by I.J. Makan
Once upon a time in Canada abortion was illegal. Now it’s a country with no federal laws on abortion and instead each province has its own regulations on terminating pregnancies. For example, in Newfoundland and Labrador abortion is legal up until 15 weeks, whilst in Ontario it’s legal until 24 weeks. The ethics of abortion is not something we talk about frequently, and instead we talk about conscientious objection to abortion or women’s rights to access safe and legal abortions. Take the recent “kerfuffle” in Canada where the Liberal government announced it will deny summer job grants to any group that supports anti-abortion. There have been plenty of push backs, especially from religious organizations, stating that this infringes upon their freedom of expression, speech, and religion.
The debate, however, doesn’t go deeper than this. The appeal to freedom of expression or religion itself isn’t terrible, it’s just unsatisfactory. Since the stance against abortion is based on a moral and metaphysical argument, we should expect groups and individuals to present these arguments which can then be coupled with freedom of speech, expression, or religion arguments. Does then the lack of moral and metaphysical arguments on the side of the anti-abortionists suggest that they know their arguments are weak? I don’t think so.
Does the fact that there aren’t any federal laws also indicate that the abortion debate is over? It certainly is over if it’s true that morality follows the laws set by a society. However, morality doesn’t and can’t follow society’s laws, laws follow morality—or at least they should. A law can’t make what is morally wrong to be morally right simply because it becomes the law. There is no magical power that a law qua law possesses which allows it to transfer moral rightness and wrongness to some action.
Since it’s not true that the abortion debate is over simply because we have laws that favour abortion, it’s of no use to point to current laws in order to make the case against the anti-abortionists. Laws can’t dictate morality any more than they can dictate common sense; instead, law presupposes morality and common sense.
The question, then, becomes whether the current laws sanctioning abortion follow upon a good moral theory; in other words, are the current laws in place because it’s morally right to abort, or at the very least, morally neutral to abort? To answer this question, we need to tackle four things. First, whether what is being aborted is a human being; second, whether being human confers a right to life or moral status; third, whether what is being aborted is innocent; and fourth, whether it can be morally right to intentionally kill an innocent human being. I will focus mainly on the first two questions. Then I’ll respond to the common objection regarding a woman’s right to her own body. Note: I use “embryo/foetus” to refer to all developmental stages up until birth.
Is it human?
Let’s start first with whether the embryo/foetus is a human being. Some pro-abortionists have answered no, but others, including Peter Singer, have answered yes. Since pregnancy are usually the result of two human beings, the burden of proof is on the former group to show that the human embryo/foetus is simply a clump of cells and not a human being. And if their proof is that the embryo/foetus doesn’t look like a human being and hence is not a human being, then that would be to beg the question since the question is whether the embryo/foetus is indeed a human being, not whether it simply looks like one. It’s like arguing that a five-year-old is not a human because she doesn’t look like a 26-year-old human. That a five-year-old doesn’t look like a 26-year-old—a mature instance of her kind—makes no difference and is irrelevant to the question of whether the five-old-year is a human being. Still, even if the embryo were the result of parthenogenesis which involves the development of an embryo from an unfertilized egg or some other process, the embryo remains a human being. Some like to make the distinction between human organism and human being. The former affirms that the embryo is scientifically part of the species Homo sapiens—not a lion, or a snail, or a fish, or whatever else. The latter indicates personhood. Some argue abortion is morally permissible up until personhood is realised. I don’t think this distinction is a viable option and I’ll show why below.
So, then, why is the embryo/foetus a human being? At conception, the fusion of sperm and egg forms a new nucleus—biologically unique from the father’s sperm and the mother’s egg—containing the blueprints for the development of the embryo. It’s a self-actualizing substance one of the hallmarks of life. The embryo directs its own growth and development by making use of the mother, the host. Hence, at conception, what we have is a human being—not a lion or a snail. The embryo doesn’t become human when it develops certain features or parts, any more than we become less human when we lose our appendix or kidney. Since there isn’t a metaphysically significant dividing line in embryonic and foetal development which separates what is human from what is not, the embryo is a human being from conception. 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 whatever point in development.
But hold on, isn’t it true that before the primitive streak, usually appearing around 14 days, the embryo can divide into twins, and these twins can further divide? And if this is the case, then how can there be a single human being before the primitive streak? In other words, how can we say that from conception the embryo is a single human being if it can divide into twins?
The possibility of dividing doesn’t refute the claim that from conception there is a single human being. It’s true that not all human beings begin at conception (as with twins), yet this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a single human being prior to the twins developing. When twinning occurs, the “parent” embryo ceases to exist—leaving no corpse behind—resulting in the existence of two “daughter” embryos. The “parent” embryo is a single human being with the potential to divide into twins. This potentiality of twinning doesn’t negate the pre-twinned-embryo’s status as a single human being.
But, for argument’s sake, say that the potentiality of twinning meant that there couldn’t be a single human being. Now, it’s also true that once twinning has occurred the twins themselves could further twin, so on and so forth. Does this mean that there’s an indeterminate number of humans in any potentially “twinnable” embryo? But, if there is an indeterminate number of humans, then we must conclude that there is no human being at all. This is simply absurd though. Suppose, I gave you a single “Twin Cactus” that divides into twins over a period of time. How many cacti have I given you—one or an indeterminate number? The answer is one even if the Twin Cactus could divide to infinity. Similarly, we can conclude that an embryo’s potential to twin doesn’t negate it from having the status as an individual human being. Hence up until the point of twinning, there is only one human being with the potential for becoming twins.
What about the objection from parthenogenesis when an egg without fertilization begins to develop, a phenomenon occurring in the natural world (i.e., New Mexico Whiptail lizards or Komodo Dragons)? Doesn’t this change the way we think about the egg and the way in which we think about the beginning of life? If a human embryo can be induced to develop from an unfertilized egg, should we not think that the unfertilized egg is a human being? And if so, is every fertile woman carrying thousands of human beings in her ovaries—at the very least potential humans? And wouldn’t this mean that anti-abortionists have the absurd obligation to make sure that every single unfertilized egg has a right to life and thus should be born?
This objection from parthenogenetic development should be dealt with carefully making sure to avoid the mistake of claiming that the egg is a potential human. But, first, let’s deal with the natural phenomenon of parthenogenesis. If parthenogenetic development is the natural means of reproduction within a species, say, the New Mexico Whiptail, then the conclusion is that the Whiptail’s eggs are instances of their kind, but at its earliest stage of development. Now there is no conflict with this conclusion and the conclusion that most human beings begin at conception. An unfertilized human egg that can be induced to develop into an embryo, wouldn’t make all unfertilized human eggs potential human beings, any more than flour is potential bread. We can, for the sake of argument, concede that the unfertilized human egg is a potential human being, nevertheless this is very different from saying that an embryo has the potential to grow into a mature human being. The latter is at the earliest stage of development, but the former is simply not. It’s the inducing that triggers a series of intrinsic changes within the unfertilized egg; fundamentally changing the nature of the egg. The “potentiality” of the unfertilized egg is not the same “potentiality” of an embryo to grow into a mature instance of her kind. The unfertilized egg is no more a human being than skin cells are potential human beings since without some intervention nothing happens to either of them, whereas an embryo left to itself develops into a mature human. Accordingly, a fertile woman is not carrying thousands of potential human beings and there’s no obligation to make sure that every single unfertilized egg is born. The claim that the embryo is a human being still remains true.
Does it have a right to life?
If the embryo/foetus is a human being, then this raises the question: does being human confer a right to life or moral status? 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 or have personhood; persons have a right to life. An embryo doesn’t possess these characteristics and so is not a person since it’s not aware of its mental states, it doesn’t have future plans or projects, it doesn’t have memories, and it’s not making any choices. And since the embryo doesn’t have these actual characteristics present, killing it is no more bad than killing a snail. The argument continues, it’s a fallacy to think that belonging to a certain species confers moral status. But doesn’t the human embryo/foetus have the potential to actualize its self-consciousness and rationality if it is allowed to grow and that it has a nurturing environment? That the human embryo/foetus in question has the potential to actually have plans, be aware of its own mental states, have memories, etc, factors not into whether it has the right to life, so the pro-abortionist argument goes.
Now, 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. Do the absence of these operations deny them a right to life? If we follow the pro-abortionists logic—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 and 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 to the dentist because you can be killed at your dentist’s whim. But the pro-abortionists 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 hence those operations will be actualized once the sleeping person awakes, and so the sleeping person continues to have a moral status or a right to life. But wasn’t appealing to potentiality deemed irrelevant to the question of moral status? Unless the pro-abortionist is willing to hold inconsistent views, which is a sign of a bad moral theory, that undermine her own position, then she must change her views.
The anti-abortionist 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 embryo/foetus be allowed to grow and continue to have a nurturing environment. This is why the distinction between human organism and personhood is untenable.
Can you intentionally kill an innocent human?
So far I have argued that the embryo/foetus is a human being and that it has a right to life. But 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. As was shown, 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 it would be unjust to deem someone guilty of an action they didn’t commit. Any human embryo/foetus 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 intentional killing of an innocent human being, which abortion is, at any stage of development; even in cases of rape or incest, and doing so would be to direct one’s anger at the wrong person. So then it can never be morally right to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
What about women’s rights?
Now we come to the application guide released by the Liberal government, which caused the summer grant “kerfuffle”. In it we find this statement, “The government recognizes that women’s rights are human rights. This includes sexual and reproductive rights — and the right to access safe and legal abortions. These rights are at the core of the Government of Canada’s foreign and domestic policies.” At this point, the pro-abortionists, with the Liberal government’s support, could raise the objection that a woman has right to her own body which includes, as the application states, “sexual and reproductive rights.” Therefore, so long as the embryo is connected to the mother, the mother has the right to terminate the life of the embryo.
Of course, it is true that a woman has a right to her own body, nonetheless that doesn’t mean that a woman can do whatever she likes with her body—she can’t use her body to harm another. For instance, a woman cannot intentionally swing a sharp knife at her sister’s throat, if she did it’d be attempted murder. However, if her swing was unintended then it wouldn’t be attempted murder it’d be a mistake. This is because there are certain things a woman cannot with her own body even if she wanted to, and this extends to all other human beings: one of these limitations is not being able to intentionally kill an innocent human being, which an embryo/foetus is. So any action that comes close to jeopardizing another human life is and should be against the law.Although the embryo/foetus is wholly dependent on the mother for its survival, this doesn’t grant the mother a right to kill any more than she has a right to kill her one-month old baby just because she no longer wants to breastfeed her. Women have rights but intentionally killing an innocent human is not of those rights and no law can overturn that. It can be legalized like it is in Canada, but that doesn’t make it any more right than legalizing contract killing under the pretentious reasoning that not having safe and legal contract killing leads to the death of the killers and outlawing contract killing doesn’t reduce the incidence of killing.
What can we conclude from all this? First, the embryo/foetus is an innocent human being that has a right to life from the moment of conception. Second, the zygote, embryo, foetus, baby, child, adult are but one single human being. Hence, what an embryo/foetus looks like is what a human being looks like at that point in development. Third, it is never morally right to have an abortion since abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human being who has a right to life. Fourth, a woman’s right to her own body doesn’t permit her to do certain things, one of which includes the intentional killing of an innocent human being. Hence, the current laws in Canada sanctioning abortion are immoral and it can never be morally neutral. Because mandating that institutions and businesses affirm the current popular view on abortion is nothing shy of forcing them to support the intentional killing of innocent human beings, appealing to freedom of expression or freedom of conscience is not sufficient. We need to show that our moral theory is robust since it is the moral theory that gives us good reasons that abortion is wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, freedom of expression, speech, and religion are important, but when pro-abortionists use these freedoms and turn it into “actions”, costing the lives of thousands of innocent humans, that’s when anti-abortionists need to stand up with solid arguments. So the heart of this debate is choosing between a good moral theory or a bad moral theory.
What are your thoughts?
IJ Makan is the founder and editor of Kazingram Dialogue. He’s completing his MA in Philosophy at Saint Mary’s University and received a BA in Philosophy and Biblical Studies & Theology from Tyndale University College. His philosophical interests are in philosophy of religion and ethics. In his free time he practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.