On AbortionCopyright 1993, Harlan B. Miller. All commercial use is prohibited.
A Czech translation by Andrey Fomin is available at http://www.pkwteile.de/wissen/
A French translation by Kate Bondareva is available at http://www.autoteiledirekt.de/
Part I - NamesPublic debate about abortion generally produces more heat than light because of deep disagreements about the nature of the fetus, confused and confusing arguments from both sides, and a depth of hostility that makes it almost impossible for opponents to reason together.
In this paper I will address some of these confusions, draw some clarifying distinctions, and examine some of the arguments. I will be arguing for some specific conclusions, but I hope that even those who reject my conclusions will find the discussion valuable.
"The first step," Confucius is alleged to have said, "is rectification of names." Let us first seek appropriate names for the opposing parties in the abortion controversy. 'Pro-life' and 'pro-choice' are intentionally persuasive and suggest, wrongly, that the opposing sides disapprove of life or of choice. We can't properly speak of 'anti-abortion' and 'pro-abortion' positions, for no one thinks that abortions are a good thing. Nobody is pro-abortion just as nobody is pro-appendectomy. It is very unhelpful, in this context as in many others, to try to attach any specific meaning to 'liberal' and 'conservative.'
My proposal is a simple one. Let us refer to those who think that abortions should be prohibited as prohibiters, and to those who think that they should be permitted as permitters. There are of course a range of positions on each side.
In these debates one of the names that most require rectification is 'human.' Many on both sides agree that a central question, perhaps the central question, is "Is the fetus human?". But they then disagree on the answer. Some prohibiters take it that the answer is so obviously "Yes" that only astonishing ignorance or perversity could lead one to doubt it. Other prohibiters present biological evidence that the answer is "Yes." But some permitters dismiss the biological evidence as irrelevant. How is this possible?
The problem is that the English word 'human' is ambiguous. Some times in some contexts it is a purely biological term, equivalent to 'member of the species homo sapiens'. Sometimes in some contexts it functions as a moral term, equivalent to 'person'. Occasionally it means 'person who is a member of the species homo sapiens,' and often it is just a confused muddle of these two concepts. I will use 'homo sapiens' for the biological concept, and 'person' for the moral concept.
Both the moral concept and the biological one are complex and perhaps incurably vague. Homo sapiens are a variety of large primates with earlobes, 46 chromosomes, and so on. We can usually tell one when we see it. Persons are self-conscious beings capable not just of having beliefs and desires but of thinking about their beliefs and desires and of recognizing that others have beliefs and desires.
We naturally tend to muddle the ideas of homo sapiens and person together because (almost) all the homo sapiens we encounter are persons or well on the way to becoming persons and (almost) all the persons we encounter are homo sapiens. But it is important to distinguish these ideas.
Not all homo sapiens are persons. A homo sapiens who has sustained massive brain damage may be alive, a living creature of the human species, but not a person. An irreversibly comatose human is a live homo sapiens but a dead person.
Nor, probably, are all persons homo sapiens. Christians believe in a God who is three persons, at most one of them homo sapiens. Perhaps chimpanzees or porpoises should be recognized as persons. Science fiction provides us with a variety of non-homo sapiens persons. On Star Trek alone we have Klingons, Romulans, Vulcans, and so on, none of them homo sapiens but all clearly persons. Lieutenant Commander Data is almost certainly a person, but he isn't even organic.
Of course science fiction is fiction, but (a) surely there's somebody out there, even if the galaxy is much less crowded in fact than in imagination, and (b) that we can understand such stories shows that we can conceive of non-homo sapiens persons.
The importance of this distinction to the abortion controversy is this. The question "Is the fetus human?" divides into two. One of them--"Is the fetus a homo sapiens?"--is easy. The other--"Is the fetus a person?"--is much harder. That a homo sapiens fetus is itself homo sapiens is denied by no sensible person. Of course it is, it isn't vegetable or mineral or artificial or a member of some other species. But that a homo sapiens fetus is a person is not obvious at all.
For the developing homo sapiens organism that is in question in the abortion controversy I will follow common practice and use the single term 'fetus' for the human embryo, except when more precision is needed. Strictly speaking the embryo is a fetus only in the later stages of development. As far as I can tell, this term does not beg any important questions, as do 'child' or 'baby', which presume or strongly suggest personhood, or 'piece of tissue', which presumes non-personhood.
Next we will turn from names to things.
Part II - Rape and the Status of the FetusMany people troubled by abortion have adopted a 'moderate' prohibiter position that morally forbids abortions except in the case of rape or incest. Such a position is untenable. If one opposes abortion on any reasonable grounds one cannot make exceptions in the cases of rape or incest. These exceptions make sense only if one's general opposition to abortion is itself based on morally contemptible principles.
A prohibiter of abortion opposes it on the basis of one or more of the following eight reasons. (I ignore here simply crazy reasons such as one that would require that the human population be increased as much as possible no matter what the circumstances.)
- (a) That the fetus is a person and so killing it is wrong.
- (b) That the fetus is a potential person and so killing it is wrong.
- (c) That sexual intercourse is evil and pregnancy is its proper punishment.
- (d) That God has forbidden abortion and whatever God forbids is wrong.
- (e) That pregnancy is a natural process and it is always wrong to interrupt a natural process.
- (f) That life is sacred.
- (g) That human life (the life of a homo sapiens) is sacred.
- (h) That permitting abortion would lead horrible results such as widespread infanticide, killing of the old and feeble, genocide, the moral breakdown of society, or some such.
Reason (d) suffers from two serious problems. Many people, including a number of theologians, deny that God's commands determine morality. Even for those willing to accept a Divine Command theory of morality, there is the serious problem that no Scripture (at least no Jewish or Christian Scripture) explicitly forbids abortion. In fact no Scripture mentions abortion. In two passages (Isaiah 49:1 and Jeremiah 1:5) prophets are said to be known, called, or ordained from the womb but these demonstrate God's knowledge of and control over the future, not any special status of the fetus. (Interestingly the Jeremiah verse refers to God's knowledge of an individual BEFORE conception.) In any case there is no record of God decreeing a prohibition of abortion with an exception for those resulting from rape.
Reason (e), once baldly stated, is quite implausible. We dedicate considerable resources to interrupting such natural processes as epidemics, aging, erosion, and so on. We would be happy to interrupt hurricanes if we could. Individual natural processes of cancer or smallpox or AIDS we are delighted to interrupt when we can. Even if we could accept this reason it would not support the rape exception. Perhaps some frequency of rape is 'natural' in any human population. If so, that's another strike against nature.
Reason (f) is no more plausible than (e). The smallpox virus is alive, but it is not evil to kill it. If one really believes that all life is sacred, one must not use disinfectants, resist disease, drive, walk, or breathe. Reason (g) is much more attractive. In the next part it will be examined and rejected. Neither (f) nor (g) would provide a basis for excepting the rape-engendered fetus from a prohibition on abortion.
Reason (h) might be able to provide such a basis, depending on how the reason were spelled out. But no version of reason (h) has been put forth that is at all plausible. Abortions have been performed in the United States and many other countries for quite some time without the slightest evidence of harmful social 'spillover' effects. One might compare the quality of life, and the protection afforded to persons of all sorts, in the Sweden that has freely permitted abortions for decades, to those in Romania under Ceausescu, when abortions were completely banned.
That leaves only reason (c). It is rarely made explicit, but it seems to be fairly widely accepted. "Serves her right" one some times hears people say, or "She wanted her fun, now she's got to face the consequences." If this is the reason why abortions are wrong, the exception for rape makes perfect sense--if she was raped it wasn't her fault. This is, I suggest, the only plausible reason that can ground a prohibition on abortion with an exception for rape.
If that is so, then such an exception is without justification, for reason (c) is vicious and contemptible. It is sexist, vindictive, unsympathetic, and, interestingly, deeply disrespectful of the fetus, which is seen simply as an instrument of punishment. To anyone capable of holding reason (c) thoughtfully I have little to say. The many who have thoughtlessly accepted something like it I can hope to bring to their senses.
(I have said little about cases of incest, largely because I believe that that part of the phrase "except in cases of rape and incest" is even more deeply confused. The reference to incest is motivated, I take it, mainly by a concern for the plight of girls impregnated by their fathers or other adult male family members. Such concern is of course appropriate--these girls need all the help we can give them. But so do little girls impregnated by men not in their families. All these cases, in our system, constitute rape, statutory even if not forcible, and so are already covered in the first part of the phrase. Is there any reason to make exceptions for pregnancies that result from consensual incest, say between siblings over 20? Perhaps lurking in the background is a biologically ignorant belief that the offspring of incestuous unions are always severely defective. Sloppy thinking abounds here.)
So far the more extreme prohibiters are on stronger ground than their 'moderate' allies. If abortion is wrong it is due to the status of the fetus and rape, outrageous as it is, is irrelevant to this question.
Next we will begin to examine the status of the fetus.
Part III - Life and Personhood"Abortion is wrong," it is often claimed, "because the fetus is a human life." As we have seen, 'human' in this context is ambiguous. It can refer to membership in the biological species homo sapiens and it can also refer to the moral status of person. Using the terminology introduced in Part I, the ambiguity can be removed by replacing 'human life' by 'living homo sapiens' or by 'person'. In this part we'll try both.
Suppose the claim to be "Abortion is wrong because the fetus is a living homo sapiens." In the cases in question the fetus is indeed alive, and is indeed a member of the species homo sapiens and therefore is a living homo sapiens. Does it follow that abortion is wrong? More generally, is human life, the life of a homo sapiens, sacred?
If "human life is sacred" means or implies that it is always wrong to kill a homo sapiens, the human life is not sacred. There are cases of justified killing even of homo sapiens that are persons, for example in self-defense or in a just war. It might be said that a homo sapiens that is not (yet) a person cannot be justly killed because it is innocent, but this is mistaken, for a being that is not a person can be neither innocent nor guilty.
If I (an adult homo sapiens person) am severely injured or suffer massive brain damage due to a stroke I may cease to be a person although remaining a living homo sapiens. If the damage is irreversible the person has died. In these gruesome circumstances there is less point in keeping my body alive than there is in protecting a field mouse. The mouse, though not a person, is conscious and capable of pleasure and pain, of suffering and enjoyment.
A homo sapiens less severely impaired than the last example may fail to be a person and yet have a mental life of some richness, roughly equivalent, perhaps, to that of one of the higher nonhuman mammals. We will rightly presume personhood whenever possible, with a broad allowance for our ignorance. But where the being just cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered a person there is no justification for assigning a 'sacred' status to that being's life and withholding it from the lives of other animals of the same intellectual level. The life of a homo sapiens is not automatically sacred.
It is much more plausible to hold that the life of a person is sacred. Is a fetus, a homo sapiens fetus, a person? At no stages of its intrauterine development, and certainly not in the first two trimesters when almost all abortions are performed does the fetus even come very close to meeting the usual criteria for personhood. It may be, in the later stages, sentient (aware of and responsive to stimuli) but it is not self-conscious, and certainly not reflectively self-conscious. The fetus is not capable of considering its own desires (if it can be said to have any), of having beliefs, or of recognizing that others have desires and beliefs (or of recognizing others at all).
In fact the homo sapiens fetus, even very late in pregnancy, is much further from meeting the requirements of personhood than an adult dog or cow. If dogs aren't persons, neither are homo sapiens fetuses.
Here it will be objected that a homo sapiens fetus, unlike a dog, has an immortal soul and therefore is (or should be treated as) a person. I admit that I am puzzled by this objection, for several reasons. (a) I am not at all sure I understand what a separable immortal soul would be like. (b) I don't know how to tell what does and what doesn't have a soul. (c) If homo sapiens have immortal souls and dogs don't, it would appear to follow that if forced to choose between saving a dog and a homo sapiens from a fire, one should always choose the dog, since this is the only life the dog has, but the homo sapiens, or the soul somehow associated with the homo sapiens, is immortal.
In any event, if, as some versions of some religions claim, there is a non-physical spirit connected in some way with a physical living being, it is not at all obvious what practical consequences follow. Nothing we do, it would appear, could destroy the spirit. The presence of this spirit does not change the nature of the associated physical being.
The fetus as physical being of course undergoes enormous changes in the course of intrauterine development. Even though it never, I have argued, attains a status even approximating personhood, it develops a nervous system and becomes a sentient animal. Thus the earlier the abortion the less significant is the ending of the life of the fetus. Morally as well as medically the earlier the abortion the better.
In fact very very few abortions (less than 0.01%) are carried out in the third trimester, when they would be most questionable. One reason to oppose parental consent laws is the evidence that they lead to an increase in later abortions.
If the moral status of the fetus develops gradually along with its neural (and therefore mental) complexity one might fear that a slippery slope prevents us from accepting abortion without also legitimating infanticide. There is no magic line in nature, no sharp break in development between an early fetus (clearly not a person) and a two year old child (clearly a person). Does it not follow that if we allow abortion we must therefore also permit the killing of any homo sapiens too young to file for a court injunction?
No, it does not follow. There is a continuous series of heights of humans, with no sharp discontinuity between the short and the tall. But some people are tall, and some are short. We do not need to draw a precise boundary. When we do require such a boundary the exact place for it is finally arbitrary within some range. Twelve is almost certainly too young to permit people to vote, and thirty is surely unreasonably old. We have adopted eighteen as the precise age of political majority, but it could have been nineteen, or seventeen and a half.
In the continuum of biological development we have a point of dramatic social significance--birth. Five minutes after birth the neonate's nervous system is as it was an hour earlier, but it has entered into a circle of social interaction, and is beginning to live in a new way. In one sense any point is arbitrary, but this one has a lot to be said for it.
Of course all this talk, in the last few paragraphs, of a continuum of development is just beside the point if abortion is wrong because the fetus is a potential person. The fetus is a potential person from conception. In the next part we must see what follows from that.
Part IV - The Fetus as a Potential PersonFetuses are potential persons. That is, homo sapiens fetuses are potential persons. That is, normal homo sapiens fetuses are potential persons. What follows from that?
That the fetus is a potential person does not imply that it is a person, or that it should be treated as a person. In general, a potential X is not an actual X. A child is a potential adult, but it certainly does not follow that three year olds should have either the privileges or the responsibilities of adults. A midshipman is a potential admiral, but has no grounds to demand the pay, power, or perquisites of an admiral.
In fact human ova and spermatozoa are potential persons, or rather pairs consisting of one ovum and one spermatozoon. There are quadrillions (at least) of these ovum/spermatozoon pairs, the overwhelming majority of which will never come together and thus never proceed from potentiality toward actuality. In fact, of course, progress toward actualizing the potential of any one of these pairs, i.e. the union of the pair's members, prevents the actualization of astronomical numbers of other pairs.
In other words, there are mind-bogglingly many potential persons that will never come to be. Further, the conception of any homo sapiens automatically prevents the coming-into-being of enormous numbers of potential persons. But no one, or at least no one of whom I've even heard, is in the least upset about either of these facts.
Conception, the actual union of an ovum/spermatozoon pair, is taken to make an enormous difference in moral standing. Before this event we have a 'mere possibility' of no intrinsic value. After it we have something much more important, a potential per son. Does this make sense?
Biologically there are two significant differences between the zygote immediately after conception and the un-united pair of gametes before. First, the odds of the potential person actually developing are much higher after conception (although still less than even). Second, after conception the complete genetic coding for the homo sapiens is present in a single organism.
That the odds for successful development are higher cannot be a good reason for assigning higher moral status. The odds for successful development into full personhood are much higher for a newborn infant in Roanoke than for one in Rwanda. Surely it does not follow that the Rwandan baby is morally less important.
Prohibiters are much more likely to stress the second difference between the zygote and the separated pair of gametes. Once conception has occurred a specific individual, with a unique genetic code, has come into being. Let us agree that this is so, and set aside the objection that each of the separated pairs also 'has' a unique genetic code. The possession of a unique genetic code cannot be the basis for elevated moral status. Every fertilized fish or frog egg, every weed seedling, has a unique genetic code. (Actually not every individual organism has a unique genetic code. Identical twins have the same code. Does anyone believe that being an identical twin lowers one's moral standing?)
Still the prohibiter is correct that, after conception, there is a specific individual organism, and that organism is a potential person.
If my parents had never met, or if their parents had never met, I would never have come into existence. If, after the conception that in fact resulted in my birth, the pregnancy had been terminated, either by spontaneous or by induced abortion, I would never have come into existence. There is a difference between these two cases, both imaginary. In the second, but not in the first, an organism, a homo sapiens fetus, comes into being with a particular genetic code (mine, in fact), and later this fetus dies.
But in neither of these cases am I harmed, in neither have I any grounds for complaint. For in neither do I ever exist. In the second a fetus exists with the potential to become me. But neither in this imaginary case nor in the real world was this fetus me. I'm a person. At a much earlier stage this organism, now a person, wasn't a person. Potential persons aren't persons. To the extent that they are sentient it is wrong to cause them to suffer, but unlike persons they have no right to life.
When abortion is contemplated there is at least one person with a full set of rights who is intimately involved. But it's not the fetus, it's the woman.
Part V - The Fetus and the WomanGenetically human mothers and fathers contribute equally to the production of offspring. That, the female and the male contribute equal quantities of genetic information. But once conception is past the male lacks even the opportunity to contribute equally to the development of the fetus and the child it becomes until some time after birth.
Pregnancy and birth are physically disruptive, and often dangerous, and they and motherhood transform the structure of one's life. No normal biological process of the human male compares to pregnancy in physical, social, and psychological effect. Men can and commonly do become fathers without knowing it. Theoretically a woman could become a mother without knowing it. Suppose an unscrupulous surgical team to remove ova from a woman without her knowledge while she was undergoing unrelated abdominal surgery. Further suppose one or more of these stolen ova to be fertilized in vitro and implanted in the uterus of another woman. The victimized woman would be the mother of any resulting child, but only genetically. This is a much weaker relationship than 'real' biological motherhood, but it is equivalent to biological fatherhood.
Modern medicine has made pregnancy and birth much less dangerous for the mother than was the case in the past. (But they are they are still significantly more dangerous for the mother than early abortion, given equal levels of medical care.) Pregnancy and birth cause substantial anatomical changes, some of them typically permanent. All pregnancies are sometimes unpleasant, and some are very unpleasant for much of their duration.
Childbirth is physically by far the most demanding normal event in human life. I cannot and could not speak from experience but those who can, although they disagree on the relative priority of pain, exertion, and fulfillment in the process as a whole, agree that it's not the sort of thing anyone would do just for the fun of it.
Along with the physical changes come social and psychological ones. A pregnant woman is seen, and sees herself, differently. The sequence of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood transforms a relatively independent person into one profoundly responsible for another. A mother's life, in almost every society, is not hers to live as she pleases. Many things limit one's ability to plan one's life and to carry out one's plans, but few more stringently than motherhood.
The physical, social, and psychological transformations of a woman's life go along, as pregnancy progresses, with a particular emotional transformation. The organism developing within her body normally, and progressively, draws her love and concern. I have argued above that the fetus is not, in itself, person. But a pregnant woman typically regards the fetus within her with love and concern of a high order. In part this is directed to the child the fetus will become, and this, in happy circumstances, the father can share. But in part it is a response to, and an interaction with, the being growing within her. Even in the closest and warmest relationship the father inevitably stands at a much greater emotional distance from the fetus.
One can see, on reflection, why it would be so. Nature (or evolution, or God) wisely begins, during the arduous physical (and emotional) labors of biological homo sapiens reproduction, to prepare for the arduous emotional (and physical) labors of the development of a person. Psychological parenting, the nurturing of persons, is quite distinct from biological parenting. In adoption the two processes are carried out by different people. In principle and sometimes in practice fathers may carry more of the burden than mothers (sometimes all of the burden).
But in all the societies with which we are familiar the dominant nurturer of the young child is its mother. Our mammalian nature insures that mothers are important, and most of our practices keep everyone else at a greater distance. Therefore it is natural that birth mothers are prepared, well in advance, to love and treasure that which will typically require their devotion for its survival.
We take the concern, the love, of a mother for her child for granted to such an extent that we are deeply shocked when it is absent. The reports of crack-addicted mothers abandoning their children shake us. That an alcoholic pregnant woman cannot refrain from drinking testifies to the strength of her addiction. Yet some prohibiters ignore the depth and strength of these natural attachments. They think it reasonable to ask a woman to undergo pregnancy, endure parturition, then give up the infant for adoption, as if the whole affair had been but a minor detour in the journey of her life.
Pregnancy is no small matter for one's health, one's life, or one's heart.
No one else has the right to decide for a woman whether or not she becomes pregnant or continues to be pregnant. It is hard to think of any decision a man could make that would have a parallel importance in his life. It would be morally and legally outrageous to suggest that I be assigned to a monastery against my will, or kept there over my objections. Compulsory motherhood would be at least as objectionable as compulsory monasticism.
It is nonsense to talk about 'balancing' the interests of the woman and the fetus. The woman is a person with a right to live her life. The fetus is at best a potential person, deriving such standing as it has from the emotional investment of the very woman in question. No one, absolutely no one, can be a better authority than she on the present importance of this prospective being.
I am not arguing that all abortions are right, but I am arguing that all women have the right to abortion on demand. Some abortions are doubtless wrong. (Abortions for sex selection, to avoid postponing vacations, because one can't be bothered with contraception, etc.-- but I have seen no evidence that any of these is at all common.) It is also true that some exercises of free speech are wrong. I may exercise my right to speak in order to betray confidences, or to humiliate others out of sheer malice. Still the right to free speech is essential to a free people. Similarly the right to abortion on demand is essential to insure to women that most basic of freedoms, the freedom to control the form and the content of one's own life.
[Note: I have read works of scores of people on the abortion issue, and profited from those of a dozen or so. Most recently I have learned from Richard Flathman and Katha Pollitt.]