Saturday, April 25, 2020

"When does life begin?" and "Are fetuses human?": Two bad 'scientific' questions to ask about abortion

A U Chicago PhD student, Steven Andrew Jacobs, did a dissertation on the topic of abortion that involved asking biology professors about "when life begins."

A report on his research and experiences is here: "I Asked Thousands of Biologists When Life Begins. The Answer Wasn’t Popular."

He shares many angry and hostile responses to his question. He proposed three possible motivations for these reactions:
  • "Motivated Reasoning: Respondents experience cognitive dissonance when they recognize that their view of a fetus as a human [note: human ≠ life!] complicates their political convictions in regard to abortion policy.
  • Cultural Cognition: Respondents fear that public recognition of the scientific views they are expressing could lead to other people supporting abortion restrictions.
  • Identity-Protective Cognition: Respondents fear that expressing their views may serve to estrange them from pro-choice liberals, on whom they might rely for social, emotional, or financial support."
I think there's a far simpler way to explain these angry reactions:

He was asking a bad question!

Some might even call it a "dumb question," but since some say that there are no dumb questions, if asked sincerely, I won't say that.

The question a bad one for two reasons.

First, are eggs alive? Are sperm alive? Generally "yes" to both. When they come together, and a sperm fertilizes an egg, is there a living thing? Is it alive, is it life?

Yes, yes and yes: the fertilized egg isn't dead and it's not neither dead nor alive. It's life. And you don't need to be a biologist to know that!

Second, is this argument a good argument?
  • 1. Anything alive, or life, or living is wrong to kill.
  • 2. Human embryos and early fetuses are alive, life, or living.
  • C. Therefore, human embryos and early fetuses are wrong to kill.
Put this way, premise 1 is obviously false: uncontroversial examples (mold, bacteria, plants, and more) confirm that. These things aren't even "prima facie" wrong to kill, meaning "you need a really good reason to kill these things."

So this is obviously a bad argument, even if premise 2 is true (and it is!).

However, most people don't seem to realize this: they are obsessed with whether fetuses are alive or not; whether they are life, and "when life begins."

They shouldn't be though, given that premise 1 is false, and obviously so. We see this just by defining the word.

Jacobs said he "led discussions between pro-choice and pro-life law students. Little progress was made because both sides were caught up with the factual question of when life begins." If they were caught up with this question, it's because they didn't define their terms and notice that at least if you mean "biological life," the question is very easy.

Given this, it makes sense for biologists to be annoyed at the question they were asked, to say the least. This is because, given the widespread belief that the above argument is a good argument, when it's really a bad argument (and it is easy to see that this is so), their answers would be used for the bad purpose of making a bad argument seem good. People should be annoyed about that, whatever conclusions they hold on this topic.

This is why they were annoyed; if it wasn't, it should have been.

They might have also been annoyed with the common question of whether fetuses are "human." If you mean biologically human, then of course fetuses are human! They aren't cats or dogs or anything else.

But, taken very literally, this also doesn't mean that abortion is wrong, as we explain in our book on abortion: arguments against abortion that begin with the observations that fetuses are biologically human, or biologically human organisms or even "human beings" aren't as simple as people often assume they are.

I do want to observe that there is confusion about these words because they have multiple plausible meanings, and people just don't often notice this or make the effort to clarify what they mean when they discuss "when life begins."

"Life" can mean biological life, but it also can mean something else. For example, suppose a 20-something was in a car crash 20 years ago, had been in a coma ever since, but her body finally died yesterday.

When did her life end? We might want to say that her biological life ended yesterday, but that her biographical life ended 20 years ago. So what kind of "life" are we thinking about when asking "when does life begin?"

Likewise, when people say that fetuses aren't "human," they don't mean that fetuses aren't biologically human (since they are!). Rather they mean that they don't have what are often considered "human" traits, like understanding and feeling and reason and the like.

