The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

Abortion: A Secular Argument

Conservative Christians (Catholics and fundamentalists/evangelicals) assert that human life begins at conception and that taking the life of the fetus is the moral equivalent of murder. Thus the interest of the fetus, according to these people, is on par with that of the pregnant woman. This, as we have seen in the policies of the Roman Catholic Church and the fundamentalist administration of George W. Bush, has led to much suffering for women who for many reasons either could not, or would not, see through their pregnancy. Furthermore the very same argument against abortion is being recycled for use against embryonic stem cell research. The suffering caused to women in the anti-abortion movement and the blocking of potential benefits to humankind by the de facto ban on stem cell research mean that the theologically obscurantist arguments against abortion must be met head on. [a]

The argument for the moral permissibility of abortion and on the proper ethical approach towards abortion presented below are mainly based on the work of moral philosophers, Peter Singer and R.M. Hare [2]. Basically the arguments can be presented in a few clear steps:

We can conclude that abortion is not the equivalent of murder and that it is morally permissible. Objections about lack of demarcation and the relation to infanticide can be resolved using practical ethical principles. Finally we consider Hare's intuitive moral principle as a reasonable approach towards the practical issue for one actually facing abortion decisions.

The Religious Conservative Argument Against Abortion

The Catholic and fundamentalist argument against abortion can be presented syllogistically as follows:

  • It is wrong to kill an innocent human being
  • The human fetus is an innocent human being

  • Therefore it is wrong to kill the human fetus

If we accept the premises then we have to accept the conclusion: that abortion is morally equivalent to murder.

The crucial test of the validity of the above two premises is in the use of the term "human being". The meaning favored by Catholic and fundamentalists can be seen in this definition provided by (Roman Catholic) Judge John T. Noonan Jr.:

[I]f you are conceived by human parents, you are human...The positive argument for conception as the decisive moment of humanization is that at conception the new being receives the genetic code. It is this genetic information which determines his characteristics...A being with a human genetic code is man. [3]

Thus the definition used by the Catholic and fundamentalist churches is that a "human being" is a living organism which has all 23 pairs of human chromosomes; i.e. a member of the species homo sapiens, regardless of its place in the "life cycle" or its physical condition. Using this definition, a zygote (a recently fused egg and sperm) is a human being. And destroying a zygote would be equivalent to killing a human being.

With this definition, we can ask whether it is ever wrong to kill a living organism who has the full set of human DNA. We find that there are times when taking the lives of such beings, which certainly saddens us, are not considered immoral. We give two below.

  • Sometimes babies are born with anencephaly. They are literally, without a forebrain, the part responsible for thinking and co-ordination. Anencephalic babies may have some rudimentary biological function, but are usually born blind, deaf, unable to feel pain and can never attain consciousness. Most anencephalic babies are stillborn although some have been known to survive for up to a few days after birth. [b] The standard pediatric procedure is to apply what is sometimes known as "passive euthanasia" - allowing the baby to die by withholding treatment (such as antibiotics) and, in some case, even with-holding all nutrition and hydration. [c] Even the conservative surgeon general appointed by Ronald Reagan, Dr. C. Everett Kopp, admitted that there are cases such as these where he would not provide treatment to prolong life. [d] [4]

  • We find similar issues with the other end of life. The traditional understanding of death is cessation of bodily function. With the advance of modern medicine, the basic biological functions of the human body (breathing, blood flow etc) can be maintained for an indefinite period of time. Thus the need to come up with the concept of "brain death". This is said to occur when the brain no longer shows any electrical activity and the person is no longer showing any neurological response to stimuli. Such a person is considered clinically dead. [e] In such a state the certification of "brain death" means that the artificial life support systems are switched off - allowing the biological functions to shut down. Note here that the life support system is actively removed. Yet even in this case, most people would consider the ending of the life, literally, killing the patient - given the traditional view of life and death - to be not morally wrong. [5]

Thus we find that if the term "human beings" is synonymous with "being a member of the species homo sapiens", then the first premise of the syllogism above is unacceptable for two reasons:

