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8/23/2009: ID and Abortion

If there is an Intelligent Designer, he has an inordinate fondness for abortion

Copyright © Paul W. Andrews, PhD

Exposing hypocrisy is a favorite adolescent pastime. Of course, hypocrisy is part of the human condition, and adolescents eventually see their own hypocrisies. Their criticism becomes more tempered as they learn that everyone is a hypocrite at times, sometimes in small, subtle ways, sometimes in glaringly obvious ways. As they grow older, they intuit that it may not even be desirable to behave in ways that are completely consistent with one’s stated beliefs. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

No matter what one’s age, however, it is always good fun to point out hypocrisy in politics and religion, precisely because these are domains in which people often seem particularly lacking in self-awareness. For example, the intelligent design (ID) movement looks to find evidence of a Creator in nature. One of the claims of ID is that some aspects of life are irreducibly complex and could not have been generated by natural processes. Just as the existence of a complex, functional artifact such as a watch implies the existence of a designer, when one examines nature close enough, the argument goes, it becomes obvious that life also had a designer. The ID movement purports to be agnostic about the nature of the Intelligent Designer, but its Christian evangelical foundation can easily be discerned (Slack, 2007). The goals of the movement are largely political, seeking to inject Christian teaching and philosophy into the schoolroom and nearly every other aspect of modern life (Slack, 2007).

A theologian once asked evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane what he had learned about God from studying nature. Haldane quipped that God had “an inordinate fondness for beetles” (Hutchinson, 1959, p. 150). Haldane was himself an atheist, but his questioner came from a venerable tradition within Christianity of looking to nature to explore issues of faith.

ID attempts to gain intellectual credibility by arguing that evidence of a Designer can be gained by only looking at nature. Others have pointed out many facts about nature that are intellectual problems for the ID position (Dawkins, 2006; Harris, 2008). But for this piece, I want to focus on a particular fact about nature that puts the ID advocate in an interesting moral dilemma.

Among living organisms, it is common for parents to produce many offspring, and then abort, reabsorb, or eat some of them, or let them kill or eat each other (Kozlowski & Stearns, 1989). It is estimated, for instance, that up to 78% of all human pregnancies are spontaneously aborted, with 40-60% of zygotes reabsorbed by the mother’s body before implantation (Forbes, 1997; Stearns, 2005). It is precisely for this reason that physicians define pregnancy as beginning with implantation rather than with conception. However, even between 20-30% of medically defined pregnancies end in miscarriage (Griebel, Halvorsen, Golemon, & Day, 2005). This appears to be evidence of a grossly wasteful and inefficiently designed system of reproduction. It does not appear to be evidence of intelligent design when most of the offspring that are produced are naturally aborted before they are born or can reproduce themselves. Accepting this view undermines the ID position that there is an omnipotent deity responsible for life. An Intelligent Designer would be capable of designing a much more efficient system.

There are many examples of poor design in nature—snakes with pelvises, flightless birds, the “blind spot” in the vertebrate eye, the fact that human embryos have gills and tails that they lose before birth, and so on. The usual ID response to evidence of poor design is that it is not always possible to know why the Intelligent Designer does things, but there must have been a good reason. In the case of spontaneous abortion, however, the usual response doesn’t go anywhere that the ID advocate wants to go. Such a position leads to the conclusion that the Intelligent Designer has an inordinate fondness for abortion, which goes against a core evangelical moral belief. As Sam Harris (2008, p. 38) puts it, “[I]f God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.”

It is difficult to find an intellectually credible way out of this dilemma. One possible response is to say that the Intelligent Designer designed the system this way so that humans wouldn’t have to abort their fetuses. But this response will not allow the ID advocate to avoid the dilemma. First, this position grants that the system of reproduction is wasteful and inefficient, which undermines the claim that the Designer is omnipotent. Second, why should we take the fact of widespread abortion in nature as evidence that the Designer doesn’t want us to abort fetuses? This fact of nature is equally consistent with the view that the Designer has no problem with human abortion. Indeed, since other organisms often neglect or eat their own offspring after birth, it is much more reasonable to assume that the Designer has no problem with human abortion.

Another possible response invokes the Bible for the proposition that the Intelligent Designer is in fact God, who frowns on abortion. But there are two glaringly obvious problems with this stance. First, it is intellectually incongruous to look to nature for evidence of God’s existence, but not look to nature to learn other things about God, such as how He feels about abortion. Second, by relying on the Bible, the ID advocate’s evangelical Christian roots are glaringly revealed, and the argument that the ID stance is an objective one, not a religious one, is exposed for the falsehood that it is.

If ID advocates were intellectually honest, they would either give up their evangelical beliefs about the immorality of abortion or give up their belief in an Intelligent Designer. Of course, this argument is not likely to persuade any ID advocate to give up this intellectual hypocrisy. The ID movement, however, attempts to gain traction in the public’s mind by having the veneer of intellectual credibility. So arguments that expose their hypocrisies should make them uncomfortable and put them on the defensive.

Literature Cited:

Dawkins, R. (2006). The god delusion. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Forbes, L. S. (1997). The evolutionary biology of spontaneous abortion in humans. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 12(11), 446-450.

Griebel, C. P., Halvorsen, J., Golemon, T. B., & Day, A. A. (2005). Management of spontaneous abortion. American Family Physician, 72(7), 1243-1250.

Harris, S. (2008). Letter to a Christian nation. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Hutchinson, G. E. (1959). Homage to Santa Rosalia or Why are there so many kinds of animals? The American Naturalist, 93(870), 145-159.

Kozlowski, J., & Stearns, S. C. (1989). Hypotheses for the production of excess zygotes: Models of bet-hedging and selective abortion. Evolution, 43(7), 1369-1377.

Slack, G. (2007). The battle over the meaning of everything: Evolution, intelligent design, and a school board in Dover, PA. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Stearns, S. C. (2005). Issues in evolutionary medicine. American Journal of Human Biology, 17(2), 131-140.