In one of Carl Sagan’s earlier books, The Dragons of Eden, he offers his thoughts on the abortion issue as a potential compromise between opposing sides of the issue. I will be taking a critical look at Sagan’s reasoning about abortion based on his philosophical materialism and ethical relativism.
Sagan supports legalized abortion because it avoids “the tragedy and butchery of illegal and incompetent 'back-alley' abortions.” Sagan’s resort to this particular well-worn line of propaganda by radical feminists indicates the low level of his analysis. The “back-alley” argument is misleading because the legalization of abortion merely removes the previous legal restrictions on the “back-alley” abortionist. Now he practices his deadly trade openly and more profitably due to the increase in abortions he performs. While legal abortion may be somewhat safer than illegal abortion, legal abortion is hardly a safe procedure.
Legalizing abortion dramatically increased the number of surgical abortions. Due to this huge increase in the number of surgical abortions, there is an overall increase in the number of maternal deaths and significant physical damage to the mother such as punctured uterus, infections, permanent sterility, increased rates of breast cancer, and so on. If legalized abortion is medically safe, why is the abortion industry so vigilant in its suppression of facts about abortion’s health risks and statistics on abortion related deaths? Moreover, what should we say about “the tragedy and butchery” of legal and incompetent abortions?
Sagan asserts that abortion can “serve an important social need” in civilizations “threatened by the specter of uncontrolled population growth.” If killing pre-natal children can be useful, why stop at abortion? Sagan doe not stop at abortion. He continues with his same line of reasoning and touts the advantages of infanticide practiced by ancient civilizations and some modern societies. In the name of utility, Sagan approves the very worst crimes man can commit.
Sagan’s approval of infanticide coincides with the mores and laws of a particular society. (Sagan does not recognize objective moral standards, which America’s Declaration of Independence calls “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”) Because, and only because, our laws and mores condemn infanticide as murder, Sagan does not approve of infanticide for our particular culture. In accordance with the laws and mores of our society, Sagan views abortion, at least during the third trimester, as “close to murder” since a baby born prematurely at seven months is no different from a baby in utero at seven months.
Sagan continues with a discussion of the “right to life.” His analysis, though, is rather confused. He says the “right to life” is an excellent example of a “buzz word,” designed to inflame rather than illuminate. I wonder if a single American in the Founding Era considered the “right to life” in the Declaration of Independence to be a “buzz word.” Sagan claims the right-to-life has never existed anywhere on Earth except in such few places as the Jains of India. What Sagan means is that since man kills animals and plants to eat and to use in other ways, and he often exploits nature, the right-to-life does not exist.
Of course, by “right-to-life” we are referring to a natural “human right.” Nevertheless, Sagan tries to undermine this position too by his references to wars, mass murders, and so on, which are an infringement on the right-to-life.
Sagan’s logic fails, however, because pro-lifers are referring to the unborn as having the same innate and unalienable right-to-life, as do the born. Plants and animals do not have inherent natural rights because they are not “persons.” This fact certainly does not mean we have the right to exploit and abuse nature, which has been a commonplace practice in the modern industrialized world. Human rights entail responsibilities, and natural law morally obligates man to a responsible and respectful use of nature.
Man often engages in unjust wars and mass murders but one of the criteria we use to condemn wars as unjust and mass killing as mass murder is grounded in an individual’s unalienable right-to-life. If the human person does not possess the inherent and unalienable right-to-life, killing human beings, under any conceivable circumstance, is never morally wrong in any objective sense.
Sagan next attacks the pro-life argument about “potential” as “a weak argument.” Sagan does not explain anything about this view of “potential” he disagrees with, and leaves the reader wondering whether he even understands the pro-life position he criticizes. Sagan advances a lame counter-argument when he says any human egg, or sperm, or any human cell from which we may be able someday to clone a human, are potentially a human being. The problem with Sagan’s reasoning is that a human gamete, the ovum or sperm, is not, in itself, potentially a human being in the same way a conceptus is potentially (or actually) a human being. Each gamete is genetically incomplete; it is haploid. Its potency is distinctly unlike the potency of a fertilized egg. A fertilized human egg, the zygote or conceptus, has a complete complement of chromosomes; it is diploid.
When pro-lifers have referred to what is potentially a human being they have referred to the fertilized egg because not everyone agrees at what point in prenatal development we can say this is a "person". Hence, the argument was advanced that we should protect even what is potentially life. Nonetheless, we know that the human life begins from the moment of conception. Sagan's argument is a straw man.
Unlike the ovum and sperm or somatic cells, the zygote is genetically an independent entity. Nature adds nothing new to the zygote while its potency actualizes into an adult human being.
In reply to Sagan’s statement on the possibility of cloning from any human cell, we only need to point out that somatic cells are in no sense, by their nature, in potency to becoming a human being. The possibility of manipulating the genetic material of somatic cells is hardly relevant to the pro-life argument of "potentiality". The relevancy occurs not with the consideration itself of somatic cell genetic material, but with the manipulation of the genetic structure that does not respect human life.
Regarding the fertilized human egg, the necessary implication of the diploid structure of the human zygote is that human life begins at conception. However, in “Is it Possible to be Prolife and Prochoice?” Sagan further confuses the issue and avoids the obvious conclusion about when human life begins. He says,
“Despite many claims to the contrary life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of species, tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago (Sagan and Druyan).”
When life originated on Earth, or when human life itself originated is completely irrelevant to the scientific and philosophical question of what point in the reproductive process does the life of an individual human begin. My life began in the 20th century. I did not exist 200,000 or 500,000 years ago amongst my evolutionary ancestors.
In The Dragons of Eden, Sagan says, “The reason we prohibit the killing of human beings must be because of some quality human beings possess, a quality we especially prize, that few or no other organisms on Earth enjoy.” Sagan believes the human quality in question is our intelligence. For the abortion question, Sagan suggests the transition to humanity begins with the onset of neocortical activity, (Sagan's center for human intelligence), in the fetus. Sagan considers abortion after the onset of neocortical activity as murder.
However, Sagan’s thinking is retrograde. First, a belief predominant until the middle of the 19th century mistakenly believed the fetus became human with the onset of “quickening,” that point in the process of gestation in which movement is detected. Sagan’s idea is merely a variation of “quickening” in which the fetus becomes human with the onset of neocortical activity rather than bodily movement. Advances in the scientific understanding of prenatal development supersede both views. Sagan’s neocortical activity centered hypothesis remains inferior to the old “quickening” belief because he has reduced the human person to his biology and thinking to a byproduct of brain activity, a view not required by “quickening.”
Second, Sagan viewpoint accepts the myth of materialism that we think with our brains (See more about this issue in a future post). Third, Sagan’s philosophical materialism reduces the “sanctity of human life” to a dependence on biological development and functioning, that is, the neocortical area of the brain. Fourth, according to Sagan’s view, there is no objective ground for human rights, so in principle, Sagan’s (pseudo) human rights would absurdly extend to the more intelligent species of animals. Fifth, Sagan fails to recognize the philosophical notion of personhood.
It is fair to say, aside from whatever personal bias or prejudices Sagan may have concerning abortion, his underlying philosophical assumption of crass materialism and ethical relativism make it awkward, if not impossible, for him to treat ethical issues, especially abortion, in a consistently meaningful and logically sound manner.