Thursday, April 02, 2020

Does abortion take a human life?

Does abortion take a human life? Well, it results in a death, and that death is the death of a member of the species homo sapiens, not canis familiaris or felis domesticus.

But does taking the life of a species member have the same moral gravity as taking the life of a two-year-old, as the hard pro-life line implies? Given that to get an abortion a mother stops providing a life support system for another life, with the potential for harm to herself in so doing, this is a relevant factor in decreasing the moral gravity of abortion. Another is the fact that the fetus, at least until very late in the pregnancy after most abortions have already taken place, this is another factor that, to my mind seriously mitigates the gravity of abortion. So I am disinclined to use murder rhetoric to talk about abortion. There is, I suppose a sense we could attach to the word "murder" which applies to any instance in which we take the life of a member of homo sapiens and there is not sufficient justification to support the action as at least morally equivalent to the alternative action. But I think the word has connotations that go beyond that definition, which I prefer to avoid.

At the same time, just because the biographical life of the fetus has not begun, and it only has its biological life, does that mean that nothing is lost in an abortion? I know the hard pro-choice position tries to defend this, but I cannot. I think there is a significant loss when something that develops through a natural process into a human person, and is a human entity, is destroyed. So, abortion is bad, though under conceivable circumstances it may not be wrong, in that the alternative action, carrying the pregnancy to term, may do more harm than abortion. But, I suspect, these cases are not in the majority. Most abortions, I think, are less moral than the alternative.

Nobody is going to be satisfied with this. 

19 comments:

bmiller said...

Nobody is going to be satisfied with this.

Thanks for this honest and a true assessment.

I have some questions:

Given that to get an abortion a mother stops providing a life support system for another life, with the potential for harm to herself in so doing, this is a relevant factor in decreasing the moral gravity of abortion.

Are you saying that the fact that a mother risks harm to herself by going through with an abortion makes the death of the unborn less grave than if there were no risk of harm to the mother? That can't be what you mean. Maybe it's that you see a distinction between ceasing to provide life support and direct killing. But that can't be right either since the unborn is directly killed in an abortion.

But this statement is missing some words I think. It's also probably what you consider the best pro-abortion argument:
Another is the fact that the fetus, at least until very late in the pregnancy after most abortions have already taken place, this is another factor that, to my mind seriously mitigates the gravity of abortion.

The "something" that you think is missing from the unborn early in the pregnancy that is present late in the pregnancy is crucial to the argument. I'll wait to see what it is.

I think there is a significant loss when something that develops through a natural process into a human person, and is a human entity, is destroyed.

The question being begged here is "can there be human entities without personhood?". Is personhood just a legal definition? If it's a philosophical concept, then what is the definition and what philosophy do we have to accept to agree with the definition? If "personhood" comes into being, then are there points where a human is a partial person? Or since people grow continuously from the moment of conception until death, are old people more of a person than younger people? And if "personhood" is not present at conception, then how does it get in there and when?

If we don't examine these types of questions then of course we are likely to come to vauge conclusions. Unlike a lot of philosophical discussions this one really is a matter of life and death and so we have a duty to examine these ideas with the utmost clarity.

One Brow said...

bmiller said...
Are you saying that the fact that a mother risks harm to herself by going through with an abortion makes the death of the unborn less grave than if there were no risk of harm to the mother? That can't be what you mean.

He's saying that the health risks of carrying a pregnancy to term are greater for the woman than the risks of having an early abortion.

One Brow said...

Surgically removing cancer is also killing human life. For those who claim cancers don't have the potential to become people, can you prove that? How do you identify the potential of a living thing?

I don't equate an abortion to killing cancer cells personally, but if you want to make that distinction legally, what do you base it on?

bmiller said...

Wikipedia article on Personhood wrt Wester philosophy


Western philosophy
In philosophy, the word "person" may refer to various concepts. According to the "naturalist" epistemological tradition, from Descartes through Locke and Hume, the term may designate any human (or non-human) agent who: (1) possesses continuous consciousness over time; and (2) who is therefore capable of framing representations about the world, formulating plans and acting on them.[7]

According to Charles Taylor, the problem with the naturalist view is that it depends solely on a "performance criterion" to determine what is an agent. Thus, other things (e.g. machines or animals) that exhibit "similarly complex adaptive behaviour" could not be distinguished from persons. Instead, Taylor proposes a significance-based view of personhood:

What is crucial about agents is that things matter to them. We thus cannot simply identify agents by a performance criterion, nor assimilate animals to machines... [likewise] there are matters of significance for human beings which are peculiarly human, and have no analogue with animals.

