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I was born in the early sixties before Roe v. Wade. When my mother got pregnant

I was born in the early sixties before Roe v. Wade. When my mother got pregnant, my parents were unmarried, but they got married and I was born 8 months later. On the whole, I've had a wonderful life and I'm so grateful that I had a chance to experience it. I can't help thinking that if my mother had had an abortion, she would have done a terrible thing to me. She would have cut my life short--so short, in fact, that I wouldn't have ever had a chance to experience anything at all! If murder is bad because it denies a good life to a person in the future, then isn't abortion even worse?

If your mother had had an abortion, then yes, alas, there would havebeen no you who has had such a good life. But it’s also true that, ifyour mother had done anything different on that fateful nightin the early sixties– had she decided to stay home, had she decided shewasn’t really in the mood that night, had her amusing story gone on justa little bit longer– then, chances are, there would have been no you:that particular egg and that particular sperm just wouldn’t have gottentogether. In fact, had a multiplicity of other events in the past–e.g., the weather on a night millions of year ago when your ancientancestors got together-- been different from what they in fact were,then there would have been no you because there also wouldhave been none of your more recent ancestors. When you think of all ofthe events that had to conspire from the beginning of time to produceyou, then it becomes clear how very lucky each of us is even to havelived for just one minute. The odds against each of us wereastronomically high.

Now let’s imagine all the unimaginablymany possible unions of human egg and sperm that might have been, whomight have developed into people who had had a life as good as yours.If your mother’s story had gone on just a bit longer, then someone elsemight have been conceived that night. Was your success his loss? Shouldwe feel sorry for him? Should we grieve the losses of all of theindefinitely many people who might have been, had things turned outdifferently?

The difference between these other cases that I’masking you to imagine and the case that you imagine when youcontemplate your mother getting an abortion is that in the latter caseyou’re imagining a very near miss: all of the events over the eons had managed to lead to the union of that sperm and thategg, and had that abortion not taken place, then chances are, you wouldhave existed and lived your wonderful life. Near misses are morepsychologically painful than events that seem never to have been in thecards. If you almost landed that perfect job– in fact, you learn later,that as far as the search committee was concerned, you and thesuccessful candidate were both equally qualified and, in the end, theyhad to flip a coin in order to make a decision–, then your apparentloss is much more painful than if you had never even received aninterview. The job was practically yours, but then stupid fate snatchedit from you. Similarly, when you imagine the near miss of your motherhaving an abortion, you are imagining her taking away from you a lifewhich, it can seem, was already and rightfully yours. But was itreally? The job wasn’t really yours, even though it nearlywas. Was the life that you ended up living really the rightfulpossession of that fertilized ovum, which as things actually did turnout, developed into you?

In order for a wrong to have been done,I think (though many will disagree), there has to be some identifiableindividual who was harmed. (I have a much broader notion of harm, Ithink, than most people, and so, I will baldly assert that many of thecounter-examples that you’re now imagining don’t apply to my position.)If life (under most circumstances) is a good, as I think that it is,then to take away a life from an individual is to harm that individual.Of course, there are many significant harms to many individuals (e.g.,the ants that keep attempting to invade my kitchen this spring) thatmost of us don’t worry about very much: I set out ant-traps without amoment’s moral hesitation. Humans are different, most of us think. Ifsomeone had cut short my life, a significant moral wrongwould have been done to me. But I have to have existed in order for alife to have been taken away from me. Those merely possible people Iasked you to imagine never really had a life, and so, there was noidentifiable individual who was harmed when circumstances didn’tconspire to bring them into existence. The question you are raising,then, is: when I am imagining my mother having had an abortion, am Iimagining me and a life being taken away from me, or, am I imagining asituation in which I do not yet exist, but would soon exist if eventstake their normal course. Am I imagining my life being taken away fromme, or am I imagining the possibility of my never having existed at alland so never having been a candidate for harm?

The answer to this question depends, of course, on when Icame into existence, and at what stage we are imagining my motherhaving an abortion. And the answer to this question depends on whatfeatures make me me. Did I exist once that particular egg andthat particular sperm got together? Did I come into existence when thatfertilized ovum developed into a fetus with some mental properties? DidI come into existence only when that fetus developed into a being withhigher mental functioning?

These are very difficult and complex philosophical questions which I can’t explore here. But I willassert, again very baldly, that this third suggestion strikes me ascompletely implausible. Before there was a creature with higher mentalfunctioning, there was a me, and had my life been ended at that point, a significant harm would have been done to me, a harm that would have been equal if not greater than the harm that would be done to me now if my life were now ended.

When considering abortion, the Roman Catholic Church uses the principle of

When considering abortion, the Roman Catholic Church uses the principle of double effect in order to allow abortion on the grounds that their primary intention was to save the life of the mother, e.g. in an ectopic pregnancy. However, surely the doctors (or whoever) know that the embryo will be aborted as a consequence of their action so how is the principal of double effect justified?

Proponents of the Doctrine of Double Effect draw a distinction betweentwo sorts of cases: (1) you intend to achieve a particular result Rthrough your action (i.e., this result is the purpose of your action)and(2) you intend to achieve a different result T through your action butforesee that your action will have an additional (though non-intended)result R. What’s crucial, according to this doctrine, is the object ofone’s intentions. In the case of abortion, the intended purpose of theprocedure is to terminate a pregnancy. In most cases of ectopicpregnancy, the purpose of the surgery is to save the life of thepregnant woman, and a foreseeable, though not intended, result of theprocedure is the termination of a pregnancy. (How can you tell whetherthe result is intended, rather than merely foreseen? See whether youwould still perform the action if you were to learn that the resultwould not occur.)

Iam not a fan of the Doctrine of Double Effect. It seems to me to dependon a distinction that makes no moral difference. To see this, let’simagine that I have a very important appointment across town and thatI’m currently stuck in traffic. The only way that I can get to myappointment on time is by driving on the sidewalk and running over alot of people. Of course, I don’t intend to kill anyone; killing is not the purposeof my action. If I could get across town without killing anyone, Iwould. Nonetheless, I can easily foresee that driving on the sidewalkwill put many people in harm’s way. On my view, the fact that I don’tintend to kill the pedestrians whose death I could easily foresee makesno moral difference whatsoever.

Now, of course, proponents ofthe Doctrine of Double Effect also would not endorse my running overpedestrians in the circumstances that I imagine. They would say that inorder for my action to be permissible, the harm that I’m trying toavoid must be “proportionately” as significant as the harm that I canforesee that I will cause. Since in the case of an ectopic pregnancythe life of the mother and the life of the fetus are equallysignificant, surgery that terminates the pregnancyis permissible.

So, let’s change the case of our impatient driver justa bit. Let’s say that I’m a very courageous and skilled firefightercalled to a burning apartment building across town. Let’s alsostipulate that my town is very poor, and though populous, very remote.I am the only firefighter within hundreds of miles. I believe that itis important to save the lives of the people who are trapped in theburning building, but the only way that I can get to them in time is bydriving on the sidewalk (due to budget cuts, my broken siren and hornstill have not been repaired, and due to an injury suffered in aprevious daring rescue, I am mute). According to the Doctrine of DoubleEffect, so long as I don’t intend to kill the pedestrians (even if Ican foresee their death) and so long as I intend to save the lives ofthe many trapped residents of the burning building, my sidewalkescapades would be morally permissible. While I myself think that it isactually quite difficult to explain why I should not drive on thesidewalk in these circumstances, I trust that most Catholics will agreewith me that I should not.

Of course, the case of an ectopicpregnancy is importantly different from this last case. If a physiciandoesn’t save the life of the mother, both the fetus and the mother willdie. But isn’t this the fact that should be most morallyrelevant to a person who believes that human life is sacred from themoment of conception? The fetus will die no matter what; the mother’slife can be saved. If human life is sacred, the mother’s life should besaved. There’s no need for an appeal to the Doctrine of Double Effect.

