My social media feed recently blew up with memes declaring that abortion is now the leading cause of death in the world, at 41 million abortions per year, outpacing the top ten other leading causes of death combined. Statistics are tricky things, so I didn’t pay too much attention to this until I was working on a graphic for a flier and the question came up about the veracity of the claim. It is my practice when digging deeper on internet claims to check sources I know do not align with my views, so I did what multitudes of others do on the internet every day. I checked *Snopes.com. Their evaluation for the claim so completely lacked self-awareness I checked a couple of times to be certain I wasn’t reading a Babylon Bee article.
Let’s deal with the statistical claim first. Do they refute the number of 41 million? Yes they do. Surprisingly they recognize that based on the criteria for estimating the number per year based on World Health Organization (WHO) numbers the actual average is 56 million abortions worldwide per year. They also verify that the top ten causes of death reported by the WHO in the year 2016 come out to approximately 33 million.
See Graph Below:
The writer, Bethania Palma, takes exception to the use of the term “Abortion now surpasses,” because, as Palma claims, this gives the false impression that this is a change in the status quo. It isn’t. These numbers are consistent with previous years. There is no reason to pass this around as NEW information.
Now we get to the meat of the criticism. It isn’t that the statistical claims are wrong. No, it is that the claim that abortion is a cause of death is, wait for the current progressive buzzword, a “problematic pronouncement.” Why is it problematic to refer to abortion as a cause of death? Because:
“That stance takes a political position, one which is at odds with the scientific/medical world. The medical community does not confer personhood upon fetuses that are not viable outside the womb, so counting abortion as a ‘cause of death’ does not align with the practices of health organizations such as WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)…”
She then goes on to buttress her claims with supportive quotes from the Guttmacher Institute (abortion is legal) and a Wired article (we can’t know when life begins scientifically because personhood).
Let’s identify the claim thus far:
Abortion is not a cause of death because non-viable fetuses have not had personhood conferred upon them by the medical community.
Let us also point out this view tacitly concedes that a fetus is a biologically human life. It simply lacks personhood.
Personhood is not a medical definition. It is not a scientific classification. The concept of personhood, that there are some essential qualities or capacities that differentiate a merely human organism from a person that would be the object of our moral consideration and obligations, is a philosophical consideration.
The scientific and medical communities certainly have a role to play. They can and do identify when a whole, distinct, and living human organism begins to exist. That is inarguably at the completion of the fertilization process. To provide just one quote from many available, here is the late Dr. Hymie Gordon testifying before a Senate Judiciary committee in 1981:
“I think we can now say that the question of the beginning of life – when life begins – is no longer a question for the theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life, but it is an established fact that all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception…
I have never ever seen in my scientific reading, long before I became concerned with issues of life of this nature, that anyone has ever argued that life did not begin at the moment of conception and that it was a human conception if it resulted from the fertilization of the human egg by a human sperm. As far as I know, these have never been argued against.”
This is the proper jurisdiction of the scientific and medical community. Answer the question, “When has a new organism begun to exist?” The answer is when the constituent parts of the mother and the father merge, thereby ceasing to exist as parts, to form a new whole life developing from an internally coordinated and independent effort driven by distinct genetic information. For further discussion on that point see Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen’s Embryo or Samuel Condic and Maureen Condic’s Human Embryos, Human Beings.
Can a medical degree in any way offer insight into the question, “When does a human life begin to possess full human value and dignity?” I can’t see how. Can a lab experiment answer that question by burning dignity, examining value under a microscope, or spinning moral accountability in a centrifuge to separate it from other material? Of course not. Morality, dignity, value, duty, and accountability are philosophical concepts that require a different type of investigation and consideration than those the scientific and medical communities are equipped to offer. The scientific and medical communities do not confer personhood. That isn’t their privilege. Oddly enough, Palma quotes someone making this same point later in her article seemingly unaware it undermined an earlier point.
The position that all human life has value and ought to be treated with dignity and respect at all stages of development is no less scientific or medical than the view that morally valuable persons emerge gradually during the development of a human organism. They are both statements about the nature of life beyond the scope of science and medicine. In declaring otherwise, the author makes her own politically motivated pronouncement not supported by science and medicine. By her own definitions then, her response is as problematic as the view she wishes to critique.
As to the claim that the organizations listed do not recognize abortion as a cause of death, they can only do so by purposefully excluding the unborn from the human family and moral consideration. They don’t merely fail to confer personhood they condemn the unborn to irrelevancy in death. This is not a neutral position. “They are not human persons” is not a conclusion reached through serious consideration but a condemnation born out of untested presuppositions.
The claim that abortion isn’t a cause of death is false on its face. Pro-choice legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin began his book Life’s Dominion by stating on page one, line one that abortion is the deliberate killing of a developing human organism and a choice for death. (Dworkin used the term embryo but since fetuses are also killed by abortion I replaced them both with the more proper general term organism) Dworkin, like Snopes, the WHO, the CDC, the Guttmacher Institute, and the author of the Wired article, simply chooses to declare it as a type of human death not worth counting among the others.
The author quotes other sources who appeal to the lack of consensus as to when personhood begins as justification for ignoring the intentional killing of the unborn as a cause of human death worth noting, but, as Hadley Arkes has pointed out, an absence of consensus does not represent an absence of truth. The unborn are something independent of our thoughts and feelings about them. All parties in this argument have the responsibility to make a case. Those who see abortion as the unjust destruction of innocent human life accurately reported that, according to WHO numbers, more human lives were destroyed through abortion than were lost through multiple other of the most common causes of death. Snopes labeled this as a problematic pronouncement because (1) it was arguably conveyed as if it were a new development and it isn’t and (2) because a bunch of organizations that support abortion don’t think the unborn should count. Disagreeing with those organizations is therefore political while agreeing with them is scientific because… personhood. Wow.
There is so much wrong with Palma’s pivot to another form of argument in the final paragraphs I want to reserve that for a separate post.
*SNOPES ARTICLE – www.snopes.com/news/2019/01/03/abortion-leading-cause-of-death/