Madblog recently wrote a series of posts. (Recent relative to when I wrote this, anyway.) Her posts were about abortion, the two pertinent points being this: abortion is a genocide, just like the Nazi extermination of the Jews; and, in response to the indignation she subsequently received, to set the challenge for atheists (because, as everyone knows, “pro-choice” is just code for “atheist”) to explain how abortion and genocide were objectively and inherently morally different. The challenge was to explain why genocide was objectively and inherently wrong, while not giving an explanation that would also cast serious judgement on abortion as well.
And that takes me straight to an aside: abortion should not be a preferred method of contraception. Abortion is a trade-off. It’s not nice. Women do not tend to make the decision lightly and any anti-abortion rhetoric that suggests otherwise should be met with the appropriate level of incredulity and scorn. Abortion is not a fantastic thing to be celebrated. It is a difficult decision for anyone who has to consider it, and it can cause both emotional and physical harm. I don’t think anyone is arguing it’s some moral excellence.
What I argue when I partake in this debate is that it’s not a moral equivalent to murder, or even killing a cat. It’s a bad whose moral worth is abrogated by the good of female reproductive rights. It’s one of those ‘pick between these awful options’ thing. And ceasing female reproductive rights (or stopping them forming in the first place) is decidedly worse than abortion.
(Madblog said nothing of this sort, I’ve added this aside for a wider audience.)
However, my answer to Madblog’s challenge was something she implored me to extend to the wider atheist community (particularly females). And I do really want answers to this, to the point that I am actually going to ask you to reblog and link to this to get as many answers as possible. I’ve not seen anyone argue this before, and so this is entirely new ground for me.
I have adapted my comment for the sake of this post, and it was this:
The act of murder induces fear and misery in the survivors, and ends an actual self-sustaining human life. Genocide is worse, because there are more lives involved and the sheer arbitrariness of it deepens the fear held by the survivors: ‘maybe the next arbitrary condition for murder will include me!’ It’s the ultimate dystopia, not least because many genocides are perpetrated on the false promise of a utopia.
Foetuses are not human lives. There is no medical definition of human death (and therefore human life) that includes a foetus until, at earliest, week 21; and that relates to brain-stem activity. Trying to define human life to extend to foetuses results in all sort of medical complications and paradoxes. And hopefully no one is arguing for a special case of just adding foetuses to the definition of human life as an addendum, because that is special pleading. The death of a human, legally and medically, relies on the cessation of brain stem activity. Murder, then, is just a subset of conditions relating to death. Pre-21 week abortions are not murder.
Not only do foetuses not have the brain activity to be human lives, but they are not self-sustaining lives. They are biological parasites (if they are not wanted). Biological parasites are different from social or financial parasites, like dogs and born children, which are self-sustaining life entitled to rights (at differing levels ― according to species and ability to suffer). I couldn’t, for example, demand a right to have our bodies links so that your body supports mine, if I were to ill to sustain my own life.
Although abortion may induce repulsion in many people (and that’s understandable), abortion does not lead anyone to reasonably fear for their own life, nor does it end a self-sustaining human life.
The fact that one is the cessation of a self-sustaining human life and the other is the removal of an unwanted growth is precisely the difference.
You may argue that foetuses have the potential to be self-sustaining human lives, and therefore we are talking about moral equivalents here. But that is a non sequitur: there is no reason one should consider “potentials” and “actuals” in the same way. For one, given current technology, tumours have the potential to be human lives. (You may find the comparison repugnant, but that is not the same as seeing the difference.)
Something seemed off about my answer. It was somehow incomplete. So I went on to do something I think many may rail against me for: I future-proofed my morality by permitting an absolute ban on abortions, given certain technological progress:
There may be a good argument for creating a broader definition of human life: If you define human life as that which is self-sustaining, with technological medical intervention, then this will include the babies born at phenomenally early-term stages and survived (as has happened). But, it can also include babies born at increasingly early stages, as technology advances. I don’t think there is anything inherently silly about this idea, as I believe human ecology is defined by knowledge and technology and so our species should have a dynamic definition of this technology-dependent sort.
What this would mean is that human death would no longer be defined at the cessation of brain-stem activity, but at the point that current technology cannot reasonably be said to bring back brain stem activity. (These, currently, are the same thing.) One implication of this is that 19-week foetuses could be human: they could be removed from the womb, ‘brought to term’ (so to speak) and have brain stem activity begin eventually. Abortions, at this stage, will have to be replaced with a more intricate operation that removes the foetus carefully. But, abortions at this stage are already surgical.
(Another, less ideal, consequence is that human life will depend on the country or even the region of the country and the medical technology available. That is not a nice consequence, and hopefully one that would encourage medical funding around the world!)
In this case, when technology is sufficiently advanced, it really would be a human life at conception. (That is not to say it really is a human life at conception now. This is strictly a technology-dependent definition. It is only if you accept this techno-centric definition of humanity that an ‘at conception’ blastocyst can be considered a ‘living human, potentially sustained by current technology’. If you don’t accept this definition, then the legal definition as it currently is, stands.) However, in this circumstance, if that is the moral direction we wanted to take (and that’s a big if), then sufficient technology would exist to remove the foetus and support it with medical intervention — and that process would replace abortions. The reproductive rights of women wouldn’t change, just the technology used to realise those rights.
I think that is the right interpretation of my future-proofed position on abortion: I think at the stage a foetus could be removed from the womb a reliably be kept alive, then that is not a foetus anymore; it is a baby. At that stage, I am willing to call that a human life. And so, at that stage, if a woman doesn’t want the child, her options are to undergo an operation to have the child removed and sustained (on the state ― she shouldn’t have to pay; ethics should not be about what you can afford) or carry it to term and put it up for adoption.
Yes, that makes some “abortions” (of course, they’re not abortions at this stage) at later stages more burdensome, but I think that is the result of this meaningful definition of human life.
And, yes, I think it is conceivable that technology will one day be at a stage where a foetus could be kept alive from conception, making the morning after pill a murder. But the technology to remove and sustain the baby will also exist, so the same reproductive freedoms still exist (in all circumstances).
(As a side note, to fund that, you’d need universal health care. I wonder how many anti-abortioners would support that. You maintain the woman’s right to not have the child, and the state pays to provide the medical intervention to ‘bring it to term’ as it were.)