Friday, November 30, 2018

Personhood based on human cognitive abilities.

What difference is there (if any) between a human organism and a “person”? Is there such thing as a human non-person? How do we determine which human organisms have moral worth and merit social protection?

People have given me a variety of suggestions for the factors human organisms need to be morally relevant, including connection to society, viability, the ability to feel pain, or conscious awareness. For different reasons I find these moral cutoffs pretty ad hoc and problematic (see Further Reading at the end of this post).

But some suggest you aren't a “person” until you exhibit human-specific cognitive abilities. To my mind this definition of personhood is more intuitive, especially for secularists. What is it that we value about humans? What sets us apart from other known species? It makes sense to me that it would be our unprecedented cognitive abilities. While there are certain species that have shown impressive levels of cognition compared to most others, they still don’t come anywhere close to the level of complexity in language, social interactions, and creativity that humans achieve. So if we’re taking a step back from the abortion debate in general and asking “What do we value about the human species?” and you answer “Our cognitive abilities,” that makes sense to me.

I think if I were pro-choice, human-specific cognitive abilities would be my definition of personhood. Of course I'm not pro-choice, and in this post I’ll explain why this definition just doesn’t quite get me there.

If a human organism needs human-specific cognitive ability to have moral worth, it’s true that abortion would be justified at any stage in pregnancy. Even later term fetuses don’t have human-specific cognition yet. The problem is neither do newborns.

People who emphasize human cognition typically consider infanticide—killing human neonates or infants—horrific. But if abortion is justified and infanticide is horrific, it can’t be human-specific cognition that separates the two. There is nothing magical about birth in terms of our cognition.

"No major cognitive distinction here." Click to enlarge.

Quite the opposite, humans are specifically underdeveloped in terms of cognition when we’re born. For our first two years functional networks in our brains swiftly gain structure. Here’s passage from a 2017 publication in NeuroImage:

Researchers exploring early childhood development believe we don’t achieve conscious awareness until, at the earliest, 9 months old:

Here’s a table summarizing their assessment strategies. You can read more about it in the publication:

Click to enlarge

The neurons and neural connections that ultimately “make us human” are still proliferating rapidly during our first few years:

Developmental Biology, 11th Edition, Gilbert & Barresi

Human neonates are comparatively useless because at that point we still have such a huge amount of brain development ahead of us. This idea is well known in evolutionary biology. Sea turtles are born and soon start hauling toward the sea. Giraffes are born and within days are walking around. Have you ever held a human newborn? We can’t even raise our heads for the first two months or so. We are remarkably helpless and dependent. Scientific American talks a bit more about why:
Human infants are especially helpless because their brains are comparatively underdeveloped. Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.
In “Developmental Biology” (11th edition), Gilbert & Barresi reiterate the point:

Gilbert & Barresi point out that it is uniquely human for our brains to continue maturing into adulthood. Here is an illustration from the same text showing how myelination (basically coating our nerves in a way that allows nerve impulses to travel more quickly) continues to increase even up to age 20.


If our moral worth stems from our present human-specific cognitive abilities, it’s true the embryo and fetus don’t yet have those abilities and so wouldn’t yet have that worth. But it’s also true neonates don’t have those abilities and so also wouldn’t have that worth. When I point this out, sometimes people respond by saying the newborn is still valuable because she will have those abilities in the future. I agree, but if our moral worth stems from our future human-specific cognitive abilities, that argument applies to the fetus as well.

It isn’t only those of us against abortion who have noticed this connection. In their infamous 2012 publication “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue that it should be permissible to practice “after-birth abortion” on healthy human newborns because the newborn and fetus are morally equivalent: both are human beings and potential persons but neither are actual persons due to their insufficient level of mental development.

I recognize that the vast majority of pro-choice people find this idea despicable. Pro-choice people love babies and frequently have their own children and don’t in any way intend to normalize infanticide. My point is not to suggest that anyone who advocates for abortion must feel cavalier about killing newborn babies. My point is that the idea that our value comes from present human-specific cognition necessarily devalues not only fetuses but also infants. That is why I can’t hold such a position.

Further Reading (or Watching):
Why viability is the least plausible definition of personhood, Equal Rights Institute, August 10, 2018
Circumventing philosophy hell, Equal Rights Institute, December 8, 2017
The Nervous System, Part 2 – Action! Potential! Crash Course A&P, March 2, 2015
The most undervalued argument in the prolife movement, Equal Rights Institute, October 1, 2013
Arguments against fetal personhood, Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, February 4, 2013
Viability = Personhood? Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, August 15, 2012
Consciousness = Personhood? Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, August 7, 2012
No matter how small, Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, November 13, 2011

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Hydatidiform moles and molar pregnancies

[This post contains photographs of infants with serious genetic abnormalities.] 

