Part 1: The Prologue
One of the amateur topics which I occasionally debate people on is the morality regarding the issue of abortion. That word alone is enough to send people running for the exits or reaching for their defenses.
It usually gets a reaction when I teach on it too.
But why? Is it possible that we have been taken in by political sensationalism and the partisan politics of winning votes?
So what do we do? We return to thinking critically and thinking philosophically.
From a critical perspective it makes sense to evaluate one of the sets of arguments, for one of the major positions, pro-life or pro-choice, in order to determine if there is any rational merit to the case. However I am going to try to do more than that, I want to examine all of the philosophical arguments for one of the positions in order to determine if it can be adequately defended.
To that end I am embarking on the multi-post project of establishing and defending the case for the Pro-Life position. Now this is the case that needs to be made and the burden of proof lies firmly on the pro-life stance. The reason for this is that the pro-life stance is an extreme position. The pro-choice stance is a moderate position between the extremes of forced abortions and the pro-life position. As such the simple notion of passing the moral buck to those who are actually pregnant is a kind of moderate choice, while the idea of obligating women to have pregnancies or have abortions are clearly the extremes. Since no one, in the US, is advocating for forced abortions then it falls to the pro-life position to make their case.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I myself am pro-choice. Yet I assure you that I will take every pain to present the strongest possible case for the pro-life position. I am not content with the smug self-satisfaction of thinking my position is just better than all the rest. If I can prove that it is even slightly shaky then I must since that is the only way to secure it against further attack. So I will be presenting the best possible case for the pro-life position, and in fact my bias will work in its favor.
The philosophical case
So to begin I will be presenting a philosophical case for the pro-life position (hereafter referred to as the plp). This will not be the same as a scientific, legal, or theological case, though it may at times rely on those fields. Instead I want to present a case for the plp using five of the traditional ethical theories. I will evaluate whether or not the plp can be proven using any of these theories, and if so, which ones and how. So this will definitely be an ethical evaluation, as we are trying to determine the moral rightness of the plp.
Now we need to define some key terms which we will be using for the rest of this series.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), an induced abortion is “When a procedure is done or medication is taken to end a pregnancy, it is called an induced abortion.” This term can also be broadened to include all non-medically induced abortions (i.e. intentional falls, ingesting herbs, etc.) This is what people usually think of when they hear the term abortion, but did you know, that this is not exactly what an abortion is?
Spontaneous abortion (Miscarriage)
Really a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage, is what a natural abortion really is. This is where we get the basic definition of abortion, since induced abortions attempt to replicate what happens in spontaneous abortions. From the US National library of Medicine we get this “A miscarriage is the spontaneous loss of a fetus before the 20th week of pregnancy. (Pregnancy losses after the 20th week are called stillbirths.) A miscarriage may also be called a “spontaneous abortion.” This refers to naturally occurring events, not to medical abortions or surgical abortions.” The obvious difference here is that miscarriages are classified as naturally occurring events.
The library of medicine has a bit more to tell us: “Most miscarriages are caused by chromosome problems that make it impossible for the baby to develop. Usually, these problems are not related to the mother or father’s genes…Around half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15-20%. Most miscarriages occur during the first 7 weeks of pregnancy. The rate of miscarriage drops after the baby’s heart beat is detected.”
The definition of the baby or fetus is often a point of great debate on this issue, but there is no reason to debate this as defining the fetus actually proves very little. In the first place we are considering a human being in the fetal stages of their lifecycle. It makes sense to call this being human, if for no other reason than that it has human DNA. Yet merely defining a fetus as a human fetus serves more to practically define its species, so it is not confused with any other mammalian fetuses. The definition of human being does not automatically confer some special status until it has been philosophically proven to do so. For purposes of simplicity I will refer to the human in all of the neonatal stages of its development simply as the fetus.
When the sperm and egg initially unite (around week 3 in the pregnancy cycle based on the first day of a mother’s menstrual period) they form a zygote. “The zygote contains all of the genetic information (DNA) needed to become a baby. Half the DNA comes from the mother’s egg and half from the father’s sperm.” Then once the zygote begins to divide it becomes reclassified as a blastocyst. The healthy blastocyst then usually embeds itself in the uterine wall around week 4. Around week 5 the blastocyst has now fully developed into an embryo and it is in this stage, over the next 5 weeks or so, that it will develop all of the major systems and structures of the body.
