As expected Carl Sagan gives us a set of intelligent arguements based on a fair and balanced examination of scientific facts and unbiased consideration of the moral issues. He comes to a well reasoned conclusion. If only everyone could examine the facts this way avoiding predjudice, propaganda, fanatacism and pseudo science.
October 16th, 2008 at 9:42 am
One of the only, if not THE only, reasonable and logical discussions of the topic I’ve ever seen. Should be required reading.
October 17th, 2008 at 5:52 am
By far, the best and fluid point of view I’ve ever read on the topic. Permission to plagiarize a few points for my thesis. Thank you.
PS. You can publish my mail address. I’m okay with it.
November 14th, 2008 at 2:10 pm
By far, the most sensible and deep discussion on the issue. By far the most scientific one and worth reading.
This is a highly commendable effort at an objective, reasoned, and in depth discussion of the morality of abortion based on scientific fact. Few who take on the subject will appreciate its nuance and complexity as has been done here. I have, however, problems with critical links in the chain of the argument, and hence the conclusion.
1. “A sperm and an unfertilized egg jointly comprise the full genetic blueprint for a human being. Under certain circumstances, after fertilization, they can develop into a baby. But most fertilized eggs are spontaneously miscarried. Development into a baby is by no means guaranteed. Neither a sperm and egg separately, nor a fertilized egg, is more than a potential baby or a potential adult. So if a sperm and egg are as human as the fertilized egg produced by their union, and if it is murder to destroy a fertilized egg–despite the fact that it’s only potentially a baby–why isn’t it murder to destroy a sperm or an egg?”
A sperm and egg are not separate persons, deserving of protection against “murder”, etc. This is because neither can, on their own, develop into babies or adults, no matter what the circumstances. As you said, separately, they possess but half the human genetic blueprint. A fertilised egg is different because it can develop into an adult, given the right circumstances, much like an infant can develop into a child, a child into a teen, and a teen into an adult. That not all fertilised eggs, infants, children, or teens do actually develop into adults is not a reason to treat them as less human. Some other means must be used to decide if a fertilised egg is but a potential person like sperms and ova, or an actual person, deserving of all basic rights with which we consider humans as being endowed.
2. “Other animals have advantages over us… Our one great advantage, the secret of our success, is thought–characteristically human thought. We are able to think things through, imagine events yet to occur, figure things out. That’s how we invented agriculture and civilization. Thought is our blessing and our curse, and it makes us who we are.”
The argument is basically that personhood or humanity is uniquely characterised by thought. It’s what separates us from other animals. Its logical conclusion is that persons with greater capacity for thought, i.e. more intelligent people, are more human than others. Down Syndrome patients, the mentally unsound, or anyone with a lower IQ should then be treated as less human, and are less deserving of basic rights like life, bodily integrity, etc. No, the unique characteristic that differentiates a human pre-embryo, embryo, or foetus, from other living animals is their complete set of human DNA. That’s what makes us homo sapiens. Certainly, human levels of thought and intelligence (which give us the ability to empathise with others’ suffering) place a moral obligation on us, as a species, to treat each other as being endowed with certain fundamental rights. Yet thought is not the factor by which we choose whom we grant these basic rights to.
What then, distinguishes a fertilised egg from a skin cell on a person’s body? Both are alive and both are human (i.e. both possess a complete set of human DNA). Yet, skin cells do not possess personhood, and are thus not protected from being killed. The distinguishing factor must be its separateness as a living entity. I suspect this is what was meant by the US Supreme Court in Roe v Wade, when they used the term “viability”. And if it’s not, then this seems the most sensible criterion to me.
3. “If the fetus at a certain stage of gestation would be viable outside the womb… then the right of the fetus to life overrides the right of the woman to privacy. But just what does “viable” mean? Even a full-term newborn is not viable without a great deal of care and love. There was a time before incubators, only a few decades ago, when babies in their seventh month were unlikely to be viable. Would aborting in the seventh month have been permissible then? After the invention of incubators, did aborting pregnancies in the seventh month suddenly become immoral? What happens if, in the future, a new technology develops so that an artificial womb can sustain a fetus even before the sixth month …? … [D]oes it then become immoral to abort earlier than the sixth month, when previously it was moral? A morality that depends on, and changes with, technology is a fragile morality; for some, it is also an unacceptable morality.”
