Being pro-life and pre-implantation diagnosis

By Razib Khan | November 20, 2012 12:58 am

The recent controversy over Peter Singer and Fordhman got me thinking about the logical implications of a consistent ethos. Singer certainly has a consistent ethos. Or at least he tries to work out the logical implications of his axioms, no matter where that goes. I don’t agree with Peter Singer’s utilitarianism because I am skeptical of his extreme ethical reductionism, but it’s clarifying at least.

But that got me to thinking about the implications of being pro-life in the 21st century, as biotechnology becomes more and more a part of our lives. From what I gather the standard pro-life position is that life begins at conception, where you have the potential for a human being. One aspect of this has always disturbed me: it is likely that more than 50% of conceptions miscarry, without anyone being the wiser. Most karyotype abnormalities, for example, miscarry. If these are human lives, does this mean that the majority of humans die even before they are born? How can we fix this tragedy?

In the pre-modern age there wouldn’t be a tragedy to fix. Saving these humans would be beyond our power. But today there are ways we may reduce the harm. First, one could fertilize a range of eggs, and then screen them for genetic abnormalities. Only the ones who pass a quality control threshold would be implanted, to minimize miscarriage risk.* The others could be put in ‘stasis,’ until the point where medical technology has advanced to the point that ailments can be fixed by genetic re-engineering at the zygotic stage.

And that is my attempt to think like a pro-life Peter Singer.

* In the future artificial wombs are definitely the way to go, as the developing fetus could be closely monitored.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: philosophy
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  • Please don’t be anonymous in the future

    I’m surprised you didn’t take this line of reasoning a step further. What if abortion were to be replaced with extraction of the embryo/fetus and subsequent stasis? Furthermore, if it’s the end of a life which pro-lifers take issue with, then there might not even be a need to ever take them out of stasis. Just put them in a jar, preserve them, and store them away somewhere indefinitely.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doclonglegs Andrew Selvarasa

    I used to be a huge fan of Peter Singer, specifically for his animal rights essays. Then I read an article where he condoned sex with animals, and subsequently read an article where he promotes the idea of infanticide. I am pro-life, but that is beyond anything I can agree with. Why bar Ann Coulter from speaking and not him?

  • http://anthropismos.wordpress.com Ariston

    During the year I spent in seminary, this was the substance of my objection to the (fairly recent) idea that life begins at conception— full stop. I would say that there are two broad categories of consistent pro–life positions:

    1. Abortion is immoral only after [select state—and provide reasons—of post–implantation fetal development].

    2. Interventions which have the potential to reject a fertilized egg (most commonly, the ‘morning–after pill’) are immoral for reasons that other contraceptives are, and not because they are morally equivalent to aborting a pregnancy at [some description in line with (1) above, there apparently crossing from one wrong to another].

    Singer’s could be seen as a variation on #1; Singer just pushes his definition so far out that it provokes moral horror in a much broader swathe of persons than even late–term abortion— much less first trimester abortions or Plan–B.

    As far as I can tell, ‘life begins at conception’ became a moral commonplace among Christian conservatives because of its air of scientific finality (the zygote is genetically distinct) and its ability to cover a broad set of cases.* (See Catholic objections to hormonal BC.) Traditionally, Christian theologians approaching that matter either stated a later stage than most Christian conservatives do now (stirring in the womb), or considered it something essentially unknowable— or unprofitable to speculate upon. Tellingly, abortion was not treated as murder in most penitential manuals, probably because of this ambiguity. (Miscarriage, however, was often treated as abortion.)

    Those who hold the ‘life begins at conception’ idea should—at least—take seriously the reality a world where ~50% of embryos are never implanted in their moral concept. While I think judging a moral position by the ‘hard case’ is generally an error, the rate of early rejection (especially implantation failure) in human reproduction means that it is not on the fringe.

    * When discussing the reasons it was adopted in the first place, I should probably restrict that to Catholic conservatives, because the pro–life movement in the US is almost wholly the intellectual child of Catholicism.

  • http://darwincatholic.blogspot.com DarwinCatholic

    This is definitely the sort of thing that occasionally gets brought up by and to pro-lifers. Major lines of response as I would give them are roughly three:

    1) To the extent that we do not currently have any reasonable means of “non-heroic” medical intervention to cure the 50% of conceptions that miscarry, observing that half of human organisms die between the age of 1 second and 2 days is not necessarily more morally outrageous than observing that a large percentage of human who reach the age of 80 die before turning 90. The moral objection is to an act of killing, not to the occurrence of death.

