Is abortion wrong?

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.

20 thoughts on “Is abortion wrong?”

  1. Owen: A persuasive argument, but I feel that in the end you use the same basic arguments as I do, but take the opposite conclusions, based really on your personal view of what is right or wrong in the situation. This is pretty clear from your paragraph beginning ‘Because I do not think that a foetus has significant moral worth’, which is of course just a statement of your personal belief.

    On a couple of your specific points:

    Taken literally, this is an argument not only against abortion but also against contraception and against chastity or sexual abstinence.

    That’s what I meant when I said I didn’t want rebuttals of the form ‘if you take that argument to the extreme, you’d be condoning x’, when they are self-evidently ridiculous. My view is that the moment of conception is indeed special, because it is when the potential for life is realised. We don’t view a sperm or an egg in the same way, as you suggest above, not because it has human DNA, but because it doesn’t have a complete set of human DNA. For this reason, I don’t think I slide between the two separate points, as you suggest. I think the two are linked, but that’s just a statement of personal belief as well. I certainly don’t see myself as more right than you.

    There is no general duty to sacrifice your own rights to control your body to save the life of another person.

    No, but I think that most people would recognise that pregnancy is a special case. The foetus is dependent on the mother. There is no clear medical analogy with that, and certainly not to organ/blood donation.

    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.

    Yes, I agree, although I think there are limits. I’m always wary of this form of argument because I know as a scientist that there are cases where rules apply in very specific conditions. To assume that a rule is universal because it seems to hold in one place is a leap of faith. Morality, for me, needn’t necessarily be different. Indeed, this is one case where we do make a very arbitrary distinction between murder and abortion (the 24 week law). I wanted to avoid the debate degenerating into namecalling and pettiness, which is why I wrote a fairly lengthy appeal for people to keep it rational. Thankfully, they’ve done just that.

    Owen replies:
    Andrew

    Thanks for taking the time to read my response to your article, and thanks for taking the time to set out your views.

    My view is that the moment of conception is indeed special, because it is when the potential for life is realised.

    This hightlights exactly the point I am trying to make. It is not clear whether you are arguing that the foetus has moral worth because of what it is (“moment of conception is special”), or what it might become (“potential for life”). The potential for life exists before conception too. Your argument seems to be that the potential for life changes in some important way at conception, but you don’t explain what that change is. If you believe that the foetus has moral value because all future potential human beings have the moral worth of a living person, then you either have to be opposed to contraception, or explain why the future potential of a foetus is different in a morally significant way.

    We don’t view a sperm or an egg in the same way, as you suggest above, not because it has human DNA, but because it doesn’t have a complete set of human DNA.

    What about beard trimmings? Cadavers? Both contain a full set of human DNA but we do not treat them as having moral value. The mere posession of a full set of human DNA is clearly not a sufficient condition for moral worth.

    For this reason, I don’t think I slide between the two separate points, as you suggest. I think the two are linked,

    I think you do, both in your original post and in your comments here. You seem to to say the foetus is important primarily because of its potential, but then distinguish it from other potential future lives on the basis of what it has already become. But you offer no explanation for how these are linked. Why does a foetus have more potential for human life after conception than the two zygotes had before conception?

    This is pretty clear from your paragraph beginning ‘Because I do not think that a foetus has significant moral worth’, which is of course just a statement of your personal belief.

    This was not intended to be a premise of my argument: it was an attempt to summarize where the argument had got to thus far, as it followed the section where I had explained why neither of the arguments for granting moral worth to the foetus seemed persuasive. I am sorry that this was not clear.

    I think that most people would recognise that pregnancy is a special case. The foetus is dependent on the mother. There is no clear medical analogy with that, and certainly not to organ/blood donation.

    What if an NHS database identified that I was the only living donor who could provide a stranger with a kidney? Their life would be dependent on my willingness to agree to a transplant – in other words, their life would be dependent on my. Am I then obliged to donate the kidney? Why does the fact that A is dependent on B mean that B has a moral duty to look after A?

