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.