I’ve already answered what I think viability means. In case I’m wrong, I’ll ditch that term, and stick to “personhood” and “separateness”. I submit that to be a person, the living human biological material must be a separate entity from any entity which we know to be human beyond the shadow of a doubt (such as babies, children, and adults). And it must also be a complete human being.
I agree completely with your argument about the fragility and unacceptability of a morality that depends on technology. The fact is, in theory, it is possible for a fertilised egg to grow outside the mother’s body, into an infant, if we could simulate the conditions in the womb. There’s no scientific reason which makes it impossible to do, the way it’s impossible to exceed the speed of light, say. Technology just hasn’t gotten us there (yet). This is the first sign of the separateness, as a living entity, of the fertilised egg. But this alone is insufficient, for any cell from the human body could be kept alive and allowed to multiply in this way.
A second sign of separateness is that the mother’s brain is unable to control the fertilised egg through any mechanism. Hormones sent by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, for example, which trigger the release of hormones in the pituitary gland, which in turn trigger responses from specific cells in the body, can affect the skin cells, but not the fertilised egg. The fertilised egg develops with a “mind” and a “will”, so to speak, of its own; completely independent of anything mother’s (or her body’s). While this may be true of any cell outside the mother’s body, and while you can trigger changes in sufficiently developed embryos and foetuses by artificially exposing them to the same hormones, the fact that random cells in the mother’s body are under the control of the mother’s brain, yet the fertilised egg is always shielded from this, is indicative of its separateness.
A third sign of separateness is that the mother’s own body recognises the pre-born child as foreign. That’s why, if allowed, the mother’s antibodies will attack the pre-embryo, embryo, or foetus.
These are just off the top of my head. Perhaps further signs of separateness exist that I do not know of. But these seem sufficient to show that the pre-born are indeed separate living entities from their mothers.
Now that we’ve established separateness we must establish completeness as a human being. In fact, this was the first thing we’d established. By completeness, I mean the ability to become something we can all unhesitatingly admit is a person on its own under the right circumstances. As mentioned earlier, the fertilised egg can develop into an adult human being under the right conditions. Liver cells, skin cells, etc. can’t do this, just like the sperm and ovum can’t on their own. This indicates that skin cells etc. are incomplete, and thus do not qualify for personhood, while the fertilised egg does.
Since they are alive, since they are human, since they are separate, and since they are complete, they must be persons. Hence, from conception, the pre-born deserve all the rights that come with personhood, and abortion is therefore unethical at any stage after conception.
PS: I invite all readers who notice flaws in my analysis to point them out in a reasoned manner based on fact. I admit I do not have perfect knowledge and ask that those with better understanding kindly help me learn.
Bandit a la mode:
February 3rd, 2009 at 3:20 pm
I appreciate your analytical efforts and do not propose that I have anything better to add to Sagan’s analysis (or your lengthy rebuttal). That being said, I assert you can’t see the forest for the trees in this particular instance, loosing a revolutionary unifying treatise in semantics. Again, you are obviously very intelligent and put a great deal of thought into this, but I think turning something academic that was artfully written to be human and bridge gaps is the sort of alienation that keeps this debate from being intelligently addressed.
For instance, on the second point, I don’t think many people who read that passage understood his intent to infer eugenics. I certainly did not. He doesn’t gauge thought or seek to quantify it, as certainly even the most disadvantaged among us has a higher measurable amount of thought process than an animal on average. He only introduced one of many possible litmus tests.
Wonderful essay. But one tiny little critical point to this argument is missing:
Human females have the unique ability to grow a new life inside their bodies. This is an amazing power. No government can do it. No church, no scientist, can do what a woman can do. It is truly the greatest and most amazing power on earth. The closest thing to it was the creation of the atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer’s project gave men the ability to destroy all human life on the planet and end the existence of the human species for all time. Think about that. Without women, humanity would cease to exist. There would be no passing on of your DNA to future generations, and if you are not one of the folks who believes in religious afterlife, then that means the absolute end of the eternal you.
