The Scourge Strikes Back
In my previous article, I responded to Toby Ord’s thought experiment that was meant to parallel miscarriages. In this article, I’ll respond to his arguments regarding what he sees as absurdities that result from the pro-life position.
The Claim: Ord, for the sake of brevity, refers to “The Claim,” which is the claim by pro-life advocates that from the moment of conception (a misnomer, as conception takes more than a “moment,” which is an ambiguous term, anyway), the resulting embryo has full moral status. The ethical debates surrounding abortion, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), and embryonic stem cell research all revolve around The Claim. I agree with this, and Ord accepts this conclusion for the sake of argument to show that this leads to absurdities, a simple reductio ad absurdum.
Natural Embryo Loss: Ord begins his next section with a discussion of Natural Embryo Loss (NEL). Most respected studies, he says, show that the majority of embryos die within a few weeks of conception. The riskiest time is before implantation, when 50% will not implant; the majority past that point will survive until birth. An immediate problem is that the studies he quotes from (two from the 60’s, and one from the late 70’s) are all forty to fifty years old. Medical advancement happens constantly, and someone who would not have survived fifty years ago may now have an excellent chance of survival. Besides, a number of entities conceived from the sperm-egg union are not actual human organisms but other non-human entities (e.g. hydatidiform moles); if the studies did not account for this then their conclusions are greatly skewed.
On top of that, even if the majority of conceived embryos will not survive until birth, that really doesn’t add anything to the discussion. One hundred percent of all conceived embryos die, some just die sooner rather than later. But even if we could draw a moral conclusion from the percentage of embryos who survive until birth, it should be that life is even more precious than we thought. Embryos should be helped to survive, not have their lives cut short because other embryos don’t survive past that point anyway.
Ord concludes this section by drawing the parallel between The Scourge and miscarriage. Using three graphs that he has included in his essay, he shows that if we allow the unborn to be granted full moral status, then our view of human mortality should be drastically altered. But I disagree. I think it shows the actual state of affairs, but there is no reason to actually have to change our conception of human mortality. The problem with this argument is it’s of the same nature of the arguments that we count our age based on our birthday, so obviously we don’t count until we’re born. But this argument fails because it’s only a function of society. Some Asian countries count their age from the approximate point of their conception.
So if the majority of human beings die in the unborn stage, there is no need to count them in our consideration of average human life span since not only may it be impossible to save those early embryos (just as it’s impossible to stave off death by natural causes indefinitely), but we count average human lifespan for health purposes. Knowing how long the average person lives helps us understand how we should live to keep ourselves healthy, and to know whether or not certain health issues are natural for someone of our age, as well as other reasons that have no bearing on how many embryos survive until birth. The fact that the majority of embryos die before birth (or before implantation) has no bearing on determining how healthy I am, so there is no need to factor them in to our consideration of average lifespan. Similarly, just because the unborn are not counted in our census or pregnant women can’t legally drive in the carpool lane does not show that the unborn lack full moral status, as these are also societal concerns that have no bearing on the issue of when human life begins. Still, it would not be wrong to factor the unborn stage into our average life expectancy. If we did that, then perhaps we would agree there should be greater urgency in protected possibly miscarried children (though I think we are already doing that to pretty great extent, anyway).
At any rate, none of this shows that we are permitted in taking unborn human life intentionally.
An Unwelcome Conclusion: In this section, Ord gives an examination of the similarities between The Scourge and NEL (e.g. it kills the majority of people, it affects everyone around the world equally, both reduce life expectancy, etc.). But it seems to me that now The Scourge actually works against Ord. If there were a Scourge, that would not justify mass murder. So why should a Natural Scourge justify elective abortion?
He aruges that the only difference between them is that The Scourge struck immediately and so brings with it a sense of urgency, whereas NEL has been with us since the dawn of time. I agree with his examination of this claim, that this is not a morally relevant disanalogy since the fact that cancer has been with us since the earliest days does not make it less bad or instill any less need to find a cure. So even if this was the only difference, the thought experiment does not do the work he needs it to. However, it is not the only difference, as my next paragraph will illustrate.
Ord uses the conclusion of The Scourge, that all other projects had to be put on hold and a major international effort directed toward curing it, to argue that the same conclusion follows for NEL. But does the same conclusion follow? Hardly. The Scourge is a serious threat to the future of humanity. If it kills 200 million people every year (and adding all other deaths, the number comes up to 255 million people dying every year), this presents a significant threat to the future of the human race. People who could otherwise reproduce are dying off, and people who are contributing to society are dying off. I don’t think it unreasonable to say that while the death of children in miscarriages is tragic, it is not a global disaster on the same scale that The Scourge is. This is a significant difference between the two cases. Miscarriages are tragic, but they do not threaten the future of the human race. So one could reasonably believe that we should work toward saving more unborn children who will otherwise be miscarried without believing that the entire world needs to grind to a halt in order to do it.
So it seems evident that not only does the thought experiment of The Scourge not do the work Ord needs it to do, he is grossly overstating the importance of finding a solution. But Ord is not finished yet. He anticipates some objections to his arguments. In the next article, I’ll examine his responses.