    Owen

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  3. I’m impressed by your (to my mind conclusive) arguments against the attribution of ‘rights’ to a foetus or embryo on the grounds either that it has characteristics that give it moral status, or that it has the potential for developing those characteristics. Accordingly, I agree with your conclusions, and regard the majority of the counter-arguments as flawed, even though some of them are intuitively convincing. But I have one problem with your case: how do you distinguish between an unborn baby (foetus) and a new-born baby? I’m not clear which of your arguments against attributing rights to a foetus don’t apply equally to a new-born baby. Or do you accept a woman’s (or a doctor’s, or the father’s) moral right to kill a new-born baby? If so, at what point and on what grounds does that right evaporate, if it does? Is the state of consciousness of a baby an hour after birth significantly more developed than one hour before birth? Isn’t it still markedly less developed than that of, say, an adult chimpanzee or even a cow (to go back to your analogies)?

    It might be argued that this is one of those cases of taking arguments to their logical conclusion whose absurdity is then exposed, the process which Andrew doesn’t welcome but which you (I think rightly) see as legitimate. And indeed killing a new-born baby can in some circumstances be treated as morally distinguishable from killing an adult or a child that is no longer a ‘baby’ — the law treats infanticide differently from the way it treats murder, or at any rate used to do so, and whatever the law might say on the subject, few would blame a doctor who quietly disposed of (i.e. killed) a new-born baby with no possible chance of living a tolerable life, e.g. because of a terrible deformity, and whose survival would impose an appalling burden on the parents or future carers. So perhaps there isn’t after all a sharp distinction between the rights, or absence of them, of the foetus and those of a new-born baby? Yet the intuitive moral position surely contradicts this: one’s instinct is that once born, a human does have rights, whether or not he or she had already acquired them in the womb.

    I think there must be a good answer to this problem but I don’t immediately see what it is. Perhaps that’s because I foolishly read classics at university, not philosophy, although I did have to spend some pretty unproductive time on Plato.

    Brian

    Owen replies: Right. I don’t think that there is a morally significant change at birth. Whatever moral worth a foetus has immediately before birth does not change at birth. In cases of extreme handicap which would lead to low quality of life for both child and parents, I would be in favour of permitting euthanasia after birth.

  4. Owen:

    “So we seem to think that there is some positive correlation between moral status and consciousness or self-awareness… 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.”

    First, the argument from consciousness leads to an extremely slippery slope, especially once you justify killing animals on the basis of inferior consciousness. If the standards are ‘better than animal’ then basically you’re going to allow (1) enfanticide; and (2) euthanasia of large numbers of disabled (but otherwise functioning, i.e., not Schiavo-like) cases. This is the Peter Singer view, I know, but do you really hold to that? Would you really be indifferent to, say, the way Romans used to leave their babies for dead if they decided they didn’t look right?

    Second, sperm do contain human DNA, but they ain’t playin’ with a full deck, as Andrew pointed out (23 chromosomes rather than 46). When a sperm fertilises an egg (and only then, short of cloning) is a human person formed. We can say that consciousness isn’t there, but the potential for consciousness is; it isn’t there in the case of a sperm. We can also point out that there’s a material difference between the consciousness of humans (existential angst, for one) and that of animals, and that the potential for this consciousness, however achieved, is something to cherish.

    Further, we can say that the scale of the potential for this consciousness isn’t determined in the womb prior to most abortions. When we compare that to a person with chronic mental disabilities, your argument for consciousness probably provides stronger support for euthanasia than otherwise. So, the consciousness argument isn’t that strong either, unless we say that its current non-actuality forfeits the right to life; but in that case, can you kill somebody who’s KO’d on the floor?

    “There is no general duty to sacrifice your own rights to control your body to save the life of another person.”

    Not quite so clear-cut. The common law principle of necessity would seem to apply here – that the foetus has no choice but to draw life support from the mother; this could take a private form (self preservation) or a public form (social reproduction). The mother would have a consequent claim to just compensation, but that’s all.

