(RNS) Arthur Caplan is the nation’s most quoted medical ethicist for a couple of reasons: He knows his stuff. And he’s unusually accessible. But even Homer nods.

Arthur L. Caplan is the head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center.

Arthur L. Caplan is the head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. Creative Commons image by Pete Wright

In an essay in the upcoming issue of Free Inquiry magazine about the contraception and abortion debate, Caplan makes what the philosophers call a “category error.” In it, he tries to bring science into the argument about personhood. As Caplan frames the issue:

“When does human life begin? For those in the ‘personhood’ movement in the United States, there is no doubt about when that happens — it is at conception, when the sperm meets the egg. The personhood movement has gained a foothold among antiabortion activists who are looking to pass laws that define embryos as people with full rights.”

Caplan then offers a perfectly reasonable explanation of current knowledge about the biology of conception. At least half of fertilized eggs, he points out, never develop into a child. Sometimes conception results in multiple zygotes — and one or more get absorbed into the body of another. He suggests that brain development is a better marker for personhood.

“Conception is the start of something, but it is more the start of the possible rather than the actual. It is not until a being emerges that has the traits necessary for individual existence that we can and should say that a person has begun.”

Caplan is the founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. So he has the credentials to offer his case. But I suggest he’s missing the mark.

What’s a category error? Here’s an example: The letter “A” tastes like chocolate. Unless you have the rare condition known as synesthesia, that statement makes no sense. Flavor is a category that can’t be applied to letters of the alphabet.

Similarly, science is all but useless in arguments about personhood. Because almost everyone who takes a position does so on the basis of religious belief.

There was a time when the most sophisticated understandings about conception weren’t particularly sophisticated. Maybe there were tiny people inside each sperm cell? No kidding, it was a popular theory in the 17th and 18th centuries. But spermists are about as common these days as flat-earthers.

If you believe as a matter of faith that the Creator of the Universe has established that persons are created the moment a sperm joins with an egg, what possible effect can Caplan’s argument have?

This image of a four-celled, human embryo, was captured with a light microscope.

This image of a four-celled human embryo was captured with a light microscope. Creative Commons image by Joyce Harper

Is the idea that it would be God’s will that most of those persons never be born be any harder (or easier) to accept than the idea of a soul per se? For most people, God’s plan is never considered to be particularly transparent to humans.

Of course, Caplan is not the only one to make a category error in the abortion debate. The other side makes the same mistake. Every time an opponent of abortion or contraception talks about a heartbeat or shows gruesome photos of aborted fetuses, or even an amazing image of a well-developed fetus, that’s a category error.

For personhood proponents, neither the sound of the heart nor the appearance of the fetus is relevant to their argument. They believe a human zygote that looks like a sea urchin is just as much a person. So what’s the point of the imagery and sound effects? Emotional theater. It’s a lot easier to evoke empathy for something that looks and sounds like a baby than it is for a four-cell embryo.

Caplan is working the other side of the emotional argument. It’s more difficult to have empathy for something that has less than a coin-flip chance of becoming a baby.

But proof-texting one religious belief against another — even if the opponents share some of the same texts — is another category error.  Exodus 21:22, for example, has been understood by millennia of Jewish sages to make it clear that a fetus has value but is not considered a baby. (The passage sets a financial penalty against a man who accidentally injures a woman and triggers a miscarriage.)

And that’s why this debate is and will continue to be so intractable. Whose beliefs should guide public policy?

(Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based freelance writer. He can be reached at Jeff.Weiss@religionnews.com. Follow him on Twitter.)

YS/MG END WEISS

80 Comments

    • Not so, Frank. That thinking is mythological. Science clearly demonstrates that at conception, the beginnings of potential life are initiated. That initial potential can take many different routes as it proceeds. The potential to become a person is in no way being a person.

      • At conception it is a human life. It will never be anything else.

        Any other pitiful and ineffective excuses out there’s to kill innocent human life?

        • @FRANK,

          You said, ” It will never be anything else.”

          As a matter of science you are …Wrong again!

          All Babies go through the previous steps of evolution in the womb.
          Including growth of a tail
          and a complete coat of fur called the Lanugo!

          It is called, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”

          Oh, Frank.
          How little you know.

          • Show us one case where human sperm and ovaries produced anything but a human?

            I am not surprised that you would so wantonly expose your ignorance again and again. But then again you call yourself an atheist. Nothing more needs to be said.

          • @Frank,

            I must correct you again.
            You said “IT WILL NEVER BE ANYTHING ELSE”.

            Before the embryo becomes a human
            It goes through many ‘inhuman’ stages including the LANUGO which is our evolution from the rodent and early primate we descended from.

            FACTS are true whether you believe in them or not, Frank.

          • Glad to see you could not rise up to my challenge. Well done. We all know how wrong you are, glad to see you admit it.

        • Occasionally fetuses develop that have no heads, sometimes not even upper torsos. Are those human beings, Frank, or just human tissue?

          Do co-joined twins (two heads, one body) represent one or two human beings?

          Do parasitic twins (one head, two bodies) represent one or two human beings?