  • It is vague
    For the anencephalic baby and the "brain dead" person both meet this definition of "human beings" who are alive. Yet in these cases it is considered acceptable for life to be taken away. Thus the first objection against the first premise is that if human being is defined as every living being belonging to the species homo sapiens, then the prohibition against taking lives must be extended to anencephalic babies and brain dead patients. Imagine hospitals where millions of the anencephalic and brain dead are on life support with no hope ever of regaining consciousness - sapping up resources and money - all "living" on indefinitely. Such a situation would be nightmarish indeed! [Reminds me of a scene from the movie Coma]

  • It is arbitrary
    We can also see that, removed from its theological underpinning which places humankind at the center of God's creation, this prohibition against killing is subjectively drawn at the species boundary. It is as arbitrary as that based on the membership of a certain race. Which is to say that it is as capricious as the Nazi idea that only Aryans (and not Jews or Gypsies etc) have the right to life. This puts paid to the theologically, and emotionally, loaded (but logically vacuous) concept of the "sanctity of human life" - which makes as much sense as "the sanctity of Aryan life" - as opposed to all other forms of life. This point bears repeating, as Peter Singer succinctly puts it:

    [W]hether a being is not a member of our species is, in itself no more relevant to the wrongness of killing it than whether it is or is not a member of our race. The belief that mere membership of our species, irrespective of other characteristics, makes a great difference to the wrongness of killing a being is a legacy of religious doctrines that even those opposed to abortion hesitate to bring into the debate. [6]

Thus we find that the first premise, that it is wrong to kill an innocent human being, is flawed if human being is defined purely as a member of the species homo sapiens; since there are cases where it is considered acceptable to end the lives of some - thus defined - human beings .

Back to the top

When is Taking a Life Considered Murder?

Murder is wrong, but when is the taking of a life actually murder? Certainly we do not consider, say, taking the life of a rabbit (while regrettable) as murder. What are the qualities of a living thing that enables us to separate, in a moral sense, the taking of a life that is not murder (e.g. withholding life-saving treatment for anencephalic babies, shutting down the life support of the clinically dead) and one that is considered murder (e.g. a Christian fundamentalist bombing an abortion clinic - killing nurses and doctors - for the love of Yahweh, or a suicide bomber blowing himself or herself in a busy discotheque in Tel Aviv killing dozens for the love of Allah)?

As a starting point of our analysis, we can review various ethical principles to see why murder is considered wrong: [7]

  • Classical Utilitarianism
    Classical utilitarianism is an ethical principle first introduced by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) which states that the right action is one which allows for a net increase of happiness (or pleasure) or a net decrease of unhappiness (or pain), while the wrong action is one which allows for a net decrease of happiness (or pleasure) or a net increase of unhappiness (or pain). Classical utilitarianism provides our first reason against murder.

    Using classical utilitarianism, it can be argued that if I have conception of myself as an entity with both a past and a future to enjoy my life in, then knowing that anyone can cut short my life with impunity would certainly bring a great deal of anxiety to me. However knowing that people like myself are rarely killed for no reason, I worry less. Thus the indirect consequence of seeing murder of a person as wrong is that it leads to less anxiety (hence less pain or unhappiness) for all self-conscious persons.

    It is important to note here that the argument above is premised upon the idea of a person with a strong sense of self existing through time. It does not apply to non-sentient living things.

  • Preference Utilitarianism
    Another form of utilitarianism, known as preference utilitarianism, judges actions not by the amount of happiness or unhappiness that results but to the extent that the actions, or its consequences, are in harmony with the preferences of the persons who are affected. According to this ethical principle, any action which is not in accord with the interests or preferences of the affected party, with the possible exception that it may be outweighed by other preferences, is wrong.

    Thus to take the life of any being who, at the moment, has the capacity to prefer to continue living, is wrong. Taking the life of a person who not only has the capacity to prefer to continue living but whose preferences are mainly future oriented, violates almost all significant preferences that person could have.

  • Argument from Individual Rights
    This argument was first suggested by American philosopher Michael Tooley in his identically named article (published in 1972) and book (1983) Abortion and Infanticide. According to Tooley, an individual's right to something that is owned is predicated on the desire to continue possessing it. Thus if I leave a pen in a public place and do not care who picks it up, then I have abdicated my right to it. Anyone can pick up the pen and use it. However if anyone were to remove my pen from my briefcase, when I still want it, that would constitute stealing - depriving me of my right to the continued ownership of the pen.

    A person, therefore, has a right to life if he or she desires to continue existing. Thus taking away the life of someone who wants to continue to live, is wrong. Indeed since the ownership of life is a basic pre-requisite to own other things (and hence the basis of other rights), taking away such a life is the most serious breach of an individual's right there is.

    Formulated in this way, note that, as a minimum the person has to have the capacity to desire to own or possess something. It would be meaningless to speak of rights in this context when there is no capacity to desire ownership.

  • Kant's Argument from Personal Autonomy
    The principle of personal autonomy stems from the writings of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). According to this respect for another's autonomy is a basic ethical principle. A being with autonomy is someone who have the capacity to choose, make and act on his, her or its own decisions. It is obvious that plants and many types of animals have no such autonomy. Specifically for our purposes, only a being who can understand the difference between being dead and alive can be considered autonomous - since that person can then decide whether it wants to continue living or not.

    Thus killing a person who wants to continue to live and does not choose to die is to disrespect that person's autonomy and is therefore wrong. Furthermore it must be noted that the choice to remain alive is what keeps that person's autonomy intact - thus killing such a person must be considered the most serious violation of this principle.

From the above analysis we can get a clearer idea of exactly taking what type of life constitutes murder. Note that the prohibition against murder is a prohibition against taking the life of a living being who possesses - and will continue to possess - consciousness, has a sense of self as an entity that exists and will continue to exist into the future, understands the difference between being dead and alive and desires to continue to be alive.

Certainly most human beings have these qualities. However it also clarifies the reasons why ending the lives of the brain dead and the (non)treatment of anencephalic babies are not considered equivalent to murder. In neither case is there an of ending a life which is self-conscious, which understands the difference between life and death and which (normally) desires to remain alive.

Furthermore it is possible that some non-human animals may have these qualities as well. In particular, future research may well show that some higher primates (chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) possess such qualities to an extent that we would extend the prohibition against murder to these species. [f]

To avoid confusion between the term "human being" (which encompasses all members of the species homo sapiens) and those who possess the properties above, some moral philosophers and bioethicists - e.g. Peter Singer (in his book Practical Ethics [1993]), Michael Tooley (Abortion and Infanticide [1972]) and John Harris (The Value of Life [1994]) - have suggested the use of the term person. [8] Thus a person, in this sense, is a living being who has the capability to reason and to reflect and considers itself as an individual, as the same person who has existed in the past and may continue to exist in the immediate future.

Thus we can reformulate the first premise of the syllogism above as:

  • It is wrong to kill an innocent person.

Where the characteristics of the term person is as defined here. Note that this definition certainly includes members of the species homo sapiens (but not all - e.g. it excludes the anencephalic babies and the brain dead) but does not exclude members of other species who may have these characteristics. Thus formulated, it removes the arbitrariness of the first premise.

We now look at the second premise: does this prohibition against the murdering of persons extend to taking the life of a fetus [g]?. In other words, is the fetus a person?

Back to the top

The Fetus is Not a Person

However we look at the situation, one thing is clear: in the way that we have defined a person above, the fetus is not a person. Looking back at the arguments from various secular ethical principles adumbrated above, we can clearly see that none of them apply to the fetus. From both classical and preference utilitarianism, we can see that the fetus can neither feel happiness not is it able to have preferences. And clearly it has no capacity to understand life, let alone desire to continue living. Finally a fetus is not autonomous in the sense that it cannot make any decisions. Thus by the various ethical principles we have examined, taking the life of a fetus is not the same as taking the life of a rational and self-conscious person. A fetus therefore does not have the same claim to life as a person.

