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Can the pro/anti-abortion debate ever be about choice? Is it, in fact, 100% about life?

What I'm positing is: if a foetus counts as life, then the same rules apply as with any other life. If a foetus doesn't yet count as life, then no such rules apply.

To expand on the first point, this doesn't mean that difficult decisions don't have to be made. Deciding who gets a liver transplant is a weighty decision that chooses one life over another; we don't say, "Let's classify the person who deserves it less as not life in order to make this simpler." What it does mean is that if it's life, then currently the choice of whether or not to end it is given to far less expert and disinterested people than in any other instance in society.


I actually didn't come to this from this point of view. My first thought was more about the pro choice movement, which makes the debate about women, instead of about life. Which is fine, except the more I think about it, the more the fundamental question has nothing to do with choice. To illustrate my thought graphically:

Life and choice matrix

If true, this shows the choice issue to be irrelevant, as it is equivalent to this:

Life only


Imagine this no doubt common instance: a woman has three children. The father is not around any more, for whatever reason. The situation is not financially viable; she doesn't have the ability to earn enough to keep the family going and employ a nanny for while she is at work. Should it be her choice as to whether or not to end one of the childrens' lives, thus easing the financial situation?

The answer (I hope) is no, it's not her choice. Her children's lives are inviolate from this point of view.

However, then one of her children is struck down with an illness that will permanently degrade his liver. Their doctor applies for a liver transplant. Unfortunately, the application is rejected, because the liver had to go to a child who was in a car accident. Is this choice okay?

The answer (I think) is yes. While it's a horrible, impossible choice, it's one that has to be made, and quickly, and an expert, disinterested party is the correct one to make it.

Thus life can be treated as inviolate, while the resulting impossible choices can still be made. In other words, arguing that a foetus is life has nothing to do with aborting to save the mother.


So my real question is this: is the pro choice movement hijacking this debate by arguing from adverse consequences, and by appealing to women to get enough votes to push the issue through without thinking about the only real issue on the table: life?

(And my reason for mentioning transplant choices is so that someone can't come along and say that I'm arguing for never aborting, even in a medical emergency, or even after rape. This case - where life is inviolate, but we have to choose one life over another - is already well established in law and medicine, and from what I can tell doesn't require choice to enter the debate.)

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11 Answers 11

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Unfortunately, the rules for life are far from clear. You can do anything to a bacterium. People get quite upset if you torture chimps and dolphins.

And even more unfortunately, the rules for when something is meaningfully human life are subjective. Development starts with a fertilized egg that, aside from developmental potential, is rather less aware than the typical coral polyp, and ends with a human, with gradual changes all along the way. Saying "conception is an abrupt transition, so that is when human life begins" is perhaps convenient for bookkeeping. (Birth is another abrupt transition.) Few systems of morality advocate for a stance merely because it simplifies your bookkeeping.

So there simply isn't a broad (let alone universal) consensus about what precisely counts as human life and when it starts, and in any case it's biologically a gradual process which presumably means that moral weight should gradually accrue also.

Presumably with gradual accrual, there could be some points at which the rights of the mother would be weighted equally or more strongly, which would make the mother's rights relevant (e.g. right to self-determination, i.e. "choice").

  • Thanks for your answer. I'm probably stating the obvious, but my proposition is that the mother's rights are 100% not relevant; it's just whether or not the foetus counts as inviolate life yet. – Robert Grant Oct 29 '14 at 12:29
  • @RobertGrant - You are imposing an arbitrary threshold between "inviolate life" and "not". A large part of my point is that it is gradual, not a sharp threshold. You have to believe in something like the entry of the soul into the physical form to believe otherwise. – Rex Kerr Oct 29 '14 at 20:11
  • You can accept conflicting rights, but only if absolutely nothing is 'inviolate'. In particular, we allow states to have the death penalty. Life is not inviolate in the U.S. – jobermark Oct 29 '14 at 23:41
  • @jobermark - Agreed, almost. Strictly speaking you may have one inviolate right without running into logical problems, e.g. Robert Grant has an inviolate right to life. (If anyone else does, you can run into insolvable conflicts.) – Rex Kerr Oct 30 '14 at 0:51
  • Those are logically equivalent statements, AFAICT, so why do we agree almost. – jobermark Oct 30 '14 at 1:09
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Nope, the arguments are not always about life. I will construct one for you in a second. Let me replace "life" with "person(s)".

