Even as I write the next few words I can’t believe this isn’t an April Fool’s joke but… the abortion debate seems to be reopening in Canada. Yeah, really. I guess the Conservatives will do anything to distract attention from the robocall and F-35 scandals.
Why has the abortion debate come up again in Canada? That’s an interesting question; it could be a sign of a bolder Christian Right, or it could be a smarmy political ploy. Crommunist has a nice rundown of the possibilities. But I’m not particularly interested in the political aspects. Instead, I’m going to use this – my first Saturday Cerebration – to look at the debate philosophically. I’m going to look at the arguments of the anti-abortion crowd, and pick them apart to see whether they have any real standing, with a focus on the rational and moral characteristics of the argument, rather than on the scientific and empirical. It is my opinion that the scientific and empirical arguments are relentlessly damning to the anti-abortion arguments already, and already well understood. However, the philosophical and moral arguments for or against abortion are not quite as well understood.
Is abortion murder?
Before that can be answered, we have to ask, “what is murder?” I submit that murder is:
- The killing of a person;
- By another person;
- That is intentional (the intention was to kill, it wasn’t a side-effect of another intention);
- And illegal (in violation of the prevailing human laws).
Every one of these features must be present for an action to be a murder. Losing control of a car and running down a pedestrian satisfies 1, 2 and 4… but not 3, so it is not murder. A soldier gunning down a terrorist satisfies 1, 2 and 3 (arguably)… but not 4, so it is not murder.
The first point would require the fœtus to be a person when it is aborted, which is debatable, and will be discussed later. The second point is a given. The fourth point is really the clincher – if abortion is legal… then by definition it isn’t murder. We’re done here.
Is abortion an intentional killing?
Or are we done? I think most people, if I asked them whether an abortion was intentionally killing the fœtus would answer yes without hesitation. I would like to challenge that.
Aside from the paranoid of fantasy of a few crazy right-wingers, I don’t think any reasonable person can seriously entertain the idea that women get abortions on a whim. A lot of men would, at this point, take it upon themselves to speak for women’s reasons for having abortions, but I don’t have the balls to do that (nyuk). I’m not going to speculate on why women get abortions – I’ll let women speak for themselves. The Guttmacher Institute is a respected US non-profit organization dedicated to advancing reproductive health. They publish two peer-reviewed journals, one of which is Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. In the issue, an article by Lawrence B. Finer et al. titled Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives looked over the results of several surveys conducted between 1987 and 2004 on thousands of women who were receiving abortions. The results are obviously US-specific, but I think it’s fair to generalize. (I chose this particular study because it was from a peer-reviewed journal, published by a respected organization dedicated to reproductive rights, and because it is freely available.)
According to the results:
Nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated that they could not afford to have a child now, and large proportions mentioned responsibilities to children, partner issues and unreadiness to parent.1 In fact, the paper goes so far as to note:
In contrast to the perception (voiced by politicians and laypeople across the ideological spectrum) that women who choose abortion for reasons other than rape, incest and life endangerment do so for “convenience,” our data suggest that after carefully assessing their individual situations, women base their decisions largely on their ability to maintain economic stability and to care for the children they already have.
Especially with that empirical data in hand, I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that women don’t get abortions as the final act in some long-winded and circuitous plan to kill babies. I think we can rule out the notion that women who get abortions intend to kill the fœtus. Clearly their intentions lie in other directions – such as the intention not to go into poverty or to become so overtaxed by raising another child that they can no longer care for the family they have – and killing the fœtus is the only option they have. In fact, I’d bet that if there were a way they could transfer the fœtus to another mother, or “postpone” it somehow until they’re ready to be a month, that they’d probably make the choice to do so, though that’s just speculation on my part.
The relevant point is that it’s pretty clear that women don’t get abortions to intentionally kill babies, or fœtuses. Even if abortions were illegal, they wouldn’t be murder, because they’re not done with the intention to kill, they are done with other intentions in mind, and killing is an unavoidable consequence. Thus, even if abortion were illegal, and even if the fœtus killed was actually a person (which is debatable), it would still not be murder, it would be manslaughter.
The bottom line: abortion is not murder.
Is abortion killing?
Without a doubt, abortion is killing. But there should be nothing shocking or disturbing about that, if the fœtus is just a mass of cells. We kill cells all the time – every time we have a beer, for example, or even scratch vigorously enough. Where this might matter would be if the fœtus is a person, or at least a human, and I’ll get to those issues shortly.
The bottom line: abortion is killing, but that’s no big deal if all we’re killing are cells.
Is a fœtus a person?
If you have any familiarity with the abortion debate, you would know that one of the central issues revolves around when a fœtus becomes a person. Anti-abortion advocates claim that a fœtus is a person at the moment of conception. I’ll discuss why it matters if and when the fœtus is a person in a bit, but before that, I’ll deal with the question itself.
There is a lot of controversy in philosophy over what, precisely, is the definition of person. But there are some aspects that are universal. A person must be – at least:
- Possibly sapient.
While a fœtus may be capable of these things eventually – after enough development – it’s quite clearly not for the vast majority of its gestation period. In fact, it’s arguable whether the baby is yet a person even after birth! Personhood might develop until sometime after birth, after some more cognitive development as the baby grows.
What’s important for this discussion, though, is that the fœtus cannot be a person at conception, or for several months after. We may not be able to precisely define the moment personhood is achieved, but there’s no way to rationally argue that it is achieved early enough in gestation to be an issue for most abortions. According to Statistics Canada, 85-90% of abortions each year occur before 12 weeks of gestation. (It’s also interesting to ask, when late-term abortions do happen, why they happen. Unfortunately, I cannot find good Canadian sources for that, but this document contains data from another Guttmacher Institute survey, asking about reasons for late-term (after 16 weeks) abortions. 71% of women said they were simply unaware it was going to be a late term abortion. 48% said they had trouble making arrangements (and 60% of those blamed money problems). And most of the rest has to do with social or family pressures against having an abortion. That would seem to suggest that if anti-abortion activists were really concerned about the possibility of aborting a person, rather than trying to argue absurdities such as that the fœtus is a person at the moment of conception, their efforts would be more wisely spent improving and increasing access to women’s health care, and reducing the social stigma associated with abortions.)
The bottom line: while we cannot determine the precise moment when a fœtus becomes a person, the requirements are high enough that it has to occur very, very late in the pregnancy, which makes it a non-issue for most abortions. Therefore, for the case of most abortions, no, the fœtus is not an person.
Is the fœtus a human?
This is a different dimension to the question of whether the fœtus is a person. If a fœtus is not a person, it doesn’t have any rights… but if a fœtus is a human, then it is an animal, and it deserves at least the same basic protections we provide for other animals. In fact, it arguably deserves more, because it is very special kind of animal… an animal that could be a person – if not already, then it will be with proper upbringing.
Before I go any further, let me make a clarification that I am surprised I have to make. Apparently, a lot of people are unable to differentiate between “person” and “human”; many people think the two terms are synonymous. That’s ridiculous. “Human” is a biological term, referring to a certain species of hairless African ape. “Person” is a philosophical term, referring to an entity that is self-aware and capable of rational thought. The two terms have about as much in common as apples and polygons do.
A human – disregarding personhood for the moment – is just an animal, albeit a special kind of animal because it has, or potentially could have, personhood. But ultimately, disregarding personhood, a human is just an animal. As such, a human deserves the same protections we offer for any other kind of animal – at least. But is a fœtus a human?
No, not quite. A human is not just a clump of biomatter with homo sapiens sapiens DNA… a human is a clump of biomatter with homo sapiens sapiens DNA that is independently viable. A parasitic twin or a fœtus in fœtu is not a human. A fœtus is not a human until it is independently viable. Normally, that means that at around six months’ gestation, there’s around a 50-50 chance of the fœtus being human. Before that, it’s just a clump of biomatter in the mother that is potentially a human. (And we’ll get to the “potentially” stuff later.) So, at the time that most abortions occur, the fœtus is not a person, and it is not a human – though it may have the potential to be both.
The bottom line: “humanhood” does not begin until the fœtus is independently viable, which occurs quite late in pregnancy. Therefore, for the vast majority of abortions, no, the fœtus is not a human.
Is abortion killing a potential person?
Having established that abortion is killing – even if it’s only killing cells – and that the fœtus, while not a person, may potentially be a person, the next major question is whether abortion is killing a potential person.
The statement “an abortion kills a potential person” is malformed, though it is difficult to understand why. The easiest way to illustrate what’s going is to make use of timeline illustrations.
In the illustrations that follow, I’ll be using the following variables:
- t: The time variable.
