Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Why abortion isn’t murder

A fertility clinic is on fire. In the storage area at the back of the building there’s a portable freezer unit containing 100 live human embryos. In the reception lounge at the front, trapped under a chair, there’s a screaming three-year-old child. You can save one, but as soon as you open the door and let in the oxygen the fire will take the building. Which one do you save?

You see where I’m going here, right? This sort of question is bread and butter for moral philosophers: think of a scenario where the answer is obvious, then extrapolate principles that can be applied to situations where the answer isn’t obvious. Most people choose to save the child. From this it must follow that they don’t value an embryo’s life the same as a child’s, or even at one-hundredth the price.

Try asking a pro-lifer this question and see how they respond. I’ll tell you how they don’t respond, or at least haven’t lately in my many arguments with them since joining Tumblr: they don’t answer “I would save the embryos, of course. It’s very sad about the one child in the reception lounge, but it would be immeasurably sadder to lose all the children in the freezer.” Instead the answer you repeatedly get is “I would probably save the one child, but that’s an emotional response and doesn’t have anything to do with right and wrong.” And you have to prod them to get even that much. Generally they evade the question until you’ve asked it three or four times.

First off, if morality isn’t about emotions, what is it about? Most moral philosophers will tell you that morality isn’t objective, because you can’t get from an “is” statement like (in this instance) “A child is in danger” to a “should” statement like “I should save the child” except by calling in another “should” statement like “One should always protect children”, and if you try and prove that second “should” statement you just go around the circle again, and so on forever. Without rational proofs or empirical backing, all you have to call on is your moral instincts. And here they’re pretty clear.

Pro-lifers, as a rule, seldom get their morality from philosophers, but they are disproportionately likely to pay at least lip service to a certain 1st-century populist rabbi who will be found to have said (following Rabbi Hillel) that morality is an expression of love and consists of doing for other people what you would want for yourself, and obviously love and empathy are both subjective emotional states. But religion doesn’t break the circle; “You should do what God says” is just another “should”.

Personally I think the philosophers are overly pessimistic. A “should” statement can, in fact, be objectively true if it rests on an “I want” statement; if I want functional teeth then I should cut back on sugar, if I want to sleep tonight then I should get off the internet. (To use more technical language, “should” statements may have no truth-value, but they do have utility-value.) Might there be some “should” statement that applies to any possible “I want”?

Well, if we’re really pedantic about what counts as “possible”, then no there won’t be, because for any “should”, someone can always say “I want to do the opposite of that.” But there are some “should”s that at least apply to any plausible “I want”, and one of them is “You should not destroy anything you might need”, and one thing you can count on always needing is other people’s trust. And it just so happens that our moral instincts evolved to allow us to trust one another. I have made a longer, but not necessarily clearer, case for trust-based morality here.

Now if you want to earn people’s trust, you can’t weigh every decision separately according to how much it’ll make them trust you, because then they have to worry that one day your calculations might tell you to harm them. You have to behave in a way that allows them to predict you won’t do that. Your actions must not only be benevolent, but clearly and consistently benevolent. For an individual, that means practising virtues – kindness, fairness, courtesy, charity, patience, and so on. For an institution or a society, it means treating people according to a consistent code of rights. And this is where we can start to buckle down to the abortion problem, because here it seems that one person’s right to life conflicts with another person’s right to bodily autonomy. It’s conflicts like this that send us looking for a deeper principle that can resolve them, and I say that principle is trust.

The pro-life position is that abortion is murder. Murder is the breach of the human right to life, and I do hope I don’t need to explain how that might erode trust between people. Two questions arise here. First, who or what has the right to life, and who or what does not? Where do you draw the boundary? And second, if you have to choose between one person’s right to life and another’s right to bodily autonomy, which one should win? Always life, always bodily autonomy, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?

I’m going to address those questions in the reverse order. If the phrase “bodily autonomy” is unfamiliar, it means what is breached by rape, cannibalism, and organ theft, and if that list gives you a shiver of horror then you know why bodily autonomy is a right that people have. The answer to the second question may surprise pro-lifers: generally we privilege bodily autonomy even over human life. You might be dying of kidney failure, but you still don’t get to steal someone else’s kidney. In most countries, in fact, you can’t even take that kidney after they’re dead unless they’ve signed an organ donor pledge.

However, pro-choicers have been pointing this out for long enough now that some pro-lifers have come up with an answer. It’s not organ theft if the person consents to donate their kidney, and it’s not rape if the person consents to sex. Now, if your body is of the kind that can get pregnant and you willingly have unprotected sex with someone whose body is of the kind that gets other people pregnant, haven’t you consented at least to take the risk that you might get pregnant? And if you consent, there’s no breach of bodily autonomy, and hence you have no right that over-rides the foetus’s right to life.

The problem with this answer is that bodily autonomy is an inalienable right. You can’t waive it or sign it away. If for any reason you decide you don’t want to go through with the kidney donation after all, you can pull out at any time before the general anaesthetic kicks in. If you wanted sex before but now you don’t feel like it any more, you can withdraw consent at any moment and your partner must respect that. A kiss, as the old student awareness campaign sticker says, is not a contract. Once again, I hope I can leave you to figure out why this is a necessary condition for social trust. On the same principle, one night’s unprotected sex, however willing, cannot commit you to nine months of pregnancy without any chance to change your mind. Your right to bodily autonomy is inalienable.

On the other hand, as pro-lifers point out, abortion is invariably, designedly fatal to the embryo or foetus. With kidney donation, you would usually have a pool of potential donors to choose from. The situation might occasionally arise where there was only one donor and that one donor said “no”, and the patient had to resign themselves to dying; but that would be an extreme case, a rare misfortune, which it isn’t in abortion. And it’s not like it’s the embryo’s fault that it’s attached to the pregnant person’s body. So pro-lifers see in abortion an inexcusably cavalier attitude to human life. It’s a calculated, premeditated killing of a human being, they say, and that makes it murder.

Which is our cue to turn to the first question we raised. Where do you draw the line between a person who has the right to life and an organism which doesn’t? On which side of the line is the embryo or foetus that is killed by abortion? Pro-lifers draw the line at what they call “conception”, which they assert is the “beginning of life” or, at least, of human life. Can we answer their case?

There’s no denying that fertilization is a critical event in the development of a new human. Indeed, it comes naturally to think of fertilization as the critical event, because unlike the events leading up to it (such as oogenesis and ovulation) and the events following it (such as implantation and gastrulation), fertilization is an immediate consequence of a conscious activity – namely sexual intercourse. It’s the one point in the whole long process where we can deliberately intervene without medical assistance. The stages before and after are tucked away out of reach. They seem magical, as if the body were a black box with only one button on it (labelled Sex) which usually has no effect but occasionally causes the box to pop out a baby. But when you find that thinking a certain way comes naturally, that’s a sign that you should take especial care to question it – the more so when it involves black boxes and magic.

One thing fertilization certainly is not is the beginning of life. Life began, according to science, about 3.6 billion years ago. If it’s ever begun a second time since then, it’s on a planet we haven’t discovered yet. Life is continuous. An unfertilized ovum is not lifeless. A human ovum, fertilized or not, is human, just as a human skin cell is human. At some point, obviously, we have to draw a line in the sand and say: up until now this organism wasn’t a person, but from now on it is. But if we’re looking for a point at which, objectively, a non-living thing becomes a living one, we will look in vain. If we’re looking for a point at which something that wasn’t human becomes human, we will look in vain.

Presumably when pro-lifers talk about “the beginning of life”, they mean the beginning of individual life. This they must identify with genetically individual life, since the genome is what changes in an ovum at fertilization. Once again, it would be idle to deny that biologists do talk this way, especially biologists working with species (like many plants or fungi) where the boundary between one “individual” and another is frequently unclear. To conflate this biological sense of the word “individual” with its personal sense, however, would be nothing more than wordplay. You must argue your case that genetic individuality equals personal, moral individuality.

What if humans reproduced by cloning instead of sexually? Some animals do, including stick-insects and whiptail lizards. They don’t have fertilization and aren’t genetic individuals. What then would be “the beginning of life”? That’s a science fiction scenario, but even in reality genetic individuality won’t quite line up with personal individuality. Identical twins are not genetic individuals; they come from one ball of cells that split in half after fertilization. Is it murder to kill someone if you make sure their identical twin survives? Of course it is. The opposite can happen as well: you can have two ova, fertilized by different sperm, that merge into one ball of cells. That’s called “chimaerism”, and although much rarer than identical twinning, there have been confirmed human cases. Is a human chimaera two people? If, in the vagaries and vicissitudes of development, one of the two ova ends up only contributing one kidney to the adult organism, is it murder to excise that kidney? On the pro-life view, after all, it was a separate person for a while there.

The superficial cause of the confusion is the idea that your DNA is the “essence” of your individuality, the thing that “makes you you”. It’s true that DNA is the closest thing to an “essence” that actually exists – but that’s not saying much. Because the deeper cause of the confusion is the idea that the question “When does a human organism become a person with human rights?” is answered by finding the moment at which it acquires a new individual “essence”, at which “something radically new springs into being” as pro-lifers have been known to put it. This runs afoul of the small problem that there is no such thing as essence, and therefore no moment at which anything radically new springs into being. The misconception derives from an ingrained habit of the human mind, which when it’s mistaken for an insight into reality is called “essentialism”.

Essentialism is a necessary shortcut if we are to navigate the world in real time. We wouldn’t get on very far if we had to treat every chair and table we encountered as a novel thing with unknown properties. Instead we make up classes of things called (in this example) “Chairs” and “Tables”, and we then assume that each new chair has the same properties as other chairs and that each new table has the same properties as other tables. It was a great advance in computing when we invented what’s called “object-oriented programming”, which works on the same principle.

However, essentialism is not reality. In reality, you and I and my cat and the blackbird he killed and left in the bath are all unique and complex configurations of molecules. If you think consciousness or will require “spirit” or whatever as well as molecules, I disagree, but I’ll let it pass; make it “unique configurations of molecules and spirit”, and the point remains unchanged. Yes, those configurations fall into clusters of similarity (such as “humans” and “cats”) rather than forming a smooth continuum. And yes, we humans with our essentialistic minds must somewhere draw a boundary and say, the things on this side are Human Beings and the things on that side are not Human Beings, and we treat them differently. But no, reality is not going to do that work for us. There is no moment at which an ovum, zygote, embryo, foetus, infant, child, adolescent, or adult instantly becomes a different kind of thing.

Instead, let’s approach the problem from the other direction. What is it about humans that makes it morally wrong to kill one, and whatever it is, when in development does it begin? Different cultures have had different ideas throughout time. The pro-life idea that it’s “conception” is at one extreme of the spectrum – especially if by “conception” they mean not fertilization at all but the sexual act, which would explain a few things. Nobody seems to think menstruation is a person dying. At the other extreme, most non-state cultures allow for newborns to be abandoned or killed if their mothers cannot support them; but the line is always drawn long before the child is old enough to talk. The traditional Christian answer, going back via St Augustine to Aristotle, is that personhood begins when the foetus “quickens” and begins to move in the uterus. But what’s the best answer?

When is it all right to kill a living thing? If I am ever run over by a car and my spine breaks and I lose all movement in my lower body, I hope I will be given a wheelchair and a lifetime prescription for analgaesics, not a lethal injection. On the other hand, I am glad – in a sad way, if you can understand that – that when that happened to our family cat when I was twelve years old, she was gently put down rather than allowed to live on in pain. What’s the difference? That humans have a concept of death. If mercy-killing severely injured people were the general practice, we would anticipate it with terror in the case of an accident, and it would exacerbate rather than alleviate our suffering.

As with all moral problems, it fundamentally comes back to trust. We need to be perfectly clear at all times who has the right to life and what does not. The boundary must be drawn at some moment whose occurrence is absolutely beyond doubt, and it must be before there is the least possibility of our anticipating death or forming relationships of trust with our fellow humans. It would be helpful, also, if we could rely on it happening after we no longer need to violate another person’s bodily autonomy just to survive. If we can find such a moment, we should confidently say: this is when a human organism acquires human rights. At this moment, not before or after, it becomes a person and killing it becomes murder.

Nature, as we have seen, allows for no sharp ontological breaks, so perhaps we shouldn’t get our hopes up? No, in this instance she has been unusually accommodating to our essentialistic minds. It turns out there is one event in the process of human development which

  • takes about a minute (though with precursors typically lasting hours); and
  • never leaves us in any doubt as to whether it has happened; and
  • ends the new organism’s dependence on exploiting another person’s body; and
  • occurs years before the new organism is capable of understanding death or entering relationships.

That event is birth.


  1. For illustrations to be useful, they must parallel the moral situation being examined. Most philosophers will see immediately that the fertility clinic illustration does not provide a useful parallel with the abortion question. The moral dilemma conveniently brought into play in the example, pitting embryos against a screaming 3 year old simply does not apply to 99.999% of abortion decisions, where both parties are perfectly safe and involved in a completely normal, natural and safe procedure.

    1. On the contrary, for moral thought experiments to be useful they must probe the boundaries of the situations being examined, and if that comes at the cost of a little plausibility then so be it.

    2. Sorry Daniel, this has nothing to do with a problem of plausibility - but rather it is not examining the same moral dilemma. Your example is fine for examining which life should take priority IF both are in immediate danger and that's all. To illustrate could we use a fictional example of some disaster meaning we can save only one of EITHER a 10 year old child or a 90 year old to suggest that all 90 year olds can be killed simply when they are deemed incovnenient - (or conversely all 10 year olds - depending on your personal morality)? Of course not. That logic is clearly flawed but this IS an exact parallel to your example.

    3. No it's not. An exact parallel would be if there were one hundred 90-year-olds.
      The point wasn't that the embryos can be killed whenever they're inconvenient. The point was that no-one actually values them as persons. Pit embryonic lives against child lives in any other scenario except abortion: people reliably favour the children. Even if it's one child versus a hundred embryos. Even if the people you're asking oppose abortion on the grounds that it's killing a person. It turns out that applies only to abortion. (They also oppose stem cell research, but no-one seems to be pushing for stem cell lab embryos to be brought to term and adopted.)

    4. Ha - funny re one hundred 90 year olds. The parallel being referred to is the moral one - thought that was obvious. Your statement 'Any other scenario except abortion' is totally meaningless until you provide a scenario comparable to abortion, where a choice is not 'forced' to be made between the two. There is only one choice available with abortion, either to kill an innocent human being or not to kill it. The other reason this scenario is meaningless is that abortions in almost all cases do not kill 'embryos' but foetuses which are not just multi-cell blobs but instead are almost fully developed human beings analogous to a 1 day old birthed child (that gets the protection of the law) in all but location and a bit of time, i.e. they are conscious and feel pain and fear in the same way that the day old does. As for stem cell research, again there is a choice - use adult stem cell research instead, which yields far better results and kills no-one. Also, the act of opposing stem cell research implies and will result in not having stem cell lab embryos that need to be brought to term and adopted, so that logic is flawed also.

    5. There is only one choice available with abortion, either to kill an innocent human being or not to kill it.
      Yeah, no, you don't get to ignore the original post entirely and start spouting your own view as if I hadn't said anything and then expect me to--- what, exactly? Type out all over again the bits where I've argued already that abortion isn't "killing an innocent human being"?

    6. Um - ok - remember that my thread is not (yet) discussing anything other than pointing out why your original thought experiment is logically flawed. If you choose to ignore that and object only to my assessment that abortion is killing an innocent human being, then that is your right, but what I 'expected you to do' (to answer your question) is respond calmly and logically to the particular point of this comment thread, and demonstrate why you think your chosen thought experiment is valid. To show charity to your last response however, you are most welcome to insert whatever label you like in the gap: 'There is only one choice available with abortion, either to kill ... or not to kill it'. You see, with respect, t's not really the point of this particular discussion (yet?).

      Furthermore, I have re-read your post Daniel carefully, and you are welcome to correct me, but I still get that sense it is not about a) whether abortion is killing something (that's plainly obvious), nor b) whether it's a human being that's being killed (that's plainly obvious too scientifically). It's rather about whether 'killing an innocent human being' is morally justified. There's a difference. Remember your title? 'Why abortion isn't murder'. Of course you are welcome to your opinion on that, which clearly differs from mine but we haven't even engaged on that to date. So I still fail to see what objection you have to my 'label' in my last post that is actually a fair one.

      Finally, sorry for the anonymity, I'm just not sure I have a way to sign in that provides my name. I am Richard Coulbeck. I think we may have met down in Dunedin, probably 15 years or so ago, when your folks (Your Dad is Neil right?) were at 'Apo' in Union St? I sincerely hope you enjoy this friendly discussion. :)

    7. Um - ok - remember that my thread is not (yet) discussing anything other than pointing out why your original thought experiment is logically flawed.
      It's decidedly foolish of you to misrepresent a situation that can be checked with a single flick of the scroll button, to where you said
      ...abortions in almost all cases do not kill 'embryos' but foetuses which are not just multi-cell blobs but instead are almost fully developed human beings analogous to a 1 day old birthed child (that gets the protection of the law) in all but location and a bit of time, i.e. they are conscious and feel pain and fear in the same way that the day old does.
      Your primary claim here is false; even this anti-abortion website admits that at least 89% of abortions occur within the first trimester, when the conceptus is still referred to as an embryo. More to the point, however, this goes far beyond discussing the validity of the thought experiment with which this blog post opens.
      Of course nothing but abortion is exactly like abortion. The thought experiment is not intended to represent every aspect of abortion. I fear I cannot respond in further detail to your challenge to its validity, as I am unable to parse what that challenge actually is.
      The scenario raises one single relevant question: Are embryonic lives as valuable as child lives? Hypothetically, the two possible answers are "Yes" and "No". In practice, when I present people with this scenario, the answers I get are "No" (from pro-choicers) and "I refuse to answer that question" (from pro-lifers including yourself).
      If you have read the post carefully and think I do not raise any doubts as to whether it's a human being that's being killed, then either my communication skills or your comprehension skills are at fault. Your assertion that it's "plainly obvious too scientifically" makes me suspect the latter.
      Here's the fundamental fact of biology that is key to my argument here:
      All biological categories are fuzzy.
      All categories. No exceptions. Relevantly to this discussion, this includes the category "human being". There is no sharp line one can draw between "human being" and "not a human being"---
      ---but now I'm doing what I said I wasn't going to do, and repeating what I said in the post.
      Misrepresenting the state of an argument, trying to dictate what your conversation may and may not respond to, and (especially) asserting as fact the very propositions which the conversation is intended to call into question, are not friendly acts, regardless of what our previous social contacts may have been.

    8. OK - Daniel, let's leave it to other readers (if there are any) to review the course of our conversation and decide whether every point I raised was relevant to the original question/challenge I asked first regarding what I and other see as the logical flaw with your thought experiment. Arguing about labels again is not relevant to that - your experiment was regarding quote: "100 human embryos" - arguably a different level of development to the things that are usually aborted. That's all. BTW - human embryos? Yet apparently there is no sharp line one can draw? Seriously? See the lengths you are having to go to cling to your position? Simply disagreeing with your point of view has nothing to do with friendliness - imo anyway. Given you fear you are unable to parse that original challenge, I am happy to let you have the last word on what is of course your blog. Regards.

    9. There is no sharp line one can draw. That's not a "length" to go to. It's a plain fact if you learn anything about cellular biology. Every transition is gradual.