As a society we do not honor women appropriately for this gift. We take it for granted. Powerful men, churches, and governments are all interested in finding ways to harness the power of creation and make it their own. They want to take control of the process. Marriage laws, anti-choice legislation, and scientific Petri dish experiments all revolve around the quest to harness the female’s exclusive power over life.
This power belongs only to women. It is ours and ours alone. It is our gift to offer, our responsibility to manage, and our right to withhold. It’s a lot like comedian bill Cosby’s Parenting joke where he tells the child “I brought you into this world, I can take you out!” Attempts to take this power away from the woman through church doctrine or punitive legislation will never work, because women will fight back, and when circumstances require, will simply ignore those laws. That is the law of nature. It is a process of natural selection, and evolution. The human female, (and the birthing parent of all living species) have not only the right, but the responsibility to make choices to ensure healthy future populations. So ultimately, the moral argument is trumped by the mysterious process of evolutionary function.
If the decisions of early womankind had been different, humanity might be a population of Neanderthals today. Therefore, because science and religion lack the capacity to predict such outcomes, only the woman, with the use of her intuition and wisdom, can be trusted and relied upon to protect and selectively nurture the continued existence of humankind.
May 20th, 2009 at 4:14 pm
I have to agree with Satya’s rebuttal due to the fact that I came up with a similar analysis and questioning of this essay. This is not to say that Sagan’s essay was faulty or flawed in any way. It was by far ONE of the most intelligent essays I have yet read on the topic. However, this does not equate a conclusion to the discussion. Rather it should be viewed as an intelligent beginning to furthering thought and discussion on the topic. Would ther be no one out there who would agree that thought processes and discussion can be evolved? Congratulations to Sagan for mastering an intelligent starting point.
As far as “infering eugenics”…I did not read into the essay that Sagan himself was trying to infer eugenics into the discussion. That does not mean that someone would not have the capacity to twist the abortion issue into a starting point for eugenics. Satya is correct to see that such issues and thoughts have the “potential” to take on “life” of their own. We have already seen examples of this throughout history. Advancement of technology, science, and thought processes can be used to make our world a better or a more destructive place.
It is essentially impossible for human beings to come to a consensus on when life begins because we do not know and cannot know. That leaves an individual choosing between either the school of science and measuring only what can be physically measured, which is obviously getting us nowhere, or choosing based on a religious ideology. Instead of merging the two together in harmony they are at complete odds with one another. In my case I choose creationism, and a Supreme and loving Creator who alone has the answer to the life question. I find measuring based on scientific principles alone to be the opposite of the “enlightenment” it claims to be. It is an extremely limiting means of explaining ourselves as whole individuals. To believe only what can be seen or measured is archaic. On the other hand to condemn and judge others who suffer and live entirely different situations and circumstances is also archaic. At what point will we honestly stop arguing about when life begins and focus on helping other human beings. What have we really accomplished here? Have we saved any lives?
Abortion is murder. It is not simply a religious or scientific issue. Although in today’s world it has been twisted and perverted into just that. It is a human issue. It is a human rights issue. We are taking the lives of innocent, helpless human lives who are relying on us for support and love. These human beings have no choice! We are responsible for their well being and protection as we are responsible for the environment or other species. What do you choose to do with what you have been entrusted with? There are alternatives to abortion. There could be less of them if we made a combined effort at reducing the number of atrocities that is now happening at an alarming rate because it is accessible and has been reduced to being a “conscious free” choice in which we justify away all the guilt and responsibility anyone has for those lives or “potential lives”.
We have allowed the issue to grow out of control by not taking personal responsibility as human beings for each other. Instead, we have allowed our governments and political parties use this issue and ourselves as pawns in a game where they retain the ultimate power over our lives. Each human being who shares the gift of life is responsible for the world and ultimately responsible for each other and the continuation of this mass atrocity.
