Non-Hansonian Prediction Markets

Having a baby? Want to predict its gender? Amazon.com offers just the product:

Does it work? Well, check out the distribution of customer reviews:

A delighted hat tip to our reader Mark Westling of Inuvi.com, who remarks that

The most interesting comments are along the lines of “It was wrong so I only gave it three stars”.

and then goes on to propose a business model:

Offer baby sex prediction over the web, charge $75 (so consumers know it’s good), and offer a full refund if you’re wrong (upon review of relevant documents).

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

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61 Responses to “Non-Hansonian Prediction Markets”


  1. 1 1 Ted Levy

    I just left the following review: “I bought TWO, and I put my wife’s urine in BOTH. One turned PINK and the other turned BLUE. And we’re having TWINS!!”

  2. 2 2 Advo

    Just on the basis of these reviews, I would expect the product to work in the majority of cases, as (from my experience) the percentage of dissappointed customers leaving reviews tends to be significantly higher than the percentage of satisfied customers.

    Speaking of Amazon reviews, this one is extremely funny (though totally off topic). It’s for a hair removal creme.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R231U4ZG0YDNHD

  3. 3 3 Harold

    It is interesting that the “people who bought this also bought…” has several with 3 different gender prediction kits. One is described as “non-invasive” then describes it works by checking a small drop of maternal blood for the fetal y chromosome. It costs $99, reduced from $230, and sounds as if it might actually work. The sample is sent to a lab for the analysis and results returned in 5 days.
    http://www.prenatalgeneticscenter.com/wp-content/uploads/science_article.pdf

    As well as this test, people also bought 2 other tests as well. It seems illogical. Rather like giving to only one charity, surely it makes sense to chose the test in which you have the greatest confidence and but only that.

  4. 4 4 EricK

    Harold, I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

    eg Suppose there are three tests which work entirely independently of each other. The first is right 90% of the time, the second 85% of the time, and the third 80%. Suppose further that each test produces repeatable results i.e. repeating a test will give the same right or wrong answer you got the first time.

    Unless I have made an arithmetic error (always a possiblity!) you are more likely to get the correct answer by using all three tests and taking the majority answer than if you just go with the best test.

  5. 5 5 Advo

    @Harold,
    aside from what EricK said, I think many people do this kind of testing more for the entertainment value than anything else.
    First you get one test, it says it’s a boy, everyone gets exited and discusses names, clothes, etc.
    Then the next test says it’s a girl, so now there’s something else to get exited about.
    Think of these tests as a kind of parlor game.

  6. 6 6 Ken B

    Harold, review your comment at the end of the last thread, about my story on the boat. Then ask yourself whether tests of different indicia might not actually affect one’s confidence. If the tests are for different chemicals …

  7. 7 7 JohnC

    @Advo

    True, but it seems cheaper just to pee on a coin and flip it.

  8. 8 8 Gordon L.
  9. 9 9 Delphin

    7, More fun too.

  10. 10 10 Al V.

    So, I sell a test that gives a random result, for $75. 1/2 the time it is accurate, and I keep the $75. The other 1/2 the time, I provide a money back guarantee. If we assume that the cost to me is, say $20 per test, that means that for every two tests, my gross is $75, net is $35. So I’m making 88% profit. Sounds like a good way to make money.

    And of course, the people who need to claim their money back are quite busy, having just had a baby. So probably only a fraction of the incorrect response are returned for the money back, especially if I require some form of proof of inaccuracy.

    Sounds like a money-making machine!

  11. 11 11 John Faben

    Mark ain’t gonna sell any of his if he’s only offering a money-back guarantee. I’m so confident my prediction-kit works that I’m willing to offer you $150 back if my $100 kit fails to predict the gender of your baby.

  12. 12 12 Eliezer

    Do they have a test for transgender?

  13. 13 13 Dave

    Day 1: send 32,000 people an email saying the market will go up today and send 32,000 people an email saying the market will go up today

    Day 2: of the 32,000 that you sent the correct prediction to, send 16,000 people an email saying the market will go up today and 16,000 people an email saying the market will go down today

    Day 3: repeat with 8,000 each

    Day 4: repeat with 4,000 each

    Day 5: repeat with 2,000 each

    Day 6: send an email to the 2,000 left saying you have a 100% track record in predicting market direction which is significantly better than the 3% expected from randomly guessing market direction. To get tomorrow’s email with my prediction, send $10,000 with a 100% money back guarantee if I’m wrong. Send 1000 an up email. Send 1000 a down email. Collect $10m, pay back $5m.

  14. 14 14 Eliezer

    Dave 12, if only I knew 64,000 people that would open an email from me.

  15. 15 15 Gordon L.

    Boris Yeltsin believed there was a way to predict an expected baby’s gender. Check out the ever-classy Yeltsin talking to 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl starting at 4:22 of the video http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=2721713n

    I assume he was implying something regarding positions, but if anyone knows, please say.

    I remember watching that segment at the time. Surprised I remembered it. Great that you can grab just about anything from the past on the Web.

  16. 16 16 Mike H

    Reminds me of : https://xkcd.com/937/

  17. 17 17 Paul Grayson

    Interesting – from the reviews it looks like this test almost always predicts a girl.

  18. 18 18 Ted Levy

    Dave @13: I don’t think your Day 1 says what you want it to say. (I first read this kind of idea in a book by David Friedman decades back, BTW)

    AlV @10. It’s correct half the time. I don’t know that it’s ever “accurate.”

  19. 19 19 Harold

    #4,5,6. Whilst there may be a fun element, I think the $99 must be fairly serious. That is quite a lot for a lark. You are right that if you have no reason to expect one test to be more accurate than the others then there is value in getting more than one. The information you do have is not encouraging. Viaguard has 100% five star! But on inspection this is based on one reviewer who admits they have not actually used the product. Gender Maker above gets about 50/50 five star / 1 star. Intelligender does rather worse at 142 one star to 79 five star. It seems there is good reason to doubt the reliability of the latter two, and no real customer based information on the first.