    • This is a debate which belongs in an Ethics class, but in our country, we are not to set public policy solely predicated solely on religious grounds. And if we morally (vs. religously) wanted to declare personhood as far a abortion is concerned, it would be easier for me to accept if I saw the plan to care for the 1,000,000 children to be born each year if the anti-abortion faction got its way. Where is the compassion in the great pro-life state of Texas for the hundreds or thousands of children who have come from Central America seeking a better life? Isn’t this having it both ways – say you are pro-life right to the point of birth, but then the mother you compelled to give birth is on her own?

    • According to god, aborting a girl baby is probably a good thing
      as it can preserve your pride.

      GOD SAYS FATHERS MUST BURN DAUGHTERS
      TO DEATH AS HONOR KILLINGS.

      “And the daughter…if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” (Leviticus 21:9)

      Isn’t pride a sin? Isn’t killing a sin?
      Nope.
      Be prideful and kill to protect your pride – these are demands of god.

      Why are Christians so worked up about abortions when they
      could kill their daughters and get right with God that way?

    • Dennis Arashiro

      At conception the possibility exists that identical twins, triplets, or more can be created. At conception the possibility exists that what could have been a single human life will merge with another to create a human chimera. Not so simple. You then have to determine if a soul split into multiple souls or multiple souls merged into one. That’s Caplan’s point, which Weiss doesn’t refute but simple ignores by saying it is category error. It is Weiss’s categorization that is an error by trying to draw a line between science and religion that doesn’t exist in the real world.

  1. I’d frame the conflict in another way. It’s about the meaning of the word personhood. Words have meaning only when people agree on the meaning. For centuries there was such an agreement on this word. Today because of scientific discoveries, the advent of fundamentalism, and the Roman Catholic Church’s fixation on things sexual, that general agreement has broken down. The natural social response is to search for a new consensus regarding meaning. The most concerned parties offer their definitions any way they can, hoping to win consensus. There is no agreement yet, but it’s coming. I’m betting on the ethicist. But that’s not to say that meaning is eternal. That new meaning of the word person will last only so long as most people agree on the meaning.

    • Even more, Tom. Centuries ago, people were not even discussing personhood. Centuries ago, people knew nothing of a woman’s participation in conception. Centuries ago, there was the mythology that women were unclean after giving birth. Centuries ago, men were considered to plant a potential person in a woman, not just sperm to unite with ova that was hers in order to initiate a potential life.

  2. There is no sane or rational reason to consider a fetus a person under any kind of legal definition. It has no autonomous existence or possibility of one until it is born and no time before that.

    One cannot assert rights for a fetus as an independent entity. Doing so attacks the autonomy of the only born person capable of keeping it alive. Rights are not a zero sum game. The anti-abortion/anti-contraception crowd can only justify their position by attacking, minimizing or ignoring the existence of a mother. Essentially declaring that the born person is not a legal person but the fetus is.

    • So don’t charge a criminal with two murders when he kills a pregnant woman. Ever.

      Oh, and legal entites ARE people.

      Whatever. America is so screwed up at this point…I just want to have a good seat to watch this circus.

      • “So don’t charge a criminal with two murders when he kills a pregnant woman. Ever.”

        Fine. Its an overstretch of the law anyway. Many states don’t do it anyway.

        “Oh, and legal entites ARE people.”

        But they can be dissolved against their will without it being called homicide. Try dissolving a live person and see where that gets you. :)

        • We can dissolve or end people. It all depends on the relative terminology we use to categorize them before ir after the end of them. We can call them a criminal, innocent bystander, collateral damage, terrorist, fetus, extremeist, aggressor, stand your ground, fetus, braindead, etc.

          Its also partly dependent on the power status of the one doing the killing. Be they a soldier, executioner, sovereign, doctor, husband, police officer, protesters, etc.

          • Not at all. .

            You are simply trying to move goalposts.

            Just because someone may be legally justified in killing a born human being, it never negated that the victim was a born human being. A born human capable of physical existence distinct and apart from other human beings. A person.

            A fetus, can never be a person because it is entirely dependent on the life of one unique born person for its existence in a way no born human being is.

            A born child can be taken out of the custody of its mother within a second of birth and have rights asserted on its behalf without physically affecting the mother’s life. You can’t ever say that about a fetus.

            All you can do is stretch, distort, ignore or misrepresent the situation and terms to weasel out of this immutable fact.

  3. If a functioning brain equals personhood….IQ tests could be used to determine those in society who deserve the title and those who do not.

    Broad implications folks. Tread carefully. Morally.

    • The Great God Pan

      “If you believe as a matter of faith that the Creator of the Universe has established that persons are created the moment a sperm joins with an egg, what possible effect can Caplan’s argument have?”

      I would think it would inspire you to hold funerals and go into mourning for all the fertilized eggs that die naturally all around the world every day, If those are people, this is a great ongoing tragedy. An unnamed zygote failing to implant must be no different from your cousin Jeffrey being hit by a bus or having an aneurysm. There should be a lot more emotionally devastated people out there due to all these unimplanted eggs.

      I think what Caplan’s argument demonstrates is that people don’t really believe that life begins at conception. They just say they do.

        • A brain dead, but alive human being has more of a sense of personhood than the unborn. They are capable of having interests of their own which could be defended. Their rights are independent of the autonomy of other humans.

          • Uh oh. Its already getting murky here.

