Embryo and Einstein - Why They're Equal

by Vincent Joseph Torley

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The photo on the right is a picture of Albert Einstein, shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1921. The photo on the left shows how Einstein looked when he was very young (about three days old). The aim of this essay is to demonstrate on purely philosophical (i.e. non-religious) grounds that a human embryo is a person, who matters just as much as you or I do. I shall also attempt to explain exactly why an embryo is just as valuable as you or I. From this it follows that the embryo from which the adult Einstein developed had exactly the same moral worth (or intrinsic value) as Einstein the man, and that an outside party - for instance, the doctor who took care of Einstein's mother while she was pregnant - would have been morally bound to treat the embryo Einstein as a fully-fledged human person, having the same inherent right to life as the great scientist whom the embryo later developed into. I have written this essay specifically for people with no religious beliefs, so I will be making use of purely secular arguments, based on uncontroversial scientific concepts, which should be familiar to anyone who has spent time studying the emergence and development of biological forms in the natural world. In the interests of full disclosure, I will state up-front that I am a Catholic, and that I am also a member of the Intelligent Design movement. However, I would like to emphasize that I am not claiming to speak on behalf of any group in writing this essay. The arguments put forward here represent my own personal views.

I am writing this essay in response to some arguments recently put forward by the "New Atheists," most of whom would totally reject the notion that Einstein as an embryo had the same moral value as the adult Einstein. For instance, evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne has recently argued that a 100-cell blastocyst cannot be as valuable as an adult human being because it lacks thoughts and feelings, and concludes: "A blastocyst is no more what we think of as a 'person' than an acorn is the same thing as an oak tree." For biologist P. Z. Myers, it is the height of absurdity to regard embryos as being just as valuable as adults (see here and here). Philosopher Sam Harris is utterly incredulous that anyone can still believe an embryo is a unique human person, given the fact that early embryos are susceptible to both fission and fusion (see here). Harris argues that "if our concern is about suffering in this universe, it is rather obvious that we should be more concerned about killing flies than about killing three-day-old embryos" - an odd remark for him to make, as neither flies nor three-day-old embryos are sentient (see here). And the evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, after contrasting his "secular consequentialist" approach to ethics with "religiously absolute moral philosophies," adds: "One school of thought cares about whether embryos can suffer. The other cares about whether they are human" (The God Delusion, Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, p. 297). It is an ethical axiom for Dawkins that only sentient beings matter: early embryos fall outside the scope of legitimate moral concern, because they are incapable of suffering. And even if some embryos turn out to be capable of suffering, "there is every reason to suppose that all embryos, whether human or not, suffer far less than adult cows or sheep in a slaughterhouse" (Dawkins, 2006, p. 297).

However, I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so I should mention that Christopher Hitchens is a noble exception to the generalization that New Atheists tend to be ardently pro-choice: unlike the other "New Atheists," Hitchens openly refers to the embryo/fetus as an "unborn child," although he does not go so far as to advocate the repeal of Roe v. Wade. And while Dr. Richard Carrier is generally pro-choice, he is also on the record as saying that he would oppose elective third trimester abortion as being identical to infanticide (see the Carrier-Roth Debate here).

In this essay, I shall endeavor to show that a strong intellectual case can be made, on non-religious grounds (i.e. without assuming the existence of God or an immaterial soul), for the pro-life view that a human person begins at the exact moment when the sperm cell penetrates the ovum (or oocyte, to use a more accurate medical term), and that a human embryo - even if it is severely deformed - has the same right to life as a fully rational human adult. In other words, I shall argue that if you grant that a rational human adult has a right to life, then you must also grant that an embryo or fetus has a right to life, too. What distinguishes this essay from other essays written in defense of unborn human life is that I shall endeavor to explain precisely why a human embryo is every bit as valuable as you or I. Moreover, my explanation makes no appeal to the merely potential qualities of the embryo; instead, I only invoke actual properties. Thus my argument is invulnerable to the philosopher Peter Singer's criticism that a potential X does not necessarily have the rights of an actual X - for instance, a prince (who is a potential king) does not possess the same rights and privileges as an actual king. And unlike the philosopher Don Marquis, who argues that an embryo/fetus matters just as much as we do because it has a future like ours, my account of why a human embryo matters is based principally on its present characteristics. Finally, my explanation makes no appeal to the existence of an immaterial soul, although it is perfectly compatible with belief in one.

Later, I shall address the moral issue of abortion. In particular, I shall contend that Judith Jarvis Thomson's argument for the morality of abortion is flawed, and I will show that the available evidence indicates that abortion harms women's mental health, even in cases such as rape and incest. However, my principal aim in this online essay is to demonstrate that a human embryo is a person who matters just as much as an adult.

My argument in a nutshell

In brief, the essence of my argument is that a human embryo is a person, because it is a complete organism, embodying a developmental program by which it directs and controls its own development into a rational human adult, and in addition, it has already started assembling itself into a rational human adult. A human adult is not merely something the embryo/fetus is capable of becoming, in a passive sense; rather, it is the mature form of the organism that the embryo/fetus is currently assembling itself into, by executing the instructions contained in its developmental program, which has already started running. (In this respect, the embryo/fetus differs vitally from a potential king, who is legally incapable of doing anything to make himself king, and who has none of the rights that properly belong to a king.) I shall argue that it is reasonable to regard any biological organism which is currently assembling itself into a rational human adult through a process which is under its control, as being just as valuable as the adult it will become, and as therefore having the same right to life as an adult. I shall also contend that nothing is acquired by an embryo, fetus, newborn baby or child in the course of its development which would add to its inherent moral value in any way; hence a one-cell embryo must be just as valuable as you or I. Finally, I shall argue that a severely defective embryo, which has no hope of developing into a rational human adult, has the same right to life as a normal embryo, because the correction of its defects does not require the addition of any new instructions to its developmental program; all it requires is the repair of program flaws, and that this correction would in no way alter its identity as a human individual, or add to its inherent value. Given that a normal embryo has the same right to life as a rational human adult, it follows that a severely defective embryo (which is just as valuable as a normal one) has the same right to life as well.

Dedication and Acknowledgements

I would like to express my thanks at the outset to the Intelligent Design movement for alerting me to the ethical significance of the developmental programs which are found in living organisms. I'll say more about these programs below.

I would also like to thank Mr. Ryan Phinisee, a bold and independent thinker whom I have greatly profited from discussing ideas with, as he is an excellent debater who has often challenged me to justify my strongly held personal views. This essay originally sprang from an exchange with Mr. Phinisee. Later on, I had the opportunity to further sharpen my views following an exchange at First Things with Mr. David Mullenix, whom I would also like to thank.

Finally, I would like to thank LifeNews.com, Libertarians for Life, Feminists for Life, Professor Priscilla Coleman and Dr. Frederick Dyer, for their assistance in putting together materials I needed for this essay.

I would also like to dedicate this defense of the personhood of unborn human beings to pro-life women, pro-life doctors and pro-life atheists.

When I say "pro-life women", I am thinking of women like Doris Gordon, an atheist who founded Libertarians for Life in 1976. She writes:

Opposition to legal abortion cuts across the religious and political spectrum. I'm an atheist. I was born and raised Jewish. Catholicism had nothing to do with my coming to understand why abortion is a wrong, not a right, and why it should not be legal.

I'm a longtime libertarian and participant in abortion debates among libertarians. Libertarianism is pro-choice - except when it's a choice to victimize others and violate their rights. I used to think abortion is permissible, thanks to Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. But ironically, I became pro-life and founded Libertarians for Life (LFL) because of Rand and her onetime closest associate, Nathaniel Branden, both atheists. (See my articles, "How I Became Pro-Life: Remarks on Abortion, Parental Obligation, and the Draft" - Congressional Record; and Introduction.)

Doris Gordon tells the story of how she changed from being pro-choice to pro-life here.

Norma McCorvey, also known as "Jane Roe" of Roe vs. Wade, is another woman who is especially worthy of mention. Ardently devoted to the pro-choice cause, which she once described as "the only thing I live for," McCorvey worked at various abortion clinics for more than two decades, before converting to the pro-life cause in 1995 and working with Operation Rescue for two years before eventually founding her own pro-life ministry, Roe No More, in 1997. Norma McCorvey's personal testimony can be found here and her official biography is here.

I'd also like to mention former Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson, who finally changed her mind on the subject of abortion, after watching an abortion procedure. She tells her story here and here. Another abortion clinic worker who converted to the pro-life cause is Jewels Green, whose story can be found here.

I would particularly like to thank Ms. Rebecca Kiessling, a successful attorney and pro-life speaker. Adopted shortly after her birth, she learned at the age of 18 that she had been conceived out of a brutal rape at knife-point by a serial rapist. Her very moving personal testimony in Part G below refutes oft-heard pro-choice claims that abortion is "in the best interests" of women who are victims of rape. I'd also like to thank Joan Kemp, a sexual assault victim and rape crisis center counselor who wrote an article for SisterLife entitled, "Abortion: the Second Rape" (also on the Feminists for Life Website).

Also worthy of mention is Jennifer Fulwiler, who was raised an atheist and who was militantly pro-choice, until a few years ago, when she was forced to reconsider her views and switched to being ardently pro-life. Her personal testimony can be found here and here. Finally, I'd like to commend the efforts of Lila Rose, the founder of Live Action, the organization that collects intelligence on the unscrupulous practices of the world's leading provider of abortions, Planned Parenthood, and brings it to the attention of the world's media. An interview with Lila Rose is available online here.

Pro-life women's organizations have done much in recent years to inspire a younger generation of women to carry the torch for unborn human life. Of particular note is the organization Feminists for Life, which draws inspiration from Susan B. Anthony, a pioneer of the American suffragette movement, a Quaker and an ardent pro-lifer. Susan B. Anthony once described abortion as "child murder" and wrote: "Sweeter even than to have had the joy of caring for children of my own has it been for me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so that their unborn little ones could not be willed away from them." It may surprise readers to know that the pioneering feminists, including not only Susan B. Anthony, but also Mattie Brinkerhoff, Matilda Gage, Emma Goldman, Sarah Norton, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Victoria Woodhull, were staunchly pro-life, as readers may verify for themselves by clicking here.

Pro-life doctors, more than any other group, can help to mobilize public support for the pro-life cause. When I was 18 years old, I attended a talk given in Canberra, Australia, by Dr. Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011), an atheist who personally performed 10,000 abortions and presided over 75,000 during his career, before becoming pro-life. That talk made a deep impression on me. At the time when he gave his talk, Dr. Nathanson was an atheist with no interest in religion, which gives the lie to those who say that opposition to abortion stems from religious beliefs. It was not until many years later that Dr. Nathanson finally came to believe in God. In writing this article, I'd also like to acknowledge my intellectual debt to two pro-life women with strong credentials in medical science: Dr. Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine; and Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D. a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH; philosopher and medical ethicist.

I firmly believe that the most effective political opposition to abortion is likely to come from doctors' organizations, such as Physicians for Life. It may interest readers to know that the main reason why abortion was outlawed in most American states, from 1860 onwards, was because of intense lobbying by the American Medical Association, which came out strongly against abortion in the 1850s, culminating in the AMA Report on Criminal Abortion of 1859. In its report, the AMA slammed what it called "widespread popular ignorance of the true character of the crime - a belief, even among mothers themselves, that the foetus is not alive till after the period of quickening," and attributed the law's failure to make abortion a criminal offense as being "based, upon mistaken and exploded medical dogmas," before going on to criticize "the grave defects of our laws, both common and statute, as regards the independent and actual existence of the child before birth, as a living being." Since the current American Medical Association is no longer willing to defend unborn human beings (see here and here), other medical organizations must carry the torch instead.

Finally, I'd like to salute pro-life atheists, some of whom who have formed organizations like the Atheist and Agnostic Pro-life League, founded by Matt Wallace in 1999. In an interview with Newsweek magazine in 2008, Wallace explained his views: "I think there is nothing beyond this life - but life in and of itself is unique and special. In abortion, a human being ends up getting killed for no other reason than he or she wasn't planned or wanted. One should always err on the side of innocent human life." I'd also like to mention an old friend of mine from university days, the philosopher Dr. David Oderberg, a former atheist who is now ardently pro-life.



Part A - A Summary Of My Own Position

Part B - Common Objections To The View That Embryos Are People With A Right to Life

Part C - Why Sentience Is A Totally Inadequate Criterion For Deciding At What Stage Fetuses Possess a Right to Life

Part D - A Response To "Personist" Arguments Against The Full Personhood of the Embryo/Fetus

Part E - A Response To Judith Jarvis Thomson's "Unplugging The Violinist" Argument

Part F - Abortion Hurts Women

Part G - What About Women Who Are Victims Of Rape Or Incest?

Part H - Do Women In Third World Countries Need Access To Legal Abortion?

Part I - Does Overpopulation Make Abortion A Practical Necessity?

Part J - Outlawing Abortion: The Physicians' Crusade Against Abortion In The Nineteenth Century

Part K - Are Embryonic Stem Cells Needed To Find The Cure For Human Diseases?


(i) Preliminary Points
(ii) Are "developmental programs" real, or just a figure of speech?
(iii) What is functional information?
(iv) The scientific legitimacy of informational terminology in a biological context

(i) Preliminary points

(1) I shall refrain from making any assumptions about the existence of God, in the course of my argument. Some philosophers have contended that belief in God must lie at the foundation of any intellectually defensible moral code; other philosophers have argued that a secular moral code is rationally coherent. In this article, I shall not attempt to adjudicate between these views. Rather, I shall simply assume as a "given" that human persons matter in their own right, and that it is (always or almost always) wrong to intentionally kill them. I am of course aware that there are some philosophers who reject the idea that human persons matter in their own right and who regard morality as a purely social construct, but I have yet to hear a convincing explanation from these philosophers as to why it would be wrong to kill a wandering stateless nomad in the Sahara desert. However, most atheists do accept the premise that human persons matter in their own right, and I shall be engaging them on their own terms. My aim will be to show that if they grant this premise, then there is no good reason why they should deny personhood to the embryo; consequently, it is (always or almost always) wrong to intentionally kill embryos. Later, I shall attempt to refute various arguments that are commonly put forward for the legitimacy of killing embryos - in particular, arguments based on women's right to bodily autonomy, or the alleged threat posed to women's mental health by continuing a pregnancy (especially in cases of rape and incest), or the need of families in developing countries to escape a lifetime of grinding poverty, or the need for scientists to destroy some embryos, in order to find cures for deadly diseases that kill millions of people.

(2) My argument for the personhood of the embryo in no way assumes the existence of an immaterial human soul; nor does it rule out the existence of such a soul. All it assumes is that a human embryo is a physical embodiment of a developmental program whose mature form is a rational human adult, and that this program is currently running in the body of the human embryo. A religious person is free to believe, if he/she wishes, that this program is metaphysically grounded in something deeper, or controlled by something "higher up" - i.e. an immaterial soul - but such a belief is totally irrelevant to my argument.

(3) This article is about human persons, not other animals and not computers. While I acknowledge the theoretical possibility that there may be persons belonging to non-human species of animals, who would also have a right to life, I shall refrain from discussing the issue of non-human persons. This article deals exclusively with human persons. I would also like to add that regardless of whether sentient animals are persons or not, cruelty to animals is wrong. Additionally, this article does not touch on the possibility of artificial intelligence: it says nothing about whether computers could ever qualify as persons with rights.

(4) A short note on terminology: in this article, I'm going to use the term "embryo" to denote a developing human being from the moment of conception (which I define as penetration of the oocyte) up until about eight weeks after fertilization, and I shall use the term "fetus" for an unborn human after that early stage. Thus according to the definition being used here, a penetrated oocyte, a zygote, a morula, a blastula and a gastrula are all instances of early embryos. The reason why I avoid the using the ethically loaded term "pre-embryo" is that it has absolutely no scientific basis. Allow me to quote from Dr. Ronan O’Rahilly, the human embryologist who helped to develop the classic Carnegie stages of human embryological development by the National Museum of Health and Medicine, and who also sat on the international board of Nomina Embryologica (which determined the correct terminology to be used in human embryology textbooks internationally, before the developers of the forthcoming Terminologia Embryologica took over this task):

"The ill-defined and inaccurate term 'pre-embryo,' which includes the embryonic disk, is said either to end with the appearance of the primitive streak or to include neurulation. The term is not used in this book." (Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Muller, Human Embryology & Teratology (New York: Wiley-Liss, 1994), p. 55.) [Emphases mine - VJT.]

And again:

"The term 'pre-embryo' is not used here for the following reasons: (1) it is ill-defined because it is said to end with the appearance of the primitive streak or to include neurulation; (2) it is inaccurate because purely embryonic cells can already be distinguished after a few days, as can also the embryonic (not pre-embryonic!) disc; (3) it is unjustified because the accepted meaning of the word embryo includes all of the first 8 weeks; (4) it is equivocal because it may convey the erroneous idea that a new human organism is formed at only some considerable time after fertilization; and (5) it was [used] in 1986 'largely for public policy reasons' (Biggers). ... Just as postnatal age begins at birth, prenatal age begins at fertilization." (Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Muller, Human Embryology & Teratology (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001, p. 88.) [Emphases mine - VJT.]

Readers who would like to learn more about why the term "preembryo" is such a misleading one would be well-advised to read The Big Lie In Human Embryology: The Case of the Preembryo by Dr. C. Ward Kischer, Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy, specialty in Human Embryology, University of Arizona, College of Medicine, as well as When Do Human Beings Begin? "Scientific" Myths and Scientific Facts (scroll down to Myth 7) by Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D. a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH; philosopher and medical ethicist.

(5) In the course of my argument, I'll be making use of terminology which secular biologists regard as scientifically legitimate, and which is also commonly invoked by the Intelligent Design movement: in particular, the notion of a developmental program. By "developmental program" I simply mean: a complete set of instructions within the cell(s) of an organism - especially within its genome - which direct and control its development into a mature adult. I would like to make it clear at the outset that nothing in my pro-life argument hinges on the question of whether the developmental programs we find in the cell had a Designer or Programmer. My argument is explicitly intended to appeal to people who do not believe that Nature had a Designer, so it is silent on metaphysical matters. Accordingly, in this article, I shall not be making any assumptions about the origin of the developmental programs we encounter in organisms. For the purposes of my argument, it does not matter whether you regard these programs as the brain-child of an Intelligent Designer, or the product of "Mother Nature."

(Incidentally, readers who are curious about the scientific case for Intelligent Design might like to have a look at these very short videos which make a powerful case on visual grounds alone. The take-home point here is that the simplest cell functions far more elegantly and efficiently than any machine that humans (who are intelligent) have ever designed, so in the absence of direct observational evidence that unguided natural processes are capable of generating such elegantly complex structures, there's a strong prima facie case to be made that the first cell was intelligently designed:

Powering the Cell: Mitochondria (2:09 – no voiceover)
Molecular Biology Animations – Demo Reel (1:43, no voiceover)
The ATP Synthase Enzyme – exquisite motor necessary for first life (86 seconds, voiceover)
Programming of Life – Protein Synthesis (2:51, voiceover)
DNA Molecular Biology Visualizations – Wrapping And DNA Replication (3:07, voiceover)
Astonishing Molecular Machines – Drew Berry (6:04, TED talk)
Bacterial Flagellum (7:36, voiceover)

Here is a short, highly readable article on the origin of information in DNA.
Finally, viewers might like to have a look at these two Web sites: Signature in the Cell and Programming of Life.)

What do I mean by a developmental program?

I would like to make it clear that when talking about developmental programs inside the cell, I am not claiming that DNA per se – or any other component of the cell – has a semantic meaning. By "developmental program" I simply mean: a complete set of instructions within the cell(s) of an organism - especially within its genome - which direct and control its development into a mature adult.

Readers should understand that a developmental program is not like a blueprint. As Professor Richard Dawkins takes pains to point out in his recent bestseller, The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld Publishers, London, Black Swan edition, 2010, pp. 214-215, 221), a blueprint is a reversible one-to-one mapping from the instructions to the product: not only can you build a house from a blueprint, but you can take a house and then reconstruct the original blueprint, if you want to. The embryo's developmental program is more like a cake recipe than a blueprint: if you follow a recipe step-by-step, you'll end up with a cake, but you can't take a cake and then reconstruct the recipe. Like a cake, the embryo is built according to an irreversible process: we cannot infer the instructions for building an embryo just from looking at its body.

Dawkins also highlights (2010, p. 216) an even more important difference between a blueprint and an embryo's developmental program: a blueprint is a planned form of architecture, whereas the embryo is characterized by a feature called self-assembly. Blueprints are "top-down" designs - they don't assemble themselves into houses. However, embryos do assemble themselves into mature humans. Dawkins goes on to say that self-assembly is achieved through "bottom-up" as opposed to "top-down" architecture: "The beautifully 'designed' body emerges as a consequence of rules being locally obeyed by individual cells, with no reference to anything that could be called an overall global plan." (Dawkins, 2010, p. 220.) Dawkins is quite emphatic that "embryology has nothing resembling a previously drawn plan" (2010, p. 221): there is "no overall plan of development, no blueprint, no architect's plan, no architect" (2010, p. 247) in the rules governing the development of the embryo. No-one puts the embryo together from outside; the process is self-directed. Incidentally, this suffices to refute the popular 1960s pro-choice slogan, "A blueprint is not a house." Unfortunately, the use of the "blueprint" analogy for fetal development is a very common error: even Dr. Richard Carrier, who is normally a very precise person, repeated this error in a recent debate with Ms. Jennifer Roth on abortion, when he stated: "Twins share the exact same blueprint for brain and body, and there is nothing 'individual' about a blueprint that can be shared by more than one individual person."

Accordingly, my pro-life argument makes no claim that the developmental programs found in organisms are "top-down" in their design architecture, as human computer programs typically are. Instead, in the argument below which I will be developing for the personhood of the embryo, I shall treat these programs as being entirely "bottom-up" and self-assembling. The embryo/fetus is not assembled from outside, like a car; it assembles itself. Indeed, this fact will form a major part of my argument. (Of course, as an Intelligent Design proponent, I believe that animals' developmental programs were originally designed, millions of years ago; however, my pro-life argument works equally well, regardless of whether one believes in a natural or a supernatural origin for these programs.)

Finally, it is of no concern to me whether any of the instructions contained in an organism's developmental program are "global" in their effects, or whether "the rules are all local, local, local," as Richard Dawkins insists in his recent book, The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld Publishers, London, Black Swan edition, 2010, p. 247).

All that matters, for the purposes of my argument, is that:

(a) the development of an embryo/fetus is directed by instructions contained within the embryo (I provide the justification for this claim in section (ii) below);
(b) although external stimuli also have a considerable impact on the embryo's development, no new developmental instructions are added to the embryo/fetus from outside as it matures; and
(c) the instructions in the embryo's developmental program are extremely complex and contain a high degree of functional information (a term I shall discuss in section (iii) below).

(ii) Are "developmental programs" real, or just a figure of speech?

I realize that some skeptical readers may be inclined to doubt the legitimacy of the word "program" in a biological context. Perhaps, they may object, the term is merely a poetic metaphor. Not so. It's a scientifically respectable term, and it has a well-defined meaning. If the reader goes to PubMed and types "genetic program" in the subject field in quotes, over 800 citations will appear. Typing "developmental program" will bring up over 1,100 citations. Incidentally, it should be noted that the terms "genetic program" and "developmental program" are not necessarily the same in meaning. Many neo-Darwinian biologists believe that the instructions for building an organism are entirely contained within its genome; for these biologists, a developmental program is also a genetic program. On the other hand, I have been informed that there are some biologists who believe that a sizable proportion of an organism's developmental instructions reside elsewhere in the cell. Not being a biologist, I am in no position to judge between these views. Both sides agree, however, that at least some of the instructions contained in an organism's developmental program are genetic instructions.

For the purposes of my argument, however, it does not matter where an organism's developmental instructions reside, so long as they are inside the cell.

Since I wish to be as precise as possible, I should point out that DNA itself is not a program, technically speaking. Neither would it be quite accurate to say that the suite of programs running within the cell are simply written on its DNA. Instead, DNA would be better described as a data storage device, used by the programs running the cell.

The following quotes, which are taken from reputable scientific sources, establish the scientific legitimacy of using terms like "instructions," "code," "information" and "developmental program" when speaking of embryonic development (emphases are mine):

"We know that the instructions for how the egg develops into an adult are written in the linear sequence of bases along the DNA of the germ cells." James Watson et al., Molecular Biology of the Gene (4th Edition, 1987), p. 747.

And from a more recent source:

"The body plan of an animal, and hence its exact mode of development, is a property of its species and is thus encoded in the genome. Embryonic development is an enormous informational transaction, in which DNA sequence data generate and guide the system-wide spatial deployment of specific cellular functions." (Emerging properties of animal gene regulatory networks by Eric H. Davidson. Nature 468, issue 7326 [16 December 2010]: 911-920. doi:10.1038/nature09645. Davidson is a Professor of Cell Biology at the California Institute of Technology.)

Here's another recent quote, from an article by Schnorrer et al., on the development of muscle function in the fruitfly Drosophila:

"It is fascinating how the genetic programme of an organism is able to produce such different cell types out of identical precursor cells." (Schnorrer F., C. Schonbauer, C. Langer, G. Dietzl, M. Novatchkova, K. Schernhuber, M. Fellner, A. Azaryan, M. Radolf, A. Stark, K. Keleman, & B. Dickson, Systematic Genetic Analysis of Muscle Morphogenesis and Function in Drosophila. Nature, 464, 287-291 (11 March 2010). doi:10.1038/nature08799.)

And here is a quote from Professor Richard Dawkins, in The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld Publishers, London, Black Swan edition, 2010, p. 217):

"...[T]here is a mystery, verging on the miraculous (but never quite getting there) in the very fact that a single cell gives rise to a body in all its complexity. And the mystery is only somewhat mitigated by the feat's being achieved with the aid of DNA instructions. The reason the mystery remains is that we find it hard to imagine, even in principle, how we might set about writing the instructions for building a body in the way the body is in fact built, namely by what I have just called 'self-assembly', which is related to what computer programmers call a 'bottom-up', as opposed to a 'top-down', procedure.

Dawkins goes on to say that "local rules" make it plausible that this process was accomplished naturally, over a period of one billion years. Whether he is right on this point or not, what I find interesting is that he nevertheless feels the need to employ terms like "instructions" and "rules," in order to describe the process whereby an embryo is put together.

Finally, I would like to conclude with some excerpts from a talk given on May 2, 2011, by Professor Gregory Chaitin, a world-famous mathematician and computer scientist, entitled Life as Evolving Software. The talk was given at PPGC UFRGS (Portal do Programa de Pos-Graduacao em Computacao da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul Mestrado), in Brazil. Professor Chaitin is an avowed Darwinist who is currently endeavoring to create a new mathematical version of Darwin's theory which rigorously proves that evolution can really work. In May 2012, Professor Chaitin will be publishing a book entitled, Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical (Pantheon, forthcoming, ISBN: 978-0-375-42314-7). Here are some short excerpts from what Professor Chaitin said about the software of life in his talk:

[P]eople often talk about DNA as a kind of programming language, and they mean it sort of loosely, as some kind of metaphor, and we all know about that metaphor. It's especially used a lot, I think, in evo-devo. But it's a very natural metaphor, because there are lots of analogies. For example, people talk about computer viruses. And another analogy is: there is this sort of principle in biology as well as in the software world that you don't start over. If you have a very large software project, and it's years old, then the software tends to get complicated. You start having the whole history of the software project in the software, because you can’t start over... You ... can try adding new stuff on top...

So the point is that now there is a well-known analogy between the software in the natural world and the software that we create in technology. But what I'm saying is, it's not just an analogy. You can actually take advantage of that, to develop a mathematical theory of biology, at some fundamental level...

Here's basically the idea. We all know about computer programming languages, and they're relatively recent, right? Fifty or sixty years, maybe, I don't know. So ... this is artificial digital software – artificial because it's man-made: we came up with it. Now there is natural digital software, meanwhile, ... by which I mean DNA, and this is much, much older – three or four billion years. And the interesting thing about this software is that it's been there all along, in every cell, in every living being on this planet, except that we didn't realize that … there was software there until we invented software on our own, and after that, we could see that we were surrounded by software...

So this is the main idea, I think: I'm sort of postulating that DNA is a universal programming language. I see no reason to suppose that it’s less powerful than that. So it's sort of a shocking thing that we have this very very old software around...

So here's the way I'm looking at biology now, in this viewpoint. Life is evolving software. Bodies are unimportant, right? The hardware is unimportant. The software is important...

(iii) What is functional information?

Structure of a section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands.

The information in an embryo's developmental program is an example of what Nobel Prize-winner Jack Szostak refers to as functional information. This is a perfectly legitimate scientific term: If the reader goes to PubMed and types "functional information" in the subject field in quotes, over 1,700 citations will appear.

The term "functional information" has been rigorously defined by Szostak and his colleagues in recent scientific papers:

1. Hazen, R.M.; Griffin, P.L.; Carothers, J.M.; Szostak, J.W. 2007, Functional information and the emergence of biocomplexity, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 104 Suppl 1, 8574-81.

2. Szostak, J.W. 2003, Functional information: Molecular messages, Nature, 423, (6941) 689.

3. Carothers, J.M.; Oestreich, S.C.; Davis, J.H.; Szostak, J.W. 2004, Informational complexity and functional activity of RNA structures, J Am Chem Soc, 126, (16) 5130-7.

For instance, here is how Hazen, Carothers and Szostak define functional information in the abstract of their 2007 paper:

Complex emergent systems of many interacting components, including complex biological systems, have the potential to perform quantifiable functions. Accordingly, we define "functional information," I(Ex), as a measure of system complexity. For a given system and function, x (e.g., a folded RNA sequence that binds to GTP), and degree of function, Ex (e.g., the RNA–GTP binding energy), I(Ex) = -log2[F(Ex)], where F(Ex) is the fraction of all possible configurations of the system that possess a degree of function [greater than or equal to] Ex. Functional information, which we illustrate with letter sequences, artificial life, and biopolymers, thus represents the probability that an arbitrary configuration of a system will achieve a specific function to a specified degree.

The research by Schnorrer et al., cited above, provides a perfect example of both the complexity and functionality of an organism's developmental program. They show that 2,785 of a fruit fly's 12,000 genes have a function in fly muscles. "Some genes are needed in all the muscles," explains Frank Schnorrer, "others only in the very fast and strong flight muscles."

The amount of functional information stored in human DNA is enormous. According to a BBC report by Jon Stewart (11 February 2011), the total amount of data stored by human beings in all the world's PCs, DVDs, CDs, videos, floppy discs, tapes, newspapers, magazines, books and other media, has been estimated at 2.95 x 10^20 bytes, or 295 exabytes. To convey how big that number is, researchers have calculated that if all the data were stored digitally on CDs, it would create a stack of discs that would reach beyond the moon. However, these numbers are still dwarfed by the information processing and storage capacity of nature. "The human DNA in one single body can store around 300 times more information than we store in all our technological devices," according to Dr. Martin Hilbert of the University of Southern California, who was interviewed by the BBC's Science in Action show recently.

The number of cells in the human body is approximately 10^14, or 100 trillion. From Dr. Hilbert's estimate, we can calculate that the DNA content of a single human cell is about 3 x 10^9 bytes of information. In this connection, the article, How much data is a human genome? It depends how you store it by genetics researcher Daniel MacArthur is well worth reading. MacArthur's take home message:

...[I]f you want to store the data in a raw format for later re-analysis, you're looking at between 2 and 30 terabytes (one terabyte = 1,000 gigabytes). A much more user-friendly format, though, would be as a file containing each and every DNA letter in your genome, which would take up around 1.5 gigabytes (small enough for three genomes to fit on a standard data DVD). Finally, if you have very accurate sequence data and access to a high-quality reference genome you can squeeze your sequence down to around 20 megabytes.

I should add, however, that DNA contains a very, very small fraction of the total information in the cell. Not only is there information in DNA, there is also information in the regulation of DNA by DNA', or what used to be called junk-DNA. On top of that, there is information in the RNA and its interaction with DNA, and RNA itself comes in many different "flavors" (see here for a list). In addition, there is the protein interaction with RNA and DNA, each adding another piece of information to the picture.

The amount of functional information in the cells of the developing embryo is therefore vast - so vast that it is difficult for us to even conceive.

(iv) The scientific legitimacy of informational terminology in a biological context

Before I put forward my pro-life argument, I'd like to address lingering concerns in some quarters about the appropriateness of informational terminology in a biological context. One scientist who has worked hard to build a link between the biological sciences and information technology is Dr. Don Johnson, author of Programming of Life and Probability's Nature and Nature's Probability: A Call to Scientific Integrity. Dr. Johnson has both a Ph.D. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in computer and information sciences. He has spent 20 years teaching in universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Europe. On April 8, 2010, Dr. Johnson gave a presentation entitled Bioinformatics: The Information in Life for the University of North Carolina Wilmington chapter of the Association for Computer Machinery. Dr. Johnson's presentation is now on-line here. Both the talk and accompanying handout notes can be accessed from Dr. Johnson's Web page. Here's an excerpt from his presentation blurb:

Each cell of an organism has millions of interacting computers reading and processing digital information using algorithmic digital programs and digital codes to communicate and translate information.

On a slide entitled "Information Systems In Life," Dr. Johnson points out that:

I trust that my readers will now agree that the use of terms like "program" and "functional information" to describe the workings of the cell, and in particular, the development of the embryo from a single cell, is scientifically appropriate.

Part A - A Summary Of My Own Position


(i) The five requirements for qualifying as a human person with the same right to life as anyone else
(ii) Scientific evidence showing that a one-cell embryo satisfies all five of my requirements for being a human person
(iii) Exactly when does the life of a new human organism begin?
(iv) Why my five conditions are sufficient for qualifying as a human person, with a right to life

(i) The five requirements for qualifying as a human person with the same right to life as anyone else

I maintain that any entity satisfying all of the following five requirements is a a human person with the same right to life as you or I. I will argue that each of these requirements is necessary for having human rights, and that taken together, they are sufficient for having rights:

(1) The entity (a) contains a developmental program (i.e. a complete set of instructions within the cell(s) of that entity, directing its development into a human adult), which has (b) already started running.
(This condition is a necessary requirement, because without a developmental program which has already started running, the entity could not even be considered as a "human-in-the-making," let alone as a human being. As I shall argue below, a one-cell embryo satisfies part (a) of this requirement, but a sperm cell doesn't. The embryo/fetus already has all the instructions it needs for its development. During pregnancy, the mother gives the embryo/fetus nutrition, warmth and love, but the one thing she does not give the embryo/fetus is instructions on how to develop - any more than the food I eat gives me instructions on how to convert it in to human flesh and blood. Additionally, a one-cell embryo is totipotent: the switches in its genes are fully activated, so it satisfies part (b) of this requirement as well. Later on, as cells in the embryo specialize, various genes in each cell are switched off or silenced.

Because my first condition specifies that the developmental program has already started running, it applies equally well to a frozen human embryo, which has been kept in storage for several years. I contend that even if a human embryo's developmental program has temporarily stopped running, it remains a fully-fledged human person.)

(2) The entity is the kind of thing that matures. More precisely: the entity is the kind of thing that has a mature developmental form.
(This condition is a necessary requirement, because if an entity is not the sort of thing that matures, then it cannot be called a human being, and hence cannot be entitled to human rights as such. I will show below that a one-cell embryo meets this condition, whereas a sperm cell doesn't.)

(3) The mature form of this kind of entity is a rational human adult.
(This condition is a necessary requirement, because if an entity is the sort of thing that never develops into a rational human adult. Something that never develops into a rational human being (roughly, a human adult) cannot be entitled to human rights as such. A clever chimpanzee or crow fails this requirement; if these creatures have any rights, they're certainly not human rights. Likewise, a rational Martian would certainly have rights as a Martian, but not human rights as such.

On the other hand, a non-viable embryo satisfies this requirement. Despite its genetic defect, it is still the kind of thing that develops into a rational human adult when mature. If an extremely skilled surgeon could correct its genetic defect either at or shortly after fertilization, the embryo would develop into a rational human adult too. Moreover, the embryo's identity would still remain the same, after this corrective surgery: it would still be the same individual, and it would also be the same kind of entity - a human organism. For these reasons, I shall argue below that even abnormal embryos, which have no chance of developing into an adult human being, are human persons, possessing a right to life.)

(4) The entity is a biological organism, which physically embodies its own developmental program.
(This condition is a necessary requirement, because only a biological organism could be meaningfully said to have human rights. Thus if someone managed to write a computer program duplicating all the instructions for making a human being, it would fail this condition, as would a CD storing these instructions. Neither of these can be called a biological organism; hence neither of them is a human person. Something purely formal (such as a computer program that duplicated all the instructions for making a human being) is not a suitable candidate for having human rights. A material embodiment is required. Moreover, this embodiment must be biological. Even if I were to store all the instructions for making a human being on a physical medium, such as a CD, that wouldn't make it a human being, because it would still be incapable of assembling itself by executing the instructions in its developmental program. Only a biological organism assembles itself in this way.

I shall demonstrate below that neither a sperm cell nor the oocyte [unfertilized ovum, in popular parlance] that the sperm makes contact with, qualify as biological organisms, so they also fail this requirement. However, a one-cell embryo meets this requirement.)

(5) The entity is a whole organism, and not merely a body part.
(This condition is a necessary requirement, because a body part does not qualify as having human rights. A one-cell embryo satisfies this condition, because it normally grows into a whole organism. However, a human skin cell removed from a mature human body would fail this condition. If it is maintained in the laboratory, it will continue to live and will divide many times to produce a large mass of cells, but it will not re-establish the whole organism from which it was removed. This is because it has been rendered incapable of growing into a whole organism by the deactivation or silencing of its genes. It is no longer totipotent. As Dr. Dianne Irving, M.A., Ph.D. a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH, philosopher and medical ethicist, puts it in her article, A One-Act Play: "Crippled Consciences and the Human Embryo" (page 2):

For example, in sexual reproduction, this new single-cell human being contains all of the genetic information it will ever need. No genetic information is lost or gained during growth and development; this information is only turned on or turned off, depending on what products are needed. This process is called "methylation", and the more specialized or differentiated a cell becomes the more methylation of the DNA has taken place. The products formed by means of the genetic information in each cell then cascade down throughout the life of the organism. This is "zipping up"...

In a-sexual reproduction, such as cloning, many of these processes operate in reverse. One begins with a specialized or differentiated cell, in which some or even most of the DNA in that cell has been "silenced", and then the methylation bars on that DNA are incrementally removed - eventually resulting in, e.g., a new, single-cell zygote, an organism, an embryo, a human being. This is "zipping down", and roughly what happened with the production of Dolly the sheep.

The reader should note that all of these conditions relate to the actual properties of the embryo, not its potential properties. The embryo's developmental program is actual. The mature form of the developmental program actually occurs in nature: we can observe rational human adults all around us, and we can verify that they developed from embryos. The embryo is an actual biological organism, and it is a whole organism (not just a part of one), as I shall argue below. So much for the old canard that the pro-life case is built on the potential qualities of the embryo. That is clearly not the case. The reader should also note that there is nothing about an immaterial soul in the conditions I have listed, either.

(ii) Scientific evidence showing that a one-cell embryo satisfies all five of my requirements for being a human person

Let's look at the first three conditions again.

(1) The entity (a) contains a developmental program (i.e. a complete set of instructions within the cell(s) of that entity, directing its development into a human adult), which has (b) already started running.
(2) The entity is the kind of thing that matures. More precisely: the entity is the kind of thing that has a mature developmental form.
(3) The mature form of this kind of entity is a rational human adult.

Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, explains why a one-cell embryo is a true organism, with its own developmental program, in an online paper titled, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper, Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

A car is not a car until it rolls off the assembly line - until then it is a bunch of parts in the process of becoming a car, but not there yet. Similarly, a cake is not a cake until it comes out of the oven - until then it is a variously gooey mass of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter that is gradually becoming a cake. (p. 11)

However, a profound difference exists between manufacturing and embryonic development. The difference is who (or what) is doing the "producing." The embryo is not something that is being passively built by the process of development, with some unspecified, external "builder" controlling the assembly of embryonic components. Rather, the embryo is manufacturing itself. The organized pattern of development doesn't produce the embryo; it is produced by the embryo as a consequence of the zygote's internal, self-organizing power. Indeed, this "totipotency," or the power of the zygote both to generate all the cells of the body and simultaneously to organize those cells into coherent, interacting bodily structures, is the defining feature of the embryo. (p. 11)

From the moment of sperm-egg fusion, a human zygote acts as a complete whole, with all the parts of the zygote interacting in an orchestrated fashion to generate the structures and relationships required for the zygote to continue developing towards its mature state. Everything the sperm and egg do prior to their fusion is uniquely ordered towards promoting the binding of these two cells. Everything the zygote does from the point of sperm-egg fusion onward is uniquely ordered to prevent further binding of sperm and to promote the preservation and development of the zygote itself. The zygote acts immediately and decisively to initiate a program of development that will, if uninterrupted by accident, disease, or external intervention, proceed seamlessly through formation of the definitive body, birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity, and aging, ending with death. This coordinated behavior is the very hallmark of an organism. (p. 7)

Subsequent to sperm-egg fusion, events rapidly occur in the zygote that do not normally occur in either sperm or egg. The contents of what was previously the sperm, including its nucleus, enter the cytoplasm of the newly formed zygote. Within minutes of membrane fusion, the zygote initiates changes in its ionic composition that will, over the next 30 minutes, result in chemical modifications of the zona pellucida, an acellular structure surrounding the zygote... These modifications block sperm binding to the cell surface and prevent further intrusion of additional spermatozoa on the unfolding process of development. Thus, the zygote acts immediately and specifically to antagonize the function of the gametes from which it is derived; while the "goal" of both sperm and egg is to find each other and to fuse, the first act of the zygote is immediately to prevent any further binding of sperm to the cell surface. Clearly, then, the prior trajectories of sperm and egg have been abandoned, and a new developmental trajectory - that of the zygote—has taken their place. (p. 3) (Emphases mine - VJT.)

If a one-cell embryo is in the process of developing into a rational human adult, then of course the same is true for an embryo at a later stage, or for a fetus, a baby or a child. All of these satisfy conditions (1) to (3).

Now let's look at my fourth and fifth conditions above.

(4) The entity is a biological organism, which physically embodies its own developmental program.
(5) The entity is a whole organism, and not merely a body part.

The first question we need to ask here is: what, exactly, is an organism? Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, provides the following definition in her online paper, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper (Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

An organism is defined as "(1) a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole and (2) an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a living being."22 This definition stresses the interaction of parts in the context of a coordinated whole as the distinguishing feature of an organism. (p. 6)

Note 22: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/organism (accessed 10/1/2008; definition on file with the author). The second definition is also given verbatim by the National Library of Medicine, administered by the National Institutes of Health (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/mplusdictionary.html). (Emphasis mine - VJT.)

Neither a sperm nor an unfertilized ovum would qualify as an organism under this definition. I should add that neither of them satisfy all four of the criteria traditionally used to establish biological life: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli and reproduction.

However, a totipotent one-cell embryo would qualify as an organism, according to both the definition given above and the four criteria for establishing biological life. (As to the fourth criterion: there is cell reproduction and twinning, a form of asexual reproduction, which can occur after conception.) As Professor Maureen Condic writes in her online paper, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

Based on this definition, it has been proposed that human beings (including embryonic human beings) can be reliably distinguished from human cells using the same kinds of criteria scientists employ to distinguish different cell types: by examining their composition and their pattern of behavior. A human being (i.e., a human organism) is composed of characteristic human parts (cells, proteins, RNA, DNA), yet it is different from a mere collection of cells because it has the characteristic behavior of an organism: it acts in an interdependent and coordinated manner to "carry on the activities of life." In contrast, collections of human cells are alive and carry on the activities of cellular life, yet fail to exhibit coordinated interactions directed towards any higher level of organization. Collections of cells do not establish the complex, interrelated cellular structures (tissues, organs, and organ systems) that exist in a whole, living human being. Similarly, a human corpse is not a living human organism, despite the presence of living human cells within the corpse, precisely because this collection of human cells no longer functions as an integrated unit. (p. 6)

Is a human zygote a human organism? For developing humans, the behavior and structures associated with adult stages of life are not yet fully manifest (embryos neither look like nor act like mature human beings). However, developing human beings are composed of characteristic human parts and they exhibit a human pattern of developmental behavior. The key feature of a human pattern of development is its organization towards the production of a mature human body. (p. 6)

...Although embryogenesis begins with a single-cell zygote, the complex, integrated process of embryogenesis is the activity of an organism, not the activity of a cell. (p. 7) (Emphases mine - VJT.)

I should emphasize that Professor Maureen Condic's views are by no means isolated or unusual; they are typical statements for an embryologist to make, as I will show below in part (iii), where I address the question: Exactly when does the life of a new human being begin?

We have established that a one-cell embryo satisfies conditions (4) and (5): it is a biological organism, and it is a whole organism. What about a human skin cell? In human skin cells and other body cells, the epigenetic switches are not fully activated, as they are in a one-cell embryo. They have been switched off, which is why skin cells can only turn into skin cells. Since these cells are incapable of regenerating an entire human body, even when maintained in a laboratory culture, they cannot possibly be viewed as whole organisms. As Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, puts it in her online White Paper (Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008), When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

A human skin cell removed from a mature body and maintained in the laboratory will continue to live and will divide many times to produce a large mass of cells, but it will not re-establish the whole organism from which it was removed; it will not regenerate an entire human body in culture. Although embryogenesis begins with a single-cell zygote, the complex, integrated process of embryogenesis is the activity of an organism, not the activity of a cell.

What about adult stem cells? They're multipotent - not totipotent or even pluripotent. That's precisely why advocates of embryonic stem cell research don't like them. Although it is able to turn into a variety of different cell types, an adult stem cell, if implanted into a human uterus, will not develop into a human being. However, a skin cell can be converted into a human embryo, by "rewinding" its epigenetic switches back to an embryonic state, essentially turning it back into an embryo again. If a scientist were to do that and if the adult skin cell were rewound back to a totipotent stage, then he/she would indeed have created a new human being. However, until the switches are reset back to "embryonic mode", an adult stem cell is not a human being.

(iii) Exactly when does the life of a new human being begin?

One often encounters the pro-choice argument that a human ovum and a sperm cell are both human and alive, so it is wrong to claim that human life begins at conception. Equally common is the tired objection that human life is an unbroken continuum, with no "magic moment" at which a new human life appears.

Both of these objections are flawed, insofar as they overlook the vital distinction between "human life" and "the life of a new human being." This distinction is carefully explicated by Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D., a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH; philosopher and medical ethicist, in her online article, When Do Human Beings Begin? "Scientific" Myths and Scientific Facts:

[T]here is a radical difference, scientifically, between parts of a human being that only possess "human life" and a human embryo or human fetus that is an actual "human being." Abortion is the destruction of a human being. Destroying a human sperm or a human oocyte would not constitute abortion, since neither are human beings. The issue is not when does human life begin, but rather when does the life of every human being begin. A human kidney or liver, a human skin cell, a sperm or an oocyte all possess human life, but they are not human beings — they are only parts of a human being. If a single sperm or a single oocyte were implanted into a woman's uterus, they would not grow; they would simply disintegrate.

Indeed, there is a very high degree of agreement among embryologists that fertilization normally marks the beginning of the human being as an individual organism, and that the sperm and oocyte (unfertilized egg, in popular parlance) which exist prior to that point are human cells, but not human organisms. The following selection of statements from embryology textbooks should suffice to refute the pro-choice canard that "life is a smooth, unbroken continuum":

"Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm ... unites with a female gamete or oocyte ... to form a single cell [embryo]. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual. (p. 18) ... The usual site of fertilization is the ampulla of the uterine tube [fallopian tube], its longest and widest part. If the oocyte is not fertilized here, it slowly passes along the tube to the uterus, where it degenerates and is resorbed. Although fertilization may occur in other parts of the tube, it does not occur in the uterus. ... The embryo's chromosomes sex is determined at fertilization by the kind of sperm (X or Y) that fertilizes the ovum; hence it is the father rather than the mother whose gamete determines the sex of the embryo." [Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (6th ed. only) (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998), p. 37].

"Human pregnancy begins with the fusion of an egg and a sperm. (p. 3); ... finally, the fertilized egg, now properly called an embryo, must make its way into the uterus (p. 3); ... The sex of the future embryo is determined by the chromosomal complement of the spermatozoon ... Through the mingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes, the [embryo] is a genetically unique product of chromosomal reassortment ..." [Bruce M. Carlson, Human Embryology and Developmental Biology (St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1994 ), p. 31; ibid, Carlson 1999, pp., 2, 23, 27, 32].

"In this text, we begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual. ... Fertilization takes place in the oviduct [not the uterus]... resulting in the formation of an [embryo] containing a single diploid nucleus. Embryonic development is considered to begin at this point..." (p. 1). [William J. Larsen, Human Embryology (New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1997), p. 17].

O'Rahilly 2001 - Table 8-1 "Principal Features of Developmental States of the early human embryo: Stage 1 - Includes penetrated oocyte, ootid, and zygote. Thus accordingly, the penetrated oocyte and the ootid (before syngamy) are characterized as an already existing human embryo at Stage 1 of development." [Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Muller, Human Embryology & Teratology (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001), p. 89]. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

The French geneticist Jerome L. LeJeune has stated:

"To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence." [The Human Life Bill: Hearings on S. 158 Before the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 97th Congress, 1st Session (1981). See Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1989), p. 149 also Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 42.] (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Dr. Hymie Gordon, professor of medical genetics and Mayo Clinic physician stated:

"I think we can now also say that the question of the beginning of life - when life begins - is no longer a question for theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life or purpose of life, but it is an established fact that all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception." [The Human Life Bill - S. 158, Report 9, see Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 42.] (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Dr. Micheline Matthew-Roth, a principal research associate at Harvard Medical School's Department of Medicine states:

"It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of life." [The Human Life Bill - S. 158, Report together with Additional and Minority Views to the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, made by its Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, 97th Congress, 1st Session (1981) see Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 43] (Emphasis mine - VJT.)

What I am arguing here is that the life of a new human being normally begins when the sperm penetrates the ovum (or more accurately, the oocyte). (I say "normally" because the example of human cloning shows that there's more than one way to make a new human life.) This process take one second to occur, as Professor Maureen Condic explains in her online paper, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

The basic events of early development are both reasonably well characterized and entirely uncontested. Following the binding of sperm and egg to each other, the membranes of these two cells fuse, creating in this instant a single hybrid cell: the zygote or one-cell embryo... Cell fusion is a well studied and very rapid event, occurring in less than a second. Because the zygote arises from the fusion of two different cells, it contains all the components of both sperm and egg, and therefore the zygote has a unique molecular composition that is distinct from either gamete.

Subsequent to sperm-egg fusion, events rapidly occur in the zygote that do not normally occur in either sperm or egg. The contents of what was previously the sperm, including its nucleus, enter the cytoplasm of the newly formed zygote. Within minutes of membrane fusion, the zygote initiates changes in its ionic composition that will, over the next 30 minutes, result in chemical modifications of the zona pellucida, an acellular structure surrounding the zygote... These modifications block sperm binding to the cell surface and prevent further intrusion of additional spermatozoa on the unfolding process of development. Thus, the zygote acts immediately and specifically to antagonize the function of the gametes from which it is derived; while the "goal" of both sperm and egg is to find each other and to fuse, the first act of the zygote is immediately to prevent any further binding of sperm to the cell surface. Clearly, then, the prior trajectories of sperm and egg have been abandoned, and a new developmental trajectory—that of the zygote—has taken their place. (p. 3) (Emphases mine - VJT.)

About 24 hours later, an event called syngamy occurs: the breakdown of nuclear membranes in the one-cell embryo, in preparation for cell division. This is the last event associated with the one-cell embryo stage. After this point, the cells of the embryo start to behave in ways that are also observed in other, more mature body cells, so many people have proposed that syngamy, rather than penetration of the oocyte, marks the beginning of a new human life. Professor Maureen Condic argues that this view is profoundly mistaken, in her online paper, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

Compared with the changes in both material composition and developmental trajectory that occur at the fusion of sperm and egg, syngamy is fundamentally an arbitrary definition for the beginning of life. From a biological perspective, the breakdown of nuclear membranes at syngamy is a relatively mundane event along an already progressing developmental trajectory. The material composition of the cell does not change from the instant prior to syngamy to the instant after it takes place. There is no substantive change in the behavior of the cell at syngamy; all the preparations for cell division (DNA replication, assembly of the mitotic spindle, chromatin condensation) are already underway as the pronuclei move together. Indeed, nuclear membrane breakdown is not a unique, "zygote-forming" event, but rather it is part of every round of cell division that occurs through life. The zygote is the same cell - and it continues doing exactly what it was doing (i.e., preparing to undergo cell division) both before and after the pronuclei come into physical proximity. The developmental program observed during the first cell cycle (including the breakdown of nuclear membranes at syngamy) is clearly initiated by the fusion of the sperm and egg, and it progresses seamlessly from that instant forward.

The assertion that the mature, diploid genome forms at syngamy is also scientifically untenable. The definitive diploid genome is formed at the completion of meiosis. As detailed above, although syngamy appears to result in the "fusion" of the two pronuclei, the maternally and paternally derived DNA interact extensively prior to syngamy. The physical proximity of the two halves of the genome achieved after nuclear membrane breakdown is biologically irrelevant to the ongoing interaction of the DNA contained within the genome. Moreover, the "mingling" of the DNA that occurs at syngamy is in some ways quite superficial. There is good evidence that full mingling of the maternal and paternal DNA strands is not completed during the first cell cycle, but rather that chromatin derived from each parent occupies distinct domains within the nucleus until at least the four-cell stage. Thus, syngamy does not fully establish the normal state of a diploid nucleus (as is seen in mature somatic cells, with random mixing of DNA strands derived from both parents), further compromising syngamy as a definition of when the life of a new individual begins.

The essential problem with the view that life begins at syngamy is the notion that a cell can change from one type (a "pre-zygote" that exists following sperm-egg fusion but prior to syngamy) into another type (the zygote that exists after syngamy) without any actual change in the material state or behavioral trajectory of the cell. This argument is simply not consistent with the scientific method. To assert that life begins at syngamy is to propose some form of mysticism: although a zygote cannot be distinguished in any significant manner from the "pre-zygote" that precedes it, the cell is now a zygote simply because one asserts that it is. (pp. 8-9) (Emphases mine - VJT.)

In a footnote (#26), Professor Condic carefully dispels the concern some authors have expressed, regarding the fact that the paternal and maternal components of the genome are still physically separate, when the sperm penetrates the ovum (oocyte). How, they ask, can the fertilized ovum be said to truly constitute a single organism (i.e. a new human life) before the male and female pronuclei have come together, or fused? Condic puts forward an interesting analogy to explain why even prior to syngamy, a one-cell embryo is still a true individual:

A good analogy for the communication between the maternally and paternally derived halves of the genome is the communication of two Internet-linked computers with different data sets that are executing a common program. The computers will transmit information and mutually modify each other's function via electronic signals that are carried by data cables or telephone lines. The mechanism of this indirect communication will not be substantially different for computers separated by a few feet than for those separated by a few thousand miles; computers located in the same room are not somehow more "united" by virtue of their physical proximity than are computers located in different countries. Similarly, DNA communicates indirectly and remotely via DNA-binding proteins, and this communication is not dependent on physical proximity. So long as the two halves of the genome are contained within a single cell (i.e., there is a common mechanism for communication between different elements of the genome), interaction between maternally and paternally derived DNA happens indirectly through transcription and translation of DNA binding proteins, mechanisms that do not require the DNA to be "united" within a single nuclear membrane. (p. 8) (Emphases mine - VJT.)

(iv) Why my five conditions are sufficient for qualifying as a human person, with a right to life

Professor Peter Singer has argued that rights are only exercised when we make choices, which is something that only a rational, self-aware entity can do. On this point, he is correct. He is wrong, however, in inferring that only a self-aware entity can be said to have rights. Below, I put forward three arguments for regarding a human embryo as morally equivalent to a rational human adult, and hence as a person with rights. The first two arguments deal with normal human embryos; the third argument deals with defective human embryos.

This self-replicating machine is pretty amazing, but it is not a good model of the human embryo, because the parent runs the code to assemble the child, whereas in the case of the the human embryo, the embryo runs the code to assemble itself. In this photo by Steve Baker, Adrian Bowyer (left) and Vik Olliver (right) stand next to a parent RepRap machine, made on a conventional rapid prototyper, and the first complete working child RepRap machine, made by the RepRap on the left. The child machine made its first successful grandchild part at 2 p.m. (GMT) on 29 May 2008 at Bath University in the UK, just a few minutes after it was assembled. In Case B of Argument #1 below, I discuss a more sophisticated self-replicating machine, in which the child - not the parent - runs the code required to assemble itself from scratch, and the parent supplies the raw materials which the child then uses. Photo author: Steve Baker. Source: Wikipedia.

Argument #1 for the Personhood of the Human Embryo

1. Because a one-cell embryo is a living organism, which is currently executing a developmental program that it needs to develop into a human adult, we can legitimately speak of it as directing or controlling its bodily development into the body of a mature human adult. (Outside influences do not control the bodily development of an embryo/fetus/child. Outside sources may provide food, oxygen, and a supportive environment, but they do not supply instructions, so thay cannot be said to be directing the embryo's development. )

2. Any entity that is capable of controlling its development into an intrinsically valuable thing, is just as valuable as that thing.
(Premise 2 may strike some readers as odd or implausible; to me, it makes obvious sense. The following two examples may help to illustrate why.

Case A: Biosphere Two
Imagine that you're a biologist living on the island of Spitzbergen. Your responsibility is to preserve specimens of thousands of plant and animal species, in order to restore the Earth's biodiversity as rapidly as possible, in the event of a global catastrophe. As a biologist, you recognize that each and every species of living things is intrinsically valuable. Among these species of living things, you will certainly want to preserve the Earth's various species of trees, including oak trees. However, in your situation, an acorn would be just as valuable as an oak tree. Why? Because it can turn itself into an oak tree, in the same way that an embryo/fetus can assemble itself into a newborn baby, and later on a child, a teenager and an adult. If you were a smart biologist, you would therefore be perfectly happy to store seeds, rather than mature plants.

Case B: The Master Spy
Imagine that you're a spy whose job it is to steal the world's most advanced supercomputer from an enemy country. To an engineer, this supercomputer is a thing of beauty: it is the most complex machine ever designed by human beings, and its design is reputed to be constitute a major technological advance, on a par with the invention of printing, or the steam engine. Its intrinsic value as an intellectual creation is therefore enormous. This supercomputer can engage in spontaneous conversation on a wide range of topics, from science to Shakespeare (but not about itself). More importantly, it is capable, when fed the right data, of constructing highly sophisticated models of complex systems in the world around it: climate systems, economic systems and advanced warning systems for the military, to name just a few. But this computer does not merely assimilate data; like the IBM Jeopardy computer "Watson", it has a built-in program which enables it to organize, analyze and critically evaluate this data, thereby transforming the data into a vast and useful knowledge base, which it can draw upon in real time (e.g. when it converses with humans, or responds to queries). As a spy, you realize that the supercomputer will provide incalculable economic benefits - running into the hundreds of billions of dollars - to your country's economy, if you get hold of it. While spying in the enemy country, you find out that this supercomputer is also a self-replicating machine - it can assemble itself. Knowing that, you would be perfectly happy to steal a pocket-sized crystal that could asemble itself into the supercomputer, when supplied with sufficient energy, the right raw materials and access to the information available on the Internet. You wouldn't need to steal the supercomputer itself, which might be quite bulky and difficult to smuggle out of the country. In this case, the crystal is just as valuable as the supercomputer, even if it is currently inert and unresponsive, because it can assemble itself into a supercomputer without the need for any further instructions: all the assembly instructions are contained within the crystal itself. And because the price of the raw materials, energy and information obtained from the Internet will be insignificant in comparison with the benefits to be supplied by the supercomputer, then you would be irrational if you were to worry about their cost. Thus if you are a sensible spy, then you should consider the crystal as having the same value as the supercomputer that it will assemble itself into.

I would like to stress here that nothing in this hypothetical case hinges on the question of whether the supercomputer's program had a designer. Indeed, even if you, as a spy, knew for a fact that the supercomputer had (by some unimaginable process) assembled itself naturally, you would still want to steal it, if you knew what it could do, and if you knew that it really worked. Thus nothing in my argument above relies on the fact that human computer programs are intentional creations. An unintentional creation of Nature would possess the same inherent value, if (per impossibile) it actually worked in the way I have described above.)

3. Corollary of 2: Therefore any entity that is capable of controlling its development into a rational human adult (who is obviously intrinsically valuable), is of equal moral value with a rational human adult.

4. A rational human adult has a right to life, which derives from his/her moral worth as an intrinsically valuable being.

5. Therefore an entity that is capable of controlling its development into a rational human adult has the same right to life as a human adult.

6. Therefore, a one-cell embryo is morally equivalent to a rational human adult, and has the same right to life as a human adult.

The high-level architecture of IBM's DeepQA, used in the Jeopardy-winning computer named Watson in 2011. In Case B of Argument #1 above, I discussed a machine which is programmed with the ability to build itself, and whose program also enables it to answer queries on a wide variety of topics, as Watson can - except that I envisaged the machine as being able to understand spoken English, which Watson cannot, and also as being capable of constructing highly sophisticated models of complex systems in the world around it - e.g. climate systems, economic systems, and advanced warning systems for the military - thereby making this meachine of immense strategic importance. In Case B above, I argued that the intellectual elegance of the machine's program code makes it intrinsically valuable, and that the machine's value remains the same throughout its development, since it is always running the same program. Thus the machine does not acquire any extra intrinsic value as it puts itself together, or later on, when it acquires information about the external world. (Note to philosophers reading this: in ascribing intrinsic value to this machine, I am not ascribing intrinsic finality to it. The question of whether the machine has a "good of its own" is a separate one.)

Argument #2 for the Personhood of the Human Embryo

1. A one-cell human embryo, whose developmental program is fully switched-on, and whose mature form is a rational human adult, is the same entity as the human adult it will eventually become: it has not only material continuity (same body), but also continuity of form (same program), continuity of process (it's been running the whole time) and telos (same developmental goal).

2. During the course of its development into a human adult, nothing is added to this entity that would enhance its value.

Justification for step 2:

(i) As the embryo/fetus develops, certain new attributes (e.g. complex brain function) may emerge which were not manifest at an earlier stage. However, these attributes are not added from outside. The instructions for building these features all came from within, and what's more, these instructions were fully switched on, from the beginning (fertilization). All that was needed was time for them to run, and a supportive environment. This environment, however, adds no new instructions to the developing embryo/fetus to tell it how to build the body of a human adult. Those instructions are all there, at fertilization.

(ii) After a child is born, he/she acquires a lot of useful information from other people, which helps turn him/her a socially well-adjusted adult; but this information does not add to the inherent value, or moral worth, of the child. The reason is that the information is only able to benefit the child because it is being processed by the instructions that are contained within the developmental program which the child's body is currently executing, and which enables that child to develop into an adult. Because it is the instructions ("higher-level information") that render the information useful to the child, it follows that the information itself has no inherent value; the only value it can possess is a conditional value. Hence it would be a grave philosophical mistake to regard the information a developing child acquires from the outside world as inherently valuable, or as conferring inherent value upon the child. Inherent value comes from within: that is, from the child's developmental program. (A more complete discussion can be found in part D below.)

(iii) New abilities cannot confer inherent value on the embryo/fetus either. As regards new abilities which appear in the course of a human individual's development, and which many philosophers consider inherently valuable (e.g. sentience, self-consciousness), we may reason as follows. Either these abilities arise as a product of the instructions contained in the individual's developmental program or they are acquired from outside. In the former case, because the environment supplies no new instructions leading to the emergence of these abilities, then no inherent value is added to the embryo/fetus from outside. Thus to say that a late-stage fetus is more valuable than a one-cell embryo would involve saying that an individual can spontaneously increase in inherent value without anything being added to this individual that would enhance its value - a totally unintelligible assertion.

If, on the other hand, abilities such as sentience or sapience are acquired from outside, then we can use the argument developed in part (ii) above: if they are acquired, it is only because of information being input from outside; however, it is the instructions ("higher-level information") in the developmental program of the embryo/fetus that render the information useful to it, so it follows that the information itself has no inherent value. At best, the information can only possess conditional value.

Thus, regardless of whether abilities such as sentience and sapience are coded for, within a human individual's developmental program, or acquired from information which that individual receives from the outside world, these abilities do not and cannot confer any inherent value on a developing human individual.

3. A mature human adult is a human person.

4. Now let V be the value of a mature human adult. We have determined (see step 2) that the value added to a one-cell human embryo during the course of its development into a mature human adult is zero. Thus the value of a one-cell human embryo must be V minus 0, which equals V.

5. Thus a one-cell human embryo embryo must have the same value as much as the human adult it becomes.

6. Anything that matters as much as a human person, IS a person.

7. Therefore, a one-cell human embryo is a human person.

Argument #3 for the Personhood of the Human Embryo: The Case of the Defective Human Embryo

1. An entity (let's call it E) whose developmental program is fully switched-on and which is currently assembling itself into a rational human adult, has the same inherent moral value as that adult.

2. Any entity with a flawed developmental program, which could (in principle) be converted into entity E, without losing its identity, and without the input of any new instructions into its developmental program, is morally equivalent to E and hence has the same inherent moral value as a rational human adult.

3. A defective embryo could (in principle) be converted into entity E, without losing its identity, and without the input of any new instructions into its developmental program.
(Justification: despite its genetic defect, a severely defective embryo is still the kind of thing that develops into a rational human adult when mature; hence if a hypothetical super-skilled surgeon could correct its genetic defect either at or shortly after fertilization, this embryo would develop into a rational human adult too. Moreover, even after surgery, it would still be the same individual, and it would also be the same kind of entity. Hence its identity would in no way be altered by the surgical procedure.)

4. Therefore a defective embryo has the same inherent moral value as a rational human adult.

Part B - Common Objections to the view that embryos are people with a right to life.

A sperm fertilizing an ovum. Electron micrograph photo. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


Objection 1. Conception is a vague starting point for a human person: the process takes 24 hours to complete.
Objection 2. The non-uniqueness argument: a developmental program isn't unique, so it cannot be sufficient to make me a person with rights.
Objection 3. The argument from appearance: embryos don't look anything like adult human beings, so they can't possibly be persons.
Objection 4. The twinning argument: early embryos sometimes split in two.
Objection 5. The cloning argument. A scientist clones a human being. When does its life begin?
Objection 6. Deformed human embryos: what about an embryo whose DNA is so damaged that it will never develop into a self-aware adult? Is it a human person?
Objection 7. Hydatidiform moles: these non-viable embryonic growths seem to meet conditions (1) to (5) in Part A, so are they human beings too?
Objection 8. A few people are chimeras: their bodies have two or more different populations of genetically distinct cells that originated in different zygotes.
Objection 9. The mortality argument: embryos die in large numbers, prior to implantation.
Objection 10. Breast-feeding inhibits implantation, so if zygotes are human beings, breast-feeding mothers who have intercourse are guilty of murder.
Objection 11. The "unwanted embryos" argument. What are we going to do with the thousands of embryos in laboratories?
Objection 12. Until day 13 or 14, when the primitive streak appears, a developing human life isn't an individual: it's a pre-embryo, not an embryo.
Objection 13. If brain death indicates the end of an individual's life, shouldn't the appearance of brain waves mark its beginning?
Objection 14. The embryo/fetus isn't sentient until relatively late in pregnancy.
Objection 15. The "burning hospital" argument: if you were a fireman, wouldn't you save a newborn baby over 100 embryos being kept in storage?
Objection 16. An embryo/fetus is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.
Objection 17. In the Bible, doesn't human life begin when a newborn baby takes its first breath? And doesn't Exodus 21:22 prove the fetus isn't a person?
Objection 18. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church's greatest theologian, didn't believe that an embryo is a human person.

Objection 1. Conception is a vague starting point for a human person: the process takes 24 hours to complete.

My reply: Professor Maureen Condic has argued (see Part A above) that the moment at which a new human being begins is the moment at which the sperm penetrates the oocyte - a process which only takes a second. Syngamy is an arbitrary point which does not mark the beginning of a new human being.

Objection 2. The non-uniqueness argument: a developmental program isn't unique, so it cannot be sufficient to make me a person with rights.

Dr. Richard Carrier, in a recent debate with Ms. Jennifer Roth on abortion, argued as follows: "Twins share the exact same blueprint for brain and body, and there is nothing 'individual' about a blueprint that can be shared by more than one individual person." Leaving aside his misuse of the term "blueprint" to refer to the developmental program that the embryo is running - as we noted earlier, the developmental program of an embryo/fetus is much more like a recipe than a blueprint - Carrier's objection seems to have some force: what's so distinctive about a developmental program, anyway? How can a mere program make me who I am?

The short answer is: it can't, and I have already said as much. My fourth condition for being a human person reads as follows: "The entity is a biological organism, which physically embodies its own developmental program." I then went on to argue:

This condition is a necessary requirement, because only a biological organism could be meaningfully said to have human rights. Thus if someone managed to write a computer program duplicating all the instructions for making a human being, it would fail this condition, as would a CD storing these instructions. Neither of these can be called a biological organism; hence neither of them is a human person. Something purely formal (such as a computer program that duplicated all the instructions for making a human being) is not a suitable candidate for having human rights. A material embodiment is required. Moreover, this embodiment must be biological. Even if I were to store all the instructions for making a human being on a physical medium, such as a CD, that wouldn't make it a human being, because it would still be incapable of assembling itself by executing the instructions in its developmental program. Only a biological organism assembles itself in this way.

In other words, the developmental program alone is insufficient to make me a unique human person. I am who I am because I have a body that is uniquely mine, as well as a developmental program that tells that body how to assemble itself. Both (matter and form) are essential to my human identity.

I might add that twins are not physically identical in any case; recent research shows that their DNA is subtly different ("Identical Twins' Genes Are Not Identical," by Anne Casselman, in Scientific American, April 3, 2008):

Geneticist Carl Bruder of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and his colleagues closely compared the genomes of 19 sets of adult identical twins. In some cases, one twin's DNA differed from the other's at various points on their genomes. At these sites of genetic divergence, one bore a different number of copies of the same gene, a genetic state called copy number variants.

Normally people carry two copies of every gene, one inherited from each parent. "There are, however, regions in the genome that deviate from that two-copy rule, and that's where you have copy number variants," Bruder explains. These regions can carry anywhere from zero to over 14 copies of a gene.

Objection 3. The argument from appearance - embryos don't look anything like adult human beings, so they can't possibly be persons.

Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, refutes this silly argument in her online article, Life: Defining the Beginning by the End:

Of all the arguments regarding when human life begins, the most basic, and perhaps most intuitive, is that to be human, one must look human. Early human embryos are often described as "merely a ball of cells," and for many, it is difficult to imagine that something that looks more like a bag of marbles than a baby could possibly be a human being. Fundamentally, this argument asserts that human life is worthy of respect depending on appearance. When plainly stated, this conclusion is quite disturbing and also quite problematic. What level of malformation are we willing to accept before we revoke the right to continued existence? How are we to view children whose mature form will not be completely manifest until puberty? Form alone is a profoundly trivial and capricious basis for assigning human worth, and one that cannot be applied without considerable and obvious injustice.

Objection 4. The twinning argument: early embryos sometimes split in two.

My reply to this argument is: so what if embryos can twin? All that means is that humans have two modes of reproduction - sexual and asexual - and that the parents of identical twins are really their grand-parents (their parent - the embryo from which they both developed - having died). What's the metaphysical problem here? There isn't one. Nature has killed the parent embryo, but sadly, nature kills children all the time - that's just the old problem of evil. Bad things happen.

I'd like to quote from an essay entitled, The Metaphysical Status of the Embryo: Some Arguments Revisited by Professor David Oderberg (in Journal of Applied Philosophy 25 (2008): 263-76):

More importantly, though, there is no good argument for the metaphysical conclusion that an embryo is not an individual human either because it might or must twin. The mere fact that it might twin makes the case no different from that of the lightning strike. An embryo cannot be considered to lack individuality because something might happen to it. Many plants are capable of being split into objects that are themselves plants and capable of continuing to grow as plants. Planarian flatworms can be divided and the divided halves continue to grow as individual worms. Cells that can divide are no less individual cells because of that possibility — they belong to exactly the same kind as their descendants. This includes cellular animals such as bacteria and amoebae. Why, then, should human zygotes or early embryos be an exception?

Moreover, amoebae and most bacteria always reproduce by division, and yet they still all belong to the same kind — but we know that only a small minority of human embryos ever divide. So why should individuality be withheld from the latter whilst accorded to the former? We can be certain, moreover, that the reproduction by fission of amoebae and bacteria is determined rather than the result of a massive conjunction of chance events: it is part of their constitution. By parity of reasoning, therefore, even if humans always came into existence as twin descendants of embryos, and even if this were determined, the embryos would not thereby fail for human individuality. (pp. 268-269) (Emphases mine - VJT.)

The recombination argument is no more problematic than the twinning argument. Two individuals die; and a new individual, with its own developmental program, comes to be. That's sad for the two individuals concerned, but that's life.

Sam Harris argues (see here) that "twinning cases" constitute a reductio ad absurdum for the pro-life view, because they require us to postulate a God who is compelled to create at least one and possibly two new immaterial souls whenever an embryo divides, and perhaps a new one when two existing embryos fuse. However, Harris' argument is wrong on four counts.

First, the pro-life argument I have developed here makes no mention of God; and the fact that there are a significant number of intelligent, articulate pro-life atheists disproves the assertion that holding pro-life views necessarily commits a person to belief in God.

Second, my pro-life argument does not invoke an immaterial human soul; for me, the value-conferring aspect of a human organism is simply whatever controls and directs its development into a rational human adult. We know that organisms embody developmental programs which do this. Many religious people would argue that in the case of human beings, a soul which is to some degree independent of matter must underlie these programs; but nothing in the pro-life case I have put forward here presupposes this view.

Third, from a "program" perspective, it makes perfect sense to speak of a single developmental program dividing into two nearly identical programs, or the merging of two developmental programs into a single program. No semantic problems arise here.

Fourth, people who believe that each human being has an immaterial soul which is specially created by God at the moment when it comes into existence are hardly likely to be troubled by the fact that in about one in every 270 cases, an ensouled embryo divides asexually, thereby causing its death and (on a religious view) requiring the creation of two new souls for the embryos which result. After all, during the course of human history, more than 100 billion people have come into existence. A God who has already created 100 billion souls is obviously capable of creating two new ones, on the rare occasions when twinning occurs.

Objection 5. The cloning argument. A scientist clones a human being. When does its life begin?

My reply: Professor Maureen Condic addresses this question in her paper, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper (Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

[C]loning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), presents a challenge to the proposed definition of when life begins because cloning does not involve the union of sperm and egg. In SCNT, the nucleus of an egg is removed and a mature body (somatic) cell is then fused to the empty egg, generating a hybrid cell that contains the genetic information of the body cell. In rare cases (usually less than one in a hundred transfers) the body cell nucleus is reprogrammed by the egg cytoplasm to a state that is capable of supporting a relatively normal pattern of embryonic development. Although human cloning has only recently been reported,(31) it is likely that improvements in the cloning technique will enable human clones to be reliably generated through SCNT.

Does generation of a cloned human embryo or live human baby by SCNT compromise the definition of when a life begins? No. Upon transfer of a somatic nucleus to an empty egg cell, a new cell is generated that has a material composition and a developmental trajectory different from those of either of the two cells that produced it. In the rare cases where this hybrid cell goes on to produce a normal pattern of development, its behavior demonstrates that it is an organism.(32) The production of human embryos via cloning indicates that although gametes are naturally disposed to generate a new organism upon fusion, embryos can also be generated under other, highly artificial circumstances. Cloning simply indicates that there is more than one way to make a zygote; it does not alter the analysis of natural fertilization or compromise our ability to determine precisely when fertilization results in an organism that is both materially and behaviorally distinct from the gametes that give rise to it. (Emphases mine - VJT.)


31 Andrew J. French et al., "Development of Human Cloned Blastocysts Following Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer with Adult Fibroblasts," Stem Cells 26, no. 2 (February 2008): 485-93.

32 In cases where the development of the cell produced by cloning is abnormal or where the clone does not survive, interpreting the nature of the cell produced by SCNT is problematic. If such clones exhibit any degree of normal, "organismal" coordination, caution would dictate they should be considered defective organisms.

Objection 6. Deformed human embryos: what about an embryo whose DNA is so damaged that it will never develop into a self-aware adult? Is it a human person?

My reply: Yes. To illustrate this, consider a thought experiment. A scientist from the 22nd century travels back in time and repairs the genetic defect of a deformed embryo, enabling it to develop properly. Has the scientist added anything of value? I would say not, any more than someone repairing a crack in the "Mona Lisa" adds value to it as a work of art by restoring it to its original condition. (The deformed embryo may never have been in such a condition, but that is the condition that it should have been in, from a "programming" perspective.) There is a difference between adding or creating new instructions to an embryo and restoring damaged instructions. The former process could add value to the embryo; but the latter cannot.

Thus if a scientist from the 23rd century were to come back and tinker with the genes of a chimpanzee embryo, so that it developed a brain like ours, while retaining an apelike body, he/she would have thereby altered its value and created a new kind of entity, which would acquire a right to life only when it acquired the artificial genes that put it on a new developmental trajectory, whose mature form is a rational adult. (I should point out that people like myself, who believe on philosophical/religious grounds that each human being has an immaterial soul, would not even grant this much. I would predict that the super-chimp, lacking such a soul, would still be incapable of the kind of abstraction required for rational thought, and hence I would argue that the super-chimp had a right not to be treated cruelly, but not a right to life.)

Objection 7. Hydatidiform moles: these non-viable embryonic growths seem to meet conditions (1) to (5) in Part A, so are they human beings too?

No. With complete moles, all the genes come from the father, so the full set of instructions for developing into a human being is never present (in other words, condition (1) is not met). Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, discusses complete hydatidiform moles, which she describes as "a type of tumor that arises as a consequence of abnormal fertilization," in her online White Paper (Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008), When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

Most commonly, hydatidiform moles form when a normal sperm fertilizes an oocyte that has abnormally lost its own genetic material. This event results in a tumor-forming cell with only paternally derived chromosomes. Hydatidiform moles grow quite rapidly and in some ways mimic a normal pregnancy (indeed, they are often referred to as a "molar pregnancy"). However, because hydatidiform moles contain only paternally derived chromosomes, they are distinguishable from zygotes based on their molecular composition. Moreover, hydatidiform moles behave quite differently from embryos: they grow as a chaotic mass of disorganized cells and tissues, all of which are unrelated to each other or to anything resembling a whole. Despite the fact that hydatidiform moles are generated from human gametes, they do not exhibit an embryonic pattern of organization or molecular composition; they are a collection of human cells, but not a human organism.

Partial moles, on the other hand, do have maternal as well as paternal genes (see here). The question I'd ask would then be: are the epigenetic switches fully activated in these partial moles, as they are for a totipotent one-cell embryo? If they were, then I'd be prepared to entertain the possibility that some moles are severely deformed human beings.

Objection 8. A few people are chimeras: their bodies have two or more different populations of genetically distinct cells that originated in different zygotes. Chimeras may be formed from four parent cells (two fertilized eggs or early embryos fuse together) or from three parent cells (a fertilized egg is fused with an unfertilized egg or a fertilized egg is fused with an extra sperm). If chimeras are people, then why aren't moles?

My response: obviously these individuals have all the instructions they need to develop (or they wouldn't be alive); so they clearly meet all five conditions specified in Part A above. Individuals resulting from the fusion of two zygotes are new entities, whose immediate parents (the zygotes from which they formed) are now dead: two developmental programs have ceased to run and a new third program, which happened to be viable, has come into existence and started running.

I might add that making a human chimera isn't as simple as sticking two human embryos together. As Dr. Dianne Irving, M.A., Ph.D. a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH, philosopher and medical ethicist, puts it in her article, A One-Act Play: "Crippled Consciences and the Human Embryo" (page 2):

Now please consider the fusion of two early human embryos to form a single chimera from the standpoint of regulation. If two human embryos fuse together to make one organism, that organism is not a human being. It would have 92 chromosomes - whatever kind of animal that makes it! Both original embryos have died. If this chimeric organism undergoes regulation, ejects all excess chromosomes, and reduces the number and proper mixture (male and female) of chromosomes to "46", then it could theoretically result in the formation of a new human embryo. But that embryo would not be the same individual as either of the original embryos that fused. However, assuming that this process would even be possible in humans, there would still be both a "genetic" and a "developmental" continuum in this new human chimera from fertilization on. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Objection 9. The mortality argument: embryos die in large numbers, prior to implantation.

My reply: True, but children also died in large numbers until 200 years ago. In the 18th century, Buffon, the French naturalist, observed: "One third of the human race perishes before reaching the age of 28 months. Half the human race perishes before the age of eight years." (See Death and the Social Order by Michael Kearl, of Trinity College.) Does that prove children under the age of eight aren't persons? No. Why, then, should the high mortality rate of embryos count against them being persons?

Objection 10. Breast-feeding inhibits implantation, so if zygotes are human beings, breast-feeding mothers who have intercourse are guilty of murder.

My reply: Murder is ordinarily defined as intentional killing. In this case, we are talking about a tiny human being whom the mother isn't even aware of. The objection is puerile.

Objection 11. The "unwanted embryos" argument: what are we going to do with the thousands of embryos in laboratories?

My reply: we don't have to do anything, except refrain from intentionally killing them. We owe them that much.

Objection 12. Until day 13 or 14, when the primitive streak appears, a developing human life isn't an individual: it's a pre-embryo, not an embryo.

My reply: as the quotes I cited above show, embryologists are practically unanimous that fertilization marks the point at which a new human being comes into existence. The primitive streak is an arbitrary point in an embryo's development which is devoid of ontological significance. The objection mistakenly assumes that prior to the appearance of the primitive streak, all we have is "human life," but not a genuine human individual. This is biologically inaccurate. First, as we have seen, the various parts of a one-cell embryo work in co-ordination so as to execute the embryo's developmental program. This co-ordination of parts for the good of the whole is a sure sign of the existence of a unique individual.

Second, Dr. Dianne Irving, M.A., Ph.D. a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH, philosopher and medical ethicist, has exploded the myth of the pre-embryo in her article, A One-Act Play: "Crippled Consciences and the Human Embryo". I shall quote her at some length here:

This "scientific" myth is perhaps the most common error that pervades the current literature. The term "pre-embryo" has quite a long and interesting history. (See Irving and Kischer, The Human Development Hoax: Time To Tell The Truth!, for extensive details and references.) But it roughly goes back to at least 1979 in the bioethics writings of Jesuit theologian Richard McCormick in his work with the Ethics Advisory Board to the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare(18) and those of frog developmental biologist Dr. Clifford Grobstein in a 1979 article in Scientific American(19) and most notably in his classic book, Science and the Unborn: Choosing Human Futures (1988).(20) Both McCormick and Grobstein subsequently continued propagating this scientific myth as members of the Ethics Committee of the American Fertility Society, and in numerous influential bioethics articles, leading to its common use in bioethics, theological, and public policy literature to this day.

The term "pre-embryo" was also used as the rationale for permitting human embryo research in the British Warnock Committee Report (1984),(21) and then picked up by literally hundreds of writers internationally, including, e.g., Australian writers Michael Lockwood, Michael Tooley, Alan Trounson — and especially by Peter Singer (a philosopher), Pascal Kasimba (a lawyer), Helga Kuhse (an ethicist), Stephen Buckle (a philosopher) and Karen Dawson (a geneticist, not a human embryologist). Note that none of these is even a scientist, with the exception of Karen Dawson, who is just a geneticist.

Oddly, the influential book by Singer, Kuhse, Buckle, and Dawson, Embryo Experimentation,(22) (which uses the term "pre-embryo," and which contains no scientific references for its "human embryology" chart or its list of "scientific" terms), along with the work of theologian McCormick and frog developmental biologist Grobstein, was used in the United States as the scientific basis for the 1994 National Institutes of Heath (NIH) Human Embryo Research Report.(23) That Report concluded that the "preimplantation embryo" (they, too, originally used the term "pre-embryo") had only a "reduced moral status." (Both the Warnock Report and the NIH Report admitted that the 14-day limit for human embryo research was arbitrary, and could and must be changed if necessary.) It is particularly in the writings of these and other bioethicists that so much incorrect science is claimed in order to "scientifically" ground the "pre-embryo" myth and therefore "scientifically" justify many of the issues noted at the beginning of this article. This would include abortion, as well as the use of donated or "made-for-research" early human embryos in destructive experimental human embryo research (such as infertility research, cloning, stem cell research, the formation of chimeras, etc.).

To begin with, it has been demonstrated above that the immediate product of fertilization is a human being with 46 chromosomes, a human embryo, an individual member of the human species, and that this is the beginning of the embryonic period. However, McCormick and Grobstein(24) claim that even though the product of fertilization is genetically human, it is not a "developmental individual" yet - and in turn, this "scientific fact" grounds their moral claim about this "pre-embryo." Quoting McCormick:

"I contend in this paper that the moral status - and specifically the controversial issue of personhood - is related to the attainment of developmental individuality (being the source of one individual) ... It should be noted that at the zygote stage the genetic individual is not yet developmentally single - a source of only one individual. As we will see, that does not occur until a single body axis has begun to form near the end of the second week post fertilization when implantation is underway."(25) (Emphasis added.)

Sounds very scientific. However, McCormick's embryology is already self-contradictory. Implantation takes place at 5-7 days. The "single body axis" to which he refers is the formation of the primitive streak, which takes place at 14 days. McCormick often confuses these different periods in his writings. But McCormick continues:

"This multicellular entity, called a blastocyst, has an outer cellular wall, a central fluid-filled cavity and a small gathering of cells at one end known as the inner cell mass. Developmental studies show that the cells of the outer wall become the trophoblast (feeding layer) and are precursors to the later placenta. Ultimately, all these cells are discarded at birth."(26) (Emphasis added.)

The clear implication is that there is absolutely no relationship or interaction between these two cell layers, and so the "entity" is not a "developmental individual" yet. However, quoting Larsen:

"These centrally placed blastomeres are now called the inner cell mass, while the blastomeres at the periphery constitute the outer cell mass. Some exchange occurs between these groups. ... The cells of this germ disc (the inner cell layer) develop into the embryo proper and also contribute to some of the extraembryonic membranes."(27) (Emphasis added.)

Similarly, it is not factually correct to state that all of the cells from the outer trophoblast layer are discarded after birth. Quoting Moore:

"The chorion, the amnion, the yolk sac, and the allantois constitute the fetal membranes.  They develop from the zygote but do not participate in the formation of the embryo or fetus - except for parts of the yolk sac and allantois. Part of the yolk sac is incorporated into the embryo as the primordium of the gut. The allantois forms a fibrous cord that is known as the urachus in the fetus and the median umbilical ligament in the adult. It extends from the apex of the urinary bladder to the umbilicus."(28) (Emphasis added.)

Since scientists, in trying to "reach" young students in a more familiar language, sometimes use popularized (but scientifically inaccurate and misleading) terms themselves, the ever-vigilant O'Rahilly expresses concern in his classic text about the use of the term "fetal membranes":

"The developmental adnexa, commonly but inaccurately referred to as the 'fetal membranes,' include the trophoblast, amnion, chorion, umbilical vesicle (yolk sac), allantoic diverticulum, placenta and umbilical cord.  They are genetically a part of the individual and are composed of the same germ layers."(29) (Emphasis added.)

Consequently, it is also scientifically incorrect to claim that only the inner cell layer constitutes the "embryo proper." The entire blastocyst - including both the inner and the outer cell layers - is the human embryo, the human being, the human individual.

Finally, McCormick claims that this "pre-embryo" has not yet decided how many individuals it will become, since the cells are totipotent and twinning can still take place.  Therefore, they argue, there is no "individual" present until 14-days and the formation of the primitive streak, after which twinning cannot take place.(30)

However, twinning is possible after 14 days, e.g., with fetus-in-fetu and Siamese twins. Quoting from O'Rahilly again:

"Partial duplication at an early stage and attempted duplication from 2 weeks onward (when bilateral symmetry has become manifest) would result in conjoined twins (e.g., 'Siamese twins')."(31) (Emphasis added.)

And even Karen Dawson acknowledges this as scientific fact in her article in Embryo Experimentation:

"After the time of primitive streak formation, other events are possible which indicate that the notion of 'irreversible individuality' may need some review if it is to be considered as an important criterion in human life coming to be the individual human being it is ever thereafter to be.  There are two conditions which raise questions about the adequacy of this notion: conjoined twins, sometimes known as Siamese twins, and fetus-in-fetu. ... Conjoined twins arise from the twinning process occurring after the primitive streak has begun to form, that is, beyond 14 days after fertilization, or, in terms of the argument from segmentation, beyond the time at which irreversible individuality is said to exist. ... This situation weakens the possibility of seeing individuality as something irreversibly resolved by about 14 days after fertilization. This in turn raises questions about the adequacy of using the landmark of segmentation in development as the determinant of moral status."(32) (Emphasis added.)

It is unfortunate that the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel(33) did not read this particular portion of the Singer et al. book before making their recommendations about the moral status of the early human embryo.

The scientific fact is that there is no such thing as a "pre-embryo" in the real world. The term is a complete myth. It was fabricated out of thin air in order to justify a number of things that ordinarily would not be justifiable. Quoting O'Rahilly, who sits on the international board of Nomina Embryologica, again:

"The ill-defined and inaccurate term 'pre-embryo,' which includes the embryonic disk, is said either to end with the appearance of the primitive streak or to include neurulation.  The term is not used in this book.(34) (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, the convenient but mythological term "pre-embryo" will be used to "scientifically" justify several of the other "scientific" myths to follow, which in turn will be used to justify public policy on abortion and human embryo research world-wide.


18. Ethics Advisory Board, 1979, Report and Conclusions: HEW Support of Research Involving Human In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer, Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare, p. 101.

19. Clifford Grobstein, "External human fertilization," Scientific American 240:57-67.

20. Clifford Grobstein, Science and the Unborn: Choosing Human Futures (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988).

21. Dame Mary Warnock, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology (London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1984), pp. 27, 63. See also the writings of, e.g., H. Tristram Engelhardt, John Robertson (in legal writings), R.M. Hare, Bedate and Cefalo, William Wallace.

22. Peter Singer, Helga Kuhse, Stephen Buckle, Karen Dawson, and Pascal Kasimba, Embryo Experimentation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

23. National Institutes of Health: Report of the Human Embryo Research Panel, September 27, 1994 (National Institutes of Health, Division of Science Policy Analysis and Development, Bethesda, MD).

24. Clifford Grobstein, "The early development of human embryos," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 1985:10:213-236; and Richard McCormick, "Who or what is the preembryo?" Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1991:1:1-15.

25. Richard McCormick, ibid., p. 3.

26. McCormick, ibid., p. 3.

27. Larsen, Human Embryology (New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1997), p. 19, 33.

28. Moore and Persaud, The Developing Human (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998), p. 131.

29. O'Rahilly and Muller, Human Embryology & Teratology (New York: Wiley-Liss, 1994), p. 51.

30. McCormick, op. cit., p. 4.

31. O'Rahilly and Muller, p. 32.

32. Karen Dawson, "Segmentation and moral status," in Peter Singer et al., Embryo Experimentation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 58. See also Moore and Persaud, p. 133. For extensive comments on the make-up of the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel and on its Report, see several of my articles in Ward C. Kischer and Dianne N. Irving, The Human Development Hoax: Time to Tell The Truth!, (1st ed., Clinton Township, MI: Gold Leaf Press, 1995); (2nd ed., published by authors; distributed by American Life League, 1997).

33. O'Rahilly and Muller, p. 55.

34. Carlson, Human Embryology and Developmental Biology (St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1994), p. 3.

Objection 13. If brain death indicates the end of an individual's life, shouldn't the appearance of brain waves mark its beginning?

My reply: there is a total asymmetry between the appearance of brain waves in the developing embryo and the cessation of brain waves at brain death. Brain death also marks the end of a human being's life; whereas the appearance of brain waves does not mark the beginning of that life. The appearance of brain waves in the human embryo is simply an event in the life of an already existing human being, who is several weeks along its developmental trajectory.

Professor Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, addresses the "brain death" argument in her essay, Life: Defining the Beginning by the End. She points out that after brain death, individual cells of the body may go on living for months, but they no longer work together as a co-ordinated whole. Hence after brain death, we no longer have a single organism; all we have are individual cells:

Brain death occurs when there has been irreversible damage to the brain, resulting in a complete and permanent failure of brain function. Following the death of the brain, the person stops thinking, sensing, moving, breathing, or performing any other function, although many of the cells in the brain remain "alive" following loss of brain function. The heart can continue to beat spontaneously for some time following death of the brain (even hearts that have been entirely removed from the body will continue to beat for a surprisingly long period), but eventually the heart ceases to function due to loss of oxygen. The advantage of brain death as a legal and medical definition for the end of life is that the quality of organs for transplant can be maintained by maintaining artificial respiration. So long as oxygen is artificially supplied, the heart will continue to beat and the other organs of the body will be maintained in the same state they were prior to death of the brain...

What has been lost at death is not merely the activity of the brain or the heart, but more importantly the ability of the body's parts (organs and cells) to function together as an integrated whole. Failure of a critical organ results in the breakdown of the body's overall coordinated activity, despite the continued normal function (or "life") of other organs. Although cells of the brain are still alive following brain death, they cease to work together in a coordinated manner to function as a brain should. Because the brain is not directing the lungs to contract, the heart is deprived of oxygen and stops beating. Subsequently, all of the organs that are dependent on the heart for blood flow cease to function as well. The order of events can vary considerably (the heart can cease to function, resulting in death of the brain, for example), but the net effect is the same. Death occurs when the body ceases to act in a coordinated manner to support the continued healthy function of all bodily organs. Cellular life may continue for some time following the loss of integrated bodily function, but once the ability to act in a coordinated manner has been lost, "life" cannot be restored to a corpse-no matter how "alive" the cells composing the body may yet be...

What does the nature of death tell us about the nature of human life? The medical and legal definition of death draws a clear distinction between living cells and living organisms. Organisms are living beings composed of parts that have separate but mutually dependent functions. While organisms are made of living cells, living cells themselves do not necessarily constitute an organism. The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. It is precisely this ability that breaks down at the moment of death, however death might occur. Dead bodies may have plenty of live cells, but their cells no longer function together in a coordinated manner. We can take living organs and cells from dead people for transplant to patients without a breach of ethics precisely because corpses are no longer living human beings. Human life is defined by the ability to function as an integrated whole-not by the mere presence of living human cells. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

By contrast, the cells in an embryo's body are already working together as a co-ordinated whole, long before the appearance of brain waves. An individual organism is already present. The appearance of brain waves is of no ontological significance; it is simply a phase in the organism's developmental program. As Professor Condic puts it:

What does the nature of death tell us about the beginning of human life? From the earliest stages of development, human embryos clearly function as organisms. Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances. The embryo generates and organizes distinct tissues that function in a coordinated manner to maintain the continued growth and health of the developing body. Even within the fertilized egg itself there are distinct "parts" that must work together - specialized regions of cytoplasm that will give rise to unique derivatives once the fertilized egg divides into separate cells. Embryos are in full possession of the very characteristic that distinguishes a living human being from a dead one: the ability of all cells in the body to function together as an organism, with all parts acting in an integrated manner for the continued life and health of the body as a whole. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

If we want to construct a symmetrical ethical argument, the proper counterpart to brain death is not the appearance of brain waves, but fertilization, because this is the moment when an organisms's life begins, just as brain death marks the moment when it ends.

I should add that in any case, the appearance of brain waves is a poor medical indicator for the beginning of a person's life, as it is not sharply defined.

Professor Condic also has some sharp words for certain doctors who would like to redefine brain death as "higher brain death":

It is often asserted that the relevant feature of brain death is not the loss of integrated bodily function, but rather the loss of higher-order brain activities, including consciousness. However, this view does not reflect the current legal understanding of death. The inadequacy of equating death with the loss of cognitive function can be seen by considering the difference between brain death and "persistent vegetative state" or irreversible coma. Individuals who have entered a persistent vegetative state due to injury or disease have lost all higher brain functions and are incapable of consciousness. Nonetheless, integrated bodily function is maintained in these patients due to the continued activity of lower-order brain centers. Although such patients are clearly in a lamentable medical state, they are also clearly alive; converting such patients into corpses requires some form of euthanasia.

Despite considerable pressure from the medical community to define persistent vegetative state as a type of brain death (a definition that would both expand the pool of organ donors and eliminate the high medical costs associated with maintaining people in this condition), the courts have repeatedly refused to support persistent vegetative state as a legal definition of death. People whose bodies continue to function in an integrated manner are legally and medically alive, despite their limited (or absent) mental function. Regardless of how one may view the desirability of maintaining patients in a persistent vegetative state (this being an entirely distinct moral and legal question), there is unanimous agreement that such patients are not yet corpses. Even those who advocate the withdrawal of food and water from patients in persistent vegetative state couch their position in terms of the "right to die," fully acknowledging that such patients are indeed "alive." While the issues surrounding persistent vegetative state are both myriad and complex, the import of this condition for understanding the relationship between mental function and death is clear: the loss of integrated bodily function, not the loss of higher mental ability, is the defining legal characteristic of death....

Embryos are genetically unique human organisms, fully possessing the integrated biologic function that defines human life at all stages of development, continuing throughout adulthood until death. The ability to act as an integrated whole is the only function that departs from our bodies in the moment of death, and is therefore the defining characteristic of "human life." This definition does not depend on religious belief or subjective judgment.

Objection 14. The embryo/fetus isn't sentient until relatively late in pregnancy.

My reply: I shall address this objection at further length in Part C, where I show that attempts to base human rights on sentience are doomed to fail. But for now, I shall respond to the objection by simply asking: even if the fetus isn't sentient until the third trimester, so what? As I have argued above in Part A, an organism that is already controlling its own development into a sentient being, is just as valuable as a sentient being. Ditto for "sapient being."

Objection 15. The "burning hospital" argument: if you were a fireman, wouldn't you save a newborn baby over 100 embryos being kept in storage?

My reply: Yes, I would, for three reasons. First, the baby is already a patient, whom some doctor has made a personal commitment to take care of. Regrettably, embryos, on the other hand, are not currently treated by hospitals as patients; instead, they are commonly regarded as mere "resources" that may be genetically manipulated, implanted in a woman's body or destroyed, at the whim of the biological parents.

A second reason for preferring the baby over the embryos is that the mere act of saving the baby from the flames will almost certainly ensure that it lives a long and healthy life, whereas the act of saving the embryos from the flames will not, barring a massive degree of medical intervention: the embryos have to be surgically implanted in their biological mothers' wombs. Even after that, the survival of the embryos to term is a matter of considerable uncertainty: they might well die before birth. If, however, there were circumstances in which the long-term survival of each embryo in the batch (or even of one particular embryo in the batch) were more likely than the long-term survival of the baby, then I think it would be permissible for the fireman to save the embryo(s) first. A doctor in a hospital fire would be in a different moral position; his/her first obligation would be to his/her patient(s).

Third, there is the fact that the baby would suffer extreme pain from being burnt in the fire, while the embryos would not. But this is a subsidiary reason, and not a decisive one.

However, if I were a fireman with a few extra minutes to spare, I'd save the embryos too - and I wouldn't hesitate to rescue them before I rescued any guide dogs that were being kept on the hospital grounds in order to assist patients undegoing rehabilitation - although of course, I'd try to save the dogs too.

Objection 16: An embryo/fetus is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.

My reply: To answer this question, we need to understand a few basic facts about acorns and oaks. Oak trees are capable of reproducing asexually. However, generally speaking, oak trees reproduce sexually: they have both male and female flowers on the same tree, and when pollen fertilizes the female flowers, the fertilized flowers produce acorns. So the relationship of an acorn to an oak tree which has male and female flowers is indeed analogous to the relationship of an embryo to its parents. (To learn more about reproduction in oaks, see here and here.)

While it would be incorrect to refer to an acorn as an oak tree, it would be perfectly correct to refer to it as a very young oak. The objection that an embryo is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree is flawed, because it illicitly assumes that "person" is the name of a developmental stage - which is precisely what needs to be proven in the first place, in order for the pro-choice argument to succeed.

Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry has written entire post on this objection, entitled, The acorn is not a tree. He comments:

The problem with the above argument is that the acorn is by nature oak. It is not a tree. By definition, a tree is a fully developed plant. An acorn, by definition, is an undeveloped plant. Therefore, to say that an acorn is not a tree is correct, but it is still oak by nature. Their analogy is not a correct analogy anymore than saying a baby is not an adult, and therefore the baby is not human. By definition, a baby is human, and so is an adult. Therefore, the problem with this defense to support the aborting of babies is that it uses an improper pairing of words without dealing with the nature of what those words represent. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Many people will be familiar with the following pro-choice cartoon: see here. The caption reads:

"This [egg] is not a chicken. This [acorn] is not a tree. This [silkworm] is not a dress. This [ovum being fertilized] is not a person. This is not a difficult concept."

So, what is wrong with this silly pro-choice cartoon? Basically, it assumes what it's trying to prove. It assumes that "person" is the name we give to a sufficiently advanced developmental stage in the life of a human organism. As we have seen, an acorn is not a tree, but it is an oak. And an embryo (like a child) is not a human adult, but it is a human person. (An ovum which is just about to be fertilized, by the way, is not a person.)

The concept of a human adult is not the same concept as the concept of a human person. Even a pro-choice proponent should be able to grasp that.

Objection 17: In the Bible, doesn't human life begin when a newborn baby takes its first breath? And doesn't Exodus 21:22 prove the fetus isn't a person?

My reply: This is a scientific essay in defense of the personhood of the unborn, not a religious one; consequently, I shall waste as few words as possible in addressing the question. My sole reason for including this oft-repeated argument is that evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne recently included a column entitled Fetus and Mo (September 10, 2011) in his blog, Why Evolution Is True. This "religious" objection to the pro-life view rests on a highly selective mis-reading of the Bible, and has been fully answered in a very fair-minded article entitled, The Biblical Pro-Choice Position, by Jay Johansen. Johansen concludes (emphases mine - VJT):

The Bible uses many metaphors for life. It is not clear that any one of them is more significant than the others, or is to be taken more literally than the others. The Biblical pro-choice argument is based entirely on taking a few verses that use one of these metaphors -- breath -- simply not mentioning the others, and then claiming that this proves that "Biblical life" is synonymous with breath.

So where does all this leave us?

Anyone who was hoping for an explicit Biblical statement on abortion will be disappointed. The Bible just does not spell it out in so many words.

If we look for a Biblical statement defining life or soul in measurable terms, the only statements that could plausibly be taken as a direct connection are the verses connecting life with blood. Perhaps this means that life begins when the unborn child first has blood. (At the latest we would have to say it is when the heart begins to beat, which comes about 5 weeks into pregnancy.) This is interesting, perhaps, but I would be reluctant to use it in a debate; I think it is just too weak.

Barring some startling new observation, it seems that the Bible is not going to clearly tell us when human life begins.

I would also recommend The Misuse of Exodus 21:22-25 by Pro-Choice Advocates by John Piper at desiringgod.org. Here is a key excerpt from Piper's article (emphases mine - VJT):

The NIV [New International Version] translates the text like this:

If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life...

What the NIV implies is that the child is born alive and that the penalty of life for life, eye for eye, etc. applies to the child as well as the mother. If injury comes to the child or the mother there will not just be a fine but life for life, eye for eye, etc....

There is no miscarriage in this text. The child is born pre-maturely and is protected with the same sanctions as the mother. If the child is injured there is to be recompense as with the injury of the mother.

Therefore this text cannot be used by the pro-choice advocates to show that the Bible regards the unborn as less human or less worthy of protection than those who are born.

In his article, Piper lists five linguistic arguments, based on the Hebrew meanings of certain key words used in the passage in Exodus, which support the NIV translation.

Finally, pro-life advocates who would like to see detailed Scriptural arguments showing that the Bible is pro-life should have a look at these two articles: The Bible and Abortion: The Biblical Basis for a Prolife Position by Rich Deem and PROLIFE: Scripture & the Sanctity of Life: Bible Study by Africa Christian Action.

Objection 18. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church's greatest theologian, didn't believe that the embryo is a human person.

My reply: Professors John Haldane and Patrick Lee have addressed this point in their essay, Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion and the Value of Life in Philosophy 78 (2003), pp. 255-278. They explain that Aquinas' mistaken belief that the embryo is not a human person was based largely on the faulty Aristotelian biology that was widely accepted in his day:

Aquinas held that in higher animals the efficient cause of generation is the male, while the female is only the material cause: 'In perfect animals, generated by coitus, the active power [virtus] is in the semen of the male, according to the Philosopher in De Generatione Animalium, but the matter of the fetus is what is provided by the female'. [11] The Aristotelian view was that the menstrual blood provided by the female is nonliving and relatively lacking in organization or differentiation. Thus, the main question Thomas faced was that of how the male causes the generative process, given that this process occurs in the body of the female...

Aquinas adopts Aristotle's solution: the male is the principal active cause of the generative process, but this cause acts through a medium, the semen, which is therefore an instrumental cause. Within the semen there is an active part which he calls the 'animal spirit', a gaseous, airy material entity; and within the animal spirit is a 'virtus formativa', a formative power similar to the power in any instrumental cause imparted to it by a principal cause... This formative power organizes the matter provided by the female in the menstrual blood, first to form a being with vegetative life, then a being with lower sensitive life, and so on, until the organization is produced sufficient for an animal of the same species as the parents. The active part of the semen (the animal spirit) remains until the generative process is completed.

He also held that, unlike the souls of brute animals, the human soul is directly created by God... Aquinas held that God immediately creates the human soul and (at the same time) infuses it into the body. [16] That said, the human rational soul is created and infused into the body only when the human parents have, by their generative act, produced a material substance that is disposed to receive and to be informed by a human soul. [17] In one place Aquinas follows Aristotle in saying that the rational soul is infused at 40 days for males, and at 90 days for females. [18]...

The reasons which led Aquinas to hold late human ensoulment are basically four, three embryological points and one metaphysical. First, on his Aristotelian view, the male is the sole active cause; second, the material (the menstrual blood) upon which the semen (as instrument of the male) works has only a very low degree of perfection or organization, not even possessing vegetative life; third, as a consequence, the distance between the initial point (menstrual blood) and the end point (a body sufficiently organized to receive a human soul) is quite long. The general metaphysical point is expressed by Aquinas as follows:

Now it belongs to the natural order that a thing is gradually brought from potency to act. And therefore in those things which are generated we find that at first each is imperfect and afterwards is perfected. [25]

We believe that the general metaphysical principle is demonstrably true, and that the application of it in the second sentence is plausibly so. All three of the embryological beliefs, however, are known to be false. Modern embryology shows that the female provides a gamete (the ovum) which is already a highly organized living cell, containing highly complex, specific information, in the genetic structure of the nuclear chromosomes. This information (together with that provided by the genetic structure in the chromosomes of the male sperm) helps guide the development of the new living organism formed by the fusion of the sperm and the ovum. Hence the ovum is actually very close to readiness for rapid embryological development; it only requires fusion with the sperm and the activation that occurs with that fusion. To a certain extent the gradual transition from the simple to the complex that Aquinas sought actually occurs during gametogenesis (of which, of course, he was unaware). Thus, applying Aquinas's metaphysical principles to the embryological facts uncovered since his time leads to the conclusion that the human being is present from fertilisation on. [26]

Lastly, it is worth pointing out that Aquinas was firmly against abortion at all stages of the embryo's development.

Haldane and Lee's article is well worth reading, because it refutes various arguments which are commonly adduced by so-called pro-choice Catholics (an oxymoron if ever there was one).

I shall conclude this section by noting that the pro-life position does not require belief in an immaterial "soul" created by God: instead, it is based on the scientific fact that an embryo/fetus is a complete human organism, which has already started executing its built-in developmental program, by virtue of which it directs and controls its own development into a rational human adult. In Part C and Part D below, I will argue at further length that the pro-life position on human rights makes a lot more sense than the "sentientist" position that we acquire rights when we start feeling pain, or the "personist" position, that we acquire rights when we become self-conscious. Both of those positions are fraught with ethical peril: they destroy human equality, and they can harden our hearts to such a degree that we fail to recognize babies as people who matter as much as you or I do.

A five-week-old human embryo from an ectopic pregnancy, still in the oviduct. Actual size: 10 mm. Taken by Dr. Ed Uthman, M.D. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Part C - Why Sentience Is A Totally Inadequate Criterion for Deciding At What Stage Fetuses Possess a Right to Life



There is a widespread view that fetuses acquire a right to life when they acquire sentience, or the ability to feel pain or pleasure. The exact time at which this happens is still the subject of controversy - no earlier than 27 weeks in the opinion of many fetologists, although a few pediatricians (e.g. Dr. Jean Wright and Dr. K.J.S. "Sunny" Anand) would say as early as 18 to 20 weeks, while other physicians would put the emergence of sentience as late as birth.

In philosophical terminology, individuals (i.e. humans and other animals) who are capable of having feelings - and in particular, capable of suffering - are described as sentient. Philosophers who believe that human beings and other animals have rights - or putting it another way, that we have duties towards sentient humans and other animals - simply because they are capable of suffering - are often referred to as sentientists. Sentientists maintain that we have the duty not to inflict suffering on sentient beings - in other words, sentient beings have the right not to be harmed by us. While the duty not to inflict suffering on sentient beings is not an absolute one, it is still a very powerful duty, which can only be over-ridden for proportionally grave resons - e.g. to prevent an even greater amount of suffering that would result in the future, if we did not inflict a limited amount of suffering now.

Of course, most animals, and some humans, are not aware that they have any duties to anyone; nevertheless, they are still capable of suffering. Since the fact that they suffer is a morally significant fact, sentient humans and other animals are often referred to by sentientist philosophers as moral patients. Individuals with a sense of right and wrong, who are aware of their moral responsibilities to others are referred to as moral agents. Since they are capable of morally distinguishing right from wrong, all mentally normal human beings over the age of four would qualify as moral agents to at least some degree, and (according to sentientists) perhaps some animals belonging to other species would qualify as well.

In this section, I will be criticizing three versions of sentientism. According to the first version (call it Sentientism Mark I), the only morally significant beings are those that are capable of suffering. I shall argue however that this is too vague a formulation, as it invites the question: exactly what counts as a "capacity"? As we shall see, animals that are hibernating, in a coma or in a vegetative state (from which they may later recover) raise problems for the notion of a capacity, and it is by no means clear that an embryo/fetus lacks a capacity for sentience, even if it presently feels nothing at all. In an effort to remedy the philosophical defects of Sentientism Mark I, I shall propose an amended version of sentientism, which I shall refer to as Sentientism Mark II: the view that the only morally significant beings are those whose brains are sufficiently complex for them to experience suffering. However, I shall criticize this view on the grounds that no moral "oughts" can be deduced from propositions about the complexity of individuals' brains. In other words, Sentientism Mark II achieves scientific rigor at too great a price: it has to forgo the intuitive emotional appeal of Sentientism Mark I. The sight of suffering individuals tugs at our heart strings; but the complex brains which make these individuals capable of suffering do not. Finally, I shall propose a third view, which I call Sentientism Mark III, according to which it is not brains, but the information they store about an individual's past pleasures and pains, which makes these individuals morally significant; embryos and fetuses, lacking a history of pleasures and pains, would not qualify as morally significant on this view. The view that the information I store about my past is what makes me morally significant in my own right is superficially more plausible than the notion that my having a complex brain automatically entitles me to certain rights. However, I shall argue that Sentientism Mark III is vulnerable to the same problem that beset Sentientism Mark II. From a sentientist standpoint, any information-based account of inherent moral value is doomed to fail, because it is couched in objective, third-person terminology, whereas sentientism appeals to subjective, first-person terminology to ground its theory of morality.

A short note about rights and duties

Many sentientists, being heavily influenced by utilitarian thinking, dislike talking about "rights", preferring instead to talk about duties. The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously dismissed the notion of natural rights as utterly meaningless, deriding it as "nonsense upon stilts" in his Anarchical Fallacies. Bentham argued that "rights-talk" was meaningless unless there was someone to enforce these rights, and that in a Hobbesian state of nature, there would be no-one to enforce natural rights: the strong would always prevail over the weak. On the other hand, sentientists spurn legal rights as being too fragile a foundation for morality, since governments can easily abrogate these rights, if they wish to do so. I should add, however, that sentientists can and often do argue that society should recognize certain kinds of legal rights, even though they do not regard these rights as constituting the foundation of morality. For instance, even Bentham advocated the granting of legal rights to animals in chapter 17 of his work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, on the grounds that animals are capable of suffering.

Sentientists who disparage the notion of "rights" argue that morality should be grounded in duties or obligations, instead. They claim that if an individual is sentient, then other people have an obligation - or duty - not to harm or kill it.

For the sake of convenience, however, I will be talking about "rights" in the discussion below. I have chosen to employ "rights-talk" for three principal reasons. First, the notion of "basic human rights" which exist independently of any human law is now part and parcel of everyday discourse, thanks in no small measure to internationally approved declarations like the Universal Declaration of Rights, which was ratified by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. It no longer strikes us as odd to say that humans (and even animals) have the right not to have suffering inflicted on them, whatever the law may say. Indeed, we are inclined to talk in thios way even in situations where law and order are completely absent. If a wandering stateless nomad were to flog his child - or his camel - and thereby inflict brutal injury, many of us would still say that the child's basic human rights were being violated, and we might well say that the camel's rights were being violated too.

Second, ever since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, we have a global organization which is capable (at least in principle) of acting as an enforcer of natural rights. Bentham's "nonsense upon stilts" jab is therefore no longer applicable in today's world; an anarchic state of nature in which every man fends for himself exists only in small pockets of the planet, such as Somalia.

Third, rights and obligations can be thought of as inter-convertible. For instance, if I have a right to pursue pleasure (and avoid pain), then others have an obligation not to prevent me from doing so, whether by thwarting my wishes or by inflicting unwanted pain on me. And if I have the duty not to inflict suffering on sentient beings, then sentient beings have the right not to be harmed by me.

In any case, for the purposes of the discussion below, the criticisms that I shall make of the sentientist account of rights would apply equally if it were couched in terms of duties or obligations.

Why I reject Sentientism (Mark I)

Let me begin by saying that I disagree strongly with the sentientist viewpoint. I maintain that sentience has nothing to do with having a right to life. It is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for having such a right. It can hardly be a sufficient condition, or otherwise it would follow that mammals and birds (which are also sentient) have a right to life. Even most animal liberationists don't go that far; most of them (including Peter Singer) assert only that animals have the right not to have suffering intentionally inflicted upon them, in order to further another agent's ends. In any case, the statement "X can suffer" does not logically entail "X has a right to live." One cannot distill a right to life from mere sentience.

Nor can sentience be a necessary condition for having a right to life. If it were, then conditions such as hibernation (should it ever be achieved in humans - think of Ripley in the movie Alien 3), coma and the vegetative state (a condition from which people have been known to recover) would deprive a human being of his/her right to life. It would be OK to kill that human being, so long as he/she could not be awoken. (People in these states sometimes cannot be roused for months or even years.)

The pro-choice proponent might reply: "Yes, but these individuals at least have a kind of capacity for sentience - they just need time, and maybe the right kind of jolt to the brain, before they can start feeling again." But this is an evasion. Sentience is the capacity to feel. Now the pro-choice proponent is saying that having the capacity for a capacity to feel is what gives us a right to life? And what about a fetus? Doesn't it have a capacity for a capacity to feel, as it will eventually acquire sentience?

Sentientism Mark II: Can human rights be grounded in the brain's capacity for sentience?

"All right. Scrub that," says the pro-choice proponent. "Let's focus on the brain. Brain death equals the death of a person; so brain waves mark the beginning of one." I have already criticized the shallow thinking that views the appearance of brain waves as the mirror-equivalent of brain death, in Part B (see my response to Objection 13). Briefly: brain death marks the end of an organism's life, whereas the appearance of brain waves does not mark the beginning of an organism's life: it is merely an event that occurs along the developmental trajectory of an already existing organism.

However, the more fundamental problem with this purely neurological criterion for having a right to life is that it simply fails to ground the right to life. "X has a brain" simply does not entail "X has a right to life." Neither does "X has a complex brain," or even "X has a complex, functioning brain."

Besides, which neurological marker should we pick? A three-week-old embryo has a primitive brain, and a six-week-old embryo has primitive brain waves, while the more complex patterns of brain waves that are thought to support sentience arise later in pregnancy.

Sentientism Mark III: Can human rights be grounded in the sensory information stored by the brain?

"I haven't finished yet," says the pro-choice proponent. "It's not the brain per se that confers rights - nor even its complexity. It's the information it stores. That's what makes human persons intrinsically valuable: the information they carry within them. And that also explains why it's just as wrong to kill someone when they are asleep - or hibernating, in the case of Ripley - as when they are awake. The reason is that while they are asleep, their brains still store the same information as when they are awake. An embryo or fetus, however, lacks this kind of information. It knows nothing about the outside world, as it has never experienced anything, so it does not qualify as having a right to life."

First-person vs. third-person terminology: why sentientists cannot consistently appeal to information as the ground of value

In reply, I could point out that an information-based account of rights is vulnerable to the same objection as a brain-based account: just as the premise, "X has a complex brain" does not yield the conclusion, "X has a right to life," so too the statement, "X stores a lot of information" does not imply the conclusion, "X has a right to life." Neither brains nor the information they store are inherently valuable as such.

Now, a pro-choice proponent might respond that perhaps certain kinds of information are inherently valuable - e.g. information about oneself, or one's past experiences. Perhaps this kind of information can confer human rights on the individuals who possess it. I shall examine the problems associated with this response in Part D, below.

However, the point I would like to make here is that while a pro-choice proponent could take this line, a pro-choice sentientist cannot. From the sentientist standpoint, any information-based account of inherent moral value is doomed to fail, because it is couched in third-person terminology. For the "sentientist" position is simply this: whatever makes people inherently valuable (and hence, rights-bearers) can only be their first-person states: in other words, their innermost thoughts and feelings, which are inherently private and only accessible "from the inside." But information, by its very nature, is not private but public. Information is by its very nature shareable - and the very fact that we often try to hide it from others shows that it can be shared. If information is shareable, then it must be capable of being described in third-person terminology - otherwise it cannot inform other people. Thus if we are to ground rights in "information" (a third-person state) then we must give up being sentientists. The two accounts of value are fundamentally incompatible. It's as simple as that.

The same goes for a "brain-based" account of inherent moral value. If having a sufficiently developed brain (a third-person state) is the ultimate criterion for having a right to life, then there is no need to appeal to sentience, which invokes first-person states.

The elitism of feeling-based, brain-based or information-based criteria for inherent moral value

However, the most alarming ethical implication of all these criteria for rights - be they feeling-based, brain-based, or information-based - is that all of these criteria destroy human equality. Einstein probably felt many things more keenly than I do; he certainly had a much better brain than I do, and his brain held a lot more information than mine. If either feelings, brain function or information is what gives us a right to life, then why shouldn't the better-endowed have more of a right to life than the rest of us?

The force of this criticism is immediately apparent for brain-based and information-based accounts of what makes us morally valuable. Perhaps, however, some people might want to argue that feelings cannot be quantitatively compared in the way that two individuals' brain complexity and information storage can be compared. However, a feeling-based account of moral value (Sentientism Mark I) is vulnerable to the same criticisms as Sentientism Mark II and III. For instance, Professor Richard Dawkins argues in his best-selling book, The God Delusion, that "there is every reason to suppose that all embryos, whether human or not, suffer far less than adult cows or sheep in a slaughterhouse" (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, p. 297). And the same is surely true of a newborn baby, whose nervous system is still much less developed than an adult's. Thus if the wrongfulness of killing is due to the suffering it causes, then it seems to follow that babies, who are capable of a lesser degree of suffering than adults, have less of a right to life than adults do.

In other words, sentientism is profoundly inegalitarian: regardless of whether one adopts a feeling-based, a brain-based or an information-based criterion for inherent moral value, babies matter less than children, who matter less than adults. For my part, my own moral intuitions are precisely the other way round: killing a baby is worse than killing an adult. A baby has its whole life in front of it. An adult has had ample opportunity to love and be loved, to acquire moral virtues, and to answer the "big questions" about the meaning of life which Gauguin posed: "Whence came we? Who are we? Whither go we?" There is a sense, then, in which an adult's life is complete: an adult has had time to figure why he/she is here, and to prepare for death. Now let me ask the reader a rhetorical question: whom would you instinctively have saved first, if you had been the captain of the Titanic - babies and children, or mature adults?

Part D - A Response to "Personalist" Arguments Against the Full Personhood of the Embryo/Fetus.

A six-week-old human embryo from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. Picture taken by Dr. Vilas Gayakwad, M.D. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


(i) An "Interactive" Personist Account Of How We Acquire Rights - And What's Wrong With It
(ii) A Sophisticated Interactive Personist Account of Moral Value: Does "Autobiographical Information" Make Us Who We Are?
(iii) Is The Information In The Human Brain Really Created By The Outside World?
(iv) Science Shows How The Formation Of The Human Brain Is Controlled From Within, By Its Developmental Program
(v) What About Persons In A Permanent Vegetative State?
(vi) Why A Materialist Can Still Be Pro-Life
(vii) What A Materialist Account Of Mind Cannot Explain: Intentionality
(viii) Why Intentionality Cannot Be Explained In Purely Physical Terms: A Short Bibliography


In this section, I critique a popular pro-choice philosophical position known as "personism", which says that only creatures who are capable of desiring to continue to exist as subjects are capable of possessing a right to life. More specifically, the term "personism" refers to the view that the only creatures who have rights are creatures that qualify as persons, i.e. creatures who are "capable of desiring to continue as a subject of experience and other mental states" (Bioethics: An Anthology, by Helga Kuhse, Peter Singer). According to personists, human beings do not qualify as persons unless they have this capacity. However, non-human animals possessing this capacity would qualify as persons, and machines possessing it would qualify as well. For personists, the rights we possess are not human rights; rights are simply rights, full stop.

At first blush, it might appear that personism can be easily refuted by the pro-life argument which I put forward in Part A, section (iv), where I argued that a being which is capable of directing and controlling its development into a rational adult must be just as valuable as the adult it eventually develops into, using two illustrations (Biosphere Two and The Master Spy) in order to render my argument intuitively plausible to skeptical readers. Indeed, the personist account of rights might seem to be nothing more than a narrower version of the sentientist account of rights which I criticized in Part C: whereas sentientism restricts rights to sentient beings, personism restricts them to sapient beings who possess a concept of themselves as subjects of a life. Moreover, it appears that personism has no ready explanation for why human beings in a state of hibernation (like Ripley in the movie Alien 3), or people in a coma and the vegetative state (a condition from which people have been known to recover) should still possess a right to life, while an embryo/fetus does not. As such, personism is vulnerable to the same criticism I made of sentientism in Part C above, that if individuals with a capacity to desire to continue living as a subject of experience have a right to life, then why shouldn't individuals (such as the embryo) with a programmed capacity to acquire that capacity have the same rights?

Now, a critical assumption of my pro-life argument was that the process whereby we acquire minds is directed from within. Likewise, the argument which I put forward above for equating the embryo/fetus with a person in a coma or a vegetative state assumed that the capacity of the embryo/fetus/newborn baby to acquire the ability to reason was directed and controlled from within, by its developmental program. If this assumption is correct, then pro-lifers have nothing to fear from personism.

However, as I argue in section (i) below, if one combines personism with an "interactive" account of how we develop into persons, which claims that we acquire our self-conscious minds as a result of our social interactions with other people (who already have minds of their own), then we have a very strong pro-choice argument which, if its premises are correct, would deal my pro-life argument a mortal blow. For according to this "interactive" account, the process whereby we develop into persons who possess a concept of self is directed not from inside but from outside: the people who interact with a developing embryo/fetus/newborn baby thereby cause its brain to develop in such a way that it is eventually capable of acquiring a concept of self (usually by the age of three). It then follows that the process whereby we acquire our minds is directed from without, not within. If this is indeed the case, then my pro-life argument Part A, section (iv) collapses. For a crucial premise of this argument was that the developing embryo/fetus directs and controls its own development into a rational adult - which, I argue, is why it is just as valuable as a rational adult.

In section (ii), I show that this "interactive" version of personism is further strengthened by an information-based account of the self. According to this account, it is the autobiographical information we store in our brains which makes us capable of having a concept of self. An "information-based" account can also explain why people in hibernation, in a coma or in a vegetative state would still qualify as possessing a right to life, while a developing embryo/fetus would not: the people in these states would still possess autobiographical information in their brains, while the embryo/fetus lacks it altogether (as would a newborn baby). It now appears that a sophisticated information-based "interactive" personist account poses a real threat to the pro-life position: it provides a consistent account of what makes us ethically valuable, and accords with our ethical intuitions about the moral status of adults who temporarily lack the exercise of reason, such as comatose people. (Of course, this sophisticated account runs counter to our ethical intuitions with regard to newborn babies and very young children, insofar as it denies that they have a right to life, but not all cultures share this intuition anyway.)

However, in sections (iii) and (iv) below, I show that the sophisticated information-based "interactive" personist account which I described in section (ii) falls foul of the scientific evidence on how the brain of a embryo/fetus/newborn baby develops. I argue that this scientific evidence backs up the pro-life position, that the process whereby we acquire minds is indeed directed from within. Interaction with other human beings provides the brain of the developing fetus/newborn baby with a wealth of information about the outside world, but no new instructions. The instructions for growing a brain are contained in the genome. I then argue that information, per se, is incapable of imparting ethical value to a human being, if this information in turn needs to be processed by higher-level instructions. I conclude that the locus of ethical value lies within the developing fetus/newborn baby, and not in the people outside it, who interact with it. Interactions with other people do not render a fetus/newborn baby morally valuable; nor do they give it a right to life. Its right to life is an innate property, and not an acquired one.

In section (v), I discuss persons in a vegetative state, and argue that a person in a vegetative state is simply a person with a badly damaged developmental program. Nevertheless, the instructions contained in that program are still there, in the cells of that person's body. There is thus no reason in principle why physicians of the future would not be able to grow these people's brains back, until they reach the level of complexity required to support rational thought.

In section (vi), I explain why a materialist can still be pro-life. My pro-life argument does not require the assumption that our developmental program is immaterial on some level, in order for it to work. Even if it were completely material, it would still be a developmental program, and any organism possessing and running that program would be as precious and valuable as a rational human adult.

In section (vii), I shall put forward a more radical critique of the pro-choice position. Up to this point, I have assumed that the emergence of both the capacity for a concept of self (which for personist philosophers is the hallmark of personhood) and the capacity for rational thought in a developing human being can be explained in terms of physical processes occurring within the developing embryo/fetus/baby. In section (vii), however, I adduce philosophical arguments showing that a peculiar property of mental acts, called intentionality, cannot be explained in physical terms: it is not a product of underlying brain processes, nor can it be identified with any processes occurring within the human brain. I argue that when we think thoughts which have an inherent meaning, such as "This is a tomato," and when we follow rules, the mental acts we are engaging in are non-bodily acts. The reader should be clear that I am not defending Cartesian dualism here. I do not claim that self and body are two distinct entities: a spiritual thing interacting with a material thing. Rather, what I am claiming is that a human being has two radically different modes of operation: it is capable of performing both bodily acts and non-bodily acts. The latter are just as natural to human beings as the former; they just aren't physical, that's all. Non-bodily acts (such as reasoning and following rules) presuppose the occurrence of certain bodily processes, without which they could not take place: severe brain damage or neural disruption can prevent the exercise of reason. Nevertheless, these non-bodily rule-following acts are not identical with, or caused by, or logically entailed by, any physical process. Or as the philosopher Mortimer Adler once put it, we cannot think without our brains, but we don't think with our brains. But if our capacity for rational agency is not a bodily capacity, then we have no reason to deny its presence in the developing embryo/fetus. In section (vii), I argue that since our capacity to reason and follow rules is not the product of anything physical, it is properly basic: it is not a derived capacity, which is generated by some lower-level capacity. Next, I argue that because it is natural and not derived, the capacity to reason and follow rules must be present in the developing embryo/fetus from the very beginning - i.e. from the moment when the sperm penetrates the oocyte (unfertilized ovum) - even if it does not manifest itself until the human brain is sufficiently mature (typically, when a child is about three years old). In other words, rationality is not merely something which the developing embryo/fetus is programmed to acquire through a process controlled from within - although this in itself would be sufficient to make the embryo/fetus as valuable as you or I - but rather, it is something which the embryo/fetus already has. If my conclusion is correct, then the personist argument is totally overthrown: since the embryo/fetus already has the capacity to think rationally and entertain a concept of self, then clearly it is a fully-fledged human person, who matters just as much as you or I do. The fact that this capacity is not exercised until a child is three years old is irrelevant; what matters is that it possesses rationality from the moment of conception.

In section (viii), I include a short bibliography for those readers who are interested in the question of whether intentionality can be explained in purely physical terms or not.

(i) An "Interactive" Personist Account Of How We Acquire Rights - And What's Wrong With It

A pro-choice proponent could mount a strong argument against the view that embryos and fetuses are people with a right to life, by combining personism (see premise (1) below) with an "interactive" account of the process whereby we become persons (see premise (2) below). By an "interactive" account, I mean the view that human beings acquire the kinds of minds that make them into persons, through interacting with other beings with minds - i.e. other people. Not all personists would necessarily agree with premise (2); some personists may think that human beings acquire minds independently of this kind of social interaction. However, I have chosen to draw attention to this "interactive personist" account of how we acquire rights, because I think it constitutes about the strongest case that could be made against ascribing rights to the embryo/fetus. The argument can now be formulated as follows:

(1) We possess rights by virtue of our possessing conscious minds, with memories and a concept of self as the "subject of a life";

(2) We acquire these minds (which make us persons) as a result of our interactions with other people.

(3) Embryos and fetuses, who are as yet incapable of interacting with other people, not only lack rights, but they lack even the capacity to acquire rights.

A central feature of this argument is that it makes other people the repository of the information that makes us into human persons. They literally love us into existence, as persons. Before we become persons, we are merely human organisms without minds. At some stage - presumably around the age of three, when we become neurologically capable of forming conscious memories - our social interaction with the people around us finally causes us to acquire personhood. (In some exceptionally gifted children, this process might take place as early as the age of one.) However, a child brought up in complete social isolation would therefore never become a person, according to this line of argument.

Now, if the interactive personist argument is a sound one, then it completely undercuts the argument I put forward above, that a human being which directs and controls its own development into a rational adult must be just as valuable as the adult it develops into. For if it could be demonstrated that the process whereby we acquire our concept of self (and also our rationality) is directed from without, then my reason for claiming that an embryo/fetus has the same inherent value (and hence, the same right to life) as a rational adult would no longer apply.

Would this demonstration destroy the pro-life position? Not necessarily. A pro-life advocate could still argue that unborn human beings have rights, simply because they are human organisms, which retain their identity as organisms as they develop from embryos to fetuses, and eventually into rational adults. But this would be a weaker pro-life argument than the one I am advancing here. Pro-life advocates who adopt this line of argument tend to justify his/her ascription of human rights to all human organisms by arguing that the alternatives (e.g. restricting human rights to sentient or sapient human beings) are philosophically and legally much more problematic than the broad pro-life view, which ascribes rights to all human beings. However, the general problem I have with this strategy is that proving the other positions wrong doesn't establish that your position is right - unless you are able to enumerate all positions that could possibly be held on a given issue, and refute them one by one. To the best of my knowledge, no-one has attempted to rigorously enumerate all possible grounds for denying rights to the embryo/fetus. As a philosopher who rates the virtue of thoroughness highly, I could never be content with merely refuting existing pro-choice positions, as I would always worry that some intrepid philosopher might advance a more sophisticated pro-choice position tomorrow. The pro-life argument which I am putting forward in this essay is more ambitious: what I have striven to do is to provide a positive reason for regarding the embryo/fetus as a being with rights. I have not attempted to build my case simply by attacking other positions, but rather by arguing for the philosophical soundness of my own position; for if my reasoning is correct, then it is capable of standing on its own merits.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that the view that psychological continuity forms the basis of personal identity is fraught with philosophical problems. For a sustained critique of this view, I would recommend Professor Eric Olson's online article, Was I Ever A Fetus? (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. LVII, No. 1, March 1997, pp. 95-110).

Personism and infanticide: newborn babies lack a right to life

Personism may strike some as an elitist philosophy. However, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (who is a personist) contends that all persons have an equal right to life. To have a right to life, all you need is the ability to have a concept of self, with a life in front of you. A four-year-old has that concept just as surely as Einstein. But if having a concept of self is a requirement for having a right to life, then it follows that newborn babies have no right to life - an ethical conclusion which ordinary people will rightly reject as absurd. Singer himself acknowledges that humans do not acquire a right to life until they are at least one year old. He thinks that parents should be able to kill newborn babies who have a severe disability, if they elect to do so. However, the logic of Singer's position that newborn babies are not persons with a right to life would imply that even if a newborn baby is healthy, it has no right to life as such. Hence if it is killed painlessly, it is not thereby wronged. We are thus forced to conclude, in the words of Paul Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, that "Every good argument for abortion is an equally good argument for infanticide."

The incoherence of the "interactive" personist position

Leaving aside the repellent ethical conclusions that personism leads us to, the interactive personist account of how we acquire a mind - and the rights that go with it - appears to be philosophically incoherent. For according to the philosophical view I am criticizing here, interaction with other people is quite literally what makes us into persons, as it enables the human mind to form. This invites the obvious question: how, then, did the first person acquire his or her mind, having had no-one to interact with?

Another obvious difficulty with the "interactive" personist position is that if there is no "I" there to begin with, then all the "interaction" in the world won't be able to generate one. By definition, the term "interaction" presupposes two existing subjects; hence, the notion that interaction can create those subjects is completely muddle-headed.

Moreover, if my mind only comes to be at time T1, when I remember (for the first time) something I did earlier at time T0, then does that mean that I lacked a mind at T0, when I was conscious, but still unable to lay down memories?

And what happens to my mind when I go to sleep? And what would happen to my mind if I went into long-term hibernation, like Ripley in the movie Alien 3? Would my mind disappear? Or would personists say that it was still there because the capacity to form memories remained?

A scene from the Baburnama, an autobiography written by Zahir ud-Din Mohammad Babur, (1483-1530), the founder of the India's Mughal (Mogul) dynasty, which lasted from 1526 to 1858. Source: Wikipedia.

(ii) A Sophisticated Interactive Personist Account of Moral Value: Does "Autobiographical Information" Make Us Who We Are?

The interactive personist account of how we acquire a mind might appear to have been totally discredited by the arguments at the end of section (i). However, the personist account can be reformulated in a way that meets these objections.

Perhaps the most sophisticated way to formulate a "pro-choice" argument from a personist perspective is in terms of information - and in particular, autobiographical information. A personist pro-choice advocate might argue as follows: "What makes us intrinsically valuable is the information we carry within us - especially information relating to our life history - which we might refer to as autobiographical information. The statement 'X contains a lot of information about itself' does entail 'X has a right to life' if the information X contains is of the right sort - for instance, if X has a sufficiently sophisticated concept of itself as a subject enduring over time. Moreover, an "information-based" account of intrinsic value would explain why it is just as wrong to kill someone when they are asleep or hibernating as when they are awake. The reason is that while they are asleep, their brains have the same amount of autobiographical information as when they are awake. An embryo or fetus, however, lacks this kind of information. It does not have concepts of any sort, let alone a sophisticated concept of itself. All it contains are instructions for building a human body, including a "blank-slate" brain; hence it is not intrinsically valuable in the same way as a human being who is self-aware. Since an embryo/fetus lacks the information captured in an autobiographical self-concept, then it cannot possibly possess a right to life."

This sophisticated information-based account is capable of resolving the obvious difficulties raised in section (i). Regarding the problem of how the first person came into existence: a personist might hypothesize that the first person emerged via a gradual evolutionary process, involving "boot-strapping". For instance, suppose that there was a community or tribe of hominids, each possessing a very rudimentary sense of self (call it "proto-self"), as a sentient subject and an embodied agent. At some stage, an advanced hominid gradually emerged that was able to store, access and update autobiographical information in its memory. This creature would have grown up in the tribe, with other creatures from whom it acquired its rudimentary sense of "proto-self". However, the ability to store autobiographical information would have transformed this creature into the first humanoid to have a true sense of self, as a subject enduring over time. Since the ability to store, access and update autobiographical information would have been a useful trait, it would have been selected for, and eventually a community of such creatures would have emerged. The process of social interaction would then act as a catalyst, allowing creatures possessing the neural wherewithal to support a "true self" to rapidly awaken the developing self in each of their offspring.

Concerning the exact moment at which the "self" emerges in a developing human being, a personist might reply that there does not have to be one: some concepts, like "bald", have no exact definition, and the same could be true for the concept of "person".

Thus the interactive, information-based autobiographical account of personhood which I have just sketched appears to be able to withstand objections purporting to show that it is self-refuting or inconsistent. However, there are two fundamental problems with this information-based account of value.

Problem #1: Why does my right to life come from only one concept: my concept of self?

First, the account assigns too much importance to one particular concept above all others: the concept of self. After all, a human brain can store all sorts of information about the external world - and as any scientist will tell you, often this information needs to be highly complex, in order to mirror the world with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Why should only the information pertaining to a self-concept confer intrinsic value upon an individual? For instance, why should a highly intelligent human savant who knows a lot about the world and can discuss quantum physics, but who lacks a concept of self, due to a severe psychological impairment, be regarded as less valuable than someone who possesses a self-concept but who has only a very limited understanding of the way the world works? And what about religions and ideologies which deny the very existence of a 'self' - e.g. Buddhism? Do their adherents lack a right to life? Or what about Humeans, who accept only a "bundle" concept of the self? Do they lack a right to life too?

Regarding Buddhists and Humeans, a pro-choice proponent would probably reply that notwithstanding their denials, these people do in fact have a highly sophisticated concept of self, as their actions prove. For instance, if Buddhists didn't have a concept of self, then they wouldn't take other people to court and sue them, because suing a person presupposes the belief that that person has wronged you in some way, and that the person who wronged you is the same as the person standing in front of you now, in court. (A sophisticated Buddhist might respond that the person in court is simply the "causal descendant" of the offender, in a long chain of karma, but I find this an unconvincing reply, for two reasons: (i) even Buddhists don't sue other people for misdeeds they performed in past lives, so there seems to be no reason why they should sue people for misdeeds they performed at an earlier time in this life, if they don't believe in personal identity over time; (ii) more importantly, Buddhism cannot explain why a miscreant should have one and only one causal descendant. Why don't karmic chains split in two - e.g. why aren't "I" reborn as two people? And if karmic chains do split, which one do you sue?)

Regarding the savant who lacks a self-concept, a pro-choice advocate might attempt to argue that the concept of self is a uniquely rich and multi-layered concept, unlike our concepts of the objects in our world, and that having such a concept is indeed a hallmark of cognitive sophistication, and hence of intrinsic moral value. For instance, these hands (the ones with which I am typing at this keyboard) are mine: they are part of me. So are these eyes (the ones with which I am reading now). That is my book; I am its owner, and it belongs to me. And that (over there on the mantelpiece) is a photo of me. This is my wife; I am her husband. I am also the father of my son, the son of my parents, and the brother of my siblings. I also have relatives, friends and acquaintances. My thoughts are also mine and mine alone. I can even think about myself, and about my concept of myself, and about how other people think of me. And so on. A pro-choice advocate might therefore be willing to argue that psychologically impaired individuals lacking a rich concept of self are not in fact as valuable as the rest of us, even if they possess cognitive skills that the rest of us lack.

Problem #2: Information per se cannot confer inherent moral value, because it needs to be processed by instructions

However, the second and more fundamental problem with an information-based account of value is that information cannot confer moral value in and of itself. The reason why information cannot add to the inherent value, or moral worth, of a human individual is that in order to become "information" in the first place, it has to be processed by the instructions that are contained within the developmental program which that individual's body is currently executing, and which enables that individual to develop into an adult. Because it is these instructions ("higher-level information") contained in the individual's developmental program that enable that individual to store its self-concept - as well as its other concepts - as (lower-level) information in its brain, and recall these concepts when it wants to, it follows that the information stored in the brain only has a derivative value, which is conditional upon the higher-level instructions (contained in the individual's developmental program) being able to retrieve and make use of this information. It follows, then, that the information we store in our brains has no inherent value; the only kind of value it can possess is relative value, for without the higher-level information contained in an individual's developmental program, it is utterly worthless. It follows that an individual's developmental program, and not the information stored in his/her brain, is the true repository of that person's inherent value.

A diagram showing the brain and major nerves of a six-week-old human embryo. Author: Kurzon. Source: Wikipedia.
Legend: 1. olfactory 2. optic 3. oculomotor 4. trochlear 5. trigeminal sensory 6. trigeminal motor 7. abducens
8. facial 9. vestibulocochlear 10. glossopharyngeal 11. vagus 12. cranial accessory 13. spinal accessory
14. hypoglossal 15. cervical I, II, III and IV

(iii) Is The Information In The Human Brain Really Created By The Outside World?

The only effective way in which pro-choice personists can criticize the argument put forward above is by attacking my claim that the formation of the brain is directed from within, by the developmental program of the embryo/fetus/baby. Pro-choice personists commonly argue that literally billions of instructions for brain development are added to a developing embryo/fetus/newborn baby from outside, in the following manner: grow thousands of neurons towards the source of this chemical for this amount of time and then connect to the nearest neuron. Each connection made adds information to the brain, which wasn't in the DNA at all. Moreover, they argue, the amount of information in the DNA is dwarfed by the amount of information added to the brain during development and growth outside the womb.

I would like to make two points in reply to this argument. First, the personist argument above is fundamentally flawed, because it fails to distinguish between information and instructions. Even if the amount of information added to our brains exceeds the amount of information in human DNA, only the latter information deserves to be called instructions, because it is part of a developmental program telling the embryo/fetus how to assemble itself. Instructions are one level up from the information the embryo/fetus receives from the outside world. For it is these instructions that process the information coming in from outside, using it to mold the unborn child's brain.

Second, I would like to reiterate that no new formative information is added to a developing embryo/fetus after fertilization. By formative information, I mean the instructions in its developmental program that tell a human organism how to develop. (That also includes its brain.) Those instructions are contained in each body cell of the embryo, in its genome. And they are also found in a one-cell embryo.

(iv) Science Shows How The Formation Of The Human Brain Is Controlled From Within, By Its Developmental Program

The formation of neurons in the human brain and of the connections between them is described in the online Wikipedia articles on Neural development and Neural development in humans. The reader can verify that this process is directed from within the embryo/fetus, and not from without. The connections that form in an embryo's brain are then strengthened in response to certain kinds of events in its external surroundings, but if these events are not reinforced, the connections are weakened instead and wither away. The important thing to realize, however, is that these events are merely triggers: the actual instructions for processing them lie within the embryo's developmental program. After all, it's not as if lines of program code are beamed through the air into the embryo whenever it encounters a chemical stimulus. No; the code is already there. The developmental program in the embryo is what gives it value. A new neuronal connection may add information to my memory-banks, but it doesn't alter my built-in developmental program, which tells my body how to process that new information.

The fact that babies locked in a dark room all their lives will never think, talk or remember is no more surprising than the fact that plants locked in a dark room all their lives will never grow. Plants only grow in the sun. Sunlight, however, does not provide plants with instructions on how to grow; they already have those instructions, in every cell of their bodies. A plant in a dark room is still a plant. Sunlight simply provides plants with a stimulus they need, in order for their already-existing developmental program to run successfully. The same goes for babies. Babies already have a pre-existing set of instructions telling them how to develop into an adult. The program is there; all it needs to complete successfully is the stimulus of social interaction. A baby in a dark room has a human mind, even if it is a neglected one. While interaction with other people certainly provides a baby with information about the outside world ("This is an apple"), it does not provide a baby with the information that tells it how to develop into a mature human adult. It already has that information, and that's what gives it human rights.

Finally, I would like to point out that the question which the pro-choice personists fail to address in the first place is: what is a mind? I would contend that the "information-based" personist account of mind discussed above rests on a category mistake: that of identifying a mind with what it holds (memories) and/or what it generates (thoughts). But this kind of account simply won't do. The concept of "mind" cannot be simply identified with the set of all my memories and/or my thoughts, for I can entertain a concept of this set, and then I can contemplate that concept, and so on. Recursive mental acts such as these indicate that the mind is something ineluctable; any attempt to put the mind in a box, and then step outside it and analyze it, is doomed to fail, because the very act of analyzing the mind is itself a mental act. The mind cannot be contained, for in attempting to define it, you automatically enlarge its scope.

(v) What about persons in a permanent vegetative state?

Readers who are wondering how a person in a vegetative state can still be said to possess a mind, might like to read Professor David Oderberg's article, Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: What's Wrong With It? (The Human Life Review, Fall 2005, pp. 21-33). According to my own analysis, a person in a vegetative state is a person with a badly damaged developmental program; however, the instructions contained in that program are still there, in the cells of that person's body. There is thus no reason in principle why physicians of the future would not be able to grow these people's brains back, until they reach the level of complexity required to support rational thought. In the process, these patients' original memories (if they had any) might be completely erased from their rejuvenating brains, but I would argue that this in no way affects their personal identity, as it is not the information in their brains that confers personhood upon them, but the instructions in that person's developmental program, which enable him/her to process that information.

(vi) Why A Materialist Can Still Be Pro-life

Although I would certainly maintain that the human developmental program – or at least, part of it – is manifested in our genome, I certainly would not claim that the genome, the cell, or even the human body, exhausts what it means to be human. I would argue that the developmental program is a multi-level program, and that the developmental program in human beings is very complex, having levels of control that surpass what is found in other animals. At its highest level of control, I personally believe that the human developmental program is immaterial, for reasons which I shall discuss below, in section (vii). But even if I didn't believe that, I'd still be pro-life. My pro-life argument does not require the assumption that our developmental program is immaterial on some level, in order for it to work successfully. All that it assumes is that we have a developmental program, and that the human genome is at least a partial expression of this program. Even if the human developmental program has a purely physical realization (as materialists assert), it is still a developmental program, and any organism possessing and running that program is as precious and valuable as a rational human adult. Thus an atheist who accepts materialism and who also believes that rational adults matter in their own right can be consistently pro-life, on non-religious grounds - and a significant number of atheists are.

The point I want to make for atheist readers is that even if the arguments in section (vii) below do not impress you, the pro-life case remains an intellectually compelling one.

Rodin's famous sculpture, The Thinker, at the Musee Rodin in Paris. Author: Andrew Horne. Source: Wikipedia.
Below, I shall argue that our thoughts possess a property (intentionality) which cannot be accounted for in materialistic terms.

(vii) The Stumbling Block For A Materialist Account Of Mind: Intentionality

In sections (iii) and (iv), I argued against the view that the development of the human mind is controlled by processes occurring outside the embryo/fetus's body. I cited sources showing that the development of the human brain is controlled from within, rather than from without.

The implicit assumption we have been making so far is the capacity of the human mind to make rational choices is capable of being explained in terms of processes occurring within the human brain, and that these processes are either directed and controlled from within (as I have argued) or from without (as some pro-choice personists would contend). In other words, we have assumed that a materialist acccount of the mind is true. In this section, I shall argue for the contrary view. I will attempt to show that materialism is false. If the arguments I put forward here are correct, then the development of the human brain in the embryo/fetus, and later on in a baby and a young child, is incapable of explaining its ability to make rational choices. More precisely, I shall argue that complex processes occurring within the human brain whenever we think are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the ocurrence of rational choices, and that our ability to make rational choices is not a physical ability.

It would be wrong to infer from my attack on materialism that I am a substance dualist, as Descartes was supposed to have been. I do not maintain that mind and body are two things, interacting with each other. What I am maintaining is that human beings are animals who are capable of engaging in bodily acts (e.g. growing, walking, seeing or imagining colored objects, and feeling hungry), as well as non-bodily acts, and that rational choices cannot be identified with, or caused by, or entailed by, any bodily action. I infer that our ability to make rational choices is not a physical ability.

But if our capacity to make rational choices is not a physical ability, then we have no reason to deny its presence in the embryo/fetus from the very beginning - that is, from the onset of fertilization, when the sperm penetrates the oocyte (or ovum, in popular parlance). And if our capacity to make rational choices is there all along, then pro-choice attempts to argue that the unborn human being is something less than a person are undercut at once. We no longer need to argue that the development of the human mind is controlled from within, as I did in Part A, section (iv), where I used the story of The Master Spy to argue that an entity which is directing and controlling its own development into a rational agent is just as important as a rational agent. If the embryo/fetus is already a rational agent, then clearly it is a fully-fledged human person, who matters just as much as you or I do.

First, however, we need to demonstrate the inadequacy of a materialist account of mind. In this section, I will be arguing that neither an "information-based" account of mind nor any other materialist account of mind can account for its intentionality - i.e. its ability to meaningfully refer to things outside itself. I would like to stress that my arguments against materialism play no part in the pro-life argument which I have elaborated in this post. Someone who is totally unpersuaded by the arguments which I shall deploy against materialism in this section may still accept the logic of the three arguments I have put forward for the personhood of the human embryo/fetus in Part A, section (iv), as well as the arguments I have advanced against the pro-choice sentientist position in Part C and against the pro-choice personist position in Part D, sections (ii), (iii) and (iv) above.

(a) Intentionality and inherent meaning: information has no meaning on its own

The most serious defect of an "information-based" account of mind (which I have criticized above) is that it fails to explain the most fundamental feature of mind itself: intentionality. Professor Edward Feser defines intentionality as "the mind's capacity to represent, refer, or point beyond itself" in his excellent book, Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009, p. 50), which I would strongly recommend to readers. For example, when we entertain a concept of something, our mind points at a certain class of things, and it points at the conclusion of an argument when we reason, at some state of affairs when we desire something, and at some person (or animal) when we love someone.

Feser points out that our mental acts - especially our thoughts - typically possess an inherent meaning, which lies beyond themselves. However, brain processes cannot possess this kind of meaning, because physical states of affairs have no inherent meaning as such. Hence our thoughts cannot be the same as our brain processes. As Professor Edward Feser puts it in a recent blog post (September 2008):

Now the puzzle intentionality poses for materialism can be summarized this way: Brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, the motion of water molecules, electrical current, and any other physical phenomenon you can think of, seem clearly devoid of any inherent meaning. By themselves they are simply meaningless patterns of electrochemical activity. Yet our thoughts do have inherent meaning – that's how they are able to impart it to otherwise meaningless ink marks, sound waves, etc. In that case, though, it seems that our thoughts cannot possibly be identified with any physical processes in the brain. In short: Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes.

Four points need to be made here, about the foregoing argument. First, Professor Feser's argument does not apply to all mental states as such, but to mental acts - specifically, those mental acts (such as thoughts) which possess inherent meaning. My seeing a red patch here now would qualify as a mental state, but since it is not inherently meaningful, it is not covered by Feser's argument. However, if I think to myself, "That red thing is a tomato" while looking at a red patch, then I am thinking something meaningful. (The reader will probably be wondering, "What about an animal which recognizes a tomato but lacks the linguistic wherewithal to say to itself, 'This is a tomato'?" Is recognition inherently meaningful? The answer, as I shall argue in part (b) below, depends on whether the animal has a concept of a tomato which is governed by a rule or rules, which it considers normative and tries to follow - e.g. "This red thing is juicy but has no seeds on the inside, so it can't be a tomato but might be a strawberry; however, that green thing with seeds on the inside could be a tomato.")

Second, Professor Feser's formulation of the argument from the intentionality of mental acts is very carefully worded. Some philosophers have suggested that the characteristic feature of mental acts is their "aboutness": thoughts, arguments, desires and passions in general are about something. But this is surely too vague, as DNA is "about" something too: the proteins it codes for. We can even say that DNA possesses functionality, which is certainly a form of "aboutness." What it does not possess, however, is inherent meaning, which is a distinctive feature of mental acts. DNA is a molecule that does a job, but it does not and cannot "mean" anything, in and of itself. If (as I would maintain) DNA was originally designed, then we could say that it was meant by its Designer to do something, but this meaning would be something extrinsic to it. And if (as most atheists believe) DNA was not designed, then it means nothing: it simply does its job.

Third, it is extremely difficult to disagree with Feser's premise that thoughts possess inherent meaning. To do that, one would have to either deny that there are any such things as thoughts, or one would need to locate inherent meaning somewhere else, outside the domain of the mental.

There are a few materialists, known as eliminative materialists, who deny the very existence of mental processes such as thoughts, beliefs and desires. The reason why I cannot take eliminative materialism seriously is that any successful attempt to argue for the truth of eliminative materialism - or, indeed, for the truth of any theory - would defeat eliminative materialism, since argument is, by definition, an attempt to change the beliefs of one's audience, and eliminative materialism says we have none. If eliminative materialism is true, then argumentation of any kind, about any subject, is always a pointless pursuit, as argumentation is defined as an attempt to change people's beliefs, and neither attempts not beliefs refer to anything, on an eliminative materialist account.

The other way of arguing against the premise that thoughts possess inherent meaning would be to claim that inherent meaning attaches primarily to something outside the domain of the mental, rather than to our innermost thoughts as we have supposed. But what might this "something" be? The best candidate would be public acts, such as wedding vows, the signing of contracts, initiation ceremonies and funerals. Because these acts are public, one might argue that they are meaningful in their own right. But this will not do. We can still ask: what is it about these acts and ceremonies that makes them meaningful? (A visiting alien might find them utterly meaningless.) And in the end, the only satisfactory answer we can give is: the cultural fact that within our community, we all agree that these acts are meaningful (which presupposes an mental act of assent on the part of each and every one of us), coupled with the psychological fact that the participants are capable of the requisite mental acts needed to perform these acts properly (for instance, someone who is getting married must be capable of understanding the nature of the marriage contract, and of publicly affirming that he/she is acting freely). Thus even an account of meaning which ascribes meaning primarily to public acts still presupposes the occurrence of mental acts which possess meaning in their own right.

Fourth, it should be noted that Professor Feser's argument not only works against "information-based" accounts of the human mind, which envisage the mind in terms of patterns encoded in the matter of the brain, but also against any materialist account of the mind which identifies mental acts with physical processes (no matter what sort of processes they may be) - regardless of whether this identification is made at the generic ("type-type") level or the individual ("token-token") level. The reason is that there is a fundamental difference between mental acts and physical processes: the former possess an inherent meaning, while the latter are incapable of doing so.

Of course, the mere fact that mental acts and physical processes possess mutually incompatible properties does not prove that they are fundamentally different. To use a well-worn example, the morning star has the property of appearing only in the east, while the evening star has the property of appearing only in the west, yer they are one and the same object (the planet Venus). Or again: Superman has the property of being loved by Lois Lane, but Clark Kent does not; yet in the comic book story, they are one and the same person.

However, neither of these examples is pertinent to the case we are considering here, since the meaning which attaches to mental acts is inherent. Hence it must be an intrinsic feature of mental acts, rather than an extrinsic one, like the difference between the morning star and the evening star. As for Superman's property of being loved by Lois Lane: this is not a real property, but a mere Cambridge property, to use a term coined by the philosopher Peter Geach: in this case, the love inheres in Lois Lane, not Superman. (By contrast, if Superman loves Lois, then the same is also true of Clark Kent. This love is an example of a real property, since it inheres in Superman.)

The difference between mental acts and physical processes does not merely depend on one's perspective or viewpoint; it is an intrinsic difference, not an extrinsic one. Moreover, it is a real difference, since the property of having an inherent meaning is a real property, and not a Cambridge property. Since mental acts possess a real, intrinsic property which physical processes lack, we may legitimately conclude that mental acts are distinct from physical processes. (Of course, "distinct from" does not mean "independent of".)

A general refutation of materialism

Feser's argument can be extended to refute all materialistic accounts of mental acts. Any genuinely materialistic account of mental acts must be capable of explaining them in terms of physical processes. There are only three plausible ways to do this: (a) identifying mental acts with physical processes, (b) showing how mental acts are caused by physical processes, and (c) showing how mental acts are logically entailed by physical processes. No other way of explaining mental acts in terms of physical processes seems conceivable.

The first option, as we have seen, is ruled out: as we saw earlier, mental acts cannot be equated with physical processes, because the former possess inherent meaning as a real, intrinsic property, while the latter do not.

The second option is also impossible, for two reasons. Firstly, if the causal law is to count as a genuine explanation of mental acts, then it must account for their intentionality, or inherent meaningfulness. In other words, we would need a causal law that not only links physical processes to mental acts, but a causal law that links physical processes to meanings. However, meaningfulness is a semantic property, whereas the properties picked out by laws of nature are physical properties. To suppose that there are laws linking physical processes and mental acts, one would have to suppose the existence of a new class of laws of nature: physico-semantic laws.

Secondly, we know for a fact that there are some physical processes (e.g. precipitation) which are incapable of generating meaning: they are inadequate for the task at hand. If we are to suppose that certain other physical processes are capable of generating meaning, then we must believe that these processes are causally adequate for the task of generating meaning, while physical processes such as precipitation are not. But this only invites the further question: why? We might be told that causally inadequate processes lack some physical property (call it F) which causally adequate processes possess - but once again, we can ask: why is physical property F relevant to the task of generating meaning, while other physical properties are not?

So much for the first and second options, then. Mental acts which possess inherent meaning are neither identifiable with physical processes, nor caused by them. The third option is to postulate that mental acts are logically entailed by physical processes. This option is even less promising than the first two: for in order to show that physical processes logically entail mental acts, we would have to show that physical properties logically entail semantic properties. But if we cannot even show that they are causally related, then it will surely be impossible for us to show that they are logically connected. Certainly, the fact that an animal (e.g. a human being) has the property of having a large brain with complex inter-connections that can store a lot of information does not logically entail that this animal - or its brain, or its neural processes, or its bodily movements - has the property of having an inherent meaning.

Hence not only are mental acts distinct from brain processes, but they are incapable of being caused by or logically entailed by brain processes. Since these are the only modes of explanation open to us, it follows that mental acts are incapable of being explained in terms of physical processes.

Let us recapitulate. We have argued that eliminative materialism is false, as well as any version of materialism which identifies mental acts with physical processes, and also any version of materialism in which mental acts supervene upon brain processes (either by being caused by these processes or logically entailed by them). Are there any versions of materialism left for us to consider?

It may be objected that some version of monism, in which one and the same entity has both physical and mental properties, remains viable. Quite so; but monism is not materialism.

We may therefore state the case against materialism as follows:

1. Mental acts are real.
(Denial of this premise entails denying that there can be successful arguments, for an argument is an attempt to change the thoughts and beliefs of the listener, and if there are no mental acts then there are no thoughts and beliefs.)

2. At least some mental acts - e.g. thoughts - are have the real, intrinsic property of being inherently meaningful.
(Justification: it is impossible to account for the meaningfulness of any act, event or process without presupposing the existence of inherently meaningful thoughts.)

3. Physical processes are not inherently meaningful.

4. If process X has a real, intrinsic property F which process Y lacks, then X cannot be identified with Y.

5. By 2, 3 and 4, physical processes cannot be identified with inherently meaningful mental acts.

6. Physical processes are only capable of causing other processes if there is some law of nature linking the former to the latter.

7. Laws of nature are only explanatory of the respective properties they invoke, for the processes they link.
(More precisely: if a law of nature links property F of process X with property G of process Y, then the law explains properties F and G, but not property H which also attaches to process Y. To explain that, one would need another law.)

8. The property of having an inherent meaning is a semantic property.

9. There are not, and there cannot be, laws of nature linking physical properties to semantic properties.
(Justification: No such "physico-semantic" laws have ever been observed; and in any case, semantic properties are not reducible to physical ones.)

10. By 6, 7, 8 and 9, physical processes are incapable of causing inherently meaningful mental acts.

11. Physical processes do not logically entail the occurrence of inherently meaningful mental acts.

12. If inherently meaningful mental acts exist, and if physical processes cannot be identified with them and are incapable of causing them or logically entailing all of them, then materialism is false.
(Justification: materialism is an attempt to account for mental states in physical terms. This means that physical processes must be explanatorily prior to, or identical with, the mental events they purport to explain. Unless physical processes are capable of logically or causally generating mental states, then it is hard to see how they can be said to be capable of explaining them.)

13. Hence by 1, 5, 10, 11 and 12, materialism is false.

The game of soccer, or association football, is governed by rules. Below, I shall argue that our ability to follow rules cannot be accounted for in materialistic terms.
This photo was taken in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1996. The offensive player (in red) has sprinted past two defenders (in white) and is about to shoot the ball at the top of the box. He scores. Author: Rick Dikeman. Source: Wikipedia.

(b) Intentionality and rule-following: information may behave in accordance with a rule, but cannot follow a rule

There is an additional reason for rejecting a materialist account of mind, for human beings. Because our mental acts point or refer to something beyond themselves (e.g. an object, a class of objects, a a state of affairs or the conclusion of an argument), they are governed by norms. Normativity is a central feature of philosopher John Searle's account of intentionality: beliefs are either correct or mistaken, desires are either satisfied or not, and even intentional states like love and hate, which lack propositional content, presuppose beliefs and desires which have conditions of satisfaction.

Now, the reason why the human mental acts are capable of conforming to these norms is that we have the ability to attend to and follow a rule – which is quite different from merely behaving in conformity with a rule. As Searle explains, when one merely conforms to a rule, it is sufficient that the rule somehow determine one's behavior, but when one follows a rule, something additional is required:

"In order that the rule be followed, the meaning of the rule has to play some causal role in the behavior." (Minds, Brains and Science, Penguin Books, London, 1984, p. 47, italics mine.)

1. Human beings typically follow rules when they think.

2. Whenever human beings think, their behavior is explained (and caused) by the meaning of the rule they are following.

3. Whenever human beings' behavior is caused by some physical process, their behavior is entirely explained by the physical properties of the process; meaning plays no causal role in this account.

4. Therefore, whenever human beings think, their behavior is not caused by physical processes.

I should emphasize that Searle himself does not draw these anti-materialistic conclusions in his 1984 book Minds, Brains and Science; on the contrary, he avows that mental processes are "entirely caused, by processes going on inside the brain" (1984, p. 39). What Searle argues instead is that computers, which are designed to calculate in conformity to some rule(s), cannot truly be said to think, and that a computational account of mind is therefore false.

Can non-human animals follow rules?

Searle's remarks also make it clear how we would need to go about showing that other animals possess minds like ours: we would need to show that they can follow rules in such a way that the meaning of the rule has to play some causal role in the behavior observed. Typically in animal behavior, this is not the case. When an animal behaves in accordance with some pragmatic norm which it picks up through associative learning, it does not need to attend to the propositional content of the rule as such, as humans do when they follow rules. All it has to do is attend to the objects covered by the rule, rather than the rule itself. The linkage between the objects is not something the animal needs to consciously think about, as associative learning does not require conscious processing. (Even the legs of cockroaches are capable of this kind of learning!)

Of course, some non-human animals are capable of genuine novelty, when solving problems, as the tool-making exploits of Betty the crow illustrate. Do Betty's tool-making acts possess inherent meaning? Certainly they possess functionality, but as we saw above when discussing DNA, functionality is not meaning.

The crucial point here is that non-human animals are unable to explain the basis of their judgments, as a rational agent should be able to do. The tool-making feats of Betty the crow look very impressive, but we cannot ask her: "Why did you make it that way?" as she is incapable of justifying her actions. The same goes for the extremely clever New Caledonian crows who are able to use three tools in succession to get some food (BBC news report, 20 April 2010, by science reporter Rebecca Morelle). In order to see why, let us imagine an older crow teaching a younger crow how to use a tool. And now try to imagine the following dialogue:

Older crow: Don't bend it that way. Bend it this way.
Younger crow: Why?
Older crow: Because if you bend it this way, it can pick up a piece of meat, but if you bend it that way, it can't.

The dialogue contains only simple little words, but the problem should be immediately apparent. The older crow is trying to teach the younger one a rule. However, the meaning of the rule is critically dependent on words like "if," "why," "but," "can" and "can't," which cannot be conveyed to someone who does not understand them, through bodily gestures alone (e.g. pointing, as we might do at an apple [noun], or something red [adjective], or something which is falling [verb]). Until we have grounds for saying that crows possess a language at this level of abstraction, we should react skeptically to claims that they can reason or follow rules.

Why doesn't the mind remain sober when the body is drunk?

The celebrated author Mark Twain (1835-1910) was an avowed materialist, as is shown by the following witty exchange he penned:

Old man (sarcastically): Being spiritual, the mind cannot be affected by physical influences?
Young man: No.
Old man: Does the mind remain sober when the body is drunk?

Drunkenness does indeed pose a genuine problem for substance dualism, or the view that mind and body are two distinct things. For even if the mind (which thinks) required sensory input from the body, this would only explain why a physical malady or ailment would shut off the flow of thought. What it would not explain is the peculiar, erratic thinking of the drunkard.

However, the view I am defending here is not Cartesian substance dualism, but a kind of "dual-operation monism": each of us is one being (a human being), who is capable of a whole host of bodily operations (nutrition, growth, reproduction and movement, as well as sensing and feeling), as well as a few special operations (e.g. following rules and making rational choices) which we perform, but not with our bodies. That doesn't mean that we perform these acts with some spooky non-material thing hovering 10 centimeters above our heads (a Cartesian soul, which is totally distinct from the body). It just means that not every act performed by a human animal is a bodily act. For rule-following acts, the question, "Which agent did that?" is meaningful; but the question, "Which body part performed the act of following the rule?" is not. Body parts don't follow rules; people do.

Now, it might be objected that the act of following a rule must be a material act, because we are unable to follow rules when our neuronal firing is disrupted: as Twain pointed out, drunks can't think straight. But this objection merely shows that certain physical processes in the brain are necessary, in order for rational thought to occur. What it does not show is that these neural processes are sufficient to generate rational thought. As the research of the late Wilder Penfield showed, neurologists' attempts to produce thoughts or decisions by stimulating people's brains were a total failure: while stimulation could induce flashbacks and vividly evoke old memories, it never generated thoughts or choices. On other occasions, Penfield was able to make a patient's arm go up by stimulating a region of his/her brain, but the patient always denied responsibility for this movement, saying: "I didn't do that. You did." In other words, Penfield was able to induce bodily movements, but not the choices that accompany them when we act freely.

Nevertheless, the reader might reasonably ask: if the rational act of following a rule is not a bodily act, then why are certain bodily processes required in order for it to occur? For instance, why can't drunks think straight? The reason, I would suggest, is that whenever we follow an abstract rule, a host of subsidiary physical processes need to take place in the brain, which enable us to recall the objects covered by that rule, and also to track our progress in following the rule, if it is a complicated one, involving a sequence of steps. Disruption of neuronal firing interferes with these subsidiary processes. However, while these neural processes are presupposed by the mental act of following a rule, they do not constitute the rule itself. In other words, all that the foregoing objection shows is that for humans, the act of rule-following is extrinsically dependent on physical events such as neuronal firing. What the objection does not show is that the human act of following or attending to a rule is intrinsically or essentially dependent on physical processes occurring in the brain. Indeed, if the arguments against materialism which I put forward above are correct, the mental act of following a rule cannot be intrinsically dependent on brain processes: for the mental act of following a rule is governed by its inherent meaning, which is something that physical processes necessarily lack.

I conclude, then, that attempts to explain rational choices made by human beings in terms of purely material processes taking place in their brains are doomed to failure, and that whenever we follow a rule (e.g. when we engage in rational thought) our mental act of doing so is an immaterial, non-bodily act.

Are there any other good arguments showing that the human intellect is immaterial?

Some of the best arguments against materialism can be found in a recent book, Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009), by Associate Professor Edward Feser. On pages 155-157, Feser summarizes a non-technical argument put forward by Aquinas for the immateriality of the intellect. Professor Feser begins by demonstrating that the objects grasped by the intellect are immaterial:

Precisely by virtue of being universal, the objects of the intellect are not material, for all material things are particular rather than universal. This or that individual triangle is a material thing, but the universal triangularity is not; this or that individual cat is a material thing, but the universal catness is not; and so on. If triangularity, say, were a material thing, then our knowledge of it would be knowledge of just one material thing among others and thus not knowledge of a universal at all. That much is relatively uncontroversial. But how does it follow that the intellect which grasps these immaterial universal natures is itself immaterial?

Professor Feser provides two solid philosophical reasons for thinking that the human intellect, which is capable of grasping immaterial objects, must itself be immaterial.

One basis for this inference that we might suggest on Aquinas' behalf would be that if the intellect were material, then its operation would presumably involve some purely material process, such as the manipulation of formal symbols a la modern "computational" accounts of the mind. In that case a thought about triangularity, for example, would consist of some physical representation of triangularity in the brain somewhere (in the form of a neuronal firing pattern or whatever). But no such physical representation could possibly count as the universal triangularity, because like any physical representation of a triangle, this one too would be just one particular material thing among others, and not universal at all. Thus the operations of the intellect cannot consist of purely material processes.

Another basis for the inference from the immateriality of the objects of the intellect to the immateriality itself is one suggested by James Ross. When you think about triangularity, as you might when proving a geometrical theorem, it is necessarily perfect triangularity that you are considering, not some approximation of it. Triangularity as your intellect grasps it is entirely determinate or exact. (Of course, your mental image of a triangle might not be exact, but rather indeterminate and fuzzy; but as we’ve seen, to grasp something with the intellect is not the same as to form a mental image of it.) Now the thought you are having must be as determinate or exact as triangularity itself, otherwise it wouldn’t just be a thought about triangularity in the first place, but only a thought about some approximation of triangularity. Yet material things are never determinate or exact in this way. Any material triangle, for example, is always only ever an approximation of perfect triangularity (since it is bound to have sides that are less than perfectly straight, etc., even if this is undetectable to the naked eye). And in general, material symbols and representations are inherently always vague, ambiguous, or otherwise inexact, susceptible of various alternative interpretations. It follows, then, that any thought you might have about triangularity is not something material; in particular, it is not some process occurring in the brain. And what goes for triangularity goes for any thought that involves the grasp of a universal, since universals in general (or at least very many of them, in case someone should wish to dispute this) are determinate and exact in a way material objects and processes cannot be.

Feser emphasizes that Aquinas intended his arguments to be philosophically demonstrative, and that they are invulnerable to falsification by future scientific discoveries:

Whatever one thinks of arguments like this, it is important to understand that they are not the sort that might be undermined by the findings of neuroscience, or any other empirical science for that matter. They are not "soul of the gaps" arguments any more than Aquinas' arguments for God's existence are "God of the gaps" arguments. That is to say, Aquinas is not presenting a quasi-scientific explanation of some psychological phenomenon that we simply haven't got enough empirical data to explain in a material way…. He is claiming that it is in principle impossible, conceptually impossible for the intellect to be accounted for in a materialistic way. If his arguments work, they establish conclusively that the intellect could no more be identified with processes in the brain than two and two could make five.

When does the embryo/fetus acquire rationality?

Human beings therefore possess some higher-level mental capacities which are non-bodily capacities - meaning that the exercise of these capacities cannot be explained by any physical processes occurring in our brains at the time, even though these neural processes may have to take place in order for the mental capacities to be exercised. The question now arises: at what stage do these non-bodily mental capacities become present in the developing embryo/fetus/child?

The capacities in question are not typically manifested until the age of three, when a child becomes capable of having a concept of self. However, these capacities must exist from the very beginning of a human being's existence. The reason is that these non-bodily capacities are natural capacities: they are part of the nature of what it means to be a human being. Rationality is part and parcel of what it means to be human.

A natural capacity must either be a basic, fundamental capacity, or a derived capacity, which is explicable in terms of some lower-level, more fundamental capacity. But I have already shown that rationality (or the capacity to follow rules) is a non-bodily capacity; hence it cannot be grounded in some more fundamental capacity, as a higher-level physical capacity might be (e.g. my capacity to walk, which is grounded in my capacities to balance myself when upright and to move my legs at will). Rationality must therefore be basic. If it is basic, then no individual possessing human nature can possibly lack this capacity - or it would not be a human being at all. But an embryo possesses human nature: as we have seen, it is a human being (not just human life) from the moment when the sperm penetrates the oocyte (or unfertilized ovum). We are therefore forced to conclude that embryos possess rationality from the very beginning of their existence, even though their bodies are still far too immature for them to exercise this capacity.

Professor Edward Feser, whose views I discussed above, argues that the date at which the human soul becomes present in the embryo/fetus is a problem only for those who hold to a Cartesian view of the soul as a separate thing which is somehow joined to the body - a view which fails to explain the metaphysical unity of the human being: the fact that it is one and the same "I" who sleeps, eats, excretes, sees, remembers and who also thinks about what he has eaten, seen and remembered. Thus immaterial intellectual operations, as well as bodily operations, are both properly attributed to one and the same "me". By contrast, on the traditional Aristotelian view of the soul, the soul is not a separate thing, but the form of a living body; hence there is no need to split "me" in two. As Feser puts it in his excellent book, Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009, pp. 138-140):

...[L]et us briefly consider the questions of when the soul and when it leaves, focusing on the case of most interest to human beings, namely human beings themselves. These questions appear deeply problematic given a Cartesian understanding of the soul as a kind of immaterial substance. For since, on that understanding, the soul is not only distinct from but utterly independent of the body, there is no special reason for it to be come conjoined with the body at any particular moment. Hence it seems entirely possible for it to be absent during much or even all of the time of the body's gestation within the womb...

On an Aristotelian view, however, on which the soul is the form of the body - that is to say, that which makes the matter composing the body into a living body in the first place - there appears to be no special difficulty in saying when the soul is present in the body. It is present, and necessarily so, whenever the body itself is present. Hence if (as current biological knowledge indicates) the human organism comes into being at conception, then from an Aristotelian point of view it would seem to follow that that is necessarily when the soul is first present, otherwise it just wouldn't be a human organism, for the matter that makes it up wouldn't have the requisite form...

It is true, of course, that fetuses and persons with severe brain damage do not exercise the powers distinctive of the rational soul, namely intellect and will. But for Aquinas, that would not suffice to show that they do not have these powers, or in general that they do not have rational souls.... [A]n immature or damaged human being still has the form of a human being, and thus a soul, otherwise he or she wouldn't be human in the first place.

On an Aristotelian view of the soul, then, the notion that a human being with rational powers (i.e. a huma person) begins at conception - and not some later date - is straightforward and relatively easy to understand. It is therefore a real pity that Aristotle's biology led him to mistakenly conclude that the human body was not formed at conception, but several weeks afterwards. Had Aristotle known about the developmental programs which commence running at conception, as we now do, he would not have made this mistake. Aristotle, who lived 2,300 years ago and was forced to investigate living things without the aid of a microscope, had a valid excuse for being ignorant of some of the facts of life. We have none.

(viii) Why Intentionality Cannot Be Explained In Purely Physical Terms: A Short Bibliography

Readers who are interested in examining the question of whether intentionality can be "naturalized," or explained in purely material terms, may find the following articles helpful.

Intentionality by Dr. Pierre Jacob.
Article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Fall 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Scroll down to section 9 - Can intentionality be naturalized? - for a balanced discussion of the relevant issues.

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part I by Professor Edward Feser.
In this blog entry, Feser gives a brief, non-technical exposition of the problems that intentionality poses for a materialistic account of thought: "Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes."

Some brief arguments for dualism, Part II by Professor Edward Feser.
In this blog entry, Feser continues his discussion of the problems that intentionality poses for a materialistic account of thought. Here, Feser points out that ever since the "Scientific Revolution" of the 17th century, materialists have steadfastly denied the reality of final causes as a feature of the natural world. He then argues that it is impossible to deny the reality of final causes, while at the same time affirming the reality of intentionality: "If materialism is true, then (given that it is committed to a mechanistic conception of the material world), there are no final causes, and thus nothing that inherently 'points to' or is 'directed at' anything beyond itself; and in that case, there can be no such thing as intentionality; but there is such a thing as intentionality; therefore materialism is not true."

Dennett Denied: A Critique of Dennett's Evolutionary Account of Intentionality by Professor Angus Menuge.
Professor Daniel Dennett has developed a sophisticated naturalistic account of intentionality, according to which our intentionality is derived from that of our genes, which have been shaped by the winnowing process of natural selection. In this essay, Professor Menuge identifies four problems with Dennett's account, and then presents positive grounds for saying that intentionality is a real but non-naturalistic quality, which is best explained by positing an Intelligent Designer of nature.

Intentionality and Causality in John Searle by David Thompson, Dept. of Philosophy, Memorial University, 1985.
Professor John Searle's account of intentionality is by far the most sophisticated account of intentionality from a materialist perspective. Searle has argued in his book Mind, Language and Society that intentionality can be a property of physical systems, such as our brains. In this article, David Thompson examines Searle's account of intentionality and finds it wanting. He concludes that Searle's attempt to naturalize intentionality is unsuccessful.

Immateriality and Intentionality by Dr. Gerard Casey, University College, Dublin.
In this paper, Dr. Casey investigate the notions of immateriality and intentionality with a view to clarifying their relationship. He concludes that intentionality is immaterial in this sense: even though it is a mode of being which supervenes upon a material base, it can be actualized only in the presence of a being with an immaterial receptive capacity.

Part E - A Response to Judith Jarvis Thomson's "Unplugging the Violinist" Argument.

Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840), the most famous violinist of all time. A violinist figures in philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous "Unplugging the Violinist" argument, which was designed to show why abortion should be legal. This portrait of Paganini is from a coal drawing by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, c. 1819. Source: Wikipedia.


(i) Thomson's Argument In A Nutshell
(ii) Why The Embryo/Fetus Is Not A Parasite
(iii) Doris Gordon's Rebuttal Of Thomson's Argument: Why Thomson's Analogy Is A Poor One
(iv) Philippa Foot's Reply To Thomson: Refusing To Save A Life Is Different From Initiating A Fatal Sequence Of Events

(i) Thomson's Argument In A Nutshell

In 1971, the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote a now-famous essay entitled, A Defense of Abortion (Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 47-66, Fall 1971). (See here for a discussion of various criticisms of Thomson's argument.) In her essay, Thomson grants for the sake of argument that the embryo/fetus has a right to life, but defends the permissibility of abortion by invoking the following thought experiment:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you. (Thomson 1971:48-49.)

Thomson assumes that you may now unplug yourself from the violinist, even though this will cause his death. The right to life, asserts Thomson, does not entail the right to use another person's body. Hence by unplugging the violinist, you do not violate his right to life but merely deprive him of something - the use of your body - to which he has no right. "[I]f you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due."

By the same token, argues Thomson, abortion does not violate the right to life of the embryo/fetus, but merely deprives it of something to which it has no right: the use of the pregnant woman's body. In choosing to terminate her pregnancy, a woman does not violate any of her moral obligations. Instead, we should say that a woman who carries the embryo/fetus to term performs a noble act, which goes beyond her obligations.

One point that should be immediately apparent to the reader is that Thomson's argument merely establishes a woman's right to remove the embryo/fetus from her body - a fact that Thomson herself has readily acknowledged. Thus if ectogenesis (the preservation of the embryo/fetus in an artificial environment outside the womb) ever became medically possible, it would mean that a woman not wanting to carry her pregnancy to term could no longer demand the termination of her unborn child's life, simply on the grounds that she had a right to control her own body.

Giardia lamblia, a protozoan parasite. Courtesy: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S.A. Source: Wikipedia.

(ii) Why The Embryo/Fetus Is Not A Parasite

One thing I would like to note before analyzing the defects in Thomson's argument is that the plausibility of her argument hinges largely on the implicit assumption that the embryo/fetus is some sort of parasite. This notion is decisively refuted in the article, Why the Embryo or Fetus is Not a Parasite by Dr. Thomas L. Johnson, Professor of Biology, Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (My acknowledgements to Libertarians for Life and to Professor Thomas L. Johnson.) Professor Johnson has identified no less than eight significant differences between an embryo/fetus and a parasite:

1 a) A parasite is defined as an organism of one species living in or on an organism of another species (a heterospecific relationship) and deriving its nourishment from the host (is metabolically dependent on the host). (See Cheng, T.C., General Parasitology, p. 7, 1973.)
b) A human embryo or fetus is an organism of one species (Homo sapiens) living in the uterine cavity of an organism of the same species (Homo sapiens) and deriving its nourishment from the mother (is metabolically dependent on the mother). This homospecific relationship is an obligatory dependent relationship, but not a parasitic relationship.

2 a) A parasite is an invading organism - coming to parasitize the host from an outside source.
b) A human embryo or fetus is formed from a fertilized egg -- the egg coming from an inside source, being formed in the ovary of the mother from where it moves into the oviduct where it may be fertilized to form the zygote - the first cell of the new human being.

3 a) A parasite is generally harmful to some degree to the host that is harboring the parasite.
b) A human embryo or fetus developing in the uterine cavity does not usually cause harm to the mother, although it may if proper nutrition and care is not maintained by the mother.

4 a) A parasite makes direct contact with the host's tissues, often holding on by either mouth parts, hooks or suckers to the tissues involved (intestinal lining, lungs, connective tissue, etc.).
b) A human embryo or fetus makes direct contact with the uterine lining of the mother for only a short period of time. It soon becomes isolated inside its own amniotic sac, and from that point on makes indirect contact with the mother only by way of the umbilical cord and placenta.

5 a) When a parasite invades host tissue, the host tissue will sometimes respond by forming a capsule (of connective tissue) to surround the parasite and cut it off from other surrounding tissue (examples would be Paragonimus westermani, lung fluke, or Oncocerca volvulus, a nematode worm causing cutaneous filariasis in the human).
b) When the human embryo or fetus attaches to and invades the lining tissue of the mother's uterus, the lining tissue responds by surrounding the human embryo and does not cut it off from the mother, but rather establishes a means of close contact (the placenta) between the mother and the new human being.

6 a) When a parasite invades a host, the host will usually respond by forming antibodies in response to the somatic antigens (molecules comprising the body of the parasite) or metabolic antigens (molecules secreted or excreted by the parasite) of the parasite. Parasitism usually involves an immunological response on the part of the host. (See Cheng, T.C., General Parasitology, p. 8.)
b) New evidence, presented by Beer and Billingham in their article, "The Embryo as a Transplant" (Scientific American, April, 1974), indicates that the mother does react to the presence of the embryo by producing humoral antibodies, but they suggest that the trophoblast - the jacket of cells surrounding the embryo - blocks the action of these antibodies and therefore the embryo or fetus is not rejected. This reaction is unique to the embryo-mother relationship.

7 a) A parasite is generally detrimental to the reproductive capacity of the invaded host. The host may be weakened, diseased or killed by the parasite, thus reducing or eliminating the host's capacity to reproduce.
b) A human embryo or fetus is absolutely essential to the reproductive capacity of the involved mother (and species). The mother is usually not weakened, diseased or killed by the presence of the embryo or fetus, but rather is fully tolerant of this offspring which must begin his or her life in this intimate and highly specialized relationship with the mother.

8 a) A parasite is an organism that, once it invades the definitive host, will usually remain with host for life (as long as it or the host survives).
b) A human embryo or fetus has a temporary association with the mother, remaining only a number of months in the uterus.

Many refutations of the arguments in Thomson's paper have been published. In this section, I shall confine myself to summarizing the key points in the replies to Thomson by two women intellectuals who are both atheists: the founder of Libertarians for Life, Doris Gordon, and the philosopher Philippa Foot. I should add that Foot was not herself pro-life; however, her critique of Thomson's pro-choice argument is a very powerful and incisive one.

(iii) Doris Gordon's Rebuttal Of Thomson's Argument: Why Thomson's Analogy Is A Poor One

For pro-choice philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, a woman's body is her castle, where she is justified in protecting herself against illegal trespassers, such as the fetus. Libertarian atheist Doris Gordon argues that this analogy is mistaken: by choosing to place herself in a situation where she was likely to conceive, a woman is turning her body into a prison for her unborn child, who is like a captive, in the sense that he/she is in the situation involuntarily. Gordon writes: "To conceive and then abort one's child is to turn conception into a deadly trap for the child: it is to set her up in a vulnerable position that is virtually certain to lead to her death."
Left: Bodiam Castle, Sussex, England. Author: Misterzee. Source: Wikipedia.
Right: Visitors' entrance to the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah, United States. Author: DR04. Source: Wikipedia.

The atheist pro-life advocate Doris Gordon, founder of Libertarians for Life, also addresses Thomson's argument in her essay, Abortion and Thomson's Violinist: Unplugging a Bad Analogy.

... Thomson's defense is a classic example of blame the victim. Its influence continues, despite rebuttals by scholars on both sides of the abortion debate. Here are some of my reasons why her analogy fails.

I shall quote a few excerpts from Doris Gordon's article here. First, she zeroes in on the faulty metaphor underlying Thomson's reasoning - namely, that abortion can be likened to unplugging. Gordon trenchantly dissects the inadequacies of this metaphor:

To begin with, her analogy is irrelevant to reality. In most abortions, the children aren't just "unplugged" and removed from the womb; they are killed -- intentionally. They are dismembered or poisoned before eviction.

"I am not arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn child," she says. "You may detach yourself even if this costs him his life; you have no right to be guaranteed his death, by some other means, if unplugging yourself does not kill him."

Yes, there is an important moral distinction between killing by using lethal force (death is certain) and killing by letting die (survival is possible, at least theoretically). But although Thomson discusses it, she does not seem to appreciate it. She apparently finds comfort in pretending that abortions terminate pregnancy by letting die. However, even according to her own principles, violent abortions are unjust homicides and should be prohibited.

Next, Doris Gordon argues that even if Thomson's "unplugging" metaphor for abortion were an appropriate one, it would only apply to cases of rape:

If Thomson's analogy were relevant, it would be so only in the few cases of pregnancy due to rape. Yet she also means it to apply when sex is mutually consensual. The stranger in the analogy did not consent; he was asleep. In protesting to a Thomson fan about conceiving children in real life, someone once said, "But you weren't asleep when it happened!"

The child, of course, is not a consenting party either to being conceived or to being aborted.

Doris Gordon goes on to argue that Thomson compounds her errors by invoking another illicit metaphor: that of the embryo/fetus as trespasser. This metaphor is a false one, because trespassing is a voluntary act, whereas the presence of an embryo/fetus in the womb is caused by circumstances beyond its control:

To help make her argument, Thomson paints unwanted prenatal children as aggressors, as trespassers. She equates them with burglars climbing into open windows, and she compares getting pregnant to being invaded in one's home by "people-seeds [that] drift about in the air like pollen." This is rubbish.

Surely she knows the cause-and-effect relationship between heterosexual intercourse and pregnancy. A child's creation and presence in the womb are caused by biological forces independent of and beyond the control of the child; they are brought into play by the acts of the parents. The child did not cause the situation. In real life, the parents are the causative agents of both the pregnancy and the child's dependence.

In Thomson's analogy, the stranger did nothing to cause the violinist to be sick. The stranger did nothing to cause himself to be captured and plugged in. The child is also like a captive, in the sense that she, too, is in the situation involuntarily. To conceive and then abort one's child is to turn conception into a deadly trap for the child: it is to set her up in a vulnerable position that is virtually certain to lead to her death.

(Gordon briefly alludes to the issue of pregnancies caused by rape at this point, and points out that "The problem in rape is whether the victimization of one person should permit the victimization of someone else." She refers the reader to her article, "Abortion in the Case of Pregnancy Due to Rape".)

In any case, argues Gordon, capital punishment for an act of trespass is an unreasonably harsh penalty:

Even if the trespass charge against the child were true, why capital punishment without due process for trespass? But the charge is false on its face.

Trespass implies an unjustified interference with the rights of another. It implies some volition on the part of the accused: the "invader" acted intentionally, recklessly, or negligently, and could have avoided the "invasion." Mere presence on another's property, absent more supporting evidence, is insufficient to prove volition.

Who among us could have chosen not to begin life, or not to inhabit our mother's body when conceived? Inhabiting the mother's body is a byproduct of the parents' volitional act, not the child's. What the prenatal child does, she does by necessity. This necessity is also a byproduct of the parents' volitional act...

Finally, Doris Gordon argues that by the act of conceiving a child, parents acquire an automatic obligation to take care of the child whom they have voluntarily created:

[B]y conceiving a child, parents give themselves a life-or-death power over her, and they do this without her consent. If parents intentionally or negligently use their power to put her in harm's way (let her starve, say), they cause the danger. If the child gets harmed, they caused the harm. They initiated force and violated the child's rights.

Most abortion-choicers accept, in principle at least, the obligation of parents to protect immature children. Not many would say that leaving one's infant unattended in hazardous situations is a matter of the parent's choice. When their children get very sick in the middle of the night and need help, most abortion choicers don't go back to sleep saying, "So what if my kid might die? I have the right to control my own body, don't I?"

What difference does it make for a woman's rights whether her kid is in the crib or in her womb? It's her self-same body after, as well as before, birth.

And it's her self-same child.

(iv) Philippa Foot's Reply To Thomson: Refusing To Save A Life Is Different From Initiating A Fatal Sequence Of Events

A Jeep Wrangler, Rock Crawling at Paragon Off Road Park in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Source: Wikipedia.
In a now-famous article entitled Killing and Letting Die, the atheist philosopher Philippa Foot (1920-2010) argued that while it would be all right for a rescue team traveling in a jeep to pass by an individual who will die very soon in order to rescue five other people who are in imminent danger of death, it would never be right for the rescue team to deliberately drive their jeep over a person who is currently in good health but whose body just happens to be wedged in a crack in the middle of the road, in order to reach the five people who are in imminent danger of death. Foor argues that Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist case is like the first rescue case, while abortion is equivalent to the second rescue case. Hence, if the fetus is a person, then abortion is immoral.

The atheist philosopher Philippa Foot addressed Judith Jarvis Thomson's "Unplugging the Violinist" argument in her widely reprinted essay, Killing and Letting Die, available in the following anthologies:

"Killing and Letting Die." In Joy L. Garfield and Patricia Hennessy, Abortion: Medical and Legal Perspectives, (pp. 177-185). The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1984.
"Killing and Letting Die." In Steven M. Cahn, & Peter Markie (Eds.), Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues, (pp 783–788). Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
Killing and Letting Die. In Bonnie Steinbock and Alastair Norcross (eds.), Killing and Letting Die, (pp. 280-290). Fordham University Press, 2nd edition, 1994.
Killing and Letting Die. In James E. White (ed.), Contemporary Moral Problems, Thomson Wadsworth, Ninth Edition, 2009.

Readers can view a summary of Foot's position here, and an outline of how she refuted the "Unplugging the Violinist" argument here. Foot's reasoning is quite meaty, so I propose to explore her argument in detail, and guide readers through the philosophical reasoning she employs.

In her essay, Foot draws an important moral distinction between being the agent of harm (i.e the originator of a fatal sequence of events which kills someone) and merely allowing an already existing fatal sequence to take its course. (This distinction is closely related to but not quite the same as the traditional distinction between killing and allowing to die.) Foot insists that there is a disanalogy between terminating a pregnancy and Thomson's case of unplugging a violinist with a life-threatening disease who has been hooked up to your body while you were asleep: in the former case, the woman having the abortion is an agent of harm, while in Thomson's case, there is an already existing fatal sequence (the violinist has a life-threatening disease) which you are allowing to take its course if you choose to disconnect yourself from the violinist.

Foot sets the scene at the very beginning of her essay, sharply distinguishing her position from that of philosophers such as James Rachels, Michael Tooley and Jonathan Bennett, who deny the ethical validity of the distinction between doing and allowing harm. Foot finds the moral stance adopted by these philosophers severely wanting, as it fails to explain why certain kinds of acts strike us as being unconscionable, while others with identical life-and-death consequences do not.

To illustrate the implausibility of the view that there is no morally relevant difference between killing someone and allowing them to die, Foot examines the question of whether we are as equally to blame for allowing people in Third World countries to starve to death as we would be for killing them by sending them poisoned food? Philosophers such as Rachels, Tooley and Bennett see no clearcut difference between these cases: they argue that our agency plays a part in what happens, whichever way they die, and they maintain that if there is any moral difference between the two cases, it is because of extrinsic factors, such as our reasons for acting as we do and the cost of acting otherwise, which are only contingently related to the distinction between doing and allowing.

Foot finds this view extremely implausible. Among other things, the view espoused by Rachels, Tooley and Bennett entails that it would be no worse to murder someone to get money for some comfort such as a nice winter coat than it would be to keep the money back before sending a life-saving donation to Oxfam or Care. Another problem for this view is that it fails to explain why it would be all right to allow one person to die if saving him meant that we could not save five others (e.g. when a drug is in short supply and he needs five times as much as each of them), but nevertheless wrong to carve up one patient to get "spare parts" for five.

But Foot refuses to to rest on her philosophical laurels at this point. Having shown that two acts with similar life-and-death consequences may be completely different in their moral character, she ponders the question of exactly what this difference consists in. She concludes that the traditional distinction between between killing and allowing to die does not quite coincide with the moral distinction she is looking for, as it fails to explain why having someone killed (which is not strictly killing him) is just as bad as killing, morally speaking. Nor will the commonly invoked act-versus-omission distinction do the trick. If we imagine that a patient in a hospital were on a respirator with a 24-hour timer, which needed to be turned on each morning, then the decision of the patient's nurse not to turn on the respirator in the morning would be just as murderous as her turning it off during the daytime. Foot is therefore forced to invent some new ethical terminology of her own. What makes certain kinds of fatal choices unconscionable is not the fact that they are acts of killing, but rather the fact that the person who initiates them is the agent of the harm that befalls someone else.

But how do we decide who this agent is? Foot argues that we can think of particular deaths as the result of particular sequences, as when a certain fatal sequence leads to someone's death. Then we can pick out the fatal sequence and ask who initiated it. This person is 'the agent' of someone else's death, in Foot's sense. Ditto for harms other than death which may befall someone.

Foot then proposes two moral cases, which she calls Rescue I and Rescue II, to explicate the moral distinction she is defending, between originating a fatal sequence (which is always wrong) and allowing one to continue (which may in certain circumstances be morally permissible):

[I]t is sometimes permissible to allow a certain harm to befall someone, although it would have been wrong to bring this harm on him by one's own agency, i.e. by originating or sustaining the sequence which brings the harm. Let us consider, for instance, a pair of cases which I shall call Rescue I and Rescue II. In the first rescue story we are hurrying in our jeep to save some people - let there be five of them - who are imminently threatened by the ocean tide. We have not a moment to spare, so when we hear of a single person who also needs rescuing from some other disaster we say regretfully that we cannot rescue him, but must leave him to die. To most of us this seems clear ... This is Rescue I, and with it I contrast Rescue II. In the second story we are again hurrying to the place where the tide is coming in in order to rescue the party of people, but this time it is relevant that the road is narrow and rocky. In this case the lone individual is trapped (do not ask me how) on the path. If we are to rescue the five we would have to drive over him. But can we do so? If we stop he will be all right eventually: he is in no danger unless from us. But of course all five of the others will be drowned. As in the first story our choice is between a course of action which will leave one man dead and five men alive at the end of the day and a course of action which will have the opposite result. And yet we surely feel that in the one case we can rescue the five men and in the other we cannot. We can allow someone to die of whatever disaster threatens him if the cost of saving him is failing to save five; we cannot, however, drive over him in order to get to them. We cannot originate a fatal sequence, although we can allow one to run its course. Similiarly, ... we find a contrast between on the one hand refusing to give one man the whole supply of a scarce drug, because we can use portions of it to save five, and on the other, cutting him up for spare parts. And we notice that we may not originate a fatal sequence even if the resulting death is in no sense our object. We could not knowingly subject one person to deadly fumes in the process of manufacturing some substance that would save many, even if the poisoning were a mere side-effect of the process that saves lives. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Foot has thus managed to formulate a clear moral distinction, which adequately accounts for the fact that two acts with similar life-and-death consequences may differ as to their moral character. For Foot, the crucial difference boils down to whether those who are going to die if we act in a certain way will die as a result of a sequence that we originate, or of one we merely allow to continue. However, Foot has not yet explained the underlying moral basis for this distinction. Why is it wrong to originate a fatal sequence of events? Foot suggests that it is because doing so violates a person's right to noninterference, which is entailed by his/her having a right to life. Rights to noninterference are distinguished from rights to goods or services: the former rights entail a duty not to interfere, which may be called a 'negative duty', while the latter entail a duty to provide the goods or services, which is a 'positive duty'.

While Foot allows that these rights may in certain circumstances be over-ridden, she argues that it typically takes a lot more to justify an interference than to justify the withholding of goods or services. Some people even believe that nothing could possibly justify the deliberate killing of the innocent. So how does all this relate to the morality of killing and allowing to die - or more generally, with the harm which an agent originates versus the harmful sequences of events which an agent allows to continue?

The crucial point here is that the violation of a right to noninterference (which is entailed by someone's having a right to life) occurs when the violator perpetrates an act of interference, which implies "breaking into an existing sequence and initiating a new one." It is not usually possible to violate a person's right to noninterference by simply failing to save someone from death. Hence Foot maintains that in circumstances where the right to noninterference is the only right that exists, then it may not be permissible to initiate a fatal sequence, but it may be permissible to withhold aid.

Up to this point, Foot has argued that "having a right to life" primarily entails having a right to noninterference, and she has defined "interference" as originating a sequence of events which will lead to someone's death. In the final part of her essay, she applies her moral distinctions to the question of abortion.

Foot notes that the conventional pro-choice argument distinguishes between the destruction of a fetus and the destruction of a human person. In the context of this argument, the distinction between being the agent of an evil and allowing it to come about is an irrelevant one, as the victim (the fetus) is not a person. Thomson's argument is novel, insofar as it grants the fetus the moral status of a human person, but would still allow the mother the right to deny the fetus the use of her body. Thomson's argument is clearly at odds with Foot's considered view that there is a vital distinction between being the agent or originator of an evil (which Foot considers to be never permissible), and merely allowing an already existing harmful sequence of events to run its course (which may be premissible):

In an influential and widely read article, Judith Jarvis Thomson has suggested an argument for allowing abortion which depends on denying what I have been at pains to maintain.

Thomson suggests that abortion can be justified, at least in certain cases, without the need to deny that the fetus has the moral rights of a human person. For, she says, no person has the absolute right to the use of another's body, even to save his life, and so the fetus, whatever its status, has no right to the use of the mother's body. Her rights override its rights, and justify her in removing it if it seriously encumbers her life. To persuade us to agree with her she invents an example, which is supposed to give a parallel, in which someone dangerously ill is kept alive by being hooked up to the body of another person, without that person's consent. It is obvious, she says, that the person whose body was being used would have no obligation to continue in that situation, suffering immobility or other serious inconvenience, for any length of time. We should not think of him as a murderer if he detached himself, and we ought to think of a pregnant woman as having the same right to rid herself of an unwanted pregnancy. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

The reader who has managed to follow Foot's argument up to this point will have no trouble discerning that a mother having an abortion would qualify as an agent of harm, according to Foot's criteria, since she is the originator of a fatal sequence of events. (Here, we are of course supposing for argument's sake that the fetus is a human person, as Thomson is willing to do.) By contrast, a person unplugging himself from a violinist with a fatal disease is not an agent of harm, as he/she did not initiate the fatal sequence of events that will lead to the violinist's death:

Thomson's whole case depends on this analogy. It is, however, faulty if what I have said earlier is correct. According to my thesis the two cases must be treated quite differently because one involves the initiation of a fatal sequence and the other the refusal to save a life. It is true that someone who extricated hiumself from a situation in which his body was being used in the way a respirator or kidney machine is used could, indeed, be said to kill the other person in detaching himself. But this only shows, once more, that the use of "kill" is not important: what matters is that the fatal sequence resulting in death is not initiated but is rather allowed to take its course. And although charity or duties of care could have dictated that help be given, it seems perfectly reasonable to treat this as a case in which such presumptions are overridden by other rights - those belonging to the person whose body would be used. The case of abortion is of course completely different. The fetus is not in jeopardy because it is in its mother's womb; it is merely dependent on her in the way children are dependent on their parents for food. An abortion, therefore, originates the sequence which ends in the death of the fetus, and the destruction comes about "through the agency" of the mother who seeks the abortion. If the fetus has the moral status of a person then her action is, at best, likened to that of killing for spare parts or in Rescue II; conversely, the action of someone who refused to let his body be used to save the life of the sick man in Thomson's story belongs with the scarce drug decision, or that of Rescue I. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Foot concludes that the only possible way of defending the morality of abortion is to show that the fetus does not have the status of a person:

It appears, therefore, that Thomson's argument is not valid, and that we are thrown back to the old debate about the moral status of the fetus, which stands as the crucial issue in determining whether abortion is justified.

I submit that a fair-minded individual, after reading these rebuttals by Foot and Gordon, would have to concede that Thomson's case of the violinist constitutes a very poor analogy to pregnancy, and that Thomson has failed to show that the obligations are equivalent in the two cases.

Part F - Abortion Hurts Women

Left: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) - an eighteenth century English philosopher, women's rights camapigner and avid opponent of abortion.
Center: Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) - a pioneering American feminist, women's suffrage campaigner and ardent pro-lifer.
Right: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) - a pioneering American social activist, women's suffrage campaigner and ardent pro-lifer.
Readers may click here to see pro-life quotes by pioneering feminists, including Susan B. Anthony, Mattie Brinkerhoff, Matilda Gage, Emma Goldman, Sarah Norton, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Victoria Woodhull.


(i) There Is A Massive Amount Of Scientific Evidence That Abortion Harms Women's Mental Health
(ii) The Methodological Flaws In Pro-choice "Studies" Purporting To Show That Abortion Doesn't Harm Women's Mental Health
(iii) The Harmful Effects Of Abortion on Women's Physical Health, Their Relationships and Their Future Children

Since abortion destroys a human child in the womb, it is also an act which does psychological violence to the woman who carries that child. The pioneering feminist Susan B. Anthony was well aware of the fact that women suffer a terrible mental toll after they have an abortion, when she wrote: "It is practiced by those whose inmost souls revolt from the dreadful deed." (The Revolution, 4(1):4 July 8, 1869.)

Summary: Most abortions in Western countries are performed because of a perceived risk to the mother's mental health, if her pregnancy were to continue to term. In the 1960s and 1970s, when abortion laws were liberalized in the West, campaigners argued that pregnancy could endanger a woman's mental health, and that women had the right to protect themselves against this risk by having an abortion, if they felt the need to do so.

In the twenty-first century, the tables have completely turned. There is now a massive amount of scientific evidence showing that abortion actually harms women's mental health, and that women who carry their pregnancies to term have better mental health, lower suicide rates and lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse than women in similar circumstances who have abortions. I present the evidence, which has been carefully amassed by Professor Priscilla Coleman, in section (i).

Sadly, there are many doctors and psychologists who have a heavy personal investment in the campaign to keep abortion legal. These pro-choice advocates have published studies purporting to show that women who have abortions are no more prone to mental health problems than other women. In section (ii), I shall demonstrate that these studies are propaganda, pure and simple, and that they are based on shoddy science, using poor methodology. To make matters worse, they are often written by people who are in the pockets of the abortion lobby.

In section (iii), I briefly examine the effects of abortion on women's physical as well as mental health, and also on their relationships with their partners, and finally, on the health of their future children.

(i) There Is A Massive Amount Of Scientific Evidence That Abortion Harms Women's Mental Health

According to Dr. Priscilla Coleman, a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green University, "A conservative estimate from the best available data is 20 to 30 percent of women who undergo an abortion will experience serious and/or prolonged negative consequences." She should know. Professor Coleman has done more research than perhaps any other living person, in a quest to scientifically document the harm caused to women's mental health by abortion.

In a massive review ("Abortion and mental health: quantitative synthesis and analysis of research published 1995–2009", in The British Journal of Psychiatry, 199 (3): 180-186, doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.077230) published in 2011, of studies investigating the link between abortion and women's mental health, Professor Priscilla Coleman found that having an abortion places women at a substantially greater risk of subsequently developing mental problems. Here is a recent report from Thaddeus Baklinski, of LifeSiteNews (September 1, 2011), on the latest research by Professor Coleman:

LONDON, UK, September 1, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - A new study published today in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that women who underwent an abortion experienced an 81% increased risk of mental health problems. The study also found that almost 10% of all women's mental health problems are directly linked to abortion.

Conducted by Priscilla K. Coleman, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA, the study was based on an analysis of 22 separate studies and 36 measures of effect, that involved a total of 877,181 participants of whom 163,831 had experienced an abortion. The study took into account pre-existing mental health problems prior to the abortion.

"In order to avoid any allegations of bias," Dr. Coleman explained, "very stringent inclusion criteria were employed. This means every strong study was included and weaker studies were excluded.

"Specifically, among the rules for inclusion were sample size of 100 or more participants, use of a comparison group, and employment of controls for variables that may confound the effects such as demographics, exposure to violence, prior history of mental health problems, etc."

This makes Dr. Coleman's study the most comprehensive of its kind to date.

And what did Professor Coleman's research reveal?

The research revealed that abortion was associated with a 34% increased risk for anxiety disorders; 37% greater risk of depression; 110% greater risk of alcohol abuse and 220% greater risk of marijuana use/abuse.

Abortion was also linked with a 155% greater risk of attempting to commit suicide.

"The strongest subgroup estimates of increased risk occurred when abortion was compared with term pregnancy and when the outcomes pertained to substance use and suicidal behavior," Dr. Coleman observed.

Dr. Coleman described the results more fully in her study:

Discussion (p. 183)

Based on data extracted from 22 studies, the results of this meta-analytic review of the abortion and mental health literature indicate quite consistently that abortion is associated with moderate to highly increased risks of psychological problems subsequent to the procedure. The magnitude of effects derived varied based on the comparison group (no abortion, pregnancy delivered, unintended pregnancy delivered) and the type of problem examined (alcohol use/misuse, marijuana use, anxiety, depression, suicidal behaviours). Overall, the results revealed that women who had undergone an abortion experienced an 81% increased risk of mental health problems, and nearly 10% of the incidence of mental health problems was shown to be directly attributable to abortion. The strongest effects were observed when women who had had an abortion were compared with women who had carried to term and when the outcomes measured related to substance use and suicidal behaviour. Great care was taken to assess accurately the risks from the most methodologically sophisticated studies, and the quantitatively based conclusions reflect data gathered on over three-quarters of a million women....

Concluding remarks (pp. 184-185)

The composite results reported herein indicate that abortion is a statistically validated risk factor for the development of various psychological disorders. However, when the independent variable cannot be ethically manipulated, as is the case with abortion history, definitive causal conclusions are precluded from both individual studies and from a quantitative synthesis such as this one. Although an answer to the causal question is not readily discerned based on the data available, as more prospective studies with numerous controls are being published, indirect evidence for a causal connection is beginning to emerge.

What was the reaction of the mainstream media? A deafening silence. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the media are biased against the pro-life movement. Proof of media bias on the abortion issue has been meticulously uncovered by Cliff Kincaid, who is the Director of the Accuracy in Media Center for Investigative Journalism. As a media critic, he has dedicated his career to digging up facts and trying to bring accuracy and responsibility to a variety of media sources. Cliff Kincaid has spent time investigating the media and has documented numerous cases that prove a liberal and pro-abortion bias exists within the mainstream media. Readers can click here to watch a DVD program online, detailing abortion bias in the mainstream media.

Dr. Coleman also spelled out the inclusion criteria for her study, which were quite rigorous:

Inclusion criteria (p. 181):

Studies identified using the Medline and PsycINFO databases were included in this review if they met the following criteria: a sample size of 100 or more participants; use of a comparison group (no abortion, pregnancy delivered or unintended pregnancy delivered); one or more mental health outcome variables (depression, anxiety, alcohol use, marijuana use or suicidal behaviour); controls for third variables; use of odds ratios to express effects observed to facilitate calculation of readily interpretable pooled odds ratios and PAR statistics; publication in English in peer-reviewed journals between 1995 and 2009.

In the opening paragraphs of her study (pp. 180-181), Dr. Coleman critiqued the methodology of three recent, widely publicized reviews of the psychological literature, which found no evidence of a link between abortion and women's mental health, despite the fact that scores of studies have done so:

Over the past several decades, hundreds of studies have been published indicating statistically significant associations between induced abortion and adverse psychological outcomes of various forms. However, the authors of the three most recent qualitative literature reviews arrived at the conclusion that abortion does not pose serious risks above those associated with unintended pregnancy carried to term. This conclusion is problematic for several reasons, the most salient of which are described briefly below.

First, only a handful of studies have actually included unintended pregnancy carried to term as a control group...

Second, many recently published studies with extensive controls for third variables were not reflected in the three recent reviews, with no explanation given as to why large segments of the peer-reviewed literature were missing...

Third, in all three literature reviews the choice of studies lacked sufficient methodologically based selection criteria. As a result the sample of studies included was either too broad, resulting in incorporation of results from numerous weaker studies, or too narrow, resulting in unjustified elimination of sound studies...

The fourth troubling issue is the fact that quantification of effects was not attempted by any of the three research teams. Given the expansive literature on abortion and mental health, there is no reasonable justification for not quantifying effects.

Dr. Coleman's 2011 meta-study built on the work of many scientists, who have been examining the link between abortion and women's mental health for decades. There is now a massive amount of scientific evidence that abortion harms women's mental health. Here is a complete list of 35 studies showing that abortion has a negative impact on women's mental health, in the past five years alone. These studies indicate that women who have had an abortion are at an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as suicide ideation and behaviors.

(ii)The Methodological Flaws In Pro-choice "Studies" Purporting To Show That Abortion Doesn't Harm Women's Mental Health

The available evidence shows that recent studies calling into question the link between abortion and mental health problems for women are: (a) vastly outnumbered by studies which demonstrate the existence of such a link; (b) sloppily conducted; (c) methodologically flawed; and (d) often written by people who are in the pockets of the abortion lobby. I present three exhibits below. I invite the skeptical reader to judge for him/herself.

Exhibit One:

In an article in The Washington Post entitled "The big lie about abortion and mental health" (Sunday, November 7, 2010), Professor Brenda Major called into question Professor Priscilla Coleman's published findings indicating a link between abortion and women's mental health problems. "Rigorous U.S. scientific studies have not substantiated the claim that abortion, compared with its alternatives, causes an increased incidence of mental health problems," she wrote, adding that an American Psychological Association task force, which she chaired in 2008, failed to uncover a causal link between abortion and mental health problems. According to Major, people who believe there is a link are thinking irrationally: first, they confuse correlation with causation (as there may be preexisting differences between women who continue a pregnancy and those who end one), and second, they are overly influenced by vivid, first-person accounts of women who feel harmed by abortion. "For example, one woman who shared her story on an antiabortion Web site said that after her abortion, 'I became very depressed and tried to kill myself by taking an entire bottle of pain pills, and I was unconscious for three days.' Her story drowns out the evidence that a much larger number of women feel relief following an abortion," Major wrote.

Professor Coleman published a reply a few days later. Responding to Professor Major's claims that there was no good evidence of a causal link between abortion and mental health problems in women, Coleman pointed to dozens of studies in recent years (see the list above), indicating the existence of such a link:

"Over 30 studies have been published in just the last 5 years and they add to a body of literature comprised of hundreds of studies published in major medicine and psychology journals throughout the world."

Defending her academic reputation, Professor Coleman noted:

"Like Brenda Major, I too am a tenured, full professor at a well-respected U.S. University and I, too, have published peer-reviewed scientific articles in reputable journals. In fact, my publication record far exceeds that of Dr. Major on the topic of abortion and mental health. I am not alone in my opinion, which has been voiced by prominent researchers in Great Britain, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the U.S., and elsewhere.

"As a group of researchers, who in 2008 had published nearly 50 peer-reviewed articles indicating abortion is associated with negative psychological outcomes, 6 colleagues and I sent a petition letter to the American Psychological Association (APA) criticizing their methods and conclusions as described in their Task Force Report on Abortion and Mental Health.

"The opinion piece by Brenda Major following on the heels of the highly biased APA report is just the latest effort to divert attention from a tidal wave of sound published data on the emotional consequences of abortion. The evidence is accumulating despite socio-political agendas to keep the truth from the academic journals and ultimately from women to insure that the big business of abortion continues unimpeded."

Who is Brenda Major?

In any case, There are strong grounds for doubting that Professor Brenda Major is an impartial source of information on the psychological effects of abortion. The information provided below on Professor Major can be verified online here.

I would like to be perfectly clear that I am not accusing Professor Major of unprofessional or unethical conduct. The accusations made against her may be unjustified. However, I think people are entitled to ask why Professor Major has refused to share data from her studies, even when the data was requested by the Department of Health and Human Services. (For further details, please see this LifeNews report: Researcher: APA Chair Withholding Info on Abortion’s Mental Health Risks (Steven Ertelt, August 15, 2008). An excerpt:

Dr. David Reardon, the head of the Illinois-based Elliot Institute, says the report [by Professor Major - VJT] is tarnished by the fact that the lead author, Dr. Brenda Major, has violated the APA’s own data sharing rules.

He tells LifeNews.com Major consistently refused to allow her own data on abortion and mental health effects to be reanalyzed by other researchers.

Major, an abortion advocate, has even evaded a request from the Department of Health and Human Services, Reardon contends, to deliver copies of data she collected under a federal grant.

Because her study of emotional reactions two years after an abortion was federally funded, the data she collected is actually federal property, he tells LifeNews.com.

I would like to add that the withholding of data from other researchers is a violation of APA ethics rule 8.14, which reads as follows:

8.14 Sharing Research Data for Verification
(a) After research results are published, psychologists do not withhold the data on which their conclusions are based from other competent professionals who seek to verify the substantive claims through reanalysis and who intend to use such data only for that purpose, provided that the confidentiality of the participants can be protected and unless legal rights concerning proprietary data preclude their release. This does not preclude psychologists from requiring that such individuals or groups be responsible for costs associated with the provision of such information.

(b) Psychologists who request data from other psychologists to verify the substantive claims through reanalysis may use shared data only for the declared purpose. Requesting psychologists obtain prior written agreement for all other uses of the data. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Now, it may be the case that Professor Major has a perfectly valid explanation for why she is unable to supply the data supporting her research findings. I find it very curious, however, that she has failed to explain what that reason is.

Professor Coleman's Critical Analysis Of The 2008 APA Task Force Report on Abortion and Mental Health, chaired by Professor Brenda Major

After the 2008 APA Task Force Report on Abortion and Mental Health was released, Professor Priscilla Coleman wrote a critical analysis of the report. Professor Coleman's critical analysis is available online here. As the flaws it finds in the APA are significant ones, I shall reproduce Professor Coleman's analysis in full. Emphases below are mine.

APA Task Force Report on Abortion and Mental Health: Violation of the Methods of Science and a Breach of Public Responsibility

Priscilla K. Coleman, Ph.D. Bowling Green State University

There is sufficient data in the scientific literature to conclude that induced abortion substantially increases risk of anxiety, depression, substance use, suicide ideation, and suicide. Over the last two decades hundreds of studies documenting abortion as a significant risk factor for mental health problems have been published in premier psychology and medical peer-reviewed journals. The research has been conducted by investigators with diverse disciplinary affiliations residing in nations across the globe (United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Canada, and South Africa among others).

Unfortunately the rapidly accumulating evidence was largely discounted in a report released by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2008. The organization convened a Task Force of researchers holding strong pro-choice views to provide an analysis of the scientific evidence pertaining to abortion and mental health. Tragically for the millions of individual women and professionals who trust the APA to provide valid assessments of scientific information, the work was clearly politically driven and the report produced seriously distorted the literature.

To arrive at their conclusion indicating the relative risk of mental health problems is no greater for a first-trimester abortion than it is for an unplanned pregnancy carried to term, the organization critically departed from accepted scientific protocol. Problems plaguing the report included the following:

1) selective reporting of previously published reviews of the literature;
2) avoidance of methodologically based criteria to select studies to review;
3) a deceptive strategy to justify ignoring large groups of studies indicating negative effects;
4) shifting standards of evaluation of individual studies based on the results being congruent with a pro-choice agenda; and
5) avoidance of quantification of effects which offers the most objective means of pooling results across several studies.

Perhaps most egregious was the fact that the Task Force relied on one study from England published in 1995 to draw their definitive conclusion.

One brief example of the many false statements from the APA Task Force report is where they claim "Rarely did research designs include a comparison group that was otherwise equivalent to women who had an elective abortion." I have personally authored or co-authored three studies with unintended pregnancy delivered as a comparison group. (Coleman, 2006; Cougle, Reardon, Coleman, & Rue, 2005; Reardon, Coleman, & Cougle, 2004). All three studies indicated abortion was associated with more mental health problems than unintended pregnancy delivered.

Within weeks of the release of the APA Task Force Report, seven researchers who together authored nearly 50 peer-reviewed article demonstrating negative effects of abortion wrote a petition letter to Dr. Alan Kazdin, President of the APA. Key points raised included the following:

1) the wholesale dismissal of most of the evidence in the field;
2) the fact that in no other area of public health research has a highly contested issue been resolved on the basis of a single out of date research study as was done in the APA report; and
3) the APA report was not an impartial assessment of the mental health risks of abortion and its conclusions were unduly colored by the views of its authors.

In closing, we requested a retraction or revision indicating that the weight of the evidence in this area is not consistent with the conclusions drawn by the Task Force. The APA did not take any public action on our letter.

When considering the many deviations from accepted values and methods of science characterizing the process and conclusion of the APA Task Force along with the results of sophisticated, large scale studies conducted by independent research groups in recent years, it becomes clear that the conclusions of the APA Task Force are grossly inaccurate. The findings should therefore not be accepted at face value by the public, health care professionals, or legislative bodies.

For the benefit of readers, I should add that the American Psychological Association (APA) has adopted a political, not a scientific, position on abortion. This was officially done in 1967 by a vote to treat abortion as a "civil right." The bias of the APA in promoting an "ultra-liberal agenda" has been documented in a recent book, "Destructive Trends in Mental Health: The Well-Intentioned Path to Harm" (Edited by Rogers H. Wright and Nicolas A. Cummings, 2005. New York: Routledge), written by two self-identified "lifelong liberal activists" who are both influential leaders of the American Psychological Association, but who vigorously oppose the illiberalism of their fellow psychologists. See here for a review by A. Dean Byrd, Ph.D., MBA, MPH. (Dr. Byrd is on the Governing Board of the Utah Psychological Association.)

After viewing the foregoing evidence, I hope that impartial readers will conclude that the American Psychiatric Association cannot be regarded as a trustworthy source when it makes pronouncements on the psychological effects of abortion on women.

Exhibit Two:

In December 2010, a widely touted study by Julia Steinberg and Lawrence Finer (Social Science and Medicine, Vol.72, No. 1, pp. 72-82, doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.10.006) claimed to debunk research by Professor Priscilla Coleman, showing that women who reported having had an abortion were at increased risk for anxiety, mood disorders and substance abuse. The analysis by Steinberg and Finer failed to find any such link. "We were unable to reproduce the most basic tabulations of Coleman and colleagues," Steinberg said in a statement released with the paper. "Moreover, their findings were logically inconsistent with other published research -- for example, they found higher rates of depression in the last month than other studies found during respondents' entire lifetimes. This suggests that the results were substantially inflated."

In an interview about the new study by Steinberg and Finer, Professor Coleman rebutted these criticisms. "Despite their many claims to have conducted a 're-analysis' of our study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, Steinberg and Finer have conducted a very different set of analyses," Coleman said. She explained:

"The critical distinction is in how the psychological disorders were defined. Our analyses reflected 12-month prevalence and their analyses reflected only the 30 day prevalence. Our results are quite similar to those reported by pro-choice researcher David Fergusson in 2006 and many others. There are additional differences between the two sets of analyses, most notably related to the choice of potential confounding variables and the methods used to control them in the analyses."

Coleman wants to know if Steinberg and Finer plan to "replicate" the 2010 study by Mota and colleagues published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry where the authors used the NCS Replication data and their results were quite consistent with Coleman's.

"I find it hard to imagine that Steinberg and Finer believe a journal as reputable as the JPR - edited by Alan Schatzberg, M.D., president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association - would publish an article indicating that abortion poses psychological risks to women independent of other stressors without scrutinizing the methodology carefully," she added.

Finally, Professor Coleman questioned the objectivity of the authors of the new study. "These two authors have strong pro-choice ties. The first author is a recent recipient of the generous Charlotte Ellertson Social Science Fellowship and the second author is a long-time employee of the Guttmacher Institute. The conscientious reader will question their objectivity," she concludes.

Exhibit Three:

A recent study by Danish researchers Munk-Olsen, Laursen, Pedersen, Lidegaard and Mortensen, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (364:332-339, January 27, 2011) cast doubt on the link between abortion and mental health problems in women: "The finding that the incidence rate of psychiatric contact was similar before and after a first-trimester abortion does not support the hypothesis that there is an increased risk of mental disorders after a first-trimester induced abortion," it concluded. However, as Professor Priscilla Coleman pointed out in a recent critical review, the study suffers from serious methodological flaws:

"First, the measure of pre-abortion mental health is likely high (more than 3 times greater than prior to birth, 14.6% vs. 3.9%), because many of the women were probably in the midst of abortion decision-making when they experienced their first psychiatric visit. This high rate of pre-abortion mental health problems is construed to indicate that women who choose abortion will often experience mental health problems based on factors other than the procedure.

"In fact, the women in the sample are quite unlikely to fall into this 'vulnerable' category since none of the women included in the study had any history of psychological diagnoses prior to 9 months before the abortion. These researchers used a window of 0-9 months to measure pre-abortion mental health; however, the assessment should instead have been before the pregnancies were detected. The data do indicate that rates of mental health problems are significantly higher after abortion compared to after childbirth (15.2% vs. 6.7%) and compared to not having been pregnant (8.2%)...

"Second, the authors note in the beginning of their article that previous studies lack controls for third variables, but the only third variables they consider are age and parity. There are no controls for pregnancy wantedness, coercion by others to abort, marital status, income, education, exposure to violence and other traumas, etc. Many studies have been deemed inadequate based on only one of these variables not being accounted for (see APA Task Force Report, 2008), yet the study design was considered adequate to merit publication in the NEJM.

"Third, all women who had psychiatric histories more than 9 months prior to the abortion were not included in the study and there are many studies showing that these women are at heightened risk for post-abortion mental health problems. In this study, the researchers have narrowed the participant pool to only the healthiest of women and there are high rates before and after abortion…imagine if all women had been included! Women who experience repeat abortions are likewise not considered at all and they are more likely to be at risk for mental health problems post-dating the procedure.

"Fourth, the results follow women for only one year post-abortion or childbirth and there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the negative effects of abortion may not surface for several years. There is also data indicating that women are most likely to experience postpartum psychological problems soon after birth with the benefits of motherhood often manifesting later than the first year wherein many life-style adjustments are necessary."

Exhibit Four:

In April 2011, a panel of The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) issued a draft review, an analysis of other studies, which concluded there is no difference in mental health outcomes whether a woman gives birth or has an abortion. The key point of the review is that mental health outcomes from induced abortion or childbirth are associated with a woman's mental health before abortion. In other words, if depression follows abortion it is because the woman has a pre-existing mental health condition, and not because the abortion itself causes her to be depressed. Additionally, the review states that mental health outcomes are likely to be the same, whether women with unwanted pregnancies opt for an abortion or birth.

In a highly critical Consultation Comment which she kindly forwarded to me, Professor Priscilla Coleman identified several key weaknesses of the draft review by The Royal College of Psychiatrists. I have quoted selected excerpts from Professor Coleman's comments:

To sum up: the available evidence clearly indicates the existence of a link between abortion and mental health problems for women. Studies purporting to show otherwise are sloppily conducted, methodologically flawed, and often written by people who are funded by the abortion lobby. Such studies do not deserve to be called "scientific," for that would be doing a grave disservice to science.

(iii) The Harmful Effects Of Abortion on Women's Physical Health, Their Relationships and Their Future Children

Caption: The Parliament of Finland. Courtesy of Wikipedia. After examining the position of women around the world, the Washington-based Population Crisis Committee reported in 1988 that Finland was one of the best places in which a woman could live. Even in this egalitarian country, abortion has a profoundly negative impact on women's mental health. A 13-year study (1987-2000) of the entire female population of Finland aged 15-49 found the suicide rate among women who had had abortions was 6 times higher than that of women who had given birth, and twice that of women who had had miscarriages, according to Raymond Adamek, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Kent State University.

Readers wanting to learn more about the harmful effects of abortion on women, their relationships and the health of their subsequent children would be advised to read Professor Raymond Adamek's article, Legal Abortion Harms Women. Raymond Adamek is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Kent State University. Here are a few excerpts from Professor Adamek's article:

At least thirty of 44 worldwide studies show a link between induced abortion and an increased incidence of breast cancer.(6) See a review of some of these studies in Brind et al.(7) Overall, Brind found a 50% increase in risk for women who had an abortion before the birth of their first child, and a 30% increase in risk for women who had an abortion after the birth of their first child...

At least 64 studies find that induced abortion increases the risk of prematurity and low birth weight in subsequent births....

A 13-year study (1987-2000) of the entire female population of Finland aged 15-49 found the suicide rate among women who had abortions was 6 times higher than that of women who had given birth, and twice that of women who had miscarriages.21 David C. Reardon studied the MediCal records of over 173,000 California women who had given birth or aborted in 1989. Women who had statefunded abortions were 2.5 times more likely to die of suicide than MediCal women who had given birth.(22) A more recent U.S. study involving a nationally representative sample of 3,310 women found that those experiencing an abortion were 59% more likely to engage in suicidal ideation and 51% more likely to have attempted suicide than those not having an abortion. This study controlled for the women’s age, race, education, marital status, household income and whether they had experienced violence (physical abuse, rape, other sexual assault, being mugged or held up, or threatened with a weapon). Thirty percent of the women reported that the suicidal ideation took place after their first abortion, while 23% reported their suicide attempt occurred after their abortion.(23)...

At least 29 studies show a link between abortion and substance abuse. Most of these studies are cited in Reardon.(34) Five large scale studies have been published and include samples from the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.(35,36) Reardon and Ney found aborting women were 5 times more likely to report later substance abuse than birthing women, and 4 times more likely than those having miscarriages.(37) The most recent national sample study found women experiencing abortion were 2 to 4 times more likely than those not experiencing abortion to be involved with substance abuse/dependency. The researchers were able to determine that in 42% to 49% of the cases, the substance abuse/dependence began after the abortion.(38)...

In a review of 68 studies, Priscilla K. Coleman analyzed findings regarding the negative impact of abortion on partner relationships.(40) Partners having abortions experience increased communication problems, domestic violence, sexual dysfunction and likelihood of separation and divorce. Post-abortion feelings of guilt, anger and grief, as well as different beliefs about the nature of abortion, and male-female differences in how these are experienced and reacted to, also put strains on the relationship. Research has also shown that inadequate preabortion counseling contributes to relationship problems, as does partner disagreement regarding the abortion decision.(41)

To sum up: the scientific evidence that abortion hurts women, physically and mentally, as well as harming their relationships and the health of their future children, is now overwhelming. I for one find it unconscionable that the public is not presented with this evidence by the mainstream media. The people have a right to know.

Part G - What about women who are victims of rape or incest?

Eartha Kitt (1927-2008) was conceived through rape. She went on to become a famous American actress, singer and cabaret star. Picture taken by Alan Light. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


The reader might reasonably object that while abortion damages women's mental health in most cases, surely there are extreme cases where it would be imposing an undue psychological burden upon her to expect her to carry her unborn child to term. It seems inhumane to require a woman who has been brutally raped to carry someone inside her body who continually reminds her of her rapist, for a period of nine months.

Surprisingly, research shows that abortion aggravates, rather than relieves, the psychological trauma of women who have been raped. I refer the skeptical reader to the following article:

What about abortion in cases of rape and incest? Women and sexual assault by Amy Sobie, in Lifenews.com.
Amy Sobie is the editor of The Post-Abortion Review, a quarterly publication of the Elliot Institute. The organization is a widely respected leader in research and analysis of medical, mental health and other complications resulting from abortions. (Click here for a link to the Elliot Institute's research page.) She writes: "our research shows that most women who become pregnant through sexual assault don't want abortion, and say abortion only compounds their trauma." Here is an excerpt:

Many people, including those whose mission is to help women and girls who are victims of sexual assault and abuse, believe abortion is the best solution if a pregnancy occurs.

Yet our research shows that most women who become pregnant through sexual assault don't want abortion, and say abortion only compounds their trauma.

"How can you deny an abortion to a twelve-year-old girl who is the victim of incest?"

Typically, people on both sides of the abortion debate accept the premise that most women who become pregnant through sexual assault want abortions. From this "fact," it naturally follows that the reason women want abortions in these cases is because it will help them to put the assault behind them, recover more quickly, and avoid the additional trauma of giving birth to a "rapist's child."

But in fact, the welfare of a mother and her child are never at odds, even in sexual assault cases. As the stories of many women confirm, both the mother and the child are helped by preserving life, not by perpetuating violence.

Sadly, however, the testimonies of women who have actually been pregnant through sexual assault are routinely left out of this public debate. Many people, including sexual assault victims who have never been pregnant, may be forming opinions based on their own prejudices and fears rather than the real life experiences of those people who have been in this difficult situation and reality.

For example, it is commonly assumed that rape victims who become pregnant would naturally want abortions. But in the only major study of pregnant rape victims ever done prior to this book, Dr. Sandra Mahkorn found that 75 to 85 percent did not have abortions. This figure is remarkably similar to the 73 percent birth rate found in our sample of 164 pregnant rape victims. This one finding alone should cause people to pause and reflect on the presumption that abortion is wanted or even best for sexual assault victims.1

Several reasons were given for not aborting. Many women who become pregnant through sexual assault do not believe in abortion, believing it would be a further act of violence perpetrated against their bodies and their children. Further, many believe that their children's lives may have some intrinsic meaning or purpose which they do not yet understand. This child was brought into their lives by a horrible, repulsive act. But perhaps God, or fate, will use the child for some greater purpose. Good can come from evil.

The woman may also sense, at least at a subconscious level, that if she can get through the pregnancy she will have conquered the rape. By giving birth, she can reclaim some of her lost self-esteem. Giving birth, especially when conception was not desired, is a totally selfless act, a generous act, a display of courage, strength, and honor. It is proof that she is better than the rapist. While he was selfish, she can be generous. While he destroyed, she can nurture.

The pro-life women's group, Feminists for Life, has a very moving article on its Website, entitled: Abortion: The Second Rape by Joan Kemp (reprinted from SisterLife. Ms. Kemp pulls no punches in her article. She contends that the popular view that abortion is in the best interests of rape and incest victims reflects an "unconscious acceptance of the patriarchal values that consider woman, especially victims of sexual assault, inferior." I'd quote to quote a few brief excerpts from Joan Kemp's article. First, she makes it clear that she is speaking from her own experience:

I myself have had an abortion, and there was an element of sexual assault in that pregnancy. I have, in my healing process, talked with many aborted women, including rape victims. I have also spent a year counseling at a rape crisis center, so I am familiar with the realities of both abortion and sexual assault. I have observed that woman's reposes to these experiences are nearly identical, with a higher incidence of self-blame and of delayed onset of symptoms in victims of abortion.

Many people assume that giving an incest victim an abortion would be an act of compassion, as it reduces the trauma they have to undergo. But in fact, as Joan Kemp points out, abortion actually increases the trauma for an incest victim. The only people it "benefits" are the victim's parents, who don't want to deal with the shame.

In every case of abortion after incest with which I am familiar, the abortion was arranged by the perpetrator or his wife, with the purpose of concealing the incest. In one case a young woman had seven abortions before she was fourteen, and the incest continued. She developed severe mental health problems as a result of this abuse, which the parents maintained was for her own good - both the sex and the abortions.

Most incest victims are given no choice but abortion, just as they were given no choice about sex. I vividly recall one victim of incest/abortion whom I met years after the events. She said she still didn't understand why she had to be aborted; it would not have been that much more trouble to see the pregnancy through, and she would have had one less trauma to deal with. I am familiar with no case of incest-related abortion that did not make matters worse for the victim. These abortions are done for the benefit of the adults involved, not the incest victim.

The reader might be under the mistaken impression that abortions are relatively free of trauma for adult women who have been raped. Indeed, one might imagine that they experience an overwhelming sense of relief. However, as Ms. Kemp points out, nothing could be further from the truth:

In the case of adult rape victims, abortion is equally destructive. Women report that they are suffering from the trauma of abortion long after the rape trauma has faded. In fact, abortion because of rape tends to be more traumatic than the average abortion. One reason is that the woman feels that there is no option but to abort, and this compounds the trauma of having had no choice about sex. A woman who might never otherwise have submitted to abortion may feel forced into it after a rape.

The reader may be wondering: what happens to rape victims who carry their pregnancies to term?

Although I am familiar with fewer cases of rape victims carrying to term, it appears that by mid-pregnancy there is a tendency to accept the pregnancy, and it is not unusual for the woman to keep and parent the baby. However, she is often revictimized by attitudes which assume that a rape victim should be aborted, and doubts that she was actually raped. What she needs at this time is the full support of those around her, and affirmation of her worth and capability. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

I'd like to close by quoting from the personal testimony of Rebecca Kiessling, a successful attorney and pro-life speaker who was conceived through rape. She tells her story here. I shall quote a short excerpt:

I was adopted nearly from birth. At 18, I learned that I was conceived out of a brutal rape at knife-point by a serial rapist. Like most people, I'd never considered that abortion applied to my life, but once I received this information, all of a sudden I realized that, not only does it apply to my life, but it has to do with my very existence. It was as if I could hear the echoes of all those people who, with the most sympathetic of tones, would say, "Well, except in cases of rape... ," or who would rather fervently exclaim in disgust: "Especially in cases of rape!!!" All these people are out there who don't even know me, but are standing in judgment of my life, so quick to dismiss it just because of how I was conceived. I felt like I was now going to have to justify my own existence, that I would have to prove myself to the world that I shouldn't have been aborted and that I was worthy of living. I also remember feeling like garbage because of people who would say that my life was like garbage - that I was disposable.

Please understand that whenever you identify yourself as being "pro-choice," or whenever you make that exception for rape, what that really translates into is you being able to stand before me, look me in the eye, and say to me, "I think your mother should have been able to abort you." That's a pretty powerful statement. I would never say anything like that to someone. I would say never to someone, "If I had my way, you’d be dead right now." But that is the reality with which I live. I challenge anyone to describe for me how it's not. It’s not like people say, "Oh well, I'm pro-choice except for that little window of opportunity in 1968/69, so that you, Rebecca, could have been born." No - this is the ruthless reality of that position, and I can tell you that it hurts and it's mean. But I know that most people don’t put a face to this issue. For them, it's just a concept – a quick cliche, and they sweep it under the rug and forget about it. I do hope that, as a child of rape, I can help to put a face, a voice, and a story to this issue.

I've often experienced those who would confront me and try to dismiss me with quick quips like, "Oh well, you were lucky!" Be sure that my survival has nothing to do with luck. The fact that I'm alive today has to do with choices that were made by our society at large, people who fought to ensure abortion was illegal in Michigan at the time – even in cases of rape, people who argued to protect my life, and people who voted pro-life. I wasn't lucky. I was protected.

Finally, I'd like to add that the pro-life atheist Doris Gordon, founder of Libertarians for Life, thinks abortion is wrong even in the case of rape, as she indicates here. She writes:

The purpose of abortion is not merely pregnancy termination; its purpose is to kill, to take the life of prenatal human offspring. Under justice, however, there is no such thing as a ~right~ to kill innocent people -- no exceptions.

To sum up: the common attitude that abortion is "in the best interests" of women who are victims of rape and incest is condescending patriarchal nonsense, with no factual basis in reality.

Part H - Do Women in Third World Countries Need Access to Legal Abortion?

Many Africans, both women and men, are strongly pro-life. Picture courtesy of www.renewamerica.com and Human Life International.


(i) MYTH ONE: Half a million women die in childbirth every year, and 70,000 die from illegal abortions.
(ii) MYTH TWO: China's one-child policy is harsh, but necessary.
(iii) MYTH THREE: The reason why malnutrition is so widespread in India is that Indian women need more birth control.
(iii) MYTH FOUR: African women need more birth control, because Africa has too many people.

(i) MYTH ONE: Half a million women die in childbirth every year, and 70,000 women die from illegal abortions.

It is commonly alleged that half a million women die every year in childbirth every year (see here, here, here, here and here). This is inaccurate. Sadly, many advocates of abortion on demand have used these figures to push for abortion on demand. As an illustration, consider the following article by Joyce Arthur (see here).

(a) Do half a million women die in childbirth every year?

About 350,000 women (not half a million) die either during or shortly after pregnancy every year. According to the World Health Organization, "A maternal death is defined as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management but not from accidental or incidental causes."

The medical causes of these deaths are many and varied: bacterial infection, gestational hypertension (including pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome), obstetrical hemorrhage, ectopic pregnancy, childbed fever, amniotic fluid embolism, uterine rupture, complications of unsafe or unsanitary abortions, renal failure, cardiac failure, and hyperemesis gravidarum (a severe form of morning sickness).

However, the majority of these deaths could be easily prevented, simply by providing mothers in Third World countries with access to clean water, clean blood and adequate health care.

A recent report in The Lancet ("Maternal mortality for 181 countries, 1980—2008: a systematic analysis of progress towards Millennium Development Goal 5", by Margaret C. Hogan et al., in "The Lancet", Volume 375, Issue 9726, Pages 1609 - 1623, 8 May 2010. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60518-1) describes trends on maternal mortality from 1980 to 2008. The full report in The Lancet can be accessed by subscribers here and a summary by Lifenews can be found here and also here. According to the report, substantial progress has been made in lowering maternal mortality worldwide since 1980. The authors of the article estimated that there were 342,900 maternal deaths worldwide in 2008, down from 526,300 in 1980. (Uncertainty interval for the 2008 figure: 302,100 to 394,300; for the 1980 figure: 446,400 to 629,600.)

The authors of the report strike an optimistic note:

Our analysis of all available data for maternal mortality from 1980 to 2008 for 181 countries has shown a substantial decline in maternal deaths. Progress overall would have been greater if the HIV epidemic had not contributed to substantial increases in maternal mortality in eastern and southern Africa. Global progress to reduce the MMR [maternal mortality rate - VJT] has been similar to progress to reduce maternal deaths, since the size of the global birth cohort has changed little during this period. Across countries, average yearly rates of decline from 1980 to 2008 in the MMR differed widely. This new evidence suggests there is a much greater reason for optimism than has been generally perceived, and that substantial decreases in the MMR are possible over a fairly short time.

Global progress to reduce the MMR should perhaps not be seen as surprising. Four powerful drivers of maternal mortality are improving in most countries. First, the global TFR [total fertility rate - VJT] has dropped from 3·70 in 1980, to 3·26 in 1990 and 2·56 in 2008. Despite rising numbers of women of reproductive age, the decrease in TFR has kept the size of the global birth cohort stable. In addition to the direct effect of fertility on exposure to risk of maternal death,57 the MMR and TFR are strongly correlated. Societies in which the TFR decreases are also places with declines in the MMR — whether this relation is causal or mediated through social change that drives both is not clear. Second, income per head, which can affect maternal mortality through several channels from nutritional status of mothers to physical and financial access to health care, has been rising particularly in Asia and Latin America. Third, maternal educational attainment, another strong correlate of maternal mortality, has been rising — e.g., average years of schooling of women aged 25–44 years in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 1·5 in 1980 to 4·4 in 2008. Finally, although we did not include the proportion of women giving birth with a skilled attendant as a covariate in our model because of collinearity, the steady, albeit slow, rise in coverage of skilled birth attendance could have contributed to maternal mortality declines. Further, some large countries such as India have witnessed quite rapid increases in skilled birth attendance in recent years. The combination of these factors suggests that a finding that the global MMR was not declining would be more surprising. (pp. 1619-1620)

More than 50% of all maternal deaths were in only six countries in 2008 (India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In the absence of HIV, there would have been 281,500 (243,900 – 327,900) maternal deaths worldwide in 2008. (p. 1609) (Emphases mine - VJT.)

The Lifenews summary provides further insight into the factors that were responsible for maternal deaths in Third World countries. Access to clean water, clean blood and health care have been the key factors that benefited mothers in Third World countries, rather than access to abortion:

The report [in The Lancet - VJT] appears to highlight how better access to medicine and medical technology is responsible for improving maternal mortality numbers, not abortion.

The risk of a woman in a developing country dying from a pregnancy-related cause during her lifetime is about 36 times higher compared to a woman living in a developed country, the report noted.

The report shows 10 countries with maternal mortality ratios equal to or over 100 in 1990, are on track with an annual decline of 5.5% between 1990 and 2008.

The study shows progress in sub-Saharan Africa where maternal mortality decreased by 26% in nations that are almost all pro-life. In Asia, the number of maternal deaths is estimated to have dropped from 315,000 to 139,000 between 1990 and 2008, a 52% decrease.

Scott Fischbach, director of the MCCL Global Outreach program, told LifeNews.com today in response to the study: "It is a big step in the right direction to have the UN acknowledge progress on maternal mortality. The facts are clear that we can protect women and their babies with adequate health care, not abortion." ...

"This new study is further proof that it is clean water, clean blood and adequate access to health care — not abortion on demand — that will help pregnant women and their babies globally," Fischbach told LifeNews.com at the time.

"For years the advocates of abortion have used the maternal mortality issue to overthrow pro-life laws in country after country," Fischbach continued. "Without the maternal mortality argument, another gaping hole exists in their push for abortion on demand."

The solution to illegal abortions and high maternal mortality rates is very simple, Fischbach explains: provide hope, opportunity and support for pregnant women by ensuring a clean water supply, clean blood supply and adequate health care. Statistics confirm that these save women's lives — not the legalization of abortion.

(b) Is abortion killing 70,000 women a year?

Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011), an American medical doctor from New York who supervised 75,000 abortions and who helped to found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (N.A.R.A.L., now the National Abortion Rights Action League) in 1968, but who later became a pro-life activist. By Dr. Nathanson's own admission, pro-choice advocates in the 1960s inflated the number of deaths from illegal abortions in the United States by a factor of more than 25. Author: Jorosmtz. Source: Wikipedia.

As the pro-life news blog Lifenews points out, the recent claim that 68,000 (or 70,000) women around the world die every year from illegal abortions is based on highly questionable research conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, an organization which actively lobbies for legalizing abortion worldwide. Here's a short excerpt from the Lifenews report:

Anthony Ozimic, the communications director for SPUC, the British pro-life group, says the Guttmacher study is false.

"The Guttmacher report is not independent academic research but propaganda from the pro-abortion lobby," he told LifeNews.com today. "The Guttmacher Institute was set up to promote abortion and contraception. The report's acknowledgments are a roll-call of the pro-abortion lobby."

Ozimic says "Guttmacher's figures are based on highly spurious guesstimates, which even the report itself is forced to admit."

"The pro-abortion lobby has a proven track record of exaggerating illegal abortions numbers. Abortion numbers in Britain today are many times higher than before the 1967 Abortion Act, despite ever-increasing access to birth control drugs and devices," he added.

Scott Fischbach, the head of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a statewide pro-life group with a global outreach program that has seen it promote the pro-life perspective at the United Nations, also chimed in on the report.

He says Guttmacher should be promoting medical advances and better health care in the developing nations where it says abortions should be legalized because of supposed illegal abortion problems.

"The Guttmacher Institute refuses to address the greatest need of pregnant women: good medical care. This is the most important factor in reducing maternal mortality," Fishbach told LifeNews.com.

"Even though Guttmacher admits that its abortion numbers in the developing world are based on conjecture and are therefore unreliable, it continues to stridently argue that the legalization of abortion is the answer to the problems facing poor women," he added.

"Pregnant women need access to doctors, hospitals, medications, nutritional care, safe childbirth and other medical care in order to reduce the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. The legalization of abortion does nothing to improve women's health or welfare," he said.

In a follow-up report, British Journalist Ed West recently addressed the oft-repeated claim that illegal abortion kills 70,000 women every year in an article entitled, Is abortion killing 70,000 women a year? Yes, no, maybe (Daily Telegraph, October 15, 2009). I shall quote a few excerpts here:

On Radio 4 yesterday morning there was an alarming report which stated that, while the number of abortions worldwide has decreased in the past decade, unsafe abortions kill an amazing 70,000 women a year....

But while the Today presenters were kind enough to point out that this wasn’t an exact figure – in fact it seems to be a wild guess – they told us nothing about the groups who compiled these statistics. The Guttmacher Institute was created out of the pro-choice Planned Parent Federation of America, while as the anti-abortion Lifenews.com (I'm declaring a bias here) points out, they compiled this figure with the help of pro-choice advocates such as International Planned Parenthood, Population Council and Centre for Reproductive Rights, and a senior member of Marie Stopes also gets a mention in the report.

I don't doubt many women die as a result of unsafe abortion, but no one can possibly have any idea of the real figure, especially as so much of it goes on it countries where there are virtually no statistics for anything.

In its 2007 report, Unsafe Abortion, the World Health Organisation admitted: "Where induced abortion is restricted and largely inaccessible, or legal but difficult to obtain, little information is available on abortion practice. In such circumstances, it is difficult to quantify and classify abortion. What information is available is inevitably not completely reliable." The United Nations Population Division calls the estimates "quite speculative since hard data are missing for the large majority of countries".

In other words – politically-motivated guesswork.

That doesn't stop people trying. The Guttmacher Institute also claims there are up to 800,000 illegal abortions a year in the Philippines, which would make its rate three times that of the UK, where abortion is on demand and subsidised by the taxpayer. Does anyone believe that figure? Before the Abortion Act Britain had roughly 9,000 "legal" abortions a year and 14,600 illegal ones (that's from a SPUC report, and yes they're a pro-life group as well) according to the Royal College of Gynecologists. That's roughly one-eighth of the UK's current figure – and while sexual habits have changed since, availability has almost certainly increased demand (and in turn changed sexual habits, since men no longer fear a father's shotgun). And besides which, Filipino sexual and social mores certainly have more in common with Wilson-era than Brown-era Britain.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former pro-choice campaigner who turned to the pro-life cause, has said on several occasions that his former side used to spout statistics with little evidence. "We claimed that between five and ten thousand women a year died of botched abortions," he said. "The actual figure was closer to 200 to 300 and we also claimed that there were a million illegal abortions a year in the United States and the actual figure was close to 200,000. So, we were guilty of massive deception."

Dr. Bernard Nathanson is an American medical doctor from New York who supervised 75,000 abortions and who helped to found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (N.A.R.A.L., now the National Abortion Rights Action League) in 1968, but who became a pro-life activist in the 1970s. By Dr. Nathanson's own admission, pro-choice advocates in the 1960s inflated the number of deaths from illegal abortions in the United States by a factor of 25 to 33 (from 200-300 to 5,000-10,000), and inflated the number of illegal abortions in the United States by a factor of five (from 200,000 to 1,000,000). In an article entitled Confessions of an Ex-Abortionist, he writes:

We persuaded the media that the cause of permissive abortion was a liberal enlightened, sophisticated one. Knowing that if a true poll were taken, we would be soundly defeated, we simply fabricated the results of fictional polls. We announced to the media that we had taken polls and that 60% of Americans were in favour of permissive abortion. This is the tactic of the self-fulfilling lie. Few people care to be in the minority. We aroused enough sympathy to sell our program of permissive abortion by fabricating the number of illegal abortions done annually in the U.S.... Another myth we fed to the public through the media was that legalising abortion would only mean that the abortions taking place illegally would then be done legally. In fact, of course, abortion is now being used as a primary method of birth control in the U.S. and the annual number of abortions has increased by 1500% since legalisation. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Dr. Nathanson, who has confessed to inflating statistics relating to maternal deaths from illegal abortions, personally knew Alan Guttmacher (1898-1974), an abortion provider whose institute now disseminates the statistic that 70,000 women around the world die from illegal abortions. After viewing the foregoing evidence of deception by pro-choice advocates, I hope the reader will take this figure with a very heavy grain of salt.

In fact, there is good statistical evidence that permissive abortion laws increase the number of maternal deaths. Allow me to quote from a report by SecularProLife.org (August 14, 2009):

One of the most common arguments in favor of legalized abortion is the claim that, without it, women will die. It's usually well-received because, like our own movement, it relies on a natural impulse to protect human life. It's also a complete falsehood. Roe v Wade had no impact on abortion deaths in the United States, and legalized abortion actually endangers women in countries with inadequate medical infrastructure to deal with abortion complications.

The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute has released a new report, based on United Nations and World Health Organization data, which provides some useful country comparisons. Abortion advocates often compare developed, Western pro-abortion countries with pro-life countries in developing parts of the world. This approach is faulty because those who suffer from abortion complications in developed countries are far more likely to survive compared to their counterparts in the developing world, regardless of the legal status of abortion. The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute eliminates this confounding factor by comparing countries with similar economic conditions in the same region; the main difference is their abortion policies.

Pro-life country: Mauritius, which has the lowest maternal mortality rate on the continent
Pro-abortion country: Ethiopia, which has a maternal mortality rate 48 times that of Mauritius

Pro-life country: Chile, which has the lowest maternal mortality rate on the continent
Pro-abortion country: Guyana, which has the highest maternal mortality rate on the continent, 30 times that of Chile

Pro-life country: Sri Lanka, which has the lowest maternal mortality rate in the region
Pro-abortion country: Nepal, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the region, 14 times that of Sri Lanka

The lowest maternal mortality rate belongs to a nation with some of the most pro-life laws in the world: Ireland. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

For the benefit of readers, here is a chart summarizing the circumstances under which abortion is legal in each country around the world.

(ii) MYTH TWO: China's one-child policy is harsh, but necessary.

Annual number of abortions in selected countries
China 13,000,000
USA 1,210,000
UK 185,000
Canada 96,815
Australia 84,218

Annual number of abortions performed in China, compared with the U.S.A., the U.K., Canada and Australia. U.S.A. stats for 2005, Alan Guttmacher Institute; Australian stats for 2003, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; Canadian stats for 2005, Statistics Canada; China stats from China Daily, 2009; U.K. stats for 2004, U.K. Department of Health. Note that although China's population is only four times that of the U.S.A. and 21 times that of the U.K., the annual number of abortions in China is 11 times that of the U.S.A and 70 times that of the U.K. A pie chart of these figures can be found in an article in The Epoch Times by Vicky Jiang (31 August 2009).

I find it deeply ironic that the pro-choice movement condemns pro-life advocates for heartlessly allowing women in Third World countries to die from illegal abortions, while remaining largely silent about the barbaric practice of forced abortions in China, which not only destroy unborn children (mostly children) but scar women for life, physically and emotionally. Whose "choice" is this?

Forced abortions are still common in China today

The practice of forced abortions in China was first brought to the attention of the Western world by Steven Mosher in 1979. Mosher was the first American social scientist to visit mainland China. He was invited there by the Chinese government, where he had access to government documents and actually witnessed women being forced to have abortions under the new "one-child policy." Mr. Mosher was a pro-choice atheist at the time. (He is now a practicing, pro-life Roman Catholic.)

And what was the response of the International Planned Parenthood Federation? It enthusiastically proclaimed that "China is the most extraordinary success. Irrespective of media speculation about that [population control] program, on the whole this is carried out in a very responsible way." (Family Planning World, Volume 2, Number 2, March/April 1992.) As far back as the mid-1980s, a Planned Parenthood panel said that "Coercion [in population programs] may become necessary. Such force may be required in areas where the pressure is the greatest, possibly in India and China." (Planned Parenthood panel, quoted by Richard D. Glasow, Ph.D. "Ideology Compels Fervid PPFA Abortion Advocacy." National Right to Life News, March 28, 1985, page 5.)

Indeed, some pro-choice advocates deny that forced abortions in China even occur. During her keynote speech at the 1990 National Organization of Women (NOW) National Convention, then-President Molly Yard had the gall to claim that the Chinese government only encouraged women to abort extra children, using education not force. (Debra J. Saunders, Los Angeles Daily News. "NOW's Shrillness Becomes Embarrassment to Feminism." August 7, 1989, page D4.)

Readers who would like to learn more about the practice of forced abortions in China might want to have a look at this article here.

13 million abortions in China every year: most of them are forced on women by the Chinese government

Forced abortions in China are still common and make up a majority of the abortions performed there, according to a recent report by Vicky Jiang in The Epoch Times (August 31, 2009), entitled, "Of the 13 Million Abortions in China, Most Are Forced":

Forced abortions in China are not a thing of the past. Under the one child policy, many women in late term pregnancy are still forced to abort their children. Chinese provincial authorities are responsible for mass forced sterilizations, and abortions are often performed by people with inadequate training in unsterile conditions.

"The one child policy causes more violence toward women and girls than any other policy on the face of the earth," said Reggie Littlejohn, a one child policy expert and president of the newly-founded Women's Rights Without Frontiers. "Forced abortions and forced sterilizations are an unacceptable form of population control." She says that when there is free speech in the country people will be able to have a civilized discussion and come up with a solution, though she does not suggest any specific ideas.

Many women develop critical health problems for the rest of their lives and the emotional impact resulting from forced abortions contributes to the high rate of female suicides, she says....

China Daily, a state-controlled newspaper, recently published annual abortion figures of 13 million and a live birth rate of 20 million, as recorded by China’s National Family Planning Commission.

The recent China Daily article, echoed by a BBC report, attributes the high number of abortions to lack of education on contraception. However, experts say that most of the abortions are due to the one child policy.

"[We are] fairly certain most of [the 13 million] are forced abortions," says Colin Mason, who conducted field work in Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces in March this year for the nonprofit Virginia-based Population Research Institute. The two provinces are "models" in China, where the one child policy is strictly enforced and all birth quotas are met. Based on his experience in China, he said most people would have more than one child if they could...

Officials have emphasized that the one child policy will remain unchanged in most parts of China and continue to be "strictly enforced as a means of controlling births for decades to come as overpopulation is still a major concern," according to state-run media Xinhua.

Not so, says Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist, demographer, and senior adviser to the National Board of Asian Research. He says that China's fertility patterns are below the level needed for long term population stability in the absence of migration for the next two decades.

Furthermore, there will be a large population of unmarriageable, restless young men in the coming decades, he said...

According to his estimates, more than half of all second pregnancies with female fetuses must have been terminated to bring about the sort of gender imbalance China sees today.

"Chinese leadership just has to snap its fingers and the coercive policy disappears," he said. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

One woman's terrifying account of a forced abortion in China

Chinese women working in rice fields. These women, like many others in China, are only allowed to have as many babies as the Chinese government allows: one baby or in a few cases, two. Image courtesy of Mostafa Saeednejad and Wikipedia.

A report in LifeSiteNews (October 6, 2011) carries a harrowing article entitled, 'Like pigs in the slaughterhouse': The day Chinese officials brutally murdered my unborn child. The article contains excerpts from the testimony from a statement by a Chinese woman, Wujian (an alias), before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 10, 2009.

My name is Wujian. I was born in a small village in northern China. ...

It was the spring of 2004 when I found out that I was pregnant. It was beautiful to sense this life growing inside of me: what a miracle! Meanwhile, I was also very fearful since I did not have the permit for pregnancy or the birth permit, which means, according to Chinese law, this baby was not allowed to be born into this world. During that time in my hometown, this was the law decided by the Chinese family planning policy ...

Pretty soon, my lower stomach began to bulge. In order to protect my baby, I had to hide myself in a very old, shabby house in a remote area...

Eventually, the family planning government officials found out about my pregnancy. So they searched all over trying to arrest me, and while they could not find me, then they caught my father instead. They put my father into the detention center and beat him every day. On the fourth day after they caught my father, one neighbor came and told me that my father was dying: they would continue beating my father — even to death — until I went to the local hospital to get abortion. ...

Very soon after this, the worst thing happened: when several family planning government officials broke into the house where I was hiding, and without any words, they drug me into their van...

About one hour later, the van stopped in the hospital. As soon as I was drug out of the van, I saw hundreds of pregnant moms there — all of them just like pigs in the slaughterhouse. Immediately I was drug into a special room, and without any preliminary medical examination, one nurse did an oxytocin injection intravenously. Then I was put into a room with several other moms.

The room was full of moms who had just gone through a forced abortion. Some moms were crying, some moms were mourning, some moms were screaming, and one mom was rolling on the floor with unbearable pain. ...

I was pulled into another small room. One nurse pulled out one big, 8-inch long needle for the intramuscular injection....

I could hear the sound of the scissors cutting the body of my baby in my womb. ... I preferred to die together with my baby at that moment. ...

Eventually the journey in hell, the surgery was finished, and one nurse showed me part of a bloody foot with tweezers. Through my tears, the picture of the bloody foot was engraved into my eyes and into my heart, and so clearly I could see the five small bloody toes. Immediately the baby was thrown into a trash can. ...

Finally, I was allowed to go home from the hospital. I did not eat anything, or even drink any water, for several days. I barely talked with anyone. From time to time at home, I could hear the mourning of my father. He was released after I was caught, but he had been beaten terribly; it took him over a month to recover physically. Looking at my father, thinking of my dead baby, I cried day and night, and frequently the picture of the little bloody foot came up in my mind. Physically I recovered after about one month, but psychologically and spiritually — never! ...

China is perfectly capable of feeding itself without draconian population control measures

A Longji rice terrace in Longsheng county, Guilin, China. Author: "Anna Frodesiak". Source: Wikipedia.

Defenders of China's one-child policy often cite the need for the Chinese government to control population growth, in order to feed its people. However, the following article from China's Xinhua news agency, entitled, From self-sufficiency to grain contribution, China's agriculture passes 60 memorable years (26 August 2009), gives the lie to those claims:

After 60 years of struggle and development, the Chinese people have bid farewell to a life of poverty and the lack of food. The grain self-sufficiency rate has remained above 95 percent for years.

In 2007, rural per capita net income has grown to 4,140 yuan (606 U.S. dollars), five times that of 1978. The total volume of grain yield in 2008 reached 525 million tons, compared to 113 million tons in 1949.

In 2005, China halted receiving grain assistance from other countries and donated 577,000 tons of grain instead, becoming the third largest grain donator in the world, just after the U.S. and the European Union.

At present, the Chinese per capita nutrition intake has risen above the world average level. The number of poor in rural areas has declined from 250 million in 1978 to today's 14.79 million, making China one of the few countries to have reduced poverty levels in its population.

China's strong technological strength has boosted three major grain productions. Corn's yield per unit has increased from 1.18 tons per hectare in 1961 to 5.15 tons in 2007, rice has been raised to 6.43 tons per hectare from two tons, wheat is up from 0.56 ton to 4.61 tons...

"No other big country, barring India, has increased spending on farming so much," said the Financial Times. However, it also warned of severe challenges to the planned crop output increase, including water scarcity, loss of fertile land, slowing agricultural productivity growth, and climate change.

Agricultural problems faced by China in recent years are, ironically, partly the product of China's affluence. A recent Momagri report entitled, Evolving Chinese Eating Habits Threaten China's Food Self-Sufficiency (12 May 2008) notes that although China is the world's leading wheat and rice producer, importing and exporting few grains, the Chinese people are eating more and more meat and eggs, both of which require a larger area of agricultural land to produce: for instance, it takes seven to eight kilograms of cereal to produce one kilogram of meat. The report notes that China has 20 percent of the world's population but only 7 percent of the world's arable land.

Urbanization and industrialization are other factors putting a squeeze on China's agricultural land, according to the report.

In 2010, China imported significant quantities of corn and rice, according to a Momagri report entitled, China is importing corn and rice. Is the country's food self-sufficiency being reassessed? (13 September 2010). Nevertheless, the report notes that food self-sufficiency remains at about a 99 percent level. And according to a 2004 BBC news report entitled, Chinese concern at obesity surge, around 200 million Chinese (22.8% of the 2004 population) are believed to be overweight, while 60 million (7.1%) are clinically obese. In the cities, the percentage of overweight people is 30%.

In any case, from an economic standpoint, there is absolutely no need for China to be self-sufficient in food. Rather, what it needs to be is prosperous enough to buy food from overseas, if necessary.

China's one-child policy is an economic disaster waiting to happen

"Please for the sake of your country, use birth control." This is a sign put up by the Chinese government in the entry to the alley slums in Nanchang. These slums are where the pregnant women often hide from the government officials enforcing the one child policy. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The fact is that China's one-child policy is a demographic and economic disaster, which has already destroyed tens of millions of unborn girls and which will create massive social havoc in China in the years to come. A case study by Gendercide Watch, which focuses on India and China, explains why. I shall quote a brief excerpt:

"A tradition of infanticide and abandonment, especially of females, existed in China before the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949," note Zeng et al.. ("Causes and Implications," p. 294.) According to Ansley J. Coale and Judith Banister, "A missionary (and naturalist) observer in [China in] the late nineteenth century interviewed 40 women over age 50 who reported having borne 183 sons and 175 daughters, of whom 126 sons but only 53 daughters survived to age 10; by their account, the women had destroyed 78 of their daughters." (Coale and Banister, "Five Decades of Missing Females in China," Demography, 31: 3 [August 1994], p. 472.)

According to Zeng et al., "The practice was largely forsaken in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s." (Zeng et al., "Causes and Implications," p. 294.) Coale and Banister likewise acknowledge a "decline of excess female mortality after the establishment of the People's Republic ... assisted by the action of a strong government, which tried to modify this custom as well as other traditional practices that it viewed as harmful." (Coale and Banister, "Five Decades," p. 472.) But the number of "missing" women showed a sharp upward trend in the 1980s, linked by almost all scholars to the "one-child policy" introduced by the Chinese government in 1979 to control spiralling population growth. Couples are penalized by wage-cuts and reduced access to social services when children are born "outside the plan." ...

According to Peter Stockland, "Years of population engineering, including virtual extermination of 'surplus' baby girls, has created a nightmarish imbalance in China's male and female populations." (Stockland, "China's baby-slaughter overlooked," The Calgary Sun, June 11, 1997.) In 1999, Jonathan Manthorpe reported a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, claiming that "the imbalance between the sexes is now so distorted that there are 111 million men in China - more than three times the population of Canada - who will not be able to find a wife." As a result, the kidnapping and slave-trading of women has increased: "Since 1990, say official Chinese figures, 64,000 women - 8,000 a year on average - have been rescued by authorities from forced 'marriages'. The number who have not been saved can only be guessed at. ... The thirst for women is so acute that the slave trader gangs are even reaching outside China to find merchandise. There are regular reports of women being abducted in such places as northern Vietnam to feed the demand in China." (Jonathan Manthorpe, "China battles slave trading in women: Female infanticide fuels a brisk trade in wives," The Vancouver Sun, January 11, 1999.)....

... [I]f a Chinese infant girl is turned over for adoption rather than being killed, she risks being placed in one of the notorious "Dying Rooms" unveiled in a British TV documentary. Chinese state orphanages have come in for heavy criticism as a result of the degrading and unsanitary conditions that usually pervade them. In one orphanage, documentary producer Brian Woods found that "every single baby ... was a girl, and as we moved on this pattern was repeated. The only boys were mentally or physically disabled. 95% of the babies we saw were able-bodied girls. We also discovered that, although they are described as orphans, very few of them actually are; the overwhelming majority do have parents, but their parents have abandoned them, simply because they were born the wrong sex." Woods estimated that "up to a million baby girls every year" were victims of this "mass desertion," deriving from "the complex collision of [China's] notorious One Child Policy and its traditional preference for sons." (See Brian Woods, "The Dying Rooms Trust".)

And here is an excerpt from a Zenit report entitled 90 Million Missing Females, and a $45 Trillion Gap:

The Fruits of Misguided Family Planning


While the United Nations and family planning groups continue in their efforts to lower birthrates, several recent books have drawn attention to the severe economic and social problems linked to having too few children.

One book, "Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population," takes a look at the consequences of an overabundance of young adult males, called "bare branches" in Chinese. Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer observe that China and India, with 38% of the world's population, have surpluses of young males far beyond what any natural forces could produce.

The authors devote a chapter on the history of sex selection, noting that female infanticide was practiced in many cultures and epochs. Asian culture has had a particularly marked preference for male offspring, and modern technology has allowed this preference to be applied much more radically than in the past.

A normal sex ratio at birth is 105-107 males born per 100 females. This generally evens out, with a ratio for the total population close to 100 males per 100 females. Reliable statistics on birth ratios are hard to come by, the authors note. In China, studies on the level of sex ratios at birth range from 115.62 to 121.01 males per 100 females. India shows levels of 111 to 113, with spikes of 132 and 156 in some localities. In South Korea, after reaching 116.9 in 1990, the number has stabilized at 109.6. In Taiwan, data from 200 show 109.5 males per 100 females at birth.

The imbalance at birth can be exacerbated in the following years due to a higher level of infant mortality among females, attributed to a lack of adequate medical care. Estimates on the numbers of "missing females" in Asia vary. The book puts the number of women eliminated in seven Asian countries at just over 90 million. India and China account for 43% and 45%, respectively, of this total.

The authors calculate that by 2020 India will have a surplus male population in the 15-35 year age span of between 28 million and 32 million. The corresponding surplus in China could be 29 million to 33 million.

What will be the implications of so many surplus males? Drawing on multiple studies, the authors describe a number of characteristics common to such a group: low socioeconomic status due to a higher level of unemployment and low-level jobs; a higher probability of criminal behavior; a distinctive bachelor subculture characterized by the pursuit of immediate pleasure and a lack of concern for the future; a tendency to turn to vice and violence.

Looking at historical evidence, the book observes that governments can take measures to counteract the negative effects of sex ratio imbalances, but only after long struggles and high costs. Asian countries, and in particular China and India, the authors argue, have a difficult task ahead if they wish to avoid a sharp rise in violence and social problems. Instability could also lead to military conflict, the authors opine.

A threat to prosperity

Philip Longman, in his book "The Empty Cradle," concentrates on the economic disadvantages of a rapidly falling birthrate. Fears of a "population bomb" aside, modern economies have depended on ever-growing populations. New businesses flock to areas where population is growing, and social security systems depend on growing numbers of taxpayers to finance welfare for each retiring generation.

He notes that it may seem counterintuitive to worry about too few children at a time when the world population is still growing by around 75 million a year. Fertility rates, however, have plummeted in recent years and no industrialized nation has enough children being born to sustain its population. U.N. data show that currently 59 countries, accounting for 44% of world population, are not producing enough children to avoid population decline.

... In Algeria the median age is set to climb from 21.7 in 2000 to 40 by 2050. Another rapidly aging society will be China. By 2040 an estimated 26% of the population will be 60 or over. And if rich countries have difficulty financing an aging population, developing nations will face a much more difficult task, having become old before getting rich.

China has 400 million fewer people because of its one-child policy, leading to an aging crisis and gendercide

Population pyramid of China, 2009. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

According to a recent report in Life News (20 September 2011) by Steve Ertelt, a former health secretary in the Chinese government has admitted that thanks to China's one-child policy, which includes its forced-abortion program, China has 400 million fewer people than it would otherwise have:

During a members-only meeting today with members of Congress at the Capital, a former health secretary in the Chinese government admitted the one-child policy has cost the nation as many as 400 million people.

That figure includes not only people who were likely not born because of the promotion of birth control and contraception, but the deaths of unborn children in abortions, forced abortions and infanticides. China sees as many as 37,000 abortions a day under the population control policy.

In a Budget Committee members-only meeting on Tuesday, Congressman Tim Huelskamp, a pro-life Kansas Republican, asked Gao Qiang, who served for two years as the Party Secretary for the Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of China, about the country’s population control policy. Through an interpreter, Gao told members in attendance that the population of China has 400 million fewer people than had the coercive family planning policy not been in place.

Gao also pointed out that China has lost more people than the overall population of the United States, estimated at 312 million...

[Congressman] Huelskamp used the occasion to discuss how China faces a major demographic problem as a result of having so few young people to support the country's aging population.

Gao indicated China is examining loosening the policies, which will be the subject of a Congressional hearing on Thursday. He said 12 percent of the population is above the age of 60, though Huelskamp said he believed the figure to be higher...

Reggie Littlejohn, the president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, a human rights group that monitors the policy and supports victims of it, has heard of the 400 million mark before.

"The Chinese Communist Party boasts that it has 'prevented' 400 million births through the One Child Policy. That's greater than the entire population of the United States. Most of the births 'prevented' are girls. There's an entire nation of women not living in China today because of gendercide – the sex-selective abortion of baby girls. This gendercide gives rise to human trafficking and sexual slavery, within China and from many surrounding nations," Littlejohn explained.

The involvement of Western countries in China's one-child policy

China's parents have begun to rebel by Brendan O'Neill, in The Spectator, 21 May 2010.

Last December, ... Zhao Baige, vice-minister of the NPFPC [National Population and Family Planning Commission], gave a speech at the Copenhagen summit on climate change... [S]he enthusiastically cited research carried out by Thomas Wire at the London School of Economics, published in August last year, which claimed that 'promoting family planning' — that is, curbing human numbers — is the cheapest way to tackle climate change...

Wire's report — titled 'Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost' — was carried out under the Operational Research Unit at the LSE, but was commissioned and published by the Optimum Population Trust. Now it has become the principal reference document for China's one-child enforcers, who are desperate to dress up their population authoritarianism as an eco-initiative. Porritt, former green adviser to the New Labour government and Prince Charles, has openly boasted about his contribution to the Chinese regime's population propaganda.

In February 2007, Porritt suggested that China should face down those who say it isn't doing enough to tackle climate change by pointing to 'the billions of tonnes of CO2 not emitted into the atmosphere because of China's one-child policy'. To his delight, this is exactly what Chinese officials have begun to do. Two years ago, a spokesman defended the regime's 'strict family planning policies' on the basis that they had saved '330 billion tonnes in emissions'. At Copenhagen last year, Zhao Baige said the one-child policy 'resulted in 18 million fewer tonnes of CO2 emissions every year'. Porritt is chuffed with his impact on Chinese thinking, describing it as 'a major, major step forward for [those] seeking to influence governmental negotiating positions'.

The truth is that China's one-child policy has long been supported and assisted by Western officials and campaigners. The United Nations Population Fund part-funded the one-child policy for years, and according to the 2005 book Governing China's Population by Susan Greenhalgh, numerous population-reduction and family-planning outfits in the West provided China with the material and moral resources it needed to keep the policy chugging along. 'Foreign non-governmental organisations and private foundations... were crucial sources for ideas and arguments, technical resources and political support,' argues Greenhalgh.

It is gobsmackingly inhumane that Mr Porritt and others can only see China’s one-child policy in terms of how much CO2 it has allegedly saved. Behind the jumped-up stats purportedly demonstrating that China is a good green nation for controlling population growth, there lurks immeasurable suffering, where people have been severely punished for wanting to do that most basic of things: start a family. No amount of pollution reduction can justify that.

China's one-child policy is creating horrific social consequences for women

The following information is extracted from a report in LifeSiteNews (29 August 2011) by Steve Ertelt, about Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China who is currently seeking the Republican nomination for 2012.

"As an adoptive father, whose daughter was abandoned by her parents in China, Governor Huntsman is intimately familiar with the impact of China's 'one-child' policy," Huntsman campaign spokesman Tim Miller told LifeNews...

[A] newly released document from Wikileaks shows Huntsman warned about problems associated with the one-child policy in January 2010, when he wrote to Washington from Beijing and complained about 30 million "unmarriageable" Chinese men, sex trafficking, and demographic and economic troubles the policy is causing for China.

"Abnormally high sex ratio at birth and excess female child mortality both contribute directly to the sex ratio imbalance in China," Huntsman wrote, according to a report in The Cable. "Social consequences of this imbalance include an estimated excess of over 30 million unmarriageable males, a potentially destabilizing force that threatens to cause unrest in the most economically marginalized areas, and could lead to increased gender violence through demand for prostitution and trafficking in girls and women."...

Huntsman talked about the "bare branches" the one-child policy has created — a subclass of mostly poor and lower-educated men who don't have the money to offer the fewer women available in the dating pool. As a result, these men have turned to crime, prostitution, sexual rape and abuse, and going as far as buying women.

The mainstream media claims to be pro-choice and pro-woman. Why, then, is it silent in the face of a policy that hurts millions of women in China?

(iii) MYTH THREE: The reason why malnutrition is so widespread in India is that Indian women need more birth control.

A map of India. Courtesy of the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia.

The facts

According to the CIA World Factbook, India's population as at July 2011 stands at 1,189,172,906 people. There are 113.3 males for every 100 females in the 0-14 age group, indicating a high level of female infanticide. As at 2011, life expectancy at birth is 66.8 years (65.77 years for males, 67.95 years for females). The total fertility rate is estimated at 2.62 children born/woman (2011 figures).

India is commonly regarded as having a high population density. However, if we examine a table of countries ranked in order of their population per square kilometer of arable land, or real population density, we find that India is well down the list. The worldwide average is 325 people per square kilometer of arable land. Singapore tops the list with 440,998 people per square kilometer of arable land. South Korea, at number 31, has 2,988 people per square kilometer of arable land; Japan, at number 34, has 2924; the Netherlands, at number 41, has 2,293; Bangladesh, at number 51, has 1,946; the Philippines, at number 60, has 1,551; Vietnam, at number 68, has 1,275; Indonesia, at number 73, has 1,136; the U.K., at number 74, has 1,077; China, at number 81, has 943; Pakistan, at number 96, has 834; Saudi Arabia, at number 100, has 807; and India, at number 109, has 753 people per square kilometer of arable land. India is in the middle of the list of 218 countries with arable land, when ranked by real population density.

Malnutrition remains widespread in India, according to the CIA World Factbook. 43.5% of children under the age of 5 are underweight, according to 2006 figures.

73.4% of Indian males aged 15 and over can read, compared with 47.8% of females, according to 2001 figures. The average Indian boy spends 11 years at school, and the average Indian girl spends 10 years.

Growth in India's GDP from 1950 to 2010. Growth has been especially rapid since India's economy liberalized in 1991. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The CIA World Factbook tells us that India's GDP grew at 10.4% in 2010, 6.8% in 2009 and 6.2% in 2008. In Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, India's GDP per capita now stands at $3,500, based on 2010 figures. This is the same as for the Philippines, and compares with $4,200 for Indonesia, $6,200 for Egypt, $7,600 for China, $10,700 for South Africa, $10,800 for Brazil, $13,900 for Mexico, $15,900 for Russia, $32,700 for the European Union, $34,000 for Japan and $47,200 for the United States. While India's economy is currently growing very fast, it is growing from a very low base.

According to the Wikipedia article Economy of India, India's service industry now accounts for 57.2% of the country's GDP, while the industrial and agricultural sectors contribute 28.6% and 14.6% respectively. However, agriculture remains the predominant occupation in India, accounting for about 52% of employment. The service sector makes up a further 34%, and industrial sector around 14%. (Note: statistics from a 2009–10 government survey, which used a smaller sample size than earlier surveys, suggested that the share of agriculture in employment had dropped to 45.5%.)

Agriculture in India

The Ganges River delta of India, the largest inter-tidal delta in the world. Courtesy of NASA and Wikipedia.

Today, India ranks second worldwide in farm output. Agriculture and allied sectors like forestry and logging accounted for 16.6% of the GDP in 2007, employed 52% of the total workforce[1] and despite a steady decline of its share in the GDP, is still the largest economic sector and plays a significant role in the overall social-economic development of India.

Despite the successes of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, which turned India into a food-exporting nation, India's agricultural production has stagnated, and India's population is currently growing faster than its ability to produce rice and wheat.

India's agricultural production is beset with a multitude of productions. However, as we shall see, most of them are related to bureaucratic inefficiency and interference, gragmentation of land holdings, illiteracy, backward agricultural practices and lack of infrastructure, rather than population.

The following extract is taken from the Wikipedia article, Agriculture in India (3. Problems):

Slow agricultural growth is a concern for policymakers as some two-thirds of India's people depend on rural employment for a living. Current agricultural practices are neither economically nor environmentally sustainable and India's yields for many agricultural commodities are low. Poorly maintained irrigation systems and almost universal lack of good extension services are among the factors responsible. Farmers' access to markets is hampered by poor roads, rudimentary market infrastructure, and excessive regulation.
—World Bank: "India Country Overview 2008"[12]

The low productivity in India is a result of the following factors:


12. "India Country Overview 2008". World Bank. 2008.
13. "India: Priorities for Agriculture and Rural Development". World Bank.
14. Biello, David (2009-11-11). "Is Northwestern India's Breadbasket Running Out of Water?". Scientificamerican.com. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
15. Multiple authors (2004). Agricultural Statistics at a Glance 2004.
16. Sankaran, S. "28". Indian Economy: Problems, Policies and Development. pp. 492–493.
17. Sciencedaily.com. "Satellites Unlock Secret To Northern India's Vanishing Water". 2009-08-19. Retrieved 2011-09-17.
18. "Columbia Conference on Water Security in India" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-09-17.
19. "Keepers of the spring: reclaiming our water in an age of globalization". By Fred Pearce, page 77. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2011-09-17.

The extent of malnutrition in India

An article on Malnutrition in India in Wikipedia paints a grim picture:

According to the World Food Program and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF)[5] , over the past decade there has been a decrease in stunting among children in rural India, but inadequate calorie intake and chronic energy deficiency levels remain steady.[6]

Today child malnutrition is prevalent in 7 percent of children under the age of 5 in China and 28 percent in sub-Saharan African compared to a prevalence of 43 percent in India.[7] Undernutrition is found mostly in rural areas and is concentrated in a relatively small number of districts and villages with 10 percent of villages and districts accounting for 27-28 percent of all underweight children.[8]

Undernutrition includes both protein-energy malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Undernourishment not only affects physical appearance and energy levels, but also directly affects many aspects of the children’s mental functions, growth and development which has adverse effects on children’s ability to learn and process information and grow into adults that are able to be productive and contributing members of society. Undernourishment also impairs immune function leaving them more susceptible to infection. Children with infections are more susceptible to malnutrition and the cycle of poverty and malnutrition continues. Child malnutrition is responsible for 22 percent of India's burden of disease..

Micronutrient deficiencies are also a widespread problem in India. The prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies varies in different states. More than 75 percent of preschool children suffer from iron deficiency anemia (IDA) and 57 percent of preschool children have sub-clinical Vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Iodine deficiency is endemic in 85 percent of districts, mostly due to the lack of iodized salt that is common in the developed world. Progress in reducing the prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies in India has been slow. The prevalence of different micronutrient deficiencies varies widely across states.

Most growth retardation occurs by the age of two, and most damage is irreversible. The prevalence of underweight in rural areas 50 percent versus 38 percent in urban areas and higher among girls (48.9 percent) than among boys (45.5 percent).[8]


5. "MS Swaminathan Research Foundation Website". http://www.mssrf.org/. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
6. "Less Stunting But Malnutrition Remains In Rural India, New Report Says". Source:World Food Program. http://www.wfp.org/news/news-release/m-s-swaminathan-research-foundation-and-wfp-release-‘report-state-food-insecurity-rural-india’. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
7. Rieff, David (2009-10-11). "India's malnutrition Dilemma". Source:New York Times Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/magazine/11FOB-Rieff-t.html. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
8. "CHAPTER 1 WHAT ARE THE DIMENSIONS OF THE UNDERNUTRITION (Nutrition) PROBLEM IN INDIA?". Source: The World Bank. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/SOUTHASIAEXT/Resources/223546-1147272668285/undernourished_chapter_1.pdf. Retrieved 2009-12-02.

According to the executive summary of the 2009 World Bank Malnutrition Report for India, malnutrition varies according to sex, social class and the area in which a child lives:

Disaggregation of underweight statistics by socioeconomic and demographic characteristics reveals which groups are most at risk of malnutrition. Underweight prevalence is higher in rural areas (50 percent) than in urban areas (38 percent); higher among girls (48.9 percent) than among boys (45.5 percent); higher among scheduled castes (53.2 percent) and scheduled tribes (56.2 percent) than among other castes (44.1 percent)...

There is also large inter-state variation in the patterns and trends in underweight. In six states, at least one in two children are underweight, namely Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The four latter states account for more than 43 percent of all underweight children in India. Moreover, the prevalence in underweight is falling more slowly in the high prevalence states.

Incidentally, four of these six states with the highest incidence of malnutrition have population densities which are below the national average of 325 people per square kilometer: Maharashtra (315 people per square kilometer), Andhra Pradesh (277), Orissa (236), Madhya Pradesh (196) and Rajasthan (165). Only Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have population densities that are higher than average, at 880 and 690 people per square kilometer respectively (according to the 2001 census figures). But even these densities pale in comparison with Delhi (9294), Chandigarh (7903) and Pondicherry (2029 people per square kilometer).

According to the 2009 World Bank Malnutrition Report for India, the problem of malnutrition in India is particularly dire - indeed, it is considerably more prevalent than malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa:

The South Asian Enigma: Why is undernutrition in South Asia so much higher than in Sub Saharan Africa? In 1997, Ramalingaswami et al. wrote, "In the public imagination, the home of the malnourished child is Sub-Saharan Africa ... but ... the worst affected region is not Africa but South Asia". These statements were met with incredulity. However, undernutrition rates in South Asia, including and especially in India, are nearly double those in Sub-Saharan Africa today. This is not an artifact of different measurement standards or differing growth potential among ethnic groups: several studies have repeatedly shown that given similar opportunities, children across most ethnic groups, including Indian children, can grow to the same levels, and that the same internationally recognized growth references can be used across countries to assess the prevalence of malnutrition45. This phenomenon, referred to as the "South Asian Enigma", is real.

The "South Asian Enigma" can be explained by three key differences between South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa:

- Low birth weight is the single largest predictor of undernutrition; and over 30% Indian babies are born with low birth weights, compared to approximately 16% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

- Women in South Asia tend to have lower status and less decision-making power than women in Sub-Saharan Africa. This limits women's ability to access the resources needed for their own and their children’s health and nutrition, and has been shown to be strongly associated with low birth weight, as well as poor child feeding behaviors in the first twelve months of life.

- Hygiene and sanitation standards in South Asia are well below those in Africa, and have a major role to play in causing the infections that lead to undernutrition in the first two years of life.

However, these three key differences between South Asia and sub-Saharn Africa fail to address the root of the problem. Why are so many children born with low birth weights in South Asia, why are hgiene standards lower there, and why do women have such a low status in South Asia?

The real causes of malnutrition in India

Paddies and wind turbines in India: a mix of the old and new economies. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Population control advocates would have us believe that malnutrition in India is caused by Indian women having too many children, but the facts indicate otherwise. The fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa stood at 5.11 children per woman in sub-Saharan Africa in 2008 (compared to 6.75 children per woman in 1976), but in India, the fertility rate is about half that of sub-Saharan Africa: 2.62 children per woman, according to 2011 estimates, according to the CIA World Factbook (compared with about 6 children per woman in 1950). According to a 2007 report by India's National Population Stabilisation Fund, the northern states of Chhattisgarh (3.0), Jharkhand (3.2), Madhya Pradesh (3.3), Rajasthan (3.3) and Uttar Pradesh (3.8) and Bihar (3.9) still have high fertility rates. However, nine of India's twenty bigger states already have fertility rates of below 2.1 (replacement level), and five more are in the range of 2.2 to 2.6.

So if population is not the cause of malnutrition in India, what are the real causes? As we saw above, the real cause of malnutrition in India are related to bureaucratic inefficiency and interference, fragmentation of land holdings, illiteracy, backward agricultural practices and lack of infrastructure. Population control won't address these fundamental problems, which are ultimately rooted in indifference to the poor on the part of those who wield power, and a massive fear of change on the part of India's impoverished masses. Until these attitudes change, Indian agricultural production will continue to stagnate, and poor people will continue to experience malnutrition.

The following case studies illustrate the magnitude of the problem which needs to be addressed:

Case Study (1) Official corruption: one significant cause of malnutrition in India

One major reason why so many people continue to be malnourished in India is that official corruption is rampant, according to a BBC report by Geeta Pandey (India's immense 'food theft' scandal, 22 February 2011):

The poorest of the poor in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, are at the heart of a major food scandal.

The Indian media has described it as "the mother of all scams".

It appears to show elements of the state bureaucracy diverting food from citizens who are right at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Officials say massive quantities of food grains and fuel, meant to be distributed through the public distribution system or to be given to the poor under welfare schemes like food-for-work and school meals for poor children, have been stolen over the years and sold on the open market...

The scale is immense. It involves thousands of officials from top-level bureaucrats to middle-level officers to ground-level workers. It also involves thousands of transporters, village council leaders and fair-price shop owners.

It stretches across 54 of the state's 71 districts, and investigators say the food is carried out of the state and sometimes even beyond Indian borders to Bangladesh and Nepal...

The micro-economy around the stolen supplies was estimated to be worth $7.45bn (4.8bn pounds) in the year 2004-2005...

A senior official in the food cell says even today 40% to 70% of supplies from the public distribution system are stolen...

With 190 million people, Uttar Pradesh is a state filled with poverty: 56m people here earn less than $1 a day and 300,000 don't even get one square meal a day.

Case Study (2) The principal cause of malnutrition in India: government failure to invest in agriculture

A recent report by Gethin Chamberlain in The Guardian (14 September 2010), entitled Hunger in India: 'The real cause is lack of political will' blames India's malnutrition on the country's failure to invest in agriculture:

A report out today warns that even in a fast-growing economy like India, failure to invest in agriculture and support small farms has left nearly half the country's children malnourished, with one fifth of the one billion plus population going hungry.

ActionAid, which published the report ahead of next week's summit in New York to discuss progress on the millennium development goals, says hunger is costing the world's poorest nations 290 billion pounds a year – more than 10 times the estimated amount needed to meet the goal of halving global hunger by 2015.

India now has worse rates of malnutrition than sub-Saharan Africa: 43.5% of children under five are underweight and India ranks below Sudan and Zimbabwe in the Global Hunger Index. Even without last year's disastrous monsoon and the ensuing drought and crop failures, hunger was on the increase.

The government has promised a new food security bill to provide cheap food for the poor, but progress has been slow. The reality is that a country desperate to take its place at the world's top table is unwilling to commit to feeding its own population.

Last month the country's supreme court castigated the government for allowing 67,000 tonnes of badly stored grain to rot – enough to feed 190,000 people for a month – and ordered it to distribute 17.8m tonnes in imminent danger of rotting.

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, protested, saying the court had crossed the line into policy-making and warning that distributing free food to the estimated 37% of the population living below the poverty line destroyed any incentives for farmers to produce. The court stood firm. It was an order, not a suggestion, the judges said. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

I might add that India's rice yield, which was around three-quarters that of China fifty years ago in 1961, is now only half that of China, according to a recent FAO report (scroll down to "Trends in the Rice Economy" #3: Rough rice yield, by country and geographical region - FAO).

I'll let the last word go to the editorial of The Hindu newspaper (18 October, 2010: "[G]littering economic growth rates do not mean a hunger-free nation; India, with its large economy and robust growth, is ranked among countries that face an 'alarming' situation," writes the newspaper's editorial board. "[N]othing works like meaningful state-led intervention policies that directly address hunger; Brazil has improved its performance by more than 50 percent between 1990 and 2010, thanks to effective state intervention... India must fine-tune its social sector programmes, including the conditional cash transfer schemes, to wage a successful battle against hunger."

I conclude, that India's malnutrition is preventable, being due to a simple lack of political will, rather than too many people. I would also maintain that India is quite capable of feeding itself in the future, if it wants to. The "haves" need to care more about the "have-nots". A massive cultural change is required.

Abortion in India: A tool for killing girls

Parayar school children, India. In India, girls are commonly regarded as an economic liability, and are often killed before they are born by their parents. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

India's 2011 census shows a serious decline in the number of girls under the age of seven - eight million female fetuses may have been aborted between 2001 and 2011. (India's unwanted girls. BBC report by Geeta Pandey, 23 May 2011.) Sex-selective abortion was rare before the late 20th century, because of the difficulty of determining the sex of the fetus before birth, but ultrasound has made such selection easier. Prior to this, parents would alter family sex compositions through infanticide.

The problem of Indian girls being killed before they are born appears to be getting worse with every passing decade. In 1961, for every 1,000 boys under the age of seven, there were 976 girls. Today, the figure has dropped to a dismal 914 girls. (India's unwanted girls. BBC report by Geeta Pandey, 23 May 2011.)

Sabu George, India's best-known campaigner on the issue, says the government has so far shown little determination to stop the practices.

Until 30 years ago, he says, India's sex ratio was "reasonable". Then in 1974, Delhi's prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences came out with a study which said sex-determination tests were a boon for Indian women. It said they no longer needed to produce endless children to have the right number of sons, and it encouraged the determination and elimination of female foetuses as an effective tool of population control.

"By late 80s, every newspaper in Delhi was advertising for ultrasound sex determination," Mr. George said.

"Clinics from Punjab were boasting that they had 10 years' experience in eliminating girl children and inviting parents to come to them."

A report in The Christian Science Monitor entitled, Gender selection: In India, abortion of girls on the rise by Mian Ridge (March 8, 2010), confirms activists' claims that the abortion of girl fetuses is rampant in India, and is steadily increasing:

Increased access to ultrasound technology, which allows parents to abort unwanted baby girls, has contributed to a female-male ratio of 933 to 1,000 in India according to the latest census, from 2001...

Indeed, across India the most skewed gender ratios tend to occur in more prosperous communities. Far from being an ancient legacy of backward, chauvinistic communities, the practice of gender selection via abortion (also known as female infanticide or female feticide) is flourishing as India's economy burgeons and the country modernizes... In some areas of Punjab, among high castes, the ratio of girls to boys was 300 to 1,000.

The reasons why boys are so longed for vary somewhat by region. In agricultural societies like Nandgaon, boys inherit the land. In urban India, a trend toward smaller families plays a part: Many couples who choose to have only one child want that child to be a boy.

Underlying the preference for sons is a belief that girls are liabilities who require protection and fat dowries. Though the practice of paying a husband and his family for marrying a girl was banned in 1961, dowry violence – when a woman is abused in her in-laws' home for paying an insufficient price – is on the rise, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Even in families that do not pay dowries, and where girls may be well educated and lucratively employed, females tend to be viewed as burdensome because they are perceived as requiring more care and protection than men, says Puneet Bedi, an obstetrician and campaigner against female feticide based in New Delhi.

"Everyone wants boys – not just the rich," he says. "But it is the rich who can easily afford to access the technology."

Though it is illegal in India for a doctor to tell parents the gender of their unborn child, or to abort on the grounds of sex, there have been almost no prosecutions for the crime. It is carried out "by every doctor with almost no exception," says Dr. Bedi.

It should be obvious to the unbiased reader that Indian women need abortion need abortion like they need a hole in the head. Abortion is killing millions of future Indian women every year. To support such a practice in the name of women's liberation is simply wicked: there's no other word for it.

(iv) MYTH FOUR: African women need more birth control, because Africa has too many people.

A composed NASA satellite photograph of Africa. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Is Africa over-populated?

There is a widespread perception that Africa is an over-populated continent. However, the facts paint a very different picture. On 2008 figures, the continent of Asia has the highest population density, with 86.7 people per square kilometer, followed by Europe with 69.7, Africa with 29.3, North America with 21.0, South America with 20.8, Australia with 3.6 and Antarctica with 0.00007. Thus Africa's population density is about half that of Europe and one-third that of Asia. It ill behooves Europeans to sanctimoniously lecture Africans about the need to stop having so many babies.

Of course, someone might object that the number of people per square kilometre of arable land is a better measure of whether a country is over-populated or not. However, if we examine a table of countries ranked in order of their population per square kilometer of arable land, or real population density, we find that most African countries are well down the list. The worldwide average is 325 people per square kilometer of arable land. Singapore tops the list of countries with 440,998 people per square kilometer of arable land. South Korea, at number 31, has 2,988 people per square kilometer of arable land; Japan, at number 34, has 2924; the Netherlands, at number 41, has 2,293; Bangladesh, at number 51, has 1,946; the Philippines, at number 60, has 1,551; Vietnam, at number 68, has 1,275; Indonesia, at number 73, has 1,136; the U.K., at number 74, has 1,077; China, at number 81, has 943; Pakistan, at number 96, has 834; Saudi Arabia, at number 100, has 807; India, at number 109, has 753; Germany, at number 114, has 712; Thailand, at number 144, has 455; Mexico, at number 150, has 436; France, at 171, has 332; Brazil, at number 174, has 318; the U.S.A. at number 205, has 179; Russia, at number 213, has 117; and sparsely populated Australia, at number 218, has 43 people per square kilometer of arable land.

What about the leading countries in Africa? Egypt, at number 38, has 2,668 people per square kilometer of arable land; Tanzania, at number 79, has 1,008; the Democratic Republic of Congo, at number 82, has 932; Kenya, at number 106, has 766; Uganda, at number 119, has 655; Ethiopia, at number 120, has 652; Ghana, at number 134, has 544; Cote d'Ivoire, at 136, has 532; Nigeria, at number 152, has 428; Zimbabwe, at number 159, has 382; South Africa, at number 179, has 300; Cameroon, at number 183, has 293; Burkina Faso, at number 184, has 288; Mali, at number 191, has 248; Sudan, at number 196, has 234; Zambia, at number 203, has 215; and Niger, at number 214, has 84 people per square kilometer of arable land. In other words, with the exception of Egypt, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the main African countries are well down the list, and many African countries have a real population density which is below the worldwide average of 325. Egypt's real population density is rather high, but it is still below that of Japan and South Korea.

Case Study (1): Is Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, over-populated?

Population in Nigeria
Year Million
1971 55.1
1980 71.1
1990 94.5
2000 124.8
2004 138.0
2008 151.3

Left: Nigerian states by population density (number of people per square kilometer). Right: A table showing Nigeria's population growth. In 1950, Nigeria had only 33 million people. By 2100 the UN estimates that the Nigerian population will be no less than 730 million. (Map and table courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Nigeria's growing population, which currently stands at about 155 million, alarms many people in the West. What they forget is that 33.49% of Nigeria's land is arable, placing it in the top 20 countries ranked according to the percentage of their land that is suitable for cultivation. Surprisingly, when countries are ranked by real population density (the population per square kilometer of arable land), Nigeria stands at 155th, out of 218 countries listed with arable land. In any case, Nigeria's fertility rate of 4.73 children born per woman according to the CIA World Factbook (or 5.60 according to Index Mundi), is falling: 30 years ago it was 6.94 children per woman.

Finally, the economy of Nigeria is one of the fastest growing in the world, with the International Monetary Fund projecting a growth of 9% in 2008 and 8.3% in 2009. The IMF further projects a 8% growth in the Nigerian economy in 2011. Nigeria's GDP per capita doubled from $1,200 per person in 2005 to an estimated $2,500 per person in 2009. With the inclusion of the informal sector, it is estimated that GDP per capita hovers around $3,500 per person. In purchasing power parity terms, Nigeria's GDP per capita is roughly on a par with India's. Despite its rapidly growing population, Nigeria's unemployment rate is only 2.9% (2005 figures), and it has a healthy current account surplus.

Case Study (2): Is Africa's most densely populated country, Egypt, over-populated?

Cairo's skyline, viewed from the Cairo Tower. Photographer: Omar Kamel. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Egypt is the most populated country in the Middle East and the third most populous on the African continent, with about 82 million inhabitants in 2011. The population grew rapidly from 1970–2010, due to medical advances and increases in agricultural productivity, enabled by the Green Revolution. Egypt's population has been estimated at only 3 million when Napoleon invaded the country in 1798. By 1939, Egypt had a population of 16.5 million.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Egypt's population currently stands at 82,079,636 (July 2011 estimate). The population growth rate is 1.96%. Life expectancy at birth is 72.4 years (69.5 for men and 74.8 for women). The total fertility rate is now 2.97 children born/woman (2011 estimate). According to World Bank figures, the fertility rate was 6.65 children per woman in 1960, and the fertility rate is continuing to decline. On World Bank figures, it reached 2.82 children per woman in 2009, which means that at the curren rate of decrease, it should reach replacement level (2.11 children per woman) by about 2025. Egypt's population is currently increasing at 1.96% per year, but by 2050, it may well peak at approximately 150 million (give or take 10 million).

In an article entitled, Who will feed Egypt? in The Huffington Post (31 January 2011), Robert Walker, Executive Vice President of the Population Institute, notes that Egypt, a country which was formerly the breadbasket of the civilized world, now "imports about half of its wheat, corn and other staples, and spends about $15 billion a year in food subsidies." Other experts have noted that oil exports are down 50% as well. It appears that Egypt is doomed to fail because of its unsustainable population growth. Robert Walker, writing in early 2011, noted that food prices had risen 17% in the past year, and gloomily concluded, "As uncertain as Egypt's political future is at this juncture, its food outlook is even more worrisome."

Egypt's unemployment rate, while high at 9% (24.8% for youth), is not catastrophic. The proportion of people living below the poverty line is 20%. The country's problems are compounded by its high level of public debt (79.9% of GDP in 2010) and its current account deficit ($4.435 billion in 2010), its high budget deficit (8%) and its rather high rate of inflation (11.1% in 2010).

The long-term future of Egypt depends on its ability to make a stable transition to democracy. Egypt's inability to feed itself is largely due to decades of neglect during the corrupt regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. A government which is answerable to the people every three or four years is more likely to take care that they are adequately fed. Support for this view comes from the Indian economist Amartya Sen, who is famous for his argument that mass starvation (i.e. the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people during a food crisis) never occurs in countries where there is a functioning democracy. (Deaths from long-running malnutrition, as opposed to starvation, are a different matter.) The next few decades will provide us with the opportunity to see whether Dr. Sen's claim is indeed correct. In the meantime, the popular protests which forced President Hosni Mubarak out of office are a hopeful sign which bodes well for Egypt's future, although its transition to democracy remains to be implemented.

Healthy changes are already underway, however. An article by Emad Mekay in The New York Times, entitled, Egypt Tries to Turn Corner After Long Road of Crop Neglect, describes the Egyptian government's new plan to sharply increase production of important crops, with the goal of becoming self-sufficient in wheat. According to agricultural experts, Egypt doesn't have enough silos, suffers from poor yields and offers few incentives for farmers to grow wheat on a more regular basis. Thanks to a newly announced government plan, Egyptian farmers who grow wheat will receive 25% more from the government than they received previously - a price slightly above international rates. Additional payments will be made to farmers who improve the purity and quality of their wheat.

Allow me to quote a short excerpt from the article:

Under the plan, wheat farmers will receive more regular and intensive counseling to “help them plant at the right time, use correct amounts of fertilizers and harvest the crop for the maximum benefit,” said Abdelsalam Gomaa, an adviser to the government and an expert on wheat cultivation. The government also will subsidize research that, along with better seeds, could sharply increase productivity, and it vowed to remove red tape that complicates the process of setting up companies seeking to grow grains, especially wheat.

After the government announced the agricultural reforms in April, a group of Egyptians in the United States and Saudi Arabia said they would set up a joint company whose goal would be to start a project for “self-sufficiency” in wheat production in Egypt. The company plans to raise 3 billion pounds by encouraging ordinary Egyptians to buy directly into the company. The company says it will plant about 200,000 hectares of wheat next winter.

Professor Mohammed Mesilhi, the head of the Agricultural Economy Department at Zagazig University in northern Egypt, said: “Many of the measures announced are good ones, especially the early announcement of the new wheat price and the government’s willingness to offer high-yield varieties. This will push growers to take heart and know that the government is finally standing with them, not against them.”

Because the new government plan has been announced well ahead of the next season, the number of hectares planted with wheat is expected to rise from 1,200,000 to 1,500,000. The government has also pledged to supply farmers with high-yield seed. Over the long-term, however, an evern greater area will need to be planted with wheat, and care will need to be taken to avoid any loss of wheat occurring during its transportation to market, as the article goes on to explain:

Abdelsalam Gomaa, known for his extensive research on wheat production and bread crises, said Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world, will need to plant two million hectares of wheat if it wants to reach self-sufficiency.

To further improve Egypt's wheat security, the government intends to push for a significant reduction in the loss of wheat caused by poor storage and transportation, now estimated at about 20 percent, by building new metal silos and using more professional transportation.

Egypt has additional positive points in its favor. The population is fairly well educated: according to the CIA World Factbook, both males and females spend 11 years at school on average. Adult literacy is 71.4% (83% for men, 59.4% for women) (on 2005 figures). Average life expectancy at birth is reasonably high, at 72.66 years (70.07 for males, 75.38 for females). 99% of the population drinks improved water, and 94% of people enjoy the benefits of improved sanitation. Health expenditure is 6.4% of GDP, and there are 2.83 physicians for every 1,000 people. 6.8% of children under the age of five are underweight; however, the high incidence of obesity among adults (30.3%) indicates that food scarcity per se is unlikely to be the reason for child malnutrition.

Additionally, Egypt has abundant supplies of natural gas which should meet its energy needs for the foreseeable future, despite its falling oil production. It also has a very strong service sector which makes up 48% of its GDP and employs 51% of its workforce. (The service sector is fueled in large part by tourism.)

Egypt's GDP per capita currently stands at $6,200, measured in purchasing power parity terms, compared with $3,500 for India. The economy grew by 5.1% in 2010, 4.7% in 2009 and 7.2% in 2008. Until the recent protests which forced President Mubarak out of power, Egypt's wealth was not equitably shared among the population. It remains to be seen if this will change in the future.

I conclude, then, that there is no reason in principle why Egypt cannot feed itself in the future. The knowledge required to make this happen is already there; and already there are hopeful signs that this knowledge is being put into effect.

Can Africa feed itself?

Sudd Swamp from space, May 1993, during a particularly dry season. According to Harvard University Professor Calestous Juma, southern Sudan alone could feed all Africans if it was properly developed. Picture courtesy of NASA and Wikipedia.

Moreover, Africa's agricultural resources are under-tapped, and the continent is easily capable of feeding itself within a single generation, according to scientists who have researched the issue. Let me begin by quoting a short excerpt from the following article, which appeared in The Guardian (2 December 2010) recently:

"Africa can feed itself. And it can make the transition from hungry importer to self-sufficiency in a single generation."

This is the claim of a new book that argues that the world's poorest continent could break its dependence on foreign aid and become a food exporter by realising its rich agricultural potential.

Researchers led by Harvard University professor Calestous Juma said they were challenging pessimistic views of Africa, a continent often associated with images of famine and campaigns such as Live Aid and Comic Relief.

One in three Africans is chronically hungry, according to the UN, despite $3bn (1.9bn pounds) spent on food aid for the continent annually and $33bn in food imports. Population growth and climate change are growing threats.

But Juma, author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, calls on politicians to put agricultural expansion at the heart of decision-making about everything from transport and communications to education and innovation.

Juma said that Africa was the only continent with arable land readily available to expand agriculture, and that southern Sudan alone could feed all Africans if it was properly developed.

"An African agricultural revolution is within reach, provided the continent can focus on supporting small-scale farmers to help meet national and regional demand for food," Juma said.

His proposal includes the modernisation of farms, with new machinery and storage and processing facilities, and the selective use of genetically modified crops. He calls for new roads, energy sources and irrigation projects....

Juma said the army might refuse if the agriculture minister asked them to build a road to distribute food. "But if the president asks, they will do it," he said. "The president is the commander in chief."

About 70% of Africans are involved in agriculture, but almost 250 million people, or a quarter of the population, are undernourished. The number has risen by 100 million since 1990.

The researchers found that, while food production has grown globally by 145% over the past 40 years, African food production has fallen by 10% since 1960. Only 4% of the continent's crop land is irrigated. Fertilisers, pesticides and high-quality seeds are prohibitively expensive and in short supply. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Professor Juma is not alone in his views. A recent report entitled Unused Land in Africa Could Feed the Gulf, by Megan Detrie, in the United Arab Emirates newspaper The National (2 February 2011), points to a similar conclusion:

AMMAN, JORDAN. A handful of North African countries, along with Iraq and Sudan, could feed the Gulf - but only with substantial GCC investment, experts said yesterday.

Speakers at the Arab Food Industries and Franchising Forum in Jordan argued that if land in Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Morocco were fully used it could support the rest of the region.

The area uses barely a tenth of its available arable land, according to George Nasrawi, who was representing Lebanese businesses. Instead, said Imad Abou Rafeh, the director of AR events, the conference organiser, countries are concentrating on quick returns from tourism and property. That, he said, was not sustainable.

More agriculture would mean more jobs, not only on farms but in processing, advertising and packaging, he added.

A report released last spring by the International Food Policy Reseach Institute, which researches food issues in the developing world, suggested that long-term food supplies could be best secured by arrangements that helped producer countries' economies to grow, raising incomes. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Given these encouraging reports, some readers may be wondering why Africa continues to suffer from malnutrition. There are various local reasons: bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption, petty jealousies between rival aid organizations and so on. However, according to Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the British government, the main obstacle is opposition to new technology on the part of Western aid organizations. The Western world's squeamishness towards genetically modified food is preventing Africa from adopting the technology which would most rapidly enable it to feed its people.

On September 8, 2008, Sir David King delivered a lecture to the opening of the British Association's Science Festival at Liverpool University, spelling out the reasons why Africa needs GM crops more than organic farming, and insisting that Africa needed GM food in order to feed itself.

"The problem is, the Western world's move toward organic farming – a lifestyle choice – and against agricultural technology and GM in particular, has been adopted across Africa, with the exception of South Africa, with devastating consequences," Sir David said prior to his speech as President of the BA.

"The position taken by non-governmental organisations and international organisations is to support traditional agricultural technologies. These technologies will not deliver the food for the burgeoning population of Africa," he said. "Suffering within that continent is largely driven by attitudes in the West which are anti-science and anti-technology. We have the technology to feed the population of the planet. Do we have the ability to understand what we have?"

We have seen that Africa is quite capable of feeding itself. If this is true of Africa, we can be reasonably sure that the same holds true for other parts of the globe. In short: justifying abortion with reference to the need for fight poverty or control population growth is disingenuous.

Is Africa's growing population the product of a male-dominated conspiracy to disempower women?

An African woman from Benin. Picture courtesy of Jacques Taberlet and Wikipedia.

Population control zealots would have us believe that African women want smaller families, but are prevented from doing so by male-dominated structures - the traditional family, the village, the Church and so on. Destroy the power of these institutions, it is urged, and Africa's population problem will resolve itself.

The truth is very different. For African women, having larger families can often be a very rational choice, especially if they happen to live in a predominantly agricultural society in which children often die young. That's why even today, in Chad, the average desired family size for women aged 20-29 is 8.6 births. Desired family sizes are now falling in some parts of Africa, for reasons that are mostly driven by socioeconomic factors (which tend to dramatically increase the cost of educating children) and medical advances (which lower the risk of children dying before they grow up). Family planning agencies also play an important role in disseminating public propaganda against having larger families and in favor of having smaller ones. These changes are matter-of-factly described in a study entitled, The Causes of Educational Differences in Fertility in sub-Saharan Africa by John Bongaarts (2010, The Population Council, Inc.). John Bongaarts is Vice President and Distinguished Scholar, Population Council, New York.

Socioeconomic development (e.g., rising level of education) is considered the main cause of a decline in the benefits of children and a rise in their costs that occur over the course of a fertility transition. These changes in the cost/benefit ratio lead parents to want fewer children, and mortality decline raises child survival so that families need fewer births to achieve the desired number of surviving children. These trends in turn raise the demand for birth control (i.e., contraception and induced abortion), and, to the extent this demand is satisfied, lower fertility results. Family planning programs facilitate this transition by reducing the cost of birth control (broadly defined to include social costs), thus raising implementation of the demand for contraception and reducing the unmet need for contraception. Family planning programs can also change parental perceptions of the costs and benefits of childbearing (e.g., through communication campaigns that emphasize the benefits of smaller families), thereby contributing to declines in fertility preference.

From a pro-life perspective, Bongaarts' candor as a population control advocate is refreshing. He doesn't beat about the bush; he admits up-front that family planning programs attempt to influence public opinion against having larger families, and that "induced abortion" (which, I have shown, is simply the homicide of unborn children) is a major part of the range of services they provide to women. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether these family planning programs are changing Africa for the better or for the worse.

Anyone who takes the time and trouble to read Bongaarts' paper will soon see that Westerners who criticize Africans for "breeding like rabbits" and who ascribe Africa's large population to its male-dominated society are subscribing to a paranoid fantasy. Such people are ignorant of the economic factors and medical advances that underlie couples' choices about family size. The following excerpts are taken from Bongaarts' essay (all emphases are mine - VJT):

Until the 1970s fertility in sub-Saharan Africa remained high with an average total fertility rate around 6.7 births per woman, and differences between regions and countries were modest. Over the past quarter century, however, significant fertility declines have occurred particularly in Eastern and Southern Africa, while fertility remains near high pre-transitional levels in many countries in Western and Middle Africa. As a result, differences between countries have grown large over time. The total fertility rates of individual countries in 2000–05 ranged from a high of 7 births per woman in Niger to below 3 in South Africa (United Nations 2007)....

Table 1 presents estimates of the four key indicators for each of the 30 countries included in this study. Differences among countries are large, with the following low-high ranges:

Total fertility rate (births per woman): from 2.9 in South Africa to 7.0 in Niger
Contraceptive prevalence (percent): from 2.8 in Chad to 60.2 in Zimbabwe
Demand for contraception (percent): from 23.5 in Chad to 74.7 in Swaziland
Desired family size (births per woman): from 2.3 in Swaziland to 8.6 in Chad....

Table 1: Estimates of total fertility rate, current use of and demand for contraception among married women, and desired family size (ages 20-29) for 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (N.B. I have slightly adapted this table in order to highlight the differences between (a) Western and Central Africa and (b) Eastern and Southern Africa - VJT.)
Name of country Last survey year Total fertility rate (births/woman) Contraceptive prevalence (% of women) Demand for contraception (% of women) Desired family size (births/woman)
A. Western and Central Africa
Benin2006 5.7 17.0 47.0 4.7
Burkina Faso 2003 5.9 13.8 42.6 5.3
Cameroon 2004 5.0 26.0 46.2 5.4
Chad 2004 6.3 2.8 23.5 8.6
Congo (Brazzaville) 2005 4.8 44.3 60.5 4.9
Congo Dem. Rep. 2007 6.3 20.6 45.0 6.2
Cote d'Ivoire 1998/99 5.2 15.0 42.7 4.8
Gabon 2000 4.2 32.7 60.7 4.6
Ghana 2003 4.4 25.2 59.2 4.1
Guinea 2005 5.7 9.1 30.4 5.3
Liberia 2007 5.2 11.5 47.2 4.6
Mali 2006 6.6 8.2 39.5 6.1
Niger 2006 7.0 11.2 27.1 8.5
Nigeria 2003 5.7 12.6 29.5 6.4
Senegal 2005 5.3 11.8 43.5 5.3
Togo 1998 5.2 23.5 55.8 4.3
Mean for all countries 5.5317.843.8 5.57
B. Eastern and Southern Africa
Ethiopia 2005 5.4 14.7 48.7 4.4
Kenya 2003 4.9 39.3 65.9 3.6
Lesotho 2004 3.5 37.3 68.3 2.8
Madagascar 2003/04 5.2 27.1 50.8 4.5
Malawi 2004 6.0 32.5 61.8 3.8
Mozambique 2003 5.5 25.5 43.9 4.9
Namibia 2000 4.2 43.7 65.9 3.0
Rwanda 2005 6.1 17.4 55.3 4.1
South Africa 1998 2.9 56.3 71.6 2.6
Swaziland 2006 3.9 50.6 74.7 2.3
Tanzania 2004 5.7 26.4 49.5 4.7
Uganda 2006 6.7 23.7 64.3 4.6
Zambia 2001/02 5.9 34.2 61.7 4.4
Zimbabwe 2005/06 3.8 60.2 73.7 3.4
Mean for all countries 4.9834.961.2 3.79

(Source: Demographic and Health Surveys.)

In addition, substantial differences in reproductive behavior exist between socioeconomic groups within countries. Fertility is usually higher in rural than in urban areas, higher among the uneducated than among better-educated women, and higher in households with low rather than high incomes (Merrick 2001; Singh and Casterline 1985; Rutstein 2002; United Nations 1987)....

Figure 5 plots country-specific levels of unmet need for contraception as a function of the demand for contraception. This relationship has an inverted U-shape: unmet need is highest in countries with intermediate demand and lowest in countries with low and high demand. This pattern is the result of offsetting trends as countries move through the transition (Bongaarts 1997). In pre-transitional countries unmet need (and demand) is low because desired family size is high, and couples need most of their reproductive years to achieve a large family. Next, in the early stages of the transition, unmet need rises as desired family size declines, but the use of contraception lags behind the rise in demand. After peaking in mid-transition, unmet need declines in the last phases of the transition as the use (and effectiveness) of contraception catches up with demand and the cost of unwanted childbearing rises.

Here, Bongaarts openly acknowledges that there is an unmet demand for contraceptives in some countries in Africa, but instead of ascribing it to some sinister, male-dominated conspiracy to disempower women, he regards it as a temporary, intermediate phase which arises whenever a country makes the difficult transition from an agricultural economy, which doesn't require a highly educated workforce, to an industrial economy, which does.

I should add that in western and central Africa, the total fertility rate is actually less than the desired family size, if we look at the average across all countries (5.53 versus 5.57), which indicates that families in these countries are large mainly because African women want big families, for sound economic reasons. In eastern and southern Africa, on the other hand, there does appear to be a large unmet demand for fertility control, as the average desired family size across all countries (3.79) is lower than the average fertility rate (4.98). This demand could be met by natural family planning, which has been successfully tested in clinical trials in Africa and is now the most popular method of family planning in India, whose fertility rate is now 2.62 children per woman, according to the CIA World Factbook (figures for July 12, 2011).

Finally, one thing that is especially striking is the drop in the fertility rate that has already occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1970, it was approximately seven children per woman. The fertility rate currently stands at about five-and-a-half children per woman in western and central Africa and less than five in eastern and southern Africa. Is this a healthy change? Certainly, very high rates of population growth cannot be sustained indefinitely; but that does not imply that the ideal growth rate is zero. There are very strong arguments for Africa to keep its fertility rate well above the current American level of 2.06, which has actually fallen below its replacement level.

Why a growing population is good for Africa and for the world

The royal Bini mask, one of Nigeria's most recognized artifacts. Courtesy of steve4710 and Wikipedia.

In a thought-provoking article in Crisis Magazine (25 May 2011) entitled, Africa Needs Population Growth, Not Birth Control, electrical engineer Chinwuba Iyizoba makes the case that Africa needs more people. Here is an excerpt from his article (emphases mine - VJT):

The United Nations recently published its two-yearly update of world population projections. These suggest that Nigeria could rise to 725 million people by 2100. Western media are shrilly calling for Nigeria to put a check on her population growth.

No way, sorry. We Nigerians are rejoicing.

Africans love children. First for financial security. In the past children helped in the farms and the more of them the better. Today, with little or no social security, children are needed to support their parents in old age. Their contributions constitute an informal pension scheme. And having more children means a better pension.

Second, many children ensure that we avoid the problem of ageing populations. We know that in Europe and America, birthrates are far below replacement level. Their populations are ageing and a huge pension debt is resting on the shoulders of a shrinking number sof their working youths. A day of reckoning is looming for them. Nigerians want to avoid this.

Third, our large population supplies our economy with the dynamic and youthful workforce it needs to grow, as well as huge markets for all types of businesses...

Niger has a population of 15 million and suffers from high unemployment, poverty and an unskilled workforce. It is poorer than Nigeria with its 150 million people by a long margin. Are population and poverty really linked?

Most Africans are ruled by sit-tight leaders who are supported by Western countries because they guarantee secure access to resources. "Rivalry between the United States and the USSR for the rich resources of Congo culminated in General Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule, an extremely corrupt regime that lasted 32 years and sapped the country of its income and stability," says Paul Johnson in his book Modern Times. African democracy — with some exceptions like Ghana and Botswana — is replete with power-hungry men who cling to power even if it destroys their country. Just think of Kenya, Gabon and recently the Ivory Coast...

Nigeria and other African countries stand a good chance of becoming world leaders in the coming decades. They will be helping Europe and the US to fill gaps left by acute shortages of manpower. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that a Nigerian father of five is the new head of the United Nations Population Fund. "A world of 7 billion is both a challenge and an opportunity," says Dr Babatunde Osotimehin.

I totally agree with him.

I might point out that countries that fall below replacement fertility seldom recover; instead, their population goes into inexorable decline. Human fertility is declining across the planet. We need at least one continent in which people still have the kind of pro-natal, child-welcoming mind-set that allows them to "be fruitful and multiply". Good cultural habits, once lost, are not easily recovered.

Part I - Does Overpopulation Make Abortion A Practical Necessity?

The Earth, seen from Apollo 17. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

(i) Are there too many people for the world to feed?
(ii) Is a large population ecologically unsustainable?
(iii) If a large population was certain to cause massive species extinctions in the future, would family planning (including abortion) be morally obligatory?

(i) Are there too many people for the world to feed?

The myth of overpopulation continues to be widely accepted in pro-choice circles, as a justification for abortion. However, the facts suggests otherwise.

How many people are there in the world now?

When will the 7 billionth human be born? by Fred Pearce in New Scientist, magazine issue 2834, 14 October 2011.

ON 31 October, a newborn baby somewhere in the world will become the 7 billionth member of the human race. Or so says the UN - alternatively, this date could be at least a year too early...

Wolfgang Lutz of the Vienna Institute of Demography says the UN is "under political pressure to disregard uncertainty and name a date" for 7 billion. But he and colleague Sergei Scherbov estimate that the world probably won't reach 7 billion until early in 2013, though it could be as late as 2020...

Discrepancies in estimating populations are amplified in long-term projections. [Zhongwei Zhao of the Australian National University in Canberra] says China's recent overadjusting of its fertility rate will turn into an overestimation of as much as 100 million by 2030.

India's demographic future is even more uncertain. The UN estimates that the country's population will grow from 1.2 billion to 1.7 billion by 2050, making it substantially bigger than China. But Scherbov and Lutz predict 1.4 billion, with a possible range from 1.1 to 1.7 billion...

[F]ollowing what Zlotnik calls "a major change in methodology", the UN upped its estimate of the number of children Nigerian women will be having in 2050 from 2.41 to 3.41.

The UN says world population will still be rising in 2100. Scherbov says there is an 85-per-cent chance it will have peaked by then. But nobody knows for sure.

The Earth's population will level out before it reaches 10 billion people

There are currently approximately 7 billion people on the planet. According to the 2004 United Nations Report World Population to 2300, based on the medium projection figures used by the U.N., the world's population is projected to reach 8.92 billion by 2050, to peak at 9.22 billion in 2075, and then to decline slightly. By 2300, it is projected to be 8.97 billion, or about the same as the figure for 2075. (A 2006 amendment revised the 2050 estimate from 8.92 billion to 9.15 billion.)

For the world as a whole, the total fertility rate has declined from around 5 children per woman in 1960 to 2.56 children per woman as of 2008; the replacement figure for the world as a whole is 2.33. Based on these figures, it seems unlikely that the world's population will exceed 10 billion in the foreseeable future. A recent overview concludes as follows:

The several agencies that try to predict future population seem to be moving closer to a consensus that:

* the world population will continue to grow until after the middle of this century
* reaching a peak of some 9.5 billion (up from today's 6.9 billion) and then
* perhaps declining in the waning years of this century. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Update: the UN has revised its population projections

The latest UN population report for 2011 now predicts a global population of 10.1 billion by the year 2100, rather than 9.1 billion. The UN has recently reversed a decade of speculation about a demographic winter in the West, and now says that every country will achieve replacement fertility by 2100. This is highly unlikely: recent reports from the European Commission and the Japanese government, for example, assume that fertility will remain near today's levels which are about 1.3 in Japan, and 1.4 in Germany. The report also says that fertility in West and Central Africa is falling more slowly than expected. However, there is good reason to believe that the conclusions of the latest UN report are politically motivated.

Dubious assumptions prime population bomb by Fred Pearce, in Nature 473, 125 (2011), doi:10.1038/473125a. Published online 11 May 2011. Pearce is highly skeptical of the latest UN projections that population will keep rising and reach 10.1 billion by 2100, instead of peaking at 9.15 billion as previously projected in 2008. Pointing out that world fertility has fallen from 4.9 children per woman in the early 1960s to an expected 2.45 between 2010 and 2015 - a projection revised down from the 2.49 figure of two years ago - Pearce argues that the latest figures are a politically motivated "doom and gloom" scare tactic. Here are some excerpts from his article:

The latest global population projections, published by the United Nations last week, say that the world will be awash with 10.1 billion people by 2100, a billion more than previously supposed. Already, there is talk again of a ticking population time bomb.

But a closer look at the assumptions behind this scenario shows it to be perverse and contradictory. In fact, it looks more like a political construct than a scientific analysis.

The heart of the problem is this: the new UN estimates record that both world population and global fertility rates are currently slightly lower than presumed when the last projections were made two years ago. Yet, they project significantly higher growth rates than those estimated two years ago.

This paradox is created by a seemingly arbitrary change in assumptions about future fertility that requires a proper explanation....

The UN's previous 'medium variant' projection, published in 2008, concluded that world population would rise from the present 7 billion and peak in mid-century at around the 9.15 billion expected in 2050. The new projection finds no peak. Instead, world population reaches 9.3 billion in 2050 and 10.1 billion in 2100, with further growth still in the works.

The UN has yet to publish its detailed reasoning, but a collection of frequently asked questions issued alongside the new projections says that most of the difference is due to an upward revision of its fertility forecasts - a revision unrelated to current trends... The assumption now is that countries with higher fertility rates will fall to the 2.1 figure and not below, while those below will rise to reach it.

Is this realistic? As Joel Cohen, a demographer at Columbia University in New York, put it in 2002: "No case is yet known of a population with fertility above replacement level that converged to replacement level and then stayed there." That remains the case. [Former UN population division director Jospeh] Chamie this week said he had seen "no compelling evidence" to justify a return to the 2.1 figure.

The UN boasts that its new projections have incorporated a more probabilistic approach into the model. That is good. But, as the UN makes clear, the model "incorporated the additional assumption that, over the long run, replacement-level fertility would be reached". In other words, the crucial new fertility end point of 2.1 did not emerge from the new probabilistic analysis. It was imposed on it, and the UN should explain why. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Curious readers can find out more about the latest UN forecast, from this report by Susan Yoshihara of LifeSiteNews (25 August 2011).

The Earth can feed 10 billion people

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) was an American agricultural scientist, plant breeder, humanitarian and Nobel Laureate who has been called the Father of the Green Revolution, which was responsible for saving the lives of over one billion people. Author Greg Conko tells the story of Borlaug's life in this deeply moving obituary. Borlaug is on the record as asserting that the Earth can feed 10 billion people on a sustainable basis.

Borlaug was originally an ardent proponent of population control. However, he recanted in a speech he gave at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo in the year 2000 (see his Wikipedia biography):

"I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well advanced in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called 'organic' methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot." (30th Anniversary Lecture, The Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo, September 8, 2000.) (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

Borlaug 2.0: we can double the world's food production while reducing the ecological footprint of farming

A team of researchers from Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Germany has come up with a plan to double the world's food production while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. Their findings were recently published in the journal Nature (Solutions for a Cultivated Planet, published online 12 October 2011, doi:10.1038/nature10452).

The researchers recommend:

The study also outlines approaches to the problem that would help policy-makers reach informed decisions about the agricultural choices facing them. "For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet," said lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. "It will take serious work. But we can do it."

McGill geography professor Navin Ramankutty, one of the team leaders on the study, credits the collaboration between researchers for achieving such important results. "Lots of other scholars and thinkers have proposed solutions to global food and environmental problems. But they were often fragmented, only looking at one aspect of the problem at one time. And they often lacked the specifics and numbers to back them up. This is the first time that such a wide range of data has been brought together under one common framework, and it has allowed us to see some clear patterns. This makes it easier to develop some concrete solutions for the problems facing us."

Freezing the ecological footprint of food cultivation

In a recent article (which viewers need to pay to access) in Nature (vol. 475, pp. 287–289, 21 July 2011, doi:10.1038/475287a ) entitled, "Freeze the footprint of food", Dr. Jason Clay identifies eight steps that, taken together, could enable farming to feed 10 billion people and keep Earth habitable. (Dr. Jason Clay is senior vice-president, Market Transformation, World Wildlife Fund, Washington DC.) The eight strategies which he recommends need to be applied simultaneously around the world, in order to reform the global food system, thereby increasing food production and protecting the planet. These strategies can be briefly described as follows:

According to Clay, "To freeze the footprint of food, we need smart policies, innovative ideas and new technologies. We must intensify food production rather than expand it." However, Clay acknowledges that feeding an additional 2 billion people without expanding resources will require unprecedented global collaboration of governments, NGOs and the private sector.

Even ZPG proponents admit that it is possible for the Earth to support 10 billion people

A recent article in The New York Times (May 3, 2011) by Justin Gillis and Celia Dugger contains a startling acknowledgement from a pro-choice demographer who advocates zero population growth. John Bongaarts, Vice President and Distinguished Scholar at the Population Council in New York, admits that the world can feed 10 billion people:

"Every billion more people makes life more difficult for everybody — it's as simple as that," said John Bongaarts, a demographer at the Population Council, a research group in New York. "Is it the end of the world? No. Can we feed 10 billion people? Probably. But we obviously would be better off with a smaller population."

I have already argued above that Africa is perfectly capable of feeding itself, and that southern Sudan alone could feed all Africans if it was properly developed. Bongaarts' pessimism about extra billions of people is therefore unwarranted, in my opinion, although I appreciate his honest admission that we can probably grow enough food for 10 billion people.

The latest U.N. forecast estimates that the world's population will reach around 10.1 billion by 2100. As we have seen, the world can easily feed 10 billion people. Fears of mass starvation in the 21st century due to overpopulation are based on hyperbole and hysteria, rather than solid science.

(ii) Is a large population ecologically unsustainable?

A map showing fertility rates in countries around the world. Source: Wikipedia.

Population control activists claim that the Earth is incapable of sustaining a large population in the long term. Historical estimates of Earth's carrying capacity vary from about 500 million to as high as 1 quintillion, or 10^18 (Cohen, J., How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: W. W. Norton, 1995). However, Professor David Pimentel's estimate in his widely cited article, How many Americans can the earth support? that the Earth can support 1 to 2 billion people at an American standard of living, is fairly typical of the published literature. (David Pimentel is a professor of ecology and agricultural science at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.)

Preliminary considerations

I will not attempt to review the vast published literature on the Earth's carrying capacity here. What I would like to do is highlight the key limitations of current estimates of the Earth's carrying capacity.

First, all current estimates are necessarily limited by our inability to foresee future technological developments. Given that improvements in computer processing capacity have been occurring at an exponential rate for the past 50 years (Moore's law), it is reasonable to believe that in the next few decades, technological advances will occur which are literally unimaginable to us today - just as the Internet was to most people living in the 1980s. This is important, as the Earth's carrying capacity is not something fixed. It is a relative number - relative to the technology that we currently possess. Even if the Earth's carrying capacity is now less than ten billion, we have no reason to believe that it will be in 100 years.

Second, estimating the Earth's carrying capacity is a multi-disciplinary task - a difficult thing in an age when most scientists are specialists in narrow fields. A scientist who knows his/her own field very well may be embarrassingly ignorant of developments occurring in other fields. Case in point: on the basis of his research on topsoil erosion, Bruce Sundquist (whose Website is here) estimates that the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth is around 1.2 billion, and perhaps as low as 0.6 billion. However, he summarily dismisses the notion that soil-less hydroponic cultivation could feed a large population in the future: "Imagine how many fluorescent light bulbs would be needed to replace the sunlight over all the croplands of the world." Sundquist appears to be unaware that an economically viable and virtually limitless source of long-term energy has already been shown to be workable: thorium. For instance, China is currently building a liquid-fluoride thorium reactor, in an effort to wean itself away from coal.

Third, estimates of the Earth's carrying capacity tend to reveal more about the personal biases of the estimators than they do about the state of the Earth. When I say "personal biases," I mean not only their lifestyle preferences (understandably, most of them want to preserve the Western lifestyle), but also their personal politics, their philosophy of man's place in Nature, and their aesthetic preferences. We are told, for instance, that humans are already using up 40% of the Earth's photosynthetic capacity - as if it were the height of hubris for a single species of organism to arrogate so much for itself. That's a perfectly valid point, if you happen to believe that killing a human being is no worse than killing a dog, a fish or even an ant. I don't. To take another example: scientist Paul Ehrlich conjured up the terrifying prospect of a world with one person per square meter of land area to great effect in his best-selling book, The Population Bomb - but he simply assumes that people could never get used to high-rise buildings or underground cities, or that they would never want to live in space stations orbiting the Earth, as proposed recently by NASA scientist Dr. Ruth Globus, who believes that up to 10 trillion people could eventually live in giant space settlements in low Earth orbit (see here and here for details).

Finally, my investigations have revealed several key points which should put a stop to the panic about the Earth being over-populated. I will discuss these points below:

(a) consumption is a far greater environmental threat than overpopulation;

(b) the Earth has virtually limitless energy resources that can be economically tapped - which in turn means that it has virtually limitless food resources, as energy is the major constraint on humanity's food-generating capacity;

(c) limitless energy resources will also solve the problem of future water shortages;

(d) claims that we are already exceeding the Earth's carrying capacity (the "five planets" problem) are based on the flawed assumption that planting forests is the best way to fight global warming;

(e) Poverty, poor governance and lack of property rights, rather than population, are the greatest man-made threats to the Earth's ecosystems;

(f) claims that the Earth's species are dying out as a result of habitat destruction are empirically false, which means that future projections of a man-made "sixth wave" of geological extinctions are exaggerated by several orders of magnitude;

(g) the amount of man-made global warming that will occur this century remains highly uncertain, and may well be as little as 1.3 degrees Celsius, but in any case, we can obtain enough energy from thorium in the longer term to avert this threat. Curiously, it is the "greens" who are trying hardest to prevent politicians to tap this useful source of energy, while at the same time telling us that there is an urgent need for population control; and

(h) claims that the Earth's oceans are dying as a result of ocean acidification are greatly over-hyped.

(a) Consumption is a far greater environmental threat than overpopulation.
(b) The Earth has virtually limitless energy resources that can be economically tapped.
(c) Water shortages will not be a problem if we have limitless energy resources.
(d) The "five planets" problem is a myth; the planet we have is more than enough.
(e) Poverty, poor governance and lack of property rights, rather than population, are the greatest man-made threats to the Earth's ecosystems.
(f) Human beings are not causing large numbers of species to become extinct through habitat destruction.
(g) The solution to global warming already exists: it's called energy from thorium.
(h) Acidification will not destroy the Earth's oceans in the foreseeable future.

(a) Consumption is a far greater environmental threat than overpopulation.

George Monbiot, a writer, journalist and intrepid critic of zealots who blame the planet's woes on overpopulation while turning a blind eye to the true cause of environmental degradation: overconsumption. Image courtesy of JK the Unwise and Wikipedia.

Those who are inclined to accuse poor people in developing countries of contributing to the destruction of the Earth's environment would do well to read an article entitled The Population Myth by journalist George Monbiot in The Guardian (29 September 2009). In his article, Monbiot alludes to a recent report entitled, The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change by David Satterthwaite, on behalf of the International Institute for Environment and Development, in Environment and Urbanization 2009; 21; 545 (DOI: 10.1177/0956247809344361). Monbiot summarizes the key findings as follows:

A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world's population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions(2).

Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around one sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.

Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to us. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for example, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together(3). Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.

The paper's author, David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development, points out that the old formula taught to all students of development – that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT) – is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children.

While there's a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there's a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. ...

...[T]he world is going through demographic transition: population growth rates are slowing down almost everywhere and the number of people is likely, according to a paper in Nature, to peak this century, probably at around 10 billion. Most of the growth will take place among those who consume almost nothing.

But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers...

It's time we had the guts to name the problem. It's not sex; it's money. It's not the poor; it's the rich.

The skeptical reader might ask: but what about future generations of poor people? Won't they consume more than the descendants of rich people? Author and environmental consultant Fred Pearce had addressed this point in an online article entitled, Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat (Yale Environment 360, 13 April 2009).

But, you ask, what about future generations? All those big families in Africa begetting yet-bigger families. They may not consume much today, but they soon will.

Well, first let's be clear about the scale of the difference involved. A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and her family will still do less damage, and consume fewer resources, than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota or Munich. In the unlikely event that her ten children live to adulthood and have ten children of their own, the entire clan of more than a hundred will still be emitting less carbon dioxide than you or I.

And second, it won't happen. Wherever most kids survive to adulthood, women stop having so many. That is the main reason why the number of children born to an average woman around the world has been in decline for half a century now. After peaking at between 5 and 6 per woman, it is now down to 2.6.

This is getting close to the "replacement fertility level" which, after allowing for a natural excess of boys born and women who don't reach adulthood, is about 2.3. The UN expects global fertility to fall to 1.85 children per woman by mid-century. While a demographic "bulge" of women of child-bearing age keeps the world's population rising for now, continuing declines in fertility will cause the world’s population to stabilize by mid-century and then probably to begin falling.

Far from ballooning, each generation will be smaller than the last. So the ecological footprint of future generations could diminish. That means we can have a shot at estimating the long-term impact of children from different countries down the generations.

The best analysis of this phenomenon I have seen is by Paul Murtaugh, a statistician at Oregon State University. He recently calculated the climatic "intergenerational legacy" of today's children. He assumed current per-capita emissions and UN fertility projections. He found that an extra child in the United States today will, down the generations, produce an eventual carbon footprint seven times that of an extra Chinese child, 46 times that of a Pakistan child, 55 times that of an Indian child, and 86 times that of a Nigerian child...

In any event, it strikes me as the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world's environmental footprint because generations of poor people not yet born might one day get to be as rich and destructive as us.

The real problem with the logic of population control: its view of resources as finite and of humans as mere consumers of resources

Think the Earth is finite? Think again (8 November 2010) by Brendan O'Neill, editor of spiked and a self-professed pro-choice atheist and radical humanist. Here's an excerpt from his article:

The main Malthusian idea I think we should challenge is the idea that resources are finite. The idea that the Earth itself is finite. The idea that we live on a finite planet and therefore we can only have a certain number of people, living in a certain number of homes, eating a certain amount of food.

Because it seems to me that the population-control lobby's obsession with finiteness really exposes what it is all about. It reveals the historical illiteracy and the social pessimism that underpin the pseudo-scientific movement of Malthusianism. The Malthusians' focus on finiteness explains firstly why they are always wrong about everything; secondly why they are so misanthropic; and thirdly why they put forward such illiberal proposals, dressed up, of course, in the language of 'female empowerment'...

The exact same resource can do very, very different things, depending on social and technological development. It was social limits, not physical limits, which meant that Ancient Romans could not use coal to make things move and other ancient communities could only use uranium to make glass look yellow. And the main problem with resource-pessimists such as Malthusians is that they continually misinterpret social limits as physical limits. They naturalise social limits, reinterpreting and re-presenting problems of social development as problems of nature's shrinking bounty. They make the fatal flaw of arguing that the main barrier to progress and human comfort is the barrier erected by nature's limited resources, when in fact it is the barrier erected by crises of social imagination....

It seems very clear to me that today, still, the main problem we face is absolutely social rather than natural. We now live under a cult of sustainability, a social and political framework which says that we should never overhaul what exists and should instead make do with the world as it is. The idea of sustainability is anti-exploration, anti-experimentation, anti-risk – all the qualities we need if we are going to make the kind of breakthroughs that earlier generations made with coal and uranium and other resources. In contrast to the past, today human society is accommodating to social limitations, and accepting the idea that they are natural, rather than trying to break through them. The Malthusian mindset is winning, and that is a tragedy for all of us.

The Malthusian view of humans as little more than consumers ... is a spectacularly one-sided view of people. Because we don't only use resources; we also create them. We are not only consumers; we are also producers.

(b) The Earth has virtually limitless energy resources that can be economically tapped

Summary: Dire predictions of human civilization running out of energy have proved to be ill-founded. Recent discoveries of vast reserves of natural gas have removed the threat of humanity running out of energy over the next few decades. However, natural gas is only a stop-gap solution: it won't last forever, and it won't reduce global warming to any significant extent. (Over the short term, it may even exacerbate it, precisely because it is clean: unlike dirty coal, natural gas does not contain any sunlight-blocking aerosols.) Humanity therefore needs a clean, economical and abundant source of energy which is sustainable over the long-term. That source is nuclear energy. In this section, I shall focus on two workable proposals relating to advanced nuclear power stations: integral fast reactors and liquid fluoride thorium reactors. Both of these proposals are in my opinion workable, although thorium reactors are preferable, in my opinion.

Shale Gas: A Good Energy Source For The Next Few Decades

Map of major shale gas basis all over the world from the EIA report World Shale Gas Resources: An Initial Assessment of 14 Regions Outside the United States. Image courtesy of US Energy Information Administration and Wikipedia.

Here is an excerpt from a Time magazine report entitled, Could Shale Gas Power the World?" by Bryan Walsh.

Natural gas is up now — way up — and it's changing how we think about energy throughout the world. If its boosters are to be believed, gas will change geopolitics, trimming the power of states in the troubled Middle East by reducing the demand for their oil; save the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise die from mining coal or breathing its filthy residue; and make it a little easier to handle the challenges of climate change — all thanks to vast new onshore deposits of what is called shale gas. Using new drilling methods pioneered by a Texas wildcatter, companies have been able to tap enormous quantities of gas from shale, leading to rock-bottom prices for natural gas even as oil soars. In a single year, the usually sober U.S. Energy Information Administration more than doubled its estimates of recoverable domestic shale-gas resources to 827 trillion cu. ft. (23 trillion cu m), more than 34 times the amount of gas the U.S. uses in a year. Together with supplies from conventional gas sources, the U.S. may now have enough gas to last a century at current consumption rates. (By comparison, the U.S. has less than nine years of oil reserves.)

Nor is the U.S. alone. Britain, India, China and countries in Eastern Europe have potential shale plays as well, while Australia, having invested in huge infrastructure projects, has started sending fleets of ships with liquefied natural gas around the world.

Over all this loom three factors: booming demand for energy as nations such as China and India industrialize; the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, which has dimmed prospects for a renaissance of nuclear power; and the turmoil in the oil-rich Middle East. Taken together, they have opened space for gas as a relatively clean, relatively cheap fuel that can help fill the world's needs during the transition to a truly green economy.

A new report published in May 2011 by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, entitled The Shale Gas Shock, written by Matt Ridley and with a foreword by Professor Freeman Dyson, finds that shale gas:

Matt Ridley, the author of the GWPF report, said:

"Abundant and relatively cheap shale gas promises to lower the cost of gas relative to oil, coal and renewables. It indefinitely postpones the exhaustion of fossil fuels and makes reducing emissions of carbon dioxide possible without raising energy prices."

I should emphasize that while shale gas is a stopgap solution to our energy problems, it will not help us to significantly reduce global warming, and it may even exacerbate it. See the following report:

Switching from coal to natural gas would do little for global climate by Professor Barry Brook. Highlights:

Although the burning of natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide than coal, a new study concludes that a greater reliance on natural gas would fail to significantly slow down climate change.

The study by Tom Wigley, who is a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), underscores the complex and sometimes conflicting ways in which fossil fuel burning affects Earth's climate. While coal use causes warming through emission of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, it also releases comparatively large amounts of sulfates and other particles that, although detrimental to the environment, cool the planet by blocking incoming sunlight...

Wigley's computer simulations indicate that a worldwide, partial shift from coal to natural gas would slightly accelerate climate change through at least 2050, even if no methane leaked from natural gas operations, and through as late as 2140 if there were substantial leaks. After that, the greater reliance on natural gas would begin to slow down the increase in global average temperature, but only by a few tenths of a degree...

If the rate of methane leaks from natural gas could be held to around 2 percent, for example, the study indicates that warming would be reduced by less than 0.2 degrees F (about 0.1 degree C) by 2100. The reduction in warming would be more pronounced in a hypothetical scenario of zero leaks, which would result in a reduction of warming by 2100 of about 0.2-0.3 degrees F (0.1-0.2 degrees C). But in a high leakage rate scenario of 10 percent, global warming would not be reduced until 2140.

A recent article in Time magazine by Bryan Walsh, entitled, Natural Gas Can Save the Climate? Not Exactly also reports on Wigley's research findings. It concludes:

Wigley's study is a reminder that natural gas — which is a fossil fuel, after all — isn't a perfect panacea, now matter how hard members of the industry might wish it so. Ultimately, unless we figure out a way to magically suck carbon out of the air cheaply, we'll need to switch to carbon-neutral fuels sooner, rather than later. Natural gas is hyped as a bridge fuel, and maybe it is — but that bridge had better be a short one.

To be fair, I should state that not everyone accepts Wigley's analysis. In an article in Reason magazine (May 26, 2011), Ronald Bailey vigorously contests claims by Cornell University environmental biologist Robert Howarth, that natural gas produced by means of hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) is worse than burning coal, when it comes to man-made warming of the atmosphere. Bailey also rejects the findings of the study conducted by Tom Wigley at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, in his article, Natural Gas Climate War Heats Up (Reason magazine, September 9, 2011). In both articles, Bailey highlights the fact that the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory has recently done a life cycle analysis of gas versus coal, and it comes to a very different conclusion from Howarth and Wigley, with regard to the effects og gas and coal on climate change:

Average natural gas baseload power generation has a life cycle GWP [global warming potential - VJT] 50 percent lower (emphasis added) than average coal baseload power generation on a 20-year time horizon.

Nuclear Power: A Clean Energy Source For The Long-Term Future

Integral Fast Reactors: The second-best solution

Left: Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which served as the prototype for the Integral Fast Reactor. Picture courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory and Wikipedia.
Right: Integral Fast Reactor concept. Fuel makes electricity and when spent, goes next door to be recycled as new fuel pins. Diagram courtesy of Susan M. Stacy, U.S. Department of Energy, Idaho Operations Office, and Wikipedia.

In order to provide readers with a succinct explanation of the vast possibilities of Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs), I would like to quote from the Abstract of a paper entitled Advanced Nuclear Power Systems to Mitigate Climate Change (PDF version here). This paper was presented to the 91st American Meteorology Society Annual Meeting, Jan 23-27, 2011, Seattle, WA (Second Conference on Weather, Climate, and the New Energy Economy):

Fossil fuels currently supply about 80% of humankind’s primary energy. Given the imperatives of climate change, pollution, energy security and dwindling supplies, and enormous technical, logistical and economic challenges of scaling up coal or gas power plants with carbon capture and storage to sequester all that carbon, we are faced with the necessity of a nearly complete transformation of the world’s energy systems. Objective analyses of the inherent constraints on wind, solar, and other less-mature renewable energy technologies inevitably demonstrate that they will fall far short of meeting today's energy demands, let alone the certain increased demands of the future. Nuclear power, however, is capable of providing all the carbon-free energy that mankind requires, although the prospect of such a massive deployment raises questions of uranium shortages, increased energy and environmental impacts from mining and fuel enrichment, and so on. These potential roadblocks can all be dispensed with, however, through the use of fast neutron reactors and fuel recycling. The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), developed at U.S. national laboratories in the latter years of the last century, can economically and cleanly supply all the energy the world needs without any further mining or enrichment of uranium. Instead of utilizing a mere 0.6% of the potential energy in uranium, IFRs capture all of it. Capable of utilizing troublesome waste products already at hand, IFRs can solve the thorny spent fuel problem while powering the planet with carbon-free energy for nearly a millennium before any more uranium mining would even have to be considered. Designed from the outset for unparalleled safety and proliferation resistance, with all major features proven out at the engineering scale, this technology is unrivaled in its ability to solve the most difficult energy problems facing humanity in the 21st century. (Emphasis mine - VJT.)

Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors: An even better solution

A top down view of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) was a 7.4 MW test reactor, constructed in 1964, simulating the "kernel" of an inherently safe thorium breeder reactor. It was operated until 1969. Image courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Wikipedia.

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor Explained in Five Minutes. A short video by Thorium Remix 2011.

Tell Barack Obama the Truth - The Whole Truth. Climate Scientist James Hanson recently spoke of thorium's great promise in material that he submitted to President Elect Obama in 2008:

The Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is a thorium reactor concept that uses a chemically-stable fluoride salt for the medium in which nuclear reactions take place. This fuel form yields flexibility of operation and eliminates the need to fabricate fuel elements. This feature solves most concerns that have prevented thorium from being used in solid-fueled reactors. The fluid fuel in LFTR is also easy to process and to separate useful fission products, both stable and radioactive. LFTR also has the potential to destroy existing nuclear waste.

(The) LFTR(s) operate at low pressure and high temperatures, unlike today's LWRs [light water reactors - VJT]. Operation at low pressures alleviates much of the accident risk with LWR. Higher temperatures enable more of the reactor heat to be converted to electricity (50% in LFTR vs 35% in LWR). (The) LFTR (has) the potential to be air-cooled and to use waste heat for desalinating water.

LFTR(s) are 100-300 times more fuel efficient than LWRs. In addition to solving the nuclear waste problem, they can operate for several centuries using only uranium and thorium that has already been mined. Thus they eliminate the criticism that mining for nuclear fuel will use fossil fuels and add to the greenhouse effect...

Development of the first large 4 generation nuclear plants may proceed most rapidly if carried out in China or India (or South Korea, which has a significant R&D program), with the full technical cooperation of the United States and/or Europe. Such cooperation would make it much easier to achieve agreements for reducing greenhouse gases.

(c) Water shortages will not be a problem if we have limitless energy resources.

Reverse osmosis desalination plant in Barcelona, Spain. Courtesy of James Grellier and Wikipedia.

A common objection to the idea of a larger population for planet Earth is that we are already experiencing water shortages, and that more people will place a strain on the Earth's limited resources. What the objection overlooks is that (a) water can be recycled, and (b) we currently use only a very limited portion of the Earth's total water supply. It is the oceans, rather than lakes or rivers, which represent the earth's major water reservoir. About 97% of the earth's water is seawater, while another 2% is locked up in icecaps and glaciers. Available fresh water thus accounts for less than 0.5% of the earth’s total water supply. Thus a combination of recycling and desalination would enable the human race to support a much larger population.

It may be objected that desalination is a costly process. Moreover, there are limitations in the ability of renewable sources to provide for desalination facilities. Desalination is a continuous process, whereas renewable energies only provide sporadic and inconsistent power.

But as we saw above, the human race can obtain a virtually limitless supply of nuclear energy from thorium. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors are already under construction: both China and India are currently building thorium reactors. The technology already exists.

Here is a short quote from the Wikipedia article on Desalination, illustrating the feasibility of nuclear-powered desalination:

In a December 26, 2007, opinion column in the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nolan Hertel, a professor of nuclear and radiological engineering at Georgia Tech, wrote, "... nuclear reactors can be used ... to produce large amounts of potable water. The process is already in use in a number of places around the world, from India to Japan and Russia. Eight nuclear reactors coupled to desalination plants are operating in Japan alone ... nuclear desalination plants could be a source of large amounts of potable water transported by pipelines hundreds of miles inland..." [12]

...A typical aircraft carrier in the U.S. military uses nuclear power to desalinate 400,000 US gallons (1,500,000 l; 330,000 imp gal) of water per day. [14]

(d) The "five planets" problem is a myth; the planet we have is more than enough.

Professor Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, has effectively punctured the "five planets" myth. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

Two years ago, Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, and an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, wrote an article in The Australian (April 15, 2009) entitled, No, we don't need five planets, refuting the oft-repated myth that for everyone in the world to live an American lifestyle would require five planets. I shall quote a few excerpts:

According to conventional wisdom, we are voraciously using the world's resources and living way beyond Earth's means. This narrative of decline and pessimism underlies much of today's environmental discourse and is often formulated in a simple fashion: by 2030, we will need two planets to sustain us, owing to higher living standards and population growth. If everyone managed to live at American living standards today, we would need almost five planets. But this received wisdom is fundamentally wrong.

Environmental campaigners use the so-called ecological footprint - how much area each one of us requires from the planet - to make their point. We obviously use crop land, grazing land, forests and fishing grounds to produce our food, fibre and timber, and we need space for our houses, roads and cities. Moreover, we require areas to absorb the waste emitted by our energy use. Translating all these demands into a common unit of physical area gives us an opportunity to compare it with Earth's productive area, and thus to get a sense of how sustainable we are.

For more than a decade, the WWF and several other conservation organisations have performed complicated calculations to determine individual footprints on the planet. Their numbers show that each American uses 9.4ha of the globe, each European 4.7ha, and those in low-income countries just 1ha. Adding it all up, we collectively use 17.5 billion hectares.

Unfortunately, there are only 13.4 billion hectares available. So the WWF points out that we are already living beyond Earth's means, using about 30 per cent too much. ...

But wait a minute. How can we do that? How can we actually use more area than there is on Earth?

Obviously, any measure that tries to aggregate many different aspects of human behaviour will have to simplify the inputs; the ecological footprint is no different. For example, when we talk about American lifestyles needing five planets, we assume that technology is frozen, whereas it is likely that worldwide land-use productivity will increase dramatically. Likewise, organic farming leaves a larger footprint than its conventional cousin.

