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thoughts on abortion

I recently made a post here drawing a connection between the ideas of school vouchers and public (as in taxpayer-funded) money for abortions. I was trying to get at what I saw as a similarity. In both groups, group A didn't want money appropriated for some thing purely because they didn't really approve of the thing being funded. Not approve of it for themselves, but they thought it was wrong full stop. (Many secular humanists and even progressive religious types don't want their money going to religious schools; many fundamentalist Christians don't want their money going toward abortions.) Anyway, that post got me thinking about aborrtion.

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.

*deep breath*

#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.

To summarize:

  • 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.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 30th, 2011 04:46 am (UTC)
Well reasoned. And I tend to agree with almost all of what you said.

The reason the issue is politicized is because many people do not want to be reasonable. There are those who say that under no circumstances whatsoever should there be an abortion. And there are those who say that under no circumstances whatsoever should anyone have the right to restrict a womana's choice to have an abortion.

They are never going to agree to be reasonable or consider the circumstances.

Jan. 30th, 2011 11:48 pm (UTC)
I find it sad that this is so politicized. I would love to have in-depth discussions with people about this, because I find it so relevant.

I don't like all-or-none thinking, though. I remember a quote from one of the LOTR documentaries on Tolkien's life. Maybe from one of he letters, or a writing excerpted in the Carpenter biographies? Anyway, he (JRRT) says that despair is only warranted if you are completely certain of all outcomes, which is impossible for us because no one knows the future. I think the same thinking applies here. I can't say that all abortions are murder, or that any restriction is ever too much. The situation is simply too complex for that level of certainty. (Arrogance, I'd call it!)
Jan. 30th, 2011 10:56 pm (UTC)
Marta, I always appreciate your philosophical musings because they're so well-reasoned and respectful. They're good mind-stretchers. I'm particularly fascinated by #11, which, if the technology ever gets to the point that it's both feasible and legal, I would wholly support.

A couple of things that this made me think about; feel free to respond or not, depending on how close this gets to the whole political aspect of the issue.

1). Suppose that technology has advanced sufficiently that we can tell the genetic makeup of a fetus early enough in the pregnancy that abortion is morally acceptable by your reasonings above. Is it moral, ethical, etc., for a mother to decide to abort the fetus because it is (or will develop into) a female? This is already going on in some families and cultures (particularly in East Asia), for purely economic reasons: a son is more likely to be able to support the family than a daughter. Or is it the same as infanticide for the same reasons?

2). Last year (or it might be longer now) the state of Nebraska passed a law making late-term abortions illegal on the grounds of fetus' abilities to feel pain (as some recent scientific studies have shown. I have no clue how much their findings have been confirmed). Should fetal pain be a consideration when dealing with the morality of abortion, or at least the methods used? Or does the ability to feel pain signify that the fetus is fully developed enough that it has enough potential humanity to make abortion at least morally questionable?

My own beliefs aside, I found the Nebraska law fascinating, because it changes the terms of the legal debates as they've raged thus far. The best precedent, in my mind, for outlawing abortion on the grounds of fetal pain, are animal cruelty laws, yet it's hard to see the anti-abortion crowd suggest that fetuses are anything less than human. On the other hand, if there ends up being some way of putting fetuses to sleep the way you'd put an old dog down (like the way lethal injections were suddenly no longer "cruel and unusual punishment" in the courts), then that entire line of argument is out. I'm really curious to see how the law holds up in court.
Jan. 30th, 2011 11:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your thoughts back! I always find peoples' reactions interesting, and useful because they make me think of things I overlooked.

On your 1): That reminds me of a case I read about in an M.A. bioethics case. An Orthodox (Hasidic, I believe) Israeli was using infertile and his wife's eggs were being fertilized with another man's sperm. He wanted to select the sex of the embryos his wife was implanted with. This was not sexist, at least on his part. In Orthodox Judaism, see, only the boys have bar mitzvahs, and so the girl would never have to go through a ceremony where she was announced to their faith community as "[daughter] son of [sperm donor]" - because in Judaism the father is not the wife's husband but the biological father. Long story short, if they had a son he would be announced very publicly as a bastard. If they had a daughter there would be no ceremony, and the girl wouldn't have to go through that embarrassment.

Personally, I have no problem with sex selection, in cases where you have a good reason. I do have a big problem if there's latent sexism. I don't know the Far East situation well enough (I assume we're talking China?), but I can maybe imagine a good reason. If you're only allowed so many children, and if sons can do something daughters can't like continue on the family line or provide for the parents in old age, that may be a good reason to select for gender. But if the reason it's sexism - that is immoral. Not so much because the act is wrong but because you should never act from bad motives.

Re: 2), I heard about that case and found it interesting at the time. The law seems to assume that pain makes something human - but all kinds of non-human things can feel pain. We don't hit Fido for no good reason, but there are some legitimate reasons to cause a lower animal pain, and I think preventing future neglect of a child you can't provide for would qualify. But obviously pain is something we have to weigh into all this, which is why it's so important to have an abortion early if you're going to have one. That's one of the things that makes abortion "more wrong," meaning you have to have better reasons for having one to outweigh the pain caused.

Once the fetus becomes self-aware - once it not just feels pain, but knows something is hurting me (the fetus) - that's a big step toward humanity. As I said, when that happens, it becomes increasingly hard to justify killing the fetus.

Interesting thoughts! Thanks for sharing them.
Jan. 31st, 2011 02:19 am (UTC)
Good summary of the issues, as usual. You make the impossibly complex somehow more concise.

I like to think of fetuses as puppies: women shouldn't do to their offspring things that they wouldn't do to a puppy, and that includes some of the horrific crap abortionists do frequently because, they claim, the critter can't feel it. Doesn't matter: look out for your puppy. That's our obligation as human beings.

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )



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