            If the criteria is that a person’s right be independent of their neighbors or another person, well, we are all systemically dependent in some way. Many of the daily functions of our life would take place in vastly different ways if social systems were not in place.

          • The Great God Pan

            Medically and legally speaking, there is no such thing as a person who is brain dead but alive. In the US, at least, brain dead = dead. The only people who don’t recognize this are extremist Catholics and Jahi McMath’s relatives.

            Brain dead people–who are different from comatose or vegetative people–have no interests to defend or senses of personhood. They’re dead.

          • How is being born murky?

            You either are or you are not.

            “we are all systemically dependent in some way”

            No we aren’t. Certainly not in ways which affect personal autonomy.

            You are trying to stretch and analogize a point beyond all sane levels. We born people have distinct independent physical autonomy. We can make decisions or have interests asserted on our behalf independent of the rights and interests all other human beings.

            A fetus cannot ever have that. Nice try but you are far too dependent on trying to avoid the facts on hand.

        • No, “Great God,” but intelligence tests do “roughly” measure the ability of a particular brain to “roughly” function at a “roughly” particular time.

    • You answered your own question. It was a silly point.

      A much simpler criteria makes more sense. If you are born, you are a person. That definition works, is easy to define, and makes sense. Life beginning at conception does not. It is untenable, attacks the rights of the born live human beings and relies entirely on irrational emotional appeal.

      This way one cannot equate a fetus with a baby, terminal patient, conjoined twins, or run of the mill functioning human being.

    • Of course. Amazing how unaware some people are that once you remove the “imago dei” from which all western concepts of human rights descend, it’s quite easy to slowly revert to the ancient world’s relativistic notions of personhood and its accompanying disregard for human rights.

      • Excellent comment. I agree completely and while I admire the humanist movement, I cannot support it. It can only result in confusion.

        The same principle, oddly enough, applies to art. Look at the fantastic art produced by men who long ago sought to depict god in man in their art…versus the garbage we have today. Its analogous to our society and its lack of much to be proud about in modern times.

        • Many did not…slavery virtually disappeared from the west during the middle ages, because of the Imago Dei concept. And when increased contact with Islam and pagan culture brought about a revival of slavery in the west, once again it was the Imago Dei that provided the rationale for repudiating it a second time.

          It is the natural tendency of falken man to seek to dehumanize the other. Unlearning this human default setting, so to speak, has been a long slow process even for those called to be the salt of the earth. Even the ancient Jews, with whom the Imago Dei originated in the first place, were trying to chip away at it a bit when they asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

      • There is nothing absolute about religious views of personhood. Hence the differing views on the subject across faith/sect/historical lines.

        There is nothing relative about declaring it at birth. Birth is an absolute state of being.

        What is relativistic is claiming to regard human rights, yet deliberately ignoring, attacking or minimizing those of born human beings. A fetus’s life is relatively more valuable than a mother’s. Hence the constant use of the term “innocent life” instead and constant s1ut shaming tactics used by the anti-abortion crowd.

        • That is not what is meant by “innocent life.” The term is used, of course, to distinguish the termination of the life of an innocent being such as an unborn child from the judicially-approved termination of the life of a person convicted of a capital crime. Nobody considers the child’s life more important than the mother’s…even the most fanatical pro-lifers generally support a right to choose when the mother’s life is in danger.

          • Wrong. It is used constantly by the anti-abortion crowd in the manner I stated. It is common enough by posters here not to even bother treating your statement seriously.

            The term “innocent” is always used to contrast the mother to the fetus. The mother, not being an innocent, is ignored, attached and all notions of their private decisions and bodily integrity are under attack. There is always talk of attacking the right of abortion because the mother was “irresponsible” with her body about “her convenience”. All one has to do is wait for the next post by Frank to see how common s1ut shaming is to the POV. :)

            The entire argument against legalized abortion is based on deliberately ignoring the rights and interests of a mother to control what goes on in her body. Treating her differently than any other born human being. Its about using moralizing to attack the most basic right of all people to determine what goes on in their own body.

            People who “make the exception for a mother’s life” do so in the most dishonest fashion possible. They bar is set based on the fetus’s life not the mother’s condition. The case in Ireland last year was one of the most visible examples of this.

          • “Nuh-uh” is not a rebuttal, Larry.

            You need to read up a bit on the jurisprudence surrounding murder and capital punishment, from which the pro-life movement borrows heavily. “Innocence” in a legal sense is part and parcel of it. Whatever “talk” you claim to hear around the issue does not alter the legal and philosophical underpinnings themselves.

          • When someone states something so false and bereft of factual support, it is the only logical response. No sense in wasting time and effort on such blatant untruths. :)

            All one has to do is read a single response from Frank on the subject of abortion ever. Hell, the response of EVERYONE HERE who chimes in on an anti-abortion validates what I said. All you had to do is scroll up to see it. Your laziness is duly noted.

            Your statement s simply an excuse people use to convince themselves “protecting the sanctity of life” is congruent to “kill those evil convicts”. A complete irrelevancy and has no bearing on how “innocent life” is used to in the anti-abortion point of view to contrast treatment of the mother. Nothing about anti-abortion stance considers the mother in a substantial manner.

