Another Foolish Idea We Should Challenge

More on arguments

“It’s only a clump of cells,” says my interlocutor. I’ll call him Mike.

“I’m not aware of the scientific meaning of the word clump.” In all arguments regarding abortion, sex, marriage, and the raising of children, we may well steal a march on our opponents by appealing to biological or anthropological facts, immediately.

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“Well,” says Mike, “all I mean is that it is just a few cells, that’s all.”

“Do you have a particular number in mind that will be decisive? Surely you don’t believe that there is some threshold number beyond which a creature is more than a clump.

“All I mean is that it’s not a human being. It’s only a clump, a blob.”

“That’s another term I am not familiar with: blob. Does it have a scientific meaning, too?”

“You’re just being tiresome now. You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do know what you mean,” I say. “Little enough. Let’s think this through. Suppose I clip a skin-tag from my shoulder. That, you might say, speaking impressionistically, is a clump, though I would hesitate to call it a blob.

“Fine. And the embryo in the womb is for a long time even smaller than the skin-tag.”

“Does quantity have anything to do with it? Is a man who is six feet tall more of a human being than a little boy who is three feet tall, or a baby just born?”

“But quantity here has also to do with quality.

“Now we are getting somewhere,” I say. “It’s precisely the quality, the kind-of-thing that the developing embryo is—its set of inherent features—that not only distinguishes it from the skin-tag; it is as different from the skin-tag as War and Peace is from a big bag full of letters of the alphabet. Though,” I concede, “I may be allowing too little to the skin-tag. Still, you yourself can tell me what the difference is.”

“The embryo will become a human being, and the skin-tag won’t.”

“The embryo already is human, and is alive. But why will the embryo grow and become a baby?”

“That’s just the way it is.”

“The way? Red, rather than green? Salty, rather than sweet? Precisely what do we mean here?”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Perhaps,” I say, “it is because we are altogether too accustomed to living things to consider how astonishing they are. That embryo possesses more information in each of its cells than does your local library, by far. But a library is inert, right? Imagine a library that is self-active and self-organizing, writing new books every moment of the day. That is a very different thing from a clump—like a heap of paper, or even a heap of books already written but inert, lying in a dumpster.”

“But you are exaggerating here.”

“Am I? Those cells possess all the information already that will allow them to differentiate, to specialize, to build all of the organs of the body, intricately connected with one another, brain and nerves, heart and blood, brain and blood, lungs and liver and kidneys …”

“And yet those are not present yet.”

“They will be, very soon. But Mike, will you now concede that clump is a peculiarly dull and inaccurate way to describe the embryo? And blob is even more inaccurate: it suggests homogeneity and lack of distinguishing features or powers. Whatever we may say about the embryo, we cannot say that it is like jelly in that regard.”

“All right, fine. But it still is not human.”

“It is canine, then?”

“No. It is not a human being.

“It is human, it is alive, it has existence, and it is unique and genetically distinct from the mother and the father. That means it possesses being, it is human, and it is an entity in its own right, rather than a part of another, like an arm. So I would say that the three words apply: it is a human being.

“That’s a stretch.”

“Is it? What is that thing growing there at the side of the garage?”

“It’s a very small maple tree.”

“It’s not a maple ‘helicopter’ seed?”

“No, of course not. The seed fell on good soil and it has germinated. It’s sprouted.”

“How could you tell it was a maple?”

“I can see the small leaves. They are maple leaves.”

“Can you tap it for sugar?”

“No, and you can’t build a tree house in it, either. I see what you are getting at.”

“Yes, I’ll bet you do. You say that it’s a maple tree, and you are right, even though it has no branches yet, no sap, no bark; it produces no flowers or seeds; its roots are like hairs or strings. I wonder what the ratio is—the weight of that seedling tree as compared with the mature tree thirty or forty feet high. That mature tree must weigh a ton. Well, a thousand pounds at least, but maybe a lot more than that if you count the roots, too. But this seedling can hardly weigh an ounce. What is the ratio of half an ounce, to fifteen hundred pounds?”

“I don’t know—you’re the numbers man!”

“Fifteen hundred times thirty two: 48,000. What were you, when you weighed one forty-eight-thousandth of what you weigh now? You’re about 160 pounds, right?”

“I hope not that much!”

“We’ll say 160 anyhow. That would work out to 1/300th of a pound. How many days old is the embryo when it is to you what the maple seedling is to the mature tree?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know, either, but I guarantee you that every single abortion performed in the world occurs long after that point.”

“Let’s suppose that I grant what you are saying. All right, it is a human being. But what is the harm in killing it?”

“What is the harm in killing a human being?”

“It’s only technically a human being.”

“Is that little maple tree only technically a maple tree, or is it just a small maple tree?”

“It’s a small maple tree—all right. But what’s the harm in pulling it out?”

“The maple tree, or the human being?”

“The human being.”

“What is the harm in killing a human being? Is that what you really want to say?”

Mike bites his lip and sighs. “It doesn’t feel anything. It doesn’t know.”

“We don’t really want to examine too carefully, do we, what the fetus during an abortion feels?”

“I guess not. But still, it doesn’t know.”

“If you shoot a baby in the head, he will die before he hears the sound. He won’t know anything, either. You don’t want to say that it is all right to kill so long as the victim is unaware of it, do you?”

“But you understand what I mean. There’s no thought in the embryo.”

“There is everything already that orients the embryo toward rational being; it is all there in the seed, the germinated seed, if you will—the powers are developing, and fast. But you have smuggled into our conversation a premise that I do not allow.”

“What premise is that?”

“It is a kind of mechanistic premise. You assume that evil depends upon the capacity of the victim to suffer it, so that the perpetrator is left unaltered—just as a hammer doesn’t suffer if it smashes a window.”

“But what else can evil depend on?”

“Much—but have you read Plato?”

“No, I haven’t read Plato.”

“I thought not. They don’t teach much at colleges these days. Plato taught that injustice harms the doer, immediately, in the very doing; and that is regardless of the suffering of the victim. If X is evil, then the person who commits X will be harming himself, just as certainly as if he had taken a knife and thrust its blade into his own flesh. And do you know what? I believe that if you examined your conscience, you will find that you agree with Plato on this. The evil harms the doer of the evil, even if the sufferer of the evil is not conscious of the harm done. I’ll bet you can come up with examples yourself.”

“Maybe. You know, I don’t really like the idea of abortion. I don’t want you to think that.”

“I believe you. Though why you should not like the idea of it, unless it really is what I’ve said it is, I can’t tell.”

“Well, a lot of bad things are necessary. War, for instance, is sometimes necessary.”

“Was it necessary that the embryo should have come to being in the first place?”

“No, not necessary.”

“We will have to continue this discussion.”

(Photo credit: Reuters)


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