  20. 20 20 David Wallin

    @13 Derren Brown did a horse-racing variant of this for one of his British television shows. It was great (and I highly recommend his works).

    my favorite review (4 stars):

    I used this product when I was 13 weeks pregnant and the result was in dark purple and confused a bit.

    Finally I blessed with baby girl .. so the product works.

  21. 21 21 Mark Westling

    I’m afraid the proposed business plan was inspired in part by an old joke. A kid visits a farmer, pays him $10 for a donkey and agrees to fetch it the next day. He comes back, farmer tells the kid that the donkey died during the night and unfortunately the farmer has already spent the $10. Kid says no problem, I’ll take the dead donkey anyway. A month later the farmer sees him and asks him why he did it. Kid says “I actually made money off it. I raffled it off. Sold 100 tickets for $1 each”. Farmer says “But weren’t people upset that you were raffling a dead donkey?” Kid says “Only the winner, so I gave him his money back”.

  22. 22 22 Mark Westling

    More details on the business plan. The online version of this product would ask about a dozen questions that sound relevant (“Does the father have more uncles than aunts?”, that sort of thing.) It’ll then make the prediction using simple conditional probabilities from whatever background data could be collected. BUT, the sample size of the data will be deliberately small, so the site could report (via a fancy PDF file):

    “Our statistical model shows a 65% chance that you’re going to have a BOY!”**

    **Based on seven samples. [leave this off the PDF, of course]

    Yeah, I thought about this way too long.

  23. 23 23 Ken B

    @Ted Levy: My kit always predicts a girl. It’s precise.

  24. 24 24 Mike H

    Another: “We have 2 girls now and we’re hoping for a boy but i took 2 of these tests and they both read a very dark pink “girl” result… this test gave me some temporary peace of mind and closure since i am a very impatient person when it comes to surprises/secrets…. Needless to say it was a very pleasant and welcomed surprise when [the baby's] most definitely a BOY. Very happy that this test was wrong!

    So, the value of the test was that it gave a result they believed, not that the result was correct.

  25. 25 25 Capt. J Parker

    I have two questions: 1) Am I alone in thinking gender testing in the age of on demand abortion is horrific? 2) Should I be more or less horrified of unreliable gender tests?

  26. 26 26 Ken B

    @25
    Alas you are not alone. Some years ago many feminists groups, the ones chanting ” our body, our choice”, wanted to ban amniocentesis for just this reason. Some hospitals in Canada had a policy of not revealing the sex for this reason, with the approval of many our bodiers.

  27. 27 27 Dave

    25 and 26 – what exactly are you horrified about? Is there some data you can point to that alludes a spike in non-anecdotal gender specific abortions(let’s leave out China here because they will infanticide if they have to so not really relevant)?

    Are you sure that knowing the sex might not humanize the fetus more to a couple and might even save a few lives?

  28. 28 28 Capt. J Parker

    Dave 27,
    It’s not clear to me that Ken B 26 shares my concerns at all. I will say to him that I have no desire to have the state dictate what medical procedures a woman (or a man) can and cannot have. I would find that just as horrifying. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t remain very concerned about the unintended consequence of the resultant facilitation of gender selective abortions. The data you seek is from India where increasing availability of ultrasound along with legal abortion and a preference for male children has led to increasing numbers of gender selective abortion.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166246/
    So, humanization through knowledge of gender doesn’t work, at least in not in India. Also, I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss China based on your claim that “they will (commit) infanticide if they have to.” While not linked to gender selection, if you believe only half of the horror stories in the press about what Dr. Gosnell was doing then it would seem that the Chinese are not the only ones willing to dabble in infanticide.
    No, there’s no evidence that there is widespread gender selective abortion in the US. And yes, I’m not offering any solutions other than voicing my concern BEFORE any spike in non-anecdotal gender selective abortions.

  29. 29 29 Anonym

    @25, what does the reason for the abortion have to do with it?

    Either the organism is a person (or other animal capable of some threshold level and quality of thoughts and feelings) or it isn’t. And either it is able to suffer from the abortion or it isn’t?

    If your answer is “It is NOT” in both cases, then you may as well be asking about killing a plant or a worm.

    If your answer is “It is”, then you may as well be talking about killing any other person for any reason other than self-defense or criminal punishment, meaning it’s “horrific” anyway, even if the rationale were poverty or rape or whatever.

  30. 30 30 Mike H

    There does seem to be an inconsistency between the positions “A woman should be allowed to have an abortion for any reason whatsoever” and “People should not be allowed to abort a foetus just because it’s female”. Is there a way to resolve the consistency without also believing “males are far less valuable than females”?

  31. 31 31 Ken B

    @Dave 27
    You have misread me. I am pointing out the stark hypocrisy of chanting “our bodies our choice” when it comes to aborting a fetus, but passing laws against amnio or sex testing. I am “pro-choice” to use the loaded term.

  32. 32 32 Ken B

    @28
    Actually I agree with you on these points. The social consequences of widespread sex selection are indeed worrying. I confess I have no good ideas for a remedy.

  33. 33 33 Dave

    If Dr Gosnell was not doing sex selective pregnancies, I don’t see the point of bringing him up in this thread.

    Sorry I should have specified that I was talking about Western countries where the cultural demands of a male heir aren’t as extreme. My point is that in China and India, the sex selection criteria is so heightened, that abortions might actually be preferable to taking the prengancy to term at which point they are finding out it’s a girl that they want to kill

    http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-loses-3-million-girls-in-infanticide/article3981575.ece

    I do know women who have had dangerous pregnancies and didn’t want to find out the sex or name the child until it came to term because they were worried about another miscarriage and medically neccessary abortion. They didn’t want to imagine what their child could be like because it would have been adding to the trauma. I know that this is only anecdotal and maybe not a direct demonstration of my point (though I think a fairly good indirect one) but I am also offering no solutions rather than raising my voice that finding out the gender early could reduce infanticide in places like China and India, and reduce abortions in the West.

