Thursday, January 5, 2012

An Unwanted Change in the Abortion Debate?

Fetus at approx. 14 weeks gestational age
A simple argument against abortion can be given as follows:

(1) It is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life.
(2) A human fetus/embryo is innocent, human, and alive.
(3) Therefore, it is always wrong to intentionally kill a human fetus/embryo.
(4) Abortion is the intentional killing of a human fetus/embryo.
(5) Therefore, abortion is always wrong.

Until fairly recently, my exposure to abortion debate had given me the impression that most people who were pro-choice rejected premise (2).

In the last few weeks, I've had two separate discussion with old-time friends from high school regarding abortion, both of whom are pro-choice (at least partially).

The first friend rejected premise (1), specifically the word "human". She argued that the level of consciousness of which a particular organism was capable, and not the species of that particular organism, determined the morality of taking the life of another organism. In other words, the fact that a human fetus/embryo is human isn't as relevant as the fact that, at least in early stages, the human fetus/embryo isn't conscious at all or seems to have a very low level of consciousness. The more conscious a particular organism is, whatever it's species may be, the more wrong it is to intentionally kill it. Humans are not protected so much as consciousness is, wherever it is found. So, for example, intentionally killing an adult chimpanzee is more wrong than to intentionally kill a human fetus since an adult chimpanzee seems much more conscious than a human fetus.

Interestingly, as a result, this person held that it was wrong to kill human fetuses in the third trimester, since they seem to her to have a high enough level of consciousness. This person was even willing to admit that she wasn't certain in her assessment that it would be morally permissible to intentionally kill an early stage human fetus and that as a result she would never get an abortion herself, although she believed that other people should have the legal right to do so.

The second friend also rejected premise (1), but specifically the word "always". He did so on the basis that, while it is normally wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life, he thought there could be exceptions. In the case of abortion, he said that he thought that the hardship and suffering of the mother and others involved could be sufficient to make the killing of the innocent human fetus/embryo morally permissible. When asked if he thought there were other exceptions to premise (1), he first confirmed his utilitarianism:
"As [to] other exceptions to the principle of unkillable innocence I suppose [it] would be any situation where the inaction resulted in greater harm."
He then indicated that he thought there could possibly be situations in war where it would be morally permissible to intentionally kill innocent civilians, and concluded that
"the fact that at least 2 valid situations exist implies there may be more."
I am not intending to single out or mock in any way these two particular people, both of whom are thoughtful people, and with both of whom I have had cordial conversations. And to be fair, these discussions were in Facebook comments and messages, and so don't necessarily represent these two individuals' best, well-thought-out, carefully crafted ideas.

But I think we can see a general sentiment: They believe that it is not always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life.

And my friends are not alone. Read what these two educated, well thought out, pro-choice thinkers have to say:

Peter Singer has written:
"[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life."
Christopher Hitchens, who was pro-choice, admits:
"As the evidence about early “viability” mounted, and as advances in medicine made it ever easier for even a distressingly premature fetus to survive outside its mother, the [abortion] argument showed a tendency to shift. Suddenly, we were talking trimesters. And there was no longer much dispute about whether the unborn subject was alive. It certainly couldn’t be dead, since the whole battle consisted in how or whether to stop its growing and developing (not metastasizing). Now and then there would be a tussle over whether it was a fully “human” life, but this was casuistry. What other species of life could it be? Some states even announced laws on fetal personhood, conferring the moral equivalent of citizenship on every fertilized egg, thereby presumably extending to it the warm embrace of the equal-protection clause and voting rights at age 17¼.  
"That the most partially formed human embryo is both human and alive has now been confirmed, in an especially vivid sense, by the new debate over stem-cell research and the bioethics of cloning. If an ailing or elderly person can be granted a new lease on life by a transfusion of this cellular material, then it is obviously not random organic matter. The original embryonic “blastocyst” may be a clump of 64 to 200 cells that is only five days old. But all of us began our important careers in that form, and every needful encoding for life is already present in the apparently inchoate. We are the first generation to have to confront this as a certain knowledge. [...] By rightly expanding our definition of what is alive and what is human, we have also accepted that there may be a conflict of rights between a potential human and an actual one."
I have no statistics regarding the reasons given by those who are pro-choice as to why abortion is permissible (if you do, please let me know in the comments), and so I have no idea whether the sentiments from the examples given above are new or old, widespread or fringe (or somewhere in between). But these four examples, two from recent personal anecdotes, and two from highly acclaimed thinkers, should give us pause. A basic moral principle, via abortion, has been cracked.

Is abortion really being defended by saying that it's not always wrong to intentionally kill any innocent human life?

If it's not always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life, then it's not always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life. Think about that. Is this really a principle that we want to reject? Its application in the intentional killing of millions of young humans should offer sufficient horror. But if it doesn't, its necessary rejection as a basic moral principle, applicable in situations far beyond abortion, should.

