Thursday, May 30, 2024

"Human" (adjective) and "human" (noun)

 It is not uncommon for anti-abortion people to not understand that the word "human" has multiple meanings.

One meaning is just "biologically human," as in, for example, some biologically human skin cells. On this meaning, "human" is an adjective, and just because something is human--biologically human--doesn't mean it's wrong to kill that thing: for example, it's not wrong to kill some random skin cells.

Another meaning of "human" is a noun: "a human" or "humans." This use of human amounts to saying something like "person" or "human persons." Humans, on this meaning, are usually wrong to kill.

(There are complications though in that humans, on this meaning, don't usually seem to have a right to other humans' bodies, even if that means they will die; it is at least unclear what sacrifices anyone must make for other humans, meaning other people).

It's easy to see how these meanings differ. Consider a permanently comatose body, say of a beloved relative at the end of their life: we might say, "This body is human, but the human we knew is gone." The first use of "human" is an adjective; the second is a noun and we are referring to the person that used to be "in" in that body.

Perhaps this post and this graphic will help people better understand what "human" can mean and why the different definitions matter.

P.S. This was all reviewed in the classic 1973 article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion," so this type of distinction has been known for at least 50 years. Almost any ethics class on abortion will review this article:

https://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil215/Warren.pdf

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Embryos and fetuses are biologically alive: duh?

It is said that some people--some pro-choice people--deny that embryos and fetuses are biologically alive

I don't believe it. I think that when these people are asked about this issue, whether embryos and (beginning) fetuses are "alive" they are not thinking of "alive" in biological terms. 

They are thinking of "alive" in a manner akin to "alive in a morally significant way" or "living a life, with experiences": for example, "This man's body was biologically alive for 73 years, but his life ended decades before that: he was alive only for 34 years."

That "life" has multiple meanings or senses is well known to philosophers and healthcare providers who focus on end of life issues. I wrote about that in "When does life begin? When it comes to abortion, it depends on what you mean."

Anyway, I did a poll that suggested, contrary to what some pro-choice folks insist, few people deny that embryos and beginning fetuses are biologically alive. While 5% claimed they are not, nobody explained why they thought that, despite my asking. 

So, no, it does appear that most people agree that embryos and (beginning) fetuses are biologically alive. Does that make killing them wrong? No, of course not. 



@nathan.nobis Embryos are biologically alive, right? They aren't rocks, they aren't corpses, they aren't zombies. But just because something is biologically alive doesn't at all mean it's wrong to kill it. #abortion #prochoice #prolife #life ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
@nathan.nobis Replying to @nathan.nobis Yes, embryos are biologically alive. Duh? #abortion #prochoice #prolife ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Engage arguments: don't just respond, "Who cares???"

A tip: About abortion, engage the arguments instead of just appealing to bodily autonomy. Is what's said true or false? What does what's said mean? How do you get to what's said to an anti-abortion conclusion?


#abortion #prochoice #prolife #ethics #philosophy #ethics #logic #reproductiverights #criticalthinking
@nathan.nobis A tip: About abortion, engage the arguments instead of just appealing to bodily autonomy. Is what's said true or false? What does what's said mean? How do you get to what's said to an anti-abortion conclusion? #abortion #prochoice #prolife #ethics #philosophy #ethics #logic #reproductiverights #criticalthinking ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Defending Abortion Philosophically: Dr. Kurt Liebegott’s Response to Trent Horn’s 5 Non-Religious Arguments Against Abortion

Reposted from here: https://realatheology.com/defending-abortion-philosophically-dr-kurt-liebegotts-response-to-trent-horns-5-non-religious-arguments-against-abortion/  

Defending Abortion Philosophically: Dr. Kurt Liebegott’s Response to Trent Horn’s 5 Non-Religious Arguments Against Abortion

This is a guest post by Dr. Kurt Liebegott, who earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Purdue University, specializing in Ethics, Logic, and Philosophy of Religion. We asked Dr. Liebegott to apply his training as an analytic philosopher towards evaluating some Pro-Life Arguments from a friend our channel: Catholic Apologist Trent Horn. You can learn more about Dr. Liebegott’s work at the end of the article, as well as review a brief suggested reading list he put together for those interested in philosophical defenses of Abortion.

This essay is a response to and critique of the position that the philosophical case against abortion rights is rooted in arguments that are both good arguments and independent of religious assumptions. The project of defending abortion rights through philosophy and reason is especially important now that we are living in the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where abortion rights are constantly under attack and defenses of abortion rights are more important than ever. This particular response and critique will be focused on an exemplar piece of writing that tries to popularize and defend this position: 5 Non-Religious Arguments Against Abortion by Trent Horn


Recently, I was given the opportunity to defend the pro-life position in a formal debate at a prominent medical school. My opponent was a skilled philosopher who has published several critiques of the pro-life position, and I told the audience that my opponent was right—at least about some things. For example, he said that simplistic arguments for abortion either assume what they try to prove (“Abortion is wrong because it kills babies”) or they bring up issues that are irrelevant to the question of whether abortion is right or wrong (“What about adoption?”).

That’s why I wanted to offer a robust case for the pro-life position that withstands philosophical scrutiny. In order to do that, I offered the following five, non-religious philosophical arguments for the claim that abortion is gravely immoral.

Mirroring Mr. Horn’s initial claims to start, it is indeed true that there are a lot of overly simplistic arguments in the debate over abortion rights. It is also true that a philosophically robust defense of the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong requires good arguments that are independent of religious assumptions. It is important at the outset that we make especially clear why this is the case.

There are three main reasons why a philosophically robust defense of the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong requires good arguments that are independent of religious assumptions:

  1. Any philosophically robust defense of any position requires good arguments, as philosophical argument is rooted in logic.
  2. If an argument relies on an undefended assumption, then that argument can and should be dismissed on the grounds that the premise of the argument containing the undefended assumption may well be false (at least without further argumentation providing a reason to accept the assumption). This includes religious assumptions, which is why an argument that relies on religious assumptions cannot be a part of any philosophically robust defense (again, at least without further argumentation providing a reason to accept the assumption).
  3. For debates regarding ethics, the position that says that a given action is morally wrong begins with the burden of proof. In the case of the debate over abortion rights, this means that the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong begins with the burden of proof. As such, those who defend this position are required to put forward a philosophically robust defense to discharge or overcome the burden of proof.

Reasons #1 and #2 should not be controversial, as they follow from basic logic and argumentation. Reason #3 requires some explanation. First, consider this excellent explanation of the burden of proof by Dr. C. M. Lorkowski from Page 4 of his 2021 book Atheism Considered:

“[E]qual plausibility of theses need not (and in many cases should not) be assumed in a given discussion… [T]he burden of proof represents a disadvantageous starting position that must be overcome in order to even get the debaters to a fifty-fifty point. As such, before we can determine how much our views change based on the evidence presented, we must first determine who, if anyone, possesses the burden of proof, and how much of a disadvantage it entails.”