Pro-life people often say:
  • Life begins at conception (or fertilization). 
  • At fertilization there is a new entity genetically distinct from the woman. 
  • If two humans have sex their offspring will be human (rather than a dog, a frog, or any other species). 
Sometimes pro-choice people point to molar pregnancies, or hydatidiform moles (HMs), to undermine the above claims. HMs are products of human sexual intercourse. They are genetically distinct from the woman. Yet to the extent we’re aware of molar pregnancies we nearly always destroy them.

This situation demonstrates how messy biology can be. But it doesn’t undermine the basic fact pro-life people are trying to establish: the human zygote is the first developmental stage of a human organism. Every human has his or her own life cycle, and the zygote is the beginning of a human life cycle. HMs don’t change that fact, and in this post I explain why not.

There are two types of HMs: complete and partial.

1. Complete hydatidiform moles (CHM) 
A CHM exists when the sperm fertilizes an egg that had no nuclear DNA. While it’s true this mole arises from fertilization, it is not true that the mole is a human organism. The vast majority of human organisms have two sets of DNA: one set of 23 chromosomes from the father and one from the mother. A CHM has only the sperm’s DNA. Here is a relevant excerpt from Larsen’s Human Embryology (Schoenwolf, Bleyl, Brauer, & Francis-West, 5th Edition):

Similarly, here is the definition of a hydatidiform mole from the 11th edition of Developmental Biology (Gilbert & Barresi):

A CHM involves no embryonic growth. As Larsen’s explains, “the fetus is entirely missing.” Moreover CHMs have a high probability of becoming carcinogenic. We can and should terminate these pregnancies: they are very dangerous to the woman and they don’t even involve another human anyway. This situation is not ethically complicated.

2. Partial hydatidiform mole (PHM) 
A PHM arises when two sperm fertilize an egg that does have nuclear DNA. In contrast with other human organisms who generally have two sets of 23 chromosomes, these organisms have three sets of 23 chromosomes. Here is another excerpt from Larsen’s:

We typically have two copies of every chromosome. Three copies of a chromosome are called trisomies. For example, Down syndrome is called Trisomy 21 because it occurs when there is a third copy of the 21st chromosome. Even one extra chromosome is often fatal: fetuses with trisomies frequently miscarry. Even when they survive beyond birth, they have significant developmental challenges. With that in mind, it is really astounding that triploid human organisms (that is, humans with not just one extra chromosome but 23 extra chromosomes) ever make it to infancy. It’s very rare, but it has happened. Here are two examples, including photographs from the publications:

Digynic triploid infant surviving for 46 days, Hasegawa et al, American Journal of Medical Genetics, December 1999

Infant at 4 weeks

Long-term survival in a 69,XXX triploid premature infant. Takabachi et al, American Journal of Medical Genetics, June 2008

Click to enlarge.

These human organisms have fatal genetic abnormalities, but they are humans nonetheless.

To summarize, complete hydatidiform moles are not human organisms. Partial hydatidiform moles are human organisms with severe genetic abnormalities. And neither case changes the fact that a human zygote is the first developmental stage of a human organism’s life.

Further Reading
Human Beings Begin as Zygotes: Refutations to 8 Common Pro-Choice Arguments, Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, August 11, 2017
Do human beings begin at fertilization? Secular Pro-Life Perspectives, November 29, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2018

I'm a Millennial Woman, and I Voted Yes on Amendment 1

My state of West Virginia just passed a constitutional amendment specifying that our constitution does not contain the right to elective abortions nor require taxpayer funding for those abortions. The vote was close—52 to 48 percent—and I watched as the results came in. Now I watch as reactions from fellow West Virginians appear on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Many are based around misconceptions of what the law means: that there are no exceptions (a prior 1993 law which now goes back into effect does require funding for cases of rape, incest, and medical emergencies) and that women will therefore die of a lack of basic healthcare.

They also contain blame. Blame of anyone who voted to pass the law, but more-so, blame of the women who voted Yes. These women are accused of setting the state back by decades, of putting other women’s lives in immediate danger, and of ripping basic rights away. I am one of these women. And because I am a left-leaning political independent, occasional social justice activist and pagan, no one ever sees it coming.