This is not a slippery slope argument. I am not bundling otherwise unconnected issues and declaring without reason that if you accept one you have to accept the other. I am pointing out that a principle is being rejected. If that principle is rejected, there are consequences far beyond the first context that it is rejected. Its rejection affects any other context in which the original principle was relevant.

If, as my first friend argued, a human's life only gains protection when it acquires certain capabilities, such as consciousness, how much of that capability is needed? How is it measured? Who makes the determination? What other capabilities might a human need in order to be protected? We can't put further conditions on humanity.

If, as my second friend argued, an innocent human life can be sacrificed for the good of the more powerful (if the killers weren't more powerful, they wouldn't be able to kill) in one context, there's no principled reason why an innocent human life couldn't be sacrificed for the good of the more powerful in another context. To say that the principle would only apply to abortion would be ad hoc. And my second friend admitted as much: "the fact that at least 2 valid situations exist implies there may be more."

'There may be more.'

Lord have mercy.


  1. Excellent. And tragic. Thanks for writing this. And yes, Lord have mercy on us all.

  2. I really have enjoyed ever post you have written. I am a new Catholic as well. Thanks and keep up the good work!

  3. Former Senator and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's brother is a doctor and a major author of Obamacare. In a book he wrote -- title and author's name escape me for now -- he states that he believes it should be okay to abort up to 18 months AFTER delivery because sentience has not yet developed in his professional opinion.

    Our current president defended infanticide and then voted present on a bill to outlaw it while an Illinois State Senator. He defended the idea that a baby who survives abortion and delivers may still be killed by denying the child food and water. The specific case I've heard cited involves a nurse simply leaving such a child in a closet until the child passed away.

    This debate has been raging a while, and don't think for a moment that these people don't know they're killing a human life. They know it but they want certain human lives to survive and thrive and certain others to die ... a concept that gets its start in animal husbandry and stark survival situations and then is misapplied to people (who are not animals) in times of plenty.

    Keep talking to people and telling us about it. You apparently have a way of keeping this conversations going ... I have not the stomach for it, myself.

  4. In younger years, my then-wife and I had 4 miscarriages, all in the first trimester. I have a sister, an evangelical Christian, who is also pro-choice because she believes abortion is sometimes the "better" of two poor choices at times.

    When I returned to the Catholic Church after many years away, I moved from being passively pro-life to passionately so. She and I have had many discussions on this topic since that time and she is very clear that her position is still for choice. Yet she cares about the poor, has done short-term missionary work, and is very involved in her church and community.

    When I mentioned the miscarriages we had a number of years ago, I told her I believed those children were in heaven and with God. AND SHE AGREED WITH ME. The position that they are real children with eternal souls and yet somehow not worthy of life was in reality what she was espousing, but she is seemingly blind to this point, willingly or not.

    Sacred Scripture tells us in James that a "double minded man (person) is unstable in all his ways" and I believe that is her situation exactly. She cannot possibly , even intellectually, reconcile those two views and yet she lives with that tension pulling her to be both for "choice" and yet believing her nieces/nephews (my children), although unborn, are somehow in heaven due to their untimely deaths! It simply makes no sense.

    We have become an entire society of schizophrenics on this topic. And I find it deeply frightening.

  5. Brantley,

    We had an interesting conversation in the "Nature of Persons" class that Talbot taught, and I can't remember if you were a part of that class, but anyways, it went something like this...

    Personhood is something to be protected (this could be synonymous with consciousness in the conversation with your friend, but I do believe that are more defining factors in personhood besides just 'consciousness'). This sort of has to be taken as a given, but there are arguments that would run parallel to protecting consciousness, so I believe your friend would agree.


    Given our lack of ability, we should err on the side of caution, and therefore protect that which has the potential form of personhood or once had the form of personhood, as we perceived it.

    If this last is taken, then it opens up the conversation to being applicable to all pro-LIFE, as I see it, avenues: abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.

    Anyways, just some brief sketches of the argument. There are holes in it, as it is presented here (and elsewhere), but it is interesting, no?

    Take care!

  6. I have learned that every pro-choicer has made up their own little excuse: "it isn't human, it is human but there are special circumstances, it is human but the mother's rights come first always, I don't know what it is, it isn't alive, newborns aren't human, etc..."

  7. Is the assembly of cells living, yes or no? If left to its own progression will it continue to grow, yes or no? Is it human, yes or no? Seems simple to comprehend. If you're pro-choice, does that mean you have a right to choose whether or not to end another human life? And so are you anti-life? Musings, but important to ponder.

  8. Let me take your argument and alter it a bit. Essentially making use of the fact that most conceptions fail to implant with the percentages skyrocketing near menstruation.

    (1) It is always wrong to engage in acts likely to lead to the loss of innocent human life.
    (2) A human fetus/embryo is innocent, human, and alive.
    (3) Therefore, it is always wrong to create a situation where a human fetus/embryo is likely to die.
    (4) Sex on the days following ovulation but before menstruation lead to implementation failures more often than live births. That is the killing of a human fetus/embryo.
    (5) Therefore, sex except on days unlikely to result conception and one day per month is always wrong.

    I could also throw in a (4b) that implementation failures happen even more frequently for women over 30 so almost any sex between 30 and menopause would be morally questionable.

    The fact is that as we know more about birth we start becoming active decision makers. When medicine wasn't particularly good, after serious injury people died quickly. Now it is quite commonly possible to prolong suffering for years. Humane Vitae I think addresses the fact that a society that makes heavy use of artificial methods of contraception is going to need to create a morality in line with contraception.

    What seems to be developing is the notion of quality of life and total life years. So what you end up with is something like:

    1') People should aim to improve the total quality of life for all people.
    2') A human fetus/embryo is potentially human and alive.
    3') Therefore, it is always a gross negative wrong to intentionally kill a human fetus/embryo; though the morality of it needs to evaluated by examining the net harms


    You are right that #2 is still the primary basis of argument. Nancy Pelosi's defense being a classic example. I just suspect that over the next 200 years, the ground will heavily shift.

  9. CD, I think you need to learn something about reproductive biology. Women ovulate once per cycle, usually around the middle of the cycle (its more complicated but the details aren't necessary here). Sperm can survive up to five days in the woman's reproductive tract. Fertile women give off signs that they have ovulated, and if a second ovulation is going to happen that cycle, it will happen w/in 24 hrs. 24 hrs later, the egg is dead,and no conception can happen. A woman's period follows about a week later. In other words,your chances of miscarriage from sex more than 24 hours after ovulation is practically none.

  10. I'm not saying sex causing miscarriage I'm saying late sex causing implantation failure. According to NHS these are the implementation failure rates for the average women in days after ovulation:
    3% by day 9
    26% on day 10
    52% on day 11
    86% on day 12 or more

  11. Ultimately, your statement that "It is never just to kill an innocent person" is unproven. Essentially, it is a negative existence statement. To prove it requires testing every single possible case which are clearly infinite. This is the one of the same reasons, for example, one can't logically disprove the existence of God. You can't prove that it is true. Regardless of the logical implications, it also assumes reality abides by your beliefs. I am not convinced that the world is so convenient

    Consider the situation of a broken dam. It poses a severe threat to all down stream. The lone engineer in the control room has a choice whether to divert as much as he can down one of two pathways, one populated and the other less populated. We would expect that he choose the latter even if it meant the deaths of people down that path.

    This is a simple situation but suppose there were a more ambiguous situation where no clear answer was available but most resulted in death but some fewer. We could even admit that there was a perfect solution where no one died. The fact is that man is not infinitely capable. Just because there is a perfect solution does not mean that any man could find it. If the problem that required solving was of the mathematical class NP-complete or harder not even the best supercomputers in the world would be guaranteed find the perfect solution within the lifetime of the universe. We certainly can't expect a man to find it. Would you really consider the man to have sinned if he chose the best solution he could find, even if that resulted in the death of others? Maybe you would argue that just because he could make that choice doesn't make it his right, but if they are the only person that can make that decision how is that different from a right? I would imagine most people would even go further and say that it was his duty to make that decision in that situation.

    So far I've suggested extreme situations where I think the principle could validly be in contest. I think that this is probably one of the common features of this exception to the rule. Clearly, if a situation could be foreseen in advance it would be the duty of the designer/architect to prevent it from happening. In the above situation responsibility would most likely fall on the dam designer and the associated maintainers of that dam not the man who flips the switch. The fact is again man is limited and often situation go unforeseen and considerable damage can result. Honestly, probably one of the reasons these lose lose situations seem uncommon is not that they don't occur but it doesn't occur to the participants that there was a choice that would have resulted in more death or more specifically a reason why they could choose it.

    Back to the case of the dam, perhaps we make it so that the family of the damn operator now lives down the path of the least populated area. On one hand the man could kill more people or he could sacrifice his family. He has a terrible choice ahead of him. I would not blame him for making either. As unlikely as all of this is, it is merely that, unlikely but not impossible.

    In the end we are left with a situation where it was not wrong to kill innocent people merely unfortunate. Just because there is an exception to the rule does not mean that the rule is invalid in the general case nor does it mean that man's honor is impinged by its existence.

  12. CDHost,
    Interesting points. I'll have to think about that.

  13. Anon,
    The dam scenario is bad example since the operator isn't choosing death, but deciding whether or not to mitigate the destruction.

    But to your larger point: this is a question of how we conceive morality to begin with, a deontological view, a utilitarian view, or view to virtue, or some combination - or in other words, is the morality of an action based on the action itself, it's effects, or the character it builds. If we assume a utilitarian view then you would be right, we can't predict all every future situations, and each individual person will have to do the best he or she can when the situation arises regarding weighing positive and negative effects. But if we take it that certain actions, or means, can be wrong in and of themselves, then we can hold to principles without knowing the details of the future. In other words, is it every true that there are certain means that are wrong such that they can never be justified by noble ends? I argue that murder is always wrong, not because I'm narrow minded about the complexity of situations in the future, but because human life has an innate worth and dignity that we as fellow human beings have no right to infringe upon ever. Murder, racism, sexism, torture - these are things that are wrong in and of themselves, and thus are always wrong. If we as a society have not learned that all human beings, regardless of any other categories we might try to create, have an innate worth and dignity that must be respected, then we have learned nothing from the horror of the 20th century.

  14. You seem to be missing the point. You are trying to make a logical argument and if you are then you must follow the rules of logic for it to be valid. Any system of logic has assumption or axioms and if using simple axioms you can prove a point then the logic valid. If you can't prove a point either it is invalid or it is axiomatic.

    I've been suggesting to you that you prove your statement. (1) It is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life. If you can't then either it is false or axiomatic. If it is axiomatic then people are free to choose the axiom or not given a logical system.

    Your last statement might be interpreted as "We can see in history that a vast majority of murders were wrong." This can be true but it doesn't prove that all murders were. For example we could use the same argument that the vast number of scientific experiments have never shown a supernatural event or entity to have occurred and therefore there is no supernatural. To sum it up if you start with a false assumption you can prove anything.

    Ironically, this very debate came up in my writing class yesterday poised in the form of the trolley problem. There was a class discussion which actually required all of the class participate. The majority of the arguments seemed to be against your principle. There were two points which I thought were quite valid. First is that it would be selfish, in that it required you to do an action you may not like or want to accept the consequences for, to not murder the single man when you could have saved four or five lives. The second would be that even if other people thought your action was wrong, if you believe it to be right, then you should still do it. You would seem to agree with the last argument given your recent post on HHS and the catholic ban on reproductive choice medicine.

    I now suggest another scenario which I feel is much stronger. Unfortunately, I feel like this situation is far too likely to occur given recent history. A terrorist hostile to the united states has captured innocent american citizens and loaded them on a plane. In addition to the hostages he has a nuclear bomb on the plane. He begins flying the plane towards America. If he enters American airspace without filing an international flight schedule to the FAA he will be greeted by an American fighter pilot (this is a real fact). If he refuses to acknowledge the show of force, which he will because he intends to bomb America, then the jet will open fire. If he responds saying that he has innocent hostages that might give the pilot pause but America's stated position is that they don't negotiate with terrorist. If the Americans somehow learn that a nuclear bomb is on the plane then they will shoot it down while it is still far from the American coast, even if it is known to contain hostages. If wonder if you would still disagree with this action.

  15. Ah I forgot to mention that shooting the plane down will overwhelmingly likely result in the death of some or all of the people on board. Though this may have been obvious.

  16. Actually, I think it also depends on how you define murder. I was thinking it was intentional killing but if you define murder as unjust killing then the premise is unjust killing of an innocent is unjust which is a tautology. Thus, your first principle isn't particularly enlightening.

  17. The airplane situation can be covered by the double effect and is therefore not eligible to disprove the point in contention.

  18. Hey Anon,
    This last comment might be from a different Anonymous? I recommend using a handle so that even if you want to keep your identity a secret, we can distinguish which comments are from the same person.

    That it's always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life can be known by reason from the natural law. You are right, it requires no other proof. That doesn't mean that people are free to choose to accept it. We all have consciences, the ability to reason the natural law.

    I don't know what you mean by "logical system".

    I don't know if the last comment was from you or not, but bringing up the principle of double effect was what I was going to do in response to your plane scenario. It's another bad example.

    Your comment about unjust, etc, I don't really know what you're referring to. I haven't used the word unjust. My principle was: It is always wrong to intentionally kill and innocent human life. To break that principle is unjust. So if you want to insert the word unjust in there , you would say: It is always unjust to intentionally kill and innocent human life. Regarding what murder is, I would define murder as the principle in question. For an action to be murder, it has to be intentional (can't murder on accident), it has to be killing (that it what murder is), it's only murder if the thing murdered is human, you can only murder the human if the human is alive, and it's only murder if the human was innocent (this is intended to leave open the possibility of just war, capital punishment, etc).

    I know this was part of the point of the post, but I'm going to reiterate it: I'm truly astounded at how many people today question the principle that "it's always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human life." I mean - really. That's pretty much as basic as it gets with morality. It really shows how much the moral core of our society is rotted if this principle is controversial (I have had other people since I published this post challenge it, too). Astounding, even frightening.