Friday, July 24, 2015

abortion contortion

Abortion rears its ugly head, yet again, as a topic of public debate thanks to recent candid-video revelations about the behind-the-scenes machinations over at Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice organization that assists with abortion-related issues, but also with issues of neonatal care, ongoing motherhood, etc. From Mother Jones:

[David] Daleidin [a pro-life activist] and major anti-abortion groups say that the footage definitively shows two of Planned Parenthood's top medical personnel haggling over the price of fetal body parts—their sale is illegal—and admitting to altering the abortion procedure in order to better preserve fetal specimens. Planned Parenthood and its supporters say the edited videos are misleading and that Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services who appears in the first video, was only discussing the costs of storing and transporting fetal remains. The group can legally recoup those costs under federal law. And any changes to the abortion procedure, they note, creates no additional risk for the woman.

But the political conversation has quickly outpaced the facts. The videos have already moved Congress to launch two probes into the organization's activities.

Dr. Vallicella, over at his philosophy blog, wrote a post the other day about abortion. The post was titled, "The Potentiality Argument Against Abortion and Feinberg's Logical Point About Potentialty." In it, Dr. V puts forth what he terms "PP," i.e., the Potentiality Principle. The idea seems to be that potential personhood, in a developing fetus, is enough to claim the fetus has a right to life. Dr. V puts forth his Potentiality Argument:

The PA in a simplified form can be set forth as follows, where the major premise is the PP:
1. All potential persons have a right to life.
2. The fetus is a potential person.
3. The fetus has a right to life.

This post was one of the few for which Dr. V had opened up a comments box. I wrote him a response, but he's chosen not to publish it—either because he thought my response was so overwhelmingly powerful that he simply can't deal with it right now, or because my response was so ridiculously trivial as to be beneath his attention. Let's assume the latter.

But I won't be silenced so easily, so I'm going to rewrite my comment to Dr. V here, as well as I can from memory (I'm cursing myself for not having copied and pasted my comment into an email window for safe-keeping). I thought I was making a rather important point, so I'll leave it up to my readers to examine what I say and to agree or disagree as they will.

My response was basically thus:

Let's grant the PP—the major premise of the Potentiality Argument. But what happens when cloning technology catches up with us and makes the PA overly probative? Consider this sci-fi-style Gendankenexperiment:

1. All potential persons have the right to life. (PP)
2. Deliberately stopping a human life, potential or actual, is murder.
3. Cloning tech will allow us to clone a fully realized human (baby or adult—makes no difference) from a single human cell—any viable cell of the body.
4. Thus, thanks to this technology, every cell becomes a potential human being.
5. The mere act of throwing away a bloody tissue after a nosebleed thus becomes tantamount to mass murder.

See, the thing about cloning—at least the way I'm imagining cloning—is that it removes one of the traditional thresholds that figure in the usual abortion debate: conception. Very often, you'll hear that "life begins at conception," which seems to imply that it's perfectly kosher to destroy a single spermatozoon or ovum without worrying about whether you're actually killing a potential person. With cloning, the monoploid-into-diploid fusion that occurs at conception goes out the window as a matter of debate, and now every cell becomes a potential person. If we accept premise (2) above, then it follows—in a world where cloning is commonplace—that the loss of a single viable cell is tantamount to the loss of a fully realized human life.

But intuitively, viscerally, we all think this is ridiculous. No one seriously throws away a bloody tissue while thinking he just killed millions, like Pol Pot or Stalin. In my comment to Dr. V, I did note that the attitude of constant contrition for unceasingly killing unseen beings is something familiar to adherents of the Jain religion—a religion that preaches a radical nonviolence (the same concept of ahimsa found in Hinduism and, later, in Buddhism). But most regular folks can't maintain this mindset for too long: they'd go crazy with guilt.

This brings us back to whether the Potentiality Principle—even now, even in a world in which cloning is not commonplace—actually works as an ethical principle. What if there's something to the pro-choice idea that "it's just a clump of cells" being eliminated, at least during the time when the fetus has no visibly human features, no fully developed nervous system (and thus no recognizable consciousness)? But on the pro-life side, it's legitimate to ask where, exactly, the border lies between "clump of cells" and "recognizably human fetus." What's more, as Dr. V has pointed out in many of his previous posts, the question of how human the fetus is is never in doubt: if it's got human cells, it's human—period.

But the cells in my bloody tissue are human, too, and in a world of ubiquitous cloning, every single one of those cells is a potential human life. Here I am, standing at the garbage can, throwing those human lives away.



The Maximum Leader said...

Don't have time for lengthy response... But...

Single cells, without serious intervention, are not potential humans. Unless you are dramatically expanding the definition of "potential." To clone a human from a blood/skin cell you have to go to a lab, extract genetic material, implant that genetic material into a "blank" stem cell. That stem cell then has to be put into a nutrient-rich environment to become an embryo. At that point, I'd declaim, the cell has earned "potentiality."

The primary difference is that at traditional conception, the embryo has become a potential human.

Kevin Kim said...

The point of my thought experiment is to imagine a situation in which cloning from a single cell is possible. Philosophically speaking, what happens when we reach the stage where any viable cell is a potential human being?

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"4. Thus, thanks to this technology, every cell becomes a potential human being."

This is too broad.


"4. Thus, thanks to this technology, every cell altered through cloning tech becomes a potential human being."

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...


Doesn't that seem redundant to you? What's the point of saying "thanks to this technology," then? Isn't "altered through cloning tech" already implied by "thanks to this technology"? I'm not seeing this.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The technology can exist without a cell being altered. I think that only an altered cell has the potential to become a human being. I use potential in a narrow sense. This is an issue I've thought about since the 1980s, when I asked the same question as you now - except that I considered potential in the narrow sense.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

"The technology can exist without a cell being altered."

True, but I neither said nor implied anything about creating cloning tech, then not using it. Quite obviously, the cloning tech is going to be used in the scenario I'm describing. Making the tech, then not using it, is a whole different issue that's not germane to what I'm exploring. The only way your criticism works is if someone utterly fails to make the connection between the sci-fi cloning technology that I'm talking about and the actual cloning of human cells in my scenario. I'm really not sure how much clearer I can be on this point, since it was, after all, the central conceit in my thought experiment.

In the end, I'm just not seeing the necessity for this sort of precision. I don't think what I wrote was too broad at all, unless the phrase "every cell" is totally divorced from the context of my blog post. But why would someone mentally fly off the rails like that?

Let's put it another way: the phrase "thanks to this technology" means nothing more or less than "through (i.e., because of) this technology" or "by means of the technology." No one would interpret that otherwise, unless they were really stretching things, semantically speaking. Perhaps other interpretations of "thanks to" are possible, but they're all reaching.

Thanks to Superman's timely help, the city is safe.
= Through (because of) Superman's timely help, the city is safe.

So if we go back to your correction—

"Thus, thanks to this technology, every cell altered through cloning tech becomes a potential human being."

—we see a redundancy. I can replace your "through" with another "thanks to," and I can replace "cloning tech" with "this technology." Stylistically clunky, but you see the point, I hope. The correction is much of a muchness, and completely unnecessary, in my opinion.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

We seem to be talking past each other.

I see a difference between two body cells - one that has been technologically altered to develop into an full-grown creature and one that has not been technologically altered to develop into an full-grown creature. The former has the potential to undergo that development if nothing interferes, but the latter does not have the potential to undergo that development because it has not been technologically altered.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...


If we assume, per my scenario, that a cloning technique is developed that takes an unaltered cell—any viable human cell—and uses that cell's genetic material to produce a clone, what difference is there between altered and unaltered except as a matter of where we are in the cloning process?

My entire point is that, with the technique I'm talking about, any unaltered cell can be run through the hypothetical cloner to produce a clone because, presumably, every viable human cell contains within it the entire human genome. All my cloner needs is that genome.

Now, the moment our cell enters the cloning process, it's probably going to be altered—played with, dissected, disassembled, whatever. (A hypothetically noninvasive version of this process might simply copy the genome without harming the cell at all.) So to my mind, the difference between "altered" and "unaltered" is therefore the difference between "we haven't started the cloning process yet" and "we've started the cloning process."

