There has been a question circulating facebook which has an obvious connection to the question of abortion. The question is: “If a bacteria is considered life on Mars… Why is a heartbeat not considered life on Earth?”
The reason it was ruled by a court of law that an embryo isn’t alive is because the embryo cannot continue existence outside of the mother, and so technically doesn’t meet the definition of life.
The court’s reasoning doesn’t strike me as a satisfying justification of abortion. I’m not a court of law, I’m an armchair philosopher; so I don’t care whether the embryo does or doesn’t fully meet somebody’s invented definition of the word “life.” I care about:
(A) What a being has to be so that its interests can be considered in moral decisions.
(B) Whether the embryo/fetus has properties that make it worthy of moral consideration.
Lots of people argue abortion is wrong because the fetus is alive. I can’t agree: even if these people were right about the fetus being alive, life is not the ultimate object of moral consideration. Everyone who eats meat, pulls a radish out of the ground, or who takes antibiotics is destroying living things. We don’t consider those actions wrong (killing a cow for food or taking an antibiotic drug), so there must be more to the picture of gaining moral status than just being “alive.”
A similar argument I’ve seen floating around is: the baby has its own DNA. Same fallacy, same rebuttal: Viruses, Bacteria, and Fish all have their own unique DNA. It isn’t wrong to kill them. End of story.
Some in the pro-life crowd are smart enough to make a more careful and plausible claim about morality: “Destroying human life is wrong. The embryo is human life. Therefore, destroying an embryo is wrong.”
Even this argument is problematic. What exactly is “human”? If you look at the chain of human development, from fetus backwards in time to the fertilized egg, to the separated sperm and egg, to the proteins being put together inside the Mom and Dad to make that sperm and that egg, at what point does all of this become a “human” and what good justification can be given for thinking that?
I think we need to go back to the drawing board. If someone shot my eight year old sister, it would be wrong – no questions asked. Why would it be wrong? My younger sister is a self-aware being with her own desires, interests, and is capable of feeling happiness, pain, love and the whole spectrum of emotions we have. Without getting too deep into moral philosophy, all of those attributes create or at least are directly connected to her moral worth as individual (by moral worth I mean her desires, happiness, etc. have to be accounted for morally when someone makes a decision).
In theory, lots of other beings besides humans might have “desires, interests, feelings, the whole spectrum of emotions…” If aliens exist and they were had all of these attributes, I would consider that alien morally equivalent to myself. We all agree that it is wrong to torture a dog or a cat: dogs and cats have many of the same capabilities humans do, just to a lesser degree (so hurting them is wrong, just not as wrong as hurting a human being). Basing our judgment of what a moral being is on the consideration of whether it has desires and feelings explains and justifies what we think about aliens and animals. It’s a good theory, better than the moral theory of basing our judgments on just “human life.”
That brings me to question B: Does the fetus have what it takes to qualify as a moral agent? I don’t think so. Abortions are generally only legal up to the twelfth week of pregnancy, and if you do the research, you’ll see that brain development is very limited even all the way up to the twelfth week. Think about it: no human being remembers anything in the womb. No human being can even speak in the first few months of life, let alone in the first few weeks in the womb. That proves that the fetus doesn’t have a brain anywhere near like what you and I have.
Conclusion: first-trimester abortions are probably not immoral. I say “probably” because I am humble enough to admit that I could be wrong about the capabilities of the embryo brain, and so it is just possible that 5 to 12 weeks into development the embryo is worthy of some moral consideration. If so, the embryo’s value wouldn’t be as high as an adult’s; embryos don’t have cognitive abilities anywhere near what an adult human being has, and that’s the biggest issue here: whether the adult mother’s brain and its decisions and preferences ought to be given weight over the embryo’s brain and its preferences.