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The Ethics of Abortion – a Philosophical Discussion

Debate on the legality and morality of abortion has waged for millennia – with the Code of Hammurabi outright condemning the practice back in ca. 1760 BC – indicating that an ethical stance had been taken on the matter at least as long ago as that.

In contrast, the Hellenistic philosophy of Stoicism characterized the unborn fetus as plantlike in nature, therefore morally justifying the practice of abortion. Interestingly, this seems to coincide, in all but specific terminology, with the stance of pro-choice advocates of today – who often argue that a fetus is merely a ‘ball of tissue’ – non-sentient, and not remotely human – and thus that its extermination is morally indistinguishable from pulling a weed from one’s garden (perhaps that analogy is a little too suitable – my apologies).

In the modern era, debate around abortion has at times surged into a fiery crescendo of outraged argument and volatile emotions, periodically propelled into the media spotlight by this or that current event (the Roe vs Wade court case, for example).

But even during the more quiescent periods, where the issue fell from vogue, it has nonetheless (like any emotionally-charged debate) continued to smoulder with an inextinguishable heat.

One need not stray far into the depths of the internet to encounter message-boards littered with the venomous and vociferous choruses of moral certainty, from those on either side of the argument. And I’ll bet that more than a few readers are assiduously scanning this very article for the first sign of contradiction with their own beliefs, their faces etched with creases of suspicion and concentration, waiting for the first opportunity to identify some small snippet that they can pounce upon.

It is clear that the morality of the issue is not as black and white as that of something like slavery, for example. Proponents of slavery abandoned the contest rather soon after contention was first struck – having failed to find a coherent moral argument with which to defend the practice.

In the case of slavery it was rational moral arguments that won the day (namely, the ascription of equal value to all human lives)– but in the case of abortion, either there has been a failure to identify or articulate indisputable arguments, or  such arguments simply don’t exist – because we have yet to see the same subsidence in argument.

In this article I want to take a step back, and attempt to view this moral territory from a broad, unbiased perspective.

If you care to join me on this quest, then I suggest you leave your emotional dispositions at the door. We are going to entertain possibilities that might (and probably should) disgust you. But understand that our propensity to feel disgust, and to let it guide our moral evaluations, is often not the most reliable guide to moral progress.

Reason, above all else, is king. And with this in mind, let’s proceed.

Common Arguments

I will first articulate a charitable representation of the most salient pro-life arguments, and then offer up the classic pro-choice rebuttal for consideration.

We’ll then move forward with a philosophical deconstruction of the relevant ideas that will enable us to think and argue incisively about this topic – ultimately leading us to our conclusions.

I want to be sure to present the strongest possible arguments, in particular, for the pro-life side – to ‘steel-man’ them so that I am not simply wasting everyone’s time by analyzing non-existent or inaccurate representations of the real viewpoints.

Note that I am arguing from an entirely secular stance. All notions of the existence of an immutable ‘soul’ are disregarded. So any readers that presuppose some kind of divine, transcendent morality based on religious doctrines and the idea of souls will not find the conclusions of this article very convincing.

But nonetheless, there are some compelling arguments put forward by pro-lifers that are indeed secular, and appear to be predicated on science and reason. It is these that we will be discussing.

So then, a charitable elucidation of the most salient secular pro-life arguments might be as follows:


Abortion is the unjust taking of the life of a human being. If a fetus can be considered a member of the human family, then its deliberate extermination is akin to murder. And since a zygote (the fertilized egg-sperm cocktail) would inevitably lead to a human life, then for all stages of fetal development from this moment (the moment of conception) onwards, the fetus should be considered human.

We all agree that to kill a newborn baby, or indeed, any human at all, is morally reprehensible – repugnant to the utmost degree. So if we can agree that there is no substantive difference between a toddler and a zygote, then we should agree that abortion is immoral.


For the typical pro-choice rebuttal, we can hark back to Aristotle, who articulated it as follows:

“[T]he line between lawful and unlawful abortion will be marked by the fact of having sensation and being alive.”

The argument implies that since the fetus is demonstrably non-sentient – that is, it would be unable even to conceive of its own identity or existence, then it is not a moral wrong to kill it.

But the more sophisticated pro-lifers are prepared for this argument. Ben Shapiro, in his usual acerbic manner, presents the rebuttal that a person in a coma (or perhaps just sleeping, or knocked out) might be considered non-sentient also – yet we would all agree that killing a person in such a state is wrong (unless there is no hope of recovery).

With this distinction, we have alighted upon a more nuanced stance – namely, the idea that whether or not an entity is sentient at any particular moment is not necessarily relevant. What we must consider is their future.

Wait, should I be Pro-life??

Maybe. Consider the following scenario.

A strangely dressed man from the future approaches you, and shows you a video – a video of your as-yet unborn son, playing in your backyard. The boy smiles radiantly at the camera before returning his attention once more to the convoy of toy trucks at his feet, and you are touched by the tender innocence – the carefree joy, with which he plays. You feel a strong affinity for the boy, a familial bond that seems to transcend the pixelated barrier of the screen through which you watch him now.

This video was shown to you as you wait with your girlfriend at the reception office of an abortion clinic – where you were about to ensure that this beloved boy could never exist.

“Aha!” the chorus of pro-lifers gleefully exclaim, “There it is! What’s important to consider is the chain of causality, which your decision on whether or not to have an abortion will affect!”

Doc explained this concept to Marty in Back to the Future, but don’t let the fact that this was a sci-fi movie undermine its truth and poignancy: the decision of whether or not to have the abortion can be thought of as cleaving the future into two distinct timelines of causality – one for each decision.

One branch leads to the life of your unborn son, who will undoubtedly flourish – the other, to a future in which he is denied the opportunity to exist.

 

But not so fast..

Consider this scenario – which begins in an identical manner to the one before, with you being shown the same video of your unborn son. But this time you are not at the reception of an abortion clinic. Rather, you are standing in line to buy a box of condoms.

The decision of whether or not to wear a condom during sex will also divide the future in two – one in which you don’t wear the condom and your future son is born, and one in which you do, and your son is denied to the chance to exist.

So the next time you reach for a johnny when things get heated, maybe you should take a moment to consider your unborn son..

Is there any substantive difference then, between the decision to have an abortion, and the decision to wear a condom?

In terms of the consequences – no.*1

There is perhaps a relevant distinction – that in the case of wearing a condom, the consequences were not presented as starkly – perhaps not even considered – as they would have been in the decision to get an abortion. This is an important distinction in attributing moral culpability, as I have discussed on my article on morality –but since we are examining these possibilities from a removed, philosophical perspective, the distinction should not affect our conclusions.

But anyway, let’s take this whole argument a step further.

Every moment not spent in attempting to conceive a child results in increasingly more unborn children – children who we might otherwise have loved, and who would have lead enjoyable, fulfilling lives.

So what’s the solution?

Well certainly it isn’t for males to go out and rape the first fertile woman they find, nor for consenting adults to conceive a child at every possible moment – having sex immediately one child is born in order to conceive the next.

Such a future might maximize the number of offspring, but what would the quality of life be for people in such a society? Women are in constant fear of being raped, couples are exhausted (most particularly the women). Children are neglected because their parents are busy having sex.. you get the idea.

Clearly it’s not just existence, or life itself that we must revere, but also, the quality of that life.

Already, I think, we can make some normative conclusions. For example: it is immoral to attempt to bring about the existence of as many conscious beings as possible.

Let’s review the pro-life stance, in view of the above discussion.

The assumption that a zygote is the beginning of human life is somewhat arbitrary, when we consider the entire chain of causality that leads to that life’s existence.

Morally, what is important are the choices that were knowingly made, that would facilitate, or suppress a future life – i.e. whether to have protected/unprotected sex, and whether to have an abortion.

One may (perhaps rightfully) argue that if morality depends on one’s knowledge of the consequences of a decision – i.e. the more one considers the broader repercussions of an action/inaction, the more morally liable they are – then having an abortion is more morally condemnable than wearing a condom, simply because the decision to have an abortion necessarily forces one to consider the life they are forestalling, whereas that same consideration is generally not present when reaching for a condom.

However, in the context of this philosophical exploration, we HAVE considered the consequences, in depth, of both cases. And what we can conclude is that the primary outcome is identical – a future son (or daughter) is either allowed, or disallowed.

So a pro-lifer must accept that if it is immoral to have an abortion, due to the fact that a human being that would otherwise be born is denied the right to do so, then they must also accept the immorality of using condoms, and of not attempting to conceive a child in every available moment.

Unless –

They concede that the matter is not quite as black and white as simply ‘a human life is a human life’. Rather, they should consider the best possible future – which brings us to some more practical considerations.

More (realistic) thought experiments

Suppose a young couple accidentally conceive a child (the condom was not as robust as was proclaimed on the packaging). Both are currently halfway through their studies at medical school, and to raise the child would all but shatter their career ambitions – at least in the near term. But the couple are committed to a pro-life stance, and so they go ahead with the pregnancy – resulting in a somewhat penurious upbringing for the child, who’s parents were forced to forego their otherwise well paid career paths.

Yet the parents congratulate themselves on their decision – they had ensured the existence of a child; brought about a consciousness that would otherwise have been doomed to oblivion.

But suppose that in an alternate timeline – one in which the parents had reluctantly agreed to have an abortion, they conceive a different child at some point further in the future – after they have secured a stable income from their respective careers. This child is overwhelmingly likely to lead a much more fulfilling life than his counterpart in the first timeline.

Thus, unknowingly, the original, non-abortive couple has spurned the life of a different possible child – one that could have been much happier.

So by blindly adhering to a doctrine of ‘no abortions under any circumstances’, one is still, assuming they intend to have at least one child in their lifetime, nonetheless denying the existence of a life that would otherwise have flourished.

The reasoning is subtle, but this appears to be the primary substantive argument regarding abortion.

Here is a summary of the arguments and conclusion:

  1. What’s important to consider is a future existence or non-existence of a life that is a direct result of one’s decision (to wear a condom, or to have an abortion, or not). The fact that a fetus is not yet sentient, or ‘human’ is irrelevant. The case of a person in a coma shows us that what is morally important is actually their future, i.e. it is not acceptable to murder an unconscious person, if they would otherwise have lived a happy life in future. Thus having an abortion seems to be of essentially the same moral consequence.
  2. The decision to have an abortion is consequentially identical to that of deciding whether or not to have sex, or to use a condom. The direct consequence of these decisions is that a future life either will or will not exist. Abstaining from sex due to religious principles then, is, in (utilitarian) moral essence, indistinguishable from having an abortion.
  3. If we accept that the most morally positive future is not one in which we attempt to conceive children at every possible moment, nor is it one in which we ban condoms and abortions – then we conclude that it is one in which lives are conceived/prevented; abortions had or not had – according to personal considerations that aim to maximize happiness for the parents, and any future children they decide to have.

…….Ergo: Abortions are morally justified.

But stow your triumph for a second, oh morally righteous pro-choicer: there is a rather unpalatable logical consequence that seems to follow from this line of reasoning, as we’ll soon see.

What stage of Pregnancy is it morally acceptable to abort?

If all the above argumentation is accepted, then we are faced with a rather morbid conclusion. If indeed it is acceptable to prevent the existence of a future life, whether by wearing a condom or having an abortion, this begs the question of when it is not acceptable to terminate the causal chain of events that would otherwise bring about a life.

If it’s OK after the moment of conception, shouldn’t it also be OK after the moment of birth? What about 5 years into its future? From a strictly abstract philosophical perspective, one may not see any substantive difference – and indeed, if a recently birthed baby is killed in such a manner that it does not suffer, then perhaps there is no difference.

Moral philosophy ain’t always pretty, you see.

But thankfully we have an escape. We fickle human beings are not, in reality, the kind of emotionless moral philosophizing machines that we try to be when reason about these things abstractly.

Killing a baby after birth would indeed cause suffering – that of the parents of the child, and almost everyone else that is made aware of it. Thus, in such real world circumstances we can conclude that the killing of a baby is morally unacceptable.

The question of what stage in fetal development it is acceptable to abort hinges on how others feel about it, and thus whether or not they suffer.*2

As it happens, our societies have (sort of) agreed on this stage (with minor variations, from state to state) and turned it into law.

So then, to conclude:

The reason the debate around abortion has lingered so long within the collective human consciousness is that no consensus has been reached. And the reason consensus hasn’t been reached is that the philosophical arguments that are critical to the matter are rather subtle, and complicated – as we have just seen.

Moreover, consensus requires that we first share a moral framework, i.e. utilitarianism – that we can conduct our reasoning within. And with religious dogmatism polluting the philosophical battle-ground, this is a difficult state to attain.

The average pro-lifer probably won’t afford much consideration to these kinds of arguments, and so the debate will undoubtedly continue to rage on.

 

*1Assuming sex without a condom would be guaranteed to lead to pregnancy. It’s not, but this isn’t important – we could instead consider a series of condom-less sexual unions, where pregnancy becomes more and more likely with each one.

*2Of course, there is consideration of a pro-lifers suffering when someone aborts their baby – but I won’t go into that.

 

11 comments

  1. But what if the parent does not suffer? Suppose the parent is either sociopathic or already suffering due to post-partum depression? Should the parent be allowed to kill her newborn to cure her depression?

    This is another example of why morality cannot be based on feelings. The correct order, again, must be to determine what is good, as objectively as possible, and then to choose to feel good about it.

    A key role of Religion is to train our feelings about moral issues. We ought to feel good about being good and doing good. We ought to feel bad when we do something bad, and feel better when we take steps to correct what we’ve done. The sermons, the stories, the hymns, the Sunday school classes for our kids, the community with like-minded people, and so on, provide moral support for our morality. (And we need that kind of support when we see the wicked prosper through bad actions).

    So we objectively turn back to the question of “what is the harm done?” and “what are the benefits?” and “for everyone”. We assume that the prospective parents have worked this out in regards to the harms and benefits to themselves. So that brings us to the fetus.

    At what point can we say that the fetus is a “person”, with a life of its own? Everyone would likely agree that a newborn baby is sufficiently aware of its own existence in its environment to be considered a person. And everyone probably should agree that two cells, four cells, or even eight cells are not yet a person.

    Our DNA provides a blueprint for building a person. The cells continue doubling and begin specializing into organs. Our neural network slowly matures until it reaches a point where it is providing an “experience of being alive”. It is like a house being built, and then at some point a person moves in.

    I would agree with Aristotle that it is a matter of when the fetus is able to experience itself in some fashion within its environment. One objective measure of this would be when it can first experience pain, which I read somewhere is around 20 to 24 weeks. I read somewhere else that most abortions occur in the first 8 weeks.

    There is always some harm in having an abortion. To avoid this harm people need to practice contraception until they are ready to have a child. (And considering the harm we do to the rest of the planet and ourselves as our species continues to multiply past sustainability, the Catholic ban on contraception should be viewed as an immoral ethic).

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    1. But what if the parent does not suffer? Suppose the parent is either sociopathic or already suffering due to post-partum depression? Should the parent be allowed to kill her newborn to cure her depression?

      You seem to have missed my key thesis. In the situation you’ve described here, I would NOT say that the parent is allowed to kill her newborn BECAUSE she would not suffer.

      In the article I noted that we must invariably consider the life of the unborn child (and it’s potential to flourish) – but ultimately, the moral justification for abortion comes about because of, essentially, the fact that we CANNOT be committed to an ‘abortion is NEVER acceptable’ axiom – because of the consequences that logically follow – which I described extensively.

      I also disagree fundamentally with your allusion to the moral relevance of the ‘point at which the fetus can experience pain’.
      What say we had the technology to guarantee we could kill the fetus instantly, so that it does not feel pain?
      Clearly, the fetus’ sensation of pain is not what is morally salient. Rather, the consideration must be its potential future.

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      1. The issue is not the pain of the abortion. It is rather some measure of when we can say that the fetus first experiences being alive. This would be the earliest point to say that a person exists. If a person exists, then it can be morally harmed by death. If no person exists, then no person dies and in theory no harm to a person is possible.

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      2. The issue is not the pain of the abortion. It is rather some measure of when we can say that the fetus first experiences being alive.

        Fair enough, but despite this clarification, I still don’t agree that it’s necessarily a useful moral distinction.

        Say we could pinpoint the moment (or at least, the vague period) in which the fetus first ‘experiences’. Your distinction says that it is OK to terminate the fetus before, but not after this point.
        Yet in both cases, you are causing precisely the same moral consequence, namely – preventing a future in which the child might live an enjoyable life. It is this future that we must consider, hence, the exact moment in the pregnancy when we choose to erase that future is not important (in fact, one might argue that it is better to wait until late in the pregnancy, so that at least the fetus had some life to live; some experience to have).

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      3. It’s not a question of the child’s future. For all we know, the fetus may die 5 minutes later due to other causes. It is the question: “At what point do we have a human being?”. You discussed this yourself in regard to Stoicism and Aristotle.

        We already have an ethical rule that everyone agrees to: “Thou shalt not unnecessarily murder another person”. So we can use the rule we already have (rather than coming up with a new rule) IF we can find some scientifically objective measure of when a fetus becomes a person.

        See the Wikipedia article on Abortion in the United States under History where they say, “When the United States first became independent, most states applied English common law to abortion. This meant it was not permitted after quickening, or the start of fetal movements, usually felt 15–20 weeks after conception.”

        And under “When women have abortions (by gestational age)” they point out that very few abortions are performed after this point: “Few abortions (7.3%) were performed between 14–20 weeks’ gestation or at ≥21 weeks’ gestation (1.4%).”

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      4. It’s not a question of the child’s future. For all we know, the fetus may die 5 minutes later due to other causes. It is the question: “At what point do we have a human being?”. You discussed this yourself in regard to Stoicism and Aristotle.

        OK then, consider the following cases:

        1) A fetus, in a stage of development prior to what you would define as ‘human’ – is medically determined to be perfectly healthy, with genetic analysis done to show that there is every indication to believe it would thrive as a person, assuming it is carried through to birth.
        2) A fetus, past the stage in development you would define as human, found to possess an aberrant gene that will almost certainly kill the child within the first few months of its life after birth.

        If the future of the child is, as you posit, not important, then how could we possibly reach the correct moral conclusion regarding these two instances? Would your philosophy commit you to keep the fetus in two? If not, then you have agreed the future of the child is an important consideration. If yes, then I would call your attention to the suffering of the parents who must experience the death of the child, not to mention the pain that will probably be experienced by the baby.

        [to your point about my having discussed Aristotle’s view point – yes, I discussed it, but later in the article I also rejected its thesis]

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      5. In the first case, the fetus is viable but not yet a person. In these cases the mother can choose to terminate the pregnancy without harming any other person.

        The second case is about euthanasia. Euthanasia is about achieving a good death when a good life is improbable or impossible. If the child is found to have a lethal genetic disease then the parents may choose to terminate the pregnancy to avoid future suffering for themselves or the baby. This needs to be decided on a case by case basis according to the nature of the illness, the certainty of the diagnosis, whether the child’s life will be significantly painful, and the willingness of the parents to love the child for that short lifespan (the parents may decide that both they and the child will benefit from that short life).

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      6. But you also presented the problem with considering future potential life, in that one could take this argument all the way back to the wasted sperm (as Monty Python did in the opening number of “The Meaning of Life”).

        I still find your conclusion: “The question of what stage in fetal development it is acceptable to abort hinges on how others feel about it, and thus whether or not they suffer” to be morally unsatisfying, because feelings are malleable. And you will find people outside the abortion clinic with visually compelling placards and handing out tracts specifically designed to manipulate those feelings.

        I do agree with your observation: “As it happens, our societies have (sort of) agreed on this stage (with minor variations, from state to state) and turned it into law.” All practical rights arise from agreements, and we have agreed to constitute a nation with a congress of elected representatives to reach further agreements on our behalf, and to have courts appointed to interpret the meaning of these agreements.

        Not everyone agrees with every agreement, of course. But their agreement to the means of governance commits them to uphold the legal rights of others, even when they disagree. They also may yet convince the majority to agree to a different rule/right.

        We make moral arguments for one rule (permit abortion) versus another (prohibit abortion) in terms of the objective benefits and harms for everyone that we estimate will follow from enacting one rule rather than the other. (That’s what you were doing when you said: “Such a future might maximize the number of offspring, but what would the quality of life be for people in such a society? Women are in constant fear of being raped, couples are exhausted (most particularly the women). Children are neglected because their parents are busy having sex.. you get the idea.”)

        Our arguments may sometimes be rhetorical appeals to the emotions, but I believe they ought to rely more upon objective information regarding actual benefits and harms.

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    2. Also, in regard to your idea – that we should FIRST determine what is ‘objectively’ good, and then decide to feel good about it – I don’t think this makes all that much sense.

      There is no ‘objective good’.
      ‘Goodness’ is an emergent property of our innate values, or feelings of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’. So, necessarily, our determination of an ‘objective good’ must FOLLOW from our innate feelings.

      We can deliberate rationally about what we should value and why, but necessarily, our conclusions will always (implicitly) stem from our innate values/feelings/judgments – which we already possess.

      To make this clear, consider an alien species that must necessarily die when they reproduce – perhaps, similar to certain species of spider, where the males are eaten by the female after copulation.
      A sufficiently evolved (and cognitively complex) creature who’s reproduction proceeds in this manner, would have a completely different set of innate values that we do.
      Evolution would have had to wire in these values, so that, despite the creature becoming sophisticated enough to reason about things (life and death, for example), it would still be compelled to die, and thus reproduce.
      This creature values death – it has a ‘feeling’ that it is good – so good that it will relinquish it’s life in service of it.

      This case illustrates that there can be no universal, objective values. Even the seemingly obvious values of life=good, death=bad, need not be universal among all lifeforms.
      Thus ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ arise due to the specific values encoded into a conscious creature by natural selection. It is programming – nothing more ‘transcendent’ or ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ than that.

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      1. We call something “good” if it meets a real need we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

        We objectively observe that all living organisms strive to survive, thrive, and reproduce. We also objectively observe that nearly all living organisms die (probably an evolutionary protection against species extinction by overpopulation).

        And we observe that what is “good” for one species may be “bad” for another species. Trees need CO2 and exhale Oxygen. Animals need Oxygen and exhale CO2.

        A biologist observes different species and can tell you whether planting your shrub in partial shade is “better” for it or whether it needs to full exposure to the Sun to thrive.

        These are examples of objective moral judgments.

        In the human realm, we can objectively say that most college graduates will have a greater income over their lifetime than most high-school dropouts. So if a child is capable of academic success at the college level, we can objectively say that they will benefit economically by going to college.

        The benefit of an objective moral judgment is that it can command agreement. If you insist that all moral judgments are personal and subjective then there will never be any agreements.

        Ironically, one objective moral judgment that we all agree on is the value of personal freedom to decide what is right for oneself. We expect all such choices to fall within legal bounds and not entail unnecessarily harming others. But within these limits personal choices are in control.

        Evolution has provided some innate responses. But these are often problematic, like our distrust and fear of people who are unlike us, who are not part of our familiar family. We try to overcome these in order to exist together peacefully with other races and cultures.

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