I have recently written elsewhere about the ontological and epistemological problems surrounding the current debate about abortion. These problems – almost always unacknowledged and even unconscious – plague both sides of the abortion debate, pro-choice no less than pro-life. But, in the process of reflecting on that “Skeptic’s” column and responding to reactions thereto, I have concluded that that earlier column did not really address the most fundamental problem with the current abortion debate: the difference – again, for the pro-choice position no less than its pro-life counterpart – goes even deeper than the disagreements I mentioned in that earlier column. In fact, so I would argue now, that most fundamental difference is not, at base, even religious or metaphysical or philosophical, though the disagreement has those implications and dimensions. Rather, the most basic disagreement that animates the current abortion debate is a failure to understand what one might call “digital” and “analog” phenomena.
A word of explanation … as everyone knows by now, digital computers are machines that perform calculations and manipulations of data based on sequences of zeros and ones. Hence the use of binary: 1 / 0 – based arithmetic. Even the provenance of hexadecimal codes is traceable back to binary mathematics. In binary arithmetic, a computer entity is either on (by convention, it has the value of 1) or off (by convention, it has the value of 0). Furthermore – and, for present purposes, most importantly – it has, because it can have, no value in between. There is no such thing as any calculational component of a computer having a value like 0.23525232. That is a physical impossibility just because of the way digital chips are physically built. A physicist might well say that digital computers, and the components thereof, are all quantized, i.e., having certain discrete values but no values in between. A subatomic particle may be “spin-up” or “spin-down”, but never “spin-sideways” or “spin-at-a-30-degree-angle”. Quarks can have fractional spins and charges, but even those are always in discrete units with nothing in between. So also digital computers.
It was not always thus. In the pre-digital age, there were these things called analog computers. For technical reasons I cannot go into – I am very much a child of the digital age, at least in my professional life – components of analog computers, which are still in use for certain specialized purposes, can have values “in between” in a sense that digital computers and components cannot. Analog computers are useful for modeling and doing calculations about phenomena that are by nature continuous, with no sharp “quantized” jumps or breaks, e.g., pressure, temperature, voltage, speed, and weight, etc. (Digital computers can do this, too, but require much more “finesse”. Again, most of this was before my time. Hence the hand-waving.) Analog computers and computer components are more like the coming of the dawn, i.e., continuous, non-discrete phenomena and processes, than the flipping on of a light switch from off (0) to on (1). The latter are essentially digital processes involving non-continuous discrete states.
What does all the above have to do with the abortion debate? I would argue: everything. In the distinction between digital and analog conceptions lies the essential fallacy of both positions on abortion – and, indeed, on most “life” questions generally, e.g., when to discontinue life support for someone in a “vegetative” state.
First, consider abortion. Pro-life proponents argue that human life begins at the moment of conception. The very locution “the moment of conception,” so prevalent in pro-life literature and rhetoric, is a clue to the essential fallacy of pro-life arguments. I am no reproductive biologist or ob / gyn, but even I know enough biology to know that there is, in reality, no such thing as “the moment of conception”. The use of this terminology implies that conception is a digital process, something that either happens instantaneously the instant the sperm hits the egg, or does not happen. One (conception) or zero (no conception). On or off. There is no process. There is no continuum. Only one or zero. Such is the pro-life model of conception, i.e., the moment of conception, when the biological light switch goes from 0 to 1.
In reality, however, conception is a continuous analog process of several steps and stages that meld seamlessly into one from the other. It is a continuum that admits of no instantaneous “zorching” of a fertilized egg into human life. (By the way, please note that I have not yet so much as touched the issue of whether the fertilized egg is human life or not. Keep reading … ) Conception, no less than the rest of the pregnancy, unfolds with time along a continuum of development. So asking the question “At what moment does fertilization really occur?” is like asking “When does dawn really come?” I.e., the question itself makes no sense because it evinces a fundamental misunderstanding of the whole issue. To extend the analogy, suppose you read in the Farmer’s Almanac that dawn tomorrow will occur at 6:04 a.m. Does that mean that at 6:03:59.9 the outdoors are dark as pitch, and that the instant the clock ticks over that extra 0.1 second to 6:04, the environment is as brilliant as noon at Death Valley? Of course not. The coming of dawn is a process, a continuum, i.e., an analog, not a digital, process. So asking when dawn “really” occurs makes as much sense as asking “What is the real length of a piece of rope?” The answer is: “It all depends”. That is the best answer we can give to the question “When does conception really occur?”.
Analogous – so to speak – remarks apply to the pro-choice position. Again, as previously, I should refer to abortion on demand and not pro-choice. The two are not the same. The abortion on demand (AOD) position holds that a woman has complete sovereignty at all stages of her pregnancy because the fetus, being a physical part of a woman, is the woman's property. (As in the previous "Skeptic's" column, I reiterate that this is, in all essentials, the same argument that slave-holders in the antebellum South used to justify slaves as mere property: mere "meat machines" are property.) Consequently, so the argument goes, the fetus does not become a person until the moment of birth.
Again, observe the fallacy latent in that critical noun "moment", i.e., the implicit belief that birth is a moment, a discrete instant. No woman who has ever been pregnant and given birth would ever -- could ever, in a manner consistent with her experience -- subscribe to the notion that birth is a discrete, as it were, "digital", moment. There is no such thing as the "moment of birth" any more than there is any such thing as the "moment of conception". Both are tricks of language. This is true even if we forget the nine months of gestation. No woman who has ever experienced a several-hour labor can, in a manner consistent with that experience, affirm that there is such a thing as a "moment of birth". Birth -- that is, the coming-into-existence of an ontologically distinct human being -- is just as much of a continuum -- i.e., an "analog" experience, not a digital / binary / on-off datum -- as conception. In neither case does any magical "zorch" occur that confers such an ontological status on the fetus ... baby ... person ... pick your own word.
The same is true, not only of life, but of human life. Pro-life people always argue that "Of course, the fetus is life". Agreed, and again agreed. The entity inside the woman's womb is indeed life. Of some type or kind. To assert that is to amplify the blindingly obvious. But that the fetus is life is beside the point. The salient question is "Is the fetus human life?" Or, alternatively, "Is the fetus a person?" The religious response is to argue that at the moment of conception -- but see above -- God infused the fetus with a soul. Of course, such a principle, however religiously orthodox, would never pass constitutional muster because of the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment: no church's doctrine may be codified as civil law. Similarly, the AOD answer is to say "No, the fetus is not a person until birth, and until that point is a mere glorified hangnail with which the woman dispose howsoever she wishes". This response is equally unjustified and originates in the respondent's philosophical / metaphysical convictions, which are equally invalid, constitutionally. I am not arguing that the fetus is a person. As I said in the "Skeptic's" column, I have no idea what the fetus is. But hypothetically, if the fetus is a person, then one can argue -- and pro-life people habitually argue -- that there is no difference between aborting a fetus and sticking a living child's hand on a red-hot stove burner. One's presuppositions and first principles make all the difference in the world. All I am sure of, based on the science of the matter, is that the entire issue is a matter of conceiving of the relevant issues in terms of a continuum, and that trying to force the discussion into the Procrustean bed of digital / 1-or-0 / on-off thinking only poisons the well of the entire debate.
I am, for that very reason, also certain of one other thing. Practicality often requires issues to be resolved "digitally," even in "analog" situations. Airlines could not function if the flight schedule said "The flight departs at sorta-kinda / more-or-less / approximately dawn, and dawn is at 6:04 a.m. ... well ... plus or minus." For reasons of practicality and convenience something like the Farmer's Almanac definition of "dawn" as 6:04 a.m. is adopted for the sake of coherency. The law says that I ran the red light, and the cop gave me a ticket, because the traffic light was red. My counter-argument that "Gawrsh, officer, the light was not precisely red-red, but rather somewhere in the vicinity of orange or yellowish-orange or a Donald Trump shade of burnt persimmon" will probably not gain much traction, either with the officer or in traffic court. So there will always -- always -- inevitably be a significant element of arbitrariness in appealing to the law to decide issues pertaining to the beginning -- and the end -- of life, and insisting on digital answers to questions that are intrinsically analog gains nothing. Except more confusion. That is just the nature of the law: the precision of the law will inevitably be at variance with the ambiguity of experience.
Consequently, I confidently predict that no law pertaining to limitations on abortion will ever satisfy either side of the abortion debate. Laws and court decisions that make the slightest concession to conception-as-continuum / -process instead of conception-as-discrete-moment will ever satisfy pro-lifers, who think conception is an on / off phenomenon like flipping a light switch. (Roe and Casey are such "continuum-centric" / analog decisions.) By the same token, restrictions on abortion that see birth as a process rather than as a discrete event will never satisfy AOD advocates. When the matter comes down to laws and court decisions, laws and court decisions will always be reviled by one side or the other for just this reason. Hence my pessimism in this regard: consensus is not an option, simply because the "metaphysics" of both sides could not be more opposed. Much of the art of law consists of (1) making fine, subtle distinctions, while (2) reconciling oneself to the fact that, because of the incorrigible limitations of language, those necessary distinctions will never be subtle enough to capture the full ambiguity of actual life and experience. Both (1) and (2) are arts that the current abortion debate is, to say the least, not conspicuous for practicing.
Welcome to the real world, boys and girls, when even matters as fraught as conception, birth, death, and dying are incorrigibly ambiguous -- because the world itself is incorrigibly ambiguous. And nowhere is the world more incorrigibly ambiguous than in biological processes, which always occur along a continuum, not in discrete, one-quantum-at-a-time, distinct steps. So grow up and deal with it. Both sides in the abortion debate need to stop demonizing one another and preening themselves in the belief that they have identified the discrete steps in the development of any living organism ... simply because discrete steps do not exist.
Show at least a modicum of epistemological humility in the face of phenomena that are intrinsically mysterious, phenomena concerning which we know very little -- concerning which we can know very little. There is nothing at all dishonorable, in the face of such phenomena, in simply shrugging one's shoulders and saying "I just don't know".
"The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." -- J. B. S. Haldane
James R. Cowles
Pro-life Planned Parenthood signs … Charlotte Cooper … CC BY 2.0
Analog circuit … Pete Brown … CC BY 2.0
Digital circuit … NeedPix.com … Public domain
Dawn … PixaBay.com … Public domain
Abortion on Demand … Debra Sweet … CC BY 2.0
Human embryo … Lunar Caustic … CC BY-SA 2.0
Sperm … Karl-Ludwig Poggemann … CC BY 2.0
Ocean wave … PixaBay.com … Public domain
Doctor performing abortion ... TipsTimes.com/pregnancy ... CC BY 2.0