Acorns, homicide, policing dinner, and the SLED test

This is not a logical argument.

The acorn analogy is popular among abortion-rights advocates and goes something like this:

  • An acorn looks and functions nothing like the tree it would become if planted and nourished.
  • Therefore, an acorn is not a tree.
  • In the same way a zygote or embryo, in not resembling a born child, is not a child.
  • Hence, the zygote or embryo can be rightly disposed of like an acorn.

Aside from the fact that plants and humans are on opposite sides of the value spectrum, it is incorrect to say that an acorn is not a tree. A tree is a kind of plant which when fully developed will have a trunk and limbs and leaves, but in its earliest and simplest form is a seed which has none of those forms but does contain the inherent capacity to develop them. An oak is a kind of tree, and an acorn is an oak in seed form; therefore, an acorn is a tree.

But an egg is not a chicken unless it’s been fertilized, and of course silk is not a dress until it’s crafted into one, but neither of these are analogous to the union of human egg and sperm and whomever shares the above meme is merely displaying his or her ignorance.

The reference to acorns in objecting to human personhood beginning at conception is one of the remaining arguments for abortion which Frank Beckwith deals with in Chapter 6 of his book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights.(1) Many of the 14 objections he briefly addresses in the closing pages of the chapter are on the fringes of the debate, but a few, like “the acorn is not a tree” one, are more widely expressed. Here are a few more of those:

  • The pro-life position makes some forms of birth control homicide.

Beckwith doesn’t hesitate to confirm that, but hastens to emphasize the distinction between birth control and contraception. Some methods of birth control, like the condom and the pill, prevent conception as well as birth, and are therefore unproblematic. But other methods like the IUD and RU-486 are abortifacients, preventing birth but not conception, and if the conceptus is fully human as we have been arguing, do kill an innocent human person.

  • If the unborn is a person under the law, pregnant women will be forbidden from smoking or drinking alcohol.

The harmful effects of alcohol and tobacco on the unborn are well-documented, but so are the harmful effects of poor nutrition on born children. Beckwith points out that just as we don’t police a family’s dinner menu, the government would not attempt to control a pregnant woman’s diet or behavior. Still, quoting another ethicist, “the born child’s right to live must be enshrined in the law, and given the same legal protection the rest of us enjoy. Exactly the same applies to that child before he is born.”

This same ethicist came up with a useful way to remember the four major but morally irrelevant differences between the unborn and the born that are nevertheless the basis for most abortion-rights arguments. Using the acronym SLED, we can identify and summarize these flawed arguments for abortion by observing which of these four factors the argument uses to delegitimize the unborn’s right to life.

  • Size: The unborn is smaller than the newborn, but the newborn is smaller than the adult. What moral significance could size possibly have?
  • Level of development: The unborn advances rapidly through levels of development as its inherent features and capacities unfold. But the realization of new forms and functions does not transform the unborn from one kind of being into another any more than when a child goes through puberty.
  • Environment: As the author puts it, “Where one is is irrelevant to who one is. The fact that a child may be in her mother’s womb is a geographical fact, not a value judgment.”
  • Degree of dependency: Why should the fact that an unborn child is dependent on his mother for survival have any bearing on his right to life? The born child would quickly perish without the care of an adult, and even some adults are likewise dependent on others for survival. Does that negate their personhood?

The arguments for abortion rights based on the dehumanization of the unborn cannot be logically sustained, as we’ve seen. But the most vociferous argument I’ve been hearing lately is based on something else entirely. We’re on to Chapter 7 next time.

(1) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)