A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Why I Changed My Mind about Abortion


I was pro-life all my life until I became an atheist. But even when I became an atheist, it took a long time before I switched to pro-choice, about a year, in fact. I knew that most atheists were pro-choice, but I didn’t want to change my mind for that reason. Atheism is not about conformity, and I was determined that only evidence of the highest standard would allow me to shift my ground.

First, let me explain why I was pro-life. Because I was never religious, my objections to abortion were not religious. I didn’t believe that God was against abortion. I never held the view that an embryo was a human life, and therefore that abortion was murder. Nor did I prescribe to The Great Beethoven Fallacy. My reason for objecting to abortion, was that I believed an embryo to be a potential human life, and that it was wrong to terminate it. Whether it would go on to be the next Beethoven, or the next Hitler, didn’t bother me. I believed that it had a right to find out, the right to a chance at life.

I was also distressed by the paradox of abortions being carried out while infertile couples were, through no fault of their own, cruelly unable to have the children they so strongly desired. It reminded me of learning about the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, when people starved to death in the streets of New York while farmers on the West Coast were forced to burn their crops to keep the prices down, in a desperate effort to avoid the same fate. I saw adoption as a far more humane alternative to abortion.

As with many of the views I held prior to becoming an atheist, I am not ashamed looking back, but do feel that I was a little misguided. After I became an atheist, I thought long and hard about this, and read a lot around the subject. I came to realise that there were inconsistencies in my reasoning that, try as I might, I could not reconcile.

I believed that abortion was an act of preventing a potential human life from becoming an actual human life. I realised that if I thought that this was wrong, I had to accept that all acts of preventing potential life from becoming actual life were wrong as well. This would include contraception of any form, and even abstinence from any opportunity to have intercourse. Unless I could find an objective difference between abortion and other forms of birth control, I had to either condemn or condone them all.

Well, I thought, abstinence and contraception are only preventing the possibility of a human life. There is nothing to say that an act of unprotected sex would definitely lead to an actual human life, so it’s not certain that contraception or abstinence would be preventing it. Abortion, I thought, was definitely preventing a potential human life from coming into existence, which made it a different situation. It didn’t take a lot of research to see that I was mistaken. We have no way of knowing that a terminated pregnancy would have run its full term. It may have eventually been a miscarriage, or a still birth. I also learned that sometimes embryos are naturally terminated by the woman’s own body, and that some forms of birth control work in, essentially, the same way as a chemical abortion. So, I was back at square one. If I condemned abortion on the grounds of preventing a potential human life becoming an actual human life, I also had to condemn contraception and abstinence of any form. I was not prepared to do that, as the use of condoms is essential to preventing STI’s, and as for morally objecting to the abstinence from any opportunity to copulate, well, I suppose it would be fun for a while, but not really practical. I would have to look elsewhere.

Not wanting to give in too easily, I decided to examine the claim that an embryo is, itself, an actual human life. I read the arguments with an open mind, but I could not be swayed. A globule of cells, compared to which a gnat is infinitely more complex, is not a human life. I make the point about lack of complexity to illustrate just how far away an embryo is from being what we recognise as a human. I looked for as many possible definitions of “human”, “human being” and “person” as I could, to see if an embryo could be said to fit any of them. It couldn’t. Even the fact that the embryo is in the active process of preparing to become a human, that it has been given 50% of each of its parents genes and that its DNA code already holds the blueprint for the human being it could become, does not make it human. In the weeks before a new house is built, there will be architects at the site with blue prints and builders with bricks and cement preparing to get started. But the house itself does not yet exist. An embryo, unlike a human, has no cerebral cortex, which means it has no consciousness of any kind, and no nervous system, meaning that it cannot suffer in any possible way. If an abortion does not end any conscious life, and does not cause any suffering, I pondered, how can it possibly be wrong? The only reasonable answer, is that it can’t.

I returned to the question of adoption. Was it morally acceptable for people to have abortions when other people who were infertile would have been able to adopt the baby and provide a loving environment for it? What my reading lead me to conclude, was that if the embryo was not a human life, then it was part of the woman’s body, and therefore she should have the right to make any decision about what happened to it. Pregnancy and childbirth are gruelling ordeals for the woman’s body to endure, and I could not see how the law should be able to force them to suffer it against their will.

I realised that I had been mislead by the media and cultural stereotypes that unwanted pregnancies were always for young, irresponsible, promiscuous girls who were too arrogant, lazy or ignorant to take the proper precautions. Although that is certainly sometimes the case, it is ignorant to think that it is always the case. A couple in their thirties, deeply in love and monogamous, responsible and careful, could fall pregnant despite their best efforts with contraception. Unable to financially provide for a child, should they be prevented, by law, from terminating that pregnancy without causing any suffering to anyone or anything? I couldn’t find a rational, reasonable route to the answer “yes”.

With nowhere else to turn, I realised that my only option was to follow the evidence and change my position from pro-life to pro-choice. One thing that atheism had taught me, was that morality was rarely ever black and white, but nearly always varying shades of grey. I am in favour of abortion, but that doesn’t mean that I like it. I don’t. It is something that, if we lived in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need. Sadly, and I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention, we don’t live in a perfect word.

29 Responses to “Why I Changed My Mind about Abortion”

  1. If an embryo isn’t a human being, then what is it? I know: many people will say: it’s a potential life. That’s saying what it’s NOT. It’s not human. Okay, then what IS it?

    An embryo is obviously an organism. So what species of organism is it? A human being, of course– a member of our species.

    I would say that since you did not acknowledge the equality of the unborn child to begin with, you weren’t truly pro-life, just anti-abortion. Pro-life means you’re for life, not in favour of potential life.

  2. Actually, Suzie, it’s not at all obvious that an embryo does count as its own organism. You can ask any reputable embryologist about that.

  3. @ Suzanne

    If an embryo isn’t a human being, then what is it?

    The answer is in the question. An embryo is exactly that, an embryo.

    An embryo is obviously an organism. So what species of organism is it? A human being, of course– a member of our species.

    This is like saying an egg is a chicken.

    I would say that since you did not acknowledge the equality of the unborn child to begin with, you weren’t truly pro-life, just anti-abortion. Pro-life means you’re for life, not in favour of potential life.

    Fair enough. I tend to just use the two terms to mean for it or against it, but I see where you’re coming from.

  4. tobe,

    good post. I came to a similar conclusion, with the added proviso that we should attempt to establish a point of sentience for the fetus.

    While I think the arguments of pro-lifers that “human life begins at conception” are absurd, I think the arguments on the other side of “fetal ownership” are equally absurd.

    http://mycaseagainstgod.blogspot.com/2007/02/pro-fetal-ownership-argument.html

    I try to strike a middle ground, such that we try to determine when the fetus would first become self-aware, and discourage abortion after that point (notice I didn’t say make it illegal). Here’s a link to my post on sentience:

    http://www.blacksunjournal.com/religion/53_the-question-of-sentience_2005.html

  5. Extremely well written, I had similar views about abortion and was still confused on the matter, thank you for mentioning about abstaining from any opportunity to have intercourse. Gave me a nice thought and a nice chuckle, and helped me clear things out in my head a bit. I can just imagine Christians jumping all over eachother in the name of God, heh.

  6. I came to a similar conclusion, with the added proviso that we should attempt to establish a point of sentience for the fetus.

    I found the site Visible Embryo useful on that count — not least because it looks like it’s designed more for interested pregnant mothers than to fuel an abortion debate, so the information is less likely to be biased.

    It contains the remark

    From 12–23 weeks, the brain has a smooth surface, with two or three layers differentiated in the cerebral cortex.

    At 23 weeks and earlier, the cerebral ventricles are large, afterwhich they gradually become smaller. The subarachnoid space overlying the cortical convexities are slightly dilated at all gestational ages, but most at 21–26 weeks.

    During the last 3 months, connections between neurones will amass while growing longer and thicker.

    as well as saying that sensory brain waves begin to activate at 24 weeks. Maybe that’s an indication that self-awareness is a third trimester thing — though of course I don’t pretend to be an expert.

