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Friday, July 25, 2014

The Basics of Natural Family Planning

[Today's guest post by JoAnna Wahlund is part of our paid blogging program.]

Judging by the comments after last week’s post regarding pro-lifers and contraception, there seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding regarding Natural Family Planning (NFP). Since July 20-26 is NFP Awareness Week, I decided to provide this basic overview of NFP to clear up any misconceptions (no pun intended!) and provide additional information for those who are interested in learning more about it.

What is Natural Family Planning? 
NFP is a method of avoiding or achieving pregnancy (it can serve either purpose depending on the intent of the users) by identifying the biological markers that indicate natural fertility or infertility (basal body temperature, cervical mucous, presence of certain hormones in urine) so that users can either avoid or engage in sexual intercourse, depending on their intention. It can also be used to monitor gynecological health and identify possible problems. NFP is "natural" in that it does not utilize synthetic hormones or substances, barriers, or invasive devices.

Isn’t NFP also called “the rhythm method”? 
No, although this is a common misconception. The rhythm method (also called “the calendar method”) is essentially the most basic type of NFP, but it is also the least effective. The rhythm does not take into account a woman’s biological markers that indicate levels of fertility. Instead, it is entirely dependent upon the assumption that every woman has a clockwork 28-day cycle, with menstruation occurring on day 1 and ovulation occurring on day 14. That's only true for roughly 30% of women, and many outside factors – diet, nutrition, stress, illness – can affect the length of each cycle even for women who do have regular cycles.

I've often heard other women say that they can't use NFP because they have irregular cycles, and unfortunately that's a common myth which hearkens back to the misconception of NFP = rhythm method. Many women are told by their OB/GYNs that they have “irregular” cycles when they simply have a longer cycle length – say, 35 days instead of 28. (I once had a 75-day cycle. Thankfully, that wasn't typical!) NFP works with any and all cycle lengths.

What are the types of NFP? 
They include, but are not limited to, Billings, Creighton, Sympto-Thermal, and Marquette, as well as the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM). For brevity's sake I'll only discuss these, but there are many additional forms that are offshoots of these methods.

Billings Ovulation Method: The Billings Ovulation Method of NFP (BOM) is named after Drs. John and Evelyn Billings, but was developed by many different medical professionals based on extensive research which began in 1953 (you can read a comprehensive history of its development here). Its focus is on detecting fertile periods by charting the quantity, quality, and consistency of cervical mucous was well as the sensation at the vulva.

Creighton Model FertilityCare™ System (CrMS) is a modification of the Billings method and was developed in the late 1970s by Dr. Thomas Hilgers. It is the basis for NaPro Technology, which specializes in treatment of infertility and menstrual cycle disorders. Like Billings, it tracks the biological marker of cervical mucous.

The Sympto-Thermal Method (STM) builds off of the mucous observations of the Billings and Creighton methods and adds another biomarker: basal body temperature (BBT), which is the body's temperature each morning immediately after waking but prior to rising. (The temperature will be low in the first part of a woman's cycle but spike once ovulation has occurred.) The correlation of BBT to a woman’s menstrual cycle was discovered by German priest Fr. Wilhelm Hillebrand in the 1930s. STM was not widely taught in the United States until John and Sheila Kippley, in partnership with Dr. Konald Prem, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, founded the Couple to Couple League International (CCLI) in 1971.

The Marquette Method of NFP was developed in 1999 at Marquette University. It integrates the Clearblue Easy Fertility Monitor with the other biological markers of fertility mentioned above.

The Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) is essentially a secularized approach to the Sympto-Thermal Method. For decades, nearly all NFP promotion was done by the Catholic Church and related entities. Toni Weschler changed that in 1995 with the publication of her book “Taking Charge of Your Fertility.” The main difference between FAM and other NFP methods is the (optional) addition of using condoms during the fertile period to prevent pregnancy, as opposed to abstinence.

What do you call people who practice NFP? Parents!
HAHAHAHAHA! I've only heard that one half a million times.

In all seriousness, the effectiveness of NFP for avoiding pregnancy is comparable to contraceptive methods such as the birth control pill:
  • An extensive sampling of effectiveness for the Creighton method yielded a perfect use success rate of 99.5% and a user failure rate of 3.2%. 
  • The Billings Method has been taught in China, Indonesia, and India, and studies there resulted in a perfect use rate of 99%, with a user failure rate of around 5%. 
  • A 2007 study of STM/FAM in Germany found that the perfect use success rate was 99.6% – comparable to that of the birth control pill. The user failure rate was 1.8%, compared to the Pill's user failure rate of 9%. 
  • A 2004 study published in the journal Contraception (as summarized on the Marquette University NFP site, here) found a higher user failure rate for fertility awareness methods, an average of 10%, but again perfect use rates were 98-99%.
The CDC cites a user failure rate for “natural family planning or fertility awareness” methods as 24%, but they don't cite any statistics for how that number was reached. I suspect that that number more accurately reflects the user failure rate for the rhythm method, which is around 25%.

So why choose NFP over other methods? 
One huge advantage to NFP is the lack of side effects. Hormonal birth control, such as the pill, has a wide range of possible side effects. It's inappropriate for many women, particularly smokers, because it increases the risk of blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks. It is classified as a known carcinogen by the World Health Organization, and has a negative effect on the environment as well. 

IUDs may migrate out of the cervix and into other organs, sometimes perforating the uterus. If pregnancy occurs while an IUD is in place, doctors will often recommend aborting rather than risk having the IUD embed itself in the placenta or, worst case scenario, in the child. 

Activist Erin Brockovitch has started a website warning women about the potential side effects of Essure, a procedure that implants metal coils in the fallopian tubes and is marketed as non-invasive permanent birth control. A recent lawsuit alleges that “the coils migrated out of [the complainant’s] fallopian tubes and, eventually, led to five hospitalizations, a hysterectomy, and auto-immune and adhesion disorders.” 

Barrier methods (e.g. condoms) obviously don't carry those risks, although they may cause reactions in people who have undiagnosed latex allergies. Condoms are often used incorrectly (for example, if they are carried around in a wallet or pocket, they are more prone to break). And, of course, many people just don't like how barrier methods feel.

NFP doesn't pose those problems. An added benefit to NFP is that it can help women identify cycle abnormalities or other health problems that affect their cycle – for example, PCOS. It can also be used to pinpoint date of conception and provide more accurate pregnancy dating (which can help avoid unnecessary inductions or other interventions for babies who are thought to be overdue or too small for their alleged age). 

Another point in NFP's favor: financial considerations. As the recent Hobby Lobby brouhaha made evident, many people are concerned that women will be unable to purchase their own contraceptives in the absence of an employer subsidy. This isn't an issue with NFP, as most methods are so inexpensive that there are few startup costs and/or ongoing costs. 

Of all the methods I've discussed, the most expensive is the Marquette Method. The Clearblue Easy Fertility Monitor costs about $150, and requires the ongoing purchase of test sticks. My husband and I use the Marquette Method right now, and since we're still using the postpartum protocol we go through about a box of sticks (around $40) a month (but this is only temporary until my cycles resume and we begin using the regular protocol instead of the postpartum protocol); those who use the regular protocol will typically use about 10 sticks a month and only need to buy a new box of test sticks once very three months. (Most insurance companies won't cover these costs since Marquette is not an “approved” contraceptive method by the FDA, but some women have used money in Health Savings Accounts to purchase them.) 

Back when we used the Sympto-Thermal method, we spent $10 on a basal thermometer and $40 on charting software, both of which lasted us about a decade. The charting software was optional; I could have kept paper charts but I liked the computerized version which allowed me to upload my charts for review by our instructor (this was way back in 2003 when there weren't a lot of Internet options available). Now, there are dozens of smartphone and tablet apps as well as web apps that do the same thing for free or for a much cheaper cost. 

Billings and Creighton are similarly inexpensive; you can use a paper chart with stickers (not sure of the cost of those as I've never used them) or use electronic apps to keep your chart. 

Where do I go if I want to learn more? 
Couple to Couple League International (Sympto-Thermal Method) 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Planned Parenthood abortion quotas


And Then There Were None. from Abe Films on Vimeo.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blogging to urge you to watch the above video from And Then There Were None.

