Explaining Empathy for an Embryo

by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the Irish vote on abortion and consider how all of us might  empathize better with those on the other side of this issue as well as the related issue of animal rights. In this post, I want to consider an empathy question regarding abortion: why do (some) people empathize with embryos and fetuses? Why, in other words, does anyone want the law to protect the rights of unborn humans?

Let us start with the most ungenerous answer one could articulate for this question, an answer that may describe some but by no means all of those who oppose abortion. Some people view pregnancy as a condition in which somebody gets to exercise control over life and death. That someone can be the woman or that someone can be a third party, whether the father of the pregnancy, the government, or a person standing in (as a guardian ad litem, for instance) for the embryo or fetus.

To the extent that there is empathy in this situation, it is through an identification with the embryo or fetus, something or someone that appears to be under the control of a woman. By elevating the status of the embryo or fetus, the misogynist--who believes that women should play their role compliantly or suffer the consequences--diminishes the status of the woman whose body "houses" that embryo or fetus.

It is useful to consider this first answer, despite its lack of generosity, for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, there may be (and likely are) some people who approach pregnancy in this instrumental light, perhaps without full awareness of their own misogyny. Second, this obnoxious thinking about abortion sometimes feels, to those on the pro-choice side of the issue, like the meaning of all opposition to abortion.

To the extent that this perception makes a meeting of the minds between the two sides impossible, it could be helpful for anti-abortion advocates to understand the need to distance themselves from misogyny if they wish to have a productive conversation. Charlie Camosy is a good example of a pro-life advocate who goes out of his way to condemn misogyny and to support the aspirations of women. One may agree or disagree with his view that abortion undermines women's interests, but his belief that it does is sincere.

A second answer to the question (not necessarily inconsistent with the first) is often framed as a scientific or logical idea. It holds that science tells us that conception begins the developmental journey of previously separate cells to a newborn baby. Logically, this answer adds, there is no sensible point, other than conception itself, at which to designate when we have a human being. By conception, we have an organism with different chromosomes from those of its mother, and the type of organism that it is is human. It follows that it is a person. Q.E.D.

This answer feels a bit like Zeno's paradox. We consider what it would take to travel from one point in space to another. It seems like we could do it. However, in order to get to the the second point, we would have to first get to the midpoint between the two points. To do that, in turn, we would have to get to the point between where we are and that midpoint, and so on and so forth.

It would ultimately seem like we cannot move anywhere from where we are, because there are an infinite (and thus endless) number of halfway points that we must first pass through.  Motion is thus impossible, even though our own senses say the opposite.

In the same way, almost everyone agrees that the newborn baby is a person. It seems, moreover, that emerging from the womb cannot be relevant to whether the baby already is or is not a person (though it is relevant to what a woman's options ought to be). It must have been a person just before it came out if it is a person once it is out.

And if it was a person just before it came out, it must have been a person a moment before that. And so on back to conception. Just as you cannot move from your spot to another spot at a distance from you, the developing human who is uncontroversially a person at birth cannot have ever been anything less than a person at conception, because at each moment, it occupies the same moral space that it is a moment before.

In truth, though, people can move from their spot to another spot, and most of those whose religious commitments do not dictate otherwise regard a fertilized egg as something considerably less important than a newborn baby. The interesting question, then, is when in embryonic or fetal development to demarcate the graduation from collection-of-human-cells to person, and let us put aside a woman's rights for this discussion. Assume that the embryo or fetus is developing inside an artificial womb so that its continuing to live has no impact on anyone's bodily integrity.

People do not all give the same answer, but many say that we have a person when the human form becomes recognizable as such, when the image on the ultrasound looks like a human baby. Indeed, I have encountered pro-life writers who have suggested that people should now become opposed to abortion because the science of ultrasounds allows everyone to see how human the embryo and fetus really are. When everything was opaque, by contrast, people could imagine that there was nothing there until a baby emerged at the end.

