Short Article: Fetuses, Lemons, and Survivability

The Author Jennifer Wright has been sounding off a fair bit about abortion lately, and most of it is ill-conceived nonsense. Take one of her recent tweetings:

For fucks sakes, fetuses aren’t babies. Pretending they are is wishful thinking. They’re the size of lemons and can’t survive on their own. You don’t know any humans who are lemon sized.”

Now, granted Wright isn’t an ethicist or an academic, so why then do I target her? Simply because her tweetings beautifully illustrate much that is wrong with the abortion debate at the popular level. It’s so full of misconceptions and poor reasoning that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The debate seems so poisoned by ill-conceived ramblings that one is tempted to despair at the chances of the quality of conversation rising above bar-room brawl level.

Let’s say no more about the stroppy start to the tweet, and focus on three assumptions or claims that Wright makes.

(1)    Wright opens with the observation that “fetuses aren’t babies,” as if she’s establishing some sort of crucial point. She is, of course, completely correct. Humans develop through various stages, and whilst these aren’t always easy to clearly demarcate, we do tend to distinguish between: zygote, fetus, baby, toddler, child, teenager, adult, etc. However, Wright’s observation is trivial and utterly irrelevant. The issue of abortion has nothing to do with whether or not fetuses are babies. Teenagers, pensions, and the middle-aged aren’t babies either. The issue is whether a fetus is a human organism deserving of the same kind of protections enjoyed by other human organisms. Of course, Wright appears to deny that fetuses are human organisms at all, which brings us to her second point.

(2)    Her second point is that fetuses are only the size of lemons. Now, this is rather perplexing. What exactly is the relevance of being lemon-sized? Wright appears to be arguing thus:

(i)                 Whatever is the size of a lemon cannot be a human being.

(ii)               A fetus is the size of a lemon.

(iii)             Therefore, a fetus is not a human being.

Wright’s logic is flawless (if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows), but sadly her argument is unsound and hardly the most cogent. Why think that something that is the size of a lemon cannot be a human being, particularly since the science of embryology tells us otherwise? Wright is wholly incorrect: the evidence that a fetus is a member of the species homo sapiens is incontrovertible, and is rarely disputed, certainly not by ethicists. Anyhow, why is being the size of a lemon relevant for considering whether some entity is human or not? Why not choose a different standard: a sesame seed, a marble, a watermelon, a pumpkin, or perhaps a golden retriever?

(3)    The final point Wright makes is an incredibly common one: that fetuses cannot survive on their own. Sadly, the rational force of this claim is utterly out of proportion to its popularity. Wright seems to argue:

(i)                 Whatever cannot survive on its own is not a human being.

(ii)               A fetus cannot survive on its own.

(iii)             Therefore, a fetus is not a human being.

As with (2) the logic is flawless, but the argument is otherwise about as successful as young earth creationist attempts at geology. In this case we have at least one false premise and a vague term. The vague term is “survive on its own.” What does it mean to be able to survive on one’s own? A 15-week-old fetus could not survive on its own, but then again neither can a full-term baby. It requires feeding, cleaning, changing, and strenuous efforts to look after it to keep it healthy and alive. Moreover, many elderly people cannot survive on their own. Some require heavy medication just to make it through the day without their heart stopping. Other people require dialysis several times a week. Even fully fit and healthy humans wouldn’t survive for long without reliance on others. I wonder, if someone took Wright and abandoned her in the middle of the Sahara just how great would her own survivability be? Moreover, as science progresses fetuses are increasingly capable of being kept alive from an earlier stage. So, in short, neither premise (1) nor (2) has much going for it.

The abortion debate is certainly a complex one, and people will make mistakes. However, if you barely understand the issues at stake, and struggle to formulate even a prima facie non-silly argument, perhaps it’s best to close your mouth and open an ethics text.

Stephen J. Graham



Filed under Abortion

2 responses to “Short Article: Fetuses, Lemons, and Survivability

  1. Hi Stephen,
    Been following your stuff for a while now, but can’t recall if I’ve interacted before. On point #2, I wonder if there’s a more charitable interpretation of Wright’s lemon argument. She is, after all, trying to squeeze it (no pun intended) into a tweet.
    I took her lemon reference to be short-hand, not for an argument about size per se, but rather an argument concerning the capacity of the fetus. At that stage of development the fetus lacks most of the qualities or characteristics that make human life unique. The neural networks necessary for consciousness haven’t even begun to form. It can’t feel pain, etc. If you were to ask, “What sets us apart from the animals?”, the fetus in early development lacks pretty much every answer you might give apart from having human DNA.
    I’m not suggesting that’s the end of the argument, but I think it’s a more cogent challenge to the strict pro-life position than a mere size argument.

  2. Got to agree with CDP. There is an implicit, though embryonic, argument about what a human is and what we value about humans in Wright’s statements. Those would seem to be the central issues, too.
    Sure, the statements are weak as they stand, but typical in that regard.

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