Abortion and "The Christian Abuse of the Sanctity of Life"

There is a very informational and very heated debate about abortion taking place between commenters at DC right here. One thing that strikes me is the inconsistency of claiming abortion should be considered murder with a pro-life position. If abortion is murder, then why shouldn't a mother who pays for an abortion be charged with accessory to murder, just like someone who hires a hit man to kill someone? Also, why shouldn't the abortion provider be charged with first degree murder? If the pro-lifer reduces the penalties for murder due the fact that it's a controversial issue to specify the exact moment when a fetus is to be granted personhood, and that there is no black and white answer to what kind of penalties should be given, then why not just let the woman decide and be done with it all, by making abortion legal on demand? I think women can decide for themselves. I think women should decide for themselves. One cannot hide behind what the laws stipulate on this point since the pro-lifer needs to either defend the laws, or get them changed.

I've said it before that I wish my readers would refer to our books here at DC. It might help clarify some things. Below I give you an excerpt by Dr. Ronald Lindsay's chapter in my book, Christianity is Not Great. While it doesn't specifically address the issue above, it suggests few different scenarios which I think apply.

Dr. Ronald Lindsay's "The Christian Abuse of the Sanctity of Life"

In this essay I will explore two critical problems created by the traditional Christian interpretation of the sanctity of life. One problem is that, as with other rules supposedly based on God’s directives, the sanctity-of-life principle is considered a moral absolute. At least in theory, it prohibits intentional killing without exception. (As we will see, in practice there is significant leeway in its interpretation.) From a secular perspective, all rules should be considered presumptive only, that is, a rule, such as the rule against killing, creates a presumption that a killing is wrong. That presumption can be rebutted. Whether the presumption is rebutted depends on whether there are special circumstances that indicate the underlying rationale of the rule does not apply in those circumstances. Absolutism in ethics, including rigid application of the sanctity-of-life principle, does not allow for this type of consequentialist, pragmatic reasoning.

The foregoing problem deals with the content of the sanctity-of-life principle. The other major problem deals with its scope. What counts as a human life? Here, Christians, especially Catholic Christians, have taken a very expansive view of what it means to be a human person. At least arguably, their view is so expansive that it contradicts contemporary scientific understandings of biology and embryonic development.


The Sanctity-of-Life Principle and the Status of Zygotes, Embryos, and Fetuses

As noted at the beginning of this chapter, one problem with the sanctity-of-life principle is with its dogmatic rigidity. Another problem is with its application to entities which are not regarded by many, including most secular individuals, as having the same status as human persons. Specifically, the Catholic Church and several other Christian denominations take the position that a zygote, a fertilized egg, has the same moral status as an adult human. On this view, from the moment of conception forward, it is impermissible to harm or destroy the zygote, embryo, or fetus. (An embryo is a zygote that has started cell division; an embryo is classified as a fetus eight weeks after conception.) Accordingly, many Christians oppose embryonic stem cell research and abortion at any point in time.

This has not always been the position of the Catholic Church. The early Church fathers did not consider abortion immoral until after ensoulment, and for them, ensoulment did not occur at the moment of conception. Instead, ensoulment occurred only after the body was formed, which was usually understood as three months after conception. Aquinas refined this timeline, and threw in a dose of sexism, declaring that abortion was impermissible after “quickening,” which for boys was forty days and for girls eighty days. It was not until the nineteenth century that the Catholic Church officially stated that abortion at any point after conception is equivalent to homicide. Although the Catholic Church has justified the clarification of its position by stating that modern science has made the notion of “quickening” as a moral marker obsolete, modern science is actually at odds with the Church’s position on the moral status of the zygote and embryo, as we will see.

In what follows, I will provide three arguments against the position that zygotes, embryos, and early-stage fetuses have the same status as adult humans. This will not be a comprehensive set of arguments on the abortion issue, as that lies outside the scope of this essay. (Among other things, we would need to address a woman’s reproductive rights and how they relate to the rights, if any, of the embryo or fetus.) However, the arguments will be sufficient to establish that Christian opposition to embryonic stem cell research and early-stage abortions is unwarranted. This opposition is based on religious metaphysics, not science.

The Early Embryo Is Not An Individual

An essential premise of the position that human personhood begins at conception is that even though the zygote and embryo do not currently possess the capacities and properties of human persons, they possess the potential to develop these capacities and properties, and this potential is sufficient to provide these entities with the moral status of a human person. Another essential premise of this position—but one that is not always acknowledged—is that zygotes and embryos are already individuals even at the earliest stages of development. To claim that someone is harmed, there must be “someone” there. Individuality is essential for being a human person and having moral rights. We do not grant moral rights to mere groupings of cells, even if they are genetically unique.

There is a major difficulty with the claim that zygotes and embryos are individual persons. Until about fourteen days after conception, at a point called gastrulation, when the precursor to the spinal cord begins to form, an embryo can divide into two or more parts, each of which, given appropriate conditions, might develop into separate human beings. This is the phenomenon known as “twinning” (although division into three or four separate parts is also possible). The phenomenon of twinning establishes that there is not one determinate individual from the moment of conception; adult humans are not numerically identical with a previously existing zygote or embryo. If that were true, then each of a pair of twins would be numerically identical with the same embryo. This is a logically incoherent position. If A and B are separate individuals, they cannot both be identical with a previously existing entity, C.

Many of those who contend that embryos are entitled to the same rights as human persons are aware of the twinning phenomenon but they discount its significance. They maintain that this process does not undermine the claim that there was at least one individual from the moment of conception. In the words of the 2002 majority report on human cloning from President Bush’s Council on Bioethics: “The fact that where ‘John’ alone once was there are now both ‘John’ and ‘Jim’ does not call into question the presence of ‘John’ at the outset.”

