Questions & Answers
Does twinning demonstrate that life doesn’t begin at conception?
Cloning advocates sometimes claim that because an early embryo may split into twins (up until 14 days after conception), there is no reason to suppose that it’s an individual human being prior to that time. Hence, early embryo research (prior to day 14) is morally permissible. The flaws in this argument are easy to spot. First, how does it follow that because an entity may split (or even recombine) that it was not a whole living organism prior to the split? As Patrick Lee points out, if we cut a flatworm in half we get two flatworms. Would advocates of destructive embryo research argue that prior to the split, there was no distinct flatworm? I agree that twinning is a mystery. We don’t know if the original entity dies and gives rise to two new organisms or if the original survives and simply engages in some kind of asexual reproduction. Either way, this does nothing to call into question the existence of a distinct human organism prior to splitting.
Does the high number of miscarriages devalue unborn life?
Cloning advocates cite the high number of miscarriages as proof that a) embryos are not individual human organisms, and b) destructive research is morally permissible. Suppose miscarriages are common: How does this fact refute the claim that embryos are human beings? Many Third-World countries have high infant mortality rates. Are we to conclude that those infants who die early were never whole human beings? Moreover, how does it follow that because nature may spontaneously abort an embryo that I may deliberately kill one? Admittedly, these miscarriages are tragic events. But as journalist Andrew Sullivan points out, just because earthquakes happen doesn’t mean massacres are justified.
If brain death is the end of a person, then does it logically follow that brain function is the beginning of a person?
A brain-dead person is in fact dead, meaning he’s suffered (and this is key) an irreversible loss of all coordinated bodily function, including brain function. His bodily systems no longer work together in an integrated manner the way they do in living organisms. The embryo is nothing like the brain-dead person because the embryo, unlike you and I, does not need a brain to live. For the embryo, something else coordinates the bodily systems so that it functions as a coordinated whole. In short, embryos function as living organisms; brain-dead people do not. Hence, there is no parallel between the brain-dead person and the embryonic human beings you and I once were. As Stephen Schwarz points out, the embryo is in the category of “not yet” while the brain-dead person is in the category of “no more.” The latter has an irreversible loss of brain function resulting in death; the former does not yet need a brain to live.
Since there is no agreement on abortion, should the individual woman be allowed to decide for herself?
Individual relativism asserts that right and wrong begin with each human being. What’s wrong for one person may be fine for another. Morality is reduced to personal preferences and tastes, meaning we shouldn’t push our morality on others or pass judgment on individual choices. But if morals are relative to culture or the individual, there is no ethical difference between Adolph Hitler and Mother Theresa; they just had different preferences: The latter liked to help people while the former liked to kill them. Who are we to judge? But such a view is counterintuitive. Even if people do in fact differ, it does not follow that nobody is correct. We shouldn’t assume there are no right answers. People once disagreed on slavery and equal rights for women, but that didn’t mean moral truth was out of reach.
Does the Bible’s silence justify abortion?
The case for elective abortion based on the alleged silence of Scripture is weak. First, the Bible’s silence on abortion does not mean that its authors condoned the practice, but that prohibitions against it were largely unnecessary. The Hebrews of the Old Testament and Christians of the New were not likely to kill their offspring before birth. Second, we don’t need Scripture to expressly say elective abortion is wrong before we can know that it’s wrong. The Bible affirms that all humans have value because they bear God’s image. The facts of science make clear that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are unquestionably human. Hence, Biblical commands against the unjust taking of human life apply to the unborn as they do other human beings.
Is embryonic stem cell research morally complex?
When advocates of embryonic stem cell research say that we have a moral obligation to save lives and promote cures, what they often mean is that human embryos should be cloned and killed for medical research. But you would never know it listening to their rhetoric. Now I’m all for saving lives. I’m also for stem-cell research. But I’m opposed to one kind of stem-cell research that requires killing defenseless human beings so that others may (allegedly) benefit. That’s immoral.
Are moral concerns about embryonic stem cell research anti-science?
