Thursday, January 22, 2009

Abortion should remain legal

The following will be a growing document. I will add to it every time I encounter a new argument.


"From a point of view outside of this affair, the killing of a neurologically inactive fetus is no greater a harm than the killing of a mouse, and in fact decidedly less--a mouse is neurologically active, and though it lacks a complex cerebral cortex, it has a brain of suitable complexity to perceive pain." ~ Dr. Richard C. Carrier

The most frequent canard I encounter in discussing the morality of abortion is that it takes a life. As with any philosophical discussion, we need to first define our terms to ensure that we are all on the same page when we use the word "life" (or the words "baby" and "child" for that matter). After all, many things have life; they possess cells that replicate, undergo the Krebs Cycle, etc. Objects on this list include trees, sperm, and cancerous tumors. The list is literally so extensive as to defy concise description. So obviously "life" in the sense of merely being alive doesn't mean all that much, since we typically don't weep over chopping down a tree and we can be downright insistent on purging tumors. Clearly, there is a difference between something being alive and something having a life, and it seems that those who are opposed to abortion also make this distinction whether they admit it or not, since none of them mourn the loss of a tree.

Where then, do we draw the line on when it is alright to destroy something that is living (because if the loss of living cells bothers you, it's time to stop scratching your nose)? This point must be reached somewhere, since most of us would consider it morally wicked to snuff out the life of a freshly born human being. What are the criteria? At what point does the collection of cells within the pregnant female acquire a "life" such that it is separated in terms of humanity from other living things?

I suggest it has everything to do with consciousness and the ability of a being to suffer its own loss. This even makes sense medically. The point at which you are medically dead is when there is no activity in your central cortex (when your brain "flat lines"). At this point your heart may still be beating with the help of a pacemaker, your cells will still be active, and your lungs may still be breathing with the help of a respirator, but this is all irrelevant since the conscience that constituted "you" is gone and will never return. At that point your body is simply engaging in autonomous functions. There is no reason to consider you still alive or to grieve when we unplug your life support.

With a fetus, the brain does not become electrically active until the fifth month (typically the 20th week). Until that point, it is no different than killing anything else that is alive but cannot suffer its own loss. When we say the words "baby" or "child", we imply a creature that has lost something when it stops "living"; a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus is not a child. It is a collection of cells (until the end of the second month when minute organ development begins to occur), nothing more.

Argument from potential

An argument that almost unavoidably arises at this point is that a zygote will one day become a child (perhaps the next Beethoven!) if left unchecked. These people do not seem to realize that every sperm in my body is a potential human being (it just needs the female egg, itself a potential unique, glorious human being). Yet the prospect of this lost potential does not seem to frighten them out of their chastity (trust me, it doesn't). Why not?

I am certain that if all human beings went Sodom and Gomorrah-style crazy with lust, we would eventually produce a physicist that would dwarf Stephen Hawking or Einstein, or a composer that would reduce the work of Mozart to child's play. That's no reason to do it. The dire consequences of augmented, unmitigated population growth are very well documented. A woman should feel no obligation to produce a child she does not want, simply because that kid might be the first John Conner.

Why then do we care about the potential of a particular set of cells in the female because they share a similar potential?

Argument about souls

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations." ~ Jeremiah 1:5

There is not a scrap of evidence to suggest we have a soul that existed before birth or that will exist after death. All evidence suggests that conscience is tied exclusively to a functioning brain. Religious people can profess their certainty in this until they are blue in the face, but until they can evince even a decent reason to believe that it's true, they are just wrong by any rational standard.

Of course, nobody is insisting that religious people forfeit the right to reproduce as they please; nobody wishes abortion to be forced on anyone, even if their reasons for avoiding them are ludicrous. But you most certainly do not get to use your delusions to inflict others with their arbitrary, unfounded standard.

Argument from post-abortion trauma

In 1987, Ronald Regan asked then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to produce a report assessing the possibility of trauma in the would-be mother. Scott's report concluded that "the available scientific evidence about the psychological sequelae of abortion simply cannot support either the preconceived notions of those pro-life or those pro-choice." This was as generous as the highly conservative Koop could be without being flagrantly dishonest. However, Regan ordered the report to be re-written to say that women did suffer post-abortion trauma, and it was (though Koop separated himself from it both publicly and during investiation) from this re-written report that the idea that abortions induced trauma was born.

Since both the announcement of that one disingenuous paper and the resulting beat down from the scientific and medical communities, all of our credible medical bodies have been in perfect harmony on the facts. The American Psychological Association sums it up nicely:

"The most methodologically sound research indicates that among women who have a single, legal, first-trimester abortion of an unplanned pregnancy for nontherapeutic reasons, the relative risks of mental health problems are no greater than the risks among women who deliver an unplanned pregnancy."

All the same, even if a higher portion of women did suffer depression after their abortions, you cannot shackle everybody for that. Women should still get the choice. However, the science is conclusive that no greater threat to mental health exists for having an abortion, so the argument is moot.


Abortion provides societal good by helping to mitigate population growth and by not saddling women with children they are not ready for, and there is no downside. All arguments to the contrary depend on either wrong information, outright lies, a lack of knowledge about the nature of pregnancy, beliefs about reality that are contra to the evidence and accepted on nothing more than faith, not spending enough time taking in the philosophy of the situation, or some conglomeration of all of the above. To quote Richard Carrier for the second time in this post:

"An act that causes no involuntary harm and produces some benefits for individuals and society in general should never be outlawed. This is based on the principle that laws should only exist to preserve and protect the liberty of individuals and, when no liberty is at stake either way, to increase the general welfare of all citizens."

There is no logical or empirical grounds upon which to illegalize abortions.


Justin CF said...

I'm sorry, but that graph is hilariously screwed up. It only tracks the deaths caused by ILLEGAL abortions. If we legalized rape, and then I made you a fancy graph showing that injuries resulting from illegal rape had gone down drastically since the legalization of rape, you would be thoroughly unimpressed by my statistics.

Now, this isn't necessarily what's going on in this case, but I still can't stand to see a graph that isn't telling the whole story.

Also, it would be interesting to see if there were any more medical breakthroughs, or perhaps simply a wider implementation of existing medical techniques, during the early '60s. Deaths related to (illegal) abortions were clearly taking a dive before any legislation was passed.

Anonymous said...

Ok... Justin, I get your point. And I would love to see a graph that included all abortion deaths... for the sake of clarity. However, the number of deaths from legal abortions are miniscule. We are not allowed, in this society, to perform many procedures that carry a notable risk of death.

Take, for example, a first generation version of the Abortion Pill (RU-486) caused a handful of deaths. Literally, like eight total. Not to blow that number off, but compared to the death rates for illegal abortions. That is nothing. You are probably more likely to die getting a nose job. (That is the graph I want to see!!!)

The thing is... legal abortions RARELY result in death. It is more dangerous to have the baby then to abort it in a sterile and safe setting.

Justin CF said...

Even if the deaths caused by legal abortions are negligible (and I'm not saying they're not), the graph is still showing, for our purposes, a completely useless data set.

This isn't a disagreement about whether or not abortions are unnecessarily dangerous; It's a disagreement about the validity of using that graph, and I stand by my position.

Anonymous said...

"With a fetus, the brain does not become electrically active until the fifth month (typically the 20th week)."
So, are you in favor of abortion after the 20th week? How about the 24th week? The 28th week? The 32nd week? The 36th week? The 40th week? When, in your opinion, does the potential human being become an actual human being?

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I don't think so because I think if it happens nobody in the world would like to have a baby, and it could create a confusion in the brain of many people around the world.