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Are there any (good, interesting, significant, etc) secular arguments against

Are there any (good, interesting, significant, etc) secular arguments against abortion?

Probably the most well-known secular argument against abortion is by Don Marquis. The paper is called Why Abortion is Immoral (sorry I don't have a link to a non-paywalled version) and the argument goes roughly like this:

Start by asking why death is a misfortune. Marquis' answer is that it cuts us off from all of the potential value in our futures. This is why it's worse than being robbed or injured. At least if I'm robbed I still have the hope of a worthwhile future, even if that future has been diminished in some ways. But a fetus is a being like us in this very respect: other things equal, it has a future with a potential for value of the very same kind that makes death a misfortune for beings like you and me. This is true even if we believe that the fetus isn't yet a person. And so ending the fetus's life does it a very great wrong: it robs the fetus of the possibility of a valuable future in just the way that killing your or me does. In short, abortion is wrong for exactly the same reason that killing a full-fledged person is.

That's the argument in brief. Notice that it doesn't claim that all abortions are wrong. For example: if a fetus has defects so severe that it wouldn't be able to have any conscious experience, Marquis' argument doesn't say that abortion is wrong. Likewise, if the fetus's life would be a life of unrelenting pain, Marquis' argument doesn't rule out abortion. But if it's a matter of a baby being born into poverty, that's not enough to justify abortion on Marquis' approach. It's clear that many, many people who are born poor and live poor still have lives worth living.

As with any philosophical argument, there's room for objections. For example: Marquis' way of arguing suggests that how wrong it is to kill someone depends partly on their age, with killing the elderly being less wrong: the older person has less potential for value in her future. But that's not a knock-down objection. For one thing, Marquis doesn't have to claim that the sheer quantity of potential value in one's life is the only thing that bears on the wrongness of killing. All he needs to say is that it's a very weighty consideration.

Whether it's an objection or not, another interesting question to ask is whether Marquis' argument shows more than it might have been intended to. In particular, If the argument is a good one, then essentially the same argument would show that most of our meat-eating habits are morally unacceptable. If so, people who object to abortion but not to eating meat have a serious consistency problem.

I think Marquis' argument does offer plausible non-religious objections to abortion. Whether the argument is good enough to justify stringent legal restrictions on abortion is a further question, but even if the answer turns out to be no, Marquis has shown that the "no" doesn't come quite as easily as the pro-choice side sometimes assumes.

Probably the most well-known secular argument against abortion is by Don Marquis. The paper is called Why Abortion is Immoral (sorry I don't have a link to a non-paywalled version) and the argument goes roughly like this: Start by asking why death is a misfortune. Marquis' answer is that it cuts us off from all of the potential value in our futures. This is why it's worse than being robbed or injured. At least if I'm robbed I still have the hope of a worthwhile future, even if that future has been diminished in some ways. But a fetus is a being like us in this very respect: other things equal, it has a future with a potential for value of the very same kind that makes death a misfortune for beings like you and me. This is true even if we believe that the fetus isn't yet a person. And so ending the fetus's life does it a very great wrong: it robs the fetus of the possibility of a valuable future in just the way that killing your or me does. In short, abortion is wrong for exactly the same reason...

Some people argue that a 15 year old should be required by their parents to have

Some people argue that a 15 year old should be required by their parents to have an abortion because they also can't get an ear piercing or attend an R rated movie without their parents permission. Is that a good argument?

I agree with Prof. Stairs: even if we fix the argument's conflation of permissions and requirements, the analogies to piercings and 'R'-rated movies aren't close enough to abortion. We need to consider procedures that are of roughly equal invasiveness and seriousness.

So imagine that the 15-year-old daughter needs a tonsillectomy but doesn't want one (maybe she's terrified of even routine surgery, or she's joined a religion that forbids undergoing surgery). Do her parents have the right to force the tonsillectomy on her against her will? I expect that many will answer yes.

Now instead imagine that she's pregnant, and her parents judge that an abortion is in her best interests, but she doesn't want one (maybe she thinks having a baby at age 15 is in her best interests, or she's joined a religion that forbids abortion). Do her parents have the right to force the abortion on her against her will? I expect that many who answered yes to the first question will answer no to this question, including some who say that they regard abortion as morally unproblematic surgery. Your original question is filed under "Abortion," and I think the issue of parental authority has interesting implications for the ethics of abortion in particular.

Not sure who these people are, but the argument seems odd, and I'm not sure it's phrased to capture what you're really asking. As written, the question, is about whether parents should be able to require their (pregnant) children to have abortions. The supposed reason for saying yes is that for things like ear piercing, the child needs permission. That would be a strange argument. The fact that some things require permission doesn't tell us that other things can be required. If this is really what's at issue, the obvious reply is to offer a related but different argument: parents can require their children to do things they don't want to do. Therefore, parents can require children to have abortions. Now we see a different problem: the fact that parents can require their children to do some things doesn't tell us what the limits are. Take the ear-piercing case. It's one thing to say that a minor child needs permission for an ear-piercing. It would be another to say that a parent should be able to...

If it is illegal for a rape victim to kill the rapist after the fact, then why

If it is illegal for a rape victim to kill the rapist after the fact, then why should it be legal for the rape victim to kill a baby that is the product of the rape? It seems to me that abortion is "vigilante justice" in a sense. This is all assuming, of course, that the unborn child is considered a living, human being. If it isn't, then why is an unborn child not then considered "evidence" to be used by a third party? I do not think an unborn child should be considered anything in between a "living human" and an "object," but please take this distinction into consideration.

My co-panelist has drawn some genuine distinctions, but I'd expect many people to find his response unconvincing overall. One obvious reason: suppose I have a five-year-old child who poses a very substantial burden to me. Perhaps the child has a physical disability that makes extensive demands on my time and money. Most of us don't think this would provide even the slightest justification for killing the child. And unless I could be very sure that the child would be cared for, it doesn't even provide a justification for abandoning the child.

Now the analogy isn't perfect. After all, the rape victim is in no way responsible for the fetus. I may have chosen to become a parent; I may have accepted responsibility for the child. But even if we grant that those a re relevant differences, they don't seem to get us very far. Suppose the child wasn't mine but had been abandoned on my doorstep. It's hardly clear that this would make enough difference to justify killing the child or abandoning it once more.

It might be that with sufficiently subtle argument, we could wring out enough differences here to distinguish the cases. But that isn't my point. My point is that on the face of it, many people will find Stephen's reply unconvincing even if it can be defended at the end of the day. What interests me is what I'm guessing is the reason: if you reallu think of fetuses and five-year-olds as on par with one another, abortion is homicide. That said, I suspect very few people really think that a fetus and a five-year-old are moral equivalents. My guess is that this goes even for people who claim otherwise. For more on this point, see Peter Smith's excellent response to a question on abortion from 2011. You can read it HERE

From your last sentence, I take it that you at least think you think of a fetus and a five-year-old as being on the same moral level. I can't say for sure that you're wrong about your own views. (And yes: we can be wrong about what we really think. That's part of the point of the concept of self-deception.) But for anyone who doesn't see things that way, this will be a big part of the reason for the distinction: killing the rapist is murder; the victim is a person. Aborting a fetus isn't murder, because a fetus isn't a person.

It wouldn't follow from this that abortion is morally trivial. And it wouldn't follow that a fetus is nothing more than an object. But I'll confess that I find the view that a fetus is a full-fledged person all but incomprehensible. There are so many actual differences between fetuses and paradigm persons, not to mention so many differences (see Peter Smith's reply) in the ways we ordinarily think about fetuses and persons that I find the conceptual gap all but unbridgeable. Perhaps that puts me at the far end of the spectrum. But I don't think there's anything at all unusual in perceiving some significant gap here, even if one isn't prepared to admit it out loud. And if there is a gap, there's a big distinction between the two cases that potentially could do the work that I think Stephen's distinctions probably can't do.

