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Snowflakes abortion and cloning


The other day there was a report that scientists have been able to simulate the development of snowflakes with a relatively simple computer model based on our understanding of the physics of water. The report noted that the model works but that scientists still don't understand why it works so well.  So notice, the underlying principles are understood pretty well- but the model suggests that at some higher level of snowflake organization there are interactions going on that we still don't understand.

Now what does this have to do with abortion and cloning? It suggests that if we are going to talk about these issues related to human existence we need to think carefully about reasoning behind our positions. For instance, on the abortion issue, and the same thing applies to human cloning, we hear phrases such as "Life begins at conception". Sounds nice but conception simply is the formation of a zygote from the egg and sperm. Of course the egg and sperm are cells and alive themselves and yet we don't worry too much about the fate of millions of unfertilized eggs and all those unlucky sperm that don't find an egg.

Oh then but I mean "Human life begins at conception". But here is a little thought experiment. Consider a cow. Is a cow zygote a cow? If you think a human zygote is a human then perhaps a cow zygote is a cow. Ask your self does that make sense? I haven't tried this but I think that most people upon thinking about it would agree with me that a cow zygote is not a cow, anymore than a water molecule is a snowflake. "Snow flakiness" is really a set of emergent properties that arise because of the way that water molecules interact given conditions conducive to snow flake formation.

I think you see where I am going. If a cow zygote is not a cow then "cowness" must emerge from the genetic, developmental and environmental influences on the developing embryo. There is no mystical essence of cow. Since humans are animals-as I tell my students special animals but still animals- what Daniel Dennett calls a euprimate- then a human zygote is not a human being. "Humanness" emerges just as "cowness" does. There is no mystical essence of human.

Now conduct the converse experiment. Start with a new born baby. Is the baby human in the sense of a person having rights? Sure, at least some basic rights. Does a woman have a right to kill it? I think most of us my self included would agree-not under most circumstances. Suppose the baby is one week from full term...here you get some disagreement but I suspect just about everyone would agree this is not something that ought to be done lightly. It offends our sense of person hood.

But here we see the germ of the obvious conflict-what about medical necessity to save the life of the mother? A fetus though is not an embryo-so that slogan "abortion stops a beating heart" is only true some of the time. But the closer and closer we get to full term the more the fetus becomes invested in our minds with "humanness".

Calling a zygote a cow does not make sense at all-calling a cow fetus a cow (OK a calf) doesn't make sense either, but I think lots of us start to get a bit uncomfortable even about cow fetuses. "Do they suffer?" "Could it survive?" We at least begin to have empathy toward it. We can clearly see the future cow in the cow fetus. And we do for humans, hence the proposals to make women going for late term abortions see sonograms. And hence the appeal to empathy embedded in the partial truth of the beating heart slogan.

Well what about cloning to produce embryonic stem cells for therapy or research? Consider the following. Is harvesting an early stage embryo from a mother to get embryonic stem cells wrong? Is harvesting an early stage embryo fertilized and cultured in a "test tube" wrong? How about, as was just allegedly done, removing a human skin cell nucleus, placing it in a zygote which has had its nucleus removed, treating and culturing the resulting cell, letting it divide into a little ball of embryonic cells and harvesting stem cells- does that really strike you with the same sense of wrongness- or wrong at all?

Or how about this which by the way has been done, I believe in mice- a cell from the body is coaxed into dividing into a little ball of cells that behave like embryonic cells. Let's take one more scenario, we take a cell from the body treat it to effectively deprogram it to form a stem cell useful for therapy. By the way in all these cases from the third one on we are technically dealing with cloning! But we are not making a human being, and I think even abortion absolutists would have a hard time finding much wrong with the last scenario even though it conflicts with the idea that abortion is wrong because it kills a potential human.

However, we as a species love to draw lines. That's what Roe v. Wade tried to do with abortion. It put that line where abortions are allowable at the point when a fetus (which by the way is not the same thing as an embryo) is viable and of course that line is a moving target as technology improves. Roe v. Wade was also dealing with another line-the line at which a person's right to make their own reproductive decisions conflicts with society's stake in the developing fetus. From my perspective Roe v. Wade was not as Cal Thomas claims "a reflection of our decadence and deviancy" but an attempt to find a balance between these two conflicting lines and an attempt to resolve a conflict heightened by changes in reproductive technology such as the pill.

Maybe we do want as a society to draw the abortion line at conception. But many of the arguments are based merely on slogans-"right to life" "woman's right to choose". Perhaps we will get further if we scrap these extremes and the name calling and the absolutism that goes along with them and think about how we as persons emerge from zygotes and realize that people of good faith might draw their lines in different places. Likewise with cloning, we need to consider the conflicts involved and realize that people of good faith can disagree just as they can about where to draw the lines about abortion.


Ronda Miller 10 years, 5 months ago

Great, informative piece as usual Paul. I am still stuck that life begins once the zygot forms - that is where it starts to rapidly mulitply and become a human, calf, foal, whatever species the sperm and egg are derive from. I understand that the sperm and the egg are from living tissue? word choice - but they are separate and on their own cannot become the end result.

Having said that, I don't have a problem with cells from mice or humans being used to create stem cells.

Ronda Miller 10 years, 5 months ago

I won't attempt to suggest that I have completely finished reading the link you supplied, but from what I have read it is an interesting essay on this matter. Thank you for taking the time to pass it along.

At what age do you feel the embryo is human - the article from the link made it sound as though they didn't use a time frame for the embryo to be considered viable.

I would need to check what the law is on this too - I know people can be charged with murder once the fetus reaches the age that it can live on its own. I am guessing that this would become earlier and earlier with modern technology, or are they saying it can not have help to stay alive to be considered viable?

It would be interesting to do a survey (probably already done since someone is always doing them) as to how much a woman's opinion of abortion changes once she has children.

I just bet you are going to come back with some links for me Paul!

Marlo Angell 10 years, 5 months ago

Very thought provoking post on where to draw the line. It would be nice if everyone could agree to disagree, but when legislation is involved it becomes necessary to make these demarcations. You hope the lines can be derived from a combination of what both the mind and the heart tell you is right- somehow using both science and spirituality to define life. As a liberal & a catholic, this is something that keeps me up at nights so I appreciated your link!

Paul Decelles 10 years, 5 months ago

No link...what do you mean by human? If you mean identifiably human as opposed to some other animal then even the egg and sperm are human. Do you mean developing as a unique entity potentially capable of developing into an adult? That would be the formation of the zygote. Do you mean sufficient development of the nervous system to feel pain? That is later at some stage of fetal development. Or do you mean sufficient cognitive development to be aware of self? Exactly what are you asking?

Maybe you are asking the wrong question. To illustrate consider another one my infamous thought experiments. Consider a mother whose life would be in serious peril if she did not abort her potential offspring at different developmental stages. Would the mother be more likely to put her life at risk for a zygote or a 4 week old fetus, an 8 week old fetus? A 21 week old fetus? A bet the mother's calculus would change the closer and closer the fetus is to full term. A mother would probably not risk her life for the zygote as readily as when the fetus was close to term.

According to my Church's teaching the zygote is fully human but would even the best Catholic mother risk her life for a zygote? For her child yes, but for a zygote?

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