Is abortion closer to murder or using a pesticide? Is a nurse or doctor who helps carry out abortions morally closer to being guilty of genocide or indistinguishable from using a doctor who uses antibiotics to rid the body of an infection? If I refuse to allow my body to be used as a life-support system am I murdering or simply denying access to my body? What are our rights with regards to an invader who has intruded on our most personal of homes; our body? It seems clear that the answers to these questions evade simple back and white answers and lurk somewhere in on a spectrum of grey; however, I think the answers fall incontrovertibly on one side and not the other. Perhaps the best way to start the discussion is to think about how we define the value of life.
“Sanctity” of life is something I’ve never really grasped; I’m simply not sympathetic to the assumptions that relate to sanctity. But “value” is a different issue altogether. I think we can measure the value of life by—surprise surprise—the ability of a conscious thing to suffer and be elated; this is the wellbeing thing I go on about all the time. This means that bacteria, which has no central nervous system and thus no capacity to feel1, is worthless and primates and dolphins are worth considerably more. If something is incapable of suffering, like a rock, is it easy to ponder what its worth actually is.
Given that fewer cell make up a 3-day-old foetus (technically a blastocyst) than form the nervous system of a house fly 2, and that a blastocyst has no functioning nervous system at all, if minimising suffering concerns you then it should be of greater moral deliberation whether you can kill a fly than destroy3 a foetus. At least, it seems that way. But there is a greater concern to consider.
Prayson Daniel makes the point in his post (here) that if we make no moral consideration of a foetus then what we do to that foetus can go on to effect a human being; if we amputate a foetus it becomes an adult amputee. That clearly does have an impact on wellbeing. Destroying a foetus does cut off a potential human being from the highs (and lows) of a life. And ignoring effects throughout time is not an option, so far as I can see.
Ignoring effects throughout time would mean that climate change is of no moral concern. What I do to the environment now won’t affect anything now. Ignoring the passage of time in moral landscape has other implications; it wouldn’t matter to claim something would be better in the long run. Discipline makes children now, but in the long run behaving like a civil member of society and having a job and healthy relationships will increase their wellbeing. We should work in the context of what we know, and one thing every moment of your existence has demonstrated to you is that the future is coming. How do we consider a foetus when it is a soon-to-be human?
The foetus doesn’t suffer, and won’t suffer. The mother, at least in the cases where a mother is serious about aborting, is suffering4 in real terms. Now. The foetus is an invader. Now what? The ideal response is to remove the foetus and put it in an artificial womb and once it is ‘born’ it can put up for adoption to a loving family5. But that kind of medical equipment doesn’t exist. That is why I called it an ‘ideal response’. If at any point this technology does exist it will change the face of the abortion conversation.
This leaves us with the problem of an invader that is causing a human being to suffer, is incapable of suffering itself and it’s debatable whether destroying it is synonymous with killing it. The answer seems to leap off the page (or out of the screen), doesn’t it? Destroy it. It’s what we do with other infections and diseases. After all, a tumour is also a cyst of human tissue with human DNA and has the potential to become a human being (it would need some human intervention, but it can happen); what are the rights of a tumour? And what are the rights of a home invader? And what are your rights when someone breaks into your home?
Calling on ‘rights’ here is a cheat; you may have the right to shoot, stop or otherwise incapacitate a home invader but is that right consistent with my aim of minimising suffering? And even if it is, does the same rule translate across the analogy? It is safe to assume that a home invader does not intend to give you massage and do your taxes for you; it is probably safer to assume they mean to steal your property and cause you harm and thus your right to harm them is (probably) consistent with minimising suffering. This claim has many caveats attached: it’s not minimising suffering if you equally could have reasoned them out of it; it’s not minimising suffering if you tie them to a chair and torture them with a pair of pliers etc. But as a rule of thumb6 your right to defend your home does minimise suffering.
Does this extend to a foetus? A foetus may not intend to cause us harm, but if a woman does not want her baby the foetus is holding the mother captive for 9 months and forcing either a labour or a caesarean operation, at least. Sickness and lesser mobility and professional stagnation and other undesirable side effects go with a pregnancy. The mother is a prisoner to this. If a fully developed human tried obliging you to this by force, you’d have the right to forcibly stop them.
If you don’t think that is true, consider a person who needs to undergo a kidney transplant but no suitable donor will be available for 3 months. This patient is bed-bound in a hospital. For some reason they cannot undergo dialysis (who cares why? This is my though experiment). The solution is to allow the patient’s blood to pass through a tube into a healthy person’s circulatory system; a doctor can join the patient and a healthy person by an artificial blood vessel. This allows the healthy person’s kidneys to work for both people. Then both people will be bed bound for the 3 months, but the healthy person who otherwise would not have been bed-bound, and instead have been free to be with their family or pursue what makes them happy, will save the patient’s life. The healthy person is you. Is that okay?
Of course not. We would all live in fear of this happening to us if it were allowed. The patients would feel guilty of taking your freedoms. We’d have our freedoms taken away for indeterminate lengths of time. Our families would be sad. We’d be sad. It’s just not worth doing. Another person does not have the right to use your body to their ends. If they tried to force it, you would be allowed to deny it and, in my thought experiment, allow the patient to die7.
I do not see abortion as murder. Whether a foetus is even alive is debatable and that’s not nearly as important as its capacity to suffer. Yes, abortion does mean that a person who would be alive in the future won’t be, and I am sure people who were going to be aborted walk the planet now. But as a foetus you never had the right to invade your mother’s body and use it for your own end without her permission. And an abortion is the denial of that permission. It is not murder.
1 – When you take a more holistic view, appropriately called an ‘ecosystem approach’, the value of bacteria increases vastly because of its effect on the wellbeing of other things. Trees, taken in their own right have no value. But when you consider that entire ecosystems of conscious things depend on trees, suddenly they become of extreme value; they are the very infrastructure on which our wellbeing is built.
2 – Blastocyst: 150-cell existence; nervous system of a fly: 100,000-cell functioning nervous system
3 – I use the word “destroy” quite intentionally. I get annoyed when adverts say their product can kill a virus, when whether a virus is actually alive (post to follow about this) is debatable. The same is true of a blastocyst; we’re not sure it’s alive, so the safe linguistic bet is the word “destroy”.
4 – I’ve been told it is ironic men dominate this conversation; somehow my perspective on the issue is less valid than that of a woman. I don’t understand that. To the pro-life lobby we are talking about murder. To the pro-choice lobby we are talking about the freedoms a person has over their own body. How gender roles validate a perspective I simply don’t know. I’m in the UK, and although we say our healthcare is free the truth is we’re all paying for it all the time in taxes (the cheapest way to do it). As such, if a woman-only lobby started demanding that men have compulsory prostate checks to make healthcare cheaper (by, in turn, reducing the number of people being treated or receiving palliative care for late-stage prostate problems) I wouldn’t challenge them with ‘what do you know, you’re a woman’. It’s actually a good point, even if it is an anally invasive examination.
5 – My grandma adopted my dad. My dad had a loving upbringing. I do not accept claims that adopted children have a more miserable life. Orphanages and adoption centres may be unpleasant, but at-birth adoptions seem to be perfectly fine.
6 – I find it constructive to think of the law as a rule-of-thumb risk analysis on suffering. Murder is normally bad, therefore it is illegal. Drunk driving causes a much greater risk to the public, therefore it is illegal…
7 – One would hope that palliative care would be given, to minimise suffering.
NB – I write for the simple reason that I was conflicted about the issue and taking a moment to stop and write clarified what I thought in my head. The linked post by Prayson Daniel and the comments in it were enough to cast me into doubt. This post is me dealing with the conversation that went on in my head.