    Comparisons to a person needing a kidney having no claim to yours are bogus: there are lots of people who have kidneys, and normally a period of time during which the person can survive until an arrangement can be found. In the case of a foetus, it has been created and will not survive without drawing support from the mother’s body; there is no other way for it to stay alive, and the likely downside to the mother (bad though it can be) is not of the same magnitude as the likely downside to the foetus in case of an abortion.

    The argument is all the more pointed where the mother’s agency created the pregnancy; either by intentional conception or taking actions that carried a known risk of such. In that case, the foetus (if it has personhood, and pro-lifers tend to think it does, if you’ll forgive that) is in a life-threatening emergency whereby (1) he/she can only stay alive by drawing sustenance from the person who put him/her into that situation; (2) the support is uncomfortable, painful, and potentially injurious, but is unlikely to result in death of permanent disablement. If the foetus could hire a lawyer, it’d win that case.

    Re your last, the argument for abortion (or the right to it) depends on some arbitrary categorisations which, if pursued consistently, would allow the strong a brutal power over the weak.

  5. Brian,
    That’s exactly the argument which Peter Singer uses and which I address in the linked post. “Becoming human” is a process and there are diferent rights (and duties) at each stage in that process. The rub is where in that process the specific rights kick in.

  6. Tim,

    I agree that the questions (rather than arguments) that I have posed above are closely related to the points you address in your linked post. Where I think I differ from you (with considerable diffidence) is in regarding the right to life, as you define it, as different in kind and not just in degree from the other kinds of right that you mention (such as the right to marry, to drive, to drink, to vote, etc.). The latter category of ‘rights’ is surely more akin to legal permissions related not to one’s human condition, and by no means ‘inalienable’ (or ‘unalienable’ — as in the Declaration of Independence), but rather determined by society’s judgement of when it is safe to allow the activity in question, and when the growing human is likely to be capable of performing it in a rational and responsible way. In other words, these rights are not to be seen as a continuum with the right to life at one end, and the right to buy cigarettes at the other. There are surely few rights comparable with the right to life: the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson again) probably covers the field quite well although Jefferson quoted them as examples, not as a complete catalogue. Of those three, the right to life is the only one that a baby is capable of enjoying, plus of course the right to be allowed to enjoy the other two when the capacity to enjoy them has developed. Even then, the right of a child of, say, eight, to liberty, may be considerably circumscribed!

    It’s arguable, and indeed often argued, that the whole language of ‘rights’ is misconceived and that we should think more in terms of what behaviour is morally and socially permissible or desirable in relation to oneself and (especially) others. On that basis it would seem to me manifestly more undesirable to kill a new-born baby than to abort an unborn one, especially an unborn one in the first weeks or months after conception. But that’s really a circular argument, merely re-phrasing the original question: is abortion ‘wrong’ and if so why? And I return to my subordinate question: if abortion is not, or not necessarily, ‘wrong’, as argued by Owen, by the same token is killing a new-born baby wrong, and if not (or not necessarily), what exactly is the difference? — apart of course from the factor of the possible effects of the birth on the mother’s physical health, since once the baby is born, killing it (him, her) won’t any longer affect the mother’s physical health. But the implications for the mother’s physical health are not by any means always the key factor in the abortion argument or in abortions as such, so that can’t be the determining factor.

    Brian

  7. It seems to me that you are avoiding the issue too.

    Your test for controlling one’s own body is misleading
    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.

    As a philosophy graduate you know the difference between passive and active euthenasia. Your example is not applicable.

    A man shooting people with a gun is controlling his own body. We accept that his control has to be limited for society’s good. In other words he does not have absolute right of control.

    Moving to the rights of the child:

    We accept that an adult has the right not to be killed upon the whim of another. Sperm do not have a right to be joined to an egg. Therefore, at sometime during the period between conception and adulthood, that right is acquired. I might be mistaken but you seem to place that at the point of birth. This is more extreme than mainstream society which seems to place it earlier at a point immediately prior to “viability”. Indeed it would seem odd to permit the killing of a viable infant the day before it’s natural birth, when premature babies can live unaided. This is what has motivated the move to reduce the limit – technological advance has now changed the point of viability.