    2) If pressed, a Catholic theologian will tend to say that we do not actually know at what point a human organism becomes a human person in the theological sense (having a soul and being in the image of God and thus deserving to be treated with human dignity) but that since we find a consistent identity of existence which is continuous from the point of conception (at which point an organism which is distinct as to DNA, etc. from its parent comes into existence) through birth, maturity and natural death, that we would do well to “err on the side of life” and as as if the human organism is a person from the point of conception onwards. Thus, if pressed on the question on conceptions that spontaneously miscarry in the first few days, a lot of people would express the idea that perhaps these conceptions are never “ensouled” and that either way our duty is, at such an early point, simply to let God’s natural order run its course.

    3) Catholics in particular (though this is starting to spread to some Protestants) consider it immoral to conceive life through means other than natural intercourse, so the proposal of fertilizing eggs in a lab setting in order to screen them for abnormalities would be rejected right off, even if this resulted in “saving” lives by freezing them against some future day when the technology existed to provide them with genetic therapy. One of the general principles of Catholic theology is that it’s not right to do something wrong even to achieve a good end. So taking reproduction out of the context of sex would be rejected whether it resulted in more conceptions carrying through to birth or not.

    Basically, I think there is, as you point out, a certain kind of consistency to your argument (akin to Singer’s consistency) but that it’s a consistency that mostly only makes sense from outside the overall moral way of thinking which generates mainstream Christian pro-life thinking. From inside that moral universe, the proposal doesn’t seem as consistent or make as much sense.

  • Yong

    4. “From inside that moral universe, the proposal doesn’t seem as consistent or make as much sense.”

    That’s often a huge problem in these kinds of moral debates where secularists and the religious are squaring off against each other. They’re engaging each other with different worldviews and principles. How can that ever be resolved?

  • http://eclecticbreakfast.blogspot.com/ Michael Brady

    Yong,

    “That’s often a huge problem in these kinds of moral debates where secularists and the religious are squaring off against each other. They’re engaging each other with different worldviews and principles. How can that ever be resolved?”

    We could try mapping the areas where the parties are already in agreement instead of squaring off for a winner take all zero sum game in which no one dares give an inch.

  • Dwight E. Howell

    I would say life continues with conception. I have no wish to end a life. I also don’t feel the need to intervene to continue a life that is doomed by nature before it even gets started due to issues that can’t be repaired or try to push genetic defects into a second or third generation.

    I used to be and still can be rather judgmental about abortions but after a father told me he didn’t think his 12 year old was mature enough to raise a child after she’d been raped I got a lot more tactful.

  • skid

    Every sperm cell and every egg cell is genetically distinct, too.

  • Gil

    @8 To add to your list: your adaptive immune system ends up with unique genetic sequences, too, after some reassortment.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan
  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    I wish people would stop using the term “conception” in this debate. It’s not really a biological term — it refers to when the spirit and body come together. (Meaningless to materialists, anyway.) And while it is often equated with fertilization, it has also at times referred to implantation. So let’s use unambiguous, scientifically meaningful terms, like “fertilization”.

    It should be pretty obvious that personhood doesn’t begin at fertilization — otherwise identical twins would be one person and chimeras would be two.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #11, i avoided the term person.

  • jb

    The big confusion is between the terms “life” (in particular “human life”) and “person.”

    The thing is, nobody really cares about life, what they care about is people. But “life” or “human life” is often used as a synonym for “person.” Even though this doesn’t strictly make sense, in common usage it’s perfectly reasonable, since we never run into “people” who aren’t also “human” and “alive.” (Note that this would change if UFOs ever actually touched down and discharged little green men!)

    But when you extend the usage prenatally — i.e., out of the realm of most’s people’s immediate experience — you run into a big problem, because fetuses and embryos are clearly human, and clearly alive, yet they don’t have minds. Most people instinctively understand that having a mind is important — that’s why there is so little resistance to the practice of taking brain-dead people (also human! also alive!) off of life support.

    But most people are in the habit of talking about the sacredness of “life,” rather than “mind.” This gives the pro-life forces — whose true motivation is theological — a huge advantage, because it is hard to deny that even a fertilized egg is a “human life.” In my opinion this is the primary reason that support for abortion has been dropping in recent years: because more and more people have found they can’t reconcile the apparent contradiction between abortion and their belief that taking an innocent human life is always wrong.

    If I were in charge of the pro-choice forces I would strive to confront this problem directly. The talking point would be we don’t care about human life, we care about people!” I may have too much faith in my fellow citizens, but I really do think a lot of them would understand the distinction if you really smacked them over the head with it like this.

  • Anthony

    jb – But when you extend the usage prenatally — i.e., out of the realm of most’s people’s immediate experience — you run into a big problem, because fetuses and embryos are clearly human, and clearly alive, yet they don’t have minds.

    While you are correct that people really are talking about personhood – if you need to have your foot amputated because you have gangrene, you are destroying the life of the remaining healthy part of that foot, but nobody objects, because personhood is not seated solely in your foot. However, claiming that “mind” is a necessary component of “personhood” is controversial – there are edge cases where you will find opinions on both sides – and claiming that fetuses “don’t have minds” runs counter to the direct experience of quite a number of mothers.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    This gives the pro-life forces — whose true motivation is theological — a

    how do you know this? be concrete and specific. i am curious as to your facts.

  • Anthony

    Yong & Michael Brady – DarwinCatholic’s point #1 does not seem to presuppose a Christian moral universe, unlike his points #2 and #3.

    Razib – the article you link to would seem to point towards starting with easier interventions than those you propose, as many of those would not be “heroic”. It would be interesting to push that at the more vocal pro-life politicians.

  • jb

    how do you know this? be concrete and specific. i am curious as to your facts.

    Razib — My belief that the opponents of abortion are primarily motivated by religion is a judgement call, based on what I have heard and read over the years. I don’t have any cites or analysis. I would certainly have been more careful about my assertion if it were in any way central to the argument I was trying to make, but it isn’t — it’s just a little commentary I threw in, based on what I considered to be common knowledge. I would make the exact same claim about the proponents of intelligent design, and would also expect most readers here to agree with me. I don’t think references to shared common knowledge are always illegitimate. And if it turns someone does disagree with a claim, the claim can always be contested.

    So, on reflection, perhaps the true motivation of abortion opponents isn’t quite as clear cut as that of the ID people. Do you think I was actually wrong in what I said?

    I’d be even more interested though to know whether you think my main point about the confusion between “person” and “human being” is in any way helpful or illuminating!

    However, claiming that “mind” is a necessary component of “personhood” is controversial – there are edge cases where you will find opinions on both sides – and claiming that fetuses “don’t have minds” runs counter to the direct experience of quite a number of mothers.

    Anthony — I’d be interested in hearing what these edge cases are. I think my point about brain-dead bodies is rather strong. What do they lack for personhood besides a mind? Also, whatever mothers might have to say about their fetuses, can we agree that a fertilized egg does not have a mind? If you concede that then the basic argument stands unchanged.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #17, in general i think i agree with your frame about how to approach abortion. but in any case, i wanted to know what you think because a lot of pro-choice people act as if they are experts at understanding the motivations of pro-life people. but all i generally see are coarse caricatures. i wanted to know if there was much more than that. i tend to perceive that the pro-life position is elegant but wrong. the pro-choice position clumsy but right.

  • J

    “But when you extend the usage prenatally — i.e., out of the realm of most’s people’s immediate experience — you run into a big problem, because fetuses and embryos are clearly human, and clearly alive, yet they don’t have minds.”

    It is also not clear that that “personhood” magically happens after birth, as infants are essentially human larvae who only eat/poop/sleep, so I don’t think mental development should be the end-all be-all (yet valid) point for an ethical pro-choice argument (although a far superior cornerstone than the “grrls rights!” argument), unless you want to open the door to sociopathic “ethicists” who promote infanticide. After all, who wants to live in a society where parents are callous enough that they can kill their own infants? That sounds like a cold, barbaric society to me. And yet especially with ultrasound technology, the prenatal does become part of the “immediate experience”, and parental instinct kicks in as early as 8 weeks (as a father several times over, I know this).

    My personal belief is that abortion becomes gradually more difficult to ethically justify as the fetus approaches birth, with early first trimester abortions requiring little more than an “I can’t afford it” justification and 3rd trimester abortions only if absolutely vital to save the life of the mother (of course delivered infants totally off limits!). The current pro-choice status quo seems to have delivered such an arrangement despite not incorporating any nuances in the movement rhetoric, hence I agree it is “clumsy but right”.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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