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Despicable Trends in Bioethics Inevitable Result of Secularism

Every now and then I read something that really get on my nerves even though nothing any more surprises me.  Recently I came across a man named Jacob M. Appel and his stomach turning positions.  Now, as I mentioned, it doesn’t really surprise me.  However, I think it may be a surprise to some folks… I here think of some atheist friends who laugh away my assertions that there are certain aspects of atheism and secular humanism that logically, if not inevitably, degenerate into certain positions and attitudes.  However, I am also thinking of some fellow Christians who think you are a fundamentalist prig if you make abortion your ‘one issue.’  Here are some that I think might fit the bill.  These folks may be surprised at what Mr. Appel has to say, too.

Have I mentioned that it doesn’t surprise me?  Why should it?  Abortion on demand is just an extension of a certain viewpoint which reduces all value and meaning to the individual human or the ‘collective judgement’ of the human society.  If you compromise on abortion I wonder what principle you invoke to prevent it from descending willy nilly into bestiality, euthanasia, infanticide, human cloning, and worse.  I am speaking here to the ‘moderate’ Christians and secular humanists who wouldn’t dream of endorsing such things.  What we have to ask of your viewpoint is what non-arbitrary principled line of demarcation exists to keep your ‘moderate’ views on abortion and embryonic stem cell research (to name two related examples) from morphing into that which you abhor.

Perhaps we should say a few things about Mr. Appel.  Perhaps as good a starting point as any is his recent assertion that just as ‘gay pride’ was needed to lift up homosexuality so too do we need ‘abortion pride.’  In his article he says:

While choosing to terminate may be difficult for women under many circumstances and for many reasons, if they have made the correct choice for themselves, they should be proud that they have done so. And our society should be proud of them too. Our message should not be merely toleration or resigned acquiescence, but genuine joy that someone has made a decision for their own and for the collective good.

Ah yes, the good ol’ ‘collective good.’  As defined by whom? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The above quote is not actually what annoyed me.  Instead, it was his classification of people who keep their children instead of aborting them when they have been diagnosed with ‘devastating’ diseases (again, as defined by whom?) as being akin to one who believes in a flat earth.  Here is the extended quote:

If one reads about reproductive issues in the conservative media-which I often do-one is bombarded with tales of mothers who have sacrificed personal and professional opportunities to bring fetuses to term. The implication is that while bearing a child when one is ready is a blessing, bearing a child when one is not prepared garners one extra moral credit in the cosmos. Similarly, while having a healthy baby is a cause for joy, some opponents of abortion profess that having a baby with a devastating or even fatal birth defect is proof of the mother’s fortitude and character. If one believes that human life begins at conception, this is logically the case. However, if one believes that life begins after conception-as do a wide majority of Americans, if polls on such issues as embryonic stem cell research are to believed-then the suffering caused by transforming an unwanted embryo into a living baby, who will either endure debilitating disease or will enter a deeply inhospitable home environment, is not at all a cause for pride. It more is akin to deciding that the world is flat and then boasting of not falling off the edge.

As readers of this blog know, my wife and I are examples of what he is talking about here.  My daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida at the 20 week ultrasound but we emphatically rejected the invitation to abort her.  I have since wrote a book called We Chose Life: Why You Should Too and it is worth mentioning that people like Appel are just the sort I had in mind when painting some of the ‘worst case’ scenarios.

I don’t agree with any of his analysis above.  My wife and I did not earn an ‘extra moral credit.’  There is no credit for doing what you are supposed to do anyway.  Nor does it follow that it is evidence of ‘fortitude and character,’ logically, if human life begins at conception.*  That is a non sequitur if I’ve ever heard one but it pales in comparsion to the assertion that keeping your child if you don’t believe life begins at conception is like believing in a flat earth.

I can’t remember the last time I heard something as asinine as that but even that seems to pale in comparison to his lead up to it by- seemingly- implying that the question of whether or not life begins at conception can be settled by polls.

There is no question that life begins at conception. The question is whether or not that life is a person or should be considered as one.

We have a whole series of ridiculous and illogical statements by a man teaching impressionable youth at Brown University and touts himself as a bioethicist.  But make no mistake:  apart from these fallacious remarks the rest of his argumentation logically follows from an atheistic and secular humanistic world view.    Perhaps you would like to quibble with me about that but it must be granted, at the minimum, that his views are not precluded from said world view.

“The rest of what argumentation?” you ask.  “Sure, he’s going on about the ‘collective good’ and all but there isn’t anything particularly insidious about his argument.  It isn’t like he is going to force you fundie pro-lifers to terminate your children.  After all, he says at the end:  ‘I admire those individuals who work to ensure a women’s right to choose. But choice is a merely a foundation.’ So what’s the big deal?”

