07 September, 2007

Ethical Issues in the Abortion Debate (part I)

Pro-Choice? Pro-Life? Anti-Choice? Anti-Life? The semantics of the abortion debate are well known to any moderately informed citizen. So are the tactics; both sides accuse the other of various offenses, both moral and rational. But what never seems to really happen, at least in the general public conversation, is the rational and dispassionate discussion of the overall coherency of any given position. Can either position be defended without recourse to emotion or rhetoric?

I consider myself pro-life AND pro-choice. Pro-life because I believe that every human being is valuable as an end in itself and that our laws should be written to offer protection to individuals against harm. Pro-choice because I do not believe that a clump of cells is the moral equivalent of a human being worthy of such protection. On my view, abortion should be legally available until the point at which the developing fetus acquires those characteristics that enable the formation of moral agency, the foundation of rights and morality. Specifically, that's the brain and scientifically, it begins to develop sometime around the 10th or 11th week of pregnancy and that's where I would place the limit for abortion-on-demand. I would still support legal abortions after that point, but only in cases of rape or where the life or health of the mother was at risk.

I haven't explained the foundations of my reasoning, but some of it should be self-evident. Very briefly, any being with the self-awareness and cognitive ability to conceive of "rights" and recognize that such pertain to itself is deserving of being accorded such rights. What rights exist to be recognized will depend upon the nature of the being conceiving them. I don't want to digress too deeply on this point (as a proper defense of my theory of rights would take pages), but suffice to say here that so-called "human" rights aren't necessarily constrained to the beings we label "humans", but are constrained to beings with the same relevant essential property as humans, namely moral agency: the ability to conceive of and act in accordance with a system of values. We know that humans are moral agents and therefore have certain rights, including the right of self-determination (which subsumes a right to life). Again, I'm not going to digress into an explanation of why human rights include self-determination. Grant me this point ad argumentum for the moment.

So when does the fetus become a human being worthy of the protection of law? Well, as I've noted already the brain is the seat of consciousness and reasoning. Both are required for the existence of moral agency, so the fetus cannot be a human being until such time as it develops a brain. We cannot state for certain the point at which a brain becomes capable of generating consciousness, so I would place the limit at the point at which the development of the brain exhibits sufficient complexity for ANY processing. Again, as I noted that's about the 10th or 11th week. And that's where I would place the limit on abortion on demand.

Against this view, a couple of objections might be raised:

1) Human beings have "intrinsic" value which is not delineated by any point in fetal development (i.e., "human life begins at conception"). Well, I object to the fundamental premise of this objection as I believe that "values" are relational rather than merely existential. Objects possess value by virtue of their relationship to a subject in a particular context. Thus every value requires a valuer. The idea of "intrinsic value" seems to me incoherent for it would require the existence of value without valuers; that we could speak coherently of objects having value even though there were no one around to value them (would gold be valuable even if no one wanted it?). In the case of human beings, the valued object and the valuer are one and the same (the object, an individual's life, being valued by the subject, the individual). And as moral agency is required for the conception of value, this delineation for which I've argued seems to hold. Therefore, I don't find this objection coherent or successful.

2) While the 11-week-old fetus certainly possesses a rudimentary brain, it's nowhere near capable of actually generating consciousness. In fact, studies have shown that self-awareness and abstract thought don't really develop until AFTER birth. Given this, what would be wrong with killing infants themselves as they are not yet moral agents? This is a more serious objection. The philosopher Peter Singer has actually argued that the killing of severely retarded or deformed infants is morally defensible using very similar logic. As an animal rights proponent, Singer was intending to show a logical consequence of basing the human right to life on moral agency, rather than any other feature (Singer would use the ability to experience pain). My response to this is twofold: first, to note that I'm applying my argument at the class rather than individual level. Human beings as a class exhibit moral agency. Human beings as a class have a particular fetal development pattern and the delineation I propose is based on that class characteristic, not that of any particular indivdual. It is irrelevant, therefore as to whether any individual or group of individuals within the class exhibit moral agency. This line of argumentation could also be applied to non-human animals were they to exhibit the relevant levels of sentience.

Second, I would argue that a bright-line delineation is in any case impossible to determine. Most reasonable people would agree that an embryo or zygote are not the moral equivalent of a human person, but most reasonable people would also agree that an infant is. I propose to use brain development as a reasonable point of delineation due to its necessary relationship with moral agency.

I realize that these are not entirely satisfactory defenses against this objection. As I noted, it is a serious one. I believe however that it is more in line with our moral intuitions than arguing that it is acceptable to kill infants. IOW, we seem to have at least some level of a priori reason to believe that it is wrong to kill infants and we should treat with some degree of skepticism any argument to the contrary. Still, I concede that more thought is needed on this point.

Back to my rationale: I noted that I would allow "exceptions" in cases of rape or where the life or health of the mother were to be endangered. My reasoning here is as follows:

As every human being has the right of self-determination, we are all also endowed with the right to protect our own lives. A pregnant woman has this right to no less extent than a non-pregnant one and in cases where her own life or health are threatened, has the right to take steps to protect herself.

As with life and health, so also with rape. A woman who has become pregnant as the result of a rape did not consent to be pregnant. As she has the right of self-determination, she has the right to take steps to divest herself of the unwanted, unconsented pregnancy.

Against these views, some objections might be raised:

1) The fetus is an innocent and killing it cannot be justified. The killing of an innocent is certainly regrettable, but the justification of such killings is not impossible. Consider a hypothetical situation: a mad scientist has placed a man under mind control and is directing him to threaten you and your family. The man is completely unaware of and did not consent to his threatening behavior and thus is innocent of any wrongdoing, but he is no less a threat for his innocence. If the only possible means for you to protect yourself and/or your family is to take his life, you are justified in doing so as your right to self-preservation in the face of unwarranted violence overrides the innocent's right to life.

2) Killing the fetus cannot be justified to preserve the mother's health. This objection presumes that killing to protect one's life may be justified, but killing to preserve one's health is not. It's often accompanied by the suggestion that pregnancy is an "inconvenience" at best and killing the fetus is a "selfish" and unjustified act. Of course, pregnancy can be inconvenient. It can also have serious health consequences, some of which are life-altering.

Another hypothetical often offered in response to these types of objections is the so-called "famous violinist" scenario. Imagine that you awake one morning to find that you have been the victim of an egregious personal violation. While you were unconscious, a famous and gifted violinist has been "grafted" onto your body in such a way that all of his bodily functions are being performed by your body. In other words, his own heart, lungs, circulatory, and digestive systems have been removed and he now relies upon yours. The parasitic nature of the relationship is health (both physical and emotional) threatening to you, but it will be impossible to separate yourself from him without killing him. Are you justified in doing so? Most people would agree that continued hosting of the violinist is superogatory; that we have no duty to become slaves to another and thus that while the violinist' death is regrettable, it is ethically acceptable to have him removed.

3) Okay, I'll give you rape, but a woman who had consensual sex has by her actions consented to undertake the risk of getting pregnant (no birth control method is 100% successful) and thus the risks inherent in being pregnant. Like Singer's argument on the killing of infants, this is a more serious objection. Until very recently, I found it rather persuasive, but I am now convinced that it is not. My reasoning hinges upon what we mean by "consent" and how we actually assign moral responsibility.

But this post is long enough already. I'll delay the answer to that objection for my second post on this topic where I want to look at some ethical "dilemmas" and issues that both sides need to consider carefully in evaluating their positions on abortion.

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