This past weekend former-educational-TV-star-turned-science-advocate Bill Nye posted a video about abortion on Big Think. Nye attempts to use science to resolve the debate about abortion and arrives at the following conclusion: “When it comes to women’s rights with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women.”
The video is a perfect example of Maslow’s Hammer, or the saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In this case, the hammer is science and the nail is anything people disagree about. While science can tell us a lot about the world, it can't answer all of our questions.
For example, science gives us facts about the way the world functions (or what is), but only philosophy and/or religion tell us how we should live (or what we ought to be). This includes telling us whether it is right or wrong to kill unborn humans (or any human for that matter).
Refuting Nye's Main Argument
Unfortunately, not only does Nye’s video contain terrible philosophy, it doesn’t even get the science right. Let’s break it down:
Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized, and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.
Yes, human beings in the embryonic stage of life receive nutrients from their mothers' uterus. A human embryo cannot develop into an adult without implanting in the uterus just as a human infant cannot develop into an adult without attaching to his mother's breast or some suitable alternative.
But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized it’s therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy who’s sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you?
Does Nye believe that newborns are persons? If so, then does he think we should imprison mothers and fathers whose children die of natural causes like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)? If having a high mortality rate means one is not a person, then born children were not persons throughout much of human history. Historically, (as well as in some parts of the world today) the child mortality rate was between 33% and 50%. That means one-third to one-half of all children died before they reached the age of five.
If we accept that born children sometimes die from causes beyond their parent's control, and that this tragic fact does not nullify their right-to-life, then the fact that unborn children also die from causes beyond their parent's control does not nullify their right-to-life either.
Plus, it may not be the case that large numbers of human organisms are miscarried. Instead, what might be happening is defective human tissue that could never develop into a fully mature human being is lost. According to embryologists Keith Moore and T.V. N. Persaud, “The early loss of embryos appears to represent a disposal of abnormal conceptuses that could not have developed normally.”[i]
Answering Ad Hominems and Other Bad Arguments
It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding and you literally or apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about. And so when it comes to women’s rights with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women.
Bill, if you want to see someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, look in a mirror. If you want to see the scientific evidence that a human organism begins to exist at conception, watch this video.
I’m not the first guy to observe this: You have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance. Sorry you guys. I know it was written or your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby. That’s wrong and so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.
What does being a male of European descent have to do with abortion? This seems pretty racist and sexist to me. Imagine if I said in response to another hot-button issue, “You have a lot of people of African descent protesting police conduct and trying to pass laws that are based on ignorance.”
Also, it was seven white men of European descent that struck down all legal protection for the unborn in Roe v Wade. Now that was an extraordinary law based on ignorance, but their positions are okay because apparently men are only allowed to have an opinion on abortion if they’re pro-choice!
Second, both Christians and non-Christians have put forward powerful, secular arguments against abortion that have nothing to do with the Bible. Read Christopher Kaczor, Patrick Lee, Scott Klusendorf, Don Marquis, Stephen Schwarz, Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen, and Frank Beckwith just to name a few.
Third, Christians do not believe that, “when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby.” Sometimes the sperm and egg never meet and so no new life is created. Sometimes they meet but what is created is just randomly generating tissue and not a human organism (e.g. a complete molar pregnancy). But sometimes the sperm and egg recombine to form something that is neither sperm nor egg. It is instead, as the eminent embryologists Fabiola Müller and Ronan O’Rahilly describe, “a new, genetically distinct human organism.”[ii]
Pro-life advocates simply believe that all human organisms (i.e. human beings) ought to be treated equally. They should not be killed just because they are unwanted by older, bigger, more powerful human beings.
On "Telling People What To Do"
I mean it’s hard not to get frustrated with this everybody. And I know nobody likes abortion, okay. But you can’t tell somebody what to do. I mean she has rights over this, especially if she doesn’t like the guy that got her pregnant. She doesn’t want anything to do with your genes; get over it, especially if she were raped and all this.
Why is it that “nobody” likes abortion? If the unborn are not human beings then abortion would be as innocuous as a wisdom tooth extraction. Instead, society's ambivalence towards abortion is evidence that abortion destroys a living human, organism.
After all, how could two human beings procreate a non-human offspring that only becomes human after birth? The answer is "they can’t.” Therefore, the human organism they procreate (i.e. the baby) should have the same right to life as his born brothers and sisters. All children have the right to loving support from their mother and father even if one of these people "doesn't want anything to do" with the genes of the other. At minimum, children have the right not be killed just because one parent despises the other.
