Category Archives: Abortion

Brief Reply to a Pro-Lifer

While writing my last post on abortion I came across an anti-abortion piece written a few years ago by a Harvard undergraduate, Ms. Aurora Griffin. Having taught philosophical ethics to undergraduates for 30 years, I’m always happy to see an undergrad bold enough to wade into the philosophical waters. However, it is easy to see where Ms. Griffin’s argument goes awry.

Ms. Griffin argues that there are arguments from both philosophy and science that support her pro-life position. She says the philosophical argument “is that all human beings have the right to life because they are human,” and the scientific argument is “[human] life … begins at conception” because then “it has human DNA …”

To her credit, Ms. Griffin seems to recognize that these arguments don’t work because there is a difference between being biologically human, or having human DNA, and being a person who is a member of the moral community. Perhaps she has read Mary Anne Warren’s devastating critique of John Noonan’s notoriously weak argument, where Warren points out that being biologically human doesn’t mean you are a person, nor does the lack of a human DNA mean that you aren’t a person. There may be things that are biologically human but not persons—like zygotes, the recently deceased, and people in persistent vegetative states—and there may be things that aren’t biologically human but are persons—like intelligent aliens, cyborgs or robots. So having human DNA doesn’t mean that you are a person or a member of the moral community. After all, a swab of human saliva has human DNA but it is not a person.

Sensing that personhood rather than biologically humanity is the key point, Griffin offers this argument as a reply to those who focus on consciousness as the key to personhood. “If the human is a person only when neurologically functioning as a human, then by that same argument it would be permissible to kill people while they are in deep sleep, in comas, or mentally handicapped.” This argument is especially fatuous.

First, neurological functioning may be one of the necessary conditions for personhood and one which the zygote without a brain clearly does not satisfy. It is hard to see how any entity that completely lacks consciousness is a person in any usual sense of the word. And, as is well-known in the literature, fetuses satisfy none of the criteria for personhood till well along in their development.

Second, the argument is a disguised version of a well-known informal logical fallacy known as the slippery slope. Ms. Griffin appears to believe that if we allow abortion in the early stages then sleeping and mentally handicapped people will be killed. Of course, this doesn’t follow, since the sleeping and mentally challenged clearly have neurological activity—it is not as if they completely lack consciousness like early trimester fetuses.

All of this leads to Ms. Griffin’s conclusion that only “if the fetus is not a person and we know it definitively, is abortion morally permissible.” Of course, we do know that the early fetus does not satisfy any of the criteria of personhood by any reasonable philosophical definition of the word, and we also know this beyond any reasonable doubt based on the science of embryological development.

Finally, we might note that the majority view among ethicists by a large margin is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not.

Now you may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief not grounded in science or philosophical ethics.

Ethicists Generally Agree: The Pro-Life Arguments Are Worthless

(This article was reprinted in the magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 17, 2016, in Church and State and in Critical Perspectives on Abortion (Analyzing the Issues), Anne C. Cunningham, ed., Enslow Publishing 2017.)

Abortion continues to make political news, but a question rarely asked by politicians or other interlocutors is: what do professional ethicists think about abortion? If ethicists have reached a consensus about the morality or immorality of abortion, surely their conclusions should be important. And, as a professional ethicist myself, I can tell you that among ethicists it is exceedingly rare to find defenders of the view that abortion is murder. In fact, support for this anti-abortion position, to the extent it exists at all, comes almost exclusively from the small percentage of philosophers who are theists.  And even among theists, opposition to abortion is far from unanimous. Yet few seem to take notice.

To support the claim that the vast majority of ethicists reject the pro-life position, consider the disclaimer that appears in the most celebrated anti-abortion piece in the philosophical ethics literature, Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion Is Immoral.” Marquis begins:

The view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received
little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers
affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument.

Marquis concedes that abortion isn’t considered immoral according to most ethicists, but why they not, for the most part, find abortion morally problematic? Perhaps professional ethicists, who are typically non-religious philosophers, find nothing morally objectionable about abortion because they aren’t religious. In other words, if they were devout they would recognize abortion as a moral abomination. But we could easily turn this around. Perhaps religiously oriented ethicists oppose abortion because they are religious. In other words, if there were not devout, they would see that abortion isn’t morally problematic. So both religious and secular ethicists could claim that the other side prejudges the case.

However, it is definitely not the case that secular ethicists care less about life or morality than religious ethicists. Consider that virtually all moral philosophers believe that murder, theft, torture, and lying are immoral because cogent arguments underlie such prohibitions. Oftentimes there is little difference between the views of religious and secular ethicists regarding moral issues. Moreover, when there is disagreement among the two groups, perhaps the secular philosophers are ahead of the ethical curve with their general acceptance of abortion, homosexuality, and certain forms of euthanasia.

How then do we adjudicate disputes in the moral realm when ethicists, like ordinary people, start with different assumptions? The key to answering this question is to emphasize reason and argument, the hallmarks of doing philosophical ethics. Both secular and religious individuals can participate in rational discourse to resolve their disputes. In fact, natural law moral theory—the dominant ethical theory throughout the history of Christianity—claims that morality is grounded in reason, which implies that what is right is supported by the best rational arguments. Natural law theorists argue that by exercising the human reason their God has given them, they can understand what is right and wrong. Thus secular and religious philosophers work in the same arena, one where moral truths are those supported by the best reasons.

That ethicists emphasize rational discourse may be counter-intuitive in a society dominated by appeals to emotion, prejudice, faith, and group loyalty. But ethicists, secular and religious alike, try to impartially examine the arguments for and against moral propositions in order to determine where the weight of reason lies in the matter. Ethicists may not be perfect umpires, and the truth about moral matters is often difficult to determine, but ethicists are trained to be impartial and thorough when analyzing arguments. Some are better at this than others, but when a significant majority agrees, it is probably because some arguments really are stronger than others.

Now you might wonder what makes ethicists better able to adjudicate between good and bad arguments than ordinary people. The answer is that professional ethicists are schooled in logic and the critical thinking skills demanded by those who carefully and conscientiously examine arguments. They are also trained in the more abstract fields of meta-ethics, which considers the meaning of moral terms and concepts, as well as in ethical theory, which considers norms, standards, or criteria for moral conduct. Moreover, they are familiar with the best philosophical arguments that have been advanced for and against moral propositions. So they are in a good position to reject arguments that may influence those unfamiliar with favored positions.

All this education doesn’t mean that the majority of ethicists are right, so individuals who disagree with them may choose to follow their own conscience. But if the vast majority of ethicists agree about an ethics issue, we should take notice. It might be that the reasons you give for your fervently held moral beliefs don’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Perhaps they can’t be rationally defended as well as those reached after conscientious, informed, and impartial analysis. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your conscience and accept expert opinion, but if you are serious about a moral problem you should want to know the views of those who have thoroughly studied the issue.

At this point, you might object that there are no moral experts because ethics is relative to an individual’s opinions or emotions. You might say that the experts have their opinion and you have yours, and that’s the end of it. Perhaps our view of behaviors in the moral realm are similar to how we view carrots—some people like them and some don’t. This theory is called personal moral relativism. However, not only do most ethicists reject moral relativism, so must pro-lifers. After all, pro-lifers don’t think that the moral prohibition against abortion is relative;  they think it’s absolute. They believe that there are good reasons why abortion is immoral and any rational person should accept those reasons. However, these reasons must be evaluated to see if they are really good ones; to see if they convince other knowledgeable persons. Yet so far, the pro-life arguments haven’t persuaded many ethicists.

Lacking good reasons or armed with weak ones, many will object that their moral beliefs derive from their Gods. To base your ethical views on Gods you would need to know: 1) if Gods exist; 2) if they are good; 3) if they issue good commands; 4) how to find the commands; and 5) the proper version and translation of the holy books issuing commands, or the right interpretation of a revelation of the commands, or the legitimacy of a church authority issuing commands. Needless to say, it is hard, if not impossible, to know any of this.

Consider just the interpretation problem. When does a seemingly straightforward command from a holy book like, “thou shalt not kill,” apply? In self-defense? In war? Always? And to whom does it apply? To non-human animals? Intelligent aliens? Serial killers? All living things? The unborn? The brain-dead? Religious commands such as “don’t kill,” “honor thy parents,” and “don’t commit adultery” are ambiguous. Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or if we accept an institution’s authority. Why trust the voices in our heads, or institutional authorities?

