By Richard Dawkins | February 3, 2010
Q: The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family is sponsoring a pro-life ad, featuring football star Tim Tebow, during Sunday’s Super Bowl. Should CBS show the ad? Should CBS allow other faith-based groups to buy Super Bowl ads promoting their beliefs on social issues? Is a major sporting event, or a TV ad campaign, an appropriate venue for discussing such vital and divisive culture-war issues like abortion?
I gather that Tim Tebow is extremely good at football. That’s just as well, for he certainly isn’t very good at thinking. Perhaps the fact that he was home schooled by missionary parents is to blame.
The following is what passes for logic in the Tebow mind. His mother was advised by doctors to abort him, but she refused, which is why Tim is here. So abortion is a bad thing. Masterful conclusion.
It is a version of what, following the great Nobel-Prizewinning biologist Peter Medawar, I have called the Great Beethoven Fallacy.
Versions of the Great Beethoven Fallacy are attributed to various Christian apologists, and the details vary. The following is the version favoured by Norman St John Stevas, a British Conservative Member of Parliament. One doctor to another:
“About the terminating of pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was syphilitic. The mother tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also tuberculous. What would you have done?”
“I would have terminated the pregnancy.”
“Then you would have murdered Beethoven.”
It is amazing how many people are bamboozled by this spectacularly stupid argument. Setting aside the simple falsehood that Ludwig van Beethoven was the fifth child in his family (he was actually the eldest), the falsehood that any of his siblings was born blind, deaf or dumb, and the falsehood that his father was syphilitic, we are left with the ‘logic’. As Peter Medawar, writing with his wife, Jean Medawar, said,
“The reasoning behind this odious little argument is breathtakingly fallacious . . . the world is no more likely to be deprived of a Beethoven by abortion than by chaste absence from intercourse.”
If you follow the ‘pro-life’ logic to its conclusion, a fertile woman is guilty of something equivalent to murder every time she refuses an offer of copulation. Incidentally, ‘pro life’ always means pro human life, never animal life although an adult cow or monkey is obviously far more capable of feeling pain and fear than a human fetus. But the profoundly un-evolutionary nature of this terminology is another story and I’ll set it on one side.
The sperm that conceived Tim Tebow was part of an ejaculate of (at an average estimate) 40 million. If any one of them had won the race to Mrs Tebow’s ovum instead of the one that did, Tim would not have been born, somebody else would. Probably not such a good quarterback but – we can but hope – a better logician, who might have survived the home schooling and broken free. That is not the point. The point is that every single one of us is lucky to be alive against hyper-astronomical odds. Tim Tebow owes his existence not just to his mother’s refusal to have an abortion. He owes his existence to the fact that his parents had intercourse precisely when they did, not a minute sooner or later. Then before that they had to meet and decide to marry. The same is true of all four of his grandparents, all eight of his great grandparents, and so on back.
Religious apologists are unimpressed by this kind of argument because, they say, there is a distinction between snuffing out a life that is already in existence (as in abortion) and failure to bring life into existence in the first place. It’s not a distinction that survives analytical thought, however. Look at it from the point of view of Tim’s unborn sister (let us say), who would have been conceived two months later if only Tim had been aborted. Admittedly, she is not in a position to complain of her non-existence. But then nor would Tim have been in a position to complain of his non-existence, if he had been aborted. You need a functioning nervous system in order to complain, or regret, or feel wistful, or feel pain, or miss the life that you could have had. Unconceived babies don’t have a nervous system. Nor do aborted fetuses. As far as anything that matters is concerned, an aborted fetus has exactly the same mental and moral status as any of the countless trillions of unconceived babies. At least, that is true of early abortions, which means the vast majority.
The fact that the Tim Tebow advertisement is a load of unthought-through nonsense is no reason to ban it. That would infringe our valued principle of free speech. The best that the rest of us can do is point out, to anyone that will listen despite our lack of money to pay for such advertisements, that it is nonsense. As I have just done.
By Richard Dawkins | February 3, 2010