I am one of the women who voted Yes, and I represent a different kind of pro-life, a kind most people don’t realize exists. I don’t pray to God to end abortion. This isn’t about religion for me. It’s about moving beyond the beginning of biological human life and feeling my way around far-reaching philosophical questions. When does human life first deserve our protection? When does “personhood” begin? But more than that, it’s the radical idea of getting to the root and figuring out why women are choosing abortion in the first place and what that means.

Once you know that I’m pro-life, some of my opinions are expected. I believe a pre-born baby—a fetus, if you will—is a vulnerable human life that deserves protection. I believe a person’s right to personal liberties is justifiably limited when another life is inextricably tied up with those liberties. But there are other ideas that are less common. You see, I also believe that social inequality is putting women in a position to make difficult decisions no one should have to make. That women are choosing between giving birth and financial security. Between giving birth and career success. And I believe that when we’re choosing between giving birth and happiness, we have a serious problem.

These feminist undertones separate my kind of pro-life from dominant pro-life thought. In a way, I find that they begin to bridge the left and the right, the pro-life and the moderately pro-choice. Some of us in this pro-life movement driven by ethics and social justice rather than religious dogma want to pass laws to stop abortion. Some don’t, and this is where we see some seriously (uncomfortably to some) blurry lines. What we have in common is that we all want to see less abortion, and we know this involves more than voting Yes on an amendment. It requires asking difficult questions and being open to the possibility that society may, in fact, be built in favor of certain groups, leaving women and others with more barriers to achieving basic security and success.

It leads us to ask how we can create the beginnings of a society in which no woman feels the need to choose between these incredibly important things—a happy, secure life and her children. The answers are not simple and they are not singular. We can look at social justice, at assistance for women with children, at applying pressure to corporations to make maternal leave and other relevant benefits standard. These aren’t the kinds of conversations you see from many pro-life groups, and so people assume that we care about birth only or that we’re brainwashed by dogma or we’re the hopelessly uneducated who oppress themselves. We are not your typical pro-lifers or what you expect us to be, but we are here.

I am a woman who voted Yes on Amendment 1 and you never would have guessed. I am not the kind of pro-life you’re used to.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Thanksgiving Hiatus

Traffic to the Secular Pro-Life blog tends to dip this time of year, as people travel and prioritize spending time with their families. Therefore, we will not have any blog posts this week. We wish a very happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, and we are very thankful that each and every one of our readers was born!

For those of you who are participating in Giving Tuesday, please consider a donation to our fundraiser for youth outreach at the March for Life.

Friday, November 16, 2018

March for Life Itinerary!

UPDATE 11/27/18: We've raised $740 and are just $1,635 away from our goal. Please support us for #GivingTuesday!

We are just two months away from the March for Life! Every January, the pro-life community gathers in Washington, D.C. to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It is a time for mourning, as we remember the many lives lost to abortion since 1973. It is also a time for organizing, as we strategize to save lives in the coming year. In particular, Secular Pro-Life takes this opportunity to (1) draw media attention to secular arguments against abortion, and (2) connect with pro-life youth activists and equip them to engage with people of any faith or none.

The March for Life and associated events are can’t-miss for Secular Pro-Life—and you can’t miss us either, as we carry our 14-foot-tall bright blue banner down the National Mall! We would love for you to join us. A tentative itinerary is below. However, our schedule is not finalized, as we still have some funding needs. You can help us meet those needs by making a donation.

Geaux Forth Youth Rally
Date: Thursday, January 17, 2019
Time: 9:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Location: Warner Theater
Description: The Geaux Forth Youth Rally is a gathering of pro-life teens and young adults sponsored by Louisiana Right to Life
Funding Needs: $175 for exhibit booth

Rehumanize Meetup
Date: Friday, January 18, 2019
Time: 10:45 a.m. – 11:45 a.m.
Location: Mall side of the Smithsonian Castle, Washington, D.C.
Description: Before the March for Life, join us for a mini-rally with various allied organizations, hosted by our friends at Rehumanize International. Secular Pro-Life president Kelsey Hazzard will speak at the meetup.
Funding Needs: Covered

March for Life
Date: Friday, January 18, 2019
Time: Noon
Location: National Mall, Washington, D.C.
Description: March with us down Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court to protest the injustice of abortion and demand the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Funding Needs: Covered