Now, describing these as "human" traits isn't the best way to put it (since animals have some of these traits, in some ways, and friendly space aliens would also probably have them, if they exist, and some people believe that spiritual beings have these traits too), but that's roughly what some people mean by "human" here, at least.

In sum, the philosophical activities of clarifying the meanings of words and stating arguments in logically valid form (the above argument in the pattern 'syllogism' which Aristotle identified) is very helpful for avoiding confusion, gaining understanding and even avoiding angry emails!


2/1/2021: Jacobs wrote a response to this post; here's a response to that response

P.S. Jacob's dissertation is here:

Also, here is an earlier document - "Biologists' Consensus on 'When Life Begins'" - which suggests this:

"these findings [from surveys with biologists, based on the view that 'scientists that can use their biological expertise to determine when a human's life begins'] can help Americans move past the factual dispute on when life begins and focus on the operative question of when a fetus deserves legal consideration."

This suggestion, however, appears to be forgotten for the overall project, which doesn't seem to involve clarifying the meaning of these words and seeing what impact that has on debates about the issues: that is, that the "descriptive" fact, as he puts it, of fetuses being biologically alive or human doesn't settle the legal or moral issues. Science and ethics are different, and, as this discussion shows, people sometimes believe that ethical conclusions follow from scientific facts, when they don't. We need to attentive to that for all ethical issues (e.g., see this with the topics of drugs and animal research, at least), not just abortion.

PPS. This podcast apparently discusses this blog post, although I don't yet know what is said in it since I don't listen to postcasts. If there's a transcript or something in text, which is quicker and more efficient to access, please let me know. NN

PPPS. Someone observed that despite the headlines and the language he often uses, Jacobs was actually asking a more narrow question, not just when "life" begins, but when living human organisms begin. If that's correct, that doesn't change the points above about how answers to this question are apt to be misused due to ambiguities in "human life" and, more importantly, the serious need to justify a premise if something is a living human organism, then it is prima facie wrong to kill it in light of the fact that, plausibly, biographical life is more plausibly relevant to what makes something wrong to kill, not mere biological life, and so that unstated premise - linking claims about the biological facts to the moral conclusion about abortion - is false. 


Originally posted 12/12/2019 at another place on this webpage; moved here 4/25/2020.


In engaging Jacobs on these issues (on Twitter), it seems very common for him to observe that his survey results were these:
  • Many "average" people reported that biologists were the best candidates to determine "when life begins.
  • Of course, most biologists report that "life begins" at conception or, more literally, there is a living organism at or soon after conception
Now, about the first claim, is this, in general true?
  • If "average" people -- people who are untrained and inexperienced on an issue -- report that some group of practitioners are the best people to ask about that issue, then that group of practitioners is indeed the best group to ask. 
This is false. What are great examples to show this?

About the second claim, since many or most of the biologists surveyed are pro-choice, that just shows that they (like many or most people!) are informed enough about the ethics of abortion to understand that just because an embryo is a living organism, from or near conception, that does not mean, or even much suggest, that abortion is wrong or should be illegal. That, of course, is what led to the angry reactions: their biological claims were twisted to try to support an agenda that they, and their biological claims, don't support. 

All other blog posts are available here.


  1. I couldn't read through the entire article because of multiple errors. This one in particular. You mention premise 2 being both true and obviously false in nearly the same breath. Proof read?

    So this is obviously a bad argument, even if premise 2 is true (and it is!).

    However, most people don't seem to realize this: they are obsessed with whether fetuses are alive or not; whether they are life, and "when life begins."

    They shouldn't be though, given that premise 2 is false, and obviously so. We see this just by defining the word.

    1. Thank you for noticing this typo, which I missed. My apologies for my mistake and thank you for pointing it out!

  2. Regardless the ethical questions, an embryo at conception is a life which much be terminated in order to prevent it's continued existence. This is true whether or not one holds a degree in biology.

    1. Thanks but whether, when and why that's wrong or not is the question. Here's a follow-up on all that: