Monday, November 17, 2008

How far does pro-choice go?

I'm redating this post, which I did over a year ago.

One of the difficulties pro-life advocates have with the pro-choice position is the idea that once the right to life is denied inside the womb, there is no nonarbitrary reason for not denying it outside of the womb. Birth, after all, is going from inside to outside, and a law that makes being born the criteria for a right to life is like passing a law that there are certain buildings in which a person may freely be killed, but outside those buildings it's murder.

Peter Singer is one of those who has pushed the pro-choice argument outside the womb. He defends infanticide in cases where babies are disabled.

Of course, Christianity did not face the abortion issue in its early years, since only modern medicine has made abortion safe. However, early Christians (and early Muslims like Muhammad) opposed the exposure of children after they were born. Typically, of course, it was the female babies that got exposed in the ancient Roman world. So much for gender equality back then.

Is there a good way to defend abortion but not infanticide? Or is it only our sentimental attachment to born babies that keeps "choice" from extending outside the womb?


Blue Devil Knight said...

A great topic. A Hegelian type might argue that the passage from the inside to the outside is not arbitrary, as parturition signifies the entrance of the fetus into the social world, and since part of being a person is to be part of this social fabric, it is the true test of personhood.

I don't think I buy it, but it is certainly interesting.

I think you can go either of two ways. The Singer direction (he assumes abortion is moral all the way up to parturition, but because of the arbitrariness of that, why stop there), or to a more neurobiologically nuanced definition of person. E.g., a lump of 16 cells is not a person (though it is a H. sapien!), but once the neural connections between the periphery and cortex form, EEG starts to show signs of cortical activity (dreaming/waking), then it is probably a sentient H. sapien, and we should avoid abortions unless the mother is in danger. This would paint me as a conservative to some degree, as it would make third trimester abortions immoral.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Reppert,

Only modern medicine has "made abortion safe". I know you meant that in regard to the woman, but abortion certainly isn't safe for the baby. You see, the liberals have boxed you in with this kind of "News speak"...

Blue Devil Knight said...

There is another nonarbitrary move from inside to outside. It's not like the baby just comes out and is the same as before. Before, it's using the mother as a life-support system (via the umbilical chord etc). Hence, it is like the case Judith Thomson envisions in her excellent article on abortion.

Still, with third trimester it's like you agreed to let the violinist hook himself up to you until he got better (say, 9 months later), and then you change your mind six months in. While this may be immoral or distasteful, it is not clear it should be illegal.

John H. Watson said...

The Didache expressly condemns abortion, as early as 70 AD:

"The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child" (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).

Clayton Littlejohn said...

It's also worth pointing out that Thomson has a case for thinking that being pro choice is not the same thing as denying the fetus has a right to life. I'm somewhat surprised to see you write as if this point were obvious.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Good point Clayton. Her argument strategy is ingenius. Avoid questions about personhood: assume the fertilized egg is a person. Even in that case, a good argument can be made that arbortion should be legal.

For those who don't know, her argument is roughly this: Imagine someone breaks into your house and hooks you up to a person such that they are essentially using you for life support (e.g., your circulatory systems are connected). Should it be illegal to disconnect the person? Pretty clearly not. There are all sorts of subtleties here, but that is the core thought experiment around which various permutations can be imagined.

ChristianTrader said...

Actually I believe that Thompson's argument is full of holes, as are all pro choice arguments.
Here is an article from Libertarians for life that I believe show the whole analogy to be quite faulty.

Steven Carr said...

We have to ask if allowing abortion is the moral thing to do.

And there we must look to the example of the supreme moral being and see that he does allow abortion.

Steven Carr said...

And God allows infanticide as well.

So allowing infanticide is also the moral thing to do.

Unless allowing infanticide is not the morally correct thing to do?

Timmo said...

Here's one way to defend the moral permissibility of some abortions. If we take some "primitive" level of cognitive development, say, sentience (the capacity to experience pleasure and pain), as a criterion for moral status, then there will be times during the development of the new human being where he or she does not possess moral status. As an embryo, for example, he or she does not enjoy the protections of moral rights -- he or she does not possess the requisite level of cognitive development for moral status, rights, and the rest. Later on during fetal development, when the fetus begins to have dreams and sensations, then there is no moral distinction between aborting the fetus and killing a baby.

So, the question has less to do with abortion and more to do with what properties confer moral status on a thing.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't God stop the infanticide of Herod?

As always, we must turn to the teachings of Jesus on the subject of abortion.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

Perhaps the question should also be turned around: How far should pro-life go?

The basic argument against abortion is that it involves the destruction of a human life. From our Christian point of view, this is a pressing matter because a human person is a ensouled being made in the image (albeit warped by the Fall) of God.

The question then is: when do the two blobs of matter that combine to form a fertilized egg become this human person? If we believe in a doctrine of "one soul, one person" -- as I believe we must -- then the moment of conception is not a viable answer.

Consider, for example, identical twins. They come from a single fertilized egg.


If the blob of cells descended from that egg separates in the first four days or so, the result is identical twins with separate placentae and amniotic sacs.

If the blob of cells separates in the first two weeks, the result is identical twins sharing a placenta and sac.

After two weeks, the result is conjoined ("Siamese") twins. I'm not sure how late this can occur.

So we must ask, do identical twins share a single soul?

Complicating matters is the not-as-rare-as-we'd-like-to-think phenomenon of natural human chimerae. A human chimera occurs when one fetus essentially absorbs another, resulting in one body with two genetic codes. Neither actually dies; one dominates over the other; indeed, in some cases, the sexual organs of the resulting chimera are those of the absorbed twin (cf. "The Stranger Inside Me") Again, I am not certain how late in the pregnancy this can happen.

But: if the absorbed fetus had a soul, and it does not actually die, does the chimera have two souls?

(Chimerae can also occur without one fetus being absorbed: it is fairly common for fraternal twins to be "microchimerae," where each hosts small numbers of cells with the other's genetic code.)

All these suggest, to me, that the pat idea that human life -- the life of an ensoulled being in the image of God -- begins at conception is far too simple.

Note that this is not necessarily a pro-choice argument, any more than, as Thomson's argument shows, "human life begins at conception" is an automatic pro-life argument. However it does show that the question is not as cut and dried as many Christians perceive it.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Good stuff Sturgeon's Lawyer.

Anonymous said...

hi sturgeon's lawyer.
the problem I see is when we inject what we believe an egg is or is not ..

how can we even begin to believe our opinions are right when we do not know all the "ins and outs" of an the egg in the first place?

we do not know if the egg had a "reason", be it built in or other to split or not, we do not know if the chimera that was absorbed is still "there" we can not know when a soul is or is not part of the egg,again we can only think it.
we know nothing about it only speculation

destroying these "eggs"it wipes out potentially generations of individuals this is not just speculation,

I wander if these same woman who are for abortion, then decide they want a child and during their pregnancy some person decided to punch kick or whatever them in their belly "killing" their child the one they have pictures of from the ultrasound that was taken a lawyer then defends the murderer by stating that the baby was not a life so it was not a murder. I wonder how well that would get over and after the ruling we now have a precedents.

I can even imagine a group of teens or whoever, playing a game of doing this as twisted as it may sound,not have to worry about being put in jail for murder what would they actually be charged with,, assault?

Joe said...

I am amazed that Peter Singer is actually on a faculty for, of all things, ethics. His views are often quite convoluted. He is a decent example of someone who wants to reject religion and so simply makes up his own ethical code. Why not?

I find his attempts next to laughable. Murder is considered wrong because human life is considered sacred. (or in the case of non religious cultures it was at least somehow extremely dignified) To try to dream up new reasons to justify why murder is wrong because you can no longer accept anything as sacred, is amusing at best. The fact that colleges teach this mumbo jumbo is profoundly disappointing.

Student: "Killing people is wrong because people have a sense of the future? I thought it was wrong because human life is sacred."

Wise professor Singer: "Oh no! If you say something is sacred you invoke religious notions and we can't have any of that."

Student: "Ah yes well then I suppose killing people must be wrong because they have a sense of the future. Yeah ok thanks for clearing that up."

Sturgeon's lawyer, although there may be hard cases of when we get a soul those hard cases do not make the easy cases hard. I'm not sure that you are saying it does, but I did want to clarify that.

Mike Darus said...

From a purely legal perspective, I am intrigued by the dilemma of conflicting rights. If we identify a fetus as human life (she is a living organism and human by virtue of DNA), we should extend some measure of civil rights. The taking of that human life must have a satisfactory justification. We can argue for the right of self defense of the mother. On this it seems that both sides can agree. The difficulty is balancing any rights the fetus may have with all the health concerns of the mother. Once there is a birth, we have a citizen with "certain inalienable rights." Before this citizen status, we are subject to the whims of the judicial to identify the rights of this prospective immigrant.

I find ethics based purely on law to be soulless.