Around week 10 the developing human has now reached the fetal stage. “It is now a fetus, the stage of development up until birth.” In purely technical terms an induced abortion can be performed on an embryo or a fetus. It could theoretically be performed on a zygote or blastocyst and this is what certain types of birth control are purported to do, most notably the morning after pill. A miscarriage usually occurs in the zygote, blastocyst, or embryonic phases.
For our current study a mother is simply a pregnant human female. In other words it is the female member of the human species, biologically defined in terms of its functioning reproductive organs. This does not touch on the issues of gender, transgender, or even sex in general. Our current project will use the term mother in the simple biological sense to denote all members of the class of human beings who are in the stages of pregnancy.
Carrying to term
If an abortion is one option for a mother, then the other option must be carrying the fetus to term. Basically the full term is considered to be 40 weeks from the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period. Back in 2013 ACOG revised its definition of term based pregnancy to reflect the vast differences in fetal health and development between 37, 39, 41, and 42 weeks. “Research over the past several years, however, shows that every week of gestation matters for the health of newborns. The last few weeks of pregnancy within these 40 weeks allow a baby’s brain and lungs to fully mature. Babies born between 39 weeks 0 days and 40 weeks 6 days gestation have the best health outcomes, compared with babies born before or after this period. This distinct time period is now referred to as ‘Full Term.” Although a mother could conceivably give birth as early as 24-25 weeks, which is considered the minimum age of viability. However this situation is far from ideal and thus cannot really represent the goal of the PLP. It is more likely that the PLP wants each fetus to be born a healthy infant and thus the best option to oppose induced abortion would be carrying to term.
Why this is not infanticide
Although infanticide, the killing of an infant, is undoubtedly a serious moral issue, bringing it up in the context of the PLP is a red herring. The primary difference between an induced abortion and infanticide is that an induced abortion destroys a physically and biologically dependent being. In contrast infanticide destroys a physically and biologically independent being. An infant is of course still socially dependent and remains utterly dependent on its caretakers for nourishment and protection. Yet it is no longer in the stage of absolute and immediate biological dependency which characterizes the fetus. A fetus is completely incapable of survival, prior to the age of viability, if disconnected from the mother. After the age of viability a fetus remains in an absolutely biologically dependent state, such that if it is born it will die in a matter of seconds, minutes, or hours without constant and intense medical care.
So although we may say, with some reservation, that infanticide is wrong from the standpoint of the PLP, that is not the issue of this study and so it should be treated separately in order to avoid vagueness or ambiguity.
The basic position
We are now ready to actually formulate the basic position of the PLP. We can formulate it initially as a general prima facie rule. That is the basic position will be the default, it will be considered to be always binding and always correct unless some reason can be given to show that there is an exception. Even in the case of an exception our rule will remain the binding default stance of the PLP. Exceptions only provide temporary suspension of the rule, since by their nature they are outlying cases or instances.
So the common formulation of the PLP is this: It is wrong for a woman to have an abortion.
Of course there are a few problems with that rule. We have used a vague term with “woman,” and we have formulated a definition as a negative when we should have formulated it as a positive. We have also made no distinction between spontaneous and induced abortions. Furthermore our statement contains no prescription, it has no direct advice and seems to exist as a kind of abstract metaphysical claim. So let’s fix that rather common and confusing rule by adhering to the rules of good definitions.
Our new formula for the PLP is this: A mother ought to carry her fetus to term.
We are now using our well defined word, mother, and we have phrased the definition as a positive. This definition is a bit basic, but right now that is what we need. We need a formula for the PLP which establishes a simple and essential moral guide. We define our prescribed action in terms of what should be done, and thus relieve ourselves of the vagueness of all the various ways there are to not have an induced abortion. This formula also allows for miscarriages to exist as morally neutral, as it would be strange to punish a woman for a circumstance which was out of her control.
There you have it, the opening considerations. Next time we will look over the ethical theories and see whether or not relativism will support the PLP.