Monday, October 06, 2014

Abortion and the "Jesus Effect"

Okay then, after riling up some of you by trashing some favorite movies, or else positively reviewing some films you hate, let's settle down to a topic that will win friends and soothe ruffled feathers...

God Does Not Regard the Fetus as a Soul: This article in Slate is an interesting attempt to grasp - historically - why the American right swung so avidly and passionately toward a zero-tolerance policy against abortion: "Ask most (white) evangelicals about the morality of abortion these days, and you’re certain to hear about its absolute immorality in most, if not all, circumstances. But this is a recent innovation in the history of evangelical belief, a product of political forces as well as new theological insight," writes Jamelle Bouie.

exodus-21-22-abortionAs recently as the late seventies, even the Southern Baptist Convention declared it to be morally acceptable in all borderline cases (e.g. rape, incest or threatened health of the mother and the first couple of months. Even theologians in the "biblical inerrancy" movement (the Bible is 100% accurate) cited “[A]ccording to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”
By 1982, however, all had changed and the passionate declarations of "baby-killing in all cases, even contraception" became standard as the most perfect litmus test of an increasingly rigid American right wing…. even as the decline and later fall of communism sapped most similar dogmatic purity out of the far-left. 

So whence came this purist passion, that has absolutely no bearing on the hoary and simplistic so-called "left-right axis"? Randall Balmer, in his book about Jimmy Carter "Redeemer," roots this evolution in the 1970s push to change federal tax laws, removing tax-exemption from segregationist schools that barred pupils because of race. This change -- which even most republicans would today call justified -- was first proposed by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, but was blamed on Carter by furious southern whites.  Knowing they could not actually make an issue over such an immoral stance, they needed another purist issue, says Balmer.

indignation-self-righteousness-tedxVery clearly, one aspect to all of this is the effectiveness of the abortion issue at delivering the biggest (and most destructive) "drug high" in American life, repeated, heavy doses of pleasurable self-righteous indignation, poisoning our national genius at pragmatic problem-solving and negotiation with our neighbors.  I explain this in a TedX talk: Indignation, Addiction and Hope: Does it help to be "Mad as Hell?" that shows how it is not only the American right, wallowing in this filthy habit of self-doped dudgeon. Many on the left... and even you moderate liberals... indulge in this addiction, shamelessly. 

But no. Sometimes -- and especially regarding abortion -- it goes much, much deeper than that.

== The deepest underlying reason ==
Envision you are a woman who has discovered she is carrying an anencephalic fetus… without cranium or brain, that will not survive outside the womb — absolutely zero chance — and that cannot experience any sort of life. (It has nothing to experience life with!) Will purists actually insist she must continue to carry it for five more months?
purismThen there is the problem of purism vs incrementalism. States like Colorado, that offer teens free contraceptives, would appear to be encouraging promiscuity. Yet, Colorado (and other blues) have LOWER teen sex, teen pregnancy, STD and — yes — abortion rates than states like Mississippi, in which “sex education” consists only of berating kids toward total abstinence -- a goal that they achieve less well than blue states do.
Faced with facts like these, the Confederate Philosophy must be purist. Just reducing the number and percentage of abortions is a non-issue; indeed, pushing for pragmatic, incremental reduction is seen as a sign of moral fault! 

As in Ursula LeGuin’s famous story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” no pragmatic weighing of numbers can stand up to the pure villainy of the state sanctioning even one innocent death. (Never mind that state laws against abortion never succeed and always increase the number of botched procedures and deaths.)
But none of that explains the purity of the right’s current obsession. So what gives?
All right, as you'd expect... I have a theory: the "Jesus Effect."
It's quite simple. Just look at any image of Jesus -- beard, long-hair, sandals, beads, wandering around the desert with a bunch of guys, preaching folks to give up their possessions, "the meek shall inherit" and all that… while also proclaiming you should pay your taxes without complaint. Now squint and imagine him returning and walking amongst us today, teaching the same things.
Um, to whatever extent he endorses a U.S. political party, which can you envision the hippie socialist choosing?  

No no.  This won't do.  This will not do at all!

conservative-abortionWhat conservatives needed was a single issue that would make the crucial difference, like an on-off switch. Something so pure and absolute that Jesus would have to switch sides, holding his nose and saying: "I disagree with you right-wingers on every social and economic and general moral point, and yet... I must still side with you against the goll-durn lib’ruls. Bcause I can't abide baby-killers."

If you had to come up with such an all-or-nothing test, "baby-killing" would pretty much be it. Just by defining humanity at conception, you eliminate any need to consider Jesus's wishes on other matters, like economic fairness, or pacifism, or inheritance by the meek, or… You get it; nothing else need be considered! 
Truly, can you think of any better reason, to explain the volcanic fury of this movement? Why no compromise is permissible, even steadily-incrementally reducing the rate and numbers of abortions? 

Otherwise, we'd long ago have found common ground, uniting on a shared goal ---
-- that strenuous efforts should be undertaken to ensure that abortion will be safe, legal, and very rare.


greg byshenk said...

David, a tangent, but the idea of "public thinking" here seems to align with some of your ideas.

Mark said...

The Bible is actually pretty clear when life begins. The same pattern is repeated multiple times. Life begins with the first breath. And ends with the last.

But yes, I agree with you completely. Jesus wasn't just liberal, he would meet your definition of a Leftist. I often point out I'm fairly liberal, but nearly liberal as Jesus.

Laurent Weppe said...

I'd argue that there's also from the wealthy patrons of the anti-abortion movement a nasty desire to make sure that sexual freedom remains as much as possible a dynastic privilege.

ardoughter said...

I wonder does it ever occur to those that pose such "Jesus traps" that when the Pharaisees attempted to trap Jesus on am issue, with a similar approach to the Religious Right on abortion, Jesus sidestepped the choices offered and turned the issue back on his interlocutors.

David Brin said...

Actually, ardoghter, I swim against the tide on that one. The temple priests were THE people on planet Earth for whom Jesus was ethically and legally behooved to perform miracles. They had an absolute duty of due diligence to question any claimant to the messianic robe, to separate the real article from the scads of pretenders.

There is absolutely no excuse for Jesus's behavior at the Temple. He had performed lots of stunts for hayseed crowds, and the gospels are blatant that those miracles were to be deemed THE reason to believe in him. Even though we only had testimony from four biased parties -- two of whom (we know linguistically) could not have been there.

But none of that amounts to anything next to the spectacular fault of refusing to give the Temple priests exactly the proof they demanded. If AFTER seeing miracles they had still refused to bow, that might have been a tort. And to be clear, I do not condone the viciously punitive ways of those times -- no one should be punished for proclamations of divinity, whether true or crazy.

But his refusal to satisfy due diligence -- and his followers' portrayal of that refusal as righteous? Sorry. Does not wash... not even feet.

Tom Crowl said...

The slow devolution of American politics... with its focus on divisive social/moral issues is one of the saddest results of the need for the Parties to distinguish themselves... because of an abandonment of their serious disagreement on economic issues.

I suspect many, including David won't agree with this.

And it is true that Democrats favor higher wages (though not with enough oomph to really fix it)... and more infrastructure work (same problem), and a more active fiscal program (at least some of them)...

But since the slow ebb of "heat-from-the-bottom" (loss of unions, change in the jobs market, growth of suburbs, etc.)

Along with abandonment of fiscal action in favor of monetary expansion (since it allows avoidance of responsibility*)... and, of course the 'money chase'...

We're left with two parties that pay lip service to economics while driving emotions with hot button social issues.

The elites of both Parties win... along with their backers... everyone else loses.

*Alan Greenspan was the perfect man for this very bad evolution and the leadership of both Parties worshiped him.

The Formula: Don't share the growth in productivity and wealth with the masses... we'll keep it at the top... and instead we'll LEND to them!

More profits to the top! And when it all falls apart... the peons will never figure it out.

Crony Capitalism Is Kryptonite to Democracy and the Real Economy

Please, I really haven't wanted to be partisan... they're both on the wrong track... YES the Republicans are bigger idiots. But that's not enough to change what is becoming an obviously pernicious and accelerating pathology.

Final Note: Both Occupy Wall Street AND the Tea Party originally rose out of anger at the government's rollover for the financial system's real and deep corruption.

And neither party will seriously address this reality.

Tony Fisk said...

Interesting point, David.

However, I think ardoughter was simply pointing out that this set-up of Jesus with a 'switch' issue could be made to backfire. (rather like the 'intelligent designer of life' ... who would clearly have failed basic engineering)

It would make for an interesting short story. (Mr. Farley, if you are reading this, and are contemplating a switch from 'Apocamon'...)

Tony Fisk said...

