The wrongness of killing and abortion

I cried when I watched this clip this morning. The baby’s mother has just died in a car accident and the infant is visibly distressed and mourning for her mother.

Story in The Independent.

We’re not the only animals to mourn the loss of loved ones. We’re not the only animals who love and care for our infants. We’re not the only animals with infants who need others to care for and love them. There’s something particularly “human” about monkeys. They closely resemble us in appearance and I don’t doubt that they experience pain and suffering in the same way we do.

When you cease to view the world as divided into two groups – humans and non-humans – boundaries become blurred and more clear at the same time. What is morally relevant is not what species an organism belongs to but whether they are are self-conscious, capable of pain and suffering, can see themselves over time, and have desires for the future. It’s for this reason that I’m in favour of abortion and stem cell research. A human embryo is not a self-conscious being and cannot experience pain and suffering. It is far more morally objectionable to perform experiments on an adult monkey than a human embryo. In the case of abortion the developing fetus likely doesn’t feel pain until 20 weeks and even then it is not regarded as a person where a person is a rational, self-conscious being. A fetus is not rational or self-conscious.

From Practical Ethics, by Peter Singer (page 150)

The point should now be familiar: whether a being is or is not a member of our species is, in itself no more relevant to the wrongness of killing it than whether it is or is not a member of our race. The belief that mere membership of our species, irrespective of other characteristics, makes a great difference to the wrongness of killing a being is a legacy of religious doctrines that even those opposed to abortion hesitate to bring into the debate.

Recognising this simple point transforms the abortion issue. We can now look at the fetus for what it is – the actual characteristics is possesses – and can value its life on the same scale as the lives of beings with similar characteristics who are not members of our species. It now becomes apparent that the “Pro Life” or “Right to Life” movement is misnamed. Far from having concern for all life or a scale of concern impartially based on the nature of the life in question, those who protest against abortion but dine regularly on the bodies of chickens, pigs, and calves, show only a biased concern for the lives of members of our own species. For on any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain, and so on, the calf, the pig and the much derided chicken will come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy – while if we make the comparison with a fetus of less than three months, a fish would show more signs of consciousness.