Abortion: A Thought Experiment
I have struggled for quite some time with the idea of abortion and its legality. As someone who was raised on the left side of the political spectrum, I initially believed that a woman should have the right to terminate a pregnancy. On the critical analysis of this position, I have been forced to question my initial conclusion.
The question of morality as it pertains to abortion centers around the issue of when a fetus becomes a human life. The fetus is initially a simple clump of cells. Its development over the course of nine months in many ways mirrors human evolution. It begins to resemble a fish, even having gills for a time. Eventually limbs develop, then fingers and toes, and a heart begins to beat. By the end of the pregnancy it is undeniably a human being. The pro-choice argument essentially considers the fetus to be a cancerous growth, and part of the mother’s body until some point late in the pregnancy when it appears to be human. It is no different than a tumor caused by an individual’s decision to smoke cigarettes, and can be simply cut away. It is the mother’s decision to have it removed, or to allow it to develop into a human being. The question must be answered, however, at what point does that clump of cells become a separate human entity with a human right to live?
The initial off the cuff response might be that a fetus becomes a human when it looks like a human. This is, of course, completely subjective and dependent on what stage of human development one is using for comparison. Children change rapidly for the first couple decades of their existence. If you looked at pictures of the same individual as a baby, as a child of ten years age, and as a full grown adult you may notice similar features, but their size, shape, and proportions would be radically different. If you compare a fetus from week to week it will continue to appear to be a fetus, but will gradually look more and more like a baby. The fact that the baby that is born at the end bears little resemblance to the initial clump of cells does not prove that the clump of cells is not a human. Imagine that you are an alien scientist encountering humans for the first time. Would you assume that new born babies are not really human, because they look so different when compared to an elderly individual? Would you assume that people with deformities that make them look different are not human? Would the treatment of those individuals as less than human be justified?
Another response to the initial question of when a fetus becomes human might be that the fetus is dependent on the mother’s body, and is therefor part of her body, and she may keep or dispose of it as she pleases. Science has made it possible to keep premature babies alive, and has continued to push back the age at which a fetus can be sustained outside of the mother’s body. It is conceivable that medicine will eventually advance to the point that a fetus could be gestated from the moment of conception in an artificial womb until birth. This is, of course, an unnatural scenario. The fetus should be able to survive on its own outside of the mother, the abortion advocate might argue. But, babies are entirely dependent on their parents for survival well after they are born, for at least their first decade of life. Children would die without their parents to feed and protect them. Should parents be permitted to kill their toddlers, since they are not self sufficient? Some adults are unable to support themselves in difficult economic times, and continue to be dependent on their parents. Should parents be allowed to kill a son or daughter who moves back in with them after college, when they are unable to find work?
The pain of child birth is so great, our pro-choice friend might argue, that the mother should not be forced to endure it. Indeed, her own life may be at risk, and she therefor should have the right to terminate the pregnancy. But, life is full of pain. It defines our very existence in so many ways. In a strictly moral sense, the taking of a life to avoid pain which is the consequence of our own actions would not be justified. Imagine that you are out for a drive in the hills of Wisconsin. It is a beautiful day and you are driving faster than you should, enjoying the sensation of swinging the car through the curves. You understand that this is a risky behavior, but it feels so good that you don’t care. As you come around a bend, there is tractor completely blocking the road. You do not have time to avoid a head on collision that would surely kill you by applying the breaks, and are forced to swerve off the road. To your left is a steep drop off down a hill. Your car will be destroyed, you will likely be injured, and it will hurt. To your right is a child on a bike, riding along the edge of the road. Turning this direction will kill the child, but your vehicle will only suffer minor damage and you will be unhurt. Are you justified in avoiding the pain of the violent car wreck by taking the life of the innocent child?
Abortions would take place regardless of prohibition, and by making them legal they can be regulated and controlled, is another common argument. We do not prohibit the use of cigarettes or alcohol, and should not prohibit the use of drugs. These are, however, activities that do not intentionally cause harm to other individuals. Violence against others is not legal, and should not be. We do not, under normal circumstances, allow murder simply because we can never entirely prevent it from happening. It might be argued that the death penalty is regulated and controlled murder. I would agree, and argue that it too should be abolished.
What about in cases of rape or incest? Surely, a mother could never love the child, and it may have defects that would make it unworthy of life. Life is full of hard choices and regrets. Being a parent is difficult. I have known many people with children, and a few who have had abortions. Some of those who have had abortions confess a feeling of loss and regret. I have never met a parent who, aside from the odd frustrated moment, regretted the decision to have children. They have only spoken of the love and joy that children have brought into their lives. Any parent will tell you that children are not clones of their parents, and lots of kids with deadbeat fathers are still loved by their mothers. Of course, adoption is an alternative available to mothers who don’t wish to keep their babies. There is a large demand for babies by parents who are unable to have their own children. As for birth defects and genetic problems as a result of incest, I find the implication that people with disabilities are somehow undeserving of life extremely disturbing. It should not be acceptable to kill people with disabilities, regardless of their cause or the age of the individual. The circumstances of their conception were out of their control, and to punish them for the actions of others is not morally right.
What about pain? Surely, the fetus does not feel pain and can be ethically removed. There is no clear scientific consensus on this. Some researchers believe that the fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, while others believe that it is 24. Pain is subjective, however, and as our measurements become more sensitive and our definition of pain response more defined we may easily find that fetuses are capable of feeling pain much earlier. Once again, I don’t believe that pain is a particularly important part of moral action, however. There is a genetic condition called analgesia, the effect of which is that the individual is unable to feel pain. This is often very dangerous because pain responses protect us from harm. People with this condition often cut or burn themselves because they are unable to react to damage. Another individual causing damage to someone with analgesia, in spite of the fact that their victim could not feel the damage inflicted, would not justify the action. The immorality exists in the damage to another individual, not in the pain response of the victim.
This is a question that I have put deep thought into. I have engaged myself in endless debate, far more than can be summarized in 1500 words. It is an extremely difficult and emotional topic, both to think about and to argue. For many years I considered myself to be in the pro-choice camp. I think it is important to allow your own opinions to evolve, and to always seek a more consistent and morally upright world view. Questioning our own beliefs and engaging in debate with other people is how we grow intellectually, and we should never be so engrained in our opinions that we are not willing to consider the possibility that we are in the wrong. I am still struggling with this topic, and often find myself meditating on the moral implications from both sides.
By Ross Ticknor