Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- October, 1999

The Paradoxical Right to Life

(Formerly: "The Right to Life and the Right to Love")

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org

Excerpts Published in The Online Journal, May 23, 2002, 
and Smirking Chimp, May 24, 2002.

Santa Maria, thou who hast conceived without sin, grant that I might sin without conceiving.

A Maiden's Prayer


Puritanism: The deep, dark, dread that someone, somewhere, may be enjoying himself.


"Logic Has Nothing to Do With It!"

If it were possible to reduce the number of abortions by 80%, and teen-age pregnancies by 90%, would the enthusiastic promoters of "the right to life" take notice and support these measures?

Don't count on it!

In point of fact, in The Netherlands (where the young are at least as sexually active, and probably more so, than in the United States), the rate of abortion is a fifth, and the rate of teen-age births is a tenth, of those rates in the United States. (1)

The reason for these dramatically contrasting figures is no mystery: in The Netherlands, as well as the Scandinavian countries, there are aggressive, government-sponsored programs in sex education, and contraceptives are readily available. Moreover, it is generally accepted in our country that sex education and contraception would significantly reduce the rates and numbers of both abortions and teen-age pregnancies.

Why, then, does the "right to life" movement not enthusiastically support sex education and birth control? The motive is transparent: both policies would also, in all probability, increase sexual activity among the young and unmarried. Suppress both policies and in addition outlaw abortion, and the fear of pregnancy will once again return as a significant deterrent to pre- and extra-marital sex.

What, then, is the highest priority of "the right to life" movement? Is it the protection of fetal life, or is it the promotion of chastity? As the data from the Netherlands and elsewhere clearly indicate, these goals are in conflict: the promotion of chastity (through opposition to sex education and birth control) increases the incidence of unwanted pregnancy and thence of abortion.

Few defenders of "the right to life" would ever admit that the protection of "pre-born babies" is morally subordinate to the suppression of non-marital sex. Yet their behavior betrays precisely that sense of priority, with manifest and disturbing results. (2)

We do not, however, doubt their sincerity. Though the simultaneous opposition to abortion, sex education and contraception is contradictory and counter-productive, these complications are furthest from the mind of the "mandatory motherhood" zealots. Reasonableness is simply not a conspicuous part of their rhetorical armory. Indeed, when human beings, of any religious or political persuasion, have sex on the mind, logic, intellect and prudence are effectively swept away in the ensuing flood of emotions, ranging from lust, to envy, resentment and rage. Just ask Bill Clinton.

Accordingly, the public debate on abortion, birth control and sex education supplies the teacher of critical thinking an inexhaustible lode of nuggets for analysis and commentary.

The Semantics of Abortion

To begin, consider the language used by opposing sides of the abortion debate. While their references (denotations) are the same, the emotional and judgmental connotations of their language are charged and contentious:





Murdering Babies

Terminating Pregnancies


Pre-Born Children

Fetal Tissue

Abortion Site


Family Planning Clinic

"The Opposition"


Misogynists, Fanatics

As is so often the case, the "conservative" side of this debate has been much more skillful in its crafting of language to convey its message. For example, their self-selected descriptions of their position, "pro-life" and "anti-abortion," convey the immediate suggestion that the opposition is "anti-life" and "pro-abortion."

As a moment's reflection should make clear, a "pro-choice" position by no means entails "anti-life" or "pro-abortion." Yet it took a few years after Roe vs. Wade for the liberals to get their semantic act together and to adopt for themselves the label of "pro-choice."

"Pro choice" is, of course, quite consistent with "pro-life," as it calls for protection of the lives of the women endangered by an untimely or medically counter-indicated pregnancy. And as we noted at the outset, the liberal "pro-choice" position encourages sex education and contraception which have together proven to be very effective means of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and hence abortions - surely a life-affirming policy.

Furthermore, no one is, strictly speaking, "pro-abortion" - that is to say, no one seriously contends that abortion is prima facie a "nice thing" to happen to a woman. Instead, the pro-choice position regards abortion as "a necessary evil." How "necessary" and how "evil"? - that moral perception varies with each individual. At one extreme end of the spectrum, a late-term abortion may be assigned the disvalue of inconvenience, like an untimely toothache. At the other extreme are those who say, flat out, that there is nothing more evil than abortion (or "child-killing" as they call it) - not the loss of the life of the mother, not the mandatory pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, not the birth of a Tay-Sachs child condemned to a very brief life of unremitting torture, not even the murder of "child-killer" physicians who perform abortions or the "collateral" injuries to patients and staff caused by clinic bombings.

Somewhere between these extremes are the opinions of almost all the rest of us.

"Pro-Choice," consistent with the Roe decision, holds that a woman's personal beliefs, somewhere along this spectrum, should bear significantly upon the decision whether or not to continue her pregnancy - and that the law and the State should not impose that decision upon her.

