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Aristotle and abortion

I'm teaching an Aristotle reading tomorrow where he talks about what it means to be a good human. Before he can do that, though, he thinks he has to work through what a human is. I'll spare you the details, but basically Aristotle says that what sets us apart is that we can look at a situation and choose to go one way or the other; unlike Buridan's ass, we can move beyond our impulses. The important thing is that Aristotle defines humanity in terms of some characteristic that we actually have – not that we might have, not that we'll develop someday. And certainly not that we have human DNA as opposed to orangutan DNA.

This question has some obvious connections to the whole abortion debate, because a zygote or even a six-week-old fetus has very few qualities. If a human is a choosing thing, can a young fetus do this? Can a newborn baby, for that matter? Aristotle's account of humanity seems to say that a fetus's (or for that matter, a small child's) status as human depends on what it can do. If it can decide whether it wants to play with the red ball or the blue ball, then it's a human and killing it is murder; if not, then it is still alive (and so can be killed), but maybe that killing doesn't rise to the level of murder.

Preparing for class, I wanted to prepare several arguments Aristotle could give for why abortion is wrong without calling it murder, at least in some circumstances. I don't necessarily agree with them, but I thought it might be fun to discuss them anyway.

1. Potential vs. Actual Traits: Aristotle distinguishes between traits we have right now and traits we have the ability to develop. So while a fetus isn't human (since it can't make choices at this point), it has the ability to develop. Aristotle says it's important that we develop character virtues, which he sees as potential traits we should develop. (So basically, the Adrian Monks of the world should build up their courage, so they can face new and challenging situations, but they're not courageous until they've done that.) I think a story could be told here that people who have a duty to protect a particular child have a duty not to squander that potential.

(Caveats: I'm almost certain Aristotle would say actual trumps potential, so a mother has a duty to have an abortion if her life is in danger. You could also ask whether certain parents have a duty to a particular fetus. You might argue that until you accept responsibility for it, its not really your responsibility to nurture a fetus just because it's taken up residence inside you.)

2. The Duty to Care: Aristotle defines humans not just as a rational animal but also as a social animal. We develop our virtue in a community, and friendships – good kinds of friendships built on a love of virtue – are definitely to be sought after. Treating a fetus as just something getting in the way of our desires objectifies us. And to the extent that we think of it as a human or a potential human, it makes it that much harder to form genuine human relationships. This probably is more true of very young children who weren't yet able to choose, or fetuses that were old enough they were known to resemble very young humans – the concern is that by treating fetuses/infants that remind you of mature humans as things, you train yourself to think of real humans the wrong way.

(Caveats: Aristotle's pretty clear that not only can't you have a friendship with a non-human, you can't have a true friendship unless it's between equals – knocking out the parent/child relationship even once the child is born. So this only addresses the way that treating a potential human as a thing damages the mother's ability to foster future friendships with fully-mature humans.)

3. The Practical Harm of Abortion: Aristotle doesn't define right and wrong in terms of how much pleasure or pain they generate, but he does recognize its importance. Any abortion will involve physical pain, either from surgery or from cramps and discomfort as the zygote/fetus passes. There's also the psychological pain, if a woman feels like she has had to kill a human or a potential human; the lost money that went to the abortion; and the social stigma.

(Caveats: The pain a woman suffers through an abortion may be less than the pain she'd suffer by going through a pregnancy, to say nothing of either adoption or motherhood. And Aristotle's not totally averse to some suffering, if it leads you to develop character; he seems to be more against pointless or excessive pain. I'm also not sure how an Aristotelian would count the pain the fetus went through as it died. Since it's not surviving it can't have a bad impact on the fetus's future character.)

So… three ways that an Aristotelian could say abortion is not murder but it's still wrong in most circumstances. Thinking about this, I'm reminded of Bella's pregnancy in Breaking Dawn. It seems to me that an Aristotelian would almost certainly disagree with Bella's initial decision to have a pregnancy that put her life in very real danger (she's told in no uncertain terms that this child is killing her) – but once Edward senses the child's thoughts, I think at that point an Aristotelian would have a harder time insisting on an abortion. The child is increasingly human (I'd say having actual thoughts, certainly actual desires, is a key marker of being human), and at that point the parents had formed a special attachment to it, so killing Renesme then would lead to the problems I pointed out in #2.

What do you guys think? If you think abortion is wrong, would these ideas let you condemn it strongly enough without calling abortion murder? Do these ideas put enough value on the mother's right not to have a fetus take over her body for nine months, maybe even kill her? I'd be interested in peoples' reactions.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 10th, 2012 05:16 am (UTC)
Very well reasoned. I'm anti convenience abortion but believe it can be justified for serious medical reasons such as to save the woman's life.

I fear I know little of Aristotle, but his philosophy seems wise.
Feb. 10th, 2012 06:16 am (UTC)
This is a bit of a tangent, but...

Exposure of infants was common in ancient Greece. Couldn't all of these arguments be applied to infant exposure as well? If nothing else, it's probably an interpretation that Aristotle would have recognized in a way we wouldn't today.

What I'm more curious about is to what extent a culture in which infant exposure was acceptable influenced philosophers' attitudes toward human life and our care towards it, even if that life is not yet capable of rational thought. But I expect that if there's a good answer to that question, I'm pretty unqualified to answer it.
Feb. 10th, 2012 07:09 am (UTC)
In point 3's caveat, you mention the pain the fetus feels as a potential negative. There has to be a functioning nervous system for an organism to feel pain. For a long time in the development of the fetus, there just isn't enough of a nervous system to justify the thought that it feels pain. At some point in development, yes, of course. Regular charts of development usually peg 20 weeks as when the nervous system is starting to function. Most voluntary abortions take place well before that - well, they must as 12 weeks is the legal cut off. Abortions after that are usually only done to save the life of the mother or because the fetus is already non-viable or nearly so.

If we are talking about something like a chemical jump start to menstruation before or around the time of the first missed period, the blastocyst is not yet the size of a pen point and has only the most basic differentiation of cells called a "primitive streak" with the potential to develop into a spinal cord. There is certainly nothing there that could feel pain.

"By seven weeks, the embryo has lost its tail, which is another point of reference to our evolutionary ancestry. The higher functions of the brain have yet to develop, and there are no pathways to transfer pain signals. In fact, even at two months along, the embryo does not appear to be fully human. It has a reptilian brain and has not yet developed the capacity for consciousness. It is not yet sentient and is not defined as a fetus until the tenth week."

Feb. 10th, 2012 04:27 pm (UTC)
Well, I don't think abortion is wrong, and I surely don't call it murder. My feeling is that the mother has the right to trump the fetus, every time; she MAY choose to make another decision, but it is her choice there. An actual person - and however we define "actual person", the mother will qualify unless perhaps she is literally and completely brain dead - trumps a potential person.

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )



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