New Freeland


Abortion is a fascinating moral topic. I admit that I can’t quite decide what is the proper moral position. The two opposing camps take opposing and mutually exclusive positions, which I don’t think helps in getting to a conclusion.

On the one hand there is the “conservative” position, which in its basic form is the total outlawing of abortion. Except for cases in which there is immediate danger to the mother.

On the other hand there is the “liberal” position, which is basically a very permissive view on when the growing body may be killed. Even in cases where there is no immediate danger to the mother.

Many people have a position somewhere in between, but the political camps tend to split into the “conservative” versus “liberal” positions. But I don’t think that most people arrive at their position on abortion through a means that is thoroughly thought it. Some argue from religious morals, which generally ban abortion altogether. Feminists argue from the rights of women to their bodies, ironically though they hold the selfish position but are by and large socialists in political belief.

In between you get a whole bunch of arguments for and against abortion based on various grounds that are usually fairly tenuous. For instance it isn’t uncommon to see it argued that many pregnancies end in spontaneous miscarriage before the mother even is aware of the pregnancy, therefore abortion isn’t morally wrong. That is of course a fatuous argument as morals are not to do with what can happen without human awareness but are everything to do with actions we choose to make. The difficulties of survival for an embryo or early foetus have nothing to do with the morality of deliberately killing that body. On the other hand we are often shown images of a foetus that can be legally (currently) killed in an effort to strike a sympathetic emotion because the foetus looks undeniably baby-like. Appeals to emotion without an actual foundation in fact, in this case showing that the foetus is fully human and not just bearing the beginnings of resemblance, do not help the moral claims then made.

The basic moral problem is that killing a human being is morally wrong unless it is in acts of self-defense, in times of war or in other extreme cases where normal moral conduct is generally agreed to be suspended. What you nearly never see in arguments about abortion is an attempt to define where humanity begins (not life, because the fertilized egg, embryo and foetus are all clearly alive). The exception is usually the extreme religious idea that the fertilized egg itself constitutes a human being. This is the logical end point of another line of reasoning, a “slippery slope” argument from the fact that killing a new born baby is murder. But is it correct that the fertilized egg, or an embryo after a few divisions, is actually properly considered a fully human being?

An unusual feature of abortion law in many western countries is that the legal time limit for an abortion is based on, or at least considered from, the age at which a foetus/baby can be successfully reared outside the mother. This is a very dodgy basis since I fully expect that eventually it will be possible to fertilize an egg and produce completely normal babies without the egg ever being implanted inside a woman. This would virtually negate the need for abortion completely, but it doesn’t tell us any more about the morality of abortion. The point at which a human becomes fully actual must surely not depend on the advances of medicine in being able to maintain the foetus outside the womb.

These arguments are all beside the point, as I said, it all depends on when a human being is fully realized in the womb. Do we agree that it is in the womb that it becomes human? It is morally wrong to kill a newborn baby, therefore it is morally wrong to kill one just prior to birth since there is no immediate difference over the space of the hours required for its birth. Surely we don’t think that there is something about passing through the birth canal that endows humanity, otherwise all c-section births do not produce humans. Likewise a baby at birthday-1 of birth is human… isn’t it? Or birthday-2, birthday-3, … Surely a day or so makes no difference, think of all those premature babies that are born and we call them human.

But extending that back to fertilization of the egg must be ridiculous. A fertilized egg can’t be fully human. It has the potential to become a baby but it possesses that only in the genetic material. It has no organs, no mind, nothing that identifies it as human. Or is the genetic material and that potentiality sufficient?

Somewhere in between fertilization and birth there comes a point at which a human is realized and it becomes morally wrong to kill it. Because regardless of the rights of the mother to her body and what happens in it, a human no matter how totally dependent on another has the right not to be summarily executed under the normal course of events. If the foetus is not human then it matters not if it is killed. But if it is human then killing it with intent is by definition murder, since it is neither an enemy combatant nor someone bent on the killing of the mother.

Here is the point at which some feminists suddenly become more selfish than any money-grubbing capitalist and accord the foetus no rights, while the religionists will call you a baby-murderer for even considering that there is a period in which abortion is morally neutral.

But I believe that this is the only point which has any tenable foundation if you accept:

  1. a new born baby is human
  2. there is nothing special about the moment of birth
  3. a fertilized egg is not human

The moral question is then, when does humanity arrive for the foetus, the moment it becomes morally wrong to kill it? I would note in passing here that it in the case when the foetus has passed this point but that there is a clear danger to the baby and mother’s life in continuing the pregnancy then it is morally better to save the mother.

I think that the best we can do is talk about how likely it is that the foetus is human at a given time, ranging from 0 at fertilization to 1 at some number of weeks before birth. Somewhere in between lies a distribution increasing towards 1 over time. We probably can’t even derive this distribution since to do so would require us to know how to define humanity and the gradations of it that the increasingly complex bundle of cells becomes on its way to being a baby.

On the other hand this could be making a fundamental mistake in believing that full humanity is achieved by the time of birth. Maybe humanity is earned and not automatically achieved by all individuals. Or maybe it comes some time after birth. In which case infanticide becomes morally acceptable and murder laws become really difficult to administer. But even if this is true it does not alter the fact that if we are talking about the morals of the situation that at some point we have to determine when a human has arrived. It doesn’t matter if this is in the womb or not, when you get down to it.

I think that both conservatives and liberals both make deliberate fundamental errors in arguing about abortion specifically because they do not want to have to face the fact that a much deeper problem exists. The problem of judging who is human and when they become human. Ironically as a libertarian I think that conservatives make a somewhat slighter error by just forbidding abortion outright and at least basing the argument on considering when humanity begins (when God says so). However I don’t think that arguing from religious texts is a sufficient approach to truly deciding. It should be possible to convince atheists or “other religionists” of the case, if humanity is in fact a universal and not dependent on the culture one is born into. Many liberals, while championing the causes of the “weak and defenceless”, suddenly think that late term abortions are somehow a good idea for protecting the most defenceless. Conservatives on the other hand, who are generally interested in the welfare of their community think it is a good idea to deny women the ability to control their bodies in the very early periods of foetal development.

Like I said, often neither camp is very interested in actually determining where humanity begins or trying to discover more about the morally correct position but in maintaining their own political control of a segment of the electorate.

Ask yourselves this. If humanity was somehow scientifically proven to begin at fertilization, how would you as a liberal change your view on abortion? Or if humanity was shown to be earned and not endowed at conception, how would you as a conservative change your view on abortion? If you cannot conceive of the necessity of changing your position in the light of a proof you accept, then can you make any moral judgements?

So what is my position? I think that probably abortion is morally acceptable if the time limit is kept short (well within the first trimester, probably the first handful of weeks), since I do not know when humanity begins but I believe that it begins somewhere and that a new born baby is human, but a fertilized egg is not. While that foetus is not human then the woman’s right to her body overrides the potentiality of the foetus, but it quite quickly becomes a responsibility not to kill an unthreatening human.

5 January, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 13 Comments