  34. 34 34 Ken B

    “If Dr Gosnell was not doing sex selective pregnancies, I don’t see the point of bringing him up in this thread.” I do. Surely it’s better to abort in the 5th week rather than wait and kill the baby after birth. So this is actually an argument *for* testing.

  35. 35 35 Dave

    34 – yep Ken….good point!

    Am I alone in thinking that the lack of cheap and accessible early gender testing is horrific?

  36. 36 36 Ken B

    We are seeing in this discussion an evolutionary effect. Humans have males and females at very clsoe to a 50-50 ratio naturally. This evolved. Why? Well there is an advantage in being the scarcer sex. Your genes want you to have children of the scarcer sex. So if a mutation led to 75% boys it would be disfavored.

  37. 37 37 Capt. J Parker

    Anonym 29,
    Even if I deny the humanity of an early term fetus, I can still be horrified at the social evolution caused by gender selective abortion or by what Gosnell was up to. And even if I don’t deny the humanity of the fetus, I can still be troubled that the state might force a woman to bring to term a pregnancy caused by rape or incest. I’m sorry but, I simply can’t buy into the premise that the abortion debate is an all or nothing question. The right to life crowd has taken that stance and has ended up with Gosnell as a result.

  38. 38 38 Ken B

    @25
    You asked “2) Should I be more or less horrified of unreliable gender tests?”

    In the spirit of this blog I will tell you. Less.

    The reason is simple. You fear the adverse consequences of gender selection. The procedure in ineffective so leads to a reduction of the reproduction rate of couples who use it without affecting the gender balance, as other methods might. The procilivity for gender selection might be heritable and this way that proclivity is lessened without the feared side effect of imbalancing.

  39. 39 39 Anonym

    @ Capt. J Parker #37,

    Let’s remember: You asked “Am I alone in thinking gender testing in the age of on demand abortion is horrific?”

    Although it occurred to me that one can find gender selection objectionable or practically bad for a variety of reasons even if it didn’t involve the killing of a person (or of any other animal capable of emotions), my assumption was and is that someone wouldn’t use the term “horrific” for such a scenario, but rather that you were implying something about WHAT was being killed for what reason, and implying, implying personhood, which is why I responded by asserting essentially (short, simplified version here) that if it is not a person, there’s no reason to be horrified regardless of the reason, and if it is a person, you should be horrified regardless of the reason (other than sufficient “self-defense” rationale by the woman).

    But to answer your new questions (in #37)…

    Even if I deny the humanity of an early term fetus, I can still be horrified at the social evolution caused by gender selective abortion or by what Gosnell was up to [?]

    Although “horrified” seems an unusual term to attach to the “social evolution” unless you wish to spell out what you mean and why it is “horrifying”, of course you are entitled to feel however you wish about adverse consequences you would anticipate for society, how people treat one another, etc.

    As for Gosnell, you’d have to be more specific about what you are referring to, but if you are asking if it would be rational for one to be horrified at the killing of a fetus outside the womb (whether or not it’s still called a fetus, it is whatever it was the moment before extraction), my answer is that location is irrelevant; what matters is what it is, and what the level and nature of its cognition is. Location doesn’t matter, nor does how much it physically resembles a person, nor does whether or not it exhibits one or another non-cognitive function, nor does its “viability”. We are what we are because of our minds — our thoughts and emotions — our cognition. That’s what the morality of killing an organism should be based on, and that’s what the law should be based on.

    And if you’re asking if it is rational for you to be horrified at some killing of a fetus that you do not consider a person, well, obviously you can be horrified at anything you want, but it is irrational to be horrified due to location (if you wouldn’t be horrified by an abortion of the same fetus just prior to extraction), and, assuming you not only didn’t consider it a person but also didn’t consider it any other animal of substantial cognition/emotions, it would be irrational for you to feel any worse — let alone horrified — than you would at the killing of a zygote or a plant or a worm, except if you attach “horror” to the killing of a magnificently complex organism or “horror” at the thought that what could have become a person will not (but then you’d have be be horrified at all the would-be people never even conceived).

    And you ask:

    And even if I don’t deny the humanity of the fetus, I can still be troubled that the state might force a woman to bring to term a pregnancy caused by rape or incest.

    “Troubled” is not only different from “horrified”, but also quite vague, as it leaves unclear whether or not you would object to such a law or support it but merely feel bad for the woman. If you mean the latter, of course you can feel that way. I think anyone would feel quite bad for the woman. But if you view the fetus as a person, it doesn’t make sense for you to oppose such a law unless you’d also oppose laws that prohibit the mother from killing the child at any time after birth. Either way, you’re talking about killing a person. Presumably you don’t think a woman should be allowed to kill a baby or an infant or child or adolescent, etc. because of the stress on her if the person had been conceived via rape.

    And you write:

    I simply can’t buy into the premise that the abortion debate is an all or nothing question.

    I think three principles are imperative in the abortion debate, at least regarding legality, and they apply to much of the morality as well:
    (1) What matters (regarding if the organism has the right to life of a person vs. a woman’s right to abortion) is what the organism is.
    (2) Whether or not the organism is a person is a function of cognitive development and function — specifically, what is the likelihood of a human-like capability of thoughts and emotions/feelings. (The threshold point will of course be a subject of debate, but at least it’s the right criterion. And it’s silly for people to argue that, because it’s unclear where to draw that line, it should be drawn either at conception or at birth, both of which are lines too, and neither of which is based on what matters: cognitive development)
    (3) No one has to agree with me, but each person must agree with himself. (In other words, a person can’t directly contradict himself — he has to be logical. So, for example, if one considers it a person, and one believes a woman should have the right to kill him/her, then one either has to believe a woman should have the right to kill it anytime after it’s born or explain in a meaningful, defensible way why that’s different.)

