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Rationally Speaking
science,philosophy,scientific method, natural selection
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N. 54, October 2004: Abortion, a Philosophical Approach

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If you think you're confident in your opinions about abortion, perhaps Massimo can help you loosen up a bit.

I have often remarked in this column that philosophy gets an unfair bad rap on the grounds that it doesn’t solve problems. Indeed, the point of philosophy is more to clarify concepts, ideas, and their consequences, then to solve practical issues. However, it would seem that clarifying things isn’t much of a goal if in turn it doesn’t help us make some progress. So, let us consider one particularly sensitive debate — the one about the very idea of abortion — where philosophy, by claryfying our thoughts, can help reasonable people come to a compromise (philosophy can do nothing for unreasonable people, so if you are among those who scream “murder!” at the thought of someone masturbating, get a life, and while you’re at it, make a point of watching Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life).

Much of the debate on abortion hinges upon what seems to be a scientific question: when does a fertilized egg become a human being? Of course, the answer cannot be entirely scientific, since it depends in part on objective facts about the biology of human development, and in part on what we mean by “human being.” Which is where philosophy comes into play. Does a foetus become a human being when the heart starts beating? When there is a recognizable central nervous system? When it can react to external stimuli? When it can feel pain? Any of those answers would put the boundary between unacceptable and acceptable abortion practices at different times during pregnancy, but it seems rather arbitrary to pick one of these developmental milestones and use it as a universal yardstick for moral decisions. After all, many other animals have a nervous system, a heartbeat, respond to external stimuli, and can feel pain, but most of us (vegetarians excluded — but most abortion opponents included) don’t seem to have too many qualms about killing such animals.

No, the crucial point must focus on something else that characterizes human beings. Plenty of philosophers, for example Julian Baggini (in his excellent collection Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines), have suggested that the important facts in the debate on abortion (and the parallel one on euthanasia) are not found in the biology of humans, but rather in our (philosophical) concept of personhood. In other words, some of us think a foetus should be protected because it is becoming a person, i.e. an entity that can eventually feel not just pain, but suffering; that can have not just the urge to have sex and reproduce, but may fall in love; a being that could one day write a sonnet, a song, or a philosophical essay.

If the problem is actual or potential personhood, not the developmental biology of our particular species of primates, then we have moved from biology to philosophy, a much more tricky terrain to navigate. Being a person is tightly linked to having the ability to lay down and recover memories (which make up our “identity” as a person), as well as to experience emotions (like love and suffering) and not just feelings (like sexual urge and pain). These characteristics are in turn dependent on being a member of a society, interacting with others, communicating one’s thoughts and receiving and understanding information about other people’s thoughts and emotions. Yes, all of this is also a matter of biology (after all, these things are made possible only by the presence of certain biological essentials, like a functional body, and especially a complex brain), but taken together they mean that personhood is most of all a question of psychology and sociology.

The problem is that there are plenty of circumstances in which a human being is not, in fact, a person. Foetuses are not persons, and neither are people who survive in a vegetative state induced by a coma. Other cases are more difficult to determine, but one can make a reasonable
argument that very young children are only on their way to becoming persons, while patients affected by advanced stages of some mental diseases like Alzheimer’s are well on their way out of full personhood. So, while there is very little question that by performing an abortion we are in fact killing a biological being that belongs to the human species, it is an entirely different — and much more difficult to defend — proposition to say that we are killing a person.

Abortion opponents may shrug all of this philosophical quibbling as irrelevant on the ground that the procedure — at whatever stage it is practiced — kills a potential person. But this is a rather odd argument, with far-reaching consequences that should be seriously considered by whoever proposes it. For example, the mass of cells in question will become a person only if many conditions other than biological development are fulfilled, including being raised in a proper physical, psychological and social environment. It is ironic, therefore, that we spend so much energy debating abortion while most of us are much less passionate about more apparently mundane issues such as, say, health care and education for all those non-aborted foetuses.

Even more radically, if a fertilized egg is a potential person, so is every single unfertilized one, and every sperm as well. After all, the egg or sperm only needs a gamete of the opposite type to begin the developmental process that will lead to the generation of another person. I suppose that is why the most rabid religious fundamentalists (including the current Pope) are against masturbation or sex that doesn’t have the goal of reproduction. But it is hard to see what these people could do to avoid the natural “waste” of unutilized human eggs. Should we explant them from every woman and fertilize them artificially? If your intuitive answer was “no,” and yet you are against all types of abortion, you may want to consider the consistency of your philosophy.

Do I have a better and clearer solution to offer that can help us settle the abortion debate once and for all? No, as I acknowledged at the beginning, that isn’t the point of a philosophical discussion. Quite the opposite, I hope that people reading this column will feel a bit less sure of their own positions because they have understood that the issue is much more complex and difficult to settle than a simple slogan, or even an introductory course on human developmental biology, allow. And please do check out that Monty Python movie I mentioned in the beginning.

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Massimo’s other ramblings can be found at his Skeptic Web.

Massimo’s books:

Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science

Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science

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