During last night’s debate, Paul Ryan discussed his position on religion and abortion. He claimed that he came by his pro-life policy position because of “reason and science,” and that his religious faith instructs that “life begins at conception.”
Daniel Holter, who blogs at the excellent Apoplectic Skeptic, was … well … apoplectic:
The phrases “I’m pro-life because of reason and science” and “I believe life begins at conception” are totally incompatible, 100% diametrically opposed.
In this, Holter is incorrect. Human life does begin at conception. The zygote is a new, unique organism. And so it’s possible to be pro-life and believe in science, if life is all that matters.
But, really, this doesn’t tell us anything at all about abortion. And in framing the debate in this way, Ryan is able to wrap his opposition to abortion, which is religious, in the thinnest veneer of science … which I suspect is what Holter was getting at and where he and I ultimately agree.
The follow-up question for Paul Ryan ought to have been why human life, at this incredibly early stage of development, is so desperately important … by which I mean that he is willing to limit the choices of a rights-bearing person, the woman carrying the zygote, in order to protect that life. His answer, I presume, is either that the zygote is a person (which means that it possesses a right to life) or that it is on its way to becoming one.
This requires, of course, a definition of personhood; my own revolves around the fairly scientific (and measurable) concept of organized cortical brain activity, which means that zygotes are not rights-bearing agents. I think I’m on pretty solid ground in arguing that, whatever definition you choose, it’s pretty obvious that the zygote is not a person. Unless you choose the religious argument, which might make a claim about ensoulment. But Ryan, now an avowed man of science, can’t choose that one.
That means he’ll likely go with an argument about prospective personhood. The zygote isn’t a person at the moment of conception, but it is clearly a human life … and it will become a rights-bearing person at some later moment during fetal development so it must be cared for and not destroyed.
The trouble for Ryan, then, comes from at least three directions:
- Ryan must explain why an organism that isn’t currently a rights-bearing person has a claim that the government should recognize. Further, he must explain why the organism’s future rights should be weighed more heavily than those of a person, the woman carrying the zygote, whose rights are not at all in doubt.
- Ryan must give some indication of the point during fetal development when personhood — and thus rights — are attained. And he must then explain why abortions cannot permitted up to this moment. In other words, he must be clear about why prospective personhood matters enough to warrant the infringement on the rights of a person, the woman carrying the zygote.
- The policy position of the Romney/Ryan campaign now allows for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or the health of the mother. But if the zygote is on its way to becoming a rights-bearing person, then Ryan encounters a serious difficulty for his explanation of (2), insofar as it now seems that some prospective persons can be destroyed while others must be protected. Ryan’s prior policy of opposing abortion without exception seems terribly callous, but it’s consistent (especially with his religious belief but also more generally).
The easy way to solve these problems is to be honest. He could say, I’m a religious man and, as such, I believe that each human being has a soul from the moment of conception. Or he could say, I’m a religious man but I don’t believe that the government ought to foist my religious beliefs on others. The trouble with the former is that it can’t be demonstrated and it doesn’t win public policy debates; the trouble with the latter is that it’s what Joe Biden said.