One of the reasons that abortion is such a good single issue topic is because it’s got several ideas all tangled together. If someone has a strong opinion one way or the other about whether or not abortion should be illegal then that tells you quite a few things about their morality, worldview, and philosophy of mind. The purpose of this post is to untangle three of these issues. The position I am most familiar with is my own so within each topic mine will be the position that receives the most thorough commentary but where I feel confident doing so I will try to give objective commentary on viewpoints different than my own.
This blog post began as a thought experiment I posted to Facebook which got some lively commentary from my friends and seemed to provide a good entry point into the conversation.
Imagine the following scenario: you're at the edge of a tall cliff laying down with your arms out-stretched desperately grasping two things to prevent them from falling. In one hand you have a newborn baby and in the other you have a container with a viable fertilized human zygote. Your hands are getting sweaty and both things are about to fall. Your only choice is to let one go to save the other. If you clearly know which choice you would make then you obviously don't think the two things are equivalent.This thought experiment quickly brings the relevant issues into perspective. Is abortion about the equivalence of babies and embryos? Is abortion about how we feel emotionally or is it about what one should do regardless of feelings? Can we trust our intuitions? Is abortion about value judgements? Is comparing the death of a baby to abortion even a fair comparison? Hopefully I’ll be able to give these issues a fair treatment in this essay and I hope that whatever I do not cover sufficiently is explored further in the comments.
When does a person begin?
In the abortion debate, this question is often asked as “when does life begin?” I do not believe that is an honest treatment of the central issue for most people. If you are a vegetarian who believes that all harm to all animal life at all stages should be prevented then whether or not something is alive is the question for you. For most people however, “life” isn’t the deciding factor for whether or not abortion should be illegal. The deciding factor is whether or not a person is being murdered. This is the question that the thought experiment given above most clearly sheds light on. The reason most people would drop the container with the zygote rather than drop the baby is because in only one of those cases would most people immediately feel as though they had just murdered someone.
Every society as far back as history has records has argued over the question of who may kill whom under what circumstances. Many different sets of rules have been tried out and experimented with over the millenia but, at least in the western world, the matter has been more or less settled for the better part of two centuries now. A person may kill another person in self defense. A person may be killed by the government for certain heinous crimes. Soldiers may kill other soldiers in war. There are a handful of other cases where killing is deemed acceptable but almost all other cases where a person kills another person is considered murder. Abortion is one of the last remaining cases where there is contention and it centers around a disagreement about what is and is not a person.
For several centuries in colonial and early America, killing a slave was only a crime if the slave was not yours. Even then the only crime committed was one of property damage and was usually subject to civil rather than criminal procedures. The reason was simple. A slave was not considered a person. Not for the purposes of law, not for the purposes of society, and not even for purposes of spirituality by many at the time. The belief that african americans had no more soul than did a domestic animal was common amongst the devout for longer than most would like to admit. We watch movies today and feel abject horror at people being treated as property which can be disposed of at will. The thing which has changed is that we perceive them as people. We view it as murder. That is how many anti-abortion activists perceive abortion and they hope that future generations will be just as abhorrent of the current definition of “person” as we are of the seventeenth century definition.
So what is a person? Answer that question and, for many people, you answer whether or not abortion should be illegal. A person’s answer to that question depends largely on their philosophy of mind. The three most prominent philosophies of mind today each offer very different answers. All three can be found within the abortion debate.
- The simplest and oldest answer is the one held by dualists. A person is anyone with a soul. The people who adhere to this philosophy are the ones who most frequently claim that “life begins at conception” because that is when they believe that ensoulment occurs. The staunchest anti-abortion advocates who lobby for making the practice completely illegal are usually dualists. People who adhere to the other two philosophies sometimes adopt the absolute position but it is less common.
- The next philosophy is connectionism, which says that a person is anyone with a functioning brain. These people are the ones who are most frequently look at when during the developmental stages certain types of brain activity are present. Perhaps pain sensation is their particular indicator or perhaps it’s a certain type of neocortical activity. No matter what the particular signs they think are important, though, connectionists believe that by examining the brain you can determine whether or not something is a person.
- The third and youngest philosophy of mind is functionalism, the modern day descendant of behaviorism. For functionalists the answer doesn’t come as easily. A person is someone with a personality. In almost all cases you can determine whether someone has a personality by simply interacting with them. However, there are obviously times when interaction cannot be used to make this determination (e.g. whether to pull life support from a comatose patient) and other means must be resorted to. Determining the personhood of unborn children definitively falls into that category. I know that in even the youngest baby I’ve ever interacted with I have perceived a personality. I am equally certain that no embryo has a personality by any sane definition of the word. Logically there must be some transitional period in between conception and birth during which the thing I perceive as a personality develops. In lieu of a good scientific demarcation of this period, many functionalists are willing to go with viability outside of the womb as a good legal standard.
Even if it’s not a person does that mean it’s not valuable?
Questions of this nature were the first criticisms offered to the thought experiment and the short answer is: “no”. Obviously someone can both think that a zygote is not a person and simultaneously think that a zygote is valuable. When reading the thought experiment in this article’s introduction you may have felt that it cheated by setting up a false dichotomy. Just because the baby would be chosen doesn’t mean the zygote was valueless and should be discarded at will. Very few people would argue that a zygote isn’t valuable, especially to the person whose zygote it is. Most people highly value their zygotes. Some people value their zygotes so much that they have them mass produced and spend thousands of dollars every year to have them preserved in fertility clinics just in case they want to have a child at some point in the future. What's not clear is how the question of a zygote's value should bear upon our laws.
The most common anti-abortion argument that centers on zygote value argues that they have “intrinsic” value. That is to say that they have value whether anyone values them or not. It is sometimes illegal and almost always considered immoral to destroy objects with intrinsic value. For instance, in some countries it is illegal to purchase a Van Gogh painting and then use it to fuel a bonfire. Such works of art are said to have intrinsic value that outweigh a person’s right to dispose of private property as they see fit. If such works of art should not be destroyed, the argument goes, then certainly zygotes should not be destroyed.
This argument rests on several core concepts that are not universally accepted one way or the other. The concept of “intrinsic” value in this argument is the first point of contention. Does a Van Gogh have more intrinsic value than does the doodle I just made on my notepad? If so how is the magnitude of intrinsic value determined? As soon as any single person’s judgement comes into the picture then a level of subjectivity is introduced that the original argument lacked. It would be possible to argue that collectively humanity values Van Gogh’s work more than mine and that the difference can be seen in the amount someone would be willing to pay to own them. I do not, however, believe that the proponents of this anti-abortion argument are advocating that we use free market mechanisms to determine the amount of value held by zygotes.
It is, however, commonly accepted that a person has intrinsic value. Intrinsic value arguments are at the core of every civil rights law ever written. It is accepted that people have intrinsic value and that this intrinsic value is compromised if you violate any of their fundamental rights. Whenever utilitarian arguments are defeated it is almost certainly a values argument that was the victor. When pressed for the logic behind the assertion that “every person has intrinsic value” some people may be reduced to a “just cause” argument and look at you like a monster for questioning them in the first place. Others may say that without that joint agreement, society would quickly dissolve and we would soon revert to the “cold and brutish” state of nature. While this argument is sound in most of its applications it is not at all clear that is applicable to abortion. If we abolished the civil rights movement we would almost certainly revert to a time when opportunistic oppression was the norm. It would have repercussions far beyond who got to stand in line on election day. It is not clear that allowing abortions to be freely and legally sought would have any similar domino effect. Finally, some argue that every person is of immeasurable value to at least one other person. The valuer referenced is often either a god or perhaps the particular person’s mother. Arguing that every zygote is valued by a god may hold spiritual truth for many people but it certainly is immediately disqualified as a valid argument for American legislation. Arguing that the source of value is the mother is also patently false if the mother wants to have an abortion.
While there may be some aspects of the intrinsic value argument that are meritorious, it ends up devouring itself in my opinion. The intrinsic value of the woman seeking the abortion, the value of her civil rights, and the value of her freedom are all universally accepted by pro- and anti-abortion advocates alike. The same can simply not be said for the value of a zygote.
How should the laws of a government be structured?
The last thing I wanted to comment on before wrapping up this blog post, which has grown far longer than I had intended, is the topic of how we want the laws of our country to be built in the first place. In the introduction I commented that the abortion issue was indicative of a group of political ideas that often cluster together. There are people who believe that abortion is immoral who also think that abortion should be legal. These people illustrate the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. Put differently, should the laws of our country be designed to “permit” those behaviors we believe are good behaviors or should our laws “prohibit” those behaviors that we believe are harmful to our society. If someone is of the latter camp then immoral behaviors should only be made illegal if they are clearly detrimental to society.
Some people argue that this distinction is one of trivial semantics. I disagree. I think that much can be learned about how a person wants society to be run from this distinction. Permissive laws assume that all behaviors, unless otherwise sanctioned, should be prohibited. Prohibitive laws assume that all behaviors, unless otherwise condemned, should be permitted. The differences between these two were small when the list of things one might ever have the opportunity to do in the first place was small. However, as the twenty-first century rapidly expands the list of the possible the two viewpoints are becoming more and more different.
The difference is perhaps best illustrated by examples. One example of permissive laws are zoning laws. These types of laws give property owners a very narrow band of options for how land that is zoned in a particular way can be used. Laws such as these are most common at the local level because such top-down design decisions become difficult to maintain the larger a society gets. Arson laws are of the prohibitive variety. They are just as agnostic about the zoning of a building as they are towards uses of fire that don’t interact with buildings. They specifically pick out one behavior that is detrimental to a society and place it out of bounds.
To give a paired example closer to the topic of abortion you can examine what sex is and is not legal. Sodomy laws generally do not specifically prohibit anal sex or oral sex or any particular type of sex except as examples. They tend to give a short list of what types of sex people will be allowed to have and say “anything else is right out”. Laws against rape, on the other hand, are of the prohibitive variety. They simply say that a specific type of behavior is beyond the pale. So long as everyone is consenting, however, the laws against rape simply do not care what costume you wear nor do they care what animate and or inanimate third parties may become involved in the fun.
All laws do not cleanly fit into one category or the other. Often times prescriptive laws will contain specific situational prohibitions. Sometimes prohibitive laws will contain addendums that offer certain situational prescriptions. Abortion laws come in both varieties. Bans on partial birth and late term abortion are prohibitive. Bans on abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, and danger to the mother are prescriptive. By determining which types of abortion laws a person favors you can determine whether they believe that society should be designed from the top down or if society should shape itself from the bottom up. Knowing how wide of a range of societies a person is willing to live in may be the most important bit of information offered by their stance on abortion.
Abortion is a great litmus test topic. By finding out what someone’s position is on abortion you learn a lot about them very quickly. You can find out what they consider the word “person” to mean. You can find out what they believe the source of value is and come to understand how they balance utilitarian goals with intrinsic value goals. You can also learn whether they believe our laws should be structured to tell people how they may live or how they can’t live. The difficult part is to ask these questions in order to truly gain knowledge about a person. If your goal is not one of genuine curiosity then you may find yourself in a fight quickly. I’ve done my best to present my opinions honestly and with minimal bias. Hopefully no matter what your opinion about abortion is I at least acknowledged your reasoning in a respectful manner. May the conversation continue.