October 02, 2008

Acorns and oak trees...and abortion

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, October 2, 2008)

Acorns and oak trees…and abortion
Because abortionist Dr. Henry Morgentaler has been awarded the Order of Canada, and because I (and many other Canadians) think that in this case the award is a huge mistake, I wish to dismantle another abortion argument, to help show why the award is a mistake.

An oft-heard argument in favor of abortion is the acorn-oak-tree analogy: An acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being, so abortion is no big deal.

Should we be persuaded by this argument? Answer: No.

To compare an acorn to a fetus and an oak tree to a human being and then conclude that a fetus is not a human being is to draw a false conclusion from a faulty analogy.

The unstated premise consists of the following comparison: acorns are to oak trees as fetuses are to human beings. But this is problematic.

To call an acorn an oak tree is, on a more accurately construed analogy, like calling a fetus an adult. Consequently, to say that a fetus is not a human being on the basis of an acorn not being an oak tree is to say a fetus is not a human being on the basis of a fetus not being an adult. This, of course, is absurd.

In other words, the acorn-oak tree analogy confuses the concepts of kind and developmental stage. Yes, an acorn isn’t an oak tree, that is, a seed isn’t a grown tree. But we need to ask: What kind of seed is the acorn? Answer: Oak.

The acorn is the first developmental stage of the oak. Subsequent developmental stages include sprout, sapling, and tree. Significantly, all the stages are oaks—i.e., oak entities, oak beings.

Now consider the fetus. What kind of fetus are we talking about? Answer: Human.

The fetus is an early developmental stage of the human. The first stage is the zygote (fertilized egg) and subsequent stages include the embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, teen, and adult. Significantly, all the stages are human—i.e., human entities, human beings.

An acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being, so abortion is no big deal? The logic of this argument is just plain nutty. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the attempt at humor.)

Is it a mistake to call a fetus a human being? No. What is a mistake is to think that only adults are human beings, which is what the faulty acorn-oak-tree analogy would lead us to believe.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, located in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada.)


Anonymous said...

thank you for putting this up such a really great site. Stimulating me to read much more.


Unknown said...

Thank you. To me this is helpful; well reasoned and presented.

Unknown soldier said...

Thank you very much for this simple and clear explanation. This argument bugged me for some time, since I had a "feeling" that it's faulty, yet I couldn't explain it.

Jesse Shows said...

No one claims that a fetus isn't a human being. A fetus is not a person. There is a difference.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

“No one claims that a fetus isn’t a human being.” This claim is false. One of my former colleagues justified her abortion because, she said, it was basically the same as “removing a wart.” Over the years, I have read and heard others say that the embryo and fetus are merely potential human beings (not actual human beings with potential). Canada’s famous abortionist Henry Morgentaler has even said that what’s aborted isn’t a human being (he used a faulty brick-isn’t-a-whole-house analogy, which I have addressed elsewhere in this blog). I have heard students on numerous occasions use the acorn-isn’t-an-oak-tree analogy as an objection to the unborn’s status as human beings.

Even Harvard University philosopher Michael J. Sandel denies that the unborn are human beings on the basis of the faulty acorn-isn’t-an-oak-tree analogy. See Michael J. Sandel, “Embryo Ethics: The Moral Logic of Stem-Cell Research,” New England Journal of Medicine 351 (July 15, 2004): 207-209. Sandel writes: “Although every oak tree was once an acorn, it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that I should treat the loss of an acorn eaten by a squirrel in my front yard as the same kind of loss as the death of an oak tree felled by a storm. Despite their developmental continuity, acorns and oak trees are different kinds of things.” But, we should note, to assert that they are different kinds of things is to conflate developmental stage and ontology (i.e., kind of substance or being). For a detailed criticism of Sandel’s argument, see Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Life, 2nd edition (Princeton, New Jersey: Witherspoon Institute, 2011), 175-183.

For additional arguments defending the fact that the unborn are human beings and persons, see my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments.