There is a discussion going on, on The Corner about abortion that I like. Even though I think it’s a lot less “serious” than I would prefer its much more serious than most takes I read.

By serious I mean: folks attempting to grapple with the issue rationally rather than simply identify themselves with stances that are sentimentally appealing.

Also, before I get started I want to specifically set aside issue related to “what is the scientific consensus” because that draws us into arguments from authority when we actually have lots of observable information to grapple with.

Lets grapple with that information first before making appeals that “smarter people than you think X.”

The debate was in part kicked off by this pair of posts. I am going to quote liberally.

First from David French

At long last — and against the strong headwinds of the anti-science ideologues — the law is finally catching up to biology. Next week, Mississippi voters will determine whether all human beings in the state of Mississippi are also “persons” under the law. Such a vote is a logical — if belated — concession to well-established science. Indeed, scientists are virtually unanimous in declaring that the result of conception is a human child with a distinct DNA different from his or her parents. This unanimity is the essence of “overwhelming consensus.” 

Given this biological reality, is it logical, reasonable, or remotely moral to characterize some human beings as “persons” and others not? Are we not long past such outright quackery? I hope and expect that Mississippi voters will decisively reject the deniers in their midst and recognize the reality of personhood. After all, it’s a simple matter of science.

In part this is important because we can clearly make theological arguments about the morality of abortion and the notion of personhood. However, its dicey to know what the law should do about that because we have no official church in the United States and churches disagree on this issue.

So, from a legal standpoint it would be nice if there was some sort of secular means of handling this question. Also, for us agnostics and atheists it would be nice if there was a secular way of handling the fundamental morality of this issue.

French is suggesting that there is. After conception we have “a human child with distinct DNA.”

I think human child is not quite right but I don’t really want to quibble over that because I think David really means human being and that I readily concede.

The question is, are all human beings persons?

Robert VerBruggen returns the obvious reply but with a example I usually don’t think of.

David — it is certainly true, as you write, that the result of conception is an embryo with “distinct DNA.”

What’s not clear to me, however, is why “distinct DNA” should be the criterion by which we judge personhood for moral and legal purposes. As Reason’s Ronald Bailey has pointed out, 60 to 80 percent of human embryos — post-conception, with distinct DNA — are naturally destroyed by the woman’s body. Are we to see this as a large-scale massacre of human beings, develop drugs to prevent it from happening, and require all women who have unprotected sex to take them? Certainly, we would be willing to take measures like this if post-birth infants were dying in comparable numbers.

What Robert is getting at here is what I term “revealed morality.” Which is to say look, David, you certainly don’t act like you believe distinct DNA constitutes a moral person.

Otherwise you would see the prevalence of early miscarriages as one the greatest natural tragedies in the world and probably the single most important issue facing the Developed World, if not humanity itself.

The point here is not to call David French a hypocrite, but to force him – and others – to consider what they actually believe. Do you believe that distinct DNA defines a new moral person and thus the prevalence of miscarriages are the most significant human tragedy in the Developed World.

What proceeds at The Corner is the typical devolution of the discussion  once people are made to feel uncomfortable. That is, accusations that Robert is calling people insensitive and qualitatively meaningless undermining of Robert’s data and word choice. However, that’s fine. I am happy that it got this far.

There are other issues that I have with the notion of defining personhood as “distinct DNA.” I treat them lightly and if people are interested we can go into more depth.

First, the obvious issue that once conception is complete we have distinct DNA but we do not know how many people we are going to get. Robert brings up the case in which we get zero born people. This case is nice for highlighting the morality of the post conception loss. However, from a theoretical standpoint there much thornier issues are when we get more than one person and when we get fractional people.

Everyone is aware that it is possible for the egg to divide post conception and produce identical twins. I think most of agree that identical twins are separate people. Thus, there must be at minimum some secondary process of personification, in which the single person becomes multiple people.

How does this take place? Its important because the method in which secondary personification takes place might render the “distinct DNA” theory of personification superfluous.

To be more specific, if something like “secondary personification” always takes place but does not always result in twins, then why are we sure there is some meaning in the “primary personification” that takes place when new human DNA strand is constructed.

Even more gnarly, however, is the case of fractional people. It is possible for two fertilized eggs, each with their own Distinct DNA, to merge into a single born human. The result is a human chimera.

What do we believe is happening here?

Are there two persons in the same body? Are the persons “merged?” Is one person killed in the process? If the later then which one? Again, answering these issues makes the question of primary personification at distinct DNA difficult.

If we believe that there are two persons then how are we to morally deal with what seems to be a single adult. Are the cells descended from one fertilization event morally responsible for the actions of the cells descended from another fertilization event? And, what to make of the fact that the adult seems to insist that he or she is in fact and integrated person?

If the persons are merged then how does the process of “personifactional integration” take place? Like secondary personification, is this an event that always happens irrespective of whether there are two persons? If not how does the mixture of cells induce “personificational integration”? The DNAs are not joined in anyway. The cells are, at a basic level, simply in close proximity to one another.

If one person is killed then which one? How could we tell?

The reason all of  these questions are really gnarly is because perhaps a natural response is to give some sort of “preference” to the person represented by the mind of the adult human and/or to say that twins become separate persons because they have separate minds.

However, obviously if we are going there then having a mind is key point in personification. At a minimum “mindness” induces secondary personification or personficational integration.

Yet, we strongly believe that there is a mind-brain connection.

We can talk more about this but I think even leaving aside any scientific consensus on the issue there are specific observations we can make that should strongly suggest to everyone that the mind and the brain are dually linked.

That is, it is not simply that the brain is the organ through which the mind manifests itself, but that the structure and chemical composition of the brain can be manipulated in ways that influence the mind. Thus the mind-brain connection must go both ways.

The most obvious of these observation is the influence that chemicals introduced into the brain seem to have on the mind of the person. If you ingest even, alcohol for instance, there is the strong sensation that the alcohol is affecting your mind.

Not just weakening the mind brain connection like a paralytic. Ones actual though processes and emotions seem to change. This is an easy experiment to do and almost everyone reports the same results.

Second, there is the problem of mutation. The distinct DNA of conception will mutate over time as cell divide. I am not sure anyone thinks of this as creating new persons. How are we to make the distinction.?

While that issue could probably be patched fairly easily, the need to patch it raises questions over whether or not we should be put particular emphasis on the generation of distinct DNA in the first place.

There are many other issues but the last one that I want to touch on is the connection between humanness and personhood in the first place. Is humanness necessary to being a person?

If we meet sentient aliens are they by definition not persons? If we develop intelligent machines, machines derived from human minds are they not persons? What if they can remember being a person?

Even if you are inclined to answer no to all of these on the grounds that humans are fundamentally specially then the silly sounding but important question arises: how do you know the people you are interacting with are actually humans and not aliens or machines?

This is important because if you can’t tell the difference between a human and an alien who can perfectly impersonate a human then we have to ask whether there is a moral difference between the two. What does it mean to be “really human” if we have no fundamental way of knowing that we are not being fooled.

There are obviously many other issues related to abortion and miscarriage. And, I know for some people’s taste I gave a very generous touch to the Distinct DNA dividing line.

However, I think the personification issue is an important question and a gentle touch is our best hope of coming to some consensus over an issue that naturally spawns strong emotional reactions.