We do not use the term "pro-abortion" lightly. We realize that some people truly are pro-choice. But with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy: If you plan an annual budget with 1,135 surgical "terminations" at $313.29 a pop, you might be pro-abortion!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Define "Rare"

When discussing how "rare" or "frequent" something is, what matters more: percentages, or absolute numbers?

In the abortion debate, this problem comes up in at least two contexts: rape, and late-term abortions. Abortion advocates maintain that pregnancy from rape is a common occurrence. They also maintain that late-term abortions are rare, as they are only a "small percentage" of the 1.06 million abortions that take place in the United States each year. Pro-life advocates are prone to the opposite biases; we emphasize that rape accounts for a very small percentage of abortions, while giving lots of attention to the barbarity of late-term abortion.

Let's look at the numbers. They're oddly similar.

A 1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated that 32,101 American women are impregnated by rape each year. In absolute terms, that's horrifying. (But not all those women will abort; in fact it's 50-50, according to this pro-choice source. That makes sense, given that about half of American women are pro-life and rapists don't discriminate.) But in percentage terms, "only" five percent of rapes cause pregnancy.

According to the Guttmacher Institute (which officially supports abortion and thus has an incentive to de-emphasize late-term abortions), 1.2% of abortions in the United States are performed after 21 weeks, and 3.6% are performed between 16 and 20 weeks. That makes it seem like late-term abortion is rare, but multiply those percentages by 1.06 million—the total U.S. abortions in 2011—and you'll find that there are over 50,000 late-term abortions in the U.S. every year (12,270 after 21 weeks and 38,160 between 16 and 20 weeks).


In each of the above situations, you can make the case for using absolute numbers or for using percentages. But here's the key: you don't get to pick and choose! (Yep, I'm "anti-choice." You got me.) You don't get to twist the framing to suit your ideology. Find the method that makes the most sense, and stick with it.

For me, the absolute numbers matter more. When it comes to pregnancy from rape, one rape is too many. Likewise, one late-term abortion is too many. This focus on the individual person is a good fit with my pro-life values. But I'll entertain the case for (consistently!) emphasizing percentages, if you wish to make such a case in the comments.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Peacetime Use

Years ago, I encountered a piece in Feminism & Nonviolence Studies entitled "Feminist, Prolife, and Atheist," by Kathryn Reed. At the time, I had no idea that atheism was in my future. What really stuck with me was not the title, or even the body of the article, but one of the subheadings: "Converting Abortion Clinics To Peacetime Use."

The idea of "peacetime use" has been on my mind a lot lately, as the pro-life movement has seen a record number of abortion businesses close in recent months. On a whim, I thought I'd put together a list showing how some former abortion sites are now being used. In chronological order:
  • Delta Clinic (Baton Rouge): This center closed in the mid-90s. Local Catholics turned the site into an abortion museum and memorial; as far as I can tell, it's still open.
  • Central Women's Services: This former abortion facility in Wichita is now the headquarters of Operation Rescue, a nationwide anti-abortion organization. The building also houses a pregnancy resource center.
  • Ob/Gyn Associates: This Green Bay, WI practice was bought out by Bellin Health Systems, which ceased abortions at the site. Bellin offers a wide range of non-lethal healthcare for women.
  • Atlantic Women's Medical Services: Notorious abortionist (now convicted felon) Kermit Gosnell spent some of his time at this Wilmington, DE facility, although he is most infamous for his activities in Philadelphia. The building has been purchased by Lutheran Community Services, which plans to turn it into its new headquarters, providing "low-income families with emergency food, housing assistance and clothing." They are currently renovating the facility to suit this peacetime purpose.
  • Planned Parenthood of Lubbock, TX: This facility closed just a few months ago, in April 2014. The site will be transformed into a learning center for children with disabilities. Like Atlantic Women's Medical Services, renovation is still ongoing.
  • Center for Choice: This Toledo, OH abortion center closed in June of 2013. The property is on the market for just under $200K. Any takers? (As an aside, I assume they tried to clean up before taking photos for the listing, but wow those floors look nasty.)
Abortion Docs has a long list of abortion centers that have closed in recent years. Unfortunately, finding out how those properties are being used today is harder than you might think; Google and Yahoo search results typically still bring up the abortion center, even years after closing. (Google street view is hopelessly out of date too.) Internet sleuths, if you want a challenge, please help me add to this post! Share your finds in the comments.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mark your calendars

We have three new upcoming events for you:

1) On the evening of Tuesday, August 19, SPL West Coast Coordinator Monica Snyder will speak at the Make Noise! Youth Rally in Bakersfield, CA. This event is sponsored by Right to Life Kern County. Details here.

