Abortion, again

It has been depressing to see the issue of abortion being politicised again in the UK, when a hard-won, decent and humane settlement has been in place. And it is particularly depressing for a philosopher to see that usual dreadful arguments (on both sides, it has to be said) trotted out again. Here’s one way of thinking about the issue which hopefully sheds some moral light.

Consider the following “gradualist” view: As the human zygote/embryo/foetus slowly develops, its death slowly becomes a more serious matter. At the very beginning, its death is of little consequence; as time goes on, its death is a matter it becomes appropriate to be gradually more concerned about.

Now, this view seems to be the one that almost all of us in fact do take about the natural death of human zygotes/embryos/foetuses. After all, very few of us are worried by the fact that a very high proportion of conceptions quite spontaneously abort. We don’t campaign for medical research to reduce that rate (nor do opponents of abortion campaign for all women to take drugs to suppress natural early abortion). Compare: we do think it is a matter for moral concern that there are high levels of infant mortality in some countries, and campaign and give money to help reduce that rate.

Again, very few of us are scandalized if a woman who finds she is pregnant by mistake in a test one week after conception is then mightily pleased when she discovers that the pregnancy has naturally terminated some days later (and even has a drink with a girl friend to celebrate her lucky escape). Compare: we would find it morally very inappropriate, in almost all circumstances, for a woman in comfortable circumstances to celebrate the death of an unwanted young baby.

Similarly for accidental death. Suppose a woman finds she is a week or two pregnant, goes horse riding, falls badly at a jump, and as a result spontaneously aborts. That might be regrettable, but we wouldn’t think she’d done something terrible by going riding and running the risk. Compare: we would be morally disapproving of someone badly risking the life of new born by carrying it while going in for some potentially very dangerous activity.

So: our very widely shared attitudes to the natural or accidental death of the products of conception do suggest that we do in fact regard them as of relatively lowly moral status at the beginning of their lives, and of greater moral standing as time passes. We are all (or nearly all) gradualists in these cases.

It is then quite consistent with such a view to take a similar line about unnatural deaths. For example, it would be consistent to think that using the morning-after pill is of no moral significance, while bringing about the death of an eight month foetus is getting on for as serious as killing a neonate, with a gradual increase in the seriousness of the killing in between.

Some, at any rate, of those of us who are pro (early) choice are moved by this sort of gradualist view. The line of thought in sum is: the killing of an early foetus has a moral weight commensurate with the moral significance of the natural or accidental death of an early foetus. And on a very widely shared view, that’s not very much significance. So from this point of view, early abortion is of not very much significance either. But abortion gradually gets a more significant matter as time goes on.

You might disagree. But then it seems that you either need (a) an argument for departing from the very widely shared view about the moral significance of the natural or accidental miscarriage of the early products of conception. Or (b) you need to have an argument for the view that while the natural death of a zygote a few days old is of little significance, the unnatural death is of major significance. Neither line is easy to argue. To put it mildly.

We can agree however that killing a neonate is, in general, a very bad thing. So the remaining question is how to scale the cases in between. That’s something that serious and thoughtful and decent people can disagree about to some extent. But note it is a disagreement about matters of degree (even if any legal arrangements have to draw artificial sharp lines). All-or-nothing views, on either side of the debate, have nothing to recommend them.

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21 Responses to Abortion, again

If you are saying, as you seem to be, that it’s somehow ‘worse’ to kill a more-developed foetus than a less-developed one, I’d have to say I don’t see the distinction. Post birth, society seems to have the opposite view: that the killing of a child is more reprehensible than the killing of an adult. Isn’t it because of the potential of a child, what it could become, that makes us feel its untimely death (particularly an unnatural one) as more of a loss? It’s arguable that the earlier a foetus is in pregnancy, the more potential it has.

• Peter Smith says:

You may be right about the view that “society seems to have” about the situation post birth. That, however, is quite consistent with the observation I was making, namely that the view that “society seems to have” about the situation pre-birth — as far as natural or accidental deaths are concerned — is that the deaths become of more moral significance as the zygote/embryo/foetus develops. (Though that very widely shared view about the changing significance of the natural or accidental deaths pre-birth indeed isn’t compatible with the “potentially is all that matters” view.)

