Two Court Decisions for Science

There have been two interesting court decisions, I think both decided correctly for science this week. In the first, a federal court has decided states may regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. In particular, one statement from the judge seemed to come straight from the deck of cards.

“There is no question that the GHG (greenhouse gas) regulations present great challenges to automakers,” Judge William Sessions III, sitting in the U.S. District Court in Burlington, wrote at the conclusion of his 240-page decision.

He added, “History suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges. In light of the public statements of industry representatives, (the) history of compliance with previous technological challenges, and the state of the record, the court remains unconvinced automakers cannot meet the challenges of Vermont and California’s GHG regulations.”

Exactly correct. They raised the same complaints for seatbelts, crumple-zones, airbags, and CAFE standards, and each time their claims of imminent bankruptcy have been shown to be overblown. If anything, it should be good for the industry. As Toyota has become the largest automobile manufacturer in the world with consistently rising profits, the American car manufacturers have locked themselves into making bigger less efficient cars and consistently show losses and diminishing size. If anything, this kick in the pants will help car manufacturers in this country survive and compete with the cars from Japan.

The second, from the NYT, a New Jersey court has refused to decide that life “begins” at conception.

A doctor is under no obligation to tell a pregnant woman that she is carrying “an existing human being” before performing an abortion, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled today in a decision that had been eagerly awaited by both foes and supporters of abortion rights in this country.

The 5-to-0 decision came in a case brought in 1996 by Rosa Acuna, who was 29 years old and married when she and her husband, who already had two children, agreed to an abortion about six to eight weeks into her pregnancy.

People on both sides of the abortion debate said that Mrs. Acuna’s medical malpractice case was essentially asking the court to weigh in on the long-debated issue of when life begins.

Mrs. Acuna charged that the doctor, Dr. Sheldon C. Turkish, did not provide her with “material medical information” before she and her husband signed a consent form allowing him to perform the procedure. Specifically, she said in her lawsuit, the doctor had a duty to tell her that the procedure would “terminate the life of a living member of the species Homo sapiens, that is a human being.”

Because there is no consensus within the medical community, or even in the general public, about when life begins, the justices wrote, there is therefore no legal basis for requiring doctors to tell patients “that an abortion results in the killing of a family member.”

Not only is this fundamentally stupid claim on the part of the plaintiffs, like this 29-year-old woman did not know what an abortion is, but the idea of a court decided when life begins is offensive. I also disagree that there is no consensus (or that there can not be one) within the scientific community. Scientists should acknowledge that life does not “begin”, but is instead continuous from parent to child, and the real question is when we consider a human life to have value. There is no stage in human reproduction in which the components are not living. The real issue is fundamentally religious, and should therefore be outside the purview of the courts, that is when does someone get a soul? Or in more secular terms, become a human being? That is unanswerable, unmeasurable, and should not be determined by any court or government.

So good news from the courts this week, stepping in where they should, and staying out of where they don’t belong.


  1. Anonymous

    so the question ‘when does something become a human being’ is fundamentally religious?

  2. Anonymous: Secular means separate from religion.

    “when does the baby get its soul” is a religious question. “when does this pile of DNA become a human being” is a secular question, though it’s not an especially good question.

    As Mark mentioned, it’s more a question of “when does the baby have value” that matters, and to be honest that’s a question that’s probably better answered by the parents than by a court.

  3. Scientists should acknowledge that life does not “begin”, but is instead continuous from parent to child, and the real question is when we consider a human life to have value. There is no stage in human reproduction in which the components are not living. The real issue is fundamentally religious. . .”

    This is among the clearest statements of the issues I have ever seen in print, but I too flagged the word “religious.” Perhaps is could be replaced by “pragmatic.” The phrase “continuous from parent to child” very clearly expresses the biological truth of the matter & in its own way is far more grand & awe-inspiring than the insertion of a soul by God (or his designated agent the sperm) at a particular & definable moment in time.

    My own view is that the issue is already nailed down in the essentially pragmatist statement, “when we consider a human life to have value.” That assignment of value has been handled differently in different times & places & given various rationales. It is a social question, then, not a metaphysical one.

  4. “the real question is when we consider a human life to have value. … The real issue is fundamentally religious,”

    I was with you right up until that last point.

    Only the religious get input into the discussion about when human life has value? I think that’s somewhat offensive to those of us who think religious beliefs are false – our rationalism excludes us from that decision?

  5. “Only the religious get input into the discussion about when human life has value? I think that’s somewhat offensive…”

    I absolutely agree that it would have been offensive if that had been actually written in the post. Thank goodness for the sentence after the one you quoted, right?

  6. Allow me to amplify my point.

    The real issue when most people say life “begins” at conception is that ensoulment occurs at conception, a fundamentally religious concept. From the secular perspective human life has value and deserves protection, so the fundamental question is “when do we care?” Certainly not about sperm and eggs, I think a conception is arbitrary and meaningless, as 55% will miss implantation or be spontaneously aborted. But no matter what one believes, the idea there is an answer to life beginning is fundamentally flawed. Life does not begin.

  7. “Religious” here could be subbed by “philosophical”, no?

  8. I’m always really glad when these cases get overturned. I mean, how stupid do they think women are that they don’t realise what it is they’re aborting.

    It made me very happy to see someone saying that life is continuous. I’ve often thought talking about when life begins is ridiculous. Life is continuous, and life that happens to be human is not intrinsically more valuable than life that isn’t, a human cell has no more value than a plant cell, it’s not the possession of life that gives something value, it’s something else entirely.

  9. But back to the first part about state regulations on greenhouse emissions. I don’t understand why it doesn’t make more sense for a national policy as opposed to a million different local ones – we have one highway system for a reason and car makers don’t sell different cars to each state. Additionally, the long term effects of this policy are really against the best practices of free markets and contrary to consumer choice. I do some work with the AAM and governments legislating technologies that don’t exist and that consumers are not looking to buy is hardly what our government should be doing. If you don’t believe me about consumer choice in this issue take a look over at
    , they have a ton of stats on who’s buying what and where.

  10. Jersey,
    The thing is that the economies of the states that are adopting California’s policies are so large they can not be ignored. If California, New York, Vermont, Maryland, Connecticut, etc., all band together, that’s a huge barrier for these companies, and they can’t just say they won’t sell cars in that state, or make a model just for those states.

    It’s using states power to counteract regulatory malaise from the federal government, and is totally ingenious.

  11. Jersey, why shouldn’t states get to be players in the market too? They have interests like any other entity.

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