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Is Abortion Liberal? Part 2

October 27th, 2008 by Matt

In my previous post, Is Abortion Liberal? Part 1, I argued that liberals who support the non-initiation of force principle can support abortion only on two grounds;

(a) the fetus is a person but its existence inside the mother without her consent constitutes a form aggression, and hence, the mother’s action of killing it is defensive; or,
(b) a fetus is not a person.

I will now address each of these in turn.

Is the Fetus an Aggressor?
Consider first (a), the contention that a fetus can be considered an aggressor because it is intruding upon a woman’s body without her consent; an intrusion grave enough to justify the use of lethal force. In this respect then, being subject to an unplanned pregnancy would be on par with being the recipient of a serious assault such as being raped or severely beaten.

Frank Beckwith and Steve Thomas in Consent, Sex and the Pre-Natal Rapist, have demonstrated several problems with this claim. It leads to the conclusion that, in certain circumstances abortion is justified without the consent of the woman.

Consider the following scenario. A young woman is involved in a car accident and is rendered unconscious by her injuries. She is brought to a hospital where, still comatose, she is examined by a doctor. While performing some tests, the doctor determines that the woman has been pregnant for several weeks. Furthermore, suppose that evidence comes to light to suggest that the woman is unaware of her pregnancy, perhaps her close friends know nothing of the pregnancy, her diary shows no knowledge of being pregnant, and so on.

Adopting McDonagh’s understanding of pregnancy as morally equivalent to rape or assault, what is the doctor’s obligation to this unconscious patient? It would seem that, under these conditions, the doctor is morally required to perform an abortion to rid his patient of the ‘massive intrusion’ being imposed upon her by her unborn offspring. After regaining consciousness, the woman would have to be told that she’s undergone an abortion for a pregnancy of which she was not aware, for there was good evidence that no consent had been given and that she was under assault.[i]

Beckwith’s point is that if the fetus is morally or legally on par with an aggressor who intrudes upon a woman’s body without her consent, such as a assailant or rapist then it would follow that in the case sketched above the doctor would be justified (and arguably would have an obligation) to abort despite the fact that no consent from the women had been obtained.

Consider, that if one saw a person having sex with an unconscious woman and one knew the woman had not consented, it would be absurd to wait for the woman to wake up to see if she wanted to consent to sex. One would be obligated to intervene. “[T]he doctor in the midst of the situation, aware of the pregnancy in the absence of consent, must see it as the rape-in-progress of his unconscious patient. How could he do anything else but end the assault?”[ii]

Now I assume that liberals would oppose the idea that any woman who both does not know she is pregnant and is unconscious should be subjected to an abortion without her consent. If this is the case then it is clear that they do not think that an unconsented to pregnancy constitutes an act of serious aggression.

If the fetus is an unjust aggressor then liberals are committed to coercive abortions. If coercive abortions are not liberal then the fetus is not an unjust aggressor.

Is the Fetus a Person?
If the fetus is not an unjust aggressor then a liberal defense of abortion must be based upon (b), the idea that a fetus is not a person, a being that possesses the rights to life, liberty and property that liberals believe the state exists to protect.

Now a fetus is clearly a human organism. After 14 days at least, it is an individual living being that is a member of the species homo sapiens. To justify abortion via (b), the liberal needs to tell us what property a human being possesses that grounds the right to not be subjected to the initiation of force, to not be killed. Further a liberal must also be able to plausibly maintain that a human organism does not acquire this property until after the fetal stage.

Peter Cresswell takes the view,

[T]he foetus is not yet a human being, but a part of a human being – the mother – who has rights over it. To be an actual, rather than merely potential, human being is, among other things, to be physically separate, which a foetus is not.

This claim is erroneous. First the “parts of” relationship is transitive; if a brick is part of a wall and the wall part of a house then the brick is part of the house. If a fetus is part of a woman’s body it follows then that any organ that is part of the fetus will be part of the mother. A woman pregnant at eight weeks then possesses four arms, four legs and two brains. If the fetus is male, she will have both a vagina and a penis and be both male and female. Conclusions that are even more bizarre follow if the woman is pregnant with twins. She could have three faces, three brains, six arms, two penises and a vagina, three hearts, six kidneys and so on.[iv]

Moreover, PC’s contention that “to be an actual human” one must be “physically separate” entails that conjoined twins are not human. Consider conjoined twins Bob and Scott. If Bob is a human being then since Scott cannot live independently of Bob, Scott must not be a human person (the converse is equally true).