— [8]
Others, such as American Philosopher Francis J. Beckwith, argue that personhood is not linked to function at all, but rather that it is the underlying personal unity of the individual.

What is crucial morally is the being of a person, not his or her functioning. A human person does not come into existence when human function arises, but rather, a human person is an entity who has the natural inherent capacity to give rise to human functions, whether or not those functions are ever attained. …A human person who lacks the ability to think rationally (either because she is too young or she suffers from a disability) is still a human person because of her nature. Consequently, it makes sense to speak of a human being’s lack if and only if she is an actual person.

— [9]
Philosopher J. P. Moreland clarifies this point:

It is because an entity has an essence and falls within a natural kind that it can possess a unity of dispositions, capacities, parts and properties at a given time and can maintain identity through change.

— [10]
Harry G. Frankfurt writes that, in reference to a definition by Strawson, "What philosophers have lately come to accept as analysis of the concept of a person is not actually analysis of that concept at all." He suggests that the concept of a person is intimately connected to free will, and describes the structure of human volition according to first- and second-order desires:

Besides wanting and choosing and being moved to do this or that, [humans] may also want to have (or not to have) certain desires and motives. They are capable of wanting to be different, in their preferences and purposes, from what they are. Many animals appear to have the capacity for what I shall call "first-order desires" or "desires of the first order," which are simply desires to do or not to do one thing or another. No animal other than man, however, appears to have the capacity for reflective self-evaluation that is manifested in the formation of second-order desires.

— [11]
[12]
The criteria for being a person... are designed to capture those attributes which are the subject of our most humane concern with ourselves and the source of what we regard as most important and most problematical in our lives.

— Harry G. Frankfurt
[citation needed]


-to be continued

bmiller said...

- Continued from Wikipedia

According to Nikolas Kompridis, there might also be an intersubjective, or interpersonal, basis to personhood:

What if personal identity is constituted in, and sustained through, our relations with others, such that were we to erase our relations with our significant others we would also erase the conditions of our self-intelligibility? As it turns out, this erasure... is precisely what is experimentally dramatized in the “science fiction” film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a far more philosophically sophisticated meditation on personal identity than is found in most of the contemporary literature on the topic.

— [13]

Other philosophers have defined persons in different ways. Boethius gives the definition of "person" as "an individual substance of a rational nature" ("Naturæ rationalis individua substantia").[14] Mary Midgley defines a “person” as being a conscious, thinking being, which knows that it is a person (self-awareness).[15]

Philosopher Thomas I. White argues that the criteria for a person are as follows: (1) is alive, (2) is aware, (3) feels positive and negative sensations, (4) has emotions, (5) has a sense of self, (6) controls its own behaviour, (7) recognises other persons and treats them appropriately, and (8) has a variety of sophisticated cognitive abilities. While many of White's criteria are somewhat anthropocentric, some animals such as dolphins would still be considered persons.[16] Some animal rights groups have also championed recognition for animals as "persons".[17]

Another approach to personhood, Paradigm Case Formulation, used in Descriptive Psychology and developed by Peter Ossorio, involves the four interrelated concepts of 1) The Individual Person, 2) Deliberate Action, 3) Reality and the Real World, and 4) Language or Verbal Behavior. All four concepts require full articulation for any one of them to be fully intelligible. More specifically, a Person is an individual whose history is, paradigmatically, a history of Deliberate Action in a Dramaturgical pattern. Deliberate Action is a form of behavior in which a person (a) engages in an Intentional Action, (b) is cognizant of that, and (c) has chosen to do that. A person is not always engaged in a deliberate action but has the eligibility to do so. A human being is an individual who is both a person and a specimen of Homo sapiens. Since persons are deliberate actors, they also employ hedonic, prudent, aesthetic and ethical reasons when selecting, choosing or deciding on a course of action. As part of our "social contract" we expect that the typical person can make use of all four of these motivational perspectives. Individual persons will weigh these motives in a manner that reflects their personal characteristics. That life is lived in a “dramaturgical” pattern is to say that people make sense, that their lives have patterns of significance. The paradigm case allows for nonhuman persons, potential persons, nascent persons, manufactured persons, former persons, "deficit case" persons, and "primitive" persons. By using a paradigm case methodology, different observers can point to where they agree and where they disagree about whether an entity qualifies as a person.[18][19]

bmiller said...

