Relativism is the plague of our modern society, and I found yet another example of that as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day.
Planned Parenthood’s Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens was recently interviewed on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News. Here is the video that you should watch before reading on as it is important for the context of the following discussion.
Carlson, a very aggressive and persistent questioner without a doubt, continued to press one specific point near the middle of this interview. He wanted to have Laguens define exactly what a fetus is at five weeks. He argued that if you can hear the fetal heartbeat, is it just another part of the mother, or is it a distinct life? In his exact words, “Is it just a piece of tissue, or is it a separate human being?” (4:12-4:17)
As I was listening to this video, I expected her to say that it is a distinct entity, but it is not a person and therefore does not have the rights of personhood that all other people enjoy. Usually, this denial of personhood comes from the fact that the fetus is not viable outside of the womb. That seems to be the boilerplate answer for most defenders of abortion rights, and while I strongly disagree with the conclusion that therefore abortion is justifiable, I understand how some people try to tie viability to personhood. At least they are willing to take a stand on that point. Defenders of this position would at least answer his question by saying that it is a separate entity from the mother with its own DNA and individual characteristics. Most pro-choice people will answer the scientific question and disagree philosophically on the point of personhood.
Laguens’ response is just about the weakest possible response you could imagine.
“I think that’s up to each individual to decide what they believe, but women in this country, one in three women, have an abortion during their lifetime, obviously they are making their own choice.” (4:17-4:29)
This type of relativism is taking a shot at scientific truth in the way that I would imagine should have many people, particularly those who embrace scientism, up in arms. Scientism is the belief that the scientific method is the only way to determine truth about our world. For example, review this article by Steven Schafersman from Miami University who argued, “science is the only method that results in the acquisition of reliable knowledge.” Popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson has been quoted as saying, “That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
In other words, science is the only way to define anything. Only things that can be scientifically verified can qualify as being true. Everything else might be true, or it might not, but the only way for us to accurately know what is true is to scientifically discover that which is true and that which is not true.
Carlson is asking a question of classification. He wants to know what exactly this five-week old entity is, so for people who embrace scientism, the answer cannot be up to the choice of an individual. That thing in the body of the woman is something, and it has characteristics that can be evaluated. It has a heartbeat. It has DNA. It has a certain length and weight. There are definite things that can be measured. Because this is a specific question of classification, when he asks whether or not this is just a tissue or a separate entity, there should be able to be a scientific answer. It either is part of the mother, or it is not. The choices are rather straightforward, and it really does not bring in any of the philosophical concerns of personhood. This actually is a scientific question.
Again, most pro-abortion advocates might even be willing to say that the fetus is a distinct entity in the mother but still deny personhood to that fetus and the protections that accompany personhood based on viability. Therefore, they still would defend the right to an abortion. Like I said earlier, I don’t buy that argumentation and think it is lethally flawed, but at least these people are addressing the scientific question that Carlson is asking.
Laguens’ answer is not scientific. Her argument leads into an inevitable contradiction. She says that each individual woman is allowed to classify this entity in any way that she wants. Hypothetically then, a five week old fetus in one woman might be believed to be part of the mother while another five week old fetus in another woman might be believed to be a distinct entity. These two five week old fetuses are in virtually identical situations, but it sounds to me like Laguens is defending a scientific contradiction that one is part of the mother while another is not. After all, her scientific conclusion is that it is all up to the judgment of the mother, but that is a philosophical answer.
They cannot be simultaneously true. This is a scientific question. Nobody is asking the philosophical question as to whether or not this five-week old fetus is a person. All Carlson is asking at this point is whether or not she believes that this five-week old fetus is part of the mother, like a tissue, or a distinct entity. It is a fact-based question, but her answer implies that that facts are negotiable depending on a person's perspective.
Using her methodology, you could justify treating anyone as anything. For example, I could argue that humans are the same as rattlesnakes. You would rightly point out that based on certain biological traits, humans are certainly not rattlesnakes. However, it seems like I can apply Laguens' relativism to say, "You can't tell me how to classify humans. It is up to each individual to determine whether or not humans and rattlesnakes are the same thing or not."
It seems ridiculous, but this is the conclusion of relativism. If everything is only left to individual belief, then there cannot be any truth and that includes scientific truth.
Relativism is bankrupt as a philosophy, and it is also bankrupt when trying to address scientific questions.
Here’s my challenge then for all of you out there who believe science is the only way to determine truth (a claim I actually do not believe in, but I know many atheists in particular do). Tweet Planned Parenthood to ask them to answer this basic scientific question. Is a five week old fetus with a heartbeat part of the mother or a distinct life?
I am not asking you to become pro-life (although I think you should). I am asking you, if you believe in science as the ultimate arbiter of truth as many actually claim to demand that the company that you are so committed to supporting actually answers the question.