Some anti-abortionists may admit the fact that fetus are not persons but argue nevertheless that abortion is wrong. Normally the defense goes along the lines that the fetus is on is way to becoming a person or that it has the potential to be a person.

That the fetus already have rudiments of personhood, does not change the basis of its moral status, as noted Andrew Johnson (who lectured on bio-ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill):

The denial of fetal personhood incidentally is not a denial that a healthy, late term fetus has developed a number of mental capacities, among them a degree of perception, memory and susceptibility to pleasure and pain, capacities that pro-lifers are fond of pointing out. What pro-lifers fail to notice, however, is that these capacities don't elevate the moral status of the fetus above that of a typical farm animal. Indeed on account of their greater intelligence, mature farm animals resemble persons more than fetuses do. To imply otherwise by brandishing images that display fetus' humanoid appearance is to commit the fallacy of speciesm. Arms and legs and fingers and toes are not the basis for moral standing. [9]

That the capacity to feel pain should be a consideration in the issue of abortion [see below] is not denied. But the point is that if capacity to feel pain or pleasure is to be used to absolutely prohibit abortion, then it should apply to the slaughter all animals - such as chickens, pigs etc - that have such capacities. In other words, to be consistent, anti-abortionists should all be vegetarians! [h]

That the fetus has the potential to be a person is also not denied; but potentiality is not the same as actuality. A couple of examples should suffice. A thirteen year old is a potential 21-year-old, but any liquor store owner that sells alcohol to such a "potential adult" would be put in jail. For a while towards the end of 2004, John Kerry had the potential to become president of the United States - but that potential did not give him any rights or powers of a president. There is simply no principle which allows the potential acquisition of a right to be equal to the actual attainment of it. [10]

That most anti-abortionists have an instinctive understanding of the basic difference between a fetus and a person can be seen from the examples below:

  • The General Attitude of Anti-Abortionists Toward the Bombing of Abortion Clinics
    A small minority of anti-abortionists take to bombing abortion clinics. Yet the majority of anti-abortionists disapprove of this and advocate a peaceful, non-violent, opposition against abortion. It is easy to see the inconsistency here. Now suppose that - through a legislative quirk- a law has been passed which calls for the execution of all people born of non-American parents (perhaps due to some arbitrary "sanctity of life bred from Americans" doctrine). The deaths resulting would be on the same scale as abortion. (There are more than a million abortions performed in the US every year.) We would consider it contingent upon ourselves to use any means necessary in order to stop this atrocity - including violent means (such as an armed struggle or a war). Arguing that abortion is murder and then arguing that it should be fought by peaceful means is akin to having a peaceful "sit-in" outside Auschwitz during World War II to "peacefully protest" the extermination of the Jews. That anti-abortionists support peaceful means to fight abortion shows that there is a subconscious understanding that there is a difference between taking the life of a fetus and murdering a person. [11]

  • The Exceptions Given for Rape and Incest
    Many anti-abortionists think that exceptions should be given when the pregnancy arises through rape or incest. Yet this position is clearly contradictory to the basic premise that abortion is the moral equivalence of murder. As the philosopher Ronald Dworkin in his book Life's Dominion [p32](1993) noted:

    The more such exceptions are allowed, the clearer it becomes that conservative opposition to abortion does not presume that a fetus is a person with a right to live. It would be contradictory to insist that a fetus has a right to live that is strong enough to justify prohibiting abortion even when childbirth would ruin a mother's or a family's life but that it ceases to exist when the pregnancy is the result of sexual crime of which the fetus is, of course, wholly innocent. [12]

  • The Roman Catholic Church and Ectopic Pregnancy
    Even in the case of the extreme anti-abortionists (such as the Roman Catholic Church) there is strong evidence that they too see the fetus as not having the same equal right to life as the mother. Our example comes from cases involving ectopic pregnancies. The position of the church is that in such cases it is permissible to remove the fetus if it is removed together with part of the fallopian tube (a surgical procedure called salpingectomy). The doctrine used here, called "double effect", is supposed to explain why the direct intent was to save the mother's life and the indirect, unintended, consequence was the death of the fetus (who "happened to be" in the fallopian tube that was removed). But as we have shown elsewhere in this website, such a reasoning is fallacious. The double effect doctrine is merely a desperate attempt to patch up a broken absolutist dogma of the "sanctity of life". The undeniable fact is that in this case the mother's life takes precedence over the fetus.

We can safely state that the main argument used by conservative Christians - that abortion is the moral equivalent of murder - is wrong. What is universally applicable is that it is wrong to take the life of a person - as we have defined that term. Since a fetus does not fall under this category, the whole argument that abortion at any stage of pregnancy, is morally wrong and the equivalent of murder is unsound. Indeed we see from the examples above that many anti-abortionists have an instinctive understanding of the difference between a fetus and a person. In short, because the fetus is not a person, abortion is morally permissible.

Back to the top

On Lines of Demarcation and Infanticide

There are two possible objections to our formulation of the problem of abortion and its resolution. Firstly it could be noted that there is no firm line dividing personhood and non-personhood. Secondly it might be objected that the line can be drawn after birth - justifying infanticide.

The first objection, if made by anti-abortionists, is made presumably to push back the line of personhood to the fertilized egg. But many things in nature are fuzzy in the middle without being fuzzy at the opposite ends. For example we see clearly when a man is bald and when he has a full head of hair. Yet at what point baldness starts - following the gradual loss of hair - is hard to draw. Thus the argument that because we cannot draw a firm line of personhood therefore we must bring it all the way back to the zygote is no different from refusing to call a man without a single hair on his head "bald" simply because we cannot determine exactly at what point baldness starts. [13] Even without a clear demarcation, we can say that the fetus is definitely not a person and that know that children and adults certainly are. In view of the uncertainty though, it would be prudent to draw the line between person and non-person as conservatively as possible. This will be discussed below.

The second objection needs a little more discussion. It must be admitted that given our definition of persons above, the newborn infant is not a person. I agree with the formulation of Peter Singer that, given our careful consideration above, on ethical grounds taking the life of an infant is not comparable with the killing of an older child or adult. Since infanticide, like euthanasia, is a crime in almost every country in the world, we must be careful to differentiate two issues here: the ethical and the legal. Let us look at the ethical issue first.

The issue of infanticide, like abortion and perhaps even more so because the infant can be seen, is one which evokes a strong emotional response. This is exactly the type of emotional response anti-abortionists tries to encourage among their ilk. Take this statement by Leon R. Kass, the president of the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics (discussing cloning):

[W]e intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things we rightfully hold dear. [14] [Emphasis added-PT]

This is what George Orwell referred to as a "moral nose" - in the sense that one could detect wickedness just by sniffing. But nasal reasoning [John Harris' delicious phrase!], the feeling of "outrage" without critical reflection, is extremely unreliable for critical moral evaluation. The idea of one's racial supremacy, something which at one time many would have - in the words of Leon Kass - "rightfully held dear", is one such example. It was not too long ago that many people would consider it an outrage to see a black person refusing to give up her seat in the bus for a white man or to see interracial marriage as a affront to one's racial purity and dignity. [15]

It must be remembered that the idea that infanticide is absolutely wrong is, like the idea that abortion is absolutely wrong, comes from Christianity and was not universally recognized as murder. Great moral philosophers of the past such Plato, Aristotle and Seneca, all of which evidenced strong compassionate moral sense in their writings, do not consider infanticide, per se as a crime. Indeed they thought it as a humane solution to the suffering of sick and deformed babies. Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher, wrote that infanticide is "of a nature not to give the slightest inquietude to the most timid imagination." [16]

There are cases from modern medicine where infanticide would be, if legal, the most humane solution. We have already given one example above: that of anencephaly. The modern "treatment" is to withhold treatment and allow the child to die - which could take up to a few days. While it is unlikely that the anencephalic baby can be said to suffer in any sense, in view of the suffering caused to its parents by this experience, where the few days of watching the baby die could be an agonizingly long time, it would have been better to administer active euthanasia to end the life of the baby.

