Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Response to the Spectrum Argument

On Patheos, pro-choice blogger Bob Seidensticker has formulated an argument for abortion that he calls the "Spectrum Argument" for abortion.

First, I'd just like to take a moment to say that it's refreshing to find a pro-choice blogger who actually attempts to make a logical argument for his position, rather than the rhetoric, demonizing of pro-life people, and just all around fallacious and otherwise bad arguments which are the normal fare on Patheos, as well as other pro-choice sites like RH Reality Check and Jezebel. So kudos for that.

The argument

Seidensticker's argument is that there is a spectrum of human personhood during gestation. He asks us to consider a spectrum from blue to green, where there is a continuous change. It's difficult to know where blue ends and green begins, but we can all agree that blue is not green. Similarly, it's difficult to know where a child ends and an adult begins, but we all know that a child is different from an adult.

So his argument seems to be something like the following:

1) Human personhood exists as a spectrum, from "not a person" to "full-fledged person."
2) Human fetuses fall toward the "not a person" side of the spectrum.
3) Therefore, human fetuses are not persons.

He gives a supporting argument. He argues that a brain with 100 billion neurons doesn't think 10^-11 times as fast as a brain with a single neuron. In fact, he asserts, it doesn't think at all. By the same token, the differences between a newborn and an adult is trivial compared to the difference between a single-cell zygote and a one trillion cell newborn.

The response

The immediate problem with this argument is that he gives no attempt to argue at what point we actually do become persons. This is a problem, because if there is the slightest chance that we may be killing human persons, then we ought not to kill them or we risk doing serious moral wrong. The argument "we don't know when we become persons, we just know the unborn don't qualify" is simply an ad hoc justification for abortion.

He resorts to the tired old arguments that an acorn is not an oak tree (no, but it is an immature oak tree), a silkworm is not a dress (of course not, because dresses don't develop from silkworms; it is made from the silk the worm produces), etc. This kind of argument just denotes a complete lack of knowledge of basic biology. I have dealt with these arguments elsewhere.

The spectrum argument fails to adequately address the fact that there is a continuity of human development that begins at fertilization and doesn't stop until after birth. Logically, that suggests that teenagers are "more of a person" than toddlers, because they are more developed, so teenagers should have the right to kill toddlers for any reason they want. And since adults are more developed still, they should have the right to kill teenagers. Then, of course, you start to lose certain developmental abilities as you get older, such as memory, motor functions, etc. So the elderly are less valuable and should be able to be killed by an adult for any reasons whatsoever. This is clearly an absurd argument, but it is the logical conclusion of the spectrum argument.

Not only is his argument absurd, but his supporting arguments don't do the work he needs them to do in order to support his main argument. It may be true that a brain with one neuron doesn't think nearly as fast as a brain with 100 billion neurons, but he misses the point that it is still a brain. It is just an immature brain. It hasn't had the chance to develop into a fully mature brain. Similarly, the unborn may be less developed at the single-cell stage than the 100 trillion cell stage, but it is still a human person at that stage. She is just an immature human person at that stage. She looks and acts exactly as a human being does, as every human being does, at that stage.

Seidensticker's assertion that he's an expert at babies doesn't add anything to his argument. I have had a hand in raising three of my nieces. Pro-life people have babies, too. The dictionary lists one definition of "baby" as "a human fetus." In fact, the term "fetus" in Latin means "offspring." It's true that pro-life people can use the term to add emotion to their argument, but it's equally true that pro-choice people often insist on using "fetus" or "embryo" in an attempt to dehumanize the unborn to make it more palatable to justify abortion.

So his comparison of the pro-life argument to PETA's slogan of "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy" is simply a false analogy. The unborn are full human persons, a claim I have amply justified before. And it's not hard to see how his argument fails. Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, did not appear human, and yet he clearly was. Being human in appearance does not make one a human person. What makes one a human person is their inherent nature as rational agents, a nature that is shared with the unborn. The reason that you have the present ability to think rationally and to even read this article is because the zygote that you were at the beginning of your life had the inherent capacity to develop it. As Christopher Kaczor notes, hedgehogs don't develop rationality because it's not in a hedgehog's nature (Sonic notwithstanding).

