October 02, 2008

Acorns and oak trees...and abortion


APOLOGIA
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.)

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

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

Piper
www.trendone.net

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.

-wewantutopia- said...

False analogy. An acorn is not a tree and a human fetus is not a person.

As soon as the acorn sprouts with a root/cotyledons it is a tree same as when a fetus is born it is a person.

CeeCee said...

In criticizing the analogy that an acorn is not a tree, you admit that an acorn is not a sapling. Likewise, an embryo is not a person. It is a human embryo, but it is not a human "being." The embryo is not sentient, does not have thoughts or feelings. Stopping its development at that stage is no more cruel than if its existence had been prevented by successful contraception. When it develops to a stage with a functioning brain and nervous system, that's a different discussion.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Re: Objection from Jesse Shows (again): “No one claims that a fetus isn't a human being.”

Hendrik’s reply: Again, Jesse Shows’ assertion is false, as I pointed out in my earlier reply to Jesse Shows (see above). Also, please notice this: Subsection 223.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada presently states that an unborn child isn’t a human being until after it’s completely born. No one claims that a fetus isn’t a human being? Yeah, right.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Re: Objection from wewantutopia: “False analogy. An acorn is not a tree and a human fetus is not a person. As soon as the acorn sprouts with a root/cotyledons it is a tree same as when a fetus is born it is a person.”

Hendrik’s reply: This objection misunderstands the goings-on of my article. I’m pointing out that the analogy assumed in this argument—i.e., an acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being—is problematic. Why? Because the analogy confuses an early developmental stage for a later developmental stage and thereby confuses the concepts of kind and developmental stage. It confuses the categories of developmental stage (a step in growth or maturation of an organism) and ontology (what the organism is in its essential nature or being).Yes, an acorn isn’t an oak tree, that is, a seed isn’t a grown tree, that is, an early state isn’t the later stage. But we need to ask: What kind of seed is the acorn? What sort of thing is it? What is it? What is its substance? Answer: Oak. What is a mistake is to think only full grown oak trees are oaks, and that only adults are human beings, which is what the faulty acorn-oak-tree analogy would lead us to believe.

“As soon as the acorn sprouts with a root/cotyledons it is a tree same as when a fetus is born it is a person.” No, as soon as the acorn sprouts with a root or cotyledons, it’s a later stage of the oak substance. Wewantutopia’s claim mistakenly assumes that only later stages of oaks are oaks. And so this assumes that only later stages of human development are persons. But why think that only later stages of human development are persons? No arguments are provided by wewantutopia. It’s merely asserted. This view implies that children who are missing limbs are less than persons (e.g., thalidomide babies), which makes the view problematic. This view also implies that one day before birth the baby isn’t a person, which is also problematic for this view.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Re: Objection from CeeCee: “In criticizing the analogy that an acorn is not a tree, you admit that an acorn is not a sapling. Likewise, an embryo is not a person. It is a human embryo, but it is not a human ‘being.’ The embryo is not sentient, does not have thoughts or feelings. Stopping its development at that stage is no more cruel than if its existence had been prevented by successful contraception. When it develops to a stage with a functioning brain and nervous system, that's a different discussion.”

Hendrik’s reply: No, a human embryo is a human being. This is what science tells us. It’s simply the first stage of being a human being, which occurs when the sperm and egg unite (which contraception attempts to prevent).

Contemporary science—embryology, fetology, and biology—tells us that the human fetus is in fact a human being. It's a genetically distinct, self-governing, whole living organism/ entity that belongs to the human species. It's not feline or canine; it's human. It's not a cat or a dog; it's a human being. It's not a kitten or a puppy; it's a child, albeit an unborn child. (The word “fetus” is Latin for unborn offspring or little one.)

Significantly, 95% of academic biologists in a recent global survey hold that individual human life begins at fertilization. Medical textbooks and peer-reviewed scientific literature substantiate this. (For references, see page 7 my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Critical Thinking about Abortion.)

Sure, the human embryo doesn’t have thoughts or feelings. But thoughts and feelings are had only by human beings in their later developmental stages, when there is a functioning brain and nervous system. But, and significantly, the human embryo and fetus have the capacity for this. As I argue in my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments (see pages 33-43), the capacity to give rise to consciousness (i.e., have thoughts, feelings, etc.) is a necessary and sufficient condition of personhood, to be distinguished with merely sufficient conditions (to which CeeCee points and mistakenly thinks also are necessary conditions). The capacity to give rise to consciousness is what grounds the personhood of, say, sleeping people and people in reversible comas. They are not potential persons, they are actual persons. Why? Because they have the capacity to give rise to consciousness, which is what the embryo and fetus also have. (Again, take a look at pages 33-43 of my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments.)

Unknown said...

In your opinion, if a miscarriage occurs, should there be an investigation completed to determine if a criminal charge is warranted? Since we are talking about human being.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

In my opinion, no. If a miscarriage occurs, the woman’s medical doctor should attend to the woman to ensure her physical health is good. Maybe (probably) grief counselling would be appropriate, too.

For additional thought, see my book’s chapter 33: “It is inconsistent of pro-life groups not to wish punishment for women who have abortions.” My answer is no.

Also see my book’s chapter 32 in which I discuss abortion law for Canada (in Canada there is no law on abortion; the pre-natal human being is not even recognized as such). I recommend the view of Canadian lawyer Leslyn Lewis, PhD (who is presently a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada). Her fourfold platform on abortion could easily be supported by people of all political stripes: (1) ban the misogynistic practice of sex-selective abortion (since many girls are aborted just because they are girls), (2) protect women from coerced abortion (who wouldn’t want that?), (3) support pregnant women via government support for pregnancy care centers (which help both mother and child), plus (4) direct foreign aid away from abortion providers and instead to those groups who promote overall health care (which is supportable by all, surely).

Such a law/laws could save the lives of many children and help desperate women, plus provide political space—political common ground—to encourage thoughtful, democratic discussion about creating even better, more life-affirming laws and ways to help desperate women facing crisis pregnancies.

Let’s find and encourage common ground—and actually help desperate women and their children—before getting divided and polarized over whether or not miscarriages should be investigated for criminal charges.