Pro-Life or Pro-Choice?

When does the sperm and egg become a human life?

This is an emotionally charged and important issue that needs careful consideration from all angles.

First,  I think it’s good to set the stage with some of the important questions that I’ve seen commentators asking and discussing. Each of the  discussions that I reference below comes at the issue from a slightly different angle, so it’s hard to isolate the issues out of each.

  1. When does the sperm and egg become a human life?
  2. When does person-hood begin?

From the Pro-Life Angle:

From the Pro-Choice Angle:


Personally, should I find myself with child, I would do anything it took to preserve that life–so in that regard, I consider myself to be pro-life. However, I do recognize that there are terrible circumstances where an abortion may be the best course of action in order to reduce harm, and because of that, abortion needs to be legal. A total ban on abortion is not a reasonable position.

Discussion With a Friend

8/26/2016 – Yesterday a friend of mine and I were discussing the issue of abortion. He is a particularly thoughtful person, even keeled, and a careful considerer. He’s one of the few people I know that can rationally discussion abortion without appealing to emotion–understandably, on this topic, that is extremely difficult to do.

He asked me, “When does the sperm and egg become a human life?”

I said, “the very second it becomes four cells, it’s a human.  You can test the four cells for DNA, and it will be human DNA.”

He counters, “You can swab the inside of your cheek for cells. Are each of those cells a separate human being? Because they contain DNA. How about a human ear grown in a medium? It has human DNA, is a collective of cells, is it therefore a human being with all the rights accorded to it?”

After giving it some thought, here’s what I came up with:

“I heard this metaphorical question once: Say there’s a ship. Over time, if the ship is repaired and every single piece is replaced once, is it still the same ship as it was in the beginning? Usually this question is posed as a metaphor for the human body because our cells are dying off and regenerating all the time. The physical form of “me” that exists now is a completely different “me” than existed 20 years ago.

So to answer your question about the ear, and the cheek cells–If you take a ship that is fully built and you pull a plank off of it, that plank is not considered a “ship”.

  • So in the process of building a ship, when is it considered a ship? You’ve got a pile of planks and rope, that’s not a ship yet.
  • You’ve got the frame built, but it doesn’t float–that’s not a ship yet either.
  • I suppose it’s not a ship until it floats and sails.
  • And it can’t sail until it’s being commanded by a brain, and that’s its human owner.
  • So it’s not a human life until it has a brain.

In the case of a fetus, we maybe can’t know exactly when it develops a consciousness of it’s surroundings, but we can probably tell when neural activity starts, and that’s a maximum of 8 weeks in.”

We went on from there, but I wanted to share that ship metaphor.

Podcast Episode on “Unbelievable” with Sue Thayer & Ann Furedi

    • Right out of the gate in the intro he drops the fact “1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetime.” That seems extraordinarily high and not true. Will have to fact check this.
    • American : Generally the pro-choice argument leads with “It’s not murder unless the fetus is viable outside the womb”
    • I think both the pro-life and pro-choice people can come together on “How can we prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place”. This is where our focus ought to be.
    • Claim : Abortions centers have “goals or quotas” for number of abortions performed or referred.
      • She glosses over this fact because it sounds sensational, but I’d like to know what the goals are for? Perhaps they are actually trying to underperform over last year in an attempt to decrease number of abortions because then you know your family planning department is doing its job effectively. All businesses need to measure performance on their major services. As distasteful as this service is, it still needs metrics.
    • The British one mentions that 12-15% of women chose not to terminate the pregnancy after receiving counseling. (BPAP)
    • Brit : It’s important to separate the moral decision from the clinical practice.
    • Brit : I support the doctors and nurses that conscientiously object and don’t want to be involved in the procedure.
    • Brit : 23 weeks and 6 days – it’s bizarre because at 5 minutes to midnight on that last day you could still do the procedure, and 5 minutes after the woman and doctor are criminals. She calls this time limit arbitrary and wrong. They have to draw a hard line somewhere, don’t they? She’s got that entire 23 week period to make a decision!
    • The pro-lifer says the definition of life is “is it growing? is it changing? and the sperm and egg are.” Seems a little wishy-washy to me.
    • A lot of women receiving counseling are saying “Well, in different circumstances I might have this child” and that’s the point. We should create those circumstances. The gap between where they are and where they need to be is really profound. We also need to be sure (especially younger women) that the decision to abort comes from the mother’s free choice and not from outside pressures such as the boyfriend or the parents.
      • If I wasn’t 16
      • If my partner would help me raise the baby
      • If I wasn’t stretched to the absolute limit
      • My husband had a vasectomy
      • My parents would kill me
      • I can’t believe I’m even thinking of doing this
    • Brit : half of the women that come to them have already had children and have already been through the process. They know exactly what they are getting into.
    • American : If the abortion clinics were really pro-choice then they would advocate equally for adoption options as well as for abortion.
    • The American throws out the term “abortion industry” quite frequently and does so to deliberately cast it in a negative light. The Brit defends herself by saying that she works for an organization that is completely committed to serving the best interests of women, and I think that’s fair. I would even venture a guess that most people working in the “abortion industry” feel the same way and hate it when these emotionally rabid pro-lifers cast a bloody pall over them.
    • American : “Every woman that has ever been pregnant has been a mother.” Oh please. Give me a fucking break. Why don’t you tell that to a poor grieving woman who has conceived and miscarried a half-dozen or more times? That’s an insensitive and cruel thing to say.
    • This comparison between the Holocaust and aborted fetuses needs to stop.
    • American : compares to a woman who needs to feed her kids and goes to the corner store to rob it at gun point. She thinks it’s the right thing to do in order to feed her kids even though it’s against the law.
    • Toward the end I felt like the American was trying to change the Brit’s mind, like… specifically her, rather than present the pro-life position as a whole. She uses purely emotional language and can’t reach anyone with that.

Rethinking Abortion Advocacy

My notes on an article by Coleman Hughes.

Hughes Main Points

  • Hughes is pro-choice and finds both the pro-choice and pro-life arguments unpersuasive.
  • Both sides argument hinges on “personhood”.
  • Both sides of the argument hinge on “sacred principles” —fetuses right to life or a woman’s bodily autonomy—and then use the sanctification of that principle to ignore all of the ethical costs that position entails.
  • Science alone can’t tell us when personhood begins.
  • We must create a boundary line that represents a reasonable compromise between competing values and interests.

Facts / clips from the article

  • Alabama
    • Governor of Alabama signed the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in America into law
    • bans abortions even in the case of rape
    • performing an abortion a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison.
  • A pro-choice argument:
    • It’s a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body. (Makes sense. kidneys and ears? Sure. No one else’s moral concerns need to be traded off against the body parts because their ethical concerns align with its owner’s by definition.)
    • A fetus is part of a woman’s body (not merely a body part. Given enough time, a fetus will become something with distinct moral worth. If a fetus were really akin to a body part, there would be no reason not to abort it the moment before delivery, on a whim.)
  • Therefore, it’s a woman’s right to choose what to do with her fetus.
  • A pro-life argument : personhood begins at conception because science says so
    • No consensus among biologists about what divides life from non-life. science doesn’t even try to tell us when personhood begins
    • none of the ethically important dimensions of being a person flips on like a light switch at any moment along the path.
    • A conscious experience every bit as rich, compelling, and important as your own.
    • ability to feel pain
    • capacity for self-sustaining growth
    • point at which it can survive outside the womb
    • Most of the capacities relevant to personhood emerge gradually on a spectrum of development.
  • “When does life/personhood begin?” is not a scientific question, but a conceptual one.
    • “Personhood” emerges gradually, second-by-second and cell-by-cell over the course of weeks and months.
    • Nature has failed to satisfy our demand for crisp boundaries and conceptual certainty.
    • Drawing lines at conception (pro-life) and birth (pro-choice) offer the appearance of ethical clarity, both moments are arbitrary.
    • Conception : The moment the egg is fertilized, forming a zygote with unique DNA, may be significant from a biologist’s perspective, but in terms of its capacity to suffer and flourish, zygote differs only trivially from the pair of cells that formed it.
    • Birth : a landmark moment. we celebrate it every year. Capacity to suffer and flourish, a fetus the day before delivery is no different from a newborn baby.
  • Example : What is the true age of sexual consent?
    • age at which humans reach sexual maturity (earlier than 18)
    • age at which the prefrontal cortex fully develops (later than 18)
    • science alone cannot tell us when a “child” becomes an “adult.”
    • Western democracies draw the line somewhere between 16 and 18 years-old because it seems reasonable based on all of the ethically relevant factors.
  • Argument : we can draw an arbitrary line between childhood and adulthood because the stakes aren’t high.
      • it’s not as if the stakes for “adulthood” are low. (Somebody will be on a sex offender registry for the rest of their life—because they had sex with someone a day too soon).
      • we still rely on a somewhat arbitrary judgment
  • Once ethical consideration that favors the pro-choice side is the fact that many women considering an abortion are not choosing between having a child and not having a child, but between having a child now and having a child later when they anticipate being in a better position to provide for a child.
  • The first scenario pits a world with N people against a world with N+1 people. But the second scenario pits a world with N+1 people against a slightly better world, also with N+1 people—a world in which a mother is better able to provide for her child. (How many abortions fall into the second category? I don’t know exactly, but probably less than half. Still, viewing the ethics of abortion exclusively through the lens of the first scenario makes the pro-life case seem stronger than it actually is.)
  • Even in the first scenario, however, there are considerations that favor the pro-choice side. Most women who get abortions already have kids and many are considering an abortion because they’re struggling to provide for the children they already have.
  • 49% of people who got abortions in 2014 were below the poverty line.
  • In a low socioeconomic context, carrying a fetus to term could mean reducing the resources devoted—and the quality of life given—to each child.
  • welfare state can mitigate this by providing benefits, but there is no replacing the parental time and attention that existing children lose upon the arrival of a new child.
  • illegal abortions, ubiquitous throughout history and the world.
  • There is a black market for illegal abortions performed in suboptimal conditions.
  • WHO : unsafe abortions result in about 7 million hospital admissions per year throughout the developing world.
  • Claim : demand for abortions seems to remain high whether abortions are administered legally in clinics or illegally in hotel rooms,
  • Therefore, many women would likely suffer health complications from illegal abortions as a consequence of signing pro-life principles into law.
  • All told, there are substantial ethical costs associated with the pro-life position. Of course, there are substantial ethical costs associated with the pro-choice position as well, chief among which is the prevention of flourishing that would otherwise have occurred had an aborted fetus been brought to term.
  • Regardless of whether one believes a fetus to be a person with the full suite of associated rights, if left unmolested, a fetus is very likely to Ending the prospect of that consciousness before it begins comes at a huge ethical cost.
  • The fallacy many pro-lifers commit, however, is to ascribe infinite value to that cost, such that it cannot be weighed against any number of concerns on the other side.
  • Most actions have both ethical costs and ethical benefits.
  • When both sides of the scale are substantial enough, it makes sense to weigh them before reaching a decision that reflects a reasonable compromise.
  • Example : lower the speed limit on every road in America to 10 miles per hour and save the 40,000 or so lives we lose each year to car accidents.
    • slowing all traffic to a crawl would impose costs that outweigh 40,000 lost human lives.
    • Suppose someone used the pro- life argument here : a right to life/bodily autonomy is sacred and therefore cannot be traded off against any competing ethical concern.
    • No one would be persuaded by this and will also refuse to engage with opponents’ arguments.
    • After all, their ethical imperative is so compelling that it’s impervious to consequentialist objections.
  • That is how both sides of the abortion debate are behaving at the moment. It’s a cop-out to dub some principle sacred—whether it’s a fetus’s right to life or a woman’s bodily autonomy—and then use the sanctification of that principle to ignore all of the ethical costs that position entails.
  • As for the inevitable question: where would I draw the line? Germany, Denmark, Finland, and Russia draw it at 12 weeks. That seems sensible because it gives women seeking abortions a reasonable amount of time to obtain them without encroaching on the period during which the fetus begins to develop consciousness (around week 20.)
  • Any line we draw will seem arbitrary because it is—and that’s okay. Arbitrary doesn’t mean random and it doesn’t mean cruel. It means that we are doing what civil societies have had to do since time immemorial: accept a difficult trade-off where natural constraints preclude the possibility of an easy solution.

Links for Further Reading/Listening:

Image source: galaxies and hurricanes

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