Friday, January 07, 2011

Abortion and Relevance

Most people agree that killing a newborn is a criminal act, not a mother's choice, (although there have been a few people who have defended infanticide). The question in the abortion controversy is whether a fetus is relevantly different from a newborn. Of course there are differences (a fetus is in the womb and a newborn is out of the womb), but the big question is whether that difference is a morally relevant difference, a difference that gives us grounds for thinking that while a newborn has a right to life that should be backed up by the protection of the criminal law, a fetus has no such right.

This is mostly by way of trying to spell out the issue clearly.


Jake Elwood XVI said...

There is a case in Australia at the moment where a couple is pushing to be able to choose the gender of their child for IVF treatment.

They want a girl and recently terminated twin boys.

Now its seems that it would be better to do something early then later, but what if the couple had decided after birth they did not want another boy?

SteveK said...

The SLED defense argues that the differences between a newborn and fetus are:

Level of development
Degree of dependency

and that none of these differences justify abortion. I agree.

Duke of Earl said...

Steve, and the very relevant point is that eugenicists do indeed argue that properties such as social class, intelligence and wealth determine the value of the person.

Nasty nasty eugenicists.

Clayton said...

"The question in the abortion controversy is whether a fetus is relevantly different from a newborn."

That's a question, but "the" question? Here's another question, whether the fetus is relevantly different from an embryo. If not and the embryo lacks moral status, the fetus lacks moral status.

Here's another question, whether the fetus' moral status changes through development. At stages prior to sentience, does the fetus live a life that is good for it? If so, what makes its life good for it that wouldn't make, say, the life of any non-sentient living organism good for it?

Here's another question, whether the fetus' moral status confers upon its rights that include both the right to life and the right to assistance? And, of course, whether the rights to assistance depend upon the prior acts of the pregnant woman.

There's lots and lots of questions here. It's a gross simplification to say that the question is whether there's a relevant difference between the fetus (as if this picks out some natural moral kind) and a newborn.

Duke of Earl said...

Is the embryo relevantly different to the newborn?

Size, smaller rather than larger
Level of development, a cluster of cells versus a larger cluster of cells
Environment, inside a womb versus outside a womb
Degree of dependency, total dependency on mother versus total dependence on mother or other human nursemaid

Consequently, if we accord moral status to the newborn, we have to accord it to the embryo as well.

Thanks Clayton, now we can start winding back a bit further.

Morrison said...

The fetus at one month, less in fact, has the same genetic code he or she will, if not murdered in the meantime, at age 70.

Doctor Logic said...


FYI, the fetus and the 70-year-old have the same DNA, even if the adult is murdered.

Also, the fetus and the 70-year-old have the same DNA as the adult's hangnail or tumor.

Doctor Logic said...

We should get down to brass tacks.

Anti-choice people don't care about sentience, size, development, pain or anything else of a material nature. If we were to do studies that proved that an embryo can't feel pain, or that the psychological results of early-stage abortion were beneficial, these studies would be neither here nor there for the anti-choicers. All the pseudo-arguments about human rights and infanticide are red herrings and rationalizations. It's disingenuous to pretend that they are relevant.

Anti-choicers have a particular view of the world in which (1) we ought to do what God intended, and (2) that God did not intend us to have abortions. Since they believe abortion is not what God intended, it is therefore irrelevant to them whether abortion is advantageous in the material world. Arguments they provide about the material world are just attempts at persuasion, not real arguments based on common premises.

Likewise, pro-choicers don't much care about the studies either. They value freedom, justice, humanism, and the ability of persons to choose what they see as the best, most humane course of action. Embryos may be human, but they are not persons.

The answer to the abortion question depends primarily on your values, not on material facts. (People who believe in God believe that God shares their values, and that's why there are theists who are pro-choice, and theists who are Fred Phelps.)

Steven said...

Both the fetus and infants are potential persons, and it is this potentiality that grounds the right to life in infants, so it should ground the right to life in the fetus.

So I think, anyway.

Duke of Earl said...

