Videos on ethical arguments about abortion

Here are some videos that review a PowerPoint presentation on arguments about abortion that was recently developed for teaching purposes; those slides are at the bottom of the page. This page's content is also available at www.NathanNobis.com.

A two-minute video that engages two of the most common basic arguments against abortion (also at TikTok):



I was on Spencer Case's @SpencerJayCase "Micro-Digressions: A Philosophy Podcast" @ADigressions to discuss abortion and ethics, and even the law too, with Christopher Kaczor.

https://www.buzzsprout.com/956725/9408417-special-episode-debating-abortion


A few recollections about this discussion are here

"Brain in a Vat" podcast discussion:


Promethean podcast discussion:


A series of videos that give an overview of the issues.

1 of 5: Introduction and Defining Abortion:



2 of 5: Question-Begging Arguments about Abortion:


3 of 5: Common, "Everyday" Arguments about Abortion:


4 of 5: Arguments that Abortion is Prima Facie Wrong:


5 of 5: Arguments that Abortion is Prima Facie Permissible and Conclusions:

 PowerPoint slides:



These slides in PDF.

Some images:






Here's from a discussion with Trent Horn on abortion at Emory's Medical School. 


A talk through here: 


Powerpoint is also here. Presentation as text here.

Thanks to some of the comments online, I realized that a few things at the event prevented me from responding to Trent in an ideal way there. So I made some videos and a text that better engage Trent's initial talk. I hope people find them helpful for better understanding the issues! Thanks!

A Revisited Response to Trent Horn from Nathan Nobis 


Trent's "Opening Statement" which the videos and text below are a response to.


Full set of videos:

An Introduction Video:


The “Humanity” Argument Against Abortion:


A “Personhood” Argument Against Abortion:


Arguments from Personal Identity Against Abortion:


The "Future Like Our’s" Argument Against Abortion:


The Impairment Argument Against Abortion:



Concluding Thoughts:



A Revisited Response to Trent Horn from Nathan Nobis 


Notes below; talked through here: 

Trent Horn and Abortion: Revisited Responses and Initial Presentation - YouTube 


www.NathanNobis.com

www.AbortionArguments.com

https://twitter.com/NathanNobis 

https://www.youtube.com/c/NathanNobis101 

https://www.tiktok.com/@nathan.nobis 


Discussion, not “Debate”


Too bad none (?) of the medical students, students or any pro-choice people showed up to hear Trent. 


At least I need an outline or handout or visuals to effectively follow, at least in these situations. 


Listening, taking notes, and formulating a response all at once is something I cannot do. I’m a “slow listener.” Now I know. 


There are some very close details here; very hard for anyone to engage this material without notes and visuals. Really cannot be done?


So, here’s my review of Trent’s arguments. 


Trent’s conclusion: “Abortion is gravely immoral and ought to be illegal.”


The “Humanity” Argument 3

A “Personhood” argument 6

Arguments from Personal Identity 9

The Future Like Our’s Argument 14

The Impairment Argument 16

Conclusion 18



The “Humanity” Argument


  1. It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent biological human beings. 

  2. The fetus is an innocent biological human being. 

  3. Abortion intentionally kills a fetus. 

Therefore, abortion is prima facie wrong. 


All these premises are false.


2. The fetus is an innocent biological human being.


2: Why accept 2? Science supports this, he claims.


My response: science supports that these are human organisms; whether they are human beings depends on what’s meant by “human beings.”


“Human being” definition 1 = a “being” that’s biologically human.


What’s a “being”? Not just anything that “has being”: organisms?


“Human being” definition 2 = a biologically human organism who has perceptions, feelings, reason, emotions, memories, etc. Ask around!


“Innocent”: I think the term “innocent” really only applies to beings who could do something wrong. So embryos and beginning fetuses are neither innocent nor not innocent: term just doesn’t apply. 


  1. It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent biological human beings. 


1: Why accept 1? 


Trent responds to a question based on a misunderstanding: Whatabout friendly space aliens? Suggested answer: these aliens, we are, are of a rational “kind.” 


Objections from Trent:

If 1 is true, then taking people off life support is wrong? 


Trent’s response: we are letting them die, not killing them. 


My response: what if they were actively killed? Why would that be (seriously) wrong? 


What if there was some urgent need to speed up the process? Would that be wrong? (Not really? Or there could easily be a good reason to justify doing this). 


Later Trent argues these human organisms are persons. So he thinks some persons are OK to let die. It seems to me like it’s OK to let a body die because there is no a longer a person there: if there were a person, then it’d be wrong to let them die. 


Trent’s response here depends on:

  • assuming there’s always a weighty difference between killing and letting die. (See James Rachels “Active and Passive Euthanasia” summed up at my “Euthanasia, or Mercy Killing”). I don’t think there’s always a difference. 

  • Assuming that killing in these situations is (seriously) wrong. I don’t think killing these bodies would be seriously wrong: nobody would be harmed, nobody would be disrespected, etc.  


3. “Abortion intentionally kills a fetus.”


Trent didn’t comment on that. 


Some would say, “Not really: the point is to end a pregnancy (or prevent parenthood), not to intentionally kill a fetus: that’s a foreseen but not intended side effect” Someone with the primary goal to intentionally kill fetuses would act in other (wrong!) ways: what might they do? 


Lots of discussion of this type of argument in this article:

https://www.salon.com/2021/04/11/why-the-case-against-abortion-is-weak-ethically-speaking/ 




A “Personhood” argument


4. Abortion directly kills an innocent person.

5. Killing persons is usually wrong.

Therefore, abortion is usually wrong. 


What distinguishes persons from non-persons? Lots of questions here to think about.


Trent claims that rats and pigeons are not persons. He claims this is a “clear case.” 


Really, rats and birds are like rocks and plants? Some of the top philosophers and law professors and others argue that (some) animals are persons or are personlike. 


Comment: suppose someone says, “Embryos certainly aren’t persons. They certainly don’t have the right to life.” 


“Horselaugh,” question-begging response. What’s the motivation? (Isn’t that what anti-abortion people say about pro-choice people?)


So what are “persons” 

= sentient beings? 

  • Trent’s objection: then some animals would be persons. This is question-begging, a horse laugh, dismissing with prejudice a huge body of research. 

= actually rational beings?

  • Objection: then babies aren’t persons with rights, etc.

= an individual member of a rational kind, with the “innate capacity for certain functional abilities” . .. “rational capacity.” 


Other options, that build on the “sentient being” example: 

  • Locke: “persons are conscious, intelligent beings, capable of rationality and reflection, including self-reflection.” 

  • Tom Regan, perhaps: persons are “subjects of lives”: sentient beings with are psychological connections over time (but no need for “self-reflection”).


Some concerns about persons are “individual members of a rational kind, with the ‘innate capacity for certain functional abilities’ . .. ‘rational capacity.’


  1. Is this why you are a person? If you asked yourself this, does this seem like the best – simplest, most obvious, most explanatory, most coherent with other beliefs, etc. answer to you?  


  1. If something is “personified”  – made like a person, or personlike, are they made to resemble “individual members of a rational kind”? Or are they given abilities to perceive, feel, think, reason, emotions, etc?


  1. Individuals in permanent comas, “vegetative states,” “brain dead,” anencephaly (babies born without a brain, or almost all of their brain) are of this “kind” right? They are not persons.


  1. If X is a person, then it’s wrong to let X die (and seriously wrong to kill X too). 

  2. These living human organisms are not wrong to let die or are seriously wrong to kill.

  3. Therefore, they are not persons. 


  1. How does this all work? Rationality is at the core: why’s that? (Ableism?). Rights depend on rationality, somehow. Why is it that if you are part of a group – even if that group is a species – where some of the members are rational (and get other characteristics from being rational), every member of the group gets those characteristics, even if they aren’t rational? Why is it that severely cognitive human beings are persons with rights because of a relation to or similarity they have with sophisticated rational beings? This is very abstract: needs to be explained. 


4. Abortion directly kills an innocent person.

5. Killing persons is usually wrong.


Comments about 4 - yes, but perhaps not “intentionally”: that’s not the intended goal, which is to end a pregnancy or prevent parenthood.


Comments about 5 - there are exceptions, of course; there can be cases where it’s OK to kill an (innocent) person when they are using something that they don’t have a right to, or you are not otherwise obligated to provide them with. “Bodily rights” discussions.


In sum:

 

  • psychological theories of personhood more simply explains why we are persons in a range of cases, including end of life cases (where the body is alive yet the person is gone and/or how they are treated suggests a loss of personhood);

  • they don’t dismiss with prejudice that some animals might be persons or personlike, 

  • doesn’t tie personhood to some form of sophisticated rationality (and so claims that severely cognitively disabled persons are persons because of their relations to some alleged “ideal” rational person). 


Arguments from Personal Identity

https://www.amazon.com/Knowledge-Reality-Value-Mostly-Philosophy/dp/B091F5QTDS/ref=sr_1_2?qid=1651245578&refinements=p_27%3AMichael+Huemer&s=books&sr=1-2 


https://1000wordphilosophy.com/2021/03/11/animalism/ 


6. If an organism that ever existed has never died, then this organism still exists.

7. I am [essentially, in essence] an organism.

8. Therefore, I am an organism that once existed in my mother’s womb and never died.

9. It is always prima facie wrong to kill me.

10. Since I existed in my mother’s womb, it was prima facie wrong to kill me then. 

11. That’s true about everyone: what’s true of me is true of everyone. 

C: So abortion is generally prima facie wrong.  


My (simple) responses:


A lot of people would ultimately deny 7 that “they are [essentially, in essence, an organism]”: if they went into a permanent coma or become brain dead, the organism is there but they – the person – are gone. 


Also, many people think they could “survive” death – they could go to Heaven (or Hell) even if their body is destroyed: so they are not their organism, in essence. (Such folks don’t have to believe they could make it to heaven only if their body, with enough of the same matter, is “rebuilt”.) 


Related: about 9 (9. It is always prima facie wrong to kill me) in such cases the body can be OK to let die: so “you” can be let die. If you = your organism and that organism is a person, then it’s OK to let people die. (Also, there could be cases where it’d be OK to actively kill that organism; see other discussions). 


This argument also assumes that properties that give “someone” the right to life are essential to that organism: many animalists deny that (ask them!): so they deny 9. 


Trent’s Discussion: 


Maybe I am not an organism: maybe I am a mind. (Other options: maybe we are both? Maybe we are neither, e.g., we are souls?).   


Trent: If we are minds and not organisms, then nobody has been raped: that affected their body, not them.


Hmm: that is just basic factual data that everyone agrees on whatever you think about any highly abstract metaphysical issues. (Someone should write an article arguing that only “animalists” can acknowledge the existence and wrongness of rape; submit it to an analytical metaphysics journal or send it to leading animalists (e.g., Eric Olson): see what happens or what their reaction is)


Obviously, if you think you are a mind in essence (or a soul!), you also think that your mind or soul are very closely related to your body: what happens to your body affects you, and what happens to you affects your body! 


Trent: If I am not my body, then the government could take my body, tax my body. 


Hmm. Again, we are very closely related to our bodies: even if I am, in my essence, my mind, if you take my body, you take me, or part of me. 

Also, the government does “take” people and their bodies: the draft, imprisonment, etc. These facts have nothing to do with any highly abstract metaphysical theories. 


Trent: if I am a collection of thoughts, then I don’t think. 


Hmm. This is deep. The view is, roughly, that the “thinking thing” would be this collection of thoughts. 


If you think you are a body, since you can lose parts of your body, yet you still exist, what body part(s) are essential to you? (Or are you the whole thing, spacio-temporally connected, even though some body parts aren’t essential?)


You are a thinking animal. (One response: does this view allow for an afterlife, for those who believe there is one?)


If I am thoughts, what happens when I sleep? 


If you wake up, you’ll be back! There were also prior mental experiences that had expectations, plans, etc. for the future. And again, people who think that we are minds don’t deny that we are closely related to our bodies. 


Trent mentions that some rights he has always had, such as to not be tortured or enslaved. But if he was an embryo, since you can’t torture or enslave an embryo (right?), he didn’t have those rights then. So some, even important rights are not essential to the organism: other capacities are necessary to have them. 


General thoughts: the metaphysics of personal identity is really controversial. Really understanding the options takes a lot of hard study. Suggestion: run these arguments by advocates of animalism and see what they think! 





Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?

Other

347 / 931 (37.3%)

Accept or lean toward: psychological view

313 / 931 (33.6%)

Accept or lean toward: biological view

157 / 931 (16.9%)

Accept or lean toward: further-fact view

114 / 931 (12.2%)






The Future Like Our’s Argument 


From philosopher Don Marquis, who interestingly argues that arguments like Trent’s “humanity” and (I think) “personal identity” arguments fail: 

https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/the-ethics-of-abortion-women-s-rights-human-life-and-the-question-of-justice/ 



12. Killing us is prima facie wrong. 

13. Killing us is prima facie wrong because it deprives us of our valuable futures (a “future like our’s”).

14. Fetuses have valuable futures’s like ours.

15. Anything with a valuable future like our’s is prima facie wrong to kill.

Therefore fetuses are prima facie wrong to kill.

Therefore, abortion is prima facie wrong.


One objection to this argument:


To have a future like our’s, a being needs to have some psychological connection to its future: it’s not just that there are potential future events “out there”. Embryos and beginning fetuses don’t have that, since they lack psychologies: they’ve never had any kind of mind: so they don’t have a future like our’s. 


Trent’s response: newborn babies aren’t psychologically connected to their futures either. 


Response: really? Babies have minds; they are aware of things; they know who different people are. People talk about playing music to the fetus in utero and getting reactions, and then the baby has a reaction when born: that’s memory. A baby is not like a mythical 10-second memory goldfish. Babies are quite different from embryos: babies have minds: they are conscious and feeling; they exist over time, which is how they are able to learn things, etc.  


Comments:


Marquis’s arguments are most popular – meaning often thought to be the best – among philosophers. Not popular among most real-life abortion critics. 


Why’s that? Perhaps because his views can support euthanasia; could support some abortions (in cases of an extremely bleak future), and can be adapted for positive results for animals too. 


Again, Trent advocates for asphyxiating / gassing rats and reports that few people would find that problematic. How would the rats feel about that? What would there experience be? Golden-rule: how would you like that if that were done to you? 


There is lots of interesting discussion about Marquis’s arguments. Check it out!


The Impairment Argument


From Perry Hendricks 


  1. It would be wrong to drink excessively during pregnancy so as to cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the child (and then adult). 

  2. If it would be wrong to drink excessively during pregnancy so as to cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the child (and then adult), then it is wrong to “impair” a fetus. 

  3. If it’s wrong to impair a fetus by doing things that result in it having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (an impairment), then it’s wrong to kill the fetus since that’s a far greater (greatest?) impairment. 

  4. Therefore, it’s wrong to kill a fetus since that’s a great or greatest impairment.

  5. So abortion is typically wrong. 


Note: this argument is supposed to not depend on fetuses being persons. 


My basic response:

  • Why should women not drink alcohol too much, use drugs, etc. during pregnancy?

  • Because that will result in someone existing with a worse quality of life than they would have had: needless problems and difficulties: a worse quality of life.

    • Read up on WebMD or anything on what’s advised about this and why!

  • This explanation has no implications for abortion, since abortion prevents there from being such a person with this quality of life from existing in the first place.  


Trent’s response:

Trent says this presumes that the beginning fetus was an individual who was harmed. 

No, it doesn’t: it entails the “raw materials” or “building blocks” were damaged, not that there was some individual (or person) who was harmed. 


Again, advocates of the Impairment Argument think their argument does not assume that beginning fetuses are persons. An abortion prevents these “raw materials” or “building blocks” from becoming a person with a quality of life that is worse because of that drinking: so the explanation why pregnant women should avoid drinking heavily does not entail abortion is wrong. 


There is an interesting philosophical literature on this argument: check out PhilPapers or Google Scholar about it. 


https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C11&q=impairment+argument+abortion&btnG= 



Conclusion


My goal is that people better understand these issues and seek better arguments. I hope this helps.



1. The “Humanity” Argument


  • It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent biological human beings. 

  • The fetus is an innocent biological human being. 

  • Abortion intentionally kills a fetus. 

  • Therefore, abortion is prima facie wrong. 


2. A “Personhood” argument


  • Abortion directly kills an innocent person.

  • Killing persons is usually wrong.

  • Therefore, abortion is usually wrong. 


3. An Argument from Personal Identity 


  • If an organism that ever existed has never died, then this organism still exists.

  • I am [essentially, in essence] an organism.

  • Therefore, I am an organism that once existed in my mother’s womb and never died.

  • It is always prima facie wrong to kill me.

  • Since I existed in my mother’s womb, it was prima facie wrong to kill me then. 

  • That’s true about everyone: what’s true of me is true of everyone. 

  • So abortion is generally prima facie wrong.


4. The Future Like Our’s Argument 


12. Killing us is prima facie wrong. 

13. Killing us is prima facie wrong because it deprives us of our valuable futures (a “future like our’s”).

14. Fetuses have valuable futures’s like ours.

15. Anything with a valuable future like our’s is prima facie wrong to kill.

Therefore fetuses are prima facie wrong to kill.

Therefore, abortion is prima facie wrong.







5. The Impairment Argument


  1. It would be wrong to drink excessively during pregnancy so as to cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the child (and then adult). 

  2. If it would be wrong to drink excessively during pregnancy so as to cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the child (and then adult), then it is wrong to “impair” a fetus. 

  3. If it’s wrong to impair a fetus by doing things that result in it having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (an impairment), then it’s wrong to kill the fetus since that’s a far greater (greatest?) impairment. 

  4. Therefore, it’s wrong to kill a fetus since that’s a great or greatest impairment.

  5. So abortion is typically wrong.