Monday, March 15, 2010

Science, Life and Choice: Value Judgments and Empirical Data in Political Debate

Originally, the debate about abortion in the United States had two poles, reflecting two concise statements of principle, one emphasizing self-determination of women, the other protection of life from the moment of conception. Each position had a certain integrity, based on mutually exclusive premises. In the political battle that has ensued, particularly since the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), each side has indulged in blatant caricature of the other. Those who call themselves “pro-choice” denounce their opponents as “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose” while those who call themselves “pro-life” have announced a “great war” between themselves and a “culture of death.”

Both sides of this debate have sought to claim the high ground of “scientific truth” for themselves, vigorously advancing whatever empirics might lend some credibility to their own platform, while dismissively casting aspersions on any theories which seem inconvenient to their own ambitions toward political hegemony. One of the more meticulous voices on the pro-life side of the search for scientific validation has been Dr. Gerard Nadal, an accomplished microbiologist who candidly offers his writing as “science in the service of the pro-life movement.”

There is, of course, an inherent bias to any scientist offering his craft to either side of a political debate. On the other hand, any scientist with a sense of social responsibility should be concerned with how credible scientific inquiry impacts the world in which we all live. Further, the fact that a scientist has a moral point of view does not mean their conclusions are false – it is simply one factor to consider in evaluating their results. Dr. Nadal has presented very credible explanations of the biological mechanism which increases the risk of breast cancer for women who have had abortions or used oral contraceptives. He has not overtly denied that the same biological facts account for the high rate of breast cancer among women pursuing celibate religious vocations in his beloved Roman Catholic Church.

Fundamentally, the pro-life movement contends that from the moment a human zygote forms, a human being exists, which is entitled to full legal protection, the same rights that any person is legally entitled to at birth, at age five, at age twenty-five, or at age eighty-five. As a microbiologist, Dr. Nadal possesses a body of knowledge and a set of research skills which give him substantial authority to speak on this question, and put many relevant facts at his disposal. He has posted a number of excellent expositions on the human cell, in general, the process of meiosis and mitosis, in specific, and of course the formation of the zygote and the early stages of pregnancy. These are highly recommended:

Unfortunately, Dr. Nadal has been infected with a bit of hubris, which exceeds what any practitioner of science can claim with integrity or credibility. He has convinced himself that “The organismal identity of the early embryo IS A SCIENTIFIC FACT!!! Case Closed.” Accordingly, it has become impossible to have a conversation on the subject, with Dr. Nadal as a participant. In his more honest and introspective moments, he freely acknowledges that “Absent a Christian anthropology, it’s not hard to see where many of my peers do not consider the early embryo a human person. Without the eyes of faith guided by reason, all one sees is a clump of cells.” That is a genuine scientist, guided by a genuine faith, speaking to the world. But when seriously challenged, he denounces any differing viewpoint as tantamount to “a flat earth mentality,” and refuses to listen or speak to any differing insight. It amounts to scientific truth by fiat and pronouncement, rather than by consensus and proof.

His empirical claims are indeed beyond dispute:

  • The human zygote is a genetically unique cell with twenty-three complete chromosome pairs.
  • This zygote is genetically distinct from the pregnant woman whose womb it resides in.
  • This zygote, unlike the specialized cells of a human body, is epigenetically programmed to divide and reproduce in a manner which will, it not interrupted, result in a complete new human organism.

In his own words, “All somatic cells have 23 pairs of chromosomes, but the cell that is a human organism in its earliest stage of development is one whose epigenetic factors orient it intrinsically toward development into the mature form of the organism."

Up to that point, he is solidly grounded in scientific fact. However, it seems that Dr. Nadal has mistaken his value judgement as to the meaning of these facts, for a further undisputed scientific fact. It is nothing of the kind. There are many reasons a reasonable person, aware of the same scientific facts, might reach a different conclusion as to the scientific, moral, legal, social, status of the zygote, the blastocyst, the embryo, and at least some stages of subsequent fetal development.

The zygote's immediate physical content is no more substantial than a paramecium. It has no brain, no nervous system, no conscious awareness of its own existence. By natural process, it might well be flushed out of the womb, and die, or it might embed in the uterine wall, where for several months it will be total reliant on the bloodstream of the woman in which it resides. For those months, precisely because it is genetically distinct, it is a kind of parasite, albeit one which is often sought and warmly welcomed, which will in due course emerge as an independent life. While a human being can make its own conscious decisions, the zygote mindlessly follows a series of chemical programs. The programmed series of chemical and biological developments will RESULT IN a human being.