  7. @ Blacksun

    Well, I certainly agree that the “Pro-Fetal Ownership Argument” is utterly ludicrous! I agree with almost everything you said in your post, although I was under the impression that sentience was pretty much impossible prior to 20 weeks. It’s been a while since I did my homework though. The only thing I take issue with, is that once the unborn baby can be classed indesputably as human, it’s termination should be classed as murder, and therefore illegal. If the baby is an actual human being, the mother should no more have the choice to kill it while it’s inside her body than she would have once it had been born.

    @ Yeti

    thank you for mentioning about abstaining from any opportunity to have intercourse. Gave me a nice thought and a nice chuckle, and helped me clear things out in my head a bit. I can just imagine Christians jumping all over eachother in the name of God, heh.

    My pleasure🙂 It would be pretty hilarious if Christians abandoned their values of abstinence for the other extreme – it might do them some good!

  8. Nicely reasoned argument, tobe, and I agree.

    For the benefit of some of the commenters, though, I’m going to take an extreme position here. Bear in mind that I don’t hold this view because I believe that a fetus of eight-and-a-half months should be aborted on a whim of its mother. But that’s a straw man set up by the anti-abortion forces.

    I’m very uncomfortable granting “rights” to any unborn thing, or speaking of it as a “person.” Why pick sentience as a dividing line? Why not the ability to move, or the ability to generate new cells? And what is sentience in this context, anyway? The granting of rights to the fetus — even the right to life — implies the rescinding of rights already possessed by the mother. In cases where the mother’s life or health is threatened by continuing a pregnancy, no matter how advanced that pregnancy is, I believe that her rights should always trump an embryo’s.

    That’s why I no longer use the term “pro-life.” For me, the people who are anti-abortion are “pro-forced-maternity.”

  9. I’m in Exterminator’s camp on this one.

    I’ve always been pro-choice, pro-abortion, whatever label you want to place on it. I used to look at it from the society eye view. We, as society, have always reserved the right to take human life. Death penalty, self-defense, war, all involve the relaxation of the idea that human life is sacred, and should never be taken. But I’ve moved away from that argument, because the focus is wrong.

    Now, I believe we allow abortion if it’s the mother’s choice. Period. Who are we to tell a woman that once she’s pregnant, she no longer has the right to do with her body as she sees fit? Why does this little mass of cells have more rights to her body than she does? It’s a parasite, for christsake! It can’t live for 9 months without her body to feed on (well, maybe less, but thank science, not god for that one). And she now has to abdicate the use of her body because some guy wearing funny robes in the Vatican says so?

    That’s where the choice in pro-choice comes from, for me. If I had a growth on my prostate, would I appreciate it if society, or a pope, told m I had to leave it there? That growth is alive. It’s arguably human.

    No way, Jose’! It’s gone.

    Women get to say the same thing. Or they don’t have to. It’s their choice.

  10. The Exterminator said:

    Why pick sentience as a dividing line? Why not the ability to move, or the ability to generate new cells? And what is sentience in this context, anyway?

    Sentience is self awareness. It is the form of consciousness that separates humans from other living things. That’s why it’s the dividing line, not just movement or generating new cells, which other living things can do. Once it is sentient, it is, by at least one definition, a human being. We have laws against killing human beings.
    Having said that, I find myself wanting to agree that if the mother’s life is in danger, hers should take precedence over the baby’s. I’m not sure I can support that rationally though, I’ll have to think about it.
    But once the fetus becomes a human being, it’s not a part of the woman’s body, it’s a human being inside her body. The location of that human being is irrelevant, it’s termination should be classed as murder, pure and simple.
    Just to clarify, I am pro-choice (or pro-abortion, whatever you want to call it) of embryos, or any other stage prior to actually being human. But it doesn’t just become human when it is born, it is human long before that.

    The granting of rights to the fetus — even the right to life — implies the rescinding of rights already possessed by the mother.

    I agree, but that’s a good thing. Parents don’t have unlimited rights over their children. They are not possessions. For example, they do not have the right to abuse them physically. They also don’t have the right to kill them. Terminatination after the point when the unborn is actually human would be exactly that.

  11. Hello Tobe,
    Did you get my e-mail response? I’m not asking for a reply, I just want to make sure I typed the correct e-mail address.