    As for “all or nothing”, you should clarify what you’re talking about. An organism can’t be partially a person, at least not for this purpose (if for any purpose). So that IS “all or nothing” — i.e., a person or not a person. But nothing I’ve said indicates “all or nothing” in terms of either banning all abortion or allowing all abortion. And I think the only sensible view is to the contrary, per the framework above, since a zygote obviously doesn’t have human-like cognition, and a fetus a moment before delivery isn’t significantly different cognitively from a newborn baby*. At some point during development in the womb, the organism becomes a person, and therefore begins to have the same right to life as other persons.

    * At least one philosopher/ethicist (can’t recall his name) argues that baby’s haven’t developed sufficient cognition to be considered persons, but I don’t know what to make of that, and certainly I’d be inclined to err very much on the side of caution in assessment and a prudently low standard for human-like cognition, so my assumption is that if I knew more about that view, I’d reject it.

  40. 40 40 Anonym

    Sorry for the very long post, folks. If I could have been more concise, or if I should have been less thorough, I apologize.

  41. 41 41 Dave

    39 – interesting

  42. 42 42 Capt. J Parker

    Anonym 39,
    Hey, I was camping for a week and off the grid. Thanks for the extensive reply. I’m still digesting it all but this parenthetical hit home for me “(The threshold point will of course be a subject of debate, but at least it’s the right criterion. And it’s silly for people to argue that, because it’s unclear where to draw that line, it should be drawn either at conception or at birth, both of which are lines too, and neither of which is based on what matters: cognitive development)” I would argue that, at least for today, where to draw the line is unknowable. And therefor I continue to reject personhood of the fetus (even if personhood is determined based on cognitive development as you suggest) as the sole defining criteria to determine the morality of abortion. A late term abortion for gender selection horrifies me. Prohibition of an early term abortion in the case of rape based on having crossed an unknowable cognitive development line seems to me to ignore too many knowable moral problems in favor of the unknowable.

    Ken B 38 – Oh no! Back door eugenics. I’m still horrified.

  43. 43 43 Ken B

    @42: Ahhh but you only asked if you should be *less* horrified.

  44. 44 44 Anonym

    @ Capt. (my Capt.) Parker,

    I envy your week camping and off the grid.

    I did not assert or imply that personhood of the fetus is “the sole defining criteria to determine the morality of abortion”. One can find the killing of many things — even things that lack any cognition at all, such as plants — immoral, in general or under particular conditions or for particular reasons that are deemed insufficient or inappropriate, as long as there is some argument that such killing is immoral based on harm done to some person or animal (which isn’t to say that anything that causes harm is immoral; it’s not necessarily sufficient, just necessary).

    Albert Scwheitzer promoted a general “reverence for life” which, if I recall and understand correctly, would imply at least the possibility that killing all sorts of life can be immoral. I would only add the qualifier that, while general rules can be good to promote and abide by (because rules of thumb can serve well, and because they can promote cultural elements that are conducive to harming others less and/or helping others more), killing a plant, or probably killing a worm, is not immoral in itself because such organisms are not capable of suffering (nor of any other emotions).

    If late term abortion for gender selection horrifies you, and if this would be the case even if/though you did/do not consider the late term fetus a person (or other animal capable of significant cognition, however you wish to define it), tell me why it horrifies you. Or put differently, why would it have to be a late term abortion for it to horrify you, as opposed to abortion of an early embryo?

    As for prohibition of killing of a human organism (organism with human DNA) that resulted from rape, would you be horrified — or even object to — prohibition of killing that organism after it is born? If not, then why would you be horrified at prohibition at killing it in the womb based on some agreed (in law) view that the organism is not different enough from the newborn to consider it a non-person and therefore to view it as lacking the right to life of a person? I know you mentioned “early term” in the case of rape, but you are combining variables in a way that I think is clouding the key principles. It really comes back to whether or not you think an embryo or fetus is/becomes a person at any point (although some may argue that even if it is, a woman should still have a right to abort it, which begs further questions that I’d ask as challenges). If you do, then choosing some line is much more rational than choosing birth as the line, because one has already established that that personhood (and the associated right to life) occurs before birth, so choosing birth is knowingly choosing the wrong spot for the line, rather than trying to choose the spot that seems most appropriate. And this applies whether or not this person was conceived via rape or not. The most that I think could be reasonably argued is that within whatever band of development or measurement uncertainty within which it is very difficult for reasonable, well-informed people to make a call on personhood or not, perhaps there could be a slightly different cut-off point in the case of rape, considering the suffering of definite person, the woman. But that would have to be a narrow band, because erring on the side of permitting abortion in that case is also erring on the side of permitting the killing of what may be an innocent person.

    As a note, it’s unclear if you are saying that you oppose policies that “horrify” you (or if you do so at least within constitutional bounds). Is that what you’re saying? Because one can feel horrified at something without feeling that it would be right to criminalize it.

  45. 45 45 Harold

    Gosnell was aborting way past the legal gestation limit, this is partly why it may be found horrifying.

    The line will always be fuzzy. The cost of aborting a fertilised egg is tiny, a fully developed baby large. The benefits required to justify aborting the fetus need to increase to balance the increasing cost as the fetus develops. Some do not approve of IUD’s because they are abortion devices, but many do not find that morally very worrying. Almost everyone is horrified by infanticide.

    Society does indeed demand greater justification as the gestation period increases, later abortions are very rare, and requitre special justifications. One of which is incest. Not quite sure why this is so special. Incestual rape of course would already be covered by the rape clause.

    It must not be forgotten that there is a significant health cost to the mother bringing a baby to term. Some undertake this commercially for $25-35,000 I believe. This perhaps gives us some indication of the costs to the mother.