From previous topic: the notion that giving one group another to hate empowers that group reminds me of some competing metabolic processes. In particular, the 'sacrificial' leaves of a mangrove tree. Excess salt is pumped into selected leaves (presumably ones with less efficient osmotic pumps) until they die and drop off, taking the salt with them.

'Blessed are the meek, for they are the assaulted of the earth.'

Bad puns aside, there might be something to that.

Larry C. Lyons said...

There is no mention of abortion in the Bible. In fact the Old Testament does not consider the fetus to be a life until after it is born.

It clearly states that life and personhood begins with "breath". With the creation of "man" in Genesis 2:7, God:
"...breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being."

The Hebrew word for human being or living soul is nephesh, which is also the word for "breathing." Nephesh occurs over 700 times in the Bible as the identifying factor in human life. Obviously, fetuses do not breath and therefore cannot be considered as human beings according to the Bible. Here is another verse that reinforces this conclusion. God says:

"Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live."
(Ezekiel 37:5)

God also tells Moses how to calculate the value of persons being offered to God:

"If the person is from a month old up to five years old, your valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver." (Leviticus 27:6)

The fact that God assigns no value whatsoever to newborn infants or fetuses means that "God-fearing" anti-choicers are openly defying their God!

Moreover abortion is not murder. The only reference I found regarding what happens when a woman has a spontaneous abortion because of a conflict states quite plainly. A fetus is not considered a human life.

"If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life."
-- Exodus 21:22-23

The Bible however is quite clear on murder, the penalty is death except in cases of the above quote, then the killing of a fetus is a misdemeanor fine.

Robert said...

Here is the thing to consider, Dr. Brin. Jesus refused to provide the authorities with a demonstration of the miracles that he gave to ordinary people. Now let us take the story of Jesus and shift it slightly forward in time... oh let's say 2,000 years.

Let us say there is a man who has a product that he states would heal the ill and cure cancer. This man is willing to sell it to cancer victims. But he will not allow the government or any pharmaceutical companies or doctors to investigate his claims or examine this miracle formula he says cures cancer.

You'd call him a con man and his product snake oil.

If Jesus was a person rather than a mythological figure created of whole cloth and used to craft a religion based somewhat off of Judaism, then in all likelihood he was a con man and a huckster.

This does mean then that Christianity itself has been one of the biggest cons in the history of mankind... and that Bernie Madoff has nothing on his plate compared to what has been crafted concerning this "Jesus" chap. ;)

That said, religion does provide people with a sense of community and hope of something after death, so if people are happy with it, power to them.

Rob H.

Alex Tolley said...

Catholicism considers life begins at conception. It was the basis (excuse?) of the strong anti-contraception stance of the Irish Catholic church.

Tim H. said...

One of the things going on in this debate is some men are a bit creeped out by sex, and feel if a women does, she must be punished with a child. I'm a bit creeped out by people who think human sexual relations should be like cattle, for reproduction only. Do you suppose if RAH still walked the earth, that this issue would get him to vote Democrat again?

daddyoyo said...

I agree with your analysis, David. I'm a retired postal worker and was a union shop steward. I can remember a few frustrating political conversations with my coworkers, one especially. He was a strong union man, thought that the system was becoming increasingly rigged against the poor and middle class, was skeptical of costly and ill considered wars. I was just stunned when I asked him whether he was going to support Clinton in the next election and he responded that he could never vote for a Democrat again because of his religious beliefs in regard to abortion. The oligarchs can't win on the economic issues that matter most to them, and must use moral manipulation just as cynically as the tobacco propagandists.

Paul451 said...

Regarding the use of Exodus to show that the bible doesn't allow foetuses souls, I don't see it as an unambiguous interpretation.

"If the child is born prematurely, but there is no harm" could easily mean "if the child lives". While "if there is harm", could mean "harm to the mother or child, through death or injury".

It's extremely easy to interpret this section as justifying an anti-abortion stance.

[I agree that the bible seems to put life beginning at the first breath, but I really don't see this section of Exodus being able to justify that.]

Paul451 said...

Alex Tolley,
"Catholicism considers life begins at conception. It was the basis (excuse?) of the strong anti-contraception stance of the Irish Catholic church."

But what that policy before abortion and contraception became issues? For example, wasn't it policy that stillborns couldn't be buried on hallowed ground?

Tony Fisk said...

From what I've heard, Jesus didn't have a problem with prostitutes, who would have been no strangers to abortion. I know of no accounts of Him casting such unvirtuous sinners into the pits of Hades.

Robert said...

RAH does still walk this earth. My middle initial is A. ;) And no, I won't vote Democrat (with Obama being an outlier that I won't repeat). I just don't vote Republican. ;)

Rob H.

Zen Cosmos said...

I don't disagree with your theory or points made, but I do have an additional factor not talked about due to taboos. During the rise of Evangelicals and their pairing with conservatives and Republicans, I noticed something. Where were the children? They are not celibste and many are married. So here's my theory-which I can't prove but strongly suspect. They are against abortion, and contraceptives, not for moral absolutist reasons. Any legal abortion or conctraception- widely available since 1960 or 1973- has destroyed the supply of adoptable white babies. Many wives of ambitious revs delayed child birth in their 20s or are just naturally barren. The supply of adoptable white babies is so small nowadays that desperate would-be parents go overseas, especially for Asian babies or Eastern European infants. My take is that the hypocrisy is unconsciously predicated on a ready supply of fallen women with babies-white babies-- the white women can't raise. They want MORE white babies available for their wives and feel this pressure to create the supply however they can. I can't prove this, as I said, but if proven it wouldn't surprise me.

Robert said...

That doesn't make sense seeing that the group that is most impacted by lack of easily-available abortions or birth control is poor black people.

Rob H.

Mike Galos said...

An excellent analysis of part of the "Christian Right" obsession with abortion but it does leave out their amazingly consistent streak of playing the Miss Grundy role in seeing themselves as the arbiters of sexual behavior.

Joel Greenwood said...

My experience with arguing with religious folks (using biblical quotes) about drinking, contraception, abortion, divorce or marijuana use ends only in frustration. It's done for fun at university (I went to a religious residence) and they're probably better at it than any of you. And it gets serious for those outside of academia, to the point where you'll lose friends.

If they're not your friends, they'll write you off as a heathen and ignore you. Even Satan can quote scripture for his own purposes etc etc.

Simply a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this one's coming in anonymously.

Some years ago, my wife and I conceived. She was a bit older than the norm, and given the various risk factors, we had the extra tests done (those tests are not without some [small] risk).

They came back indicating a problem. But there was still hope, because the genetic problem could have been confined to the placenta.

On to the next test -- an amniocentesis. Unfortunately, it came back inconclusive. While rare, it is a possible result. Also note that the pregnancy has to be a ways along before you can get one done.

So, another try. And some devastating news. Had our child come to term, she would have maybe lived 2 weeks. And been in excruciating pain the entire time. Then died, regardless of care. I spent more time than I care to recall learning about trisomies. No one's genetic 'fault', just that proteins are sticky sometimes.

We made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. There are those who will say I made the decision to kill my child. Yes, I did. I see no reason to bring into the world more misery, misery that can't be prevented. And I don't count on miracles.

Now, out state had recently decided that anything past the first trimester was 'late-term', and not to be allowed. So we had to travel to an adjacent state. It was not a happy trip.

So the irony here is that we had a wanted pregnancy, did complete due medical diligence for any glimmer of hope that we would not have to abort, and yet were still made to jump through hoops because someone else wants more suffering in the world.

You heard me right. Pro-lifers are in favor of more suffering.

But rather than leave this on a completely painful note, there's a relatively happy ending. A couple years later, we tried again, and have (another) wonderful child.

raito said...

On the supply of healthy white babies...

I'm not quite sure what to think about overseas adoption these days.

On the one hand, I don't like to see children suffer, and I hope most don't.

On the other, I'd really like to see the cultures exporting their (mostly female) offspring collapse under their own weight.

I don't particularly believe that the Chinese genetic pool is quite so predisposed to producing male children. It appears to be so bad that the Chinese have to import women for their young men to marry. Poor Chinese culture with its Catch-22. On the one hand, only having male children is worthy. On the other, only marrying is worthy. Poor, poor Chinese!

And if you want to tie in economics, most of the global models in the mid to late 80's believed that the higher the birthrate, the lower the economy.

matthew said...

Catholic insistence on "no contraception" is simply to maintain or grow the percentage of Catholics in the world. It is a desperate move in an era of disenchantment with the Catholic Church. That it also punishes non-procreative sex is a feature, not a bug.

Also, this.

We are in the middle of a tidal wave of such revelations. I hope that we can make some changes to police culture before such items are no longer deemed newsworthy.

David Brin said...

Anonymous thank you for the highly moving missive. We do not have perfect answers. But science promises that we'll keep doing this better and better.