A human being is an organism, not a cell, or a cluster of cells. In Dr. Nadal's own words, an ORGANISM is “ the whole and complete animal, made up of all the organ systems functioning as a coordinated whole.” Until a fetus possesses all the organ systems of a human being, functioning as a coordinated whole, there is no human being present. Dr. Nadal gives an excellent Primer on the Hierarchy of the Human Body's Organizational Levels, covering cells, tissues, organs, organ systems and organism. It is perfectly good science. He knows what he is talking about. But all that science does not sustain as scientific fact the conclusion he is constantly working toward.

Finally, Dr. Nadal argues that “the organism is identifiable in terms of what kind of thing it is.” It is most certainly true that a human zygote, formed from a human sperm and a human ova in a human fallopian tube connecting a human ovary to a human uterus is a HUMAN zygote. It is not a giraffe zygote, an antelope zygote, a whale zygote, or a hamster zygote. However, just as a giraffe zygote has no neck to eat the leaves on a tall tree, just as a whale zygote cannot ingest hundreds of gallons of water to strain out the plankton, a human zygote is not yet a human organism. It is not a human being. It is not a person. It is a single cell with some unique chemical properties providing the blue print for a human being, a little bit like a self-extracting zip file.

Perhaps the saddest bit of pomposity Dr. Nadal stoops to, in an attempt to salvage as scientific fact what is in fact a perfectly legitimate value judgment, is the exclamation “I didn’t go through two master degrees and a Ph.D. to have nonscientists tell me that science gets it wrong because the nonscientist says so.” Our culture is in many respects oversaturated with “expert opinion.” That doesn't mean experts have no function; scientists do know facts the rest of us couldn't have found out on our own. Indeed, an astrophysicist has knowledge of which a field archaeologist may be totally ignorant. However, unless we are going to establish a scientific priesthood as the aristocracy of our culture and politics, a good scientist should be able to explain what he knows in sensible terms an informed nonspecialist can recognize and evaluate.

Cameron Todd Willingham was murdered by the State of Texas on the testimony of “experts” who deduced that he had deliberately set a fire that killed his three daughters. That “expertise” turned out to be a collection of fables, which were proven patently false when subjected to scientific tests. Our courts are full of “expert testimony” that befuddles juries more than it enlightens them. Dr. Nadal is much better than that. He knows a great deal of sound science in the field of microbiology. He has, on many occasions, presented sound science in a manner that a nonscientist can indeed evaluate and see merit in. But by the same token, when an informed nonspecialist in microbiology can see reason to question Dr. Nadal's conclusions, a scientist's responsibility is to either provide a better explanation, or consider carefully whether his conclusion is quite so scientifically conclusive as he had thought.

Oxford University professor J.R. Lucas, writing in 1979 on Wilberforce and Huxley, A Legendary Encounter, observed that “Science, in the first half of the nineteenth century as in previous centuries, was part of the intellectual culture of mankind, into which all might enter and from which all might profit. But from 1860 onwards it becomes more of a closed shop, with its own puritan ethic, from which amateurs are more and more excluded.” That is a retrograde development, one which Dr. Nadal has in some ways sought to reverse. Unfortunately, when a fit of pique motivates him to do so, he takes refuge in precisely this form of snobbery. For many 20th century academics, Lucas writes “it is a point of professional pride to know nothing outside their own special subject.” We should all know something outside of our own special subject. Specialists should accept that their job is to speak to us all, not only to their peers, who incidentally, seldom reach consensus on matters subject to significant controversy.

Ultimately then, the debate cannot be resolved as a matter of scientific fact. It does not matter how ardently either side wishes their own viewpoint to be accepted as unassailable. We are debating value judgments, and value judgments are not matters of scientific fact at all. Value judgments may, and should, reference what IS scientifically known and knowable. The ultimate pro-life argument, all the way back to the briefs submitted when Roe v. Wade was argued, is that a fetus is a person, within the legal meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment – in fact that such a person exists from the moment a zygote is formed. The court could find no precedent at all in American or British jurisprudence for that assertion. If one is to be found, or devised and established, it will not be found as a matter of scientific fact or expert opinion, but as a legal and cultural value judgment informed by undisputed scientific facts.

1 comment:

BB-Idaho said...

"Lucas writes “it is a point of professional pride to know nothing outside their own special subject."
..with that caveat, I will weigh in as a retired explosives chemist.
I will not tell a pregnant woman what she must or must not do....