  46. 46 46 Anonym

    Harold,

    I may be failing to understand your framework precisely, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to choose the “line” of abortion legality (or morality) based simply on cost-benefit analysis, unless you would do the same for the killing of an innocent newborn or person of any other age. I presume in the latter case you would view persons as having a right not to be killed, and not on the basis of some cost-benefit analysis but on the basis of individual rights.

  47. 47 47 Harold

    Anonym, you are partly right. There are occasions when cost of keeping someone alive are greater than the benefits. Certain medical situations come to mind, where euthenasia is debated. Death penalty also. Of course, giving policemen guns is tacitly approving the taking of life. During war the ends are considered sufficient to justify killing people. My point is that there is no requirement to decide on a line dividing person from non-person. The fetus becomes more person-like as it develops, and requires greater justification to end its life. Thus at and shortly after conception it requires only a choice of birth control (IUD). At 25 weeks it requires the real endagerment of the mother’s life life.

    It is an intersting subject whether the “right” to life is fundamental, or actually arises from a cost-benefit analysis. We are unable to effectively conduct such an analysis, and on balance it is likely that accepting such a right is the best we can do. I am in favor of this right, but we can and do waive it when the justification is sufficient.

  48. 48 48 Anonym

    Harold #47,

    Well, assuming you (and people generally) do believe that there is a fundamental right to life that applies to persons outside wombs — not absolute, as you note, but close to it at least for someone who is innocent and is not brain dead, under anything but truly extraordinary circumstances (e.g., famine), aside from war or other defense justifications — then logic would dictate either that (1) such a right applies to some/all persons inside wombs or (2) that there is some reason why it shouldn’t apply to persons inside wombs or (3) that there are no persons inside wombs (and if the latter, one would have to address what makes an organism a person and why the seemingly arbitrary point of birth makes that difference, and I assume there is no sufficient reason to view that point as the dividing line between personhood and non-personhood).

    As for matters of degree of personhood, even if we apply that view, we are still left needing to choose a dividing line between a sufficient degree of personhood to have a right to life, so we really have the same issue to resolve. Otherwise we either choose that arbitrary point of birth as when to attach that right, or we choose the point of conception. Either one seems nonsensical to me.

    And I don’t think cost-benefit generally plays a major role in resolving the issue, except on the margin, as I mentioned in #43 (and what I said can be applied to reaching a threshold degree of personhood just as it could to a shift from non-personhood to personhood as I put it). I wrote:
    The most that I think could be reasonably argued is that within whatever band of development or measurement uncertainty within which it is very difficult for reasonable, well-informed people to make a call on personhood or not, perhaps there could be a slightly different cut-off point in the case of rape, considering the suffering of definite person, the woman. But that would have to be a narrow band, because erring on the side of permitting abortion in that case is also erring on the side of permitting the killing of what may be an innocent person.

  49. 49 49 Harold

    Legally birth may be a dividing line, but we do not use birth as an absolute dividing line. Abortion is not permitted at 35 weeks under any circumstances. If you are going down the personhood route, there can be no flexibility on the grounds of rape or anything else -that is not the fault of the fetus. It makes no sense to say the fetus is a person and therefore cannot be killed, unless it was conceived by rape.

    It is like very many things where we have to draw a line. What age should people be allowed to drive, drink, have sex? Some 15 year olds may be responsible enough, and some 19 year olds are not, but we have to draw some line. We try to get it about right.

    Rights will always bump up against other rights. It is inevitable, and we cannot hold one right as absolute in the face of conflict with other rights. We must and do go for some sort of balance.

  50. 50 50 anonym

    Harold #49,

    First, to be clear, I’m not discussing what the law is, but what it should be — or more precisely what should be the basis for the law — and also addressing the morality aspect.

    Re: It makes no sense to say the fetus is a person and therefore cannot be killed, unless it was conceived by rape.

    It can possibly make sense to have a different cut-off point in the case of rape (or other circumstances involving levels of harm to people) per the point I made regarding the gray area of the onset of personhood (sort of treating the benefit of the doubt differently within a small band of gestation time) or per the point you made about personhood possibly being a matter of degree rather than all or none, in which case the threshold of degree of personhood at which the organism has a right to life could (at least ideally, if practical) be different for rape or other particular hardship circumstances. To be sure, getting into different cut-off points is troubling and could be more practically problematic than the advantages would justify, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t at least conceptually make sense per the above reasoning.

    But the above is certainly not my main point, and in fact was my response to points made by you and by “Capt.”, recognizing the potential appropriateness of slight flexibility on cut-off points based on what I see as implications by him and you, respectively.

    I don’t know what to make of the rest of your comment. Sure, rights are not absolute, at least not when stated broadly rather than expressing them as almost inviolable except under particular sorts of extraordinary circumstances (rationales). But if you’re still arguing that cost-benefit is the key approach here, I refer you back to my earlier comments and the implied questions, which I don’t think you’ve addressed. Outside of the narrow flexibility I discuss above and in prior comments, essentially the issue comes down to whether or not the organism is a person (or the degree personhood), and if it’s a person (or enough of a person), then we attach a right to life that is the same or at least comparable to that of any other person (a baby, a child, an adult). So if you’re arguing that we should decide on the legality of deliberately killing that person (violating that right) on the basis of cost-benefit, perhaps you’d explain to me on what basis cost-benefit might lead you to think legality is appropriate, and address my point that such a position would apparently at least generally apply to babies, children and adults as well as to persons in the womb.

    Yes, we balance rights, but the right to life of a person comes close to absolute except under extraordinary circumstances, some of which others and I have mentioned (self-defense, war, perhaps some sort of mercy killing of someone incapacitated, etc.). And again, if you think cost-benefit analysis is the key approach to deciding legality of killing persons in the womb, and could provide much more latitude to do so, but you would not apply the same principle to persons outside the womb, that begs the question of why the difference.

