A popular apologist pushes back against the charge that his pro-life argument is built on religion. Is he correct? And does his pro-life argument make sense?
“I don’t care about your goddamn religion.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the 2018 viral clip of Ana Kasparian of the Young Turks saying this. She makes clear that she doesn’t want to upset Christians’ right to live as they see fit and demands the same consideration for herself.
I don’t care what the Bible says…. All those women who identify with your religion have every right in the world to not get an abortion, to not take birth control, but they do not have the right to dictate my life.
Tim Barnett of the STR ministry pushes back in “Making the Case WITHOUT the Bible” (March 23, 2022). He says the Bible is not necessary to make the pro-life case, just science and philosophy.
First, he says that embryology teaches that “from the earliest stages of development the unborn are distinct, living, whole human beings.”
No, “human beings” is at the core of the debate. We’ll revisit this question of what the zygote (the single fertilized human egg cell) is or isn’t compared to the newborn.
And note the irony of a ministry eagerly following the conclusions of embryology while demanding the right to pick and choose their science. I’ve written much about STR’s shameless rejection of evolution, but embryology is apparently an area of biology they’ll accept. When these non-scientists set themselves up as arbiters of science, we clearly can’t trust any of their science-based arguments.
You didn’t come from an embryo; you once were an embryo, and there’s no ethical difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today.
This is the key pro-life claim: different though they may be, the zygote and the newborn are morally identical where it counts. The one way to state this commonality that we’ll both agree on is that the zygote and the newborn are both living, and both have Homo sapiens DNA.
Big deal. That’s also true for a scratched-off skin cell.
The pro-life response would be that the skin cell won’t develop into a newborn (but the zygote could), at which point the curtain falls away, and we see that their argument is just the Argument from Potential. That zygote isn’t a person now, but it will be! (Or substitute a similar word for “person”: baby, newborn, human being, or whatever.) After it develops into a person, we can’t ethically kill that person, but that’s not true when it’s just a zygote.
A compelling pro-life argument can’t be extracted from the Argument from Potential, and the nine months of gestation can’t be ignored. Barnett is correct that each of us was once an embryo, but there is a huge ethical difference between a one-hundred-cell embryo and a person.
SLED argument: Size
Barnett then ticks off the points in the popular but tired SLED argument.
You see, there are only four differences between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today: Size, Level of development, Environment, and degree of Dependency.
True, unborn humans are smaller than born humans. But since when does physical size give you value?
Someone isn’t paying attention. A newborn might become 12 times heavier by the time they’re a teenager. But that newborn is 12 orders of magnitude bigger than it was as a zygote! That’s right—the single cell zygote becomes trillions of cells. Said another way, the zygote-to-newborn jump is a hundred billion times larger than the newborn-to-teenager jump.
This is no difference in degree where it’s the same thing, just bigger. A one-pound Great Dane puppy becomes the same thing, just bigger, as a full-grown, 150-pound adult. No, we’re talking about a difference in kind, where the embryo eventually becomes something very different.
This will become clearer with point 2.
Point 2: Level of development
Sure, unborn humans are less developed than you or I. But so what? There are plenty of born humans that are less developed than you or I. Are we more valuable? Of course not.
Let’s think of some examples. Someone might be wheelchair-bound. They might have cancer. They might have a traumatic brain injury. Or they might be a single cell.
(One of these things is not like the other. Can you guess which one?)
Barnett’s thinking is far too small. It’s true that the set of “people” is a lot broader than just beautiful movie stars and athletic sports icons. But consider the difference between a newborn and an old person from a distant culture. That is negligible compared to the gulf between that newborn versus the single-cell zygote.
Here’s a chart to illustrate the differences.
Point 3: Environment
What about environment? Where you are has no bearing on your intrinsic worth. So how does the journey of eight inches down the birth canal change your essential value? Spoiler: it doesn’t.
Society needs unambiguous lines to define what is legal and what isn’t. The Roe decision used trimesters. Viability (the fetus being able to survive outside the womb) could be another. Barnett is referring to birth as another line, though few pro-choice advocates would insist on abortion being legal until birth.
This is a tangent.
Point 4: degree of Dependence
Finally, unborn humans are completely dependent on another for their survival, but so are newborns and the severely handicapped and the comatose and so on. Are they still valuable?
I respond as I did above—the differences between you and me, a newborn, and a disabled or comatose person are trivial when compared against the gulf separating a newborn and the zygote that it was nine months prior.
That’s why I’m pro life. No Bible verses, no religion, just science and careful thinking.
Yes, religion. This is clear when you pick and choose the science you follow based on your religious presuppositions—evolution is bad, but embryology gets a green light.
The religious agenda is also apparent when that’s what guides the argument, not the facts. Compare a zygote and a newborn. Do you see the similarity (they’re the same species) rather than the differences (see the chart above)? If you think the tenuous similarity is the takeaway, you’re enslaved to an agenda.
For more on the SLED argument, see Arguing the Pro-Life Case (Such as It Is).
If Christians really have
the 100% direct poop on what’s moral and what isn’t,
directly from God’s lips to their ears,
how come they can’t agree on what it is?
— commenter RichardSRussell