Here is the standard argument:

  1. Murdering persons is wrong.

  2. Foetuses are persons.

  3. C: Therefore, it is wrong to murder foetuses.

You are asking, "Is it always about life?" Which means, is it always a question about the truth of the premise on line 2.?

The answer is no, because we can just challenge the premise on line 1. Namely, we can just call into question whether it is actually true that it is necessarily wrong to murder persons.

That is, sometimes it is wrong to murder persons; sometimes it is not.

E.g.) Suppose that murdering one innocent person would save 1,000,000 persons. Is it therefore morally permissible to kill the one innocent person?

Many people would say yes intuitively, and some moral theories also agree with that conclusion.

Therefore, it is false that it is necessarily wrong to murder. So, now the argument is not about the life-status of foetuses, but on which facts allow us to determine when it is and when it is not permissible to murder a person.

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    I think I've already covered this by saying that we can still make decisions where a life can be lost, e.g. the transplant example. You don't solve your 1:1000000 ratio problem by defining the 1 person as not having a life of the same worth as one of the 1000000's. Sorry if it wasn't clear, but I endeavoured to do so by making the point in two or three places. – Robert Grant Oct 29 '14 at 13:06
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    @RobertGrant If you agree that in some circumstances abortion is ok, then you agree that in some cases it is about choice. Now it is only about exploring, in which circumstances it is ok. A possible answer is: If the mother does not want the child. So if you allow exceptions, the question about the rights of the mother are on the table again. And that's why this is actually a good answer. – Einer Oct 29 '14 at 18:21
  • @AndrewC, that line is in the answer, so you are directing the prompt to the wrong person. But I think 'Melody' will get it anyway. Right? – jobermark Oct 30 '14 at 3:08
  • @Melody also, now I re-read it, this basically agrees with my premise. You're saying we already make decisions to end what we consider valuable life; I'm also saying that at various points. This is what the transplant analogy is about. – Robert Grant Oct 30 '14 at 7:24
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    @Einer A bit punctilliously, that is not true. If you admit that in some circumstances abortion is OK, then you agree that in some cases it is about something else. 'Choice' is not the only other option, it is just the one you are used to. The law can then clearly decide when it is about choice, and when there are more objective reasons we all want you to have or not have the child. If 'choice' were somehow all that was left, weird restrictions like time-limits would clearly be out of order, and the current U.S. law would be immoral. I don't think it is, given our limited knowledge. – jobermark Oct 30 '14 at 18:47
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There is an important aspect to this issue which is not being addressed.

Let us make the assumption that an unborn child is the equivalent of a living human being from the moment of conception. As such, they are entitled to all the rights that any living being are entitled to.

Of course, the mother is also living human being, and also entitled to all the rights any living being is entitled to.

In the United States (and internationally, as far as I am aware), it has been definitively upheld in courts that one's right to control of their own body outweighs another individual's needs(1). Even in cases of life and death, a legally competent person cannot be compelled to provide so much as a single ounce of blood. Bringing a child to full term requires much more than that, and as such, is reliant upon the mother being a willing donor.

Without an active choice on the mother's behalf, the child has no more right to live in her womb than I do.

The alternative is to allow the state to override an individual's right to their own body. Personally, I find any line between "you lose body autonomy when it comes to babies" and "you lose body autonomy when it comes to rich people" too easy to blur for my tastes.

(1) http://www.proskauer.com/files/News/6d4bc18a-b17b-4146-83fe-0ba311b9d07c/Presentation/NewsAttachment/b04b4bfa-e496-49ad-b3d3-129ac6a5c6c5/compelled-organ-donation.pdf

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    Tell that to the doctor being held hostage because she used to have Ebola... I do not think this is a principle of law. We compel people to have blood tests regularly in enforcing the drug laws. All that is required is a warrant. In fact Roe vs Wade rejected this as a principle, and instead chose to go with the fourth amendment as a guarantee of the right to protect one's reputation and control one's own level of responsibility to others within limits. (Hence the limits. This principle would have made the decision much more absolute.) – jobermark Oct 29 '14 at 22:51
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    (to op), and yet we also have concepts like "mandatory reporter" wherein many professions have an obligation to help people in need even if they don't request it or you believe their request is a joke. Our responsibilities to others on a legal level are pretty murky but unless we're legal positivists, that's not enough to determine what we should do morally. – virmaior Oct 30 '14 at 0:29
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    I would like to point out that few people consider compulsory military service an immoral obligation for a country to place on its citizens. Many lost their 'body autonomy' and got bodily placed in war zones by being an American male who became 17 years old before 1973. If we considered that immoral, collectively, the Selective Service System would not still be running. I don't think it is coincidental that Roe v Wade dates from the same year. – jobermark Oct 30 '14 at 4:31
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There are several reasons why it's about choice.

