Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Bill Nye, the Beginning of Life, and Human Persons

This fall at my church, I have had the pleasure of teaching an adult Sunday school class on bioethics, which is the ethics of medical decisions. It has been a great class so far, with great discussion and participation from my congregation. The class is designed to focus on practical issues that will likely come to bear on our lives personally sometime in our years and not so much on social issues, but it does still address social issues tangentially. This past Sunday what we discussed certainly does that: I began a two-week portion of the class on beginning-of-life issues. And, as God's providence would have it, a few days before I had to teach, Bill Nye decided he was going to post a video attempting to argue a pro-choice perspective. Now, to be completely honest and frank, the video is so lacking in actual, robust pro-choice argumentation that I almost skipped over writing about it. However, since Bill Nye is still popular and what he posted relates to what we discussed on Sunday, I changed my mind. But, before I discuss the video, you should watch it for yourself:

I am not going to try to critique the whole video but instead argue for why life and personhood begins at conception, which does address his argument; just not in a direct critique. There are others who have critiqued this video well enough. (See "Bill Nye the logical fallacy guy on abortion" for one such critique.) But, even though I am not going to critique his whole video, I do feel compelled to mention one thing.

Over and over again in the video Mr. Nye appeals to his listeners to "respect the facts." He emphasizes over and over again that there are scientific facts that pro-lifers need to hear and to which we need to pay attention. Yet, Mr. Nye only mentions two such "facts" in this video and both are wildly incorrect. He opens the video by saying "many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans... fertilization is not all you need; you have to attach to the uterine wall." Now, since his argument is sloppy, it is difficult to know exactly what he means, but it sounds like he is saying that hundreds more eggs are fertilized than attach to the uterus. Okay, that is fact number one, and it grossly, grossly, grossly inaccurate. It is very difficult to determine what the actual rate of implantation is, but all estimates fall between 30-80% of fertilized eggs attach (this paper estimates 70% attach/30% loss; this one also estimates 30% lossthis one estimates 25% fail to implant; and, this one estimates 20% do not attach). If we average these results, we get one out of four fertilized eggs does not attach, i.e. three out of four do attach to the uterine wall. Even if we use the lowest estimate of 30% implantation (i.e. only about one out of three attach to the uterus), Mr. Nye is still off by a factor of one hundred in his statement. Now, his entire argument is a logical fallacy, which I will get to below, but the point is that his "facts" are not facts at all but something he is either grossly misinformed about or is simply making up.

His second "fact" is that the Bible was written 5,000 year ago. Now, he does not technically say "Bible." He says, "I know it was written or your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you think..." [sic] Given that pro-lifers are often Christians, one can only assume he is referring to the Bible. Well, again Mr. Nye is either misinformed or making things up, because the first books of the Bible were written in the 15th century BC, which means it began to be written about 3,500 years ago. Now, this is not as grossly inaccurate as his implantation "fact," but it still shows sloppy argumentation. If Mr. Nye wants us to "respect the facts," then perhaps he should give some and perhaps he should try to get it right when he does.

That is all I really want to say about the video directly. Again, there are good critiques written (e.g. see the one linked above). Instead, I want to argue why both Scripture and the scientific data point to life and personhood beginning at conception. Now, I have added "personhood" because most contemporary and decent pro-choice arguments have given up trying to argue for life not beginning at conception. That is because there is really little debate anymore that a human embryo is life from its earliest days. What is argued more often today is that zygotes, embryos, fetuses, or whatever term one uses are not persons and therefore do not deserve to be protected with the rights of personhood. Peter Singer of Princeton, for example, argues that a person is "A being of rational awareness--who they are existing beyond simply the physical organism." He even acknowledges that this excludes infants, but he does say that the law can protect them, if it so chooses. (Just to elaborate a little more: Singer argues that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood and, therefore, "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person.") So, we need to determine where personhood begins, where life begins, and if these are the same point. (I have already written some on personhood here in response to the Kermit Gosnell case, and here from the standpoint of the image of God.)

