by Greg Jackson
What are the differences between you, as you are now, sitting at work or in the library (when you’re supposed to be working but are in fact looking for something better to do, like read a pro-life blog) and you when you were in your mother’s womb? Generally speaking, we can list the differences as follows:
2) Level of Development
4) Degree of Dependency
If killing you as you are now is wrong (and in this post we shall assume that it is), why was it okay to kill you when you were in your mother’s womb? This is the challenge which the pro-choicer has to answer. To show abortion is permissible, they need to point to some morally relevant difference between you now and you then, and to do so, they will have to appeal to one of these criteria.
So let’s go through them quickly. Can any of these differences justify abortion?
I have not heard of any serious person arguing that the size of a human is morally relevant as to whether or not we can kill him/her, and if we subject this idea to the slightest scrutiny is becomes clear why.
It is true that human life begins at about the size of a full stop (read about it here), and you are many millions times bigger now. But it is also true that you are many times bigger now than you were when you were first born, or when you were two months old or two years old or even ten years old.
If the pro-choicer is going to argue that the size of a human being is a morally relevant factor in determining whether or not it is okay to kill a human, we can ask, what size? How big does a human have to be for it to be wrong to kill him/her?
Any answer that they give will be hopelessly arbitrary and indefensible.
Some people might unthinkingly appeal to the size of the unborn as a factor which justifies abortion, but such an appeal is usually an (unintentional) cover for something else.
… it seems that size doesn’t matter after all
2) Level of Development
Is the level of development of a human being a morally relevant factor in determining whether or not it is morally permissible to kill that human?
Now we’re entering more serious territory and a major area of contention in the abortion debate. There are those like Peter Singer, John Harris, Julian Savulescu and others with equally truncated moral outlooks, who argue that our level of development is indeed important in determining whether or not we can be killed. They focus on mental development arguing, for example, that the presence of a particular attribute/function/ability such as ‘self-awareness’ or ‘rationality’ or ‘our ability to value ourselves’ are what make us morally important and are the reason why killing you, as you are now, is wrong.
It is apparent that none of these attributes are fully present in the womb. Of course, none of them are present shortly after birth either and so such a view can easily form the justification for infanticide. Indeed, Singer and Harris, among others accept precisely this. Some try to draw the line elsewhere so as not to be committed to this unsavoury conclusion, but such a distinction is difficult to maintain.
The point here is that it is difficult to draw a line in terms of mental or physical development which includes the unborn amongst those whom it is permissible to kill (thereby justifying abortion), but does not also include newly born infants (developmentally immature as they are) or other born people with mental disabilities of varying severity, not to mention those in comas or those in a deep sleep.
These are many replies to this but the burden of proof lies with the person who argues that the level of mental development of a human being is a determining factor in whether or not they can be killed. If it is relevant, why is it relevant? And how developed does the particular ability/attribute/function need to be for it to be wrong to kill a human being?
As with size, environment or location is frequently a cover for some other deeper concern because in and of itself it is not clear how it could justify killing.
As a number of pro-abortion (... and pro-infanticide philosophers) are happy to point out, how could passage down the birth canal change the value of human life? How does a change in location change the value of human life?
Fans of the ‘bodily autonomy argument’ for abortion are likely to be pulling their hair out at the moment as this change in location, from inside to outside the womb, is, as far as they are concerned, all important.
Well, it seems that environment or location is not important as such but rather the bodily dependency of the unborn human on his/her mother.
4) Degree of dependency
Is the degree of dependency of one human being on another a morally relevant factor in determining whether or not it is morally permissible to kill the dependent human?
You are also less dependent on your mother now (I hope) than you were when you were two months old, two years old, ten years old.
Does that mean you’re more valuable now because you’re more independent? More generally, are human beings more valuable the more independent they are from other human beings? Presumably, if they are, it is more wrong to kill more independent humans and conversely that it is less wrong to kill less independent human. Presumably also, there comes a point where a human is so dependent on another, as in the case of the unborn who is utterly dependent on his/her mother, that he/she can be killed without any moral qualms.
Again, much more needs to be said about this, but for now it is sufficient to note that this view seems to have the counter-intuitive consequence that it is permissible to kill another human being because he/she is entirely dependent on another human i.e. the more needy you are, the more permissible it is to kill you.
Size; development; environment; dependency… do any of the differences between you as you are now and you when you were in your mother’s womb constitute reasons which justify abortion?
We shall explore each of them in more depth in future posts, and it will become evident, if it is not already so, that to justify abortion by any of these criteria frequently leads to moral positions most of us are not willing to adopt.