I am a science and enlightenment militant, but I do not require atheism to do that. Indeed, one ponders the poetical thought that you simply deferred the soul of your child, to occupy the later, much better home that you two made for her.

locumranch said...

"The temple priests were THE people on planet Earth for whom Jesus was ethically and legally behooved to perform miracles. They had an absolute duty of due diligence to question any claimant to the messianic robe, to separate the real article from the scads of pretenders..." [David]

This thread is a bad joke, right?

Jesus walks into a temple (aka 'Department of Messianic License') and asks to speak to an elder. He is wearing a "Pro-choice" T-shirt and a "Vote Mondale/Ferrera" button.

"I'm here to register as the Son of God," says Jesus.

"Take a number," says the receptionist, then hours go by.

"Number 23", calls the receptionist. Jesus is all alone in the waiting area and holds Number 157.

(Fast forward)

Jesus fails to produce his conjurers diploma, 2 forms of picture ID or a valid foreskin, but demands to see the manager anyway.

"May I help you?", replies an elder (junior grade).

"I'd like to register as the Messiah, please. I've been waiting all day".

"Hmmm", replies the elder (junior grade), pulls out a 207 page application and assists him in its completion. More hours go by.

"All done," replies the elder (who then hands the application back to Jesus).

"All you have to do now is get this application notarized, bring 2 letters of recommendation from L. Ron Hubbard to Window 34, pay the 30 shekel fee and wait 7 to 10 cosmic cycles for processing".

"Good Day".

Pffssst .... as if any human agency is qualified to assess 'The Son of God' with "due diligence".


David Brin said...

Spectacular arm-waving locum! And typical zero-summing. The possibility never occurs to you that the priests, witnessing a dozen bona fide miracles like raising a thoroughly dead person and water-to-wine might decide IN THEIR OWN BEST INTERESTS to treat such a fellow with respect?

What stunning drivel.

LarryHart said...


You seem to be indulging in a similar fallacy as the one that says a certain murder is so heinous that we can't allow the defendant accused of that crime the chance to go free--even if the reason he'd go free is because he didn't do it.

Likewise, you're saying the Son of God is above having to prove Himself to mere mortals--therefore anyone claiming to be the Son of God must be taken at his word.

locumranch said...

Not at all.

What I'm saying (perhaps poorly) is that you are all rationalising in the sense that you're confusing moral PREFERENCE with moral reason -- the equivalent of arguing the relative merits of chocolate versus vanilla (aka 'Pro-choice versus Pro-life') --- and there's nothing scientific about preference.

David's so-called Temple Guardians (aka 'Kniggets of Reason') are not scientists, they are just the Old Guard who 'prefer' to defend the divinity of their personal moral preference as recorded in 'The Ten Arbitrary and Non-empiric Commandments.

Poor Larry, so worried about taking any would be messiah at 'his word' when he has already swallowed the word of the Lorax, the Professional Temple Guardian or the Messianic Specialist Class hook, line & sinker.


LarryHart said...


I was going to agree with you on this part:

the equivalent of arguing the relative merits of chocolate versus vanilla (aka 'Pro-choice versus Pro-life') --- and there's nothing scientific about preference

in the sense that the Christian Right likes to claim as an obvious truth that "God is pro-life", whereas it seems to me that the evidence of the way of the world demonstrates anything but.

However, that last part about the Lorax...If you think I'm some hippie who follows every commandment of my left-wing eco-terrorist masters, then you don't know me very well.

David Brin said...

Good lord... the jibbering version of locum is baaaaaaack. Wheeeeeee!

Robert said...

*rolls eyes* I see hunting season can't come soon enough for me (with its week-and-a-half of being cut off from the Internet)....

Alex Tolley said...

But what that policy before abortion and contraception became issues? For example, wasn't it policy that stillborns couldn't be buried on hallowed ground?

That is about the child being baptized or not. It has nothing to do with being human or having a soul.

Catholicism declared that conception dictated when a soul was present, dates to the Ancient Greeks and was enshrined in Catholicism by popes since at least the C16th. All long before the USA was born.

The US is such a binary nation on this issue. On the opposite side the idea that abortions should be legal even at term without medical risk to the women is extreme. It makes no sense that a fetus can be aborted at term, yet be fully protected immediately after birth. Neither side seems to be able to accept a reasonable compromise based on the developmental state of the fetus. Both sides seem to see "slippery slopes" if they budge,

Jumper said...

I tend to think your viewpoint is by circumstance diminished for not being female. I think the same of my own.

A.F. Rey said...

A couple of articles you might be interested in.

On America's lack of trust (of experts):

A boy records a traffic stop gone terribly awry:

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Zen Cosmos,
I know this is going off-topic, and not intended to be mean, but I am going to go semantic on you. When you wrote, "So here's my theory-which I can't prove but strongly suspect. " I and the ghosts of all scientists past cringed, as we do on a regular basis. Please don't say you have a "theory" when what you mean is a guess. Poets, priests and politicians have been using this to denigrate science for decades. A theory is not just a guess, an idea has to be tested quite extensively before it will be called a theory by the scientific community.

However, demagogues of many stripes, when they hear a scientific theory that they don't like or think works against their interests, like to say, "It's just a theory" - a statement that is intended to dismiss it as nonsense. Theory is the best it gets for us mere mortals, and yes, theories change or even get rejected as we learn more, so no theory is ever considered to be 100% Truth. When politicians use the word to dismiss an idea they don't like, they cheapen the whole world's scientific community. But since we generally hear a lot more from politicians than from scientists, most people are used to hearing the word used that way, and think that is its true meaning. So please, use the word "theory" when you do have proof, use "idea" or "guess" or even "hypothesis" if you don't.

Sorry to sound nit-picky, but this is a battle I fight almost daily.

James Palmer said...

I disagree that all conservatives know that Jesus was a hippie socialist who healed the sick for free and advocated paying taxes. I know many conservatives who believe God feels exactly as they do, and "because Jesus" is their pat answer for everything from early term abortion to stricter gun control laws. But you are correct in that Jesus is used as a smokescreen to pander to the one group that is most hurt by conservative fiscal policies. "Vote with me to end abortion," the politician says, "and then look the other way while I also allow big corporations to pay you starvation wages while polluting the environment and raiding your social security."

raito said...


One consideration in all this is the very real leaps medical science has taken with regards to birth. Imagine, for example, if abortions weren't allowed when the fetus is viable outside the womb (rather than at term).

My daughter was premature, and spent 3 weeks in the NICU. She had to be given oxygen once.

Had this been 100 years ago, she'd have died. If it had been 50 years ago, she'd have had a good chance of being blind (it's not the oxygen that causes the blindness, it's the sudden removal).

So how far back can medical science move the viability date?

Bujold's uterine replicators explore some of that.

And any medical procedure has risk.


I sort of agree. But my viewpoint is also partially informed by my wife.


Yes things aren't perfect. But we'd like to keep them moving forward towards perfection. Like you, I don't require that religion and science be on opposite sides. How about the idea that God gave us curiosity and drive, and gave us this wonderful universe to explore, and expects us to do so?

locumranch said...

These are all logical absurdities.

The attempt to put words in the mouths of historical figures, to accept the idea of a 'Soul' based on Greek-to-Latin translation error, to subject personal preference to reason, to project the modern cultural anachronism that is the 'santity of life' trope back into history and to argue about the supposed 'scientific' context of life even when science has been exceptionally unfruitful on this topic.**

The truth is much simpler:

The fundamentalist right prefers the 'life begins at conception' argument in order to selectively exploit the modern 'sanctity of life' trope, consolidate their moral authority over human reproduction & lend credence to their oppressive patrilineal hierarchy; the humanist left prefers to define the 'beginning of life' differently in order to undermine the patrilineal right, consolidate their own left-leaning authority & lend credence to the 'sanctity of life' trope created by modern humanism; and neither party wants anyone to question our inherent Judeo-Christian cultural assumptions because that would break the 'rules of engagagement' and invalidate both arguments -- which is why our culture (and our host) will not tolerate this type of non-partisan 'cheating'.

Pay no attention to the Man behind the curtain (because) the Great & Powerful Oz has spoken.


** Science has not yet identified the supposed point where life can be said to 'begin', but it has invalidated all pre-existing definitions of Life & Death, including the biblical one of 'breathing' unless you want to insist that the internal combustion engine is a 'life-form':

'CAFE Standards are Unfair to Automotive Americans!! Trucks are people, too!! End Mechanical Slavery Now!!'

Naum said...

In the church I am a member (conservative, but not extremist/fundamentalist, more megachurch flavored), most congregants are conservative (though not all) and when it comes to politics, they indeed, as David details, become single issue voters. Abortion. And it's fueled by the pastors who, at the pulpit, instruct the flock that it OK to be Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, but that "right to life" is non-negotiable.

