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.


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    Nicola Knight 25 September 2008 (16:51)

    Very interesting case. I only have time for a couple of remarks. ”killing an early fetus is not deemed serious, even by anti-abortionists themselves.” I am not sure that this is the case, as the vociferous opposition to the morning after pill (and to oral contraceptives more generally) shows. But again, the opposition may be due to different reasons — namely, it may simply be a logical consequence of a bullet-biting approach. I think that the issue is framed very well by Benoit: early and late-term abortions are not the same. I imagine that all of us, regardless of where we stand on the issue of abortion, have a sort of prototypical understanding of the foetus coming to term that looks like (and is), more or less, a newborn. As we go back in time toward conception, this image degrades until it becomes so far removed from the prototype that we are unable to recognize it as human; consequently, our empathic response drops to nothing. The big issue in this case is one of line-drawing; I, personally, would have some qualms about, say, eighth month abortions. Singer takes this point to its logical conclusion when he states that if we were to be entirely consistent, infanticide in the early months should also be allowed, because birth itself is a fairly arbitrary point. Faced with the line-drawing problem, most anti-abortionist choose to bite the bullet and declare that the moment of conception is the only possible choice. Governments also face the same problem, and I don’t think that their choices always make a lot more sense.

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    Benoît Dubreuil 25 September 2008 (17:00)

    This is indeed a very interesting case. Olivier’s third solution also sounds right to me. I would stress that the most important distinction here is probably between the first months of pregnancy and the last 2 or 3 months before birth. Most people have radically different intuitions about these two cases, because the fetus does not look like a baby in early pregnancy. The equation is thus simple: if it looks like a baby, abortion is harmful and there is a victim. If it does not look like a baby, there is no harm and thus no victim. It is not accidental if anti-abortionists usually exhibit pictures of older fetuses in their public campaigns. Looking at these pictures is not only disgusting, but also distressful for most people (just as distressful as pictures of dead babies can be). In the case of early abortion, it seems plausible that anti-abortionists first categorize abortion as ”wrong” for some reasons, and then categorize it as a murder because they feel that it is an efficient way to justify their judgment or to promote prohibition. In this case, judgment about punishment does not follow because, as Olivier suggests, killing an early fetus is not deemed serious, even by anti-abortionnists themselves. But the case of late-term abortion is more complex in that people can empathize with fetuses. It is plausible that anti-abortionist (and probably most people?) in this case think that abortion is harmful and that there is a victim. This reaction explains why late-term abortion is still more frequently prohibited around the world than early abortion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late-term_abortion It would be interesting to go back to anti-abortionists and ask them how they think doctors and women who perform late-term abortion should be punished. My guess here is that they will ask for a strong punishment for doctors and a mild one for women because, as I suggest in my earlier comments, women already suffer from their ”crime”.

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    Nicolas Baumard 25 September 2008 (17:01)

    I fully agree with Olivier’s third solution: ”construing abortion as a special case of murder is just a way of rationalizing a judgement 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).” At least for the first months, I think that conservatives do not see embryos as person and abortion as murder. It is a kind of ”victimless crime”: it’s condemned not because it harms someone but because it harms the society in general (society would be better if abortion was illegal). It’s exactly what Nicola’s video showed: since there is no victim, there is no need to punish and women who abort do not deserve to be punished. Indeed, usually, for people moral’s intuitions, the punishment does not aim at improving society’s welfare but at balancing the harm done to the victim by imposing a penalty to the criminal. For instance, there was a recent debate during the presidential campaign about a Louisiana law that allows capital punishment for people convicted of raping children under 12. McCain and Obama thought that it was OK, the Supreme Court that it was not OK. Their disagreement was not on the principle that penalty should balance the crime, but on the proportion: Obama and McCain said that a rapist could deserve death penalty, the Supreme Court that death was too cruel (in other word, the rapist does not deserve such a punishment). Since we have many evidences in favour of the idea that, for people, “punishment should fit the crime”, Nicola’s video seems to me a good reason to doubt that (to quote Olivier’s last sentence) “these scholarly justifications [abortion as a murder] reflect what really happens in your average anti-abortionist’s head – even when they repeat them and think that they endorse them”.

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    Simon Barthelme 18 October 2008 (11:33)

    Interesting post. Regarding (1), if it’s the lack of anyone to blame for spontaneous abortions that really explains it, then that would imply that anti-abortionists react with the same indifference to deaths caused by, for instance, natural disasters. I doubt that’s the case. A somewhat less charitable variation on (3) is that claiming that abortion is murder is something people say in the context of political debate, but are not willing to carry to its logical conclusion. It’s just a way of framing the debate that has the advantages of: a) being easy to argue for, and being easy for people to assimilate and remember b) preventing any possibility of a rational debate with the other side. It seems to me it’s much the same basic mechanism as calling your opponents nazis.

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    Olivier Morin 21 October 2008 (21:28)

    I have deleted several comments to this post because they were offensive. Calling women who get abortions ”sluts” is offensive. I’m all for discussion and debate, but this is where we draw the line here.

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    guest guest 21 October 2008 (22:18)

    Since it’s friends-locked, I’ll reproduce it for you here. You can learn from it before you delete it. Today I came across a strikingly inept argument in favor of abortion, on a blog that appears to regard such debates as a matter of chess, rather than as moral issues. It was linked on one of the blogs I follow, probably because of some of the other content. I’m not here going to debate abortion itself; you already know my views on it. What has me agog here is the incredible cluelessness of the argument this blogger is putting forth. The comments are all by pro-choicers who, like the blogger, seem to regard the entire debate as a sort of chess, an intellectual game. They also show a striking disregard for facts, as when one asserts that anti-abortionists do not consider early-term abortions ”serious”. The discussion of late-term abortions similarly does not mention the incredible danger to the mother of such abortions; most pro-choicers don’t want people to know this, but while early-term abortion is mostly safe, a late-term abortion is pretty much suicide for the mother. The guy’s come up with what he apparently imagines is a hugely clever argument in favor of abortion. According to him, 60% of pregnancies miscarry (”spontaneously abort” is the unfortunate term used) in the first couple of weeks, and most women who have such miscarriages never even know that they were pregnant; it just seems like a menstrual period, maybe a heavier one than usual. He doesn’t support this claim with any links to scientific sources verifying it, he just links another pro-abortion essay, which didn’t credit the data. He then makes the sweeping assertion that these millions of annual miscarriages could be prevented with hormone treatment or something, and once again fails to support this claim at all. Finally, he marvels that pro-lifers (he calls us ”anti-choicers”) aren’t up in arms about the millions of early miscarriages that happen every year, and aren’t demanding that all sexually active women receive the hypothetical treatment to prevent this. From this, he concludes that none of us actually believe that unborn babies are babies. This assertion is repeated several times by the blogger and the commenters, with different hypotheses about why given. No actual pro-lifers are quoted or cited; they aren’t even allowed to comment. He overlooks the fact that this huge number of early miscarriages is probably not known to pro-lifers. I didn’t know it until I read this blog post. In fact, since I have no reason to think that he knows what he’s talking about, I still don’t know it. I have no idea if it’s true. In any case, the most likely reason that we’re not ”up in arms” about this is that none of us have ever heard of it.

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    guest guest 21 October 2008 (22:19)

    That’s one major hole. Here’s another. The blogger and the commenters clearly regard their own viewpoint, that a human fetus does not become a human until birth or possibly even later, as the default viewpoint, and any other as a deviation that must be explained. They seem to have forgotten that their viewpoint is a very recent one which has required decades of propaganda to hold. Again, I am not here arguing about the validity of that view, just pointing out the ineptitude of this blogger’s arguments. The modern view that abortion is morally permissible depends on certain premises. For instance, that an adult is more valuable to society than an infant and therefore deserves more consideration. That a pregnant woman’s potential contribution to society in the next few years is more valuable to society than her child’s potential contribution a few decades down the line. That female autonomy is so important that murder of the innocent is a small price to pay. That the cost to society of an unwanted baby and its temporarily unable to work mother is too great to justify letting it live. That a young woman who has engaged in behavior likely to lead to pregnancy when she doesn’t want a baby should still be free to actualize her other desires rather than take responsibility for the child she has brought into being. That a woman’s right to have orgasms is so sacred that it trumps human life itself. That evolutionary psychology has shown that mothers feel less guilt and grief about the deaths of newborn babies than older children, and that chimps, gorillas, and primitive tribespeople have no qualms about letting infants die if they can’t provide for them or if they’re deformed, this being a valuable survival mechanism for animals who must scrape a living out of the environment, and there is no reason for civilized, industrialized people to hold themselves to a moral standard higher than than of apes. Or, for those who are willing to base their beliefs on scientific theories which have been debunked before I was old enough to drive, that an unborn baby is not a human being, just a mass of random tissue which will coincidentally develop into a human being if nobody kills it. These are, obviously, highly peculiar views. Even if they are correct, they required a lot of modern assumptions and attitudes which have not been held for most of human history. Everybody knows that pregnancy normally leads to the birth of a child. The obvious, intuitive belief (which has of course been verified by modern science) is that a fetus is a child. As pro-lifers keep pointing out, you never hear expectant mothers saying, ”My fetus is kicking!” or ”I might lose the fetus!” It does not require any of the elaborate theories about pro-lifers that this blogger spins. And damned if he seems to realize it.

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    Olivier Morin 21 October 2008 (22:42)

    Joyce, I am keeping these two comments on line because, unlike the others, they contain arguments and are not offensive. Just by googling ”early pregnancy loss”, you may learn that the information I cite is uncontroversial. As for your second point, I was not arguing that fetuses are babies or that they are not babies. This was not the point of my post: my point was to argue that indifference to early pregnancy loss, and an unwillingness to punish aborting mothers, is not consistent with the view that fetuses are persons, and that abortion is murder. This does not in itself argue for abortion. And, since you claim that pro-lifers like you would be ”up in arms” against early pregnancy loss if you were sure it exists, now that you have access to the information, I challenge you to find 100 pro-lifers willing to give 100 dollars each in order to fight early pregnancy loss.

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    guest guest 21 October 2008 (23:17)

    My point being that you don’t know how to set up an argument that might convince someone who doesn’t already agree with you. What you’ve done is: invited me to verify your claims rather than doing so yourself, attributed to me statements that I did not make, claimed that you did not say things that you very clearly did say, and cast your side in the role of victim because I used a few blunt words. Apparently advocating murder is not offensive, accusing your opponents of lying about their own beliefs is not offensive, attributing to your opponents beliefs that they have never expressed is not offensive, and calling your opponents ”anti-choicers” rather than pro-lifers is not offensive, but your opponents are not to be permitted the same leeway; we must be the essence of tact when discussing women who murder their own children. I won’t bother to check this blog again, since you’re clearly not a sufficiently clear thinker to bother arguing with, but if you ever feel like learning to construct arguments rather than just swapping agreement with your cronies here, you could refer to my posts to get you started.

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    guest guest 21 October 2008 (23:27)

    After making the above comment, I did your research for you. Most of the sites say that about one in six pregnancies end in miscarriage. Here’s one site: http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp090.cfm If you have any friends who are good at math, ask them to explain to you why ”one in six” is not 60%. Also, the sites say that refraining from drinking and not having genetic problems such as diabetes are all that can be done to prevent these very early miscarriages. No hormone treatments or anything else you daydreamed about are mentioned. As I suspected, you have your medical facts as well as your facts about what we anti-choicers believe wrong.

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    Olivier Morin 24 October 2008 (10:57)

    In his paper, Toby Ord answers one of Joyce’s concerns:
    ”Critics might also point to studies that show quite different ?gures for the rate of spontaneous abortion. The most important point here is that there are several distinct statistics related to embryo death and they should not be confused. Firstly, there are ?gures for the proportion of fertilized ova that do not come to term. These are the ?gures that we have seen in this article. Then there are ?gures for the proportion of recognized pregnancies that do not come to term. This ?gure is always considerably lower for the simple reason that it takes 10–15 days for pregnancy to be detectable (and longer in some of the older studies). Many of those embryos lost in the ?rst 2 weeks will thus not be counted in this statistic; although the death rate will appear lower, this is not the relevant rate. Because a ’pregnancy’ is often medically de?ned as the time since the implantation of the embryo rather than the fertilization, this is an easy mistake to make.”
    And this is how she got a 20% figure from the Internet, while I had 60%.
    Also: ”the proportion of spontaneous abortions due to chromosomal defects is only between 30% and 60%. The other 40% to 70% of spontaneous abortions occur for other reasons, many of which appear amenable to treatment. These include hormone de?ciencies, maternal diseases (such as diabetes mellitus and herpes simplex infection), immunode?ciency, short inter-pregnancy interval, maternal smoking and ethanol use (Bieber and Driscoll 1995, 178).”

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    guest guest 26 October 2008 (21:39)

    It is natural to be annoyed when our opponents are not as inept as we would find convenient. Re:

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    guest guest 27 October 2008 (04:19)

    Interesting point.

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    guest guest 27 October 2008 (04:22)

    Interesting point. It’s disappointing to see this discussion so riddled with bias and preconception, of seeing the other side as crazy deviants rather than people who disagree about a philosophical issue. It starts with the blogger’s tone and word choice (”anti-choice”) and continues, on both sides, in the comments. Sigh.