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


  1. Hi Shea,

    I spent a year or so daily reading and debating abortion online a number of years ago. Back then I was not religious at all, but when I had to spend time thinking about it, realised that the line could not logically be any less than a human being becomes human at conception.

    I did try to bring the line further forward, but realised that to do so would be intellectually dishonest. The only difference between a human being at conception and and a human being at birth and a human being at adulthood is maturity. That is it.

    The reason for the polarity of opinions is that it is either morally permissible to kill human beings for whatever reason or it is not. The in-between positions are populated by the intellectually dishonest or those that haven’t spent enough time thinking through the implications. I’ll put you in the latter camp for now.

    Comment by Lucyna | 6 January, 2008 | Reply

  2. Hi Lucyna.

    I have thought a lot about the implications in an effort to not be intellectually dishonest. I remain unconvinced that a fertilized egg is totally human, however I am open to being shown wrong. I do agree in general with your summary of in-between positions though, but an honest “I’m not sure” is also a possibility. If it’s any consolation I probably tend to shorter time limits than most, and certainly not using abortion as contraception for irresponsible behaviour.

    Comment by Shea | 6 January, 2008 | Reply

  3. “The only difference between a human being at conception and and a human being at birth and a human being at adulthood is maturity.”

    Sure. The problem is, that one difference counts for a shitload. Even if it didn’t, the fact is that it is morally permissible to kill human beings in various circumstances, including this one.

    Your determination that the in-between positions are intellectually dishonest or unthinking presumably derives from an understandable desire for moral simplicity and certainties. However, morality just isn’t like that. My wife lost one baby after 8 weeks or so, and one at 28 weeks; there’s a hell of a difference in what you feel about each of those two situations and how intensely you feel it, let me tell you. Physical reality doesn’t particularly care about our desire for moral certainties.

    Comment by Psycho Milt | 8 January, 2008 | Reply

  4. “there’s a hell of a difference in what you feel about each of those two situations and how intensely you feel it”

    I’m sure there is. Fortunately I have never experienced that and hopefully won’t. But how we feel doesn’t change when a human arrives, does it? Old cultures thought little of infanticide. Some fairly recent cultures have thought, still think, that certain races are sub-human and worthy of no moral compunction in killing.

    “Physical reality doesn’t particularly care about our desire for moral certainties.”

    No, it doesn’t. But our moral certainties should care about physical reality. And no one has objectively shown me when a human exists.

    Comment by Shea | 8 January, 2008 | Reply

  5. Psycho, how a person feels about another person’s death is irrelevant to what the person is. I felt far sadder at my Dad’s death than I did at my Aunt’s, yet both were human. From my perspective, I knew my Dad better than my Aunt, therefore there was more of an attachment.

    But, if a person is completely unloved and unwanted by everyone, that does not make them any less human and anymore deserving of death. Also people die all the time – that does not therefore justify murder. Neither does miscarriage justify abortion, even though the result is the same.


    If it’s any consolation I probably tend to shorter time limits than most, and certainly not using abortion as contraception for irresponsible behaviour.

    So, what is the line for you? And why?

    I found when I tried to define a line, I realised that if we could define a line at any point, then that line could be moved. A human being should not be defined – a human being just is. Once you start defining what human beings are worthy of life and what human beings are not, the line starts moving. And there’s no way to stop it from moving, as the logic doesn’t allow it to stop.

    Comment by Lucyna | 8 January, 2008 | Reply

  6. Hi Lucyna…

    “So, what is the line for you? And why?”

    I’ll be totally honest. I don’t know. I think the best we can do right now is to speak in likelihoods. I can see the attraction of your argument, but that supposes that there is no other defining moment in development, or gradual process, that confers the necessary humanity and affects your moving line.

    On the other hand I am also willing to concede that you could be right, but I think that it can be shown much more strongly in that case.

    I don’t know where the “line” is but I think at the moment you have at most a few weeks to cross it and that people in this day and age should be far more capable of being responsible for their own fertility.

    Comment by Shea | 8 January, 2008 | Reply

  7. I found when I tried to define a line, I realised that if we could define a line at any point, then that line could be moved.

    That’s laws for you. Every one of them’s a crappy compromise of one form or another. Somebody eventually has to take a stab at drawing a line somewhere, and a bunch of people end up disagreeing, no matter where that line goes.

    The fact that we’d really, really like things to be simple does not in itself make them simple. In this particular case, trying to cut the Gordian knot by simply declaring this blob of gooey a human doesn’t actually solve anything, it’s still just somebody drawing a line somewhere that seems best to them and making up some shit about why logic commands the selection of that particular spot.

    For instance, you say a human being should not be defined Lucyna, having just defined it in an earlier comment – as a fertilised egg. It may feel to you like everything was sorted by that definition, but other people have competing definitions. In my case, I know inside that I wasn’t mourning a dead person with that 8-week miscarriage, but I was with the 28-week one. Understanding the nature of that intervening change is beyond me, but I do know that trying to simplify it by declaring an arbitrary cutoff point is all about the blunt practical necessity of making usable laws, not objectively definable morality.

    I think it’s comparable with Dawkins’ example of water being heated in a kettle, which he uses to try to bring dumbass creationists who believe in a “species barrier” to a better education: if you heat water in a kettle, at the end of the process it’s hot. At which point in the process did it become “hot?” Trying to draw a line and say “This is the point at which the water changed from cold to hot” would be ludicrous. Unfortunately, given the nature of legal systems, the issue of abortion requires us to arbitrarily declare some point in the process “it.” Lucyna’s entitled to her arbitrary declaration; I can’t pin mine down to better than “somewhere between 8 and 28 weeks.” Unfortunately, there isn’t any final, “correct” definition to come to.

    Comment by Psycho Milt | 8 January, 2008 | Reply

  8. The problem with Dawkins’ analogy is of course that water always has a defined temperature, it never “lacks” a temperature. Hot and cold are relative conditions of the same thing, in fact one implies the other. Consciousness, humanity, whatever, does appear at some point, possibly gradually, from nothing before. There is a huge difference between no consciousness and consciousness. It works better for evolution where you have species and are trying to show the process of going from one to another over a long time. But that is the problem with analogies.

    “Unfortunately, there isn’t any final, “correct” definition to come to.”

    But will it always be so? Is it beyond possibility that one day we will know? I imagine one day we will, but if I was to bet money on it now I would say that it wasn’t at fertilization.

    Comment by Shea | 8 January, 2008 | Reply

  9. I’m not sure what you mean by “consciousness” here in relation to an embryo or fetus. If it’s “sentience,” ie that self-awareness that we have and other animals don’t, we’re on very dodgy ground because it’s pretty clear a chimp is much more sentient than a new-born human baby.

    For example, suppose we do eventually come up with a clear definition of what sentience is and a method of identifying when it exists. We could use that as a demarcation line for whether something is human or not, but I very much doubt that a baby or even various drastically mentally handicapped people would be on the right side of the line. So, using that as our line for abortion law wouldn’t really be do-able, because it would most likely make infanticide legal.

    I still think the kettle analogy applies. There’s a huge difference between consciousness and no consciousness, but there’s also a pretty clear difference between cold and hot. We may be able to take the water’s temperature at any particular moment, but it’s a completely subjective decision whether any particular temperature constitutes “cold” or “hot.” We will all accept by the time the water’s hit 70 degrees that yes, ouch, that’s quite definitely hot, but identifying a crossover temperature at which it officially stopped being cold and became hot would be necessarily an arbitrary exercise. I think “consciousness” will turn out to be similarly resistant to demarcation lines – and if it does turn out to be possible to draw a line, that will open more moral cans of worms than it closes.

    Comment by Psycho Milt | 9 January, 2008 | Reply

  10. The analogy applies once sentience or humanity or whatever exists, if you believe that there are gradations of such things. But it doesn’t tell us where it begins, just as evolution itself doesn’t tell us how life began. You could make the analogy closer if you look at the melting of ice. At this point you have a clear demarcation between two states (ice and water) that needs a specific amount of energy to change and in which there is no middle ground. After that the hot/cold analogy is valid, but the creation of the liquid water is a well defined point on the temperature scale. This is Lucyna’s definition of the line, fertilization or conception. The question is then, how much sentience or humanity or whatever exists at that instant? Lucyna says it is complete, some of us say none.

    “and if it does turn out to be possible to draw a line, that will open more moral cans of worms than it closes.”

    It might release more worms, but that is better than ignorance. Theories of evolution cause moral problems for religious types, but does that mean they should not be confronted with challenges?

    Comment by Shea | 9 January, 2008 | Reply

  11. This is an attempt to summarise the above comments. We are trying here to define when someone is a human. As far as I can see, we can use three different factors.

    This is the most common factor used to define when someone is human. Everyone will come up with a different line if we rely on this, as everyone thinks differently. Psycho Milt feels that they were not mourning the loss of a human life ending in an 8 week abortion. My wife is currently pregnant, and if she had aborted at 8 weeks we most certainly would have been mourning the loss of a human life, we considered our child human then. Is Psycho Milt correct or am I? It is impossible to decide. Emotion cannot be the basis of this decision.

    One further note on emotion. Shea makes the assumption that “a fertilised egg is not human”. This is an assumption based on emotion. It is perfectly valid to believe this, if you wish, but the only reasoning that can justify it is an emotional belief that at this early stage of maturity the egg does not appear human.

    Emotion is an unreliable guide.

    I am a Christian, and that certainly shapes my beliefs about abortion very strongly. But not everyone believes in Christianity, or even in God. I cannot use arguments from religion to define this issue to an atheist. Religion is a valid reason for my beliefs, but not necessarily an effective reason to support and explain them to others.

    Science is the one objective field that we can fall back on. There is a clear scientific point where a human comes into being. Before conception, there is only a sperm and an egg. Neither is human, they do not contain enough chromosomes and cannot grow. When they combine, they form a new organism that is genetically distinct from both parents, and is capable of surviving and growing.

    Science is clear that it is conception when a new organism is formed. Is this organism a human? Scientifically speaking, yes. There is no point after conception where it scientifically changes from sub-human to human. To argue that it becomes human later is to argue from emotion, which as I have shown is unreliable.

    How do you define a human? There is no definition that will stand up to scrutiny apart from the scientific one. Is a bacterium that has just been produced not really a bacteria until some time later? Of course not. Is a fish in an egg not really a fish? Of course not. A bacteria is a bacteria. A fish is a fish. And a human is a human.

    For years some argued the Australian Aborigines were sub-human, now few would support that view. Now we have people arguing the fetus is sub-human. Is this argument any more valid?

    Many people have very strong emotional reasons why they wish to believe that a fetus is inhuman. Maybe they had a miscarriage and didn’t feel the need to grieve, or an abortion and do not wish to believe they killed a human. Maybe they just believe this and cannot think of any reason why. But this is purely arguing from emotion, and emotion is unreliable.

    The science is clear. A fetus is a human. There is no other way of defining humanity, which is why Shea and others find it so difficult to draw a line. There is no other line.

    Comment by Mr Dennis | 7 February, 2008 | Reply

  12. I submit that one can only reject the personhood of the zygote as human if you can describe the standard of “personhood” that judges it deficient.

    If we were discussing a sheep we’d happily agree that the zygote is a biological “sheep” at 2 weeks as it is at 20 or 200 weeks or when it’s in the oven roasting (tasty!).

    For some reason “human” is an honour we easily award ourselves but have great difficulty bestowing on others!!

    Yes, there’s a hell of difference between a 20 year old and an implanted embryo but we have a istory of creating differences where none exist. We’re only 60 years from putting posters in windows scientifically describing “jewishness”. Yes, low I know, but we are capable of reasoning support for practically any moral position!

    Drawing clear lines of legal “personhood” become more difficult as the survival of premature babies improves.

    The recently departed head of Auckland paediatrics said in NatRad interview last week that 22 weeks is survivable. Most of us already know that.

    While some 22-week premmers go on to have developmental or learning problems many others do not and are indistinguishable from the norm.

    Note that 26 weeks is the limit of NZ abortion, which is a month beyond what can survive in NZ intensive care. Thus, survivability isn’t the deciding factor in abortion, it’s law, i.e. the political power of the biologically mature lawmakers.

    Also, as you probably also know, Pete Singer argues that personhood should only be applied when the entity is ‘independent’. Infanticide is then plausible and indeed many people would never reach ‘personhood’.

    Singer’s approach is vastly different to the approach of an intensive Pediatric unit.
    From a purely materialist point of view, the entity Singer and a paediatric doctor are both considering at 22 weeks of age is biologically “human” yet they arrive different conclusions.

    I submit that one can only reject the personhood of the zygote as human if you can describe the standard of “personhood” that judges it deficient.

    Singer places it at 3 years old. The departing head of Paediatrics might put it at 22 weeks or less. Something is awry.

    Comment by greg bourke | 27 February, 2008 | Reply

  13. Excellent points Greg. Especially the comparison to sheep!

    The only point that makes sense is conception, any other point can never be defined. There is no fundamental difference between abortion and infanticide.

    Comment by Mr Dennis | 28 February, 2008 | Reply

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