The semantic over-reach of the conservatives is best exemplified the designation of the product of conception, from the moment of unicellular fertilization (the "zygote"), as a "baby." Thus abortion, during even the earliest stages of embryonic and fetal development, is routinely referred to as "baby-killing."

The absurdity of this word-play was manifested about a decade ago in a legal case in Tennessee. After a few years of failed attempts to conceive a child, a couple agreed to try in-vitro fertilization. A few hours after fertilization, six developing cell-clusters were frozen in liquid nitrogen, in anticipation of later implantation. However, soon thereafter the marriage failed. The wife consented to have the embryos discarded, but the husband sued to have them preserved "just in case" he later married an infertile woman and desired to have children. Although (as I recall) nobody asked them, a "right to life" group then stepped in as a friend of the court (more accurately, "a friend of the zygotes"). In a half-hour that I vividly remember, the case was argued on CNN's "Crossfire," wherein the anti-abortion advocate repeatedly referred to those chilled, microscopic cell-clusters as "the poor babies." "Babies?!"

The pro-life forces discovered early-on that the conjoining of "killing" and "babies" produces powerful rhetorical ammunition, which they have since put to persistent and very effective use.

"When Does Human Life Begin?" -- The Strange Case of Senator East

In the Spring of 1981, early in the first Reagan Administration, the newly-elected Senator from North Carolina, John East, convened a Judiciary Sub-Committee hearing to examine the question, "when does human life begin?" Of the initial panel of eight "expert witnesses" seven were opposed to abortion, leading to an outcry which resulted in an open-ended hearing. Eventually a small library of testimony accumulated, as biologists, embryologists, theologians, and lawyers offered their opinions. The results were, to say the least, "inconclusive." (3)

I am not aware that any analytical philosophers were on the witness list. At least I can report that The Gadfly was not invited. Had he been, the testimony might have gone like this: When asked the question, "when does human life begin?," I would have followed the tradition of the original Gadfly, Socrates, and responded to the question with another question:

"Tell me, Senator, just what sort of reply would constitute an answer to that question?

"Is there some sort of scientific data, fresh from the laboratory, that would lead you to say, 'That's it! By George, now we have the answer at last!' If so, please describe it to me. Yet you have heard most of what the biologists have to say about the process of human fertilization and gestation, without any resolution whatever of your question. So it seems that the facts of science are not in dispute, and indeed appear to be irrelevant to your question.

"So I ask again, what might anyone say that might answer your question? And if you can not supply me with an answer to my question, what then is the point of yours - 'When does human life begin?' In short, why bother to pose that question when you are not prepared to recognize an answer?"

My strong suspicion is that Senator East, and his "pro-life" cohorts, were quite unprepared to recognize an empirical answer to their question. This is due to the fact that they (and apparently almost all of the witnesses) failed to recognize the logical status of that question, "when does human life begin." This was not an issue of fact, it was a question of semantics, heavily charged with political and theological ideology. And because scientific fact and legal codes had nothing to do with it, no testimony from the scientists or the historical or legal scholars had any chance of answering Senator East's question.

In fact, the naive gist of the question was this: "knowing what we do about genetics, fertilization, and fetal development, at what stage in that development should we decide to apply the term, 'human life?'" Fertilization? The first detectable heartbeat? The onset of brain-wave activity? Full-term birth? Take your pick, but don't count on "the facts" to guide you. For once you have made your definitional choice, all that you have demonstrated thereby is your preferential use of the language and, by implication, your personal moral belief system.

What you have not done is to "prove" when in fact "human life" actually begins. You can not prove "it" because there is no "it" (an objective and empirical fact) to be proven. And so, on to the close of my hypothetical testimony to the East Committee:

"Senator, I can not answer your question, 'when does human life begin?,' since it is, strictly speaking, a non-question. As an analytic philosopher, the best I can do is point this out to you, and hope that you will not continue to waste the taxpayers' money on what must be a fruitless quest."

Of course, once an empirical definition of "human life" is agreed-upon (unlikely on a panel containing Senators who are unwilling even to accept the truth of evolution), then one might proceed to address the question of "the beginning of human life." So let's just stipulate a biological definition of "human life" and see where it takes us. Now clearly, gametes (spermatozoa and ova), as biotically functional cells, are "alive." And gametes issuing from human beings are exclusively "human" - they can result in no other life form than humans. Gametes issue from sexually mature humans which in turn issued from gametes, etc. Ergo, given the stipulation that gametes are "human life," the answer to the Senator's question is straightforward: Human life does not begin, it continues! Or, alternatively, human life "begins" some two to three million years ago, as homo sapiens evolves out of earlier hominids. (4) (Oops! Did I say "evolves." Let's not get into that morass again. Cf. my Editorial, "Creationism and the Devolution of the Intellect").