    I believed that abortion was an act of preventing a potential human life from becoming an actual human life. I realised that if I thought that this was wrong, I had to accept that all acts of preventing potential life from becoming actual life were wrong as well. This would include contraception of any form, and even abstinence from any opportunity to have intercourse. Unless I could find an objective difference between abortion and other forms of birth control, I had to either condemn or condone them all.

    There are several problems I find with this paragraph and the line of reasoning. First and foremost is that I think it’s fair to assume that the organism that is growing in the womb is a member of a species. Each cell is a human cell. So, I would not say “potential human life.” It is actual human life. But, I would say “potential person.” Having no brain stem or nervous system at the early stages, it’s quite obvious there’s no consciousness.
    As for prevention, I think you’ve taken an unecessary step onto the ledge of a slippery slope by saying preventing potential must necessarily regress back to preventing copulation. There is an empirical difference between preventing conception and terminating a fetus. Once the egg is fertilized, the process quite literally takes on a life of its own. That is a life that, hitherto, didn’t exist. There’s no need to concern ourselved with potential life, only actual life that has the potential to result in sentience.
    On the matter of contraception: There are methods that I would disagree with that do function as chemical abortions. But, I have no problem with the those that prevent conception, as the word implies.

    We could argue that even a newborn’s consciousness is probably on par with a fish or maybe a “lesser” mammal. At this point, killing that organism would be no more the elimination of a sentient being than slaughtering livestock or euthenizing a stray animal. If you think my example is faulty, reason me out of it. If we are going to choose Sentience, then I see no logical reason to place limits at the 3rd trimester or even post-natal, other than its “creepy” factor.

    Though there are natural hazards in gestation, I would say that life after the birth canal includes many risks as well. I just don’t see how the potential pitfalls of biology should allow us to step in and terminate life any more than putting a terminally ill patient to death without his consent or placing less value on sickly people who may die of natural causes early on anyway.

    I don’t see that geography of an embryo has anything to do with “possession.” Advanced technology may one day make even blastulas viable outside the womb.

    It’s strange Tobe, like you, I’ve heard some really good pro-choice arguments, yet I find them all completely unconvincing. Many of these arguments would, if applied consistently, allow for termination of newborns and mental defectives. The only thing that prevents it is that society would balk at such suggestions…today.
    Again, I have to ask: given that the reason for more than 90% of abortions has nothing to do with rape, incest, or the health of the mother, just what principle are we placing above human life? I am not an absolutist, I think there are times that the medical procedure of abortion ought to be brought to bear on a situation that requires a medical response for the physical or even mental health of the would-be mother, but this is not its current function in the vast majority of cases.

  12. I know I’m pushing the bounds of good manners here today by wearing out my wlecome🙂 but I wanted to make a point about the abortion debate itself.

    I know a few Christians who are not only pro-choice, but see it as the only intelligent option if you don’t want a kid. These same Christians also favor embryonic stem cell research, naturally. These are not “lukewarm” or even moderate Christians.
    Meanwhile, there are Pro-life atheists (though for some reason I haven’t read any of their stuff, yet!)
    I only mention this because there is a tendency among atheists to assume that only the religious have a problem with “Choice.” That somehow the only way to believe in “Life” is to posit a “soul” or subscribe to the supernatural. Consequently, I see a lot of out of hand dismissals of the pro-life stance as if it were simply a faith-based imposition of religion on society. Issues are seldom black and white, us vs. them (Of course the evil ID movement comes to mind as an exception to that rule).
    I am open to the possibility that I may be presented with arguments or facts (about any issue) that will turn me, and I even half expect it. Because anyone whose whole world has been turned upside down but is still absolutely sure about the infallibility of their logic and the perfection of their knowledge hasn’t learned much from their deconversion.

  13. tobe:

    I admire your effort to think through your position on the abortion issue, and, on a purely emotional level, agree with much of what you say. But, I’m going to stay in the extreme anti-forced-maternity camp for now, at least in responding to your last comment to me.

    You said:

    Sentience is self awareness. It is the form of consciousness that separates humans from other living things

    .

