Monday, June 29, 2009

Billions and billions of yawns: More than once, Carl Sagan's piece on abortion has been called a classic on the subject. Orders of magnitude more profound than what you normally get. I just had to read it to get the final word. But, alas, it was let down. Here are a few quotes and my reaction:

Sagan: Why, then, should it be murder to kill an infant the day after it was born but not the day before? As a practical matter, this isn't very important: Less than 1percent of all tabulated abortions in the United States are listed in the last three months of pregnancy.

Me: Around 20,000 late-term abortions are performed each year in the U.S. That's more than all the murders. It's like Sagan is saying murder isn't very important because that's a drop in the bucket compared to all the people who die each year from smoking.

Sagan: So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg--despite the fact that it's only potentially a baby--why isn't it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?

Me: This is idiotic. What makes us distinctively human creatures is our genome. How far can I possibly go back? To when I was a zygote. I can go back no farther, but I do go back that far.

Sagan: When the unfertilized egg is expelled each month, has someone died?

Me: Again, idiotic. Billions and billions of arguments to make, and you choose this one? We're supposed to rely on THIS guy for deep thought?

Sagan: In its first decade, the AMA began lobbying against abortions performed by anyone except licensed physicians. New knowledge of embryology, the physicians said, had shown the fetus to be human even before quickening.

Their assault on abortion was motivated not by concern for the health of the woman but, they claimed, for the welfare of the fetus. You had to be a physician to know when abortion was morally justified, because the question depended on scientific and medical facts understood only by physicians. At the same time, women were effectively excluded from the medical schools, where such arcane knowledge could be acquired.

Me: So, advances in embryology turn doctors against abortion. Science begins to disapprove of the practice, and our esteemed scientist promptly turns into a flag-waving feminist.

Sagan: When does the fetus become human? When do distinct and characteristic human qualities emerge?

Me: That's an easy one, dipshit. The moment an organism contains a human genome that will build a fully formed person. Sagan continues the rest of his argument as if he were a first grader, describing pictures of an embryo. As you read his points, imagine the voice of little Carl:

Sagan: Every one of us began from a dot.

Me: Genius, and scientifically on the dot. I thought Sagan was an astronomer, but he was clearly an embryologist.

Sagan: By the third looks a little like a segmented worm.

Me: Oh, does it wook like an itty bitty woom, Cawrl?

Sagan: By the end of the fourth week... it looks rather like a newt or a tadpole.

Me: Such a big boy, knowing what a newt is!

Sagan: The trouble with these particular developmental milestones is not just that they're arbitrary. More troubling is the fact that none of them involves uniquely human characteristics--apart from the superficial matter of facial appearance. All animals respond to stimuli and move of their own volition. Large numbers are able to breathe. But that doesn't stop us from slaughtering them by the billions. Reflexes and motion are not what make us human.

Me: Probably a 5,000 word essay that never mentions the word... genome. Or genes. Or chromosomes. His principal approach to the question of what constitutes a human being is what an organism looks like. Betty Friedan doesn't look like a human, but I'm pretty sure she is.

I'm afraid that I failed to find a single fresh idea in the essay. In my view, I can advance the debate farther in 80 words, or with all the words I can say while hopping on one foot. Humans start out as zygotes with all the information needed to build a fully formed person, but there are important developments in between the two points. It simply can't be known at which specific moment the baby is close enough to you and me to count, and if you do not have the knowledge that an organism is not similar enough to deserve the same treatment as you and me, it is immoral to legally allow someone to kill it.


  1. Is it really so obvious that having a genome is what entitles us to human rights? That seems odd to me.

    If I put some of my cells in cold storage so that I can be cloned later after I die, would it be murder to destroy those cells?

  2. A toenail clipping contains all the information to create a human.

    That's a far cry from being a human. It won't turn into a human without a significant amount of cloning technology and a host. A zygote is a little closer to a full-fledged human. It contains the information, and also some active mechanism for growth, but it also cannot survive without a host.

    The real question is: at what point in the transition from raw data to self-supporting organism is an as-yet-not-self-supporting human organism legally entitled to external support?

  3. "If I put some of my cells in cold storage so that I can be cloned later after I die, would it be murder to destroy those cells?"

    Each of your cells is one tiny part of your body, not an individual organism in and of itself. The sum of your cells - i.e., your entire body - *is* an individual organism, with the wondrous capacity to walk, talk, and make specious arguments on the comments section of blogs. Similarly, the sum of a human zygote's cells is an individual organism - a human organism - and the fact that this human organism has not yet developed the ability to walk, talk, or speak out in its defense doesn't make it any less of a human being -- any more than an infant's inability to, say, appreciate art makes it less of a human being.

    "A zygote is a little closer to a full-fledged human."

    No, a human zygote *is* a full-fledged human, merely at a very early stage of his or her development, just as a human infant is a full-fledged human, just at a slightly later stage of his or her development. Being a human being - i.e., an individual member of the human species - isn't something that we achieve as we age.

    Pro-choicers make the mistake of confusing their subjective prejudices with objective reality. Because they can't see or relate to an embryo, zygote or fetus as a human being, they think it's not a human being. Instead, it's a "potential human being." Really? What species of animal is a "potential human being?" What is that species' scientific name?

  4. Anonymous7:44 PM

    Erm, blogger, in this post you are kind of an asshole. You call Carl Sagan a dipshit and you call Betty Freidan "not human."

    Please try to maintain some minimal professionalism and respect. Otherwise any little bit of credibility you might have had goes straight down the toilet.


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