Abortion, Infanticide, and Difficult Decisions

So my last post on abortion tried to explain why I think it’s important to face up to the question of foetal rights, and why I’m not quite satisfied with other methods of resolving the argument.This post will try to explain what I actually think about abortion/abortion policy and why. I’m not entirely happy with the conclusion but I can’t see any realistic and consistent alternative.

Now there are two sorts of problem in making sense of foetal rights. One is selecting the best rule for “anything with feature X has a right to life”. The second is applying any criterion to a gradual process.

On the first question there’s a lot to say and I’ll try to say it quickly. Three possible criteria that I think are wrong are:

1) whatever is biologically Homo (or Homo sapiens) has rights. This is an extension of the logic that says “I will only look after members of my own family/club/company/nation/race/whatever”.  Mere species-membership is just a genetic condition, and making it the be-all and end-all is arbitrary.

2) whatever is rational has rights. This is sometimes phrased in terms self-consciousness, capacity for abstract thought, or something. This is intuitively wrong because legitimises infanticide and the killing of probably quite a lot of children. I see no real merit to it except as a way to justify continuing to abuse animals (or humans stigmatised as irrational).

3) whatever has the potential to be (something) has rights. I think this leads to all sorts of paradoxes. ‘Potential’ is a very slippery concept – first there’s my nose, which could be used to create a clone of me, hence is ‘potentially’ a person. Then we say ‘no, it doesn’t have that potential intrinsically, just if other people do something’. To which we respond ‘no zygote or embryo will become a person without being actively nourished by a mother in a breathable atmosphere’. Then we either try to devise a definition of ‘intrinsic potential’ (and fail, AFAICS) or we give up on that plan.

So the criterion that I think is most sensible is consciousness (aka awareness, feeling, sensation). If there’s something it’s like to be X, and if X can feel pleasure and displeasure, then X has some sort of rights.

Then we have a scientific questions: what things are conscious. It seems that a great number of animals are, so there’s one revolutionary conclusion. But let’s put that aside for now. It also seems that newborn babies are, and that probably foetuses at some point towards the end of pregnancy are, when their brains start doing the right electrical things.

But this brings us to the second question: how can we apply this criterion or any other to a gradual process with no sharp breaks? It seems common sense to me that 1) embryos, lacking the right sort of nervous system activity, can be destroyed without compunction, and 2) newborn babies, possessing the right sort of nervous system activity, should only be destroyed with strong justification. So where in the gradual foetal development between the two do we ‘draw the line’?

So it’s hopefully clear enough what’s causing our worries. We humans, we think in binaries: it either has rights or it doesn’t, destroying it is either fine or it’s murder. But nature does not work in binaries – between any two stages there is usually an intermediate stage. So the problem is a disconnect between how people think and how nature works.

The obvious solution is to stop thinking in binaries and bite the bullet: there can be gradual developments in the right to life. Between ‘fine’ and ‘murder’ there are infinitely many degrees of ‘a bit bad, but not too bad’.

What does this imply? I’ll talk about it morally and the politically. Morally, it means that for most of pregnancy, there’s no moral issue involved in having an abortion, but as time goes on, it becomes a more fraught decision. First it’s like swatting a fly, then like killing a small fish, then, perhaps, a snake, a bird, a cat. Then it’s like killing a baby because you’ve just given birth to a baby (or are just about to).

That’s not to say it’s wrong because there’s a moral cost involved: there may be a greater moral benefit, depending on the prospects of carrying it to term and then having whatever level of responsibility for its welfare. Sometimes the cost will outweigh the benefit and it will be wrong, other times vice versa, and sometimes they will be so close that it’s hard to say.

The most troubling implication though is that killing a baby isn’t as bad as killing a toddler. Presumably at some point the clarity and vividness of consciousness (i.e., the consciousness-ness of consciousness) plateaus, and I imagine it’s probably over a period of a few months around the toddler stage, where memory and language start to emerge. But yeah, infanticide, while not nice and wrong except under extreme circumstances, would not be murder, is the implication.

That doesn’t feel nice to say. It’s quite a historically common view, actually, but it still doesn’t feel nice. But I honestly don’t see a better way to deal with the messy gradualism of reality.

What does this mean politically though? We have given up the equal value of babies and adults. But does have to mean much in practice? I don’t think so. I think we mislead ourselves when we imagine that most moral and political decisions are made by a sort of calculation, in which each person has a number representing their ‘value’, and in which it’s important for everybody’s number to be ‘1’.

