By R.N. Carmona
Skepticism that results from the bias of the skin over one’s eyes is unhealthy. When considering whether skepticism of a view is healthy, what I consider is systematization. In other words, I consider how well a given view coheres with other views one holds. Philosophy is the impetus of systematization because when reasoning, one is to avoid fallacies and cognitive biases, or at least, that is the hope. Unfortunately, I find that there are views, even in philosophy, that put a great deal of stress on making an individual’s philosophy systematic. In truth, I am not so sure most people who fancy themselves philosophers even care or they hold incongruous views with a sort of negligence with regards to whether or not the positions cohere with one another.
Anti-natalism is precisely one of these positions that has fatal issues as far as its coherence with other views. Even more fatal is its allegiance to undeniable implications, some that have been exhausted for over a decade and others that I intend to point out. After outlining David Benatar’s arguments and Christopher Belshaw’s argument for anti-natalism, I will demonstrate the number of ways in which it fails to cohere with other positions an individual might hold.
Arguments For Anti-Natalism
Benatar offers two arguments for anti-natalism: 1) if one’s daughter were to suffer even a pin-prick, then procreation is wrong, the happiness and pleasure that she would have experienced had she been born notwithstanding; 2) despite the accumulated good she might experience, the good is outstripped by the bad (see Benatar, David. “Why it is better never to come into existence.” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 3, 1997 and Benatar, David. Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.). His rationale is that “the absence of pain is good, i.e., better than its presence, with regard to one who could have existed but in fact never will. In addition, the absence of pleasure is not bad, in the sense of no worse than its presence, unless there is someone who exists and would have been deprived of it” (Metz, Thaddeus. Contemporary Anti-Natalism, Featuring Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been. South African Journal of Philosophy 31 (1):1-9., 2012).
Belshaw offers a different argument in where he tries to avoid a fatal implication already present in Benatar’s arguments. Metz summarizes it as follows:
Belshaw suggests that anti-natalism follows from the principle that is wrong to exploit the misfortunes of others, specifically, human babies. The lives of babies, Belshaw argues, are not qualitatively different from those of animals such as rabbits and sheep, where these beings lack an awareness of themselves over time, or at least a very sophisticated one. Instead, they tend to be ‘caught in the moment’, meaning that, for them, a later pleasure cannot compensate for a present pain. Although we might want to keep an animal alive and hence be willing to let it suffer now in the expectation that it will be happy down the road, Belshaw maintains that, from the perspective of the animal’s welfare, it would be better for it to die painlessly than to undergo the burden. And if it would be better for such an animal to die painlessly rather than face any harm, the same is true for babies, whose mental states are more or less the same and who are bound to suffer from hunger, colic, gastrointestinal discomfort, emotional distress, etc. (Ibid., 7)
With both arguments clearly stated, we can now turn to the litany of problems anti-natalism has. First and foremost, we will go through a systematic exercise. We will imagine adopting anti-natalism while subscribing also to other prominent perspectives. After that, the implications of anti-natalism will be made more clear. Finally, I will show that despite Belshaw’s Kantian language, his new argument in favor of anti-natalism misses the mark and is actually not in keeping with neo-Kantian ethics.
The Systematic Exercise and The Fatal Implications Of Anti-Natalism
To reiterate, a systemic exercise can be thought of in the following way. Imagine a collector of puzzles who is not the most organized person. He puts the puzzles together meticulously, often spending hours on them, and even frames the ones he finds aesthetically pleasing. The ones that do not appeal to him as much are partially taken apart and put back in the box. Sometimes, he does not notice when pieces hit the ground and so, over time, pieces from one puzzle end up in the wrong box. A philosopher, apart from ensuring that his philosophy is one of example, in that it is one that he is able to live by, should ensure that his views fit together like pieces of a puzzle. It is often the case that people have incongruous views. What is worse is that some people are fully aware of the dissonance and choose to leave it unaddressed. The point of a systematic exercise, then, is to ensure that the your pieces fit together like a puzzle.
With this in mind, we can now adopt anti-natalism in our philosophy. We can then ask whether it coheres with a given view we are already subscribed to. To my mind, there is no viable way for someone to be pro-choice on the issue of abortion and an anti-natalist. As Benatar and Belshaw have made clear, they have no intention of resigning their view to silence. They very much intend to convince other people that it is wrong to have children. Invariably, therefore, it is their intention to persuade all women not to have children. They, therefore, cannot claim to be pro-choice on the issue of abortion and by extension, any form of birth control. Benatar and Belshaw must argue that all women should avoid pregnancy at all costs.
From this, we can see a fatal implication that has already cropped up in the literature. Anti-natalism implies pro-mortalism, which implies the extinction of the human species. This is what Belshaw is looking to avoid in his argument. Metz states that “Belshaw points out that, although a future good cannot make up for a present bad for a being unaware of its future, it can do so for a being that is aware of its future, namely, a person” (Ibid.). What a person maintains is an optimism that their circumstances will improve. This is not tantamount to actually knowing the future. In fact, no one knows whether they currently have a terminal illness like pancreatic cancer. By the time the symptoms drive one to the hospital, the cancer is likely already in its later stages, in where the chances of survival have dramatically decreased. While one may have it in their heads that their circumstances are bound to improve, it is also likely that they are going to end up worse than anticipated. Babies clearly cannot know their own futures and parents, even if they were to extrapolate from their own experiences, cannot predict that their child’s life will improve beyond gastrointestinal discomfort and emotional distress. Setting aside that not all babies suffer from colic and the lives of all babies are not bogged down by the sort of helpless suffering Belshaw has in mind, he does not avoid the pitfall of pro-mortalism. To add insult to injury, his argument implies a very specific pro-mortalism, namely infanticide.
Briefly, pro-mortalism is the view that if one’s goal is to prevent the suffering of any given individual, then one should ethically kill this individual or put another way, to prevent the suffering of humanity, it is ethical to kill all of humanity. So even if one is too squeamish about pushing an overweight man onto the tracks to save five other people from an oncoming train, it would appear that anti-natalists are just fine with pulling a lever to meet the same end. In other words, while anti-natalists certainly will not go as far as creating a super virus that is guaranteed to kill us all, they are content with prescribing an equally lethal pill that will ensure the same consequence. This is precisely why Belshaw’s argument is not Kantian in spirit. We will circle back around to this shortly.
Continuing on with our systematic exercise, imagine now that you are adopting anti-natalism, but you are a self-described vegan and environmentalist. If an anti-natalist is committed, by implication, to pro-mortalism, then they are in favor of birth control for animals that understand their own suffering and the suffering of other individuals. This means that our favorite pets, cats and dogs, are to be spayed and neutered across the board. This also means that the very animals exploited by the meat industry should be marched to the ultimate slaughter, extinction. It follows, therefore, that one cannot be an anti-natalist and a vegan. Environmentalism is harder to see, but we usually care about deforestation, warming oceans, and so on. The reason for this is because human activity is having detrimental effects on habits that belong to, for instance, polar bears, the great apes, and cetaceans. Anti-natalism would entail the extinction of these higher mammals as well because they no doubt comprehend and even reflect upon their own suffering.
In the same vein, anti-natalism would imply suicide. If the goal now is to prevent your own potential suffering, then you should kill yourself. This is ultimately why I cannot make this view cohere with my neo-Kantian bents. I cannot, from the seat of my own existence, interfere with the will of other ends who see fit to bring children into existence. Inherent in the idea of exploitation is any attempt to dissuade someone from something they want to do, especially if their action harms no one else. While life definitely offers a bundle of experiences that are evaluated as bad, it also offers experiences that are good. To say that it is better for someone to never have existed because pain is bad, despite no one being here to experience it, smacks of unsubstantiated idealism. I can ready a retort: pleasure is good, despite no one being here to experience it. It is inconsistent to idealize a thesis but not its antithesis. It is either that both pain and pleasure exist without a person to experience and evaluate them or that they only exist in a conscious biological being that has physical and psycho-emotional ways to experience pain, and a mind through which it evaluates them and puts them into perspective. The latter is more cogent.
Now, to the charge that I have to be a utilitarian to make an argument concerning the evaluative weights of good and bad in a person’s life; I think it misses the mark. The argument is utilitarian in character, but not ultimately because it does not extend to other persons. I am not saying that if an outsourced factory full of underpaid, outsourced workers leads to the production of expensive phones that will make millions of people happy, then the suffering of the relatively fewer workers is justified, and that in light of this, the practice of exploitative outsourcing should continue. What I am saying is that whether a person decides their life is worth living is entirely their judgment call and that if they choose to assess the value of their life by weighing good versus bad experiences, it is a typical and valid form of assessment. The view is ultimately Kantian because if I recognize this rational being as an end in themselves, and not a means, then their evaluative judgment has to be suitable for their purposes. Insofar as they are not intentionally harming other persons in the process, their choices are entirely theirs to make. I will set aside collateral harm as the result of one’s choice to get euthanized. Like suicide, euthanasia is a complex issue, but I think with respect to suffering, it is better for a family to suffer the loss of their loved one than to see their loved one in a great deal of incessant and tortuous pain. In any case, if upon completing their assessment they decide that they are fit to raise a child and then pursue having one, and they make this decision on the basis that their child can have a life equal to or better than the one they have led, it is not my place to interfere with their choice. This is the true position of a Kantian. Belshaw misses the mark by a wide margin.
The following questions are in order. Why have Benatar and Belshaw put so much weight on suffering? What has driven them to grossly overstate the amount of suffering an individual experiences? This is why I think anti-natalism is fatalistic and ultimately, defeatist. When considering the scourge of poverty, proliferated by restrictive abortion policies, despotism, Capitalist exploitation, and so on, it is easy to resign oneself to the idea that maybe we are better off not having children at all. It is easier still to feel hopelessly small and powerless to effect real change. If we had no way to address suffering, then perhaps anti-natalists would be right. What lies before us, then, are two pills. On the one hand, the anti-natalist is offering a pill that works very much like a slow-working but lethal venom. Take it and humanity is doomed to extinction; higher mammals and other cognitively advanced animals, e.g. ravens and eagles, are also doomed to extinction. On the other hand, the pill of the pro-natalist is the promise of human flourishing by way of reducing suffering. It is better to raise awareness of the myriad problems we face as a species, so that we can come together to articulate, plan, and implement working solutions. With the systematic exercise in mind, it should be obvious that anti-natalism does not cohere with humanism.
To review, anti-natalism is incongruous with veganism, environmentalism, humanism, Kantian ethics, and pro-choice politics. If one subscribes to any of these views, one cannot subscribe to anti-natalism without significant difficulties. The most immediate issue, apart from being defeatist with respect to the problems we face as a species, is that the anti-natalist has succumbed to base individualism. Anti-natalism, therefore, does not cohere with collectivism. In other words, Kant does not speak of one rational being and one end in itself, but ends in themselves and rational beings. It is clear that he is approaching ethics with others in mind as opposed to himself, so again, to think that you have the right to interfere in a person’s decision to procreate is a form of exploitation because in order to convince someone of something that does not benefit them, you have to exploit the fact that they are gullible or, in other words, psychologically weaker than yourself. You have to see them as someone you can manipulate into believing something that is, in the end, ineluctably fatalistic. The thinking goes that even if humanity dodges every bullet, it ultimately will not survive the heat death of the universe. But for us very finite beings, with lifespans of 80 or so years, the prospect of billions of more years for our species is like an eternity. Anti-natalists have no right to prematurely take that from us just because they have given up on offering resolutions for the vast amounts of human suffering in our world.
That is ultimately the main problem stemming from anti-natalism’s incongruity with collectivism. Convincing everyone, everywhere to not have children will be to guarantee an increase in suffering the closer and closer we get to extinction, suffering that would have been avoided had their been just a few more farmers, a few more doctors, a few more people to listen to someone about their mental health struggles, and so on. What you are ultimately taking away is every chance the living will have to meet someone who will add enormous value to their lives. This can be a cutting edge scientist or engineer who solves a longstanding problem, like the incapacity for us to regrow severed limbs. Or it can be someone who would have become an incredible friend, partner, child, or parent.
One might now say that some of these arguments sound suspiciously pro-life. Well, the question has never been whether someone who is pro-choice values human life. The question has always been whether a fetus’ hypothetical rights override the rights of living, breathing people, specifically the mother and her extant family. The question has always been about whether it is my place to interfere with a woman’s decision to have an abortion. My resolve to not interfere in these decisions does not mean I do not value human life at all. Furthermore, my resolve is informed by the fact that forcing women to bring children into poverty or into a household in where domestic violence is a regular occurrence results in a vicious cycle that benefits parties fully intent on exploiting the poor. There is a reason why the more affluent and educated have significantly less abortions.