2. David Auerbach says:

I mostly agree; but the argument needs a lot of shoring up. It could very well be that we have those moral judgments in those cases because of features other than the moral status of the fetus or embryo.

• Peter Smith says:

It could be … why I’d need to see reasons for supposing this is so before I take the possibility more seriously!

3. Gc says:

I have an impression that you can get a murder or a manslaughter charge if you (not the mother) kill the child in the womb even if an abortion is still a legal option to the mother. In my mind only thing that supports legalized abortion at least after few weeks is not some a philosophical argument valid in all possible worlds. It just the best option among bad options in our own world.

• Peter Smith says:

I agree that abortion after a few weeks may be best thought of as the least bad option among bad options. Indeed, that should seem to be implied by the gradualist line about the increasing moral status of the foetus as it develops — it soon becomes a morally significant thing to kill it, even if there can be sufficient countervailing reasons to warrant doing so. (But isn’t that a philosophical remark? I’m not sure we can avoid “philosophical argument” here!)

• Gc says:

Sorry, I meant to say that only after few weeks things get morally really messy. But now somehow Im inclined to think that even this depends how the mother sees her pregnancy (she is planning to keep the baby). One must certainly look at the special situation of the mother. You could say that the fetus is human, but the mother owns the baby in some restricted sense for at least some weeks.

4. Rowsety Moid says:

For natural and accidental death, you don’t quite give an argument; you suggest (convincingly, I think) that there’s a “very widely shared attitude”. So is anything more than that needed for “the view that while the natural death of a zygote a few days old is of little significance, the unnatural death is of major significance”?

I think there’s a similar “widely shared attitude” case that deliberately killing a cat, for example, is at least more morally significant than a cat dying naturally or by accident. And the same may be true of … insects, although for insects even the deliberate killing may not seen very significant. (Yet it may depend on the insect. Deliberately killing an ant doesn’t seem as questionable as deliberately killing a butterfly.)

Now I would suggest that not only is deliberate killing more significant than natural / accidental death, the difference between the significance of deliberate killing and that of natural / accidental death becomes greater as we move from insects to cats; and as we move from cats to humans, the significance, and the difference in significance between the deliberate and natural / accidental cases, both become greater still.

The next step is to say that something similar applies to human development. To put it bluntly, at what point in its development does a human become worth more than a beetle?

This is not an all-or-nothing view, but it does suggest, I think, that the significance of deliberately aborting a human zygote/embryo/foetus may become unacceptably great much sooner than the ‘pro choice’ position would have it.

You say “the killing of an early foetus has a moral weight commensurate with the moral significance of the natural or accidental death of an early foetus.” I think that’s questionable. “Commensurate” is rather vague. I think it may be covering over a significant difference; and the killing of an early foetus has at least greater moral weight.

More extreme views might then be reached in various ways, for instance by arguing that we should err on the side of caution and stay well away from grey areas when setting the latest allowable dates for abortions. (“Dates”, plural, because there might be different cases that call for different rules.)

• Peter Smith says:

You might say: Beetles are prolific and are procreating and dying all the time. The natural death of a beetle really seems almost neither here nor there in the moral scheme of things. Still, stomping on a beetle just for the hell of it isn’t very nice. We tell little Tommy to stop doing it. We might worry a bit about his character if he shows relish for such things. So even if the natural death of a beetle isn’t of much significance, the killing of a beetle for hell of it has more significance.

I agree. So there’s certainly that much truth in your remarks “deliberate killing [being] more more significant than natural/accidental death”. But of course frivolous beetle-stomping is not a good analogy with the abortion case. Women don’t have abortions for the hell of it, but for a weighty reason — they don’t want a baby. So we need to think not about causing death for the hell of it (never nice), but causing deaths for reasons, and think how weighty the reasons need to be to warrant doing the killing.

Back to beetles. Commensurate with our thought that natural death of a beetle doesn’t count for much, I suggest that we don’t in fact call for weighty reasons to kill one when we can’t avoid doing so to secure some goal. And that seems consistent. Given we don’t think the natural death counts for much — beetles are relatively expendable — why should it still require very weighty reasons to justify terminating the life of one?

Similarly with the case of early abortion. Few seem to think that the natural death of an early zygote counts for much. Who is scandalised when they learn that something like 30% of pregnancies spontaneously abort early on? Where are the campaigns to reduce these natural early post-conception deaths? So, given that widely shared implicit view of the status of the early zygote the question remains — why should it still require very weighty reasons to justify terminating the life of the early products of conception?