Another example is that of spina bifida [i] - a birth defect involving a malformation of the spinal cord. Sometimes infants born with a milder form of this condition - spina bifida occulta - can be treated and are able to lead a somewhat normal life. However in severe cases - spina bifida cystica - the result can be paralysis, incontinence and intellectual disabilities. It has been documented that some children with this had to undergo up to forty operations before the age of thirteen. Some doctors with experience treating severe cases of spina bifida have indicated that the quality of life for these children are so miserable that it would be wrong to resort to surgery during infancy just to keep them alive. Here is an other case where a reconsideration of the general attitude towards infanticide may be required. [17]

In these cases, where infanticide may be the most humane option, it would not take very long after birth to decide on this. Thus some moral philosophers have suggested the time limit of one week (Michael Tooley) to one month (Peter Singer) after birth as the permissible period for infanticide. [18]

Although from a critical ethical perspective infanticide may not be wrong, it is obvious that more considerations come into play after the birth of the baby. It should be noted that the examples given above are rare cases where infanticide may be desirable. Unlike in pregnancy - where considerations of the fetus (non)viability outside the womb is important, once the baby is born, the parents or parent (if she happens to be a single mother), can choose to give the baby for adoption immediately if she cannot or do not want to raise it. [19]

Taking into mind the uncertainty of when personhood is achieved, erring on the side of caution, and given the reasons for demarcating it in the first place, there is absolutely no necessity to draw the line of personhood beyond a month after birth.

Back to the top

Applying Hare's Intuitive Ethics to Abortion

We have established that abortion is not murder and that it is morally permissible. In all cases the interest of the mothers take precedence over that of the fetus. We have also seen that possible objections to this conclusion - the difficulty of drawing the line demarcating personhood and the linkage with infanticide - can be met without too much difficulty. This conclusion is enough for us to condemn any acts of anti-abortion that leads the deaths and suffering of women (real persons).

However saying that abortion is not murder and is morally permissible does not mean that it is a decision to be taken in a cavalier fashion. Anyone who has a late term abortion because it interferes with their holiday plans is morally equivalent to a person who would kill his pet golden retriever because he got bored with having a dog around the house!

To discover the preferred ethical position with respect to abortion, we need to bring practical considerations into the picture. The most appropriate way to do this, in my opinion, is the two levels of moral reasoning approach introduced by moral philosopher, R.M. Hare. These two levels, the intuitive and the critical, have different but important roles to play.

The intuitive level plays a major role in our everyday life. The reader can see that if we are to consider the ethical implications of all our actions every second of the day, we will not be able to make decisions at all. Thus on a day-to-day level we rely on ethical principles we have learnt (e.g. it is always wrong to lie, to kill etc) in order to decide what to do. However the intuitive level is more than just a "short cut" to handle practical moral issues - they have an important role to play in our overall morality. As Hare commented:

Our ingrained moral principles are therefore not merely time-saving rules of thumb, but necessary safeguards against special pleading. On the whole we are more likely to err by abandoning one of these principles than by observing it; for the information necessary in order to be sure that this is a case where the principle gives the wrong answer is seldom available. [20]

What Hare is saying is that having principles to guide our day to day moral decision making actually ensures that we make the right moral decisions most of the time. For we are all familiar with the temptation to "special plead" our case in normal day to day situations (e.g. "I know it was a 'white lie' to say that I had 2 years experience in corporate finance when I only had one, but hey I really needed the job!"). By having principles that we follow automatically we would avoid cases like these most of the time.

However it must be remembered that wrong principles can be learned - such as the revulsion against interracial marriage - and this is where the critical level of moral reasoning comes in. Critical level ethics is even more important when we consider situations which are out of the ordinary (such as infanticide, embryo experimentation and stem cell research) - thus the call of Leon Kass to "untuit and feel, immediately and without argument" for just such cases is irresponsible in the extreme.