Seidensticker's point about how evangelicals thirty years ago supported abortion is simply irrelevant. Many people, from evangelicals to atheists, have become pro-life over the last thirty years. That's a testament to the strength of the pro-life position! Seidensticker's history is just a red herring, as it detracts from the actual argument.

Seidensticker finishes off by arguing that the pro-life argument fails because it fails to account for the spectrum. Seidensticker did a good job of representing the argument, but a poor job of refuting it. He didn't refute any of the premises, he just asserted (with weak evidence) that human personhood is a spectrum. Let's take a look at the argument as he presented it:

(1) Human life begins at conception;
(2) It is murder to take a human life;
(3) Abortion is murder and should be considered immoral.

This argument cannot be done away with by asserting a spectrum. The "human life" in this argument is clearly biological human life (and he even admits that from conception the zygote is a human biologically). If it is wrong to take a human life, then Seidensticker has affirmed the argument, not denied it. His "spectrum" argument is clearly an argument against personhood, not biological human life. So the argument as presented here succeeds. And as the icing on the cake, I have also soundly refuted the "spectrum argument."

Human development may exist on a spectrum, but human value clearly does not. The only clear place to draw the personhood line is at fertilization, because that's the clear place that someone begins. The sperm and the egg cease to exist and the new human being comes into existence. Then they are on a lifelong path of development that begins at fertilization and doesn't end until they're an adult. If abortion is going to be justified, clearly it won't be justified in this manner.


Jameson Graber said...

This part really says it all: "I really don’t care what the spectrum is called—humanity, personhood, human development, like-me-ness, whatever—call it what you want as long as the naming acknowledges the stark difference between the newborn (with arms and legs and a circulatory system and a nervous system and eyes and ears and so on) and the single fertilized human egg cell."

When I got to "like-me-ness," I thought, *ding ding ding,* that's correct. If what it really requires to have basic human rights is "like-me-ness," then of course abortion is justified.

But if we slide far enough down that slippery slope, it's not hard to see how other acts of killing can be justified, as well.

I know people hate to see abortion compared with more agreed upon atrocities, but these kinds of statements invite such comparisons. "Like-me-ness." After all the infamous dehumanization of the 20th century, can this kind of rhetoric really be acceptable?

LN said...

Excellent point. That phrase definitely unveils the pro-choice mentality, a rather narcissistic (though usually subconscious) position that prompted me to make this graphic:

Kristin said...

I always enjoy your articles Clinton, thank you!

ignorance_is_curable said...

The spectrum argument is flawed because the author didn't know about how it has been discovered that personhood is an acquired characteristic, and only gets acquired many months after birth.

As a Primary Logical Consequence, no other rebuttal is needed.

As a Secondary Logical Consequence, abortion has absolutely nothing to do with killing persons.

Clinton said...

Thanks, Kristin! I'm glad you enjoy them and I hope you find them helpful.

Clinton said...

Hi, Max:

I don't pretend that there are absolutely no difficulties with the pro-life position (especially since mine is based on persons as substances), but the problem is pro-choice people tend to point to difficulties as if these refute the argument itself.

I think that anencephalic fetuses (hereafter AF) and braindead humans (hereafter BD) are people for the same reason -- all human beings have inherent capacities that ground their value as human beings, the capacity for rationality. Now whereas a healthy fetus will develop the presently-exercisable capacity for rationality in due time, the AF is not any less of a human or less of a person because he/she will not actualize that capacity. He/she still has that capacity, it just won't be realized. A hundred years ago, if someone lost their sight they would never regain it. But now, we have techniques like cornea transplants that can allow people, in some circumstances, to regain their sight. Now even though one hundred years ago someone who lost their sight would never see again, they still retained the capacity for sight -- just no longer at the presently-exercisable level. But now, someone who loses their sight *can* see again -- because the capacity still remains. it's the same for AFs -- they still have that capacity for rationality, they just won't be able to actualize it. But just as recently doctors managed to save a baby's life who was born with his heart outside of his body, it may be possible through reconstructive surgery to repair an AFs damage, thereby allowing him/her to develop rationality normally.