What Mr. Appel gives with one hand he takes away with another.  Another one of his recent articles is entitled:  Mandatory Genetic Testing isn’t Eugenics, it’s Smart Science.   Hmmm.  Do you see where this is going?

This is part and parcel of the idea that we can take the ‘politics out of science‘ and arrive instead at some sort of noble ‘smart science.’

Let’s hear the man out, shall we?  The following sums up his position in this article:

If pre-implantation genetic diagnosis during in vitro fertilization (IVF) can successfully prevent children from developing serious illnesses, why shouldn’t such screening be required?

He believes that screening should be required for couples using in vitro fertilization and it is clear, though he doesn’t say it outright, that he means that embryos that don’t pass muster should be snuffed out.  The rationale he gives for this is that society has already decided that parents are not to be allowed to foolishly harm their children.   He says:

However, Western societies have long acknowledged that parental authority cannot undermine the medical interests of a child. Jehovah’s Witnesses may not deny their children blood transfusions; Christian Scientists cannot substitute prayer for life-saving antibiotics. …

Child welfare laws certainly prevent a mother from intentionally exposing her daughter to an environmental toxin that produces an 80% risk of future cancer. Our society would view this act as child abuse, and rightly so. Similarly, American courts consistently compel  pediatric cancer therapy, even when parents object. Yet once one accepts the right of the government to elevate the best interests of the child over the parents’ private wishes, as we do in our society, the distinction between mandating pre-implantation screening and requiring post-birth care appears to be both arbitrary and indefensible.

There are no insult and curse words available to me to accurately portray this argument.   If you don’t see it yourself, read the above again and then read this quote from earlier in his article:

The most obvious advantage of mandatory screening is that it will reduce the long-term suffering of the children who are spared disease.

Do you see it?  He gives a litany of examples of how society has found it justifiable to impose itself on parents for the ‘medical interests of a child’ but he is defending the position that in some instances the child should simply be destroyed!  American courts consistently compel pediatric cancer therapy so why not just kill the little suckers!  We’ll spare them all right!  If we kill them they can’t get cancer!  Problem solved!

Appel then makes a move to try to avoid the charge that he is advocating eugenics, hence the title of his article.  He says:

These skeptics equate all forms of eugenics, even benign and socially-beneficial programs, with Nazi sterilization laws and unscientific theories of racial superiority. The reality is that pre-implantation genetic selection, like many technologies, can be used either for good or for evil. On this continuum, the prevention of serious illness seems like an unambiguous and inimitable good.

There you have it folks.  In the title he denied it was eugenics but he admits it is in fact a ‘form of eugenics,’ although with an Orwellian twist- they aren’t eugenics so much as ‘benign and socially-beneficial programs.’  Just prior to this statement he complained that “the distinction between mandating pre-implantation screening and requiring post-birth care appears to be both arbitrary and indefensible” but it appears to me that his attempt to make a distinction between ‘mandated pre-implantation screening’ and forced sterilization, forced abortion, genetic breeding, etc, is what is ‘arbitrary and indefensible.’

After all, the ‘prevention of serious illness seems like an unambiguous and inimitable good,’ right?  Of course, this is all from the perspective of the poor kid.  We haven’t mentioned his allusions again to the ‘common good’ and such.  We can be sure that if this were 1935 Mr. Appel would be shacked up with Joseph Goebbels and Josef Mengele sorting through who lives and dies and defining precisely what is meant by the ‘common good.’

Because instead it is 2009 Mr. Appel thinks he can draw a hard line between good eugenics and bad eugenics, knowing very well from history just how bad bad eugenics can be.  It might be worth reminding the aptly named Mr. Appel that the Nazis fashioned their eugenics programs off of the eugenics programs right here in the good ol’ U S of A.  This was back in the day when they were teaching ‘unscientific theories of racial superiority‘ in the science class rooms of Tennessee.

My point is simply that there is no stopping yourself on this ‘slippery slope.’  The minute, the very second, the very instant that you place humans in charge of determining when a person is a person and also what value a person has in general, there are no non-arbitrary and defensible places to stop on the ‘continuum.’

There just isn’t.  You can say there isn’t if that makes you feel better.  You can say that you would never go this far yourself.  We must always remember that before there was Goebbels, Mengele, and Hitler there was Nietzsche, Haeckel, and Chamberlain, to name a few.  WAKE UP!  Don’t you see that it isn’t simply a matter of intellectual experimenting in this generation?  Unrefuted abominations such as those espoused by Appel may not be acted on in this decade or the next or the one after that but thirty years hence after the seeds have been planted in the fertile soil you may have a man or men who certainly shall act on them.

A hundred years after that, I suspect, another ruminating unhinged ‘bioethicist’ will submit again that women should be tickled pink to abort their child- for themselves and the common good- and his ‘benign and socially-beneficial programs’ shouldn’t be confused with the ‘bad eugenics’ of… well, we don’t know the name of the man who will pick up Appel’s mantle and run with it.  We can only know that his name will be be considered as vile as we consider Hitler’s and other’s today and he will cite Appel, Singer, and Dawkins as his influences.

When it all goes down, don’t blame me.  I and many others tried to warn you.  Yea, I’m talking to you ‘moderate’ Christians again.  But hey, at least nobody looked down on you and thought you were a radical fundie, right?  That’s worth the blood of another hundred million or so on your hands, right?

A few more thoughts before I go for Mr. Appel.  Thought one:  Instead of whacking little babies who might some day get cancer and thus ‘spare’ them from possible suffering, here’s an idea:  how about simply finding a frickin cure for cancer?  That would be ‘smart science.’  Thought two: My daughter no doubt has a ‘devastating’ disease according to you and the costs of society are such that if you were in a position of power and authority you would have deemed her- compassionately, of course- unworthy of life and a burden on society.  At some point it may occur to you that your own principles allow for no distinction between the burdensome embryo and the burdensome child, teenager, or adult.  At that time you will say what logically follows.  Well, don’t say it to my face.  I’m just saying.  Don’t do it.

For further reading:  Another of Mr. Appel’s latest masterpieces in bioethics: Three Reasons Society Shouldn’t Rush to Condemn Bestiality

* If anything, the main thing it shows is that it can be done and isn’t the end of the world.



  1. “but even that seems to pale in comparison to his lead up to it by- seemingly- implying that the question of whether or not life begins at conception can be settled by polls.”

    Yes, that statement struck me, too. Odd, because normally these characters live and die by “science,” and disdain mere popular opinion.

    I work with the developmentally disabled population. This is a well-written post, Anthony. Thank you for it.

    • Darius on March 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Just a few comments as I don’t want to get in depth:

    1. You are right: Conception (or more specifically, when the fertilized egg begins to divide)is life. The real issue is when is life considered ‘a person’. Everyone would agree with you on that if given enough thought. It doesn’t really demean from his argument.

    2. Your arguments, though much more logical and reasonable than most religious arguments, still miss one fundamental point, the one fundamental point that makes it “better” to abort in specific situations: Destruction of a fetus does not mean a child won’t be born.
    Take the fetuses undergoing in-vitro fertilization. There may be a couple in line waiting if you will for their chance to become a child. But there is a problem: only one will be selected. So whether it’s the first one or the last one, only one child will be born. It’s the same with abortion. Though one “potential person” is destroyed, it by no means precludes the possibility of another “potential person” being created given some time. Because of that fact, abortion really isn’t stopping a birth, rather, it’s changing the parameters of a potential birth.

    • Anthony on March 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    “Your arguments, though much more logical and reasonable than most religious arguments,”

    shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I have a reputation to uphold…

    “still miss one fundamental point, the one fundamental point … Destruction of a fetus does not mean a child won’t be born.”

    I don’t see how I have possibly missed this ‘fundamental point.’ I don’t grant at all that it is anything of the sort. It is of course true that in a lot of these situations, a new human will eventually be permitted to exist to adulthood, but this does not at all apply to how we treat the other humans. In your first statement, you concede that we are talking about human lives. It cannot be seen as ethical or moral or even rational to propose that just because eventually some human will be allowed to live, it is alright to allow the murder of some other humans.

    We can envision a murderer on trial, justifying his act on the basis that nonetheless, other humans will continue to come into existence. The idea would be absurd, but it is the principle at work in your ‘fundamental point.’

    There is of course a different ethical consideration applied to human lives that have not been brought into existence yet at all. Our burden and duty to those who will be alive 300 years from now, but who currently have no existence whatsoever, is slim to none; they don’t exist in order to have any inherent or intrinsic claims of any kind, one way or another. But an existing human either has inherent or intrinsic value as humans, or they don’t. The fact that other humans will be coming along after him doesn’t alter that. The moment you take action to bring another human life into existence you must be prepared to accord him the same rights and privileges we allow all human life.

    And there is the real rub, the real point of contention: it is a matter of objective reality that conception is the beginning of a human and merely represents one stage of human development; it is subjective to the extreme to maintain that we humans at a later stage of development- that is, the stage that can kill off the ones at lower stages without fear of repercussion or retaliation- are justly permitted to make such determinations and carry out such actions.

    To me, that latter sentiment really encapsulates the whole subject. If a child at 20 weeks old could leap out of the womb and strike down the abortionist trying to kill him, it’d all be quite different. We know that virtually every child would likely do just that, if only they could; when they get to age 20 and ask them what they would think if their doctors started to dismember them, we know what they’d say. But a 20 year old can fight back. A 20 week old can’t.

    That seems to me to be the real fundamental point in play here, transcending even this arrogant notion that we can determine which humans are persons and when.

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