            The legal underpinnings of abortion rights are much simpler than you would be willing to admit to. Its in her body, only she keeps it alive.

            You can’t protect a fetus without attacking the mother’s body/privacy/autonomy. This is why anti-abortion people use “innocent life” they need to justify minimizing, ignoring or attacking the mother. Your denial doesn’t even make the slightest sense. Just simple apologetic denial for its own sake.

          • Frank’s comments on this thread consist of the following:

            “At conception a human life is created. Simple.

            Anything else serves only to try and confuse the issue and make murder palatable.

            At conception it is a human life. It will never be anything else.

            Any other pitiful and ineffective excuses out there’s to kill innocent human life?”

            None of which, of course, says anything about the relative innocence of child vs. mother. There HAVE been a couple of comments from you, however, purporting to tell us what Frank really means or what Frank is going to say next…but I think we can all agree that these can be ignored.

            Even if Frank HAD made the remarks you attribute to him, it would say no more about the concept of “innocence” as it relates to the issue of sanctity of life than yours. It would simply mean that you’re both ignorant of the philosophy and jurisprudence behind what you’re trying to discuss–which, BTW, is why my position “makes no sense” to you.

          • Way to edit Shawnie. You missed the parts where Frank confirmed what I said:

            “Any other pitiful and ineffective excuses out there’s to kill innocent human life?”

            “Anything else serves only to try and confuse the issue and make murder palatable.”

            You could not present a fact in an honest fashion if you tried.

            The anti-abortion view depends on minimizing the mother, declaring her some kind of criminal, or attacking her character in general. You have done nothing to show otherwise. Frank is simply stating the position in its most unmuddied terms. He is insulting and dismissive of women in his effort to “protect the unborn”.

          • I missed nothing. Nobody here has suggested any attack on the character of the mothers except you trying to speak for others.

            “The anti-abortion view depends on minimizing the mother, declaring her some kind of criminal, or attacking her character in general.”

            LOL! It depends upon no such thing. It depends upon the definition of personhood upon which the presumption of the sanctity of life depends–exactly as the article states.

          • ” It depends upon the definition of personhood upon which the presumption of the sanctity of life depends–exactly as the article states.”

            That is quite relativistic and without regard to human rights. You really are just a big spurious hypocrite.

            You can’t define a fetus as a person without attacking a mother’s ability to act as a person. The fetus is dependent on the mother for all aspects of its existence, the reverse is not true.

            Personhood as being a born human being, it is neither relativistic nor dependent on definition. It is an absolute bright line and does not require contortions that require attacking others as people.

          • Sure a fetus is completely dependent. So is a newborn–which is why the 2004 Australian “Humanist of the Year” sees no compelling reason to draw the line as early as at birth. And certainly not without precedent…the entire pre-christian world agreed. It’s only because of our culture’s Imago Dei legacy that YOU are willing to accept a line drawn at birth, even –and you’re too naive to realize it. Spurious hypocrite, indeed.

            And wherever the line is moved, there will always be practical arguments for moving it yet again. No wonder even many atheists are concerned about the weakening moral foundations of the western world.

            In any case, abortion is an issue that will become obsolete eventually. One day it will be possible to remove an unwanted embryo and gestate it artificially. I once participated in an online discussion on this subject, and it was interesting how troubling people found the idea. Clearly what many want is not merely the right to be free of an unwanted pregnancy but to actually secure the death of a child. I wish I could live to see the time when this will have to be openly admitted.

          • You never heard of adoption, foster care, orphanages, nurses, maternity wards, or legal guardians? Obviously.

            When one is born any human being on the planet can ensure a child’s life is safe. No human being sacrifices their bodily autonomy to keep a newborn alive.

            Never so before birth.

            The mother alone is the sole human being who keeps a fetus alive and no one else. Only her decisions keep a fetus alive. Your argument is entirely dishonest when you fail to make such a clear and obvious distinction. The anti abortion stance is all about ignoring facts, bad analogy, and avoiding clear obvious distinctions.

            Once you started on “it depends” you killed your own argument for the moral absolute of your position and descended into the relativism you claimed to decry. Hypocrite.

            Until there are artificial wombs, you are stuck with mammalian truths smacking you upside the head. Possession is 100% of the law. Unless you can possess a fetus from a mother, she will aways have the final say on its existence. Until a fetus can exist without its mother’s body, it can’t be considered a person.

          • “No human being sacrifices their bodily autonomy to keep a newborn alive.”

            LOL! You must never have nurtured a newborn. It is the most dependent and demanding creature imaginable–in some ways more so than a fetus. Someone must ALWAYS sacrifice autonomy, bodily and otherwise, for it. If not the birth mother, then someone who is willing to assume that sacrifice and be answerable for how it is performed. Your argument assumes the existence of such a person and thereby undercuts one of the key earmarks of “personhood” apart from the Imago Dei concept.

            Your statement about “it depends” is quite foolsh. Morality by definition depends on the existence of a transcendent standard that is beyond our ability to manipulate. You think YOUR position on personhood is not relativistic? Virtually the entire population of the earth disagreed with it up until 2000 years ago, in favor of newborn infanticide — despite the supposedly inborn sense of fairness and empathy that you naively claim humanity possesses. And it is, in and of itself, evidence of the influence of Christianity upon YOUR supposedly nonreligious values and thought processes, completely without your awareness. An entertaining bit of comic irony, for sure.