Now regarding BD humans, the same applies. It may be possible sometime in the future to restore a BD person to "life" (that is, being able to function as a person) or it may not. But the thing about BD persons is that their capacity for rationality has been irreversibly lost. Since that is the case, it is futile to keep them on life support. If there is no chance of the person coming back, then there is no point to keep them on life support.

KB said...

"Sonic notwithstanding" :)

The Nun said...


You must be very careful when denying humans personhood. Centuries of dark history can show you the results.

Clinton said...

Had to show some love to my favorite hedgehog. :)

anon said...

To me, the difference is; those first two people have no chance of survival. A, say, 25 week old fetus does. Now, if you argue that fetuses are not conscience, first I'd like to say that from twtenty weeks on they are mentally similar to a newborn. But, if you argue that a 5-week-old embryo (it bugs me when people mix those up,) is not conscience, I have the example of the sleeping man; he's not dreaming, nothing. Would it be ok to kill him thhen? "But wait," you say "a sleeping man will sleep for eight hours, that embryo still has eight months to go." Lets have another scenerio; a pysche says the man in a comma will wake in eight months, exactly. Would it be all right to kill him? Just some food for thought. Thanks for sharing you point of view and being polite. Blessed be.

Defamate said...

Is that Disneyland's idea of Pocahontas? Or did it come from the porno industry?

M said...

An abortion advocate using "the spectrum" to justify abortion makes just as much sense as a creationist using evolution to justify their beliefs.

Better luck next time.

argent said...

I think ignorance's definition of personhood is more like what most people would call "self-awareness", whereas we would use it to mean something along the lines of "human rights". They they use this mix-up to assert that it's somehow proven beyond a doubt that only self-aware people have human rights.

ignorance_is_curable said...

I am more careful about personhood than you think, because I am not interested in any short-sighted egotistical prejudiced definition of the word.

Science Fiction has introduced a huge fraction of humanity to the notion that non-human persons might exist. Just see "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" or even the more-recent "Avatar" movie.

So, exactly what, generically, distinguishes persons from mere animals? It cannot be "human-ness" if it is possible for even one non-human person to exist!

So, here are a few characteristics (not necessarily a complete list, because the topic is still being researched), which might be used to distinguish persons from animals:

1. Persons are self-aware.

2. Persons have Free Will.

3. Persons are able to understand the concept of "the future".

4. Persons are able to creatively manipulate abstractions.

5. Persons are able to mentally place themselves into the situations of other entities.

6. "Persons are individuals who transcend their organic individuality in conscious social participation." (Sir Julian Huxley)

Unborn humans have none of those characteristics, provable because more-developed newborn humans can be tested, and they don't exhibit any of those characteristics, either.

Meanwhile, the Law grants legal person status to newborn humans. Please do not confuse the Law with any Science, regarding personhood. Logically, however, if the Law was to be modified, which way is more "rational"? To make the Law more consistent with the Science (which would have the effect of allowing infanticide) or to make the Law less consistent with the Science (which of course would prohibit abortion)?

What if the best course is simply to leave the Law where it is? I now invite you to go to this web page (prepend the http),
and search the comments for the exact phrase "invasion of the nice ones", and read that.

Bob Seidensticker said...

Clinton: I have responded to your post here.

Bob Seidensticker said...

If what it really requires to have basic human rights is "like-me-ness," then of course abortion is justified.

A mosquito is not like me. I kill a mosquito, with pleasure. Makes me a monster, I guess.

Clinton said...

A dog is not like you, either. Would someone be a monster for tearing off a dog's limbs and tails for pleasure?