    I would argue that most animals are self-aware, at least to some extent. If you’re using sentience to mean the kind of self-awareness that humans have (although certainly not unique to our species) — e.g., recognizing oneself in a mirror, having a concept of “mine” and “yours,” making some type of connection between one’s actions and external results, etc., etc. — then I would argue that a fetus is most definitely not sentient. I don’t think the embryo is “aware” of its own existence; it’s not Descartes. (Even Descartes’ embryo was not Descartes.) So define sentience again, OK?

    You also said:

    Parents don’t have unlimited rights over their children. They are not possessions. For example, they do not have the right to abuse them physically. They also don’t have the right to kill them. Terminatination after the point when the unborn is actually human would be exactly that.

    Aaagh. That paragraph of yours sounds like it was written by a rabid anti-abortionist. For the umpteenth time, a “fetus” is not the same as a “child;” an “unborn” is not the same as a “child;” an embryo is not the same as a “child.” Nor is a fetus, an unborn, or an embryo a “person.” Please notice that you neglect to mention the oh-so-small detail that a mother doesn’t carry her live children attached inside her own body.

  14. @ Polly

    First and foremost is that I think it’s fair to assume that the organism that is growing in the womb is a member of a species. Each cell is a human cell. So, I would not say “potential human life.” It is actual human life.

    I don’t accept your premise that the organism is a member of the human species. As I said to Suzanne earlier, an egg is not a chicken. It is certainly preparing to become a human, but as I said in the main article, the plans for a building along with the materials are not the building itself.

    I think you’ve taken an unecessary step onto the ledge of a slippery slope by saying preventing potential must necessarily regress back to preventing copulation. There is an empirical difference between preventing conception and terminating a fetus. Once the egg is fertilized, the process quite literally takes on a life of its own. That is a life that, hitherto, didn’t exist.

    Bearing in my mind my premise that the embryo is not a human life:

    termination of embryo = probably preventing human life from coming into existence.
    Abstinence from an opportunity to have sex that could lead to conception = probably preventing human life from coming into existence.

    The only difference is at what point in the process of preparation, or potential human life you terminate. Why, objectively, is one ok but the other not? Suppose I apply for planning permission for a house. Whether it gets rejected outright, or we get to the site and have all the plans, builders and materials ready, only to find out there was a mix up and we didn’t get permission afterall, the outcome is the same – building probably prevented from coming into existence.

    We could argue that even a newborn’s consciousness is probably on par with a fish or maybe a “lesser” mammal. At this point, killing that organism would be no more the elimination of a sentient being than slaughtering livestock or euthenizing a stray animal. If you think my example is faulty, reason me out of it.

    A newborn baby has a brain that is capable of sapience (perhaps a better term for the discussion than ‘sentience’). As the exterminator pointed out, it’s not Descartes. That’s true, but not because its brain doesn’t have the capacity to process that information, it does. With a fully functioning human brain, it now has the attributes that make it human, and that’s why it is now wrong to kill it.

    @ The Exterminator

    I would argue that most animals are self-aware, at least to some extent. If you’re using sentience to mean the kind of self-awareness that humans have (although certainly not unique to our species) — e.g., recognizing oneself in a mirror, having a concept of “mine” and “yours,” making some type of connection between one’s actions and external results, etc., etc. — then I would argue that a fetus is most definitely not sentient. I don’t think the embryo is “aware” of its own existence; it’s not Descartes. (Even Descartes’ embryo was not Descartes.) So define sentience again, OK?

    As I’ve said, perhaps “sapient” is a more appropriate term than “sentient”. Sapient means the brain is capable of wisdom, not just primitive self awareness, but the ability to actually comtemplate our place in the cosmos. The baby won’t do that, but not because its brain isn’t capable of it. Once the fetus has what we recognise as a human brain, it is not ethical to kill it.

    Aaagh. That paragraph of yours sounds like it was written by a rabid anti-abortionist. For the umpteenth time, a “fetus” is not the same as a “child;” an “unborn” is not the same as a “child;” an embryo is not the same as a “child.” Nor is a fetus, an unborn, or an embryo a “person.” Please notice that you neglect to mention the oh-so-small detail that a mother doesn’t carry her live children attached inside her own body.