Regarding only the Wikipedia article:

It looks to me that Victor holds the "naturalist" epistemological tradition, which would be an unsurprising view for a naturalist to hold, but I find it incongruent with his other anti-naturalist arguments.

My own view is closest to Francis Beckwith and Boethius.

It's worth mentioning that all the other views are basically functionalistic and so, as can be seen, can deny personhood to immature or disabled humans as well as declare personhood for animals or machines.

Is strangling Siri to death a sin?

StardustyPsyche said...

Victor,
"Does abortion take a human life? Well, it results in a death,"
A death of human cells is not the same as the death of a human life. That is a common equivocation, most likely inadvertent here.

"and that death is the death of a member of the species homo sapiens"
That is not an established assertion. On what basis do you consider 2 human cells to be a member of the species homo sapiens, as opposed to tissue of the sort in members of the species homo sapiens?

"not canis familiaris or felis domesticus."
Supposing I have one kidney removed. That tissue is of a member of the species homo sapiens, not some other species. That tissue has in each of its cells copies of DNA from which, potentially, a clone of me could be grown.

First one must define what makes a human being a human being, as opposed to a collection of living tissue.

The boundary between a living human being, a person with a right to life, as opposed to a mere collection of living tissue has been defined in medical practice, law, and ethics for many years. The criteria for death is based on brain function.

It is a functioning brain that differentiates a living member of the species homo sapiens from a mere collection of living human tissue. A person ceases to be a person when the brain ceases to function. That is the law, and is well established in medical practice and medical ethics.

On what basis would one define the end of a human life as when the brain ceases functioning although the rest of the body may well continue to function, yet, the beginning of life may be considered a small collection of cells with no brain at all?

" Given that to get an abortion a mother stops providing a life support system for another life, with the potential for harm to herself in so doing, this is a relevant factor in decreasing the moral gravity of abortion"
Knowingly withholding life necessary support by a parent such that the death of the child results is an intentional homicide by depraved neglect, hardly a mitigating factor in the criminality of the parent.

"There is, I suppose a sense we could attach to the word "murder" which applies to any instance in which we take the life of a member of homo sapiens and there is not sufficient justification to support the action as at least morally equivalent to the alternative action"
What defense is there for the intentional taking of innocent life other than self defense?

Abortion prior to brain function X does not end a human life, rather, it removes mere human tissue.

Abortion after brain function X does end a human life and is justified only by self defense, else it is an intentional homicide.

Brain function X has been fairly well defined for the end of life, but the analogous level has not yet been well defined for the beginning of life. However, if there is no brain then clearly there is no brain function at all, so we can begin to define X with that lower bound of 0.

bmiller said...

A summary of the various functional definitions of "personhood" from the article.

(1) possesses continuous consciousness over time; and (2) who is therefore capable of framing representations about the world, formulating plans and acting on them.

Animals do this and some people think AI is capable of this now. Are they persons?

1) capable of wanting to be different, in their preferences and purposes, from what they are.

Small children have no conscious awareness of this. Are they not persons?

1) What if personal identity is constituted in, and sustained through, our relations with others, such that were we to erase our relations with our significant others we would also erase the conditions of our self-intelligibility?

Castaways are not persons?

Philosopher Thomas I. White argues that the criteria for a person are as follows: (1) is alive, (2) is aware, (3) feels positive and negative sensations, (4) has emotions, (5) has a sense of self, (6) controls its own behaviour, (7) recognises other persons and treats them appropriately, and (8) has a variety of sophisticated cognitive abilities. While many of White's criteria are somewhat anthropocentric, some animals such as dolphins would still be considered persons.[16] Some animal rights groups have also championed recognition for animals as "persons".[17]

So we can make persons of animals, while denying personhood to immature humans.