Thomas N. Morrison:
May 21st, 2009 at 2:06 pm
It is interesting to realize and remember that, as soon as humans began to understand the pharmacopia of items around them to aid in health and sickness, there were means found to induce abortions. Women the world over wanted to control that aspect of their lives simply because it was their lives they wanted to control. The ethics of that control is the problem because the methods have been ramped up in the modern world where the decisions aren’t just based on the woman, or the woman and her “advisor”, but on modern clinical means. The desire of a woman to control that aspect of her being HAS NOT CHANGED, however, and the debate swirling around abortion ignors that multi millenia-old need. As pointed out, women are in charge of creating life, but aren’t necessarily in charge of the creation; so abortion techniques throughout the ages have been an attempt to balance the control of creation. In my mind, all other arguments are fluff and smoke screens to the primary woman’s desire for balance. The human race will not disappear if abortion is legal or illegal, and those that get up in arms over the issue are in league with those who used to argue how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
June 2nd, 2009 at 3:40 pm
Abortion with logic, together? Sweet! I’ll post my thoughts on it also.
I have seen no proof that humans are any different than any other living being in the world, and I see no difference in living beings in comparison to non-living beings, other than the fact they are cellular. Bacteria cannot think, yet it lives. Humans can think, and it lives too. Life is not based on if one can think or not. Human life is not either. In fact, I cannot find a scientific method of saying whether something is human or not using only logic.
As such, I do not hold the notion that human life is worth the usage of force to save. Because of this, I find abortion to be an action that is allowed. Granted, I find murder to also be allowed, but I find it an action that is harmful to another human, as it shows by example that murder is allowed, and all people being equal, that you can be murdered also. Abortion follows the same logic. By performing an abortion, you show it is allowed. The thing it hurts does not (cannot) object to it. Does this mean that I might not be born? Well, yes it does. Do I care? I never had the ability to tell I was alive. I returned to the shadows before I ever saw the light.
Bandit a la mode:
September 9th, 2009 at 3:22 pm
“This power belongs only to women. It is ours and ours alone. It is our gift to offer, our responsibility to manage, and our right to withhold. ”
October 15th, 2009 at 7:45 pm
“Without women, humanity would cease to exist.”
Agreed. However, I also agree with this statement:
“Without men, humanity would cease to exist.”
October 24th, 2009 at 12:57 pm
The problem with this essay is that almost every pro-choice person i know agree with the limit imposed by the Roe vs. Wade decision, only i few diehard abortion fundamentalists support last term abortion.
So the valid point of the ideas presented by Carl is really in the other side of the equation the pro-life supporters. The great majority of them really believe that early term abortion is a crime, and the problem with them is like Carl pointed out: they are not hearing, and they never ever will hear, because their minds are close.
October 26th, 2009 at 9:14 pm
Finally! Something rational! Carl Sagan’s analysis here is by far the most objective, rational, unbiased, and scientific stance I’ve ever seen anyone take on the issue of abortion, and I agree with his conclusion wholeheartedly.
Being raised Catholic, it surprised me that the Catholic Church has not always taken a pro-life stance. I have a feeling that this information will prove useful later…
November 4th, 2009 at 9:03 pm
I thought this was great. It was nice to read two different points of view. However, every time abortion is being discussed, the rights of the father are hardly taken into consideration. What about the rights of the father?? It takes two people to make a baby, not just the women.
April 29th, 2010 at 5:02 pm
His essay did a good job at looking at both sides, but the way I see it, the historical morality of something shouldn’t affect it’s weight today. Abortion was legal for many years and didn’t become illegal until the late 1800s. But, wasn’t slavery legal for about that long too? Up until Brown vs. Board, wasn’t it completely normal to segregate people according to the color of their skin? Time changes. Technology changes. And as humans learn more and more about our bodies and minds, our sense of right and wrong change. People realized that slavery was wrong, that segregation was wrong, and now, that abortion is wrong. Carl Sagan always talked about how humans aren’t special. But that’s not true. Human’s are very unique from any other form of life. Humans have culture, free will, control over their instincts. And all human beings should be treated with dignity. A human life is born when an egg and sperm unite. The world isn’t the only thing that needs saving. Human beings need to be saved. Sagan was right. There are children in the world starving. There are people who have no access to clean water. And the rest of the human race has to do something about this. If we don’t learn to respect the human being, then war and strife will continue to exist and thrive.