Friday, November 04, 2005

Abortion (and infanticide): Part I

I have been asked to report my position on the issue of abortion (and, infanticide).

I am reluctant to do so here because the amount of space that I have to do this in will not give me time to present my view, plus deal with all of the distortions and misinterpretations that those who do not like that view would likely subject it to. If a person reads this with the intention of finding an interpretation that he does not like and that can be easily attacked, he will be able to do find what he is looking for.

However, I will warn him of the potential of failing to attack my position, and of attacking a straw man of his own construction instead.

Also, one advantage to believing that moral statements are objectively true or false, is that I can say “I don’t know” when asked a moral question. I can say, “This seems to be the best option given the available evidence, but I could be wrong.”

No Value Without Desires

We will start with this: There is no value without desire. A being or entity cannot benefit or be harmed in any morally relevant sense unless it has the capacity to want things, and the things it wants can be given or taken away. Plants can be "harmed" in a sense, but there is no morally relevant harm to taking an axe to a tree -- even if it is a living tree.

A fetus cannot be harmed in any morally relevant sense unless it has desires. An aversion to pain is an example of a basic, fundamental desire that a fetus can acquire. However, having such an aversion (the capacity to feel pain) requires a functioning brain. Without this, a fetus cannot be harmed in a morally relevant way.

Abstinence vs. Abortion

Religious conservatives often try to promote abstinence over abortion. However, what benefit comes to a person who, instead of being conceived and aborted, was not conceived at all? I do not see how anybody is made better or worse off by either action.

I am grateful that my parents brought me into this world. However, I am grateful because this life that I have was their gift, not their duty.

I could look back and say, "If my mother had an abortion, then I would not be here." Some people take this perspective, then harvest the horror of not having existed to manufacture a sentiment against abortion. I can just as easily look back and say that if my parents had not had sex, then I would not be here. This does not allow me to imply that their having sex on that particular occasion was their duty, and that they would have wronged me if they had not done so.

I am certain that I have at least one ancestor who was the offspring of rape, or incest or sex between a master and slave. If this had not occurred, I would not be here. This does not give me reason to argue that we should pass laws punishing those who would interfere with rape, incest, or slavery.


At one point, I acquired a functioning brain, I acquired desires, and I acquired morally relevant interests. This fact has moral bearing on the legitimacy of anybody coming at me with an axe (or a scalpel). I was not in much of a position to defend those interests. However, an inability to defend one's interests is not an argument against their existence or their moral relevance. The person lying unconscious in the street after an automobile accident has interests, independent of his inability to defend them.

Here, I am going to agree with those who say that the moral weight of a person’s interests are not affected by whether or not that person was conceived through rape, incest, or willing sex. It is objectionable to say that the suffering of any adult or child who came about as a result of rape or incest has less moral relevance than that of the person who was not conceived under these circumstances. It is just as objectionable to disregard the interests of the fetus based on the circumstances of its conception.

Even though I had interests, and those interests had moral weight, there are still certain things that one person may not do to another person in defense of his interests. My interest in living did not give me the right to commandeer somebody else's body and to use it for my benefit without their consent.


Against this, there is a competing consideration. Assume that a patient needs to be hooked up to another person in order to continue living. Assume that you had been asked, and you agree to that procedure. Once started, you cannot end the procedure without killing the person who you had agreed to help.

Since you agreed to the procedure, you are under a moral obligation to see it through. You have no right to say -- half-way through, "I'm changing my mind. I'm leaving now."

We may assume that, in the vast majority of cases, by the time a conceptus becomes a fetus with interests, the mother has had an opportunity to consider whether or not she wishes to enter into this phase of development. If she starts into this phase, a moral argument can be given that she has an obligation to see it through. She has created a situation in which a being with interests depends on her for continued survival. If she did not want to be in that position, she should have chosen to avoid it.

One could say the same thing about the decision to have sex, but I have denied that sex immediately results in a being with interests being dependent on another for survival.

Children and Animals

I suspect that a major objection to this theory would come from the claim that puppies also have desires, thus they have interests, and this argument would give puppies as much moral weight as infants, or infants as little moral weight as puppies.

I do not agree with those who think that acquiring desires (or preferences) gives one intrinsic moral value. All value depends on fulfilling desires, and whether the state of a being having desires is good or bad depends on its tendency to fulfill yet other desires. Humans have the capacity to form more complex interactions, adopt projects, and make plans far beyond what any animal can. Therefore, the desire-thwarting potential of a human death is far greater than the desire-thwarting potential of animal deaths.

Parents tend to emotionally invest a great deal in their children – those that they have consented to have. The cost of losing a child is orders of magnitude greater than the cost to of losing a puppy. Thus, we have reason to promote an aversion to killing people that are orders of magnitude larger than the aversion to killing animals.

This does not imply that the interests of animals lack moral significance, or even that they have less moral significance. However, even though an ounce of lead is equal to an ounce of coal, a ton of coal will still outweigh a pound of lead.

Interests in a Conceptus

Similarly, a parent who wants to have a child also has an interest in a conceptus. In this case, if the conceptus is damaged or harmed, then the interests of the potential parents have been severely harmed, and penalties are appropriate.

