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Suppose that a fetus is at a stage when it is considered permissible to be

Suppose that a fetus is at a stage when it is considered permissible to be aborted. Suppose that the woman bearing the fetus decides, for some reason, that she would prefer that the child be born with no arms. To that end, she takes some kind of potion, and the child is later born with no arms. I think that most people would feel that the woman's action was wrong because it was wrong to deprive the child that was born of his or her arms and their use. But if that's true, why is it permissible to deprive the child that would have been born of his or her body and its use?

If a woman does not want to support a child, she can choose to have an abortion.

If a woman does not want to support a child, she can choose to have an abortion. Of course, the would-be father ultimately has no say in this decision (he cannot force or prevent an abortion). Presumably, the asymmetry here relates to the fact that pregnancy and childbirth burden the mother to an infinitely greater extent than the father. What I don't understand, though, is why fathers may be forced to support (monetarily) children which they didn't want. If a woman decides to have a child in spite of her partner's disagreement, shouldn't she also assume full responsibility for that child? It seems as though the man has no say at all here. If the man wants the child, the woman may nevertheless abort; if he doesn't want the child (but she does), he nevertheless must support it.

When a human child is brought into existence, whose moral responsibility is it to see that this child’s very significant needs are met? In most human societies, this responsibility has been given to its parents. It was due to the parents’ actions that this child came into existence in the first place; and, further, parents tend to have stronger instincts than others to meet the very significant needs of their progeny. For these reasons, the allocation of primary responsibility to meet the needs of immature humans to their parents generally makes good moral sense. To what extent and under what conditions this responsibility should also be shared with others and to what extent and under what circumstances this responsibility may be relinquished to others are further complicated moral questions.

You wonder whether it is fair that fathers who have had no say in whether a fetus is brought to term should be held morally responsible for meeting the needs of their progeny. This, it seems to me, is a legitimate moral question. But I wonder whether we are looking at the situation in the right way. It seems to me that so long as fathers do not take on an equal share of the responsibility for meeting the needs of their progeny, the decision whether to abort a fetus (if such a decision is to be made available to anyone) must be given to women. For, as a matter of fact, and whether fair or not, most women bear the primary responsibility for meeting the needs of their children. It seems to me that if men wish to be granted the right to play an equal role in deciding whether a fetus for which they are responsible is brought to term, they must also be willing to play an equal role in meeting the needs of their children.

Suppose a woman decided, for whatever reason, to put a pregnancy 'on hold'

Suppose a woman decided, for whatever reason, to put a pregnancy 'on hold' indefinitely, even for the rest of her life, while the fetus was at a stage of development in which it is currently permissible to abort it. That is, the woman takes a potion and stays pregnant, but the fetus remains insider her and dependent on her, and it never develops any further than it already has. I think many people would find this morally problematic in ways in which they don't find abortion problematic. But where is the moral difference?

For what it's worth, I find it obscure why someone would wish to pursue this course of action, but I don't find it obviously to be morally objectionable in any way I don't find abortion morally objectionable.

Suppose the woman instead removed the fetus without its being killed, and put it in some kind of suspended animation. Perhaps she thinks, "Well, maybe later I'll be ready for a child, and then I'll continue the pregnancy." It's not obvious why this would be any more objectionable than abortion, and I certainly don't see a difference between this case and the one in the question. Indeed, one might wonder whether, at certain very early stages of pregnancy, there is very much of a difference between this and what routinely happens in fertility labs.

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.

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.

The imminence of severe, debilitating birth defects is often cited as a just

The imminence of severe, debilitating birth defects is often cited as a just reason for abortion; an abortion in such instances is imagined to save the would-be child from a life of suffering. I have two questions about this: 1) If we endorse this reasoning, are we saying that the handicap in question is such that life for the child would literally not be worth living? 2) If (1) is true, does it follow that anyone who endorses this viewpoint should also counsel people who are presently living with such disabilities to kill themselves? (I.e., if a life is not worth beginning, why should it be worth continuing?) -ace

I think you are right on the implications of allowing abortion morally. It does suggest that there could be a quality of life so low that life would not be worth either initiating, or continuing. And that does not seem a ridiculous idea, does it? We say this of animals, and end their lives when it seems to us not worth their while continuing it (although cynically it might sometimes be a matter of its not being worth our while, I suppose). Why should it not also be the case for human beings?

Given that reasonable people disagree whether abortion is murder, how can

Given that reasonable people disagree whether abortion is murder, how can someone who truly examines their own opinion fail to choose either 'life begins at conception' or abortion should be legal in all cases? While it is conceptually difficult to rationalize that a zygote or embryo is a human life and should be afforded all rights due, it is equally difficult and, in fact likely, more abhorrent to say that human life doesn't begin until a fetus exits and is severed physically from the mother's body. Isn't any choice other than one of these two a complete failure to have any true belief?

