Bill Nye, The Anti-Science Guy

by Brian Watson

Within recent months, I have seen multiple people share a video of Bill Nye speaking about abortion.[1] While there are multiple video responses available (here and here),[2] I believe that a written response is also in order.

Before I analyze the video, I want to give my overall impression: Nye is shockingly bad in this video. It looks as if he didn’t bother to prepare anything, let alone construct a coherent argument. However, that’s just my subjective take on the video, and my experience does not a counter-argument make. Therefore, I will respond to Nye’s argument, such as it is, point by point.

When Does Life Begin?

First, Nye starts by trying to assert that the beginning of life starts not at conception, but at implantation. Instead of admitting that life begins when sperm and ovum interact and produce a zygote, he wants to say that a “fertilized egg” is nothing until it is attached to the uterine wall.

This is a common rhetorical ploy used by abortion-choice advocates. (I say “abortion-choice,” because everyone is pro-choice. Everyone realizes people need to make decisions. I want people to make the right choice, and that never involves abortion. Abortion-choice advocates believe abortion is a morally legitimate option.) The reality is that pregnancy begins at conception and not at implantation, which occurs about six days after conception. At conception, the result of a successful fertilization process, we have a new human being, not a “fertilized egg.” As Francis Beckwith writes, “It is a misnomer to refer to this entity as a ‘fertilized ovum.’ For both ovum and sperm, which are genetically parts of their owners (mother and father, respectively), cease to exist at least at the moment of conception and perhaps earlier in the fertilization process.”[3] While there is some dispute among embryologists as to exactly when a new human life has been formed, it is clear that by the time a zygote is formed, it “is a whole human organism.”[4] Among the scientific facts that support such a statement is the reality that the zygote has his/her own DNA. As Beckwith writes, this genetic code “is neither her mother’s nor her father’s. From this point until death no new genetic information is needed to make the unborn entity an individual human being. Her genetic makeup is established at conception, determining to a great extent her own individual physical characteristics—gender, eye color, bone structure, hair color, skin color, susceptibility to certain diseases, and so on. . . . The conceptus, from the very beginning, is a whole organism, with certain capacities, powers, and properties, whose parts work in concert to bring the whole to maturity.”[5]

Though the zygote consists of only one cell, this cell is not just another cell, like a skin cell, for example. “It is an individual human organism whose cells all have the same genomic sequence—just like those in her mother’s body as well as in her own—except the zygote is a human being at a stage in her development at which her body just happens to have only one cell.”[6]

The zygote is sometimes referred to as a totipotent cell. That is, all the different cell types that we have in our bodies comes from that one cell. This new human body doesn’t grow by adding parts. Rather, it grows from within. It is not a part; it is a whole. It is not a clump of cells, to which cells from the mother are attached to form what becomes an eventual human being. It’s not Frankenstein’s monster, slowly assembled from various parts and later animated.

For other evidence that supports the conclusion that life begins at conception, see here and here.

Though not related to Nye’s argument, it should be noted that the unborn child’s heartbeat starts as early as sixteen days after conception.[7] That means that abortions, which may be performed at about as early as four weeks after conception, stop beating hearts.

At any rate, Nye is wrong to call a zygote a “fertilized ovum,” and he’s wrong to insist that life begins at implantation, rather than conception.

Is a Miscarriage a Crime?

Second, Nye poses a rather silly question, which I’ll paraphrase: If the “fertilized egg” is a human being, whom shall we sue when that egg doesn’t implant but is instead flushed out of the body? Thinking he has proven his point through such a rhetorical question, he asserts, “It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding.” I think I’ve shown above that Nye is the one who has a lack of scientific understanding. What he’s trying to do at this point is use another rhetorical ploy: Claim that your side is scientific and the other side isn’t. His non-sequitur about science giving us microscopes that allow us to know more about conception is ironic, given that such science disproves his point.

But let’s go back to the whole “is misconception a crime?” question. Yes, new human lives do not always adhere to the mother’s uterine wall. And, of course, women miscarry at later dates. But this is not the same as abortion. The difference between any type of miscarriage and abortion is similar to the difference between a child accidentally drowning and that child’s mother intentionally murdering the child through drowning. In the case of the accidental drowning, there may be negligence on the part of the parent. But even then, that is different from homicide. Generally speaking, we can’t control if a woman miscarries.[8] It’s a tragedy. But it’s different from intentionally killing an innocent human life, which is exactly what abortion is.

You Can’t Tell Someone What to Do?

At this point, Nye admits that no one likes abortion. Then he quickly shifts gears: “But you can’t tell someone what to do.” However, we do that all the time. Laws against murder say to people: “You can’t murder someone.” Or, to put it a bit more accurately, those laws say, “It is morally unacceptable to murder someone, and if you do and are caught, you will pay for it.” Other laws have the same effect.

Nye then talks about the failure of abstinence-only sex education and the ineffectiveness of closing abortion clinics. I’m not a policy guy, so I can’t speak to the effectiveness of this or that program. But I reject pragmatic, utilitarian arguments that favor “what works.” My point is that abortion is morally wrong. (And, to be clear, I would define abortion as the intentional termination of an unborn life. If a surgery is intended to save the life of the mother and it unintentionally results in the death of the unborn child, that is another story. Yet those events are relatively rare.)

Science and Faith

Nye then comes back to his “I have science on my side” tactic. He acknowledges that others have “deeply-held beliefs. . . . But I really encourage you to look at the facts.” Nye has already botched the facts. But what he’s trying to do is separate faith from facts. He’s trying to show that he is rational, a man of science and facts. Others who see differently have no evidence on their side; they are irrational; all they have is a blind faith. This tactic plays up the so-called fact-value split. Science and math are in the realm of fact. Religion and morality are in the realm of value. The first realm is objective. The second realm is subjective. Or so people like Nye would have you believe.