2) On Monday, September 8, SPL President Kelsey Hazzard will speak at the College of Wooster in Wooster, OH. This event is sponsored by Wooster Scots for Life. Details TBD.

3) On the night of Sunday, September 14, both Monica and Kelsey will appear live on the "Atheist Analysis" podcast. There will be an opportunity for audience interaction; we'll provide that link closer to the date of the podcast. (Can't make it? No worries. It will be recorded. You can listen to past episodes of the podcast here.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

You can be pro-life and pro-contraception. Most of us are!

Many pro-lifers object to contraception that prevents implantation or otherwise works post-fertilization, but they believe contraception that prevents fertilization is morally acceptable. I’m not addressing those pro-lifers here. In this post, I’m addressing those who believe any form of artificial contraception is unacceptable.

Polls suggest the strong majority (89%) of Americans think contraception is morally acceptable (including most Catholics (76%), Evangelicals (90%), and pro-lifers (78%, minimum)). Research suggests the strong majority (over 80%) of sexually active American women use some form of artificial contraception. Note that, if about half of American women are pro-life, this means the majority of self-described sexually active pro-life women use artificial contraception.

Despite the widespread acceptance and use of contraception among both the general population and self-described pro-lifers, the pro-life movement has a reputation for being anti-contraception. Some pro-lifers believe pro-choicers purposefully try to paint us as anti-contraception to make us less palatable to the American public. I think, though, that many pro-choicers sincerely believe their own accusations, and with decent reason. Consider quotes like this:
“Contraception closes the sexual act to the gift of life. Once a contracepting man and woman have allowed a contraceptive mentality to seep into them, they immediately view a newly created child as an inconvenience at best and as a hostile intruder at worst. For them, the only solution is to get rid of the baby through abortion. You see, contraception leads to the need for abortion.”

(Of course this quote is just one example. But, speaking anecdotally, nearly every time I bring up contraception in pro-life circles, someone responds along the same lines.)

I have a real problem with this perspective. In fact, I have several problems with it, so I numbered them for you guys.

***

1. “The gift of life.” In the context of sex and especially birth control, the "gift of life" is a loaded phrase in two ways.

1a. First, I think the phrase suggests a religious perspective not everyone holds. Often people use the phrase “gift of life” because they believe God decides who will get pregnant when, and therefore pregnancy is a gift and God is the gift-giver.

Pictured: Pregnancy?

But suppose *ahem* some people don't believe in God; then the pregnancy = gift from God idea doesn’t mean much. (Not to mention how, for someone who wants to conceive but physically cannot, the idea comes across as fairly insensitive.) From a more secular perspective, pregnancy is the result of reproducible biological processes, and those biological processes don’t have a will. They’re not trying to give you a gift, or a punishment, or anything. They just work the way they do, and whether or not pregnancy is a gift really depends on how the people who get pregnant feel about it. Which brings me to:

1b. The phrase “gift of life” implies pregnancy is always a good thing, for everyone. That’s not true. Just because abortion is bad doesn’t mean pregnancy is always good. For example (to take it to the extreme) you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that a 12-year-old rape victim who conceives is experiencing the “gift of life.” And even less dire pregnancies aren’t necessarily gifts. Many people are simply in particularly bad positions in their lives for having kids. Some people actually don’t want to have kids at all, for their entire lives. Not everyone considers pregnancy a gift, and that’s okay. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not wanting to have kids as a baseline position.

Now, I still think if you accidentally get pregnant it's almost always wrong to get an abortion, but that doesn't mean I believe people have to feel happy, grateful, or gifted with their unintended pregnancies either. Even for women carrying planned pregnancies, it’s normal to feel some less-than-positive emotions throughout the process. Many people do feel their pregnancies are like a gift, and that’s wonderful. But many people don’t necessarily feel that way, and that’s okay too. In any case, it doesn't make sense to chide people for avoiding a "gift" if (a) they don't believe there's a gift-giver and/or (b) they don't consider the subject in question a gift at all.