          • Thanks Shawnie. As you can see, Larry only can possibly make sense of his opinion when he lies.

          • “LOL! You must never have nurtured a newborn.”

            The fact that you can and not necessarily the mother who birthed one is proof enough of my argument.

            Care for a newborn is not the same as pregnancy. You can’t even honestly argue they are the same. Someone’s physical being is not biologically tied to the life of a newborn. Being born has some physical advantages and major changes of status from fetushood that you have to blatantly ignore for your POV.

            The fact that anyone can physically care or even abandon a newborn without suffering physical effect to themselves shows your argument to be a dishonest stretch of facts beyond any reasonable limit.

            “Morality by definition depends on the existence of a transcendent standard that is beyond our ability to manipulate”

            That is your definition and not even one you adhere to. In fact it is very much not a definition of morality because it involves deferring decisions to outside authority and self interest rather than making decisions. Your version of morality REQUIRES manipulation because you do not get your marching orders straight from the mouth of God. You have to interpret it in whatever way you find fitting.

            There is nothing more relativistic than religious based morality. People who claim religious standards are the sole form of morality use such standards to justify immoral, malicious, harmful activity. Anything and everything is and has been justified by claiming God commands it. People follow such rules out of fear of divine punishment or for divine reward. Hence, nothing about religious codes amounts to moral standards.

            “You think YOUR position on personhood is not relativistic?”

            I am born. I am a person. Being born is an immutable absolute condition. How ancient peoples defined such things is of no value in our more enlightened present. The only one silly enough to apply moral standards of ancient peoples to modern times is yourself.

          • If Larry is the result of our modern enlightenment than we have regressed quite farther than I thought.

          • “Care for a newborn is not the same as pregnancy.”

            Who said it was? However, a newborn is as dependent as a fetus. It doesn’t matter that there are more possibilites as to whom it may be dependent upon. This is where the road always leads eventually once you try to define personhood by some constantly shifting list of characteristics pulled out of fallen humanity’s a**.

            “People follow such rules out of fear of divine punishment or for divine reward.”

            If that is what you think then you’ve missed the boat entirely on Christian theology. “By the works of the law no man shall be justified.” –Rom. 3:20

            “How ancient peoples defined such things is of no value in our more enlightened present.”

            I love it when you paint yourself into a corner like this. No doubt UNIVERSAL pre-christian standards of morality are rather distasteful, but you can not honestly argue that they are not relevant. You repeatedly claim that the sense of empathy and fairness, with which you supposedly make your moral decisions, is inborn. Were they any less inborn 20 centuries ago (or even as late as two centuries ago, depending on what part of the world we’re talking about)? What kind of “enlightenment” have we acquired, that the pre-christian ancients had not, that makes us view a newborn as a person?

            I already know the answer, BTW. And so do you, I think.

          • “However, a newborn is as dependent as a fetus.”

            Absolutely false.

            A newborn is not dependent on a single unique human being for its existence. So it is not as dependent as a fetus.

            By asking about caring for a newborn, you proved that. The fact that someone other than the mother is even capable of doing so makes your statement fiction.

            When have you stopped lying?

            “By the works of the law no man shall be justified.” –Rom. 3:20″

            You are saying a Christian cannot make a stand against any kind of laws under the guise of their religious conviction. I don’t think the rest of Christendom got the message.

            ” No doubt UNIVERSAL pre-christian standards of morality are rather distasteful”

            Including that pre-Christian evil Mosaic law (which obviously has no relation to Christianity), Code of Hamurabi, every philosopher on the subject from the Ancient Greeks. Nothing of value there. No siree.

            All Christians have always acted morally and with kindness to all humanity. Nobody ever used the faith to justify malicious harmful behavior, ever. Nobody continues to use their faith to do such things. LMAO! Can I interest you in a bridge?

            Christian standards of morality are rather distasteful. Especially how it is used today. They are not standards of morality at all. Merely self-interest and warmed over restrained sociopathy.

          • “A newborn is not dependent on a single unique human being for its existence. So it is not as dependent as a fetus.”

            The number of people a newborn is dependent upon makes not a jot of difference. The point is that it is DEPENDENT. Non-autonomous. And if you’d ever cared for one you’d know that it restricts the autonomy of its caregiver, whoever it may be, even more than does a fetus.

            “You are saying a Christian cannot make a stand against any kind of laws under the guise of their religious conviction. I don’t think the rest of Christendom got the message.”

            What an absurd statement. No, Einstein, I’m just as entitled to freely exercise my religious convictions out of love and loyalty as out of fear.

            “All Christians have always acted morally and with kindness to all humanity. Nobody ever used the faith to justify malicious harmful behavior, ever.”

            Wanna write off secular law as well, because of the existence of law-breakers? Abolish charity because of the existence of moochers and frauds? Here’s an idea…abolish internet forums because they’re littered with unlearned Larrys and Maxes who can’t make logical arguments? Nah, didn’t think so. Why do you waste everyone’s time arguing drivel like this? Hoping that the soft-in-the-head will be carried along by your emotion and hyperbole?