Yet such arguments fail. Science is not the only discipline that seeks to describe reality. And science is certainly not the only way to know what is true. The claim that the only true knowledge we have is scientific knowledge is not itself a scientific statement. It is not the result of empirical observation and experimentation. It is a philosophical claim. Yet that shouldn’t bother us, unless we claim that the only real knowledge we can have is scientific. We can know reality through philosophy and religion as well as science. For any claim we make, we should have arguments supported by evidence. But that evidence need not always be scientific in nature.

We should also note that Nye has a faith of his own. His “deeply-held beliefs” have caused him to misconstrue the scientific evidence regarding conception and the development of the new human life. And he takes it on faith that we can’t tell women what to do. He also tries to state that laws against abortion “are in nobody’s best interest.” That’s another belief of his. Apparently, such laws are not in the best interest of anyone . . . except the unborn human being.

A Woman’s Right?

Though the video ends without much of a conclusion, Nye makes another significant assertion: We can’t tell women what to do with their bodies. This statement, and similar ones, are made frequently by abortion-choice advocates. I have heard it said that we can’t make laws that “regulate women’s vaginas.” Such statements distort the issue of abortion. The key issue is not the woman’s body; no, it is the body within the woman’s body. That body is not the mother’s body. It is the body of another human person, one whose life is precious and should be protected.

Granted, pregnant women are in a unique position: They have another human being growing inside of them. This is something that no man can experience. Yet if men were able to become pregnant, abortion would be wrong for them, too. In that hypothetical case, abortion would still be the intentional killing of an innocent human life.

A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small

Some people may concede that, scientifically speaking, while the zygote/embryo/fetus is a human life, they may also claim that such a life not yet worthy of protection. Some abortion-choice philosophers try to claim that the unborn human life is not yet a human person. They believe that the incipient human life is not yet a person who has rights.

That argument about personhood is very arbitrary. Scott Klusendorf presents an excellent argument for why the unborn human being is a human person, one with a right to life.[9] In his words, “Philosophically, there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today.”[10] This statement is then supported by the acronym SLED, developed by Stephen Schwarz.[11] The following is Klusendorf’s explanation of the acronym:[12]

Size: Yes, embryos are smaller than newborns and adults, by why is that relevant? Do we really want to say that large people are more human than small ones? Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean they deserve more rights. Size doesn’t equal value.

Level of development: True, embryos and fetuses are less developed than you and I. But again, why is this relevant? Four-year-old-girls are less developed than fourteen-year-old ones. Should older children have more rights than their younger siblings? Some people say that self-awareness makes one human. But if that is true, newborns do not qualify as valuable human beings. Remember, six-week-old infants lack the immediate capacity for performing human mental functions, as do the reversibly comatose, the sleeping, and those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Environment: Where you are has no bearing on who you are. Does your value change when you cross the street or roll over in bed? If not, how can a journey of eight inches down the birth canal suddenly change the essential nature of the unborn from non-human to human? If the unborn are not already human, merely changing their location can’t make them valuable.

Degree of dependency: If viability makes us valuable human beings, then all those who depend on insulin or kidney medication are not valuable, and we may kill them. Conjoined twins who share blood type and bodily systems also have no right to life.

When we think about the issue of abortion with respect to this acronym, then we can see that many arguments that purportedly demonstrate that abortions are acceptable in some cases fall apart. Some people believe that women who can’t afford to have children should be able to have abortions. Would we say that a mother of an infant who is struggling financially therefore has the right to kill the infant? Some people believe only viable fetuses should be protected. But no infant is able to live on his or her own. They are nearly as dependent as the fetus. (Though, I must admit, an infant can be adopted or cared for by people other than the parents, whereas an unborn child cannot be transferred from one womb to another.) Some people say abortion should be allowed in the cases of rape, because the child causes the mother traumatic, unpleasant memories. I’m sympathetic to the victim of rape. It is a horrible crime. Yet combing the two wrongs of rape and abortion does not produce a moral right. And if we’re able to kill innocent people who cause us unpleasant memories, are we thus able to murder ex-wives and ex-husbands?

Conclusion

Much more can be said about abortion. It’s a contentious issue that elicits emotional responses. My hope is that people would be able to slow down and think about the issue critically. Bill Nye shows no sign of thinking about abortion using critical thinking skills. He didn’t engage with the substantive arguments that the pro-life side makes. My concern is that Bill Nye is not alone. It seems to me that many people lack the ability to think seriously about moral issues. When an issue is literally one of life and death, we need to think more carefully and exercise far greater caution.

Notes

[1] “Bill Nye on Abortion,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hB3Zb9Env1A.

[2] “Bill Nye FAILS on Abortion – Best Response,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2SYN2ooFAw; “Bill Nye, The Incoherent Abortion Guy,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8PPIsE1WaE.

[3] Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion and Abortion Choice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 66.

[4] Ibid., 67. I should note that Beckwith has done his homework. He cites a number of embryology textbooks (page 252, note 3).

[5] Ibid, 67 (original emphasis).

[6] Ibid., 68.

[7] Mark Prigg, “A Baby’s First Heartbeat Is Just 16 Days after Conception: Breakthrough Could Lead to New Cures for Congenital Disease,” Daily Mail, October 11, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3833015/A-baby-s-heart-beats-just-16-days-conception-Heartbeat-breakthrough-lead-new-cures-congenital-disease.html.

[8] Of course, a mother could engage in risky behavior like binge drinking or drug use that may result in miscarriage.

[9] Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] Stephen Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion (Chicago: Loyola University, 1990), 18.

[12] Klusendorf, The Case for Life, 28.

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