2. “…allowed a contraceptive mentality to seep into them…” Based on the conversations I’ve had with anti-contraception pro-lifers, the phrase “contraceptive mentality” appears to mean the belief that it’s okay to try to separate sex from procreation. In other words, you think it's okay to have a sex life even when you specifically don't want to get pregnant (or get someone pregnant). From what I understand, many anti-contraception pro-lifers believe this perspective is immoral. They believe it reflects a broader attitude about sex and children—an attitude fraught with irresponsibility, selfishness, and ignorance. They further believe this attitude is related to and inclines people toward abortion.

Interestingly, in my experience people only reference the “contraceptive mentality” when we’re talking about artificial contraception. I’ve never seen anyone talk about the contraceptive mentality behind Natural Family Planning (NFP), despite how NFP proponents celebrate NFP’s relatively high success rate (depending on the form of NFP you use) for avoiding pregnancy. People who use NFP are trying to have a sex life and not get pregnant, yet no one accuses them of a “contraceptive mentality.”

(EDIT 7/16/14: Since publishing this post, several readers have informed me that, within some Catholic circles, there is a lot of conflict about whether NFP users have a contraceptive mentality. My point here is not to suggest NFP users have a contraceptive mentality, but do agree that they don't. I just ask that those readers who recognize you can avoid pregnancy without accepting abortion further recognize you can do so whether you are using NFP or artificial contraception.)

Anti-contraception pro-lifers have told me NFP users are, by definition, more "open to life." Yet NFP's perfect use rate (0.4% unintended pregnancies) is on par with the pill and the copper IUD (0.3% and 0.6%, respectively) and is actually better than condoms (2%). (Again, these are all perfect use rates, not typical use rates.) It's not NFP itself that is "open to life" - the method can be just as effective at separating sex from pregnancy as common artificial methods are.

If NFP users are more open to life, I suspect it's because they are also more likely than other groups to be in communicative, committed relationships and to hold religious beliefs that incline them to be pro-life. And that's exactly my point: it's not the method of avoiding pregnancy that tells us how a couple will react to an unintended pregnancy; it's a whole lot of factors. If NFP users get a pass on the "contraceptive mentality" accusation, it's because the lone fact that people want to have sex and not get pregnant isn't enough to insist they've let some insidious mindset "seep" into them.

3. “…they immediately view a newly created child as an inconvenience... a hostile intruder…” Back up. The world isn’t divided into (a) people purposefully trying to get pregnant and feeling overjoyed and jubilant when they do and (b) people trying not to get pregnant and feeling panicked or regretful when they do.

It's actually more complicated than this.

There are a lot of factors that affect how people feel about pregnancy (planned or unplanned), and emotions can run the gamut. As I mentioned, it’s not uncommon for even people who got pregnant on purpose to feel some anxiety and hesitancy, especially during a first pregnancy. And it’s not uncommon for people who didn’t intend to get pregnant to feel some excitement and anticipation.

Consider how many unplanned pregnancies are carried to term: according to the CDC, about 37% of births result from unplanned conceptions. In 2012 there were about 3.9 million births, meaning over 1.4 million women carried unplanned pregnancies to term. These women would include those who accidentally got pregnant while using NFP, artificial contraception, or no contraception at all. We shouldn’t generalize how people will feel about or proceed with their pregnancies based solely on the type of contraception (or lack thereof) that they use.

4. “For them, the only solution is to get rid of the baby through abortion.” Clearly not. See the above stats. Plenty of people carry unintended pregnancies to term. Plenty of people want to have sex, don't want to get pregnant, and are still willing to carry a pregnancy should it happen.

It’s not accurate to insist that people who use artificial contraception must have the vaguely ominous “contraceptive mentality” that inevitably leads to abortion.