So, who possesses the burden of proof in the debate over abortion rights?  Those who defend the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong do not often address this particular topic, but when they do they usually appeal to something along the lines of the principle of credulity.  The principle of credulity, as explained in Chapter 13 of Richard Swinburne’s 1979 book The Existence of God, says that if X seems present to a person, then X is most likely present.  The equivalent in ethics would be something like “if X seems obviously severely morally wrong to a person, then X is most likely morally wrong.”  After all, actions like mass murder, torture, slavery, and the like are so morally wrong that it is hard to even imagine what a case for those actions being morally permissible would look like.  The thought process here is that some actions are so obviously morally wrong, and that the case for their moral wrongness is so simple, that the burden of proof must be on the position that those actions are morally permissible.  [Probably the clearest version of this can be seen in the “Devil’s Advocate Debate” between Ben Watkins and Trent Horn about abortion.  “My “Devil’s Advocate Debate” on Abortion” by Trent Horn, 12/11/2021 (available at <https://www.catholic.com/audio/cot/my-devils-advocate-debate-on-abortion> as of 15 January 2024)]

The problem with the thought process being used here is that it is addressing a different issue than the burden of proof.  Remember, the burden of proof is solely about prior probabilities and the starting positions of competing views.  Actions like mass murder, torture, slavery, and the like are obviously morally wrong, but this obviousness is not a product of prior probability.  Rather, these actions are obviously morally wrong because the case against them is so overwhelming – every plausible moral theory condemns them, every piece of relevant evidence indicates their extreme moral wrongness, every argument concludes that they are morally wrong, and so forth – that we cannot conceive of a viable alternative.  This is a product of the posterior probabilities, not the prior probabilities, and so has no bearing on the burden of proof.  A reasonable comparison might be to something like the position that gravity is real:  it is glaringly obvious that gravity exists, but that is entirely due to argument, evidence, and analysis, and has nothing to do with prior probability or burden of proof.

Let’s return to the question of who possesses the burden of proof in the debate over abortion rights, keeping in mind that answering this question requires focusing only on issues relating to prior probability.  It turns out that logic and Bayesian probability require that in all debates over the moral permissibility or wrongness of an action the burden of proof should always start on the position that argues for moral wrongness (in this case, the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong). There are three main reasons for thinking this. [This paragraph and the following paragraphs explaining the three main reasons are all derived from pages 31-32 in Chapter 1 of the author’s doctoral dissertation: A New Defense of Abortion by Dr. Kurt Liebegott, originally published in 2010.]

First, there is the widespread ethical intuition that if an action is morally wrong then there must be a specific reason why that action is morally wrong, such as that it causes certain harms or violates certain rights. There does not appear to be a corresponding intuition that if an action is morally permissible then there is a specific reason why that action is morally permissible other than that it does not appear to be morally wrong. This indicates that the position that argues for moral wrongness requires more evidence to justify belief in the truth of the position, which just is to say that the burden of proof must start on the position that argues for moral wrongness.

Second, there are many more morally permissible actions than morally wrong actions that are actually performed by moral agents in our experience. In fact, the overwhelming majority of actions appear to be morally permissible. To see why, consider that the most common action you probably take is breathing, which is both morally permissible and far outnumbers any other individual type of action that you will ever take. Even if you don’t consider breathing to be a proper action in a morally relevant sense (perhaps because it is automatic), you certainly take minor but clearly morally permissible actions like consciously adjusting your position in a seat, adjusting your clothes, or trying to remember various things orders of magnitude more often than you have ever considered making a possibly morally wrong choice. This means that the position that argues for moral wrongness is statistically more likely to be incorrect simply due to sheer numbers and so requires more evidence to justify belief in the truth of the position. Hence, the burden of proof must start on the position that argues for moral wrongness.

Third and most importantly, assuming that the burden of proof should always start on the position that argues for moral permissibility implies that ethical reasoning, along with everything else, is more likely to be morally wrong before we examine any particular evidence, reasons, or arguments. We are supposed to avoid performing morally wrong actions, which means that we should avoid performing any ethical reasoning or any other action until and unless we have good reason to think that said action is morally permissible. But providing good reason to think that any action is morally permissible requires using ethical reasoning, yet ethical reasoning itself must be avoided until and unless we can use ethical reasoning to provide these good reasons for thinking it morally permissible. This is an impossible condition to meet, with the result that no actions should ever be taken. As this is clearly incorrect, the burden of proof must always start on the position that argues for moral wrongness.

These three reasons show that logic and Bayesian probability require that the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong start with the burden of proof in the debate over abortion rights. For practical purposes, this means that the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong should only be believed to be true if defenders of that position can provide a philosophically robust defense of the position that overcomes this initial deficit in epistemic probability from starting with the burden of proof.

Let us now turn to Mr. Horn’s five arguments to see how they fare in providing this philosophically robust defense of the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong.

1. The humanity argument

My first argument is simple: it is wrong to intentionally kill innocent biological human beings; a fetus is an innocent biological human being; abortion intentionally kills a fetus; therefore, abortion is wrong.

The world’s leading pro-choice philosophers agree that unborn children are biological human beings. David Boonin, author of A Defense of Abortion, writes, “Perhaps the most straightforward relation between you and me on the one hand and every human fetus on the other is this: all are living members of the same species, Homo sapiens. A human fetus after all is simply a human being at a very early stage in his or her development” (p. 20).

Now, some philosophers object to the premise “It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent biological human beings.” They say it’s incomplete because it doesn’t account for the wrongness of killing certain non-human beings, such as intelligent aliens if they happen to exist. And it’s true that if there were intelligent aliens, it would be wrong to kill them, because they would be rational creatures (a point I’ll return to shortly). But this objection does nothing to refute the truth that “It is wrong to intentionally kill innocent biological human beings.”

If you believe that truth, then you are morally obligated to oppose abortion.

Another objection is that we do intentionally kill innocent human beings when we, for example, take a permanently comatose person off life support. But in these cases, we do not intend to kill an innocent person. Instead, we intend to remove disproportionate means of keeping a dying person alive, since they are no longer helping the person.

For example, if we took someone off a ventilator, and he started breathing on his own (which happens occasionally), then we would not proceed to smother him to death, because killing him wasn’t our intention. However, killing is intended in every abortion. Some abortion providers are even sued for “failed abortions” if the child is born alive.

So it’s perfectly rational to believe that it is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent biological human being. And since the unborn are innocent biological human beings, it follows that it is wrong to kill them.

In standard form, the main argument in the philosophical literature against abortion rights is roughly as follows:

1) Killing an innocent adult, P, is morally wrong.

2) The fact that P has a set of properties X is what makes killing P wrong.

3) A fetus, Q, has X.

4) Abortion A kills Q.

C) Abortion A is morally wrong.

It is important to note that this argument does not actually work unless, in particular, X is filled out in a robust way. X is basically going to be what constitutes personhood, or at least a relevant subset thereof.

Translating into main argument form, Mr. Horn’s first argument is as follows:

1) Killing an innocent adult, P, is morally wrong.

2) The fact that P is an innocent biological human being is what makes killing P wrong.

3) A fetus, Q, is an innocent biological human being.

4) Abortion A kills Q.

C) Abortion A is morally wrong.

The concept of “biological human being” is doing the heavy lifting in this argument. This concept is being put forward as the thing that makes killing someone morally wrong. Yet, this term is vague and not really defined. The closest we come here is the quote from Boonin, implying that “biological human being” means something like “living members of the same species, Homo sapiens.” But why is this what makes killing someone wrong?

This problem rears its head immediately in Mr. Horn’s writing, as he correctly claims that one of the main objections to this argument is that it does not explain why killing certain non-humans is morally wrong. Mr. Horn’s response to this objection is basically that it is irrelevant, as a separate argument can cover non-humans and this argument can just cover humans. This misses the point of the objection: if there are (or even potentially are) innocent non-human adults that it is morally wrong to kill, then premise #2 of this argument is false and the argument fails. The fact that someone is an innocent biological human being cannot possibly be what makes killing them wrong if there are innocent non-humans that are also wrong to kill.

In particular, the argument seems to be either circular or arbitrary. If premise #2 is limited to humans and non-humans have their own parallel arguments for their species, then these arguments seem to boil down to “it is wrong to kill humans because they are humans” and “it is wrong to kill non-humans because they are their non-human species.” These arguments are circular and unhelpful, and there is no reason to accept them. On the other hand, if premise #2 is limited to humans but all relevant non-humans have an entirely separate argument that does not rely on premise #2 – which appears to be the option endorsed by Mr. Horn in the text when he mentions “rational creatures” – then humans should also be covered by this separate argument. The limiting of premise #2 to humans seems to be arbitrarily separating out humans for no particularly good reason. Why would being biologically human be an extra reason for not killing someone above and beyond the reason that applies to any and all other species? We can even imagine situations where someone undergoes a transition where everything about them remains the same except that they become a species other than human.

Common literary examples would include being transformed into a vampire or having one’s consciousness uploaded into a robotic body, and in the philosophical literature Dean Stretton uses a thought experiment where we transplant the brain of a human into a non-human animal such that the non-human animal is now a rational moral agent capable of performing all of the actions we normally associate with persons. [See pages 238-239 of: Stretton, Dean. “The Argument from Intrinsic Value: A Critique.” Bioethics 14.3 (July 2000): 228-239. See page 277 of: Stretton, Dean. “Essential Properties and the Right to Life: A Response to Lee.”] It seems clear that the non-human animal with the human brain, the robot with an uploaded consciousness, and the newly-turned vampire are all beings it would be morally wrong to kill and seem morally equivalent in this sense to when they were human. Why, then, should they suddenly fall under a different argument for why it is morally wrong to kill them simply because of a change of species but no other changes? It is hard to see how this question can be answered affirmatively without being entirely arbitrary.

Furthermore, we still are not clear on what it means to be a “biological human being,” and since this is supposed to be what makes killing wrong, it should be noted that many ways of specifying this term lead to further problems. Does “biological human being” simply mean being a member of Homo sapiens? If so, that seems to potentially include human corpses and definitely include humans who never developed a brain or consciousness, and seems to exclude relevant non-humans. Does “biological human being” mean something like having human DNA? If so, that seems to include cancer cells and skin grafts, and still excludes relevant non-humans. Does “biological human being” mean having a human-like form? If so, that seems to include statues and corpses, but potentially not amputees and definitely not relevant non-humans. Without a clear specification about what exactly is and is not covered by the term “biological human being,” premise #2 appears to be an undefended assumption at best.

For these reasons, Mr. Horn’s first argument should not be accepted. Let us now turn to his next argument.

2. The personhood argument

Pro-choice and pro-life advocates agree that there is a special class of beings called “persons” who have a right to life. We agree that we are persons and that anyone reading this article is a person. But many other humans who don’t understand this article—such as infants and mentally disabled adults—are still persons. We also agree there are many beings that are not persons, or at least are not persons in the sense that you and I are persons. For example, most people would agree that rats and pigeons, for example, are not persons.

So, any definition of personhood must account for clear examples of personhood such as in the case of you, me, infants, and disabled humans and not include clear examples of non-persons such as rats and pigeons that do not have a right to life.

That means we can’t merely say a person is any being that can feel pain, is aware of the outside world, or is sentient. That definition would include non-persons such as rats and pigeons. But we also can’t say a person is simply any being that is capable of rational thought, because that definition would exclude infants.

And if we say a person is any human being that can feel pain, then we are being arbitrary, because if feeling pain didn’t make a rat a person, why would it make a human being a person? Instead, the requirement that a person be human and also able to feel pain seems designed to exclude unborn children instead of providing a consistent definition of personhood.

A better definition of a person would be an individual member of a rational kind.

In this view, you, me, infants, and disabled humans would all be persons because our personhood would depend not on our current functional abilities (or what we can do), but on our innate capacity for certain functional abilities (or what we are). This definition also excludes non-human animals such as rats and pigeons because they are not members of a rational kind. Finally, this definition is species-neutral and could include rational aliens if it were discovered that they exist.

This definition accounts for views of personhood pro-life and pro-choice advocates share when it comes to uncontroversial cases such as newborns and rats. The definition also isn’t ad hoc, or it isn’t arbitrarily designed to include unborn children. Instead, the inclusion of unborn children naturally flows from the definition’s emphasis on rational capacity.

Since there are no good reasons to reject this definition of personhood, and there are no alternative definitions of personhood that just as easily account for the uncontroversial examples I mentioned, it follows that we should adopt this definition, which includes unborn humans. And if unborn humans are persons, then it follows that abortion is wrong, because abortion directly kills innocent persons.

Translating into main argument form, Mr. Horn’s second argument appears to be as follows:

1) Killing an innocent adult, P, is morally wrong.

2) The fact that P has an innate capacity for certain functional abilities related to rationality is what makes killing P wrong.

3) A fetus, Q, has an innate capacity for certain functional abilities related to rationality.

4) Abortion A kills Q.

C) Abortion A is morally wrong.

Much like the term “biological human being” in the first argument, this argument relies on something like “an innate capacity for certain functional abilities related to rationality.” Mr. Horn claims that “an innate capacity for certain functional abilities related to rationality” is a reasonable specification of what is meant by personhood, or that which grants a right to life. Let’s call this claim R.

The problem with R is that it is vague as stated. What exactly does it mean to have “an innate capacity for certain functional abilities related to rationality” in this context? Let’s examine a thought experiment called the nanoworld in order to figure out R in more detail and make it less vague. [The nanoworld is derived from pages 144-151 in Chapter 3 of the author’s doctoral dissertation: A New Defense of Abortion by Dr. Kurt Liebegott, originally published in 2010.]

Imagine that scientists create nanobots that end up escaping from the lab, self-replicating, and infesting everything on Earth. Of particular note is that these nanobots were programmed to infest an object, wait a random amount of time, and then analyze the object they infest to determine if it is a non-conscious human foodstuff. If the object does not meet this description, for example if the object is an innocent human adult or a shard of jagged broken glass or a continent, then the nanobots do nothing. If the object does meet this description, then the nanobots restructure the object so that it continues to function as before except that it integrates into the object a working nano-scale computer that stretches throughout the object and requires the object to remain substantially intact to remain functional. This working nano-scale computer creates a conscious artificial intelligence that is a rational moral agent. The particulars of the nano-scale computer, and therefore the artificial intelligence that will result, is uniquely determined for each object. This means that each object will eventually become a different and unique person, and destroying an object will destroy the rational moral agent within. This is the nanoworld, and the relevant question that must now be asked is: from the standpoint of R, is it morally wrong or morally permissible to eat food in the nanoworld?

Remember, R says that everything with “an innate capacity for certain functional abilities related to rationality” is a person, and therefore morally wrong to kill according to premise #2 of Mr. Horn’s second argument. So, is every foodstuff a person in the nanoworld, even if the nanobots have not yet granted a foodstuff artificial intelligence? It does not seem immediately obvious which answer R requires if it is true, and this is because R is vague. However, the answer must be either yes or no. If the answer is yes, then it is morally wrong to eat food in the nanoworld. If the answer is no, then it is morally permissible to eat food in the nanoworld.

There is good reason to think that the answer must be no. If eating any food at all is morally wrong – which must be the case if the answer is yes – then it appears that all human beings are morally obligated to starve to death in the nanoworld. If every foodstuff is a person in the nanoworld, then every act of eating is morally equivalent to murder and therefore must be avoided if the term “morally wrong” is to mean anything and have any motivational force. But it is, at best, highly implausible to think that each and every human being could be morally obligated to starve to death, much less that this could be the result of what amounts to a freak accident or force of nature rather than anyone’s conscious choice. It is much more plausible to think that the answer to the question “is every foodstuff a person in the nanoworld?” must be no.

This has important implications regarding R. If it is morally permissible to eat food in the nanoworld, then it seems reasonable to think that the food that is morally permissible to eat is the food that has not yet become a person due to the nanobots.  This shows that no foodstuff is a person just because it is infested with nanobots, but rather a foodstuff does not become a person until and unless the nanobots have granted it artificial intelligence. However, now let us turn back to the issue of abortion. What relevant differences are there between a foodstuff in the nanoworld prior to artificial intelligence and a fetus? A fetus that will be aborted is exactly like a foodstuff in the nanoworld that will be eaten before gaining artificial intelligence regarding mental properties, meaningful stages and types of development, relevant future prospects, rational moral agency, and dispositions and capacities. After all, neither one will be able to actually achieve or possess any of these things. The nanoworld seems to show that, just like a foodstuff in the nanoworld does not become a person until and unless the nanobots have granted it artificial intelligence, a fetus does not become a person until and unless it develops the brain “hardware” necessary for actualizing personhood. [This is very similar to David Boonin’s personhood criterion of organized cortical brain activity. For example, see pages 79-81 of: Boonin, David. A Defense of Abortion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.] As such, the nanoworld shows that R does not apply to fetuses, premise #3 of Mr. Horn’s second argument is therefore false, and Mr. Horn’s second argument should be rejected.

3. The personal identity argument

The next arguments I’ll share against abortion don’t rely on defending either the humanity or even the personhood of unborn children. For example, we can show that since it is wrong to kill us now, it is always wrong to kill us, and since we used to exist in the womb, it was wrong to kill us in the womb. This kind of argument is based on personal identity and can be laid out as follows:

  1. If an organism that once existed has never died, then this organism still exists.
  2. I am an organism.
  3. Therefore, I am the organism that once existed in my mother’s womb.
  4. Generally speaking, it is always wrong to kill me.
  5. Since I existed in my mother’s womb, it was wrong to kill me at that time.
  6. What is true about killing me is true for everyone else.
  7. Therefore, it is wrong to kill anyone else who lives or has lived in his mother’s womb.

Notice I’ve qualified premise four with the term “generally speaking,” because sometimes it isn’t wrong to kill me. If I’m trying to kill Fred, then Fred has the right to use lethal force to protect himself from my attack. But if we aren’t in a nitpicky, philosophical mood, we all know what it means when we say it is wrong to kill us.

With that out of the way, let me defend the most controversial premises of the argument. For example, some philosophers deny that you and I are organisms. They might say we are simply minds that exist inside organisms. But that leads to several implausible conclusions.

First, if people are only minds and not physical organisms, then you have never been slapped or kissed. Someone may have slapped your body or kissed your body, but no one slapped or kissed you, since you are an immaterial mind and not a physical organism, at least if these philosophers are right. (They aren’t.)

Second, if I am only a collection of thoughts in a mind, then I don’t think. After all, can a thought think? No more than a book can write. But I do think. In fact, if you’re trying to understand what I’m talking about, then there is a “thinking animal” sitting in front of an online article at this very moment.

Now, here is the question: who is that thinking animal? Once again, you are the thinking animal sitting in front of this online article. So it is not true that I am just a collection of thoughts. I am an organism (specifically, an animal) with the power to think.

Finally, if I am only a collection of thoughts, then where am I when I am asleep? Do I stop existing? If I exist because I will presumably wake up tomorrow, then what if I fall into a coma and we don’t know if I will ever wake up? It would be odd if my current existence depended on some fact about my future existence. But if I am a living organism, then as long as that organism exists, I exist, and this has been true from the moment I was conceived in my mother’s womb.

There are actually two different arguments that are being made here. Let’s start with the argument that follows the main argument form:

1) Killing an innocent adult, P, is morally wrong.

2) The fact that P is an organism (or a continuous organism over time, or an organism of a certain kind) is what makes killing P wrong.

3) A fetus, Q, is an organism (or a continuous organism over time, or an organism of a certain kind).

4) Abortion A kills Q.

C) Abortion A is morally wrong.

The problem with this argument should be obvious, as it is the exact same problem with Mr. Horn’s first argument. Why is being an organism (or a continuous organism over time, or an organism of a certain kind) what makes killing someone wrong? On its face, this seems like just another wording of the humanity argument, and should be dismissed as easily.

The second argument Mr. Horn makes here is the one he numbered in his text, repeated here for ease of reference:

“1. If an organism that once existed has never died, then this organism still exists.

2. I am an organism.

3. Therefore, I am the organism that once existed in my mother’s womb.

4. Generally speaking, it is always wrong to kill me.

5. Since I existed in my mother’s womb, it was wrong to kill me at that time.

6. What is true about killing me is true for everyone else.

7. Therefore, it is wrong to kill anyone else who lives or has lived in his mother’s womb.”

Mr. Horn seems to think that the only weak premise in this argument is premise #2, as he spends most of this section arguing against alternative views that deny that we are organisms and does not specifically defend any other premise. While it is not clear that premise #2 is true in any relevant and meaningful way since the term “organism,” by itself, is vague and can be fleshed out in different ways, let’s assume that premise #2 is true for the sake of argument. What about the other premises?

Premise #1 appears to be false. This is because it assumes that death is the only way that an organism can cease to exist, and there are good reasons to think that this assumption is false. We covered some of these when we reviewed Mr. Horn’s first argument, namely that we can imagine situations where someone undergoes a transition where everything about them remains the same except that they change from a human organism to a non-human organism, or possibly even into something that is no longer an organism. Examples of this include being transformed into a vampire or undergoing a brain transplant. In these cases premise #1 would be false even though premise #2 is still true and no death occurred.

Premise #3 appears to be misleading and potentially false. This is because it is assuming – as Mr. Horn makes clear at the end of this section – that organisms begin to exist at conception. While this may be true, it is not obvious and as it stands is an undefended assumption. After all, it can just as easily be claimed that organisms only begin to exist after twinning becomes impossible, or after they can consistently metabolize independently of constant physical parental attachment, or after all of their organ systems are completely formed and functional. While each of these claims would still be valid for human organisms in their mother’s wombs, they would each have very different timeframes for how long the organism was in the womb and as such very different implications for abortion ethics.

Premises #4 and #5 together appear to be misleading, and in particular premise #5 appears to be false. Premises #4 and #5 together are basically saying that if it is wrong to kill person-organism P now, and person-organism P has persisted through time and was the same person-organism in the past, then it should be just as wrong to kill the past version of P. The problem with this is that it is assuming that it is the throughline of being the same organism that makes killing P wrong. To see why, imagine for the sake of argument – even though this is clearly false – that it is having memories that actually makes killing someone wrong. In this case, it would be true that P is the same organism in the past and in the present, but false that because killing P in the present is wrong that killing P in the past is wrong because there will be a point in the past where P does not have memories and therefore killing P is not wrong even though it is the same organism. Premise #5 in particular includes this hidden and undefended assumption, because premise #5 being true does not follow from premises #3 and #4 – even if both of these premises are true, which itself is questionable – unless it is specifically being a continuous organism (or organism of a certain kind) over time that makes killing someone morally wrong. Considering that being an organism and variations thereof have already been shown to be deeply problematic at best as criteria for personhood, premise #5 should be dismissed as false.

Since both of the arguments that Mr. Horn is making in this section appear to be riddled with premises that are either false or extremely questionable, the “personal identity argument” against abortion rights should be rejected in either of its forms. In addition, it should be pointed out that all of Mr. Horn’s arguments thus far rely on vagueness and undefended assumptions for an initial appearance of plausibility, and in each of these arguments the core point that is hidden by vagueness or assumed without argument boils down to the contention that fetuses are persons from the moment of conception. This contention is a religious assumption, at least in the sense that it is overwhelmingly held by religious people for religious reasons. [For example, the statement “Human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights” was held to be true by 71% of Protestants and 64% of Catholics in the U.S., but only held to be true by 29% of the religiously unaffiliated and 8% of atheists. Pew Research Center, May 2022, “America’s Abortion Quandary.” Page 60. <https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2022/05/PF_05.06.22_abortion.views_.fullreport.pdf> Accessed on 15 January 2024.

As such, we can call this statement a religious claim.  Note that this religious claim is meaningfully different from the claim “human life begins at conception” by itself without rejoinders about rights or ethics.  This claim can be consistently held as a statement of biological fact or something similar without holding that all human life has a right to life or something similar, so we can call this statement a biological claim.  This leads to a lot of bad arguments along the lines of “human life beginning at conception is not a religious assumption but an agreed-upon biological fact,” which conflate the biological claim with the religious claim by ignoring that the scientific agreement with the biological claim does not imply scientific agreement with the religious claim.] As we covered at the outset, religious assumptions should be rejected as false until and unless evidence and arguments are provided such that it is no longer an assumption but an argued-for point. As we have seen, thus far the evidence and arguments for the contention that fetuses are persons from the moment of conception is not forthcoming.

4. The “future-like-ours” argument

The “future-like-ours” argument says that what makes killing anything wrong is that it deprives that thing of a valuable future, or a “future-like-ours” (FLO). Rats don’t have a FLO, so it isn’t wrong to kill them. But you and I, infants, and nearly every embryo and fetus does have a FLO, and so if this is what makes killing wrong, then it is wrong to kill nearly every human embryo and fetus because it has a FLO.

Some philosophers have claimed that fetuses do not have a FLO because they are not psychologically connected to their futures. They aren’t aware of anything in the womb (at least early on in pregnancy), and so they don’t carry any personal experiences into the future as do you and I. Nathan Nobis writes, “There is no (even broken) chain of experiences from the fetus to that future person’s experiences. Babies are, at least, aware of the current moment, which leads to the next moment; children and adults think about and plan for their futures, but fetuses cannot do these things, being completely unconscious and without a mind” (Thinking Critically About Abortion, p. 45).

But if fetuses don’t have a FLO because they don’t have a psychological chain connecting them to their futures, how could newborn infants have a FLO when Nobis admits they are connected by a broken psychological chain of experiences? A lamp will come crashing to the floor if it is missing some chains. Similarly, if a newborn does not maintain psychological continuity over time, even for brief intervals, then a newborn would not have a FLO, and killing it would not be immoral.

But killing newborns is immoral. And if what makes killing newborns wrong is that it deprives them of a “future like ours” (even if they don’t have a self-conscious personal experience that will continue into the future), then this will also make it wrong to kill nearly all unborn humans, because they have a FLO as well. Granted, it may not explain why it is wrong to directly kill terminally ill unborn children who will die shortly after birth (and not have a FLO), but it would explain why almost all abortions are immoral.

Translating into main argument form, Mr. Horn’s fourth argument appears to be as follows:

1) Killing an innocent adult, P, is morally wrong.

2) The fact that P would have a valuable future with valuable experiences if they continue to live is what makes killing P wrong.

3) A fetus, Q, would have a valuable future with valuable experiences if they continue to live.

4) Abortion A kills Q.

C) Abortion A is morally wrong.  [This argument originally comes from: Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral.” The Journal of Philosophy 86.4 (April 1989): 183-202.]

Mr. Horn seems to think that the main objections to this argument are psychological continuity theories of personhood, as he spends most of this section arguing against those views. However, there are at least three major problems with this argument (hereafter referred to as the FLO argument) that need to be considered.  The first two problems with this argument are the two most common objections in the philosophical literature to the FLO argument. The first common objection is put forward by, for example, Bonnie Steinbock. Steinbock argues that the FLO proposal – basically premise #2 in the FLO argument – entails that sperm and eggs have a FLO and it is therefore wrong to kill them. The FLO proposal would then have the obviously incorrect implication that actions such as using contraception and engaging in male masturbation are, just like abortion is supposed to be according to the FLO argument, the moral equivalent of murder.  To see how this objection works, consider the comparison Mr. Horn makes between a newborn and a fetus: since a newborn has a FLO, a fetus also has a FLO since it is the next developmental stage backwards from the newborn. Steinbock simply goes back another developmental stage and makes the exact same claim. If fetuses have a FLO since they will become newborns, then why don’t sperm and eggs have a FLO since they will become fetuses which will become newborns? [See page 476 of: Steinbock, Bonnie. “Why Most Abortions are Not Wrong.” Steinbock, Arras, and London, eds. Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine (Sixth Edition). Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 471-482.]

The second common objection is put forward by, for example, David Boonin. Boonin argues that only beings with a conscious life can have a FLO. According to Boonin, a FLO is a set of ideal dispositional desires for the future. In this case, ideal desires are desires that are corrected for faulty information or reasoning as opposed to actual desires that you just have in your mind, and dispositional desires are those that you clearly have but are not presently before your mind as opposed to occurrent desires which you have presently before your mind. A FLO must be a set of ideal dispositional desires for the future, or else the FLO proposal would have obvious counterexamples. For example, the suicidal have actual desires and occurrent desires to end their existence and not have a future, so the FLO proposal would say that the suicidal do not have a FLO if a FLO included actual or occurrent desires. However, Boonin notes that ideal desires are actual desires that are corrected for imperfect or incomplete information, which means that you cannot have ideal desires unless you also have actual desires. Since only beings with a conscious life have actual desires, it follows that only beings with a conscious life can have ideal desires, including having a FLO. Fetuses, at least for the majority of their development, do not have conscious lives since they do not have the brain development necessary for consciousness. This means that fetuses cannot have FLOs, which in turn means that it is not wrong to kill them any more than it is wrong to destroy an inanimate object that does not have a FLO due to not being able to have a conscious life. [See pages 60-81 and 115-129 of: Boonin, David. A Defense of Abortion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.]

The final problem with the FLO argument is that it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of time or, more specifically, the main plausible views of what times are real. [This argument is derived from pages 190-202 in Chapter 4 of the author’s doctoral dissertation: A New Defense of Abortion by Dr. Kurt Liebegott, originally published in 2010.] The three main plausible views of what times are real are called presentism, growing block theory, and eternalism. Presentism says that only the present is real (and therefore only entities that exist in the present are real), while the past and future are not real. Growing block theory says that the present and the past are real (and therefore only entities that exist in the past or present are real), while the future is not real. Eternalism says that the past, the present, and the future (and the entities that exist in each) are all equally real. Of course, there is much more to all three of these views, as well as the philosophical debate over which of them is correct and why, but this is unnecessary to cover in detail. All that is needed for the purposes of the argument is that these are the three main plausible views about the nature of time, and that these three views have the above implications concerning which times – and therefore entities – are real.

The important question to now ask is: what can a FLO be on each of these views? For presentism and growing block theory, a FLO cannot be an actual future in any way because the future is not real on either view. This means that, on these views, if a FLO exists and means anything at all it must be a property or set of properties entirely in the present. What properties are available that are entirely in the present, can reasonably be considered to be a FLO, and show that abortion is morally wrong? We know that it cannot be a present action or immediately exercisable capacity or the like. This is because these sorts of properties seem to imply that it is morally permissible to kill sleeping people and temporarily comatose people due to their being unable to act. Likewise, it cannot be a present valuation or the like, because this would seem to imply that it is morally permissible to kill suicidal people because they do not value their lives at the present. In addition, it seems that it cannot be a present relation because it is difficult to see what present relations could possibly grant a right to life. It appears that the only real options that remain for what a FLO can be if either presentism or growing block theory are true are dispositions or capacities, since all other possibilities have been exhausted.

Claiming that what it means for a being to have a FLO is that the being has a dispositional property or inherent capacity to perform valuable activities in certain situations or become a rational moral agent or the like means that the FLO argument is basically just Mr. Horn’s second argument – the personhood argument – in disguise, or a minor variant thereof. Remember, the personhood argument says that “an innate capacity for certain functional abilities related to rationality” is what makes killing someone wrong. If a FLO must be a disposition or capacity entirely in the present that is supposed to be equally possessed by innocent adults and fetuses, then it is hard to see how a FLO is going to be different from personhood in the personhood argument in any meaningful way. This creates two problems for the FLO argument. First, the FLO argument is not actually a unique and separate argument, and therefore should not count as a separate point in favor of the position against abortion rights even if the argument works. Second, and more importantly, the FLO argument boiling down to the personhood argument means that the FLO argument is subject to all of the same problems and objections as the personhood argument. In particular, since the nanoworld thought experiment gave us good reason to reject the personhood argument, it also gives us a good reason to reject the FLO argument.

But what about if eternalism is true instead? Since the future is real on eternalism, a FLO can be the actual valuable future of a being or the relationship between a being and its valuable future or something similar. This means that, if eternalism is true, then the FLO argument is a unique argument separate from the personhood argument and avoids the issues the FLO argument had if presentism or growing block theory were true. However, a new problem arises for the FLO argument if eternalism is true. To see why, we must first review an important point about eternalism. Eternalism holds that all times are equally real, or in other words that all entities with a temporal location exist regardless of what the temporal location is. For example, Abraham Lincoln (who at this time exists only in the past), the Lincoln Memorial (which at this time has existed in the past, exists in the present, and will exist in the future), and the first clone to visit the Lincoln Memorial (who at this time exists only in the future) all exist if eternalism is true. This is part of what it means when eternalism claims that the past, the present, and the future are all real. What is important about eternalism holding that all times are equally real is that this implies that truths about the future have the same ontological status as truths about the past and present and have always been true: all truths are eternally true and tenselessly true on eternalism, including future truths. For example, the proposition “at time t1, X has property P” is tenseless. Regardless of how it is filled out, this proposition is true or false at all times if eternalism is true, including at times that appear to us to be present while t1 is in our future. [For a comprehensive explanation of this, see Sections 13 and 14 of: Dowden, Bradley. “Time.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fieser and Dowden, eds. <https://iep.utm.edu/time/> Accessed on 15 January 2024.]

But when we consider the implications of this important point, it turns out that if eternalism is true, then it has always been true that every aborted fetus was going to be aborted and had no future afterwards. In other words, for any given fetus F and time of abortion t1, the proposition “at time t1, F is aborted” has a truth value at t1 and at all times. Let’s call this proposition X. For every version of X that is true, X entails the truth of the proposition – let’s call this one Y – that “there is no time later than t1 at which F would value anything or possess anything that is of value.” But since a FLO on eternalism is supposed to be either a future state or a relation to a future state, the fact that Y is true for every aborted fetus F shows that every aborted fetus lacks a FLO. In other words, if eternalism is true, then abortion never deprives a fetus of a FLO because it has always been true that the fetus was going to be aborted before having a valuable existence. This means that, if eternalism is true, then the FLO proposal actually shows that all abortions are morally permissible because an abortion can never deprive a fetus of a FLO, and the FLO argument should be rejected.

Thus, having examined what a FLO can be on the three plausible accounts of the nature of time, the FLO argument is caught in a dilemma. The first horn of the dilemma is that if either presentism or growing block theory is true, then the FLO argument is just a rewording of the personhood argument and therefore vulnerable to the same objections. The second horn of the dilemma is that if eternalism is true, then the FLO argument does not show that abortion is morally wrong because no fetus that is aborted ever had a FLO. Either way, we have good reason to reject the FLO argument, and therefore should reject Mr. Horn’s fourth argument.

5. The impairment argument

One final argument against abortion I’d like to share with you is similar to the “future-like-ours” argument and is called the “impairment argument.” It goes like this:

Imagine that if Mary conceives a child in the month of July, she will give birth to a child named Bob with a mild mental handicap. Most people would say Mary has not done anything wrong, nor has she harmed Bob, because if Mary had waited to conceive a child in August, she would not have conceived Bob. There would have been different sperm and egg, so Mary would have conceived Bob’s brother, Bill.

We can’t say Mary harmed Bob, since, if she had not had relations in July, it would not be the case that Bob would exist without a mental handicap. Bob would simply not exist at all.

But suppose Mary waits a month and conceives Bob’s healthy brother, Bill, in August. She then takes a drug that causes Bill to have the same mild mental handicap. Did Mary do something wrong in this case?

Most people would say she did and that this is quite different from the Bob case. Mary harmed Bill because she impaired Bill’s healthy development. In the Bob case, Mary could not have made it so that Bob would exist and not have a handicap. But in the Bill case, if Mary had not taken the drug, then a healthy, non-impaired Bill would have existed. Mary did something wrong because she performed an act on an already existing individual that impaired his development.

And if it is wrong to cause a minor impairment, then it is wrong to cause a major impairment to someone’s development. And most people would agree that death is the most severe impairment a person can suffer (since it impairs all development).

Therefore, if it was wrong for Mary to cause Bill to be born with a mild mental handicap, it would also be wrong for her to cause Bill not to be born at all, or for Mary to abort Bill.

There are actually two different arguments that are being made here. Let’s start with the argument that follows the main argument form:

1) Killing an innocent adult, P, is morally wrong.

2) The fact that P would be impaired by being killed is what makes killing P wrong.

3) A fetus, Q, would be impaired by being killed.

4) Abortion A kills Q.

C) Abortion A is morally wrong.

The problem with this argument is that causing impairment, by itself, does not appear to be something that makes actions wrong. It is certainly true that some actions, such as murder, are morally wrong and also cause impairment. But there are also actions that cause impairment that are morally permissible. For example, running a marathon or other strenuous exercise can certainly cause impairment to someone in the form of things like exhaustion and muscle cramps, but these exercises still appear to be generally morally permissible. As such, it seems implausible that it is simply the fact that murder causes impairment that makes murder morally wrong. Perhaps the claim is more that the particular nature of the impairment is what makes murder morally wrong, since the impairment of death is much more severe and permanent than that of exercise. But why should the severity or permanence of the impairment matter? For example, getting a pacemaker or getting a tattoo can also be considered severe and permanent impairments, but are considered generally morally permissible. If the real issue is that murder causes someone’s death, then that is not an issue of impairment but an issue of personhood and a violation of one’s right to life, and that is a separate argument that has already been addressed. As it stands, this argument should be rejected as premise #2 is an entirely undefended assumption.

The second argument Mr. Horn makes here is something like the following:

1) If impairing an individual’s healthy development is morally wrong, then killing an individual is morally wrong (because killing is an extreme impairment).

2) Impairing a fetus’s healthy development (such as by taking a drug to purposely inflict a mental disability) is morally wrong.

3) Therefore, killing a fetus is morally wrong.

4) Abortion is killing a fetus.

C) Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.

[The original version of this argument, which focused on the wrongness of causing fetal alcohol syndrome, comes from: Hendricks, Perry. “Even if the fetus is not a person, abortion is immoral: The impairment argument.” Bioethics 33.2 (2019): 245–253.]

This second argument attempts to bypass the problem with the earlier argument from this section in that it does not directly address what makes killing someone morally wrong. Rather, this argument is saying that regardless of what makes killing someone morally wrong in normal circumstances, killing someone has another property – impairing an individual’s healthy development – and that property can make killing someone morally wrong for a different reason, namely the degree and intensity of that property.

There are at least two major problems with this second argument. First, as has been mentioned before, there are plenty of examples of morally permissible actions that cause impairment, such as strenuous exercise, so simply causing impairment by itself is not enough to make something morally wrong. This is not solved by specifying that it is only impairments of an individual’s healthy development that are morally wrong, or even extreme levels of this kind of impairment, as there are actions that cause this specific kind of impairment – sometimes even to extreme levels – that are morally permissible. Some potential examples here include drinking alcohol, getting cosmetic surgery, playing American football, extensive computer use, and having a physically taxing job. The fact that there are so many examples of morally permissible actions that cause impairment indicates that impairment is not a morally relevant factor, but rather that when impairment is morally wrong that it is something else related to the impairment that makes it morally wrong in that circumstance. This is a problem for this second argument because it gives us reasons to reject premises #1 and #2. Premise #2 can be rejected as an entirely undefended assumption until and unless there is a reasonable systemic explanation for what makes some impairment morally permissible and other impairment morally wrong, because without that systemic explanation premise #2 could well be false. Premise #1 can be rejected as false for the same reason, because there are times where the antecedent is true because the impairment in question is morally wrong but the consequent is false because the killing is wrong for a reason other than it being an extreme impairment. As such, this second argument should be rejected.

This second argument has a separate second problem, which is that it is easy to construct a parallel argument but in support of abortion rights. Consider the following:

1) If impairing an individual’s healthy development is morally wrong, then impairing an individual’s healthy development in the same way but to a more severe degree is also morally wrong.

2) Forcing an individual to carry a tapeworm impairs an individual’s healthy development and is morally wrong.

3) Forcing an individual to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term impairs an individual’s healthy development in the same way as forcing an individual to carry a tapeworm, but to a more severe degree.

C) Therefore, forcing an individual to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is morally wrong.

Premise #1 of this argument must be true if premise #1 in Mr. Horn’s argument is true, and on its own is more likely to be true because it has a less specific consequent, so it should be accepted as true by any supporter of the impairment argument. Premise #2 is true: there is no doubt that carrying a damaging parasite such as a tapeworm is an impairment to healthy development, and it is the forcing part that makes it morally wrong since that violates the individual’s bodily autonomy and rights, causes more harm than good, violates the duty not to inflict unnecessary harm on others, is not what a virtuous person would do, and so forth. Premise #3 is also true. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy is orders of magnitude more likely to kill the individual than carrying a tapeworm.

Within the US, there were 777 maternal deaths in 2021 alone. [GAO’s October 2022 report entitled “MATERNAL HEALTH: Outcomes Worsened and Disparities Persisted During the Pandemic,” GAO-23-105871. Available from <https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-23-105871.pdf> as of 15 January 2024.]

By comparison, there were only 221 cysticercosis deaths – deaths caused by tapeworm – in the entire timespan from 1990 to 2002. [Sorvillo FJ, DeGiorgio C, Waterman SH. Deaths from cysticercosis, United States. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2007 Feb. Available from <http://www.cdc.gov/EID/content/13/2/230.htm> as of 15 January 2024.]

Worldwide, about 50,000 people die each year from cysticercosis as of 2021. [Texas Department of State Health Services Infectious Disease Prevention Section. “What you should know about: Taeniasis.” Available from <https://www.dshs.texas.gov/idcu/disease/taeniasis/faqs.aspx> as of 15 January 2024.]

Worldwide maternal mortality, on the other hand, is about 810 deaths per day as of 2021. [World Health Organization. “New global targets to prevent maternal deaths.” Available from <https://www.who.int/news/item/05-10-2021-new-global-targets-to-prevent-maternal-deaths> as of 15 January 2024.]

This is almost 300,000 deaths per year, or about six times as deadly as tapeworm even if you ignore the fact that anyone can get tapeworm while not everyone can become pregnant and therefore pregnancy is actually far deadlier as a percentage of the people it can possibly affect. Even setting aside death, pregnancy forever changes one’s body and can result in a wide variety of potentially lifelong complications, which is much more severe in both scope and intensity to the complications caused by tapeworms. [For more info on cysticercosis and resulting tapeworm complications, visit <https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/cysticercosis/gen_info/faqs.html> available as of 15 January 2024. For more info on complications from pregnancy, visit <https://www.womenshealth.gov/pregnancy/youre-pregnant-now-what/pregnancy-complications> available as of 15 January 2024.

A quick glance over these introductory sources should make the disparity in impairment between these two conditions obvious.] But if all 3 premises are true, and the argument form is good as supporters of the impairment argument claim, then the conclusion must follow that forcing an individual to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is morally wrong. If forcing an individual to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is morally wrong, then that gives at least prima facie evidence that abortion is morally permissible since denying abortion is equivalent to forcing an individual to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. At the very least, this parallel argument in support of abortion rights gives us reason to reject the impairment argument until and unless this parallel is fully explained away.

Since both of the arguments that Mr. Horn is making in this section appear to either contain false or deeply questionable premises, or have problems with their argument form, the impairment argument should be rejected in either of its forms.

I have offered five different arguments to show abortion is so wrong that it ought to be illegal:

  1. It is wrong to kill biological human beings like the unborn.
  2. The unborn are persons with a right to life.
  3. You and I were once embryos, and it [is] always wrong to kill us.
  4. Abortion deprives the unborn of a future-like-ours
  5. Abortion unjustly impairs a being’s development.

These arguments show that the pro-life position can be defended with a variety of powerful philosophical arguments. It behooves pro-lifers to learn these arguments so they can engage even the most sophisticated defenses of abortion.

As we have seen, Mr. Horn’s claim that “[t]hese arguments show that the pro-life position can be defended with a variety of powerful philosophical arguments” is incorrect. These five arguments each have fundamental problems as demonstrated above. Now, remember the discussion of the burden of proof: the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong should only be believed to be true if defenders of that position can provide a philosophically robust defense of the position that overcomes this initial deficit in epistemic probability from starting with the burden of proof. If each of these five arguments that abortion is almost always morally wrong are deeply flawed as we have seen, then the position that abortion is almost always morally wrong has not met its burden of proof, and as such should not be believed to be true.

There is another issue here, however. Note the wording that Mr. Horn uses here, with emphasis added: “I have offered five different arguments to show abortion is so wrong that it ought to be illegal.” This needs to be called out, as it does not follow from an action being morally wrong, or even being extremely morally wrong, that that action should then be made illegal. There are actions that are morally permissible that have been or are illegal, such as jaywalking or non-whites using a “whites only” water fountain under Jim Crow. Likewise, there are actions that are morally wrong that have been or are legal, such as serial lying or selling snake oil as medicine. In some of these cases, ethics and legality should line up: Jim Crow should never have happened, and selling untested medicines should never have been allowed. In other cases, though, ethics and legality should stay separate because they are doing separate things. For example, while there is nothing inherently wrong with jaywalking, there is an argument that making jaywalking illegal discourages jaywalking and thereby improves public safety. On the other hand, serial lying is extremely immoral, but making serial lying in and of itself illegal would violate free speech rights, flood the legal system, and would be completely impractical.

These examples show that Mr. Horn’s claim that “abortion is so wrong that it ought to be illegal” is an undefended assumption at best. [In fact, one could make a variant of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist argument to this effect. The original violinist argument – where you wake up to discover that you are now a living kidney dialysis machine for a world-famous violinist against your will and you cannot be removed from the violinist without killing the violinist – basically shows that a fetus having a right to life does not make abortion immoral because the right to bodily integrity effectively makes abortion not an unjust killing equivalent to murder. The variant would use the same situation to say that even if abortion is immoral that it should not be illegal because banning abortion would violate all kinds of legal rights and principles such as the legal rights to bodily integrity and self-defense. For the original violinist argument, see: Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.1 (Autumn 1971): 47-66.]

The point of this essay was to provide a response to and critique of the position that the philosophical case against abortion rights is rooted in arguments that are both good arguments and independent of religious assumptions. As we have seen, this position is incorrect. The philosophical case against abortion rights is actually composed of deeply flawed arguments, often with hidden religious assumptions, that do not meet the burden of proof that the position that abortion is morally wrong must meet. As such, until and unless a much better philosophical case against abortion rights is forthcoming, the position that abortion is generally morally permissible must be the rational position to hold for anyone who cares at all about philosophical arguments.

Brief Bio:

Dr. Kurt Liebegott earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Purdue University specializing in Ethics, Logic, and Philosophy of Religion.  His 2010 dissertation was A New Defense of Abortion.  He comes from an extensive background in Lincoln-Douglas Debate and other speech and debate events as both a competitor and coach, including coaching an NCFL National Champion in Lincoln-Douglas Debate.  He is currently working in middle and high school History education.

Brief Suggested Reading List:

Boonin, David.  A Defense of Abortion.  2003.

Manninen, Bertha.  Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: Shared Values in the Abortion Debate.  2014.

Silverstein, Harry.  “On a Woman’s “Responsibility” for the Fetus.”  Social Theory and Practice 13.1 (Spring 1987):  103-119.

Steinbock, Bonnie.  Life Before Birth:  The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses.  1992.

Stretton, Dean.  “The Argument from Intrinsic Value:  A Critique.”  Bioethics 14.3 (July 2000):  228-239.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis.  “A Defense of Abortion.”  Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.1 (Autumn 1971):  47-66.