Carl Sagan on abortion from a "human thought" perspective

(See here) a chapter from a book authored by Carl Sagan. This particular chapter was actually a joint effort by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.

In this chapter, the authors take up the abortion debate using "human thought" as the criteria for when an abortion, under most circumstances, should be permitted by society. To quote the authors, "If we are forced to choose a developmental criterion, then this is where we draw the line: when the beginning of characteristically human thinking becomes barely possible."

I am not saying that this dissertation settles the debate completely, but it certainly comes from an informed and educated point of view. I would still like to hear evidence on this issue presented by someone from a pro-life point of view. The authors point to what they describe as a "conservative" opinion of where they think the line should be drawn. To quote them, "But brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy--near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this--however alive and active they may be--lack the necessary brain architecture. They cannot yet think." However I will point out they are making their comparison to an adult human brain. Where would the line be drawn if we made the comparison to a viable, newborn infant (no matter how premature) for example? My own daughter was born one month premature and I have no doubts that as I held her on the day she was born she was already a "person". I fear that what they describe as "conservative" is actually a viewpoint coming from someone most people might call a "liberal" - grin.

However I am assuaged that the point I will accept "the line must be drawn" is probably not going to be so early that it will affect the majority of cases when a woman chooses to have an abortion. I have heard it reported that 90% of abortions occur in the first trimester. I would imagine that a healthy portion of the 10% that occur later are cases most of us could agree included circumstances, like the life of the mother being threatened, where exceptions should be granted.

Why do I describe myself as assuaged by this? Because I really am not trying to be an evil, male tyrant who is trying to take rights away from women. I feel we should infringe on the "rights of women" as little as possible. However, I feel one person's rights end where the next ones begin and I feel these rights probably extend into the womb. Carl Sagan seems to agree with me. He and I might yet disagree on where the line should be drawn, however we at least agree the line is drawn in the womb.


Blogger Michael said...

As per your other post, I do not agree with the "human thought" criterion.

Firstly, Carl Sagan is mistaken. Foetuses, even in late pregnancy, are not conscious. They are not awake. The spontaneous and apparent responses that they have are almost certainly due to relatively complex reflexes as well as a fair amount of anthropomorphism by the parents (and family and midwives and doctors and just about everybody else... ;-) ).

Thirty weeks? I personally would find aborting an otherwise normal 30 week old foetus to be completely unethical unless the mother's life / well being was in grave risk. Even then, an emergency Caesarian section would be performed rather than an "abortion".

An extremely premature 25 week gestation infant almost certainly does not have sufficient neurological development to be "thinking" or have "cognition" in a way understandable to an adult. A 25 week old baby may well have "experiences", but I contend that they are not within the realm understandable by any conscious human.

A (bad) analogy, I may appreciate in some anthropomorphic way on what it is like to be a fish, but there is no way that a human can truly know what it is to be a fish.

I suggest that read up a concept called "qualia".

According to Sagan's deductive reasoning, it should then be reasonable to abort a 25 week old (or even 30) week old foetus. Taking his line of thought even further (hypothetically), what if by experimentation on babies (which we can do much more easily than on foetuses) that they do not have appreciably "human" cognitions or thoughts (i.e., functioning on more than reflexes) until several weeks of age? Does that mean that we can "abort" babies up to that age?

I think everyone here is taking EEGs out of context. EEGs do not allow us to look into the human mind. They barely allow us to look at gross electrical functioning of the brain.

An analogy: it is like looking at electrical current drawn on the power rails of a computer as a measure of what it is "computing". Sure, if the computer is "thinking" more, it will use more current. However, measuring these changes in current also tells us absolutely nothing of what the computer is calculating (or "thinking") or if it is actually calculating anything at all.

Perhaps a better criterion for abortion is whether the foetus can survive without its mother under the care of "society" as a whole. Up to a certain stage of development, a foetus is absolutely physiologically dependent on its mother. However, after about 20 weeks, "modern medicine" can keep a foetus alive, completely without its mother, though with difficulty and with likely complications.

Perhaps, it can then be ethically argued that while a foetus is absolutely physiologically dependent on its mother for survival, the mother does have the right of choice. Certainly within this time frame, an abortion is not experientially "cruel" to the foetus.

Michael Tam

1/01/2006 09:22:00 AM  
Blogger Little David said...

Look, I am unwilling to surrender the point that just because a "fetus" is anesthetized it must be inhuman or something. As I stated, my own daughter who was born prematurely was most certainly human at the point of her birth even if she was "unconscious" prior to her birth. It was not the "magical mystery tour" down the birth canal that made her human.

EEG might be crude, but that is probably the best tool we "barbarians" can rely on to make an educated guess as to when that which is growing becomes something that we can equate with being "human thought".

I am unwilling to trust this debate to "learned" medical community alone because, as Carl Sagan identifies, they have led us down the wrong path in the past.

I am inclined to think of ANY thought, no matter how basic, within the fetus is human thought. You are right, I can not completely understand what it is like to be a fish or a parrot. However I do think I can understand what it is like to be in the womb.

I am going to write a new article to explain my thoughts on being in the womb.

1/01/2006 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I think you are missing the point...

I'll try to make the logical reasoning as simple as possible:

1. foetuses are unconscious in utero because of the presence of neuroinhibitory hormones

2. because the foetuses are unconscious, it cannot be known when or if they are capable of cognition or consciousness (UNconscious).

3. as their "cognitive" ability is not measurable, it seems pretty obvious that it should not be used as a criteria for abortion.

Ok? ;-)

EEG might be crude, but that is probably the best tool we "barbarians" can rely on to make an educated guess as to when that which is growing becomes something that we can equate with being "human thought".

NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. It is not the best tool. It is not a tool at all. As I have stated multiple times before, EEGs are not used for looking at the mind. They cannot be used for this purpose. It is like saying (before the invention of the microscope) that a magnifying glass was the "best tool" for identifying bacteria.

Just as a magnifying glass cannot be used to identify bacteria, an EEG cannot be used for peering into consciousness. Just as a magnifying glass should not be used to justify a course of antibiotics, an EEG should not be used for justifying abortion!

I'm sorry, but your "human thought" idea is completely bogus. I can quite confidently tell you that we cannot "measure thoughts" in a foetus now and there is good reason to believe that we will not be able to do this in the near future because:

1. the foetus unconscious and is not "thinking" so even if it has the capacity to do so in utero, it isn't doing it
2. we can't measure the foetal "brainwaves" non-invasively
3. even if we did so, there is no EEG finding consistent with "thinking" even if it was awake (which it isn't).

It is a very very bad criteria not because it is intrinsically bad, but simply because we cannot competently do it. The "best" we can do, even if we could record the EEG is for someone to say that this squiggly line looks kind of more like an adult's at this age, than at that age. What does it mean? Nobody knows and no one should be pretending to know.

To make a decision like abortion on a squiggly line I repeat is frankly witchcraft.

There are better criteria which can be used and arguably should be used (and are used).

Michael Tam

1/01/2006 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger Little David said...


I am unwilling to give this "important" ethical decision completely over to the medical community.

As willing as I am to concede that the average Doctor is far more intelligent then the average person, "them damn Doctors" have not led us down the correct path without exception. It was not really that long ago when "bloodletting" was the pinnacle of "modern medecine".

EEG's might be like trying to look at bacteria with a magnifying glass, but until we invent the microscope on this topic we are going to have to resort to the best tools we have. One day, if human history should serve as an example, they are going to call us barbarians. I would hope they will only call us "ignorant" barbarians instead of using the adjective "cruel" to describe us.

1/01/2006 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I fail to see your reasoning here.

You would knowingly use a tool regarded as useless for decision making?

How is this any different from asking a psychic to read tea leaves?

I agree that the ethical dilemma should not be left to the medical profession. However, it is the medical profession that has to do the "dirty work" in an abortion so I think that "our" views are somewhat important.

If you are asking the profession that the criteria to be based on "cognition", then you must be willing to accept our views on the tools that are available. IMHO, there are no tools that can even remotely look at the cognition in a foetus.

Michael Tam

1/01/2006 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger Little David said...

I am unwilling to allow the medical community to make all the decisions on this matter.

There is abundant evidence that medical doctors are only intelligent minds with an education that also have their heads stuck up their ass.

Evidence is that things that are presented to us as "scientific" are only "scientific" as long as someone can make on buck off it being "scientific".

Those who are more intelligent then the "average" human still try to twist the limits of human knowledge into giving THEM a "good life" and not US a "good life".

I am sure you are aware of what has been happening in South Korea when it comes to stem cell research.

The medical community is just as motivated by the profit incentive as the rest of us. Their "judgements" are just as questionable due to the profit motivation as the rest of us.

Therefor when it comes time to debate abortion the medical community has no more say then others within the community that also have an opinion.

1/01/2006 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I think you have exhausted your arguments then.

Doctors are bad because they make money.

It doesn't matter that the fact is that EEGs are useless for cognition, you want the squiggly to "prove" cognition anyway.


Michael Tam

1/01/2006 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Little David said...

We're arguing this same point on several different threads at the same time.

You argue that those from a medical position are the only ones educated enough to argue about the ethics of abortion. I say they have valuable input but their input is not the "end all" to the argument.

While "some" preachers have ulterior motives, "some" medical professionals have ulterior motives. As much as you might exclaim not all Doctors should be painted with the same brush, I will exclaim that not all Preachers should be thus so painted.

Ethics has a seat at the table. Even if you disagree with some of the ethics that claim a seat, they still have a right to a voice.

1/01/2006 01:27:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

You've probably never been involved in an ethics committee, but they usually involve:

- a lawyer
- a doctor
- and a layperson

Ethics decisions are never solely made by medical professionals. However, consider why a lawyer and doctor are always on the board. That is because bioethics decisions must still be legal and biological possible and feasible.

"Thought" and "consciousness" though "nice" is not a feasibly measurable criteria. There is no tool that can competently do it.

You seem to really like EEGs for some reason. A "bad" tool is often worse than no tool at all in medicine. If you can't make a decision with a tool that you can trust, then you shouldn't be using it to make your decision.

You should be making your decision on something else, which is what I have been saying all along.

Until a new tool comes out that can measure "cognition" in an infant (and I don't see anything in the near or medium term) reliably, then "cognition" should not be used as a criteria.

There are many other criteria that can be used, and should be used.

Michael Tam

1/04/2006 04:10:00 AM  
Blogger Little David said...

So then we would are left with the "pain" ruler with which to judge?

Only problem is that then scientists try to muddy the waters up a little bit. To quote Carl Sagan: "By the end of the eighth week... The fetus shows some reflex response to delicate stimulation." If the fetus shows reflex response to delicate stimulation then I would imagine it also shows response to pain. But, nope, the layman does not understand. There is not yet connectivity between the conscious part of the brain and the brain stem, so the fetus does not "consciously" feel pain. It might reflexively buck when pricked with a needle, but that is just like a chicken with its head cut off. It is not "conscious" of the stimulation.

So just because there is not connectivity (and this is what they argue) what is going on in the disconnected portions? We already know the disconnected body responds to pain, but we are not allowed by the "learned" to take that into consideration. There is no connectivity they say. Then they do not want to try to figure out what is going on in the OTHER part that is disconnected.

Well Carl Sagan did try postulate as to what was going on. I am not sure I completely agree with him but he does seem quite informed on the issue. Of course I already understand that you belittle Carl's thinking on the subject because you claim we have gone so much further in the 10 years since his death (his book Billions and Billions was published after his death).

I still think we should do as best we can to figure out cognition. If we have to error, then we should error on the side of caution. In the future, when they have better tools, they might look back at us as barbarians. Hopefully they will look back at us as benevolent barbarians, not evil ones.

1/04/2006 06:53:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I think you are deliberately being a little bit obtuse.

We are not just "left with the pain ruler". I think pain is a bad criteria as well.

How about the "practical ruler", or the "pragmatic ruler", or even the "Christian ethical ruler"?

There are many ways to consider when, how and if to abort a foetus.

Asking when a foetus is "capable of consciousness" is like asking "when a foetus has a soul" or "when the chakra" descends, etc. Meaningless from a practical point of view because it cannot be determined.

Michael Tam

1/05/2006 05:29:00 AM  

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