There are interests to protect in defending a conceptus that does not yet have a brain. However, those interests belong to others. The conceptus itself has no morally relevant interests.


In general, my view on abortion is this: A woman has until the fetus acquires a brain, and thus acquires interests, to determine whether or not she will consent to the use of her body. If she wishes, she may have an abortion, and no wrong has been done.

However, if she waits until the fetus has a brain and thus has interests, then she has consented to a situation in which a being with interests is dependent on the use of her body to survive. Only dire circumstances -- such as the life of the mother -- would justify terminating that relationship.

'Rape' and 'incest' never have any moral weight as to whether an abortion is permissible. Before the conceptus becomes a fetus with a brain and morally relevant interests, any fetus, however conceived, may be aborted. After this point, interests of the person conceived through rape or incest is no less than those conceived through willing sex.

There are, however, a lot of complicating factors to consider as well. Tomorrow, I will post on some of those considerations.


Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, at what week of gestation do you consider the formation of a brain to be complete enough to imbue the fetus with "desires"? 4 weeks? 8? 12?

Second, how would you evaluate the situation I was in? I will outline it here. I had determined before having sex that if I became pregnant I would seek an abortion. I was using condoms and "rhythm method." I wound up getting pregnant. I became aware of my pregnancy after my first missed period, by which time the fetus was about three weeks old. It was another week before I could get an appointment to see someone at the clinic. Then, the earliest date they had available to schedule me an abortion was at about the 12-week mark. I spent 9 weeks knowing I was pregnant and wanting an abortion, but unable to get one until the 12-week mark. How do you evaluate this situation, ethically?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Answer 1: I do not know. That is a scientific question, and I am not a scientist.

Answer 2: You made an appointment for an abortion. You thereby indicated your lack of consent to the use of your body. No person has the right to the use of another person's body without their consent.

Anonymous said...

Just read your essay? on abortion! I agree with you 100%.
You have no thoughts that rational people have, therefore you must be a fetus and should be aborted.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hmmm. A critic, but one who seems incapable of expressing a coherent thought or to grasp moral concepts. For some reason, I do not see the argument to be under much of a threat just yet.

Anonymous said...

I have two questions growing out of Anonymous-1 above:

1. I don't know enough pre-natal science to know whether the 12-week mark is significant. But if it is, there seems to be a major flaw in your response (if not your underlying reasoning). What is the ethical result (in your eyes) if the mother chose to abort before the conceptus became a person (the mind reached your criterion) but the act could not be completed until after the conceptus became a person? On the one hand, the mother never consented, on the other hand there is a morally relevant person being killed.

2. Isn't it incumbent upon anyone who takes your position seriously to take the time to give at least some consideration to the manner in which this most-significant criterion shall be discerned. Either by the calendar (number of weeks) or by a specific type of test (EEG, for example).

Anonymous said...

There is no magical instant that a fetal mind comes into being. The brain, as well as all other organs and tissues, form gradually. The idea that there is an instant of awareness is as absurd as the idea that a fertilized egg attains a soul at the moment of conception. The development of a human being is continuous, and any point at which you choose to morally approve abortion would be an arbitrary one. That said, twelve weeks, as illustrated above, should be more than enough time for any woman to learn that she is pregnant and come to a decision about her beliefs concerning abortion.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There is a constant stream of infinitely small changes between the numbers 1 and 2. Yet, the person who argues that, as a result, 1 = 2, is making a mistake.

There is no value with desire. An entity without desires has no interests, and thus its interests cannot be sacrificed.

We can have a debate as to exactly when desires come into existence. Yet, we have no reason to doubt that it is quite a while after the egg is fertilized, and quite a while before the infant is born.

Anonymous said...

"A being or entity cannot benefit or be harmed in any morally relevant sense unless it has the capacity to want things, and the things it wants can be given or taken away. Plants can be "harmed" in a sense, but there is no morally relevant harm to taking an axe to a tree -- even if it is a living tree."

How do you define desires or the capacity to want? How do you detect them?

Objectively, "wanting" something is generally detected by observing behavior which seems to correspond to this.

"An aversion to pain is an example of a basic, fundamental desire that a fetus can acquire"

From an observational perspective, many plants have the same reaction. They avoid situations which cause them injury, by growing in directions other than those where they were damaged or cut. They secrete special "stress hormones" in situations where we would feel "pain". They grow replacements for portions of their bodies which are removed, generally at the expense of other systems which they would otherwise enlarge or develop, indicating that they "want" those portions of their bodies.

You dismiss plants too easily. :-)

Luke said...

BTW, Boonin gave a different argument but came to a similar conclusion in his famous "A Defense of Abortion" (2003).

The evidence right now seems to suggest that a fetus develops desires between weeks 10 and 25. I wonder if this makes me closer to pro-life or pro-choice? I feel closer to pro-life, but...

Abortion. I can hardly think of a topic for which more bad arguments have been offered.

Oh, right. The existence of God.

Unknown said...

What if the woman doesn’t find out she is pregnant until after the fetus has interests? How did she consent to anything?