Seidensticker’s Spectrum Argument for Abortion

So, Bob Seidensticker over at Cross Examined recently revisited his “Spectrum Argument for Abortion” in response to a criticism of it brought up by a secular poster. However, I don’t actually feel that Seidensticker’s responses actually defend the argument at all. The best argument that isn’t in the original is the one about whether at least part of the argument is relevant or not:

Seidensticker’s point about how evangelicals thirty years ago supported abortion is simply irrelevant.

Not to people who bring up Christian arguments! If it doesn’t apply to a secular perspective, fair enough, but I was addressing more people than just you.

Actually, yes, it’s still irrelevant to bring that up, even to Christians. First, not all Christians are evangelicals. Second, that evangelicals supported it thirty years ago is irrelevant to arguments raised today. If you are going to use that, what you want to bring up is why they supported it then, to see if that argument still applies today. If it does, then you have an argument to use against them, and one that has and so potentially undercuts the religious basis they have for their stance. But simply pointing out an inconsistency in view only works if you insist that they cannot possibly ever have made mistakes in their interpretations and arguments and insist that they can never, ever change their minds about something. Since one of the main criticisms of religious arguments is that they can never change, that’d be a very odd — and potentially self-defeating — position for an atheist to take.

Anyway, onto the actual argument, which was originally raised, according to Seidensticker, here. The summary from the more recent post is this:

Consider the above figure of the blue-green spectrum. We can argue where blue ends and green begins, but it should be easy to agree that blue is not green. In other words, the two ends are quite different.

The same is true for a spectrum of personhood. Imagine a single fertilized egg cell at the left of the nine-month-long spectrum and a trillion-cell newborn on the right. The newborn is a person. And it’s far more than just 1,000,000,000,000 undifferentiated cells. These cells are organized and connected to make a person—it has arms and legs, eyes and ears, a brain and a nervous system, a stomach and digestive system, a heart and circulatory system, skin, liver, and so on.

The first problem here is this: this isn’t an argument. Seidensticker is arguing that we have a spectrum here and linking it by analogy to the visible spectrum — and a number of others if you look in the original post — but he hasn’t actually established that what we have is a spectrum and not just a set of differences of the same thing. There’s no such thing, for example, as a spectrum of vehicles, but a transport truck is quite different from a compact, which is quite different from a pick-up truck, and so on … and that’s if you don’t count boats and bicycles as vehicles. And if you don’t, then consider “modes of transportation”, which can range from walking to airplanes to trains without there being any kind of spectrum involved. So pointing out that the fertilized egg is quite a bit different from a baby does not establish that there’s even a spectrum here to consider.

The second issue is that all he establishes is that they are different, but not that they are different in the way we need to claim that the fertilized egg ought not be counted as a person for the purposes of the abortion debate. He deliberately doesn’t want to get into the debate over when it ought to be considered a person:

Yes, it’s important to get the OK/not-OK dividing line for abortion right, but that’s not my interest here. Legislators deal with tough moral issues all the time. Take the issue of the appropriate prison sentence for robbery. Six months? Five years? What mitigating circumstances are relevant? Does it matter if a gun was involved? What if the gun was used as a threat but it wasn’t loaded? What if some other weapon was used? What if someone was hurt?

It’s a person’s life we’re talking about, so the sentence must be decided carefully, and yet penalties for this and a myriad other specific crimes have been wrestled with and resolved in 50 states and hundreds of countries.

The same is true for the cutoff for abortion—it’s a tough decision, but it’s been made many times.

Now, just like in those other cases, we can indeed claim that they’ve gotten it wrong and work to change it. But that’s not actually important here. What’s important is determining that these differences between the two are sufficient to claim that the fertilized egg should not be considered a person for the purposes of the abortion debate. Otherwise, I can concede that the fertilized egg is radically different from a baby but insist that that’s not a difference that matters wrt the fertilized egg being treated like a person in this case. As seen when we look at one of Seidensticker’s more … whimsical examples:

I addressed this in the original argument, but let me illustrate the issue with a quick round of “One of these things is not like the others.” Our candidates today are an adult, a teenager, a newborn baby, and a single fertilized human egg cell. Okay, candidates, raise your hand if you have a brain. Now raise your hand if you have a pancreas. If you have skin. Eyes. Nose. Bones. Muscles.

