Significance Magazine Announces Its Pro-Abortion Position

Significance Magazine waded into the culture wars by publishing “Deciding abortions by the toss of a coin?” by somebody called Michael A. Lewis. Here (in case the article is pulled) are the highlights:

I was recently listening to public radio one morning…[Wendy] Davis was able to stop, for the time being, an abortion bill that in her view would have greatly decreased Texas women’s access to abortion…ongoing battle in the U.S. between pro-choice and anti-abortion forces…in full disclosure I’m pro-choice. I’m so pro-choice…if we’re faced with a situation where forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term would (or would likely) result in that mother’s death but an abortion would result in the “child’s” death, why is it right to kill the child to save the mother?…better way to resolve this dilemma would be to draw on the laws of probability…

Assign the mother the number 1 and the fetus the number 0. Next we’d use the random digit generator in a computer to simulate a coin toss (to avoid the possibility of someone being able to manipulate a real coin by tossing it in a certain way) by randomly choosing either 1 or 0. If the number 0 is chosen, the abortion occurs, resulting in the death of the child. If the number 1 is chosen the mother is forced to carry the baby to term, resulting in her death…I’m personally horrified by this proposal…

I posted this comment, which went into moderation. Be interesting to see if it’s accepted.

What an appallingly stupid article. No, I don’t mean the immoral, murderous position so gleefully supported by its evil author.

I mean the asinine attempt to tie the killing of the lives inside not-to-be mothers to probability, in a journal purportedly about statistics.

What makes it worst of all is the concept of probability is wrong. Use a computer to “simulate a coin toss”? If the author were able to model the physics of coin tosses he’d realize that coin flips are fully deterministic. Meaning he’d have to explicitly pick whom to murder. So much for his scheme.

Come on, editors. Show some pride and common sense. Eschew blatant and ridiculous screeds like this. Go back to statistics.


  1. It’s interesting the author wants to use a computer and random number generator to avoid someone manipulating a coin toss. Personally, I’d distrust the computer. Of course, if a computer made the decision that the mother’s life was in jeopardy, then I suppose the computer would get to decide what action is taken based on that diagnosis. Maybe if we reintroduced people to medicine it might help?

    This is a dilemma that is one I would leave up to the people involved. There are so many factors–the actual reality of how threatening the pregnancy is to the mother, the beliefs of the mother and father, the risk tolerance of the parents, and so forth. Many mothers will risk death to carry a child to term. This is probably the most difficult of all abortion justifications. Using a “coin toss” is just deplorable.

  2. Sheri,

    Point is that a real physical simulation of a coin flip would prove that its outcome if fully deterministic. The outcome is heads or tails with certainty after the spin and other forces are input. There is nothing “random” or unknown or unpredictable about it.

    So not only is Lewis’s moral position reprehensible, his knowledge of probability is shockingly lacking.

  3. It’s also interesting that the author thinks that a computer program generates “truly” random numbers. What a clone.

    Briggsy: you made it through moderation.

  4. Yes, the outcome of the coin toss is deterministic. However, I read the article to say that the author is seeking to prove that pro-life advocates are actually pro-choice since they would reject “random, fair decisions” in whether the mother or child lives. He seems to be saying pro-lifers would favor the mother, though many of the pro-lifers I know would favor doing nothing and letting God sort it out. Also, he is appealing to the idea that a person is not really “choosing” but rather random chance is choosing (absolving everyone of “guilt”), which is where his probability idea falls flat.

    The entire situation relies on probability–how likely is the pregnancy to threaten the mother’s life, how likely would abortion save her life? However, probability is very risky to invoke in life and death situations. The odds can be beat, they can turn out to be right.

    I have discussed this with pro-lifers many times. I really can’t say what the “right” answer is. Most of the time the question is stated as: “Both mother and child will die if no abortion is performed. Do you kill one to save the other?” I don’t know. If you have to choose which one lives, as in the case of mother or child, that becomes one of those King Solomon decisions except this is life and death. You can do nothing and let God sort it out. You can act–but action requires killing the child. The same question comes up in IVF when there are multiple fetuses. Octomom did nothing and that worked out so well. (We could avoid the problem by getting rid of IVF, but that not going to go over well.)

  5. Egads…

    Everybody here, so far, seems to have missed the point the author (M. Lewis) of the referenced article was working hard to emphasize, by way of a form of deprecating metaphorical caricature & sarcasm:

    Why is a fetus/baby’s life presumed to be worth less than an adult’s?

    That is what the pro-life/anti-abortion crowd has done, consistently, time after time after time–the adult mother’s life is more valuable than the would-be child’s life and the fetus is ALWAYS presented as the loser when the ok-to-kill exception is addressed (has anybody ever heard/read this presented as something like, “…under this situation the mother may choose to live for her child or herself…”.

    But why?

    A mother, who’s had some life, who sacrifices her life in a few months for the unborn to have a chance at some life — THAT approach [all else being equal] leads to the development of two independent adults who can live some length of life. Doesn’t that seem “fairer” and more “equitable” than denying a fetus a chance at some life?

    Many mothers/parents clearly think so: One can find no shortage of stories in which parents (and friends, etc.) under grim circumstances have sacrificed themselves so their children, or other’s children, may survive.

    M. Lewis in his article about using stats was making a caricature of the inherent, and arguably very selfish, value trade-off being made by the pro-life/anti-abortion crowd by replacing a moral/value-based, and emotional, trade-off and suggesting it might as well be a random game (aside: that, by the way, is a common symbolic/metaphorical approach most people grasp with some exceptions such as the technically & literally-minded parodied here:; the blatantly obvious inanity of the coin flip simulation proposed is itself an indication the author is presenting sarcastic exaggerated metaphor that is not to be interpreted literally).

    By what has the pro-life/anti-abortion crowd determined that a fetus’ life is automatically worth less than an adult’s life, instead of the other way ’round?

    That’s the philosophical question M.A. Lewis presented in a dialect of metaphorical language [tinged with some sarcasm] our itinerant statistician/philosopher/blogger doesn’t speak. Happy to translate!

    It is ironic, however, that what is [readily apparent to most as being] a presentation of a philosophical matter is completely discounted by a would-be philosopher/statistician whose last words are, “Go back to statistics.”

  6. It seems a bit of an over-reaction on Briggs’ part to respond to a hypothetical discussion of moral philosophy in that way. The author was not advocating that position, anyway.

    The article pertains to a particular moral hypothetical: if the situation was that either the mother or child would die, you could choose which to save but you couldn’t save both. What should you do?

    The pro-choice position would be to always save the mother. The objection to that is to ask why a mother’s life is judged more valuable than the child’s. So should you always save the child and kill the mother? But then people would ask the same question in reverse. How, morally, can you weigh lives in any sort of balance?

    So the author is asking whether proponents of this position – a position the author does not hold – would therefore find random chance to be morally acceptable/preferable. If the moral problem is having to make a choice, then does avoiding the choice by leaving it to chance circumvent the moral issue?

    In other words, this is not any sort of serious proposal, it’s an attempt to identify the precise moral criterion pro-life people are using when making this argument by use of thought experiments. Moral philosophers have always done that sort of thing.

    The question of whether coin tosses are deterministic is a completely separate one, and so far as I know is not known. (The question is whether quantum mechanics plays a significant role.) Whether a computer is any better is ambiguous – it’s true that classically computers have used pseudorandom generators which are fully deterministic, once their seed has been set. But a lot of modern computers include specialised hardware for generating physically random numbers by amplifying thermal noise, which is effectively using quantum mechanics. The question of whether the quantum universe (or our subjective viewpoint on it) is deterministic is philosophically a lot trickier. I wouldn’t pretend to know, and I don’t think you do either.

    I suspect people’s emotions are getting the better of them, and they’re expressing both more moral and physical certainty than their argument supports.

  7. Nullus,

    Nah. The piece, as Ken said, was about an inconsistency in an abortion position (and it is an inconsistency). If that was all the gentleman wanted to say, then he should have just said it. It would then glaringly be out of place in a statistics magazine. He descended into absurdity by trying to disguise his position with some nonsense about coin flips. And if you are going to use coin flips in some, by God, you ought to get them right. Which he didn’t.

  8. If the mother has to die the father should kill himself (or be forcefully terminated if he’s a coward) as well. The child(ren) become wards of the state. What’s bad for the goose should be bad for the gander as well.

  9. They did post Matt’s comment.

    I read it and thought it was either a spoof or one of those tasteless and silly scientological excursions.

  10. Ken,

    “By what has the pro-life/anti-abortion crowd determined that a fetus’ life is automatically worth less than an adult’s life, instead of the other way ’round?

    That’s the philosophical question M.A. Lewis presented in a dialect of metaphorical language [tinged with some sarcasm] our itinerant statistician/philosopher/blogger doesn’t speak. Happy to translate!”

    If you are correct on this, then Mr Lewis is a bleeding idiot, because he has so badly misinterpreted the position of the pro-life crowd that he has it exactly backwards. From there, no valid point or conclusion can be reached.

  11. I’ll read the article when I get my dead tree edition. But in the meantime, that perticular publication has been a little, er, flaky for some time. Many of its articles seem more interested in maintaining the flow of grants to the authors than in advancing statistical science. Many of its articles seem to implicitly advance a particular public policy position. (Those two features are far from exclusive, of course). But what took the enchilada for me was an abysmal piece maybe a year ago trying to demonstrate it makes no statistical sense to profile airplane passengers for security screening. It made me ashamed to be a statistician.

  12. The last time that an abortion act was debated in the UK, 95% of the debate concerned the mother’s health whereas only 5% of abortions were carried out for that reason.

  13. I do not agree that the pro-life crowd would choose the mother. The pro-life crowd would choose to do nothing. Pro-lifers do not place the life of the mother above the child–they refuse to terminate any life when pregnancy is involved. The belief seems to be if God wants both, or one or neither to survive, that is up to God. People don’t get to be involved.

    ad–Hope you’re being sarcastic……

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