I think we can answer these questions all at once by looking at both the biblical and scientific information. I am first going to give a quick overview of the biblical data. It is going to be fast for two reasons: 1) most who take the Bible seriously do not really question that a human life is a person from its earliest days and 2) those who do not take the Bible seriously are not going to find this part of the argument very convincing anyway. If you are of that persuasion, stick with me please. You will get educated on what the Bible says on this subject and also (hopefully) see that the scientific data agrees (when interpreted rightly, and I make that caveat that because of what I have written about data and interpretation in this series on science).

Scripture: What does the Bible say about the beginning of life? Well, Christians must admit from the start that it does not really say anything directly about where life begins. There is no statement in Scripture that says, "Life and personhood begin at conception," but there are a lot of indirect statements in Scripture that show the Bible teaches that humans beings are life and persons from the earliest days in the womb. Here are a few passages that show us this:
  • Ex. 21:22-25: Here we see in the OT law code that if a woman is injured in such a way that she gives birth prematurely (which would cover miscarriages) and the baby dies, the responsible party receives the death penalty. Here we see that the in utero life is as valuable as the fully developed life that caused its harm or death. 
  • Jdg. 13:13-14: Here we are in the beginning of the story about Samson. His mother is being told that she will conceive a child that will be a judge of Israel. His mother is also told that Samson is to be a Nazarite from the womb (for what that is, see Nu. 6). As a Nazarite, there were certain things that Samson could not eat or touch because they would make him unclean. But, in this verse we learn that Samson's mother also could not eat or touch those things because they would make Samson unclean through her. So, Samson in the womb, from conception onward could potentially become unclean. But, he would become an unclean what? An unclean person. Masses of tissue cannot become unclean with respect to the OT legal code. 
  • Ps. 51:5: Ps. 51 is a very informative passage in general. David talks about himself in the womb and he uses personal pronouns to refer to himself. And, in this particular verse he identifies as an implicated sinner from conception. Tissue cannot be a sinner, but persons are sinners. Now, it is worthy of note that David's idea of conception was probably different from ours, but it does show that from the earliest days of pregnancy, in utero babies are considered human persons in Scripture.
  • Ps. 139:13-16: Here David again talks about his in utero self in personal terms, and he knows that God paid special, personal attention to him from the earliest days of pregnancy onward. The Bible does not speak this way about animals, much less masses of impersonal tissue but only about persons who can have a personal relationship with God. 
  • Jer. 1:5; Lk. 1:14-15: I will take these two together since they are similar situations. In these passages we see that Jeremiah and John the Baptists were "consecrated" (i.e. sanctified) and "filled with the Holy Spirit" in the womb. These men were regenerate (a theological term for new spiritual life being given, cf. e.g. Eze. 36:26; Jn. 3:5) from the womb. The question is a regenerate what? They were regenerate persons. Masses of impersonal tissue cannot be regenerated in theological terms. 
Those are just a few examples of how the Scripture views life in the womb, and it views life in the womb as human persons from the earliest days of pregnancy onward. Now, we must admit that Scripture does not have the precision of a scientific study, but it does take us a long way back. Fortunately, God has revealed His truth in nature as well as in Scripture, and where Scripture is not as precise, nature picks up and we see that knowledge in the detailed studies of human development that modern scientific studies have revealed.  

Scientific Data: What does the scientific data have to tell us about where human personhood begins? Most Christians would, of course, argue for the decisiveness of fertilization as the point where life and personhood begins, but why is that the case? Would medical information support that claim? I think so, and here is why. 

In summary this is the argument: from the knowledge that we have of the human development process, fertilization is a unique, radical, and decisive event unlike any that occurs later on in development, and if one is going to assign personhood as an objective, non-arbitrary point, it must be here. Before fertilization, sperm and eggs are merely cells and do not have any possibility of developing into a full-grown human being or anything beyond themselves. Before fertilization, sperm and eggs really are part of the father and mother's bodies. But, after fertilization, the embryo is genetically unique and distinct, and he/she experiences an unbroken, continuous development unless something outside the embryo acts upon it, and at no other point does the child undergo a decisive and radical transformation into some other sort of being. 

