Hearts, Minds, and Lives: Why Both Science and Philosophy Matter in The Debate on Prenatal Justice

by Kristina Artuković



Ever since pro-life states have begun pursuing heartbeat bills, the mainstream media have been competing in attempts to creatively rearticulate entire sets of related keywords under the pretense of scientific authority. It has gotten particularly sporty since the Texan SB8 came into effect.


Sahotra Sarkar, professor of philosophy and integrative biology, recently wrote an article in which he takes this half a step further, claiming that “​​...biology does not determine when human life begins.”

In the survey part of his 2018 dissertation, Steven Andrew Jacobs found that 95% of biologists affirm that, from the biological standpoint, human life begins at fertilization. To defend his aforementioned claim, Sarkar set out to question the scientific validity of this important finding. According to Sarkar, Jacobs' survey contains a self-selection bias: the survey was offered to 60,000 biologists, yet 5,502 provided an answer. However, what Sarkar fails to mention is this: 85% of the biologists who answered were pro-choice. Could it be that Sarkar’s rebuttal contains its own type of bias, namely observer bias? Since Sarkar does not know the exact reasons why others did not respond, he might be simply making an assumption that fits his narrative.


Politics and power have always played a part in governing the process of selection and interpretation of data in the realm of science. This has always been a dynamic, messy process, especially since the Late Middle Ages. However, these recent developments in the media indicate that this process is dramatically changing its course: it seems like science is now reshaping its own terms and postulates in order to fit them into a specific value system.


To supplement or transform an existing structure of scientific knowledge with something new, it is important to follow certain rules. The principle of coherence is especially relevant here.


Coherence is one of the reasons why pro-choice philosophers, like Nathan Nobis, for example, make a completely plausible and valid move when they concur that prenatal humans are biologically human and then ask questions like what it means to be human (outside of the scope of biology), or how humans obtain their moral status, what morally justifies the killing of humans, or what constitutes the basis of personhood, etc. They are not interfering with the entire structure of knowledge in biology; they are simply accepting it while shifting the abortion debate towards a scientifically competent moral philosophy.


However, the statement that “biology does not determine when human life begins” is a completely different animal. It raises several questions regarding the scope of biological knowledge. Namely, does this mean that biology is unable to tell us when any life of any species begins? Or, if this assertion is only true for the human species – then what are the necessary differences that make biology unable to do that when it comes to humans? And if the answer to that implies that biological humanness is hinged upon a consensus that can be brought about strictly from within our species, are then other species also expected to come to their own consensus regarding the issue of when their lives begin? Should we ask elephants when elephant life begins? Since Sarkar claims that, among biologists, there is no consensus on when human life actually begins, (suddenly adding “actually” into the picture), other elephants should perhaps avoid bringing elephant biologists into the debate.


As for us humans, apparently there are several possible prenatal developmental stages that might provide a basis for the scientific debate on when human life actually begins. These were proposed by Scott Gilbert, professor emeritus of biology, in a lecture at a conference sponsored by Planned Parenthood, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, and the Society of Family Planning.

This is where the real fun begins: in his lecture, Gilbert actually lists possible biological positions on when personhood begins, interchangeably using the terms human being and person.


Let us pause for a moment here and note the fact that the entire framework has been tacitly shifting from “when human life begins” via “when human life actually begins” to “when personhood begins”. I wonder what answers and how many Jacobs would get if he asked the last question instead of the first one. Especially since the terms human and person are not absolutely interchangeable, and gluing them together in this manner does not advance anyone’s position, especially when it comes to the arguments from biology, if they are to be competently handled in the philosophy of law and moral philosophy.


According to Gilbert, the positions open for this debate are fertilization, gastrulation, EEG pattern, and the perinatal period, while Sarkar adds viability. Let us take a closer look at these positions and try to figure out what is actually going on there.


The crucial thing to note here is that both Sarkar and Gilbert are using science to render science irrelevant and shift the responsibility towards interpretation, while at the same time trying to manipulate the modes of interpretation by using their scientific authority.


