Thursday, March 10, 2011

Good Logic, Horrific Conclusion [Serge]

The mainstream gradualist view on abortion seems to afford the human fetus some form of moral status as it develops in the mother's womb. This explains why early abortion is tolerated and late-term abortion is generally seen as wrong in our culture. Here is an excerpt by the director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service Ann Furedi that takes that type of reasoning to task. Like Peter Singer, she gets the logic correct, but her conclusions are downright horrific. She uses this logic to defend the view that abortion should be legal at any time during the pregnancy, and we have no right to even ask why a woman would wish to obtain a late-term abortion. (All emphasis mine)

To me, the argument for a gradualist approach to the ethical rightness or wrongness of abortion that depends on the gestation of the fetus is weak, lacks intellectual consistency, and seems self-serving...

To the ‘ethical straddlers’ concerned about gestation we must ask: is there anything qualitatively different about a fetus at, say, 28 weeks that gives it a morally different status to a fetus at 18 weeks or even eight weeks? It certainly looks different because its physical development has advanced. At 28 weeks we can see it is human – at eight weeks a human embryo looks much like that of a hamster. But are we really so shallow, so fickle, as to let our view on moral worth be determined by appearance? Even if at five weeks we can only see an embryonic pole, we know that it is human. The heart that can be seen beating on an ultrasound scan at six weeks is as much a human heart as the one that beats five months later.

Claims that the fetus has ‘evolving potential’ make little sense. The potential of the fetus does not evolve; it just is. A fetus may draw closer to fulfilling this potential as it develops and as its birth approaches, but the potential does not change. Indeed, from the time of conception, as soon as embryonic cells begin to divide, an entity with the potential to become a person is created. It is the product of a man and a woman, but distinct from them. It has a unique DNA and, unless its development is interrupted or fails, it will be born as a child...

But it is difficult to see how it can be argued that a fetus should be accorded a moral status that differs at different stages of its development on the grounds of ‘evolving potential’, since a fetus at 28 weeks is no more or less potentially a person than one at eight weeks.

If it is ‘drawing closer’ to the fulfilment of the fetus’s potential that changes its moral status, then it seems that there is a difficult problem in finding a moral – as distinct from a pragmatic – justification as to when is close enough for the status to change. Since a fetus draws closer to fulfilling its potential from the day it is conceived, and is constantly evolving as it grows, which day - or which developmental change - matters morally? Is it when there is evidence of a beating heart, or fetal movement, or a particular neurological or brain development? Who makes this decision? And why?

It seems to me that the attempt to accord a ‘gradualist’ moral significance to the development of the fetus is little more than an attempt to disguise a personal reaction as an ethical argument. It exemplifies thinking that starts from an a priori assumption that something is ‘bad’, and then tries to construct an argument to justify the badness. In this case, the assumption is that later abortions are ‘bad’ and the arguments about the significance of the evolving potential of the fetus are an intellectually elevated way of justifying an assumption that is, in fact, no more than prejudice.
There is one major flaw with her line of reasoning. She posits birth as the one special event that bestows full worth and human rights on the developing entity that she was willing to kill in the womb. She does this by mere assertion. If there is something about a human being that gives it special moral worth, then doesn't it make far more sense to recognize that worth begins when the entity becomes a human being? She argues correctly that the gradualist approach is intellectually dishonest and self serving, but in its place she recommends a position even more intellectually dishonest and self serving.


  1. I give her kudos for admitting that there is no moral difference between a fetus from the moment of conception to the moment of birth, but like you said how does birth affect moral status?

    I was born via a C-Section. Do I have no moral worth because I never went through the natural birth process? What about babies that are born premature? How does location, age, or the birthing process magically change something not valuable into something valuable?

  2. Best example: Google ECMO (extra-corporal membrane oxygenation). Children on ECMO have their blood oxygenated in a very similar way to a fetus - basically it bypasses the lungs through a shunt. Are they less than human? This would also mean that they were a non-person in the womb, became a person when they were born, and then reverted to a non-person when they were unable to breathe for themselves and needed this medical intervention. Brilliant.

  3. To play devil's advocate, I anticipate that Ms. Furedi would probably respond with something like a bodily autonomy argument / Thomson's violinist analogy. She might claim that the difference between preborn and newborn is that the preborn literally uses the mother's body, in a direct way, to sustain its life, and that "no person has to right to use another person's body to stay alive."

    Of course, that argument would also fail, but I'm willing to bet she would consider the value of preborns irrelevant to the abortion debate, because that seems to be the only way she could maintain her stance against the gradualist approach and her pro-abortion views at the same time.

  4. David,

    She doesn't mention BA and she does talk about the moral status of the fetus - a point which BA advocates claim they concede to us.

    If you are interested - here is a link to my article on the BA argument from the Christian Research journal:

  5. Serge, I have read your article, and found it helpful.

    I was speculating on how Furedi might reply to your question, How does the birthing process magically change something not valuable into something valuable? If she wants to eschew gradualism AND support abortion rights, it seems to me that the only options available to her (other than pure will-power) are Singerism or Bodily Autonomy. Because your question exposes her ultimate logic as quite obviously incoherent unless she is willing to embrace one of those two.


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