Fertilization is a process that takes about 24 hours, during which the egg's cytoplasm and sperm's nuclear contents merge in a process called syngamy and form the 46 chromosomes that define a human's physical existence. This newly formed entity is called a zygote and it is clearly genetically different from both the sperm and egg. The mitochondrial DNA matches the mother, the Y-chromosome (if it is there) matches the father, but the autosomal DNA is a completely unique genetic makeup, making the lifeform something completely new. WebMD notes (Emphasis added):
At the instant of fertilization, your baby's genome and sex are set. If the sperm has a Y chromosome, your baby will be a boy. If it has an X chromosome, the baby will be a girl.
At this point, the embryo will continue to develop towards fully independent life. This is crucial: the sperm and egg are living cells but have no possibility of independent life or life of further development (i.e. not persons), but the embryo is a new, genetically unique and complete individual that will follow human development unless otherwise interrupted by something outside itself. He/she is no longer part of the father or mother but a being all its own. The embryo is precisely not the mother's body, even though Mr. Nye and so many others keep sounding that mantra. Once fertilization occurs, the child is not a growth of cells or tissues like some kind of tumor in the woman's uterus. It is a genetically unique life that is distinct from both the father and the mother. And, it is scientific knowledge, to which Mr. Nye so often appeals, that gives us this insight. Christians and other's who are pro-life are not basing that determination based solely on Scripture but on what Scripture and scientific knowledge show us. Scripture only takes us so far (though it is far enough to protect persons in the womb), but scientific data takes us all the way back to conception. Mr. Nye is correct when he says: 
You wouldn’t know how big a human egg was if it weren’t for microscopes, if it weren’t for scientists, medical researchers looking diligently. You wouldn’t know the process. You wouldn’t have that shot, the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against the egg. You wouldn’t have that without science.
But, that knowledge leads in the opposite direction of the conclusion that he (and others) is attempting to draw. Perhaps before the modern scientific knowledge about human development one could argue that the fetus is part of the "woman's body," but now scientific knowledge has shown us that from the moment of conception onward, it is not her body. It might be in her body and it might be dependent on her body for initial development, but it is not her body. It is a distinct, unique human being. (Some out there might be aware of the "violinist" argument that attempts to say that it does not matter that the baby is not part of the mother's body. I do not have the space to deal with that here and others have dealt with it adequately. For a critique of that argument, see this article.)

So, again, this is a radical transformation in which two entities (genetically different from one another) combine to form a genetically unique living human that will become a full-grown human under normal circumstances. If one is going to assign personhood not based on something external to the embryo and/or arbitrary in its development, that must be here. Other proposed points do not reflect any similar level of change within the human being or other points propose a definition of personhood that is arbitrary, at best. Let's take a look at the other proposed points. I will start at the latest points and move to the earliest (with the exception of the last, for a reason that will be explained then). 

Birth: While birth is certainly a decisive event in human life, the baby undergoes no change in itself. Its location changes, but the baby does not change in any defining way. The day on which the mother happened to go into labor had no effect on the baby's ability to living independently of the mother (again, under normal circumstances) and no effect on its existence other than location. In fact, a few years ago, in The Journal of Medical Ethics, a couple of doctors argued for the validity of after birth abortions. This, of course, is the logical extension of pre-birth abortions because there is no moral or personal distinction between the unborn child and the newly-born child. Moving down the birth canal does not change the personhood of the baby. (Of course, this logical extension should lead our culture to realize killing the unborn is wrong, but unfortunately, some, like the above linked article, use that realization to argue for infanticide.) So, again, birth is an important event, but it changes nothing about the personhood of the baby.

Viability: Others suggest that viability is the radical point where personhood begins--the point where the baby could survive outside the mother. Hopefully you can see that this is as transparently false as birth as a possibility. The point of viability is quite independent of the child itself. Viability depends on medical technology. This recent paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association shows how dramatically things have changed when it comes to viability even in the past 20 years. It shows that in 1993, only 52% of infants born at 24 weeks survived. Compare that with 2012: 65% survived. The percentage increase in healthy premature infants is also striking: 47% of infants born at 27 weeks in 2012 survived without major illnesses, compared to 29% in 1993. As medical technology progresses, viability gets pushed further back in pregnancy.