Now raise your hand if you have hands.

The difference between newborns, teens, and adults is negligible compared to the single cell at the other end of the spectrum, which has nothing that we commonly think of as a trait of personhood. The commonality across the spectrum is that they all have eukaryotic cells with Homo sapiens DNA. That’s it. That’s not something that many of us get misty-eyed about. Very little sentimental poetry is written about the kind of DNA in the cells of one’s beloved.

So, having hands is a prerequisite for personhood? Who knew? And whether or not we get “misty-eyed” over the DNA is irrelevant. I can concede that the fertilized egg doesn’t have hands and concede that the only commonality is what Seidensticker says and still insist that that’s enough to confer personhood status on it, and Seidensticker would have, at least, no immediate reply. Especially given what he says about the naming (from the original post):

This game where pro-lifers deny names to the spectrum quickly gets tiring. I really don’t care what the spectrum is called—humanity, personhood, human development, like-me-ness, whatever—call it what you want as long as the naming acknowledges the stark difference between the newborn (with arms and legs and a circulatory system and a nervous system and eyes and ears and so on) and the single fertilized human egg cell.

But the thing is that the name of the spectrum is the important thing here, which is why pro-lifers are so careful not to concede too much wrt that name. Because the name isn’t just a name, but points to a concept. If we are forced to concede that Seidensticker’s spectrum is a spectrum of personhood or humanity, then it would be much harder to argue that personhood rights should be conferred upon the fertilized egg. If, however, Seidensticker’s spectrum is not only not personhood, but also doesn’t have any direct relation to what makes something a person, then it is irrelevant and meaningless wrt the abortion debate. Take this example of naming. I accept Seidensticker’s spectrum, and name it the Grogiland Spectrum. At the one end — where the baby is — I call it a Flugelwant, and at the other end I call it a Steinertran. I then insist, however, that both Flugelwants and Steinertrans still count as persons. I expect that Seidensticker would call this yet another pro-life game, but I would reply that Seidensticker only says that because his spectrum is always presumed to be personhood, or at least directly relevant to it. Thus, it’s only if he can establish that, at least, his spectrum tracks personhood can his argument get off the ground … which is precisely the thing that he refuses to demonstrate and argue for.

His argument also has an interesting consequence. By his argument, we have a baby — including newborns — at one end of the spectrum, and fertilized eggs at the other end. Because this is a spectrum, this means that if we presume that babies are persons and fertilized eggs are not the line between the two — and thus, the line where the entity becomes a person — is somewhere between those two endpoints. Which means that it must be at some point before birth. Many religious pro-lifers and pretty much all secular pro-lifers will gladly trade considering a fertilized egg not being a person for an acceptance that the entity becomes a person at some point before birth, and thus that at some point abortion is immoral. And Seidensticker can’t even retreat to a “bodily autonomy” argument to save those cases because if that argument works when the entity is definitely a person it works when it clearly isn’t, and so Seidensticker’s “primary focus” actually is utterly superfluous to the debate. I’m thinking that most pro-choice advocates aren’t going to be that receptive to an argument that has as a consequence that at least some abortions are immoral.

So this argument fails in a number of ways. First, it isn’t actually an argument as presented by Seidensticker: he asserts but does not demonstrate that there is even a spectrum here to be concerned with. Second, he never establishes that this is a personhood spectrum or indeed a spectrum that is at all relevant to the abortion debate, simply assuming it … and, in fact, refuses to even engage in that discussion. And, finally, his argument has a consequence that many pro-choice advocates would reject. As a “primary focus”, it seems to be superseded by far more interesting pro-choice arguments, including ones that directly try to determine what makes something a person, which Seidensticker again refuses to do. As such, it seems to add little to the abortion debate.

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