But the consequences of this reasoning are bizarre, and create further problems for the “person from conception” advocate. If twinning does occur, and if “John” was there from the beginning and “Jim” originated later, this implies that at least some twins (and triplets, etc.) have different points of origin. This anomaly creates insuperable difficulties for a view that insists all human persons come into existence at the moment of conception. Are some twins not human?

More importantly, the assertion that “John” is present from the outset—that is, there must be at least one individual present from the moment of conception—is nothing more than a dogmatic claim masquerading as scientific fact. There is no scientific evidence to establish the presence of a “John.” What the science of embryonic development shows is that the early embryo consists of a grouping of cells with a genetic composition similar to the genetic composition of adult humans and that, after a period of time, under certain conditions, these cells begin to differentiate and to organize themselves into a unified organism. Before gastrulation, there is no certainty that these cells will differentiate and organize nor is there any certainty that these cells will become one, two, or more individuals. Prior to the controversies surrounding embryonic stem cell research, the National Institutes of Health actually established a panel of experts to study the status of the embryo. In the words of the Human Embryo Research Panel, the cells of an early embryo do not form part “of a coherent, organized, individual.” The phenomenon of twinning confirms that they early embryo is not a unified, organized, determinate individual. To insist otherwise is to rely on religious dogma, not science.

A Potential Person Is Not A Person

Those who claim that there is a human person from the moment of conception forward recognize that a zygote or embryo does not possess the capacities of an adult human, or even a human child. Among other capacities, it lacks reason, cognition, and sentience. However they argue that is it potentially a person with these capacities. Sometimes this argument is bolstered by the claim that the process of becoming a human person is inexorable: left undisturbed, the zygote becomes an embryo, which becomes a fetus, which becomes an infant, and then a child. This argument is conceptually confused and, again, ignores the science regarding embryonic and fetal development.

In arguing for the moral status of the zygote and embryo based on their potential, the proponent of the person-from-conception view is actually making a huge concession. The proponent is conceding that what really matters are the qualities and capacities of what the zygote or embryo might become, not their current qualities and capacities. But then the zygote and embryo as they are now lack the value we attribute to human persons. As the saying goes, an acorn is not an oak tree, nor for that matter is a lottery ticket an entitlement to a million dollars.

To bridge the gap between potentiality and actuality, the proponent of the person-from-conception view will often argue that the genes in the zygote and embryo drive their inevitable development into a human person. First, as to zygotes and embryos that are not inside a uterus, this is plainly false. They cannot develop on their own. Without the requisite biological and chemical interaction with a mother, which regulates the epigenetic state of the zygote and embryo, these entities have no prospect of developing into a human person. This consideration is especially important in the context of embryonic stem cell research, as the embryos used in the research obviously are not implanted in a uterus.

Moreover, even as to implanted embryos, the path from conception to birth is one marked by uncertainty, not inevitability. One important fact about embryonic development that is often overlooked is that between two-thirds and four-fifths of all embryos that are generated through standard sexual reproduction are spontaneously aborted. So, in fact, the odds are very high that a zygote will not eventually develop into a child. The zygote has significantly less chance of becoming a child than a person has of winning a coin toss. Granted, the rate of miscarriages diminishes significantly after twelve weeks, but at a minimum the high percentage of miscarriages shows that the zygote, embryo, and early fetus do not possess the potentiality often attributed to them.

In Practical Terms, No One Treats Zygotes and Embryos as Human Persons

Imagine there was a virus with a fatality rate of over 50 percent that began sweeping the world. Wouldn’t we put aside all other concerns to focus on this dread epidemic? No resource, financial or otherwise, would be spared in trying to end this plague.

But, if you accept the Catholic Church’s position, then we are experiencing such a catastrophic event. I just noted that between two-thirds and four-fifths of all embryos “die” before coming to term. Why aren’t we spending billions of dollars to find a cure for this problem? The obvious answer is that despite all the dogma drumbeat from the Catholic Church and other Christian organizations that human personhood begins at conception, and that abortion, even in very early stages, is equivalent to murder, we don’t really perceive zygotes, embryos, and early-stage fetuses as human persons. This inconsistency between the claimed status of these entities and how much weight is actually given to their supposed interests is stark.

Recall also that the controversy over embryonic stem cell research during the Bush administration focused on whether the federal government would fund this research, not on whether the government would ban the research completely. But if embryos are human persons, how could we possibly allow any such research to take place, whether federally funded or not? We don’t allow experimentation on adult humans that poses a risk of serious harm, and we would not allow any research involving human subjects absent informed consent. Yet research on the embryo carries no criminal penalties. Finally, a hypothetical can serve to crystallize our moral intuitions on this subject. If fire was spreading rapidly through a building and a firefighter had to choose between saving one person in one wing of the building versus saving ten in another, presumably we would all agree that given these limited options, the firefighter should save the maximum number of people and go to the wing with ten persons and rescue them. Now assume the unfortunate building is an IVF clinic and the choice is between saving one person in one wing versus ten embryos in another. I doubt most people would hesitate before saying the firefighter must rescue the one person. But, of course, if embryos are the equivalent of human persons, this is not the proper course of action.

None of these examples refute the Christian dogmatist’s position. The dogmatist can avoid inconsistency by saying yes, we should establish a Save the Embryo Foundation to find a cure for miscarriages, we should criminalize embryonic stem cell research, and we should regard preserving an embryo from a fiery fate as the moral equivalent of saving a human person’s life. But in doing so the dogmatist exposes the absurdity of his position.


For fans of Dr. David Madison, like I am, he's previously covered this ground right here.