In response to Nye’s assertion that “you can’t tell somebody what to do” I say bullocks. Nye says in another video that fracking, or drilling for natural resources with high pressure water, “can’t be unregulated.” So, it’s okay to tell businesses not to pollute the earth but it's not okay to tell parents not to kill their children. What about "My corporation, my choice!"
Finally, what is the “this” that Nye says women have rights over? I’m sure Nye means “the pregnancy” but that is just a roundabout way of saying the mother has unlimited rights over her unborn child. Civilized people long ago rebuked the idea that children are chattel property of their parents that can be disposed of at a whim. Perhaps Mr. Nye would like to join the rest of us in the 21st century and stop peddling crude, Stone-Age-like tyranny over helpless human beings.
Are There More Important Issues?
So it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side. We have so many more important things to be dealing with. We have so many more problems to squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding.
It’s true abortion isn’t the only issue today any more than slavery was the only issue that affected people in America in the 1850's. But slavery was the most important issue because the lives of human beings matter more than "economic choice" or "state autonomy."
Likewise, if the unborn are human beings then over a million of them are killed in our country ever year and many of their parents suffer physical and emotional trauma related to this killing for decades after the fact. Unless a pro-choice advocate can show the unborn are not human beings (which Nye has failed to do), then he has no grounds to say abortion is not an issue worth pursuing in public debate.
It’s very frustrating. You wouldn’t know how big a human egg was if it weren’t for microscopes, if it weren’t for scientists, medical researchers looking diligently. You wouldn’t know the process. You wouldn’t have that shot, the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against the egg. You wouldn’t have that without science. So then to claim that you know the next step when you obviously don’t is trouble.
This argument is akin to saying, “Look, without scientists you wouldn’t even have medicine that treats diseases like syphilis, so don’t tell us it’s wrong to deceive and kill African-Americans in order to study this disease! You don’t even know what you’re talking about!”
Mr. Nye, you are the one who is completely ignorant of the developmental growth of a human being. By defintion a human embryo is a human being in the first seven weeks of life and a human fetus is a human being in age anywhere from eight-weeks until birth. Saying an unborn human being is not human because he or she is an embryo or fetus is as ridiculous as saying a fifteen-year-old is not human because he is a teenager.
Let me do that again. Let me just pull back. At some point we have to respect the facts. Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective. Just being objective here. Closing abortion clinics. Closing, not giving women access to birth control has not been an effective way to lead to healthier societies. I mean I think we all know that.
I’m going to keep this post limited to just the topic of abortion, but notice that Nye is simply making assertions here and not giving any evidence for his position. He just wields the “hammer of science” (a metaphor that some news sites have even adopted) in order to shut down the discussion with one massive appeal to authority. This is ironic since Bill Nye only has a bachelor's degree in engineering. As one writer puts it, “Calling yourself the ‘Science Guy’ does not mean that you are an expert on anything. It means you're the host of a kids show.”
Why Not Debate the Issue?
And I understand that you have deeply held beliefs and it really is ultimately out of respect for people, in this case your perception of unborn people. I understand that. But I really encourage you to look at the facts. And I know people are now critical of the expression fact-based but what’s wrong with that? So I just really encourage you to not tell women what to do and not pursue these laws that really are in nobody’s best interest. Just really be objective about this. We have other problems to solve everybody. Come on. Come on. Let’s work together.
You want the facts? Okay, would you be willing to debate the facts about abortion with me? You recently debated Ken Ham on the issue of evolution and his only credentials are a long history of advocating for young earth creationism. When it comes to this issue I have the credentials that would justify a debate between us.
I have a graduate level education and have studied abortion for over a decade. I have written the most comprehensive popular-level defense of the pro-life position (which is currently the first thing that comes up when you search “pro-life” on Amazon). It's also been endorsed by nationally known pro-life advocates like Lila Rose and Fr. Frank Pavone. Finally, I have been invited by secular universities to debate other well-known defenders of the pro-choice position such as Dr. Malcom Potts at UC-Berkeley.
And just so it isn’t “two white men arguing over women’s rights” I would be happy to do a team debate where you and a female pro-choice advocate of your choosing debate me and a female pro-life advocate of my choosing such as my friend Stephanie Gray. As you said, “I really encourage you to look at the facts.” So, let’s look at the facts together in front of an audience and see who’s position they really support.
[i] Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 9th ed. (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 2013) 36.
[ii] Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller. Human Embryology and Teratology (3rd edition) (NewYork:Wiley-Liss, 2001) 8.