Today i wanted to address an issue that has been gnawing at me for some time. I thought it always strange how liberals would be against abortion and not for it. After all is not the entire future of an unborn at stake? Siding with the weak, the voiceless, the unheard. This is what liberals do in almost all other cases. That the whole argument against abortion was coming from the political conservative and the religious stumped me. The pro life movement is so filled with Christians that it appears to be a christian issue. But its not. Its a humanist issue. It is universal. I had always held a fairly neutral position. Always in some corner of my mind wondering why i seemed to have a slight tendency towards the pro life argument purely based on intuition. I got older though and it seemed to me that both sides had strong arguments which needed careful evaluation. And i never settled into one camp either way. My interest was sparked when someone told me about an abortion she had while attending university. This has left her with an emotional scar which has not healed. Even now, some thirty years later. I had on no conscious level questioned the morals of abortion before. Most of my friends are atheists and the overwhelming majority are pro choicers. I would always get that weird look when it came up and i had not formed an opinion yet. On some level peer pressure may have led me to delay research. After all we agree on most things. In public debates anti abortion views are defended almost entirely by religious groups. The left wing, liberal, atheist view is usually what i agree with. So they are probably right on this one too. Or are they?
We atheists pride ourselves on being open to arguments and change our mind if need be. If that is you then give my argument an honest look. I think it is very strong and i would love to get some input. Also secularist arguments against abortion are quite rare. Should you hold a pro life view derived from a religious foundation you might have realized that theist arguments hold no value to an atheist. And as such any discussion tends to be little constructive. Well just try an argument without god. Or maybe you just enjoy a good mind puzzle. In any case, your input is greatly valued. Help me put this one together.
Most debates i saw and most articles i read start with the proposition that at some point the whole becomes more as the sum of its parts. Let me clarify. At some point in development the embryo becomes worth protecting. We all agree that the constituting event towards a right to life occurs at some point along the human development. An eight month pregnancy should not be purposly terminated other than for catastrophic medical reasons. By then the unborn child has a nervous system, a brain, a circulatory system and so on. Following this, one needs to declare a certain timeframe after which it is morally wrong to abort. This suggests that the burden of proof lies with this position. It also reflects the current laws in most western countries. Before we can go into the wide range of arguments we need to attack this problem on a basic philosophical ground.
We begin with a premise. Every human being has an inherent right to life. A human being is a member of the species homo sapiens. Life is the condition that seperates animals and plants from inorganic matter. It has a capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, the transformation of energy and death. An inherent right is a right that is derived simply from being human. It is universal to all humans. These rights can be diminished by a court of law, for example, but they are the default position. Inherent rights are widely accepted along philosophers, lawyers, humanists, atheists and theists alike. So i dont want to get too deep into it.
We have established that every human has a right to life and that being human does not start at birth but before. If birth is not the qualifying factor what is? At this point i would like to introduce SLED (Size, level of development, environment, dependancy). Stephen Schwarz points out that the difference in these points between adult and embryo has no moral bearing towards justifying abortion.
size: A human beings size is no viable factor to revoke its inherent right to live. Women are statistically speaking smaller then men. Does this matter in a moral context? The embryo is smaller but that does not nullify its right to live.
level of development: Physical and mental. An elderly person with various afflictions which come with a late level of development does not forfeit his or her right to live. Neither does a person who will never reach the level of development a statisticly normal human being will. Be it mentally or physically. This is true for the early development stages of the human being as well. Of course the embryo is less developed than an adult. So is the 12 year old compared to the 20 year old. So is the infant compared to the six year old. It is not enough justification.
environment: Where you are is not relevant to what you are and what inherent rights come with it. A change in physical location has no influence on your inherent right to life. Moving from one room to another does not forfeit your inherent rights. Being born (exchanging one environment for another) is not enough cause to declare you were not human prior to this change in environment.
dependency: Being dependent on another, no matter to what degree, does not forfeit your right to live. Could we kill every person in a coma? The embryo is totally dependent on its mother but it still retains its right to live.
I do agree that SLED is a somewhat dated tool. But the underlying thought is still a valid one. Which measurement can be applied to the embryo that distinguishes it so strongly from an adult or child that killing it is morally justified. At what point do we consider someone or even something a member of the human race. I don’t think it is too far fetched to argue that one becomes a member of the human race at the point were sperm cells fuse with an egg cell. Sperm cells on their own can not divide and therefore have limited lifespans. They will never become a human being on their own. The same is true for egg cells. The egg cell will never develop into a human being without the infusion of new genetic material. Both have 23 chromosomes. Together they form a diploid cell that consists of 46 chromosomes. Human beings are diploid organisms. They are composed of diploid cells. This newly created cell is a special form of diploid cell called a zygote. In organisms composed of more than one cell it is the earliest developmental stage of the embryo. It holds genetic traits from mother and father and is therefore a genetically different and unique entity. The zygote holds all information necessary to develop into a fully grown human being. Besides care it does not need anything else. It is totally dependent on its mother but a distinguished genetic entity. At this point gender is determined. Hair and eye color, risk for certain genetic conditions and so on can be determined just by looking at the genetic make up. This zygote cell is the earliest form of human development. We all started out this way. A zygote cell that was created in the fusion process between male human DNA and female human DNA will grow to be a human embryo. A human fetus, a human infant, a human child and so forth. In the end it will die as a human being. The zygote derived from human sperm and egg cells is a human being and a potential person. It does exactly what human beings at this stage of development do. It is exactly where human beings at this stage of development are. It is not just a random cell. Therefore it must have the same inherent rights as any other human being. And that includes the right to live. A supporter of this line of reasoning is the late Christopher Hitchens.
“Here is a page that supports the belief that your definition is widely accepted scientifically:
List of Quotes From Medical Textbooks/Scientists Proving Life Begins at Conception
I would also highly recommend this article by Dr. Maureen Condic:
Thanks for the links.
But hey wait a minute! You haven’t touched on personhood yet. I agree that the argument of personhood is a good one. If it is a valid argument it would challenge the very basis of my argument beforehand. It would then come down to a question of ideology even belief. Does every human being inherit certain rights or does every person. Also it does support a wider possible range of creatures that would have certain rights. Suppose an early stage planet of the apes scenario or first contact.
The Argument goes like this. Once an assembly of cells can be called a person it attains certain inherent rights. Much like the ones i ascribed to every human. Therefore, terminating a zygote is not morally wrong because it has not achieved personhood. Marry Anne Warren gives us a tool to determine the personhood of an entity. She says the five most important signs of personhood are:
3. Self-motivated activity
4. Capacity to communicate
5. Presence of self-concepts/self-awareness
Note that her tool is somewhat limited in ascertaining personhood since (probably) none of the criteria alone will be enough to establish personhood. But a combination of less than five signs might be. If all five sings are there, its a pretty good bet you are dealing with a person. And vice versa. If no sign is there you are not dealing with a person. And i do agree with her. The zygote is not conscious. It has no ability to reason. It cant perform self motivated activity. It lacks the capacity to communicate and has no self concepts, nor is it self aware. The zygote is not a person. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it falls victim to the spirit of the SLED argument. Are you a person while you are sleeping? Certainly the zygote is not conscious but neither were any of us at the the same stage in development. And we undeniably are persons now. The zygote might not be a person now but it has the potential to become one. And potential has value. We spent loads of money on potential great athletes. We subsidize branches of research that show, or even suggest to show, great potential. Therefore potential personhood has value. The zygote has the potential to attain personhood. It has inherent value bigger than the sum of its parts. The question raised, and this is why personhood is a good argument, is does potential personhood posses enough value to constitute an inherent right to live. Warren puts it this way: “the rights of any actual person invariably outweigh those of any potential person”. I think it is a well raised point but we are not there yet.
The value of potential personhood, as some suggest, is not diminished by the commonness of potential persons. Because we are talking about genetically unique potential persons. They are individual. Persons are quite common as well, that does not make them less valuable. Nor is its value affected by many zygotes being lost before development into a person is complete. Its just nature. Just because people die everyday of old age doesn’t mean we can go around and add a few more to the body count.
With a progress in technology other problems arise. In regard to cloning is every cell in the human body a potential person? After all it could be taken and grown. Of course its not. Taking a cell out of the human body and keeping it alive will not cause it to become a person nor a potential person in development. Some assembly required. It seems to me as a layman that only once the cloning process has been started we could start talking about potential persons. Cloning and potential personhood is analogous to the egg and the sperm forming a potential person. There is another key phrase: Potential person in development. I came across a lot of arguments that propose a growth (cyst, cancer…) in the human body is a potential person because it contains the genetic makeup to create a person. While on some level there is truth to that it does not really compare here. There is still outside work to be done, besides care and environment. I propose a distinction between dormant potential persons and active ones. A dormant potential person is for example an unfertilized egg cell. Without any outside event it will not become an active potential person. An active potential person is a cell or clump of cells that has the potential to reach personhood on its own, given the proper care and environment, and is in active development. Analogous to Warren: No dormant potential persons rights can outweigh the rights of actual persons. This opens the door towards morally justifying contraception. I’m unsure if i will touch on that later, but it seems obvious that there is no moral wrong in contraception. On account of active potential persons always getting the short end of the bargain against actual persons rights i’m not so sure.
Imagine a highly complex artificial intelligence. An android for example. I suppose we all agree that at some point simply killing it is morally wrong. It might fulfill some or all of Warrens criteria to some extend. We would have to accept its inherent rights. The right to live certainly. What about the right to freedom? Could we enslave it? The argument made is this: At the point of assembly it already is a potential person. So does it have a right to be assembled? No it doesn’t. While it is a potential person it is dormant. It does not compare. Note that the android, due to its nature, can traverse the line between active and dormant personhood before assembly is 100% complete.
I think active potential personhood, just as the zygote has, is enough to grant certain inherent rights. The first and basic one should be the right to live.
While i do think this alone is a strong point to start arguing against abortion it certainly is not enough. There may be extraordinary external or internal circumstances able to justify abortion that i am itching to wrap my brain around. For example at what factor does the mothers right to control her own body enter the equation. What about unwanted pregnancy from a forced sexual encounter? What if the life of the mother is in peril? Are there other less absolute solutions? Maybe keeping the potential person alive and developing it another way or relocating the child after birth.