About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Abortion: A Question of Women’s Rights, Morality – or Both?

Note: before moving any further, I should briefly outline my own view of morality. I generally see questions of morality being about how to decrease the suffering and increase the happiness and welfare of conscious, sentient beings (this includes certain non-human animals). I do think certain virtues are generally worth working towards, but in the end, it seems the reason for this is that they will lead to more (generally human) flourishing and happiness. I plan to eventually flesh this out, but for now I hope this is sufficient.

While discussing abortion recently, a friend of mine made two arguments that go something like this: abortion is a women’s rights issue, and, even further, women (and their doctors) alone should be the ones making the decisions. That is, a woman should have the right to have an abortion, and nobody should be interfering with that, or her decision. These are two arguments that need to be dealt with separately, the first being whether abortion is purely a women’s rights issue, and second, how open the debate should be on the matter.

Firstly, for political liberals
at least, it seems abortion is already a women’s rights issue. We rarely hear our lawmakers or other public officials defending the legality of abortion based on the concepts of the soul or fetal personhood; instead, we hear them argue that a woman should have the right to choose. Yet there seems to be a problem with the communication of this defense. Consider that roughly half of Americans think abortion should be usually or always illegal, objecting to the practice because it is the destruction of something worth our moral concerns and/or rights. Even many liberals are hesitant on the matter because of their faith, or their fear of upsetting social norms. Polling data suggests public opinion has been unchanged over the years on this issue. What can we do, then, to solve our problem?

I don't claim to have all the answers, but as it stands, the two sides in this debate are talking past each other, and there's no real discussion on the beliefs that drive the controversy itself. For the right, abortion is almost always wrong because it is murder. Liberals respond that women have the right to choose what to do with their own bodies. But, then, liberals are effectively defending a woman’s right to commit murder, and thus the debate wrongly focuses on how much power we give women over their body and the fetus. Instead, what liberals must first do is defend why abortion should be a woman's choice. I suspect liberals avoid this move for at least two reasons: first, liberals don’t often like to dig too deeply into religiously influenced issues, as debate can get contentious; and second, liberals have already won the moral case in their own minds. But open, honest debate is necessary in our open democracy. And even if you have won a debate in your own mind, you still need to convince the public you are right. So, how can a supporter of choice do that?

At least two answers rest in the concepts of morality and legal rights. Do fetuses deserve our moral consideration? Should society grant them legal rights? To get moral consideration from us, it would seem reasonable to demand sufficient evidence that a fetus is aware of itself, able to suffer (not just that it responds to stimuli, but that it can experience what it is like to respond to stimuli). As for rights, we give these to protect the freedom
the interests of human beings, of persons in a society. So, if not completely aware of itself, to be granted rights, a fetus must at least need its freedom protected, or have interests, whether its own or from others.

Perhaps the most important matter for us to clear up is the difference between first and second-term abortions, and late-term abortions. We need to do this for two reasons. First, research shows that fetuses are unlikely to suffer pain until around 26 or 27 weeks (more here) into the pregnancy (also around the time of viability, though we should note even viable fetuses need tremendous care). Second, only 1.4 percent of all abortions in the United States annually, occur after 21 weeks. Yes, you read correctly: roughly 99 percent of all abortions in the U.S. take place before a fetus is equipped to suffer. In fact, 90 percent of all abortions in the U.S. occur in the first 13 weeks, nowhere near the controversial 26th or 27th weeks. So while we still lack conclusive evidence about what late-term fetuses can experience, (I will return to this in a moment), it seems we reach a point here where abortion is hardly a moral issue, as nearly all abortions performed in the U.S. happen when the fetus cannot be expected to suffer.

Many will argue here that we are destroying “human life.” But as Peter Singer has pointed out, of course a fetus is human life – yet what does this do to clear up whether or not we have moral responsibilities for the object, or whether the object deserves rights? As a society, we don’t seem to generally feel concerned for the suffering or rights of other basic forms of human life – like the cells that encompass our entire body. Why is that? Because not all human life matters.

