Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ethical Argument Against Abortion

I have not before entered the waters on the abortion debate, but it seems to me to be a moral issue; either it is permissible to abort a baby or it is not. I contend that it is impermissible to abort a baby at any stage, given a few basic assumptions. I will briefly sketch an argument for this.
1.      If something is a person, it has intrinsic moral value.
2.      Whatever has intrinsic moral value ought not to be killed unless there is a morally-sufficient reason.
3.      Human beings are persons.
4.      Therefore, human beings have intrinsic moral value.
5.      Therefore, human beings ought not to be killed unless there is a morally-sufficient reason.
6.      It is not morally permissible to end the life of an innocent human being to save one’s own.
7.      Unborn babies are innocent human beings.
8.      Therefore, unborn babies are persons.
9.      Therefore, unborn babies have intrinsic moral value.
10.  Therefore, unborn babies ought not to be killed unless there is a morally-sufficient reason.
11.  Therefore, it is not morally permissible to end the life of an unborn baby to save one’s own.
A few brief comments are needed. First, I ask that one lay aside emotion and rhetoric and look it from a stance of pure logic and reason. Second, please notice that, so long as the premises are true, a woman’s right to choose or psychological reasons to be against abortion or sexism are simply irrelevant. Third, statements 4, 5, and 8-11 are conclusions of deductively-valid arguments and cannot be denied. Premise 1 could be denied in the case that one declares there are no objective moral values. However, most people who take this road in hopes of preserving abortion do not realize that I can just say, “Well then it’s not morally impermissible for me to restrict a woman’s right to choose, is it?” In any case, most people will be forced to agree there are moral truths. Someone could affirm objective moral values but deny that persons have intrinsic moral worth; this would be something I could not even begin to grasp.
Premise 2 seems reasonable enough on any moral theory; one could affirm it even if there are never any morally-sufficient reasons for killing anything of intrinsic moral worth. Most will agree with premise 3. Some might object that not all human beings are truly persons, but I struggle with saying certain human beings are non-persons. In any case, some non-arbitrary definition ought to be applied that does not marginalize the mentally disabled, or someone who was in a car accident, etc.
It is also difficult to argue with (6). When we say “innocent,” we are using it in a univocal sense in this argument, and it means “morally innocent with respect to a particular situation.” Suppose two men were struggling in the ocean with only one life preserver. We would rightly be appalled at one man if he were to drown the other just for the opportunity to save his own life. Now suppose a crazed terrorist has kidnapped someone to launch them from a cannonball directly into you. The speed and impact will kill you both. Is it morally permissible then just to kill the other innocent party? Perhaps someone would do it, in desperation, but the right answer is no. Just because it’s one or both of you who will die doesn’t make it right to kill an innocent party. Finally, (7) is almost true by definition, at least biologically and morally. For an unborn baby, or fetus, is not biologically different from a human.[1] Moreover, the unborn baby is innocent in the relevant sense. But then we see abortion is not morally permissible.
So we have seen it is not morally permissible to abort an unborn baby. Notice we did not appeal to women’s rights (or lack thereof), death of the mother, or in the cases of rape, incest, or other terrible things. We did not minimize any of these things. But it is incontrovertible that these things are not relevant to the argument above. The cost of denying any of these premises is too high, epistemically, compared to rejecting abortion. But if none of the premises are denied, then all of the conclusions follow.

[1] How curious would it be to say two humans can reproduce something non-human, biologically, that somehow later turns into a human! Moreover, it is just genetically human.


  1. Nice one Randy! I don't know how I feel about (6) though. Given 5) if 6) is, "It is not morally permissible to end the life of an innocent human being to save one’s own" then under what possible circumstances could there be to end an innocent person's life to save one's life?

    I often times find myself agreeing with pro-choice advocates on one and only one possible circumstance: If the mother's life would be in danger if she were to give birth. That is, if she gives birth, she will die. In such a case it seems to me that it is self defense on the part of the mother to abort. Any way you slice it is either the mother's life or the babies.

    1. Hi Robby! Remember, (2) can be accepted as true even if there are no morally-permitting circumstances for killing a human being. So it's entirely correct to say there are no possible circumstances where it's acceptable to kill an innocent in order to save your own life. Perhaps a thought experiment might help. Suppose a kidnapper abducted you and a small person; both of you are victims, and you have no reason to fear the other person. The kidnapper straps the very small person on your back, and states that if you try to flee, or to loose the small person from your back, you both will die. You are free to go about your daily life, but you always will have this person strapped to you. The only way of escape: after the kidnapper lets you go, you will be allowed to kill the small person (or have him killed--accidents or natural causes and the like don't count), after which you will not die, and hence will be completely free. Is it permissible to kill or have killed the small person? Absolutely not. Notice this is true in the case of a complete stranger!

      The symmetry, I think, is obvious: it's even worse when you consider that the small person is actually a baby. Most mothers would sacrifice their lives for their children, instead of the other way around. I find the latter morally horrific. As to self-defense, that would only apply if the person were actively trying to kill you, or if it wasn't a person at all (which contradicts other premises in the argument, not [6]).

      I am finally reminded of a story of a woman who was struggling to stay afloat in the ocean, and a child who was clinging to her neck so hard it was drowning them both. Witness accounts were that she could not remove the child and stay up. If she had taken the toddler and held her head underwater in self-defense, would that be permissible? It seems disturbing.

    2. I should add there are other examples if we don't want to amend the thought experiments above, such as the scene from "The Dark Knight" where the Joker has pitted two boats against the other; it is clear it would be wrong for the inmates to blow up the innocents to save their own lives.

  2. Hi Randy,

    As you're probably aware, the abortion issue is in the news because Donald Trump said yesterday that he believes if abortion was made illegal again the woman and not just the doctor should be punished for the crime of aborting the baby. Of course neither you or I are legal experts so my question will just focus on the moral aspect of this :): it seems to be common knowledge amongst conservative writers that, if illegal, only the doctor carrying out the abortion should be punished not the women. But, thinking about it, does this make sense? After all, if abortion is truly murder, the women who solicits this is an accomplice in the crime. Of course the doctor actually kills the baby and is the one guilty of murder but the women asked to him to do it. A comparison could - and this could be where I'm going wrong - be made with a man who hires a hitman to kill his wife. It is the hitman who pulls the trigger and murders but the husband is surely an accomplice in the crime and would be punished, albeit to a lesser extent I guess. Morally there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference to me between the two cases. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi James--as far as criminal punishment is concerned, I'll leave that to legal experts, since not everything that is immoral is illegal. However, in terms of moral culpability, with normal circumstances in place (that is, a woman of sound mind and who is a responsible moral agent), a woman who desires an abortion is morally culpable for that abortion. I think your examples illustrate this moral principle, which seems to be: If I desire x, where x is any immoral action, and I take actions that lead, directly or indirectly, to x's being brought about, and I desired by my actions that x be brought about, then I have moral culpability with respect to x. And that principle seems eminently sound to me! :)


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