          • “The number of people a newborn is dependent upon makes not a jot of difference.”

            It makes ALL the difference. It is the ONLY difference which matters.

            A fetus is entirely in the control of only one human being, its mother and its mother alone. The number of people it is dependent on is the only material fact one ever has to note here.

            It means you can act on behalf of a newborn without attacking the physical bodily autonomy of any other human being. It means the rights of a newborn can be asserted independently without attacking the rights of the mother or any other human being. That is why abortion is not considered infanticide under the law.

            The anti-abortion POV is all about attacking the mother to support the fetus which is incapable of existence without the mother. There is no rational sense to it at all. This is why you don’t even bother to make any rational argument for it.

            Read the Roe v. Wade decision. It is laid out for you in a rational, secular and honest fashion if you chose to take a look at it.

            All you are doing is trying to ignore a clear immutable fact because it is inconvenient. Lying like a cheap rug to equate the born with the unborn. You have nothing of value to say in rebuttal here.

            The fact that you can’t honestly tell the difference between this:

            http://image.stock-images-men.com/em_w/06/03/91/619-06039141w.jpg

            and this

            http://doctorstevenpark.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/bigstockphoto_pregnant_woman_2102359.jpg

            invalidates any credibility you have here.

            ” This is where the road always leads eventually once you try to define personhood by some constantly shifting list of characteristics pulled out of fallen humanity’s a**. ”

            I am not the one trying to define it based on badly interpreted medical science and conjecture about “potential” or being in the vague undefined religious mystical nonsense of God’s image.

            I am using an absolute rational, logical and scientific bright line which has never shifted. Being born. Period. Capable of living outside a womb.

            Easily defined, easily gauged, never changed over time. You are born or you are not. If you think that is relative, you are a bigger liar than I thought.

          • Link fail on my part :)
            Difference between

            this

            http://www.stock-images-men.com/enlarged/619-06039141/Father-holding-newborn-baby/3

            and this

            http://doctorstevenpark.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/bigstockphoto_pregnant_woman_2102359.jpg

          • “It means you can act on behalf of a newborn without attacking the physical bodily autonomy of any other human being.”

            Still not getting it, are you? A newborn can not continue to exist without impairing the physical, bodily autonomy of SOMEONE. This is why the ancients did not acknowledge its personhood until someone actually, demonstrably, ACCEPTED that responsibility. It’s why the argument for infanticide (as well as euthanasia) is now resurfacing among “humanists.”

            “Read the Roe v. Wade decision. It is laid out for you in a rational, secular and honest fashion if you chose to take a look at it.”

            I know all about Roe. Roe has no problem with impairing a mother’s “bodily autonomy” as long as the government’s interest in the fetus’ existence outweighs it somehow (such as, in their view, in the case of a 2nd trimester pregnancy in which the fetus is still non-viable). And people on both sides have been arguing it ever since. It was a compromise decision — no true bright lines at all.

            “…vague undefined religious mystical nonsense of God’s image.”

            Without which we will slowly but surely revert to the pre-christian universal default view of humanity — which you will not like one bit should you live to see it.

            Larry, you’re as out of you element trying to discuss theology, philosophy, law and history as I would be at my husband’s next meeting with the stress engineers that work under him. For crying out loud, go play golf or something.

          • “A newborn can not continue to exist without impairing the physical, bodily autonomy of SOMEONE. ”

            Wrong.

            Nobody is physically attached to a fetus. Do I have to explain how that works?

            You do not understand what bodily autonomy means. Care for a newborn does not affect its mother’s ability to control her own body. There is no equivalent to pregnancy after birth. There is nothing honest about your attempt to create one by bad generalization. Unless a newborn keeps its umbilical cord attached to the mother in order to survive after birth, you are SOL here.

            The fact that that “someone” caring for a newborn is not necessarily the mother is the material difference here. The one you keep ignoring in order to pretend a newborn is the equivalent to a fetus.

            It means that one can act on a newborn’s behalf independently of the mother without automatically attacking a mother’s physical existence.

            ” It’s why the argument for infanticide is now resurfacing among “humanists.””

            Liar, give me a link to the story. I do not believe you.

          • http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/03/01/medethics-2011-100411.full

            http://www.utilitarianism.net/singer/by/1993—-.htm

            http://science.kennesaw.edu/~echen1/Bioethics/Readings%20and%20slides%20for%20Quarter%202/readings/Tooley–Abortion%20and%20Infanticide.pdf

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uax-FrhOioY (Planned Parenthood endorses leaving in the mother’s hands the fate of a born infant who has survived abortion)

            And personal musings of various atheists who are more intellectually honest than you:

            http://www.thinkatheist.com/profiles/blogs/on-abortion-infanticide-and-ethics

            http://freethoughtblogs.com/zinniajones/2014/03/there-is-also-a-secular-argument-for-infanticide/

            http://publicethics.net/wp/195/

            To sum up:

            “…the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.” — Dr. Peter Singer, 2004 Australian “Humanist of the Year.”

            You need to get out more. Not to mention, you need an education. This is all the stuff of freshman-level philosophy.

          • “Care for a newborn does not affect its mother’s ability to control her own body.”

