A Strictly Philosophical Discourse on the Moral (Im)permissibility of Abortion. Pt. 2

Posted: February 22, 2012 in Freedom, Health, Law, Morality, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Violence
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I’d like to jump right into this post without another long introduction. If you’re reading this, I suggest you read my previous post for a bit of a prologue on the topic of abortion as I mean to address it here. What I will say is that women’s reproductive rights are under a new wave of conservative attack. An all too common decorum held by many of our peers is to allow these cards to fall as they may, and let the hands of this game be played by the professionals. This is exactly why I remain motivated to write this blog. The professionals we allow to draw up the parameters of our law are, in principle, supposed to be representing our interests, not defining them for us. When we defer to authority, we are relinquishing our right to have opinions of our own. So when the state governments of Virginia, and Oklahoma, and Nebraska, get together to set a precedent in combating women’s suffrage, it is only up to general consensus to respond vehemently. The topic of abortion, at the very least, needs to be discussed on a philosophical level so that we know what we mean when we say women have the right to choose, or that it is murder. Those who have the most tenable argument are the ones that should resonate with us and have the most influence, not those who argue loudest or wield the most money and power.

I didn’t want to mention religion again. Really, I didn’t. However religious leaders are maintaining their perennial position on the autonomy of women’s bodies which is that they have the final say in their care and treatment. With regards to the new universal healthcare laws that Obama put into place, it is my understanding that he put religious organizations underneath the umbrella of its coverage. What this means is, that any organization, including religious ones, must offer coverage for contraception and birth control to their employees, regardless of whether or not that employee is religious or secular. If you’re a janitor in a Catholic School, or a Special Needs Teacher, your health insurance will not cover birth control. What is being expressed here is that only religious practices are allowed to change the laws as they see fit, and it is in this blogger’s opinion that they haven’t provided any grounds for which to deserve this extremely special privilege. This is the panel that made lobbied against the President’s directive:

All those women in the back just got to watch.

. Not a single woman testified against the motion. Surprised?

Lastly, I’d like to again reiterate the arguments presented here and in my previous post are not my own. They are retold, to the best of my ability, from an undergrad course in Bioethics. Most, if not all the credit is due to my awesome professor of philosophy, whose name is absent for the time being. My goal of presenting both the views of the previous post and this one is to open up the minds of people with regards to the discussion on abortion, beyond what we are told by our parents, religious leaders, and community.

*          *          *

Position 2:

The (Secular) Moral Impermissibility of Abortion – Marquis’ Argument from Potentiality

Most people tend to use the argument from potentiality without even knowing it. They think about what the baby could turn into. They think of it after it is born, relate it to how adorable (most) other babies tend to be, and start to feel all warm and squishy inside thinking about holding them and playing with them. There are many endearing and absolutely beautiful things about babies that when we think of abortion, we can see it as nothing more than the horrible act of robbing something from humanity. Is this true? Will this work in a philosophical argument?

Let us not fall into a trap here. I mentioned this in the last post: We are not supposing that a fetus could be the next Beethoven, or Picasso, or Albert Einstein. This is not a logical argument. Opponents could easily say that you’re aborting the next Charles Manson, Pol Pot, or Adolf Hitler. I think most people would justify the abortions of the latter three. A billboard in Harlem caused an uproar when it used this argument alluding to Obama.  Not only is this racist, in that it preyed on the hopes of minority parents for their children to become whatever they would want with limitless possibilities, but also it also doesn’t use a sound argument philosophically, which really just means it’s nothing more than obnoxious and insulting.

What Marquis (pronounced Mar-kwis) wants to do is give fetuses and adult human beings a symmetrical characteristic that is wrong to take away. In the last post we talked about moral standings and the right to life, which will carry over here.

What makes premature death a misfortune? We’re talking about adults for now. When a 19 year old girl dies, and when a 91 year old woman dies, what is the difference? Is there one? Marquis says what encompasses the sense of loss we all share for those who die is their loss of a future of value. When a person lives to old age, and then dies, we don’t consider it premature because they’ve lived a fuller extent of their potential than say a child in grade school. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a younger person would have done more with their lives, but that they had the potential to.

Smith, a grade school student at the Socrates School for a Better Tomorrow, values the goods his consciousness brings. He appreciates being able to think, and reason, and the ability to make moral decisions and consider a future in which he could contribute to the world by using these tools. Smith enjoys painting. Rainy days inspire him. He hopes to fall in love, and to continue to enjoy his friendships. Unfortunately, his life was cut short by a drunk driver. His death represents a loss to Smith, of the greatest magnitude. If he were only in a coma, he’d still have the potential to come out of it and enact all those goods of consciousness. He’d have the potential to paint again on a rainy day.

