"And finally, one person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens. One could simply conceive of this whole argument as a reductio ad absurdum of the cornerstone of the argument of the pro-life movement, namely that deaths of early embryos are a matter of grave concern."
"[Footnote ii.] John Harris makes a similar argument for procreation. If one is genuinely concerned about embryonic death, then one should choose reproductive techniques that minimise embryonic death. If IVF had developed to the point that a pregnancy could be brought about at minimal cost of embryonic death, then one would be required to refrain from reproducing through sexual intercourse, because it would come at a needlessly high cost of embryonic death. Harris (Harris,2 p 346) takes this to be a reductio ad absurdum of the reverence with which the pro-life movement treats embryos in the discussion about stem cell research."
A commenter at Pandagon (language warning) believes that such a reductio is the true aim of this paper, rather than serious discussion of the ethical issues involved. It is important to note that by the end of the article, Bovens has subtly changed his argument. Whether NFP causes additional spontaneous abortions due to its rules is no longer of paramount importance. He needs only to point out that in typical use, NFP fails far more often than the Pill does. He’s pointing out that if you believe embryos should be protected from dying unneccessarily, you should choose the method of birth control that results in the fewest embryo deaths. Based on failure rates, the Pill fits the bill and thus Bovens believes he has reduced pro-life arguments against abortifacient devices and medicines to absurdity. Biologist PZ Meyers, who blogs at Pharyngula, summarizesBovens implied argumentwell.
"[P]regnancies fail all the time anyway, even if the eggs are fertilized at the optimum time. Trying to get pregnant is always going to be an exercise in baby killing, if you believe that a freshly fertilized zygote is a a fully fledged human being—that baby is going to get flushed spontaneously about half the time."
"[…]If we accept the anti-choicer’s claim that the zygote is a baby at the moment of fertilization, and the abortion rate is about 46 million per year world wide, and the number of live births is approximately equally to the number of spontaneous abortions, and the number of babies born last year was about 80 million…that means God killed almost twice as many babies as the abortionists did last year. That psychopathic bastard."
"I want to see the anti-choicers start picketing churches instead of abortion clinics."
Surely this is not a new argument in the pro-life vs pro-choice debate. However, Bovens’ "wry philosopher’s joke" will likely make it popular again, especially in the MSM.Lindsay Beyerstein, who blogs at Majikthise, puts a fine point on the argument.
"It seems a little odd to classify intrinsically non-viable embryos as a rights-bearing subjects. Ex hypothesi, these embryos aren’t even potential fetuses or potential babies because they’re too damaged to gestate."
The best answer I can give Bovens, Meyers, and Beyerstein, while avoiding explicitly religious arguments, focuses on which embryos die. In the case of natural spontaneous abortions,only "unfit" embryos die. In the case of artificially induced spontaneous abortions, some of the embryos killed would otherwise be viable. There is a distinct difference between allowing nature to ensure survival of the species through natural abortion and deliberately killing embryos that "made the cut". Quoting Whitty one last time:
"The article fails to acknowledge the distinction between natural loss and loss caused by deliberate human intervention; common sense and every criminal law system recognise the importance of knowledge and intent in human responsibility; in particular, the fact that accidental deaths happen does not justify causing similar deaths. Bovens adopts Harris’ perspective, that the knowledge that some embryos will not naturally survive, amounts to convicting any couple then continuing to conceive naturally of “destruction” (3) of embryos. This is a thesis open to redutio ad absurdum, and rests on [John] Harris’ having dismissed to his satisfaction the double effect principle patently used universally in daily life and medical practice."
To that I’d add the question, "What ever happened to the hippocratic notion of doing no harm?" Doing no harm does not mean guaranteeing immortality, which no sane doctor would ever think of, but minimizing the outright harm we do. Current medical sciencecannot tell us which embryos are viable and which ones aren’t. If an abortifacient device or drug kills an embryo that would have been spontaneously aborted anyway, no harm’s been done (assuming there are no nasty side effects). On the other hand, what if we kill viable embryos?
"50% or more embryos die naturally before implanting", is poor argument for deliberately taking the lives of those that nature spares. Viability at various stages of life is sometimes defined by the state of medical practice and the affordable availability thereof. In poor countries where good obstetric care is hard to come by, a lot of babies aren’t viable. Is it odd to classify them as rights-bearing subjects? How about people with terminal cancers; are they less than human? How about victims of natural disasters? If half a village does in an earthquake, should we kill a few that survive to make our lives more convenient?
Embryos ought to be treated as human beings with inherent dignity and right to life. History is filled with stories of the horrors created by trying to control who has a right to live and who doesn’t. Now we’re beginning to learn that bad things happen when people decide who gets to be born and who doesn’t.