- C: The moment of conception.
- P: The “moment” that personhood begins. (Note that personhood may actually not be a binary state, but may develop over a period of time. Regardless, as I’ve mentioned above, most abortions take place long before any development into personhood could reasonably be argued to have even begun. Therefore, for simplicity, we can treat the span of personhood development as a single point, for this argument.)
- A: The moment of abortion.
- X: The decision point, where the decision to abort or not abort is made.
- 1, 2, …: Markers for points of interest.
Let’s start by looking at the timeline for a normal, healthy pregnancy that is allowed to result in a live birth of a healthy baby that eventually grows into a normal human adult:
No problems here, I hope. If you imagine a person at 1 or 2 who can see the future, they will see (even before conception) that there will eventually be a person – or in other words, they can see point P in the future. Bear in mind, though, that we’ve made a lot of assumptions to get to even this point. Not all pregnancies turn out well – in fact, there are some estimates that fewer that 10% of fertilized eggs actually make it to a live birth, with the vast majority being spontaneously aborted before the woman even knows she is pregnant. But I am willing to make the most generous concessions, and assume that at either 1 or 2, the probability of P is 100%.
Now let’s suppose the woman considers an abortion. Let’s assume she begins considering abortion at the moment of conception (just to avoid another point on the timeline), but the decision is not made until point X. At that point, the fœtus is either aborted, or is not, splitting the timeline into two possibilities.
There are three points of philosophical interest:
- A person at 1 who looked into the future of the fœtus would not see a “potential person”. What they would see is a possibility of a potential person – possible person – the probability of which is decided by the probability of the woman choosing not to abort. For example, if the possibility of the woman choosing to abort is 50-50, then a future-viewer at 1 will see a fœtus with a 50% possibility becoming a person. The situation is even worse if the woman is 99% likely to abort. The fœtus has only a 1% possibility of being a person.
- If the woman opts not to abort, then a person at 2 who looks into the future would see a potential person. (And, with my generous assumptions, a 100% likely person, though in reality, not quite that certain.)
- But if the woman opts to abort, then a person at 3 – which is before the actual abortion – would not see a potential person. There is no P in the future from 3.
Anti-abortion crusaders like to use terminology like “potential person” because it makes it sound like a fœtus is somehow destined to become a human, unless something “unnatural” occurs. This is profoundly misleading, on many levels. On the purely biological level, a fertilized egg actually has only a very small likelihood of actually ultimately becoming a person. And that likelihood will only be realized if the mother consciously takes steps to make it so. Becoming a person is not the “natural” future of a fertilized egg; dying and being flushed out during the woman’s next cycle is the natural future of a fertilized egg. It is the conscious choice of a woman to nurture that egg to live birth that allows it to possibly become a person (though even then it is not guaranteed), and most people’s conception of “natural” does not include conscious intercessory action by a human agent. Except, of course, when it suits them, such as it does for anti-abortion activists in this case.
Biological considerations aside, the argument that a fœtus is somehow destined to become a person is also specious philosophically. As the timeline demonstrates, once the decision to abort has been made, the fœtus is almost certainly not destined to become a person… so by the time the abortion actually happens, it is categorically false to claim that what is about to be aborted is a “potential person”.
An anti-abortion proponent might then try to argue that the “potential person” is destroyed when the decision to abort is made. But even at that point, the argument is specious. The fœtus is not “potentially” a person, or rather, may or may not be a potential person, depending on the choice the woman is going to make. The fallacy is in pretending that the path that leads to personhood (P) – on the diagram, the upper branch of the timeline – somehow has more weight or is more “correct” or “natural” than the path that doesn’t. But before X – before the decision is made – both paths are equally valid. There is nothing “wrong” with choosing the abortion path; it is just as correct to say that a woman that chose not to abort is creating a future person who otherwise wouldn’t have existed at X as it is to say that she is destroying one who otherwise would have. Worded that way, a woman who opts to abort is simply not creating a person she otherwise might have, had she chosen to. And clearly there’s no harm there.
The claim “an abortion kills a potential person” is ultimately a very sophisticated and multilayered naturalistic fallacy, with some very subtle levels to it. It also relies on ambiguity in the term “potential”, because in common usage “potential” is usually used to imply something very likely to happen without intervention (for example, “a potential disaster”). Though, technically, every heart beat in your life is “potentially” your last, even though the vast majority of them are actually not. Once the decision to abort is made, of course, there is no more “potentiality”, so by the time the abortion actually happens, it simply isn’t the killing of a potential person. The potential person may be destroyed at the moment the choice is made, then, but that is only a matter of perspective, not reality. An equally valid perspective is that what was destroyed was not a potential person at all (but, had the abortion not been chosen, a person was given existence they didn’t have before).
To hammer the point home, here is what the timeline would look like if the abortion was never in doubt:
As this makes crystal clear, at no time ever was there even any chance of the fœtus becoming a person.
The bottom line: the claim “an abortion kills a potential person” is malformed, and it hides several subtle naturalistic fallacies, and relies on ambiguity in the word “potential”. An abortion does not kill a potential person, because if the abortion happened, the fœtus had no potential of being a person.
Is abortion moral?
Finally to the meat of the matter: the morality of abortion. Given that abortion is neither murder, nor the killing of a person, nor the killing of a human, nor even the killing of a potential human, it’s not obviously immoral. But, let’s take a closer look.
The morality of an action depends on the intention. A person who helps someone study so they can pass their medical exam may be acting morally… if their intention is actually to create more good in the world by helping an essentially good person become a doctor. On the other hand, if their intention is to get that person into medicine – where their talents are mediocre – and away from politics, where they might institute progressive policies that would prevent the first person from making more money scamming people… then they would be acting immorally. It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.
So whether or not abortion is moral depends on why it is done. I have already looked at the reasons women have for getting abortions, and concluded that it is not intentional killing. Indeed, as I quoted before:
Nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated that they could not afford to have a child now, and large proportions mentioned responsibilities to children, partner issues and unreadiness to parent.1 In other words, most women who opt to get abortions specifically cite concerns that might make them unfit parents for the baby, or that might make them less able to care for their existing children. That means that the reality is that most women opt to get abortions not for immoral reasons… but for explicitly moral reasons. Women get abortions because it’s either that… or do harm to the baby or their existing children because they would be unable to cope with parenting them all well. To put it in stark terms: for most women who get abortions, abortion is the moral, if difficult, choice.
Not that this should be particularly surprising: abortion is an incredibly difficult procedure for a woman, emotionally – especially with the social stigma surrounding it. A woman who makes the choice to abort has obviously had a difficult time making that choice, despite what the anti-abortion fanatics would have you believe. And even after the abortion is done, many women regret not carrying the baby to term, even while they know that would have been impossible. But despite all that emotional weight, women who choose to have abortions have the strength to make that choice for the sake of the children they already have, and for the sake of the child they might have been unable to raise. That’s not immorality, that’s courageous morality; these women should not be hounded for their choice, they should be supported, and given whatever assistance they need to get through the stress of it.
To clarify: abortion is not always a moral choice, and in some cases it might be an immoral choice. If the intention of the abortion is merely to kill a baby… then it’s an immoral choice. But even then, if the woman was that calloused, they would probably have been a terrible mother anyway, and even if the child is given up for adoption, adoption isn’t always good for the child. However, it seems absurd to think that women would undergo a medical procedure like abortion for specious reasons, and the survey evidence supports that notion. The reality is that when a woman chooses abortion… they’re probably doing it for very good reasons.
The bottom line: given the reasons most women give for having an abortion, abortion is not only not immoral, it is usually a moral choice, and a courageous moral choice, too.
Is anti-abortion advocacy moral?
This follows up from the previous section. Given that, for most women who choose abortion, abortion is the moral choice to make, and given the difficulty of making that choice, where does that leave the people who are trying to prevent those women from getting abortions.
Well, quite frankly, it makes them immoral assholes. Abortion is already a difficult enough choice for a woman, and if it is the moral choice, then making it more difficult for ideological or religious reasons is a truly dickish thing to do. There may have been a justifying argument if most abortions were done for specious or immoral reasons… but as I’ve shown, the evidence clearly indicates that most abortions are made for very moral reasons. Anti-abortion activists only make moral choices made by courageous women more difficult.
The immorality of anti-abortion activists is especially clear in light of their thuggish tactics. At the highest level, their efforts are centred not just on denying women the right to an abortion, but on humiliating any woman considering one, by forcing invasive and unnecessary medical procedures on them, and threatening doctors with fines or loss of licence if they don’t comply with the slut-shaming. At the lower levels, their focus is on outright intimidation, by blockading abortion clinics, flashing gory pictures and threatening placards at women, and even taking their picture when they enter and leave. (At some US abortion clinics, women have to be secretly escorted in and out under guard.) They might try to justify these things with the argument that their goal is to “save babies”, but it is only the most depraved moral standards that subscribe to the the axiom that the ends justify the means.
And the immorality is even further highlighted when one considers the things anti-abortion proponents could be doing if they actually cared about the things they say they care about. For example, if someone actually cared about the “potential babies” being aborted, then they should be heavily pushing for more and better sex education – especially for teenagers; 19-28% of those surveyed (depending on the survey) were 19 or under, and 22-27% didn’t feel mature enough to raise a child. They should also be strong advocates for some kind of social help with child care, because 74-78% of survey respondents said that a baby would have interfered too much with their lives (such as getting an education, doing their job or having a career) and 69-73% explicitly cited financial concerns. (For comparison 28-38% said they had already completed their childbearing, and 8-12% and 13-14% were concerned about their health or the health of the fœtus respectively.)1 They should also be funnelling money into scientific research into things like fœtal transplants – so that rather than simply killing the aborted fœtus, it could be transplanted to and carried to term by a woman who is otherwise unable to conceive – or simply straight up better birth control technologies.
But, as is painfully clear to anyone who spends any time looking at the rhetoric and tactics of anti-abortion activists… nothing about that movement is about “caring”; certainly not about caring for the “potential babies” that they want to force unready mothers to have.
The bottom line: given that most abortions appear to be done for moral reasons, making abortions more difficult is an immoral act. On top of this, the tactics used by most anti-abortion activists are primarily tactics of intimidation, with the ultimate goal being to pressure women who don’t think they’re ready to be mothers – and who may be right – into becoming mothers. Thus, anti-abortion advocacy, at least as currently practised, is immoral.
(Update: this post was written between Wednesday and Friday, but on Thursday Jen McCreight of Blag Hag fame posted an article titled When abortion is the more ethical choice, where she notes:
… I never see abortion framed in terms of being “more ethical.” I agree, which is why I embarked on this philosophical exercise. I strongly recommend reading that post alongside of these arguments about the morality of abortion and anti-abortion advocacy.)
There are many good scientific and biological arguments to support abortion, but I have chosen to build up a philosophical case for it, focusing on some of the things often said about abortion, but rarely ever justified.
These are the conclusions I have come to:
- Abortion is not murder.
- Abortion is killing, but just killing cells, not a person or (human) animal.
- Abortion is not intentional killing – most women who get abortions do not do so with explicit intent to kill a fœtus.
- A fœtus is not a person.
- A fœtus is not a human. It is a bunch of cells with human DNA, but it doesn’t become a human until it is independently viable from the host organism (ie, the mother).
- Abortion is not killing a “potential person”.
- Abortion, for the reasons it is usually done, is moral.
- Anti-abortion advocacy, at least as currently practised, is very immoral.
And, of course, each of these conclusions is justified in their respective sections above.
So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts about what – if anything – in these arguments is correct, and what is wrong… why it is wrong.
This has been an instalment of Saturday Cerebration.
Saturday Cerebration is a semi-regular series where a complex and real-world philosophical argument is presented, and readers are challenged to apply their critical thinking skills to analyze the argument, and determine whether it is sound or not, and if it is not sound, why not.
The opinions and conclusions expressed in a Saturday Cerebration post are not (necessarily) the opinions of the author. This is an exercise in critical thinking and philosophical analysis. Occasionally, arguments will be made for things that the author disagrees with or even finds repellent. The intention is to challenge readers to maintain their critical clarity, even in the face of emotional provocation.
If you are intending to comment on this post, make sure you understand what you are replying to. The contents of this post may not be what the author really believes. So responding to it by insulting the author is pointless, and will only make you look like an idiot. This is a critical thinking exercise, so put your emotions aside, and try to figure out if and how the arguments are wrong. Your comment should be a description where the errors in the argument lie, if any… not a diatribe about how stupid/hateful/whatever the author is.
- Finer, L. B., Frohwirth, L. F., Dauphinee, L. A., Singh, S., Moore, A.M. (2005). Reasons U.S. women have abortions: Quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 37(3), 110-118. [↩] [↩] [↩]