For Marquis, this trait of potentiality carries over to human fetuses. They have the potential to have a future like ours, with all the goods of consciousness we will have the potential of having when we become standard adult human beings. This potentiality grants the fetus a Moral Right to Life, on par with those of standard adult human beings. Even if that baby were slated to live the most horrible conditions, and suffer for the longest possible amount of time, it still has the potential to take advantage of all the goods of conscious both you and I enjoy. It is just as wrong, according to Marquis’ reasoning, to kill a human fetus as it is to kill a standard adult human being because you are robbing it of the greatest magnitude potentiality.

To restate it in philosophical terms:

P1: Standard adult human beings have the potential for goods of consciousness (i.e. the experiences of love, rationality, art, et al.).

P2: The worst possible moral crime is to take away the potential for the goods of consciousness (i.e. murder).

C1: It is wrong to kill standard adult human beings.

P3: Fetuses have the potential to become standard adult human beings, which experience the goods of consciousness.

P4: Abortion takes away the potential to experience the goods of consciousness.

C2: Abortion is the moral equivalent to murder.

There are objections of course to this argument. I’ll state only the two that make the most sense to me, and one of them is by Tooley and was one of the last things I mentioned in my last blog post.

Objection 1: The Contraception Objection

For me, this seems the most logical. We can simply ask, “At what point does something attain potentiality?” To which, Marquis presumably replies with conception. Though we have no reason to believe that only at conception, something is given the potentiality of having a future like ours and thusly a serious right to life. What about the ovum? What about each of the millions of sperm residing in the nether regions of some of my readers loins right now? If you are not both copulating, and reading this at the same time, you are committing at least one horrendous moral crime on par with murder! Every time a male masturbates, and robs the potentiality for those sperm to become standard adult human beings with goods of consciousness, he is committing genocide under Marquis’ reasoning. He might defend this point by saying that conjoined (egg/sperm) can be identified as a zygote, and thusly is something we can point at and say it has a right to life. He might also say that the set of [1,000,000 sperm cells + 1 egg] is not something you can point to ostensibly and identify as an entity with that potential. Well, if we just gave that set of [1,000,000 sperm cells + 1 egg] a name, like Snagglefritz, then it has overcome identity theory, and now has contained within its definition a potential for all the goods of consciousness.

Object 2: Tooley’s Principle of Moral Symmetry

While this argument doesn’t necessarily take something away from the argument of potentiality, it does offer the other side of reasoning to the difference between intentionality and actuality. Under the Moral Symmetry Principle, choosing not do something is equally moral a initiating it, and then stopping it before it reaches its end.

A thought experiment:

If you have a pet, dog or cat, which ever you prefer, and you have a strong bond with that animal, you might sometimes wonder what it is thinking and feeling. Imagine you could inject that animal with a special serum that would give it all the experiences, consciousness, and goods therein of being human. It would basically be a dog/cat with all the mental and emotional traits of being human. The serum takes 14 days to work. During those 14 days there is nothing noticeable happening to that cat. You inject it, and then on the 14th day, suddenly it’s for all our purposes, a human being. Once you inject it, (and arguably before hand) with the serum, that cat attains potentiality. It is then, under Marquis’ reasoning the moral equivalent of murdering a human being if you give that cat an anti-serum on the 13th day, or the 2nd day. There’s something to be said about that seeming out of touch with our ideals for morality. Tooley argues this for a fetus as well. If you remember from my last post, a fetus has not attained all the wherewithal to own a serious moral right to life, and therefore is still in the cat/dog’s 2 week period where it is still okay to reverse the process.

I have one last piece of logic to offer which strikes me as the ultimate challenge to anyone who maintains the belief that a human fetus “dying” and  a person dying are moral equivalents. Approximately 12,000 to 20,000 people die of HIV/AIDS here in the United States yearly. There is a significant effort put forth, involving man hours and dollar amounts, to combat this plague. The same goes for several other diseases and disorders which plague humanity. According to some statisticians, approximately 6,000,000 fetuses are spontaneously aborted, that is miscarried, every year. We do not see this as a great human plague. While I’m sure religious acolytes chalk this up to God’s will, what ever that means, that should still be seen as the greatest continuous loss of life and our greatest moral responsibility. If just the United States were to endure something that is equivalent to the holocaust every year, why don’t we react with greater fervor? So maybe, from the anti-abortion point of view, Mother Theresa didn’t seem so off base when she said that “the greatest destroyer of peace on Earth is abortion” in her acceptance of the Nobel Prize. However, when we consider the injustice being perpetrated on the undeserving, we think of oppressed people, starving people, impoverished people, suffering people, not fetuses. To place the esteem of full moral status on an unborn human fetus, morally requires you to become an extremist or suffer the fate of cognitive dissonance.

Well this concludes the abortion topic for the time being. There’s actually lots more to discuss of course, like Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument that even if a baby has a serious moral right to life, it doesn’t mean we can’t abort it on other grounds. For now I think I’ve exhausted everyone’s focus on the single topic and might perhaps return to it at a later time. I hope everyone found this 2 part series to be insightful. Keep the comments coming, and I’ll respond to them as much as I can. Respond to each other too, but remember to stay respectful.


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