Fascinating. I saw something similar to the scourge article before: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/10/24/no-5k-for-the-biggest-killer-so-does-anyone-really-believe-its-a-killer/
I think it is easy to show that the fact that many more babies die from NEL does not justify killing them after they survive NEL.
However, I do fear that maybe we are being a little disingenuous…
The difference between pro-lifers and "pro-choicers" is that we recognize that life begins at conception. If that is the case, hwhy are we all but ignoring NEL, which kills way more humans only to focus on abortion.
I hate to introduce yet another analogy, but it's like showing up at a house on fire and telling everybody you're there to save lives, but only stopping the people shooting the survivors (it's a VERY bad neighbourhood) and not putting out the fire!
In fact, many pro-lifers are OK with hormonal contraception which reduces endometrium, thus possibly contributing to the scourge!
My theory is that we *don't* value all human life exactly equally. Perhaps we attribute *some* value to zygotes, but not as much as, say, 8-week-old fetuses. So, killing an 8-week old fetus is several times worse than letting a zygote die.
Honestly, this has planted a seed of doubt in my head that I have struggled with since…
Thank you, Clinton, for taking this on!
"it's like showing up at a house on fire and telling everybody you're there to save lives, but only stopping the people shooting the survivors … and not putting out the fire!"
It's difficult to put out a fire when you don't have enough water. Part of what people ignore when they talk about the need for scientific research is the economic question: is this the best use of our resources? Like it or not, we simply don't have the option of solving every problem we want to solve. Priority should be given not only to those problems which affect all of us, but which also have a reasonable chance of being solved.
In the case of natural embryo loss, it's hard to even know when it happens, much less how to prevent it.
The problem I have with the whole argument that "problems that affect more people than other problems need to be fixed more than other problems" is that it completely ignores the accompanying economic questions. Finding cures requires investments of valuable resources, which is never a morally neutral decision (it could be taking away from other activities which would end up saving more lives in the long run). The formula "cancer kills more people than any other disease" = "we need to make cancer funding our highest priority" is simply not complete. There also has to be a calculation of the chances you may actually have of solving a problem, whether that solution is going to be affordable, and whether there aren't other more effective ways to increase our life-span (or quality of life) without concentrating on the most widespread disease.
You also have to understand the problem before you go out and invest in its solution. Let's look at things historically for a moment. Probably one reason that natural embryo loss doesn't seem to concern many people is that, at the precise historical moment in which we have the knowledge available to understand the problem, we have also reached a point in our civilization in which abortion–for entirely other reasons–has been deemed entirely acceptable. Thus scientists are under no societal pressure to explain their studies on spontaneous abortion to the general public. This is an historical coincidence, not a defeater of pro-life ethical claims. There seems to be something disingenuous about Ord claiming that no one cares about this problem, when people of his level of knowledge haven't even bothered explaining it to people.
And then, of course, there is the question about how much Ord himself really understands the problem, as you point out, Clinton. If the numbers really aren't even clear, then that only complicates the issue further.
The biggest fault I see with The Scourge thought experiment is that natural deaths do nut justify murder. The fact that the neighbor who lives to the left of me is terminally ill does not give me the right to take the life of the neighbor who lives to the right of me. It seems to me that natural miscarriage and abortion are completely separate entities, and comparing the two as "loss of life" actually considerably weakens the pro-choice argument by humanizing those "blobs of tissue" that they so desperately want to keep thinking of as non-human, and killing.
Actually, there is good reason to believe that hormonal birth control does not inhibit implantation:
I think those are excellent points. I have nothing really to add to them.
You're quite welcome. I actually think you're right, in that some pro-life people don't *really* think the unborn are equally valuable to born human beings. That help to explain why there are people who consider themselves pro-life but do nothing to try and stop abortion.
But I don't think that's true of people on the trenches, such as myself. I guarantee you that I see human beings, at all points of development, as equally intrinsically valuable and worthy of respect in the moral community.
Someone below mentioned that there's no evidence that hormonal contraception prevents implantation. I'm not sure where the evidence lies, but I do oppose, on principled reasons, any contraception that would prevent implantation of an already-conceived zygote. I think taking that kind of contraception would be immoral.
Sure, conception is a process but that doesn't make the phrase "moment of conception" invalid. Though the exact point is in dispute when a human being comes into existence, there is a point in time before which a human being doesn't exist and after which a human being does exist. That point is the moment of conception.
Thanks! Point taken on conception.
I think this is an unfair characterization of the Scourge argument. Ord does not argue that because there are natural deaths, murder is justified. What he argues is, if we assume the premise that 'Embryos have full moral status' then we come to the conclusion that 'We should be doing much more into stopping deaths before birth'. This conclusion seems quite absurd, and Ord shows that the only way to reject this conclusion, is to reject the premise that 'Embryos have full moral status'. If you can find a way of rejecting the conclusion while still accepting the premise then I'm all ears, but have yet to be convinced.