An Evaluation of “Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking”

Elliott Crozat

|

May 28, 2021

Introduction

Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking is an engaging article on an issue often confined to academic journals.[1] I am grateful for the report, mainly because of Nobis’ and Dudley’s emphasis on personhood and because I agree with them on two significant points. First, our society needs careful and respectful examination of challenging topics rather than sloganeering and ad hominem. As Schopenhauer put it, “one wants reasons and not empty phrases or abuse.”[2] Second, at the popular level, folks on both sides of the debate have largely ignored the relevance of moral reasoning.

Four-Fold Evaluation

Notwithstanding my gratitude, the article has weaknesses. What follows is a brief evaluation of the authors’ argument, not an attempt to defend the pro-life position.

Firstly, the tone strikes me as too quick and sure. I will return to this point, but for now, I note that generally, philosophers are less sure about solutions to philosophical problems than the authors seem to be about their position on abortion. However, I grant that a tone of crisp certainty is more acceptable in popular contexts than in academia.

Secondly, the article begins in a questionable manner: “Abortion rights are under attack… The Supreme Court now has a majority of justices who identify as “pro-life,” and will surely be more receptive to these attacks on abortion rights than previous courts have been.” Note that the authors are not clear about whether they are referring to moral or legal rights. Either way, a problem arises. If the former, they are begging the question at the start since it is debatable whether persons have the moral right to perform an abortion. If the latter, then “attack” is a question-begging epithet. After all, if a legal right is morally unacceptable, it is arguably permissible to repeal that right. Labeling such efforts with the emotionally-laden “attack” presupposes that the legal right in question is ethically acceptable.

Thirdly, the authors provide two analogies to argue that abortion is morally permissible. In each, they presuppose the like-cases principle: like cases should be treated alike unless there is a morally relevant reason to treat them differently. Good start: this is a venerable moral principle going back at least to Aristotle. Nevertheless, each analogy fails because of at least one morally significant difference.

The first comparison is between abortion and organ donation. This comparison fails in two crucial respects: (i) in typical cases of organ donation, the donor consents to undergo the process, and (ii) the process occurs after the donor is brain-dead. It hardly needs to be stated that in typical cases of abortion, the fetus does not consent and is not brain-dead.

The second analogy concerns abortion and the treatment of anencephalic infants. Here, the authors miss the difference between (a) actively killing and (b) passively allowing to die. This distinction is pivotal in the euthanasia debate and proves similarly important here. Abortion is the active killing of a fetus that would otherwise naturally continue to live and develop. However, in cases of anencephalic infants such as those noted by the authors, the infant is allowed to die, supported by palliative care.

Given these analogies, the authors construct something like the following argument:

  1. Abortion is relevantly similar to organ donation and anencephalic death.
  2. Cases of organ donation and anencephalic death are morally permissible.
  3. Like cases should be treated alike.
  4. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.

The argument is an interesting application of the like-cases principle. However, since the analogies fail, the authors’ analogical reasoning is unconvincing.

Fourthly, the authors claim that fetuses during the first 12 weeks are not conscious. Perhaps they are correct, but they cannot be objectively certain. As many philosophers of mind have indicated, consciousness is a hard problem. A good way to discover if a being is conscious is to determine if it has qualia (i.e., subjective states of experience). One cannot accomplish this task with a brain scan. Hence, a reasonable concern arises that we cannot achieve certainty concerning whether a fetus has qualia. And since we lack such certainty, we should act with the utmost caution, given the moral seriousness of taking human life. The authors do not address this point.[3] Instead, they present what might strike the reader as an unjustified sense of certainty about the moral permissibility of killing fetuses during the first 12 weeks.

Moreover, the authors write that fetuses “lack consciousness-enabling brains.” But they are not lucid about what “consciousness-enabling brain” means, leaving the reader to ponder the matter. Now, there is evidence that the senses of taste and touch begin to develop around Week 8. According to Ventura and Worobey, the olfactory and gustatory systems also start to form during this period. These systems and their connections to the brain enable the fetus to develop tastes and preferences for specific flavors.[4] Touch, taste, and smell are sensations, which are states of consciousness. Preferences and other desires are also conscious states. Thus, the physical resources which support consciousness begin to develop before Week 12. Do these mechanisms enable any degree of consciousness during this period? I suggest that we do not know the answer to this question and that our ignorance indicates that we should tread carefully.

Furthermore, one is within one’s epistemic rights to doubt the authors’ claim that the present bearing of consciousness is necessary to possess the moral right to life. For example, the adult who temporarily loses consciousness because of, say, dehydration does not thereby lose this right. Instead, one might agree with Marquis that the primary concern at hand is that the fetus has a future like ours.[5] In other words, the human fetus, child, and adult share a comparable future, namely, one in which a conscious agent naturally possesses intrinsically valuable experiences. It is morally wrong to deprive a child or an adult of future experiences. Given the like-cases principle, abortion is morally wrong because it deprives the fetus of such experiences.

Conclusion

There are other concerns with the article, such as an apparent mishandling of important points about interests. But I want to end amicably. Nobis and Dudley close by stating that one should not wait to engage in moral philosophy until forced to because of a rescinded legal privilege. I wholly agree.

Elliott R. Crozat (Ph.D., M.A.) is Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities at Purdue University Global. He also worked for several years as an analyst with the U. S. Department of State on issues in applied epistemology. His areas of emphasis include ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion.

 

[1] Salon published the article on April 11, 2021. See https://www.salon.com/2021/04/11/why-the-case-against-abortion-is-weak-ethically-speaking/

[2] “On Suicide,” in Essays and Aphorisms, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 78.

[3] They need not agree with it. But they should recognize it.

[4] “Early Influences on the Development of Food Preferences,” in Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 9, May 2013. Moreover, Andreas Keller argues that olfaction is the paradigm sensation. See Philosophy of Olfactory Perception, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

[5] See “Why Abortion is Immoral,” Journal of Philosophy 86, 4 (April 1989): 183–202.

*Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Tagged with:
Share:

About the Author

Elliott Crozat

Elliott R. Crozat (Ph.D., M.A.) is a full-time professor of philosophy and the humanities at Purdue University Global. His philosophical interests include metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, ethics, and the meaning of life. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

Learn More

More from this author