Sunday, November 30, 2014

Wondering about an argument against abortion

There are many arguments for the conclusion that abortion is immoral, but some are more compelling than others.  In today’s blog post, John Grandits (a Bethel graduate who recently earned his MA in philosophy from the U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) considers one common argument and makes the case that most of us don’t in fact believe its central premise . . .

Consider the following argument against abortion:

1)      It is prima facie wrong to deliberately kill an innocent person.

2)      Human embryos are innocent persons.

3)      Therefore, abortion, which is the deliberate killing of a human embryo, is prima facie wrong.

Although not always stated in this exact form, this is a common argument made against the permissibility of abortion. Let me go over each premise. Premise (1) states that deliberately killing an innocent person is wrong. I include "prima facie" here because I want to leave open the possibility that there may be circumstances in which, all things considered, the deliberate killing of an innocent person is justified. However, I will take it as uncontroversial that the deliberate killing of an innocent person is wrong in the absence of overriding reasons.

Premise (2) states that all human embryos are persons, a claim that is usually taken to be entailed by the more common claim that life, or more appropriately personhood, begins at conception. Here, "persons" and "personhood" are moral terms that are meant to suggest something with "full moral status," i.e. the moral status that we normally take adult human beings to have. Specifically, if we believe that human embryos have full moral status, that means we believe they should be given the same weight in our ethical decisions as adult persons. For example, if we have moral obligations to protect an adult person from being killed or to prevent them from dying in a certain situation, the same obligations hold for a human embryo in those situations.

As premise (2) is commonly defended by political conservatives (at least in the United States), let's call this the conservative claim. The conclusion, then, is that abortion is prima facie wrong - wrong in the same way the deliberate killing of an innocent adult person is wrong (hence the common saying, "abortion is murder").

Proponents of abortion can respond in different ways to this argument. They can concede (1)-(3) but argue that, in some or all cases of abortion, overriding reasons to premise (1) are present. This would include those who argue that the rights of the mother trump those of the embryo. Another way to respond would be to argue that premise (2), the conservative claim, is false; that is, they can argue that embryos are not persons and, as a result, don't have the sort of moral status necessary to protect them from being deliberately killed. A third way to respond--and one that in some ways I find most interesting--is to attempt to show that very few people, if any, actually believe the conservative claim. This is the argument I will present below.

If you're familiar with abortion debates, you've probably heard about burning-building thought experiments. These thought experiments usually ask you to imagine a scenario in which two buildings are on fire, one of which has a living human baby, the other of which has a container filled with lots and lots of human embryos. The question is posed: assuming you only have time to save one, do you save the baby or the container? Most of us respond by choosing the baby.

In an article entitled, "The Scourge: moral implications of natural embryo loss," Toby Ord updates this thought-experiment by showing empirical data that something like the burning-building is happening everyday on a massive scale: spontaneous abortion. According to various sources of medical data, roughly 50 percent of all embryos two weeks old or younger are spontaneously aborted each year. To use some raw numbers, it is estimated that roughly 200 million spontaneous abortions occur each year.

These numbers may not carry much argumentative weight by themselves, but if they are combined with the conservative claim that embryos are persons with full moral status, it logically follows that roughly 50 percent of all human persons conceived each year die within two weeks of conception. Or, that more than 200 million persons die each year from spontaneous abortion alone. This is a remarkable result of accepting the conservative claim, so remarkable that it should lead us to ask why, if we accept the conservative claim, are we not advocating to combat this great loss of life, what Ord calls "The Scourge"?

I'm not sure all of what this shows us about our moral beliefs, but one thing it seems to show is that we don't believe that human embryos and adult human persons have the same moral status. If we did, we should expect to see many individuals and organizations attempting to eliminate the occurrence of spontaneous abortion with as much or more effort and resources as current attempts to eliminate cancer and various other deadly diseases. As no disease, natural disaster, war, or human rights catastrophe has ever killed so many persons as spontaneous abortion, we should expect that solving this problem would be our top priority. But it isn't. When compared to the likes of cancer or war, spontaneous abortion isn't even on our moral radar.

