Scientific American continues to publish dreck, and I’m not sure why anybody who’s enthusiastic about science would want to continue subscribing.
This latest op-ed, to which I shouldn’t devote any attention (but the laws of physics dictate otherwise) is a prime example of the naturalistic fallacy. By looking at quantum mechanics, says author Cara Heuser, we can realize that one can hold two seemingly opposite views in one’s head at the same time. To wit: light can sometimes act as a particle, and sometimes as a wave, depending on the nature of the observation. Similarly, one can care for and about children and yet still be pro-choice. The author, in fact, holds both views of medical care, and simultaneously saves children’s lives and provides abortion care. As the author’s bio notes:
Cara C. Heuser is a maternal-fetal medicine physician. She provides full-spectrum reproductive care, including prenatal care for high-risk pregnancies and abortion care, in Salt Lake City.
It’s not that I object to Heuser’s views, for I agree with her completely. But I do object to extrapolating from quantum physics to one’s views on abortion. This is the naturalistic fallacy, and a fallacy that could be applied (or rather, misapplied) to other real or apparent instances of cognitive dissonance. (That terms is usually reserved for a conflict of views that causes mental distress, but here I’ll just refer to having two seemingly or actually opposite views). There’s simply no lesson to be learned by extrapolating from how particles behave to how humans behave—or should behave.
Click on the screenshot to read.
My own views on abortion pretty much jibe with Roe v. Wade, but go even further. For example, I think that perhaps the threshold of abortion legality should be the onset of sentience—the ability to actually feel suffering—rather than viability. (One should also realize that if viability outside the womb is the criterion for prohibitng abortion, then this criterion will eventually be pushed back all the way to conception, as eventually we’ll have the ability to rear humans from fertilization to time of normal birth—all in vitro. The onset of sentience, on the other hand, does not change with technological innovation.) But I haven’t settled on my “threshhold” yet, though I still believe with Peter Singer that if a child is born with a defect or disease that will kill them very soon, is incurable, and causes suffering, it should be legal to euthanize them with the agreement of doctors and the parents).
I also bridle when people try to shut down the abortion debate by asserting a simple “right” to abortion. Where does this “right” come from? Granted, there is a Constitutional right to privacy, but instead of seeing abortion as some kind of inherent “right”, or as “moral on the face of it”, I think abortions should be legal on grounds of pragmatism: society is better off allowing them rather than prohibiting them. (In matters of ethics, I tend to be a consequentialist.)
Indeed, the author, while several times asserting the “right” to an abortion, also argues for the procedure largely on practical grounds:
Perhaps we even have a moral compass that pushes us to provide this care. Perhaps we also value life. Many rights proponents argue that we must speak up because we value life: thousands of women have died from unsafe abortions before they were legal; multiple studies demonstrate that restrictions result in significant harm and confirm that abortion is safe; the oft-cited concern that having an abortion is detrimental to mental health has been demonstrated as false and, in fact, the opposite is true—denial of abortion care has resulted in extreme trauma to families and individuals.’
Here Heuser is arguing for “choice”, not from some abstract “right” or “morality”, but from its practical benefits. And I largely agree with that view. Unfortunately, courts would rather judge abortion from the Constitution, which says nothing relevant—and yet will probably repeal Roe v. Wade on Constitutional grounds—than from what is best for society. Courts are not ethical pragmatists.
But I digress. The author seems to think that for many, being in favor of abortion conflicts with being an ethical person. She realized this when she donated part of her liver to save the life of a sick child, and one of her colleagues was surprised, since this donation showed she cared for the life of children, while at the same time she was providing abortion care.
I don’t see this altruistic act as a fundamental conflict between ethics and a pro-choice view. In fact, I see no hypocrisy in caring for children and favoring abortion at the same time. In deed, in many cases, the best thing for a fetus that’s unwanted may be to abort it. But of course religionists do see a conflict, since they regard a fetus as the equivalent of a sentient human being.
So far so good. But then the author extrapolates the wave/particle duality of quantum mechanics to the issue of abortion. Just like that, she says, so one can be a moral person who cares for children and yet someone who can countenance abortion as well. She is, she says, one of these. Of course she is, and only a Pecksniff would call her out for hypocrisy. Yet one did:
In August of 2020, I had major surgery to donate a part of my liver to a child unrelated to me and whom I had never met. (Did you know you can do that? Find a center and/or register to be a deceased donor at www.unos.org). One month later, I petitioned our state medical society to oppose abortion restrictions, describing the harm these laws pose to patients under my care. I had no reason to think that my liver donation and my opposition to abortion restrictions were related until a colleague expressed his astonishment that I was “so pro-abortion but also donated an organ to a kid.”
Learning that I had undertaken an act that many people view as altruistic (a description that causes me discomfort, but I will at least allow it demonstrates a respect for life) presented a direct challenge to his view of abortion providers as morally bereft. My colleague found these two empirical truths difficult to reconcile. In his mind, one cannot be both an abortion provider and an ethical and thoughtful human. Pick one, says this belief system, team particle or team wave.
This is not a good example of hypocrisy; one can, on grounds of societal good as a whole both allow reproductive choice and allow (and applaud) someone who donates part of an organ to save a life. Her colleague is simply muddled.
This apparent conflict still bothers Heuser, however, but she should simply forget about that colleague. And she needn’t try to satisfy “pro-life” religionists, who will never be convinced that abortion can be the right thing to do.
But, apparently, she turns to quantum mechanics—the wave/particle duality—as a way to find solace—or to convince doubters:
Instead of either/or, imagine both/and. We recognize the value placed on a desired and loved pregnancy by families and understand that ending a pregnancy is the right decision for some people some of the time. Individuals may have ethical objections to abortion and recognize that anti-choice laws can harm people. We can value human life and recognize the complexities of reproductive decision making. Attending thousands of births has been a great joy in my career and has cemented my belief that forcing a person to give birth against their will is a fundamental violation of their human rights.
Given that one quarter of women in the U.S. have an abortion, many Americans have benefitted directly or indirectly from abortion care. I implore readers to emulate previous generations of scientists who changed our understanding of the universe by their willingness to consider seemingly opposite empirical truths:
Particle and wave, abortion providers and ethical physicians, pro-life and pro-choice.
Nope, that last sentence is meaningless with those first three words.
You can see the problem here. Any kind of hypocrisy or doublethink or conflicting tendencies can be rationalized via this fallacy, and not all those tendencies are pretty. Think of a celibate priest who is also a pedophile, someone who crusades against alcoholism while drinking on the sly, a diehard atheist who thinks religion is good for others (the “little people” argument) or even, to evoke Godwin’s Law, of Hitler who was a Christian and loved his dogs.
But there’s not even any hypocrisy in Heuser’s view—at least none that I can see. Ergo she doesn’t need to grope for explanations beyond consequentialist ethnics. By trying to do so, she gives people a rationale for all sorts of bad arguments about reconciling opposite or apparently opposite views.
I admire Dr. Heuser, but Scientific American really should not have published her specious analogy.