I quite agree though that there remains a question of “slope” between the not-very-significant-at-all morning-after abortion and the very-significant infanticide: a steady slope over nine months? a rapid initial rise? And I said, decent and humane people can disagree about that.

5. Gc says:

It also clear to me that pregnant drug addicts or alcoholics should be possible to be taken to the involuntary treatment. This is not possible in Finland, but its possible in at least some other nordic countrie(s). Of course the extreme pro-choice or feminist groups go crazy when this is sometimes broad up.

• Peter Smith says:

The question of imposing involuntarily medical interventions of any kind is a whole different can of worms. One problem at a time!

• Gc says:

I think its closely related. If a mother has no right to hurt her fetus with alcohol how come she can have a right to kill it? Also its her body etc.

6. Anonymous Student says:
• Peter Smith says:

Thanks for the link to this!

• michael says:

The ‘scourge’ is interesting but not very alarming. Why? How can you be exercised by something you are not even aware of? Are women who might be pregnant supposed to go around ‘in tin shoes, sipping tepid milk’? Again how is this a challenge to Catholics who at least at the end of life assert that it is not morally required to use heroic means to keep alive the moribund. Having failed to hit the nail to begin with the author continues to hit it in the same place repeatedly.

• Peter Smith says:

But of course the question is: once you are aware of the rate of natural embryo death, what — in consistency — should be your moral reaction?

• michael says:

I would apply the principle of not using heroic means and not striving officiously to keep alive; to allow, in other words, nature’s quality control to take its course. I do not see that as a challenge to the pro-life/anti-abortion stance.

7. Alex says:

Given your stated postulates, you seem to present a sound argument, but there seem to be a few points you haven’t even touched on (not least the validity of the postulates themselves).

A few assumptions I’d wish to debate are:

“As the human zygote/embryo/foetus slowly develops, its death slowly becomes a more serious matter” — Is this truly the case? That is, how do we define a “more serious matter” in the first place; more morally reprehensible, perhaps? And then there’s the question of how one measures development. I don’t see how time itself can be a very good measure. Often timespans concerning the initiation of consciousness are discussed (with some controversy), but regardless of this, medical science indicates that consciousness/awareness monotonically grows during the prenatal period. Now, do we base the moral gravity of the killing of an ‘embryo’ on its current consciousness? This is a complex issue, but consider the killing of an ‘unwanted’ retarded person, for example; or even an intelligent primate.

The general concept of gradualism in foeti, while one I am inclined to accept, may be disputed by many however, in particular Orthodox and Catholic Christians, who typically believe that human life exists from the moment of conception. The killing of even the direct potential for a living, conscious human being, is a moral crime to such believers. Philosophically, if nature’s pathway (to birth) is interrupted by human will, then the act is equivalent to murder of a live human being.

The entire argument also begs the whole question of “wantedness” of a human being within a society or even by another individual, as already hinted. The connection with eugenics is a strong one. As you yourself mention, the murder of a live infant is not acceptable by any moral standards. That parents may be allowed to choose whether an unborn foetus may become a live human being implies ownership that I don’t believe modern ethics accept in any way. (There do of course exist the ancient Spartan and later Roman atitudes towards infants, which considers them only as incomplete, almost larval human beings under adulthood.)

Where I think the argument falters most perhaps is your assertion that there is no fundamental ethical difference between naturally and artificially-caused termination of an unborn child. (Please correct me if I misunderstood.) To assign a “moral status” to an unborn child is a fallacy in my view, as all meritable frameworks of ethics may only assign moral value specifically to actions. Hence, there should in fact be a very clear separation between the conscious act of killing/terminating a foetus by a moral agent, and an unconscious one (by nature if you will).

Finally, while I again sympathise with your view that there is a large gray area of the moral status of abortion, there are certain frameworks (notably Kantian ethics), which would, like Christian ethics, disagree with abortion at any point during pregnancy. Indeed, the related argument that a foetus is but a child and even adult of the future is one that is difficult to dismiss easily. In all, I would tend to think that a true answer to the question of abortion, as with most controversial moral issues, lies very close to the heart of the answer to “what is morality?”. Social concensus may have to do for now.