Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Science and Philosophy Lessons for the Pro-Birth (who call themselves Pro-Life)

Several of my friends do not particularly like discussing the question of “when life begins”. I refer to this debate in relation to the reproductive health bills pending in the Philippine legislature. These friends would include non-Filipino veterans of abortion rights struggles in their own countries.

My friends, some of whom are philosophers by training, know that the “where life begins” question is really unresolvable. The philosophically sophisticated understand that a question like that is the stuff that has driven and will drive philosophy through the millenia. It is similar to other questions like, “does matter exist?”. The question is unresolvable. I am aware that the philosophy of natural science, (I love science!) merely assumes this without attempting proof: “matter exists”. I am also aware that the Buddha (love the Buddha) takes a different view: “all is illusion”. You have got to love philosophy for tackling the eternal questions and the calm philosphers bring to facing immense uncertainties.

Of course, the reproductive health bills do not change the punitive Philippine laws on abortion. So this “when life begins” debate should not be pertinent. But the pro-birth (I do not concede the term pro-life to them as my advocacy for the passage of RH bills is to save women's lives) opposition keeps insisting that contraceptives are abortifacient. They also insist that conception is equal to fertilization. According to the pro-birth people, contraceptives should be banned because the Philippine Constitution states as a matter of policy that the state, “shall equally protect the life of the mother and the unborn from the moment of conception”.

This argument alone is is more an example of the lack of scientific and philosophical training of those who espouse it. It is not an argument that should be dignified in the public debates. I know that certain advocates of this position are doctors, scientists and philosophers. But I have no fantasies about the guarantees that academic degrees confer. “Nil admirari”, my philosopher mother used to say. Admire no one. Certainly I am unhappy when people use their academic degrees to claim they are speaking the truth when they are not.

So let's see what science says and what logic demands. Science tells us that the argument that “contraceptives prevent the implantation of the fertilized ovum” is an unsupportable generalization. I cannot go into the scientific literature for purposes of brevity, but many lay people know that the condom prevents fertilization. Looking at the literature, there is SOME evidence that some contraceptives MAY prevent implantation of the fertilized ovum as possibly ONE OF SEVERAL mechanisms for their contraceptive effects.

But even if we were to concede this rather flimsy basis for their claim that modern contraceptives prevent implantation, it is a misrepresentation to say that these are abortifacient. There is a wide-ranging consensus in the scientific community that pregnancy begins at implantation. An abortifacient, by definition, terminates pregnancy prematurely. Thus, none of the contraceptives are abortifacients.

When pro-birth advocates like Rep. Anthony Golez claim that contraceptives are abortifacient they should at the very least specify that this is a minority opinion. When Rep. Golez states, as he did in the last public hearing at the House of Representatives, that he is giving his opinion as a medical doctor, he borders on the unethical. I am a medical doctor too and I am ethically bound to tell the public and my patients what the majority of experts are thinking on the medications I recommend or discourage. This is especially true if my position is that of the minority.

The last misrepresentation in this argument is that “fertilization equals conception”. As I mentioned in my intervention at the last hearings in the RH bill, conception is not a medical term. Terms like fertilization and implantation are scientific terms. But whether we can tie this to the term “conception” and the larger question of “when life begins” is a whole other matter.

Indeed advances in embryology show us that fertilization is not a “moment” but is a process that takes some time. Thus, to equate fertilization to “the moment of conception” is something of a fudge.

Pro-birth advocates, like ex-Senator Francisco Tatad, also take the line that “moral natural law” is a universal truth that should guide our personal and collective decision-making on this debate. Their version of this philosophical argument says that it is inherent in all of us to recognize a God. Additionally, their version of natural law states that it is inherent in us to recognize that we do not kill another human being, herein defined to include the fertilized ovum. I have no argument against the presentation of this philosophy. What is problematic is that they present this as if it is the only philosophical tradition that is pertinent to moral decision-making. The truth is it is a philosophy that tends to be overvalued in Catholic schools and largely relegated to a minor discussion in the secular University of the Philippines. Again, the point here is the misrepresentation. For philosophers like Mr. Tatad one wonders whether he was not taught other frames in the pontifical University of Santo Tomas; he forgot what he was taught or; he has failed to stay current with the changes in his discipline.

I agree with my philosophically sophisticated friends that debates around when life begins are probably futile in the determination of social policy. Constitutions of a number liberal democratic states inculcate this wisdom by working on a definition of “personhood”. But I do feel duty-bound to help increase our people's scientific literacy and to help craft social policies that are enlightened by the advances of human knowledge.

Yet I shall end this with a salute also to the wisdom of my philosopher friends who insist that we weigh the correctness of a political and philosophical premise on the basis of its effects. I always wonder why the pro-birth are blind to the unequal effects of their insistence that life begins at fertilization. To insist on this premise is to tie yourself to a position that allows you to argue for the control of women's bodies for your political purposes. Meanwhile, men's bodies remain free.

And so, I have been proposing to friends to think of the implications of a premise that states, “life begins at sperm production”. I doubt whether the pro-life religious men, philosophers and scientists would like the restrictions on their bodies such a premise would imply.


Contents under pressue said...

Dr. Claudio, thank you.

That was a most enjoyable piece. :)

Given this topic, I thought I'd refer you to a another blog I frequent.

His name is PZ Myers, a biology professor by trade, and he's quite notorious for his vocal criticism of religion's meddling in science.

Here was one of his posts regarding the Pro-Life stance regarding their treatment of an embryo as a person:


And since you parted with a line mentioning sperms as their own life, you might want to hear this song number from the Monty Python comedy troupe: Every Sperm is Sacred



Sylvia Estrada Claudio said...


Thank you for the Myers tip. As for the every sperm is sacred song of Monty Python--I loved if when I heard it first. In fact I liked that whole movie.