On The Permissibility of Abortion
posted before 2019-09-15
What follows is a rough draft of my thoughts on abortion. I don’t claim that abortion is always ethical, but rather, in today’s society, that a woman’s desire to have one is a strong predictor that it is ethical to do so.
Abortion is morally permissible in nearly all cases it is a question. Specifically, so long as the fetus’s abortion is not likely to reduce the average degree of well-being per person, including future persons, it is justified. As a general, practical rule, if a woman feels the desire to have an abortion, the principle of maximizing well-being will generally be satisfied if she does so.
While the degree of desirability of abortion depends upon the stage of development of the fetus, for my paper, I will apply the word abortion to cover the termination of all pregnancies, regardless of the time since fertilization. For my paper, I will use the term fetus when I talk about the organisms developing in female uteruses. If you feel such biological language is uncompassionate or somehow limits the scope of my argument, you may replace fetus with human being or unborn child with a soul. The connotations behind the label should not change any arguments of substance. Additionally, when I use the term moral weight, I essentially mean the value we assign a thing in the process of determining desirable decisions.
What Moral Weight Should We Assign a Fetus?
Many arguments against abortion give a fetus nearly equal moral weight to a human being. If this were the case, I agree that the permissibility of abortion would be more dubious. We generally do not want to live in a world where our conscious, preference-driven, and impactful fellow human beings can be justly killed. A fetus, which has the potential to develop into a fully conscious, preference- driven, impactful person, is often equated as such. I am convinced this is a fallacy, although an understandable one. This is not to say that fetuses do not have any moral weight. However, if we base our moral weight for beings on the nature of their subjective experience, the fact that they have strong preferences, and the fact that they can affect the subjective experiences of other conscious creatures, it is improper to give a fetus equal moral weight to more matured humans over at least the age of about 3. I address this claim in the next three paragraphs.
Determining Moral Weight with Expected Subjective Experience
As stated above, a common way to assign moral weight is by expected subjective experience. Neuroscientists do not fully understand the causes of our own subjective experience, but they will say it has something to do with the structure of the brain. We know if we give someone a lobotomy, their behavior changes, and as far as we can believe others’ firsthand accounts, their subjective experience changes. Thus, at least in humans, it seems that neuron count has something to do with subjective experience. It may be possible that a fetus can have a greater (as in more desirable by anyone) subjective experience and that we all forgot how great it was. But if I had to assign a subjective probability that claim were true, I would assign one significantly less than the claim that adult humans with more neurons have a more desirable subjective experience.
Determining Moral Weight by Considering Preferences
Another way we assign moral weight is considering the preferences of beings. This is based on the intuition that it is generally desirable to fulfill people’s preferences when doing so has no obvious downsides. Further, it generally feels worse when someone dies with lots of ambition than when they profess they are ready to die and have no more desires. Human babies do not seem to exhibit desires and preferences to the same degree as adults. In fact, it seems that many animals, especially apes, have stronger abilities to hold preferences. You would be taking away my dream of accomplishing my goals if you killed me today, but you would not be doing the same if you killed me at one year old. If a baby does not have the same moral weight as a more developed human being, then a fetus certainly has less moral weight.
Determining Moral Weight by Considering Expected Impact
A third way to assign moral weight is to consider the expected real-world impact of a being on others’ subjective experiences. In other words, a being whose actions are expected to lead to greater subjective experiences in the grand scheme of things has more moral weight than one has less of an impact. This goes against the intuition that all humans have equal moral weight, but I would argue that actually, only subjective experiences of the same desirability have equal moral weight. To illustrate, a man who reliably creates companies that bolster the economy and reduce humanity’s risk of extinction does more for other’s subjective experiences than a prisoner who will never enter society again, and thus should be assigned greater moral weight. If we look at all possible worlds where only one of them can live, we should expect it to be true that the worlds without the entrepreneur are worse. A fetus, beyond having an effect on the parents’ and usually no more than a few others’ minds, does little to impact the world. It certainly has the potential to have an impact, but so does the next fetus which may be only months away from conception should an abortion occur.