Regrettably, moral concerns with embryonic stem cell research are often dismissed (rather than refuted) as anti-science and anti-progress. “Our conviction about what is natural or right should not inhibit the role of science in discovering the truth,” Tony Blair told critics of Britain’s plan to clone human embryos for research. Echoing these same sentiments, U.S. Senator Orin Hatch remarked, “It would be terrible to say because of an ethical concept, we can’t do anything for patients.” Ron Reagan, son of the late pro-life President, told the 2004 Democratic National Convention that "many opponents to the research are well-meaning and sincere, but their beliefs are just that—an article of faith…The theology of a few should not be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of many.” However, if Blair, Hatch, and Reagan are correct that scientific progress trumps morality, one can hardly condemn Hitler for grisly medical experiments on Jews. Nor can one criticize the Tuskegee experiments of the 1920s in which black men suffering from syphilis were promised treatment, only to have it denied so scientists could study the disease. Ramesh Ponnuru writes that pro-cloning polemics frequently frame the debate in terms that obscure the point at issue. “A cloning ban is said to be an attempt to ban research, its supporters are said to fear knowledge, and it is opposed on that basis. It is, of course, true that a ban would bar certain types of research and could prevent certain knowledge from being discovered—but because the research to get the knowledge involves homicide, not because it is research.”
What about women dying from “back-alley” abortions?
The argument goes like this: If laws are passed to protect the unborn, women will once again be forced to procure dangerous illegal abortions. Besides, we are told, the law can’t stop all abortions, so why not keep the practice legal? Although the argument has strong emotional appeal, it fails logically for several reasons.
First, it begs the question. That is, unless you begin with the assumption that the unborn are not human, you are making the highly questionable claim that because some people will die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so. As abortion advocate Mary Anne Warren points out, “The fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of forbidding it.”
Second, the objection that the law cannot stop all abortions is silly. Laws cannot stop all cases of rape—should we legalize rape? The fact is that laws against abortion, like laws against rape, drastically reduce its occurrence. A sophisticated analysis by Syska, Hilgers, and O’Hare indicates that prior to Roe v. Wade (1973), there were at most 210,000 illegal abortions per year while more conservative estimates suggest a mean of 98,000 per year. Within eight years of legalization, abortion totals jumped to over 1.3 million annually!
Third, women aren’t forced to have illegal abortions; they choose to have them. Yes, pro-lifers mourn the loss of any woman who dies needlessly, but I refuse to accept the premise that women MUST seek illegal abortions. Greg Koukl writes, “A woman is no more forced into the back alley when abortion is outlawed than a young man is forced to rob banks because the state won’t put him on welfare. Both have other options.”
Finally, the claim thousands died annually from back-alley abortions prior to 1973—when Roe. v. Wade legalized abortion in the U.S.—is just plain false. Dr. Mary Calderone, former medical director for Planned Parenthood, wrote in 1960 that illegal abortions were performed safely by physicians in good standing in their communities. True, this doesn’t prove no woman will ever die from an illegal abortion, but it does put to rest the claim of high mortality rates for the years prior to legalization. Here’s Calderone’s quote in its full context:
“Fact No. 3—Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not just to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions as done by physicians. In 1957 there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind. In New York City in 1921 there were 144 abortion deaths, in 1951 there were only 15; and, while the abortion death rate was going down so strikingly in that 30 year period, we know what happened to the population and the birth rate. Two corollary factors must be mentioned here: first, chemotherapy and antibiotics have come in, benefiting all surgical procedures as well as abortion. Second, and even more important, the conference estimated that 90 per cent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians. Call them what you will, abortionists or anything else, they are still physicians, trained as such; and many of them are in good standing in their communities. They must do a pretty good job if the death rate is as low as it is. Whatever trouble arises usually comes after self-induced abortions, which comprise approximately 8 percent, or with the very small percentage that go to some kind of non-medical abortionist. Another corollary fact: physicians of impeccable standing are referring their patients for these illegal abortions to the colleagues whom they know are willing to perform them, or they are sending their patients to certain sources outside of this country where abortion is performed under excellent medical conditions. The acceptance of these facts was such that one outstanding gynecologist at the conference declared: “From the ethical standpoint, I see no difference between recommending an abortion and performing it. The moral responsibility is equal.” So remember fact number three; abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous, because it is being done well by physicians.”
Meanwhile, The Centers for Disease Control report that 39 women died from illegal abortion in 1972, the year prior to legalization. Admittedly, this number is understated, but as abortion-choice ethicist Daniel Callahan points out, the claim of 5,000 to 10,000 deaths per year is out of the question. Callahan’s own survey of available data suggests a more reasonable figure of 500 deaths annually.
But again, the argument from illegal abortions only has force if abortion-choice critics assume that the unborn are not human beings. Remember: If you think a particular argument begs the question regarding the status of the unborn, simply ask if this justification for abortion also works as a justification for killing toddlers or other humans. If not, the argument assumes the unborn are not fully human. Again, it may be the case that the unborn are not fully human and abortion is therefore justified. But this must be argued with evidence, not merely assumed by one’s rhetoric.