This sounds plausible, but is it? We do not know precisely when a developing human becomes sentient--able to have subjective experiences like comfort or pain. Doctors, however, have estimated that sentience comes online at some point between 20-something weeks and 30 weeks gestation.

Prior to that point, whenever it is, the human organism may look like a real baby, but it does not yet share the traits of a baby that make a baby worthy of moral concern, that make it a "baby" rather than a growth: the ability to think and/or feel things. It is something of a shell at that earlier point.

Why would having the shape of a human baby translate into rights? To reference our earlier discussion, the embryo or fetus is more or less the same, pre-sentience, whether it is still shaped like a prehistoric lizard or whether it is now shaped less like a proto-lizard and more like a human baby.

Why should its appearance matter at all? This question made me think of an experiment described on the RadioLab podcast, in an episode entitled Furbidden Knowledge.  Children at the age of reason (which I believe is considered 6-8) were presented with an interactive plush toy, a Furby, that coos and makes other baby sounds and protests "me scared" when held upside down. The children were asked to hold the Furby upside down, as well as a gerbil and a Barbie doll, in turn.

The children have no trouble "tormenting" Barbie, but they rapidly want to turn the gerbil right side up (I will refrain here from commenting on the use of animals in experiments, even relatively nonintrusive experiments, except to say that I oppose such use). When it comes time to hold the Furby upside down, and the Furby begins saying "me scared," the children want to turn it right side up again, not as quickly as they did the gerbil but much more quickly than with the Barbie. They express a somewhat confused empathy for the toy, even as they appear to understand that it is just a toy, not a living being.

This is very strange. At some level, the children understand that the Furby is not feeling anything. Furby's protests have no suffering being behind them. WestWorld robots are different, I think, because they are quite obviously sentient. That is why they have nightmares and want to know how they got where they are. Abusing them, within the plot of the show, is therefore morally equivalent to abusing the human characters on the show.

But the toy is different. And yet it sounds like someone suffering. Our empathy is not perfectly calibrated.

We sometimes empathize with things that feel nothing (like a toy that says "me scared"), and we sometimes fail to empathize with living beings who plainly do suffer (like a hunted or farmed animal).

Scientists who routinely perform cruel experiments on sentient animals (and by this, I refer especially to biomedical experimentation) have long accused anyone raising moral questions about their work of "anthropomorphizing." This means that when people have empathy for living animals who are actually suffering, they are supposedly imagining that those for whom they feel empathy are like people, mistakenly attributing to the animals the exalted traits that make us "unique." In reality, it is the scientists (and others with a vested interest in diminishing the status of animals) who are guilty of anthropocentrism, imagining that everything worthwhile revolves around the human and her "special" qualities and that other animals are "fair game."

Many people who feel empathy for animals are fully aware of the ways in which nonhumans are different from us but can also keep in mind the fact that nonhumans share some of our traits (such as the capacity to feel pain and emotion) and have special traits of their own. Many types of animals can also engage in reasoning, in ways that some people may be resistant to acknowledging because of the implications for our diets and clothing choices. But feeling empathy for an unfeeling, unthinking human organism that looks a lot like a baby truly is anthropomorphizing, much like the anthropomorphizing we see in the Furby experiment when the children feel for the Furby. We project the traits of an infant onto the baby-shaped form on the ultrasound, and we feel protective and empathic toward an organism with no subjective wellbeing (or lack thereof).

We are used to imagining that humans are the only beings who count in this world (with the possible exception--for some people--of dogs, cats, and members of nearly-extinct animal species). We ask questions about whether there is intelligent life on other planets, when there is intelligent life right here on this one. We ask whether we are alone, when we so plainly are not.

And then we look at an image on an ultrasound screen, and we believe that we are looking at a person entitled to live. If it is not yet sentient, though, the image is as much of a mirage as the protesting Furby saying "me scared." And that fact, rather than the fetus's shape on a screen, should play a central role in determining whether we conclude that it is a "person" who--in the absence of another person's rights to bodily integrity--would have an interest in, and an entitlement to, life.