Monday, December 28, 2020

"When does 'life' begin? Well, when does 'life' end?"

A common question that people ask in discussing abortion is this:

"When does life begin?" 

A common answer is something like this:

"At conception or soon after: after all, a living egg and a living spermlife—unite to create new life." 

This type of answer is especially common with people who oppose abortion. Sometimes they think that pro-choice people deny this answer and sometimes even think that pro-choice people must deny this answer. 

People who oppose abortion also sometimes think this answer is "scientific" and that it makes their views on the ethics of abortion "scientific."

Unfortunately, much of this is in error, based on understandable misunderstandings. 

First, moral issues are never decided by science: moral views aren't scientific. Scientific information is often essential to figure out what to think about a moral issue, but it's never enough. Moral principles or other distinctly philosophical premises are always needed to reason from any scientific claims to any moral conclusions. So if anyone ever calls any moral view a "scientific" view, that's a mistake, and it's a mistake that happens on a lot of issues, from lots of "sides" on the issues.

Second, to think about when human life begins, it's very useful to think about when human life ends

Ordinarily, death occurs with the death of the body, the whole body. 

But sometimes the brain dies, but the body doesn't. 

So when does someone's life end? 

Many people believe, and argue, that someone's life ends when their brain dies (which often happens concurrently with the death of the body but, again, not always). 

And so we have the concept of "brain death": when someone's brain dies, they die, even though their body—or the body that they used to be "in"might remain alive. 

If this is correct (and it is, right?), then when does "human life" begin?

If it ends at brain death, then it begins at "brain birth."

Brain death is, roughly, when consciousness is permanently lost due to the state of the structure of the brain. So brain birth is when consciousness emerges due to developments in the structure of the brain. (And not just emerges in the sense of some kind of flickers and sparks of consciousness, but enough such that there's a real continuity of consciousness). 

When does that happen? At the earliest, around half-way through pregnancy. More likely, perhaps two-thirds of the way through. Maybe even later. This is a scientific question, and so the scientific research would need to be consulted.

What's important though is that it's not early in pregnancy: it's not when that biologically alive egg is fertilized by that biologically alive sperm. It's later. That is when our lives begin, not when our bodies (or what will become our bodies) begin. And this type of life is sometimes called biographical life, in contrast to (mere) biological life

This answer is more abstract of course than the common one. (It is, however, and perhaps ironically, an answer that many people who are religious [who, of course, sometimes oppose abortion] are more inclined to accept, instead of a view that identifies them with their body).

Why don't more people know of this view about when life begins and its merits?

I suspect it's simply that many people's views on this issue are not developed on the basis of "fair and balanced" education on the issues: they don't learn about the many options for belief here and decide their views on the basis of their informed understanding. Rather, people often come to these issues by way of what religious and political groups they are members of and then form their views on "groupthink" which, again, doesn't allow for a fair and balanced understanding of the various views and arguments. 

What can be done about this?

As I see it, the best options are honestly observing the situation for what it is, and then education and discussion done in good faith and with open-minds, meaning minds open to learning more and critically evaluating any and all proposals, including those anyone currently accepts. Of course, this attitude and approach would be helpful for many, maybe all, issues, so we might as well give it a try.

Might anything else help?

If you have any ideas, please post them in the comments. Thanks!

Especially related posts:

All blog posts are here!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Moral Extremism and Abortion: On Pro-Choice "Extremists"

There are "extremists" about many issues: big, important issues and even small, trivial issues. 

About abortion, the "extremists" most of us are familiar with are "pro-life extremists" who have sometimes used, or encourage, lethal violence against abortion providers. And there are, of course, many less extreme anti-abortion extremists.

But there are pro-choice extremists also. Knowing what their extremism is like, and why it's a problem, would be good to know about. This short post explains the issues and offers some suggestions for how to address their extremism. 


The common rhetoric of "extremism" is that it's bad to be an extremist, and that seems correct: at least sometimes it's bad to be an extremist. 

Philosopher Spencer Case has a recent blog post "What is Moral Extremism and Why Should We Care About It?" His post gives an overview of his recent academic article on moral extremism from the Journal of Applied Philosophy

So, what is an extremist, according to Case? 

"Roughly, a person is an extremist just in case an intense moral conviction blinds her to competing moral considerations, or else makes her unwilling to qualify her beliefs when she should" (emphasis added).

Case doesn't discuss abortion in the blog post, but, given his definition, it seems clear that some pro-choice people are extremists about abortion. 

Why's that? Because some of them not-infrequently say things like this:

  1. "We shouldn't have to discuss this issue."
  2. "Abortion isn't up for debate."
  3. "Anti-abortion people, especially men, want to control women with this issue." 
  4. "There's no way to change the minds of people who oppose abortion."
  5. "Every possible abortion must be legal, and no abortion could ever be wrong." 
These are all things that people would say when, as Case puts it, "intense moral conviction blinds [them] to competing moral considerations.


So claims 1 and 2 suggest that the person thinks that there's just nothing semi-plausible to say against abortions and so immediate, complete dismissal of any objection, and even questions, is appropriate.

Now, while I argue that abortions are usually permissible and should be legal, I do not think that many of the considerations and concerns raised against abortion are just absurd or ridiculous, as pro-choice extremists seem to think. I think that the concerns of abortion critics are usually based on misunderstanding the issues, misinformation, and a generally inadequate understanding of how moral arguments work (which is not surprising, since [unfortunately!] most people are not very interested in learning how to better think about complex philosophy, ethical and scientific issues.) Also, this is an issue that people are especially inclined to "make up their mind" on—for initially adequate reasons—and then seek out rationalizations of those beliefs. 

This outlook, however, is not that we should not discuss or debate the issues: it's that we should, since if we do this in good will, we might come to better understand each other and our minds and hearts might change, for the better: we will learn that at least some of our arguments are bad, and we might find some good arguments, and we might recognize this and change our views. For anyone who has never tried this, they might not know that this is possible; and, of course, some people might try this without much insight into how to do this more productively and effectively and so come to think that positive outcomes are impossible to very unlikely. So that takes us to saying 4 above and the false, inadequately supported general assumption that minds can't be changed on the issues: they can, and they often are, and people can learn how to better do that.

Saying 3 suggests something like a conspiracy by men to control women on this issue. So it assumes that it just couldn't be that people at least believe (even mistakenly or falsely) they have a good reason to oppose abortion. (Also, why would men seek to control women on this issue but not many others?). Again, intense moral conviction blinds people to potential competing moral considerations. It also seems to blind people to just the basic facts that many women oppose abortion (and many men are pro-choice!), an observation that is sometimes met with the charge that these women are brainwashed against their own interests (which appears to be disrespectful to these women: they might be mistaken, but surely they can genuinely think for themselves). Again, another possibility is just that these women believe they have good reasons to think abortion is wrong, which the pro-choice extremist dismisses, without reason or engagement. 

Finally, saying 5 suggests that no "compromise" is ever warranted on these issues: abortion is either always OK or not; there's nothing ever "grey" about any of it. Of course, "politically" there are concerns that if you give in one area, you'll wind up giving away everything. But, isn't it just true that very late abortions, if they were to affect a fetus that can feel pain, would raise some serious moral concerns? Causing pain is bad for anyone (or anything) who can feel pain, so that would make later abortions potentially troubling (which isn't to say that or when they would be wrong or not; if pain is caused, that pain could be justified by other concerns: acknowledging a serious concern doesn't mean it trumps everything). But pro-choice extremists often dismiss fetal pain as not even potentially morally relevant, just as extremists against abortion dismiss everything said in defense of even very early abortions. Both forms of unwillingness to "compromise" or concede that the "other side" has a potentially good case are problematic: both are dogmatic and unresponsive to the facts and moral arguments. 


So why is extremism problematic? 

Ultimately, because extremists refuse to engage in giving reasons and seeking productive discussions on important issues when the issues are complex and so there are plausible concerns on contrary sides of the issues

Extremism in this sense is always a problem, and at least in the case of many pro-choice people, extremism is often contrary to their valuesfor science, for scientific thinking (and systematic thinking about ethical issues is part of that), for diversity, for respectful dialoguewhich are often expressed on signs like this one below. 

For these reasons, and to better seek pro-choice goals, pro-choice extremism should be recognized and reformed into positive and productive forms of engagement, communication, and education. Doing this would more effectively address anti-abortion extremism than any current responses.  

P.S. Another question is when and whether people are blameworthy for their extremism. It's possible that some people are not blameworthy for being extremists: e.g., perhaps they've had traumatic experiences with an issue that prevents them from being anything other than extremists. If so, perhaps these people should not be involved in (much, or certain types of) public engagement on the issues. Also, if some people are even blamelessly extremist doesn't mean that extremism is ever good or part of an overall effective strategy for making or keeping social change. 

All blog posts are here!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Richard Swinburne and abortion

Here's an interesting passage about when "we" begin from the famous Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne:

Interesting, despite what he says here, Swinburne argues that abortion is wrong basically because although there is no person "in" an early fetus--nobody is there, so to speak--that body is necessary for there to be a person and it's on its way to a person inhabiting it, and so it's wrong to kill that body. 

Now, is that a good argument? 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Is "Don't Like Abortions? Don't Have One!" as bad as it seems?

A not uncommon pro-choice saying is this: "Don't like abortions? Don't have one!" Indeed, it's the stuff that bumper stickers are made of. 

Now, a bumper sticker probably never convinced anyone of anything important. And at first glance, it seems like this one shouldn't.

Why's that? Because thoughtful peoplecritical thinkerswill think about the general pattern of the slogan, what seems to be the pattern behind the "reasoning," and think about structurally parallel slogans:
  • "Don't like arson? Don't burn anything down!"
  • "Don't like child abuse? Don't abuse children!"
  • "Don't like car theft? Don't steal any cars!"
Since these slogans are absurd, many people will conclude that the initial slogan about abortion is absurd also. They might also claim that the slogan just assumes that abortion isn't wrong and so is question-begging

This conclusion, though, is premature. Consider these other slogans:

  • "Don't like strawberries? Don't eat them!"
  • "Don't like high heels? Don't wear them!"
  • "Don't like math? Don't be a math major!"
With actions that are not wrong or are morally indifferent, the slogan or "reasoning" works: it's fine! 

So, what's the deal?

People who think that abortion is wrong will see "Don't like abortions? Don't have one!" as problematic: "We wouldn't say that about many other wrong things, so we shouldn't say that about abortion!" 

But people who think that abortion is generally not wrong might find the slogan to be OK, thinking something like, "Look abortions aren't wrong, but if you find them problematic, just don't have one!" 

So is the slogan OK or not? 

Well, if abortion is wrong, then it's problematic. But if abortion is not wrong, it's not problematic. (At least it's not "logically" problematic, although it may be unpersuasive and counterproductive, given how people are apt to react to it.) 

So is abortion wrong (or usually wrong) or not? This is the question that needs to be answered. So we need to carefully work through the arguments on all sides to evaluate the slogan. 

All blog posts are here!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

"Abortion and Ben Shapiro" | Philosophy Tube

This episode of Philosophy Tube, "Abortion & Ben Shapiro" is just brilliant. It basically presents, in a very vivid way, a version of Judith Thomson's arguments on abortion. Watch it! You'll be surprised, especially if you've never seen any of his videos!

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Critical Thinking about Abortion by Hendrik van der Breggen - A Review

Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Critical Thinking about Abortion by Hendrik van der Breggen is described as a short book that can "serve as a counterpoint" (p. 2) to our Thinking Critically About Abortion. The book developed out of his Political Animal online magazine article "Untangling popular “pro-choice” claims and arguments concerning abortion" that was posted alongside a selection from our book in a forum on abortion. His book includes other materials that are often developed from his blog posts and newspaper articles on abortion.

The book succeeds at least in making it clear that there are many poor pro-choice arguments. Many pro-choice people, unfortunately, rely on slogans and attempts at "gotcha" moments to support and defend their views and critical thinking shows that these responses are often ineffective. These slogans do not provide rational support for pro-choice views and should not be persuasive to anyone who wants to think seriously about the issues. Readers should scan Untangling's table of contents to see many of these common but bad arguments and ways of engaging the issues.

Untangling would be far better though if van der Breggen "untangled" many of the common arguments and responses from abortion critics who also too often rely on slogans, false assumptions, and simplistic bad arguments. A more "fair and balanced" discussion of the many bad arguments given on the issues from all sides would have improved the book since informing abortion critics that they often have bad arguments, with the goal that they adopt better arguments, is a valuable task. 

Untangling's weaknesses concern how it engages deeper, more challenging philosophical issues. It often assumes things that need to be argued for and the quickly-developed arguments given on more controversial issues are weak. Here I'll briefly review some of these weaknesses, as they present themselves in the book. 

1. "Child"

First, from the beginning (p. 2) and throughout the book van der Breggen seems to refer to any zygote, embryo (and fetuses) as a "child." For a variety of reasons, one might reasonably believe that that term just does not fit: it's a misuse of the word because embryos just are not "children." 

The problem with this word choice or conceptualization is that it's emotive and potentially question-begging: since children are wrong to kill, to call an early fetus a "child" is basically to assume that it's wrong to kill. 

Indeed, van der Breggen describes the stages of a human being as "infant, toddler, child, adolescent, adult" (p. 22, emphasis added), which at least seems inconsistent with his claim that any beginning fetus is a "child." (Furthermore, this is incorrect since someone's baby is their child.)

2. "Human life begins . ."

Second, van der Breggen argues that "individual human life begins at fertilization" (p. 7) but does not use critical thinking to observe and address important ambiguities in the phrase "human life" and "when life begins." 

It's plausible that biological human life begins at conception (or close after), but many argue that this isn't what really matters: what matters is when what is sometimes called biographical human life begins. To better understand this concept, imagine a 30-year-old is in a major car crash, their brain is very much damaged such that they are totally unconscious, in a coma, yet their heart keeps beating and their lungs keep breathing for 10 years, and then their body died "naturally" yesterday. When did their "life" end? 

