Moral Status of Abortion

Contents
Distinct Issues
  • Moral Status
    • Is abortion morally permissible or morally wrong?
  • Normative Legal Question
    • Under what conditions, if any, should a woman have a legal right to an abortion?
      • Conditions:
        • the stage of prenatal development
        • circumstances and reasons for abortion, e.g.
          • pregnancy due to rape or incest
          • preserve life or health of mother
  • Personhood Question
    • When does personhood begin?
  • Personal Decision
    • Should I have an abortion?
  • Constitutional Question
    • Is a law prohibiting abortion unconstitutional?
Overview
Arguments that Abortion is Morally Wrong
Personhood begins at Conception
  • Genetic Argument
    • The single-cell human zygote resulting from conception is a person because, in the development from independent sperm and egg to a newborn to an adult, the zygote is the first organism having the full set of 23 pairs of human chromosomes and thus genetically programmed to develop into an adult human being.
  • Slippery Slope Argument
    • Suppose an ultrasound, CAT scan, or photograph has been taken of a person every day from conception to 18 years of age.  The images are numbered 1 through 7,000. The being in image 7000 is obviously a person. There’s no material difference between that being and the being on image 6999.  So, the being on image 6999 is likewise a human being. The same goes for the being on image 6998. Likewise for the being on image 6997. And so on back to the being on image 1, that of a one-cell human zygote. There is no magical day after conception when a human zygote-embryo-fetus becomes a person.
    • The argument in a nutshell:
      • Image 7000 depicts a person.
      • For each day from 2 to 7000, if the image on that day depicts a person, so does the image on the previous day.
        • Since there’s no relevant difference.
      • Therefore the image on day 1 depicts a person.
Shooting into a Closet
  • If it’s unknown when a fetus becomes a person, abortion is morally wrong for the same reason it’s wrong to shoot a gun into a closet if you don’t know whether a child is inside. 
  • The underlying principle:
    • If you don’t know whether an act will result in a person’s death, you have a moral obligation to avoid doing it.
Killing a Viable Fetus is like Killing a Newborn
  • Killing a newborn is morally wrong.
  • There’s no morally relevant difference between killing a newborn and killing a viable fetus.
    • Before birth the placenta supplies nutrients and oxygen to the fetus through the umbilical cord.  After birth nutrients are supplied by the newborn’s digestive system and oxygen by the newborn’s pulmonary system.  But being supplied nutrients and oxygen by different delivery systems is not a morally relevant difference that would permit killing a viable fetus but not a newborn. It’s not okay to kill a person, for example, just because they’re being fed through a feeding tube and breathing on a ventilator.
  • Therefore, killing a viable fetus is morally wrong.
Marquis Argument
  • Don Marquis’ Argument (“Why Abortion is Immoral,” Journal of Philosophy, 1989)
    • Killing is morally wrong because it deprives the victim of a future conscious life just like ours.
    • Abortion is morally wrong for the same reason: because it deprives the fetus of a future conscious life just like ours
  • Misfortune of Premature Death
    • The misfortune of premature death consists of the loss to us of the future goods of consciousness.  Those goods are whatever we get out of life: completed projects of which we are proud, the pursuit of our goals, aesthetic enjoyments, friendships, intellectual pursuits, and physical pleasures of various sorts. The goods of life are what makes life worth living.
  • The deprivation theory of killing explains
    • why killing is one of the worst crimes. My being killed deprives me of more than does my being robbed or beaten or harmed in some other way because my being killed deprives me of  all of the value of my future, not merely part of it. This explains why we  make the penalty for murder greater than the penalty for other crimes.
    • why it is not wrong to deliberately end the life of a person who is permanently unconscious. Thus we believe that it is not wrong to remove a feeding tube or a ventilator from a permanently comatose patient, knowing that such a removal will cause death. 
    • why it is wrong, ceteris paribus, to withdraw medical treatment from patients who are temporarily unconscious. 
    • why in some cases active euthanasia is morally acceptable.  Proponents argue that if a patient faces a future of intractable pain and wants to die, then, ceteris paribus, it would not be wrong for a physician to give him medicine that she knows would result in his death.
    • why it’s morally wrong to kill infants.
Arguments that Abortion is Morally Permissible
Personhood Begins After Conception
  • The human zygote-embryo-fetus gradually develops into a person as it develops a conscious life, since having a conscious life is part of what it means to be a person.
  • Precisely when this happens is indeterminate because
  • Abortion is thus permissible during the indeterminate phase of fetal development.
Right to Control One’s Body
  • A woman has a moral right to control her body and her pregnancy.
  • She has a right to abortion in the case of rape, per JJ Thomson’s argument.
  • She has a right to abortion during the indeterminate phase of fetal development.
JJ Thomson
  • Thomson argues by analogy that a woman has no moral obligation to keep the fetus alive, even if a person, if the pregnancy is the result of rape.
  • View Thomson’s Argument
Addenda
Vagueness of ‘Person’
  • A linguistic expression is vague if its meaning is not precise, leading to borderline cases where its truth is indeterminate
    • Per Merriam-Webster, vague means not having an exact or precise meaning.
  • 100 people vote in an election
    • If most people vote for Mr. Smallweed, what’s the smallest number of votes he can receive?
    • If many people vote for Mr. Smallweed what’s the smallest number of votes he can receive?
  • Stipulating a precise meaning for many doesn’t solve the problem because the stipulated meaning is not the ordinary meaning:
    • Per MW, many means consisting of or amounting to a large but indefinite number; not few
  • If you define many as “at least 30,” your stipulated meaning is inconsistent with the ordinary meaning.
  • Vagueness permeates language.
    • Vague everyday words include: tall, hot, cold, heavy, light, big, little, rich, poor, young, old, many, few, brief, lengthy, quickly, slowly, red, green, loose, tight, bright, dark, high, low, wide, narrow, intelligent, dumb, honest, dishonest, expensive, popular, unpopular, fast, slow, torture.
  • Vagueness is characterized by unanswerable min-max questions
    • What’s the minimum height a tall man can have?
    • What’s the maximum height a short man can have?
    • What’s the minimum net worth a wealthy person can have?
    • What’s the maximum net worth a poor person can have?
  • Vagueness ≠ Ambiguity
    • A linguistic expression is vague if it does not have a precise meaning, leading to borderline cases where its truth is indeterminate
    • A linguistic expression is used ambiguously if it can be plausibly understood in more than one way
      • Examples
        • Driver: should I turn left at the stop sign?  Passenger: Right.
        • He’s a poor student.
        • Visiting relatives can be boring.
        • Two cannibals are eating a clown.  One comments “this sure tastes funny”.
  • Vagueness of “Many”
    • 100 people vote in an election
      1. If most people vote for Mr. Smallweed, what’s the smallest number of votes he can receive?
      2. If many people vote for Mr. Smallweed what’s the smallest number of votes he can receive?
    • The answer to the first question is determinate and easily calculated.
    • The answer to the second question is indeterminate, not for want of information, but because many is vague. The second question is unanswerable.
  • Vagueness of Person and Human Being
    • Compare
      1. On which day did the zygote implant in the uterus?
      2. On which day did the zygote-embryo-fetus become a person or a human being?
    • The first question has a definite answer, perhaps unknown
    • The answer to the second question is indeterminate, not because of lack information about fetal development, but because person and human being are vague.
    • The question when human life begins is unanswerable in the same way it’s unanswerable whether many people voted for Mr. Smallweed.
Fetal Development
  • Conception / Fertilization
  • First Trimester Begins (week 1)
    • Zygote implants in uterine wall (8-10 days)
    • Zygote becomes an embryo (10-12 days)
    • Heart starts beating (week 4)
    • Neurons start forming (week 6)
    • Embryo becomes fetus (week 8)
    • 91.5% of abortions performed by end of (week 13)
  • Second Trimester Begins (week 14)
    • Quickening occurs (first fetal movement) (week 16)
    • Neurons start forming synaptic connections (week 18)
    • 98.7% of abortions performed by end of (week 20)
    • Lungs develop (week 22-23)
    • Fetus becomes viable (able to live outside womb) (week 22-23)
    • EEG looks very much like that of a newborn (week 24)
  • Third Trimester Begins (week 28)
    • Synaptic growth skyrockets (week 28)
  • Birth (week 38-40)
Old Stuff
Question

When does human life begin?

  • Forms of the question:
    • When does human life begin?
    • When does a human being come into existence?
    • When does a human zygote-embryo-fetus become a human being?
    • When does a person come into existence?
    • When does a human zygote-embryo-fetus become a person?
    • When did you come into being?
  • These are philosophical (metaphysical, religious) questions.
  • Persons
    • The US Constitution uses the term person.
    • A person is not necessarily the same thing as a human being.
      • There may be people on faraway planets who don’t have human bodies.
  • Distinct questions:
    • The philosophic question when a human zygote-embryo-fetus becomes a person / human being
    • The moral question regarding the conditions under which abortion is morally wrong
    • The normative legal question regarding the conditions under which abortion should be illegal.
Hypotheses
  • Human life begins at conception
    • The one-celled human zygote resulting from conception is a person / human being
  • Human life begins after conception
    • The human zygote-embryo-fetus becomes a person / human being
      • when the fetal brain begins functioning
      • 40 days after conception
      • 120 days after conception
      • at quickening
      • at viability
      • at birth
  • When human life begins is indeterminate
    • The words person and human being are vague to the point that it’s impossible to determine when during development a human zygote-embryo-fetus becomes a person or human being. 
    • The question when human life begins is thus unanswerable.
Overview
At Conception
Genetic Argument
  • Counter Argument
    • Human beings have brains, lungs, hearts, bones, muscles, arteries, and veins.
    • A one-cell human zygote has none of these things.
    • Therefore, a one-cell human zygote is not (yet) a human being.
  • Thought Experiment
    • There’s a raging fire in a fertility clinic. If you had to choose between saving a five-year-old girl or saving a tray of three fertilized eggs, which should you save?
      • You should save the fertilized eggs because it’s better to save three human beings than one.
      • You should save the five-year-old girl because it’s better to save one human being than three fertilized eggs.
Slippery Slope Argument
  • Criticism 
    • Consider this Curious Argument
      1. Some adult males are short.
      2. An adult male taller than a short adult male by only a micron is also short. (A micron is about 0.000039 inch.)
      3. Therefore, 6’4” Abe Lincoln is short.
    • The reasoning underlying the argument seems correct:
      • Locate a short male and measure his height; say it’s 4’7”.  Therefore an adult male 4’7” + 1 micron in height is also short, per premise 2.  But if so, then an adult male at 4’7” + 1 + 1 microns is also short, for the same reason. By adding microns one at a time we reach the conclusion that an adult male 4’7” + 533,400 microns is short.  But that’s 6’4’’. So Abe Lincoln is short.
    • The problem with the Curious Argument is that the meaning of the word short yields no precise height where shortness ends and non-shortness begins.  Rather, there’s a gray area where it’s indeterminate whether an adult male is short or not. A dictionary’s no help, either, since short means having little height. So premise 2 of the Curious Argument is false.  As microns are added adult males pass from short to indeterminate to non-short.  The basic problem is vagueness.
Does Human Life Begin at Viability?
  • A fetus becomes viable, per Roe v. Wade, when it’s “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.”
  • Argument against Viability
    • Viability depends in part on the state of medical technology.
    • But when human life begins should depend only on the state of the fetus, not on the state of medical technology.
    • Therefore, human life does not begin at viability.
  • Viability is a function of
    • Stage of fetal development
    • Health of fetus
    • State of medical technology
  • Vox Article: Artificial wombs are coming. They could completely change the debate over abortion
Does Human Life Begin at Birth?
  • Argument against Life beginning at Birth
    • A human newborn is a human being.
    • There’s no material difference between a newborn and the fetus just before birth.
    • Therefore the fetus just before birth is also a human being.
  • Before birth the placenta supplies nutrients and oxygen to the fetus through the umbilical cord.  After birth nutrients are supplied by the newborn’s digestive system and oxygen by the newborn’s pulmonary system.  But changing delivery systems is not sufficient to transform a mere fetus into a human being. Being fed through a feeding tube and breathing with a ventilator, for example, does not cast doubt on a patient’s being a human being. 
Does Human Life Begin with a Functioning Brain?
  • Argument for Life beginning with Functioning Brain
    • A human being dies when he becomes brain-dead, brain-death being the irreversible cessation of functioning of the entire brain.  Correspondingly, a fetus becomes a human being when it acquires a functioning brain
  • Objection
    • Like fetal development in general, acquiring a functioning brain is a gradual process, not a determinate event.
      • Neurons start forming (week 6)
      • Corpus Callosum begins to develop (week 13)
      • Neurons start forming synaptic connections (week 18)
      • EEG looks very much like that of a newborn (week 22)
      • Synaptic growth skyrockets  (week 28)
      • Size of the brain and the proportion of its parts are basically those of an adult. (two years after birth)