Rhetoric/politics

It's more attractive to be "pro" something than "anti" something.

For example, if your opponent's position is "pro life", you don't want yours to be called "anti life", you want to be called "pro" choice (and vice versa).

Rights trump choice

Your choices end where my rights begin.

People use the alleged "baby's right to life" as a tool to limit or eliminate the pregnant woman's choice.

To counter-act that "right", people talk about the "right to choose" etc.

Life begins whenever we say it does

There are different times when life could be said to begin:

  • When the ovum is fertilized
  • When the ovum is implanted
  • When the fetus could survive as a post-partum baby
  • When the child is born and breathes for the first time
  • A year after the infant is born
  • When your parents marry and you're still just a gleam in their eyes
  • Some arbitrary time (e.g. 3 weeks, or 5 months, or 6 months, etc.) after estimated conception date

So the argument is about when does life begin. Granted that there's a "right to life" after birth, and granted that there is a "right to choose" before life begins, the question is "when does the right to choose end and the right to life begin?"

Difficult choices

Sometimes there are difficult choices, e.g. when the pregnancy threatens the mother's life, or if it's determined that if the feturs is carried to term then the baby will be born disabled, etc.


In comments, @jobermark remarked that there are no "rights", for example:

  • If people had a "right to life" then we wouldn't let anyone die of poverty
  • If people had a "right to choose" then we wouldn't have laws (like the draft or jury duty)

Wikipedia's article on the Right to life describes this so-called "right" variously as:

  • a moral principle
  • an entitlement
  • a rhetorical device

I was amused by the opinion on that subject which was quoted to me by my dad (he was a Roman Historian, and the following is from a fictional description):

'Good families are very much alike. Mother would sit spinning of evenings while Aglaia read in her corner, and Father did accounts, and we four romped about the passages. When our noise grew too loud the Pater would say, "Less tumult! Less tumult! Have you never heard of a Father's right over his children? He can slay them, my loves - slay them dead, and the Gods highly approve of the action!" Then Mother would prim up her dear mouth over the wheel and answer: "H'm! I'm afraid there can't be much of the Roman Father about you!" Then the Pater would roll up his accounts, and say, "I'll show you!" and then - then, he'd be worse than any of us!'

'Fathers can - if they like,' said Una, her eyes dancing.

'Didn't I say all good families are very much the same?'

'What did you do in summer?' said Una. 'Play about, like us?'

'Yes, and we visited our friends. There are no wolves in Vectis. etc.

In summary it is, entirely, an argument about choice, i.e.:

  • The lawmakers (including, to some extent, the people or 'demos' in a democracy) must choose what laws to enact.
  • The laws will state how much choice the individual is allowed, versus how much that choice is taken away or made for them by the local laws.

So my real question is this: is the pro choice movement hijacking this debate by arguing from adverse consequences, and by appealing to women to get enough votes to push the issue through without thinking about the only real issue on the table: life?

Well if you're asking, I would say no, that your premise is flawed:

  • I personally don't believe that life begins at conception. A blastocyst isn't IMO mature enough to match much of the definition of life, and doesn't IMO qualify for the compassion which I would extend to a sentient being. The value of such a thing is not inherent, it's the value placed on it by the adults. So especially for early-term abortion, the only life that's involved is the mother's or parents'.
  • The are other "real issues" on the table: good families, good life, good society, wealth, education, morals, etc.

Furthermore there is a social good, a social justification for a law which says, "It's usually illegal for citizens to kill other (living) people (in society)." It's not at all clear to me that it's equally good or necessary to have the same law about terminating pregnancy. So even I grant your premise that "it's about life" I'd say that "it's more about killing", but abortion isn't killing because there is no "person" involved (assuming for example that person-hood begins when you qualify for a birth certificate).

And it's only "usually" illegal to kill: for example the law makes exceptions for accidents, for self-defence, for not being a sufficiently "good Samaritan", and I don't know what else.

In fact that's probably why there are extra/specific laws, which govern abortion: because otherwise abortion would not be covered by other/existing laws which regulate unlawful killing.


What I'm positing is: if a foetus counts as life, then the same rules apply as with any other life. If a foetus doesn't yet count as life, then no such rules apply.

That seems simplistic. If you're asking whether the argument is only about "when does life begin?" I think the answer to that is "no" as well.

  • Even if everyone agreed that embryos are not "alive", people might still argue against legal abortion: arguing that abortion is "bad for the mother's karma", or "bad for society", or "bad for family values", or "immoral" or etc.
  • Even if everyone agreed that embryos are "alive", people might still argue in favour of legal abortion: arguing that abortion can be "necessary to protect the future good of the mother and her family", or "necessary to avoid further injustice after rape", or justified by the same principle which says that an adult with organ failure who therefore cannot live independently does not therefore have the right to demand the right to use organs which belong to someone else, or etc.
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_life -- can you define a difference between "a moral principle" and "a rhetorical device"? – ChrisW Oct 30 '14 at 18:16
  • Sorry I deleted my complaint before you responded to it. It was not fair, as you note. If folks actually saw these two 'old saws' as the rhetorical devices they obviously are, intermediate answers would be acknowledged. As it is, there is no middle ground, folks believe in one or the other or both in conflict, but never neither. But 'neither' it is. – jobermark Oct 30 '14 at 18:23
  • It is especially evil that both-in-conflict ends up meaning 'choice wins -- get out of my head (you dominating sexist)'. So there is not really room for debate about middle ground -- even though that is supposedly the right thing to do. – jobermark Oct 30 '14 at 18:29
  • @jobermark Thanks for the comment. I tried to update the answer accordingly. – ChrisW Oct 31 '14 at 11:12
  • Thanks, sorry to be whiny and table-poundy. I am just an unfortunately emotional arguer... From the point of public policy, someone, somewhere should point out that from the 'Freakanomics' people's point of view, America has run this experiment and gotten positive results. By their statistical analysis (nonstandard by far, but generally sound on other matters) there is no single variable that explains the drop in U.S. crime rates in recent decades as well as the freedom of access to abortion sixteen years earlier. – jobermark Oct 31 '14 at 15:01
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The 'Pro-Life' angle to the debate on whether abortion should be legal is an attempt to re-frame the discussion to exclude one of the most important people under consideration: the biological mother.

As demonstrated by your own charts, by putting up the smokescreen of 'Pro-Life' in your original question, the person whose uterus is being hijacked by a blastocyst magically disappears! Huzzah! Ethics is easy!

... Except, of course, to do that should be obviously unethical. That an adult human being has certain rights granted to them by society can't be dropped at the first sign of inconvenience. This isn't just about the rights of a clump of cells dividing in a vacuum - like many questions in ethics, it's about competing rights and how to navigate them.

We treat an organ donation, like a heart or a kidney, with more respect than we do shed human cells such as from skin or from bodily fluids like saliva or blood. At the same time, it would be ludicrous to campaign that a harvested lung should have the right to vote or that improper refrigeration is exactly equal to murder. In short, a clump of cells that happen to be 100% certified living human tissue isn't necessarily granted the full rights and responsibilities of a member of society.

Throughout the entire biological process that is pregnancy, the rights of the person carrying the proto-human should never be diminished or ignored. Any rights we choose to grant to the developing human may come into conflict with the already established rights of the pregnant person, and the study of cases where rights and values are in conflict with each other is what ethics is all about. The rights of the cells that may one day become an autonomous human being should approach - but never exceed - the rights of the adult.

Now, one of the rights that we normally ascribe to our fellow human beings is that of bodily autonomy. This is why crimes which violate bodily autonomy, such as rape, are considered to be so bad. It is also why many would argue that mandatory blood or organ donation to save lives is generally considered unethical, even though the cost/benefit considerations would make mandatory blood donations a much bigger benefit to society than the minor, temporary inconvenience to its members. If bodily autonomy is something we hold as a virtue, then the pregnant person should have the right to choose whether to continue the pregnancy or to abort it. Outside agencies mandating that you must do one or must do the other would be a violation of bodily autonomy and thereby unethical, just as making blood donations mandatory would be unethical.

Your charts grossly oversimplify the question and the underlying values at play. Life for the sake of life is not inherently valuable, even if the cells happen to have 46 human chromosomes. Here's a sample revised chart that is still oversimplified and probably irrelevant, but will hopefully be a little bit closer to where the discussion should be:

(Forgive me, the site doesn't seem to let me make tables)

(C): Humans have the right to bodily autonomy (c): Humans do NOT have the right to bodily autonomy

(L): A pre-human has a right to develop regardless the cost to the host (l): A pre-human only has a right to develop only so long as the host is willing

(C) + (L): Conflict in values - one will have to yield to the other.
(C) + (l): Consistent consent - Bodily autonomy trumps and consent to be an incubator can be withdrawn at any time.
(c) + (L): Fetal position - We don't have autonomy anyways, so we can make demands of people's bodies and expect them to comply regardless of the cost or desires of the person. (Complimentary cans of worms are there by the door)
(c) + (l): Interference indifference - Do you believe that rights exist at all?

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Can the pro/anti-abortion debate ever be about choice? Is it, in fact, 100% about life?

Sure. We could make it about figs, if we wanted to, couldn't we?

What I'm positing is: if a foetus counts as life, then the same rules apply as with any other life. If a foetus doesn't yet count as life, then no such rules apply.

For this to be well-defined, one would need to define "life" and say what "rules" one means, as well as what stages of "foetus".

To expand on the first point, this doesn't mean that difficult decisions don't have to be made. Deciding who gets a liver transplant is a weighty decision that chooses one life over another; we don't say, "Let's classify the person who deserves it less as not life in order to make this simpler."

This makes more sense, although in some (or even many) cases I think this is what is done. That is, there is also a grey area about the definition of life when someone seems to be in a coma, or brain dead, etc., and this does determine transplant decisions.

Also, many medical decisions and attitudes are even formed based on how old a healthy person is, and the quality of their remaining expected lifetime, or the chances of them surviving a procedure, and how long and how well they are statistically expected to live after a procedure. These don't define the patient as "not life", but they do affect how much we invest in them, and whether we "let them die" in favor of others, or even just in favor of the time and resources and money of the medical industry.

What it does mean is that if it's life, then currently the choice of whether or not to end it is given to far less expert and disinterested people than in any other instance in society.

I would suggest the opposite: that a pregnant woman is typically the person most interested (and most expert) in the life of the fetus inside them, even in cases where they choose to abort. Expertness and interest are themselves subjective or at least not-clearly-defined terms, as is their degree of relevance.

Your "Life and choice matrix" just seems to graphically show the result of your postulates that a fetus is life and that life is inviolate and that the inviolateness of life trumps a woman's choice.

Imagine this no doubt common instance: a woman has three children. The father is not around any more, for whatever reason. The situation is not financially viable; she doesn't have the ability to earn enough to keep the family going and employ a nanny for while she is at work. Should it be her choice as to whether or not to end one of the childrens' lives, thus easing the financial situation?

The answer (I hope) is no, it's not her choice. Her children's lives are inviolate from this point of view.

It seems to me that there is no one right logical answer to this. It's about culture and moral codes and law and circumstances more than it is about logic. For example, someone might argue that a country that put a mother in such a situation and won't relieve it is at cause in threatening the survival of these children, and a mother put in this situation might be morally justified in considering sacrificing one to save the rest (although one might hope she'd orphan the child rather than kill it, etc).

However, then one of her children is struck down with an illness that will permanently degrade his liver. Their doctor applies for a liver transplant. Unfortunately, the application is rejected, because the liver had to go to a child who was in a car accident. Is this choice okay?

The answer (I think) is yes. While it's a horrible, impossible choice, it's one that has to be made, and quickly, and an expert, disinterested party is the correct one to make it.

Again this is a complex scenario that doesn't have one answer from logic, but I wouldn't disagree that limited resources need to be allocated, and it makes sense to have a "disinterested expert" select - although the criteria are again going to have to be chosen, probably based on some grey areas.

This is an interesting example though because here you have two different families facing death competing for limited resource that the medical establishment (and legal system) controls, deciding who is likely to live or die. However in the abortion case, you have a pregnant woman's choice of whether to abort a pregnancy, and are proposing that the legal system declare the fetus as inviolate life and deny her that choice (which risks her own life, in some cases greatly or, in rare cases, even certainly) about her own potential future child and her own life, with no one else involved. And there is also the situation to consider that the result of illegalizing abortion is not the prevention of abortion, but causing women to get dangerous black market (or improvised) abortions instead.

Thus life can be treated as inviolate, while the resulting impossible choices can still be made. In other words, arguing that a foetus is life has nothing to do with aborting to save the mother.