  51. 51 51 Harold

    “It can possibly make sense to have a different cut-off point in the case of rape”
    It makes sense to have a different cut off point for abortion in the case of rape, but not about the definition of personhood. There is a grey area, but I don’t see that the details of the conception should logically affect the identification of the point (or degree)of personhood. Putting it another way, if we are deciding on whether abortion should be allowed on the basis of whether something has a certain degree of personhood, then that assesment of personhood cannot reasonably be based on the desirability of the abortion, or we are in a circular argument. Or are we to say that if you are conceived by rape you are less of a person?

    We do not base our cut-off point only on the status of the fetus, but also on the status of others, usually the mother. How can this be logical except as some form of cost/ benefit analysis?

    So it makes no sense to say that the fetus has attained such a degree of personhood at this or that point that it then aquires the “right to life”. It has weak right to life as a ball of cells, and that right gets stronger until about 25-30 weeks. It then has a very strong, but not absolute right to life.

  52. 52 52 Harold

    #51. When I say “it makes no sense” in the above post, that is a little strong. I mean I do not agree with saying…

  53. 53 53 anonym

    Harold #51,

    It makes sense to have a different cut off point for abortion in the case of rape, but not about the definition of personhood.

    Of course. Personhood of the organism obviously has nothing to do with the manner in which it was conceived. And just to directly answer your (rhetorical) question, certainly no one is less of a person if conceived via rape.

    We are talking ultimately about what the cut-off point for legal abortion should be (more precisely, what the basis should be). (Another aspect is also the moral perspective.)

    I’m having some trouble discerning your position and argument. You say “it makes no sense to say that the fetus has attained such a degree of personhood at this or that point that it then acquires the
    ‘right to life’”, yet you then say that “It has weak right to life as a ball of cells, and that right gets stronger until about 25-30 weeks. It then has a very strong, but not absolute right to life.”

    Well, first of all, I’ve already discussed the “right to life” of a person (or as whatever you’d consider enough of a person) — and I mean any person, in or out of the womb — as nearly absolute except under extraordinary circumstances (I gave examples on a couple of occasions), not something subject to cost-benefit analysis (e.g., we shouldn’t make it legal for someone to kill an infant/child/adult on some cost-benefit basis except perhaps in truly extraordinary circumstances, and presumably at least arguably not against the best interest of that person, or at least no worse than neutral). I haven’t seen you disagree or present a different perspective on this. If you don’t see it that way, please explain how you think cost-benefit analysis should be applied to the legality of killing people against their interest except in such extraordinary circumstances such as self defense, war, etc. (and although one could get into active vs. passive “killing”, I think there’s a difference between choosing not to provide some hugely expensive, slightly life extending treatment vs. actively killing). If you don’t disagree, then we agree that there is something we can, for all practical purposes, call a “right to life” that people have, with extraordinary exceptions such as those I’ve mentioned, but that aside from those justifications, we don’t apply cost-benefit from the would-be killer’s perspective to determine whether or not it should be legal to kill that other person.

    Let me try to explain something that may be clouding our discussion:

    First, let’s consider the simplest, easiest scenario: We determine a line — a point in fetal development — at which, per very precise measurement, and measuring each individual fetus, and with a precise idea of what constitutes “person-like” cognition, we determine to the best of our ability/judgment that a fetus is a person.

    In this scenario, we have a person who has whatever right to life other persons have. Any conditions and rationales under which one would want it to be legal for someone to kill that person would have to apply to persons outside the womb as well (at least conceptually – e.g., if two adults were temporarily physically attached, and one severing them would kill the other, if bodily liberty is the argument in favor of legality of killing). The point being that we can pretty much say, practically speaking, that cost-benefit analysis doesn’t enter into the picture, unless you’d apply cost-benefit to deciding the legality of killing any person.

    And conception via rape or any other hardship (high “cost”) to the pregnant woman (other than a strong enough self-defense rationale if there is a sufficiently severe threat to her health/life) of carrying the person to term and giving birth should not be a factor, because very simply, we are talking about whether or not to let her kill a person, and just as we wouldn’t let her kill a person outside the womb based on that rationale, we shouldn’t let her kill a person inside the womb based on that rationale. (And just to address what some may think, I don’t think the option of adoption in the latter case is really a key distinction.)

    Now, second scenario – closer to our current reality:
    1. There is some uncertainty and imprecision over what level and nature of cognition should qualify a fetus as a person.
    2. There is uncertainty and imprecision regarding whether or not any given fetus is a person due to (A) imprecise measurement of cognitive development/activity, (B) lack of individualized measurement, (C) imprecision re: time since conception (I think), and (D) some variability (I assume) in cognitive development/activity from fetus to fetus after the same time period since conception.
    So we have a law stating a cut-off point that carries uncertainty and imprecision in a number of ways as far as determining whether or not a given fetus is a person with an associated right to life. The cut-off point in the law – our personhood line per the law – is thus our best, crude effort at setting a line that is probabilistic in nature. Given that it is probabilistic, there is arguably some narrow band within which we can consider cost-benefit such as if the woman had been raped. For example, if at X apparent days since conception, there is a 55% chance that the fetus is a person, one could reasonably argue that it should be legal for a woman who was raped to abort, but not a woman with less hardship (“cost”), for whom the cut-off would be, say, 51%.

    And a third scenario: Combine the second scenario with the framework of degrees of personhood starting at some point in fetal development (and by the way, no, there is not even a “weak right to life” of “a ball of cells”, but if you have an argument to that effect, I’d like to hear it). In this third scenario we have not only all the imprecision and uncertainties of the second scenario, but also the matter of degree of personhood, and I think one could argue that this could also justify a narrow band within which a different cut-off point could apply in hardship cases like rape (e.g., 56% chance that it’s 80% of a full person as cut-off in case of rape, vs. 51% chance that it’s 70% of a full person otherwise).