The critical level of reasoning is where we select, compare and, if necessary, re-evaluate general moral principles for the use at the intuitive level. How is this to be done? One can get a good idea of how this is done by reading works of moral philosophers. [j] In summary such critical reasoning requires clarity in formulating and understanding of the ethical terms used and a consistent logical analysis of the principles in order to ensure that no contradiction exists between them. The principles and prescriptions that arise out of these should be universally applicable to all persons - everything else being equal. [21] Our above example of the status of the fetus vis--vis the mother is an example of such critical level ethics.

For this section, we will not go through the critical level analysis again but we will use what I think should be a relatively uncontroversial principle: that it is wrong to inflict pain on sentient beings. We certainly utilize this principle in our treatment of animals and it is certainly applicable to the fetus - when it has reached the stage of development where it can sense pain. This happens when synaptic connections develop within the cerebral cortex - which does not begin until 18 weeks after gestation. Prior to that point it cannot be said that the fetus is able to feel any pain. After 18 weeks, it can. Thus just as we do not, as a rule, inflict harm on sentient, but non self-conscious, animals, we should not, everything else being equal, inflict harm on the fetus beyond this point. [22]

Since we have exposed the "sanctity of human life" as the theological fiction that it is, we can use the consideration above to come up with a useful rule of thumb: that abortion prior to 18 weeks after gestation harms no one. The fetus cannot be said to be harmed if it cannot feel pain. Saying that it harms no one does not mean that it would not be a sad occasion for the expectant mother - if she was looking forward to the baby and had to abort for unavoidable reasons. However no one should be prevented from having an abortion, if she wants it, without giving any reasons.

This is also not to say that abortion post 18 weeks is absolutely prohibited, it only means that more serious consideration to the fetus must be given; all the time recognizing that the interests of the mother supercedes it. However any culture which allows the cavalier disposal of sentient beings that can feel pain will probably not be the kind of culture that any self-conscious homo sapiens, evolved as we are with moral sentiments, will feel comfortable in. Thus at the intuitive level we should say that anyone who has an abortion for cavalier reasons (say the need to take a holiday which may fall on dates close to the estimated date of birth of the baby) after this point is morally deficient, and we would condemn her in the same way that we would censure a person who inflicts harm or tortures animals for fun.

Finally, with respect to infanticide, we can suggest that, at most, it should be allowed only for the very rare cases mentioned above. The practical reasoning again is similar to that of abortion 18 weeks post gestation - that a society that would allow the killing of infants, even when they are not persons will be the type of society that may inculcate the wrong type of moral principles to follow. Remember that the intuitive level is relatively unreflective. While the infant is not self-conscious (i.e. not persons) it does look a lot like a self-conscious person. Thus allowing infanticide at an intuitive ethical level could mean that the wrong critical principle (it is okay to kill all human beings) may become inculcated in society. [23]

Thus a good set of intuitive ethical principles with respect to abortion and infanticide would be these:

  • Abortion prior to 18 weeks after gestation harms no one.

  • Abortion after 18 weeks should be permitted but it should be done only if there are serious reasons for doing so (e.g. physical or psychological health of the mother whose life always takes precedence over the fetus).

  • Infanticide should be prohibited except for extremely rare cases such as anencephaly and severe spina bifida where the chance of having an acceptable quality of life for the infant (or, in the case of anencephaly, even a self-conscious life ) is non-existent.