Many will go further, arguing a fetus is not just human life, but a human person, thus deserving our considerations. But this would be stretching the bounds of the words so far that they would cease to mean anything. A person, or human being, at the very least has interests, and is usually conscious or sentient, aware of its surroundings. In turn, this person wants to be protected by rights from the state so that it can live out its life free of oppression from the state or from neighbors. But in just about every abortion performed in the U.S., the fetus isn’t conscious or sentient. So how can a fetus want freedom or rights? Even if we wanted to grant the fetus rights, why would we do so for an object which we have no reason to believe is part of our moral circle? In this vein, considering we have more moral obligation to the fully human mother than the fetus, there is no basis for society to preemptively grant the fetus rights in wanting to protect its freedom over the freedom of the mother.

The fetus has an interest in staying alive, though, right? Surely; but in that case, so does an ant, and I don’t see people walking very carefully on the sidewalks. Many things have an interest in staying alive that we do not grant moral consideration or rights. In this case, a fetus cannot even have an interest in living to its potential, for it does not even know it is living currently. But doesn’t the mother have an interest in keeping the fetus alive? Maybe – but the decision is hers at this point. When a human being loses the ability to be aware of his or her own interests, we pass responsibility over to the significant other or next of kin – to the person who has an interest in the situation. Given that the mother has rights, and that there is little to no moral tie to the fetus, the mother is then allowed to decide if the fetus has interests. The interests of the fetus are the interests of the mother.

With this, the act of abortion may no longer be a moral issue for us
but we still have a moral issue when we consider that a woman’s right to get an abortion is severely restricted in the U.S. As Rachel Maddow reported via the Alan Guttmacher Institute, in 87 percent of all U.S. counties, it is impossible to get an abortion. Securing the right to have an abortion might even help resolve the problem of third-term abortions. Consider that a Guttmacher survey of women who had third-term abortions found half of them had a difficult time arranging to have an abortion. If abortions were more available, it seems the need to worry about third-term abortions would lessen.

Now we finally get to the lingering issue of open debate. Clearly there is much to learn about the fetus in the third term, and that is a conversation worth having. Moreover, although we have reached some level of determination about fetal rights before that, there is still much to learn about this issue – and not just for women. All members of society – tied to neighbors by law and conscience – ought to be concerned about the potential suffering and/or interests of a fetus. If there is compelling evidence that a fetus can suffer at some point in its existence, or a gripping argument that the fetus should be kept alive, everyone in society should be willing to listen. This argument goes the same way when we are speaking of women’s rights. Women’s rights are a moral issue not just for women, but everyone in society.

Yet while we cannot convince everyone to care, at the same time, nobody can be excluded from conversation either. Indeed, we probably shouldn't want it any other way. Clearly, religious believers care about abortion, and as political philosopher David Miller points out in "Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction," these concerns cannot be dismissed considering how widely they are held. But secularists care, too. So we’re all in the public square together. This is not a problem; the problem is figuring out how to go forth from there. A debate needs to be had, but how will it be carried out? In this specific case, do we respond to these people with the women’s rights argument, or do we ask them to substantiate their beliefs about the soul and personhood first? I think we will find the latter is the necessary route. And in asking questions, and making the moral and legal case, we
must still keep our eyes on the moral issue of women's access abortion.


  1. This information is all well known and has been for years. The arguments have been made many times before.

    Does there need to be a debate? No. The debate is over. There does need to be discussions to get this information out (although the right wing and fundagelicals never listen).

    Ask them to substantiate their beliefs about the soul and personhood? No. that would be daft. One could ask them to dance the Macarena on the moon which would be as relevant. There is no evidence of a soul and using the info here, there is no valid argument for personhood before the third trimester.

  2. If you live in Brooklyn and want to experience firsthand how some religious believers care about abortion, new escorts are welcome at a Sunset Park clinic: http://brooklynprochoicenetwork.org

  3. Michael,

    Your opening salvo is interesting. To me, the most salient point you made is about our nation's conversation.

    Our prima facie debate appears to exist solely in a binary. One that I refute. Pro-choice, pro-life. As if things in life were ever that simple.

    I think the basic reason is due to comparing ourselves with ourselves.

    You are pro-choice (as I label you), I am pro-life, (as I label myself in comparison). But I don't find this acceptable, even if we remain in this context.

    Since my personal position admits of exceptions, how can I be pro-life? I have pro-choice friends and family who admit of exceptions too. Are they not pro-choice?

    These labels exist in a spectrum, and yet, at least culturally, I don't see a deepening of the conversation. I'm glad you brought it up.

    The only thing that I can propose in our society's defense, is that we are moving from human life as defined by Augustine to other norms. Hence the unwillingness to engage.

  4. Sadly, I have to agree with NewEnglandBob that asking religious people to justify their views on the soul is not a good strategy. For many religious people, belief in the soul is a first principle. It's not based on any justification, so by asking for justification, you only further the very problem this article describes, the problem of sides talking past one another.

    It's possible that challenging religious people in a more precise way might work though. Rather than challenging them to justify belief in souls, one could challenge them to justify the belief that souls "attach" at conception rather than at the time of viability. Perhaps that's what the author means...?

  5. New England Bob sounds like many of the people with whom I debate this issue. On both sides. "The debate is over."

    I'm researching the brain, and there are definitely issues to discuss and debate about how we regard very late-term fetuses, and how we treat them. Science has not, and science CAN NOT decide this issue.

  6. I'm researching the brain, and there are definitely issues to discuss and debate about how we regard very late-term fetuses, and how we treat them.

    I dunno if you read the entire article, BubbaRich, but late-term fetuses are not the point here.

    Michael does a good job of eluding to some of the pitfalls one can come across if they take certain pro-life positions, but I would go one step further and say its completely vacuous and inconsistent to be 'pro-life'. I mean, come one, pro-life? All life? Just human life? If its just human life, and we ban all abortions, do we than ban all wars? Even when we're attacked or done wrong? When we are being harmed? (we are pro-life, afterall, right?) We quickly force ourselves to begin splitting hairs or make exceptions rendering the point moot and play part-time lawyers in coming up with a satisfactory definition of murder.

    Thats not even getting into the kind of things NEBob is asking for in terms of substantiation.

    This doesn't necessarily mean that being pro-choice is than absolutely consistent; but certainly more so than whats being put out by the aforementioned.

  7. NewEnglandBob,

    Atheist "pro-lifers" exist. BubbaRich is correct, I think you're assuming a bit too much when it comes to abortion.

    I mentioned Augustine specifically, because many who have grown up in the Western tradition think in terms of the Great Chain of Being. It's just presupposed.

    Even when god is taken out of the picture, the hierarchy remains.You are above a dolphin, which is above a bug, which is above a rock etc.

    My own two cents is that your dismissal of personhood before whatever date is grounded in nothing. As is mine.

    There isn't any real difference between the two other than that we're trying to step outside of Augustine's theo-philosophy.


    (And yes, I do mean to shout!)

  9. " A person, or human being, at the very least has interests, and is usually conscious or sentient, aware of its surroundings. In turn, this person wants to be protected by rights from the state so that it can live out its life free of oppression from the state or from neighbors. But in just about every abortion performed in the U.S., the fetus isn’t conscious or sentient."

    Please. The average person is unconscious 1/3 of the time. The average neonate is unconscious 2/3 of the time. My grandmother is essentially unconscious 5/6 of the time. Of what possible relevance is consciousness to the question of whether the state should protect the life interests of a person?

    If a fetus was delivered preterm and was completely unconscious for a month in the ICU would it be ethical to withhold lifesaving measures? Of course not.

    The fact is that a viable fetus growing in a mother is on an inexorable arc toward birth, which will occur, on schedule, in a billionth of a blink of an eye on a geological timescale.

    If mankind truly valued human life as sacred, all fetuses would be given that billionth of an eye blink. But we don't value all human life as sacred - as you rightly pointed out in the article. Let's be honest about it. Human life is the cheapest of commodities, needlessly squandered thousands of times a day everywhere on our planet due to disease, starvation, crime, accident, war, and sometimes abortion.

    Roe v Wade was a pretty fair compromise all around.

  10. @Harry: the real world DOES have a much better mix of positions that you would think if you watch FoxNews or read HuffPo. Nearly all antiabortion people allow exceptions for rape, including incest, although the heated tone of the last couple of decades is training some of that away.

    I do hear a little more doctrinaire thinking from nearly everybody on the "pro-choice" side. Over the last year or two, I have tried to suggest the point for debate I mentioned above (that we need to have a social discussion and debate about "humanity" and late-term abortion), on Pharyngula and elsewhere, and I've never even found anybody willing to entertain such an idea for an argument. Even to argue against it.

  11. Good article. This may not be new information, but we need to keep talking about it because it's not how the debate is framed in politics and society at large. I think a lot of what liberals do to argue for abortion rights does little but frustrate and enrage the opposition by failing to focus on the moral issues involved. I also believe it is a mistake to believe that religion is solely responsible for conservatives views on abortion. Morality does not come from religion, but comes from the fact that we need morals and rules to function as a society, and the stable societies tend to converge on universal moralities. Consequently, all of the world's religions tend to say things like "don't murder" and "help others". Similarly, many people are against abortion from a diversity of religious backgrounds. If we could trace the evolutionary history of the propensity to view a fetal life as sacred, it is easy to imagine that it could have been advantageous for an early society to hold this particular moral value; whether transmitted genetically or memetically. While clearly abortions have always occured, I don't think anyone takes the issue lightly, and while much of what a woman feels making this choice may be imposed on them by society, I think that for many there is also biological component that makes it difficult for them to let go of their unborn. I think this weight of importance given to the value of a fetal life is part of our evolutionary history, part of humanity. The particular moral judgement of abortion attracts the most single issue voters and the most vitriolic arguments among all the possible Biblical doctrines, and I think this indicates that this is because it's touching on a real, difficult, moral problem. Talking about choice or privacy will only frustrate those who believe abortion is murder. I think that even in a completely religion free society we would still be having this debate, as the gut feeling people have to this issue is biological, not religious, even if they use religion to justify their beliefs. Just as our morality comes from basic human values that have been co-opted by religion, I think distaste for fetal destruction in many people is a natural, biological response that has been given a religious guise. While I consider myself "pro-choice" (a difficult moral decision is best decided by the person it affects most), I think that focusing attention of the debate on the "choice" of morality rather than the "choice" of controlling your body would be much more effective and less frustrating/angering to conservatives.

  12. Science did not decide the issue. Science provided the facts and logic and reason decided the issue. The problem is that some people are wishy-washy and want to pointlessly debate ad-nauseum. Abortions are legal in the first two trimesters. Get over it and get on with living. Freedom of choice is just another added freedom, like many others added in the last century.

  13. Harry C, you are wrong. My "dismissal of personhood before whatever date is grounded in nothing" is nonsense. Read the article posted here and learn science. There is NO functioning brain. There is NO nervous system to detect pain and suffer from it. Your response is typical of people who don't WANT the facts, so they ignore them.

  14. NewEnglandBob:

    Yep. But the place I'm talking about where a lot of people are doctrinaire with no thinking or debate is 3rd trimester abortions.

  15. NEB,

    So you're grounding your beliefs in being able to feel pain? Really so what's your absolute to back that up? You missed my point completely. Who's to dictate which norms when but us?

    Scientific, technological, religious, whatever. Do you really think you're coming to your decision through the Truth?

    If so, congratulations!

  16. Consciousness, Location, Visibility.

    The location of the child or if one can verify that a child feels, thinks or exists is no measure of whether a baby ought to be saved from an abortion or not. The rights to life have to stand outside of those considerations.

    UNBORN CHILDREN are conscience because they can learn in the womb. That's already been proven. Its irrefutable actually. Location. Well, if being in a disadvantageous place at the wrong time is the only way that we determine what each individuals rights are to be, make sure to never find yourself alone in a dark alley. You may become the victim of a mugging or worse. Based on such so called "logic" there is no one to be blamed but yourself. Placed in a vulnerable, indefensible position? Too bad for you! Ridiculous argument entirely.

    If you cannot SEE a particular thing, does it rightfully exist?

    Your brain for instance. How many of us will ever see our brains? Likely zero. Yet we all believe for some strange reason that we have one. Does seeing something make it real? Absolutely not!

    Ultimately we all know none of these are the real issue.

    Feel better Sheldon? I guess you missed me.

  17. Excellent post Michael.

    I will take it to the next dangerous level, the third trimester.

    I think consciousness is important. If not then you get into the basic point of simply protecting potential human life for the sake of potential human life itself, and clearly we do not care about discarding sperm, etc.

    As for as what makes a human life viable and worth protecting with an inviolable clause, such as an inviolable right to life, then we must look into where a human being becomes a human being. For me, that has to be consciousness, and even more than a basic consciousness of self-awareness or some other basic form of consciousness. For instance, I do not believe that a new born human has a significantly different (of kind) consciousness than a newborn dog or monkey, and certainly nothing higher or more special than a full grown mammal.

    With that stated, given what a fetus/human is during the third trimester, although perhaps conscious on some basic level, it does not seem plausible that it is conscious or special to the degree that makes humans conscious in the degree that we hold to great esteem.

    With all that stated, we should have a respect for all life, including third trimester festuses, but it should not be taken out of the context of what our best understanding of what that fetus is and how it compares to that that we hold in greater respect.

  18. I think one of the problems with finding an acceptable compromise position on this issue is that there aren't a whole lot of natural divisions in the development of an embryo, no matter which property you choose to use to base abortion acceptability threshold on, whether it's the ability to feel pain, consciousness, or whatever.

    These properties don't develop at discrete intervals (if my rudimentary knowledge of this subject doesn't fail me). You can't say, oh, yesterday the fetus didn't feel pain but today it does.

    Roe v. Wade was a political compromise, but the first trimester is a gerrymandered demarcation point like voting age or draft eligibilty age.

  19. I agree with The Monkey, sort of. That demarcation point, especially as it involves pain and consciousness, may be tricky to establish. But like with setting the voting age, we can aim for a generalization, informed by other developments, such as brain growth in the embryo, that can be more easily examined (for those trained to do such things, i.e. someone other than me).

    Also, my comments earlier were made under naked intuition, for example, that a mature dog has a greater consciousness (awareness) than a third trimester embryo. Although, it is informed by my interaction with dogs and newborns.

  20. How about the one-child policy in China? Abortion is legal in China. The society has decided the number of children that a woman can have. Is the policy morally correct?

  21. Boohay. I just hope you do not seriously believe that any of this reasoning will somehow influence a discussion with religious believers. Once the other side has decided that god puts a soul into the zygote at conception (how do they know?), the discussion is essentially over for them, and all you say will be just "blahblah" from their perspective. Maybe it is time to accept that some people cannot be reached with reasonable arguments at all, no matter what you try.

    Interestingly, the majority opinion in Islam seems to be that the soul is added after four months. Just as unfounded and arbitrary (how do they know?), but should make the abortion debate easier in practice.

  22. Mintman, I had the EXACT same experience with people who have decided that the life or death of a fetus is purely the mother's decision, up until the fetus has left the woman's womb BY HER DECISION TO GIVE BIRTH.

    There was nothing to change their mind (I don't recall if it was at Pharyngula or Skepchick, but I've had similar experiences at both). In fact, there was nothing to convince the vast majority of people that anyone who questioned this position was a sane human being. It wasn't just the default position at both places, it was the ONLY acceptable position. Completely unwilling to discuss any moral and cognitive issues for late-term fetuses. Most discussions with people who admit to being religious have been much more rational.

  23. Mintman,

    The unfounded and arbitrary demarcation point is not new for Islam or any other religion. Catholicism believed at one time that the fetus gained a soul around the time of quickening (when you can feel the fetus moved).


    You have pointed towards one of my favored debates in Philosophy. It is one of the things that drew me to study Philosophy, and the lack of interest in the field is one of the things that is going to draw me away from Philosophy.

    You have pointed to the problem of the discussion of abortion in our country. Most philosophical papers will avoid the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" except to attack the notion that the debate should be taken in these forms. The question about rights and moral permissibility is how the debate should be structured. Sadly, this view is hardly ever taken in discussion outside of academia.

  24. "With all that stated, we should have a respect for all life, including third trimester festuses, but it should not be taken out of the context of what our best understanding of what that fetus is and how it compares to that that we hold in greater respect."

    The presumed rights of the parents - That's what we hold in greater respect culturally.

    In the last 25 -30 years, those of all economic classes and education levels have 'evolved' themselves around to being in competition with their offspring for resources. We use to have the mentality by in large that we feed and care for our children first and serve ourselves last. That is no longer the case. It's a terrifying shift in morals and values but no one cares just as long as they can get what they need for the day. What devastatingly lonely, selfish life that all our time and resources are to be better spent on our collective selves. What a lie.

    There are virtually no "good" (if you have no concept of what is GOOD, that's going to be a problem for you on the onset), reasons for abortion. Most abortions are for convenience.

    I ALSO HAVE NO DOUBT whatsoever that our so called civilization is going d-o-w-n for all these reasons. You cannot have parents who all too happily TAX THEIR CHILDREN'S future, suck up every bit of life and fun they can get and then when a woman/girl turns up PG, take the lil bugger out.

    Very Frankensteinien if you ask me. ONE plainly cannot take PARTS out of PERSON HOOD and expect to have a WHOLE PERSON.

  25. Caliana, you have an awful outlook on life. Are you giving up on it or do you have suggestions?

  26. Not committing to a pro-life position, but is there maybe a contractarian argument to be made?

    Prior to conception, you're dealing with a morass of hypotheticals, with "John Smith," in particular, being an infinitesimal possibility (given the number of possible partners, sperm cells, opportunities for copulation, etc.). But after conception, John Smith is all but certain, and the expected consequence of an abortion clear--to be or not to be. One might ask, then, if John Smith would consent to his abortion.

    Sounds absurd, but what's *your* answer? Do you wish you'd never been born? Does any rational agent prefer non-existence?

    Bear in mind that moral evaluation is often based on hypothetical consent, e.g. of the would-be victims of reckless endangerment; of the future generation who would have to live with global warming’s ravages. And with suicide and murder, too, the preference is between existence vs. non-existence. It is immoral, for example, to randomly euthanize a hobo, not because this increases suffering (there is none), but because it’s a violation of consent.

    Food for thought. Y'all will thank me when we discover time travel.

    -- Ian.

  27. "But after conception, John Smith is all but certain..."

    This initial premise is not correct. It is not even close to being certain.

  28. Thanks for the thoughtful refutation, NewEnglandBob, but perhaps you could elaborate...

    If a baby wasn't the expected outcome (the person that is John Smith), then abortion would be unnecessary.

  29. Well said N.E.Bob, Ian has assumed the social/conscious entity John Smith is analagous to the fetus formed after conception, which is what I was trying to go through.

    Under the contractarian idea, does it really make sense for me to worry about the two month old fetus that I once was, to claim that that fetus should have an invokable right to continue until it becomes the environmentally or situationally influenced entity of "me," John Smith. I see the entity of "me" to assume existence only under the arising of a certain kind of consciousness, one that I personally have placed above even that of the kind of consciousness that most adult, non-human mammals (and others) attain. The claim that anything after conception is equal to "John Smith" the subject or individual, is to make a claim that there is an essence or continuity of that subject from conception, and this claim only makes sense if we ignore our best understandings from psychology, biology, philosophy, etc., and instead place a "soul" like conception upon our understanding of the individual.

    I am fine with the contractarian analysis, but such an analysis still has to thoroughly examine the question of what we mean by "John Smith," what such a being consists of, what determines or makes up this undeniable essence that should not be violated.

    To me, rationalizing out from consciousness to political policy is a dangerous step because I do not know how to rationalize or why we "should" protect the rights to life of even new born infants. (And I have conceded, to myself, that new borns that have been found to have a fraction of brain capacity, or other extreme, serious, and grave detriment that makes for a less than decent life (a dangerous measurement, admittedly) should be humanely killed, if that is possible.) At last, I do think there is a very good reason to end such a slippery slope at birth, practicality.

  30. Just to be clear, I'm not saying a fetus has personhood. I'm saying a fetus entails personhood (whatever the definition or when it begins). Morality is tightly bound with efficacy... a weighing of expected outcomes.

  31. "Morality is tightly bound with efficacy... a weighing of expected outcomes."

    If a woman who has been raped decides to rid herself of the 'eventual' person, the idea of efficacy has been rendered moot.

    I place eventual within quotations, as NEBob rightfully notes, there is no certainty after conception.

  32. Ian,

    In no way does a fetus entail personhood, at least not for any definition I understand for "fetus," "entail," or "personhood."

  33. Darek W,

    If a woman who has been raped decides to rid herself of the 'eventual' person, the idea of efficacy has been rendered moot.

    No, it's still a weighing of expected outcomes: E(aborting) vs. E(carrying rapist's child to term). Appraise as you will. I'm trying to explore a different angle, not prove a conclusion.

    I place eventual within quotations, as NEBob rightfully notes, there is no certainty after conception.

    I was unaware of how prevalent early miscarriage is. Regardless, my argument doesn't hinge on "certainty after conception."


    In no way does a fetus entail personhood, at least not for any definition I understand for "fetus," "entail," or "personhood."

    So... people come from storks?

    -- Ian.

  34. (Bah, that's not how expected value notation is used! Stupid stats.)

  35. I.Strange:

    You must be using "entail" in some way I don't quite get. I understand that personhood entails having been a fetus, but not the other way around.

    The certainty, to me, of a fertilized egg becoming a person is, numerically, surprisingly low, as I recall from the last time I looked it up. Morally it's equivalent to whether or not you introduce two people who could eventually reproduce, but will not if you don't introduce them.

  36. I.Strange,

    No, it's still a weighing of expected outcomes: E(aborting) vs. E(carrying rapist's child to term). Appraise as you will. I'm trying to explore a different angle, not prove a conclusion.

    Rape is not an expected outcome (at least for the victim). The conception which was a product of that rape may lead to an expected outcome, but the scale on which that is being weighed is already broken, if you get my meaning (which I think you do).

    Regardless, my argument doesn't hinge on "certainty after conception."

    Its unclear to me what your argument is.

  37. Morality is tightly bound with efficacy... a weighing of expected outcomes.

    Statistically, the expected outcome is that a zygote will not survive. The odds that a particular zygote will survive become greater as it succeeds in correctly traversing each stage of development, until near birth there is less than a 1% chance it won't make it. That fits well with the trimester model of advancing societal interest set in Roe v Wade. While individually we find it inconceivable that the universe could have gotten along without us, that may be because we are not aware of the two or three sibling zygotes who likely would have been quite similiar to us and who didn't navigate the process till birth. Any of them might have been a perfectly acceptable substitute.

  38. You must be using "entail" in some way I don't quite get. I understand that personhood entails having been a fetus, but not the other way around.

    It's a biconditional relation. A not-aborted fetus is sufficient condition for an advanced fetus, a newborn, (a tree!) because it grows into such. So, whenever personhood is thought to begin, it's entailed. Yes, there are error bars on that sufficiency and a host of external influences, but that's always the case when looking forward.

    The certainty, to me, of a fertilized egg becoming a person is, numerically, surprisingly low, as I recall from the last time I looked it up.

    I don't doubt it, but the decision in question is aborting/not-aborting. What is the conditional probability given not-abortion, i.e. at the development stage when the abortion is/is not performed?

    Morally it's equivalent to whether or not you introduce two people who could eventually reproduce, but will not if you don't introduce them.

    I don't know. The difference with abortion (as opposed to introducing two people, deciding to conceive, using a condom, what have you) is that there's an actual thing under consideration. In programmer's parlance, you have johnSmith, an instantiated object of class HumanBeing, with many null attributes and method stubs. What's morally permissible, then, will depend on one's views. Does johnSmith have a soul? Does it have capacity to suffer? Does it have telos? Does it have autonomy? Does it evoke moral instinct? Does it capitalized Live? That's a different kind of discussion with a possibly different conclusion. One can argue moral equivalence if they find abortion similarly permissible. Not the other way around though, which is how this style of argument is frequently misused.

  39. Its unclear to me what your argument is.

    Just as well. After mulling it over some more, I don't much care for it.

  40. It is interesting that the issue of competing interests was not better developed in the paper or in the comments.

    One way to think about this is in terms of competing interests. To follow up on Michael's notes, it seems clear that before say 13 weeks, the fetus doesn't have "interests" that can be in competition with the woman's -- her interests in having control of her own body, or more precisely, in not having to carry an unwanted child to term, therefore 'win' because there isn't anything for those interests to be in competition with.

    We might quibble about the 13-26 zone, but for those of us who are broadly in favor of permitting women to decide to terminate their pregnancies, it seems clear that the interests of the woman in, again, not having to carry an unwanted baby to term very likely trump whatever minimal kinds of interests the fetus might have.

    The case is trickier at 26+ weeks, because the fetus begins to have more interests, and other people (might) begin to have a legitimate interest in the outcome as well. Here I think we would need to have a discussion, as a society, about how to balance these competing interests, and under what conditions which set of interests should 'win.' Certainly, I would suggest that anytime the woman's life or health is endangered by continuing the pregnancy, she ought to have the legal right to terminate it, because, again, her interests in not being harmed outweigh any interests either the fetus or others' might have in the outcome...

    Just some thoughts.



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