1) The Individual Person, 2) Deliberate Action, 3) Reality and the Real World, and 4) Language or Verbal Behavior. All four concepts require full articulation for any one of them to be fully intelligible....The paradigm case allows for nonhuman persons, potential persons, nascent persons, manufactured persons, former persons, "deficit case" persons, and "primitive" persons. By using a paradigm case methodology, different observers can point to where they agree and where they disagree about whether an entity qualifies as a person.[18][19]

A person is pretty much anything you want to designate as a person?

It appears that the project to separate personhood from humanness logically leads us to believe that we can create or deny "personhood" by decree without regard to ontology.

Victor Reppert said...

If I held the performance or naturalist position I would say that the loss of the fetus's life was no loss at all, and that abortion is no more morally grave than removing a blob of tissue. I think Stardusty thinks this. But I think there is a grave loss in the loss of the fetus's life, but I don't think it is the same loss that would occur if I were to take the life of a two-year old. This opens the possibility that there are more cases of justifiable homicide where fetuses are concerned than there are where two-year-olds are concerned.

Also, in abortion, technically, the goal is not killing the fetus, it's ending the pregnancy, and the death of the fetus is collateral damage. But letting someone die for a morally deficient reason is still morally deficient.

Does the right to life outweigh all considerations of the quality of life? From a utilitarian standpoint, the taking someone life just bring their total utility count to zero. If it was positive, it brings it down, and if it was negative, it actually improves it. (Interesting question, if utilitarianism is true, was the Sixth Commandment a divine blunder?)

From a moral standpoint, this still leaves us with weighty reasons not only not to get abortions, but to perform the kinds of actions that might cause an unwanted pregnancy, something that should affect people engaged in sexual decision-making, for example. But on my view some of the wrongness of killing a person resides with the substance view, and some with the performance view. The full wrongness of murder requires both.

At the end of life, a brain-dead person is considered dead even if biologically alive. Is this wrong? And isn't this a performance view?

bmiller said...

But I think there is a grave loss in the loss of the fetus's life, but I don't think it is the same loss that would occur if I were to take the life of a two-year old.

Since you do not hold a performance view, then I wondering why. What makes the life of one human worth more than the life of another in your eyes?

Also, in abortion, technically, the goal is not killing the fetus, it's ending the pregnancy, and the death of the fetus is collateral damage.

Really? This is pretty weak. It's like saying the goal of me robbing you wasn't to take your money, but only for me to have more money. Maybe the 8th Commandment was a divine blunder also.

But on my view some of the wrongness of killing a person resides with the substance view, and some with the performance view. The full wrongness of murder requires both.

I'd be interested in a more detailed explanation. As your statement stands, I could read it to mean that you think murder is wrong only if certain kinds of people are killed.

At the end of life, a brain-dead person is considered dead even if biologically alive. Is this wrong? And isn't this a performance view?

There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead But in this case the patient is all dead.

Until ventilators were invented, brain-dead people were just called dead people (or corpses) because in mature patients when the brain is truly dead, metabolic processes cease. No one insists that patients have to have their metabolic processes continued in an such an extraordinary manner. So no, no one thinks it's not wrong to stop those extraordinary measures. I also wouldn't call it a performance view, since there is no longer the substance of a living human, but instead the substance of a corpse.

On the other hand consider that same patient, from the moment of conception until he entered the hospital and was put on a ventilator. His metabolic processes had always worked perfectly well without extraordinary measures, just like any other healthy human that ever lived. So if anything, it shows that the unborn are most certainly living healthy humans while people on ventilators may already be dead.

StardustyPsyche said...

Victor,
"If I held the performance or naturalist position I would say that the loss of the fetus's life was no loss at all, and that abortion is no more morally grave than removing a blob of tissue. I think Stardusty thinks this."
I think to answer the title question of the OP we must first establish this fact:
During the some 280 days of gestation there are several, and very different stages of development. No well informed discussion about abortion can be meaningful if a single term "the fetus" or a single term "abortion" is employed without reference to the stage of development.

To establish this fact we can bracket at the extremes. What does it mean to end gestation at day 1 as opposed to day 279? Are those acts the same sort of thing?

If one believes that a human being obtains a soul upon conception and it is the destruction of the vessel of the soul that is the crime against humanity and god, then there is no moral difference between an elective intentional act that results in death at 1 day as compared to 279 days of gestation.