Therefore, it is impossible to determine a decisive viability point in the child's development because it depends on medical technology. It is conceivable and even likely that eventually human beings will be able to develop in a lab. Furthermore, because it depends on medical technology, a baby that is viable today may not have been viable 50 years ago. Did human personhood change in the past 50 years? Or, to make it even more acute: If a mother travels form America to Cuba, a baby that is viable in the morning can become unviable in the afternoon. How does that change its personhood? Assigning personhood to viability is completely arbitrary.

Quickening: Others have suggested "quickening," which is the point at which the mother can first feel the baby move. This has historical precedence even in Christianity because hundreds of years ago (i.e. before we understood human development like we do now), it was believed by a few theologians that quickening was the point the soul was placed in the baby. But, quickening fails to demonstrate a decisive change to personhood from both a scientific and biblical perspective. From a scientific perspective, knowledge of human development shows us there is no substantial change in the child at that point, but that is simply the point at which they started moving enough for the mother to feel it. Furthermore, any mother who has had more than one baby knows that in the second pregnancy she could feel it earlier because she knew what she is feeling for. How can that affect personhood? It does not. From a biblical perspective, there is no information in Scripture about when the soul comes into existence or even if it is directly created by God or comes about by a physical process God designed. And, the above mentioned biblical data would certainly push personhood further back than quickening.

Full Nervous System Integration: Still others have suggested that personhood should be placed at the point where the fetus' nervous system is fully integrated (roughly about the 20th week of pregnancy). With this argument, rationality is made completely integral to personhood, and it is argued, then, that the fetus does not have the physical apparatus capable of rationality until this point, therefore the child is not a person until this point.

Attempting to place personhood at this point has several problems (at least). First, this argument depends on definition of personhood that overemphasizes rationality. I would first point out that to some degree "rational" is a subjective term. Furthermore, some elderly with Alzheimer's are not rational, at least not as we would define it in normal usage. Are they no longer persons? Sometimes a mental handicap makes the individual unable to be achieve rationality beyond that of an infant, so should we not consider them persons? A definition of personhood which depends heavily on rationality is dubious, at best. Second, just because the nervous system is integrated and the neurological structure for rationality is there, the fetus hardly thinks or acts rational at that time. That activity requires much more development that extends into early childhood. And, even before the nervous system is integrated, the potential is there; just at an earlier stage of development. And, finally, there is no consensus on when the nervous system is truly, fully integrated, so there is no identifiable point in time anyway. Therefore, attempting to assign personhood to the point of full nervous system integration is as arbitrary as any other point.

Implantation: Finally, we are back around to what Mr. Nye seems to suggest in his video: that implantation is the point at which life and personhood begins. (Although, again, since his argument is not very coherent, it is difficult to tell what point he is actually trying to make.) But, let's think about implantation. This generally happens 3-4 days after fertilization, and it is argued by many, not just Mr. Nye, that this is the point at which we should start to protect life, i.e. where personhood begins.

There are two parts of this argument that need to be addressed. First, those who simply say that personhood should begin at implantation commit the logical fallacy of assuming that location can somehow affect the personhood of an entity. Nothing changes in the embryo itself when it attaches, but it simply continues to develop like normal. In fact, comparing a successful pregnancy to an ectopic pregnancy shows that development does not change at all whether the baby is in the uterus or a Fallopian tube. The only thing that changes is location. How can a change of location change personhood? The answer is "It can't." (For more argumentation along this line, see this article on the SLED test.)

There is, however, another version of this argument that references the rate of implantation, which may be what Mr. Nye was attempting to argue, just with inaccurate numbers and little clarity. The argument is generally presented as follows: "Well, one in four fertilized embryos does not implant naturally, so this if it happens naturally, what is the problem with making it happen with a pill?" To this we can respond: just because something happens naturally (i.e. out of the control of the mother and father) does not make it moral for us to do it intentionally. One might simply point out that infant mortality rate in some third-world countries is one in four, so does that give parents the right to kill their newborns? And, of course, no one would say yes to that.

