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.

6 thoughts on “The wrongness of killing and abortion

  1. Whoosh. You had me until this point:

    >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.

    Let’s assume (with no real evidence provided) that a foetus younger than 20 weeks doesn’t feel pain. The follow on statement that the foetus is not a rational, self-conscious being, is even more unsubstantiated.

    Additionally, what exactly makes it reasonable to assume that rationality develops at 20 weeks? Is that the point where “[insert deity] plants a soul”? Is a newborn rational? Is even a 2 year old rational?

    Furthermore, if we’re using rationality — or lack thereof — as a criterion for terminating a life (or potential life) how does that then apply to individuals born with mental disabilities, older individuals with severe mental health issues, irrational behaviour of various forms, very senior citizens experiencing advanced dementia or mental impairments, and individuals on life support or comatose?

    I agree with the logic expressed here:

    >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.

    But I would argue that the logical conclusion there is not to say that we stop eating grown up pigs and kill foetuses. Rather it should be, we kill neither.

    I understand that abortion is a complicated and emotive issue for many people and although I am broadly against the practice I very much see the need in terms of social justice and gender empowerment. But it should not be based on fallacious arguments or misleading logic.

    1. The follow on statement that the foetus is not a rational, self-conscious being, is even more unsubstantiated.

      I don’t think you can argue that a fetus is rational or self-conscious. Some philosophers argue that a fetus is not a person (i.e. rational and self-conscious) until some point in the first three years after birth. A rational and self-conscious being in the philosophical sense is a being that can make decisions and choose to act on those decisions. They are autonomous and can understand the difference between dying and wanting to live.

      Most intellectually disabled humans are persons and rationality in the philosophical sense is slightly different to what you mean by “irrational behaviour”. I think we’re all a bit irrational at times 🙂

      But I would argue that the logical conclusion there is not to say that we stop eating grown up pigs and kill foetuses. Rather it should be, we kill neither.

      I certainly feel more uncomfortable with abortion in late stages of pregnancy but I think there are some convincing arguments in favour of it, especially if the mother’s life is at risk. However I don’t have any objections to abortions performed in the first 12 weeks.

      The strongest argument against abortion, to my mind, is that the embryo is a potential human and therefore has the potential to be a person. However this arguments falls over when we consider that the dividing embryo could split and divide into two potential humans. If we accept the potential person view then we should divide all embryos to maximise the potential humans. The same follows for sperm and eggs as both are potential humans.

  2. as always thought provoking… I wonder what you thought about his point on say those who are brain dead? Can they feel pain? If so in what sense if the brain cannot register it? Would they not be better used in research is to get the fullest results you need to work on not just embryos but living tissue? Or is that morally repugnant because say, they might experience a miracle revival? What if their relatives agreed? Or they did by a pre exiting declaration? I haven’t any answers just more questions.

    1. The philosopher, Michael Tooley, touches on this topic and is quoted in Practical Ethics. If someone is unconscious or just asleep this does not change their right to life because we can say our desire for continued existence is still there even if we’re not actively thinking about it. In this sense he argues that the being must have some concept of continued existence.

      If a patient is brain dead and only being kept alive by life support then we already kill these patients by turning off the life support. If there’s a chance that they might recover then it would be wrong to do that. We should also take the wishes of the relatives into consideration. You asked specifically about performing experiments on their bodies and that already happens if the patient chooses to have their body donated to medial research. But what about before they die? Let’s say the patient is brain-dead with zero possibility of recovery, and they’ve signed a form to say if this ever happens they are happy for their body to be used for research, and their family and loved ones have also given permission – I can’t think of any objections. I think this is a pretty rare situation and probably not likely to be any use for research since good research requires a large sample size. What if we trialled an experimental drug on them in an attempt to wake them up? In any case I’m not an authority on this subject and wouldn’t want anything I say to be taken as gospel.

      What is pretty clear is that killing a person who does not wish to die is wrong. A person is a being who can see themselves over time and have desires for the future and a desire for continued existence. Killing a person is wrong because we thwart this desire for continued existence. Embryonic stem cells do not have any concept of themselves over time or a desire for continued existence.

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