If one holds some other criteria for attaining personhood, not a soul, but a functioning brain, or viability, or the ability to respond to pain, or a heartbeat, then there are 2 classes of abortion.
1.Abortion prior to having attained personhood.
2.Abortion after attaining personhood.

"At the end of life, a brain-dead person is considered dead even if biologically alive. Is this wrong? And isn't this a performance view? "
You might call it a performance view, or a functional view, or a view of what makes a person a person as opposed to a collection of living tissue.

The legal and medical criteria for the death of a human being, the end of personhood, is the end of brain function to a very low threshold. Thus, on that view, what makes a person a person is reminiscent of cogito ergo sum, I am me because I have thoughts. Since thoughts require brain function, if brain function ceases thoughts must cease and therefore the person is no longer a living person.

You might lose your limbs, have your heart replaced with a mechanical pump, have various other parts of you removed or destroyed, but so long as you retain your brain function you remain you.

Your personal identity is inseparable from, and in fact is the summation of your continual brain function, your individual continuity of thoughts at every level.

With other organs, if they are transplanted, the personal identity remains with the brain. If somehow technology advanced enough to transplant a brain then the personhood would stay with the brain.

The human brain is the locus of human identity and human personhood.

Thus, any discussion of abortion that does not distinguish between type 1. and type 2. abortion is incomplete.

A type 1. abortion can be performed like any other elective medical procedure.
A type 2. abortion takes a human life and cannot be performed ethically except on the ethics that allow for the taking of a human life, namely, self defense.

StardustyPsyche said...

bmiller,
"On the other hand consider that same patient, from the moment of conception until he entered the hospital and was put on a ventilator. His metabolic processes had always worked perfectly well without extraordinary measures, just like any other healthy human that ever lived. So if anything, it shows that the unborn are most certainly living healthy humans while people on ventilators may already be dead."
The unborn are on a ventilator, mom breaths for the unborn.

What is the criteria for removing a ventilator once attached? Brain function.

If the individual on a ventilator has brain function above a legal/scientific/medical level it is unethical to remove the ventilator once attached.

If the individual on a ventilator is determined to have a brain functioning below that criteria level, in law and medicine a very low level, then removing the ventilator is ethical and legal.

Thank you for that insightful analogy. I will keep it in my argumentation quiver.

Mom is nature's ventilator for the unborn.

bmiller said...

I shouldn't have to point this out, but:

Ventilators force oxygen into a patient and removes carbon dioxide since the patient cannot do it himself.

Supplying oxygen to a person allows a person to respire naturally.

Intentionally cutting off the oxygen supply to a healthy human is called smothering. Or the coming "Day of the Pillow" for boomers in assisted living.

StardustyPsyche said...

Yes, and mom forces oxygen into the placenta, across permeable cellular membranes, and into the bloodstream of the unborn. The unborn, in turn, has his or her carbon dioxide removed by passing it through that same membrane, into mom's blood, and out through her lungs.

It is true that the lungs of the unborn are not used, rather, it is the lungs and blood and placenta of mom that performs the functions a born air breathing person uses their own lungs for.

Maybe one day a ventilator will be developed that does not need the lungs of the patient, rather, oxygenates the blood across an artificial membrane.

Mom, of course, does not smother the unborn in any sense, rather, she literally breaths for the unborn.

bmiller said...

I suppose I should also point out that people who are pronounced brain-dead are not expected to be carrying on ordinary lives in 9 months. Because they are dead. Not alive and growing.

bmiller said...

If we consider the performance view of a person at all in the consideration of the wrongness of killing that person, then how is that so different from the practice of tacitly allowing the culling of the undesirable from the desirable?

Is it less wrong to kill a handicapped person than a bank president? Maybe that's actually how our present (fallen) justice system works, but is that truly just? Can utilitarians be Christians?

bmiller said...

Even if you don't think what you say makes a difference.
IT DOES

StardustyPsyche said...

Yes, I say the term "abortion" by itself is hopelessly simplistic, and that makes a difference.

Getting rid of a few human cells does not kill a person.
Getting rid of a pre-born term baby, electively, is murder.

That makes a difference.

If you do not understand that difference you are not thinking rationally, rather, barely thinking at all.

Limited Perspective said...

C.S. Lewis commenting on Joe Biden, "Believe Lucy"