PZ Myers brings up another chestnut from the seemingly endless vault of “pro-life” arguments:
From a biology or human embryology textbook in use on an accredited university campus (your own University of Minnesota-Morris campus would be fine), please cite chapter and page that unequivocally states that “human life does not begin at conception.”
And this would end the debate? Really? Because we could probably make that happen — it would save everyone a lot of trouble.
PZ’s response is to point out that Lewis Wolpert, a renowned developmental biologist and author of one of the most popular developmental biology textbooks, has said as much: “I’ve spoken to these eggs many times and they make it quite clear … they are not a human being.”
Of course Wolpert knows as well as anyone that replying when spoken to isn’t an ironclad determiner of personhood, but he also makes it quite clear that in his opinion, a fertilized egg should not be granted an unconditional right to life.
Wait, anti-abortion activists aren’t convinced?
As I’ve said before, biologists are not going to answer this question for us. Appealing to biology is a convenient way to end an argument when the person you’re debating doesn’t know enough biology to realize it’s irrelevant. As I’ve suggested in the headline of this post, the abortion debate isn’t about the right to life at all.
We extend the right to life to many different things: Criminals convicted of anything other than murder or treason, “civilians” who don’t happen to be near a military target, endangered species, fish under a certain size, and so on.
Should we extend it to a fertilized egg in a woman’s uterus? A fertilized egg outside of the uterus? After all, if “life begins at conception,” shouldn’t we do all we can to save the untold thousands of lives imperiled each year at fertility clinics? Once their clients have had all the kids they want, we could forcibly impregnate women of childbearing age with the remaining fertilized eggs.
While there are some who question the morality of fertility clinics, I suspect that the number of people actually advocating forced impregnation with excess embryos from fertility clinics could be counted on one hand.
If forced impregnation with excess embryos is so obviously bad, then what about forced impregnation with the semen of a rapist? Again, most people agree that this is wrong.
But forced pregnancy for a woman who had sex for fun, who neglected to use birth control? Now suddenly the numbers jump. Millions of people say that any woman who consents to sex without birth control and gets pregnant should be legally obligated to carry the fetus to term.
Why the difference? The concern clearly isn’t for the “rights” of the fetus. The most charitable way of putting the anti-abortion argument is that a women who gets pregnant via unprotected, consenting sex should have to live with the consequences of the decision she made. I bet you’d get close to fifty percent agreement with that statement if you put it to a nationwide poll. If you phrased it a little differently, you might get a different response: “Pregnancy and childbirth are fitting punishments for women who have unprotected sex.”
Few people would agree with this statement, because we don’t like to think of babies as punishment. Babies are sweet and adorable.
But what other justification could there be for the vast gulf separating the millions who support forced pregnancy when the woman consented to sex and the few who support forced pregnancy when she did not? It can only be out of a desire to punish the woman.
When we look at it this way, we see that the debate over abortion isn’t about the right to life at all. That’s why asking a biologist for his opinion on the matter doesn’t resolve anything. A biologist can tell you whether something is alive, but she can’t tell you how (or whether) to punish someone for a perceived moral failing.
That’s why I always place “pro-life” in quotes. These people aren’t pro-life. They’re anti-sex. They’re so anti-sex that they advocate forced pregnancy as a punishment for having sex. They think sex is so wrong, they’re willing to condemn any woman who does it to nine months of sickness, and hours of torture that may result in death. Then, ideally, this same woman would care for and nourish the product of her torment for the rest of her life.