            LMAO! Spoken as one who has never done the job. The pregnancy is the EASY part, jack. I ran my home AND my body while pregnant — the baby ran it thereafter.

            None of which, of course, rebuts any argument related to personhood — which you of course do not grasp.

  4. Science gives us facts, and facts certainly are relevant in moral decisions of any kind. Anyone can see this from the comments on this thread – positions, even though they disagree, are based on one or another facts (like the fact that a fertilized egg has a full set of DNA, or the fact that a “functioning brain” is not fully defined). Facts alone can’t give a full moral position, but the certainly are relevant.

    The same goes for history – the “spermists” based their position on the best available facts at the time – that it was possible based on the information then that sperm contained little people.

    As our understanding grows, so can our decisions. Thus, as science shows us more facts (like the fact that sperm doesn’t contain little people), we, if rational, update our decisions.

    So using facts (the findings of science) in support of making these decisions is not a “category error”. This is one reason why Arthur Caplan is a well respected ethicist, and Jeffrey Weiss is not.

    • “Facts” change. Thus so do opinions about the facts…as you said.

      Loss of religious freedom occurs though when a group of people don’t want to adopt the current set of “facts” and the centrist opinion on them.

      Then we have to determine if society and its government will allow these people to exist as they desire. Much to the point of this article.

      • Any person’s freedom to swing their arm stops at the other person’s nose. in other words, you have the freedom to base your beliefs on whatever fantasy you like, but you don’t have the freedom to impose a fantasy-induced belief on others.

        Yes, this article is a great example of that. Christians have every right not to get abortions – that’s freedom, after all. Christians do not have the right to stop others from getting abortions – yet that’s what they do. If anyone is infringing on someone else’s freedom, this case is clearly an example of Christians infringing on the freedom of others.

          • @FRANK,

            Wrong again!

            It is ABSOLUTELY NOT true that people who “rant against Jesus want the right to kill innocent life” – what self-righteous nonsense.
            GOOD GRIEF!

            Besides, You already have the right with God on your side to kill innocent people as a Christian!

            “Execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

  5. Pots and kettles are both black! Same category! Bible dependent theologians and scientists are two very different categories. It appears Jeffrey Weiss makes the grave error of mingling categories, not just comparing them. The bible and its consequent theology have evolved with a strong attachment to their original mythology. Science, a much later development, is reality-based, repeatedly demonstrable, provable facts. They are totally different categories. Not only in age, but in the mythological imaginings of religion versus demonstrable, factual science.

    Weiss is absolutely wrong in his specious claim that “almost everyone who takes a position (about personhood) does so on the basis of religious belief.” With what population did he make his count? As with the Catholic bishops who have so much to say about contraception while they and their celibate clergy practice criminal contraception by the sexual abuse of minors, Weiss not only mixes categories, he disfigures the facts of each category.

    I have never heard a scientist deny that a zygote has the potential of becoming a person, but the potential of a zygote with potential of personhood is vastly different than the reality of a zygote having moved on in development to be a fetus, or, if you prefer, a person. It is a matter of the definition of “person,” and that relies on science.

    Zygote or fetus, commonly accepted science and ethics demand that we weigh the rights of a mother when pregnancy or delivery complications present a threat to the life of that mother. She is the one to decide, not people using their religious convictions. It is her life and the life of her fetus. It is not necessary to simply allow “nature to take its course,” possibly resulting in the death of the mother or mother and fetus.

    It is potential that is at issue, not the mythological or mixed categories to which Weiss refers. Personhood depends on the ability to function as a person, at any degree. Zygotes, therefore, can only be considered persons “in potentia,” not in reality.

    Most contraception methods today, to which Catholic bishops and people like the Green family owners of Hobby Lobby protest, follow the meaning of the Latin word contra and our English word conception. They contradict conception. They are against conception. They prevent conception. They do not kill anything.

    If one wishes to “categorize” spermicides as killers, then we are still left with the problem of defining what is being “killed.” Paraphrase an old song, “Did you ever see a ‘zygote’ walking…?” Does a zygote have the rudiments of sense perception needed for the later development, some years after birth, of conception that is considered necessary for thinking?

    Religionists cannot begin to answer these vital questions about personhood without referring to science, relying on science, and being ready to adjust any religious mythology to accord with the proven realities of scientific fact.

    One has to question the motives of the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, for objecting to the contraception practices of its employees or any others. How many children did the Greens have? Did they ever “interfere” with conception? Those questions are not at all out of place since it was the Greens who made “supreme” efforts and spent a vast amounts of money spent by birth controllers at their stores to prevent their employees–and numerous others–from having access to birth control.

    How much does the Green family’s desire for a greater remuneration from the business of Hobby Lobby have to do with providing their employees with less remuneration by not allowing them the same right the Greens claimed for themselves about conception or contraception. If the Greens chose not to practice contraception out of religious conviction, that was their right. The other side of the coin of religious freedom, the same “category,” is freedom from religion, and that especially includes freedom from the religious coercions of others.

    This Catholic Supreme Court (Which in no way includes Catholic Justice Sonia Sotomayor.) has increasingly practiced religion rather than justice. That religious practice has increased exponentially since Catholics Scalia and Kennedy were nominated by Republican President Reagan, Thomas (with his renovated Catholicism after he achieved Court notoriety) was nominated by Bush Sr., and Roberts, and Alito were nominated by Bush Jr.

