Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Animal Rights, "Domination" and "Comatose Newborn Baby" Objections to an Argument for Abortion

One type of argument in general defense of abortionan argument that abortion usually isn't wrongdepends on the fact that early fetuses are not conscious, aware, or feeling at all, since their brains and nervous systems aren't developed enough to support any type of mental life. 

Combine these emprical claims with the moral observation that consciousness and awareness are what ultimately make our lives have value and fundamentally what gives us, say, the right to life, and we can conclude that at least abortions of pre-conscious fetuses are typically not wrong. Since most abortions are of fetuses like this, we can conclude that most abortions aren't wrong. 

The argument involves a moral principle like this:

  • If a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being. 
This type of principle relates to personhoodsince any being like this wouldn't be a personand harm: to harm someone is make someone worse off compared to how they were, and that can't happen to a being like this. 

Really understanding the argument require thinking through a number of challenging issues: it's not a soundbite or bumper sticker argument. This type of argument is developed in Thinking Critically About Abortion and this earlier chapterThere are many objections to the argument though, and I will review three of them here.  

1. Babies and Animals

First, some seem to assume that the "consciousness" referred to in this argument is some kind of what I'll call "fancy consciousness"—thinking about calculus, baba ganoush and reflecting on how to live your best life—and so think this argument implies that babies don't have rights. 

But the argument doesn't require any such higher-level, "fancy" thinking—all it requires is awareness, feelings, and a perspective: there's a way it is to be that being, for that being.

Some then are concerned that if this type of consciousness is enough for a right to life, then that means that raising and killing animals to eat them would often be wrong. They then react that that's a good reason to reject the reasoning. 

This is a curious response though. Almost anyone who gives that objection doesn't have to eat animals: they could eat plant-based foods. And, of course, raising and killing animals is very bad for those animals. 

So, on initial appearances, the reaction—"this argument suggests it's wrong to kill animals and so it must be flawed"seems to be a selfish reaction: "This reasoning means that I need to change my views in ways I don't want and, more importantly, do something that I don't want to do, all for the benefit of someone else that I find to be not very much like me, namely animals." This is selfishness. 

Now, what's interesting is that many critics of abortion claim that women who have abortions, and abortion advocates generally, are selfish, because they—critics claim—just want to live their own lives and do what they want to do, but without any concern for fetuses and by rejecting their obligations. "It's just selfishness," they sometimes really say. 

Now, isn't this objection to this argument—in light of its implications for animals—just selfish also? 

If it is, let's recognize that: most people who call themselves "pro-life" are selfish in that they are not concerned about the lives, and brutal deaths, of conscious, feeling, living beings who aren't human: at least, they are not concerned enough to do anything about it. Now, that's true of most pro-choice people too, and that should be recognized: an honest assessment of the situation is needed to begin making some progress in thinking and doing. 

Now, if people, especially "pro-life" people, are not selfish in lacking any serious concern for sentient animal life, we need to hear why: let's see the strong moral reasoning to show that, in circumstances like our's, it's actually generally OK to raise animals to eat them. That's gonna be hard

If someone shows that they lack the skills and attitudes to responsibly and productively engage ethics and animals issues, we might reasonably doubt that they lack the abilities to responsibly engage the issue of abortion and so doubt the reliability of their judgments on that topic: vice in thinking about one topic tends to spill over to vice in thinking about other topics, since it's the same thinker.  

2. Domination

A second objection to the argument above goes something like this: 

If having moral rights ultimately depends on being conscious, or having been conscious, as many theories of rights propose, then beings that are more conscious have more or stronger rights than being that a less conscious. Alternatively, those who have a higher "degree" or level of consciousness have stronger rights than those with a lower level or degree, and so the "higher" are entitled to dominate those who are "lower" or at least have moral priority.

This type of objection, however, is very weak, since there is just no reason to believe the suggested implication. 

Advocates of the argument above propose that if a being is conscious at all, especially in a way that those conscious experiences are connected and inter-related, then that being has a right to life, or is otherwise typically wrong to kill, in a manner that's equal to anyone else who has that right. They don't claim or suggest anything along the lines of super-smart humans are entitled to dominate simple-minded humans.

So their view is comparable to this: you can pass usually a class with a 70% overall grade, and you can also pass with any higher grade. But any passing grade is equally a passing grade: it's not like a 89% is "more" of a passing grade than a 71% or "A" grades have some claim over "C" students in terms of whether they've passed or not. So whether someone pass a class is determined by a variable characteristic (grades), but anyone who passes a class "equally" passes the class. So, something similar applies with a mind-based theory of rights: if you meet the minimal threshold, you are "in the club," so to speak, and fully and equally in the club.  

Finally, the objection's claim that some individuals are "more" or "less" conscious than others is doubtful. A baby is not conscious of some things that we are conscious of, and babies are conscious of things that we are not conscious of (and the same is true of, e.g., dogs and other animals), but neither is "more conscious": we are both conscious and equally conscious, although conscious of different things. 

Overall, this objection is not well developed and is just implausible on its face. If it were rigorously developed and defended, there'd be more to say about it.

3. The "Comatose Newborn Baby" Objection

Finally, there's an objection that is based on a case like this:

A baby is born, in a coma. That baby has never been conscious. But that baby will become conscious . . eventually. 

The argument then is that if the "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is true, then it's not wrong to end the life of this baby. But since, they say, it would be wrong to end the life of this baby, the "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is false and so the original argument just isn't a good argument in defense of abortion.

I don't think this objection succeeds. 

First, the case is basically a unique baby that, for all practical purposes, is just like a beginning fetuses in all its relevant features: the claim is basically, "Killing fetuses that have never had minds is wrong because killing a born baby that has never had a mind would be wrong also" and so the reasoning is close to circular. In that way, the argument is question-begging, or assumes that the principle it is trying to argue against is false in making a case that it's false, if the reasoning amounts to something like this:

This "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is false because there could be this comotose "baby" and even though that baby is not conscious, and has never been conscious, that "baby" would be wrong to kill. 

If this is the reaction, it basically amounts to just assuming the principle is false.  

Next, the reactions to the case that it would be wrong to led this never-been-conscious baby die, or kill this baby, are, I think, emotion-driven: people picture in their minds a more normal babywho would be wrong to kill, since that baby is conscious, aware and has feelingsand those feelings transfer to this "baby," which is nothing like a normal baby, even though they really shouldn't transfer. And this emotional distortion can lead people to overlook these important questions:

  • Would anyone be harmed if the "baby" were killed? 
    • No, there is no conscious individual here who would be made worse off, compared to how they were, if this body were killed: this case is very different from killing a normal baby since, again, this baby is just like an early fetus, just bigger and born.  
  • Would any person be killed if the "baby" were killed? 
    • No, there is no conscious individual here who would be killed, although killing this body would prevent the emergence of a future person. 
So, again, the case does not provide a good reason to reject this type of pro-choice argument: it seems to just assume that what it's arguing against is false, instead of giving a reason that the principle is false (and a reason which doesn't just assume it's false).   

Next, the case is very different from abortion, so one could agree that it'd be wrong to let the "baby" die but deny that anything follows about abortion.  

For one, the comatose newborn "baby" is no longer dependent on anyone in particular, and anyone's body in particular: anyone could take care of this baby. So, one could plausibly think that, all things considered, this matters and makes a difference: yes, someone, or someones, has to take care of this "baby," given the situation, but pregnant women are not obligated to "take care of" pre-conscious fetuses that are in their bodies and so only they can take care of them: that's too much of a burden which they don't have to take on if they don't want to. 

It is a fair question, however, to ask about details about the case: in particular, how long would it take for the baby to become conscious? What if it's 50 years? 80 years? Does that matter? Inquiring minds would want to know. Maybe there'd be a point where people would concede that the time is too much and so the lack of harm here really does matter and so it'd also matter with a shorter time period too. 

Next, I think it's important to observe that this "baby" is quite different from a beginning fetus in that it is, as the case is intended, very close to being conscious. And maybe that's an important difference. It's like this:

Suppose I've been studying to get into law school, and I'm doing well, but this is very much because of your help in keeping me on track, encouraging me, quizzing me, and more: I literally couldn't do it without you. You've been helping me for years now, and I've almost made it, since the LSAT (test to get into law school) is in a month and I will do well if, but only if, you keep helping me. 

Now, it's within your rights to stop helping me, even if I lose out on my dream of going to law school. But shouldn't you keep helping me, unless there's some real good reason why you shouldn't (like I become mean or ungrateful or ..)? I mean, we've come this far; let's finish this! If you had backed out on all this years ago, that'd be one thing, but we're almost to the end here! Let's finish this so I can make my dream come true!

If this case has a moral or a point (and maybe it doesn't!) then it might transfer to the comatose baby—since that baby body is almost conscious and so maybe there is some obligation at this point to make that happen. That intuition, however, won't transfer to a beginning fetus. 

So, all and all, the "comatose newborn baby" objection is not a good one, given the differences and the similarities between this "baby" and beginning fetuses and pregnant women. 

4. Conclusion

Here I've briefly presented a particular type of argument in defense of abortion and three objections focussed on that specific argument. These objections appear to be weak, so they don't provide good reason to reject the argument. If there are better objections, we'll want to find them. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Abortion: Arguments, not Circumstances

People sometimes begin discussing abortion by asking questions about abortion in particular circumstances: “What if it’s needed to save the mother’s life?” “What if the pregnancy is from rape?” “What if there are severe fetal abnormalities?” and so on. Or they begin by stating circumstances where they think abortion is wrong or not: “It’s wrong if used for ‘birth control’,” “It’s not wrong if the woman is too young to be an effective mother,” and so on.

These starting points are fine, if – but only if – these statements are supported, or questions answered, with reasons. Our concern is arguments, the reasons given for and against specific conclusions about abortion, such as that:

Abortion is:
       (nearly) always morally wrong.
       (nearly) always morally permissible, or not wrong.

       wrong, except in these circumstances: ____.
       permissible, except in these circumstances: ____.

       sometimes morally obligatory, or wrong to not have, such as in these circumstances: ____.

People sometimes offer moral claims about abortion “in general,” without being precise about which abortions they have in mind. But the details matter: depending on the stage of fetal development and the woman’s circumstances, different moral conclusions may be appropriate.

Some people also want to focus on important, but comparatively rare, abortions: for example, of pregnancies from rape (perhaps 1% of abortions) or incest.[5] Our initial focus will be on more common circumstances where for a variety of other reasons, a woman is pregnant but does not want to have a child (or another child, now). After this we will discuss other important, but less common, circumstances.


We can immediately set aside circumstances though where the woman would die if her pregnancy continues, and so the fetus will die also, or we must choose between the mother and fetus. Even people who generally oppose abortion typically argue that we should save one life instead of losing two lives and prioritize the mother, not the fetus. Their view then is not that abortion is always wrong, but that it is wrong in most circumstances, or prima facie wrong.


Whether this specific conclusion, and any other, can be supported with good arguments is {or should be!] our concern. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

No, Being Pro-choice is Not Ablest: Abortion and Ableism

I've recently seen some abortion critics call a certain type of argument in defense of abortionones that appeal to the total lack of minds or consciousness in zygotes, embryos, and at least beginning fetusesablest. Arguments that deny that fetuses are persons tend to be arguments like this, since they usually understand "persons" in terms of psychological characteristics or having a mind.

The claim is that these arguments assume a type of unjustified, wrongful discrimination, ableism, and so people who give this type of argument for abortion are, well, advocating for wrongful discrimination, which is wrong. 

This objection, however, is a bad objection. This type of argument in defense of abortion is not ableist, and I bet this charge is an offensive comparison to people who are genuinely affected by ableism.  

To begin, here are a few definitions of ableism:

  • Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior;
  • Ableism . . is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or people who are perceived to be disabled. Ableism characterizes people who are defined by their disabilities as inferior to the non-disabled;
  • Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.
So ableism is discrimination against people, against individuals, who are judged negatively because of their abilities, or because they lack certain abilities. 

Once we review the definitions of ableism, we readily see that embryos and early fetuses cannot be victims of it. This is not because of what abilities they have or lack, however; it's because they are completely without abilities: there is no individual or person there who has or lacks any abilities.

Ableism involves seeing someone and thinking they are less valuable or worthy of respect because of their physical, cognitive or emotional abilities. But with embryos and early fetuses, there is no someone, no conscious individual, who has or lacks any abilities. Ableism requires that there be a someone who is judged negatively, but there is no "someone" when there is an embryo or beginning fetus, so the charge of ableism makes no sense. 

To further make the point, imagine you ask me what my friends Mary and John are like. Suppose I respond with this: 

"Mary is a is a good listener who enjoys ice-skating, watching old movies, crossword puzzles and rock climbing. And she's a person."

"John likes ice cream, is often rather quiet, is really good at math, and likes to read. And he's a conscious, thinking and feeling being." 

It's weird to add on "and she's a person" and "and she's a conscious, thinking, feeling being," because I've already said this by telling you what they are like in these other ways. Only persons and conscious beings have these interests and abilities so it's redundant to point out that these friends are persons and conscious beings: indeed, we were probably even told by that by the word "friend." 

Similarly, only persons or conscious beings have and lack abilities, so when some kind of entity is not a person or conscious being, accusing someone of being ableistic towards that entity makes no sense: again, there's no individual or person to be ableistic towards or about. 

So, arguing that abortion is not wrong because embryos and beginning fetuses are entirely without consciousness or minds is not ableist. The accusation just doesn't fit when there is no subject or person or conscious being: if there's no one like that, there isn't anyone who has or lacks abilities and so the charge of ableism doesn't make sense. 

I suspect that many people who are genuinely affected by ableism would find the suggestion that their experience with ablemism is comparable to the "experience" of fetuses offensive. Here's some important discussion:

Who is Affected by Ableism? Ableism can affect almost anyone whom society stereotypes as not being part of the mainstream. WHO? The hearing impaired; the visually impaired; those who use mobility equipment; those with congenital anomalies; those with speech or motor impairments; those with diabetes, depression, asthma, arthritis, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, migraines, epilepsy, AIDS, hemophilia, etc.

Ableism affects the lived experience of these people: it affects their experienced world, for the worse; it diminishes their self-conception and sense of self-worth; it negatively affects their quality of life. 

The suggestion that embryos and early fetuses are "like" these human beings, in that they both victims of ableism, is not just false, I'd say it's offensive. To compare the experience of someone affected by ableism to the non-experience of a being that's never been conscious or had any experiences is, well, disrespectful to people who are genuinely affected by and experience ableism. To say to someone who experiences ableism something like, for example, "Embryos used in embryo experimentation are discriminated against because of their lack of abilities and that is similar to how you are discriminated against because of your abilities" is not just a false comparison, it's an offensive comparison: it just fails to understand ableism and why it's wrong.

In sum, the appeal to "ableism" in arguing against abortion, is similar to the appeals to "equality," "anti-discrimination" and "human rights" in arguing against abortion and attempts to make opposition to abortion sound like opposition to racism and sexism. These are all attempts to make opposition to abortion sound "progressive" and present concern for embryos and fetuses as part of the "expanding circle" of moral concern. But these "liberal" concerns simply don't apply to pre-conscious beings like embryos and early fetuses and so these attempts fail and mislead. The more people willing to take the time and energy to reflect, notice and understand this, the better. 


All blog posts are here!

Some especially relevant posts: