I'm not going to talk about politics much, if at all. This is strictly me doing philosophy, looking at the question of whether abortion is always immoral, and in particular whether it's murder.
#1. Yes, a fetus is a life from the moment of conception. It passes the five tests for identifying living things I learned in life science (moves; responds to stimulus; absorbs and excretes; grows; and reproduces). To be fair, the same can be said for bacteria, cockroaches, and any other number of things most people are okay killing. Interestingly, a sperm and egg before fertilization are also alive.
#2. There is no great difference - physiologically, psychologically, etc. - between a fetus a second before it is born and an infant a second after it is born. There is a great difference between a fetus a second before it is born and a fetus six weeks after conception. I cannot pinpoint when exactly a fetus becomes similar enough to an infant to be considered a person. If there is any one point. My instinct is that things are fuzzier than that, that a fetus becomes progressively more and more human as things go along.
#3. Killing a human tends to have a special moral status that killing other things doesn't. So what is a human? Some Christians I know say a human is a creature (animal, physical body, etc.) with a soul. But that's problematic because people can't really explain what a soul is, let alone discuss whether a specific person has a soul or not. So the phrase "having a soul" doesn't really tell us a lot, philosophically. I also don't buy the idea that just because you're a member of the species homo sapiens, you're necessarily a human in the relevant sense. An acorn has the same genetic structure as an oak tree, but there's a big difference between the two. The idea that a fetus might potentially develop whatever makes something human doesn't really convince me that abortion is the same thing as killing a human, though. The Talmud said that whoever destroys a single life, it is like he destroyed a whole world - but I think even the Rabbi would see a big difference between murder and mas murder! We don't generally punish or condemn for destroyed possibilities.
#5. So what does it mean to be human? That's the $64,000-question, and I don't have a definite answer. I lean toward thinking it mean you have one of two characteristics, or some combination of the two. First, humans seem to be aware of themselves as individuals. There have been scientific tests over whether non-human primates recognize their reflection in the mirror as themselves rather than some other monkey. If you are self-aware, then suffering takes on a whole other level, so you're not just suffering, you're suffering angst over the fact that that pain is happening to you.
The other test for me is, can the fetus, or whomever, make a rational choice? Are her actions controlled by physical forces, or does she have some say in the matter? The medieval philosopher John Buridan tells the story of a mule stuck equidistant between two piles of food, who is not more drawn by one or the other so he can never decide to move. Even to the point that he starves. If you're not like that, then you can add something to the world or detract from it in a way that wouldn't have happened if the world had unrolled mechanically. This is what the Biblical author meant when he spoke of being "made in the image of God." We are sub-creators, co-creators, even, and destroying that is wrong in a way that it isn't wrong to destroy non-human things.
#6. So the abortion of a newly-conceived fetus is not killing a human. (A necessary first step towards murder, but not in itself sufficient; see below.) That's why I don't think that early abortions are murder. That's why I'm in favor of all contraception, even if it keeps a fertilized zygote from implanting. I'm also in favor of easy access to morning after pills. Contraception is better, but if that fails and a woman knows she does not want to be pregnant, she has a moral obligation to act as quickly as she can. A woman also has a moral obligation to decide what she wants in a reasonably quick time frame. She should not rush through this decision, but neither should she put it off. The more time passes, the more developed the fetus will become and the wronger the abortion becomes. Ideally I think every sexually active woman should know what she'd do before becoming sexually active: does she want to be pregnant, what is she doing to prevent it, and if those precautions fail what will she do then?
#7. Which of course means that sex education about contraception is important. Crucial. As is the availability of contraception.
#8. Yes, I think sex should be reserved for committed monogamous couples. It creates a powerful bond that hurts when we have to break it. I'm sure some people reading this will think we should just not have sex until we're ready to get married. But,
- To quote Mike Logan from Law & Order: "And crooks shouldn't have guns. Get real." There's the practical matter that some people will have sex, willingly or not, before they're ready to have a child. For these people, contraception and/or early abortion is much better than late abortion.
- There are some legitimate circumstances where a couple should have sex but not want to procreate quite yet. For example, a young married couple that isn't financially ready to provide for a child. Or if the mother has a health condition that would make a pregnancy a real threat to her life. In these cases contraception is the moral choice.
#9.A fetus never has the right to use my body, but there comes a point in time where the moral thing to do on my part is to let a fetus use my body. Kind of like a starving man has no right to my money, but the right thing to do is for me to give it to him. "Right" is one of those funny words that can mean completely different things in different contexts.
#10. That means that there may come a time when what was a fetus is now a human, and there's no way to keep it from using my body that won't kill her. Philosophers have tried to parse whether it's really murder, to keep someone from accessing your body if that means the person will die. (For instance, if a Jew wants to use my basement to hide from the Nazis, and I don't let him knowing he'll be caught and killed, is that murder? I'm honestly not sure. That's why I'd say a woman really ought to keep things from getting to that point if she doesn't want to be pregnant.
#11. Viability has next to nothing to do with whether the fetus has become a human - whether abortion can be murder. Just because a fetus can't survive on its own doesn't necessarily mean it isn't a person, and just because it can doesn't mean it is. Once a pregnancy does reach true viability, I'd say a woman is no longer under any obligation to continue the pregnancy. But she also has no special "right" to kill the fetus (or person, if it's also human at that point). I'm not sure how that would work, practically - maybe doctors could induce labor, put the preemie baby in machines until it was healthy enough not to need them, and then the child could go into foster care and/or adoption? Something along those lines.
#12. The really complicated case is where the mother's life is at risk later in the pregnancy. When my ethics class talked about this, I gave the example of someone high on crack who breaks into your home and threatens to kill you. Even if the cracked up man isn't aware of what he's doing or can't stop it, most people would still say you're right to protect yourself, even by shooting him. Even if you purposely lived in a bad neighborhood and didn't have adequate security - you still don't have to die. Of course the best thing to do is to keep this from happening by having good security (read: adequate birth control or abstinence). But I think if you're pregnant and your life is in danger, you have a real obligation to protect yourself.
#13. The other banner exceptions, rape and incest, aren't really a problem for me. If a woman is raped or the victim of incest, it is her duty to decide whether she wants to be pregnant or not. As early as possible. If she lets it go on, there's a certain point where the reason she's pregnant is irrelevant.
#14. What about viable but deformed fetuses? This is another one of those cases I simply don't know. here's such a difference between even the different varieties of Downs Syndrome; I can't predict ahead of time a child's potential with that disease. My instinct is it's immoral to kill some fetus once it's gotten to a certain point in development, that could even possibly have any kind of self-awareness or creative ability. But I just don't know, so I'm willing to leave this question unanswered for now.
#15. I promised no politics, so I won't talk about whether the choice should be the mother's or someone else's; conscience objections; public funding; and everything like that. Those are big and important questions, but not really what I'm wanting to talk about here. Plus this has gone on for quite some time already. :-)
#16. There may be some other reasons why abortion is immoral even if it's not murder. At first glance I think we should encourage potential where we can, and we really shouldn't be in the business of deciding who's going to live and die anyway. Those are valid concerns, to be sure. But it's not the same thing as saying abortion is murder. After all, there are tons of immoral things besides murder. I do think these are the kind of things that are going to defy one-size-fits-all analysis, so any law that tried to address them would be doomed to failure. But I think that the mother, making a moral choice for herself and her child (once the fetus becomes human at least) should take these things into account. Most people probably do that without even realizing they're doing it.
- Preventative contraception = best
- "Emergency contraception" aka morning-after pill = next best
- Early abortions are not murder.
- Abortion to save the mother's life is never murder, no matter how late in the pregnancy.
- There comes a time when, if you don't end a pregnancy, you implicitly agree to carry it to term.
- A fetus does not have a claim on your body. But it may still be the right thing to do after a certain point, to carry the pregnancy to term.
- Even with rape/incest, the pregnant woman has an obligation to terminate the pregnancy as soon as possible if she's going to do that.