Just a Bunch of Cells

The pro-abortion side employs many arguments to justify the killing of unborn children. They are often faulty, however, and frequently fail to address the actual concerns of the Pro-Life camp. In this article, I deal with just one of their objections: Namely, that an embryo is “just a bunch of cells”. 

First, this statement is not an argument but rather a simple fact. Biologically, it is true that an embryo is a bunch of cells. (If you find something awry here, please read further. I come back to it later.) That being said, I will make the statement in question into a proper argument:

Premise 1 (P1) Everything that is just a bunch of cells can be eliminated without moral culpability.

Premise 2 (P2) A human embryo is just a bunch of cells.

Conclusion (C) A human embryo can be eliminated without moral culpability.

It should be obvious to a reasonable person that the universal proposition P1 allows for many counterexamples, formulated easily by substituting something that is a bunch of cells, but not an embryo. It so happens that I may be just that: a bunch of cells. The above statement can be rewritten as follows.

(P1) Everything that is a just bunch of cells can be eliminated without moral culpability.

(P2`) Andrew is just a bunch of cells.

(C`) Andrew can be eliminated without moral culpability.

I hope that it is obvious that the conclusion is false and, therefore, this argument is invalid and unsound.

Let us, for the sake of argument, try to salvage the pro-choice argument in question by opening the adverbial phrase in P1 “without moral culpability” to allow for modifications.

(P1`) Everything that is just a bunch of cells can be eliminated (adverbial phrase AP).

(P2) A human embryo is just a bunch of cells.

(C“) A human embryo can be eliminated AP.

Possible APs are: with clear conscience, without killing a person, justifiably, righteously, etc. However, insofar as AP functions to exonerate moral depravity or give justification to the act of elimination, the Andrew counterexample holds.

Pro-Choicers may complain that the bunch of cells in question is a special kind of a bunch of cells, not every bunch of cells. So, let me try to salvage the argument with a further modification.

(P1“) Everything that is just a bunch of cells and (a list of qualification Qi) can be eliminated AP.

Possible Qis are: it is in the womb of a female human person, its survival is dependent on the umbilical cord, it cannot form a thought, etc. But the neat thing is that whatever and however complicated or true the possible Qis are, should P2 be false, this pro-choice argument cannot imply the truth of C“. In other words, for C“ to be true there must be another set of arguments that makes C“ true.

A keen reader would have a logical objection. So, I come back to the issue as I promised. Namely, the Andrew counterexample does not hold, as Andrew is not just a bunch of cells, but is a bunch of cells. It goes without saying that the description of my being is not exhaustively accounted for by my material identity, i.e. a bunch of cells. Then the question becomes: is it true that an embryo is just a bunch of cells? Notice that this word just is so crucial for this pro-choice argument, because if that just is not there, P1 allows for very many counterexamples, and the argument fails easily.

I will be economical and state clearly that an embryo is not just a bunch of cells. I simply need to give one example, but I will be generous. 1) An embryo is in a developmental stage of a human person. 2) An embryo is a result of a human reproductive activity. 3) An embryo will likely become a fully formed human person, given proper care and time. In fact, anyone would be very hard pressed to come up with an object that is exhaustively explained simply by its material identity.

Let us stretch the pro-choice argument in question to its utter maximum.

(P1“`) Everything that is just a bunch of cells, Q1, Q2, …, and Qn can be eliminated AP.

(P2“) A human embryo is just a bunch of cells, Q1, Q2, …, Qn.

(C“) A human embryo can be eliminated AP.

But a human embryo is clearly not just a bunch of cells. Thus, even if we have some true and infinitely many Qis, P2“ is bound to be false. And if nothing is exhaustively explained simply by its material identity—I do not think anything can be—there exists no interpretation that makes P1“` true.

It must however be noted that that P1“` and P2“ are false does not imply that C“ is false. But this result is acceptable, as the purpose of this article is to show that the pro-choice argument in question operates on false premises and therefore is unsound. If a pro-choicer wants to simply drop the “just a bunch of cells” part and argue for C“ with some Qis or the combination thereof, I consider my task here successful.

My analysis has further implications in, say, scientific research using human embryos. A pro-choice person might still cling onto P1“` and P2“, but must know from experience, that many people have moral objections against such research. After reading my article, this person would know at least how there could be moral concerns, as he or she now understands that the material identification of the human embryo does not exhaustively account for its identity. For example, eliminating something that is in a developmental stage of a human person may very likely be immoral. You cannot simply eliminate a teenage boy for research, but this topic is for another day.
To conclude, there certainly are serious pro-choice arguments, but one that contains the “just a bunch of cells” argument is categorically false. Having said that, I encourage my fellow pro-lifers to politely tell any pro-choicers that make the “just a bunch of cells” argument that it is not rational and ask them at least to think of another argument to maintain C“. If they object to the former, heed Aristotle’s advice, save time and energy, and do not talk to them. If they try to do the latter, however, engage them further, hopefully to disabuse them of their moral lacuna.

 

Andrew Lee

Media Co-Chair

Col ’18

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