    A fetus that is 1 week from its due birth date is a baby. It has two arms and two legs, 10 fingers and 10 toes, a heat and lungs, eyes, a mouth that can smile and a brain that can think. How, exactly, is that not the same as a child? It is a child. It just happens to be inside its mother’s body. How can it be ok to kill it when it’s inside, and not when it’s outside? At this point, it is not a glob of cells, a parasite inside a human body – it has a human body!

    There is an irony here – that I’m fighting war on two fronts. I’m stuck between Polly, who is saying that we can’t kill an unborn after 1 week, and the Exterminator who says we can kill it after 44 weeks. My argument is simple – if it’s human we can’t terminate, if it’s not we can. I don’t think it’s hard to define the point where it becomes human. Humans aren’t difficult to spot – they look pretty much like us and behave like us.

  15. 44 Weeks? Geez! “The Exterminator”screen name is certainly apropos!

    @Tobe:
    I suppose we will just have to agree to disagree about the term “human life.” For as far as I can tell, it’s a living thing and has 47 chromosomes; genetically, it’s a human. “Embryo” isn’t a useful ontological category and, anyway, that would simply relocate the argument and engender the creation of further semantics. Standard definitions of “human” aren’t appropriate for framing this debate because we are, in one aspect, trying to figure out what a “human” is. It’s circular to look to the existing definitions.
    You make a very good point in distinguishing between “sapient” and “sentient.” Though, from the conception end it has no bearing, it does nullify some of my concerns about the consistent application of a sentience-based system. Such a system can lead to the intellectual justification of infanticide. “Sapience” puts you on much firmer ground, I think.

    You are in an unenviable position. It’s a very touchy subject and I’m glad you had the guts to post it. (and great traffic generator, too😉 )

  16. Why is its humanity so important? That seems just like an academic decision. Surely we should be asking “Will it suffer?”

    If not, surely we can kill great-apes with no moral implications – after all, they’re not human?

    Perhaps the development of a nervous system and the ability to feel pain (as far as we can determine) it more relevant?

  17. @ Polly

    I suppose we will just have to agree to disagree about the term “human life.”

    Yes, that does appear to be the crux of our particular disagreement.

    Standard definitions of “human” aren’t appropriate for framing this debate because we are, in one aspect, trying to figure out what a “human” is. It’s circular to look to the existing definitions.

    I disagree. There’s no need for the ambiguity surrounding the term ‘human’. We do know what a human is, just like we know what a chicken is, and a lion and a dolphin and an oak tree. There are criteria that have to be met, and an embryo doesn’t.

    You make a very good point in distinguishing between “sapient” and “sentient.” Though, from the conception end it has no bearing, it does nullify some of my concerns about the consistent application of a sentience-based system. Such a system can lead to the intellectual justification of infanticide. “Sapience” puts you on much firmer ground, I think.

    Thanks. It was a valid objection, and I’m glad to have clarified it in my own mind. The ground feels firmer under my feet.

    You are in an unenviable position. It’s a very touchy subject and I’m glad you had the guts to post it. (and great traffic generator, too😉 )

    Lol. I’d be lying if I said the traffic never crossed my mind, but I was also hoping it would provoke a good debate – and I’ve not been disappointed! (My brain actually aches! :P)

    @ James

    The reason that its humanity is so important, is that if the fetus can be classed as a human being then its termination can be classed as a murder. If that’s the case, the debate ends there. It should be illegal, pure and simple.

    Having said that, suffering is an extremely important point as well, as I said in the article. I completely agree that if the nervous system is in place and suffering possible, termination should not be allowed.

  18. tobe:

    You and I are going to have to agree to disagree — at least in the abstract realm of the Atheosphere — on this subject. Just for my own information, though, I’d like to ask you:

    Could you come up with a reasonable law — so remember your language must be as precise and unambiguous as possible — that grants a woman the right to abortion at the onset of her pregnancy, takes an increasingly ambivalent stand as the pregnancy continues, and then bans abortion outright in the last few weeks. Since, in the U.S. at least, such a law would likely be challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court, you might want to include some rationales to make the law as airtight as possible. (We don’t want to have to use WD40 or duct tape to fix it later.)

  19. @ The Exterminator

    In the UK we have a time limit, which is currently set at 24 weeks, after which abortion is illegal. Personally, I’d prefer the limit to be at 20 weeks, but my point is, what’s wrong with just having a time limit?

    By the way, ROFL at the WD40/duct tape reference. Confused readers may want to check the comments on this post at No More Hornets if they want to be in on the joke.

  20. Perhaps the development of a nervous system and the ability to feel pain (as far as we can determine) it more relevant?

    I consider this the most important criteria personally, whatever other diasgreements we may have, we can all agree that a first-trimester embryo is very unlikely to be capable of experiencing pain, and a newborn baby can feel pain, which removes the sticky issue of the sentience thing poteitnally being used to justify infanticide.
    Some people will say that point of viability outside the womb is the important point, I can see the logic of that and definately agree that that is the absolute latest we should ever consider allowing elective abortions but I don’t personally think we should allow abortions on a whim after the first trimester, but only if there is a good reason for it. After the point of viability, it should only be allowed to terminate the pregnancy if the mother is in danger and we should make an effort to keep the premature baby alive if at all possible.

  21. @tobe
    Sorry, I got the wrong end of the stick. Yes, that’s the legal viewpoint, I thought we were talking moral arguments.

    Whether a human embryo is a human being, part of a human being or a potential human being seems morally academic.

    Let’s hope it isn’t murder to kill a part of a human or we’d better stop shedding skin cells and other filthy habits… ;P

  22. @ James

    Well, if the unborn can be classed as human in its own right, surely it’s morally wrong to kill it?

  23. Well, if the unborn can be classed as human in its own right, surely it’s morally wrong to kill it?

    Years ago, I talked to a girl I worked with who said that she agreed that it was human life in the womb and that it was probably murder to have an abortion, but was pro-choice all the same. Bear in mind this was not an argument, but a casual conversation about many different topics. Neither of our mouths were foaming.

  24. We could argue that even a newborn’s consciousness is probably on par with a fish or maybe a “lesser” mammal. At this point, killing that organism would be no more the elimination of a sentient being than slaughtering livestock or euthenizing a stray animal. If you think my example is faulty, reason me out of it.

    Hi Polly – mind if I give it a shot?

    Let’s say there’s a box. It’s opaque, so you can’t see what’s inside. There may or may not be a human being in there. You have a gun in your hand. Is it a moral act to shoot into the box?

    The obvious answer is no, it’s not okay. If there’s a chance that what you’re doing will kill a human, you should refrain from doing it. It would be irresponsible, probably criminally so, to shoot into the box and just hope there’s nobody in there. And the same is true of abortion.

    The thing is, we don’t know exactly when characteristically human consciousness – personhood – begins. Maybe a newborn infant has it, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe a newborn has a rich mental life on par with any adult, and simply can’t express it because it hasn’t yet learned language. Maybe a newborn has no more of an inner mental life than a fish or a cow. More likely, the answer is somewhere in between. But we don’t know for sure, and if there’s any realistic chance that ending that newborn’s life would be terminating the life of a person, we should refrain from doing so.

    That’s why I support a woman’s freedom to abort prior to the development of large-scale neural complexity and the emergence of characteristically human brainwaves. Before that point, there is no good reason to believe that the fetus is a person. The box is empty. After that point, there may or may not be a person there, and so we should not abort except in case of an urgent risk to the mother (in which case considerations of self-defense take precedence over considerations of personhood). It’s not that there’s a well-defined point when the fetus becomes a person. There isn’t, and that’s precisely why we should err on the side of caution.

  25. I’d also like to address an earlier comment:

    There is an empirical difference between preventing conception and terminating a fetus. Once the egg is fertilized, the process quite literally takes on a life of its own. That is a life that, hitherto, didn’t exist. There’s no need to concern ourselved with potential life, only actual life that has the potential to result in sentience.

    I don’t quite agree with this. The egg and sperm are both alive before they meet and fuse, after all. If egg and sperm together have the potential to produce sentience, surely egg and sperm that are mere moments from contact should be granted that same potential.

    There’s nothing magical that happens at the moment of fertilization, no Rubicon that has been crossed. The only thing that’s changed is that there is now a somewhat greater probability that a human being will exist nine months down the road. (Hardly a certainty, even discounting elective abortion: the rate of spontaneous abortion is estimated to be in the double digits, after all.) And as far as your mention of “a life of its own”, a single-celled zygote is about as far from being “a life of its own” as you can get and still be alive. It is still utterly dependent on the mother, drawing its sustenance, its very moment-to-moment existence, from her uterine lining. It can no more survive on its own than that egg cell or that sperm cell could.

  26. That’s why I support a woman’s freedom to abort prior to the development of large-scale neural complexity and the emergence of characteristically human brainwaves. Before that point, there is no good reason to believe that the fetus is a person. The box is empty. After that point, there may or may not be a person there, and so we should not abort except in case of an urgent risk to the mother (in which case considerations of self-defense take precedence over considerations of personhood). It’s not that there’s a well-defined point when the fetus becomes a person. There isn’t, and that’s precisely why we should err on the side of caution.

    Isn’t his exactly what Justice Blackmun did in Roe v. Wade? He created an arbitrary test where the state weighs the likelihood of personhood in the early stages of pregnancy with the certainty of personhood in the latter stages. There was a lot of medical testimony about this at the trial and he relied on that in coming up with his trimester test. As I say, it was arbitrary, but it was also somewhat reasonable, and has worked quite well for over 30 years.

  27. The egg and sperm are both alive before they meet and fuse,

    I disagree with this. They may be cells, but an egg and a sperm cell, if kept separate, will never reproduce. Forget the fact that, alone, they make up an incomplete genome. They are not even complete cells that can engage in mitosis, and differentiate into the specialized cells needed to become human.

    There’s nothing magical that happens at the moment of fertilization, no Rubicon that has been crossed.

    Magical? No. Significantly transformative? I would respond with a resounding Yes. Here is where I think Tobe’s house analogy broke down – at least for me.

    It is still utterly dependent on the mother, drawing its sustenance, its very moment-to-moment existence, from her uterine lining.

    If you are refering to the viability criterion, then I have to ask where the logical link is between fetal-dependence and the justification of terminating that life. Why is it OK to kill helpless organisms, but not OK to kill them when they can survive outside the womb? This seems like an arbitrary test. Newborns can’t survive without mother’s milk in harsh climes where there may be no alternatives. Modern technology makes such situation hard to imagine, but formula doesn’t grow on trees.

    Regarding sentience, Tobe beat you to it. But, cetainly, erring on the side of caution is one view that I could support. Our disagreement mainly seems to be on the other end of gestation, the beginning.

    Bear in mind, I’m not even advocating embryo RIGHTS. I’m lobbying for human PROTECTION. I believe we have a responsibility to protect our progeny at every stage with everything we have, except where it conflicts with the truest health of the woman.
    That’s another reason I don’t buy into the argument about natural, spontaneous abortions. For one thing, it IS a tragedy when that occurs, but there’s nothing we can do. Just ask any couple trying to get pregnant. For the other reason you can see my earlier comment.

  28. tobe wrote:

    Well, if the unborn can be classed as human in its own right, surely it’s morally wrong to kill it?

    Obviously in general, killing humans is wrong. I don’t think that is the whole story however.

    Is it worthwhile to ask why it is morally wrong to kill humans and in what circumstances? Do you believe that their might be circumstances in which killing a human might be the morally correct choice?

    I don’t think we need to classify an embryo as not human in order to justify abortion in some circumstances.

  29. @ James

    Do you believe that their might be circumstances in which killing a human might be the morally correct choice?

    I certainly do. As an atheist, I reject the 6th Commandment as a religious absolute. Self-defence, for example, or defence of one’s family may justify killing another human.

    I don’t think we need to classify an embryo as not human in order to justify abortion in some circumstances.

    I agree. If the mother’s life is endangered, than in certain circumstances abortion could be an option regardless of the unborn’s human status.


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