Monday, November 16, 2009

Defending Abortion: Part I, The Embryo Photo

(Note: See also, Defending Abortion, Part II later this month)

There are many reasons why abortion is a morally acceptable practice in certain situations. Applied ethics is a difficult field and in coming to a reasonable judgement it is important to look at the specific context at hand. Nothing I’m about to say is the final word on any particular case. However, my arguments will show that extremist groups like Operation Rescue have no sound philosophical basis for their view that abortion is always wrong.

The Embryo Pitch

Today I want to look at what I call the Embryo Pitch. A pro-lifer displays a photo or a video of an embryo and says there’s a heartbeat or some other physical quality meant to summon tears to your eyes.

The power of this argument is that life is a miracle, even it its most minute forms. There is nothing wrong with being sad when a young life has ended. Scientists who take a cold clinic response and claim that the embryo is “just a lump of tissue” are not only wrong but also play right into the pro-lifer’s hands.

But imagine this scenario: the pro-lifer, after showing this picture of very young life, reveals suddenly that it is not human at all, but a dog embryo. Then she reveals that she is not a pro-lifer at all, but rather a philosopher making a point.

Funny how there was a huge push to save that embryo from death--until it is learned that it was not human. There is no way to tell just from the heartbeat, or even the general shape of the tiny being.

Here’s a video of a dog embryo that shows its wonder and beauty:

Yes, the dog embryo is a miracle, but it doesn’t warrant a right to life. The audience wanders away, some of them embarrassed that they were so adamant on saving it. Some of them were even thinking about violence.

It is sad to kill this small unborn being, many of us feel, including me; but again, no outcry of murder or heinous wrong is forthcoming, except perhaps by the most fanatic elements of PETA.

Suppose someone says, “I can visually tell the different between that dog embryo and a human embryo!”

That’s all there is to rely on, isn’t it, the slight difference in shape, if there is one. But how accurate is this, and how early in development can you rely on it? Are the shapes characteristically different, or do they overlap? Suppose you make a mistake, suppose you can’t be certain.

And really, is shape what you want to hang your argument on? Is shape the special property that endows human beings with a right to life?

The problem with claiming that the human embryo is a miracle is not that it isn’t true. The preborn is indeed magical and special. All life is. A dog, a jellyfish, even a blade of grass or a microscopic organism, these are divine manifestations.

But saying that a certain life form is a miracle is not enough to grant it a right to life. If it were, we could not eat lettuce. Each and every one of us destroys many miracles of life each day just to survive. The meat we eat, or the plants. The bacteria in our mouths slain by mouthwash. The ants we spray with pesticide. And so on.

In conclusion, don’t be fooled by the Embryo Pitch. You could respond to it this way:

“Yes, the embryo is a miracle, but so is all life. The heartbeat in an embryo could be a dog’s heartbeat, or a raven’s or an elephant’s. That twitching limb could be a cat using its paw for the first time. Yes, it is beautiful and it is sacred. But we take the lives of beautiful things all the time. To eat, for example. We do it for good reasons, ones that are accepted in sacred texts as well as secular arguments. You’ll have to do more than point out the obvious grace in all living creatures to make your point.

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