Their biological life ended yesterday, but their biographical life ended 10 years ago, when their mind or consciousness ended. "Brain death" is well-known, but "brain birth," which is related to the beginnings of a biographical life, is a less well-known concept, but the concepts of "brain birth" and "biographical life" (as well as, in general, psychological theories of personal identity) are appealed to argue that "human life," in a morally significant sense, does not begin at conception; rather human life, in the sense that matters, morally, begins when consciousness starts, which is much later in pregnancy, after when at least most abortions occur. 

The point is just this: there are subtleties and complications here, such as with the common "human life begins at conception" claim (and the mistaken assumption that this would prove that abortion is often wrong), that van der Breggen doesn't address. Critical thinking helps us understand and see what might and might not follow from the different claims expressed by that phrase. Critical thinking and understanding the more basic abstract philosophical issues helps us see that the issues aren't as simple as many people think they are.

3. Personhood

In Thinking Critically About Abortion, we argued that persons are psychological beings: persons are, roughly, conscious or minded beings. This is a modification of John Locke's view on personhood. 

van der Breggen argues that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are persons from conception because they have a capacity for the type of consciousness found in "typical" adult human beings: they are the kind of beings that are conscious in those ways. 

To better understand this sort of view, we could observe that this description applies to human embryos and fetuses, but not, say, those of cows, pigs and chickens: they aren't that "kind" of being or have that capacity:

He supports his view with many quotes from Francis Beckwith and Robert George, who favor this view. But they might not have good arguments for their views, as I have argued elsewhere, so these appeals may be weak. 

The idea of this theory of personhood seems to be that personhood depends on consciousness, and if something has the capacity for consciousness, then that something is a person. 

The claim that if something (or someone) has a capacity for consciousness that makes it a person is dubious on its face though. Consider some seemingly parallel reasoning (a common strategy for critical thinking):  

  • Being a responsible moral agent depends on consciousness, but even if something has the capacity of consciousness, that doesn't make that something (or someone) a responsible moral agent.
  • Being a praiseworthy individual depends on consciousness, but even if something has the capacity of consciousness, that doesn't make that something (or someone) a praiseworthy individual.
  • Being able to consent to various activities depends on consciousness, but even if something has the capacity of consciousness, that doesn't make that something (or someone) able to consent.

In these cases, the "capacity" at best makes something (or someone) a potential moral agent, a potential someone who is praiseworthy, and a potential someone who can consent. The suggestion, therefore, is that the capacity for consciousness also only results in something that potentially could be a person, which is never an actual person.     

So, although there is much more to say about this, it seems to me that van der Breggen's defense of thinking that zygotes, embryos and early fetuses are persons is underdeveloped and not well-defended. Also, his objections to a Locke-inspired view of personhood, which appeals to consciousness and psychological connectedness and continuity over time, resulting from memory, are weak. 

(To think further about personhood, a theory of personhood needs to at least explain and account for these: 

  1. why we (say, readers of this text) are personswhat makes us persons;
  2. how and why our personhood ends or could end (or if we are essentially persons, what can end us);
  3. what it is to "personify" somethingwhich tells us what the characteristics of persons are; 
  4. how there could be, if not are, non-human persons;
  5. why it can be ok to do this to some living human beings: let some permanently comatose individuals eventually die, let anencephalic babies die, and kill brain dead individuals for their organs, as happens in some forms of organ donation: if these human beings were persons, then this all would be wrong.)

4. The Right to Someone Else's Body

Finally, it has been famously argued by Judith Thompson that even if fetuses are persons with the right to life, the right to life is not a right to someone else's body, even if that body is needed for that person to continue living. 

So, it seems to follow that a woman could not allow a fetus to use her body, and so abort that fetus, yet not violate that fetus's rights to life (which we are assuming fetuses have, for the sake of argument).

Thomson makes her case using many imaginative examples which van der Breggen observes are often quite different from pregnancy. 

This analysis is appropriate yet I do not think that van der Breggen makes a convincing case that fetuses (or anyone) indeed have a moral or natural right to anyone else's body, even if they need that body to live.  

He proposes that if you consent to something, then you consent to that something's inevitable or likely consequences, using examples of consenting to light a match and thus consenting to starting a fire, consenting to smoking and consenting to cancer, and consenting to gambling and so consenting to losing money (p. 85). 

But these are bad analogies to pregnancy. 

First, the chance of a pregnancy resulting from any act of sexual intercourse is, or can be, very low to none, depending on the details.  

Second, there is nothing that someone can do to "reverse" the consequences in the cases van der Breggen mentions: it's not like one can "undo" a fire or cancer or a gambling loss.

So here's a principle that's false: if you consent to something, then you consent to accepting that something's not likely consequences, and so you must accept them even if you can address those consequences, meaning do something to make it such that those consequences hadn't occurred. 

So, for example, if you consent to buy a house, even in an area with high crime, you don't consent to being burgled, and you don't just have to go along with a burglar being in your house; and you can restore things to as they were, as best you can, if you are burgled. 

So, in sum, while there are indeed complications with Thomson's arguments or how many people (perhaps mistakenly) understand them, I don't think that van der Breggen successfully explains why an embryo or early fetus would have a right to the woman's body, or the woman is otherwise obligated to provide for that early fetus. This is especially the case if, in fact, and contrary to what he argues, an embryo or early fetus is not a person. 

It is notable that van der Breggen seems to think that abortions of (comparatively rare) pregnancies that result from rape are also wrong. This, at least, makes sense, since if embryos and early fetuses are persons with the right to life, their origins wouldn't change that fact.  

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, there is much of the book I haven't discussed here. I would encourage readers to first read "Untangling popular “pro-choice” claims and arguments concerning abortion," see what they think and then, if they want more, to check out the full book. 

Then please come back here to let me know what you think of my comments and criticisms here. Attempting to think critically about these important issues, and modeling that for others and encouraging that is what's needed, and I commend van der Breggen for seeking that goal. 


A response to this was posted here:

And here is a response to that response:

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-2020) on abortion

@nathan.nobis Replying to @mitch_the_scientist Understanding Judith Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" #abortion #prochoice #prolife #ethics #philosophy #philosophytiktok #bodilyautonomy #bodilyrights #criticalthinking ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

The absolutely brilliant philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson has sadly passed away. She was an extremely creative and insightful thinker who made important contributions to many areas of philosophy, especially ethics.

Her 1971 article "A Defense of Abortion" is one of the most famous articles of the 20th Century, in part because of the clever, imaginative examples that she develops to illustrate the nature of the right to life. These examples include the Famous Violinist, People Seeds, the Rapidly Expanding Child, and more. 

These examples all support the claim (the observation?) that the right to life is not the right to anyone else's body, even if that body is needed for that someone to stay alive. 

Her article is the basis for what is sometimes called a "bodily autonomy argument for abortion" but her arguments and insights are not as simple or simplistic as both critics and defenders sometimes make them out to be. Likewise, her article is, in some ways, a foundation for the "my body, my choice" slogan but, again, people who say that typically are unaware of the subtlety and nuance and caution that Thomson gave the issues. Everyone should read and study her brilliant article for themselves

The Wikipedia summary and discussion of the article is good, and here are links to find works that discuss her arguments in PhilPapers and Google Scholar.

Please read the moving remembrances of her and grateful appreciations of her as a teacher and, well, just a person; some are being posted online

And here is our brief summary of her arguments from Thinking Critically About Abortion:

5.2.3 The right to life & the right to someone else’s body 

5.2.3 The right to life & the right to someone else’s body

Finally, suppose much of the above is mistaken and that fetuses indeed are persons with the right to life. Some think that this clearly makes abortion wrong. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson famously argued in 1971 that this isn’t so.[17] She observes that people often have a naive understanding of what the right to life is a right to. She makes her case with a number of clever examples, most famously, the “famous violinist”:

You wake up in a hospital, “plugged in” to a famous violinist, who needs to use your kidneys to stay alive. You were kidnapped for this purpose. If you unplug, he will die. But it’s only for nine months.

Does the violinist have a right to your kidneys? Do you violate his right to life if you unplug, and he dies? Most would say “no,” which suggests that the right to life is not a right to anyone else’s body, even if that body is necessary for your life to continue.

This suggests that, even if fetuses were persons with the right to life, they would not have a right to the pregnant woman’s body: only the woman herself has that right. So until there is a way to remove fetuses and place them in other wombs, abortion would be permissible, given women’s rights to their own bodies and related rights to autonomy and self-determination, especially about matters concerning reproduction, among other relevant rights. This discussion also suggests another definition of abortion:

       Definition 4: Abortion is the intentional withholding of what a fetus needs to live, to end a pregnancy.

Thomson’s insights are not without controversy, however. Some respond the violinist case is somewhat like a pregnancy that results from rape, since there’s no consent involved, but claim that pregnancies that don’t result from rape do give fetuses the right to the woman’s body because, they argue, the woman has done something that she knows might result in someone existing who is dependent on her.

Thomson, however, had other cases that partially address this type of concern: e.g., if someone falls in your house because you opened a window, they don’t have the right to be there, even though you did something that contributed to their being there; and, more imaginatively, if people sprouted from “people seeds” floating in the air, and you tried to keep them out of your house but one managed to get in and became dependent on your carpet for its gestation, that resulting person would not have a right to be there, despite your having done something that led to that person’s existence.

We should also notice that the claim that doing something that results in the existence of something uniquely dependent on you grants that something rights to your assistance might be question-begging. Compare doing something that results in the existence of a new plant or dish or random cells that is dependent on you: you wouldn’t be obligated to provide for that plant or cells. To assume that things are different with fetuses is, well, to assume what can’t be merely assumed, especially if we don’t already believe that early fetuses are persons with the right to life. Thomson assumed fetal personhood for the sake of argument to illustrate her claims about the right to life, but the facts of the matter—that early fetuses arguably aren’t persons or have characteristics that make them have a right to life—is surely relevant to assessing this type of claim when applied to actual cases of pregnancy.

It should be made clear though that even if the fetus doesn’t have a right to the pregnant woman’s body, there could be other rights or other obligations that could make abortion wrong nevertheless: e.g., if pregnancy were just 9 hours perhaps women would be obligated to be Good Samaritans towards them, even if fetuses didn’t have a right to the woman’s resources and assistance: ethics isn’t just about not violating rights. What’s important here is that rights to life and personhood are not the “slam dunk” against abortion, so to speak, that people often think they are: things are more complicated than that. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Abortion and Soundbites: Why Pro-Choice Arguments Are Harder to Make

"Abortion and Soundbites: Why Pro-Choice Arguments Are Harder to Make" at Areo Magazine

An "elevator speech" defense of abortion

Simplifying complex issues is often problematic. One problem is that simplications is that they sometimes lead to mere slogans and soundbites that are totally unpersuasive to anyone who doesn't already agree with the point of view of the slogan. Simplifications also sometimes don't contribute to any greater understanding of the issues, even an understanding of why their current understanding might be missing something. 

With that in mind, here's a simplification adapted from the Preface of Thinking Critically About Abortion

Why is abortion not wrong and should be legal? 
Let's begin with less morally-controversial claims: adults, children and babies are wrong to kill and wrong to kill, fundamentally, because they, we, are conscious, aware and have feelings. But since early fetuses entirely lack these characteristics, they are not inherently wrong to kill and so most abortions are not morally wrong, since most abortions are done early in pregnancy, before consciousness and feeling develop in the fetus.

And since the right to life is not the right to someone else’s body, fetuses might not have the right to the pregnant woman’s body—which she has the right to—and so she has the right to not allow the fetus use of her body.

Such an extended soundbite or "elevator speech" is not perfect, but it has the advantages of raising the questions of why anyone or anything is wrong to kill and the question of what the right to life is a right to

How would people respond to this elevator speech? What might work better and best? 

Here are some ideas from the Respect People Foundation


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Abortion blog archive

 A continually updated archive of the blog posts written after the publication of Thinking Critically About Abortion is now available here. Many of these posts are inspired by observations about how people often engage the issues, other posts discuss further arguments, and other posts recommend other readings and resources. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome & Abortion: On The Impairment Argument by Perry Hendricks

There's an argument against abortion that says this:

  • since it would be (and is) wrong to harm a fetussay by a pregnant woman smoking (too much) or using certain drugs or drinking far too much alcohol [leading to fetal alcohol syndrome] or otherwise acting in ways that are dangerous to the fetusabortion is also wrong; or,
  • if it's wrong to do things that are damaging to a fetus (and it is), it's also wrong to damage a fetus by aborting it, especially since abortion is a greater "damage." 

This argument has been dubbed the "impairment argument" against abortion and has gotten some development and defense in philosophical journals.

While the argument might be new and might seem clever (maybe another "zinger"?), it at least seems that the argument just isn't good, for pretty simple and obvious reasons. 

Simply put, why is causing, say, fetal alcohol syndrome wrong? Why is someone knowingly and avoidably causing something like this blameworthy?

The most obvious and straightforward answer is this:

  • causing fetal alcohol syndrome (and other similar conditions) is wrong because it leads to a future person having a worse quality of life, a more difficult life, than they would have had if they had not had fetal alcohol syndrome: life would have been better for them if their mother did not do what she did.  
Even more simply put, why avoid fetal alcohol syndrome? So your future child doesn't have medical problems and life difficulties that they wouldn't have, if they hadn't had fetal alcohol syndrome. It would be interesting to review what's medical professionals say for why fetal alcohol syndrome is bad and should be avoided: I'd bet what they say is very similar to this common-sense explanation.  

Now, does this explanation suggest anything about abortion? Does it suggest that abortion is wrong?

No, not at all. It doesn't apply, sinceby designabortion results in there not being some future person, much less a future person with a lower quality of life than they would have had. 

So the basic reason to be concerned about fetal alcohol syndrome just doesn't apply to abortion. So the argument doesn't appear to work, again, for pretty simple and obvious reasons. (This discussion here, however, does again suggest that "bodily autonomy" arguments for abortion have limits, since bodily autonomy wouldn't, say, justify knowingly doing what will lead to someone having fetal alcohol syndrome). 

Of course, that doesn't mean that the conclusion is false or that there aren't better arguments for the same conclusion. 

But maybe the objection above is mistaken? Maybe the argument really is a good one? If so, how and why is that?

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Section 5.1.3 of "Thinking Critically About Abortion," "Fetuses are persons"

 From Thinking Critically About Abortion:

5.1.3 Fetuses are persons

Finally, we get to what some see as the core issue here, namely whether fetuses are persons, and an argument like this:

Fetuses are persons, perhaps from conception.
Persons have the right to life and are wrong to kill.
So, abortion is wrong, as it involves killing persons.

The second premise seems very plausible, but there are some important complications about it that will be discussed later. So let’s focus on the idea of personhood and whether any fetuses are persons. What is it to be a person? One answer that everyone can agree on is that persons are beings with rights and value. That’s a fine answer, but it takes us back to the initial question: OK, who or what has the rights and value of persons? What makes someone or something a person?

Answers here are often merely asserted, but these answers need to be tested: definitions can be judged in terms of whether they fit how a word is used. We might begin by thinking about what makes us persons. Consider this:

We are persons now. Either we will always be persons or we will cease being persons. If we will cease to be persons, what can end our personhood? If we will always be persons, how could that be?

Both options yield insight into personhood. Many people think that their personhood ends at death or if they were to go into a permanent coma: their body is (biologically) alive but the person is gone: that is why other people are sad. And if we continue to exist after the death of our bodies, as some religions maintain, what continues to exist? The person, perhaps even without a body, some think! Both responses suggest that personhood is defined by a rough and vague set of psychological or mental, rational and emotional characteristics: consciousness, knowledge, memories, and ways of communicating, all psychologically unified by a unique personality.

A second activity supports this understanding:

Make a list of things that are definitely not persons. Make a list of individuals who definitely are persons. Make a list of imaginary or fictional personified beings which, if existed, would be persons: these beings that fit or display the concept of person, even if they don’t exist. What explains the patterns of the lists?

Rocks, carrots, cups and dead gnats are clearly not persons. We are persons. Science fiction gives us ideas of personified beings: to give something the traits of a person is to indicate what the traits of persons are, so personified beings give insights into what it is to be a person. Even though the non-human characters from, say, Star Wars don’t exist, they fit the concept of person: we could befriend them, work with them, and so on, and we could only do that with persons. A common idea of God is that of an immaterial person who has exceptional power, knowledge, and goodness: you couldn’t pray to a rock and hope that rock would respond: you could only pray to a person. Are conscious and feeling animals, like chimpanzees, dolphins, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, and cows more relevantly like us, as persons, or are they more like rocks and cabbages, non-persons? Conscious and feeling animals seem to be closer to persons than not.[13] So, this classificatory and explanatory activity further supports a psychological understanding of personhood: persons are, at root, conscious, aware and feeling beings.

Concerning abortion, early fetuses would not be persons on this account: they are not yet conscious or aware since their brains and nervous systems are either non-existent or insufficiently developed. Consciousness emerges in fetuses much later in pregnancy, likely after the first trimester or a bit beyond. This is after when most abortions occur. Most abortions, then, do not involve killing a person, since the fetus has not developed the characteristics for personhood. We will briefly discuss later abortions, that potentially affect fetuses who are persons or close to it, below.

It is perhaps worthwhile to notice though that if someone believed that fetuses are persons and thought this makes abortion wrong, it’s unclear how they could coherently believe that a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest could permissibly be ended by an abortion. Some who oppose abortion argue that, since you are a person, it would be wrong to kill you now even if you were conceived because of a rape, and so it’s wrong to kill any fetus who is a person, even if they exist because of a rape: whether someone is a person or not doesn’t depend on their origins: it would make no sense to think that, for two otherwise identical fetuses, one is a person but the other isn’t, because that one was conceived by rape. Therefore, those who accept a “personhood argument” against abortion, yet think that abortions in cases of rape are acceptable, seem to have an inconsistent view.

13. For a discussion of the nature of personhood, written by thirteen philosophers, see Kristen Andrews, et al, Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosophers’ Brief  (Routledge, 2018). This book addresses the general question of what persons are and applies plausible answers to the question of whether any chimpanzees are persons, and its discussion is applicable to questions about fetal personhood. This book grew out of an amicus brief, written for judges to help them better understand the issues. For discussion of the relations between arguments about the “moral status” of non-human animals and the “moral status” of human fetuses, see Nathan Nobis’s (July 16, 2016) Abortion and Animal Rights: Does Either Topic Lead to the Other?” at the University of Colorado’s Center for Values and Social Policy blog What’s Wrong?  

All other blog posts are available here

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Abortion "Zingers": What About That??

It's not uncommon for people to offer what could be called "zingers" about abortion. 

These often amount to rhetorical questions that, unfortunately, the person asking the question doesn't wait around for an answer to. 

This is unfortunate because oftentimes these questions do have answers, good answers. 

So the "zinger" attempt is to ask a question that's assumed to be a really hard question that can't be answeredand so get a "gotcha!" momentexcept the question can be answered and answered effectively

Using "zingers" then reveals that either the person just doesn't know as much about the topic as they think they do, or that they lack integrity in engaging other people, or both (and more!). 

So, pro-choice people sometimes ask this whatabout "zinger":

What if there was a burning building with human embryos and a child in it? Would you save the embryos or a child???!

The charge is that if someone says that they would save the child, the "zinger" is the accusation that that must mean they think that embryos aren't valuable, or aren't people, and that, ultimately, their view can't support thinking that abortion isn't wrong. 

This, however, is just silly. To see this, change the question:

What if there was a burning building with strangers and your beloved spouse? Would you save the strangers or your beloved spouse???!

Most people would save their beloved spouse. 

Does that mean that the strangers are not valuable, or aren't people, and that it would be OK to push these strangers into a burning building? 

Not at all.

The zinger fails.  

Consider a whatabout "zinger" from some who oppose abortion:

Whatabout laws that make murdering pregnant women an especially heinous crime

Here the thought is that if murdering pregnant women is an especially awful crime (as it is) and should be classified a double-murder or murder-homicide, then fetuses must be persons and abortion must be wrong. 

This might be the case, but a little thinking gives reasons to doubt this conclusion.

First, it appears that the murder of pregnant women is, fortunately, rather rare. One source reports this: "the overall pregnancy-associated homicide ratio was 1.7 deaths per 100,000 live births." Another reports: "The pregnancy-associated homicide rate in Maryland was found to be 10.5 per 100000 live births." Whatever the numbers, that's always too many, but it still rather rare. So these cases get special attention, as they should. 

Second, although even though around half of pregnancies are not intended, many women who are pregnant do (or eventually do) want to have that baby. Even if they have mixed emotions, they and their families are usually excited for the baby to be born and for their future with that child. 

So, what happens when a pregnant woman, who usually wants to have a baby, is that she is murdered and her future with that baby and her family's hopes and dreams for the future for her and that child are wrongly taken away. That's profoundly wrong, what some would consider an even greater loss when there's a murder of a single person. (In this way, this is related to responses to questions about miscarriages). 

If we want to make this type of wrong, however, a special crime, we'll have to have a law that makes this a special crime. And it's not going to work to have a law that says murdering pregnant women who want to have a baby is a specially bad crime but murdering pregnant women who do not want to have a baby is not an especially bad crime. For one, in many cases (of the few cases like these) we won't know what category the crime is, since we won't know how the woman feels about being pregnant and what her plans for the future are. Viable laws have to be workable laws. 

So if we are going to have a law, it's going to have to be a general law, applicable to murdering any pregnant woman. And, again, most pregnant women ultimately want to have a baby and their families are profoundly looking forward to that future also, and laws often have to be made to cover the majority of cases. 

Does this mean that fetuses are persons? 

No. The above explanation had nothing to do with whether fetuses are persons. (I will note that, as far as I can find so far, we don't have data on what percentage of murdered pregnant women are murdered late in pregnancy, when the fetus is conscious and feeling; that would be relevant to the status of the crime [see 5.2.4 “What ifs”: rape and later-term abortions]). 

Does this mean abortion is wrong?

No. Nothing in the explanation above suggests that abortion is generally wrong. 

Is this issue more complicated than many people think it is?


Do "zingers" often fail in making good arguments? Should people seek to understand the complex details of a complex issue? Should people seek thoughtful answers to their questions, instead of assuming that there are no answers and that they have scored a "point"?

Yes, yes, and yes! Always yes!

** Are there other "Zingers" you'd like discussed? Let me know! **

All other blog posts are available here

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Respect People Foundation and other educational resources

Thinking Critically About Abortion and the follow-up materials are an educational resource. 

The Respect People Foundation, at is another. Also at

For another educational project, see, where arguments about abortion are rigorously and thoughtfully evaluated.

All other blog posts are available here