Once we look at things in this way we’ve already got to a slightly scary place, totting up other people like numbers in a pair of scales. Sure, sometimes these sorts of decisions are necessary, but I think they’re a minority of important decisions, and usually people’s biases and reasoning flaws are a much more important issue than whether they’ve got the right ‘numerical value’ for anyone.

On to the probably central question, what does any of this mean politically for abortion? Well, on this view the decision about whether to abort is a weighing of two very fuzzy things – the unknown level of development of the foetus, and the unknown future wellbeing and life-choices of the mother and future-child. But precisely this haziness and difficulty of the decision is a strong argument against the possibility of any ‘rule’ drawn up in advance and applied to millions. That is, it is precisely the difficulty of the issue that makes legal regulation inappropriate.

Ideally the decision might be made in each case by the mother and foetus together, but if the foetus were developed enough to be capable of that then the issue would be quite different. Which leaves maternal decision as the best available decision procedure.

To summarise: in trying to be consistent and realistic, I have found myself opposing at least 4 possible views:

1) that abortion is never a difficult moral decision and never morally wrong, regardless of foetal development;

2) that abortion is always a difficult moral decision, and always regrettable, regardless of foetal development;

3) that abortion should be controlled and regulated by the state or anyone other than the mother;

4) that infanticide is strictly equivalent to murder of an adult.

I feel ok about rejecting 2. and 3. Rejecting 4. feels less good, and may lead to people calling me a Nazi. Rejecting 1. gives me a twinge of… I dunno, disloyalty? Politics is very tribal and 1. is often a position taken by people who I see as my ‘tribe’. In this case, also, it’s a tribe that my membership of is shaky, what with me being male and thus not having to worry about ever getting pregnant or giving birth.

Anyway, that’s what I think, in rough outline.

17 Responses to “Abortion, Infanticide, and Difficult Decisions”

  1. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Seems to me like you started with your conclusion and tried to find a theoretical best-fit to it.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I started with tested intuitions, pieces of reasoning I was already happy with, various intermediate conclusions, and then tried to see whether and how the fitted together. I certainly didn’t start from any self-evident first principle, nor did I aim to convince people who already strongly disagreed with where I was starting. I think it’s a struggle even to have a fully consistent view on this issue, even before going on to prove it against all others.

  3. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    My question is: does one need a consistent moral theory? That is, should we let theories (in principle) override feelings in the case of morality? Why? Isn’t living according to a consistent moral calculus a form of domination antithetical to anarchism?

    If we shouldn’t let theories dominate our moral reasoning, then the question becomes about what is the best way for us to live together, politically speaking, rather than about what is right, morally speaking. I think this is a more helpful way of looking at it and avoids some of the intellectual tangles one gets into when trying to talk about what is right.

    From here I follow a similar train of reasoning to yours: destroying an embryo without a nervous system is clearly unproblematic. Killing a young child is clearly problematic. If we accept that there is value in having a simple and easily comprehensible legal system, then probably the best thing to do is to pick a threshold age in between these extremes and say that it’s OK before, and not OK after, but that the exact choice of threshold age is neither terribly important nor something capable of being decided by reason. No doubt any particular choice of age will be in some sense wrong in some cases, but the wrong that is caused in these cases is balanced by the wrongs that would likely be caused if we had a more complicated means for deciding what is or isn’t allowed.

    One could probably push this line of reasoning and take a more radical anarchist position on it.

  4. Francois Tremblay Says:

    “My question is: does one need a consistent moral theory? That is, should we let theories (in principle) override feelings in the case of morality? Why? Isn’t living according to a consistent moral calculus a form of domination antithetical to anarchism?”

    No. I’m an idealist. My position is, if you don’t have a consistent moral theory, then you have no standard on which to judge anyone else, including those you oppose.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Isn’t living according to a consistent moral calculus a form of domination antithetical to anarchism?”

    I strongly, strongly disagree. Seeking consistency, rationality and realism is the opposite of domination – it’s an attempt at reconciliation, to bring all relevant considerations, opinions, intuitions, and facts into harmony with the least need to reject or ignore any of them.

    To answer more directly to “should we let theories (in principle) override feelings in the case of morality?”, I think we need to believe that there are some facts or some truths about what should be done, whatever their ontology, and whether we call them “the best way for us to live together” or “what is right”. There are better and worse ways to think about them, but they are there (well, I happen to think both that they are, in fact, real, and that it’s important for us to have them).