Clinton said...

Yes, I saw it. A response will be forthcoming.

Bob Seidensticker said...

No for a mosquito. Pretty much for a dog. Outrageously so for a human.


Clinton said...

I disagree. I think that while the act itself is not as wrong as tearing the limbs of a human (since humans are rational agents), it would still be seriously wrong to tear the limbs off a dog for fun because they are conscious creatures and they feel pain. You seem married to this idea of a "spectrum" of value, but aside from just being incorrect, it leads to some pretty barbaric conclusions.

Bob Seidensticker said...

I disagree.

?? Doesn’t look like it.

You seem married to this idea of a "spectrum" of value, but aside from just being incorrect, it leads to some pretty barbaric conclusions.

You just now showed how married you are to the idea of a spectrum. And the “barbaric conclusions” are that killing a person is worse than killing a dog, and killing a dog is worse than killing a mosquito?

Em said...

The spectrum applies among species, not within. At least, not within the human species. I would say a gorilla has greater intrinsic value than a squirrel due to its greater intelligence and ability to communicate. I would NOT say that someone with a genius level IQ and great communication skills has greater intrinsic value than someone with mental retardation or non verbal autism. Nor would I say that the former person has a greater right to life. (I suppose you could argue that it is more wrong to kill them if they are likely going to contribute more good to society, but in terms of their own intrinsic worth and rights, the two people are equal.)

Bob Seidensticker said...

The spectrum applies among species, not within.

We can see if there’s a spectrum wherever we like, across species as well as within.

I would NOT say that someone with a genius level IQ and great communication skills has greater intrinsic value than someone with mental retardation or non verbal autism.

Nor I.

Em said...

Well that's an example of the spectrum argument being applied within humans. If you disagree with it, how would you use it to justify abortion?

Bob Seidensticker said...

We see a spectrum of value when comparing animal species, as well as comparing the single cell with the newborn that it becomes 9 months later.

I'm not sure what you're saying that I disagree with.

The justification is the same as we see with mosquitoes, pigs, dogs, and humans: we (happily) kill mosquitoes, but at the other end of the spectrum, we declare killing humans as usually a terrible crime.

With the 9 months of gestation, personhood increases from none (single cell) to all (newborn). If you object to the word "personhood," that's fine--just give me your term for what property the newborn possesses that the single cell doesn't.

Em said...

If the statement "a human individual with a low IQ who can't communicate well is less valuable (or less of a person) than a genius" is incorrect, that shows that spectrum argument doesn't apply within humans. Applying the spectrum argument within humans is directly contrary to the entire idea of human equality and equal rights.

Why then is it not unethical and bigoted to say that a fetus, due to his or her lower mental capabilities, is less valuable than a newborn? How is abortion anything but age discrimination?

Defamate said...

Because a zygote/embryo/fetus isn't simply 1) less intelligent 2) less capable 3) younger, than a born person...

It's under construction. Incomplete and partially formed. In some cases, it's just a genetic blueprint. It's a whole other thing, than simply being 'young'.

Bob Seidensticker said...

that shows that spectrum argument doesn't apply within humans.

No, that shows that you don’t understand the spectrum argument. The difference between living adults (of whatever IQ) is insignificant compared to the difference between the newborn and the single cell it started as.

Applying the spectrum argument within humans is directly contrary to the entire idea of human equality and equal rights.

I don’t remember Dr. King pulling first-term abortions into his platform. I think, from his standpoint, he had bigger fish to fry. He was focused on persons.

Em said...

"The difference between living adults is insignificant." Says who? At multiple points in history, those with low IQs or mental disabilities were seen as inferior and were oppressed. Clearly that was morally wrong, but there IS a difference mentally between the adult with highly developed intelligence, and the adult with less developed intelligence. Someone who can hardly speak or read is clearly different than a physicist giving lectures at Yale. No, maybe it's not as great as the difference between either of them and the fetus, but that isn't the same as the difference not existing at all. The physicist is a lot more mentally developed than a child, who is more mentally developed than an infant, who is more mentally developed than a 30 week old fetus, who is more developed than a 10 week fetus. (Do you consider 3rd trimester fetuses more valuable than 1st trimester ones?) All this would simply mean that a genius is slightly more valuable, and has a slightly greater right to life than, someone with mental retardation. And that he has a significantly greater value than a toddler, and massively greater value than a fetus. If a newborn is more valuable and has greater rights than, say, a 3rd trimester fetus, logical consistency means that human equality goes out the window.

It's interesting that you mention Dr. King, by the way. It was Dr. King who said "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I would say that stripping an entire class of humans of their rights and personhood based on their current traits is both bigoted and unjust. Also Dr. King's niece, Dr. Alveda King, (daughter of civil rights activist AD William King Sr.) is a dedicated pro-life activist.

I realize it's emotionally difficult for people to think of a fetus as being a person, because they are so different from you or me. But how many times throughout history have we declared entire classes of human to be non-persons, and used that to justify killing or enslaving or exploiting them? How many times have we said "all men are created equal....except for them, they're too different." And how many times have we been right? Never.

Em said...

Development is a continuous process that isn't by any means complete at birth. All that happens at birth is that the young human is big and strong enough to live in his mother's arms instead of his mother's womb, (which obviously requires a rearrangement of the manner in which he gets oxygen and nutrients). And a toddler is developed enough to live without being bottle or breast fed, and a teenager is developed enough to live without being cared for by his or her parents.

By the same logic you could argue that we are "incomplete and partially formed" until we're about 20 and our brains are done developing. Why draw the line at birth?

Defamate said...

Interesting that you mention Dr. King.

Nelson Mandela was a pro-abort, btw.

Bob Seidensticker said...

Says who?

I answered the same question at LAN earlier today. I’ll copy it here.

List 1: Things that adults have that newborns don’t: more hair, muscle, coordination, judgment, knowledge, and so on. That is, the same stuff that the newborns have, just more of it. The only exception that I can think of is (that is, a difference in kind, not degree) is sexual maturity. The newborns can’t reproduce.

List 2: Things that newborns have that the single cell doesn’t:








brain and nervous system

heart and circulatory system

stomach and digestive system


pituitary gland




fingers and toes

gall bladder


and many, many more.

These are all differences in kind. The single cell is, y’know, a cell. It doesn’t have any of these things in a smaller form. It doesn’t even have a single cell of any of these—it is a totipotent cell. Lots of potential, all of it unrealized.

See the difference? This is why the difference between two adults of differing IQ is insignificant to what we’re talking about here.

Someone who can hardly speak or read is clearly different than a physicist giving lectures at Yale. No, maybe it's not as great as the difference between either of them and the fetus

The point is that this difference it’s not in the same ballpark as that between the newborn and the single cell, which is the process we’re talking about.

Do you consider 3rd trimester fetuses more valuable than 1st trimester ones?

More of a person, yes.

I would say that stripping an entire class of humans of their rights and personhood based on their current traits is both bigoted and unjust.

You’re hiding behind ambiguity in the word “human.” In common parlance, it’s the people we see around us every day. You want to extend the net widely to capture also single cells that can’t even be seen without a microscope. You’ve changed the word dramatically, so bringing in civil rights doesn’t work—different definitions.

But how many times throughout history have we declared entire classes of human to be non-persons, and used that to justify killing or enslaving or exploiting them?

Ask the slave holder to make a list of differences between him and his lowest slave. Now compare that to the list above of the differences between the newborn and a single cell.

No comparison. No, the bigot analogy doesn’t work.

Philmonomer said...


Clinton said...

It is not under construction, it is already a full human being. Human development is not like car construction. Humans are substances, not artifacts. They develop themselves from within, and they exist prior to their parts (as opposed to artifacts, which find their identity in their parts). Human development doesn't end at birth.

Mirable said...

The homunculus theory of human development was discarded a long time ago.