My thought experiment assumes that cloning a human from a healthy, just-plucked cell (call it "unaltered" if you will) is possible, and this is what gives rise to the philosophical question of potentiality. In reality, of course, we're not there yet, as Mike pointed out in the first comment. That's why this is only a thought experiment and not a frighteningly immediate ethical problem.

Kevin Kim said...

From the Broad Institute:

A genome is the full set of instructions needed to make every cell, tissue, and organ in your body. Almost every one of your cells contains a complete copy of these instructions, written in the four-letter language of DNA (A, C, T, and G).

Okay, so Broad says "almost every one," not "every one." I concede that. But my basic point remains, as does the philosophical problem.

Meanwhile, however, PZ Myers at Pharyngula (a science blog) assumes that every cell contains a complete genome. See here.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

When I offered this thought experiment back in the 1980s, I asked pro-lifers if they could identify the point in the cloning process when the body cell became a human being.

The potentiality query is a complex version of this question.

Perhaps one could distinguish between a real potential and an abstract potential. Assuming cloning is possible, then in an abstract sense, every human body cell has a potential to develop into a human being. But only if one alters a body cell through cloning technology does that body cell have the real potential to develop into a human being.

As another thought experiment, I could point to the scenario that, given sufficient cloning technology and a knowledge of what genetic material to clip out and what genetic material to slip in, every body cell in a chimp has the abstract potential to develop into a human being.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

"Assuming cloning is possible, then in an abstract sense, every human body cell has a potential to develop into a human being. But only if one alters a body cell through cloning technology does that body cell have the real potential to develop into a human being."

re: the first sentence

If such a cloning technique is eventually developed—one in which a single viable cell is placed into a cloner, and the result is a full-on human body (adult or baby)—then we move from "an abstract sense" to "a practical sense." With the advent of such cloning tech, every viable human cell has the real potential to become a human being.

Digression: science fiction has explored this already; many stories take my style of cloning as a given. The practical problem, for SF writers, is how to fill the brain of an adult-sized clone with the knowledge it will need to survive. A clone needs a personality, linguistic knowledge, social graces, etc. Many SF writers solve this problem by speaking of "engrams" that are the software to the brain's hardware. Fill a brain with engrams, and you're good to go. Given what we know about the brain these days, however, it would seem that the brain's wiring itself contains more than merely autonomic hardware: the ingredients and pathways for learning language are somehow inscribed in the tissue. As Steven Pinker argues, we're not blank slates, contra postmodernist thinking.

re: the second sentence

I'm not sure why you insist on this point. You seem to be limiting yourself. What if, for example, 3-D printing technology eventually converged with nano-assembly technology at the molecular, or even the atomic, level, such that one could merely extract a cell, comb through and register its genome, then "print" cells with that genome? No damage need be done to the original cell; no alteration is necessary. All the hypothetical cloner would need is information about the genome, after which a limitless supply of clones of that person could be created (and we'd better hope the original person wasn't an asshole).

My point is that I'm not convinced that alteration of any sort is even necessary, at least theoretically. Now it could be that we'll discover some sort of limit, some physical asymptote at which we can never arrive, such that the kind of cloning I'm talking about proves to be impossible. But we're too early in the history of cloning to know anything for sure, so I say, Why limit ourselves? This is a thought experiment, after all; we can afford to stretch our imaginations a bit.

"As another thought experiment, I could point to the scenario that, given sufficient cloning technology and a knowledge of what genetic material to clip out and what genetic material to slip in, every body cell in a chimp has the abstract potential to develop into a human being."

I think this is entirely within the realm of possibility. The thought doesn't horrify me, either; if we already accept that all life is evolutionarily interconnected and is composed of rearrangeable, particulate building blocks, then this is a natural implication of such thinking. AC Clarke, in his novel 3001: The Final Odyssey (a continuation of what he began in 2001: A Space Odyssey), had genetically engineered, semi-intelligent dinosaurs roaming the grounds and doing custodial work, thus solving the manual-labor problem for humans. The dinosaurs, an admixture of dinosaur DNA and watered-down human intellect, were likely the product of just this sort of playing-with-genes.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

We seem stuck on two different intuitions - I see a difference, you don't.

Let's leave it at that, at least for now.

Jeffery Hodges

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