    But again, those narrow bands were not my main point. My main point was actually in the opposite direction: that what matters is whether or not the organism is a person, not other factors such as rape as a rationale for abortion legality regardless of personhood, or (at the other end) denying the option of abortion because the woman’s reason (e.g., gender preference) isn’t deemed worthy, regardless of lack of personhood. My comments re: those “narrow bands” were in response to arguments made by others, as I’ve acknowledged that, arguably, some narrow flexibility could be appropriate.

  54. 54 54 Anonym

    #53. When I say “Of course.” at beginning of my comment, I’m saying of course it does not make sense to define the personhood of a fetus differently in the case of rape or otherwise. As I said, the method of conception has nothing to do with what the organism is.

    I was not saying “of course” to your (Harold’s) statement that “It makes sense to have a different cut off point for abortion in the case of rape.” That is arguable, but the opposite is also arguable, so either way can make sense, but I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the contrary view couldn’t also make sense.

    My loooooong comment above hopefully makes clear why I say the above.

  55. 55 55 Harold

    “if two adults were temporarily physically attached, and one severing them would kill the other” Have you read “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson? Not relly that relevant, but it seemed a good description.

    We seem to have arrived at the same practical conclusion, but through different routes, if I have understood you correctly. Please correct me if I am wrong, but you agree thatit is a t least a reasonable position that cost-benefit reasoning is OK, and allows a band of dates for which abortion could be allowed later in cases where the cost to the mother is higher.

    We have different ways of arriving at that conclusion.

    You say your main point is whether or not the organism is a person. I don’t believe that there is one moment at which it becomes so, any more than there is one moment when a child becomes an adult. It may be necessary to define such a point in law, but this is a convenience.

  56. 56 56 Anonym

    Harold #55,

    I have not read or heard of “Touching the Void”. I mention the “two adults attached” because I have created that hypothetical (and variations on the same concept) in discussions of abortion, given that some argue that abortion shouldn’t be restricted because the woman’s bodily liberty trumps everything else.

    As for the extent of our agreement, as I’ve said I think there is a small area (some narrow band of fetal development time) within which it could arguably be appropriate/better to apply cost-benefit analysis and thereby set a slightly different cut-off point for legal abortion in the case of rape (and perhaps other hardships or conceivably even particularly high costs to society), but again, only a narrow band if any. But I wouldn’t put forth cost-benefit analysis as the essential framework for how we generally approach the issue of deciding the law (or morality) of if/when abortions should be legal, and I think you were arguing for such a general framework. I see it as something applicable at most at the margins. The essential framework is one of a right to life we attach to persons, and the determination of whether or not the organism is a person, or if you prefer, is enough of a person (i.e., sufficiently person-like in cognition), regardless of cost-benefit considerations such as rape.

    And again, all of the above applies whether we are choosing a dividing line based on when we think the fetus becomes a person or on when we think it becomes enough of a person to have a right to life. Any narrow band of flexibility of the cut-off point due to particularly high “cost” (e.g., rape) would seem to be based largely on probability in the former case (whether or not it’s a person), and degree in the latter, but even in the latter case, it’s hard to see more than fairly slight flexibility, since the heart of the matter is still what the organism is, and if it’s enough of a person (sufficiently person-like cognition) to have a right to life in a non-rape situation, I don’t see how much more of a person (how much more person-like its cognition) it/he/she could be while still being appropriate to allow it to be killed.

    Also, as I mentioned, I don’t know on what reasonable basis you think “a ball of cells” has even a “weak” right to life. I think the right to life of a person is based on personhood, and the only sensible basis for personhood is some level/type of cognition, so I don’t see how a ball of cells with obviously no cognition could have a/any right to life.

  57. 57 57 Harold

    As an aside, Touching the Void is about two climbers attached by a rope, and one has to cut the rope to save himself, plunging his partner to *almost* certain death. It is a true story, and well worth the read.

    Once we have established a narrow band is reasonable, it is then the width of the band that needs to be established. Since the criteria for setting the band are largely unknown, or possibly subjective (degree or time of attaining of personhood etc.) it seems that some could reasonably argue for a wider band than others.

    My framework seems to remove the need to assign an (arbitrary?) transition from non-person to person. Or rather, it does allow the assignment of such a point, but allows for flexibility until that point is reached. Most people (I think) in the USA agree that killing the ball of cells is OK in some circumstances, and killing an infant is definitely not in almost all circumstances. The ball of cells is not enirely unimportant, but we do not attach so much importance to it as an infant. Once the fetus has reached 32 weeks or so, and is always able to survive outside the womb with little intervention, then most people believe killing it is pretty much as wrong as infanticide – but maybe not quite as wrong – opinions may differ here. By 37 weeks, a common premature delivery date, nearly all agree that this is much the same as infanticide. It seems artificial and counter productive to try to assign an instant where the transition occurs, and say everything is allowed before this, and nothing after it.

    One problem with accepting this sort of reasoning is that it opens the door to more of this sort of reasoning. Why stop at birth? Why not assign value to different lives? We have a belief that one life should not be “worth” more than another. The fact is that we do make these sort of judgements anyway. A prostitute getting murdered hardly makes the news, whereas a middle class “innocent” young woman victim makes all the headlines. However, I am for a general presumption of equal value post birth. I think our inability to evaluate the “worth” of a person makes it much more likely that more harm would result from the attempt than good.

    So whilst generally the “right to life” should be applied equally post birth, (possibly post some time pre-birth), there is a time during gestation that I think we can make a reasonable stab at evaluating the “worth” of a developing fetus. It may sound heartless, but it actually provides a mechanism for offering protection at all stages of development. The alternative seems to be a cut off date before which there is no protection.

  58. 58 58 Anonym

    Touching the Void is about two climbers attached by a rope, and one has to cut the rope to save himself, plunging his partner to *almost* certain death.