The Incredible Paradox of Non-Being

Consider next a couple of familiar conundrums which, we submit, do little to support the pro-life/anti-abortion argument. However, they do manage to display the extraordinary mystery and paradox which emerges as we contemplate the ontological status of possible persons and potential persons. (Cf. "Should We Seek a Better Future," this site).

The Riddle of the Non-Beethoven. Garrett Hardin thus presents this "riddle"

Two physicians are talking shop. "Doctor," says one, "I'd like your professional opinion. The question is, should the pregnancy have been terminated or not? The father was syphilitic. The mother was tuberculous. They had already had four children: the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, and the fourth was tuberculous. The woman was pregnant for the fifth time. As the attending physician, what would you have done?"

"I would have terminated the pregnancy."

"Then you would have murdered Beethoven." (5)

Now let's shift the scene a bit. Instead, the doctor describes the plight of a poor unmarried servant girl who is impregnated by a neer-do-well lover. Her prospects, and that of her potential child, are poor indeed. Should she abort? If so, then she would have "murdered Hitler." Of course, in both cases the prospective parents had no way of knowing just how extraordinary were the lives that would result from these pregnancies. And in fact, as Hardin correctly points out, in the vast majority of cases, the individuals who result from a decision not to abort turn out to be of no consequence whatever to human history and progress.

The non-appearance of Beethoven would have been a great loss to humanity, though we would not have known of this loss. Nor do we know of the great literature, music and science that might have been created by the young men who fell at Waterloo or Verdun or Normandy or Stalingrad.

What, then, are we supposed to make of "the non-Beethoven quandary." Is it seriously proposed that we increase the birth rate in the hope of producing more geniuses - this in the face of the serious global population problem? I have an alternative suggestion: let us find and nourish the geniuses that we have, and see to it that they are not lost to poverty and war. And let us also not forget that there is more to genius than genetics. Beethoven Senior, for all his faults, was also an accomplished musician who recognized and nourished his son's talents. Another individual with the equal of Beethoven's genetic endowments, born at that time in a London slum, would have lived and died unnoticed to the world. Surely many such individuals did just that, and still others are now alive in societies that do not value, seek out, and promote their native talent. Absent an enlightened social policy and progressive political order, they too are fated to pass through life and end up, as in Thomas Gray's "Country Churchyard," as "mute inglorious Miltons."

These are the "non-Beethovens," the "non-Shakespeares" and the "non-Einsteins" that deserve our attention.

The Riddle of the Non-Gadfly. The puzzle strikes closer to home, as we are asked, "well then, what if your mother had decided to have an abortion when she was carrying you?

To tell the truth, if she had aborted the fetal me, it would not have bothered me a bit, for the simple reason, per hypothesis, that there would have been no "me" to be bothered. Similarly, my parents' decision to "stop at three" doesn't bother my sister at all - for there is no sister, since both of my siblings are brothers. From the perspective of time-present, I am grateful that I was permitted to be born. But that perspective, like time itself, is asymmetrical. My gratitude "looking back" is not complementary to a regret "looking ahead." There is no subsistent, forever would-be but never actual sister-entity, in some sort of Limbo, eternally cursing my parents for not having just one more go at parenthood.

If, on the other hand, as "pro-lifers" contend in these bizarre arguments, it would have been wrong for Beethoven, or you, or me, not to have been conceived, what then are we to conclude from this? That is it wrong to choose not to procreate - even in this over-crowded world? Notice that these arguments apply not only to abortion, but to any and all decisions not to procreate - decisions enacted through abortion, but also through birth-control, and even abstinence and celibacy. If it would have been wrong for my parents to decide not to have their second child (myself), then it was equally wrong for them to "stop at three," thus "cheating" my potential-but-never-to-be-actual sister. Likewise, it is wrong (dare I point out?) for the priest to take the vow of celibacy.

Sorry, but "what if your mother had had an abortion" simply will not stand as an cogent "pro-life, anti-choice" argument. (For a devilishly witty response by Garrett Hardin to "the aborted me" argument, see the Postscript to this Editorial, reprinted with Prof. Hardin's kind permission).

The Upshot

While these reflections have gone on at considerable length, there is much more about this difficult and complex issue that we have left unsaid. We could have written a piece of comparable length about the proposal to designate the human zygote-embryo-fetus, from the moment of conception, as "a legal person." (A bill proposing just that was sponsored, at the time of the East hearings, by Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Henry Hyde. The proposal has also appeared in numerous "Human Life Amendments"). Our dim view of such proposed stipulations of "fetus-personhood" may be surmised by those familiar with our position regarding "personhood." (Cf.  "In Search of Sustainable Values," and "On the Rights of Animals and of Persons" at this site).

In a strict (and very misleading) sense, our position might be described as "anti-abortion." That is to say, we hold that, all other things equal, the fewer abortions the better. And yet the readers of these remarks will correctly conclude that we stand on the "liberal" side of this issue. While we recognize abortion to be prima facie "bad," we recognize that there are many worse things that can befall a woman, a couple, and a society. These include severe genetic diseases (such as Tay-Sachs syndrome), maternal mortality, child abuse, poverty, and over-population, and all these evils and more proliferate when abortion is made illegal and difficult to obtain. Thus legalized abortion may be the correct "tragic choice" -- the least of several necessary evils. Furthermore, abortion is all-too often an unnecessary evil, that might have been avoided through aggressive public programs in sex education and contraception. The Dutch have proven this to all with minds open to evidence.

President Clinton thus had it about right, when he stated that the objective of enlightened public policy should be to make abortion "legal and rare."

Finally, despite all our debunking of "the search for the beginning of human life," and the inflated rhetoric employed by the "right to life" faction, we are not entirely unmoved by the concerns of the pro-life movement. While we affirm that the "right to life" of gametes is zero, and of zygotes very nearly zero, we assign a great value to a full-term baby. That value accrues on an ever-ascending curve throughout the approximately 270 days of human gestation. Thus, if an abortion is necessary, the earlier the better. We can not accept abortion as just another form of birth control. Thus we concede to the conservatives that widespread and casual abortion does indeed degrade our sense of the value of human life.

We only regret that the conservatives' enthusiastic defense of "the right to life" seems to diminish after birth, as the life of the "post-born child" faces the threats of poverty, unavailable health care, pollution, gang and gun violence, and military adventures.

Copyright 1999, by Ernest Partridge


1. In 1990, the rate of abortion per one-thousand women was 26.4 in the United States, and 5.2 in The Netherlands. The rate of teen-age births was 64 in the US, 7 in the Netherlands and 10 in Denmark. (According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Analysis. No listing of abortion figures for Denmark).

2. For example, in the 27 November, 1987 issue of Science (v. 238, p. 1222), Constance Holden writes that "US Antiabortion Policy May Increase Abortions" (the title). She continues, "the impending cutoff of funds to [the international arm of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America] could result in 310,000 additional births and 69,000 abortions."

3. Constance Holden, "Senate Commences Hearings on 'Human Life,'" Science, v. 212, 8 May, 1981, p. 648. See also responsive letters in Science, v. 213, 10 July, 1981, p. 154.

4. To this, a common rejoinder is that with conception, a genetically unique individual is formed, and that is the "beginning" of this individual life. However, because that too is just another stipulation, no newly-discovered "fact" can "prove" this to be the "correct meaning" of "human life." Still worse for the argument, identical twinning occurs after fertilization, as a single zygote results in multiple births. But no one argues that twins are "the same individual." If not, then fertilization can not be "the beginning of (individual) human life."

5. Garrett Hardin, "Semantic Aspects of Abortion," in Stalking the Wild Taboo, (2nd ed). San Francisco: Kaufmann, 1978, pp. 13-4. The sub-section title, "Riddle of the Non-Beethoven," is also from this essay.



Garrett Hardin

(Reprinted with the kind permission of the Author.  EP)

[I have often been asked], "If you mother had had an abortion, where would you be today?

I must confess, I don't know. This question ... raises the most fascinating problems of being and nonbeing. A philosopher would no doubt discuss the question in the jargon of ontology. As a biologist, I prefer a different approach. I am reminded f the beginning of Lawrence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy wherein the hero is discussing the circumstances surrounding his conception. As the critical moment approached Mrs. Shandy said to Mr. Shandy, "Pray, my Dear, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?" - "Good G-!" replied Mr. Shandy, "Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?" It was, as young Tristram point out, an "unseasonable question at least."

Whether Mr. Shandy stopped what he was doing and went downstairs to wind the clock, Tristram does not record. Perhaps Mr. Shandy merely paused and shifted his position. It does not matter. The result, we can be sure, was the same; of the three hundred million spermatozoa Mr. Shandy released somewhat later, a different one led the pack, a different one reached the egg first, and a different Tristram was engendered. Put another way, the Tristram (or the Nancy) who might have been had not Mrs. Shandy asked about the clock - this Tristram never was, not then or in any subsequent coming together of Mr. and Mrs. Shandy.

[And so], to reply ..., if my mother had had an abortion I almost certainly would not be here today. In fact, if my father had coughed at the crucial moment I wold not be here today . . . . Perhaps he did cough. . . . Who am I , anyway?

From "The Semantic Aspects of Abortion," Stalking the Wild Taboo (2nd Ed.), (Kauffmann, 1978, pp 13-4). Reprinted in Responsibilities to Future Generations, ed. E. Partridge, (Prometheus, 1981). The title is by the Gadfly, with the permission of Dr. Hardin.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .