The Case for Discriminating Between
Pre- and Post-Birth “Abortions”
posted at 7:24 pm on March 4, 2012 by Dafydd ab Hugh
Some days ago, my Favorite Blogger posted The Case for Infanticide, as enunciated by a group of Oxfordian medical “ethicists.” No, really:
Parents should be allowed to have their newborn babies killed because they are “morally irrelevant” and ending their lives is no different to abortion, a group of medical ethicists linked to Oxford University has argued.
The article, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, says newborn babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life”. The academics also argue that parents should be able to have their baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when it is born.
Perhaps that’s the reason many on the Left attacked Sarah Palin for giving birth to her son Trig: Progressivist “ethicists” must have wondered why she didn’t just procure an “after-birth abortion.”
The idea that we should allow post-natal killing of babies is, of course, both monstrous and insane; it’s so bizarre that only a card-carrying “ethicist” could hawk it. John Hinderaker naturally rejects such an atavistic, I would say satanic ethic, which flies in the face of thousands of years of Western thought. He’s not one to accept a lunatic assertion just because it’s asserted by a guy who publishes in the Journal of Medical Ethics!
Alas, he then immediately accepts the lunatic assertion next door — because it’s asserted by a guy who publishes in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
Hinderaker buys the same ethicists’ corrolary proposition:
They preferred to use the phrase “after-birth abortion” rather than “infanticide” to “emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus.” [Emphasis added — DaH]
Logically, then, Hinderaker (and nearly all right-to-lifers) would have to agree with the following syllogism:
- Since said ethicists admit that the moral status of a foetus is the same as that of a newborn;
- And since all decent and moral Westerners believe that the moral status of a newborn is the same as that of an adult (i.e., that killing a newborn is morally the same as killing an adult);
- Thus the moral status of a foetus is the same as that of an adult;
- And therefore, medical ethicists have “proven” that abortion is murder. Quod Erat Demonstrandum!
And thereby hangs the tail.
In the pro-lifers’ effort to prove that abortion is akin to actual murder, as well as in the ethicists’ effort to prove that murder is akin to mere abortion, both sides begin from the very same premise: That there is no moral distinction between a zygote, an embryo, a foetus, and a newborn baby. That is, they accept Premise 1 in the syllogism above.
Contrariwise, I demonstrate the philosophical vacuity of that claim by noting that it goes to prove both that killing a newborn is murder, and also that killing a newborn is not murder.
In general, a premise the leads to a logical contradiction suggests that the premise itself is faulty; that’s the generic structure of what’s called Reductio ad Absurdum: To prove proposition X, you assume its opposite (which can be written ~X) then demonstrate that ~X leads to a contradiction, that is, both conclusions A and ~A at the same time.
This isn’t exactly that situation; for one, there is more than one flaw in both syllogisms. Also, it’s certainly possible that one side is right and the other simply wrong, which eliminates the contradiction. Still, it’s a good bet that Premise (1) is just wrong. As further evidence, most pro-lifers reject it viscerally, even while championing it rhetorically. “Do as we say, not as we do!”
For instance, if (1) above were true, then pro-lifers would treat every early-term miscarriage as a death, and they would hold a funeral for the fertilized egg and mourn for months. Which obviously the vast majority do not. There is certainly sadness; but it’s more the sadness of lost opportunity, what might have been, than the kind of long-term grief that accompanies the utterly tragic death of a newborn baby. To be utterly blunt and Spockian about it, I cannot imagine even Sen. Santorum showing his kids a heavy menstrual flow containing a miscarried fertilized egg. It’s just not the same thing.
And on the flip side, many, many pro-choicers who support abortion nevertheless utterly reject infanticide; and they don’t think of it as “after-birth abortion.” I would guess that more than 99% of Americans — and probably more than 95% of pro-life conservatives — do not de facto treat a miscarriage as they would the death of a newborn; even more telling, the same ultramajorities would not even treat abortion the same as they treat infanticide.
If a mother who engages a physician to murder her newborn, nearly everyone in America would demand that not only the doctor but the mother herself be sentenced to life in prison or even the death penalty. But how many demand life (or death) for women who obtain an abortion?
There is no way to spin it: Even right-to-lifers by and large treat early-term abortions very differently than they would treat infanticide or late-term abortions. Except for a tiny, easily dismissed subgroup, we all discriminate between those two very different acts. Even those who condemn abortion do not call for the same punishment as they rightly demand for infanticides.
Right-to-lifers often argue, against their own actions, that there is no logical place for humanness to begin other than conception (and, as a hidden assumption, they generally equate humanness with moral personhood). But of course, there are many other points that folks can and historically have believed constitute the beginning of moral personhood, e.g.:
- At conception (week two — remember that you begin counting from the last menstruation, typically two weeks before pregnancy).
- When the fertilized egg implants itself to the uterine wall, indicating that it’s now a pregnancy (fourth week).
- When it first begins to divide, indicating that it’s growing (shortly after implantation).
- At the “Gummy Bear” stage, when it takes on the basic mammalian (quadruped) shape, as seen via ultrasound (sixth week).
- When the foetus first begins to move, still only detectable via medical equipment (eighth week).
- When a doctor can first detect a heartbeat (week 10 to 12).
- At “quickening,” when the mother can first feel the foetus move (about halfway through gestation, week 20-21).
- When the cerebral cortex becomes “human,” in the sense of developing the brain structures that will allow the eventual baby to use language and think in a human way, as opposed to merely a mammalian or even primate way (eighth month, roughly half-way through the third trimester).
- At birth.
And on beyond zebra…
- When the baby draws its first breath (traditional Jewish teaching is that the soul enters the body at that point).
- At the severing of the umbilical cord, indicating complete autonomy from the mother’s body.
- After some months or years following the birth, when the liberal “ethicist” finally decides he likes the baby enough not to kill and eat it.
Any one of these points can logically be chosen as the beginning of moral personhood — the point at which the developing foetus or baby should be considered a person and be afforded the moral rights of all other persons. Most of them have, at one time or other in history, been chosen by some society, primitive or sophisticated; for an extreme example, a number of societies have considered children expendable until they reached a certain age.
In fact, I would say that societies are largely defined by who they consider to be “persons.” The more savage a society, the more it tends to restrict personhood to a smaller and smaller subset of the population; they exclude members of non-allied tribes, children under some set age, often women in general, those of insufficient status (especially slaves), those who violate the law, those with mental or physical deformities, those with afflictions or conditions, those thought to be witches or sorcerers, and so forth.
We Americans must choose at what stage of development personhood obtains, as must every society. But we must choose on the basis of a real consensus — based upon how folks act in real life, not some theoretical construct divorced from day to day life. And since real people in the real world do not treat, and never in our history have treated miscarriage the same as the death of a newborn, I think it prudent to find a consensus somewhere north of conception but south of birth.
This doesn’t require that everyone believe that the consensus point marks the place that Nature and Nature’s God give us our souls… the consensus point marks only the point at which our society confers legal personhood, pledging to protect, thenceforth, the rights and liberties of the new legal person.
Therefore, pace, John Hinderaker, but… a right-to-lifer can no more call it “proven” that abortion is as morally bad as infanticide — than can a heartless secularist call it “proven” that infanticide is no morally worse than abortion. Many rational and logical points in foetal development other than either conception or birth can demarcate potential persons, which as yet have no moral rights, from actual persons who certainly do.
I said “north of conception but south of birth”: When any pre-natal point other than conception is chosen, then necessarily, during some of the earliest weeks of gestation, the entity is not a legal person, and abortion is legally allowable. On the other hand, during the later weeks of gestation, the foetus becomes a child and is legally a person; after that point, not only would abortion only be allowed if required to save the mother’s life (not merely her “health”), but every effort must be made to save the child; removing a baby from the womb without attempting to save its life would constitute negligent homicide at the least.
As you can see, logically, we cannot even begin to proceed deciding what to do about abortion until we first establish a national consensus on where we shall define legal personhood to begin. This national consensus cannot be too close to either extreme (conception or birth), because a forced “consensus” is not a concensus at all but a diktat… and experience teaches that a law that is utterly rejected by a large portion of ordinary members of society is a prescription for disaster, perhaps even leading to national suicide. (Cf. same-sex marriage/polygamy in America.)
Alas, we have never grappled, as a society and in a meaningful way, with the definition of personhood; in particular, when it’s conferred and whether there are entities that are biologically human but will never be accorded personhood — an anencephalic baby, for example, or a human being so severely retarded that he or she has none of the most basic attributes we associate with persons.
Of course, nothing stops a society from choosing to confer “created rights” upon non-persons, pre-persons, former persons, or even animals, protecting both those who are expected to develop human-like consciousness, those who never had human-like consciousness, and those who had it at one time, but through disease or misadventure, no longer retain it; note laws protecting those in an irreversible coma, laws prohibiting cruelty to animals, and laws against desecrating the dead. But such laws are actually to preserve the sacred dignity of the persons who love such non-persons.
A state should thus be allowed to choose to protect the rights and liberty of pre-natal life even if it’s not yet legally a person. But all states should be mandated to protect the rights and liberties (including the right to life) of anyone already a person via the national consensus.
My personal choice for the national personhood consensus is Point 8, the humanization of the cerebellum; I believe in a soul, but I believe it can only live in a human, not animal brain; until the brain develops human-like functions, I cannot see that a soul would find a place to fit. But this is likely too far along in the pregnancy to be generally accepted.
Among those who don’t believe in ensoulment, I’m sure you would still find much disagreement about when the entity becomes a person, from conception to deciding the kid is cute enough to live (assuming that doesn’t disrupt the Progressivists’ lifestyle). But we seem to have settled upon a de-facto consensus as somewhere within the second trimester.
For a number of reasons, therefore, I nominate quickening (Point 7) as the logical national consensus for when our society confers legal personhood:
- It’s about halfway through the second trimester, hence halfway through the pregnancy; it’s a nice, round number, and we all tend to like round numbers.
- It’s easily detectable by routine doctor’s examination; hence, such an examination would be determinative for legal purposes.
- It marks the first time the expectant mother can actually feel that the thing inside her is a living being, moving of its own volition; she cannot deny that she has another life growing inside her.
- In Western history, It’s one of the points during gestation that has been frequently chosen by societies for the moment of ensoulment.
(Notice none of these reasons depends upon the specious Roe v. Wade criterion of “viability,” which of course varies depending on the current state of medical technology.)
But whichever point we as a society finally choose, we need to get started on that conversation. Without it, the only principled action we can take regarding abortion, contraception, and reproductive rights is the Monkey Moot: screech hysterically and fling poo at each other.
Cross-posted on Big Lizards…