Opportunity Cost to the Mother
Bearing a child yields significant costs to the mother, and choosing to carry on a pregnancy at certain times in her life can yield significant opportunity costs. Despite unparalleled economic growth in the last century, most people’s careers, especially those from lower-income families, are extremely fragile early on. Even without having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy and a child they are not ready to support, most individuals struggle to gain the education and early work experience necessary to obtain ideal skillsets and jobs. The additional stress and workload of pregnancy and child rearing is often enough to derail careers, and lead individuals towards substantially reduced lifelong incomes and wellbeing. Not only does this hurt the mother, societal economic growth, and the potential people she could have helped if she could have been put in a position to create more value, but it hurts any children she has who counterfactually could have been born into much greater wealth.
The Replacement Argument
Perhaps the most salient allegory to support the permissibility of abortion to me goes as follows:
Imagine you are someone else and your single mother was attending college. She became pregnant with a fetus that ended up becoming you. She was well on track to have a degree and a stable, well-paying career, but once you were born, she was forced to drop out of college. She could not juggle work, college, and taking care of you. You have thus grown up in a small apartment in a dangerous part of your city, and have almost inevitably found your way into drugs and crime. Eventually, you become arrested, and upon pondering your situation, the thought comes to you that if your mother just had an abortion, she could have finished college. Then, she could have conceived “you” or a person with equal moral weight as you instead just a year later, and that person (might as well be you) would have had a very different (probably better) life. You wonder: why didn’t she? Why did she take such a shortsighted view, and give so much moral weight to the first fertilized egg in her body?
The Moral Weight of Future Lives
Future lives that have a non-zero probability of existing should weigh into our decision-making. To prioritize only those beings which have a certainty of existing (exist right now) is to shortchange future people who are expected to exist. To illustrate my point, it would be absurd to only give a person today one happy experience if that meant denying the same experience to one million people who would exist 10 years from now.
Explanations for Certain Intuitions about Abortion
Abortion feels intuitively wrong to many people. Even many people who subscribe to the pro-choice position profess they would never have an abortion except in the most extreme conditions. Why do people who tolerate others’ abortions not go through one personally if part of them wanted one? One motivating factor certainly playing a role is our evolution-derived psychology. Our ancestors who felt a strong bond to their offspring were probably more reproductively successful than those who did not, given the prevailing emotional state of most parents in regard for their children. We would not allow anything to happen to ‘our’ children (although we should be able to imagine a thought experiment where we recognize a child’s life does not always have infinite value). Insofar as a particular fetus fulfills one’s conscious or unconscious plan for further reproductive success, most of us would not let anything happen to that either. However, our evolutionary instincts certainly fall short of being an infallible guide to desirable action, and while we are well to not dismiss our feelings about things, we cannot dismiss a rational argument because it unsettles us.
Bayesian Probability Theory on the Probability of Souls
Many defenders of the pro-life position base their argument around the existence of souls. If souls in the Christian sense really exist, there is a possibility that we are committing a greater evil when aborting a fetus than merely preventing a potential preferential, experiencing, impactful agent from existing. Of course, one should expect an omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent agent to be able to deal ethically with the fate of this early-departed soul. If souls really exist in the Buddhist or Hindu sense, there is a potential that an abortion destroys a soul’s opportunity at liberation from suffering, and condemns a soul to further existence in samsara. The question then is: what is the prior probability that the Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu conception of souls is true? Given how incoherent these ideologies are within themselves and the dismal lack of evidence for so many of their infallible canon’s claims, we would still be living in a pre-Enlightenment society if everyone accepted beliefs with the same level of evidence. Additionally, we have a testable hypothesis that further decreases the probability we should assign that these notions of souls are true: the belief is extremely comforting to many humans who live painful, grief-filled lives and whom it is painful to imagine that there is no certain heaven or reunification with lost friends and family to look forward to. We usually are best off if we save our limited resources for empirically testing claims that have a general minimal probability of being true, but unfortunately, the hypothesis of their being souls remains unfalsifiable.
Insofar that a fetus has the potential to be a happy, preference-filled, socially-impactful being, it does have a certain moral weight. However, I argue that people who oppose abortion overvalue the moral weight of these fetuses, or at least extremely undervalue the lives of animals. Additionally, they usually fail to consider the counterfactual good, including other lives, which could exist if people were permitted to have abortions. If a person who opposes abortion were to write out what things they valued most and tried to be as specific as possible, and “fetuses not being terminated” was not at the very top of their value list, there are many circumstances where their utility function would be maximized through abortion. As it is practically difficult for a government to determine exactly when it is best to continue with a pregnancy, I argue that we should error on the side of caution, and permit women to have an abortion whenever they think it is necessary.