Karaoke Fundraiser
Date: Friday, January 18, 2019
Time: 7:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Location: TBA
Description: Last year’s joint karaoke fundraiser with Rehumanize International was a hit, so we’re doing it again! Practice your song in the shower and get ready to belt it out for a great cause.
Funding Needs: Covered

Students for Life of America National Conference
Date: Saturday, January 19, 2019
Time: All day
Location: Upper Marlboro, MD
Description: Approximately 2,700 students from colleges and high schools all over the country gather at this event to learn from seasoned activists—and, of course, take home materials they can use on their campuses!
Funding Needs: $2,000 for exhibit booth

Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life
Date: Saturday, January 19, 2019
Time: All day
Location: Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
Description: This Catholic-focused student conference has invited Secular Pro-Life to exhibit and offer attendees a different perspective. We want every pro-life person, including those who belong to a church, to know how to make the secular case against abortion!
Funding Needs: $200 for exhibit booth

January is the most expensive time of the year for us. In total, we need to raise $2,375. Any additional funds raised will be invested in extra pamphlets and other educational materials which we distribute to students for free. Please contribute as you are able. Your support for Secular Pro-Life is greatly appreciated.

For Life,
Kelsey Hazzard
President of Secular Pro-Life

P.S. – If you happen to live in the D.C. area and would like to open your home to Secular Pro-Life, please contact us! Every dollar we do not have to spend on a hotel is a dollar we can put toward our other March for Life expenses. Thank you for your generosity.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Responding to "My Body Is My Own" Video

Imagine a video featuring various people talking about how happy they were to be alive. They shared how they had narrowly survived car accidents, cancer, attempted murder by an abusive partner, and other near-death experiences. They danced and sang and declared their intention to make every moment count, while upbeat music played in the background. And at the very end of the video, there's a logo for... an anti-abortion group.

What would you make of such an ad? The most generous thing you might say is that while it conveys a positive message about the value of life generally, it misses some pretty key elements of the abortion debate. Less generously, you might denounce it as manipulative, and as shamelessly exploiting good causes to draw attention to something else entirely.

The reason I ask is because Planned Parenthood recently came out with the pro-choice version of that hypothetical video, entitled "My Body Is My Own."

For those of you who can't watch the video, it features people of various ages, races, abilities, and gender identities (primarily women and girls) responding to the prompt "My body is my own when..." Answers include "when I can embrace my imperfections," "when people say I'm a good friend," "when I'm boxing," "when I'm dancing," and my personal favorite, because it is a goal I have yet to achieve, "when I can parallel park really fast." Interview segments touch on such worthwhile topics as gender stereotyping, body image, and bullying.

And at the very end, there is the Planned Parenthood logo.

No mention of contraception. No mention of pregnancy. No mention of sexual health. And of course, no mention of the lethal practice of abortion, beyond a vague reference to "making decisions."

Four years ago, I wrote:
If not "pro-choice" (and not, they vehemently protest, "pro-abortion"), what do they want to be called? The answers vary, but there's a common theme: they want to ride on the coattails of genuine good causes. In an Alternet piece, Planned Parenthood talks about supporting "economic security," while abortion advocate Monica Simpson, whose efforts are focused on the Black community, wants to link abortion to a "safe and healthy environment" for children and freedom from domestic violence. And of course, there's the time-tested method of hiding abortion in the tent of "women's health." 
... Based on the signals we're getting from pro-choice media commentators, we need to be particularly vigilant in our charitable endeavors. Pro-lifers are as active in charitable organizations as anybody else, so we have the ability to impede the pro-choice strategy here. Whatever causes you are involved in, be on the lookout for activists looking to co-opt them in the name of abortion—and when it happens, speak out against it, quickly and loudly!
With this video, Planned Parenthood's co-opt strategy has officially jumped the shark.

Friday, November 9, 2018

New Project (You Can Volunteer From Home!)

Secular Pro-Life is launching a new volunteer project. Helping out is incredibly easy: all you need is a positive attitude and an internet connection. You do not have to donate money or leave your house. It doesn't even take more than five minutes—but if we get enough participants, we could have a significant impact on the abortion industry.

I can't share more than that in a public setting, so if you're interested, request to join this closed facebook group.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Election Highlights

Ballot Measures
Alabama voted to enshrine the right to life for unborn children in the state constitution. Abortion will continue to be legal there under federal law, but the amendment could become relevant when Roe v. Wade is overturned. Also, in some cases, abortion activist judges have used state constitutions to invalidate federally approved abortion limits like waiting periods and informed consent; that avenue is closed off in Alabama.

West Virginia also passed an amendment designed to combat the activist-judge problem: "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion." This overturns a state supreme court decision that required taxpayer funds to support abortion of babies conceived to mothers on Medicaid.

Oregon, being Oregon, rejected a measure that would have ended taxpayer funding of abortion.

House of Representatives
Democrats needed to pick up at least 23 seats to take control of the House. As of this writing, they have gained 26, with an additional 23 races too close to call. Sadly, these new Democratic Representatives are all expected to vote in line with abortion industry interests. (A few pro-life Democratic incumbents won re-election, such as Dan Lipinski of Illinois.)

As of this writing, the GOP has gained two Senate seats, for a total of 51. This secures the Republicans' majority in the 100-person body, making it less likely that the GOP will need to use Vice President Pence as a tie-breaking vote. Pro-life political groups prioritized the Senate, knowing that Republican Senators are likely to make life-friendly judicial appointments. Three Senate races are too close to call:
  • Arizona, where Martha McSally (R) leads Kyrsten Simena (D)  
  • Florida, where Rick Scott (R) leads Bill Nelson (D)
  • Montana, where Matt Rosendale (R) leads Jon Tester (D)
Mississippi presents one final opportunity, as no candidate won a majority of the votes cast. The two leading candidates, Cindy Hyde-Smith (R, 41.5%) and Mike Espy (D, 40.6%) will proceed to a run-off.

Democrats gained, and Republicans lost, the governor's mansion in seven states: Illinois (where the incumbent Republican was pro-abortion), Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. Alaska (Republican leading), Connecticut (Democrat leading), and Georgia (Republican leading) have not been called.

Monday, November 5, 2018

November 6 is Election Day

Unless you're one of the estimated 20 million Americans who have participated in early voting, tomorrow (November 6) is the big day. If you are eligible to vote, Secular Pro-Life encourages you to research your candidates and cast an informed vote. Voters in Alabama, Oregon, and West Virginia will also have an opportunity to vote on abortion-related ballot measures.

Secular Pro-Life is a 501(c)(3), which means we cannot endorse candidates. (Even before we obtained 501(c)(3) status, we refrained from political endorsements for various reasons; long story short, it's not our wheelhouse.) However, we can share information and advocate on issues.

In particular, we feel it's important to note that anti-abortion legislation has a proven track record. Abortion advocates sometimes claim that pro-life laws don't actually prevent abortions, in an effort to demoralize us, but the more honest among them acknowledge that pro-life laws do work. Research has established the efficacy of informed consent, parental consent, and other common abortion limits. A single pro-life law—the Hyde Amendment, a limitation on federal funding of abortion first established in 1976 and renewed as a budget rider every year since—has saved the lives of more than two million Americans.

To find out where your candidates stand on abortion-related legislation, check out these resources:
Those who are the most impacted by abortion are too young to vote. Remember them as you cast your ballot.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Unique From Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science

For decades, the abortion industry has depicted the pro-life cause as a narrow, out-of-touch religious crusade. As an atheist pro-life advocate, I know better. I am proud to work alongside compassionate people of every faith and none. We are a human rights movement, protecting human beings in the womb from senseless destruction and offering their parents empowering, peaceful solutions.

That is why I was so thrilled when the March for Life announced that the 2019 theme is Unique From Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science.

You’ve probably heard the slogan “facts don’t care about your feelings.” It’s meant to be a bit snarky, but I find it beautiful. If facts don’t care about your feelings, they also don’t care who you are, where you’re from, how much money you make, what color your skin is, or whether or how you pray. Scientific facts have the power to transcend political and theological differences. The scientific method is radically inclusive, giving everyone the ability to discover truth.

You were once a zygote. Every person you have ever met and will ever meet was once a zygote. The birth canal does not magically confer humanity. Abortion stops a beating heart. These are the facts, and we proclaim them confidently!

Sadly, pseudoscientific notions like eugenics are still with us. The abortion industry still takes advantage of uneducated people with lies about “clumps of cells” and “balls of tissue.” Scientific progress does not reach everyone instantaneously. It is up to us spread the truth, until the day abortion is unthinkable for everyone.

I’ll be in Washington, D.C. to support the pro-life, pro-science message on January 18. Won’t you join me?

[This piece by Secular Pro-Life president Kelsey Hazzard was originally published on the March for Life blog.]