going to get flushed spontaneously about half the time.

I'm guessing how the anti-choice crowd will react to this idea.

  • Simple denial. They'll ignore the argument every time it is made.
  • Protestations of disbelief and ignorance. This is an abstract argument from probability and statistics, after all—it will make no impression on the innumerate.
  • You may not believe this, but there are lots of people who flat out disbelieve that randomness exists. Everything is fixed and fated. Probability arguments are meaningless.
  • The responsibility is God's. You see, contraception and abortion by a woman means she is abrogating God's privilege. Leaving it up to chance (which doesn't exist, see above) is putting the decision in God's hands…and if God decides to take the zygote to heaven, that's his right.

That last argument is the interesting one. If we accept the anti-choicer's claim that the zygote is a baby at the moment of fertilization, and the abortion rate is about 46 million per year world wide, and the number of live births is approximately equally to the number of spontaneous abortions, and the number of babies born last year was about 80 million…that means God killed almost twice as many babies as the abortionists did last year. That psychopathic bastard.

I want to see the anti-choicers start picketing churches instead of abortion clinics.

Oh, and there's one more strategy they could take: this result says that all contraception is evil and must be forbidden. There's already an attitude among some nuts that all sexual activity must be accompanied by the possibility of procreation, so why not go whole hog and ban the rhythm method, too?


Jongbloet PH (1985) The ageing gamete in relation to birth control failures and Down syndrome. Eur J Pediatr 144(4):343-7.

Gray RH, Kambic RT (1988) Epidemiological studies of natural family planning. Hum Reprod 3(5):693-8.

More like this

A while back, I got a letter from a student at the University of Texas named Mark, who had been confronted by a group of those typically hysterical anti-choice people on campus. They made an assertion I've heard many times, and he asked me to counter it. So there I was, walking along the University…
I was just thinking there was something especially weird about that Wilkow rant against abortion. He's asked whether life begins at conception, and he replies with an irksomely stupid question of his own: "…scientifically speaking, when a sperm and egg comes together, what happens? Is death created…
Nobody could have predicted this (italics mine): As the White House readies its plan for finding "common ground" on reproductive health issues and reducing the need for abortion, a major debate has emerged over how to package the plan's two major components: preventing unwanted pregnancies and…
Bill Nye talks about the realities of reproduction, and the right wing completely loses its shit. It is not Nye at his most eloquent, but…he's actually right about everything important. Read this title for an example of the inanity of far right responses, titled WATCH: Bill Nye, Science Guy Makes…

It's easy to argue that abortion "saves" more people than any attempts at evangelism. Assuming all unborn children go to Heaven if they are aborted, then there are 46 million souls in Heaven today that avoided a risky existence here on Earth and thus avoided a good chance (well over 50% in the USA) of going to Hell for eternity.

Just watch a Christian prolifer squirm when you point that out to them.

Most of the anti-abortionists I know use that final point almost exclusively in their argument. I fail to see how spontaneous abortion jives with the notion of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God, but then, there's a lot about organized religion I don't get.

By Evil Bender (not verified) on 25 May 2006 #permalink

Meh. While such things are fun and everything, it's all kinda masturbatory.

For example, the anti-choice crowd have one more (relatively) reasonable option - to say that it's intent that matters, rather than just consequences. Abortion is bad, because you are actually trying to kill, while the rhythm method isn't.

And by analogy, killing children to 'save' them is obviously not a moral position, and I doubt you'll really find many people with their ethical calculuses tuned in that way.

Let's not set up too many strawmen, eh?

Oh, and giving God a divine right to commit (apparent) evil is really the only route out of the Problem of Evil there is for theists without going cross eyed and crazy, making God non-good or non-omnipotent, or, well... turning atheist.

Hey PZ, have you had a chance to flip through "A Natural History of Families" by Scott Forbes? He was on "Quirks and Quarks" a couple weeks back, putting a dark spin on the "Mother's Day" episode. Facinating stuff, and highly germane to issues of abortion.

By Left_Wing_Fox (not verified) on 25 May 2006 #permalink

And by analogy, killing children to 'save' them is obviously not a moral position, and I doubt you'll really find many people with their ethical calculuses tuned in that way.

Didn't say it was a moral position. It's simply a useful way to illustrate why using religious belief is an illogical defense of being anti-abortion. For Christians, saving souls is supposed to be the number one concern.

P Z Myers wrote

Great stuff from Majikthise, Pandagon, and Shakespeare's Sister on this fairly obvious paper (pdf) that argues that the rhythm method kills more embryos than contraceptives. It's straightforward: by avoiding sex during the prime time for ovulation and fertilization, there's a greater likelihood of fertilization occurring when the egg is past its sell-by date...it's increasing the chance of spontaneous abortion and birth defects.

I see no problem with this from an agnostic anti-abortion perspective. The rhythm method is as acceptable as any other form of contraception. That a conceptus spontaneously aborts following a failure of the method is no more moral or immoral than any other miscarriage.

You may not believe this, but there are lots of people who flat out disbelieve that randomness exists. Everything is fixed and fated. Probability arguments are meaningless.

Surely, probability arguments are no more than a measure of our inability to predict the behaviour of a given system. They do not necessarily mean that the system is intrinsically indeterminate.

By Ian H Spedding (not verified) on 25 May 2006 #permalink

I seem to remember the last pope did waffle a bit on whether the rhythm method was completely acceptable (presumably on the grounds that the hope and expectation of sex without procreation was not something to encourage). But my memory could well be deceiving me on this one...

Surely, probability arguments are no more than a measure of our inability to predict the behaviour of a given system. They do not necessarily mean that the system is intrinsically indeterminate.

Just as surely, an omnipotent deity could set up a world that is indeterministic. If you can't play at dice if you feel like it, what kind of omnipotence is that?

motive and intent matter in a court of law for any number of charges. Same for many ethical systems...

FWIW, stuff like the spontaneous abortion rate and this are why I left the 'life begins at conception' crowd.

No, no - you underestimate them. Now you're *only* allowed to conceive by IVF, you have to use all the embryos you create, and you hold an individual funeral for each one that fails to implant.

Natural shagging just has too high a risk of kiling embryos, even if you're only at it during the most fertile days.

By Peter Ellis (not verified) on 25 May 2006 #permalink

Actually, I believe the number should be a bit higher. 80 million live babies + 46 million aborted live births (maybe less, actually) ... but that would make spontaneous abortions closer to 120 million, if it's fifty percent the rate of implantation.

For example, the anti-choice crowd have one more (relatively) reasonable option - to say that it's intent that matters, rather than just consequences. Abortion is bad, because you are actually trying to kill, while the rhythm method isn't.

That argument might carry some weight--intent does matter--but not much since we know that NFP almost inevitably results in spontaneous abortions. Arguing that the spontaneous abortions are not the intent and therefore it is ok even though anyone using NFP knows that they are going to occur is sort of like arguing that its ok to fire an automatic weapon at random in a crowded street as long as you don't intend to actually hit anyone.

That a conceptus spontaneously aborts following a failure of the method is no more moral or immoral than any other miscarriage.

But is it moral to leave it at that? If half or more* of newborns or 1 year olds or 20 year olds were dying would you say "It's ok, it's natural so we don't need to worry about it"? In the past society has answered "no" and worked on the diseases that kill newborns, 1 y/o and 20 y/o to the point that it is rare that anyone in these age groups dies. We're now working on the diseases that kill 70 y/o. But if every conceptus is a person then surely this is the wrong approach. If some new disease--mutated bird flu, for example, came along and started killing off half or more of young people, I would expect medical research to start working intensively on that problem and leave the diseases of aging (heart disease, cancer, etc) for the moment. If all concepti are people, why aren't you demanding that the NIH concentrate on ending spontaneous abortion, setting up foundations dedicated to ending spontaneous abortion, and aggitating for more funding for spontaneous abortion related research? Surely it's not moral to just sit there and ignore these deaths just because they aren't homicides. If you really believe that 8 celled embryos are people.

*I've seen estimates of the spontaneous abortion rate that go as high as 80%.

All of right-wing sexual "morality", including opposition to abortion, boils down to this: unless you're married and having sex for the express purpose of reproducion, you mustn't be allowed to enjoy having sex without at least facing the posssilibility of having your life ruined by conceiving an unwanted child. (The interests of that child, on the other hand, are not even on their radar screens.) It's completely futile to take any of their other "arguments" seriously, because they're irrelevant to the real essence of their position and the source of the emotional energy behind it.

By Steve LaBonne (not verified) on 26 May 2006 #permalink

No, no - you underestimate them. Now you're *only* allowed to conceive by IVF, you have to use all the embryos you create, and you hold an individual funeral for each one that fails to implant.

Natural shagging just has too high a risk of kiling embryos, even if you're only at it during the most fertile days.

Posted by: Peter Ellis

I suggested this to a friend a few months ago. The Catholic Church is behind the time with respect to IVF -- They could make it the official Church position that sex is always off limits and use IVF not for the lower abortion rate, but because then ALL children could be born of a virgin birth -- no more original sin being passed down from generation to generation.

By No One Of Cons… (not verified) on 26 May 2006 #permalink

It's easy to argue that abortion "saves" more people than any attempts at evangelism. Assuming all unborn children go to Heaven if they are aborted, then there are 46 million souls in Heaven today that avoided a risky existence here on Earth and thus avoided a good chance (well over 50% in the USA) of going to Hell for eternity.

I was under the impression that (in Catholic doctrine anyway) children who die before baptism do no go to heaven. Which makes the "God-induced" abortion rate even more heinous... Not only does He kill 50% off arbitrarily, but He then consigns them to purgatory for it.

However, I should note that I'm far from an expert on Cathlic doctrine...

By gregorach (not verified) on 26 May 2006 #permalink

Gregorach, I'm no expert either, but my husband was raised Catholic, and in catechism class they learned that some pope (the Vatican II pope, I think) abolished the concept of limbo, which was where the souls of unbaptized babies went, and instead sent them up to heaven (not purgatory). Good news for all those limboing babies! Purgatory is where you go to pay for the sins you committed in life (and my husband's priest had a list of *exactly* how much time you'd spend there for each sin -- pulled from the Gospel according to his Anus, of course, but my, how precise of him!), and since babies aren't capable of sin, they wouldn't go to purgatory.

Protestants, I'm sure, just send them right to heaven anyway, since they never cottoned on to the concept of purgatory or limbo, those being the fruit of the wafer-god :P

Surely, probability arguments are no more than a measure of our inability to predict the behaviour of a given system. They do not necessarily mean that the system is intrinsically indeterminate.

Actually, no. Quantum theory tells us that the universe is, in fact, inherently probabilistic. For instance, the uncertainty principle states that the position and velocity of a particle cannot be precisely and simultaneously determined; the more we know about one, the less we know about the other. This is not measurement error, it is a fundimental to the nature of matter.

To be fair, this is not universally accepted, but this is the prevalent view in physics today.

From Wikipedia:

Within the widely but not universally accepted Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (i.e. it was not accepted by Einstein or other physicists such as Alfred Lande), the uncertainty principle is taken to mean that on an elementary level, the physical universe does not exist in a deterministic form--but rather as a collection of probabilities, or potentials. For example, the pattern (probability distribution) produced by millions of photons passing through a diffraction slit can be calculated using quantum mechanics, but the exact path of each photon cannot be predicted by any known method. The Copenhagen interpretation holds that it cannot be predicted by any method, not even with theoretically infinitely precise measurements.

It goes on to explain how Einstein wasn't buying it - "God doesn't play dice with the universe" - but so far as anyone can tell, Einstein was, in this case, wrong.

By Evan Murdock (not verified) on 26 May 2006 #permalink

Or, steve, to put it a different way, there are actions and there are consequences.

The con perspective would better be articulated as those who choose to undertake sexual activity should accept the risk (consequence) that they might make a baby, even if technical methods allow a pregnancy to be terminated.

According to the Great Commission to preach the gospels, baptize, etc, there is great joy in heaven with each new convert. Is there just as much joy with each abortion, having bypassed birth and conversion? Or, are do the souls of the converted more make heaven more joyful, and thus, valuable?

Enquiring angels dancing on a pinhead are eager to know.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 26 May 2006 #permalink

...even if technical methods allow a pregnancy to be terminated.

Or, as the Right is becoming increasingly frank about, prevented in the first place.

By Steve LaBonne (not verified) on 26 May 2006 #permalink

You guys sound ridiculous. I guess intention has nothing to do with it? Equating miscarriage with abortion. That's the liberal mind for you. It's like listening to pre-schoolers talk about where babies come from. Do you think the stork is a boy or a girl?

By NatureSelectedMe (not verified) on 26 May 2006 #permalink

Dr Free-Ride wrote:

Just as surely, an omnipotent deity could set up a world that is indeterministic. If you can't play at dice if you feel like it, what kind of omnipotence is that?

Gambling is a sin - according to one deity - and even an omnipotent one can't have it both ways.

By Ian H Spedding (not verified) on 27 May 2006 #permalink

Dianne wrote:

If all concepti are people, why aren't you demanding that the NIH concentrate on ending spontaneous abortion, setting up foundations dedicated to ending spontaneous abortion, and aggitating for more funding for spontaneous abortion related research? Surely it's not moral to just sit there and ignore these deaths just because they aren't homicides. If you really believe that 8 celled embryos are people.

Ideally, yes, we ought to be working on the prevention of spontaneous abortions, just as we should trying to correct all the physical defects to which we are prone. Realistically, our knowledge and resources are limited and it makes sense to concentrate them on more immediate and tractable problems.

And I don't believe 8-celled embryos are people, just an indispensable stage in the process of development which leads to an adult human being. Without it neither you or I would exist.

A human life should be envisaged as an event stretching through spacetime. The human being we see at any given time is a 'cross-section' of that event and, although it looks like a discrete object, it is inseparable from what went before.

We can decide that interrupting that event after a certain point is a crime but before that point it is not. But that choice is arbitrary. I believe we should extend that right not to be killed without good reason all the way to the beginning of the individual's life.

*I've seen estimates of the spontaneous abortion rate that go as high as 80%.

I read that it could be as low as 10% or as high as 50% but no one knows for sure. Either way, the human reproductive system is not exactly a great piece of design.

By Ian H Spedding (not verified) on 27 May 2006 #permalink

Evan Murdock

Actually, no. Quantum theory tells us that the universe is, in fact, inherently probabilistic. For instance, the uncertainty principle states that the position and velocity of a particle cannot be precisely and simultaneously determined; the more we know about one, the less we know about the other. This is not measurement error, it is a fundimental to the nature of matter.

That is my understanding, too, although I am no physicist. I did read something about "non-local hidden variables" though...
To be fair, this is not universally accepted, but this is the prevalent view in physics today.

By Ian H Spedding (not verified) on 27 May 2006 #permalink

tacitus: You can combine that reply with the earlier thread on the Inuit. There's a story about an Inuit asking a Christian missionary: "So, if I do good, I go to heaven, right?" "Right." "Bad, hell?" "Yes." "But if I didn't know the message you're telling me, what?" "Well, those who haven't heard the Gospel go to heaven anyway. It would be too cruel to punish those who haven't heard the Word of the Lord." "So, then, why did you tell me?"

Ian H Spedding: Suitably understood, that remark of yours (probability being epistemic rather than ontic) is contentious, to say the least. (This is true even ignoring quantum mechanics.) (On my web pages are a paper which surveys some interpretations of probability.)

Evil Bender is right that it's really the fourth argument that matters the most to abortion/contraception opponents. And that's because it stems from their absolute certitude that God is male. Putting control of a woman's reproduction in God's hands is putting it in male hands.

(I once read a great cartoon in which a teenage boy asks a fundie if God is indeed male. The fundie responds that he certainly is, and then the boy asks him a very teenage-boyish question (hint: it requires a numerical answer). The fundie then keels over with a heart attack.)

Ideally, yes, we ought to be working on the prevention of spontaneous abortions, just as we should trying to correct all the physical defects to which we are prone. Realistically, our knowledge and resources are limited and it makes sense to concentrate them on more immediate and tractable problems.

1. Why do you assume that prevention of pre-implantation spontaneous abortions would be a difficult problem? It could be a very easy problem. The only way to know is to study it. The only reason to not study it is if it is not an interesting problem.
2. Medical research doesn't generally focus on the easiest problem, but rather on the most important one. Cancer, for example, is not a simple and tractable problem. But it is an important one as it is the second leading killer of people in the US. (Or third, if you count spontaneous abortions.) Therefore a lot of effort is expended towards curing and preventing cancer. If researchers and funding institutions used your criteria no one would bother trying to find out how to treat cancer: it's too complicated and fairly intractable.

Diseaeses that kill children get extra emphasis because the death of a child is considered particularly tragic. So a lot of effort has been spent in trying to fight SIDS, for example. SIDS is a condition that would appear extremely intractable: an apparently healthy baby suddenly dies in his or her (usually his) sleep. No prior testing can tell who might be at risk, nothing unusual found on autopsy. So, according to your criteria, no one should waste their time trying to figure it out. Yet people did "waste their time" on SIDS and the number of SIDS cases has decreased radically in the past few years.

If early concepti are to be considered to be humans then the failed implantations are the number one cause of mortality among people of any age and the deaths occur at a very early age. Both conditions suggest that there should be a massive research program into the origins of these early pregnancy losses and much effort to prevent them. Yet even pro-lifers dismiss the idea with facile comments about it being too hard to try. This is not consistent with a belief in the personhood of early concepti.

And I don't believe 8-celled embryos are people, just an indispensable stage in the process of development which leads to an adult human being. Without it neither you or I would exist.

Without the sperm and eggs that fused to form the concepti which eventually developed into us neither of us would exist either. So what?

Keith Douglas wrote:

Ian H Spedding: Suitably understood, that remark of yours (probability being epistemic rather than ontic) is contentious, to say the least. (This is true even ignoring quantum mechanics.) (On my web pages are a paper which surveys some interpretations of probability.)

The more I think it is epistemic, the less it seems to be ontic. But then the more I think it is ontological, the less it seems to have to do with epistemology. Perhaps it is both at the same time>

By Ian H Spedding (not verified) on 28 May 2006 #permalink

Dianne wrote:

1. Why do you assume that prevention of pre-implantation spontaneous abortions would be a difficult problem? It could be a very easy problem. The only way to know is to study it. The only reason to not study it is if it is not an interesting problem.

I don't know whether or not it would be a difficult problem to study but I agree that it should be studied.

If researchers and funding institutions used your criteria no one would bother trying to find out how to treat cancer: it's too complicated and fairly intractable.

I was not suggesting that research should be concentrated primarily on problems that are thought to be simple and tractable. I actually think that researchers should be allowed to follow their noses as far as is possible because our ability to predict what research is likely to be fruitful is not very good. Carl Sagan makes the point very well in his parable of the "Westminster Project" in The Demon-Haunted World

Diseaeses that kill children get extra emphasis because the death of a child is considered particularly tragic. So a lot of effort has been spent in trying to fight SIDS, for example. SIDS is a condition that would appear extremely intractable: an apparently healthy baby suddenly dies in his or her (usually his) sleep. No prior testing can tell who might be at risk, nothing unusual found on autopsy. So, according to your criteria, no one should waste their time trying to figure it out. Yet people did "waste their time" on SIDS and the number of SIDS cases has decreased radically in the past few years.

The reality, as the researchers out there know better than I do, is that there is a limited amount of money available and someone has to decide where it is to be allocated. Whether we like it or not, the prevention of the spontaneous abortion of a tiny cluster of cells does not have the appeal of preventing beautiful, bouncing babies dying. I believe both are equally valid subjects for research but, if I could only fund one, even I would have a hard time choosing the prevention of spontaneous abortion over the prevention of SIDS.

Without the sperm and eggs that fused to form the concepti which eventually developed into us neither of us would exist either. So what?

As I have written before, human rights are granted to individual human beings. If the sperm and egg that were fuzed to form us had been kept apart we, as individuals, would not exist. Only at conception did the process of development begin which has led to each of us in our present state. If human beings are to be entitled to certain rights over the entirety of their lives then my view is that it is reasonable to take conception as the starting-point.

By Ian H Spedding (not verified) on 28 May 2006 #permalink