No good ever comes of trying to change someone’s mind about abortion. So I should know better than to react to Andrew’s argument against abortion at The Sharpener, which has already generated a lot of discussion over there (noticeably, among a bunch of mainly men rather than women). But my first degree was in Philosophy, so I can’t resist an argument about ethics. Especially when I think the discussion would be helped by a little more clarity and precision.
As is often the case with people who are against abortion, Andrew gently glides between two different arguments for attributing rights to a foetus:
- One argument is that the foetus already has characteristics that give it moral status.
- A separate argument is that the foetus has potential to become something that has moral status.
If you believe that the foetus has a moral status, then there is the further question of how to balance the interests of the foetus with the interests of the mother. But if you don’t believe that the foetus has a moral status then this issue does not arise.
So let’s look at the two arguments for giving moral status to a foetus. (Like Andrew, I am not going to address those who are against abortion for religious reasons. If you have an invisible friend who has told you that a foetus has rights, then none of what follows is going to convince you.)
What characteristics does the foetus have that would give it moral status because of what it is? An analogy with our treatment of other species is instructive: it seems that we generally grant moral status in proportion to an animal’s consciousness. Most humans do not eat higher primates, because monkeys seem to be not only conscious, but self-aware and capable of entering into quite complex relationships. We routinely kill and eat animals that feel pain, however, such as cows and pigs, though we generally frown upon deliberately causing pain. And nearly everyone thinks there is no moral harm in stepping on an ant, because it is regarded as having a very low level of consciousness and little ability to feel pain. So we seem to think that there is some positive correlation between moral status and consciousness or self-awareness. But if that is our basis for granting moral status, the foetus would not come very far up the scale. It seems that a foetus does not feel any pain until at least 26 weeks at the earliest (a recent paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that that brain nerve connections are unlikely to develop enough by 29 weeks to feel pain). Even when it does begin to feel pain, on this yardstick for judging moral worth it is only reaching the equivalent status of perhaps a fish or a bird – and a foetus at an advanced stage of development would not have the level of self-awareness of a cow or a dog.
So perhaps there is something else about what a foetus is that might be the basis of a moral status, even though it has a low level of consciousness and limited ability to feel pain? Some people take the view that it has status because it consists of human DNA. But so do sperm, and we don’t generally think that sperm has moral status, so it can’t be that.
We are tempted at this point to say that a foetus is more important than a cow or a sperm because of what it may become – namely a human being. But that is an argument based on the future potential of a foetus, not because of what it already is; and we will come to that separately. It seems very hard to say that a foetus should have significant moral status because of what it already is.
So what about the second argument, that a foetus has moral status because of what it will become? For Andrew, this seems to be the clincher:
The potential for life, which I identified earlier, is paramount. … To deny the potential for life is, at least in my own opinion, morally equivalent to murder.
But what does this really mean? Taken literally, this is an argument not only against abortion but also against contraception and against chastity or sexual abstinence. If we say that every potential future life has the value of a living person, then we are bound to say that no egg should go unfertilized, and no opportunity for conception should go unconsummated. Are families who choose to limit the number of children they have – even if by abstinence – guilty of pre-meditated acts of murder against potential future human beings? We clearly have no general obligation to ensure that all potential future human beings come into existence, and so there is no general moral status for "a potential human being".
It does not appear that, considered separately, there is a convincing case for granting moral status to a foetus on the grounds of what it is; nor is there a case for granting moral status to all potential future human beings. Is there, perhaps, some hybrid case, based on a mixture of the two? Those who oppose abortion often seem to be saying that something that occurs at conception as a result of which we should begin to pay attention to the potential future human life that it embodies. But what is it about the fusing of two zygotes that gives the combination of them a morally valuable possible future that they did not have when they were separate? It is true that conception marks a moment when the range of possible future outcomes narrows, as conception settles the issues of which genes will be combined. But there remains a very wide range of possible outcomes. And why does "potential future human life" only have moral status once there is a more narrow range of possible outcomes about what that person would be like?
It is interesting to read Andrew’s original post in the light of this. The first of his three arguments (which he calls "the science") slides back and forth between the argument about potential and the argument about what the foetus already is. My view is that when you prise these two thoughts apart and examine them separately, neither stands up to examination; and there is no satisfactory explanation of how the two approaches might interact to make a combination of the two more persuasive than either argument on its own.
Because I do not think that a foetus has significant moral worth, I do not think that there is anything to weigh up against the rights of the woman. So on my view of the status of the foetus, Andrew’s second point falls away entirely. However, if you did not agree with the reasoning above, and you were still persuaded that a foetus has the same moral status as a fully grown, conscious human being, it would still not follow that there should be restrictions on abortion. There is no general duty to sacrifice your own rights to control your body to save the life of another person. For example, I do not believe that people should be compelled against their will to give away a kidney or undergo a bone marrow transplant to save the life of another person. (It might be nice if they chose to do so; but most of us would not want to make it illegal to refuse.) For similar reasons I do not believe that a woman should be forced to incubate another human being if she chooses not to; even if that means the death of the other person. (I realise that this argument also depends on the fact that I don’t think there is a moral distinction between action and inaction – but that is a topic for another day.) So even if I believed that a foetus had moral status – which I don’t – I would still favour allowing women to choose whe
ther or not to end the pregnancy.
This is a topic on which there is scope for a range of possible opinions. Andrew does not want to hear arguments of the form "if you take that argument to the extreme, you’d be condoning x". But I do think it is important to try to articulate the principles that seem to guide our judgements, and then to ask whether those principles make sense, including by considering whether we would want them applied more generally. If the principles on which we believe we are basing our judgements also lead us to conclusions that we find unacceptable, then that is surely a good reason to question the principles themselves.
The argument against abortion is, in my view, a good argument of how intelligent and well-meaning people can reach the wrong conclusions on the basis of imprecise reasoning. The argument against abortion seems to depend on a combination of two separate arguments which sound superficially attractive when intertwined, but which does not seem convincing when the pieces of the argument are disassembled and examined in turn.