The arguments against abortion were not originally fetus-centric as we see them today. The genuine concern at the time regarding abortion was women’s livelihood. This has shifted, with good reason, however. According to the journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, abortions are now actually safer than childbirth, with 0.6 maternal mortality per 100,000 legally induced abortions and 8.8 maternal mortality per 100,000 childbirths (Raymond & Grimes, 2012). Given these data, the medical argument against abortion has shifted into fetal personhood concerns. In short, do we have the right to kill unborn fetuses which are, essentially, future humans? There are religiously motivated people who believe that unborn children cannot be killed, because God has a plan for each and every one of us. There are those who believe in the soul, and think that killing any soulful creature is wrong. There are some secular folk who are squeamish about the whole idea of taking life entirely. Amidst this rhetorical chaos, it seems that science is currently somewhat inconclusive on the personhood of fetuses but, perhaps, philosophy can uncover some of the mystification surrounding such an emotionally charged issue.
Abortion primarily is dissected into a binary of pro-choice and pro-life advocates. Each group respectively prides themselves on being more open-minded than the other. We shall deal with them together, rather than bifurcate them into a dichotomy. This is because both are, arguably, trying to preserve the sanctity of life and the moral values which we hold today (don’t kill, don’t steal, etc.). The pro-life argument is a reaction against the act of abortion; it is claimed that killing a fetus is equivalently homicide. In this case, it is prudent to first focus on the reasons for why one would want an abortion, then raise some objections from the pro-life advocates, and then reply with what science and philosophy have to say in response to such objections.
There are three main lines for the pro-choice view: (1) that abortion is ethically permissible because the prohibition of abortion results in highly undesirable consequences; (2) that women have a moral right to opt for abortion; and (3) that fetuses are not the moral or biological equivalent of a person and, thus, do not yet have a substantial right to life. Of course there are others who have dissenting views on the subject, such as the pro-abortion/eugenics advocates who believe the world is overpopulated, etc. Those concerns will be tabled for now.
In examining these three main routes of argument, let us first concern ourselves with (1) the consequentialist argument for abortion. Mary Warren, a contributor to A Companion to Ethics, explores these arguments thoroughly, “If actions are to be morally evaluated by their consequences, then a strong case can be made that the prohibition of abortion is wrong.” (Warren, 302). In order to see that this is the case, the link between abortion and social consequence should be observed. For example, several meta-analyses have been conducted which studied the link between abortion and crime. There is, in fact, almost a direct connection between the two. In the aftermath of Roe vs. Wade (1973), crime reduced dramatically in the following decades. At the time, law enforcement funding had increased, so safer streets were attributed to more policing. It seems intuitive to praise law enforcement for this drop in crime, yet this increase turns out not to be the causal case. This is because abortion access does not have an immediate effect on crime; it takes time for the children to grow up. Social scientist Steven Levitt published a paper examining this link, which conclusively demonstrated that an increase in access to abortion led to a subsequent decline in crime. This study controlled for such variables as the socio-economic status of the parents, the per-state abortion policy (as certain states still considered it illegal), and the kind of crime that statistically correlates with age (i.e. youth shoplifting, speeding at 16 years old, etc.). So, fast-forward from Roe vs. Wade to the year 1997. States with legalized abortion had a 30% decrease in crime relative to the anti-abortion states (Levitt, 9). There was a severely lower arrest rate in those who were born after Roe vs. Wade, and this seems to indicate what Levitt’s theory predicts: Mothers know whether or not they are ready to support a child. Additionally, Warren might add to this discussion by elaborating on how, “Involuntary childbearing aggravates poverty, increases infant and child death rates, and places severe strains upon the resources of families and states.” (303). There’s a reason children are sometimes jokingly referred to as “economic units.” Levitt’s study helps illuminate the fact that the issue of abortion concerns more than a woman’s bodily autonomy, which may help motivate those who, unfortunately, do not take such issues as seriously as they might. But Warren goes as far as to say that access to abortion is essential for “that of the larger social and biological systems on which all our lives depend” (304). There is no universal, 100% effective, cost-efficient contraceptive on the market today. In that respect, abortion is a viable alternative of prevention from severely damaging one’s own, and the rest of society’s future prospects. This consequentialist framework seems reasonable to factor in when discussing the arguments for abortion between science and religion.
The second line of defense for pro-choice advocates is that women have an intrinsic right to their own bodies. In considering one’s own moral rights, Warren discusses how “prohibition of abortion appears to infringe upon all of these basic rights.” (305). This is where it gets muddy; the line between a woman’s right of their own body conflicts with the apparent right to life shared by the fetus. Those in opposition to abortion frequently raise the objection that the mother should just go through with it and give it up for adoption; no harm no foul. But Warren denies this claim, saying that “To be forced to bear a child is not just an ‘inconvenience,’ as opponents of abortion often claim. To carry a pregnancy to term is an arduous and risky undertaking, even when voluntary.” (305). As we’ve seen above, the fact that abortion is statistically safer than childbirth potentially undercuts the pro-life objection. (Adoption will be discussed further on.) Abortion, as a socio-political issue, has been shifted to focus on “women’s control over their own bodies,” but the concern still remains that one’s right to something does not necessarily mean they are morally justified in exercising that right. In response to such concerns, the Guttmacher Institute studied the correlation between the illegality of abortion and the rates of abortions performed: There is no link. When you outlaw abortion, women go to jail (Sedgh & Singh, 630). There is clearly still a lack of clarity regarding this line of argument, but it seems clear that passing laws has no effect upon the genuine need for safe, accessible abortive options. There is measurable harm that results from unsafe, illegal abortions. On these grounds, it’s reasonable to say that for the sake of the progenitor’s health, abortion should be kept on the table.
The third and most problematic of these arguments is the question of fetus personhood. The main concern here is at what point the line is drawn in pregnancy. Why is birth the period we recognize a fetus as a human being? At first glance, it seems arbitrary given the developmental processes both before and after birth. One could argue that life begins at the moment of sperm fertilizing the ovum. Yet, the average child retains no memories from their first two-three years of existence so, arguably, that developing child isn’t really “you” in any meaningful sense. Still, we don’t think of ourselves as vulnerable to development in that way; killing a newborn baby is considered homicide but killing a fetus is generally not. There is evidently a tacit assumption about birth and personhood at play. To challenge this intuition, Peter Singer has made arguments that justify infanticide on the basis of abortive equivalency. He argues that if the child is severely malformed or cognitively incapable at birth, there’s no reason not to put it out of its misery–both for the parents and the child’s well-being (Singer, 1991). But moral rights are more than a matter of personal preference, which is why this issue is so highly contested. For instance, we want to avoid parents aborting on the basis of gender, race, etc. Warren illustrates this concern in a discussion of prejudice: “Racists…are not entitled to recognize the moral rights only of members of their own racial group” because they lack any “inferior” qualities (in this case, being a fetus) that can “reasonably be held to be relevant to moral status.” (307). This example of racism extends to the problem of abortion. Our criteria of personhood is clearly more abstract than concrete so, in order to move forward, we must ground our reverence for life in the first place to discuss why it’s worth preserving.
Destroying living things is a cultural pastime to many (i.e. hunting) and yet horrific to others (i.e. environmental conservationism). Yet, despite these differences, relatively few people actively try to go around killing everything in their path. It makes no biological sense to do this, given we all depend on the environment (and other living things) to stay alive. Warren writes how “Protecting the biotic community from needless damage is a moral imperative, not just for the good of humanity, but because the unspoiled natural world is worth valuing for its own sake.” (307). In other words, all things being equal, killing is morally worse than fostering life. So abortion is out the window right? Well, no. All things are not equal and, unfortunately, we live in a world where killing is many times necessary to protect others (i.e., self-defense vs. assault). Warren proposes that abortion–if we are to consider it a killing action–is an act of “killing under necessity.” (307). Others claim that human life in particular is what’s at stake in the abortion debate. This largely is a religiously motivated idea, likely drawing from the “soul” which separates us from other beings. But this distinction seems capricious given the fact of evolution. Science tells us that we are simply an “accident” of history, a very lucky accident, I might say. It seems inconsistent to deny that animals with human-like qualities (dolphins, whales, apes, etc.) have a right to live as much as we do. In fact, I am of the position that such cognitively developed animals have more of a right to live than an unborn, undeveloped fetus.
Other philosophers make the distinction differently, that is, they list sentience as being most morally relevant to a being’s status. Sentience, as defined by Warren, simply is “the capacity to have experiences” (308). This criterion seems to give some leeway to the pro-life supporters, as science tells us that a fetus can feel pain around nineteen weeks of pregnancy (Department of Health, 2012). This fact does not take into account the fetus’ lack of nervous system development, however. These responses to pain seem to be nothing more than an electrical impulse, an involuntary response (similar to shocking a body shortly after death). Proper capacities to even recognize pain, to develop the capacity for what we refer to as “consciousness,” does not develop until much later. Warren explains how the sentience criterion for personhood suggests that it is “morally worse” to kill a sentient organism than a non-sentient organism (308). It might seem silly, but there is a very important epistemological question embedded in this criterion, which is, how can we know which organisms are sentient? Is an ant sentient? For that matter, are rocks or trees sentient, just in a different way? It’s rather intuitive that only plants and animals are alive but, of course, when Antoine von Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria in 1676, we had new, previously inconceivable kinds of life to deal with. Our only epistemic ground for what qualifies as “life” is still developing. Science tells us that it is much more likely that a central nervous system must be in place for sentience to develop in any meaningful sense. According to Warren, this central nervous system is absent in “rocks, plants, and simple micro-organisms. It is also absent in the early human fetus.” (308). On these grounds, late-term abortion seems less morally tenable than early-term abortion. That is, the pro-life argument gains some ground, yet doesn’t conclusively provide sufficient reason to deny access to abortion entirely. Warren concludes, and I am inclined to agree, that the sentience condition cannot be what we’re looking for here.
Past infancy, humans begin to develop introspective traits such as self-awareness, reason, and manipulation of language. They also develop reflexive emotions such as love, anger, joy, sadness, etc. Through this process, morality emerges in some form. This is in contrast with popular religious thinking for the last two millennia, which is that morality and personhood is supernaturally innate–part of the constitution of the soul. It seems that personhood is only reified after a few years of development post-birth. In other words, even a newborn child is not deeply a “person” in the way that a two-three year old child is, and so on. Warren asserts that, in considering the line delineating personhood, “killing a person is a greater moral wrong than killing a sentient being which is not a person.” (310). This seems more on track, but still not quite definitive in the argument of choice in abortion, especially in cases where sentience clearly has yet to emerge. Morally sensitive people usually respect life forms of all kinds, and avoid inflicting needless harm when possible. But in terms of life and death, as Warren argues, such a morally sensitive person “will respect the basic moral rights of other persons as equal to her own, not just because they are alive and sentient, but also because she can reasonably hope and demand that they will show her the same respect. Mice and mosquitos are not capable of this kind of moral reciprocity–at least not in their interactions with human beings. When their interests come into conflict with ours, we cannot hope to use moral argument to persuade them to accept some reasonable compromise. Thus, it is often impossible to accord them fully equal moral status.” (310). So, perhaps, the capacity for moral reciprocity is the key to personhood that separates fetuses from persons. In other words, it might be permissible to kill a fetus for reasons that would not be morally sufficient to kill a person. This is further evidence for Warren’s claim that abortion is to be thought of in terms of killing under necessity. Again, consider the potential deformities that infrequently accompanies a late pregnancy, or cases where carrying the child poses severe health risks to the mother, etc. These conditions seem to necessitate abortion as a legal, safe alternative.
But we’ve gotten all this way and yet, it is still not enough to end the discussion. This is because of historical factors which must be taken into account, most notable of which is discriminatory oppression. This came to mind after an anti-abortion demonstration on UNF’s campus this semester. Their central argument was that abortion was “ageism,” or discrimination against the unborn. Warren calls this the “exclusion criterion” for marginalization, which affects, in this case, fetuses and health-deficient infants. This is problematic because, throughout history, dominant groups have rationalized oppression on the basis that the oppressed were not really “people” at all. This is why we make the distinction between “insentient” and “sentient” fetuses at various weeks throughout the term of pregnancy. The first trimester is usually where the line is drawn, which I consider to be a reasonable compromise for those on both sides of the issue. Warren allows that this gives “women time enough to discover that they are pregnant, and whether or not to abort” while still retaining the rights of the fetus once a central nervous system begins to develop (311). This ignores, however, the concerns outlined above about things which are only realized after the first trimester (deficiencies/deformities, women’s health risks). So why are we choosing women’s health over newborn life in any scenario? Warren lists potential arguments for the dissenting pro-life view (that fetuses/children are helpless, have a longer life expectancy, etc.) which challenge the mother’s right to life over the fetus’. In short, the unborn have more potential.
The diametric arguments on abortion more recently have been focused on what Warren calls the “potential personhood” condition. This is the philosophical claim that, “although fetuses may not be persons, their potential to become persons gives them the same basic moral rights.” (312). This kind of conditional egalitarianism is akin to voting rights; everyone has them, theoretically, but we don’t allow exercise of this vote until the age of 18, once the child has developed. I find claims in defense of the potential personhood condition to be mistaken on a few fronts. Namely, as we’ve seen, the consequences taken out on the mother in cases when abortion is denied them. I think the potentiality of personhood is insufficient to disallow mothers a right to bodily autonomy in cases of unwanted pregnancy. Warren seems to agree with my sentiment, that “if a fetus is a potential person, then so is an unfertilized human ovum,” etc. until reductio ad absurdum (312). It seems absurd, if not exhausting, to consider every sperm and ovum a “potential person” and, even if we grant that, the vast majority of these “potential people” die off or are discharged regardless. Hopefully no one would seriously suggest that these sperm cells and eggs are of equal moral status with fully developed human beings. There is a viable consideration for this argument’s alternative, which is that the fertilization process itself is where the line should be drawn in terms of potential personhood. Warren suggests that, in following this line of reasoning, “The fetus’ potential not just in its DNA, but in that maternal (and paternal) commitment.” (313). This is also a common pro-life rhetorical device, which holds future parents culpable for their lack of “commitment” to the responsibility of child rearing. The implication (or sometimes explication) of this argument is that the parents shouldn’t have had sex if they didn’t want to deal with the consequences. But people love sex; the only reason any of us are here is because each of our ancestors participated in heterosexual sex in at least one case, in an unbroken line throughout the past. It might feel wrong to break that chain via abortion, but a case of abortion does not necessarily entail that the parents will never have children. Like abortion, sex is something that, when outlawed, does not decrease. Given this unreasonable standard of abstinence, Warren argues that, in terms of consequentialism, it’s “wrong to demand that a woman complete a pregnancy when she is unable or unwilling to undertake that enormous commitment.” (313). I find it hard to disagree with this conclusion when so much is at stake for already living persons. It makes little sense to cast aside the rights of tangible beings for hypothetical, not yet living beings.
If potential personhood (homicide) is not the locus of concern in this debate, the real question emerges: At what point in pregnancy does abortion become morally murky? As we’ve seen, “the capacities for reason, self-awareness, and social and moral reciprocity seem to develop only after birth.” (312). The reason birth seems like such a reasonable line to draw is not because fetuses are persons–they are not–but, rather, that birth makes it possible for the infant to be granted “equal basic rights without violating anyone else’s basic rights,” most notably the mother’s (312). And so, the common offered alternative by pro-life advocates is adoption. The argument is that adoption is a good alternative that doesn’t harm the child and doesn’t put a burden on the progenitors. There exist good homes that would love a child, but as ethicist Lindsey Porter has thoroughly explored in her paper, Adoption is Not Abortion-Lite, this turns out not to be the case. She writes that, in addition to the problems with the current American adoption system, there is also the problem of the physical intimacy of pregnancy, which is “at least as important and as personal as that of sex; so being forced to gestate [akin to] being raped” (Porter, 75). At first glance, this appears to be blowing the issue of abortion a little out of proportion. That is, consensual sex that results in pregnancy seems not to be on par with non-consensual rape. And yet, despite this intuition, Porter underlines the inconsistency in the logic we use to evaluate these two situations: It is a mistake to “place on the pregnant woman a duty to gestate, just as a loving romantic partnership does not place on a person a duty to have sexual intercourse” (75). Following this train of thought, it becomes clearer that–as we’ve seen through Warren–unwanted pregnancy is more than a simple inconvenience. If there were genuine, safe alternatives for the fetus to turn to once born, then it seems an unwanted pregnancy would become less problematic for the mother. In fact, it might become morally reprehensible for such an action to be taken if there were a high demand of loving, qualified parents to adopt the newborn (as opposed to our current situation of superfluous supply of foster children without homes). Unfortunately, most adoptive options are waiting-list scenarios. Many foster homes lack adequate funding to properly facilitate child development. Children who spend their entire youth in foster homes report severely lower levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy, social skills, and moral development. These orphans, at adulthood, register in at a 20-point lower IQ on average than children who grew up with parental figures, and twenty five percent of these children did not graduate high school or obtain a GED equivalent (Courtney & Dworsky, 2015). This is just the tip of the iceberg, considering that, in the United States, as of 2014, roughly 400,000 orphans have no home or parental figures to turn to (AFCARS, 2013). This is a shocking figure on its own, but becomes moreso in contrast with the reported 7,000 adoptions that actually took place that year while nearly 25,000 aged out of the foster-care system (AFCARS, 2013). Putting these numbers into perspective, that’s one out of every sixty orphans who have any realistic hope of finding a home (not to mention a permanent home) prior to adulthood. These problems don’t cover the entire picture, but they at least indicate the deep-seated systemic failures of adoption as a realistic, viable alternative for progenitors to take.
The whole argument for a pro-choice abortion policy is premised on the fact that childbirth is something sacred, something to prepare for with care, something genuinely spiritual in the deepest sense. I agree, and would go further to say that child rearing should not be ruined by another person’s political agenda, particularly in the case of religiously motivated argument. Abortion can be a viable alternative for future-parents who, from the depths of their being, want nothing more than to see their future child succeed. It just so happens that couples might not be ready. As we’ve seen, denying the right to an abortion–even to responsible, well-educated people–is casting an unwanted social and economic hardship on more than just those immediately involved. Denying abortion is, in many ways, like denying the right to rent/lease property, as opposed to buying a house. Purchasing a house is a profoundly fertilizing experience for one’s life but, if forced upon, can put the very same person in eternal debt. That seems a cruel and unusual way to dictate someone else’s future. Not to mention that very few twenty-somethings have an accurate, concrete idea of what their lives will be like in five years. Imagine how distorted their predictions are for ten years, twenty, and so on.
It just so happens that, as a man, I cannot get pregnant. If I could, however, I would certainly feel an urge to choose when I got pregnant on my own terms. If I’m two semesters away from my Masters degree and I find out, “Whoops! I’m pregnant!” and there is no possibility to terminate the pregnancy, it’s looking like one hell of a graduate school experience. Usually mothers in this situation drop out; I don’t want to see a society half-populated by those who didn’t have the chance to earn an education. Unfortunately, if abortion was not safe and accessible, I would probably do the same in these women’s circumstances. It seems reasonable enough to say, therefore, that abortion is not, in every case, a morally blameworthy act. In a first-world society where we pride ourselves on our freedoms and education, we should not bow to an outdated absolutist morality, which is largely unsupported by empirical evidence and perpetuated uniquely by traditional values; doing so clearly stunts the progression of a more healthy, ethical society.
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