    Catholic Sotomayor and the other three justices, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, all Jews, deserve “supreme” commendation for functioning according to our Constitution in deciding that our laws are in agreement with that Constitution.

    Conservative-liberal ideology is a contradiction of justice. The current Catholic Court constantly practices religious bias under the domination of the five practicing Catholics, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.

    Weiss makes a grave error in talking about “soul” when discussing conception, sperm, ova, pregnancy, zygotes, fetuses, etc. Soul is a religious, theological term. Conception, sperm, ova, pregnancy, zygotes, and fetuses are scientific terms, a totally different “category.” Weiss is categorically wrong!

    Weiss refers to bible verses, and “God’s will,” another distortion of categories. His kind of argument makes any “debate” “intractable.” He confuses apples with oranges which at least can be placed in a single-”category” fruit basket. He is out of his league when he uses religious, theological arguments as a counter-category to science and dares to call the replicated, proven findings of science “error.”

    • FYI, the Hobby Lobby owners are not against most contraceptives, only against those like the day-after and week-after pilwls that threaten an embryo/fetus after successful fertilization. Long before Obamacare, Hobby Lobby provided contraceptives like the pill, and even with Obamacare they were ok with 16/20 of the mandatory contraceptives.

      • It makes no difference, it was never their right to make such decisions. It was also factually incorrect as well. Splitting a hair they had no business splitting.

      • @Sasha,

        FYI – But where will this outrageous precedent lead?

        Can Saudi Oil companies in America decide that forced Muslim conversion will be required? Why not?

        Christians are uniquely bone-headed about how the separation of church and state has benefited THEM all this time!

  6. “Personhood” is just another movement to push fascist nonsense onto the general public and validate the killing of doctors who perform abortions, validate the killing of women who received an abortion and the destruction of our civil laws around women’s rights.

    Until we sweep religion into the garbage along with its sinister injunctions, our humanity and our democracy will be the true abortions!

    This is a war on women’s rights.
    Shame on Christians for perpetuating these foolish beliefs.

  7. Mr. Weiss is correct that the “bioethicist” (a garbage field) makes a “category error,” but Mr. Weiss is making a profound category error himself, with this: “Because almost everyone who takes a position does so on the basis of religious belief.”

    Mr. Weiss makes the increasingly common error of conflating a particular moral position, or, more properly, an understanding of reality which forms the basis for a moral posiiton, with “religious belief.” There are plenty of people with pro-life positions whose religions don’t dictate them — including a sizable number of agnostics — and there are plenty of people who hold pro-choice positions contrary to their stated “religious beliefs.”

    Science does not answer moral or metaphysical questions, though, like all observation of the world, it can provide information which can sometimes help inform people in answering such questions. A question need not involve religious doctrine to be outside of science’s scope of competence.

  8. In America, nearly all people would agree that a birthed baby, cord cut, counts as a ‘person’. Nearly all would also agree that a separate sperm and egg do not constitute a ‘person’. Most of the disagreement lies between those two points, where biologically almost everything is grey. The only easily definable, clear points of development are conception and birth. The difficulty is how to base any law on messy grey areas like “viable implantation and beginning of growth”, “adequate brain development”, “ability to survive outside the mother if delivered prematurely” etc.

    When we are talking about making it legal to destroy human life, I personally think it’s best to err on the side of caution. Accepting some grey makes it all to easy to accept all grey.

    • And all of these decisions should be in the hands of the woman!
      it is ONLY the decision of the pregnant woman who should decide

      NOT THE CHURCH – NOT THE STATE.
      THAT is where the problem lies.

      This is the woman’s choice ONLY.

    • Wrong, the only clear definition is birth.

      Conception muddies the waters because you are trying to assert rights and privileges of the fetus over the only human being on the planet which keeps its existence possible. That a fetus is more of a person deserving of liberties than the born mother whose will is required for it to survive.

      One cannot consider a fetus to be a person because:
      1. it has no independent autonomous existence
      2. You can’t give it personhood without attacking the existence of the mother.

      Your concern for human life does not extend to the born since you are more than willing to minimize or ignore their existence in favor of the unborn.

  9. There’s a simple secular argument against Caplan’s invocation of potentiality. I don’t think Weiss hits it.

    At ANY age, the rest of our life is potential. All sorts of things can happen to end the life. Just AFTER birth is probably the most risky time, but disease and accident take people at all ages.

    So there’s no MATHEMATICAL reason to distinguish between the potential risks just after conception versus the potential risks at any later time. If being potentially dead removes personhood, then no human is ever fully human.

  10. samuel Johnston

    Life “begins” is a basic mistake. Life is a continuum. All life proceeds from other preexisting life. If there ever was a beginning, it is lost to us. So now what? We value life, but we also value other things. War proves that life is not the ultimate value (to humans). Bombing proves that innocent life gets no privilege.
    If somebody would like a serious discussion, I am game, but so far I see little thought, and less honesty.

  11. To quote the greatest American social commentator since Mark Twain, P.J. O’Rourke: ” I’m all in favor of abortion…the retroactive kind.” I nominate Larry.

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