Ord takes this argument to be a sort of reductio of the conservative claim because, while it doesn't show us that the conservative claim logically entails a contradiction, it does show us that the conservative claim logically entails a conclusion that we don't believe - that, for instance, more than 200 million persons die each year from spontaneous abortion and that we should be putting in immense effort to eliminate its occurrence. If we don't believe that--which seems likely given our actions (or lack thereof) and attitudes about spontaneous abortion--then it seems likely that we don't believe the conservative claim upon which it rests. To the extent that we do believe the conservative claim, this argument reveals a morally egregious inconsistency between our actions and what we avow.  

Assuming that this is right, where does this leave us with the abortion debate? It certainly doesn't settle it, but Ord's argument raises doubts about a fundamental premise often used in arguments against the permissibility of abortion - the claim that human embryos are persons or the related claim that personhood begins at conception. It raises doubts, not by showing that these claims are false, but by showing that very few of us, if any, actually believe them to be true.


David McPherson said...

I posted this on the Bethel Philosophy Facebook site, where the blog was linked, but I will post it here too:
I appreciate John sharing his thoughts on this blog. Here are some thoughts in response:
This is actually a pretty common argument, which has been made, for instance, by Michael Sandel, Ronald Dworkins, and others, but I don't think it is very convincing. Consider the reply by Robert George and Patrick Lee to Sandel here: (Also, consider their book on the subject).
The fact that many people have different emotional responses to human infants as opposed to human embryos does not undermine the basic principle of the sanctity (or inviolability) of human life (people have lots of different emotional reactions to other people depending on how connected they feel to them or how much they look like them and so on, but this does not undermine the legitimacy of a fundamental moral equality of all human beings). Also, what exactly would it mean to combat spontaneous abortion? We should seek to avoid death, but not at all costs; for instance, not at the cost of ceasing to procreate and letting the human race go extinct (Though some people, like David Benatar, do in fact argue for this. I don't, but of course I am all for fostering healthy pregnancies). Moreover, the sanctity of human life principle prohibits the intentional killing of human beings and spontaneous abortion does not involve intentional killing, so to introduce this issue misses the point of the principle. It is certainly deeply sad that spontaneous abortion occurs, but it is not morally wrong. So, in short, I don’t think the “conservative” (i.e., pro-life) position is inconsistent at all.
All the best,
David McPherson
BA, Philosophy, Bethel University, 2005
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Creighton University
Omaha, NE

Wheelz said...

Thanks to John for the thought-provoking essay. I'd like to offer four responses.

1. Can't the defender of the “conservative claim” (CC) simply say, “so what?” Since the response to the conservative claim simply is that a lot of people who say they believe it don't actually believe it, this is not an actual attack on the CC; it's more like a sociological observation. A lot of people didn't believe slaves were full persons either – did that fact have any bearing whatsoever on the soundness of arguments against slavery that rested on the premise that slaves were full persons? Of course not. Same here. Even if argument (3) in response to CC is correct, then, it has no bearing on the soundness of the claim itself.
2. I'm not sure the claim that “we [are] not advocating to combat” the loss of life as a result of spontaneous abortion is actually true. What, exactly, would it look like to combat this loss of life? I suppose it would be to do research into how to keep an embryo/fetus healthy in the womb, then to have women who are attempting to become or have already become pregnant adhere to the suggestions of that research. Perhaps there would even be experts on the subject who would publish books educating women on how to ensure their pregnancy is healthy so the odds of a miscarriage at any stage are decreased. Yes...I think that's exactly what it would look like. And, as it turns out, it's exactly what the world in which we actually live looks like. Some doctors and dietitians dedicate their entire careers to working in the pre-natal health field and there are hundreds, probably thousands, of books educating women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant on how to ensure they do not lose their fertilized embryos.
3. There's a second response to the claim that we are not “advocating to combat” the loss of life during the embryonic stage. Many Catholics, especially, but also many other defenders of CC advocate against the use of birth control drugs that are abortifacients. Pro-lifers almost unanimously opposed the approval of RU-486 in the US, and many other birth control drugs (like the “morning after pill”) that utilize means other than contraception are also opposed. Isn't the abstention from these types of drugs, even in situations where that abstention may cause the CC believer to have an unplanned or even unwanted pregnancy, prima facie evidence that many defenders of CC in fact DO believe it?
4. David touched on this one above, but I guess I'll expand a bit. It's true that most people don't mourn the loss of life in cases of spontaneous abortions. But isn't the fact that when it happens, we almost never actually know it happened relevant? I'm sure that at some point today an octogenarian in China will die of a heart attack. But I don't know who she is. Neither do you. In fact, I don't really even know of her existence. As a consequence, neither you nor I will grieve her death. Are we then guilty of ascribing to her the status of having been a non-person? Of course not. We just...didn't know she existed. What's different between that and not grieving the loss of an embryo (or 200 million of them) we didn't know existed?