Both of the above versions of the implantation argument fail to demonstrate a change from non-person to person. Furthermore, even if personhood were to begin here, it would rule out almost all forms of abortion except for some forms of birth control and the so-called "morning after pills." Now, do not get me wrong, I still argue against those because life and personhood both begin at conception, but arguing for implantation as the point of personhood does not really help the major pro-choice agenda.

Individuation: There is one final point that some attempt establish personhood, which is more challenging than all the previous ones, which is why I broke the pattern of moving further back in human development and saved it for last. There is a stage in pregnancy that is often called "individuation." This is the point at which twinning is no longer possible, which is about two weeks after fertilization.

Twinning (or more precisely monozygotic twinning) is where a single embryo can split into two embryos of the exact same genetic makeup and therefore these can develop into identical twins. This is rare (three to four occurrences per one thousand births) but possible and perhaps even possible in any pregnancy (but no one is sure, see below about the mystery of this process). It is even rarer but still possible that the embryos will recombine into one embryo again. But, it is not possible, as far as we presently know, for this to occur after two weeks, which is where individuation is said to happen. So, some use this argument for the two-week mark to be the point where personhood begins. As the argument goes, we cannot claim the embryo is an individual because it could potentially become two (or more) individuals for the first two weeks. It is not an individual until that possibility has passed, it is argued. Advocates of this argument would say the embryo is a living being at fertilization but not a person because they have not individualized yet.

I think you can probably see why this is the most challenging and robust point to challenge conception for personhood. It does sound compelling at first because how can someone be a person and not an individual? Most of us would say, "Well, they cannot." But, there are some major problems with this point that I think render it unacceptable as well.

First, I would argue that twinning is extremely rare. Most embryos experience a continuous line of development from conception onward and nothing decisive happens at the two-week mark that changes that its being. While twinning may effect a change in the being, the lack of twinning does not change the being. So, for most pregnancies, there is no reason to argue that the embryo is not an individual before this point since if they do not twin, nothing decisive happens.

Second, why embryos twin or do not twin is entirely a mystery at present. No one knows if it is something genetically inherent in the embryo or whether it is forced on it from an outside source. But, those seem like the two possibilities, so let's examine both:
  • If twinning is caused by something genetically inherent in the embryo, then most embryos have no potential of twinning and therefore they are individuals from the beginning. And, furthermore, since it is part of the embryo's genome, could we not say that before twinning we have two (or possibly more) individuals? If it is genetically guaranteed that the embryo will twin, then we have multiple individuals in the process of development before the two-week mark, they simply have not separated yet. And, if we have multiple individuals from conception onward, then there is still no compelling reason to argue they are not persons. 
  • If twinning is caused by something external to the baby, then just because something can force a change in an entity does not mean that entity is not an individual. That does not necessarily follow at all. 
Twinning is a mysterious process, and the current state of scientific knowledge does not prove the lack of individuality in the first two weeks. At this point, one could invoke the "hunter" analogy. When a hunter sees something rustling in the bushes, any responsible hunter knows they must not shoot until they know what is rustling. Just because it is mysterious does not give the hunter the right to squeeze the trigger. This type of reasoning applies to the mystery of the twinning process. Prudence and responsibility require that we err on the side of caution, not taking the risk and hoping everything comes out okay.

In conclusion: Scripture compels us to the conclusion that a fetus is a human being and person from the earliest days, and where Scripture is not explicit, scientific knowledge comes back and shows us that there is radical change in the fetus only at fertilization, so if one is going to assign personhood not based on an arbitrary time or something outside of the child, then conception is the only identifiable, definable, objective point. All other points are extraneous definitions put on the child by others, and external definitions are subjective, not objective. And, subjective definitions are dubious, at best. If there is no authoritative, objective point, then personhood becomes defined by community (which is what Singer tries to do) or the laws that protect non-persons are defined by community. Either way, if definitions are made by the community, then a vote determines the life or death of millions. And, if that is the case, why do we get angry about atrocities like, for example, what the Nazis did? They defined personhood in such a way that Jews did not count in their community. In fact, they had a name for it: Untermensch--sub-human. Only by putting personhood and life at conception can we avoid such arbitrary dehumanizing of those made in God's image and give them the dignity and value they deserve. 

By His Grace,

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