Abortion has been in the news lately due to new laws being passed in the U.S. both on the pro-life and pro-choice sides. For example, in Alabama, doctors could receive up to a life sentence for performing an abortion and abortion is outlawed in all cases except when the mother’s life is in danger. Georgia and Mississippi passed “fetal heartbeat” laws. Laws were passed in New York and Virginia on the pro-choice side, which allow late- term abortions under some circumstances. Given these events, I thought I would take the opportunity to make 3 arguments for why abortion is morally wrong. The arguments for and against abortion come down to the question of whether the fetus should count as a human life and therefore should be protected and valued as a human life in moral and legal worlds. Pro-choice activists often make out that the issue of abortion is whether women should have control over their own bodies or not. That is not the issue if there is a body of a different person in the woman’s body. This would mean that the life in the womb is not some extension of the woman’s body but a separate human life. If the fetus is a separate human life then the woman does not have an unlimited say in what happens to what is in her womb. If we recognize that something is a separate human life, then we will also recognize that the mother does not have the right to kill that life no matter how inconvenient he or she is, or how much suffering he or she is causing. In any other circumstance, we would find the idea of killing someone just to make yourself suffer less as morally abominable. You don’t have a “right to choose” to end someone else’s life. So the question is whether it is in fact a separate human life. If you contend that the issue of abortion is whether women can have control over their own bodies, then you’ve already assumed that the fetus is just an extension of her body and not a separate human life and a separate human body. If we formulate this into an argument, it would be: abortion is right, because women should have absolute say about their own body. The premise of this argument assumes that the fetus is just an extension of the woman’s body, which means that the pro-choice activist has assumed they are right about exactly what is at dispute: whether the fetus is a separate human life or not. This would mean pro-choice activists have assumed their own point of view and engaged in a circular argument. The three arguments I’m about to present all focus on the issue of whether the fetus is a human life. There is some scientific evidence that strongly suggests the humanity of the fetus, such as the fact that the zygote that is created at fertilization has human DNA, is genetically unique, and meets the criteria for biological life that scientists ordinarily use. So, in a technical sense, the fetus cannot be called anything other than “human life”. However, I won’t focus on the scientific facts here. Please click the link for more information.
Responses to Common Pro-Choice Arguments
But you may say the fetus doesn’t have consciousness. The value of a human life does not track the level or quality of consciousness. Say someone is in a coma and they are guaranteed to wake up in nine months. Does the fact that they are not conscious mean that they should not be treated as having human value? A fetus is also a life that is guaranteed to be conscious in 9 months (all else being equal). Also, the baby’s consciousness continues being primitive and simplistic long after birth. Does that mean they have less value as human beings? What if someone is in a permanent vegetative state and they really have no consciousness to speak of. Does that mean they shouldn’t have human rights? What about the ability to use rationality? Doesn’t that determine whether someone is human? That would again imply that infants and toddlers are less human than adults. It would also imply that those with severe mental disabilities and maybe those who are less intelligent are less human. Maybe we can regard them as non-human because they don’t, at least at early stages, feel pain. There is a condition that renders people unable to feel pain ( congenital insensitivity to pain). Are people with such a condition not human? Maybe it’s so small and doesn’t look human so it can’t be human. If size determines humanity that would mean that those with dwarfism are less human than someone with a more typical height. Also, if looking human or having a typical facial structure means you’re human, then those who are deformed are less human.
The other important point is that the fetus is either a human life or not. It cannot be half human or three-quarters human. These states of being would not make sense and they would make even less sense when we start to determine what behaviour or rights and responsibilities are appropriate to a half-human or a quarter-human. These would be morally meaningless categorizations and must involve us simply guessing at what behaviour is appropriate based on semi-human states which have also been guessed. Apart from the impossibility of assigning and determining appropriate behaviour, our moral intuitions do not suggest to us, at least not obviously, that something can be half human. The fetus is either a human life or not.
1) Fetus Rights?
Human rights only apply to human beings. Non-human life, especially life that can be killed at a mother’s whim for the sake of convenience, cannot be discriminated against or discrimination against it cannot be wrong. This means that it must morally acceptable to systematically target female fetuses for abortion. If a life is regarded as having so little value that it can be killed for no more reason than that it would cause inconvenience in the life of the mother, this means that any sexual discrimination against it can certainly not be immoral. By the way, this is not just a thought experiment – it is a genuine social issue in India. We still know that this is wrong, because if you kill all the girl fetuses there will be no women. There is no way of separating the fetus’s current existence in the womb from it’s future life as a human being, because by killing the fetus you ensure that that particular human life it would have been will never be. Given that we know it is wrong to target a particular racial or other group for abortion, this must means that fetuses do have human rights or at least the right not to be discriminated against based on race or sex. If they have this right, this means they have a human right. If they have a human right, as you intuitively recognize they do, then they must be human.
2) You wanted to kill me, Mom?
Let’s think about the following scenario. A mother decides to abort their child maybe because she believes she is not ready or because she would have to make significant changes to her life. The reason doesn’t really matter. Against her will, she is prevented from having an abortion. Perhaps it is too expensive. Maybe her father or mother intimidate her into keeping the child. Again, the reason isn’t important. A baby girl is born and grows up and the parents love their child as good parents do. The girl, now 18, finds out in her mother’s diary that she wanted to have an abortion. This girl is distraught and angry at the revelation . Is this girl justifiably angry? The mother almost did something which would have prevented her from existing. That definitely seems like a wrong, a significant wrong and it will seem like a wrong to person who was almost prevented from having any life. And it is a wrong against the 18-year-old girl, because that specific 18-year-old girl would never have lived if the abortion had been carried out. The thought experiment shows that there is no way of separating the future human life from the current existence of the fetus. If you kill a fetus you destroy a particular human life. What you do against the fetus will determine the character of the future human life, whether it has disabilities or not and whether it has a life at all.
Think of a different scenario. Say a mother drinks and smokes during her pregnancy. She lives with complete disregard to the baby in her womb. Remember that because the fetus isn’t a human being, this type of neglect is not morally wrong. Again, if it is acceptable to destroy it at a whim, then this type of neglect is not wrong. The fetus is born with severe disabilities but reasonably intact cognitive function. Has the mother done anything wrong? Of course she has. She has caused a human life to go through life in pain. Yet, if the fetus is not human and it can be killed for little reason then she has not done anything wrong, because all her disregard and harm was committed against the fetus, which according to pro-choice activists, isn’t a human life. This shows again that there is no way of morally separating the future human life from the current existence as a fetus. If it is a human life in the future, it is a human life now.
3) The Game of Alternatives
Abortion, like other controversial moral issues, result from an impasse between competing moral interests. That is to say, there are morally relevant factors which compete for priority and the dilemma is such that we cannot honor both of them. We have to choose… In this case, the competing morally relevant factors are the life of the baby and the suffering of the mother. If the baby is killed, the mother ( purportedly) won’t suffer ( even though abortion has been shown to result in greater rates of depression and anxiety). If the baby is not killed, the mother will suffer ( again, purportedly). Before I delve into the meat of this argument, let’s just note the unjustified assumptions here. Is it a given that having a baby even in desperate circumstances will ultimately lead to more suffering for the mother? Not really. It could. It could have the opposite effect. The impending responsibility of the baby can shock the mother into leading a responsible, moral life, which they would not otherwise have done. Perhaps their life is a struggle with the baby but perhaps it would have been even worse without. Who can say? There are many other ways, unexpected and unforeseen ways, that a baby in the picture could increase happiness rather than decrease it especially when we look at it over the long-term. It is very difficult to say what would be and what could be, especially when we don’t know the particular circumstances of the person wanting the abortion. Are there good and numerous studies on the long-term outcomes for women or teenage mothers who have their babies and those who have abortions, which properly control for other factors? Most of the information I’ve been able to find focus on the short-term negative outcomes of teenage pregnancies. So, this may partly be a false dilemma.What if organizations like Planned Parenthood used their resources exclusively for increasing the quality of life of poor mothers? What if they use all the resources they are now using on abortion for helping poor mothers and their babies? What would that look like? How would those outcomes look then? How would these outcomes look if the entire pro-choice lobby focus on increasing the experience and resources of young mothers rather than lobbying for them to have the right to abortion? What would that look like? How would that improve their outcomes? So the dilemma I’ve sketched above may be partly a false dilemma, because it makes an assumption about the experience of mothers that cannot really be made. Outcomes can be improved even if abortion is not legal. Abortion is not the only way of increasing the happiness of the mother ( and is itself probably not a good way of ensuring the happiness of many mothers). The research on the negative mental health outcomes of abortion is clearly going to be controversial in a debate like this, but it is enough at least to show that it is not clear that abortion will result in a happier life with less suffering.
However, let us assume for the moment that a baby for someone who doesn’t prefer one at that point in time, will always lead to suffering and that abortion will always lead to an avoidance of suffering. Even pro-choice activists probably recognize that there are competing moral priorities here and that there is at least some genuine moral uncertainty about the best way forward. If that is true, then let’s assess the damage if each side is wrong and their position is enshrined in law and accepted public opinion. If the pro-life position is wrong, then we have forced mothers who prefer not to have babies to undergo unnecessary suffering, both because of the forced sublimation of their preference but also because of the trouble and toil that a baby sometimes brings. If the pro-choice position is wrong, we have committed a holocaust: a large scale, systematic and callous extermination of millions of human lives for very bad reasons. Which is worse, morally speaking? So if there is genuine moral uncertainty then we must opt for the option which is not as morally severe if we are wrong. If you are pro-choice, especially if you are a pro-choice activist, then you must be very certain that you are right, because otherwise you are supporting something that is about as immoral as a practice can be.
Concluding Thoughts: The Banality of Evil
We need to comment here about the psychological factors around moral reasoning. Feeling certain emotionally does not indicate rightness, because this would make moral rightness a function of your emotional whims. Many horrific practices have survived and flourished in societies in the past because moral emotions are very strongly influenced by what everybody else in a society is doing and what everybody else believes is right. When you are another soldier in an army being fed a steady stream of propaganda, and surrounded by soldiers who are following orders to kill civilians, you would probably do the same and you probably wouldn’t feel or feel strongly that it was wrong. Think about all the genocides of history, all the brutal and cruel sackings of ancient cities, and the horrible executions that were practiced just 300 years ago. It is very implausible to suggest that everybody in those crowds who watched those executions or the executioners who performed them had moral intuitions like yours about those practices, but just chose to subdue what they felt. If everybody in those societies had the same moral intuitions we do, then those practices would never have become established. It is useful to bear this in mind when we make a decision about this issue. This may become one of those issues where people wonder what on earth could have been going on in our heads to kill so many unborn lives, just as we wonder what could have gone on in the heads of genocidal bureaucrats like Adolph Eichmann. The answer is that nothing went on in our heads, because like a bureaucrat who authorizes the killing of millions, but never see their faces or hear their screams, so we authorize the killing of millions, but we don’t see their faces or hear screams. They are just a number on a sheet or a bundle of cells.