Friday, December 7, 2018

Vote for Secular Pro-Life in the Project for Awesome Video Contest

The Foundation to Decrease World Suck, led by legendary YouTubers John and Hank Green, is holding its annual Project for Awesome (P4A) event this weekend. The P4A is a fundraiser and video contest rolled into one. Participants submit videos highlighting their favorite charities, and supporters vote on the videos at the P4A website. Voting opens today at noon EST. The dozen or so charities with the top-voted videos get grants from the Foundation to Decrease World Suck!

This is the first year that Secular Pro-Life has been eligible as a 501(c)3, so naturally I submitted a video:

Increasing representation for secular pro-lifers, and moving the abortion conversation away from religious red herrings toward universal recognition of the right to life, is a great way to decrease world suck. Here's how to help:
  1. Go to between Friday, December 7 at 12:00 p.m. and Sunday, December 9 at 11:59 a.m. UPDATE: You can now use our direct link.
  2. Vote for Secular Pro-Life's video.
  3. Tell your friends to vote too!
Thanks for your support, and as they say in John and Hank's hometown, don't forget to be awesome!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

McFall v. Shimp and Thomson's Violinist don't justify the vast majority of abortions.

Many people argue that abortion is justified because of bodily rights. The idea is that it doesn’t matter if the fetus is a person or not, because no person can use your body against your will. If that principle is generally true and generally applies to abortion, it makes sense to be pro-choice regardless of whether or not you think the fetus is a valuable human.

McFall v. Shimp
People who argue that bodily rights are paramount sometimes point to the court case of McFall v. Shimp. This isn’t a huge court case—it wasn’t the Supreme Court, it was the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania—but it’s an important case because of the unique case elements.

Robert McFall was an asbestos worker with anemia. He was given a 20% chance of surviving another year unless he got a bone marrow transplant. His relatives were tested and his cousin, David Shimp, was a likely match. Unfortunately Shimp didn’t want to donate his bone marrow. In desperation McFall took Shimp to court, hoping to compel Shimp to give this life-saving donation. However the court sided fairly quickly with Shimp. The judge stated,
Morally, this decision rests with the Defendant, and, in the view of the Court, the refusal of the Defendant is morally indefensible. For a law to compel the Defendant to submit to an intrusion of his body would change every concept and principle upon which our society is founded.
In other words, even though Robert McFall was clearly a person with as much moral worth as you and I, and even though he would die without this bodily donation, the Court would not compel Shimp to donate to McFall. And McFall did die shortly thereafter.

Article here.

So if we can’t compel someone to give of his body to save Robert McFall, how can we compel someone to give of her body to save a fetus?

The Violinist
Another example of this idea is a thought experiment by Judith Jarvis Thomson. She wrote an essay called “A Defense of Abortion” in which she argued that we need not debate whether the fetus is a person because abortion is justified anyway. To illustrate her point, she asks you to imagine you wake up one day in a hospital bed and your circulatory system is hooked up to a man in the bed next to you. You learn this man is a very talented and famous violinist with a fatal kidney ailment, and his fans--the Society of Music Lovers--have somehow reviewed all available medical records and learned that you are the only person with the right kidney or blood type to filter the poisons from the Violinist’s blood. So the Society of Music Lovers kidnaps you, knocks you out, and attaches you to the Violinist.

The hospital director enters the room and says he is terribly sorry—if he had realized what was happening he would have never allowed it. Nevertheless, you’re now attached to the Violinist and if you unplug, the man will die. But if you stay plugged in for nine months, the Violinist will be cured and you can each go on your way.

Thomson then asks if it is morally required of you to stay plugged in to the Violinist. And even if it is morally required, should it be legally required? Most people intuitively think it should not. They agree it would be a heroic act if you stayed hooked up to the Violinist, but they don’t think such an act should be legally required.

True Analogies
I agree with both the real life example of McFall v. Shimp and the hypothetical example of the Violinist. I don’t think Shimp should have been legally required to donate to McFall, and I don’t think you should be legally required to stay hooked up to the Violinist. And yet I still think most abortions should be illegal. Is that a contradiction?

No, it’s not.

McFall v. Shimp and The Violinist are not analogous to abortion; if they were I would think bodily donation should be required in those cases too.

In order for a bodily rights argument to be analogous to abortion, the hypothetical needs to include the following five elements:
  1. If you refuse bodily donation, someone else will die.
  2. You chose to risk making this person’s life depend on you.
  3. No one else can save this person.
  4. Your bodily donation is temporary.
  5. Your refusal means actively killing this person, not just neglecting to save him.
Some suggest that last factor is being too nitpicky. If the person is going to be dead either way, what difference does it make whether you neglect to save him versus actively kill him? 

It makes a great deal of difference. It’s the difference between watching someone drown while refusing to try to rescue him versus holding him underwater until he dies. It’s the difference between unplugging from the Violinist and letting him succumb to his kidney ailment versus shooting him in the head. We recognize both socially and legally a great difference between actively killing someone versus simply neglecting to save him. And the main point here is that most forms of abortion actively kill humans, rather than simply fail to save them.

McFall v. Shimp Revisited
McFall v. Shimp does not meet all five criteria. It does have the following two elements:
  • If you refuse bodily donation, someone else will die.
  • Your bodily donation is temporary.
Shimp refused to donate bone marrow, and McFall died. And bone marrow donations are temporary in the sense that you can regenerate bone marrow. 

But the case lacks the remaining three criteria:
  • You chose to risk making this person’s life depend on you.
  • No one else can save this person.
  • Your refusal means actively killing this person, not just neglecting to save him.
Shimp had nothing to do with the fact that McFall's life was in danger. (And even though Shimp was in no way responsible for McFall's condition, the court still found Shimp's refusal to donate "morally indefensible.") Additionally, in coming to a ruling, the Court discussed the fact that there could be an unrelated person out there who was a bone marrow match. (If you’re interested in potentially saving lives through bone marrow donation, please check out Finally, Shimp neglected to save McFall; he didn't actively kill his cousin.
If McFall v. Shimp were truly analogous to abortion, it would involve Shimp making a decision that he knew could endanger McFall. Say there was some button Shimp could press that made him feel wonderful; he knew pushing the button involved the remote chance that McFall would contract a fatal ailment only Shimp could save him from. Still, Shimp figured the chance was too small to worry about, and so he pushed the button anyway. Then McFall did get a fatal illness, and he reached out to Shimp to save him. Shimp declined ...and then shot McFall in the head. That’s abortion.

The Violinist Revisited
The Violinist thought experiment suffers from similar limitations. It’s a bit closer to the proper analogy because Thomson includes the fact that you are the only person who can save the Violinist. So The Violinist has the three elements: 
  • If you refuse bodily donation, someone else will die.
  • No one else can save this person.
  • Your bodily donation is temporary.
But the thought experiment fails to meet the remaining two criteria:
  • You chose to risk making this person’s life depend on you.
  • Your refusal means actively killing this person, not just neglecting to save him.
In the thought experiment, you didn’t choose to risk the Violinist’s life, nor did you choose to hook yourself up to him. In fact a major aspect of the story is that you were kidnapped and hooked up to the Violinist against your will. You very specifically had no choice in the matter. Furthermore you don’t kill the Violinist. You are choosing whether or not to unplug from him and let him succumb to his ailment; you’re not choosing whether to smother him with a pillow.

When bodily rights arguments are adjusted to include all five criteria, they become pretty unpersuasive. At best the conclusion sounds incredibly immoral, and at worst it also sounds very illegal.

Roe v. Wade
It’s important to also understand what the Supreme Court case legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade, had to say about bodily rights. During oral arguments they did argue that the woman should be able to get an abortion because it’s her body and thus her choice. However SCOTUS did not ground the right to abortion in bodily rights; instead they grounded it in a right to privacy and explicitly rejected the bodily rights argument:

Click to enlarge
Roe v. Wade actually ruled that the government can outlaw abortion after a certain point in the pregnancy, meaning the government can compel bodily donation to keep another alive. In fact in an article analyzing McFall v. Shimp and whether we should always say bodily rights trump saving lives, FE Huffman cites Roe v. Wade as precedent for compulsory bodily donation.

Click to enlarge
Huffman also notes that Roe v. Wade didn’t even consider the fetus a person and yet still allowed for compulsory bodily donation to keep another entity alive. How much stronger would the case be if the law recognized the fetus as a person?*

If your response to all this is that these analogies overstate the case because the fetus isn't a person, you're implicitly demonstrating my point: bodily rights arguments work only if the fetus isn't a person. If the fetus is a valuable human being, the "my body, my choice" train of thought isn't nearly strong enough to justify abortion.

We have now completed half of this cycle.

Consider the fact that most Americans believe abortion is justified only at earlier stages of pregnancy or only under more severe circumstances. If you believe elective abortion should be illegal at later stages of the pregnancy, your stance implies bodily right are not sacrosanct. For people who view the embryo and fetus as morally valuable humans from the beginning, bodily rights don’t even come close to justifying the vast majority of abortions.

*During oral arguments the justices and plaintiffs suggested that if we recognized the fetus as a person under the 14th amendment, it would be almost impossible to justify legal abortion. Remember that background when people claim Roe v. Wade remained neutral on the question of when life begins.

Further Reading
ERI Bodily Rights Materials - a whole collection of thoughtful articles by the Equal Rights Institute related to bodily rights arguments.
Misconceptions about the rape exception - Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, 7/19/14, post exploring the relationship between bodily rights arguments and the rape exception

Monozygotic Twinning: Weasley brothers, flatworms, and cow clones

Dizygotic twinning is when two sperm fertilize two eggs and produce two zygotes which grow as two separate organisms. Not confusing, right?

Monozygotic twinning is when a single sperm fertilizes a single egg and produces a single zygote, but in the earliest stages of development that embryo splits into two organisms.

Image from Gilbert & Barresi, Developmental Biology, 11th Edition

We don’t actually know why this happens. MZ twinning is more common in in vitro fertilization (IVF) than in naturally occurring pregnancies, and there is some interesting research trying to explore why that might be, but so far we haven’t got any clear answers.

Fred & George prove mysterious once again.
Occasionally people point to MZ twinning to undermine the claim that the human zygote is the first developmental stage of a human organism. After all, if it’s possible the early embryo can split, does that mean the zygote is actually two organisms at once? How can we say the zygote is the beginning of a single human organism when we don’t know how many organisms will be present at the end?

But we have analogous situations where a single organism can ultimately produce another, and that doesn’t undermine the fact that the original organism was and is a single organism.

For example, some people think of MZ twinning as akin to a type of asexual reproduction. Flatworms can eventually generate and split from new flatworms. That doesn’t mean the original flatworm wasn’t an individual organism.

The parent flatworm on the far left is an individual organism.

Others see MZ twinning as a type of natural cloning. In somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning), we take the DNA from Donor 1, and then we take an egg from Donor 2. We remove Donor 2’s DNA from her egg, and instead we insert Donor 1’s DNA into the egg. We stimulate that cell to grow, implant in a surrogate, and the surrogate will gestate and birth a clone of Donor 1.

Donor 1 (top left blue cow) is an individual organism.

This is a fascinating and impressive process, but it doesn’t change the fact that Donor 1 is an individual organism. We wouldn’t look at the donor cow and say “Is she an organism? Is she just one organism? If bizarre or mysterious processes happen to some of her cells, it’s possible she could generate a new organism, so how do we know how many organisms she is?” No, we know she is a single cow.

By analogy, the zygote may, for reasons mysterious, generate an additional organism; that doesn’t change the fact that the zygote is a single organism, and that a human zygote is the first developmental stage of a human organism.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Project Rosie Saves Lives in Michigan

A pregnant Rosie the Riveter is the mascot for Project Rosie, a pro-life campaign dedicated to assisting pregnant and parenting college students in Michigan. Project Rosie is a nonprofit group created by Protect Life Michigan, and it travels to different colleges all across Michigan in an attempt to help pregnant college women choose life.

I met with Project Rosie in the Eastern Michigan Student Center entirely by chance. It was towards the end of November, and I was hurrying back to my dorm room to study for an exam and to try and figure out what I was going to do with my life, and with the life growing inside of me. I had found out that I was pregnant only three weeks earlier, and with no money, no job, and a relationship that could be described as rocky at best, it was seeming more and more like abortion was the only option. Then I ran into Project Rosie. The group was handing out cards and explaining how they could connect pregnant or parenting students with resources that would allow them to keep their baby and finish school. I approached the table hesitantly. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Anna and I’m six weeks pregnant.” What followed was hugs, love, and good wishes. They were the first people who didn’t respond to my pregnancy with a disappointing, “oh,” or start lecturing me about how the responsible thing to do would be to get an abortion. I left that table with plans to meet with the Protect Life EMU student organization group leader, and a huge box filled with gifts for me, and for my baby.

This group leader met with me every week, and walked me through the decisions of abortion, adoption, or parenting. While I ruled abortion out pretty quickly, it seemed for a while as though an adoption was the way to go. I picked out a nice couple and even met with them once or twice, but the day I felt my baby kick I knew I couldn’t go through with it. Once I decided to keep my baby I was scared to tell the group leader. Sure, she had been supportive so far, but would she continue to support a young, 20 year old college student who honestly had no business raising a baby? And yet she did. Throughout the entire process, Project Rosie never once judged me or told me what to do. At a time when everyone else was giving me their opinions and telling me what to do, they were the only ones who truly listened to me, and always asked what would be best for me.

Project Rosie has three main goals: to reach, to empower, and to support. Project Rosie reached out to me, empowered me, and continues to support me and countless other girls to this day. Project Rosie’s website provides information to resources available at or around every college in Michigan. They don’t just care about saving a baby’s life, they care about saving the woman as well. Before Project Rosie, I wasn’t sure what I should do and I did not see my pregnancy as a blessing. It’s been a year since I first met them and I now have a beautiful 4 month old baby girl to show for it. Both she and I will always be thankful for the wonderful people at Project Rosie.

[Today's guest post by Annaliese Corace is part of our paid blogging program]

Monday, December 3, 2018

Nearly half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant.

The human zygote is the first developmental stage of a human organism’s life cycle. Sometimes when I state this fact, people respond by pointing out that many zygotes never implant. Bill Nye made the same point in his video on abortion rights:
Many many many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized—by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova—a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb.
It’s true that a large proportion—possibly even up to half—of zygotes never implant and instead pass through the woman and die. I’m just not sure why people think this fact undermines the claim that human zygotes are human organisms. We don’t decide whether an entity is an organism based on how easily that entity dies. Consider the fact that as recently as the 1800s over 40% of children between birth and age 5 died. Despite their high mortality rate, those children were clearly still human organisms.

Consider also that very elderly people die more easily than younger people. If we plotted the human life cycle against our survival rates, it might look something like this (this is not an official graph, just a rough drawing to illustrate the point):

There are developmental stages when human organisms have lower survival rates. That’s true. I’m just not sure what it has to do with whether those entities are human organisms. Elderly people, very young children, and zygotes all die more easily than people my age, and they are all still human organisms.