Yet, despite such shortcomings, it is clear that areas we use for roads cannot be used for growing food and that areas we use to build our houses take away from forests. This part of the ecological footprint is a convenient measure of our literal footprint on Earth. Here, we live far inside the available area, using about 60 per cent of the world's available space, and this proportion is likely to drop, because the rate at which the world's population is increasing is now slowing, while technological progress continues. So no ecological collapse here.

There is just one factor that keeps increasing: our carbon emissions. It is not at all obvious to anybody how to convert CO2 to area. The WWF and some researchers choose to get around this by defining the area of emissions as the area of forest needed to soak up the extra CO2. This now makes up more than 50 per cent of the ecological footprint and will grow to three quarters before mid-century...

Is it really necessary for us to cut all emissions? Just cutting about half of all emissions would reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the medium term. More important, planting forests is one of the least area-efficient, technology-intensive ways to cut carbon. Solar cells and wind turbines require less than 1per cent of the area of forests to reduce CO2, they become increasingly efficient, and they can often be placed on non-productive land (such as wind turbines at sea and solar panels in deserts). Measured this way, the scary eco-crunch disappears.

Due to technology, the individual demand on the planet has already dropped by 35 per cent over the past half decade, and the collective requirement will reach its upper limit before 2020 without any overdraft....

When we really examine the ecological footprint calculations, we discover that the only thing the world is running out of is space to plant a colossal amount of imaginary forest that we wouldn't have planted anyway, to avoid CO2 emissions that we can prevent through much smarter and cheaper means.

That our profligate consumption requires five planets is a catchy story, but it is wrong. The planet we have is more than enough. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

(e) Poverty, poor governance and lack of property rights, rather than population, are the greatest man-made threats to the Earth's ecosystems.

Left: Jungle burned for agriculture in southern Mexico. Picture courtesy of Jami Dwyer and Wikipedia.
Right: Collapse of Atlantic cod stocks off the East Coast of Newfoundland in 1992. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Summary: Overpopulation is commonly regarded as a leading cause of deforestation and overfishing. However, the facts show that natural population growth has very little influence on deforestation or overfishing. To comabt these environmental threats, government incentives favoring harmful environmental practices must be dismantled, and legal authority over local resources needs to be transferred to local communities, which also need to be trained to manage ecosystems effectively. Poor governance and poverty are the main threats to the Earth's ecosystems.

Empowering poor people in developing countries to help themselves: what needs to be done?

Nature-Based Enterprises Can Help Rural Poor Adapt to Environmental Threats by the World Resources Institute. Highlights:

Expanding nature-based enterprises can increase income for the world’s rural poor. This approach, as outlined in the latest World Resources Report 2008, can also develop the rural poor’s resilience to social and environmental threats such as climate change...

World Resources 2008: Roots of Resilience - released here today as part of the IUCN World Conservation Congress - closely examines existing community-based efforts. The report argues that properly fostered nature-based enterprises can improve rural livelihoods and, in the process, create resilience to economic, social, and environmental threats...

Roots of Resilience concludes that expanding the scale of already successful models requires an emphasis on three critical elements:

  • Ownership: A groundwork of good governance must both transfer to the poor legal authority over local resources and elicit local demand for better management of resources.
  • Capacity: Local communities must have the ability to manage ecosystems competently, carry out ecosystem-based enterprises, and distribute the income from these enterprises fairly.
  • Connection: Establishing adaptive networks that connect and strengthen nature-based enterprises will give them the ability to adapt, learn, link to markets, and mature into businesses that can sustain themselves and enter the economic mainstream.

"Local communities clearly have an interest to sustain the ecosystems on which they depend," added Manish Bapna, executive vice president, World Resources Institute (WRI). "But all too often, they face a disabling, not an enabling environment. Governments and donors have a crucial role to play in constructing the right policies and institutions necessary to protect ecosystems and grow the wealth and resilience of the poor."

Why telling mothers that that too many children will 'destroy biodiversity is a form of reproductive coercion

Think the Earth is finite? Think again (8 November 2010) by Brendan O'Neill, editor of spiked and a self-professed pro-choice atheist and radical humanist. From the conclusion:

Because when you promote family planning on the basis that too many children will destroy the planet, on the basis that women are creating future pollutants, on the basis that our offspring will turn into planet-rapists, then you are not giving women real reproductive choice, which is something I fully support; no, you are giving them an ultimatum. You are instructing them that if they carry on breeding, then they will be responsible for natural disasters and carnage on a Biblical scale. That is coercion; it is an invasion of women's free will. And it is the end result of a misanthropic outlook which says that the worst thing a human being can do is create another human being.

Natural population growth is not a significant cause of deforestation

One of the most dangerous threats to the Earth's ecosystems is tropical deforestation, but the causes remain poorly understood. In a ground-breaking study, Geist and Lambin (2002) analyzed the proximate and underlying causes of deforestation by looking at 152 case studies, and concluded that while in-migration of colonizing settlers into sparsely populated forest areas had a notable effect on deforestation, population increase due to natural fertility rates did not.

Proximate causes and underlying driving forces of tropical deforestation by Helmut J. Geist and Eric F. Lambin, in Bioscience, Feb 2002, Vol. 52, No. 2, p. 143.

Case studies of net losses of tropical forest cover (n=152) were analyzed to determine whether the proximate causes and underlying driving forces of tropical deforestation fall into any patterns. Study areas rtange from a community to a multi-province area, and cases span time periods from 1880 to 1996, with 1940 to 1990 being the most frequently covered period. The 152 cases of tropical deforestation were taken from 95 articles published in 40 journals covered by the citation index of the Institute for Scientific Information (Geist and Lambin 2001).

Four broad clusters of proximate causes were identified: agricultural expansion, wood extraction, infrastructure extension and other factors... Underlying driving forces were categorized into five broad clusters: demographic, economic, technological, policy and institutional, and cultural factors...

Causal factors were quantified by determining the most frequent proximate and underlying factors in each case...

Among the detailed categories of proximate causes for all regions, the extension of overland transport infrastructure, followed by commercial wood extraction, permanent cultivation and cattle ranching, are the leading proximate causes of tropical deforestation. Contrary to widely held views, case study evidence suggests that shifting cultivation is not the primary cause of deforestation.

At the underlying level, tropical deforestation is also best explained by multiple factors and drivers acting synergistically rather than by single-factor causation, with more than one-third of the cases being driven by the full interplay of economic, institutional, technological, cultural and demographic variables...

Economic factors are prominent underlying causes of tropical deforestation (81%). Commercialization and the growth of mainly timber markets (as driven by national and international demands) as well as market failures are frequently reported to drive deforestation...

Institutional factors also drive many cases of deforestation (78%). These factors mainly include pro-deforestation measures such as policies on land use and economic development as related to colonization, transportation or subsidies for land-based activities. Land tenure arrangements and policy failures (such as corruption or mismanagement in the forestry sector) are also important drivers of deforestation...

Among technological factors (70%), important factors affecting deforestation are agrotechnological change, with agricultural intensification having no distinct impact separate from agricultural expansion, and poor technological applications in the wood sector (leading to wasteful logging practices).

Cultural or sociopolitical factors (66%) are reported to underlie mainly policy and economic forces in the form of attitudes of public unconcern towards forest environments. These factors also shape the rent-seeking behavior of individual agents causing deforestation.

Among demographic factors (61%), only in-migration of colonizing settlers into sparsely populated forest areas, with the consequence of increasing population density there, shows a notable influence on deforestation. It tends to feature African and Latin-American rather than Asian cases. Contrary to a common misonception, population increase due to natural fertility rates is not a primary driver of deforestation at a local scale, over a period of a few decades, as it intervenes in 8% of cases only and is always combined with other factors.

Natural population growth is not a significant cause of overfishing

Poverty, not population, is ruining coral reef ecosystems by Joshua Cinner, Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence, Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. Excerpt:

Overfishing is a serious problem on many of the world's coral reefs – a problem that is generally attributed to too many people. But our research has found that economic development, rather than population, is the main driver of overfishing on coral reefs in the western Indian Ocean.

Interestingly, the heaviest overfishing on coral reefs occurs in countries part way up the development ladder. Countries with either very low or high levels of development tend to have reef fisheries in pretty good shape – about four times the reef fish biomass of the intermediate development sites...

The good news is that the path to reef destruction is not inevitable. Coral reefs can be sustained with the right combination of approaches, which includes fishery closures, property rights, and gear restrictions while at the same time tackling poverty as a root cause of reef decline.

Poverty as a leading cause of environmental degradation

Museveni: Poverty is the Greatest Threat to Environment by Yoweri K. Museveni, President of Uganda. Article in The African Executive, 19 April 2007. Excerpts:

It is more difficult for a backward country to guard against environmental degradation than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Why? The Government has no money to police and protect the environment; there are too many people, in primitive agriculture who destroy the environment using wrong techniques and implements; and without electricity, the population uses firewood, thereby destroying the bio-mass.

Industrialisation is therefore a sine qua non of protecting the environment. Even after industrialization, some people do not protect the environment. In our case, the environment (especially the forests and the bio-mass) is being destroyed because of lack of industrialisation and the attendant social transformation. While Europeans and Americans are destroying the environment because of greed; we are destroying the environment, involuntarily, because of poverty, lack of employment, lack of electricity.

Property rights are critical for addressing environmental degradation

A rising tide: Scientists find proof that privatising fishing stocks can avert a disaster (The Economist, 18 September 2008. Excerpt:

FOR three years, from an office overlooking the Atlantic in Nova Scotia, Boris Worm, a marine scientist, studied what could prevent a fishery from collapsing. By 2006 Dr Worm and his team had worked out that although biodiversity might slow down an erosion of fish stocks, it could not prevent it. Their gloomy prediction was that by 2048 all the world's commercial fisheries would have collapsed.

Now two economists and a marine biologist have looked at an idea that might prevent such a catastrophe. This is the privatisation of commercial fisheries through what are known as catch shares or Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs).

Christopher Costello and Steven Gaines (the biologist) of the University of California and John Lynham of the University of Hawaii assembled a database of the world's commercial fisheries, their catches and whether or not they were managed with ITQs... The overall finding was that fisheries that were managed with ITQs were half as likely to collapse as those that were not...

Most fisheries have an annual quota of what can be caught and other restrictions, such as the length of the season or the type of nets. But this can result in a "race to fish" the quota. Fishermen have an incentive to work harder and travel farther, which can lead to overfishing: a classic tragedy of the commons...

Although governing authorities are important in setting up ITQs, so is policing of the system by the fishermen themselves...

Jeremy Prince, a fisheries scientist at Murdoch University in Australia, has been involved in ITQs since they were pioneered in the early 1980s by Australia, New Zealand and Iceland. In Australia they are only one way of managing with property rights, he says. Depending on the nature of a fishery, other methods may work better. These might divide up and sell lobster pots, numbers of fish, numbers of boats, bits of the ocean or even individual reefs. The best choice will depend on the value and underlying biology of each fishery, and in some places they may not work at all...

So, if Dr Costello and his colleagues are right and the profit motive can drive the sustainability of fisheries, why do the world's 10,000-plus fisheries contain only 121 ITQs? Allocating catch shares is a difficult and often fraught process. In America it can take from five to 15 years, says Joe Sullivan, a partner in Mundt MacGregor, a law firm based in Seattle. The public, he says, sometimes resists the privatisation of a public resource and if government gets too involved in the details of the privatisation (rather than leaving it to the fishermen to work out), it can end up politically messy. But evidence that ITQs work is a powerful new hook to capture the political will and public attention needed to spread an idea that could avert an ecological disaster.

(f) Human beings are not causing large numbers of species to become extinct through habitat destruction.

The dodo, shown here in a 1651 illustration by Jan Savery, is an often-cited example of species extinction. However, the extinction of the dodo was not caused by habitat destruction. Dodos became extinct because they were devoured by human beings, as well as the cats and dogs they brought with them.

Summary: The threat of large-scale species extinction, caused by the destruction of animals' habitats, is often put forward as an argument for human population control, by any means necessary (including abortion). It is said that we are now in the middle of a great wave of species extinctions, unparalleled since the extinction of the dinosaurs. These claims are utterly nonsensical. After examining the data, it has become apparent to me that claims of an impending "sixth wave" of species extinction are based on wildly inflated data, coupled with a very poor use of statistics. These claims have been unmasked only in the past few years. I would like to invite the reader to examine the evidence and judge for him/herself.

There is one other possible scenario in which large-scale species extinction may occur in the next few centuries: catastrophic climate change. If global temperatures were to rise by more than 3 degrees Celsius over the next century, species extinctions would likely occur on a much larger scale, due to the rapidity of the change and the inability of many species to adjust to it. However, in section (f), I will show that a feasible technological solution to the global warming crisis already exists: energy from thorium, which will deliver clean abundant energy to the human race for thousands of years to come, at an affordable cost. There is therefore no need to halt population growth in order to prevent species extinctions.

Why some biologists believe that increasing human encroachment on animal habitats will lead to a mass extinction of animals

One of the more common arguments put forward by population control advocates is that a growing human population will encroach upon other animals' habitats, leading to the extinction of many species of animals. It is frequently claimed that this process is already well underway, and biologist E. O. Wilson even claims that because of habitat reduction, we are now in the "sixth great wave of extinctions", comparable in size to the five previous great waves of extinctions in geological time (The Diversity of Life, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1992). Wilson has also claimed that even using what he called "maximally optimistic" species/area calculations, the 1% annual area loss of forest habitat worldwide will have catastrophic consequences: "The number of species doomed [to eventual extinction] each year is 27,000. Each day it is 74, and each hour 3" (Wilson, 1992). He has also written: "Some groups, like the larger birds and mammals, are more susceptible to extinction than most" (Wilson 1995).

Wilson is not alone. Biologists frequently claim that habitat reduction is causing species to go extinct, and that it can even be reduced to predict the number of species that will go extinct in the future. For instance, a study in Nature [Thomas 2004] stated that 37% of all species might soon go extinct because of habitat reduction due to global warming, and studies by Parmesan and Yohe (Parmesan 2003) and Root et al. (Root 2003) have made similar predictions of future mass extinctions.

More recently, Anthony D. Barnosky et al. have warned that another mass extinction is imminent, in an article published in the journal Nature (Volume 471, pp. 51–57, 3 March 2011, DOI: doi:10.1038/nature09678, published online 02 March 2011), entitled, Has the Earth's sixth mass extinction already arrived?. The authors concluded that most of the world's creatures are in danger of becoming extinct. Here is an excerpt from the abstract of their paper:

Palaeontologists characterize mass extinctions as times when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short interval, as has happened only five times in the past 540 million years or so. Biologists now suggest that a sixth mass extinction may be under way, given the known species losses over the past few centuries and millennia. Here we review how differences between fossil and modern data and the addition of recently available palaeontological information influence our understanding of the current extinction crisis. Our results confirm that current extinction rates are higher than would be expected from the fossil record, highlighting the need for effective conservation measures.

Why other scientists aren't impressed by the alarmists' arguments

However, Barnosky's paper received damning reviews from other researchers, and even from some ecologists. Greenpeace co-Founder and ecologist Dr. Patrick Moore sharply criticized the new study for claiming that an irreversible mass extinction of species was already underway. "This [journal Nature] article should never have made it through the peer-review process," Moore told Climate Depot in an interview. "The fact that the study did make it through peer-review indicates that the peer review process has become corrupted," he said.

Dr. Moore has also criticized biologist E. O. Wilson for claiming that a sixth extinction event has already begun. Back in 2000, when Wilson estimated that up to 50,000 species go extinct every year based on computer models of the number of potential but as yet undiscovered species in the world, Moore commented: "There's no scientific basis for saying that 50,000 species are going extinct. The only place you can find them is in Edward O. Wilson's computer at Harvard University. They're actually electrons on a hard drive. I want a list of Latin names of actual species."

How one amateur scientist, Willis Eschenbach, completely demolished claims of an impending mass extinction, made by biologist E. O. Wilson

The slender-billed Grackle, Quiscalus palustris. This is the only species of continental bird whose extinction was entirely due to the destruction of its habitat by human beings in the past 500 years. While habitat reduction has been claimed as contributing to three continental bird extinctions in the past 500 years, to date no continental mammal or bird has been seen to go extinct due to habitat reduction alone. Image courtesy of J. G. Keulemans and Wikipedia.

What are the facts about species extinction? It turns out that estimates of the rate at which species of animals are going extinct are surprisingly flimsy, as amateur scientist Willis Eschenbach demonstrates in his WattsUpWithThat post, Where are the corpses? Eschenbach's research totally discredits the oft-heard claim that habitat reduction is causing, or will cause, the extinction of a large percentage of the Earth's species - and in particular, birds and mammals.

Eschenbach tested this claim by applying it to the historical record. He decided to investigate the timing and number of mammal and bird extinctions in modern times (the last 500 years) which are due to habitat reduction. The species-area relationship (which ecologists use) predicts that there should have been a very large number of recorded bird and mammal extinctions from habitat reduction over the last 500 years.

Where did Eschenbach get his data on extinctions from?

There are two main lists used by scientists to keep track of the facts of extinction. One is the "Red List", maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which lists species which are either extinct or at risk of extinction. The Red List database can be searched online at redlist.org.

The other is the CREO list, from the Committee on Recently Extinct Organisms at the American Museum of Natural History. Their database is online at creo.amnh.org. The CREO has established very clear criteria for declaring a species extinct, not extinct, or unresolved. The criteria include precise definitions for such things as adequate taxonomy (including DNA comparisons if available), sufficient hypodigm (actual specimens of the species), and adequate surveying of the species’ habitat to verify extinction. Starting afresh, they have then uniformly applied these criteria to the historical record of purported extinctions of mammals and fish in the last 500 years. The conclusions of the CREO list are noted in the Red List, and vice versa.

Mr. Eschenbach decided to use the CREO list for mammal extinctions (it does not yet cover birds), because he found it to be more thoroughly investigated and more uniformly and scientifically based than the Red List.

Which kinds of animals did Willis Eschenbach choose to examine?

Willis Eschenbach decided to confine his survey to mammals and birds living on continents, as opposed to islands. In choosing to focus on mammals and birds, Eschenbach was simply taking his cue from biologist E. O. Wilson, as he notes:

Wilson ... wrote, "Some groups, like the larger birds and mammals, are more susceptible to extinction than most." (Wilson 1995) So, following Wilson's lead to see if the extinction claims are true, I have investigated the timing and number of mammal and bird extinctions in modern times (the last 500 years) which are due to habitat reduction.

Wilson's claim that 27,000 extinctions per year have been occurring since at least 1980 means that there should be 26 bird extinctions and 13 mammal extinctions per year, a total of 39 bird and mammal extinctions per year.

Eschenbach derived the figures of 26 bird extinctions and 13 mammal extinctions per year from IUCN figures from 2000, noting that "Bird species make up about 0.1% of all species, and mammal species are about 0.05% of all species", and then multiplying these percentages by Wilson's figure of 27,000 extinctions per year:

Bird species make up about .1% of all species, and mammal species are about .05% of all species (IUCN 2000). Using Wilson's figure of 10 million total species, he is claiming about 16 continental bird extinctions (27,000 species doomed times 8,433 continental bird species per 10,000,000 species) and 11 continental mammal extinctions (27,000 species doomed times 3,921 continental mammal species per 10,000,000 species) per year, for a total of 34 predicted continental bird and mammal extinctions per year.

Eschenbach goes on to drily note:

The historical extinction rate, however, has never been greater than 1.8 per year, far below the 39 extinctions per year claimed. In addition, the most recent rate is lower than it has been since about 1830. Looking at the entire bird and mammal extinction record, there is no sign of the hundreds of extinctions that Wilson says have already occurred.

I was not interested, however, in all of the mammal and bird extinctions. In particular, I was not interested in mammals and birds that had gone extinct on islands from the introduction of alien species. I was looking for Wilson's predicted extinctions, those due to habitat reduction.

Eschenbach decided to exclude extinctions occurring on islands or in Australia, because the vast majority of these were caused not by habitat destruction but by the introduction of foreign species of competitors and predators, as well as new human, animal and plant diseases. He decided to focus on continental extinctions occurring in Europe, Asia, North and South America and Antarctica (not Australia, because most of the extinctions occurring there were caused by introduced exotic species and predators rather than habitat destruction).

What did Eschenbach find out about the rate of extinctions?

After filtering out island extinctions, the number of mammals and bird extinctions over the past few hundred years proved to be surprisingly small:

Count of Extinct Mammal Species

Island vs. Continental Country Total

Extinct Island Mammal Species Various 58
Extinct Continental Mammal Species Mexico 1
Extinct Continental Mammal Species Algeria 1
Extinct Continental Mammal Species South Africa 1
Extinct Continental Mammal Species Subtotal 3
Grand Total Extinct Mammal Species 61

Data – http://creo.amnh.org

Count of Extinct Bird Species

Island vs. Continental Country Total

Extinct Island Bird Species Various 123
Extinct Continental Bird Species Mexico 1
Extinct Continental Bird Species Guatemala 1
Extinct Continental Bird Species Colombia 1
Extinct Continental Bird Species US 2
Extinct Continental Bird Species Canada, US 1
Extinct Continental Bird Species Total 6
Grand Total Extinct Bird Species 129

Data – http://www.redlist.org

Eschenbach found that the historical extinction rate for all species of mammals and birds has never been greater than 1.8 species per year. What's more, the vast majority of these species extinctions were the result of imported alien species being introduced to Australia and to various islands around the world, and were not caused by habitat reduction.

If we look at continental species of birds and mammals that have gone extinct over the last 500 years, we find that there are less than a dozen - and most of these were made extinct by hunting, rather than habitat reduction. Finally, if we look at forest species of birds and mammals on the world's continents, we find that there are no recorded continental forest bird or mammal extinctions from any cause.

Summarizing his findings for the past 500 years, Eschenbach wrote:

1) When European species met isolated local species, a number of the local species died. The Australian and island species were extremely vulnerable to pressure from imported humans, mammals, birds, plants, and diseases. 95% of all recorded bird and mammal extinctions are island or Australian species.

2) When the European species arrived, Australia and most islands had been separated from the continents for forty million years or so. The initial introduction of European species into island habitats was a one-time event. While alien species will always a problem for islands, this massive onslaught of the first coming of the European species will never be repeated — there are no places left with forty million years of isolation.

3) Total habitat destruction drove one bird to extinction.

4) While habitat reduction has been claimed as contributing (in an unknown degree) to three continental bird extinctions, to date no continental mammal or bird has been seen to go extinct due to habitat reduction alone.

Three continental mammals have gone extinct — one antelope hunted to extinction, and a rare rabbit and a rarer antelope gone from unknown causes.

Six continental birds have gone extinct — 3 prolific terrestrial bird species hunted to extinction, and 3 single-habitat freshwater bird species hunted, drained dry, eaten by fish, and polluted to extinction. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

How did Eschenbach's findings compare with the predictions of Dr. E. O. Wilson?

Eschenbach contrasts his findings with the dire claims made by biologist E. O. Wilson:

In 1988, Wilson said that a 40% reduction in forest habitats had already occurred (Wilson 1988). Using Wilson's "maximally optimistic" z value of .15 and his 1% annual forest loss, with 40% habitat reduction in 1988, the total species loss to up to 1998 should be 1,088 continental bird and mammal extinctions. Over a thousand continental bird and mammal extinctions predicted, and not one of them shows up in the record. ...

Professor Wilson's ... explanation for the lack of predicted extinctions is that they do not happen at once. He says that the "species in a reduced habitat may take from 25 to 100 years to go extinct", and that research has shown that the rate of these delayed extinctions drops off exponentially with time (Wilson 2001). While this seems plausible, even if it were true it wouldn't keep us from seeing the predicted extinctions.

We can see why by applying the exponential die-off to the 1,088 bird and mammal extinctions said to have occurred by 1998. Let's assume all 1,088 of them fatally lost habitat at some point since 1948, but they won't die out for 100 years. 1,088 species lost in 50 years (1948-1998), that works out to 21.76 per year, about 22 species "doomed to extinction" each year since 1948.

With exponential decay, to still have one species of 100 left alive after 100 years, the exponent needs to be 1 – (1/100)^(1/100), or .045. This means that 4.5% of the remaining doomed species should go extinct each year.

But if we had doomed 22 bird and mammal species to extinction every year since 1948, and only 4.5% of the doomed species went extinct each year, then by 1960, of the 261 predicted eventual bird and mammal extinctions, we should have seen 65 extinctions. By 1980, of 696 predicted eventual extinctions, we should have seen 340. And by the year 1998, of the 1,088 extinctions predicted by species-area calculations, we should have seen 672 actual extinctions of continental birds and mammals.

We have seen none. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Eschenbach goes on to say that even if the extinction of a typical species took place over 1,000 years, rather than the shorter times of 50 to 100 years stated by Wilson, we still should have already seen 118 bird and mammal extinctions from the 1088 continental bird and mammal species that are supposed to be "doomed", and even if the extinction occurred over a period of 5,000 years, we still would have seen 25 extinctions from habitat reduction. In fact, we have seen none.

Where does Eschenbach stand on deforestation?

A map of the Amazon rainforest. The yellow line encloses Amazon Basin as delineated by the World Wide Fund for Nature. National boundaries are shown in black. Image courtesy of NASA, Pfly and Wikipedia.

Eschenbach is greatly concerned that his findings will be mis-used to justify deforestation, and he emphatically states that he intends no such thing:

None of this implies that habitat destruction, forest fragmentation, or loss of species diversity are incidental or unimportant issues...

None of this implies that extinctions will either rise or fall in the future...

And finally, none of this implies that habitat destruction has no effect on the risk of extinction.

Nevertheless, he is compelled to state:

Extinction records do show that on all the continents of the world, there are no recorded cases of a forest bird or mammal that has gone extinct from any cause. This is despite the fact that humans have been reducing and fragmenting all natural habitats, including first the continental temperate forests and lately the continental tropical forests, for the 500 years covered by our extinction record.

Willis Eschenbach responds to his critics

One of the more thoughtful critiques of Willis Eschenbach's post came from Richard Telford, who pointed out that there may have been undocumented extinctions over the past few hundred years in forests that were not closely surveyed - especially tropical forests. He wrote:

I would argue that, especially in the tropics, there are many unwatched or little watched forests. I can substantiate this with Uganda as an example.

In the early-mid 1990s there was a major project to survey the biodiversity of about 60 Ugandan forest reserves, concentrating on the larger (>5000ha) forests. The project also collated all available biodiversity data on these forests. Considering just the bird data:

  • Half of the forests had no previous data.
  • For those forests that had previous data, only half the species previously recorded were rerecorded by the survey.
  • The species that were not rerecorded are on average rarer than the species that were rerecorded.
  • 25% of the species previously recorded for these Ugandan forests were not found in any forest.
  • Since the mid-1990s, there has been no comprehensive resurvey of the forest avifauna.

Willis Eschenbach responded:

Richard, an interesting issue, thanks. A few points regarding your ideas.

1. Citing a forest which had a major re-survey, not a survey but a re-survey, done in 1990 hardly supports your claim that the forests are unwatched.

2. Again I reiterate if we were to find one or four or even a dozen species that have in fact gone extinct, it would not invalidate what I am saying. The claim is made, over and over again, by Wilson and others, that we should be seeing a dozen or more species [of mammals and birds - VJT] going extinct every year. We're not missing a dozen. We're missing a couple dozen per year, every year, for decade after decade. This is supposed to be a huge "sixth wave" of extinction. A few overlooked extinctions in Uganda or DR Congo will not rehabilitate that wildly inaccurate claim.

3. While there are poorly and infrequently watched forests in the tropics, there are also closely watched forests in the tropics. These closely watched forests have not seen the claimed extinctions either. It does not make sense that the extinctions would only be happening where we are not watching.

4. In general, the most closely watched forests are the ones that have seen the most habitat destruction. That’s because people are in there making farms and building roads and the like. The least closely watched forests are the ones where people have not changed the habitat. If there is a "sixth wave" from changing forest to field, it should have been seen in the changed forests in the very process of that change. It has not been observed there.

5. The species-area relationship is claimed to apply to temperate zones as well as the tropics. Temperate zone forests are much more closely watched than tropical forests … but we don't find the predicted extinctions there either.

Another critic named wolfwalker attacked Willis Eschenbach's post on several points, which I have reproduced below, along with Eschenbach's responses:

1) it is simply not true that the last 500 years have seen "massive historical forest habitat reductions on all continents". In fact, forest cover has fluctuated widely over the last 500 years.

Willis Eschenbach's response:

Estimates for the decrease in global forested area during the last 300 years range from 8 to 13 million km^2, corresponding with 15 to 25 % of the original extent in 1700." SOURCE....

[E]ven it were just as you say that 'forest cover has fluctuated widely over the last 500 years', this should still have led to a number of extinctions as the forest were cut down, regardless of whether they came back a hundred years later or not.

2) you appear to think that we have a complete catalog of existing bird and mammal species. We don't. We have no way of knowing how many species of birds or mammals may have gone extinct before they were ever discovered by science.

Willis Eschenbach's response:

I make no such claim for a complete catalog. I have based my numbers on what we know, not what we don't know. If you think my numbers are wrong, show us where.

3) for birds, the idea that any significant population of probably-extinct birds such as Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Eskimo Curlew, or Bachman’s Warbler could escape the ever-growing legions of dedicated birders is prima facie absurd. If they were still out there, someone would have found them.

Willis Eschenbach's response:

Doesn't change my conclusions in the slightest. Didn't I point that out? We're not looking for two missing extinctions. We're looking for hundreds. And in fact, the large numbers of bird watchers which you correctly point to means that the odds of us missing a bird extinction is quite small...

4) by focusing only on forest birds and mammals, you focus on a group of animals that are highly likely to be able to adjust to fluctuations in habitat. Forest communities are relatively uniform over tens of thousands of square miles. Populations of forest animals are similarly widespread, and difficult to completely eradicate.

Willis Eschenbach's response:

Doesn't matter to the species-area relationship. It makes no exception for one class of animals over another. And the numbers that I used in the species area relationship are those given by Wilson.

Here's the thing. The species-area relationship says that if you cut the forest area to a quarter of its size, species will go extinct.

You, on the other hand, say "Populations of forest animals are ... difficult to completely eradicate." Well, yeah, that's what I said, but not what Wilson said. He said that ''Some groups, like the larger birds and mammals, are more susceptible to extinction than most" (Wilson 1995).

Another critic, tty, argued that several more species of continental birds have gone extinct over the past few hundred years because of habitat reduction: the Bogota Sunangel (Heliangelus zusii), the Colombian Grebe (Podiceps andinus), the Turquoise-throated Puffleg (Eriocnemis godini), Streseman's Bristlethroat (Merulaxis stresemanni), the Slender-billed Grackle (Quiscalus palustris) and Bachman's Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), at least four of which were forest dwellers. He added that there are also several species that were probably, but not certainly extinct, due to habitat destruction, such as the Imperial Woodpecker. He concluded by saying that at least 26 species of freshwater mussels of the eastern part of the USA have gone extinct during the 20th century, exclusively because of habitat destruction, and another 30 are critically endangered.

Willis Eschenbach wrote in response that according to the Red list, the Bogota Sunangel (one of the birds mentioned by the critic) may not even be a species, and only one specimen (collected 100 years ago) is known. He added:

We don't even know if this is a species or not, there is one specimen collected a full century ago, we only have the skin, we don't know where the specimen was even collected, and yet you claim that you know why it went extinct?

I don't think so.

However, my point remains. Even if you were to come up with four extinct birds, we're still missing hundreds and hundreds of putative extinctions...

Nevertheless, the reader may be wondering: what about those freshwater mussels? After reading Willis Eschenbach's post, I decided to check out invertebrate extinctions.

What about invertebrate species?

I should like to point out in pasing that according to the Endangered Species Handbook, the total number of invertebrate species known to have become extinct in the past few hundred years is in the hundreds, not thousands:

Documentation of invertebrate extinctions is incomplete, but a minimum of 375 species (approximately eight crustaceans, 72 insects, 31 bivalves and 260 gastropods, snails and related species) have become extinct worldwide in the past few hundred years, according to the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Hilton-Taylor 2000).

The Handbook bears out Willis Eschenbach's point that most of these extinctions have occurred on islands rather than continents:

Massive destruction of many habitats, especially islands with endemic species such as land snails, has eliminated hundreds of these creatures.

In fact, the two main reasons for the hundreds of documented extinctions of land snail species are the greed of specimen collectors and the introduction of exotic species, rather than habitat destruction. The Handbook inadvertently confirms this when it notes:

Scores of colorful endemic land snail species have died out in the Hawaiian Islands, other Polynesian and Indian Ocean islands and various southern Atlantic Ocean islands. These snails were once prolific in native forests, but naturalists and shell collectors took many thousands of them during the 19th century until the 1920s, when it became too difficult to find them (Stearns and Stearns 1999)...

In more recent times, exotic species of snails have been introduced onto islands for various purposes, preying on the native species. One expert estimated that when Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778, there were between 800 and 1,000 species of endemic Hawaiian snails from 11 families, but at present, only about 200 remain (Stearns and Stearns 1999). Recent extinctions have been caused by deforestation and predation by exotic snails, including the giant African snail, introduced by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture to prey on another exotic snail.

In short: a study of invertebrate extinctions (as opposed to mammals, birds and other vertebrates) fails to bear out biologist E. O. Wilson's wildly inflated claim of 27,000 extinctions every year due to habitat destruction.

I submit that a fair-minded reader, after examining the above evidence, would conclude that there is no merit in claims that human population increases are currently causing large-scale extinctions of animals, due to habitat destruction.

(g) The solution to global warming already exists: it's called energy from thorium.

Temperature of planet Earth over the last 542 million years. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Line plot of global mean land-ocean temperature index, 1880 to present, with the base period 1951-1980. The black line is the annual mean and the red line is the five-year running mean. The green bars show uncertainty estimates. Picture courtesy of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Wikipedia.

Summary: The threat of significant man-made global warming occurring over the next few centuries cannot be discounted, although it is far from settled science as AGW proponents would have us believe. In the short term, cutting soot emissions is the most effective way to reduce global warming. In the longer term, a switch to nuclear energy (ideally, energy from thorium) is the only practical way to reduce CO2 emissions, and we should be encouraging this switch if we want to make a real difference. Reducing the rise in the Earth's population will make little difference to global warming, because the poor countries in which this rise is mostly occurring have a much lower carbon footprint - even when future generations are taken into account - than the already affluent and the newly industrializing countries that are responsible for most man-made CO2 emissions.

The facts on global warming

Global Warming Facts and Our Future. An excellent Website created by the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences.

Good Websites on global warming

BraveNewClimate Climate Audit ICECAP Real Climate
The Resilient Earth Dr. Roy Spencer Skeptical Science Watts Up With That?

Why zero population growth won't stop global warming

Why population policy will not solve climate change by Professor Barry Brook.

Professor Brook believes that "the huge size of the present-day human population is clearly a major reason why we face so many mounting environmental problems and are now pushing hard against planetary boundaries". (His main evidence for this assertion appears to be global biodiversity loss, which as I showed above has been exaggerated by several orders of magnitude.) He also says that he supports "policies to encourage global society to achieve the low growth variant UN scenario". Nevertheless Professor Brook is emphatic that population control won't stop global warming: it's too late, he argues. To demonstrate this, he considers extreme scenarios, such as a world in which the total fertility rate declines to 1.0 children per woman by 2100, while the death rate doubles over the same period. Even in such a case, the world's population would still be nearly seven billion by 2050. In another scenario, in which the total fertility rate declines to 1.0 children per woman by 2030 with no change in the death rate, the world's population would be slightly over seven billion by 2050. He writes:

The conclusion is clear — even if the human collective were to pull as hard as possible on the 'total fertility' policy lever, the result would NOT constitute an effective policy for addressing climate change, for which we need to have major solutions well under way by 2050 and essentially wrapped up by 2100.

Professor Brook would, I am sure, disagree sharply with my position, which is that if we can solve the problems of global warming and a sustainable energy supply, there is absolutely no reason why we should not have as many babies as we like. Nevertheless his Website, which addresses both problems in a very practical way, has pointed the way to how we can accomplish this, if we wish to, and I would like to thank him for that.

The need for sensible policies on global warming

Five Truths about Climate Change by Robert Bryce, in The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2011. Highlights:

Do most climatologists believe in global warming?

Although I'm somewhat skeptical of the claim that man-made global warming poses a major threat to the Earth's biosphere, most climatologists think that it does. If 97% of the world's climatologists think that man-made global warming poses a real threat to the planet and to humanity, then we need to plan for the worst. It would be imprudent to do otherwise.

Expert Credibility in Climate Change by William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), July 6, 2010, vol. 107, no. 27, pp. 12107–12109. Abstract:

Although preliminary estimates from published literature and expert surveys suggest striking agreement among climate scientists on the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), the American public expresses substantial doubt about both the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement underpinning ACC. A broad analysis of the climate scientist community itself, the distribution of credibility of dissenting researchers relative to agreeing researchers, and the level of agreement among top climate experts has not been conducted and would inform future ACC discussions. Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

Why the Precautionary Principle is Bad Environmentalism

It is one thing to plan to avoid a catastrophe that most climatologists think will occur if nothing is done. It is another thing to plan to avoid catastrophes simply because they might happen, and it's better to be safe than sorry. The latter way of thinking is exemplified by the Precautionary Principle. In the essay below, Professor Jonathan Adler, director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, explains why he thinks the Precautionary Principle is fundamentally flawed.

The Problems with Precaution: A Principle without Principle by Professor Jonathan Adler, director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Simply put, the precautionary principle is not a sound basis for public policy. At the broadest level of generality, the principle is unobjectionable, but it provides no meaningful guidance to pressing policy questions. In a public policy context, "better safe than sorry" is a fairly vacuous instruction. Taken literally, the precautionary principle is either wholly arbitrary or incoherent. In its stronger formulations, the principle actually has the potential to do harm.

Efforts to operationalize the precautionary principle into public law will do little to enhance the protection of public health and the environment. The precautionary principle could even do more harm than good. Efforts to impose the principle through regulatory policy inevitably accommodate competing concerns or become a Trojan horse for other ideological crusades. When selectively applied to politically disfavored technologies and conduct, the precautionary principle is a barrier to technological development and economic growth.

Practical – and impractical - ways of combating global warming

(i) Short-term ways of fighting global warming

Cutting soot emissions: Fastest, most economical way to slow global warming, a press release presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver on August 31, 2011. Highlights:

A new study of dust-like particles of soot in the air — now emerging as the second most important — but previously overlooked — factor in global warming provides fresh evidence that reducing soot emissions from diesel engines and other sources could slow melting of sea ice in the Arctic faster and more economically than any other quick fix, a scientist reported here today.

In a presentation at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Mark Z. Jacobson, Ph.D., cited concerns that continued melting of sea ice above the Arctic Circle will be a tipping point for the Earth's climate, a point of no return. That’s because the ice, which reflects sunlight and heat back into space, would give way to darker water that absorbs heat and exacerbates warming. And there is no known way to make the sea refreeze in the short term.

Jacobson's calculations indicate that controlling soot could reduce warming above parts of the Arctic Circle by almost 3 degrees Fahrenheit within 15 years. That would virtually erase all of the warming that has occurred in the Arctic during the last 100 years.

"No other measure could have such an immediate effect," said Jacobson, who is with Stanford University. "Soot emissions are second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in promoting global warming, but its effects have been underestimated in previous climate models. Consequently, soot's effect on climate change has not been adequately addressed in national and international global warming legislation. Soot emissions account for about 17 percent of global warming, more than greenhouse gases like methane. Soot's contribution, however, could be reduced by 90 percent in 5-10 years with aggressive national and international policies."

Soot easier to control than CO2 – may help Arctic ice by Anthony Watts.

(ii) Long-term strategies for fighting global warming

Strategies for fighting global warming that will work

Experimental Breeder Reactor II, an Integral Fast Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory, which worked perfectly until it was shut down by Congress in 1994. Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory-West and Wikipedia.

Solution A: Integral Fast Reactors (the second best solution)

Integral Fast Reactors provide a technically feasible solution to the problem of global warming. They could provide humanity with cheap energy for thousands of years, while generating very little waste. However, I consider them to be inferior to liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) on safety grounds, due to the possibility of a core rupture (discussed in the article below by Charles Barton). For that reason, I consider them to be a second-best option. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors are my preferred option for fighting global warming.

Bravenewclimate.com. This Website, maintained by Professor Barry Brook, a physicist at the University of Adelaide, has everything you always wanted to know about Integral fast reactors.

SNE 2060 – can we build nuclear power plants fast enough to meet the 2060 target?

The Integral Fast Reactor - Summary for Policy Makers by Steve Kirsch.

The IFR is an advanced fourth generation sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactor (SFR) combined with a reprocessing facility using pyroprocessing, typically in the same power plant. The combination of a fast reactor plus waste processing is known as the Integral Fast Reactor.

Unlike today's nuclear power plants (all of which are second generation designs built 30 years ago), the IFR uses fast neutrons (instead of slow neutrons) and thus is known as a "fast reactor." Fast neutrons have the advantage of "burning" the nuclear material completely so that the only waste products are fission products (elements near the middle of the periodic table). This waste is only dangerous for a few hundred years which is much less than the 100,000-year sequestration time that many think is needed for conventional nuclear waste.

Sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactor technology was developed beginning in 1964 by a team of scientists at Argonne National Laboratories. Their test-bed reactor, known as the EBR-II, ran flawlessly for 30 years until being permanently shut down by Congress in 1994.

Today, while other countries such as Russia, India, China, France and Japan are successfully and aggressively pursuing fast reactors, the US hasn't had an operating fast reactor since the EBR-II was shut down 15 years ago...

[Benefits of the Integral Fast Reactor]

  1. The only technology we have with a realistic potential to save the planet. The IFR is the first viable solution to how to eliminate CO2 emissions from coal plants because it can do that without increasing costs. Eliminating emissions from coal plants is required to prevent a climate catastrophe. But using carbon capture adds cost and may not be practical or viable. The IFR, on the other hand, can replace the burner in an existing coal plant while reducing operating costs. This is why the IFR is one of Jim Hansen's top five priorities for saving the planet.

  2. Solves the nuclear waste problem and opens the door for the expansion of nuclear power in the US. The IFR uses today's nuclear waste as fuel. The waste product from the IFR is minimal and short-lived. Solving the waste problem is required if we are to expand nuclear power in the US. The IFR does this.

  3. Opportunity to become the world leader in clean energy. The IFR is the state-of-the-art nuclear technology that everyone wants. It is better in every dimension than any of today's nuclear reactors. If we make a strategic bet on this technology and heavily invest in it, the US has the opportunity to become the undisputed world leader in clean electric power generation. Nuclear is the elephant of clean power technologies and the IFR was determined to be the best nuclear power technology by an extensive comparative study DOE. It is arguably the most powerful clean power technology on the planet.

  4. Creates enormous economic value. It turns our existing nuclear waste into an asset worth over $30 trillion dollars. That is a fantastic return on investment for a one-time $3B investment to jump-start the technology. Nothing else comes close.

  5. Unlimited clean power. The IFR allows us to power the entire US electricity needs for the next 1,500 years without doing any additional mining of uranium; just using the "waste" we have on-hand that nobody wants. The power is carbon free. If we mine, we can power the power needs of the entire planet forever.

IFR breeding, LFTR breeding. Article by Charles Barton in The Nuclear Green Revolution, Friday, January 15, 2010. Here are some highlights from the article:

There is some good natured rivalry, and perhaps some not so good natured rivalry between the backers of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) and the backers of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). Both are so called Generation IV technologies. Each technology is associated with an American national laboratory. The LFTR is the linear descendant of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Molten Salt Reactor research. The IFR is an advanced Liquid Metal Fast Reactor. IFR technology was developed at Argonne National Laboratory...

[O]ne IFR safety feature, a large pool of liquid sodium which surrounds the IFR core, appears to be a double edged sword as far as safety is concerned. Although the pool contributes to core temperature stability in case of a coolant system failure, the presence of such a large amount of highly flammable sodium in close proximity to the IFR core, could lead to a huge disaster in the event of a core rupture. Core ruptures would not happen often, but never is a very strong word. Only offensive nuclear safety coupled with passive safety, can come close to guaranteeing "never," and if you out sodium into a solid core reactor, offensive nuclear safety is clearly impossible.

Of course, there are added barriers that could be erected to prevent disaster in the event of an IFR accident. The IFR can be placed in a metal egg, with an internal atmosphere that would not burn when it comes into contact with Sodium. This would add to the expense and complexity of the IFR, and while diminishing the danger, it will not make it go away completely.

One of the technological advantages of the LFTR is its relatively small size. Small size means relative small containment area. That means a lower construction cost. The IFR includes a tub full of molten sodium that is many times larger than the core. In addition machinery to defuel and refuel the TFR core must be included in the inner containment area. The same is true for the primary heat exchange, and the control rod mechanism, and some arrangement for shifting the "spent fuel" out of the core area. All in all we have got quite a lot going on in the containment parameter, which means that the outer containment structure would have to be large.

Further, even if IFR components could be factory built, a lot of onsite assembly would have to go on. Thus the IFR would quite possibly end up being as expensive or more expensive than light water reactors...

Thus it seems unlikely that the IFR could compete with the LFTR in terms of manufacturing costs or in terms of scaleability. The claim that the IFR represents a more mature technology than the LFTR, appears vastly over blown. Indeed, the LMFBR [liquid metal fast breeder reactor - VJT] appears to represent a significantly greater technological challenge than MSR [molten salt reactor - VJT] technology, and given the effort that went into the development of the ABTR, a proof of concept reactor, the very large American and world wide investment in LMFBR technology, has yielded far fewer results than a similar investment in MSR technology would have.

What is problematic about the ABTR is its complexity. Complexity makes for expensive manufacture....

Solution B: Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (the best solution for fighting global warming)

A comparison of annual fuel requirement of 1 GW classic uranium-fueled LWR (light water reactor) power plant and a 1 GW thorium-fueled LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactor) power plant. Courtesy of ShotmanMaslo and Wikipedia.

Energy from Thorium. A Website dedicated to promoting liquid fluoride thorium reactors.

Is Thorium the Biggest Energy Breakthrough Since Fire? by William Pentland, in Forbes magazine, September 11, 2011. A very readable, non-technical article on the benefits of energy from thorium.

So what is the big deal about thorium? In 2006, writing in the magazine Cosmos, Tim Dean summarized perhaps the most optimistic scenario for what a Thorium-powered nuclear world would be like:

What if we could build a nuclear reactor that offered no possibility of a meltdown, generated its power inexpensively, created no weapons-grade by-products, and burnt up existing high-level waste as well as old nuclear weapon stockpiles? And what if the waste produced by such a reactor was radioactive for a mere few hundred years rather than tens of thousands? It may sound too good to be true, but such a reactor is indeed possible, and a number of teams around the world are now working to make it a reality. What makes this incredible reactor so different is its fuel source: thorium.

A clutch of companies and countries are aggressively pursuing Dean's dream of a thorium-powered world.

Lightbridge Corporation, a pioneering nuclear-energy start-up company based in McLean, VA, is developing the Radkowsky Thorium Reactor in collaboration with Russian researchers. In 2009, Areva, the French nuclear engineering conglomerate, recruited Lightbridge for a project assessing the use of thorium fuel in Areva’s next-generation EPR reactor, advanced class of 1,600+ MW nuclear reactors being built in Olkiluoto, Finland and Flamanville, France.

In China, the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and a clutch of Chinese outfits began an effort in mid-2009 to use thorium as fuel in nuclear reactors in Qinshan, China.

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Paradigm by Charles Barton, a retired counselor who writes the Energy from Thorium blog. His father, Dr. Charles Barton, Senior, worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 28 years. He was a reactor chemist who worked on the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) concept for about 2/3 of his career at Oak Ridge. Here, he quotes from the testimony of famed climate scientist James Hanson, who spoke of thorium's great promise in material that he submitted to President Elect Obama in 2008:

The Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is a thorium reactor concept that uses a chemically-stable fluoride salt for the medium in which nuclear reactions take place. This fuel form yields flexibility of operation and eliminates the need to fabricate fuel elements. This feature solves most concerns that have prevented thorium from being used in solid-fueled reactors. The fluid fuel in LFTR is also easy to process and to separate useful fission products, both stable and radioactive. LFTR also has the potential to destroy existing nuclear waste.

(The) LFTR(s) operate at low pressure and high temperatures, unlike today's LWRs [light water reactors - VJT]. Operation at low pressures alleviates much of the accident risk with LWR. Higher temperatures enable more of the reactor heat to be converted to electricity (50% in LFTR vs 35% in LWR). (The) LFTR (has) the potential to be air-cooled and to use waste heat for desalinating water.

LFTR(s) are 100-300 times more fuel efficient than LWRs. In addition to solving the nuclear waste problem, they can operate for several centuries using only uranium and thorium that has already been mined. Thus they eliminate the criticism that mining for nuclear fuel will use fossil fuels and add to the greenhouse effect...

Development of the first large 4 generation nuclear plants may proceed most rapidly if carried out in China or India (or South Korea, which has a significant R&D program), with the full technical cooperation of the United States and/or Europe. Such cooperation would make it much easier to achieve agreements for reducing greenhouse gases.

Nuclear-generated ammonia for urban transport

The X-15 rocket airplane, which was flown by NASA and the U.S. Air Force between 1959 and 1970, used ammonia as a fuel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nuclear Ammonia – A Sustainable Nuclear Renaissance's 'Killer App'. This presentation argues that with breeder reactors future society could subsist with relatively little loss of living standard on infinite or near-infinite minerals. Such a civilization would be based largely on glass, plastic, wood, cement, iron, aluminum, and magnesium. Key points:

  • Mankind must switch to non-fossil energy sources ASAP
  • The most immediate problem (esp. for the USA) is oil – most of which is utilized as a transportation fuel
  • Ammonia is an attractive synfuel fuel for vehicles which require more range/power than can be provided by reasonable-size batteries
  • If that ammonia is produced with energy generated by a "renewable" nuclear fuel cycle it will become extremely cheap, absolutely "green", and available forever
  • Politically correct "renewable" energy cannot do this. Solar and wind power are unreliable; biomass and hydro are maxed out.
  • At least 1500 big (1 GWe) thorium reactors would have to be built, to supply America's energy needs.
  • Liquid fluoride thorium reactors are vastly superior to existing light water nuclear reactors. They operate under low pressure. They burn their waste. They generate only 1/30 as much waste, and it only needs to be stored for 300 years (vs. more than 10,000 years for light water reactors). They don't produce weapons grade fuel. Their fuel burning efficiency is 95% (vs. 1% for light water reactors). The volume of fuel mining waste is 1000 times less than for light water reactors, and total world fuel reserves are over 1000 times greater.

Strategies for fighting global warming that might work

Low intensity geoengineering – microbubbles and microspheres by Dr. John Morgan. In this article, Dr. Morgan evaluates a proposal for preventing global warming, developed by Dr. Russell Seitz at Harvard University, which uses no materials, almost no energy, works at sea level, with cheap technology, and which we could start deploying at scale today! In a nutshell, Seitz wants to increase the reflectivity of the oceans (making it "whiter") using tiny microbubbles. Dr. Morgan concludes:

So consider this final elaboration of Russell Seitz' bright idea: 0.1 micrometer diameter latex particles, possibly hollow, or of core-shell morphology, bearing a conventional stabilization system that is inactivated in salt water ensuring that the particles are retained at and near the surface, are produced in bulk using about 17% of existing production capacity and using commercial recipes, and are sprayed onto the sea from tanks aboard ships or crop dusting aircraft, oil rigs, and other structures, in the mid latitudes.

For a cost in the order of a mere $2b per year we could offset current global warming, subject to the many disclaimers and qualifications discussed above, and many others not mentioned. More limited, local applications, such as the direct cooling of coral reefs as envisaged by Seitz for the microbubble concept, are also possible.

As they say on Top Gear, what could possibly go wrong?

Turning CO2 into fuel by Anthony Watts.
Artificial photosynthesis is the process of converting carbon dioxide gas into useful carbon-based chemicals, most notably fuel or other compounds usually derived from petroleum, as an alternative to extracting them from biomass. University of Illinois chemical and biological engineering professor Paul Kenis and his research group joined forces with researchers at Dioxide Materials, a startup company, to produce a catalyst that improves artificial photosynthesis.

Fuel cells get the dynamite treatment by Anthony Watts.
Hydrogen makes a great fuel because of it can easily be converted to electricity in a fuel cell and because it is carbon free. The downside of hydrogen is that, because it is a gas, it can only be stored in high pressure or cryogenic tanks. Earlier this year, Professor Travis Wiliams and his team of USC scientists developed a robust, efficient method of using hydrogen in a safe chemical form. The team figured out a way to release hydrogen from an innocuous chemical material — a nitrogen-boron complex, ammonia borane — that can be stored as a stable solid. Now the team has developed a catalyst system that releases enough hydrogen from its storage in ammonia borane to make it usable as a fuel source. Moreover, the system is air-stable and re-usable, unlike other systems for hydrogen storage on boron and metal hydrides.

Breakthrough in hydrogen fuel cells: USC chemists develop way to safely store, extract hydrogen by Physorg.com (30 August 2011).

Germany Approves Carbon Capture. Article in Der Spiegel, 07/08/2011.
The German parliament has voted to approve testing of controversial carbon capture and storage technology, which would allow power plants that emit environmentally unfriendly carbon dioxide into the air to instead liquefy the pollutant and pump it into underground cavities.

Strategies for fighting global warming that won't work: renewable energy (biofuels and wind, solar and hydro power)

A wind farm in Galicia, Spain. Image courtesy of Arnejohs and Wikipedia.

For climate’s sake, nuclear power is not an 'option', it is a 'necessity' by Professor Barry Brook. Here's an excerpt:

If we aim for society to be nearly completely powered by zero carbon sources by mid century, what is the size of the task? This might require 8 to 10 thousand gigawatts of electrical capacity, worldwide. Let's say we were to do it all with wind and solar. Even if we ignore the substantial issue of energy storage and backup, this would still require building 1,200 huge wind turbines and/or carpeting 45 square kilometres of desert with mirror fields, every day, for forty years. For wind, this would consume 1.25 million tonnes of concrete and 335,000 tonnes of steel. For solar, it would be 2.2 million tonnes of concrete and 690,000 tonnes of steel. That's what's required to be built every single day, for decades and decades. What if we did it with nuclear power? Using the AP1000 design currently being deployed in China, we'd have to build two reactors every three days, using 160,000 tonnes of concrete and 10,000 tonnes of steel per day. Once again, a massive task, but one that is substantially less material- and land-intensive than the wind and solar options. When large-scale energy storage and its required peak-capacity overbuilding is considered, the numbers blow out ever further in favour of nuclear.

TCASE 13: Assessment of suitability of technologies for carbon dioxide mitigation.

TCASE 14: Assessment of electricity generation costs.

A critique of the 2011 IPCC Report on Renewable Energy. This is a very detailed post by Dr Ted Trainer, University of NSW, Australia (http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/). In it, he provides a damning critique of the recent IPCC renewable energy scenarios report, which claimed that the world can be running mostly on renewable energy by 2050. Trainer's critique is absolutely devastating, and I would urge all fans of renewable energy to read it. Some excerpts:

The report does not show that renewable sources can meet future energy demand, or a large fraction of it...

Several crucial difficulties and problems confronting renewable energy supply are either not dealt with adequately, or not mentioned at all...

There is no discussion of the crucial problem of meeting demand in mid winter, when demand can peak and solar resources can be negligible or non-existent. All discussion seems to follow the common convention of discussing in terms of annual and/or average demand and supply, whereas what matters much more are the figures for maximum demand, e.g., peak quantities, when they coincide with minimum renewable resource availability... More importantly still, in a winter month there is significant variation in solar radiation around the average for that month...

Combining these two factors, a peak high in demand and peak low in energy availability, more than doubles the amount of capacity that seems to be required when calculations are based on average demand and average radiation levels...

However there is a much bigger problem, on which the report does not comment. The greatest challenges set by variability of wind and sun concerns the gaps of several days in a row when there might be no sun or wind energy available across large regions, including continents...

The report depends heavily on one of four selected studies. This is the source of the claim that 80% of energy could come from renewables by 2050. It will be argued below that this study is remarkably superficial, unconvincing, mistaken and misleading...

Even if the Report's main claims are accepted, this is of little consolation. Even if renewables could supply 27% of energy by 2050, then catastrophic climate change is very likely. World energy demand is heading towards a doubling by 2050 so if one quarter of it could be met by renewables then the other three quarters would still have to be met by fossil fuels (unless breeders or fusion can deliver about 750 EJ/y by then, and meet all present non-electrical demand.)

Renewable energy wrecks environment by Eurekalert (24 July 2007). Highlights:

Renewable does not mean green. That is the claim of Jesse Ausubel of the Rockefeller University in New York. Writing in Inderscience's International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, Ausubel explains that building enough wind farms, damming enough rivers, and growing enough biomass to meet global energy demands will wreck the environment...

A consideration of each so-called renewable in turn, paints a grim picture of the environmental impact of renewables. Hypothetically flooding the entire province of Ontario, Canada, about 900,000 square km, with its entire 680,000 billion liters of rainfall, and storing it behind a 60 meter dam would only generate 80% of the total power output of Canada's 25 nuclear power stations, he explains. Put another way, each square kilometer of dammed land would provide the electricity for just 12 Canadians.

Biomass energy is also horribly inefficient and destructive of nature. To power a large proportion of the USA, vast areas would need to be shaved or harvested annually. To obtain the same electricity from biomass as from a single nuclear power plant would require 2500 square kilometers of prime Iowa land. "Increased use of biomass fuel in any form is criminal," remarks Ausubel. "Humans must spare land for nature. Every automobile would require a pasture of 1-2 hectares."

Turning to wind Ausubel points out that while wind farms are between three to ten times more compact than a biomass farm, a 770 square kilometer area is needed to produce as much energy as one 1000 Megawatt electric (MWe) nuclear plant. To meet 2005 US electricity demand and assuming round-the-clock wind at the right speed, an area the size of Texas, approximately 780,000 square kilometers, would need to be covered with structures to extract, store, and transport the energy...

Solar power also comes in for criticism. A photovoltaic solar cell plant would require painting black about than 150 square kilometers plus land for storage and retrieval to equal a 1000 MWe nuclear plant. Moreover, every form of renewable energy involves vast infrastructure, such as concrete, steel, and access roads...

"Renewables may be renewable but they are not green," asserts Ausubel", If we want to minimize new structures and the rape of nature, nuclear energy is the best option." (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Study: Renewable Energy Not Green by Sara Goudarzi. A more balanced report on Mr. Jesse Ausubel's research, which suggests that America has enough land for wind and solar energy farms.

Britain’s Wind Farm Scam Threatens Economic Recovery by Anthony Watts.

The Moral High Ground by Jim Lacey.

Another strategy for fighting global warming that won't work: switching from coal to gas

Schematic geology showing different types of natural gas deposits. Image courtesy of US Energy Information Administration and Wikipedia.

Switching from coal to natural gas would do little for global climate by Professor Barry Brook. Highlights:

Although the burning of natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide than coal, a new study concludes that a greater reliance on natural gas would fail to significantly slow down climate change.

The study by Tom Wigley, who is a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), underscores the complex and sometimes conflicting ways in which fossil fuel burning affects Earth’s climate. While coal use causes warming through emission of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, it also releases comparatively large amounts of sulfates and other particles that, although detrimental to the environment, cool the planet by blocking incoming sunlight.

The situation is further complicated by uncertainty over the amount of methane that leaks from natural gas operations. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas.

Wigley's computer simulations indicate that a worldwide, partial shift from coal to natural gas would slightly accelerate climate change through at least 2050, even if no methane leaked from natural gas operations, and through as late as 2140 if there were substantial leaks. After that, the greater reliance on natural gas would begin to slow down the increase in global average temperature, but only by a few tenths of a degree...

If the rate of methane leaks from natural gas could be held to around 2 percent, for example, the study indicates that warming would be reduced by less than 0.2 degrees F (about 0.1 degree C) by 2100. The reduction in warming would be more pronounced in a hypothetical scenario of zero leaks, which would result in a reduction of warming by 2100 of about 0.2-0.3 degrees F (0.1-0.2 degrees C). But in a high leakage rate scenario of 10 percent, global warming would not be reduced until 2140.

Are there any good reasons to be skeptical of global warming?

Climate sensitivity- lowering the IPCC "fat tail" by Dr. Pat Michaels at World Climate Report. Excerpt:

There is word circulating that a paper soon to appear in Science magazine concludes that the climate sensitivity—how much the earth's average temperature will rise as a result of a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide—likely (that is, with a 66% probability) lies in the range 1.7 degrees Celsius to 2.6 degrees Celsius, with a median value of 2.3 degrees Celsius. This is a sizeable contraction and reduction from the estimates of the climate sensitivity given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), in which the likely range is given as 2.0 degrees C to 4.5 degrees C, with a best estimate of 3.0 degrees C.

Further, the results from the new analysis largely eliminate the "fat tail" of the distribution of possible values of the climate sensitivity (that the IPCC AR4 report was fond of) which included the possibility that very large climate sensitivities are a realistic possibility. In the new paper, the authors find only "vanishing probabilities" for a climate sensitivity value greater than 3.2 degrees C and that values greater than 6.0 degrees C are "implausible."

Skeptics "BESTed"? by Tony Thomas, in Quadrant magazine, November 8, 2011.
The press of late is full of stories that a new scientific study called the "BEST" project has verified that the planet is warming strongly; that the skeptic case is defunct; and that skeptics now have no place to hide. The facts suggest otherwise, as this article shows.

Scientist who said climate change sceptics had been proved wrong accused of hiding truth by colleague by David Rose, in The Daily Mail, October 30, 2011.
More on the BEST study. Prof Judith Curry, who chairs the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at America's prestigious Georgia Institute of Technology, says that Prof Muller's claim that he has proven global warming sceptics wrong is a 'huge mistake', with no scientific basis.

Delinquent science by Toby Thomas, in Quadrant magazine, October 31, 2011.
A book review of Donna Laframboise's devastating expose of the IPCC, entitled, The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World's Top Climate Expert.

IPCC warming assessments attract the activists and snub the sceptics by Matt Ridley, in The Australian, October 31, 2011. Another review of Donna Laframboise's new book.

Reasons to be a Global Warming Skeptic: a reprint of an article by Dr. Charlie Martin of the PJ Tattler, with comments by Anthony Watts.


(1) From the start, it [global warming] has depended on very sensitive statistical techniques to tease a signal out of an overall warming that has been going on for 500 years.
(2) The specific methods used for some of the dominant studies turn out to be mathematically flawed.
(3) There is actually extensive literature showing anthropogenic components that are not driven by greenhouse gases. These results have been excluded from the IPCC.
(4) The predictions of further warming are necessarily based on models. Now, it happens I did my PhD work on Federally funded modeling, from which I developed the NBSR Law (named after the group for which I worked): All modeling efforts will inevitably converge on the result most likely to lead to further funding....
(5) The models themselves turn out not to be very predictive...
(6) It's unclear how the AGW hypothesis can be falsified in its current form... [But see the article by Orssengo below - VJT.]
(7) The arguments against the skeptics turn out to be unscientific, and often unprofessional, in the extreme. These range from the common – "the consensus is" – to the ad hominem, and even to outright attempts to suppress free inquiry...

"[T]o the extent that I have a position, as I said, I think warming is unequivocal, a human contribution very probable, and the magnitude of that contribution in the face of feedbacks and homeostasis currently unknown and on the very edge of what we can actually measure.

I don't think the AGW [anthropogenic global warming - VJT] enthusiasts consider the costs and benefits of AGW amelioration versus the other possibilities. If preventing a sea level rise of one meter means dooming future generations in the Third World to sickness, hunger, and darkness, it's not worth it."

Verifying / falsifying the hypothesis of global warming

Interpretation of the Global Mean Temperature Data as a Pendulum by by Girma Orssengo, PhD.

"In this article, an alternative interpretation to IPCC's for the same GMT [global mean temperature] data is given. This alternative interpretation demonstrates that the current 30-years warming is just a warming phase of a 60-years cooling and warming cycle. As a result, we should not panic with "widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level" because that is what happens during the warming phase of the globe, and the snow and ice will form again during the cooling phase of the globe in the next two decades."

"A GMT increase in the next two decades of 0.2 deg C per decade as projected by the IPCC, as shown in Figure 3, to a value of about +1.0 deg C by the 2030s, means that the GMT will stop to behave like a stable pendulum, and the magnitude of its swing will start to increase from its constant value of 0.5 deg C for the last 130 years. This also means that the slope of the upper GMT boundary line will increase from its constant value of 0.06 to 0.2 deg C per decade. If this happens, the climate will have shifted and we skeptics should accept anthropogenic global warming."

Sundry bogus claims
(i) Are animals already fleeing global warming?

Animals and plants flee 0.7°C temperature rise in last century by Anthony Watts. One rebuttal by a prominent ecologist of the recently published claim that animals are already fleeing global warming described the paper making the claim as: "the worst paper I have ever read in a major scientific journal."

(ii) Are drought and global warming really killing off plants worldwide?

Study on global plant die-off faces questions (The Independent, AFP report, 27 August 2011).
A study on plant productivity that said drought and global warming were killing off plants worldwide is now being questioned by scientists, according to research published Thursday.

Alternative explanations for the observed rise in Earth's temperatures in recent years

(1) Are clouds the main cause of temperature changes on Earth, rather than greenhouse gases?

At the heart of this debate is whether cloud changes, through their ability to alter how much sunlight is allowed in to warm the Earth, can cause temperature change. NASA climatologist Spencer claims that they can, and that cloud change and temperature change influence each other. The IPCC claim is that clouds will change in response to warming in ways which magnify that warming (positive cloud feedback); Spencer argues that clouds can cause temperature change, but that there is a time lag of many months for this effect, due to the time it takes for the immense thermal inertia of the ocean to allow a temperature response to a change in absorbed sunlight. If he is right, then since there are countless factors that can trigger cloud changes, Nature is perfectly capable of causing her own climate change, without human help, and the rise in global temperatures is unlikely to be man-made, after all.

Our GRL Response to Dessler Takes Shape, and the Evidence Keeps Mounting by Dr. Roy Spencer. Dr. Spencer concludes: "The evidence keeps mounting that the Earth is more resistant to radiative forcing than are the climate models used by the IPCC to project future climate change."
Bill Illis: Clouds account for most of the variability in net radiation at the Top of the Atmosphere by Anthony Watts (Update).
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: My Initial Comments on the New Dessler 2011 Study by Dr. Roy Spencer.
A Primer on Our Claim that Clouds Cause Temperature Change by Dr. Roy Spencer.
Deep Ocean Temperature Change Spaghetti: 15 Climate Models Versus Observations by Dr. Roy Spencer.
The Rest of the Cherries: 140 decades of Climate Models vs. Observations by Dr. Roy Spencer.
Is Gore’s Missing Heat Really Hiding in the Deep Ocean? by Dr. Roy Spencer.
More Evidence that Global Warming is a False Alarm: A Model Simulation of the last 40 Years of Deep Ocean Warming by Dr. Roy Spencer.

(2) Is the Sun a contributing cause of global warming, via its effect on levels of cosmic radiation reaching Earth?

According to the hypothesis put forward by Danish climate researcher Henrik Svensmark, most of the global warming of the 20th Century can be explained by the reduction in cosmic rays due to livelier solar activity, resulting in less low cloud cover and warmer surface temperatures. Recent experiments by Jasper Kirkby, heading a team of 63 CERN scientists from 17 European and American institutes, have lent some credence to this hypothesis. The experiments, conducted in a clean stainless steel chamber, have demonstrated that cosmic rays are capable of promoting the formation of molecules that can grow and seed clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby cooling the Earth. This suggests that because the sun’s magnetic field controls how many cosmic rays reach Earth’s atmosphere (the stronger the magnetic field, the more it shields Earth from incoming cosmic rays from space), the sun is capable of controlling temperatures on Earth. However, much research remains to be done, and it will probably take five years to determine if Svensmark’s cosmic ray hypothesis is a plausible mechanism on a large scale.

Nir Shaviv: The CLOUD is clearing. Guest blog by Prof Nir Shaviv (HUJI), a top expert in cosmoclimatology.
Cosmic Radiation, Clouds, & Global Warming by William Briggs, statistician.
Cloud formation study casts a shadow over certain climate models.
Some reactions to the CLOUD experiment by Anthony Watts.

"Researchers in the CLOUD collaboration have released the first results from their experiment designed to mimic conditions in the Earth's atmosphere. By firing beams of particles from the lab's Proton Synchrotron accelerator into a gas-filled chamber, they have discovered that cosmic rays could have a role to play in climate by enhancing the production of potentially cloud-seeding aerosols."

BREAKING NEWS – CERN Experiment Confirms Cosmic Rays Influence Cloud Seeds by Anthony Watts.
Role of sulphuric acid, ammonia and galactic cosmic rays in atmospheric aerosol nucleation. In Nature, 25 August 2011, Vol. 476, pp. 429-435, doi:10.1038/nature10343.

For a discussion of the cosmic ray experiment in Nature, see:
Cloud formation may be linked to cosmic rays by Geoff Brumfiel. In Nature News, 24 August 2011, doi:10.1038/news.2011.504
Science getting settled by Lawrence Solomon.

(3)Is there a thermostat mechanism involving clouds and thunderstorms that keeps Earth's temperatures within a certain range?

This is a model proposed by amateur scientist Willis Eschenbach, who is not a climatologist. I have included it here because it has not yet been critically evaluated by the climate community, and in my opinion, it merits serious evaluation. Here is how Eschenbach describes his thermostat hypothesis:

"I am neither a climate sceptic, nor an AGW believer, nor an agnostic on the subject. Instead, I am a climate heretic. I think that the dominant climate paradigm is completely incorrect…I say, and have discussed elsewhere, that the temperature of the Earth is kept within a fairly narrow range through the action of a variety of natural homeostatic mechanisms."

"I think the earth has a thermostat, one that is not represented in any of the current generation of climate models. I don't think that climate is linear."

"I think that the debate should not be about feedback at all, it should be a debate about the types and the effects of the various natural homeostatic mechanisms."

The thermostat hypothesis by Willis Eschenbach.
It's not about feedback by Willis Eschenbach.
Tao/Triton Take Two by Willis Eschenbach.

(h) Acidification will not destroy the Earth's oceans in the foreseeable future.

Estimated change in annual mean sea surface pH between the pre-industrial period (1700s) and the present day (1990s). Between 1751 and 1994 surface ocean pH is estimated to have decreased from approximately 8.25 to 8.14 - a drop of 0.11. Image courtesy of Plumbago and Wikipedia.

Summary: Ocean acidification does indeed constitute a real threat to marine life, but its importance should not be overstated. At the present time, scientific models of the process are poorly understood. Barring a breakthrough in geo-engineering, there is probably nothing that can be done to prevent the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere to 0.07% by the end of the century: even if developed nations make drastic cutbacks, these will be dwarfed by increased emissions from India and especially China, whose per capita emissions could even overtake the US within six years, as this report shows. However, the overall results of studies published to date suggest that ocean acidification is not likely to be a serious problem until the pH of the oceans drops by more than 0.3 from its current level of 8.15. This will not happen before 2100. If the world economy can switch away from fossil fuels before that date, then we should be able to avoid an ecological catastrophe. As I argued above, the best strategy for reducing CO2 emissions is the nuclear option: integral fast reactors and/or thorium reactors. Finally, blaming the world's growing population for ocean acidification is ridiculous; as I showed in part (a) above, consumption is a far greater environmental threat than overpopulation. As we saw, an extra child born in the United States today will, down the generations, produce an eventual carbon footprint seven times that of an extra Chinese child, 46 times that of a Pakistani child, 55 times that of an Indian child, and 86 times that of a Nigerian child.

Recently science writer Matt Ridley published an article in The Times (4 November 2010), downplaying the threat of ocean acidification (see here for key extracts). Shortly afterwards, a response was published in Nature. The full text of the scientists' response to Ridley is available here (Briefing note on Matt Ridley article, "Who's afraid of acid in the ocean? Not me" as published in The Times, 4 November 2010. Response on behalf of UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOARP)).

What is most striking about the response to Matt Ridley on behalf of UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOARP), is its measured tone, as is evident from the following passages:

Matt Ridley's Opinion article (www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article2793749.ece; paywall applies) is correct in identifying that there are uncertainties and some contradictory evidence regarding biological responses to future ocean acidification (which, chemically, is an inevitable consequence of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere)...

Ridley's conclusion that ocean acidification will either be beneficial or have no overall biological effect is a simplistic and invalid interpretation of the evidence. Whilst changes in ocean CO2, pH and carbonate chemistry will undoubtedly result in winners as well as losers, the calculation of an overall average response is scientifically flawed. That is because positive and negative impacts do not cancel out, but both contribute to ecosystem perturbation....

Acidification does not necessarily stop organisms building their shells. Nevertheless, there are well-established negative effects on calcification ... and, once built, shells and other calcium carbonate-based exoskeletons will dissolve more easily in a high CO2 world....

The biochemistry of ocean acidification impacts and calcification processes is complex, and aspects are not well understood....

The business-as-usual ("at the worst") prediction for global pH values in surface waters is indeed around 7.8 by 2100. [The current level is 8.15 - VJT.]...

A wide range of animal, plant and microbial responses, both positive and negative, to "realistic" ocean acidification has been demonstrated. For some species, different studies have given different results....

Resilience to ocean acidification has been demonstrated for some animal species, but this is not universal: studies do not all point to the same conclusion. Very many experiments have shown damage at realistic CO2 levels, including shell degradation, failure of egg-hatching, and sub-lethal effects on metabolic rates and behaviour....

Those wishing to draw attention to ocean acidification as an environmental threat should not overstate the case. It is possible that ocean acidification impacts may be less widespread than indicated by "pessimistic predictions". Yet there are still many uncertainties and unknowns....

[I]t would seem premature to either attempt any ranking of relative threat (e.g. compared to over-fishing and nutrient runoff) or to dismiss ocean acidification as unimportant, based on what would seem to be an incomplete and possibly biased assessment of existing information.

I conclude that hitting the panic button is an inappropriate response to the threat of ocean acidification. What is needed is intelligent long-term planning for reducing the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As I argued in section (g) above, nuclear energy is the only realistic option for achieving this goal in the next few decades.

Another article of interest:
Ocean Absorption Of CO2 Not Shrinking. Blog entry by Dr. Douglas L. Hoffman, co-creator of The Resilient Earth.
A new study re-examines the available atmospheric CO2 and emissions data and concludes that the portion of CO2 absorbed by the oceans has remained constant since 1850. This refutes claims made that the oceans have reached their fill and their capacity to remove atmospheric CO2, so greenhouse warming will accelerate in the future. The article also shows that some marine invertebrate species would actually benefit from ocean acidification.

Finally, a recent report which blames the Permian extinction on ocean acidification is highly speculative, and in any case, levels reached at the end of the Permian were far higher than anything that humans are capable of producing in the foreseeable future (see the post A blast from the gas in the past by Anthony Watts, for a discussion).

Those who are worried about the carbon footprint of people born in developing countries (which, as I showed in section (a) above, is dwarfed by the footprint of children born in developed countries) should be encouraging the proliferation of nuclear energy in those countries, if they want to do something practical. But the important take-home message is: people per se are not the problem. Consumption - especially by affluent people - is what's causing ocean acidification.

Concluding remarks

When I was ten or eleven years old, I walked into a public library and came across a copy of Dr. Paul Ehrlich's best-selling book, The Population Bomb. The book made quite a profound impact on my thinking. In particular, one argument in the book convinced me of the need for population control. Using simple mathematical calculations, Dr. Ehrlich showed that if then-current rates of population growth were to continue, there would be standing room only on planet Earth, by the year 2600. The logic seemed irrefutable: we needed to stop growing.

Obviously, the Earth's population hasn't kept growing at the peak rate of 2.2% per annum, as occurred during the mid-1960s. Indeed, there is a very real possibility that Earth's population will peak at around 9 or 10 billion in the late 21st century, and then gradually decline. So lesson number one from this failed prediction of Ehrlich's is: to every trend there is an end. We should beware of projecting too far into the future.

What's lesson number two? That the future is radically unpredictable. Arthur C. Clarke encapsulated this principle best in his Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The Internet, space travel and nuclear energy would have seemed quite magical to people living 200 years ago. Problems which appear quite insurmountable to us today (barring the use of "magic") may be routinely soluble two centuries from now. Technological progress in the long-term future is literally unimaginable, at the present time. So I would say that on principle, we should refuse to worry about any environmental problem whose significant impact will occur more than 100 or 200 years from now.

Take the problem of the Earth filling up with people. Even in the 1960s, Colin Clark was suggesting a solution: travel to other planets. This now appears to be a rather expensive option. However, in her article, Space exploration - Basics, Dr. Ruth Globus of NASA has argued that the human population in orbit could one day exceed ten trillion, living in millions of space colonies with a combined living space hundreds of times the surface of the Earth. Believe it or not, this idea isn't science fiction. It's already technically feasible.

Finally, lesson number three is that we should never under-estimate human adaptability. Right now we have 7 billion people on this planet. I don't know what our maximum carrying capacity is, but I'm fairly sure that the Earth could support a population of one trillion people. I've already discussed energy, water, food, deforestation, species extinction and global warming above, so let me just deal with the crowding problem here. Imagine a society where people live in 100-story buildings. Each family of 5 people has a living space of 100 square meters. Because buildings are 100 stories high, that means there are 500 people per 100 square meters, or 5 people per square meter, or 5 million people per square kilometer. A population of one trillion would only take up 200,000 square kilometers. If we double the space required to allow for multi-level factories, shops, schools and community facilities, we get 400,000 square kilometers - an area about the size of Japan. The rest of the planet could be kept pristine, if people were willing to grow genetically modified food in their own homes, using hydroponics, and relying on either nuclear energy from thorium or space-based solar power. "What about going for a Sunday drive?" I hear you object. By that time, though, it'll be a Sunday ride in a flying vehicle, not a car. Traffic congestion need not be a problem. Obviously people won't be able to just walk down to the beach and go for a swim in the sea - but that doesn't mean they'll be unhappy. People can adapt to all sorts of circumstances. You might not want to live in a world like that - but your descendants might. I say: let them decide what kind of world they want to live in.

Other articles of interest

Population Research Institute.
Founded in 1989, the Population Research Institute is a non-profit research and educational organization dedicated to objectively presenting the truth about population-related issues, and to reversing the trends brought about by the myth of overpopulation. Its growing, global network of pro-life groups spans over 30 countries.

Demographic Winter. View the trailer here.

Consumption Dwarfs Overpopulation As Main Environmental Threat by Fred Pearce. Article in Yale e360, 13 April 2009.

Pro-Animal, Pro-Life by Dr. Mary Eberstadt. Article in First Things, June-July 2009.

Where are the corpses? by Willis Eschenbach. Debunks claims that thousands of species are dying out.

Ocean Absorption Of CO2 Not Shrinking. Blog entry by Dr. Douglas L. Hoffman, co-creator of The Resilient Earth.
A new study re-examines the available atmospheric CO2 and emissions data and concludes that the portion of CO2 absorbed by the oceans has remained constant since 1850. This refutes claims made that the oceans have reached their fill and their capacity to remove atmospheric CO2, so greenhouse warming will accelerate in the future. This article also shows that some species would actually benefit from ocean acidification.

Dreaming the Simonian Dream by Bryan Caplan. Bryan Caplan is an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. He believes that the Earth can probably support more than a trillion people.

Prescription for the Planet by Tom Rees. The official Web site.
Rees provides a workable solution to humanity's energy's problems - and at very little cost. Well worth reading.

Space exploration - Basics by Dr. Ruth Globus of NASA.
The human population in orbit could one day exceed ten trillion, living in millions of space colonies with a combined living space hundreds of times the surface of the Earth. No, the idea isn't science fiction. It's technically feasible.

(iii) If a large population was certain to cause massive species extinctions in the future, would family planning (including abortion) be morally obligatory?

Below, I shall argue that if couples have a basic right to engage in physical intimacy if they wish, then by the same token, they also have a basic right to procreate if they wish, and that even the absolute certainty of massive species extinction occurring in the future as a result of couples having more children is not a compelling moral reason for them to stop having babies, let alone a reason for them to abort their babies in the womb. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

These days, one often hears the argument that the Earth already has too many people, so parents who get pregnant too many times have a moral obligation to abort their pregnancies, for the sake of the planet. In this section, I'd like to explain why I think this argument is complete and utter nonsense. Since this Web page is written especially for readers have no religious beliefs, I'll be assuming here, for argument's sake, that human beings are nothing more than intelligent animals who will one day return to the dust whence they came, when they die. I shall also be assuming for argument's sake that consenting adult couples have a basic right to engage in physical intimacy (including sex) if they wish, so long as their activity poses no clear and present threat to anyone. While I do not personally share this assumption, it is an assumption that virtually all secular humanists would accept as axiomatic, and I shall use this assumption to argue that if we accept it, then it is also plausible to say that consenting adult couples have a basic right to procreate if they wish, so long as their activity poses no clear and present threat to anyone. If that is the case, then couples can never have a moral obligation to abort their babies in the womb on ecological grounds, because the danger in question is rarely clear and never a present danger.

In order to properly grasp the argument I'm going to put forward, the first thing we need to keep in mind is that for many adults, having children is fun. It's lots of fun. A lot of single people in their twenties and thirties don't realize this: their culture bombards them with the message that babies are a burden. But if you ask parents, you'll soon discover that many of them regard having children as the greatest source of joy in their lives. For a significant number of parents, the joy of procreation is a joy far greater than the joy of sex, and the only thing that stops them from having more children is lack of sufficient money to support a large family.

A hypothetical: would you give up sex for the rest of your life, to save the planet?

Now ask yourself this. Can you imagine any possible set of circumstances under which you'd be prepared to give up sex for the rest of your life, for the sake of saving the planet, or for the sake of saving endangered species from extinction? No? I didn't think so. Let's up the ante a little. Suppose that most of the people living in your country, or even most of the sexually active people around the world, were prepared to give up sex for the rest of their lives, for the sake of saving the planet, or for the sake of saving endangered species from extinction. Would you feel morally obligated to join them? No? I thought not.

Now let's up the ante a little more. Let's suppose (hypothetically) that a solid majority of scientists worldwide agreed that large numbers of people having sex frequently was somehow endangering the Earth's biosphere, and that the only way to save the planet, or to prevent a mass extinction of species in the near future, was to drastically limit sex to just two occasions in a lifetime, per person. Suppose also that your government told you that everyone had to give up having sex for the sake of saving the planet – or at the very most, limit it to once or twice in their entire lives. Now ask yourself this: (a) what level of evidence would you demand, before accepting the scientists' assertions? (b) would you comply with your government's directive?

My guess is that you would probably demand a very high level of evidence before accepting the scientists' assertions, and that even if you did accept them, you probably wouldn't comply with your government's directive to limit sex to twice in a lifetime. You and your fellow citizens would probably defy your government and say, "Sex is a vital part of our lives as human animals, and it's a source of great joy for us. For us to give up sex in the prime of our lives would mean living an emaciated, anorexic existence, not worthy of a human being. No self-respecting animal would give up sex for the sake of saving other species of animals: it's too self-denying. If having sex at our current frequency will eventually cause many other species of animals to die out, then that's just too bad."

Notice the logic here. The strongly worded protest that you and your fellow citizens made in the preceding paragraph contained no appeal to the "religious" premise that humans are somehow "more important" than other animals. Rather, the key premise that you relied on was that having sex is a normal part of life for healthy human beings, and that humans get a natural enjoyment out of having sex.

Now substitute "procreation" for "sex" in the above argument, and you'll see my point immediately. Many parents who enjoy having lots of children would regard a future where their government tells them to limit their families to just two children as a hellish and inhuman existence – just like being told to have sex no more than twice in a lifetime. Nothing – not even the specter of a future environmental catastrophe – would persuade most people to stop having sex; why, then, should these parents allow themselves to be persuaded to stop having children, if their government says it's bad for the planet?

A semi-plausible "virtual history" scenario in which having sex could endanger the planet

"But this is a purely hypothetical scenario," you may object. "It's not based on reality." All right. Let's make it more realistic. Let's imagine a global society just like our own, with an advanced Western-style standard of living, and whose members have a high degree of personal self-discipline, having been schooled from childhood in self-control (think of Japan). Imagine too that this society is a completely secular one, whose citizens have never even heard of religion (think of Sweden).

This society is scientifically advanced, but it has two major technological differences from our own society. First, no-one has yet discovered a safe and effective means of birth control, apart from natural family planning. In this society, there are no known "safe" abortion or sterilization techniques, and furthermore, there are no available contraceptives that actually work. Second, no-one has yet discovered a way of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, apart from life-long monogamy. It is not too hard to imagine a global society like this. For example, one could imagine an alternative world where doctors take the Hippocratic Oath - with its emphasis on "First do no harm" and its prohibition of abortifacients and contraceptives - very seriously. In such a world, the human trials for the Pill that were performed in Guatemala in the 1950s would not even be contemplated by physicians. (One could also imagine a society where people universally disliked using barrier methods of contraception, or a world where large numbers of men suffered from condom impotence and were therefore unable to use condoms.)

The people living in this society tend to marry in their early twenties. In this culture, the vast majority of people do practice life-long monogamy, as they have been carefully taught to practice self-control. Within their monogamous relationships, they maintain an active sex life, but they do not engage in anal or oral sex, because in this society, these activities carry an unacceptably high risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Of course, natural family planning, even when practiced by motivated couples, is not a perfect method of birth control. However, most couples in this society are fairly skilled in practicing natural family planning, and most of them don’t mind abstaining from sex for a few days per month. Accidental conceptions occur occasionally over the course of a lifetime, but most couples anticipate this eventuality and come to "expect the unexpected". In this society, let’s suppose that couples generally have about four children – some planned, some not – over the course of a lifetime. Their population doubles every 35 years, but until now, their advanced technology has managed to keep abreast of rising food consumption. Nobody in this society has any ethical qualms about genetically modified crops.

Now suppose that this monogamous Western-style secular society has recently discovered that their industrial civilization appears to be wreaking havoc on the Earth's biosphere, causing a rise in global temperatures that will eventually result in large-scale species extinction. Scientists tell the public that the only way to prevent this future catastrophe is for everyone to limit themselves to two children – but since they can only rely on natural family planning, which is not 100% effective, scientists are advising couples to permanently abstain from sex after the birth of their second child. For most of these couples, that would mean no sex after the age of thirty.

Would you expect married couples in this society to comply with their government's request? And should they? Once again, I would argue that the answer is: "No." The extinction of millions of species of animals in the foreseeable future is not a compelling moral reason for giving up sex. It is but a short logical step to argue that if the members of this monogamous Western-style secular society are justified in enjoying the natural pleasure of sex (which in this society is inherently likely to lead to procreation on the odd occasion), even if continuing to have sex will result in the eventual extinction of millions of species of plants and animals, then likewise, couples living in our own secular Western society are perfectly justified in enjoying the natural pleasure of having children, even if this will result in the eventual extinction of millions of species of plants and animals.

A criticism: are the people in my hypothetical scenario guilty of naive technological optimism?

Perhaps readers will object that the couples in the monogamous Western-style secular society I described above are being very short-sighted and optimistic in assuming that humanity will still survive, even if most species of plants and animals die out. I would contest this claim on strictly empirical grounds. It should be kept in mind that in any ecosystem, some species (known as keystone species) are of much more pivotal importance than others. If the keystone species in an ecosystem (which are relatively few in number) can be saved, then the ecosystem remains viable. And if most ecosystems around the world continue to be viable over the next few centuries, then the ecological threat to mankind will have been averted.

Additionally (and more importantly), I would argue that Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, constitutes a valid reason for these couples to ignore perils that may occur in the distant future. The technology we have now would certainly strike our forebears of 500 years ago as magical. If (as is in fact the case) the mass extinctions warned of by scientists are not expected to happen for another 500 years, then it is surely reasonable for the couples in the secular society I described above to assume that scientists of the future will be able to devise some way of saving humanity, by then. It would also be reasonable to assume that future scientists could devise a way of saving many endangered species, as well.

A second criticism: what if the threat is due to eventuate within the next 50 years, instead of the next 500?

In some of the more catastrophic global warming scenarios, the Earth's mean global temperature could rise by 7 degrees Celsius, by the end of the century. Experts agree that a rise of even 3 degrees would have severe ecological consequences. Suppose that these scenarios were actually correct, and that it could be scientifically demonstrated that they were highly likely to occur. What would the people in our hypothetical secular society be obliged to do then?

An average global temperature rise of 7 degrees Celsius sounds pretty catastrophic, and it would certainly endanger the grand-children - and perhaps the children - of the people living in our hypothetical secular society. One might argue that if the survival of everyone's grand-children is at stake, that would be surely a good reason for couples around the world to give up having sex.

But as I have argued above, technological solutions to the problem of global warming already exist. Global warminbg activists like James Hansen have argued that enough liquid fluoride thorium reactors could be built by the year 2050 to avert a severe global warming crisis. All that is needed is the political will-power.

"That's fine," I hear some readers object, "but what if the political will-power is lacking? What if too few people want thorium reactors, and there is no politically achievable way to avert the looming environmental catastrophe except by implementing a global policy of total abstinence?"

My reply would be that if a married couple supports responsible environmental policies that could avert the catastrophe (such as the building of thorium reactors) then they are not morally obliged to abstain from sex from the rest of their lives, simply because their fellow citizens are stupid.

The practical ethical conclusion I draw from this "virtual history" scenario is that if a couple is prepared to support the implementation of radical technological changes (such as building lots of thorium reactors and eating more GM food) which could save the planet from the consequences of global warming, then they are not obliged to limit the number of children they have.

Part J - Outlawing Abortion: The Physicians' Crusade Against Abortion in the Nineteenth Century

Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer (1830-1922), the Father of American Gynecology. Picture courtesy of Frederick N. Dyer, Ph. D..


One of the great myths of the pro-choice movement is that abortion was criminalized in the United States of America in the late nineteenth century, mainly for petty, vindictive reasons: in particular, putting the "quacks" who performed many of the abortions out of business; increasing the numbers of "Americans," i.e. native-born citizens, who were having many fewer children than Catholic immigrants; and keeping women in traditional child-bearing roles.

The truth is that abortion was outlawed in America primarily for humanitarian reasons. The story of how this happened has been chronicled by James C. Mohr, in his book Abortion in America (Oxford University Press, 1978), and more recently by Frederick Dyer in his work, "The Physicians' Crusade Against Abortion" (Science History Publications, USA, 2005. ISBN 0-88135-378-7.)

One of the earliest physicians to address the epidemic of criminal abortion was Hugh Lenox Hodge, Professor of Obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania. Hodge spoke the following words to his medical students in 1839 and again in 1854, and the address was published on both occasions:

Would, gentlemen, that we could exonerate the moderns from guilt in this subject! It is, however, a mournful fact, which ought to be promulgated, that this crime, this mode of committing murder, is prevalent among the most intelligent, refined, moral, and Christian communities. We blush while we record the fact that in this country, in this city, where literature, science, morality, and Christianity are supposed to have so much influence; where all the domestic and social virtues are reported as being in full and delightful exercise; even here, individuals, male and female, exist who are continually imbruing their hands and consciences in the blood of unborn infants; yea, even medical men are to be found who, for some trifling pecuniary recompense, will poison the fountains of life, or forcibly induce labor to the certain destruction of the fetus, and frequently of its parent.

So low, gentlemen, is the moral sense of the community on this subject - so ignorant are the greater number of individuals - that even mothers, in many instances, shrink not from the commission of this crime; but will voluntarily destroy their own progeny, in violation of every natural sentiment, and in opposition to the laws of God and man. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

In January 1851, the Rhode Island physician John Preston Leonard published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal a long letter that included this passage:

Besides these bills of mortality, the records of criminal courts will furnish sufficient proof that this crime is every day becoming more prevalent. It is humiliating to admit that there are a class of physicians who, Herod-like, have waged a war of destruction upon the innocent. Though their motives are not the same as those which instigated that cruel king, they are no less murderers for that. If there is any difference, they are worse than Herod. He was influenced by popular clamor and bigotry; these quacks do all for money, and such could be hired to burn out the eyes of infant princes. (Emphasis mine - VJT.)

In his letter, Leonard recommended that the American Medical Association deal with the problem of criminal abortion and that the states pass strong laws against it.

In November 1855, David Humphreys Storer, Professor of Obstetrics and Medical Jurisprudence at the Harvard Medical School, gave a lecture at the Medical School whose final section dealt with criminal abortion. In 1859, the leading anti-abortion crusader Dr. Horatio Storer cited his father's lecture as a major stimulus for his anti-abortion "undertaking." In that lecture, entitled "An Introductory Lecture before the Medical Class of 1855-56 of Harvard University," Professor David Storer had remarked:

To save the life of the mother we may be called upon to destroy the fetus in utero, but here alone can it be justifiable. The generally prevailing opinion that although it may be wrong to procure an abortion after the child has presented unmistakable signs of life, it is excusable previous to that period, is unintelligible to the conscientious physician. The moment an embryo enters the uterus a microscopic speck, it is the germ of a human being, and it is as morally wrong to endeavor to destroy that germ as to be guilty of the crime of infanticide. (Emphasis mine - VJT.)

Professor David Storer's lecture was later printed in "Two Frequent Causes of Uterine Disease," in the Journal of the Gynaecological Society of Boston, 6: 194-203 (March 1872), pp. 198-99.

In 1857, Professor Storer's son, Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer, decided to galvanize American society into action on the issue of abortion. Dr. Horatio Storer's effort, now known as the "physicians' crusade against abortion," was spectacularly successful. As a result of diligent lobbying by Dr. Storer and his colleagues, state and territorial legislatures enacted stringent laws against unnecessary abortions, most of which remained in effect with little or no change for more than a hundred years.

Dr. Horatio Storer wrote an article on abortion, which was published in the January 1859 North-American Medico-Chirurgical Review. Here is a short extract which illustrates the flavor of Dr. Storer's article:

If we have proved the existence of fetal life before quickening has taken place or can take place and all by analogy, and a close and conclusive process of induction, its commencement at the very beginning, at conception itself, we are compelled to believe unjustifiable abortion always a crime.

And now words fail. Of the mother, by consent or by her own hand, imbrued with her infant's blood; of the equally guilty father, who counsels or allows the crime; of the wretches who by their wholesale murders far out-Herod Burke and Hare; of the public sentiment which palliates, pardons, and would even praise this so common violation of all law, human and divine, of all instinct, of all reason, all pity, all mercy, all love, - we leave those to speak who can. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Dr. Storer repeated that long last sentence in his 1865 American Medical Association Prize Essay, which in 1866 became the popular book Why Not? A Book for Every Woman. He repeated it again in his second popular book, Is It I? A Book for Every Man, published the following year.

One extremely popular book on the subject of abortion was Plain Facts For Old and Young, by John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., the co-inventor of Corn Flakes. In chapter 21 of his book, on pages 516-518, Kellogg described the following conversation he had had with a woman patient who had requested an abortion:

A number of years ago, a woman called on the writer, stating that she had become pregnant much against her wishes, and earnestly desired that an abortion should be produced. The following conversation ensued:-

"Why do you desire the destruction of your unborn infant?"

"Because I already have three children, which are as many as I can properly care for; besides, my health is poor, and I do not feel that I can do justice to what children I now have."

"Your chief reason, then, is that you do not wish more children?"


"On this account you are willing to take the life of this unborn babe?"

"I must get rid of it."

"I understand that you have already borne three children, and that you do not think you are able to care for more. Four children are, you think, one too many, and so you are willing to destroy one. Why not destroy one of those already born?"

"Oh, that would be murder!"

"It certainly would, but no more murder than it would be to kill this unborn infant. Indeed, the little one you are carrying in your womb has greater claims upon you than the little ones at home, by virtue of its entire dependence and helplessness. It is just as much your child as those whose faces are familiar to you, and whom you love." (Emphases mine - VJT.)

Other physicians related similar conversations in which they offered to kill an existing child, since it would be safer for the mother than having the abortion she requested. Most indicated that this approach - which vividly reminded their patients that abortion both constituted murder and was dangerous to the mother - was effective in persuading the woman to bear her child.

In 1874, the Illinois physician Dr. James S. Whitmire penned the following words condemning those who perform abortions:

Persons who engage in this crime, whether they are professional or self-abortionists, have lost all the natural instincts of humanity; they have neither principle nor good morals, and are, hence, an eyesore to society, a plague-spot upon communities where they exist - lepers, whose infectious breath undermines the very foundation of the morals of the people, and should not be tolerated for a single day, when and where they are known. (Emphasis mine - VJT.)

On the reasons motivating the physicians' crusade against abortion, Dr. Frederick Dyer writes:

Physicians' concern for the unborn continued throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Hundreds of physicians published articles, letters, and editorials in medical journals that defended the unborn from earliest conception and condemned the seekers and providers of unnecessary abortions. Many of these physicians also expressed concern about dangers to the mother and about changes in the national character as a result of the higher birth rates of immigrants, who were not seeking abortions. But for almost all of them, these concerns were subordinate to their concern about the killing of unborn human beings. Storer and many others recognized that some women would not be persuaded by moral arguments and recommended that their physician readers appeal to women's concerns about their own health as a way to persuade them to have their children. The issue of the national character was also viewed as a means to influence legislators who might not be fully convinced of the immorality of abortion. As to eliminating "quacks" and controlling the practice of legitimate members of the profession, when these were mentioned, it was as tactics for reducing the number of criminal abortions, not as strategies that were served by opposing abortion.

To sum up: the physicians' crusade against abortion in the United States in the nineteenth century succeeded because of a firm and unbending conviction on the part of doctors, which they were not afraid to uphold during consultations with their patients, that the embryo/fetus was an unborn human person with a right to life, from the moment of conception. I believe that pro-life doctors today can learn from the success of this campaign against the scourge of abortion.

Ending Abortion in the 21st Century: A Former Planned Parenthood Director Points the Way

The following extract is taken from a report by Steve Ertelt, of LifeSiteNews (24 August 2011).

Abby Johnson, the former director of a Planned Parenthood abortion business in Texas, shared a message with thousands of pro-life advocates last night about how she thinks abortion can be stopped...

Abby said she speaks regularly with people who are former workers at abortion centers or want to get out of the abortion industry and are looking for help to do so. She says she is in contact with such people on a weekly basis and she believes helping abortion staffers leave their jobs is the Achilles Heel for Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry and could be the key to stopping considerable numbers of abortions by closing down abortion centers via lack of staff.

"Planned Parenthood's greatest fear is that clinic workers will leave and that they will come out against them and that they will air their dirty laundry, just like I did, and they will expose their secrets," Johnson said.

Pro-life advocates everywhere would do well to heed Ms. Johnson's advice.

Pro-life advocates should also heed the counsel of former abortion clinic worker Jewels Green, who became a pro-lifer after watching Abby Johnson's videos. In her testimony, Ms. Green emphasizes very strongly that violent attempts to prevent abortion are wrong and counter-productive, based on her experience as an abortion clinic worker:

[A]lthough I now consider myself pro-life, I simply cannot abide by the extremists within the movement’s ranks who often act without censure by many of the position’s vocal leadership. I was at the front desk when the clinic was invaded on July 22, 1992, which we later dubbed “The Wednesday From Hell." Six people ran into the waiting room with a huge metal contraption with multiple pipes attached that we all assumed was a bomb until they slid their arms inside of it and started singing. They were in the waiting room "attached" to that thing for seven hours while local and state police and FBI agents attempted to negotiate with and extract them from the device. They peed on the carpet. The clinic's daily functions continued in other parts of the facility.

Not one woman changed her mind as a result of this invasion.

I was also working the front desk on the day two Boston clinics were attacked by an armed anti-abortion gunman who wounded five people and killed two. The gunman remained at large for many hours before being apprehended. Boston is a five-hour drive from where I worked and I remained at the front desk. (My uncle, a police sergeant, insisted I wear a bulletproof vest to work for a full week following that event, and I did.) One of the former directors of the clinic I worked for had her home broken into twice, another director routinely has her home picketed and has been followed home from work by suspicious vehicles on several occasions. There has to be a better way to further the cause of life.

Indeed. The battle against abortion will be a long one. In the end, it will be won by the side displaying the most patience.

Part K - Are Embryonic Stem Cells Needed To Find The Cure For Human Diseases?

Pluripotent embryonic stem cells originate as inner mass cells within the blastocyst. Embryonic stem cells are capable of developing into each of the more than 220 cell types in the adult body, excluding the placenta. By contrast, the cells of the morula are totipotent, capable of developing into any kind of body tissue. Adult stem cells are multipotent and can only produce a limited number of cell types. Nevertheless, adult stem cell research has led to treatments for more than 70 diseases, while embryonic stem cell research has yet to yield a single treatment.


The ethical controversy over the use of embryonic stem cells has generated a great deal of heat in the mass media. A fairly balanced and informed overview of the current controversy can be found here.

In this section, I intend to highlight the key points which are pertinent to the controversy over the use of embryonic stem cells for scientific research, from a pro-life perspective.

Adult Stem Cell Research Is Safer And Much More Successful Than Embryonic Stem Cell Research

A recent report (June 18, 2010) by LifeNews.com points out that while adult stem cell research has helped doctors to treat 100 different diseases in human beings, embryonic research hasn't even helped treat one human disease:

Currently adult stem cell research has helped patients dealing with more than 100 different diseases and conditions.

On the other hand, embryonic stem cells have never been tried in humans because of problems in animal experiments with them causing tumors and the immune system rejecting them after injection for treatment.

Recently, the Associated Press surprised readers with a news story (August 21, 2010) on the striking contrasts between adult and embryonic stem cell research and a headline indicating what pro-life advocates have long known: the use of adult stem cell research is helping patients now, and far outpacing embryonic studies.

"For all the emotional debate that began about a decade ago on allowing the use of embryonic stem cells, it's adult stem cells that are in human testing today. An extensive review of stem cell projects and interviews with two dozen experts reveal a wide range of potential treatments," AP admitted.

A few of the examples highlighted include multiple sclerosis, heart damage, juvenile diabetes, and blindness from chemical burns.

"Apart from these efforts, transplants of adult stem cells have become a standard lifesaving therapy for perhaps hundreds of thousands of people with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood diseases," AP noted.

Dr. David Scadden of Harvard told the news service that the ability of adult stem cells to help patients with a wide range of diseases and conditions helps it stand out from embryonic, which has never helped a single person.

"That's really one of the great success stories of stem cell biology that gives us all hope," he said. "If we can recreate that success in other tissues, what can we possibly imagine for other people?"

And Rocky Tuan of the University of Pittsburgh told AP that adult stem cells have "a very interesting and potent quality that embryonic stem cells don’t have."

Dr. David Prentice, a former Indiana State University biology professor and now a fellow at the Family Research Council, responded to the AP article saying its title "Adult Stem Cell Research Far Ahead of Embryonic" is "straight from Malcolm Ritter and the Associated Press" and finally "highlights some of the real successes and promise of adult stem cells, as opposed to the wishful thinking and hype of embryonic stem cells."

The news story focuses on Dr. Thomas Einhorn at Boston University Medical Center who worked on a case injecting a patient’s bone marrow into a broken ankle that wouldn’t heal — four months later the ankle was healed.

"As the AP piece notes, it's an example of many innovative therapies doctors are studying with adult stem cells; stem cells taken from body tissue and umbilical cord blood, not embryos," Prentice says.

"Many of the treatments, including new ones being tested in clinical trials now, rely on the idea that stem cells can form other cell types. That seems to be the case for Einhorn’s ankle-repair technique, with the adult stem cells forming new bone and blood vessels," Prentice said. "But adult stem cells also seem to have abilities to stimulate tissue repair or suppress the immune system."

AP concludes its article saying the potential for adult stem cells, unlike embryonic, appears limitless and the successes it noted "only hint at what's being explored in experiments across the United States."

Study: Embryonic Stem Cells Don't Work as Well as Adult Cells

The following extract is taken from a report (23 August 2011) by David Prentice, Ph.D., of LifeSiteNews. Dr. Prentice is a former Professor of Life Sciences, Indiana State University, and Adjunct Professor of Medical and Molecular Genetics, Indiana University School of Medicine:

Like an out of control youth, embryonic stem cells can wreak havoc with tissue damage and tumor formation. Their inability to make appropriate, mature cells that can function in an adult body is also a problem.

Scientists at UCLA have found that cells derived from pluripotent stem cells are developmentally very immature, and do not resemble the adult cell types that they would theoretically replace in a transplant. The immaturity was seen in cell derivatives from both embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The data indicate that pluripotent stem cells such as embryonic stem cells are inappropriate substitutes for adult stem cells in patient treatments.

Other Research

AP Surprises With Article Noting Adult Stem Cell Research Outpacing Embryonic

Saving Alex: Mainstream Media Ignores Success of Adult Stem Cell Treatments
Alex notes that adult stem cells have successfully treated more than 70 diseases, according to the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics (www.stemcellresearch.org).
http://www.stemcellresearch.org/polisci/index.html (very good site)

Currently adult stem cell research has helped patients dealing with more than 100 different diseases and conditions. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells have never been tried in humans because of problems in animal experiments with them causing tumors and the immune system rejecting them after injection for treatment.

Update: A striking new development in research on induced pluripotent stem cells

A recent opinion piece (December 6, 2010) in LifeNews.com by Matt Hoberg (a a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley), describes how a new, safe technique for producing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) may have rendered obsolete current research methods which involve the destruction of embryos:

In 2007, scientists demonstrated that they could transform human skin cells into iPS cells, bypassing the destruction of embryos. While opponents of ESCR hailed this announcement as a sign that iPS cells could provide the full therapeutic promise of ES cells, the methods were still in their infancy. It took about a month for the iPS cells to develop, and very few transformations were successful: 99.9% of treated cells failed to transform. Besides being slow and unreliable, the techniques were dangerous. Viruses were used to insert specific genes into the adult cells, which increased the cancer risk for the stem cells and thus for prospective patients receiving stem cell therapy. Without a safer technique, the promise of iPS cell research remained in the future.

That future is now. On September 30, researchers led by Derrick J. Rossi, Ph.D., at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute reported a novel technique for producing iPS cells from adult skin cells that is fast, reliable, and safe. Instead of viruses, Rossi's team transformed skin cells using messenger RNA (mRNA), producing iPS cells two times faster and one hundred times more reliably than the virus techniques. Most importantly, the mRNA method does not raise the cancer risk for the iPS cells. While there is still room for improvement in the method’s efficiency, scientists in the field view Rossi's discovery as a major breakthrough. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology, likens it to "turning lead into gold."

Opponents of ESCR have applauded the discovery as well, citing its potential to render obsolete research methods that destroy embryos. Richard Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, commented: “With each new study it becomes more and more implausible to claim that scientists must rely on destruction of human embryos to achieve rapid progress in regenerative medicine."

Some Examples Of Medical Problems and Diseases Being Treated By Adult Stem Cell Stem Cell Research

Blood Transfusion

Scientists have shown for the first time that cultured red blood cells can be grown in the lab from adult stem cells and injected successfully into a human. While embryonic stem cells produce only unsuitable, immature cells, with rejection and uncontrolled tumor growth remaining a concern as well, by contrast adult stem cells can efficiently produce healthy, safe cells for transfusion. Readers can find out more about these breakthroughs in this report here (LifeSiteNews, 9 September 2011, article by David Prentice, Ph.D.).

Breast Cancer

A recent report (January 27, 2011) in LifeNews.com describes how doctors used adult stem cells to help treat women with breast cancer.

Adult Stem Cells Helping Women With Breast Reconstruction

Craniofacial deformities

Japanese scientists have shown that useful adult stem cells can be isolated from the human ear. Prof. Shinji Kobayashi, lead author on the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues discovered adult stem cells from the membrane that covers cartilage in the human ear. They developed a technique to grow the adult stem cells into cartilage efficiently, and found that the human stem cell-derived cartilage was stable for at least 10 months after it was transplanted under the skin of mice. Their discovery of this new, easily-accessible source of adult stem cells and their technique for efficient growth of cartilage would allow patients suffering from craniofacial deformities to be treated with reconstructive material grown from adult stem cells collected from their own ears. The scientists hope to start a clinical study as early as 2012. here (LifeSiteNews, 18 August 2011, article by David Prentice, Ph.D.).

Multiple Sclerosis

A recent report (May 11, 2010) in LifeNews.com by Dr. David Prentice (a former Professor of Life Sciences, Indiana State University, and Adjunct Professor of Medical and Molecular Genetics, Indiana University School of Medicine), describes how adult stem cells (not embryonic ones), are helping patients with multiple sclerosis:

A groundbreaking new study published in the last week provides more good news for treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) with adult stem cells. Researchers at the University of Bristol used patients' own adult stem cells to treat their MS.

In a Phase I clinical trial, six patients with MS were treated with their own bone marrow adult stem cells and their progress followed for one year. The treatment appeared to stabilized the patients’ condition and showed some benefits. As one measure of the success of the procedure, damaged nerve pathways were able to carry electrical pulses more effectively after the treatment.

Multiple sclerosis is an incurable disease, with the patients own immune system attacking the central nervous system and eventually leaving many patients in a wheelchair.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this trial was the elegantly simple procedure. Patients reported to the hospital and had bone marrow adult stem cells removed, the cells were filtered, and then given back to the patients intravenously. The patients went home before the end of the day.

The research team is led by Professor Neil Scolding, at the University of Bristol and North Bristol NHS Trust. Professor Scolding said:

"We are encouraged by the results of this early study. The safety data are reassuring and the suggestion of benefit tantalising. Research into the underlying mechanisms is ongoing and vital, in order to build on these results. We believe that stem cells mobilised from the marrow to the blood are responsible, and that they help improve disease in several ways, including neuroprotection and immune modulation."

The team is now planning a Phase II/III study. The report for this trial is published in the Nature journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics.

Previous studies have also had good success at stopping MS progression, and in some cases putting patients into remission. Dr. Richard Burt at Northwestern University has published several studies showing good success using adult stem cells to "reboot" the immune system of MS patients. Scientists in Australia have also used the procedure with success, and recently Dr. Mark Freedman of Ottawa, Canada has produced “long-lasting remission” in MS patients.

In these cases, patients had their bone marrow adult stem cells collected, then received chemotherapy to knock the rogue immune cells that were attacking their nervous system. Then their adult stem cells were re-injected. While recent successful treatments have used milder chemotherapy, this is still not a gentle or risk-free procedure for the patient. The new approach by the Bristol team is all the more interesting in this respect, because there is no pre-conditioning with chemotherapy. (Emphases mine - VJT.)

An international group of multiple sclerosis researchers have looked at these uses of adult stem cells for treatment of MS, and propose moving forward with additional clinical trials to help patients.

A recent report (February 1, 2011) in LifeNews.com describes how babies can be treated with adult stem cells, even in the womb.

Stress and Depression

The following extract is taken from a report in LifeSiteNews (26 August 2011) by David Prentice, Ph.D.

Stress can stimulate production of new adult neural stem cells. An area of the brain known as the hippocampus responds to environmental conditions, including stress such as being held in isolation, and produces new neural stem cells that are stockpiled for later use.

As conditions become more favorable, such as being moved to an enriched environment with various stimuli, the neural stem cells can be used to produce new brain neurons.

The new study, published in the journal Neuron, shows that adult stem cell production in the brain is responsive to experience and the environment, indicating that this may act as a form of cellular plasticity for adapting to environmental changes.


A recent report (December 14, 2010) in LifeNews.com describes how doctors in Germany used adult stem cells to cure a man of AIDS, although they admit that the procedure they used would not work for the vast majority of AIDS patients:

Doctors Say Adult Stem Cell Research Cures HIV-Positive Man

In 2008, German doctors reported they had used a selective adult stem cell transplant to treat a leukemia patient. The treatment had a side effect — that the transplant also removed his HIV infection.

After the transplant, the virus was undetectable in his bloodstream for at least two years and he no longer took antiretroviral drugs.

Now, doctors have reveale the name of the patient — Timothy Ray Brown, an HIV-positive man — and they are claiming the results with this patient provide evidence for a “cure” for HIV infection using the selective adult stem cell transplant.

Publishing their results in the medical journal Blood, they say, “In conclusion, our results strongly suggest that cure of HIV has been achieved in this patient.”

The transplant appeared to wipe out both diseases, but Dr. David Prentice, a former biology professor at Indiana State University who is a fellow at the Family Research Council, told LifeNews.com that caution is in order.

“The evidence at the time, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was compelling,” he told LifeNews.com this afternoon. “The adult stem cell transplant, a standard treatment for leukemia, selectively used donor cells that lacked a molecule called CCR5–this cell-surface protein acts as an attachment factor for the HIV virus, so the donor cells were resistant to HIV infection. But the HIV virus can hide in various cells and re-infect a patient’s system.”

"Caution is still the byword though," Prentice warned. "These types of transplants are not gentle, and the virus could still be hiding and waiting. In addition, such transplants would require finding bone marrow adult stem cell donors with the particular mutation, so that the donated cells lack the CCR5 receptor, so this will not be a widely-applicable treatment."

"Still, it provides more evidence of the real hope and possibilities with adult stem cell transplants," Dr. Prentice said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has studied HIV/AIDS for 30 years, also cautioned the public about the results and new speculation about what could come from them — saying any new cure is impractical.

“It’s hard enough to get a good compatible match for a transplant like this,” he told Fox News. “But you also have to find compatible donor that has this genetic defect, and this defect is only found in 1 percent of the Caucasian population and zero percent of the black population. This is very rare.”

Fauci also said that, while Mr. Brown is "functionally cured," not every HIV-positive individual would respond to the treatment.

Scientists have recently developed a safe and efficient method to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from adult skin cells.

Future Directions: Beyond Stem Cells

The following extract is taken from a report in LifeSiteNews (16 August 2011) by David Prentice, Ph.D.

A passel of scientific papers have recently reported the direct conversion of skin cells to nerve cells, without going through an intervening stem cell step.

No fewer than seven studies published in the last three months have shown different methods for directly converting ordinary skin cells into types of nerve cells...

The direct conversion technique, also called direct reprogramming, builds on the reprogramming work of Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. In 2006, Dr. Yamanaka announced his groundbreaking technique of adding four genes to a normal cell, reprogramming it to act like an embryonic stem cell, yet without use of embryos, eggs, or cloning. The newly-reprogrammed stem cell, termed an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell), was first developed in mice, and then the same technique was shown to work with human cells in 2007. Yamanaka’s iPS cell method bypasses the ethical problems of embryonic stem cells. However, the iPS cells still need to be differentiated into specialized cell types for tissues, and still show the same practical problems of a tendency to form tumors, as seen with embryonic stem cells.

The even newer technique of direct conversion skips the stem cell intermediary, directly transforming one specialized cell type into another specialized cell type.


In this article, I've endeavored to convince readers that a one-cell embryo is a human person with the same right to life as anyone else, and that abortion, far from helping women, hurts women and does violence to them. I hope I've convinced readers that the pro-life position is at least intellectually defensible, and that opposing views have severe problems of their own.

Thank you for visiting my page at Angelfire. Please come back and visit again!

Recommended Reading

Non-religious pro-life arguments

Readers who are curious about Doris Gordon's pro-life views might like to have a look at her Introductory article, her 1979 speech to Congress, How I became pro-life, and Abortion and Thomson's Violinist: Unplugging a Bad Analogy.

Articles by Libertarians for Life.

Medical issues regarding the status of the human embryo

The Carnegie Stages of Early Human Embryonic Development: Chart of all 23 Stages, Detailed Descriptions of Stages 1 - 6 by Dr. Dianne Irving. (Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D. is a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH; philosopher and medical ethicist.)

The 23 Carnegie Stages of Development by the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

When Do Human Beings Begin? "Scientific" Myths and Scientific Facts by Dr. Dianne Irving.

Scientific Response to Criticism of the California Human Rights Amendment as "Protecting Fertilized Eggs" by Dr. Dianne Irving and Professor C. Ward Kischer. (Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D. is a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH; philosopher and medical ethicist. Dr. C. Ward Kischer, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy, specialty in Human Embryology, University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, Arizona.)

Life: Defining the Beginning by the End by Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper (Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person) by Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Why the Embryo or Fetus is Not a Parasite by Dr. Thomas L. Johnson, Professor of Biology, Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Philosophical issues regarding the status of the human embryo

Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: What's Wrong With It? by Professor David Oderberg. In Human Life Review (Fall 2005):1-33.

The Metaphysical Status of the Embryo: Some Arguments Revisited by Professor David Oderberg. In Journal of Applied Philosophy 25 (2008): 263-76.