Anything worth talking about, is worth blogging about

The North Dakota House of Representatives has passed a bill intended to challenge Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that says that “‘[A]ny organism with the genome of homo sapiens [sic]’ is a person protected by rights granted by the North Dakota Constitution and state laws.” This includes fertilized ova. Although the sponsor, Republican Dan Ruby claims that the bill does not ban abortions, in practice that is exactly what it will do, regardless of what the intent behind the law is.

Meanwhile, a committee of the Oklahoma House of Representatives approved a bill that would ban sex-selective abortions. This is a law in need of a purpose as there is no evidence that sex selective abortions have ever taken place in Oklahoma (hat tip for both).

Regarding the Oklahoma bill, it may have some moral force if women were actually undergoing sex-selective abortions. Since that is not the case, it will either have loopholes that mean the law is meaningless, as a woman could always not tell that she is having an abortion solely because of the sex of the fetus, or it will be draconian and oppressive in enforcement.

Regarding the North Dakota law, Idyllicmollusk has raised questions about it, and I won’t repeat them here. I do offer my own objections and after the jump.

The bill indicates that conception creates a person. In reality, conception by itself cannot indicate personhood because it leads to ridiculous outcomes. Assume that conception creates a person. If a just-fertilized ovum is a person, than so is what it develops into, forward through prenatal development. This indicates that anything pre-twinning is a person, as is anything post-twinning. This results in the absurd conclusion that identical twins are the same person. A similar argument to the previous starts with the fact that humans are deuterostomes [Raven, Peter; Johnson, George. Understanding Biology, 3rd edition. Wm. C. Brown Publishers. 1995. p552]. With deuterostomes, at the four-cell stage all of the cells are totipotent, meaning that they are capable of differentiating into all of the cell types in the human body. They are, if all four cells were separated, capable of growing into a complete organism. This implies that these resulting identical quadruplets (twinning happens a few hours to days later than the four cell stage) would be the same person [ibid].

Now consider fraternal twins. If conception creates a person, these developing embryos are two different people. On rare occasions, these two embryos will fuse, creating what is known as a chimera. If conception creates a person, two person would merge in this case, meaning that each individual chimera is two different siblings. This is an absurd conclusion.

For these reasons, conception by itself should not indicate personhood.

There is one possible objection to the above arguments: the fact that embryos are biologically human. In reality, being biologically human is neither sufficient nor necessary for being a person:

If having the genetics of Homo sapiens implies personhood, pieces of skin that are used in treating burns, and that are created using collagen and a patient’s hair roots, are persons too since they are genetically human. The idea that these dermatologists are mass murderers is pretty unreasonable. Furthermore, one possible abnormal pregnancy is a hydatidiform mole, also known as a molar pregnancy. When this happens, the zygote, rather than developing normally, develops into an abnormal placenta that has many small fluid-filled vesicles. In complete moles there is no evidence of any fetal development, whereas in partial moles there are some signs of fetal development, but the fetus is never viable. In most cases, chromosomes are abnormal in number, usually a Y0 karyotype or tetra or triploidy. In rare cases, the chromosomes are perfectly biparental and diploid, that is, identical to ordinary persons. Such a hydatidiform mole is, in genetic terms, perfectly biologically human, even though it clearly cannot be a person. This shows that being biologically human is not sufficient for being a person.

Although they do not exist yet, there is no particular reason for believing that a machine cannot be a person (by having self-awareness, consciousness, and so on), no particular reason that a machine cannot “think”. Why then are we so certain that only humans can be persons? Influential computer scientist Alan Turing, in his paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence posits a scenario called the Turing Test, which replaces the question “Can a machine think?” with something more testable. One of the possible objections Turing brings up is the theological objection, which holds that persons think because God gave us a soul. But what makes us so certain that God will not grant a soul to a machine? There is no basis for the belief that only humans have souls. If you believe in souls, a similar reasoning applies to machines. And if you don’t believe in souls or don’t believe that personhood is a function of one, what makes you so certain that a machine cannot be a person. In short, the possible existence of machines that non-biological criteria for personhood shows that being human is not necessary for personhood.


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