    Two guys along a cliff happens to be another variation I’ve come up with, although in the scenario I use it’s two hikers who don’t know each other (so I remove any implicit obligation that may exist among those who venture out together). When they happen to be next to each other, one slips and grabs the the second guy such that it poses no significant threat to the other if he allows the first guy to hold on and pull himself up, but if the second guy breaks the first guy’s grip to detach them, the first guy will surely fall to his death, and the question is if that should be legal (and if it’s moral) even if the second guy simply doesn’t want to be delayed for something fairly unimportant. I make this an extreme case to test the position that all that matters with the abortion issue is the bodily liberty of the woman, which some contend. Yet another variation I use is two strangers scuba diving when one’s air malfunctions and he grabs the extra “regulator” (air apparatus”) of a second diver (attached to the second diver’s air tank). They both could then ascend safely (plenty of air for both), but the second diver doesn’t want his recreational dive to be interrupted, so he forces the first diver away, knowing that the first diver will then drown. Same concept.

    Once we have established a narrow band is reasonable, it is then the width of the band that needs to be established. Since the criteria for setting the band are largely unknown, or possibly subjective (degree or time of attaining of personhood etc.) it seems that some could reasonably argue for a wider band than others.
    If you’re saying that, if any flexibility could be reasonable, than even greater flexibility could be reasonable, I don’t think that makes sense. The point is that a small area of flexibility is reasonable, and a large one is not, based on all I’ve discussed (and I’ll spare this thread the repetition this time).

    Most people (I think) in the USA agree that killing the ball of cells is OK in some circumstances, and killing an infant is definitely not in almost all circumstances. The ball of cells is not enirely unimportant, but we do not attach so much importance to it as an infant

    We are not talking about what most people think, so let’s leave that aside. What most people think on those points is not necessarily relevant or even internally consistent (i.e., logical). Let’s stick to discussing what you and I think is logical and reasonable.

    I’ve asked you on what basis you think a ball of cells – an organism obviously incapable of any cognition, no more than, say, a carrot — has even a weak right to life, as you asserted. You haven’t given me a reason. Put differently, why should be any legal restriction at all on a woman’s ability to abort a ball of cells in her body on the basis of a right to life of that ball of cells? If there were a (living) carrot inside that woman would you say the carrot has a “weak right to life” such that the law should prohibit her from killing it under some circumstances due to that right to life?

    Once the fetus has reached 32 weeks or so, and is always able to survive outside the womb with little intervention, then most people believe killing it is pretty much as wrong as infanticide

    Again, what most people think is a distraction, but if you’re saying that that’s reflective of your view, then my response is that I don’t think viability outside the womb has much to do with it. I assume you wouldn’t say that, if viability became possible after 1 week of gestation, all abortions should be banned based on a right to life of the embryo, and I assume you wouldn’t say that, if no viability before birth at 9 months were possible, that there should be no restrictions on abortion on the basis of any right to life of the fetus. Again, aside from some narrow flexibility in time, what matters regarding a/any right to life is what the organism is. Whether or not it could survive outside the womb has nothing to do with what it is (a person, or how much of a person / how person-like its cognition).

    It seems artificial and counter productive to try to assign an instant where the transition occurs, and say everything is allowed before this, and nothing after it.
    We may be going around in circles. I don’t want to be even more repetitious from comment to comment. Again, it is quite arguable that it is optimal to set the law as one point in fetal development time, and, alternatively, it is also arguable (theoretically or perhaps even practically) that it is optimal to have some narrow difference in cut-off points for particular situations such as rape, due to uncertainty and imprecision, and also due to some gray area (pardon the pun – gray matter) over what level/nature of cognition qualifies as person-like (or person-like enough to have a right to life).

    there is a time during gestation that I think we can make a reasonable stab at evaluating the “worth” of a developing fetus.

    No, there is a time during gestation at which we can make a reasonable stab at saying that the probably has what should probably be considered person-like (or sufficiently person-like) cognition, and at that point the organism has a right to life just like any other person or darn close to it. To call it an assessment of worth and say that this is essentially about cost-benefit analysis doesn’t seem sensible to me.

  59. 59 59 Harold

    We are going in circles here. You say there is a point where the fetus is sufficiently person-like to aquire right to life. I say why try to pinpoint the moment? Allow for gradations, and many problems and inconsistencies disappear. I don’t see that there is any fundamental reason why such a moment should exist in principle. Gradations of “value” fits well with how we deal with morality generally. It is illegal to mis-treat animals, for example, but not to kill them humanely.

    I don’t think I can catagorically reject that there is such a threshold in development, it just seems artificial and unneccesary. I doubt you can catagorically demonstrate that there is such a threshold.

  60. 60 60 Anonym

    Harold #59,

    Indeed, I was thinking we are going in circles too, and I don’t wish to keep repeating my reasoning.

    Why try to pinpoint the moment at which a fetus is a person or is sufficiently person-like (in cognition, and therefore as an entity) to have a right to life? Because the alternative is for the law to either ban all abortions or none, and none means the cut-off point is birth, which is arbitrary as far as the question of personhood, which should either be entirely the basis for the law or very close to it.

    If you’re asking why should the law be one point in fetal development in all cases regardless of cost-benefit (e.g., rape vs. non-rape), even if we leave aside the practical difficulty of adjudicating each case to factor some cost-benefit into the cut-off point in each case, one could only reasonably argue at most that there is narrow flexibility.

    Again, we take our best shot at determining the point at which it is sufficiently likely that that organism has person-like cognition and thus is a person with a right to life, or has sufficiently person-like cognition such that it is enough of a person that it has a right to life, and at that point, well, it has a right to life. And as I’ve discussed, arguably there could be at most some narrow flexibility in choosing that point in different cases with different cost-benefit because of the imprecision, uncertainty, and a narrow band of cognitive development affecting degree of cognition.

    I could go on, but it would just be rehashing what I’ve written on this thread repeatedly, so I’ll stop here. Glad to have had the discussion even though I wish we had achieved a better understanding of each other’s reasoning.

  61. 61 61 Harold

    Indeed, it is heartening that it is possible to conduct such a discussion in constructive tones. Thanks to Steve for providing such a forum.

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