By: I.J. Makan
Back in June at a #ShoutYourAbortion event, Martha Plimpton joked about how her “best” abortion was in Seattle, and that if she could she would’ve reviewed it on Yelp. This is an attitude gaining popularity–that women should be proud of their abortions.
In contrast, a British Conservative MP James Rees-Mogg claims that abortion is wrong even in the case of rape and incest. Similarly, an anti-abortion group called Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, for the past few weeks have been handing out images of dismembered foetuses on the streets, in mailboxes, and on sandwich boards.
Is abortion still up for debate?
Having a rational discussion about abortion is becoming harder and harder. Anti-abortionists are constantly portrayed as women-haters, religious, and/or bigots. However, MP James Rees-Mogg’s claim on abortion is true and the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) is justified in handing out images of bloody foetuses if: (i) at conception, we have a human being; (ii) being a human confers a right to life; (iii) the embryo/foetus is innocent; (iv) intentionally killing an innocent human being is morally wrong.
The debate is only over if abortion is morally right. Often times you’ll hear from pro-choicers that there is no debate because the majority of people support abortion and the law permits it. This, to be honest, is a horrible argument. Suppose a country legalizes murder. Does legislating murder make it morally right? Is there something magically about laws that can make what is morally wrong to be morally right? No. Laws can’t in principle make what is morally wrong to be morally right and vice-versa; they can’t dictate morality any more than they can dictate common-sense. So the debate far from over.
Now, the union of human sperm and egg creates a new nucleus–genetically distinct–containing the blueprints for the development of the embryo. The embryo directs its own growth and development. It is a member of the species Homo Sapiens. Hence what we have at conception is a human organism. The embryo doesn’t become a human being when it develops certain features or parts, any more than you become less human when you lose your appendix or kidney. There isn’t a metaphysically significant dividing line in embryonic and foetal development which separates what is human from what is not. If the embryo is a human being, then throughout its growth and development it remains the same human being. The claim here is of numerical identity: that the zygote, embryo, foetus, baby, child, adult are but one single human being. So what an embryo/foetus looks like, then, is what a human being looks like at a certain point in development.
If the embryo/foetus is a human being, then does being human confer a right to life? Many have argued that it doesn’t; that belonging to a certain species doesn’t confer special rights any more than belonging to a certain group confers special status; otherwise, we’d be able to justify racism, sexism, speciesism, etc. What matters instead are the being’s actual characteristics: self-consciousness and rationality. Any being with these actual characteristics are persons, and persons have a right to life. An embryo/foetus does not possess those characteristics and so is not a person: it’s not aware of its mental states; it doesn’t have future plans or projects, etc. And since the embryo/foetus does not have these actual characteristics present, killing it is no more bad than killing a snail, so the pro-choice argument goes.
But doesn’t the human embryo/foetus have the potential to actualize its self-consciousness and rationality given that it is allowed to grow and that it has a nurturing environment? The pro-choicer’s response to this is that the potentiality of the embryo to have actual plans, to be aware of its own mental states, to have memories, etc, factors not into whether it has the right to life.
If being human is a necessary condition to having self-consciousness and rationality, but a right to life is only conferrable if you have actual, as opposed to potential, self-consciousness and rationality, then what of a sleeping person, or a knocked-out boxer, or a drugged person? None of these persons have actual self-consciousness or rationality. Does that deny them a right to life? If we follow the pro-choicer’s line of argument–that a person is one whose self-consciousness and rationality is actual and present–then the sleeping person, the knocked-out boxer, and the drugged person have no moral status; killing them would be no more immoral than killing a snail! And if this is true, we should all be very scared of going to sleep or going under for surgery. Here, a pro-choicer could reply by claiming that we need not be scared of sleeping because the sleeping person has the potential for self-consciousness and rationality, and those operations will be actualized once the sleeping person awakens, and hence she continues to have a moral status. Yet, previously, appealing to potentiality was deemed irrelevant to the question of moral status, so how can it be relevant now?
The anti-abortion argument then is that the embryo/foetus has a right to life because all that is required for those potentials to be actualized is that the embryo/foetus is allowed to grow and that it has a nurturing environment.
If the embryo/foetus is a human being and it has a right to life, is it innocent? A guilty person breaks the law or commits an immoral act. But, there is no possible way for the embryo/foetus to break the law or commit an immoral act. But, wait, what if the embryo/foetus is the result of rape or incest, is it still innocent? Yes, the embryo/foetus is still innocent because it is not the evil father. The embryo/foetus is a distinct organism from the mother and father; and even if the embryo were genetically identical to the evil father, it wouldn’t make the embryo guilty of the father’s action. Simply because you cannot be guilty of an action that you didn’t commit. Any human embryo/foetus then is innocent, no matter how it came into existence. This leads to our final question: whether it is morally right to intentionally kill an innocent human being? A good moral theory, if anything, is concerned with protecting innocent, vulnerable, and weak humans. Any theory that doesn’t do this is a bad one. A good moral theory then can’t allow the intentionally killing of an innocent human being, which abortion is–at any stage of development.
So it can never be morally right to have an abortion since abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human being who has a right to life. Hence, laws sanctioning abortion are immoral. Now, I haven’t raised the woman’s-right-to-her-own-body objection; nonetheless, suffice it to say that under no circumstances can it be morally right to intentionally kill an innocent human being. A woman’s right to her own body doesn’t permit the intentional killing of an innocent human being, any more than a mother is permitted to kill her one year old because she no longer wants to breastfeed her child. If abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human being, then it’s no different than contract killing. And this is why Conservative MP James Rees-Mogg is right in asserting that abortion is wrong, even in cases of rape or incest. For doing so would be to direct one’s anger at the wrong person. This is why the CCBR is justified in handing out flyers and holding posters of bloody foetuses because those images capture the truth; and why Martha Plimpton’s comment about abortion is analogous to saying that in Seattle she had her “best” contract killing done.
Oderberg, David. Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 2005.
Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.