Marco Rubio’s Abortion Blunder

by Benjamin Studebaker

Senator and aspirant presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) has come under fire recently for denying climate science. There is a tremendous amount of evidence that Rubio is wrong about this, and if this piece were merely about refuting that claim, I wouldn’t know where to start. There’s the IPCC report, the rate at which sea ice is shrinking, the list goes on. I am reminded of this chart by Max Boykoff of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research in Colorado, which illustrates just how out of touch with the scientific consensus Rubio and others are:

But that’s not what this piece is about. Rubio has tried to get out of this gaffe by arguing that his critics are hypocrites because they ignore what Rubio calls the scientific “unanimity” that life begins at conception. While Rubio’s climate claim illustrates his scientific illiteracy, this latest abortion argument reflects even more poorly upon him. Here’s why.

First, let’s get clear on what Rubio said:

Here’s what I always get a kick out of, and it shows you the hypocrisy—all these people always wag their finger at me about science, and settled science. Let me give you a bit of settled science that they’ll never admit to: Science is settled—it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life begins at conception…So I hope the next time that someone wags their finger about science, they’ll ask one of these leaders on the left: ‘Do you agree with the consensus of scientists that say that human life begins at conception?’ I’d like to see someone ask that question. It’s never asked. And that’s not even a debatable thing, we can actually see that happening. I mean, that is a proven fact. And yet that’s a scientific consensus they conveniently choose to ignore.

There are three big problems with this argument:

  1. Two wrongs don’t make a right–even if everything Rubio is saying were true and argumentatively sound, it would not in any way excuse his dangerously ignorant views concerning climate science.
  2. Rubio’s claim is blatantly false–no such scientific consensus exists.
  3. As we discussed the other day, science can establish descriptive facts about the world but it cannot establish philosophical normative “ought” claims. The question of whether or not abortion is morally permissible is a philosophical question, not a scientific one, regardless of how scientists define “life”.

#1 requires no additional substantiation, but let’s flesh out #2 and #3.

No Scientific Consensus Exists.

Every middle school science student in America learns (or should learn) the seven descriptive characteristics biologists associate with being alive:

  1. Homeostasis–the ability of the organism to self-regulate a constant state. Premature fetuses as young as 20 weeks have survived with the aid of neonatal intensive care units, but these fetuses cannot survive unaided and would not meet the homeostasis condition. Any fetus younger than 20 weeks certainly does not meet this condition and many premature fetuses older than 20 weeks cannot meet it.
  2. Organization–being structurally composed of one or more cells. A fetus can meet this standard from conception.
  3. Metabolism–being able to convert energy into cellular components and decompose waste. A fetus can meet this standard from conception.
  4. Growth–ability of the organism to grow. A fetus can meet this standard from conception.
  5. Adaptation–ability of the organism to adapt to change over time (i.e. evolve).  A fetus can meet this standard from conception.
  6. Response to Stimulus–the ability of the organism to take action in response to something (e.g. move of its volition). It is controversial when precisely a fetus can meet this standard.
  7. Reproduction–the ability of the organism to make new organisms. A fetus certainly cannot do this, but then again, neither can most 10 year old children.

Does a fetus need to do all of these things to be alive? How many are sufficient? Which ones are most important? Scientists don’t agree in no small part because this argument is about the definition of life. Definitional arguments are, by definition (the irony is not lost here) unsolvable, because definitions are human constructs. We could introduce any number of definitions for what it means to be “alive”. We could define “life” as “any being that can perform arithmetic” or “any being that can feel pain” or even “any being that breathes fire“. There is nothing external in the world against which the definition can be judged, because words are tools. They symbolize reality, but they do not comprise it. The only way to decide which definition is best is by applying a value judgment, by making a normative argument as to which definition it would benefit us to use. Scientists do not make value judgments, scientists make empirical claims that can be tested by experimental research. How do you design an experiment to test what the definition of life should be without presupposing a definition of life? It simply cannot be done, so it should not surprise us that scientists have no notion of how to do it. That brings us to the larger problem…

Science Cannot Establish Normative Moral Truth

Not only can science not establish a definition of “life”, it cannot even tell us what lives are morally valuable. For the sake of argument, let’s say we grant a definition of “life” under which fetuses are definitely alive. Presumably that definition would mark out many other beings as “alive”. Most scientists believe there are three domains of life, and all three of these domains include many kinds of organisms we routinely kill:


Even within the domain that contains human beings (eukarya), there are many plants and animals that people eat. We also often kill human beings, usually for military reasons. Even if we had a universal consensus that fetuses are alive, it would not at all be clear that fetuses were not one of the vast number of living things we’re comfortable with killing in various scenarios. Consequently, a scientific consensus on whether or not fetuses are alive is not even relevant to the question of whether or not abortion is permissible. Instead, we need to ask a much more pertinent question–are fetuses morally valuable beings? If so, can the moral value of the fetus be countervailed by the moral value of existing people? These are questions political and moral theorists continue to try to answer (you can read my answer here). There are all kinds of fascinating views for and against abortion, but what all these views share in common is that they are philosophical–they are normative moral arguments. It cannot be proven through scientific experimentation whether we should consider beings valuable if they can feel pain, or if they can think rationally, or if they are capable of reciprocity, or some other such thing. Once we have one of these views we can often use science to see what it says about the abortion case. We can do experiments on fetuses to find out if they feel pain, for instance. But we cannot use an experiment to determine which of these conceptions we ought to have in the first place.

Marco Rubio doesn’t understand that, and insofar as he does not understand it he misses the distinction between descriptive questions about what exists in the world and normative questions about what it is good for human beings to do given those descriptive facts. This distinction is elementary in political theory–any reasonably attentive first year undergraduate knows the difference. A person who does not understand it is fundamentally incapable of participating in the theoretical debate about the good, much less contribute anything of value to it. In the same interview in which he dismissed the scientific consensus on climate change, Rubio claimed that he’s ready to be president. He is ready for no such thing. His bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Florida is not worth the parchment it’s written on.