Thank you Doctor Logic. Your values of freedom, justice, humanism and the ability to choose what they see best (but only if they happen to fit your criteria of personhood) are not significantly different from those invoked by the Eugenics movement to support their desire to eliminate blacks, the poor, and the mentally disadvantaged.

In between your attempts at psycho-analysis, do you ever try thinking?

Anonymous said...

What property or properties are morally relevant? Its hard to see how having a genetic code or being a certain size matters for morality.

consciousness seems to matter. No matter how dimwitted a squirell may be relative to an adult human being, it is wrong to kick it for fun or burn it alive in your basement.

But most (not all) anti abortion people don't have trouble with killing non-human animals.
In the case of squirrels and deer people are often quite willing to allow that level of cognitive development is relevant, maybe sense of self or quality of experience (What else could be? certainly not the difference in DNA!)

SteveK said...

>> The answer to the abortion question depends primarily on your values, not on material facts.

Not true. It depends primarily on what the unborn is.

How do I know? Don't show someone what it is you want to kill and then ask them if it's okay if you kill it.

They will respond, "what is it?" before they talk about values. What the unborn is, determines its value. What is the unborn, DL?

Clayton said...

Duke of Earl,

"Consequently, if we accord moral status to the newborn, we have to accord it to the embryo as well."

So, suppose we say that if something has moral status, its interests carry moral weight and everyone has reason to see to it that those interests aren't badly served.

I understand how to care for the well-being of an infant (in broad detail, at least), but I don't understand how I should care for an embryo. Might you enlighten us? Is it the link between moral status and interests that you don't like or do you have some grasp of how to see to it that the embryo's interests are well served? Honestly, I don't.

JS Allen said...

Apparently, it's considered ethical to "abort" children *after* birth, in the Favelas of Brazil. I just finished reading "Death Without Weeping", which is an anthropologists account of dealing with infant deaths over 20-30 years in the Favelas. The author makes a convincing case that this ambiguity towards starving and otherwise eliminating undesirable children was commonplace in ancient humanity.

Judaism may have been innovative in their insistence that the fetus is a person (rather than property) after the second trimester, maybe an extension of the Mosaic "pass not your children through the fires of Molok".

Shackleman said...

Dr. Reppert: "but the big question is whether that difference is a morally relevant difference, a difference that gives us grounds for thinking that while a newborn has a right to life that should be backed up by the protection of the criminal law, a fetus has no such right."

I actually think this is sort of a false dilemma. I don't think the issue is so much baby-rights vs. fetus-rights. I think the issue is unborn-rights (of any stage) vs. women's-rights.

Personally, I think abortion is nearly always a moral outrage. However, like most people, I think there are a few exceptions (such as in cases of rape, incest and when the mother's life is at substantial risk). And these exceptions, I think for most people, raise the real issues here. These exceptions hint at the fact that most people would consider the mother's rights to begin to equalize with the unborn's as we add more moral considerations to the pregnancy.

So could we at least ban it except for those circumstances where the moral considerations begin to equalize?

Unfortunately I think the answer is no. Assuming the case that abortion was banned except for cases of rape and incest etc, the mother, if she wanted to abort, would be required to go through our legal system, proving the case has a moral standing in her favor. What if she fails to meet the burden of proof? Would we then force her to carry to term, a baby that was a conceived in rape, or a baby that would cause her own death?

What's worse is that the longer her battle with the law is, the more morally outrageous her abortion will become. Imagine that a mother discovers in the first trimester that she will likely die as a result of the pregnancy. Then imagine that the legal case she makes to abort takes 3 months. Imagine that the judge grants her abortion. It is now a solidly second trimester, or even third trimester abortion, making the abortion an even bigger morale outrage than had it been her right to terminate from the very beginning.

The pendulum for me has swung back around to where it Not because of the moral issue, but because of the logistical one.

As a professing Christian, I think abortion is wrong in almost all circumstances. And, as a matter of fact if my opinion or council were sought by a would-be mother, I would encourage her to have the baby *even if* there were other considerations. However, the law of the land must work here and there's enough moral ambiguity that we should leave these types of decisions in the hands of the mother, with support from her faith, doctors, and family.

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