I agree that these are all problems where you have multiple people with different life prospects and chances of survival and resources to consider. However in this case I don't follow what you are saying about the fetus. It does seem to me that it would be relevant how important you considered the fetus' status to be.

So my real question is this: is the pro choice movement hijacking this debate by arguing from adverse consequences, and by appealing to women to get enough votes to push the issue through without thinking about the only real issue on the table: life?

My answer would clearly be: no. Hijacking is a loaded word. You don't explain how this argument from adverse consequences would work, but I assume you are suggesting that the pro choice movement is suggesting that a foetus is not inviolate life because unwanted pregnancies have bad effects on women's lives? I don't think I've ever heard anyone argue that, so no. And I don't agree with your premise that the "only real issue on the table" is "life", so no. I think the comment that goldilocks made about this "begging the question" is accurate: you seem to have unquestioned premises that a fetus is "inviolate life", and that that trumps a woman's choice about whether to bear the child or not. All your conclusions on the question of abortion rights seem to just be direct consequences of assuming those premises to be true. If we instead start with a premise that, just to pick another arbitrary example, that the ancient Roman attitude that a child isn't a person yet until a year after birth is instead our premise, then we'd have very different "real issues" and very different conclusions.

Postscript: To respond to your comment by explain why I think you're "begging the question" here. I don't mean this ad hominem, or to suggest you're intentionally doing this.

Begging the question is where your conclusion is essentially the same as the premise you start with. The questions you stated were:

Is abortion anything to do with choice? Can the pro/anti-abortion debate ever be about choice? Is it, in fact, 100% about life?

and

So my real question is this: is the pro choice movement hijacking this debate by arguing from adverse consequences, and by appealing to women to get enough votes to push the issue through without thinking about the only real issue on the table: life?

while your premises are essentially statements of fact about the same issue, not asking whether life is inviolate or not, or whether different stages of fetus are life or not, or whether life's inviolate-ness trumps a woman's choice, or not. In the last line of your final question, this premise/conclusion is directly stated: "the only real issue on the table: life".

You did write in your third paragraph "if a foetus doesn't yet count as life, then no such rules apply." but you don't ever address that issue after that. You also don't address the other non-premise questions I mentioned in the above paragraph. So sure, if your premise is right that killing fetuses is always wrong and "the only real issue on the table", then you are right... that that is your premise.

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    This again seems to be weirdly hostile. E.g. Your "Life and choice matrix" just seems to graphically show the result of your postulates that a fetus is life and that life is inviolate and that the inviolateness of life trumps a woman's choice. - yes. That's why I preceded it with "To illustrate my thought graphically". What did you think was going to happen? :) And begging the question I don't think has anything like the level of up front statement that my sample position does. It just feels a bit ad hominem again, and not too analytical. – Robert Grant Oct 30 '14 at 19:00
  • I really don't mean to be hostile, or comment on you yourself (ad hominem). I thought I was being pretty analytical, since I addressed practically everything you wrote line by line. How could I be more analytical? I'll add some more detail about why I say you're begging the question at the end of my answer. – Dronz Oct 31 '14 at 1:18
  • Okay, I think I see the issue. You're saying that my premise is that killing fetuses is always wrong. That's not my premise. Where did you get that from? – Robert Grant Oct 31 '14 at 6:51
  • I think it's possible that goldilocks and I are not reading the way you are expressing things the way you intended. The tables and the places you are perhaps only suggesting it is one moral stance people could come from, is very easy to read as if you are thinking that you are proving, or discovering some universal truth about it. e.g. "the more I think about it, the more the fundamental question has nothing to do with choice" and "the only real issue on the table: life". And you only barely mention other ways of thinking about it. – Dronz Oct 31 '14 at 7:19
  • So sorry for not understanding how you meant that. But I still don't really see what question you're really asking. It still seems like you are essentially asking, if we accept the pro-life value system, isn't the pro-choice argument irrelevant? Well, yes, but the pro-choice people have different value systems. Or are you getting at something else? – Dronz Oct 31 '14 at 7:27
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The OP did not ask for opinions about abortion, but for an analysis of the abortion debate. With that in mind:

There might exist a minority that would argue that access to abortion is primarily a matter of the "right to choose," even in the case that the fetus can unambiguously be determined to be a full human life. However, it's fairly clear that for the majority of those who support access to abortion, it is the ambiguity over what constitutes a full human life (and whether a fetus qualifies) that opens the door for making "choice" the deciding factor.