***

Equating using contraception with choosing abortion is not only inaccurate, it’s harmful to the pro-life movement and our goals. Here’s another numbered list for you:

1. Contraception decreases unplanned pregnancies. It’s true that abstinence is the only 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy, yes. It’s also true that almost no one stays abstinent until marriage and not all married couples want kids anyway. However we may feel about those two issues, the bottom line is lots of people are having sex when they aren’t ready for or don’t want kids. Sure, we may wish they wouldn’t take the risk. I also wish we could cure cancer and invent calorie-free chocolate that tastes the same. Meanwhile, back in reality, there’s plenty of sex-with-no-desire-for-pregnancy going around—and in that reality, I’d much prefer people use contraception. Sexually active women who use contraception experience far fewer unintended pregnancies than sexually active women who don’t.

Look at this chart. Just look at it! Source.

2. The vast majority of people are okay with contraception. (Here’s this link again.) And if we make them think they can only be in the pro-life movement by being against all contraception, we’ve created one more barrier to increasing our anti-abortion numbers. The same idea goes for alienating the many pro-lifers who already use contraception. Let’s not do that, hm? Being anti-contraception is not a prerequisite to being anti-abortion. Those are different issues.

3. The pro-life movement is about saving human lives, not controlling sex lives. There is nothing about purposefully preventing fertilization that destroys human lives. When we try to position being pro-life in opposition to using any artificial contraception, we make it seem like being pro-life is about how people should be having sex instead of about protecting already-created human lives. I don't think that's what most anti-contraception pro-lifers mean, but I can understand how people would be confused. And if that is what you mean, go away.

*** 
 
Look, I understand that a lot of the people who object to artificial contraception do so based on religious reasons very dear to them. I am not saying you must accept artificial contraception or even that you must stop speaking out about your problems with it. I am, however, asking that you make a distinction between a religious basis for being against artificial contraception, and a so-called "pro-life" basis. A minority of pro-lifers are against all forms of artificial contraception, but people don't have to be against all forms of artificial contraception to be pro-life. And people don't have to be okay with abortion to use artificial contraception. Kindly stop conflating all of that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Conceived to be Wild

SPL supporter Nicole J. won our "Language of Life" t-shirt contest with these companion designs:

 

This is a great conversation-starter, without being confrontational or over-the-top. ("Why does it say 'conceived to be wild' instead of 'born to be wild'?" "Because human life begins at conception; our language just hasn't caught up to the science.")

You can get yours for just $25! A portion of that price goes to Secular Pro-Life. Here are links to get yours on our Zazzle store:
By purchasing a shirt, you'll support us financially and spread the pro-life message. Win-win!

Monday, July 14, 2014

David Boonin's "Organized Cortical Brain Activity" Argument

[Today's guest post by Ben Williamson is part of our paid blogging program.]

Philosopher David Boonin, who is a prominent advocate of abortion rights, is in my opinion one of the most sophisticated defenders of abortion rights out of the authors I have read. He is somewhat different from most abortion rights advocates in that he wants to craft an argument that will support abortion rights, but will avoid the pitfall of infanticide. Since most arguments that deny the personhood of the unborn could very well be used to justify infanticide, Boonin does not want to go that route. Instead, he argues that even though both the unborn and newborn are not self-aware, the newborn is a person because it has a certain cortical brain activity that allows it to have desires. Once it has the ability to have desires, it can desire a right to life and hence have a right to life. We might call this the “desire” argument for convenience. Boonin’s argument, as outlined in Francis Beckwith’s essay Defending Abortion Philosophically: A Review of David Boonin’s A Defense of Abortion, can be seen as follows:
  1. Organized cortical brain activity must be present in order for a being to be capable of conscious experience. 
  2. Prior to having a conscious experience, a being has no desires.
  3. Desires (as understood in Boonin’s taxonomy; see below) are necessary in order for a being to have a right to life. 
  4. The fetus acquires organized cortical brain activity between 25 and 32 weeks gestation.
  5. Therefore, the fetus has no right to life prior to organized cortical brain activity. 
In the essay, Boonin makes several key distinctions between having certain desires: occurrent, dispositional, ideal, and actual desires. Occurrent desires are desires you have and are directly aware of them. For example I have the occurrent desire to finish this paper. However, you have a dispositional desire “if it is a desire that you do have right now even if you are not thinking about at just this moment, such as your desire to live a good long life.” (Beckwith 186.) Ideal desires are ones you have if you had additional information that would alter your actual desires. An example would be if you walked outside by the pool and there was an anaconda within five feet from you. But you had no idea. Ideally, you desire to be out of the area because your life could be in danger, even though your actual desire is to be by the pool. The youngest unborn, unlike newborns and people temporarily in comas, does not have dispositional or ideal desires since it lacks organized cortical brain activity. Hence, killing the unborn is permissible but it would not be permissible to kill newborns or comatose people.