I know a lot of people deride religion and Christianity as just a bunch of backwards, regressive fundamentalists. But there is an arc of spiritual consciousness, and it's evident in the abortion issue:

Stage 1: YES, "screw you, it's my body"
Stage 2: NO, "it's taking of life, murder, and should be totally forbiden"
Stage 3: YES, AND…, that the default option is always the sacredness of life but that in some cases, it may indeed be an acceptable lesser evil

On abortion and the bible, here's an excerpt (and commentary) from an Orthodox Jew & Hebrew Bible scholar on Exodus 21 that goes against how American conservative Christians interpret that passage.

Alex Tolley said...

@raito - viability doesn't have to be the criterion. Brain development seems more reasonable. I definitely don't want the life at conception criterion as we have already seen the problem of miscarriages called murder under some circumstances. At the other extreme, a fetus about to be born has a brain that is effectively the same as a newborn. Is there really a reasonable distinction between these states that allows different actions?

IVF also becomes problematic as typically multiple eggs are fertilized before selection for implantation. Discarding the others would be illegal. Again, I don't see this as being acceptable.

The line between conception and birth is always going to be fuzzy based on brain development (or viability), but it looks more reasoned to me than the extremes. Medical condition of the mother should always trump the baby, except under very exceptional circumstances.

Randy Winn said...

Technically, life began several hundred million years ago, and human life roughly 100,000. All living cells are life, and all living human cells are human life. The question is what rights (whether lethal or moral) accrue to what says of cells, and there is no "scientific" answer. Science can inform our choices but saying that this-or-that is "human life" is not much help in making choices.

Alex Tolley said...

all living human cells are human life

I disagree. If each individual cell is to be accorded the term "human life", then it is tantamount to declaring each cell a human being. Having a facial would therefore be mass murder, as would having diseased tissue or an organ removed.
We need to accord only functioning organisms the term "human". A cell has the potential to become human, but it isn't human.

LarryHart said...


And it's fueled by the pastors who, at the pulpit, instruct the flock that it OK to be Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, but that "right to life" is non-negotiable.

In that case, I'd presume the same pastors would be anti-death penalty and anti-war.

Except that, for some reason, I'd probably be wrong about that.

matthew said...

Hey, Doc. Here is one for the prediction registry. From Startide Rising, by Ifni! Captive orcas can learn to speak dolphin.

Randy Winn said...

We need to accord only functioning organisms the term human. ...

We do?

What "need" is this?

The need to develop law and/or morality? In that case, we are venturing into tautologyland in short order.

A sperm and an egg have the potential to become a mathematician, yet we call only one of them human.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. Good luck everyone in defining what 'human' is. The best version I ever heard is "A human is what the other humans think it is." There is no objectivity to this.

socrates said...

Humans are featherless bipeds. They taste like chicken, too

Alex Tolley said...

A sperm and an egg have the potential to become a mathematician, yet we call only one of them human.

Most definitely yes. One is a human, the other are two parts of a potential human. There is a big difference. If you don't think there is a difference, then the disposal of fertilized eggs is murder. Allowing cryogenically stored human organs to be destroyed would be murder.

I think killing thinking , feeling human individuals is murder, but not unthinking, unfeeling cells.

Which also implies that human cells are less worthy of consideration than thinking animals.

Robert said...

I just had to share this one.

Best use of tax dollars ever. :)

Rob H.

raito said...


I was using technology as an example of how it shifts things around.

So in your scenario, even though a severely premature baby can be kept alive, it wouldn't be a person because it's brain wasn't fully developed? (I'm not arguing, just trying to understand) Your example of a fetus about to be born is confusing, because a day or two in either direction doesn't affect either brain development or viability.

Such cases happen now. Our friends had severely premature twins (months early). Their brains were undoubtedly underdeveloped. But they are fine now, except that they'll probably never be basketball players.

Peter said...

Whenever I see jesus dragged into a discussion I usually shut down laughing because his opinion is so irrelevant to any discussion. Sam applies to any mythological beast you wish to drag into the story. The reason they bring out abortion is bceause they can make money out of saving babies, it's a painless issue because abortions have and will happen event their mythological beasts trumpet abomination and pass the hat!

SteveO said...


I think you are conflating two different questions.

One is something like, "At what point should terminating a pregnancy be allowed?" We might decide that it depends on the reason, the gestation date, or whatever. This is a legal and moral question.

The second is, "At what point can we save a pregnancy or born infant in danger?" and that is related to technology as well as input from the parents, for example. This is a technological and practical question.

Linking the two by saying "when is it a person?" doesn't really make any sense since the context is completely different.

Take the logical extreme: at some point in the future, perhaps we can mix sperm and egg in an artificial womb and grow it to full babyhood. Does that a priori mean that we have to treat every fertilized egg, or even every sperm and egg as a full human? I contend not, since the context is different. In one case, we intend to create a baby, albeit by artificial means. In the other, stuff happens, eggs don't get fertilized or implant, the context is completely different and relevant to the discussion.

I do think science informs the discussion of the first question - until the cerebral cortex is active, it is hard to make a scientific or ethical case that a fetus is any different than any other animal or organ - worthy of not being lightly discarded, but not by itself trumping many other considerations that the woman bearing the fetus might have.

After the cerebral cortex is active, it has become a very rare thing: an animal capable of higher thought, and only great cause should be justified in terminating its nascent life.

Conveniently, activation of the cerebral cortex corresponds with the usual legal limit on routine abortions, so we kind of stumbled into the most scientifically and ethically defensible rule.

To me it seems this rule deals with the reality of the question much better than, "When is it a human?"

Robert said...

SteveO, certain faux-conservatives in positions of law enforcement already are utilizing laws meant to protect women from rape resulting in pregnancy with murder when they miscarry. They treat women who are undergoing miscarriages as if they are criminals, force blood tests and the like, and make the woman to be a criminal just because her body has chosen not to carry the infant to term. If she has even been in an area where marijuana smoke was present and traces show up in her blood stream, they turn around and charge her with reckless endangerment of the unborn resulting in death. And I believe they have successfully convicted women of this.

Add in the fact that masturbation is a sin under the Catholic Church and you do in fact have the potential eventually for women to be charged with murder for menstruating rather than being pregnant, and men with murder for having protected sex or masturbating. It's a farcical possibility... but it is a potentiality that this madness could lead to.

Rob H.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Abortion. David Brin suggests that we live in an analog world, filled with spectrums, continuities, ambiguities. And because it's analog rather than strictly on/off digital, that means that life, humanity, sexuality all have murky boundaries, as do countless ethical questions. An embryo BECOMES a human being. It is not a human being. It can be a human embryo in the sense of having the necessary number of chromosomes, but many cells in one's body could potentially be cloned and become human beings as well, and some cells of a long dead cancer patient are still reproducing, making more single cells with the necessary number number of human chromosomes, and used in cancer research, called Hela cells. But single cells, even blastulas of cells, are not equal to a human being. Or another way to look at things is that human beingness lies along a spectrum, and there is not a lot of human beingness in a single cell compared with a newborn infant. And if your argument is that it was on its way to becoming a human being, then what about the sperm and egg, both alive, moving toward one another if neither person uses birth control and ejaculation has taken place. They are on their way toward becoming a human being from the moment of internal ejaculation. So, should a pro-lifer use birth control? Birth control stops the process of becoming a human being just as surely as a morning after pill or first term abortion does.

SteveO said...

Edward, I think it is clear that there is a spectrum of development (see my comment above).

We go back to the gedankenexperiment for this: if a person is in a fertility clinic and there is a terrible fire, and they can either save a bank of 10,000 fertilized eggs or one baby, only the most monstrous ideologue would save the eggs and permit the baby to burn alive. So we pretty much must acknowledge that we all have a built in recognition of the spectrum.

Sirius Lunacy said...

The Bible does have one reference to abortion. Numbers 5:11-20. Where it defines the circumstances when you should send your wife to the priest to have an abortion. Of course, the woman has no say in the matter though.

Cindy said...

Premature infants likely never survived in those days, even surviving at full term was pretty exceptional considering the high rates of infant mortality.

Cindy said...

Term = delivery, not abortion. Abortion is pre viability, and the prenate dies because it cant survive without use of the woman's organs. At term, birth will end the pregnancy, problem solved. The entire point of abortion is to get it out of your body. Birth achieves that.

Cindy said...

Cells are human. They have human DNA. As do zygotes. Neither has a functioning brain. Neither are people.

Cindy said...

Fetuses don't develop the capacity for sentience until 25 weeks gestation, well past when the majority of abortions occur.

And women are not stupid psychopaths who want so desperately to not be pregnant that they wait to kill the prenate at 9 months. That is a pro life trope invented to trick people into thinking that ACTUAL babies are killed all thr time in abortion.

Because you can't humanize a zygote very well. Its a bait and switch.