This can be shown by the fact that support for abortion is inversely related to the age of the fetus. Many more people are in favor of allowing abortions immediately after conception (when the argument that the fetus is an actual living human being is weakest) than would be in favor of allowing them immediately before birth (when it is strongest).

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In most cultures throughout history, newborns were not considered as fully human; they were not considered 'persons' until about one year of age. The Romans practiced infanticide, especially of females (not sure about the Greeks) and perhaps deformed infants.

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    Greek myth has many stories of children left in the wilderness or put out to sea, generally to avoid predictions that the child would bring misfortune to the parents. – Dronz Oct 30 '14 at 16:39
  • It did happen in Greece. – stoicfury Nov 1 '14 at 0:33
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    This seems to be more of a comment than answer to anything the OP is asking... – virmaior Nov 3 '14 at 1:10
  • @virmaior agreed. Ornello - thanks for mentioning this, but as virmaior says it should probably be a comment on my question rather than an answer to it. – Robert Grant Nov 4 '14 at 12:27
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I agree that there is a distinction: is a fetus a life vs the woman's right --these are two different arguments.

I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion about when life starts to matter because there doesn't seem to be a majority consensus or a correct answer. So we give the woman the right to make up her mind when life starts and the ability to choose whether or not to have an abortion based on that belief.

I guess I would find it a little startling (although I'm sure it happens all the time) if I found out that a woman had an abortion and that she thought it was a life equal to you or I.

  • 2
    First, off welcome to philosophy.se. In your answer, this seems problematic: "there is no clear cut answer" "about when life starts." That seems to be a scientifically answerable question. If you reworded it to, "there is no clear cut answer as to when life matters," then it would be better. – virmaior Oct 30 '14 at 4:45
  • Thank you. I'm always looking to better clarify my thoughts. – johnnyX Oct 30 '14 at 16:05
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It is all well and good to say we are allowed to kill to stop killing, but that is not the only reason you cause deaths. People have probably died today because I had slightly larger lunch. I don't feel guilty about this. But it is in many ways true. The extra food or its proxy in money could clearly have saved lives, if deployed better. I don't consider that murder.

One does not need to question whether or not the fetus is alive in a sense equal to oneself as @RexKerr does, or to question whether or not this is a 'justifiable murder' as @Melody might, because it is not a murder, it is a withdrawal of support from a dependent, to preserve your own dignity.

While this may not be optimally moral as a motive, it is at some level acceptable, and should remain legal within reasonable bounds. I don't have to feed the homeless people on Lower Wacker who appear to be on the verge of starving to death. It is not that I can't. We are going an average of 15 mph sometimes. I could pull over, get out and give them food without bugging the guy behind me. I could afford it. And the only real reason I don't is because it is below me -- it would be strange, and abasing to do it.

And it is not about responsibility. Even if I were somehow responsible for their fate, say they were my ex-employees, and I had fired them because of my own incompetence, it just would not be required. If I don't have to do this for homeless people, why would I do it for a random potential child I don't know (yet)?

(Then again, if I feed someone regularly things become different. You do have to support people who become members of your household, legal fatherhood is not biological, but based on the reasonable expectation of support. And if I foster a dependency, and then withdraw it, I am more at fault than if I cut it off as soon as I am aware an expectation is developing. So as arbitrary as the one we have is, it is not illogical to move it back as detection becomes more certain and stigma decreases.)

The common reference on this is Judith Jarvis Thompson's 'violinist example'. Hers is much better storytelling, but this is the gist:

If you wake up sewn to someone else, as a consequence of doing something criminal in the past, are you obligated to remain attached to this person, if the attached person would not survive the surgery necessary to separate you (until seven or more months from now)? Even if this could well destroy important aspects of your life? Is your right to freedom and autonomy totally overruled by the newly dependent person's life?

If we assume life is inviolate -- a much stronger position than that abortion is questionable -- then your answer is 'yes'. We should do everything that is not as bad as actually killing before allowing someone to be killed. You claim that 'This case where life is inviolate' ... 'is already well established in law and medicine'.

But then why is anyone (below a given age) dying of kidney failure? We could choose random people found doing things they should probably avoid doing, test them for tissue matches, and sew them to any matching candidates on the kidney waiting list so that they shared a blood supply. We could just do this to everyone in that position, and they would survive. If life is inviolate then we should because that is what inviolate means, that all other considerations are secondary. Clearly the result is nonsense. No one would just ignore vigilante rescues of ailing children by attaching them to randomly selected adults. It would be legal to reverse these procedures. But we are OK saddling random teenagers with being attached to dependent children for months at a time, because it is not done by vigilantes, but by Nature.

Edit -- warding off purposive obtuseness:

The being-sewn-to-a-kidney-failure case is not parallel to the transplant case. In that case someone is going to die anyway. I am arguing that it is still OK to let people die for other reasons than to save a different life. So this is an argument where the fetus is life, it is not necessary for anyone to die, but someone dies anyway, because our obligation to help one another is limited.

The OP's main point (as I see it) is that life's importance can only be measured against other lives, so there is no room for any other consideration here. But that is not how things work anywhere else. As just demonstrated, the assumption that life can only be compared in value to another life leads to utterly absurd requirements, like that all medical procedures that might save a life at the cost of someone else's freedom are still obligatory.

Things that lead to absurdity are usually considered to be incorrect. So the OP analysis is wrong. In particular, no one should accept the premise that life can only be compared to other lives. If our obligation to protect life is never comparable to choice, they you would be obligated to save anyone dying of kidney failure who can find you. It is in your power, so you would not be allowed to choose to do otherwise.

(End insertion)

And the issue there is autonomy: the right to choose one's future; and nothing else. The question is where that right kicks in, not whether it exists, or whether 'life' is involved.

But the opposite position, in which autonomy, at least at the level of compelling someone to use their body for your purposes, is equal with considerations of life and death, is equally questionable. We have wars, and we have throughout history often drafted soldiers. We still register all men for a potential future draft, so we have not decided this is outright immoral in any obvious way.

That kind of implies the society can legitimately take pretty complete control of your body for short periods, with a good reason. (More control than a pregnancy does. The pregnant woman, after all, could still live where she was used to, and control her time as she had before, within reason. And for longer periods, the randomly obligatory draft stint has never been shorter than 18 months, AFAICT.)

We have done this totally randomly, over long periods, and when we were not actively at war. So there does not have to be an imminent threat, or a specific cause, other than a standing obligation to the system that provides your safety. And the impact does not have to be fair, especially not between the sexes, since we ever only draft men.

So, obviously neither "preserving life" nor "choice about the use of one's body" are basic principles, since they cannot just apply to children and women, respectively.

To my mind, abortion needs to be legal not based on some basic moral principle, but because we, as a society do not take care of mothers or children, because our societies are capitalist in principle and on purpose (even the nominally socialist ones).

If:

  1. every mother were treated respectfully, rather than some being stigmatized morally for 'illegitimacy', and others being dismissed as non-competitors because they enter the 'mommy track'; and

  2. she could bring the child to term and hand it over into a system where it could always reasonably expect a life fully comparable to that of other children, on average; and

  3. she were compensated for her lost time and pain (not necessarily fairly, but as soldiers have been -- on a scale that is minimal, but not insulting.); and

  4. if her other rights were not already selectively systematically degraded relative to those of men long-term by previous generations taking unfair advantage of women's willing participation in the process of pregnancy (or like in the case of men and war or crime, we acknowledge we are biased, but institutions attempt to balance this.)

then we would not need to keep abortion legal. But I don't foresee that happening. It can come close sometimes in historically wealthy, rather stable, extremely homogeneous, under-reproducing societies. But throughout most of the world this is just intractable.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – stoicfury Oct 30 '14 at 4:03
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Although long and elaborate answers have been provided, I would like to offer a short and simple answer.

For me, life begins when an ovum is fertilized. A woman has a choice (the right) to get or not get pregnant. If the woman chooses to get pregnant, then she (by default) has chosen all the consequences that pregnancy brings, namely to do all that she can to bring to fruition the pregnancy. She can no longer choose to do otherwise (abort)!

The only exception to this, is if the pregnancy was forced on her. In this case, she does have the option (right) to terminate the pregnancy at the earliest possible time (within the first 3 months seems reasonable).

From the above, one can conclude that a woman's choice (right) ends at conception, unless the conception was forced upon her, in which case, she has up to 3 months (after conception) to chose to terminate the conception (pregnancy).

  • Thanks for the answer, but please bear in mind that this isn't a question about when life should be considered life. It's about whether or not the entire debate should be about life vs not life, as opposed to life vs choice. – Robert Grant Nov 4 '14 at 12:24

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