Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A few thoughts on abortion.


What’s the difference between an embryo that may one day be conscious and an unconscious person who may one day be conscious? Some opponents of choice say there is none. They say that if it is OK to terminate an embryo, even a blastocyst or a fertilized egg, on the basis that it lack consciousness, then it must be OK to terminate a person who is anesthetized for surgery. After all, they both lack consciousness now, and they both may be conscious at a later time.

But surely there is a useful distinction to be made here. There is a difference between completely lacking an ability and having an ability which is currently suspended. A person who is unconscious, asleep or under anesthesia, still has the ability to be conscious - an embryo has no such ability at all.

I am a person because I have the ability to be conscious - to think, to feel, to experience life. Even if that consciousness is temporarily not in use, I still have the ability, just as I still have the ability to play the cello, even when I am not playing it. When I put down my bow and get a drink or walk around, I do not cease to be a cellist. Current ability is a very useful distinction when thinking about the ethics of abortion.

But what about potential?


I think the best argument against abortion is the idea that if an entity has the potential to become a conscious human, then it has the same rights as a conscious human. The argument states that potentiality itself is what grants a person rights. I will argue that this does not work, although potential is an important consideration.

Do we afford a four year old the right to drive because he currently has the potential to be 16 some day? No. And, if for some terrible reason, we knew a four old would never become old enough to drive, we would not take any rights away from the child because of this difference in potential.

That said, it is valuable to take potential into account when dealing with people. It is sometimes wise to give people the benefit of the doubt, to treat them as the good person they are capable of being, even if they are not acting that way. However this can only go so far. A prisoner may have the potential to become a reformed person, but we do not consider potential a good enough reason to release the prisoner into the public.

But I will not say that potential does not matter as a consideration. Even if a mouse has more consciousness than an embryo, I cannot say that I would necessarily treat them as equals. The embryo’s potential is the reason for this. So potential is an important consideration, but not a strict rule-maker.

And this is the reason why a reasonable pro-choice position makes the most sense. Potentiality is a factor to consider, but not a strict ruler-maker, because the term “potentiality” itself means that the valued abilities in question are not present yet.

The Sanctity of Life

Everyone believes in the sanctity of human life. But there is a difference between “technically alive” and “substantively alive.” Technically alive means the scientific description - which would apply to every living thing from humans to fungi. Substantively alive means life as human beings experience it and value it. We don’t value our lives because we have a metabolism. We value life because we are capable of consciousness. We value life because we can feel and think.

In fact, a good argument can be made that over-valuing “technical life” can come at the expense of “substantive life”. If a single woman, living in poverty with five children, is forced by the state to continue her pregnancy and have the baby, this could undermine the amount of care, both emotionally and materially, that she can offer her five children. If a family is required to pour their material and emotional resources into maintaing the "technical life" of a relative in a vegetable state with no reasonable hope for recovery, then this may result in a net loss of "substantive life" for that family.

So it comes down to this. Everyone believes in the sanctity of life - and the sanctity of human life. But many pro-choice advocates think that being technically alive is not the same as being substantively alive, and because of this there is still a window of time to terminate a technically alive entity before it becomes a substantively alive entity, without grave moral concern.

Because anti-choicers value “technical life” and pro-choicers value “substantive life” - both sides of the argument claim that their position ultimately values life more than the other side.


  1. Hi, Steven-

    Nicely written! I doubt it is necessarily as high-minded as all that, however. For one thing, a church concerned with out-reproducing other institutions might lay down rules that minimize the ability of its adherents to moderate their family sizes. A church concerned with perpetuating a patriarchal social order might wish to minimize women's recourse/power after insemination, not to mention before. Such a church might want to fetishize the idea of conception as some magical and humanizing moment, which, as you say, is not very significant in substantive terms. Such a church might likewise fetishize women in general as inert, beatific, otherworldly vessels of maternity.

  2. Steven,

    I enjoy reading your thoughts on abortion. Your careful consideration of this topics comes through nicely.

    I would like to add to Burk’s comment that concern or wishing regarding out-reproducing other institutions does not have to be deliberate. The rules can initially be laid down for arbitrary reasons, but if a rule tends to create a positive feedback loop furthering opportunities for additional instances of the rule, then we are likely to see an increased prevalence of such a rule. This is not to say there aren’t instances of deliberate rule making, only to say that conscious intention of an end goal is not required.

  3. Thanks guys.

    The problem I see with this line of reasoning is that anti-choice activists are not trying to preserve their own potential offspring - at least not directly. That part is a given.

    They are trying to force an anti-choice agenda on everyone, which would potentially create more offspring different out-groups (as well as for the in-group).

  4. Yes, forcing everyone to do as you wish certainly has its own charms! As well as being holier than thou, and having "absolute" morals.

    But more basically, if one's position is losing ground in the culture at large, (one of permissiveness, and personal and women's "rights"), even endangering the obedience of one's own flock, then the battle leaves the precincts of the institution, and has to be waged on the culture in general, even though the origin of one's premises are quite parochial.

  5. .. at which point being "pro-life", when properly spun as you relate, becomes a very helpful blunderbuss, in a way that slogans like "keep women in the kitchen!", or "ban birth control!", or "men on top forever!" might not.

  6. Steven--Some important ideas here. I wonder what your thoughts would be concerning what has become the most discussed "pro-life" argument in the philosophical literature--Don Marquis's "Future Like Ours" argument.

    Marquis (who can't be pigeon-holed as an apologist for a religious ethical norm) argues for the presumptive moral impermissibility of abortion by appeal to the potential of the fetus, but in a rather distinctive way. He begins by asking what the chief "wrong-making property" of killing adult human beings is. After setting aside several alternatives, he concludes that killing people is wrong because it takes from them their future, and because a human future is an especially valuable thing because of the opportunities for experiences and activities that human pyschological complexity affords. So, the chief wrong-making property of killing is that the person killed is deprived of a highly valuable thing, namely, a human future.

    You can see where he's going. The fetus, by virtue of being a potential person, has a human future. That is, in the absence of intervention or tragedy, the fetus will come to enjoy a future of the same kind as ours. And if what makes it presumptively seriously wrong to kill us is that it takes away from us a future of this kind, then (Marquis concludes) killing the fetus is also presumptively wrong.

    Interestingly, Marquis uses the same reasoning to DEFEND the moral permissibility of euthanasia in cases in which the patient's future is grim. And he defends his argument against certain critics by explicitly adopting a materialistic conception of identity over time.

    I've actually been developing a critical response to Marquis that I think is a new twist on an older one having to do with the problem of when we can say that X has been deprived of IT'S future. But I thought you and other readers of this blog might want to wrestle with his argument in connection with the points you make here.

  7. So what of the potential future of sperm? Is that chopped liver? These dividing lines are inevitably gradual/hazy, not bright.

  8. >in the absence of intervention or tragedy, the fetus will come to enjoy a future of the same kind as ours.

    Also consider that the presence of sufficient (good? better? best?) nutrition, protection, and a whole host of environmental factors also play an important role whether or not a fetus will enjoy a future such as ours. These factors do not come automatically, they require precious resources from the mother and perhaps the father (or the village).

    I think this plays well with Burk’s sperm objection as a sperm does not automatically turn into a human-like-us just as a fetus does not. Both require interventions, albeit of different types, but neither one is as automatic as Newton’s first law.

  9. Marquis has of course confronted and responded to numerous versions of the "what about sperm?" or "contraception is therefore just as bad as murder" objection. He does so in his original article (published in the mid-80's), and then again and again in response to various attempts to reformulate the objection to get oaround his original response.

    His response, in briefest terms, relies on two points: first, that until fertilization we do not have a single organism which can be said to have a human future (we have, instead, two separate organisms, and no clear way to non-arbitrarily say which one is being deprived of a future); second, the point at which the likelihood of development into a person with human experiences undergoes its most profound upward leap is the point of conception.

    If you're interested, a quick search on google scholar or the Philosopher's Index will give you about a dozen variants on the objection as well as Marquis's replies.

    But Skyhook's point has merit: whether a fetus's potential to experience a human future is actualized depends on a range of factors falling into place, including factors influenced by the choices of the pregnant woman.

    While something similar can in many cases be said for infants and children (as well as some adults), the difference there is that the child or adult is ALREADY a person--whereas Marquis's argument hinges only on acknowledging POTENTIAL personhood in the fetus. The question, then, is to what extent the contingency of even having a future impacts one's capacity to meaningfully say that human agency has DEPRIVED a being of its future. How certain must it be that an organism would have enjoyed a future of a certain kind apart from some intervention before we can say that the intervention has cost the organism its future? Even if it is true that this likelihood skyrockets at conception, it doesn't follow that the zygote's likelihood of evolving into a person with human experiences is great enough to say that an intervention preventing such development deprives it of that future.

    This is by no means a simple question to answer--but that very fact entails that a key premise of Marquis' argument is at best questionable. While Marquis has attempted to answer this question in ways amenable to his original argument, the controversy rages on.

  10. Great thoughts! These are exactly the types of responses I was hoping for.

    Burk and Skyhook, it seems Eric has already written, in a much better way than I could, some of the ideas I have hear in objection to the sperm or egg theory of potential. I don't completely buy it, but it has some good points, I suppose.

    I think that de Sade’s argument seems like the most sophisticated version of much of what I have read. But does what “owns” the potential in question have any bearing on how we treat it?

    I imagine mice that, through some hypothetical scientific discovery, could be turned into a human beings. But it only works on white mice, not brown or gray mice. Would the white mice, in their current state, be afforded the same rights as humans? And would the gray and brown mice still be treated as mice? This despite the fact that the only substantive difference is a gene for hair color?

    I come back to potential being a factor, but not a strict determining one, because the potential in question here is the ability to become a person. So it’s almost a meta-potential - a potential to have, value and attempt to realize potentials.

  11. In light of these observations, it seems to worthwhile to posit a sort of correspondence rule: that society's view of personhood and possible actions/sanctions should be commensurate with the amount of realized potential.

    This would lead to a sliding scale of little to no regard for sperm, modest regard for fertilized eggs/very early embryos, (perhaps expressions of discomfort would be reasonable, not laws / active sanctions), and increasing regard for more developed fetuses and infants as they approach personhood and human being-ness.

    Any way you slice it, trying to set up absolute lines of demarcation at conception do not make sense outside of imaginative / theological constructions.

  12. Burk,

    I completely endorse the "sliding scale" idea. I am planning on thinking through it in another post at some point. Anti-choicers accuse pro-choicers of being arbitrary because we do not endorse any "magic moment" when the fetus attains rights, yet our position may legally force us to. For instance if we decide that abortion should be illegal at 25 weeks, they will ask what the difference was at 24 1/2 weeks. Then they proceed to argue that their position is the most careful, since they are potentially erring on the side of "not killing someone".

    Of course there is nothing careful about the government forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy when we know the fetus does not have the ability to have any substantive experience of life and when enforcing such a law seems practically impossible anyway.

  13. I should add that my wife is pregnant now. I understand the emotions involved with pregnancy, and honestly it's hard for me to imagine feeling right about an abortion. But this is about letting people make those decisions for themselves, since the reasoning tells us that there is no clearly compelling moral reason to force people to continue pregnancies.

  14. Steven--

    First of all: Congratulations!

    Second, to follow up on your remarks, I think it is very important to distinguish between two moral question--one having to do with the morality of abortion, the other having to do with the morality of legally retricting abortion. These are different.

    In my classes, I use a scenario stolen from ER (of all places) to highlight the difference. It features two sisters (we'll cdall them Mary and Martha). Mary is brought to the hospital and needs a liver transplant in order to survive. The only match is her estranged sister Martha, who is a college athlete about to realize her dream of playing in the women's NCAA basketball championship game--which she'd have to miss if she donated a piece of her liver to the sister who stole her boyfriend and whom she hasn't spoken to in years.

    I ask my students, first, how many think Martha OUGHT to donate her liver--that is, whether there would be something seriously morally wrong with the choice of NOT doing so and letting her sister die so that she could play in the championship. All hands go up.

    I then ask whose choice it should be. Should the decision be up to Martha, or should the decision be made by someone else, such as the government, who would then force Martha to do what they decided. Everyone agrees that it should be left up to Martha--and that it would be morally pernicious for the government to impose itself at this point and MAKE Martha donate a piece of her liver. When I ask why my students have this intuition, the answer is obvious: It's Martha's body...

  15. Thanks, Eric! Our second is on the way.

    Yes, these are definitely two separate questions. Thanks for elaborating on this. I can think of 2 or 3 women I know, right off, who think abortion is pretty much always wrong, but they are still pro-choice.

    Legal questions and personal moral questions are two different circles which intersect a lot but not perfectly. I use the example that there is nothing wrong about driving through a light that has a red color. If it is wrong, it is only because it is wrong to break the law. On the other hand, it is a terrible thing to lie to a woman, perhaps about your intentions towards her, in order to seduce her, but no one thinks someone should be put in prison for this.

    Of course the "it's my body" argument has zero resonance with anti-choice people, because they see the fetus as its own organism and it's right to life easily exceeds, in their view, the right of the woman to her own body.