For the sake of argument though, let’s assume: that there are Gods; that you know the true one; that your God issues good commands; that you have access to those commands because you have found the right book or church, or had the right vision, or heard the right voices; and that you interpret and understand the command correctly—even if they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years, or from a long-ago revelation. It is almost impossible that you are correct about all this, but for the sake of the argument let’s say that you are. However, even in this case, most philosophers would argue that you can’t base ethics on your God.

To understand why you can’t base ethics on Gods consider the question: what is the relationship between the Gods and their commands? A classic formulation of this relationship is called the divine-command theory. According to divine command theory, things are right or wrong simply because the Gods command or forbid them. There is nothing more to morality than this. It’s like a parent who says to a child: it’s right because I say so. To see how this formulation of the relationship fails, consider a famous philosophical conundrum: “Are things right because the Gods command them, or do the Gods command them because they are right?”

If things are right simply because the Gods command them, then those commands are arbitrary. In that case, the Gods could have made their commandments backward! If divine fiat is enough to make something right, then the Gods could have commanded us to kill, lie, cheat, steal and commit adultery, and those behaviors would then be moral. But the Gods can’t make something right if it’s wrong. The Gods can’t make torturing children morally acceptable simply by divine decree, and that is the main reason why most Christian theologians reject divine command theory.

On the other hand, if the Gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for the God’s commands. On this view, the Gods, in their infinite wisdom and benevolence, command things because they see certain commands as good for us. But if this is the case, then there is some standard, norm or criteria by which good or bad are measured which is independent of the Gods. Thus all us, religious and secular alike, should be looking for the reasons that certain behaviors should be condemned or praised. Even the thoughtful believer should engage in philosophical ethics.

So either the Gods commands are without reason and therefore arbitrary, or they are rational according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral and that reason, not the Gods’ authority, is what makes something right or wrong. The same is true for a supposedly authoritative book. Something isn’t wrong simply because a book says so. There must be a reason that something is right or wrong, and if there isn’t, then the book has no moral authority on the matter.

At this point, the believer might object that the Gods have reasons for their commands, but we can’t know them. Yet if the ways of the Gods are really mysterious to us, what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything about the Gods or their commands, then why follow those commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the priest or preacher? If it’s all a mystery, we should remain silent or become mystics.

In response, the religious may say that, even though they don’t know the reason for their God’s commands, they must oppose abortion because of the inerrancy of their sacred scriptures or church tradition. They might say that since the Bible and their church oppose abortion, that’s good enough for them, despite what moral philosophers say. But in fact, neither church authority nor Christian scripture unequivocally opposes abortion.

As for scriptures, they don’t generally offer specific moral guidance. Moreover, most ancient scriptures survived as oral traditions before being written down; they have been translated multiple times; they are open to multiple interpretations; and they don’t discuss many contemporary moral issues. Furthermore, the issue of abortion doesn’t arise in the Christian scriptures except tangentially. There are a few Biblical passages quoted by conservatives to support the anti-abortion position, the most well-known is in Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” But, as anyone who has examined this passage knows, the sanctity of fetal life isn’t being discussed here. Rather, Jeremiah is asserting his authority as a prophet. This is a classic example of seeking support in holy books for a position you already hold.

Many other Biblical passages point to the more liberal view of abortion. Three times in the Bible (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20–21) the death penalty is recommended for women who have sex out-of-wedlock, even though killing the women would kill their fetuses. In Exodus 21 God prescribes death as the penalty for murder, whereas the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry is a fine. In the Old Testament, the fetus doesn’t seem to have personhood status, and the New Testament says nothing about abortion at all. There simply isn’t a strong scriptural tradition in Christianity against abortion.

There also is no strong church tradition against abortion. It is true that the Catholic Church has held for centuries that activities like contraception and abortion are immoral. Yet, while most pro-lifers don’t consider those distributing birth control to be murderers, the Catholic Church and others do take the extreme view that abortion is murder. Where does such a strong condemnation come from? The history of the Catholic view isn’t clear on the issue, but in the 13th century, the philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that the soul enters the body when the zygote has a human shape. Gradually, other Christian theologians argued that the soul enters the body a few days after conception, although we don’t exactly know why they believed this. But, given what we now know about fetal development today, if the Catholic Church’s position remained consistent with the views of Aquinas, they should say that the soul doesn’t enter the zygote for at least a month or two after conception. (Note also that there really is no moment of conception.)

Thus the anti-abortion position doesn’t clearly follow from either scripture or church tradition. Instead what happens is that people already have moral views, and they then look to their religion for support. In other words, moral convictions aren’t usually derived from scripture or church tradition so much as superimposed on them. (For example, American Christians used the Bible to both support and oppose slavery.) But even if the pro-life position did follow from a religious tradition, that would only be relevant for religious believers. For the rest of us, and for many religious believers too, the best way to adjudicate our disputes without resorting to violence is to conscientiously examine the arguments for and against moral propositions by shining the light of reason upon them. Having done this the vast majority of ethicists have concluded that abortion isn’t generally morally problematic.

It also clearly follows that religious believers have no right to impose their views upon the rest of us. We live in a morally pluralistic society where informed by the ethos of the Enlightenment, we should reject attempts to impose theocracy. We should allow people to follow their conscience in moral matters—you can drink alcohol—as long as others aren’t harmed—you shouldn’t drink and drive. In philosophy of law, this is known as the harm principle. Now if rational argumentation supported the view that a zygote is a full person, then we might have reason to outlaw abortion, inasmuch as abortion would harm another person. (I say might because the fact that something is a person doesn’t necessarily imply that’s it wrong to kill it, as defenders of war, self-defense, and capital punishment claim.)

But for now, the received view among ethicists is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief which isn’t grounded in science or philosophical ethics.

As for American politics and abortion, no doubt much of the anti-abortion rhetoric in American society comes from a punitive, puritanical desire to punish people for having sex. Moreover, many are hypocritical on the issue, simultaneously opposing abortion as well as the only proven ways of reducing it—good sex education and readily available birth control.

As for many (if not most) politicians, their public opposition is hypocritical and self-interested. Generally, they don’t care about the issue—they care about the power and wealth derived from politics—but they feign concern by throwing red meat to their constituencies. They use the issue as a ploy to garner support from the unsuspecting. These politicians may be pro-birth, but they aren’t generally pro-life, as evidenced by their opposition to policies that would support the things that children need most after birth like education, health-care, and economic opportunities.

But what politicians and many ordinary people clearly don’t care about is whether their fanatical anti-abortion position is based on rational argumentation. And, according to most ethicists who have carefully examined the problem, it does not.

More Arguments Against Pro-Lifers

Thus have I made as it were a small globe of the intellectual world, as truly and faithfully as I could discover. ~ Francis Bacon

If it was not clear from my previous post, there are multiple arguments driving the majority of contemporary philosophers against the pro-life position—the personhood of the fetus is just one small part of the overall case.  And I have never heard a contemporary moral philosopher advance arguments against the personhood of Native Americans, Jews, Africans, Mexicans, gypsies, or Seattle hippies. (One commenter suggested as much.) However such arguments were advanced by the Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries against the people of the New World with devastatingly results. The disabilities issue is somewhat different. (Something another commentator mentioned.) If we are talking about a positive result for severe deformities after prenatal testing then yes, many philosophers would advocate abortion.

The argument that sometimes in the past people were wrong about personhood so they are probably wrong about the personhood of a 6 week old is a specious argument. (Roughly the argument of one commenter.) Of course nothing I say will change anyone’s mind, especially if their salaries depend upon believing the opposite. But the fact is that the vast majority of contemporary moral philosophers reject the anti-abortion position just as they reject the anti-homosexual position. This should give pause to pro-lifers interested in the most rational position.

So many really important things to worry about—like actual people.

Again, for those interested in the philosophical consensus that the pro-life position is philosophically worthless, the literature is readily available. If one disagrees, present the opposite case and sway the philosophical majority. I’ll let any of my readers have the last word if they like without further comment. I won’t reply.

American Politics and Abortion

There is no doubt that much of the anti-abortion rhetoric comes from a punitive, puritanical desire to punish people for having sex. Many are also hypocritical on the issue, simultaneously opposing abortion as well as the only proven majors of reducing it—good sex education and readily available birth control. As for self-interested conservative politicians, their public opposition is obviously hypocritical. Generally they don’t care about the issue—they care about the power and wealth derived from politics—but they pretend to do so by throwing red meat to their constituencies. While they may be pro-birth, they aren’t pro-life—since they vigorously oppose helping children after they are born by denying them adequate education, health-care, economic opportunities, etc.

In the end rational discourse is the only violence free way to resolve moral controversies in a morally pluralistic society. To the extent they cannot be resolved, the political solution of American democracy has been to allow individuals to hold to their beliefs, but never to impose them on others unless clear harm was being done to others. (John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.”) In the case of fetuses, the otherness cannot be established. Hence there is no justification to force your metaphysical beliefs about the moral status of an unknown conceptus on your fellow citizens. Moreover, ethicists who have studied the issue in detail overwhelming support the pro-choice view.

Christianity and Abortion: Scripture and Church Tradition

(This article was reprinted in “Church and State: Challenging Religious Privilege in Public Life,” June 2018.)

While it is true that most professional philosophers do not find abortion morally problematic, as I argued previously, what about Christian theologians? I really don’t know or care much about the views of theologians, but certainly many Christians think they must oppose abortion on religious grounds. But must they? The answer is no for a number of reasons.

First, it is generally hard to find specific moral guidance in religious scriptures. They were written long ago, survived as oral traditions, have been translated multiple times, and are open to multiple interpretations. (Anyone who has ever translated from one language to another knows that literal translations are impossible.) Moreover, church traditions are ambiguous on many moral issues.

The key idea of the conservative view is that the fetus is a person with full moral rights from “moment” of conception.  (There actually is no “moment” of conception, but that’s a different issue.) Most philosophers deny fetal personhood because the necessary or sufficient conditions of personhood are notoriously difficult to ascertain and, at any rate, the fetus does not satisfy many of the proposed criteria for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology, is that a fetus is, at most, a potential person. But even if we allow for the sake of argument that the conservative view is the Christian view, this must be supported by either church tradition or church scriptures. But is it?

It is well-known that it is difficult to derive a prohibition of abortion from Christian scriptures, since the issue does not arise in there. There are a few Biblical passages quoted by conservatives to support the anti-abortion position, the most well-known is in Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” But, as anyone who has examined this passage knows, the sanctity of fetal life is not being discussed here. Rather Jeremiah is asserting his authority as a prophet. (This is a classic example of seeking support in holy books for a position you already hold.)

Many other Biblical passages point to the more liberal view of abortion. Three times in the Bible (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20–21) the death penalty is recommended for women who have sex out-of-wedlock even though killing the women would kill their fetuses. (I don’t think death is recommended for men who engage in this behavior, probably because they wrote the book.) Furthermore, in Exodus 21, God prescribes death as the penalty for murder, whereas the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry is a fine. In the Old Testament the fetus does not seem to have personhood status. Thus there is no strong scriptural tradition in Christianity against abortion.

There also is no strong church tradition against abortion. The idea that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception is quite new in church tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas, the preeminent thinker in Catholicism, held that embryo didn’t acquire a soul into several weeks into gestation—after the embryo had a human form. This position was officially accepted by the church at the Council of Vienne in 1312.

However, in the 17th century, scientists peering through primitive microscopes at fertilized eggs thought they saw tiny, perfectly formed people—what they called a “homunculus,” or little man. Now if humans had a human shape from the moment of conception then it follows, from Aquinas’ reasoning, that it has a soul from that time. This mistaken view of embryological development led to the Church changing its stand on abortion.

Of course we now know there is no homunculus. We know that embryos start out as a cluster of cells, and human form comes later. But when the biological error was corrected, the church did not revert to its earlier moral position. Instead it held to the position it holds to this day, that the soul enters the embryo from conception, even though this view is based on a false view of the biological facts.

The point of all this is not that the contemporary church’s position is wrong. For all I know, it may be right. My point is that the anti-abortion position follows no more from church tradition than it does from scripture. What happens when people suppose that religion demands a moral view is that they have a certain views and then look to scripture or tradition to support the view they already hold. People’s moral convictions are not usually derived from their religion so much as superimposed on it. All of this suggests that morality shouldn’t be based on religion, but on reason and conscience. As Plato argued long ago in the Euthyphro, things can’t be right just because the gods command them, the gods must command them because they’re right. And if that’s the case then the gods have some reason for their commands, reasons that are intelligible to rational beings.

Thus we are led back to philosophical ethics. In the case of abortion, rational arguments either support the anti-abortion position or they do not. The vast majority of professional philosophers find those arguments seriously lacking. I agree. The arguments for the pro-life position are seriously deficient, while the opposing arguments are philosophically robust. On that basis I concluded years ago that abortion was almost never morally problematic.