How many cells does a 6-week-old human fetus have? And how many cells does a

How many cells does a 6-week-old human fetus have? And how many cells does a fully developed human adult have? Comparatively, how many cells does a 6-week-old chimpanzee fetus have? And how many cells does a fully developed chimpanzee have? I am interested because I want to see if the abortion debate could be drawn along the lines of personhood relative to number of cells. Do you think this is a plausible way to think about the debate? Also, where could I find more information about this topic? Thank you, Alexander

These are obviously questions about biology, not philosophy. I'd try a good biology text.

That said, it isn't plausible that personhood has to do with number of cells. Number of cells is roughly proportional to size. One would therefore expect that the number of cells in a large tree would dwarf the number of cells in a mature human being. Same for elephants and whales, let alone the strange fungus that is reported to be the world's largest living creature.

Given the claim by some on the pro-life side of the abortion debate that 'life

Given the claim by some on the pro-life side of the abortion debate that 'life is sacred', how might we go about assessing the value of different lives in a situation in which one is likely to be negatively affected (perhaps fatally) by the birth of another?

Exactly the difficult with the "life is sacred" slogan. If a choice has to be made between lives, how does one carry it out unless there is some way of balancing lives against each other? On the other hand, one can see the logic of leaving it to God, if one believes in him, since how can we play one life against another? As the Talmud puts it when considering whether one person should be sacrificed for someone else, how do we know whose blood is redder? I think that means it is not possible to say that one person's life is more significant than someone else's.

For a consequentialist, though, this just looks like a decision not to enter into a calculation at all when there are instances where this should be done. Triage is based on the idea of the efficient use of limited resources, and it seems right to treat a patient who looks as though she might recover as compared perhaps with someone who looks as though they will not. It might still be argued that life is sacred, but interpreted in such a way that we would allow intervention based on distinctions about whose life in a particular situation should be saved.

How useful is Kantian ethics when discussing an issue like abortion? Is it

How useful is Kantian ethics when discussing an issue like abortion? Is it easily applicable in real life situations and does it leave any room for meaningful discussion on the issue?

To talk about Kantian ethics is an example of a new kind of relativism, as if there were many and varied kinds of ethics: Kantian ethics, consequentialist ethics, virtue ethics, contractualist ethics etc. Kantians, consequentialists, virtue ethicists, and contractualists should not be thought of as presenting alternative moral systems or guides, but rather as attempts to justify or show the lack of justification of our common moral guide. It is a sign of confusion to think that what they say should be used to settle real life situations. Further, most of these philosophical theories assume or claim that there is only one correct answer to every moral question, including controversial questions like those involved with abortion. But none of them provides any argument showing that there is not sometimes unresolvable moral disagreement concerning controversial moral questions.

Is there a moral difference between killing a newly born baby and having an

Is there a moral difference between killing a newly born baby and having an abortion? To be consistent, do we have to say either abortion/infanticide is morally wrong OR that abortion/killing a newborn can be morally permitted if the circumstances are right?

The view that Matthew articulates--that the moment of birth is not morally significant in a way affects deeply the moral status of the newborn infant--is a popular one, but it has been challenged by some. For example, the feminist philosopher Mary Anne Warren argues that birth is morally significant in virtue of the newborn's expanded social relationships.

To say that newborns have a different moral status than nearly-borns does not mean that late-term fetuses ought not to be protected from harm -- but Warren's line of thought might provide a philosophical basis for concluding that newborn infants and late-term fetuses are not entitled to exactly the same degree of legal protection.

To answer your question more directly: If there is a substantive question about whether newborns and late-term fetuses have significantly different moral status, there is even a stronger case to be made that there are big differences in the moral status between newborns and fetuses that can be legally aborted. If this is correct, killing a newborn and using abortion to kill, say, a first-trimester fetus may well be morally different.

Finally, for more on Warren's view see her essay "The Moral Signficance of Birth."

If a person claims to be both pro-life and pro-choice regarding the abortion

If a person claims to be both pro-life and pro-choice regarding the abortion controversy, is that person necessarily practicing relativistic moralism? The person in question claims to believe that abortion is morally wrong. However, he also claims that despite his personal beliefs he believes it is a choice each woman should be allowed to make.

There need be nothing inconsistent about this position. The first view, that abortion is morally impermissible, is a moral or ethical view. The second view, that each woman should be permitted to choose for herself whether to have an abortion, is a politicalview, one about what laws a state ought to have. The combination istherefore consistent so long as one denies that, if it is morallyimpermissible to do A, then it ought to be illegal to do A.

Whymight one deny that claim? One might well ask why one should endorseit, but there is a better answer. Suppose one believed the following:

  1. Alaw must be justifiable on the basis of principles that cannotreasonably be rejected by any citizen, where a rejection is"unreasonable" if it is flatly irrational or, more interestingly, basedupon too many particulars of one's actual situation.
  2. Inparticular, religious doctrine cannot figure in the justification ofany law, since one's finding the appeal to any religious doctrineconvincing depends too strongly upon one's actual situation, namely,one's particular religious affiliation.
  3. In short: The brute fact of religious pluralism invalidates appeals to religion in the "sphere of public reason".

That's roughly the sort of view that is defended in John Rawls's A Theory of Justice,though I've adopted some terminology from Tim Scanlon in formulatingthe view (and so brought it closer, probably, to Rawls's later view, in Political Liberalism). The underlying idea, as applied to religion, is traceable to John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration and Two Treatises on Civil Government. The latter is essentially the basis for the United StatesConstitution. (Indeed, large parts of the Declaration of Independenceare based, fairly directly, upon the Second Treatise.) Indeed, one might regard (3) as a way of understanding both the basis and the content of the Establishment Clause.

If one held this sort of political view and alsobased one's moral objection to abortion on some religious ground—say,one's argument depends essentially upon the claim that life begins atconception, and one takes the ground for this claim to be "revealedtruth"—then the combination of views mentioned is not only consistentbut required.

I have read many philosophic essays pertaining to applied ethics in the abstract

I have read many philosophic essays pertaining to applied ethics in the abstract, and many political essays dealing with specific ethical questions. There always seems to be a gap between the level at which the former leaves the problem and the latter takes it up. Why is this? How can this gap be bridged? For example, I (like most rational people I think) am bothered about the ethical issues involved in the question of abortion. Yet I have never seen a systematic treatment of the question beginning with philosophical principles? Does such a treatment exist? If not, why not? If so, why does it not enter more into the public debate? Thanks.

There are many excellent philosophical discussions of abortion, andmany of these do tie the question to general moral issues. One classicarticle is Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion", Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971), pp. 47--66. Thomson's argument begins, contrary to what public political discussion might lead one to expect, by grantingthat the fetus has all the rights of a person. She argues that abortionis nonetheless justified because it involves a conflict of rights.

Her central example goes like this. Suppose you were kidnapped by music lovers and connected via tubes and wires to a famous violinist whose life now depends upon your remaining connected to him. If you remove the tubes, he dies; if you remain connected for nine months, you both live. Do you have a moral duty not to remove the tubes? Thomson grants that it would be very nice of you not to do so, but, intuitively, you have no such moral duty. The example is meant to be analogous to cases of rape. Here's a variation that's no longer science fiction. Suppose a woman were kidnapped and, while she was asleep, embryos were implanted in her uterus. Does she have a moral duty to carry them to term? If you don't have such a duty in the case of the violinist, how does the woman have such a duty in this case?

To extend the argument beyond cases of rape, Thomson offers other examples. There are large questions about responsiblity that arise here. Many people think that, in cases that do not involve rape, the woman bears a certain responsibility for the life of the fetus that is morally relevant. It's not an unreasonable view that there is some moral difference between the cases. Whether it is enough of a difference to make abortion morally impermissible except in rape cases is another question.

Thomson's paper is collected in several different places, including in Joel Feinberg's collection The Problem of Abortion, where you will find some critical discussion.

A much cited, more recent paper is Don Marquis's "Why Abortion is Immoral", Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989), pp. 183--202. There are two replies in the May 1990 issue of the Journal of Philosophy. Walter Sinnot-Armstrong's paper "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had", Philosophical Studies 96 (1999), pp. 59--72, seems to me a balanced discussion that ends up being critical.

Why hasn't the philosophical discussion had much effect on the public debate? I expect the reason is very simple: Abortion tends to generate strong emotions, and where there are strong emotions, reason stands little chance of a hearing.