    Then we just ask what our feelings are. Probably by and large there is truth and value in our feelings but they are so contradictory, within and between people, that we must sometimes reject them as prejudices or self-serving rationalisations.

  6. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Francois, but what if I don’t want to judge anyone else, but rather just find ways for us to get along even though we may disagree on many things?

    Alderson, if you have a theory that says that X is wrong, isn’t that a case where disagreement cannot be tolerated – and so doesn’t this mean that it’s a form of imposing morality on others? Take abortion for example, it seems to me that there is no way for someone who thinks that life is sacred and that life begins at conception to come to agreement with someone who thinks that an undifferentiated mass of cells is just an undifferentiated mass of cells and nothing more. Any theory that says that one or the other is right is just a form of domination of the one group over the other. (And this seems to apply just as much to a graduated scale as to a binary one.)

    It seems to me that what is really going on in the abortion debate is politics, and nothing to do with morality at all, and certainly not anything consistent.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “what if I don’t want to judge anyone else, but rather just find ways for us to get along even though we may disagree on many things?”
    It doesn’t matter whether you want to judge anyone. If someone else also wants to find a way to get along despite disagreement, and a third person is throwing acid in their face despite their best attempts, it’s about whether the person with the steaming skin is entitled to object in a way different from if they were just annoyed at being inconvenienced.

    “if you have a theory that says that X is wrong, isn’t that a case where disagreement cannot be tolerated”
    Well, I don’t think a moral theory is a datum coming into an attempt to mediate disagreement, it’s precisely that attempt itself. For example, you talk about the abortion debate in terms of two disagreeing people. IF and to whatever extent there is a rights-holding, sentient foetus involved, it is a three-person relationship, where the only legitimate goal of moral theory is to seek to avoid and condemn the domination of one by another, including the domination of the foetus through it’s destruction.

    I really feel that by elevating ‘being told that you’re wrong’ to a form of domination, you invert the order of priority between killing, maiming and torturing on the one hand, and using assertive turns of phrase on the other.

    “it seems to me that there is no way for someone who thinks that…life begins at conception to come to agreement with someone who thinks that [an embryo/foetus] is just an undifferentiated mass of cells and nothing more”
    Well if they are so convinced they must have reasons (whether inferences, deductions, experiences, emotions, etc.). The point of rational discussion is to try and share those reasons, to turn a disagreement between two people into a disagreement within each person, to find reasons for thinking one thing rather than the other which both can equally perceive the validity of, however difficult that may be.

    Because ultimately the reasons on either side are something, they have a determinate nature. If, for example, the reasons on one side are a visceral hatred of female sexuality, then I don’t see what you recommend that’s better than asserting that hatred of female sexuality is not a rational motive. Seek a compromise, so that one person’s misogyny and one person’s bodily integrity get equal respect? I don’t see how any ‘opposition to the domination of reason’ can be anything but self-contradictory in just this way.

    You present the matter as one of simply unchangeable convictions. In that case, rational discussion is obviously impossible. Saying that in such a case, declaring one side to be wrong will be a mere exercise in domination (even if legitimate and necessary domination) seems to amount to saying that when reason doesn’t work, the result is domination. Which is not a point against reason.

  8. Francois Tremblay Says:

    “Francois, but what if I don’t want to judge anyone else, but rather just find ways for us to get along even though we may disagree on many things?”

    How does one preclude the other?

  9. apostate Says:

    Just one note on terminology – calling a pregnant woman a “mother” is definitionally wrong. She is not a mother until a child has entered the picture. It is more accurate and more respectful to women’s autonomy to refer to them as “pregnant women” if the wantedness of the pregnancy is in question, as it often is in discussions of abortion.

  10. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    The way I see it, morality is an approximation, a simplification of a more complex reality. The more complex reality is the agreements we choose to make with people, the alliances we form, the laws we choose to pass, etc. The simplification is that all these things are or should be based on a reasoned set of principles. The reasoned set of principles makes it easier to talk about and share ideas, it’s cognitively useful at an individual and social level. At an individual level, it can serve as a systematic form of introspection (‘if I believe X and I believe Y, oughtn’t I to believe Z?’). At a social level, it serves as the basis for investigation by people who share ideas, and also as the basis for a form of rhetoric for people who don’t (‘if you believe X, and you believe Y, you must also believe Z’). It serves a more limited purpose as a way of coming up with general templates that can be used socially to guide what happens in specific cases. But it doesn’t always accurately reflect the reality of what is going on, and sometimes it breaks down.

    I think the case of abortion is one of those, partly because the terms we would like to use to talk about it break down or are otherwise too ill-defined (terms like ‘life’, ‘conscious’, ‘sentient’, etc.), and partly because, yes, there is a basic disagreement. A Christian of a certain sort believes that a fertilised egg is alive and that that life is just as morally important as an adult’s. What does it mean to search for the ‘reasons’ they believe that? One could say it’s because the bible says it (although it’s just one interpretation). Then the search for the ‘reasons’ would be the search for why they believe in the bible (or that particular interpretation), and why the people who wrote the bible (or who promulgated the particular interpretation) acted in the way they did. An atheist may believe the same thing for different ‘reasons’ (although are they really different? perhaps the atheist was brought up a Christian and didn’t divest themselves of all the baggage). Suppose we understood entirely all the ‘reasons’ that brought someone to the conclusion that a fertilised egg is alive in the same moral sense as an adult – what good would that do? It may be interesting, but it’s certainly not going to bring agreement any closer.

    If someone else also wants to find a way to get along despite disagreement, and a third person is throwing acid in their face despite their best attempts, it’s about whether the person with the steaming skin is entitled to object in a way different from if they were just annoyed at being inconvenienced.

    The notion of entitlement though is only one that makes sense relative to an agreed set of values and a social context in which the ‘entitlement’ manifests itself. The real questions are: do we want to build a society in which throwing acid in people’s faces doesn’t happen? and assuming we do want to, how do we do it?

    Well, I don’t think a moral theory is a datum coming into an attempt to mediate disagreement, it’s precisely that attempt itself.

    In some cases it is the attempt itself, but it’s an attempt based upon a simplification (which in some cases is fine, and in others causes problems).

    For example, you talk about the abortion debate in terms of two disagreeing people. IF and to whatever extent there is a rights-holding, sentient foetus involved, it is a three-person relationship, where the only legitimate goal of moral theory is to seek to avoid and condemn the domination of one by another, including the domination of the foetus through it’s destruction.

    The real situation though IS that there are two (or more accurately, about 6 billion) disagreeing people deciding what to do. To the extent that there may or may not be another involved, that other is powerless and is going to be a passive recipient of the decision of the two disagreeing parties in any case.

  11. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Suppose we understood entirely all the ‘reasons’ that brought someone to the conclusion that a fertilised egg is alive in the same moral sense as an adult – what good would that do? It may be interesting, but it’s certainly not going to bring agreement any closer.”
    The second sentence doesn’t strike me as true. My experience is that self-understanding often brings a change of opinion. And understanding someone else’s reasons for a belief often affects how I evaluate that belief in important ways.

    “The notion of entitlement though is only one that makes sense relative to an agreed set of values and a social context in which the ‘entitlement’ manifests itself.”
    Again, this seems false.

    I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere with this. I think ethics has the capacity for people to be (approximately) actually wrong or actually correct about things, as individuals or groups. That’s what I was assuming while I wrote the post, and while moral relativism is an interesting topic it’s not the same topic as abortion.

  12. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Alderson: isn’t some view on epistemic or moral certitude (whether it be absolutism, relativism, post-modernism, or some combination of them) implicit in any debate, discussion or quarrel with others?

    I don’t think the foetus is involved in any discussion, if only because the foetus cannot actually discuss or assert anything, so that I think is a dead-end. But if we look at a society where there are vast disagreements on psychologically-loaded issues, and we are at least somewhat aware of why both sides hold the positions they do, and we are faced with what to do, doesn’t the principle that it is entirely valid for people to disagree, or the principle that it is invalid for people to disagree, change our behaviour?

  13. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “isn’t some view on…moral certitude…implicit in any debate”
    Yes, but in the same way that some metaphysics is implicit in any discussion of chemistry. But chemists shouldn’t be talking about metaphysics all the time.

    “the foetus cannot actually discuss or assert anything”
    Yeah see here’s the bit where I think that inability to articulate one’s needs, or any other form of weakness or impotence, is a reason to worry more about a being, rather than to worry less about it.

    “doesn’t the principle that it is entirely valid for people to disagree, or the principle that it is invalid for people to disagree, change our behaviour?”
    Yes? What does ‘validly’ mean? Disagree about sorts of things? If two people are saying genuinely (and not just apparently) contradictory things, then one or the other or both are wrong. They can still be allowed to hold their opinions, obviously, and given whatever level of respect.

  14. Francois Tremblay Says:

    “Yes, but in the same way that some metaphysics is implicit in any discussion of chemistry. But chemists shouldn’t be talking about metaphysics all the time.”

    Your analogy does not fit the situation. Talking about language would be a better analogy, as language is necessary, implicit and models our understanding. The relationship between moral certitude and social ethics is more like that between english and chemistry than the one between metaphysics and chemistry.

    “Yeah see here’s the bit where I think that inability to articulate one’s needs, or any other form of weakness or impotence, is a reason to worry more about a being, rather than to worry less about it.”

    That wasn’t the issue, the issue was whether the foetus is engaged in a dialogue, and whether that foetus has rights. The answers are clearly no and no. This does not at all prohibit anyone from “worrying more” about foetuses: that is your inference, not mine.

    “Yes? What does ‘validly’ mean? Disagree about sorts of things?”

    Valid as in, morally acceptable or respectable.

    “If two people are saying genuinely (and not just apparently) contradictory things, then one or the other or both are wrong.”

    Well, that’s where I disagree. I believe you cannot evaluate someone’s statements without looking at their personal context of knowledge, and if that context differs, then it may in fact be rational for someone to hold the opposite of what you believe is true. Although I do believe that anti-abortion people are so mostly out of religious or social indoctrination, I believe that, within that damaged context that they live in, they are right to say that abortion is immoral.

    “They can still be allowed to hold their opinions, obviously, and given whatever level of respect.”

    All right then, we both agree on that point. So where does that lead us? All statist options are obviously eliminated (except perhaps form different countries for pro and anti abortion people, but that’s entirely unrealistic).

  15. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “whether the foetus is engaged in a dialogue, and whether that foetus has rights. The answers are clearly no and no.”
    That doesn’t make much sense to me. Is the second ‘no’ a consequence of the first? I apply it by analogy to a 1-year-old child: child is not engaged in dialogue, child nevertheless has rights. So I don’t see the link.

    “if that context differs, then it may in fact be rational for someone to hold the opposite of what you believe is true.”
    Isn’t this just a triviality? If someone holds premises A and B, which imply C, then they are ‘rational’ to hold C, even if A and C are in fact false?

  16. Francois Tremblay Says:

    “That doesn’t make much sense to me. Is the second ‘no’ a consequence of the first? I apply it by analogy to a 1-year-old child: child is not engaged in dialogue, child nevertheless has rights. So I don’t see the link.”

    No, the two nos are not consequences of each other. I agree with your child example as well.

    “Isn’t this just a triviality? If someone holds premises A and B, which imply C, then they are ‘rational’ to hold C, even if A and C are in fact false?”

    Your belief that A is false is just as personal as your belief that C is false.

  17. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Alderson, my claim is that ‘moral relativism’ (I would avoid that phrase myself) is an absolutely essential part of the debate about abortion, much more so than for most debates because of the inherent difficulty – impossibility even – of a consensus on what we consider to be a morally important life. You’re probably right that we won’t get anywhere with this line of discussion given that we disagree about whether or not there is absolute right and wrong. I’d actually be quite curious to know though, where you think this is absolute right or wrong comes from? My impression is that this is quite a minority viewpoint amongst non-religious people these days?

    Anyhow, even if it were a given that there is an absolute right or wrong about the case, isn’t it in some sense more interesting to talk about the politics? Clearly there is in practice a divide between people who think life begins at conception and people who think it has at least something to do with having a nervous system, and that this divide is unbridgeable in terms of right and wrong, in practice, in the short to medium term (maybe come the eventual downfall of religion things might be different, but maybe not).

    I think considerations like in your article are interesting, and for me there’s much that I find compelling in there. Resting your argument on a concept as ill-defined as consciousness is pretty dangerous in my opinion – like Gentzen’s proof of the consistency of arithmetic using transfinite induction, proving the obvious by assuming the dubious – but there’s plenty of meat to the argument even without that assumption. The primary interest, from my point of view, is that such reasoning, as I said in an earlier post, serves as a sort of systematic guide to introspection (a sort of philosophical therapy if you will). But it doesn’t go any way towards a solution of the political issue. There’s just far too much that many actually existing people would never agree to.


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