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Friday, August 16, 2013

What Sam Harris Doesn't Get About Abortion and Stem Cell Research

I have enjoyed Sam Harris' works greatly over the years. He has a gift for giving the facts with a comic flair. I am an atheist and it is always refreshing to see someone call out obnoxious superstitious nonsense for what it is. Nonetheless, I have a bone or two to pick with him.

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris made two points I thought were a bit shaky. One was about stem cell research and the other was about abortion. He claimed that opposition to both was rooted in irrational Christian beliefs.

To support that claim, he said that swatting a fly should bother Christians more than the destruction of an embryo which has no nervous system and no ability to feel pain. A fly's brain has many times the number of cells as a days-old human embryo, and so if opposition to abortion is based on causing pain, the death of a fly should bother Christians more than the death of an embryo. In the first place, Christians and others who oppose abortion do not do so because they are against pain. Christians and others (myself included) believe that human life is different from other kinds of life and therefore falls under different moral standards. I'm sure even Sam Harris agrees with this up to a point. I could be going out on a limb here, but I think Sam Harris does not want people to kill each other for sport or food or because they are a nuisance, which is what we do to animals. If Harris agrees with that, it must be because he too judges human life by a different standard.

Harris says that the potential medical advances from stem cell research are so great that opposition to it is immoral. In his view, alleviating the pain of sick people outweighs the destruction of unaware embryos. In other words, the embryos don't count as people because they are not aware. Sam compares the harvesting of stem cells from embryos to the harvesting of organs from comatose people. There are some problems with this analogy. If being aware is what makes you human, do people become nonhuman when they fall asleep? Obviously not. If a serial killer drugs his victims and kills them when they fall asleep, he is still guilty of murder even though the victim was not conscious at the time. Awareness and/or the ability to feel pain is not what obliges people to refrain from murder. Another problem with his analogy is that organ donors usually give permission while they are alive. Taking organs from a person who was once alive but is now beyond hope of recovery is a much different scenario that destroying a potential person.

The other argument I found troublesome was about abortion. Harris said we should not be disturbed by it because a large percentage of pregnancies miscarry naturally anyway. To me, this is like saying we should not be bothered by murder because people die all the time. There is an enormous difference between an accidental death and a homicide when it comes to morality. I think abortion should remain legal but pretending like it doesn't involve the destruction of a human life is dishonest.

On a side note, it is dishonest for pro-choice people immediately jump to rape and incest as justifications for abortion. Rape and incest account for less than 1% of abortions in the US, while over 90% are for personal and financial reasons.

Harris demonstrates excellent reasoning most of the time, but I believe he did a lot of hand waving and sloppy thinking on these two points.

 

 

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