First, regarding the fertilization position: two incorrect pro-life premises are constructed by providing arguments against them. Gilbert’s counterargument of epigenetics points out the changes in the individual’s DNA, which undermines zygotic DNA’s central status in the pro-life argumentation. However, at this level, the pro-life argument was never about a concrete individual and their individual traits. It is about the empirical proof that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses found in a human female belong to one natural kind in biology called human or Homo sapiens. Gilbert could likewise use the argument of intraspecific chimerism and mosaicism, in which cells with different genetic materials coexist within an individual of a species — and it would have made no difference in regards to the actual argument from the pro-life side.


Sarkar adds in the counterargument that DNA in a zygote cannot define human life because almost all cells within the human body contain full human DNA. But this is far from the point, isn’t it? The pro-life argument is not about the DNA as such, it is about the difference between zygote’s and mother’s DNA.


So, the first assumption fails to note that zygotic DNA points towards the sameness in the species, and the second assumption fails to note that zygotic DNA points towards a difference that defines the specific status of the zygote: it is an individual organism, not a body part.


It is also highly unlikely to get very deep en route to the bottom of these matters without relying, at least intuitively, on ontology, the indispensable branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being. Sarkar’s counterargument concerning skin cells is blind to the basic ontological difference between any other human cell and a zygote. Zygote belongs to a completely different ontological class than, say, a skin cell or an ovum. It is an individual, one-cell organism in the process of a self-directed development within the genus-specific life cycle.


Gastrulation refers to the stage in which an embryo loses its ability to divide into its “embryonic siblings” (thus forming twins, triplets, etc). This serves to relativize human biological individuality from conception. However, it is quite unsound, especially from a biological standpoint, to define a biological entity as a non-individual organism until it loses the ability to divide or clone itself. A strawberry plant before it sends out a runner to produce another plant which will be its clone and an Escherichia coli before it divides are and remain individual biological organisms. Similarly, an embryo is the same individual entity throughout the entire time of its development. In gastrulation, it simply loses the potential of dividing into other entities. This position serves as an example of mixing substances with categories, competently separated from each other thousands of years ago.

The appearance of a specific EEG pattern is another position. It relates to a specific brainwave pattern whose disappearance constitutes a legal criterion for human death. So, by symmetry, it could be said that a fetus is not alive before this pattern emerges in the brain. However, it is a scientific fact that human organisms are, since their conception, in a constant, dramatically active, and inherently governed process towards the appearance of this brainwave pattern, and beyond, until their development stops. Braindead extrauterine humans are not, and if they were, there would be no scientific basis for pronouncing them dead.


Using a static model instead of a dynamic one is actually a very common strategy applied by the advocates and apologists of the right to abortion. They often operate with an incorrect concept of fetus, representing it as if frozen in time, deliberately omitting the fact that it is an entity in a specific process, constantly developing. Essentially, such strategy plants a series of Zeno’s and Heraclitus’ paradoxes into the debate, deployed in order to make things deceptively hard to argue from the position of defending the prenatal right to life.


Extrauterine viability is another seemingly sound ground for a debate on the beginning of human life. From a biological point of view, it is unclear why: it does not change anything in terms of the status of the existence of human life, it is just that the probability of the fetus not dying if delivered rises as it gets older. If left unharmed and undelivered, the fetus will most probably continue its intrauterine development past this threshold, until it initiates its birth. However, viability is closely related to the issue of bodily autonomy. Yet, the legal concept of one’s bodily autonomy cannot define someone else’s beginning of existence or dictate the grounds for the recognition of their right to life. The best it can do is affirm that we have a conflict of rights to deal with here.


All these examples illustrate how the debate on prenatal justice has become marked by a disquieting reversal of the course in the dynamic relation between science and power.


Back in the old days, scientists insisted on the validity of their hypotheses and postulates, pushing back on political interests often hidden under the guise of dogma. The post-medieval mindset, nurtured by Scholasticism and intensively trained in the struggles during this pushback, gave rise to the modern rigorous criteria for knowledge and a whole range of tools available in today’s philosophy of science.


Now it seems that scientists are shaping and restricting the relevance of their postulates in order to serve the socio-political narrative benevolent towards elective abortion, revealing the dogmatic underpinnings of this narrative. But the tools of the philosophy of science and all other relevant branches of philosophy still stand, readily available. Isn’t it about time we deployed them more freely to preserve the dignity and relevance of actual science, so that we could finally be able to discuss things soundly on the grounds of moral philosophy?


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.