Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Does Abortion Harm the Preborn?

In my last article, I gave a discussion of various arguments against fetal personhood, including the Functionalist view. I presented a detailed analysis of why presently exercising self-awareness does not make one inherently valuable. This will be a follow-up to my last article, presenting a detailed analysis on whether the ability to feel pain or exhibit consciousness makes an entity inherently valuable, followed by a discussion on whether the unborn is actually harmed by being aborted.


Usually when I discuss what makes us valuable with a pro-choice person, I’ll receive one of three responses (often used interchangeably): sentience, consciousness, and self-awareness. Self-awareness is usually understood as the awareness of oneself, and to perceive of oneself as existing through time. I responded to this in my previous article. Consciousness is usually understood as having an awareness of your environment and your needs. Sentience is usually understood as a combination of self-awareness and consciousness. I have already shown that self-awareness is not a criterion that makes one valuable. But what about consciousness?

First, the unborn exhibit a limited amount of consciousness. Unborn twins have been observed fighting in the womb, the unborn have been observed sucking their thumb, and learn to recognize their mother’s voice in the womb. So if consciousness makes us valuable, then you would have to reject late-term abortion (which isn’t usually a problem, since even most pro-choice people don’t believe in late-term abortion). If you want to support abortion-on-demand, then you would have to take argue that there’s a “threshold” of consciousness one needs, but this would just be an ad hoc determination for the express purpose of allowing abortion. [1]

If consciousness is what makes us valuable, then it’s subject to the same problems as self-awareness. You lose consciousness whenever you fall asleep, enter a reversible coma, or go under general anesthesia before surgery. So in that case it would be permissible to kill you for any reason when you are in those states. And again, if you argue that you once exercised consciousness so that’s why it would be wrong to kill you, then we can just return to Frank Beckwith’s case of Uncle Jed. [2] If Jed enters a coma but has severe brain damage to where he loses all of his abilities so that he has to re-learn them (he’s essentially in the same position as the standard fetus), then you would have to say it would be permissible to kill Jed in such a state. However, I don’t know anyone who would say it would be okay to kill Jed in that state.

It seems that a lack of consciousness is not adequate criterion to allow us to kill you.


I don’t think there’s any real solid evidence as to when the unborn can feel pain. To be safe, I say it happens around 20 weeks. Some pro-life advocates insist it happens much earlier, and some pro-choice advocates insist it happens much later. I take the happy medium. For me, it’s irrelevant because my argument rests on what the unborn is, not on whether it can feel pain. But what about the argument that it is permissible to kill the unborn because they can’t feel pain, or that it’s at least humane to kill them when they can’t feel pain, so if you’re going to kill them it should be before that point?

This objection also fails due to clear counterexamples. If it’s permissible to kill the unborn because they can’t feel pain, then it is permissible to kill anyone, as long as you do it painlessly. And what about a case like Gabby Gingras, who was born with congenital inability to feel pain? [3] If the lack of pain made it permissible to kill someone, then someone with Gabby’s condition would never be safe.

So it seems that pain, likewise, is not appropriate criterion for making one valuable, or at least is not adequate criterion for removing someone from protection.

The Next Question

So this raises a question: does abortion harm the unborn entity? In most cases, it seems, it doesn’t cause them pain. But I’ve shown how that’s irrelevant to the question of whether we can kill someone. In their now infamous essay supporting after-birth abortion (they prefer this term over infanticide, to illustrate that a newborn and a fetus are morally equivalent), Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva claim that you don’t harm an unborn human being (or a newborn!) when you extinguish their life. They write,

“Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an existing person. The reason is that, unlike the case of death of an existing person, failing to bring a new person into existence does not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims...Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’ We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” [4]

But this definition of “harm” is lacking. Robert Wennberg offers an analogy to show us why:

“If I were cheated out of an inheritance that I didn’t know I had, I would be harmed regardless of whether I knew about the chicanery. Deprivation of a good (be it an inheritance or self-conscious existence) constitutes harm even if one is ignorant of that deprivation.” [5]

Or consider a man who cheats on his wife. If he decides never to tell her, has she been harmed by his infidelity? Of course she has.