Yet it is difficult to see what property Bob has that Scott lacks which would justify considering one of them human and the other not simply because neither is dependant of the other. It appears then, that one would be forced to conclude that they both are and are not, human. Perhaps PC is simply giving a poorly worded defence of the viability criteria, which I have previously critiqued here.

However, the usual liberal response is to ground the right to not be subjected to the initiation of force, to not be killed, in certain psychological capacities that human beings typically display; such things as sentience, rationality, self-awareness, autonomy, etc.

Despite the pervasive appeal of this approach, it faces serious problems. Boonin notes that those who attempt to ground humanity in the amount of brain development an organism has face a dilemma. “Any appeal to what a brain can do at various stages of development would seem to have to appeal to what the brain can already do. Or to what the brain has the potential to do in the future.”[v]

Either option leads to problems for a defender of the permissibility of abortion who does not also want to endorse infanticide. This is because “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks or more intellectually developed than a new born infant.”[vi] Suppose, then, one takes the first horn and appeals to what the brain can already do. However, unless one wishes to affirm that cats, dogs and chickens are human beings, “appeals to what the brain can already do” will “be unable to account for the presumed wrongness of killing toddlers or infants.”[vii] Suppose, then, one takes up the second horn of the dilemma and appeals to “what the brain has the potential to do in the future;”[viii] Boonin notes that this will entail that feticide is homicide. “If [such an account] allows appeals to what the brain has the potential to do in the future, then it will have to include fetuses as soon as their brains begin to emerge, during the first few weeks of gestation.”[ix]

A couple of examples will illustrate this. Suppose the liberal appeals to sentience, the capacity for consciousness and the ability to perceive pleasure and pain. This criterion will mean abortion is permissible up to 24 weeks.[x] The problem is that this criterion also catches cats, dogs, cows, and chickens as well all. All of which are as sentient if not more sentient than new born infants and post-24 week fetuses.

If the liberal draws the line at sentience, he/she will have to hold that farming, butchers shops, McDonald’s restaurants, Kentucky fried Chicken restaurants all engage in unjustified aggression against people because they kill sentient beings without their consent. Further, to remain consistent, the liberal will have to maintain a policy of outlawing all these industries and prosecuting those who engage in them for murder and cannibalism.

Suppose the liberal appeals to more advanced psychological states such as self-awareness, rationality or autonomy. Such accounts of the grounding of rights will exclude the animals mentioned above and will exclude human fetuses. The problem is, according to this account, newborn infants are not persons either.

In a definitive study of infanticide, Michael Tooley compiles an impressive array of neurological and physiological data that demonstrates that infants are not persons in this sense until some time after birth.[xi] The price of this line of inference is the reduction of newborn infants to the ethical level of cows. A newborn cow, and certainly a mature cow, is more person-like than an infant is. It is difficult to understand by this view why killing and eating infants is any more problematic than consuming a Big Mac.

Of course the liberal can avoid this by claiming that it is the potential to acquire properties such as rationality, self-awareness, autonomy, not their actuality that matters. This will enable one to claim infants are protected by the non-initiation of force principle and will exclude animals. But the problem of course is that foetuses will also be protected by the non-initiation of force principle because fetuses also have the potential to possess these properties.

In summation, liberal proponents of the non-initiation of force principle can only support abortion if they are willing to be inconsistent and arbitrary in their application of the principle or if they are willing to endorse not just infanticide but the eating of newborn infants or state mandated vegetarianism or coercive abortions. These policies are an anathema to most liberals; as such, abortion is not liberal.

UPDATE: In response to comments below see Sentience Part 1 and Sentience Part 2.

[i] Francis J. Beckwith & Stephen Thomas, “Consent, Sex, and the Prenatal Rapist; A Brief Reply to McDonagh’s Suggested Revision of Roe v Wade,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 17: 3 (2003): 4.
[ii] Ibid, 6.
[iii] Peter Creswell, “Not PC: Cue Card Libertarianism – Abortion.
[iv] Here I am influenced by Peter Kreeft, The Unaborted Socrates (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 45-47 and Francis J Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, 124.
[v] David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 125.
[vi] Ibid, 121.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] It is generally accepted that sentience occurs around 24 week’s gestation. There is some dispute over this and some scientists date sentience in the first 10 weeks of gestation.
[xi] Michael Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) Ch. 11.5.

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  • It is all very well to present carefull reasoned arguments against abortion, arguments which I find quite persuasive.

    However it will become necessary at some point to deal with the real world, which is often messy and where painful decisions often have to be made.

    So if you are going to maintain a consistant stand against abortion you will need to be wiling to for e.g. oppose the granting of an abortion to a 13 year old girl. Or maybe a 20 year old university student preparing for her final exams.

    Not granting an abortion has consequences which can also be quite unpleasant.

    So even though I find arguments against abortion somewhat stronger than arguments in favour of abortion, when dealing with real world situations such as the above examples, granting an abortion is often the least objectionable action to take.

  • Not granting an abortion has consequences which can also be quite unpleasant.

    That’s back to a justification on quality of life. When the real world tried that, we literally got Stalin and Hitler. We literally get hundreds of thousands of deaths by abortion per year because it has been justified.

    At some point the real world might want to acknowledge that if you want to avoid pregnancy you take different steps than relying on abortion.

    That in turn depends on how far the real world is prepared to go to avoid the consequences of our actions. Perhaps facing up to the inherent destructiveness of this action could cause a shift in our approach to our morals, ethics and personal conduct, that would ultimately benefit our society?

    At the very least, this discussion could be a simple acknowledgment by liberals and others that justify abortion on any other grounds than the “because I want to” that they don’t actually have a consistent argument?

  • Your argument that the sentience criterion applies to animals if it applies to fetuses is an interesting one. I think it fails, but it makes me pause, and I will reserve judgment.

    The converse, however, still stands. If a fetus is not sentient, then there can be no non-religious objection to aborting it. Do you concede that aborting a fetus before sentience is permissable? If not, on what basis besides faith can you argue this?

    Ted

    radicalsforhappiness.blogspot.com

  • Hi Ted,

    Thanks for your comments,

    you claim “a fetus is not sentient, then there can be no non-religious objection to aborting it. Do you concede that aborting a fetus before sentience is permissable?”

    Ok several things here:

    First, if there was no “non-religious objection to aborting it.” It does not follow that feticide is permissible, that follows only if you assume that all religious objections are unsound or flawed. And I would not grant this claim.

    Second, suppose that the only objections to abortion are religious and religious reasons are unsound. It does not follow that the sentience criterion is correct, it could be ( as many Philosophers have argued) that the whole concept of human dignity is indefensible without theological assumptions and hence no account of human dignity is defensible.

    Third it seems to me that the claim: “if a fetus is not sentient, then there can be no non-religious objection to aborting it.”: is correct only if you assume that (absent theological considerations) the sentience criterion of personhood is defensible. I do not think it is I think any appeal to sentience will suffer the problems Boonin mentions that is one will not be able to find a reason that is “not itself merely an ad hoc device for reaching the conclusion the defender of [sentience criterion] wishes to reach.” That does not either (a) entail that infants are not human beings or (b) entail that animals are.

    Your suggestion is that while sentience does not make something a person (i.e its not sufficient to ground personhood). It’s absence means something is not a person. (i.e sentience is necessary for personhood).The problem here is that this response fails to provide any basis for opposing infanticide. Infants may be sentient and hence posses *one* property which is necessary for being a person that will not be enough, merely possessing *one* condition necessary for of personhood does not make one person. To be a person one needs to have a property sufficient for personhood. Similarly if sentience is necessary for personhood this will not rule out animals either, animals are sentient after all and hence do not lack the property necessary for personhood.

    Hence to rule out infanticide and not rule out killing animals one will need to show that in addition to sentience the infant posses other properties which are sufficient for personhood and that animals lack these properties. I don’t know of any ad hoc way of doing this.

    Matt

  • mandm: I have been neglecting my other blog but I have a new post that may interest you:
    http://christianclassicalliberalist.wordpress.com/2008/10/27/go-to-the-ant-o-classical-liberalist/

    PS thank you for putting me on your blogroll.

  • I am not sure what happened to my comment on sentience, so I’ll repeat the bits I can be bothered retyping.

    Firstly, the idea of sentience as a requirement for personhood was advanced by academic Peter Sanger. He then went on to argue that as babies are not self aware, they could be killed without problem.

    I think he also suggested a time limit of 12 months would be reasonable, so parents don’t bond.

    That’s where this logic leads.

    Are people in a coma sentient? We can kill them too I guess. We just need to decide how they become the property of another, so that the other person now has a “right” to make that decision.

    Of course there can be a non-religious objection to killing a foetus. Because it is a distinct human, and individual and innocent of any wrong doing.

    The parents of the unborn child made a decision, and that decision lead to the creation of life. That they now want to terminate the life is just an issue of deciding where the line gets drawn: 6 months before birth, 1 week before birth, during birth, within 12 months, before age 7, before age 18, based on genetic makeup, based on probability of a physical or mental impairment, based on the sex or colour of the skin.

    Take your pick. Others have.

  • Doh! Forgive my typo, it’s Peter Singer, not Sanger.

    Maybe it was a Freudian slip and I was thinking of Margaret Sanger (the Eugenicist that founded family planning) at the time :-)

  • Mark V opposing abortion is only messy if you are still getting caught on the emotive issues. If abortion is a form of homicide then one needs to approach it as such and deal with any empathy for the circumstances of the offender in the same way we do with other forms of homicide.

    Getting swayed on the emotive issues is a lot like looking at Nia Glassie’s abusers and sympathising with the life pressures they were under and allowing that sympathy to remove their culpability. Whilst it is true that parents who kill and maim their children frequently do face awful pressures and have had awful things happen to them that we can all empathise with bottom line no matter how bad those things are to live with, there is still zero justification for killing or maiming a child no matter how much stress their existence causes you.

    In the real world, painful decisions often are made such as the teenage girl who hid her pregnancy from her family out of fear at their reaction and then gave birth at a school ball, put her newborn son into a plastic bag and dumped him in the rubbish bin. Or the 22 year old Otago University student, who fell pregnant from her first sexual encounter, was ashamed to tell her family, so when she gave birth in the toilet she left the baby in the toilet to drown and then she threw her daughter out the window of the University hostel.

    If the fetus has the same moral status as the newborn, which Matt has argued it does, then our revulsion at and our refusal to lift the culpability no matter how much we empathise with the circumstances of the mother in the case of infanticide has to be the same with abortion.

    Not permitting infanticide has consequences which can also be quite unpleasant too. Imagine the reactions of the families above if they had discovered their daughters had given birth?

    Imagine the impact on the studies and the careers of the students above if they had had to care for their newborns?

    In the real world homicide is rarely committed in cold and detached, calculated circumstances; our empathy and understanding of the circumstances of the offender can only figure in weighing up any defence to homicide, it cannot render the act into a non-homicide or the victim into a non-human. We must be consistent on our approach.

  • Hi Mark V good to hear from you again. I always enjoy what you have to say.

    I would make three essential points in response to your comments.

    First you seem to suggest that while one can come up with reasoned, persuasive arguments that abortion is wrong. In the *real world* we need to permit it. This however seems to assume that reason is not a reliable guide to determining what our real duties are. The problem here is that if you hold this view you undercut all moral argumentation including the one you offer in your post.

    Second, you state that “Not granting an abortion has consequences which can also be quite unpleasant.” The problem I see with this response is that it assumes that if an action has “unpleasant consquences” it’s permissible to do it. Now if abortion is homicide (and you seem to assume it is) this means that you are committed to saying that we can kill people whenever doing so enables us to avoid unpleasant consequences. Take your case of the “20 year old girl sitting her exams” if feticide is homicide your position would have to be that a girl can kill anyone whose existence threatens her ability to pass exams!!!. I would also note that all the “unpleasant consequences” usually cited which abortion prevents would be prevented also in most cases by infanticide. This is because consequences are events that happen in the future and the future of a fetus and the future of an infant are pretty much the same For this reason I think the typical consequentialist arguments fail. Abortion prevents unwanted children who are likely to be poor, abused or engage in crime. It is hailed as a solution to over-population and the existence of handicapped people. It prevents adult and teenage women from falling into economic hardship and stress and enables them to complete their education, pursue their careers. All this is equally true of infanticide.
    Infanticide prevents the existence of unwanted children and their associated social costs, lowers the population, prevents the handicapped existing and saves women and teenagers from the economic and emotional stresses of parenthood. Yet infanticide, as convenient as it is, is condemned because it is homicide.

    Third, let me state that your second example the case “of granting of an abortion to a 13 year old girl.” raises quite different issues. What makes this case different is not the fact that failure to abort has unpleasant consequences its rather that a 13 year old is a minor and hence the pregnancy will be the result of rape. In a typical pregnancy the fetus comes into existence as the result of the foreseeable consequences of a voluntary actions and it’s plausible to ground parental obligations in this fact. Abortion in rape cases however is different, the foetuses existence inside the girl is the continuing causal consequences of an assault and some argue see has aquired no parental obligations to the child. This argument brings up all sorts of tricky issues with regard to whether the fetus can be considered a non culpable aggressor or not. I cannot adequately deal with all the ins and outs of the issues in the comments section of this blog, but let me say that *if* this is an exception to a rule against abortion, it would be because one could consider the fetus a kind of aggressor and hence a form of defensive force and no more “inconsistent” than supporting the current homicide laws are: which prohibit one adult from killing another but also has a justified exception if a person does so in self defence.

  • Just to respond to one point you have made, you are arguing that a fetus has the same moral status as a newborn and that therefore killing a fetus is morally the same as killing a newborn. I don’t accept this.

    There is considerable repugnance at the killing of a child, much less so the killing of a newborn by a depressed mother, even less the killing of a fetus. The law recognises this in the penalties it imposes.

    It is simply not the case that the killing of a fetus is morally equivalent to the killing of a child. But what you seem to be doing is attaching the repugnance people have for the killing of a child to the killing of a fetus to support your argument against abortion.

    The point being a fetus is a fetus, a baby is a baby a child is a child and an adult is an adult, they do not all have the same rights. Certainly there is a continuum of increasing rights from embryo to adult and the issue is where do we draw the line. I think the law has it about right.

    But suposing the killing of a fetus was morally the same as the killing of a child, should every miscarriage be treated as a homicide with the woman who miscarries being investigated with a view to charging her with manslaughter for failing to provide the necessities of life for her fetus? If the killing of a fetus is considered morally the same as the killing of a child that is what will have to happen. It will mean miscarriages being investigated in the same was as cot-deaths.

  • But supposing the killing of a fetus was morally the same as the killing of a child..

    What do you think of the situation where a drunk driver crashes into another car and the pregnant mother loses her baby, who is a couple of weeks from being born?

    Unfortunately, this situation has happened many times before. Some countries find the driver guilty of manslaughter.

    The point being a fetus is a fetus, a baby is a baby a child is a child and an adult is an adult, they do not all have the same rights. Certainly there is a continuum of increasing rights from embryo to adult and the issue is where do we draw the line.

    Ignoring the issue of rights for an unborn baby for the moment, all people have a right to life as a baseline right.

    You don’t get extra rights to breathe as you get older. All other so-called rights are typically around an increase in mental capacity and the ability to reason. Thus, an adult with severely limited mental capacity may not have the right to enter into contracts, and like children, may even get increased dispensation under the law with regard to being tried “as an adult”.

  • Zen, I said that there is no non-religious argument of which I am aware for restricting killing a pre-sentient fetus – not just a fetus – which you respond is a separate person. I will grant it is a person once it is sentient, and not before. If you want to ignore sentience, and just look at separate existence, then you have to regard killing a fertilized egg as murder. How one could view killing a single cell as murder on other than religious grounds escapes me.

    As for Singer, the man is a fool who cannot even define sentience, Sentience is consciousness of existence, not of self. Babies are conscious of existence, however rudimentary that consciousness. Since consciousness is mediated by the nervous system, there can be no sentience before the nervous system begins to function. And before quickening, which occurs when the neurons begin to fire, there can be no consciousness.

    radicalsforhappiness.blogspot.com

  • Ted, can you clarify the age of the foetus you are talking about where you consider it is or isn’t sentient?

    Are you agreeing at least that killing a “sentient” foetus is unethical based on the arguments outlined by Matt?

    As for killing based on “non-religious” grounds, is it only religion that appreciates the potentiality of life?

    In terminating a pregnancy we are talking about taking direct and purposeful intervention to end life. A foetus is a separate entity from the mother, and it is living. The definition of killing is terminating a living creature. The creature doesn’t have to be sentient or not to be killed, just living.

    Surely, a non-religious argument can be made around a restraint on actively killing a living human?

    PS: Please don’t forget to answer my question.

  • Is a person sentient while they sleep?

  • Sentience requires a functioning nervous system. Nerves function by firing in a coordinated manner. When nerves begin firing, they cause muscular contractions in voluntary skeletal muscles. This event, the first spontaneous firing of nerves, is evinced in the phenomenon of quickening, which occurs at the end of the first trimester.

    Sentience probably develops later, since these first motions are uncoordinated, and the neural network that gives rise to sentience is not yet organized. But quickening provides a clear boundary before which we can be certain there is no biological sentience, and after which there may be.

    Since a woman should know that she is pregnant, she should have had plenty of time to decide within those two or three months whether or not she wants to accept the responsibility of a person developing within her. Once she defaults and allows the fetus to develop to quickening, she will simply have to put up with the horrific consequences of her ignorance or inaction.

    The only legal cause for abortion thereafter should be an actual physically life-threatening condition.

  • As for the sentience of animals, this may provide a convincing personal aesthetic justification for not killing higher animals. It does not endow them with political rights.

    I have a personal preference that animals not suffer. If they are eaten they should be slaughtered humanely. Humane slaughtering seems better to me than death by disease or predator, which is the natural state.

    The natural state of man is to kill a killer. We put murderers to death, but do not, for the most part, engage in cannibalism. In any case, cannibalism is not necessary to our nature, and the cannibal cannot claim a right not to be killed himself. Hence killing of persons is properly punished by a legal system that protects individual rights.

    But animals do not establish political systems or protect their rights. Any animal which will partake of a compact to protect human rights should, of course, also have its rights protected. But this is not the case even with our closest relatives. Male great apes have a 30-40% mortality rate due to infra-species violence.

    Since we establish governments to protect the rights of human persons, it is necessary to define the bounds of personhood. I am not prepared to say when a person does exist, but I am prepared to say that a person does not exist before the ontogenetic development of sentiencde, which cannot occur before quickening. I am not saying when a person is, only when a person is not yet.

    http://radicalsforhappiness.blogspot.com/

  • Actually neither of you (Zentiger and Ted Keer) are quite right on Singer. Singer believes in the equal consideration of interests principle, equality means one must consider the interests of all affected parties when considering one’s actions.

    Given, that for Singer, interests are simply desires or preferences, as such they should be taken into account. It is from here that he develops his controversial views on animal rights and infanticide.

    Given that animals are sentient, they can have desires, hence, their desires must be taken into equal consideration alongside humans.

    Futher, one can only have a desire to continue existing, to live, if one is aware of oneself as an entity that will exist over time. Hence, self-awareness is necessary for an organism to have a right to life.

    As infants are not self-aware it follows they have no rights to life and have the same moral status as animals. Whether or not we kill an infant (or a fetus) painlessly is determined by the desires of other people such as the parents and society at large.

    I would add that Zentiger is correct to suggest that something like this is necessary on a view that grounds the right to life in sentience. Infants in terms of their actual psychological properties are the same as other animals, it is only in terms of their potential properties that they differ (the same is of course true of fetuses).

  • Mark V, you say there is considerable repugnance towards killing a child but not a fetus. There are several problems with this claim.

    The very fact that abortion is such a contentious issue tells us that some people do find the killing of a fetus as repugnant as infanticide.

    The repugnance argument can be turned on its head. Many people have considerable more repugnance towards people who beat little children to death than they do towards gang members killing each other. Does it follow that adult gang members are less human than children?

    Further, sociological evidence tells us that outside Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures, there is not always regpugnance towards infanticide. It was because of Christian teachings about abortion and infanticide that western society developed this repugnance in the first place.

    You say that a child and an adult do not have the same rights. You are correct, children do not have a right to vote, have sex or marry. However, they do have a right to not be killed. It is this right that is relevant in the abortion debate.

    Finally to your point about miscarriages, we only investigate homicide if we have probable cause to assume that a crime has been committed. Given how common miscarriage is the mere fact that one occurs would not constitue probable cause in and of itself.

    I would also point out to you that your argument here trades on the idea that investigating a woman who has had a miscarriage would be deeply upsetting precisely because miscarriage is a traumatic upsetting event. If a fetus is not a human being, this should not be the case.

    In fact, given our practice of abortion on demand and the assumption that feticide destroys pre-human tissue, having a miscarriage, by your reasoning, is no different to ejaculating or menstruating so why would anyone be upset by it?

  • Ted Keer, your position that sentience is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an organism to have a right to life contains two problems.

    First, as CN alluded to is that if a person is unconscious, asleep, under a general anaesthetic, in a coma, it would follow that they would have no right to life.

    Second, you give no argument for this position, except to say that you are aware of no non-religious argument for the immorality of killing a pre-sentient fetus.

    This surprises me. One of the most important arguments in the literature is written by an atheist, Don Marquis, who argues that it is wrong to kill a pre-sentient fetus because a pre-sentient fetus, an infant (also someone asleep, under anaesthetic or in a coma) has the same future as an adult and what makes killing an adult wrong is that it deprives them of a valuable future.

    This is probably the most widely anthologised article on abortion. Marquis’s position may be mistaken, but that needs to be shown by argument and your own position given reasons in its favour.

    To simply assert that you have never heard a secular argument for a particular position, especially when such an argument is one of the central matters discussed in the literature on abortion is inadequate.

    I could also point out that in addition to Marquis, there are secular arguments for the idea that it is wrong to kill a fetus when its brain starts functioning around 6-8 weeks gestation – Baruch Brody provides an example, then there are the potentiality based arguments of Jim Stone and Phillip Devine (all secular).

    Finally, as I pointed out in previous comments, the fact that there is no-good non-religious arument for a position does not mean that there is no good argument.

  • The remark that a sleeping person is not sentient is so philosophically naive as to merit passing without comment, but since there has been comment, let me note that the distinction between the actual and the potential has been understood since Aristotle.

    A sleeping man is sentient, even if the sentience is potential. He can be wakened. A fetus prior to quickening is not sentient. It cannot be wakened by some stimulus.

    The fact that a fetus may at some point become sentient is as relevant to its rights as the fact that a sperm may contingently become sentient after some period of development.

    I will certainly grant that pre-sentient fetuses have as much right to life as do sperm.

  • Ted – speaking of “naive”! A sperm cannot ever become sentient. Never. A fetus can, in the sense that it will, while remaining a fetus, become sentient. A Sperm, by contrast, has long ceased to even exist when the fetus has become sentient. At the point of fusion, neither the original sperm nor the ova exist any longer. You’re equivocating with the notion of “potential” here. A sperm and an ova together (although neither individually) have the potential to cause some new thing to come into existence. True. But when we talk about the potential that the fetus has to become sentient, we’re talking about the potential development of an already existing entity to develop new features.

    Moreover, the fact that a fetus cannot be awakened does not mean that it, unlike a sleeping man, lacks potential sentience. What if, in the normal course of events, it took a man several months to wake up? Your only angle seems to be that it will take a fetus longer to gain sentience than a sleeping man. That the sentience of the two obtains via different processes hardly seems morally relevant.

  • I think Ted was saying that a foetus is not sentient, just like sperm are not.

    I don’t think he meant sperm were sentient. Thats what Catholics believe and he doesn’t seem very Catholic.

  • Hi Ted

    You seemed to miss my main point which is this; if an organism has a right to life only if it presently is sentient. Then people who are temporarily unconscious do not have a right to life. A person in a temporary coma for example cannot be woken up at the time he is in the coma and hence is presently not sentient. Yet it is wrong to kill such people, hence present possession of sentience is not a necessary condition for a right to life. This I think is a further problem alongside the one I have already mentioned, that of find any non-contrived reason for accepting the sentience criteria in the first place.

    You state

    “The fact that a fetus may at some point become sentient is as relevant to its rights as the fact that a sperm may contingently become sentient after some period of development. I will certainly grant that pre-sentient fetuses have as much right to life as do sperm.”

    This objection assumes that sperm and ova will become sentient just like a fetus will but this assumption is false. (Jim Stone refutes it in his article “Why Potentiality Matters” Canadian Journal of Philosophy Vol 17. 4 (1987) the same point is made in Buckle’s “Arguing From Potential” Bioethics 2 (1988) ) Those ethicists who appeal to the fetus potential to be sentient understand it to be the claim that: If an fetus grows normally there will in the future be a sentient being who once was the pre-sentient embryo. Hence sperm and ova are potentially sentient, in the relevant sense, only if sentient foetuses once were sperm. But it’s not true that a fetus once was a sperm cell. If you trace the development of fetus backwards to conception you find that prior to this time there were two organisms a sperm and an ova which merged to form the conceptus. To identify the conceptus with the sperm seems arbitrary. There appears no reason for identifying the fetus with the sperm that pre-existed it than there is for identifying the fetus with the ova.
    To avoid arbitrariness you can identify it with both sperm and ova, but then you get you get paradoxes this is because identity relationships are transitive. That is, if X is identical with Y and Y is identical with Z, then X and Z are identical. Hence if the fetus is identical with both the sperm and ova then the sperm and ova are identical organisms which are false. The point is that it’s very difficult ( if not impossible) to trace identity through fussions of organisms into one organism.

    On the other hand the presentiment fetus and the post sentient fetus are the same organism in different stages of development. After 14 days there is no fusions of different organisms into one which would call identity of a pre-sentient fetus with a sentient fetus into question.

  • I’m a Catholic, and I don’t believe sperm are sentient. Where did you hear that? Let’s not get distracted by equating a sperm with a foetus.

    A foetus is a human – the unique product of a sperm and egg. It is a living entity, and without aggressive medical intervention, it will likely grow into a baby and be born.

  • Oops, my comment came too late :-)

  • Bree – it’s possible you misread me, as I never said that Tim was saying that sperm are sentient. He said that a fetus is only pontetially entient in the way that a sperm is potentially sentient. I was simply noting that in fact a sperm is not even potnetially sentient, unless we equivocate between different types of potential.

  • “…there can be no non-religious objection to aborting it.”
    Actually, even the Bible doesn’t consider the foetus to be a person.

    Exodus 21:22-23 – If an attack on a woman causes a miscarriage the attacker must pay a fine. If he causes serious damage to the mother it’s “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. This indicates that a fetus does not have equal standing under God’s law.

    Leviticus 27:6 – Monetary values are assigned to lives according to age and gender. Lives under one month old have no value.

    Numbers 5:21-21, 27-28 – A potion given to the Israelites by God is used to determine paternity. If the father is not the husband, an abortion occurs. god clearly places no value on a fetus that is not the result of union between husband and wife.

    Genesis 38:24 – God’s law states that if a woman is pregnant and is to be executed, there is to be no waiting for the fetus to be born. It is counted as part of the mother and she burned to death with it still in her womb.

    Food for thought.
    P.S. Not sure if you’ve ever read Freakonomics, but there’s a chapter in there about how legalisation of abortion in the USA was directly related to the drop in crime rates in the early 1990s. It’s not arguing for or against abortion, but it’s worth reading.