Abortion puzzles, part two
Last month, Nicola posted here on an apparent paradox in the doctrine of anti-choice activists. The paradox is the following: if embryos and foetuses are human beings in every relevant respect, so that killing them is murder, why is it that anti-choice activists typically refuse to punish aborting mothers – while of course they want infanticide to be punished? There was a lively discussion with Benoît Dubreuil and myself – still going on, feel free to join!
Now I found, through Collin Farrelly, another puzzle that might shed light on this first puzzle of abortion…
It was articulated by Toby Ord in a paper in the American Journal of Bioethics (to which I do not have access, so I rely on the abstract and on 's quotations). updated 24/10/08: the paper can be downloaded here.
The embryo has the same moral status as an adult human (the Claim). Medical studies show that more than 60% of all people are killed by spontaneous abortion (a biological fact). Therefore, spontaneous abortion is one of the most serious problems facing humanity, and we must do our utmost to investigate ways of preventing this death—even if this is to the detriment of other pressing issues (the Conclusion). (…) spontaneous abortion is an everyday phenomenon. A mother of three children could be expected to have also had approximately five spontaneous abortions. An embryo’s survival to term is the exception rather than the norm. (…) most embryo loss occurs before the pregnancy has been detected, and the woman is unaware that anything out of the ordinary has happened. The embryo simply passes out of the uterus with the next menses.
In 6 years, the Second World War killed approximately 60 million people, whereas
spontaneous abortion kills more than three times this number every year. For supporters of the Claim there is little choice but to see it as one of the world’s greatest problems, if not the greatest problem.
I think it's fair to assume that most anti-choice persons who know about this fact are not troubled by it a single second. They don't think a woman should do anything that is in her power to keep all her fecundated eggs alive. Why would one have that intuition?
I see several possible lines of argumentation:
1) Agency. No one harms the foetus, he dies by itself. Like death, spontaneous abortion is a natural event. This line of argument can also be held concerning Nicola's first puzzle of abortion (see our discussion). But several aspects of Ord's second puzzle don't fit into that picture; first, I don't think anyone sincerely laments the daily death toll of spontaneously aborted foetuses. Most of the time, mothers don't realize anything. But, even knowing that such deaths occur massively every day, someone who thinks of foetuses as human beings should feel at least some empathy. I would bet they do not (I might be wrong). Second, these deaths are perfectly avoidable, at a cost. I can think of all sorts of methods, from hormonal treatments to reinplantation technologies, that one might develop to save these foetuses. Of course it might be difficult and costly – but we are talking of saving more than half of the human race. That is worth a little effort. Not making a little effort that would save some 5 or 10 % of all our fellow humans is criminal neglect.
2) Anti-abortionists do not really think that foetuses are full-fledged human beings. In that hypothesis, anti-abortionists would claim that foetuses are persons because they claim that abortion is a form of murder, but not the other way round; judging that foetuses are persons would not be part of the reasoning that leads them to view abortion as a form of murder. Maybe the perceived violence of the act, or the disgust they feel when thinking about it, would be responsible.
3) Anti-abortionists might not actually think that abortion is a form of murder at all: maybe construing abortion as a special case of murder is just a way of rationalizing a judgment that is grounded in other principles (such as the duty to reproduce, or the value of life as a process, not to be confounded with the value of one individual life, or with the value of a person).
There is often something a little bit conceited and contrived with the arguments that justify hostility to abortion by linking it to murder. There are so many other reasons why people and religious authorities may reject it: because it violates some conception of gender roles, because it is dirty, or because tradition forbids it, end of discussion. When you look at what theologians and bioethicists wrote, the "abortion-is-murder" line of thought looks like a typically philosophical effort to reconcile a traditional taboo with modern ethical principles that are actually quite sophisticated (for example, here, the idea that an action is harmful if and only if it causes harm to an innocent sentient individual). I very much doubt that these scholarly justifications reflect what really happens in your average anti-abortionist's head – even when they repeat them and think that they endorse them.
I would be curious to hear what you think about this. Let's hope we'll have another great debate! Toby Ord's paper is also discussed at Philosophy etc.