One way to approach this question is to think about what sorts of properties are morally significant. Some properties--such as the capacity to suffer or feel pain--might belong to a developing human life at some stages, but not others. A zygote probably doesn't feel pain, but it's plausible that an eight month old fetus does.

Many women who have abortions do so because they realize they won't be able to

Many women who have abortions do so because they realize they won't be able to give the child a decent upbringing. Many anti-abortionists are Catholic and are opposed to birth control (and sex for enjoyment unless it coincides with the possibility of conception - go figure!) which may lead to the very problem they get so exercised about. Don't anti-abortion advocates then have a moral obligation to adopt the offspring mentioned in the first paragraph so as to assure them an affluent upbringing if it is within their means? Crack babies, for example, are not simply a matter of debate about abstract religious dogma. Am I right in detecting massive hypocrisy here? As a rule they don't seem to give a damn, just so long as the foetus survives. The hardship and misery probably awaiting it is conveniently ignored. Also, is it only in religions that we find sexual desire a source of guilt and shame? Surely not. The ancient Greeks had none of our hang ups. Thanks for an edifying site.

There are obviously profound moral issues in the abortion debate, and I for one, while respectfully disagreeing with the Catholic Church's position on the legality of abortion, can't even begin to understand its opposition to birth control. And perhaps it is worth emphasizing, for the record, that it is with this aspect of the Church's position that I disagree. Like most who would defend its legality, I am not a fan of abortion.

That said, however, it is unfair to accuse opponents of abortion of the sort of hypocrisy you do. While they may or may not be right in their desire to see abortion criminalized, many of those who hold this view do actively assist pregnant women in placing their children for adoption. The Catholic Church, for example, has long actively supported adoption. That is not to say there have not been controversies in this area, too: Some adoption agencies, especially in Latin America, have been accused of discouraging women from placing their children for adoption. But that is a somewhat different matter.

I have been reading about abortion recently and came across a ‘thought

I have been reading about abortion recently and came across a ‘thought experiment’ used by Judis Jarvis Thomson about an expanding baby. The scenario is that you're in your house when your baby starts expanding rapidly. You realise that you have no chance of getting out and the only way to survive is to pop and kill the baby. The idea is that this is an analogy for mothers who will die if an abortion is not performed i.e. is it ok to kill in this form of self-defence? These thought experiments are designed to provoke a moral attitude which can then be applied to discover your true feelings on a particular issue. My instant reaction was that yes, it was ok to pop the baby in order to survive and therefore I believe abortion is ok if it saves the life of the mother. However, imagine that the baby is now an analogy not for abortion but for a virus like AIDS, by the same thought experiment it could be argued that saying yes would justify killing everyone who had AIDS in order to save everyone else in...

I agree with Richard that Thomson's analogy doesn't apply to the AIDS victims, as opposed to the virus. I wanted to add something about the reliability of thought experiments in general, though. Philosophers like Thomson (and Kamm) employ imaginary examples in a quasi scientific manner. The example, or rather a consideration of the example, is like an experiment. Our intuitive reactions to the examples are the results of the experiment--the data. We are then supposed to construct moral theories that fit the data. The problem is that our moral intuitions are influenced by all kinds of factors, including ones that those same moral intuitions tell us are morally irrelevant. A pretty good examination of this problem is contained in Peter Unger's excellent (but slightly annoyingly written) book Living High and Letting Die. This doesn't mean that we should abandon imaginary examples altogether. They can serve as a pretty good consistency check on a position, for example. But we certainly shouldn't have a lot of confidence that our intuitive responses to imaginary, and often highly unrealistic, cases are reliable indicators of moral truth.

I never understood the bumper sticker "Against Abortion? Don't Have One." I

I never understood the bumper sticker "Against Abortion? Don't Have One." I mean, people who are against abortion believe that it is equivalent to, or close to, the murder of babies. But surely those who put this bumper sticker on their cars wouldn't favor a bumper sticker that suggested that if you're against infanticide, then the proper response is simply to refrain from killing babies. If it's murder, then shouldn't it be outlawed?

Yes, I understand what you mean. I've also been known to smile wryly when reading "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart" (as does taking someone off a respirator, killing a mouse or even a spider). Perhaps more controversially, "Women are Not Incubators" (many are, though none are "mere" incubators) and "Keep your Laws Off My Body" (the same body that even traffic laws, rape laws, smoking laws and indecent exposure laws constrain). Then there's "Abortion was a Nazi Program" (as was the Autobahn highway and the Volkswagen). But I must admit that after indulging myself in a sense of logico-philosophical supercilousness for a moment, I suppress my feelings of superiority and think perhaps that you and the other critics here should reconsider. Remember that what you're reading is a bumpersticker and not a philosophical or legal treatise. I agree that political discourse seems a rather paltry thing today. But that doesn't change the fact that we're dealing with a rhetorical form here to which the kinds of criteria you bring to bear only loosely apply. For myself, I'm glad to see people express their political views in this format. Like the other critics, however, I do wish its limits weren't characteristic of so much of the rest of the political discourse today.