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.