My co-panelist has drawn some genuine distinctions, but I'd expect many people to find his response unconvincing overall. One obvious reason: suppose I have a five-year-old child who poses a very substantial burden to me. Perhaps the child has a physical disability that makes extensive demands on my time and money. Most of us don't think this would provide even the slightest justification for killing the child. And unless I could be very sure that the child would be cared for, it doesn't even provide a justification for abandoning the child. Now the analogy isn't perfect. After all, the rape victim is in no way responsible for the fetus. I may have chosen to become a parent; I may have accepted responsibility for the child. But even if we grant that those a re relevant differences, they don't seem to get us very far. Suppose the child wasn't mine but had been abandoned on my doorstep. It's hardly clear that this would make enough difference to justify killing the child or abandoning it once more. ...

Is it rational to both maintain that abortion is entirely morally permissible

Is it rational to both maintain that abortion is entirely morally permissible (on the grounds that a fetus is not a person, let's say) and to regret having had one?

And for yet another persepctive on this, it seems as if it is morally permissible not always to be a "good samaritan". But of course one might reasonably regret not having been a "good samaritan" on some particular occasion, i.e., regret not having gone out of one's way---beyond the call of moral duty---to do something for someone. It therefore seems perfectly reasonable, in general, to regret things one had, and knows one had, every moral permission to do.

A cognate point is made explicitly in Judith Jarvis Thomson's classic paper, "A Defense of Abortion". To say that something is morally permissible is simply to say that it isn't morally prohibited: It's a fairly weak claim in some ways. In particular, it doesn't at all follow that the thing in question is, all things considered, the best thing to do, nor even that it is, all things considered, a particularly nice thing to do. So, if I remember correctly, Thomson says she is quite willing to concede, so far as her argument is concerned, that it might always be the nice thing to do not to have an abortion. That, however, is not what is at issue.

That morality leaves a good deal open is so intuitive that utilitarianism's failure to leave a good deal open, in this sense, is often considered one of the more serious objections to it.

There's no obvious inconsistency. The fact that something is morally permissible doesn't mean that there's never any reason to regret having done it. To take a very different sort of example: suppose I'm very busy, and I pass up an opportunity to go on a trip to some intriguing place, deciding instead to stick to my work. I might end up regretting my decision, even though it wasn't wrong of me to decide as I did. I might come to think I missed out on a valuable opportunity and that it would have been worth rearranging my work for the sake of it. Perhaps this doesn't quite get at your worry. Perhaps what you have in mind is someone who thinks that abortion is morally permissible, but who come to have moral regrets about having had one. That sounds more like some sort of inconsistency, but it needn't be. If the thought is "It was morally permissible for me to do this, but it was wrong of me to do it," then perhaps we have an inconsistency. But it's possible to think that something is permissible...

The moral question of whether abortion is wrong is whether or not it is a person

The moral question of whether abortion is wrong is whether or not it is a person. Well, I don't understand why people say that a fetus is not a person. How are a fetus and an infant any different. An infant doesn't understand the future just the way a fetus doesn't. At 14 weeks a fetus begins to move and "explore" the womb and itself. That shows some curiosity and some sort of "thinking". On a genetic level or the form of the fetus also at 14 weeks it is "a person". So then at the very least shouldn't abortion be illegal after that? If we should not kill an infant, which is very illegal, why can we kill a fetus which in many instances is on the same level as the infant? If anything we should not kill the fetus because it is innocent and the infant is not. An infant cries just to be held where it should cry because it needs something. Just as a small example.

There is more relevant discussion in response to Question 2107, where I remark on the moral differences between early fetuses and newborn infants that we seem to make in our thinking about the natural or accidental death of fetuses as against babies.

It's been famously argued -- both by Mary Ann Warren and by Michael Tooley -- that an infant isn't a person either. The rough idea is that to be a person, a being needs to have at least a rudimentary understanding of its future that even a small infant still lacks. The point isn't to endorse that conclusion, but rather to point out that the premise of your argument -- that an infant is a person -- isn't universally accepted. That said -- it's hard to make the case that there is a difference in the moral status of a late-term fetus and a newborn (though that doesn't settle the abortion issue by itself.) But if we allow the term "fetus" to include early stages of pregnancy, then the further back we go, the more glaring the differences become. When we reach the point of a newly fertilized ovum, we have a gulf that one philosopher pointed out (sorry; I forget who) is quite stark. Some people insist that the conceptus has the full moral status that you or I have. Others can't even imagine what it would...

How can abortion be so easily accepted in a civilized society? Sure, it is

How can abortion be so easily accepted in a civilized society? Sure, it is important that a woman or any person be able to have control over their body, but the fetus is a separate entity, a new person completely, as is logically shown by the fact that a mother can give birth to a male child. Anyone can tell this without having to use the available scientific evidence which proves my point. So, what gives any person the right to kill someone else so that they can live the way that they want?

Allen Stairs rightly queries the claim that the foetus is already a new person: killing an early foetus is not straightforwardly killing a person -- it is at most killing something that would otherwise become a person.

Still, you might be tempted to say -- indeed, many people do say -- killing a potential person is as bad as killing a fully-fledged person.

Well, I disagree. But just asserting a disagreement is hardly very interesting. So what sort of grounds could I give to support my position? What sort of grounds could you give for yours?

At this point, we might be tempted to bandy about very general principles about the morality of killing or the "right to life" which are supposed to settle things one way or the other. Now this might help. But more likely, it will just shift the debate from a clash of intuitions about abortion to a clash of intuitions about these more general principles about killing and we will find ourselves going around in circles. What to do?

Well, I think it can help to set our thinking about abortion not just in the wider context of principles about killing but in the wider context of what we think about other early foetal deaths which happen naturally, or by accident or misadventure.

Now it does seem a notable fact that while the natural miscarriage in the very early weeks of a pregnancy may be, for some mothers, a misfortune, very few people regard it as the moral equivalent of e.g. the death of a newly born baby. Suppose a young woman has accidentally become pregnant, to her distress, and then a couple of weeks after a very early test gives a positive result she has a natural miscarriage. She feels much relieved and cheered at the outcome. Her girl friends even buy her a drink to celebrate. Very few of us would morally condemn the woman or her friends for their feelings! Very few would regard the woman as morally on a par with a mother who cheerfully celebrated the death of an inconvenient baby.

Here's another notable fact. It is estimated that 25% of all pregnancies are miscarried by thefourth week. Yet no one seems to campaign for medical intervention toreduce that figure in the way that they might campaign to raise money to reduce a highrate of child deaths in a developing country. We let nature take its course, even if that course involves the spontaneous miscarriage of a very large number of "potential people".

You can probably multiply such examples for yourself. And they do suggest that -- when we turn our attention away from the intentional causing of an abortion to other 'natural' cases of early foetal death -- we do not in general seem to regard the death of an early foetus as morally on a par with the death of a child. (I'm not saying we think of it as entirely insignificant, just that we seem to give the death increasingly more weight as the foetus develops.)

But now the question obviously arises: if in practice we do not believe that the death of an early foetus is in other cases straightforwardly the moral equivalent of the death of a full-fledged person, and if we are happy to reflectively retain that general view about foetal death, then why should we think that the intentional killing of an early foetus is the moral equivalent of the intentional killing of a full-fledged person? If the natural death of a potential person doesn't matter as much as the natural death of a child (think again of all those spontaneous miscarriages), when why should the unnatural death of a potential person be thought of as particularly grave -- a sort of infanticide? I for one find it difficult to see any reason for treating the gravity of the natural and unnatural deaths very differently.

Now, there are of course various further things that might be said here (but not in the confines of a short answer!). But at least we have here a hopefully illuminating suggestion about how to start thinking about abortion. Try thinking first about the moral weight you actually do give to other kinds of embryo/early foetal death at various stagaes, in particular to natural or accidental deaths. Consider whether you are content to rest with those views you have. Now try to make your moral views about the level of seriousness of causing foetal death fit together consistently with those views about the seriousness of natural and accidental deaths.

There are plenty of hard issues about when and whether abortion should be allowed, but the particular argument you're offering won''t work. You seem to be saying: a typical newborn is a person (I take that to be the point about giving birth to a male child) and you go on to conclude that a fetus is a person. But this simply doesn't follow. It's perfectly consistent to think that, say, a two-week-old embryo isn't a person, i.e., a being with the same sorts of rights that you and I have, even though other things being equal this embryo will eventually become a person.

When there is no clear solution to an issue, it would seem to me that assessing

When there is no clear solution to an issue, it would seem to me that assessing risks would be the most reasonable way of dealing with it. In the case of abortion we risk a mother losing the civil right to address her pregnancy within her own moral reasoning, verses a child losing its fundamental right to live. The latter risk seems more pressing and with greater consequence. Can a struggle for justice be assessed upon risk?

Just one comment, not really on the main thrust of Allen's response, but on his remark "Some people see the death of a fetus -- even a very early-stage fetus -- as the moral equivalent of the death of a full-fledged person such as you or I."

I think it is much more accurate to say that some people, when discussing abortion, proclaim that they see the death of a very early-stage fetus (we ought to say "embryo") as the moral equivalent of the death of a full-fledged person. But though some might proclaim that, very few indeed seem actually to believe it. And that is revealed by the fact that very few indeed think of the natural death of an embryo as the moral equivalent of the natural death of a full-fledged person (or indeed, of a neonate).

While the natural miscarriage in the very early weeks of a pregnancy may, for some, be a misfortune, very few people regard it as the moral equivalent of the death of a newly born baby (for example, if a woman is rather cheerfully relieved to find that she is no longer pregnant when she feared she was, then very few would regard her as morally on a par with a mother who is glad at the death of a healthy newborn). Again, who campaigns to reduce the rate of natural miscarriage in the very early weeks of pregnancy? It is estimated that 25% of all pregnancies are miscarried by the fourth week. Yet (almost) no one campaigns for medical intervention to reduce that figure in the way that they might campaign to reduce a high rate of neonatal deaths.

You will be able to multiple such examples. (Almost) no one in practice believes that the death of an embryo is in general straightforwardly the moral equivalent of the death of a full-fledged person.

Yet many claim to think that the intentional killing of an embryo is the moral equivalent of the intentional killing of a full-fledged person. It is a nice question whether that view about killing is consistent with the view about death in general.

You've raised an interesting question. The general approach you're suggesting sounds like a version of what's called "multi-attribute utility theory." Without going into detail, multi-attribute utility theory lets us make decisions even when different sorts of values are at stake. Acting in a certain way might carry a high risk of losing money, but a high likelihood of keeping a friend. Depending on my "trade-off weights" (roughly, how much I care about money vs. friendship), and depending on the possible results and their probabilities given various choices, the tools of multi-attribute utility theory might give me a way of picking a course of action. It seems at least plausible that we could reconstruct any rational way of making decisions within this framework, and so in principle, we might be able to represent the way we think about the case you've offered. But this is really just where all the hard questions start. The first problem is that different people will weight different values...

Many people reject the death penalty on the grounds of mistakenly taking the

Many people reject the death penalty on the grounds of mistakenly taking the life of an innocent person. Why then do we allow abortion? If no one is certain when life begins, isn't to accept abortion an acceptance of mistakenly taking the life of a person?

I sometimes call this the "Ronald Reagan argument"; President Reagan was fond of a version of it that, as I recall, had to do with a man in a ditch who might or might not be dead. That also raises a preliminary issue. The question presumably isn't whether the fetus is biologically alive; it surely is. The question (or part of it anyway) is what this living being is. One common way of putting it is to ask whether the fetus is a person -- a being with the same moral standing as you or me. And so I'll put what follows in those terms.

The first thing that strikes me is that there's a glitch in the analogy. In the execution case, the being we execute is unquestionably a person who is possibly innocent. In the abortion case, the being is possibly a person, though if a person, then an innocent one.

This hardly settles the matter, of course. The reply might be that in either case, we run the risk of taking the life of an innocent person; the position of the word "possible" simply locates the source of the risk. But that's too simple. In the typical execution case, what we worry about getting wrong is a matter of fact; the person either committed the crime or s/he didn't and the concern is that we may be mistaken about that. The abortion case is different. Whether or not a fetus is a person seems to be what someone once called an essentially contested question: there may be no straightforward fact to be had. Fetuses are like paradigm cases of persons in some ways, and unlike them in others. A glance at the history of the debate makes it clear that two people can agree about all the background facts (genetic make-up, brain development, etc.) and still disagree about whether the fetus is a person. It's harder to cook up a case like that when the question is whether someone committed murder.

There's another difference: the thought of executing an innocent person makes our blood run cold when we think about it from the victim's point of view. Imagine yourself knowing full well that you've been convicted of a murder that you didn't commit, and that you're about to have your life taken away from you on the basis of a mistake. It's a horrifying prospect. Abortion holds no such horror from the fetus's point of view, because the fetus doesn't have a point of view. It has no conception of its future, let alone of itself.

Just to be clear, my point isn't to settle the abortion issue. After all, newborns don't have anything like the developed point of view of a paradigm person, but infanticide still strikes us as wrong. The point is simply that the Ronald Reagan argument, in its various versions, is too quick.

I sometimes call this the "Ronald Reagan argument"; President Reagan was fond of a version of it that, as I recall, had to do with a man in a ditch who might or might not be dead. That also raises a preliminary issue. The question presumably isn't whether the fetus is biologically alive; it surely is. The question (or part of it anyway) is what this living being is. One common way of putting it is to ask whether the fetus is a person -- a being with the same moral standing as you or me. And so I'll put what follows in those terms. The first thing that strikes me is that there's a glitch in the analogy. In the execution case, the being we execute is unquestionably a person who is possibly innocent. In the abortion case, the being is possibly a person, though if a person, then an innocent one. This hardly settles the matter, of course. The reply might be that in either case, we run the risk of taking the life of an innocent person; the position of the word "possible" simply locates...

As regards the point at which we should accord rights to that which would

As regards the point at which we should accord rights to that which would eventually be a child (an embryo, a fetus, etc.), does someone who argues that a given stage is not sufficiently mature have also to answer the question of which WOULD be the critical stage? Or is it enough to say, "Well, I don't know when this thing becomes a person, but it's not a person at day 1."

It's perhaps worth adding that a child has a lot of different rights, and these to different degrees, and there's no particular reason to suppose that these have to come all at once. As a blastocyst becomes an embryo becomes a fetus becomes a child, it would seem that it might acquire these rights, to varying degrees, as it develops.

I think we can leave aside all the heavy-weather issues about abortion, fetal rights and so on and go for a more general point. It's hard to see why we'd have to have a sharp answer to the question of when something acquires rights or becomes a person, or becomes depressed or becomes fluent in a language or for that matter becomes a tree, or becomes bald... for it to be okay to say: "It's not there yet." In fact, there may not even be a sharp answer to the question "What is the critical stage?" Of course, if someone had a reasonable argument for saying that an embryo is a person from day one, we'd still need to evaluate what they had to say. But they would have to do better than point out that we don't have any way to draw a bright line between person-to-be and full-fledged person.