    But viability is itself a dubious method of determining rights. An unhealthy baby kept alive by technology is no more viable than a 24 week old foetus or a adult on a kidney machine.

    In fact there is no obvious reason why any of the major physical mileposts of confinement should be seen as the point at which rights are somehow magically acquired. We may be forced to admit that any limit is somewhat arbitrary but agree nevertheless, that rights are acquired somewhere in those 9 months.

    That means the limited rights of the woman to control her own body need to be balanced against the uncertain rights of the foetus. In this scenario one evil – forcing women to carry unwanted babies has to be balanced against another evil – terminating a foetus.

    I’m prepared to defend abortion on this basis. It fits better with the historical reasons as to why abortion laws were liberalised in the UK – ie. the evil of back street abortion was seen to be worse than the evil of state sanctioned terminations that desperate young girls would have secured illegally in any case.

    Nevertheless, the huge number of abortions that are performed today makes me very uncomfortable, particularly as sex education is now compulsory (inc. opt-out), contraception is freely available and the shame of illegitimacy has gone. To coldly regard such events as of no moral significance is pretty repellant, regardless of your position on abortion.

    Furthermore, the absolutist case that you propose gives us no basis to oppose infanticide. The young child is no less dependent upon the mother (right to control) and no less capable of being looked after by outside interventionist parties. It’s hard to see why dependence prior to birth differs morally from that after. If the mother’s rights are primary, it follows that termination is morally okay. In fact the secretary of one of the Abortion advocates admitted as much on BBC’s the moral maze.

    Owen replies:

    John, thanks for visiting and your comments.

    You are right that we do not have absolute rights to do what we want if that affects other people. But we do not, in general, think that other people have a right to commandeer our bodies, even if their life depends on it. In other words, my right to control my own body exceeds someone else’s right to use my body, even if that means that they will die as a result of my non-compliance with their needs. Why should a foetus have more rights in this regard than other people?

    I don’t believe that either birth or viability are an important milestone in the acquisition of moral worth. At neither moment does anything happen which seems to me materially to affect the moral status of the foetus. (I’ve explained my views on the irrelevance of viability at greater length here.) Nor, to my mind, does anything very morally important happen at conception. I am in favour of allowing euthanasia after birth, though (in the interests of the parents) I hope that this would be rarely used.

    Owen

  8. Thanks for the reply.

    You are honest enough to say that post birth terminations are acceptable. This is in line with your view that terminations have no moral significance. When I accused you of avoiding the issue, I was thinking that you do not explain how (or when) a person acquires rights. I would appreciate your clarifying how a older child gains the rights denied a younger child.

    Owen replies: John – thanks. I didn’t say quite say that terminations have no moral significance. I don’t think the foetus has significant moral worth, though as it develops and acquires the ability to feel pain I think it does have some moral claims as full term approaches. (I realise this is a more nuanced position than I set out above. In retrospect, I should have made this clear.) But I don’t think those change significantly at birth (which is just a change of address, with no moral implications). I think the foetus (and then baby) steadily acquires greater moral claims as it develops the ability to feel pain, consciousness, and eventually self-awareness. I would say that it is several (perhaps 6) months old before it has the same moral status as an adult. This does not mean that I am in favour of infanticide of 3-month old babies. I think there are sound utilitarian reasons for maintaining a taboo on killing people, which would be weakened by allowing people to kill 3-month old children, and I don’t believe that there is any good reason to commit infanticide of 3-month old babies sufficient to offset that damage to the public good. But I would allow the infanticide in limited circumstances of new-born babies born with very significant deformities, yes.

  9. Brian,
    Fair points. I tend to be slightly facetious in my argumentation.
    Another way of recasting my argument. Take the three rights you mention. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Quite happy with the idea that these are the only three rights in the sense you mean. As with the Singer view, we acquire these as we develop from conceptus to full adult. I’m simply stating (for I have no philosophic basis for this) that in my view life, the right to it, is the first to be acquired and is sufficiently important that it over rides, to a very great extent, the second and third rights of others. And that that right is acquired well before viability.
    I will admit to something of a problem on this point. I’m reasonably certain that my thoughts on this subject are self-justification. I feel a deep and visceral disgust at the thought that anyone could “do that”. That meaning not just abortion but also euthanasia and capital punishment. So I am, perhaps, rather casting around for arguments to support my pre-existing prejudices.

    To return to being facetious:
    “But we do not, in general, think that other people have a right to commandeer our bodies, even if their life depends on it.”
    Owen, you certainly argue strongly at times that several billion people have the right to commandeer my body and its labour as their lives depend upon it. That is your argument in favour of tax-paid aid, is it not?

    Owen replies Tim – I’ve replied to this on your blog. I was going to tease you with the opposite facetious point. I was wondering when you would get to the sentence I was expecting from a libertarian like you: “but the state is not your friend and these are individual choices so abortion should be legal for anyone who wants one, even if I personally do not agree”.

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  11. “but the state is not your friend and these are individual choices so abortion should be legal for anyone who wants one,…”

    Perhaps because I am reasonably certain that in every mother and child pair there is one of them that does not wish the abortion to happen?

    (Which is obviously begging the question I know.)

    Owen replies: Tim – you know that is anthropomorphic tosh. The foetus does not “want” anything. It has a brain so basic that it doesn’t even feel pain. It is not sitting in there planning its future and saving for college. And even if it could feel pain, how does it differ from the pig that provided your bacon this morning, which almost certainly does not “wish” to go to the abbattoir?

  12. Brian,

    But I have one problem with your case: how do you distinguish between an unborn baby (foetus) and a new-born baby? I’m not clear which of your arguments against attributing rights to a foetus don’t apply equally to a new-born baby. Or do you accept a woman’s (or a doctor’s, or the father’s) moral right to kill a new-born baby? If so, at what point and on what grounds does that right evaporate, if it does? Is the state of consciousness of a baby an hour after birth significantly more developed than one hour before birth? Isn’t it still markedly less developed than that of, say, an adult chimpanzee or even a cow (to go back to your analogies)?

    Peter Singer, sort of, answers these points.
    He accepts that the birth makes a difference “not so much to the fetus/infant and its claim to life, but to others who are affected by it.”
    He then gives a couple of examples.
    “ ….the woman is no longer pregnant….Thus her claim to control her own body and reproductive system is no longer enough to determine the life or death of the new born baby.
    The second difference birth makes is that if the baby’s mother does not want to keep the child, it can be cared for by someone else who does. This reason for preserving infant life is strong in a society in which there are more couples wanting to adopt a baby than there are babies needing adoption.”
    t

  13. Tony,

    I think Owen has comprehensively disposed of the points made by Peter Singer and quoted in your comment. The criteria for assessing the ‘moral worth’, or — to use a potentially tendentious term — ‘rights’ of a late-term foetus or a new-born baby are convincingly shown by Owen’s original post to have little or nothing to do with the mother’s pregnancy or lack of it, and nothing at all to do with dependency or viability.

    Owen has answered my question in the only way that is consistent, I think, with his basic thesis (which I accept), namely that there is no appreciable change in the moral worth of the foetus/baby as between immediately before and immediately after birth, since the criteria for recognition of moral worth and qualified entitlement to protection are to do with ability to feel pain and individual consciousness, graduating into self-awareness, and not viability, the mother’s rights over her own body or lack of them, DNA, potential for becoming something or someone else, or any of the other red herrings repeatedly dragged across the trail. But I agree with his postscript about the utilitarian validity of the social taboo against killing humans, a social good that would need to be weighed against the case for terminating, either before or soon after birth, a life that because of radical deformity of some kind could never be anything but a burden to itself and those condemned to look after it. That taboo is damaged more by the killing of a new-born baby than by killing a late-term foetus, so to that extent the former carries a heavier penalty than the latter, although both could in principle be justified in exceptional circumstances.

    I think this has been an unusually mind-clearing and therefore valuable set of exchanges.

    Brian
    http://www.barder.com/ephems/

  14. I’m hoping this is a philosophical exercise, an intellectual work-out, and not a basis for your real beliefs and views (although I expect it is the latter, and you assert it is).
    Your arguments show up the danger of applying a science of thought, an essentially materialistic outlook, to human affairs, to life.
    You’ve argued away the right to exist of an inchoate human being, by falling between the cracks of two arguments – a) the foetus has no moral status, and b) it does not have moral status because of what it will become.
    It has moral status because it’s an already existent representative of the potential to become.
    It can’t be argued away by reference to all the other unrealised possibilities, as it is a realised possibility.
    This is what happens when one applies materialist thinking – measuring, comparing, analysing – to human affairs, as I said before; the human becomes lost, we become machines, and ultimately life (existent despite it all, despite us all) is subjugated to considerations of utility. Which seems only logical to you, which merely shows how lost you – we – have become.

  15. I should add further to the above, firstly, that I do support the legality of abortion because I accept that not everyone shares my view that it’s morally wrong, and that if it were illegal, some women would still have abortions and put themselves in danger; and others would have unwanted pregnancies.
    Secondly, I apologise that I haven’t really argued within the parameters of the debate, and have just asserted that I’m right. I’m arguing from a kind of holistic worldview which doesn’t really fit into a philosophical debate.
    My belief is that life and matter exist in a continuum, and we, living, conscious beings who also incorporate a material self (rather than only constituting a material self) can act either consonant with life or with matter, and that types of thinking which rightly apply in studies of matter, ie science (logic etc) lead to all sorts of distortions and wrong outcomes when applied to life.
    Apologies for seeming strident and judgmental before.

  16. Henry:

    My belief is that life and matter exist in a continuum, and we, living, conscious beings who also incorporate a material self (rather than only constituting a material self) can act either consonant with life or with matter, and that types of thinking which rightly apply in studies of matter, ie science (logic etc) lead to all sorts of distortions and wrong outcomes when applied to life.

    I have read this sentence 3 times, and I quite simply have no idea what it means. If you are right, what would be different about the world?

  17. Ivy, 9 September 2006. My doctor ( gynae) tells me that there is no way of knowing if a foetus of 9 weeks 3 days can feel pain, and there are many claims that a young foetus of 9 or 10 or 11 months suck their thumbs because it is pleasurabe. If they can feel pleasure, what is there to say they can’t feel pain? So, what if the basic claims  that they are not self-aware and cannot feel pain until after 26 weeks, cannot be conclusively proven, one way or the other? At what stage of development does the foetus feel pain and become self-aware?? After all a 8 -9 week old foetus squints and bring its hand to its face and react to noises and tightens its fist? As the frontiers of science and better technology expands so much of what we thought to be the truth have changed? All you guys argue intelligently which show me you have good brains but I can only say for me this is more than just an exercise in logic. I had an abortion when I was 18 years old and am now 50. To this day I feel the pain of my loss and hate my own cowardice…still that is personal and wouldn’t affect all your arguments. I will feel more at peace if it is REALLY TRUE and conclusively proven that a foetus can feel pain only after 26 weeks. I was 8 to 9 weeks 3 days into my pregnancy when I had my abortion. Owen, can you please supply me to the link / web-site to which you refer…of the American Medical Asssociation? 32 years is a long time to be feel that I have done something very wrong and  to still feel  the pain of my loss. Serves me right. When really is a baby self-aware and capable of cognition, emotions of comfort, and have perceptions of pain? To women like me philosophy, logic, rationality, religion, etc. etc. seem so unimportant.  The guilt, yearnings, regrets and more yearnings are too real. So, Owen give me that link, will you? it is so important for me to know.

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