Beckwith gives two responses to Boonin’s argument, but I will only focus on one for the sake of time. Beckwith claims that Boonin’s argument cannot account for possible indoctrination of someone to no longer believe they have a right to life. Beckwith writes, “a person, such as a slave, may be indoctrinated to believe he has no interests, but he still has a prima facie right not to be killed, even if he has no conscious desire for, or interest in, a right to life. Even if the slave is never killed, we would think that he has been harmed precisely because his desires and interests have been obstructed from coming to fruition.” (Beckwith 187.) But Boonin might respond by saying that the slave did have a right to life because he had ideal desires, which included the right to life, even though his actual or occurrent desires ran in the opposite direction.

But there seems to be a more serious objection for Boonin’s desire account for personhood. Beckwith illustrates this well: “Imagine that you own one of these indoctrinated slaves and she is pregnant with a fetus that has not reached the point of organized cortical brain activity. Because you have become convinced that Boonin’s view of desires is correct, and this you are starting to have doubts about the morality of indoctrinating people with already organized cortical brain activity to become slaves, you hire a scientist who is able to alter the fetus’s brain development in such a way that its organized cortical brain activity prevents the fetus from ever having desires for liberty or a right to life.” (Beckwith 188.) As a result of this operation, the fetus’s potential and basic capabilities to form into a more mature human being who will eventually have desires and possess organized cortical brain activity will never come to pass.

If Boonin is right that desires determine whether one has a right to life, and since the fetus’s brain structure was deliberately altered so as to prevent it from having desires, it follows that the fetus was not harmed in what happened. Was the fetus in fact harmed by this operation? I would say yes; but how would Boonin account for the wrongness of this act? Because according to his account of personhood, it is precisely the presence of organized cortical brain activity that establishes the capacity for the fetus to have desires and a right to life. Prior to that stage, the fetus does not have any desires or interests for anything, and hence cannot be harmed, because it does not have the present desire not to be harmed or killed. Only persons who have interests or desires not to be harmed – whether actual or dispositional – cannot be harmed or killed without moral justification. But since the fetus lacked all of these qualities, it was not harmed by the surgery and it was not deprived of anything since it did not have desires, if you accept Boonin’s argument for desires grounding a right to life.

To make it even more absurd, suppose you had a mother who intentionally wanted to give birth to three children who had no desires for anything, and arranged for their brain structures to be operated upon in such a way so as to prevent them from reaching organized cortical brain activity. And after giving birth to them, she kills them, harvests their eggs, and donates them to the Center for Disease Control for research. Has she done something morally wrong? Yes, because she deliberately consented to an operation that blocked the fetuses’ developmental capacity to desire anything and hence she hindered their growth process. The fetus was harmed because its potential growth was blocked from coming to completion, not merely because it failed to reach the state of desiring anything.

At the end of the day, Boonin’s account for personhood fails because it cannot explain why intentionally preventing someone from ever having desires prior to reaching organized cortical brain activity would be morally wrong or why it would harm the subject in question.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Todd Akin: Sorry He Was Sorry.

Two years ago, Todd Akin kamikaze’d his career during an interview in which he said, “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. 


Akin apologized for the comment, but it was too late to stop his downfall.  

Now Akin is gifting the public with another apology – he is sorry he said sorry.


By asking the public at large for forgiveness, I was validating the willful misinterpretation of what I had said. My comment about a woman’s body shutting the pregnancy down was directed to the impact of stress on fertilization. This is something fertility doctors debate and discuss. Doubt me? Google ‘stress and infertility,’ and you will find a library of research on the subject.
A library of research isn't conclusive evidence. A library of research might very well show the opposite of Akin’s claims. And the fact that, by Akin’s own admission, the subject is still debated implies there’s no conclusive position. Akin seems to be clarifying his position only by reinforcing the pseudo-science that people were accusing him of using in the first place. 

After Googling it myself, I found that some studies noted an association between stress and inability to conceive, the mechanism of which is still unknown. But saying there's an association, or that those with exposure to stress "experience fewer conceptions," or stress "influences" fertility, does not mean that stress always prevents fertilization. It doesn't even mean stress usually prevents fertilization.

For example (completely making these numbers up), suppose 25 out of 100 unstressed women conceive, but only 23 out of 100 stressed women conceive. You could say the stressed women "experienced fewer conceptions" but they still conceived at 92% the rate of the unstressed women. Saying there's an inverse relationship between stress and conception is a very far cry from implying that most women can't conceive if they're stressed. And saying there's an inverse relationship between stress and conception doesn't say anything about how the two factors influence each other. From WebMD:
"Stress may cause one set of reactions in one woman, and something else in another, so ultimately the reasons behind how or why stress impacts fertility may also be very individual," says Pisarska, MD and co-director of Center for Reproductive Medicine at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. 
In other words, there is no hard-and-fast rule about stress and infertility. 

So when Akin states that stress shuts down fertilization as if that's the normal female reaction, he's not only being incredibly insensitive to rape survivors who become pregnant, but he's also doubling down on his scientific inaccuracy. You don’t say, “Guys, scientists are studying a link between ice cream and cancer. Therefore anyone who eats ice cream gets cancer.” Sorry, that’s not how it works.

I’m not sure how Akin managed to write a whole chapter in his new book about this incident and come to the conclusion that he was justified in his remarks. And I'm not sure how someone like him gets onto a science committee.

So SPLers: if you felt sympathetic to Akin after he apologized, has your opinion changed?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Just a Clump of Cells?

[Today's post by Ben Williamson is part of our paid blogging program.]

It's well-established, as a scientific matter, that preborn embryos and fetuses are living human organisms. Nevertheless, many abortion advocates claim that the human embryo is not really a human being, but is merely a clump of cells, no more valuable than any somatic (body) cell in a human’s body.

For instance, in the July 11, 2001 edition of Reason magazine, author Ronald Bailey claimed: “Sure human embryos carry the full genetic code, but so do ordinary somatic cells. Using cloning technology, we can generate an entire human embryo from one of these cells, thus demonstrating that early embryos are no different in kind from any other bodily cell that’s routinely discarded.”

There are two fundamental problems with Bailey’s claim. First, Bailey makes the elementary mistake of conflating parts of a whole with the whole itself. Somatic cells are not an organism, but are merely part of a larger organism. A somatic cell, like a lone egg or sperm cell, will not turn into anything without outside intervention and will not produce anything if left to its own devices. Human embryos, by contrast, are already whole and distinct from their human parents. Moreover, their development is self-guided, as long as they have adequate nutrients. Second, the idea that human embryos are merely collections of cells is not only scientifically inaccurate but is rhetorically charged. The difference between a mere clump of cells and the human embryo is that clumps of cells alone don’t constitute a living organism. If a human embryo is to be a living human embryo, its body parts (cells and organs) have to be working together in a coordinated manner to guide its function and maturity.

The reason why a person is deemed to be clinically dead, even if some individual cells in his or her body are still alive, is that all of his or her bodily functions have ceased to operate due to the failure for the cells to work together in an integrated whole. The human embryo is a living organism because, in a healthy, stable environment, it is able to receive nutrition, and its cells are working together in a coordinated whole. If its cells fail to do that, then the human embryo will die, even though some of those cells will still be alive some time after the human being has died.

This concept was expressed well by Maureen Condic in Life: Defining the Beginning by the End:
What has been lost at death is not merely the activity of the brain or the heart, but more importantly the ability of the body’s parts (organs and cells) to function together as an integrated whole. Although cells of the brain are still alive following brain death, they cease to work together in a coordinated manner to function as a brain should.
Of course human embryos are made of living cells, but it does not follow that the mere presence of living cells is the equivalent of a human embryo. Condic concludes:
The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. Dead bodies may have plenty of live cells, but their cells no longer function together in a coordinated manner… Human life is defined by the ability to function as an integrated whole not by the mere presence of living human cells.