Scott Wheeler
BA, Philosophy, Bethel University, 2007
Missoula, MT

Ray VanArragon said...

Thanks to David and Scott. I think there’s much to their responses and I’m not convinced by John’s argument, but I’ll try to put the best face on it.

Scott says that we are in fact trying to prevent spontaneous abortions, and that’s true. (Though perhaps in the earliest stages of pregnancy we’re trying to prevent those for the sake of the parents, not the embryos.) But if hundreds of millions of embryos — persons — are dying every year, that is a great tragedy, and while our ability to prevent it is severely limited (a fact that I think weakens the argument considerably), I’m guessing we can do more than we do. Prospective parents unable to get pregnant often receive fertility treatments that promote implantation. Perhaps ALL parents should have to do this so that fewer embryos are lost. No one I know pushes for this.

Scott also suggests that John’s argument merely amounts to a sociological observation about what people believe but doesn’t tell against the truth of the conservative claim (CC). David makes a similar point about our failure to care about lost embryos. But perhaps the argument has both moral and epistemic implications.

The moral implication: there’s something morally questionable about spending a lot of energy on the abortion issue and loudly defending the CC when one doesn’t really believe it. Perhaps one’s crusading energy ought to be put toward other causes, to prevent wrongs that one really believes are wrong (sex trafficking, for instance).

The epistemic implication: maybe the upshot of all this (i.e. the upshot of the fact that many people don’t really believe that millions of unknown spontaneous abortions amount to a colossal tragedy) is that claims entailed by the CC are counter-intuitive, they violate common sense; and that fact provides SOME (defeasible) evidence that CC is false.

There is a lot more to say here (about the nature of belief, for example). Again, I’m not convinced by the argument, but at least it calls us to keep our beliefs consistent and to re-evaluate when they aren’t.

Wheelz said...

Thanks for the response. Your point about all parents using fertility treatments designed to promote implantation really got me thinking! I guess I'd offer four responses.

1. The success rate of IVF typically hovers around 40%, even with the use of additional drugs that promote implantation. The reason SOME pro-lifers have opposed IVF is that this additional success rate isn't high enough to actually decrease the number of spontaneous abortions. It actually increases that number since many more eggs are fertilized. Basically there is a several hundred percent increase in fertilization (due to gathering many eggs, inseminating them all, then inserting the best ones back into the mother), but the majority of the remaining embryos (typically all but two) either die or are frozen. Once frozen, they wait to be (a) used for a future attempt at pregnancy, (b) destroyed later, once they are either deemed to not be of use (c) donated for research, where they are also destroyed, or (d) adopted by another woman trying to get pregnant, which is pretty rare. The result is more fertilized embryos dying than if one were to go without the treatments. So I think the hesitance of pro-lifers to get behind fertility treatments in general and IVF in particular may count more toward consistency with regards to CC than against it.

2. To require the use of these drugs, as you suggested, just isn't feasible. Many spontaneous abortions happen when a couple isn't planning or wanting to get pregnant. It simply could never work to force couples who have no desire to become pregnant to use a drug whose only purpose is to ensure they become pregnant.

3. This is a response I'm taking from Francis Beckwith in his book “Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice.” He says, “it confuses our obvious prima facie obligation not to commit homicide...with the questionable moral obligation to interfere with natural death of a human person in every instance. Clearly the former does not entail the latter.” He gives the example of a healthy old man and his twin. His twin is suffering from cancer, but it is possible that his life could be spared via a painful round of chemo (i.e. artificial means). We obviously have an obligation not to kill the healthy twin, but there's no clear moral obligation to use artificial means to prevent the natural death of the cancer-infected twin.

4. This last one is a bit of a concession. I do think that if drugs exist that can increase the chances of implantation, the defender of CC should take them. I think that in many cases they already do. I Googled it a bit and there are many sites out there discussing the issue of how to increase the chances of implantation along with both naturalistic treatments and drugs that can be used to this end. So yes, I'd say if a woman can increase the chances of implantation, she also should. And I think the reality is that many already ARE doing what they can, as evidenced by all the material about it online.

John Grandits said...

Thanks everyone for your responses. Thanks Ray for responding on my behalf. Sorry it has taken so long to respond. I probably won't respond to all of your concerns, either because of a lack of time or skill on my part or because your arguments are irrefutable (likely), but maybe I can address a few of them.

Some clarification:

There are two ways that I think this argument can be presented and I think I provided a confused mixtures of both in my post. One way is to argue that most people don't seem to believe CC and Ord's argument provides evidence of that. Ord doesn't quite present the argument this way himself. After all, a natural response to that argument is to say something like, "Hey, even if most don't believe CC, I do. Not only do I avow it, but I support any efforts to eliminate spontaneous abortion. I'll even give money to the cause if such a cause should present itself to me, more money than I give to cancer research." At most, this argument shows either that people are often inconsistent between avowal and action or are mistaken about what they believe (i.e. their second-order belief that "I believe CC" is false).

A second way to present the argument is something like Ray's interpretation. That is, accepting CC entails accepting conclusions that are counterintuitive/implausible, e.g. that we should be allocating or reallocating our resources to research ways to prevent spontaneous abortion, even if this means neglecting other important issues. But even here, as in the case above, one could simply bite and accept CC. However, Ord thinks that most people, upon reflection, will consider the cost of accepting CC too much - that, all things considered, giving up CC is both morally and epistemically more tolerable than accepting the counterintuitive conclusions entailed by it. The force of the argument I think comes from this argument and not from the first.

David - Sorry, I have not yet read the response you cited, so if I sound ignorant of their arguments below, that's because I am.

- I don't think Ord's argument relies on believing that we should seek to avoid death at all costs. It only says that we should proportion our efforts and resources to the problem. If spontaneous abortion is the most common killer of persons--which it is if CC is true--we should be allocating our resources accordingly. I don't know the stats very well, but I doubt as much time and money is put into researching ways to prevent cancer as it is to prevent spontaneous abortion, especially at the earliest stages of embryonic development when they are most vulnerable. But perhaps that's beside the point. The point is that if you believe CC, you must also accept the conclusion that we should be allocating or reallocating resources proportionally (assuming, of course, you accept other that we have a prima facie obligation to prevent people from dying, that preventing spontaneous abortion is feasible, etc).

- You're right, there is an important distinction between intentionally killing and letting die. But the distinction doesn't seem relevant here given that we seem to believe that we have duties to prevent people from dying when it is in our power, such as preventing cancer, saving drowning children, etc. One could simply reject that we have such duties, but that would also come at the cost of accepting a counterintuitive claim. If we do have such duties, then CC entails that we also have those same duties to embryos...again, assuming we have the power to prevent them. More on this below.

John Grandits said...

Ray and Scott - You both contributed so much I'm not up to the task of addressing everything you said. One problem that you both mentioned was the feasibility problem. That argument is something like the following: if we either cannot, in principle, prevent spontaneous abortions or if we are severely limited in doing so, we need not accept the counterintuitive conclusion that we should be allocating/reallocating resources. This might be like a case in which we learn that there is a colony of persons on a distant planet who are all dying from a disease and, although we have a cure, we simply can't reach them. As helping them is infeasible, we need not derive any counterintuitive moral/practical conclusions.

I'm not really sure how to address this argument. I think a full response would involve more technical expertise about embryonic research than I have, but my prima facie response is to say that this argument will only be successful if it can be shown either that doing more to prevent spontaneous abortion, especially at the early stages, is impossible in principle (which seems implausible) or that the costs of doing more research and prevention are too high (relative to the probability of success). If by "too high" we mean something like "too much time and money," then it would need to be shown that the time and money required is so great that it overrides the lives of many persons. If by "too high" we mean, as Scott suggested, that research and prevention requires sacrificing the lives of many embryos/persons, then I do think this would weigh considerably against Ord's argument. But only if it's shown that such a sacrifice is required.

I think it's important to recall that in the case of cancer and many other diseases, it's not clear that such a cure is possible, yet we still put considerable resources into research and prevention (and, presumably, think that we have a prima facie moral obligation to do so). We also do this without always knowing all of the different costs, financial or otherwise, that will be incurred.