Abortion and Logic

Peter Smith, a British philosopher and proprietor of Logic Matters, offers some thoughts about abortion. Passages from Smith’s post (in italics) are followed by my comments (in bold).

As the human zygote/embryo/foetus slowly develops, its death slowly becomes a more serious matter. At the very beginning, its death is of little consequence; as time goes on, its death is a matter it becomes appropriate to be gradually more concerned about.

This statement is presumptuous and, in many cases, wrong. A couple who want to have a child can be devastated by the miscarriage of a fetus, even at an early stage of pregnancy

After all, very few of us are worried by the fact that a very high proportion of conceptions quite spontaneously abort…

Again, very few of us are scandalized if a woman who finds she is pregnant by mistake in a test one week after conception is then mightily pleased when she discovers that the pregnancy has naturally terminated some days later (and even has a drink with a girl friend to celebrate her lucky escape). Compare: we would find it morally very inappropriate, in almost all circumstances, for a woman in comfortable circumstances to celebrate the death of an unwanted young baby.

What do “we” and “worry” have to do with it? The issue is the morality of abortion, not whether many individuals are emotionally involved in the natural termination of a pregnancy.

Suppose a woman finds she is a week or two pregnant, goes horse riding, falls badly at a jump, and as a result spontaneously aborts. That might be regrettable, but we wouldn’t think she’d done something terrible by going riding and running the risk.

Speak for yourself, not “we.” There are many who would condemn the woman who knowingly risked the life of her fetus by jumping a horse or doing something similarly risky.

So: our very widely shared attitudes to the natural or accidental death of the products of conception do suggest that we do in fact regard them as of relatively lowly moral status at the beginning of their lives, and of greater moral standing as time passes. We are all (or nearly all) gradualists in these cases. [Assumptions not granted, but pray continue.]

It is then quite consistent with such a view to take a similar line about unnatural deaths. For example, it would be consistent to think that using the morning-after pill is of no moral significance, while bringing about the death of an eight month foetus is getting on for as serious as killing a neonate, with a gradual increase in the seriousness of the killing in between.

At what point, then, does it become morally significant to kill a fetus? At one week, one month, three months, three months and a day, five months, six months, seven months? If killing a eight-month fetus is “getting on for as serious as killing a neonate,” then killing a seven-month, three-week fetus is as serious as killing an eight-month fetus, and so on.

Some, at any rate, of those of us who are pro (early) choice are moved by this sort of gradualist view. The line of thought in sum is: the killing of an early foetus has a moral weight commensurate with the moral significance of the natural or accidental death of an early foetus. And on a very widely shared view, that’s not very much significance. So from this point of view, early abortion is of not very much significance either. But abortion gradually gets [sic] a more significant matter as time goes on.

The popularity-contest view of morality aside, this is asinine “logic.” By Smith’s “reasoning,” the murder of a 90-year-old white, male American (who was expected to live for another four years) has less moral weight than the death by heart attack of a seemingly healthy 70-year-old white male American (who was expected to live for another fourteen years. Only a proponent of Britain’s “death panels” would believe such a thing.

You might disagree. But then it seems that you either need (a) an argument for departing from the very widely shared view about the moral significance of the natural or accidental miscarriage of the early products of conception. Or (b) you need to have an argument for the view that while the natural death of a zygote a few days old is of little significance, the unnatural death is of major significance. Neither line is easy to argue. To put it mildly.

Smith’s “logical” sleight-of-hand is revealed. His trick is to treat unintended and intended acts having the same consequences as if they were equivalent. But they are not. The unintentional death of a fetus by wholly natural causes is not the same as the intentional death of a fetus by abortion. In the first instance, a life ended prematurely but under (presumably) unavoidable circumstances; there is no one to blame for the death of a prenatal human being. In the second instance, a prenatal human being of untold potential is deliberately murdered; blame for that murder can be readily fixed. This is an easy line to argue, to put it vehemently.

P.S. Steven Landsburg seems to endorse Smith’s position.

Related posts:
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Substantive Due Process and the Limits of Privacy
Crimes against Humanity