One does not have to be aware that they are being harmed, in order to be harmed. [6] Plus, as Patrick Lee points out, there are certain times in which someone may not have any interests but it would still be wrong to kill, such as a slave who was indoctrinated not to have any interests or desire to live. It would still be wrong to kill this person, even if he has no conscious longing for, or interest in, a right to life. [7]

So it seems that one does not need the present desire to live in order to have a right to life, and one does not have to be presently aware of their harm in order to actually be harmed. While the definition of “harm” has been debated, it seems to me the most basic, and accurate, definition of harm is simply “to leave someone worse off.” The unborn are certainly made worse off by being killed. First, they are deprived of their future of valuable experiences. But second, to kill anyone, even one who is unaware of being killed, is a grave harm. Probably the gravest harm that can be done to an individual.

It seems that the most reasonable answer to the question is that yes, unborn human beings are most definitely harmed by being killed.

[1] I addressed threshold arguments in my previous article.
[2] See the Self-awareness section of my last article.
[3] Note that the article is a little graphic.
[4] I plan on addressing “after-birth abortion” sometime in the future.
[5] Robert Wennberg, Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 98, as quoted in Frank Beckwith, Defending Life: The Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, NY, 2007), 145.
[6] Giubilini and Minerva try to get around this problem in their article, unsuccessfully. I’ll expound more on it in my future article.
[7] Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, as mentioned in Beckwith, Defending Life, p. 145.


Jameson Graber said...

I appreciate you being so thorough in such a short article. I agree that we've pretty much subjectivized the idea of harm, and it's really treacherous territory philosophically. I've always said more or less the same thing: pain can't be the reason why killing is wrong, because once you're dead, you don't care where or not there was pain. Most people seem not to have the same intuition that I do, but I think it's pretty clear: if you kill me, I won't care (or at least, I won't care after a few moments).

One thing that some people say in response is that, well, my family will care. Someone else will care. There will be people who feel the loss of my death. I've tried using as a response that there are many of us who feel the loss of the unborn, even though we never had a chance to know them. Sadly, this response doesn't seem to work.

JSS said...

This is all very well thought out. I wonder how many women choosing abortion think even to a fraction of this depth of thought before the abortion. I wonder how many pro-lifers and pro-choicers have journeyed to this depth of thought on the topic.

Clinton Wilcox said...

Yeah, in fact, it's not even that we won't care in a few minutes, if painfulness is what makes killing wrong, then what's wrong with killing someone in their sleep, or killing someone who's awake but in a painless method.

Don Marquis actually has a brief discussion about what makes killing wrong in his article Why Abortion is Immoral. If you're talking to someone and they tell you that it would be wrong to kill you because there will be people who will feel the loss of your death (family, friends, etc.), then ask them if it would be wrong to kill a hermit, when no one would feel the loss of their death? Or ask if it would be acceptable to kill homeless people, who are generally seen as a drain on society?

Clinton Wilcox said...

Well, a lot of women are in a frightening situation, so I'm not sure they really think this deeply about it. That's why organizations like Justice for All and Life Training Institute are so important, because they save lives. They get out there and talk about abortion (which is generally ignored by the public) before they find themselves in this situation. We sometimes even find pregnant women who are scheduled for abortion who really never thought about what's growing inside them.

I do think that pro-lifers and pro-choicers, both, need to think more deeply on this issue. I write these articles in an attempt to help facilitate discussion, and to show that the pro-life position is very reasonable (in fact, more reasonable than the pro-choice position), and it can certainly compete in the marketplace of ideas.

Kara Baylog said...

The after-birth abortion article is pretty amazing (in the most horrible sense possible), but ultimately, the logic is fairly sound. If you believe abortion is okay because of sentience, hardship to the parent(s), lack of complex future ambitions, then logically, it should also be okay to kill newborns. Of course what this ethics paper assumes is that those are justifiable rationale (whereas I'd disagree with them on every point).
But you can't help but wonder that this piece actually does much more for the pro-life cause than it supports the pro-choice cause. By demonstrating that there is very little different between a post-born and a pre-born, they are making a very strong case for something the pro-life movement has been saying for a long time. It avoids the cognitive dissidence other pro-choice stances take. I half wonder if these academics aren't pro-life people taking pro-choice arguments ad absurdum

Clinton Wilcox said...

As I once heard someone say, "every good argument for abortion is a good argument for infanticide." These people (and others like Peter Singer and Michael Tooley) do what the vast majority of pro-choice advocates won't, which is follow their arguments to their logical conclusion, that infanticide is morally permissible. Of course, the argument from bodily integrity seems to avoid this dilemma, but it just exchanges one problem for another (if a woman shouldn't be forced to give her body as a "life support," then why should we force a woman to breastfeed her child, even if there is no formula available or the child is allergic to formula?).