Back to the top

Notes

a.Probably due to the political nature of the abortion debate, liberal advocates for abortion normally sidestep the fundamental contention raised by conservatives (the embryo's or fetus' "right to life"). Instead they argue from the implications of making abortion illegal (dark alley operations with coat hangers) or with a woman's right to her own body. While these arguments are correct for their immediate intended purposes (legal and political), such a strategy is both unwise and unnecessary. It is unwise because it unintentionally cedes the "moral high ground" to the anti abortionists; since they can argue that saving a human life takes precedence over the individual's legal and political rights. It is unnecessary because once unproved theological assumptions are removed, it can be shown that abortion is not the moral equivalent to murder. The ethical arguments in favor of abortion are sound. [1]
b.You can find out more about anencephaly in wikipedia.
c.Some may argue that by with-holding treatment from anencephalic babies one is not, strictly speaking, "killing" it but merely "allowing it to die". Yet there is no intrinsic moral difference between these two; especially when one is in a position to prevent the death. Take for instance a fellow, James, who has just been poisoned by person(s) unknown. His neighbor John has the antidote with him. James rushed to John asking him for the antidote. It would cost John nothing to hand it over to James, but let us say he decided not to and, despite desperate pleas for help, "allowed" his neighbor to die. Most people would agree that John would be just a guilty as the case in which it was he who deliberately poisoned James.
d.Dr. Koop mentioned three types of cases where he would with-hold treatment:
  • Anencephalic infants: babies born without the forebrain
  • Infants who were born with severe brain bleeding in the brain, due to being born premature, that they would forever require a respirator to breathe and that there is no possibility that it would ever be able to recognize another person.
  • Infants born without a major part of their digestive tract who could be kept alive only by providing nutrition by drip directly into the blood stream.
  • e.Again see wikipedia if you want to find out more about brain death.
    f.Indeed Peter Singer has argued the available evidence is so strong that chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are self-conscious and that we should immediately extend the prohibition against murder to these species. [see Peter Singer, "Practical Ethics" p.110-134] Update: The Spanish parliament has recently extended some "human rights" to apes. See the report from Reuters.
    g.Technically the term fetus is used for an unborn humans from eight weeks after conception until birth. The term embryo is used from the first cleavage of the zygote [the fertilized egg cell] until the eighth week of development. I have used the term fetus throughout to apply to all these stages.
    h.Of course, even vegetarians do not consider killing animals the same as taking the life of persons, since I know of no vegetarian teachings that call for the prosecution of all non-vegetarians. Most vegetarians merely consider it morally preferable not to eat meat.
    i.You can find out more about spida bifida in wikipedia.
    j.To get an idea of how this is done generally, I would recommend getting a book such as Peter Singer's Practical Ethics and reading through it.

    Back to the top

    References

    1.Johnson, Andrew, "How Not to Argue for Abortion Rights", Free Inquiry, Feb/Mar 2005 Vol 25 No.2 p.38-41
    2.Hare, Essays on Bioethics
    Singer, Practical Ethics: p83-217
    3.John T. Noonan, Jr.: "Against Abortion", Ethics for Modern Life, Abelson & Friquegnon (eds): p105, 109
    4.Singer op.cit.: p86, 204
    5.Andrew, op. cit.: p40
    6.Singer op.cit.: p150
    7.ibid.: p90-101
    Michael Tooley, "Abortion and Infanticide", Ethics for Modern Life, Abelson & Friquegnon (eds):p112-123
    8.John Harris, The Value of Life, Routledge 1994: p 18 (quoted in Holloway, Godless Morality: p117)
    Singer op.cit.: p86-87
    Tooley, op cit.: p114-116
    9.Andrew, op. cit.: p40
    10.ibid.: p40
    Singer op.cit.: p152-155
    11.Andrew, op. cit.: p41
    12.quoted in Holloway, Godless Morality: p119
    13.Singer op.cit.: p171-172
    14.quoted in Harris, On Cloning: p53
    15.Harris, On Cloning: p53-54
    16.Singer op.cit.: p169-174
    17.ibid.: p184
    18.ibid.: p172
    Tooley, op. cit.: p122-124
    19.Singer op.cit.: p172-174
    20.Hare, op.cit.: p18-19
    21.ibid.: p19-22, p92
    22.Singer op.cit.: p164-165
    23.Hare, op.cit.: p92-93

    Back to the top


    [Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Atheism FAQ] [Bibliography] [Links]
    © Paul N. Tobin 2005

    For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin