The issue of abortion has been gridlocked in debate for many years, and often our attempts to move forward end in frustration. I think that may be because we’re asking the wrong question most of the time, and seeking to answer multi-disciplinary questions through only one avenue of thought, namely science. The problem is the abortion debate does not hinge on science, but on philosophy.
We often begin our line of questions by asking, “when does life begin?”
But that’s the wrong question to ask.
The question we ought to be asking is, “when is it morally justifiable to kill an innocent living human?”
Allow me to explain.
Why is it that most pro-life individuals say, “life begins at conception”?
Scientifically speaking it is an undisputed fact that the moment an egg is fertilized (at conception) that a living thing begins. Now, it is also a fact that a mosquito is a living thing, so the idea that “life begins” doesn’t necessarily have moral implications. Most people don’t have a moral objection to killing a mosquito, and no one is rallying to try to get mosquitos legal protection. There is no doubt that killing a mosquito ends a life, but that isn’t a moral problem (for most people). Likewise, saying that there is a life at conception isn’t really the issue at hand in regards to abortion. There are plenty of living things we have no moral objection to killing.
The real question lies in what kind of value a living thing has. If a life is valuable then it warrants legal protection and it is considered immoral to intentionally kill it.
The question of value is not a scientific question, though it is often treated as such, value isn’t something that science can prove nor disprove. It is by nature a metaphysical concept. But in recent years many have tried to create scientific dogma in order to dictate the nature of value with the intent to justify abortion.
And as Kierkegaard says,
How strange everything becomes when metaphysics and dogmatics are distorted by treating dogmatics metaphysically and metaphysics dogmatically.
Science is a discipline that is observational, studying information to explain how things work. It is a wonderful discipline, and its discoveries have revealed complexities about our world that are beautiful and incredible. But science, as with every discipline, has limits, science functions to answer the question “how?”, not “why?”.
The questions“why?” can only be addressed by philosophy.
And just as you cannot use philosophy to explain how our lungs function to give us breath, you cannot use science to explain why we exist to breathe in the first place. Metaphysics is a philosophical idea and can only be explained via philosophy.
So then, the disagreement within the abortion debate is not a scientific one; it is a metaphysical one. Essentially we agree that a living thing begins at conception (to say otherwise would be to deny scientific evidence), we even know this living thing is a human living thing (early in development, but human nonetheless), but what we do not agree on is whether that human living thing has value.
In the pro-life camp we argue that humans have value period. By nature of being a human and alive we are valuable; there is no external qualification needed. Because we believe human life is intrinsically valuable we argue that it ought to be protected at every stage of development, and thus abortion should not be a legal practice.
In the pro-choice camp they operate with the presupposition that human life is stratified in value. Some lives have more value than others. They have external measurements to determine value, such as:
Location: those who are inside the womb are less valuable than those outside of it.
Appearance: those who look different or less developed are less valuable than those who look more like a fully developed, “normal” human.
Age: those who are less developed have less value than those who have developed more (this is debated among pro-choice individual, while some attribute value after 20-weeks in utero, others such as Peter Singer, attribute value after a child has turned 2-years-old).
Measurable proof of thought processes (EEG and proof of brain activity—which is about 20 weeks in utero): those who cannot externally prove their brain activity are less valuable than those who can.
Quality of life: those with a poorer quality of life are less valuable than those who are healthy and fully “functioning”.
Degree of being wanted by a parent: those who are unwanted are less valuable than those who are wanted.
Mother vs. Fetus: those who are in the position of “offspring” are less valuable than those who are in the position of mother.
Gender: those who are female are less valuable than those who are male (the most common reason for abortions in China due to their one-child policy and their valuation of sons over daughters).
What is most important to recognize here is that neither the pro-choice camp nor the pro-life camp can ever prove value in any of these situations. Yet, the propaganda that surrounds the debate makes it sound as though pro-life individuals don’t have science on our side. The truth is, scientific evidence doesn’t answer the question. Pro-choice people can’t disprove that human life has intrinsic value any more than they can prove that a 2-year-old has value. The pro-choice camp has its entire argument built on conjecture, and determine when human life is valuable based on external evidence of man’s determination without any proof that it is tied to value in the first place. This is a pretty dangerous angle to take in light of the enormity of the implications in the event of error, and one that is especially vulnerable to abuse. If a human life has to fulfill some kind of criteria in order to be seen as valuable and deserving protection it puts all of us in a position to determine the fates of human life based on what the strong determine over the weak.
It is hubris to base our ethic on something so prone to human error. What’s more, there is no logical response to those who decide a different arbitrary definition of value. How can someone who believes a human life with Down’s Syndrome is less valuable and thus morally justifiable to kill, and then turn and say that Action T4 (the forced euthanasia of the mentally ill under the Nazi regime) was morally wrong? If value is something we define and attribute based on our own changing definitions, then we cannot condemn anyone who has a different definition. If however, value is something unchanging, universal and inherent in being a living human, then we have something solid from which we can build an ethic and law.
So, back to the question I posed at the beginning,
“when is it morally justifiable to kill an innocent living human?”
According to the pro-choice camp the answer is prone to change. Some say anytime from conception until half-way in the birth canal; or before 20-weeks in utero; or before a baby takes its first breath; or before the age of 2; or if they are mentally or physically deficient, or if they are unwanted; or if they are a result of someone else’s crimes (in the event of rape); or if they are female.
According to the pro-life camp the answer to the question, “when is it morally justifiable to kill an innocent living human?” is resolutely, “never”.
The pro-choice camp has its argument based on weak definitions, and it is dangerously vulnerable to abuse, wherein our fates are determined by the elite over the minority. It’s an argument based on preference.
The pro-life argument, however, is one that posits a fixed determination for the value of human life. It therefore prevents abuse of the majority over the minority and it is universally applicable, thus preventing us from making the egregious mistake of transgressing into the immoral killing of innocent human life (i.e.murder).
So, I ask you:
When is it morally justifiable to kill an innocent human life?
If your answer is anything other than “never”, the philosophical burden of proof lies with you.
I think your philosophical argument is pretty strong, but it’s still reliant on ambiguous terminology. Let’s look at the question, “When is it morally justifiable to kill an innocent human life?” You’ve explained a partial hierarchy of comparative values for “life”, but not a complete one. The main legal and scientific demarcation for the definition of a human life is VIABILITY, a word you didn’t even mention. All the arguments over the justification for “killing” (which is also under-defined in this article) become moot if the individual being is incapable of survival outside the womb. Heartbeats and brain activity become irrelevant measures when lungs and pleura don’t mature sufficiently for independent survival until 23-25 weeks, when the percentage of individuals that can survive passes 50%. Any being younger is a POTENTIAL human, rather than an actual human.
That’s a vital distinction. There are obvious practical problems to extending full legal rights and protections to a being incapable of independent survival. It’s also pretty easy to morally and philosophically justify granting superior rights to a mother (full human) over those of a fetus under 23 weeks (potential human). The “unborn” individual may die in utero, may be miscarried, may die during the birth process, or from complications after. That’s too many “ifs” to balance equally against the rights and privileges of those who completed birth themselves, and who have survived.
(I’m a senior Radiologic Technologist and former medical assistant. I’ve worked with neonates in a variety of hospitals and clinics.)
Thanks for your comment, Invisible Mikey. I am so glad you brought up viability, as this has been used legally and morally to justify the killing of the living fetus prior to 24 weeks in many states. However, my point still remains that this is a philosophical assertion, not a scientific one. Scientifically speaking a living human thing with the potential to become an embryo, fetus, neonate, toddler, adolescent, young adult, adult, elder will be the natural progression of a fertilized egg. Nothing is necessary to defining a living human thing other than being the unique production of a new human (i.e. from the human species). All other features such as brain activity, cognition, independence, viability, ect. are philosophical contingencies – meaning they are not necessary to the definition of a living human thing. Lastly, the definition of a human being is (as you mention) a legal term used to provide philosophical (not scientific) definitions to living human subjects. There is nothing potential about a single-celled organism, it is fully realized. The only potential thing is whether it is allowed to continue living.
Thus, viability falls into the same category as the other criteria I listed that has been used in defense of abortion, all of which fall short of proving themselves to be anything but arbitrary lines drawn.