Kara Baylog said...

Agreed. There is the problem too though that people will first argue from the perspective of "the fetus is not a person" and then, after soundly discussing how any argument made for that case can apply to infants, will then revert to the bodily autonomy, conflating the two questions. Of course, it is absurd to suggest that bodily autonomy impacts personhood. The condition of subject A does not change the condition of subject B. If you cannot answer the question "Is the fetus a person" in the negative, then the only way to agree to abortion is to say "it is okay to kill a person for reasons other than self-defense" (which few are willing to do outright - save for this academic article!)

ProLife AntiBirthControl said...

I love the parts where he talks about "observations" as though they were proven by scientific evidence.
Oh look the twins are fighting in the womb, you can tell because they are moving their under developed limbs at one another in an aggressive manner. Clearly these fetuses have developed sentience.
Hint this is all sarcasm. That's not how science works, you're doing it wrong.

Clinton Wilcox said...

I'm unclear what the distinction is between an observation and a "scientific" observation. All science means is "knowledge." If you are observing something, you are gaining knowledge about it, which seems to fall within the realm of science, to me.

Also, I never once said that they have developed sentience (or maybe you're just confusing "sentience" with something else).

Daryl said...

I agree that arguments about the morality of abortion quickly get into the foundations of morality. That's part of the feeling of unease that people experience when delving deep into philosophical issues: You believe X. How is Y any different? How about Z? The feeling is that you can bridge a firmly moral position to a position that sounds absurd by a sequence of positions that seem approximately the same, in principle.

I don't consider such an argument to be valid. It correctly surfaces that we don't understand our own sense of morality, but I don't think it actually proves anything. People who support abortion rights don't, in fact, believe that parents should be allowed to kill their teenagers, even though there is no crystal-clear dividing line in the continuum between "fertilized egg" and "teenager".

It works against the pro-life position, as well. Many of the arguments for the immorality of abortion would apply equally well to killing of animals, or even insects, or even micro-organisms. A type of Hindu called "Jainists" actually took this extreme position, that even killing ants was immoral. But most pro-life activists don't go to that extreme; they aren't vegetarians, they don't have qualms against killing mosquitos.

I don't want to completely dismiss your arguments here, because I think that analogies are an important way to reason about morality--they may be our ONLY way to reason, without some first-principles theory of morality. But I don't find the argument by analogy convincing without seeing that it doesn't prove too much.

Clinton Wilcox said...

I'm not quite sure what to make of your comment. Arguments by analogy are important because you can't just say "i'll accept this, but not accept this same situation even though there's a morally irrelevant difference." That's a logical fallacy called special pleading. Since there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn, if one accepts abortion then to follow your arguments to their logical conclusion, you would have to accept infanticide, too.

You may not consider this argument valid, but that doesn't, by default, make it invalid. Consider this argument:

1) If a being is not self-aware, then they do not have a right to life.
2) Fetuses are not self-aware.
3) Therefore, fetuses do not have a right to life.

This is a logically valid argument (though it is unsound, as I showed in my last article). However, if the argument was sound, then it would work equally well to disqualify newborns from a right to life.

1) If a being is not self-aware, then they do not have a right to life.
2) Newborns are not self-aware.
3) Therefore, newborns do not have a right to life.

It's exactly the reason that there is a continuum of life, there is no break in a human's development from a stage of "non-human" to "human," or from a stage of "non-person" to "person" that would justify being able to kill them without strong moral justification.

sue costello said...

Thank you so much for the very well laid out argument for the worth of the unborn human. It was done without bringing in a supernatural being. I am Christian and I have many "discussions" with pro-choice women regarding the issue of abortion. When someone refers to the existence of God, it totally puts up a wall from the pro-abortion side. I feel abortion is wrong on many levels and I appreciate the approach from the scientific and secular side. Thank you for approaching the argument with reason, that is lacking very often in the sometimes heated discussions.

Clinton Wilcox said...

Thanks for your kind words, and for reading, Sue.

I am, likewise, a Christian. The ironic thing is that to the Christian, abortion has never been just a "religious" issue. Doctor Nathanson (an Atheist at the time) says in his book Aborting America that it was the pro-choice organizations and advocates who were making abortion a "religious" issue in order to rally support for their side (despite the fact that there were churches and pastors on their side, as well). Christianity has a long, proud history of arguing from nature, as well as from Scripture, regarding issues of morality and abortion is really no different.