11 July 2007

Abortion #4: The Infanticide Argument for Pro-Life

The Theist
Abortion and Barn Burning
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
July 2, 2007

My colleague The Objectivist is an expert on the morality and legality of abortion, and people would do well to follow his arguments closely. His main point is really this: it is the moral status of abortions which is the fundamental issue. People are prone to operating solely on emotions: pity for the mother with the unwanted pregnancy, anger at men for meanly and unreasonably insisting that women let their fetuses develop and emerge. Around this issue has developed a cult of female autonomy. How dare anyone even think of interfering in such a personal choice? The mother getting what she wants is all-important, and her feelings are sacred. The father’s wishes and feelings, possible effects on society, and any other seemingly relevant concerns are angrily – and thoughtlessly - pushed aside. Foremost among these seemingly relevant issues is this: in destroying this little organism in the womb, are we doing anything morally wrong? Moral concerns should trump practical and political concerns, if we’re moral beings at all.

We are moral beings. It is impossible for us to ignore moral concerns, in how we deal with each other, with non-human animals, and with the environment. So The Objectivist is right; forget about culture wars, legal creativity, and politics - the most important issue is, in aborting, are we doing anything morally wrong, or not? Or perhaps, in some circumstances abortion is morally permissible and in others not. The Objectivist has a consistent perspective on this, but most people, and above all abortion moderates do not. They go with feelings, with what their peers say, and with anything but clearheaded moral reasoning.

What’s his view? He holds that only “persons” - beings with the kind of complex mental life that a normal human adult has - have moral rights. For other things, at least if no one else owns them, we can do with them whatever we please. If you decide you don’t want your kitten any more, in his view, you may simply crush it with a brick – you do nothing morally wrong thereby. If you don’t want your new-born infant – perhaps you wanted a boy, not a girl – you may re-use that same bloody brick, without doing anything morally wrong. Fetuses are no different – they are not “persons” any more than newborns or kittens, so you may abort at will, for any time or reason. You’re not violating anyone’s rights any more than when you cut into the apple in your lunch box. He has a backup argument: granting that the fetus is a human, a person, and whatever else you like, he argues that it has no rights at all to be in its mother. It’s like a little invader or trespasser, and may be ejected at will, even if the ejection kills the fetus.

What’s that you say? That theory is crazy? Yes, I agree. But it’s consistent and principled. The question is: what do you say? Do you hold that infanticide is morally wrong? Yes? And that many or all abortions are not wrong? OK. Now what is the morally relevant difference between a fetus and a newborn?

While you’re pondering that, I’ll briefly give you my take on this issue. Consider why we all (but The Objectivist) think infanticide is morally wrong. What precisely is wrong with disposing of unwanted infants? Lot of societies have done it. But it seems that if we did that, we’d be doing great harm to the little victim. We’d be depriving her of the rest of her life – of a vast, unimaginably valuable treasure-house of potentials. As she sits there, she has potentials to be (suppose) a great artist, a best friend, heroic rescuer of endangered species, a mother of six, or a prime minister of a great nation. But we decide, perhaps for what we think are good reasons, to deprive her of these innumerable potentials. That seems wrong, for the potential lives we’re ripping away from her have immense value.

Now consider the full term fetus, still inside her mother. All the same considerations apply to her. The only difference is that she’s still inside and hooked up to her biological mom. Now how far back does her life go? That is, when did this thing of amazing potential come into existence? I don’t know, and I’ll bet you don’t either. Some believe that she comes into being at conception, or at two weeks, or just somewhere within the first trimester, or maybe the second. Well, the moral thing to do seems to be assume that she begins to exist at the earliest possible date – at conception.

Suppose you have a farmer friend named Will, who owns a crusty, rusty old barn. You visit him one day, and he tells you that he’s sick of looking at that old barn, and he’s going to burn the thing down. You ask him if he’s sure it’s unoccupied. Maybe it’s full of baby bunnies, or raccoons, or maybe even the neighborhood children are playing in it, or a homeless person is taking shelter in it. Will says “You shut up. This barn bothers me, and you’ll never understand how much, ‘cause you ain’t me. You can’t tell me what to do. I want it down, dadgummit.” Will then torches it. What does Will later find in the ashes – human bones, or just charred wood? It doesn’t matter. He’s done something morally wrong. He ought not torch it when he can’t rule out that children (etc.) are in the barn.

We all believe that we used to be babies. Did you also used to be a fetus? How old a fetus? You don’t know? Me either. But since we don’t know how far back we existed, the moral thing to do is to not abort at all, except in self-defense (when the pregnancy is likely to kill both mother and child). That is a consistent and principled way of thinking about abortion, and it’s far more plausible than The Objectivist's.

Suppose human bones turn up in the barn’s ashes. Will we charge Will with first-degree murder? Of course not. He’ll be charged with involuntary homicide. So The Objectivist is simply wrong in holding that if abortion is morally wrong, aborting mothers and abortion providers will all be charged with first-degree murder. We’d blame Will for acting irresponsibly, but more than that, we’d pity him because he would have unwittingly inflicted such great harm. We’ll grieve with Will. We wouldn’t look on him as we do on cold-blooded killers, or even hot-blooded (i.e. crime of passion) killers. He’d be a fool, by the way, to use The Objectivist's defense – that he has right to kill any trespassers on his property. As to the abortion industry, they’re not like Nazi gassers, but more like workers at a negligent chemical company, whose products wrought great harm on health and environment, because they were sold in ignorance of their inherent dangers. Blameable and legally liable yes, but not murderers – at least not most of them. And the abortion-doctor killers? They’re more like environmental terrorists who gun down the chemical company executives in the parking lot.


Kelly Gorski said...

I think the main argument is whether it is moral to force women to carry all pregnancies to term, regardless of whether they want to. (To mandate forced termination or carrying to term would be incredibly immoral.)

As long as there is physical dependency, the law can't force women into carrying to term or terminating pregnancies (it's also just socially irresponsible and morally bankrupt). That's a decision only she can make, and she certainly should never be forced to make either decision.

The Objectivist said...

I enjoyed your comment. But I'm not sure I see why physical dependency is relevant. What seems to matter is that the fetus is inside the woman and hence her right to control her body is at stake.