Bio-ethics and Scienitific Illiteracy

I was at a science fiction convention not long ago, talking on a panel whose topic was "bio-ethics". The phrase "bio-ethics" as far as I can tell, means the study of how not to apply normal ethical norms to novel medical and biotechnological techniques.

As inevitably happens, some yammerhead began denouncing the religious obscurantism for being "against science" — apparently on the grounds that abortion is scientific, whereas a descent respect for human life in the womb is unscientific, mere sentiment.

(An earlier generation of yammerheads, following in the footsteps of Wells, for example, would have (and did) likewise argue that contraception and infanticide and euthanasia and eugenics and socialist totalitarianism and wiping out lesser races were scientific, and a descent respect for the sacrament of marriage, the integrity of the human person, and the right to life of other races, the sick, the old, the weak, and the unproductive was mere sentiment. This parallel escapes no one. )

I asked this paragon of unsentimental science whether an undeveloped organism in the womb or in the egg is a member of the same species as its parent organisms?

His answer was no.

He said that an undeveloped organism in the womb or in the egg is only potentially a member of the same species as its parent organisms.

Not believing my ears, I asked whether my learned colleague seriously maintaining that some organisms, before a given stage of their development, are not classifiable into species?—an idea which must come as a surprise to Linnaeus.

A duck egg is not distinct from a turtle egg, but only potentially so? You have to wait til after it hatches to say that one is of the bird, the other of the reptile, classification?

The moderator of the discussion, no doubt sensing that the religious zealot in the room, me, was about to pin the shoulders of the scientific and enlightened thinker in the room to the mat, did the enlightened and scientific thing and changed the subject.

Fair enough, but I had other questions to ask:

  • If an organism in the womb is only potentially a member of the species of which it is a member, what about its genus, or even its kingdom? Is a fox kit in the womb only potentially a mammal, or a gosling in a goose egg only potentially a vertebrate? Is an acorn not a member of the plant kingdom, but only potentially so?
  • Does the undeveloped organism in the womb have a sex? If the growing organism has XX chromosomes, is it a she, or is it only potentially a she?
    • If so, when does the sex of the creature go from being potential to actual, at birth, or at puberty?
  • If at puberty, are pre-pubescent organism a member of no sex, no kingdom, no genus, and no species, but only potentially these things?
  • If membership in a species were an developed characteristic, did it develop before or after membership in a family or genus? Could we have, for example, a creature who was a fox but only a potential mammal?

We will never know the answers he might have given. We know only the answer he did give, had he been taking High School biology quiz, would have earned him an F grade.

If you recall from High School biology class, "species" are defined in terms of their inter-fertility: if two organisms of an opposite sex can sexually reproduce (or one organism can reproduce asexually) and generate another organism carrying its inherited characteristics, who can likewise do the same, we call it a species. If the offspring cannot reproduce, we call it a mule, and we say the parents are NOT of the same species.

In other words, we define species by the ability to reproduce its own species: to say a species merely reproduces a potential member of its own species until after certain inherited characteristics develop outwardly would make nonsense of the concept.

It might be true as a metaphysical argument, or as an argument about visible characteristics as opposed to latent characteristics, or as a legal argument, but as a scientific argument, it is rubbish.

Whenever the debate turns to abortion, it is the anti-abortionists who talk science, and the pro-abortionists who talk metaphysics. Unfortunately for them, since their education has equipped them with a contempt for metaphysics, they have no way to talk about it. They lack both the vocabulary and the mental tools.

The anti-abortionist says a baby in the womb is human if it has the genetic characteristics of a human organism; the pro-abortionists say the baby is not human until after ensoulment–even though they use another word than ensoulment, they are nonetheless talking about an invisible metaphysical property that makes a human organism a human being in the legal and in the moral sense, an object to which human dignity and spiritual properties, such as moral worth, attach: A being with a soul.

Some moderate pro-aborts want to limit abortion onto to babies before they develop a nervous system. The pre-brain baby is not ensouled, in their metaphysic, and the post-brain baby is ensouled. Of course, as secular materialists, they are unable to answer why a post-brain baby who in in the womb, and has no more capacity to reason than a churchmouse or a housecat, should be given the dignity of human rights. Perhaps it is only the potential for intelligence they revere. It is never clear to me why a person’s humanity is an insufficient warrant to treat him as a human being, but his potential for intelligence is a sufficient warrant for treating him as a human being, especially when the distinction is being made between a blastulae that will one day develop a brain, and a fetus that has a brain or a proto-brain but no conscience or rational thoughts, no speech or moral decisions, taking place inside it.

Of the less moderate pro-aborts, only Peter Singer gained fame by taking the reverence for intelligence to its logical conclusion, and saying that babies younger than two years of age should be killed at their parent’s convenience. Singer at least has grace enough to be logical and open about his evil, and show the same healthy pagan respect for the right of fathers to kill unwanted girl-children as the ancient Romans. He merely lacks the manliness and virtue in other areas which gave the ancient pagans in their hopeless fatalism a certain sad dignity.

Between the moderates and the Singerites falls the great mass of pro-aborts, whose chosen definition of humanity is birth, and then only if the baby comes out head-first. A baby, otherwise healthy and perfectly human, who is feet-first in the birth canal, can nontheless still have its fragile skull punctured by scissors, be dismemebred in mommy’s womb, and its wee brains and bloody fragments vacuumed up. This is not based on any physical property of the baby, obviously. If rotating junior 180 degrees turns him from being human into being an unwanted "fetus" whose life and death hangs, like the life of a defeated gladiator on the whim of Caesar, on nothing more than the mother’s wish, then the human nature of the fetus is a legal or metaphysical substance, not a physical property.

As ever, on the topic of abortion, it is so-called mystics who talk science and common sense, and the so-called scientific types who talk mysticism, paradox, and nonsense. One hundred years of modern education has robbed them of the ability to define their terms and talk sense about metaphysics and philosophy.

And they call us anti-science.

Let me close with an anecdote which makes perfect rubbish of the argument that living organism are only potentially members of the species of which they are members.

This is from George Wil (

54 Babies

CHINO HILLS, California

Where Route 71 crosses over Payton Drive, at the bottom of the steeply sloping embankment, two boys, who were playing nearby, found the boxes. The boys bicycled home and said they had found boxes of "babies."

Do not be impatient with the imprecision of their language. They have not read the apposite Supreme Court opinions. So when they stumbled on the boxes stuffed with 54 fetuses, which looked a lot like babies, they jumped to conclusions. Besides, young boys are apt to believe their eyes rather than the Supreme Court.

The first count came to a lot less than 54. Forgive the counters’ imprecision. Many fetuses had been dismembered — hands, arms, legs, heads jumbled together — by the abortionist’s vigor. An accurate count required a lot of sorting out.

The fetuses had been dumped here, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, on March 14, 1997, by a trucker who may not have known what the Los Angeles abortion clinic had hired him to dispose of. He later served 71 days in jail for the improper disposal of medical waste. Society must be strict about its important standards.

What local authorities dealt with as a problem of solid waste disposal struck a few local residents as rather more troubling than that. They started talking to each other, and one thing led to another, and to the formation of Cradles of Love, which had the modest purpose of providing a burial for the 54 babies.

The members of Cradles of Love — just a few normal walking-around middle-class Americans — called them babies, and still do. These people are opposed to abortion, in spite of the Supreme Court’s assurance in 1973 that abortions end only "potential life." (Twenty-five years later the Supreme Court has not yet explained how a life that is merely "potential" can be ended.)

Some will say the members of Cradles of Love, who are churchgoers, have been unduly influenced by theology. Or perhaps the real culprit is biology. It teaches that after the DNA of the sperm fuse with those of the ovum a new and unique DNA complex is formed that directs the growth of the organism. It soon is called a fetus, which takes in nourishment and converts it to energy through its own distinct, unique organic functioning, and very soon it looks a lot like a baby.

Anyway, theology or biology or maybe their eyes told the members of Cradles of Love that there were some babies in need of burials. So they asked the coroner to give them the fetuses. Then the American Civil Liberties Union was heard from.

It professed itself scandalized by this threat to . . . what? The ACLU frequently works itself into lathers of anxiety about threats to the separation of church and state. It is difficult, however, to identify any person whose civil liberties were going to be menaced if the fetuses were (these are the ACLU’s words) "released to the church groups for the express purpose of holding religious services." The ACLU said it opposed "facilitation" of services by a public official.

The ACLU’s attack on the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion failed to intimidate, and in October the babies were buried in a plot provided at no charge by a cemetery in nearby Riverside. Each baby was given a name by a participating church group. Each name was engraved on a brass plate that was affixed to each of the 54 small, white, wooden caskets made, at no charge, by a volunteer who took three days off from work to do it. Fifty clergy and four persons active in the right-to-life movement carried the caskets. Each baby’s name is inscribed on a large headstone, also provided at no charge. Fifty-four doves, provided at no charge by the cemetery, were released at the services.

The ACLU trembled for the Constitution.

We hear much about the few "extremists" in the right-to-life movement. But the vast majority of the movement’s members are like the kindly, peaceable people here, who were minding their own business until some of the results of the abortion culture tumbled down a roadside embankment and into their lives.

Which is not to say that this episode was untainted by ugly extremism. It would be nice if the media, which are nothing if not diligent in documenting and deploring right-to-life extremism, could bring themselves to disapprove the extremism of the ACLU, which here attempted a bullying nastiness unredeemed by any connection to a civic purpose.

My comment: Let us imagine two groups. In the first group is 54 or so babies recently dead and dismembered, whose membership in the human species is not in dispute. In the second group, the 54 or so dead babies described in the article above.

No physical property distinguishes the first group from the second. A baby who dies one minute after birth is not physically distinguishable, even on a molecular level, from a baby who dies one minute before birth.

Therefore the ACLU definition of membership in the human species is not based on any physical property. It is not based on the ancestry of the organisms, not based on whether they have backbones or warmbloodedness, and so on. It is not scientific. It is not based on fact.

It is a legal, or, rather, a metaphysical argument. The ACLU in the article above is not concerned with the biological facts. They are concerned with whether babies in the womb are to be treated as we treat creatures we regard as having moral worth. They are talking about ensoulment: whether the creature involved is “morally” equal to a human being. But because they have modern ideas, they have only the most primitive means of talking or thinking about these issues. They can neither define their terms nor follow a syllogism of three steps. For the modern man, membership in the species means sharing in the moral worth, as if moral worth were a physical property. The modern man thinks this way because he is a primitive materialist, and cannot define moral worth, or any other property, aside from physical ones, even when it is crucial he think and talk about the non-physical properties involved.

This is not merely a legal issue. There can be no doubt that the ACLU regards the products of abortion as non-human—indeed, the 54 babies are so vehemently regarded as non-human that even to give them the burial a fond dog owner might give a dog, the ACLU regards as a danger. Mustn’t let the damn Yankees call our niggers human, after all.