Baby Killing?
a look at the abortion issue

Catchy title, eh? My apologies, however - I won't be coming to any conclusions on the issue here. Rather, I thought I would try to take an objective look at the issue. I still see people on both sides of the debate writing Op-Ed pieces, and with very few exceptions, all I see are people slinging the same tired (and ineffective) old arguments back and forth. 'Abortion is baby-killing!' or 'It's a woman's body, and her choice!'

I'm sure other people have written about this before, but I thought it couldn't hurt to say it again. Especially on the chance that someone who reads it might write a pro or anti-abortion editorial in the near future, with the hope that this might at least make them consider going deeper into the issue.

In general, the question is at what point during development does a fetus become an actual human being. So, again in general, those who believe that life begins early on (at conception, for example), oppose abortion because the fetus is considered as a person with the right to live. Those who consider the fetus as merely a fetus, not a person and certainly not a thing with rights, generally do not oppose abortion.

The Responsibility Argument
I'm going to set aside the point of view that a fetus is not a person and thus has no rights, but that abortion is wrong because women/girls who gets pregnant (from their own voluntary sexual activity, at least) bears responsibility for that pregnancy and thereby ought to continue it. This sometimes is argued along with the belief that a fetus is a person with a right to live, but it is a bad argument and doesn't add any support to anti-abortion arguments.

To see this, take away the major anti-abortion argument (that a fetus is a person) and look at the responsibility argument on its own. If the fetus is just a fetus and nothing more, does it make sense to say that if a woman/girl gets pregnant, she would be wrong to have an abortion? This is on par with the statement "It was your fault you got a stomach tumor because you used chewing tobacco for ten years despite knowing the risk, so you would be wrong to have surgery to try to remove the tumor." Not that a fetus is completely equivalent to a tumor of course - but if we consider it just as a growth and not an individual person, an unwanted fetus is close enough. Consider perhaps that the tumor is not malignant, but it will nevertheless grow and cause great discomfort and much trouble (to remove the distinction that cancerous tumors can kill you but that having a baby usually doesn't). The knowing tobacco user is responsible for his or her tumor in much the same way a woman who has sex is responsible for the pregnancy. But would say the tobacco user is wrong to have the surgery? Probably not I would hope. Even if you consider the tobacco use (or the sex) wrong in itself, that does not also make it wrong for a person to have a problem caused from the act taken care of. I think I've shown the weakness of the responsibility argument in itself as an argument against abortion, so I will move on.

Pointless arguments about unresolvable differences?
If we consider the pro-choice stance, supposing that the fetus is no more than just tissue, and we have rejected the responsibility argument, what else can be argued? It certainly does no good for abortion opponents to shout "No, it's a baby you're killing!" Why debate about it unless your intent is to convince the opponent to change his or her mind, or at least consider doing so? Abortion opponents waste their time with "it's a life" arguments - their opponents disagree with that claim, leaving only people who most likely already oppose abortion to be affected by what they have to say.

The potential life argument
To get around the fundamental disagreement about the status of a fetus is necessary (for both sides) for any constructive argument to begin. Consider another anti-abortion position: basically that a fetus is a potential life, and as such, should not be interfered with. Again, it is necessary to take this away from the idea of the fetus as actually counting as a life to see whether or not the argument holds (putting multiple bad arguments together doesn't result in a strong one). So in its extracted form, the argument says that although the fetus does not (or might not) count as a life, it is the potential for a life, and it would be wrong to prevent that potential life from becoming an actual life.

We will also have to remove the religious element from the potential life argument. Whether or not it is valid, those who support abortion simply reject that view. Even if they do believe in God and/or are members of any certain organized religion, they do not accept the belief that a woman's being pregnant means that God has made a plan for her to have a baby, so terminating the pregnancy would be going against God's will. I don't think this is a particularly strong claim. (If we get very sick, does that mean that God intends us to die, and would it thus be wrong for a doctor to go against God's will by curing us? If not, it seems that God's plan must allow for us to have some freedom of choice in what happens to us, and if we aren't counting a fetus as a person, there seems to be no reason why a woman couldn't choose not to follow through with a pregnancy.) In any case, pro-choicers reject this claim, and opponents to abortion aren't going to convince them otherwise.

So can we, without resorting to arguments about God's plans, both accept that a fetus is merely tissue and still argue that it should not be aborted because it has the potential for life, though that potential is not yet realized? If we accept that anything with the potential to become a human being ought not to be destroyed, how do we define whether or not a thing has the potential for life? A fetus by itself does not have the potential for life--it requires the conditions of the womb (or some artificial environment) to realize that. You might argue that "anything that, when left in its untampered-with natural state, has the resources it needs to eventually become a human either within itself or present in its natural state, counts as potential human life." This prevents the problem of saying that sperm are potential human life, and thus that a man ought not destroy them through solo sexual activities, by seemingly limiting what can be considered as potential human life to the fetus.

However, this definition of potential life has its faults. By this standard, one might consider it wrong to use birth control (apart from any potential religious views opposing it) because it is an artificial tampering with the environment of the woman's body where, had it been left in its natural state, the sperm for sexual intercourse apparently do have the potential to create human life, because they might fertilize an egg which could eventually turn into a person. The definition of what counts even as "potential life" creates a slippery slope problem--it is very difficult to say just where potential life begins, because then one is forced to admit that even a few seconds before that point, the potential for life did not exist.

Coming up with a solid account of where potential life begins could be the beginning of a more useful anti-abortion argument, but even if a good definition could be made, there is still the problem of why we are obligated to allow a potential life to become an actual life. "Sure," a pro-choicer might say, "a fetus has the potential to become a human life, but in its current state it is not a human life - so doesn't the woman whose body it occupies have the right to do with it as she wishes?" The advocate of the potential life argument is obligated to come up an answer to this question.

Is there hope for the debate?
I'm not out to portray this one-sidedly (and soon I'll get to problems pro-choicers face, which might be even more difficult to overcome), although I can see how I might have made it look bad for those who oppose abortion. I did not, of course, cover all possible arguments against abortion, but I think I hit the major ones. Sometimes I wonder if there is actually any way to get around the fundamental disagreements about whether or not a fetus is a person, since arguments about that won't ever get anywhere. Unless, of course, there really was a way to convince either side about when life actually begins. I'll discuss that last. But first:

Problems with pro-choice arguments
I think those who support abortion have even less with which they could effectively argue than do the pro-lifers. That does not necessarily mean that they are wrong, and if the truth of the matter really just depends on whether or not a fetus is a person, good or bad arguments on either side make no difference.

The reason pro-choicers have it so tough? The pro-life camp can offer up arguments against abortion even if the fetus is considered to be no more than tissue. Now, as I mentioned above, I don't think that these arguments are particularly strong at this point, but there is always the potential that someone with insight could rework them in a way that made them convincing. But to apply to same standard to arguments in support of abortion, these arguments must be made under the consideration that a fetus really does count as a life. Again, this is because the other side will never be convinced that their core belief is wrong, so any effective argument must work even under the pro-life belief in the fetus as a person.

So that means we have to argue that "Okay, it's a baby, but we still can come up with an argument as to why it would be okay for us to kill it." Now that sounds tough. The case might be made when a choice has to be made between preserving the mother's life and the baby's. In any situation where a person must choose which person will live and which will die, the choice will be tough. But many people do accept the act of killing when it is necessary to preserve one's own life (self-defense, for example), so in this case at least, the pro-choicer can make some progress. I don't have any numbers to back this up, but I would imagine that there are also a good number of people who oppose abortion but would nonetheless make an exception when it was necessary to save the mother's life.

Abortion in rape cases
There are two situations in which even pro-lifers often make exceptions about the permissibility of abortion: the before-mentioned case, and rape (I'll include incest in this category for simplicity). The thought being pregnancies resulting from rape is usually something like this: because the woman did not willingly become pregnant, it is her right to terminate the pregnancy.

I have a problem with pro-lifers who support abortion in rape cases, because it seems inconsistent. (This has nothing to do with my own views - I don't really feel strongly compelled to take either side.) The only pro-life position that could justify abortion in rape pregnancies is the purely responsibility-oriented view, which holds that a pregnant woman is responsible for the pregnancy and ought to go through with it even though the fetus is not a life.

But for pro-lifers who believe that a fetus really is a human life and thus has rights, how is it possible that abortion can ever be justified (except maybe when it is a choice between the mother's death or the baby's death)? Yes, having the baby would probably put the mother/rape-survivor through a great deal of trauma, but if the fetus is just as human as the mother, does that potential trauma to the mother make it okay to actually kill the baby? Isn't killing an innocent human murder, and is murder ever justified just because it prevents a person from being traumatized?

I just thought I'd mention that, because I think it is a major inconsistency for a person to claim that a fetus is a human being and that aborting it would be murder, although that murder would be acceptable in a certain non-life-or-death situation. If the fetus is a person, it bears no fault for the rape by which it was conceived, and we cannot accept abortion in this case.

Poor future living conditions
Can we argue for abortion, considering the fetus to be a living human being, because its future might be one filled with poverty and other poor living conditions? Better off dead than poor? The problem with this would be that the fetus/person has no choice in the matter - perhaps if the fetus could choose, it would rather have the chance to live even under poor conditions, even if it had to be put up for adoption, than never to be able to live at all. So again, if this argument is not accompanied by a belief that a fetus is merely tissue, it is not a strong one.

What else? This is why it seems that the pro-choice camp has even less chance of making up an argument that would convince opponents of abortion--it's hard to come up with a circumstance in which it would be okay to kill an innocent person, so pro-choice argument separated from the basic belief that a fetus is merely tissue is not much of an argument. Except for, again, when the mother's life is in danger.

So when does life begin, anyway?
Maybe there is no hope for the arguments on either side that don't require the acceptance of that side's core belief about when human life begins. The only alternative, it would seem, is for there to be some convincing evidence as to when life actually does begin, whether that be at conception or at birth or somewhere in between.

This evidence would have to be free of any religious beliefs for it to be of any value in making arguments to the general population, since not everyone believes in a God to begin with, and many of those who do would disagree about a religion-based proof of the beginning of life anyway. Secular philosophy is a possibility, but it runs into many of the same problems as religion--people tend to disagree about fundamental issues. To me, this makes the prospects for it seem poor, though I do suppose that it would be possible for a very ingenious person to come up with an overwhelmingly convincing explanation of where life begins, and why it begins there rather than sooner or later.

Unless/until we have that sort of philosophical account, we might go to what probably seems like the most logical source: science. Some scientist will give some evidence as to when life begins. Unfortunately, I think that this is even less of a possibility, in itself anyway. Pure science runs into a problem in that, to really be science, it can only deal with physical reality. From the purely scientific perspective, all humans, when it comes down to it, are only masses of tissue. Science itself has no place for the concept of the moral worth of a human being--after all, moral worth, right and wrong, consciousness (I'm not going into a materialist identity theory debate right now), are not scientifically observable things. We might believe in them, even feel that we experience them, but we can not consider them objectively observable things, and thus they are outside the scope of science.

So it seems that science won't help much. According to science, the fetus is merely tissue, the baby is merely tissue, children are merely tissue, and adults too are no more than masses of tissue. That doesn't get us anywhere. Most of us tend to accept the belief that there is something more than just matter and energy out there - there are other beings with feelings out there, and we have some kind of moral responsibilities to each other.

The best answer I could give to this question is that perhaps some combination of science and well-argued secular philosophy are necessary, if it is possible to make a convincing case for when life begins. Science might tell us how and when a fetus develops organs, a heart, a brain, but this means nothing without a belief about the significance of these things. Although many people might have an emotional reaction to seeing a fetus that had already taken a roughly human form, but by reason, we know that this does not necessarily mean that the fetus actually is a human life. It is possible to imagine that it does, but it is just as possible to imagine that it does not. Some underlying philosophical belief is necessary to tell us what actually constitutes a human life, though of course science might be useful in identifying when those necessary conditions are actually met.

In conclusion
That was much more than I expected to write... I hope that it did an adequate job in giving a little deeper exploration of the issues and arguments involved on both sides of abortion, and mostly on the difficulties that one encounters when trying to argue for either side. As always, feel free to comment as much as you want in the 'Comments' section - I hope you do:)
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