Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Human-Animal Chimeras and Why Abortion Is Not Murder -- a reply to Albert Mohler

I recently posted the following comment to Albert Mohler's Facebook page. It was a reply to Mohler's podcast, The Briefing, of 8/8/2016. The podcast and its transcript can be found here: www.albertmohler.com/2016/08/08/briefing-08-08-16/. Mohler, of course, is a conservative evangelical, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and devotee of "worldview" analysis. I was responding to two stories covered in the four-part podcast, one about human-animal chimeras from a NY Times article by Gina Kolata, the other about a radio talk show interview with Terry O'Neill, president of NOW, in which she evidently said that, even if science proved that life begins at conception, she would still support abortion. Here's my response:

There’s an interesting confluence of ideas in the 8/8 Briefing: science and religion, chimeras and abortion. It is ironic that Mohler is mistaken and confused in part because he doesn’t take differences in worldviews seriously enough. He assumes that, “if science determined that life began at conception,” then “science [would] make abortion itself clearly the murder of a human being,” so he is shocked that NOW president Terry O’Neill would say that, even if science determined that life began at conception, she would still be for it. That is, she would be for murder, he assumes. But that does not follow. An under-appreciated lack of alignment of concepts across different worldviews leads to erroneous conclusions.

From O’Neill’s statement “When you take religion out of it, the issue goes away,” Mohler (relying on a false dichotomy, as if science and religion exhausted the kinds of knowledge) concludes that “she is presumably arguing that science is the only authoritative means of knowledge,” and then goes on to claim that “pro-abortion advocates going back long before Roe v. Wade ... have been arguing that all of the arguments concerning abortion should be limited merely to matters of medical science. This was actually”, he continues, “one of the arguments that was made by Justice Harry Blackmun in his majority opinion in the Roe v. Wade decision.” But Blackmun made no such argument. The word “science” does not even occur in his decision. He reviewed the history of medical, religious and philosophical views on abortion, as well as the legal history. For instance, he noted that in English common law, abortion before “quickening” was not considered a crime, and that this was probably related to an ancient thought tradition of “mediate animation”, the idea that the soul did not enter the body until some time after conception.

Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates call on science to substantiate their claims. Pro-lifers call on the authority of science to prove that “life begins at conception,” and then conclude, like Mohler, that abortion is proved by science to be murder. If life were the soul, or a person were “a life”, then this conclusion might be justified. But biological life is not the soul, and it is not the person. The modern, scientific conception of life – the one that comes out of the lab – doesn’t line up with Biblical ones. When a biologist says an organism is alive, he is talking about a collection of physical chemical processes. Biological life is not the New Testament’s psyche or zoe. It is not soul or spirit. Human life, the life in our bodies’ cells, shares so much with the life in other species’ cells that it is possible to make human/non-human chimeras. The very idea boggles Mohler’s mind, shaped as it is by a biblical worldview, according to which human and animal souls (if animals have souls) are unitary (not composed of, or arising out of, parts, like cells, the units of life) and are absolutely different, and life (psyche) is the soul, so how could animal and human lives mix? The possibility of such creatures does not just present a moral dilemma, but a metaphysical one for the Christian. (Organ transplantation should also.)

Not only did the authors of the Bible have no notions of atoms or molecules, chemistry or physics, sperm cells or egg cells. They did not know what the brain did. Instead, in the Hebrew bible, human emotions and conscience were ascribed to the liver and kidneys, often translated as “heart”, “spirit” or “inmost being”. I don’t know, but perhaps heart, soul and spirit have such functions in the New Testament. But according to the modern science-based worldview, the brain is the basis of all such mental phenomena, including all thought, emotion, consciousness, and our sense of personal identity. That is why Paul Knoepfler, the stem cell researcher, focused on the brain: “When human cells injected into an animal embryo develop in part of that animal’s brain, difficult questions arise.... There’s no clear dividing line because we lack an understanding of at what point humanization of an animal brain could lead to more human-like thought or consciousness.” For the secular scientific worldview, that is the crucial question, not amount of human vs. animal DNA, or proportion of human cells. Because what the brain is doing CONSTITUTES our personal identity. It is what makes us human beings, something beyond just living bodies. And that is why the beginning of life (or rather the continuation of life in a new genetic form) is not the beginning of us. It is only a necessary condition for our eventual existence. And that is why, according to a modern science-based worldview, even if science shows that life begins at conception, abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy is still not murder. This roughly corresponds to the Christian worldview idea of mediate animation, with brain function playing the role of the soul.