More specifically, I am fully aware that I am paraphrasing Don Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours Argument:
The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. To describe this as the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biological state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his other future.Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral”. Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, 183-202, 1989.
I do not deny the strength of this argument given that the child in question is not born into poverty or domestic violence and more importantly, that the child’s mother is not giving birth under duress, i.e., giving birth because her government leaves her with no other option. Marquis’ argument has considerable force given that a mother or couple are in good position to raise a child. While it is still ultimately her choice, it would be strange if she did not find other recourses to prevent pregnancy, especially given that she is sufficiently educated and affluent. It will be an instance of a bad choice begetting another bad choice, but even cases like this are outside of my jurisdiction. More importantly, this is all beside the point.
We have now come full circle. Anti-natalism overstates the value of suffering while overlooking the fact that good parents want their children to have better lives than their own. We cannot prevent pin-pricks, paper cuts, fevers, and broken bones, but we can be sure to create happiness that far exceeds the pain they experience; one can therefore, explore whether anti-natalism coheres with Libertarian free will or compatibilism because prima facie, it appears that it is at odds with yet another hallmark assumption in philosophy: humans have free will. The position, aside from failing to agree with a number of views people can have, is fatalistic, defeatist, and anti-naturalist. As a naturalist, I cannot ignore the dissonance inherent in a view that would have me argue against the evolutionary drives of species to survive and pass on their genes. While I am in agreement with ethical reasons to avoid pregnancy, e.g., specifically when one is in poverty, I do not condone telling everyone, everywhere to stop reproducing. A good alternative to reproducing is to adopt children that are currently orphaned. Even with that sort of ethical advice, I am not asking everyone, everywhere to solely adopt children.
Ultimately, anti-natalism is useful for sake of systematic exercises. The view is perfect to demonstrate how a wayward puzzle piece finds its way into the wrong box. It is incumbent on a philosopher to ensure that his views cohere with one another. If not, the dissonance that results from two views in conflict implies that at least one of his views is false. In the end, I think an anti-natalist has to resign to participate in no forms of activism. Feeding the homeless, clothing the naked, aiding the needy, and all humanitarian efforts are just arbitrary ways to extend a life that is, according to the anti-natalist, rife with suffering. It is a defeatist, nihilistic, fatalistic position that cannot be made to fit in any philosopher’s puzzle because it is patently false. Let us relegate anti-natalism to a checkpoint in our history of philosophy books, to the dustbin with other thought experiments. Whatever you do, however, do not allow the venom to be injected into your veins.
I am proud to announce that my second book is now available on Kindle. “Ending The Abortion Debate: On The Issues That Truly Matter” discusses the circumstances that often surround the decision to have an abortion. Rather than talking passed each other and arguing back and forth, I encourage my readers to abandon their positions whether pro-life or pro-choice, while maintaining their convictions, so that they can work together towards real, effective, impactful solutions. I call for everyone to adopt the position of pro-action, so that we can alleviate poverty, domestic violence, and other issues related to the decision to terminate pregnancy. It’s a short, insightful, and hopefully persuasive read. It’s heavy on sociology and philosophy, less so on psychology; but as always I try to make the language and sources cited accessible to the average reader. It’s available now for $7.99! Print should be available soon. Happy reading and thanks in advance to anyone who purchases a copy!
In this, Erdogen can learn a valuable lesson that will vastly reduce the negative impacts women in Turkey are currently facing. The return of restrictive policies also marks the return of illegal contraceptive and abortion methods, which, in turn, are a prelude to higher maternal deaths. Turkey, like Albania before it, must not go back to the days when abortion was criminalized. There is precedence in the Muslim World and in the world at large that should discourage Erdogen from continuing his de facto ban on abortion and eventually passing legislation that would officially ban abortion. If nothing else, the history of reproductive rights in the Muslim World not only serves as exemplary for majority-Muslim countries, but also countries around the world — especially countries currently enforcing prohibitive abortion policies.
Restrictive policies do not end abortion. Such policies end the lives of many women. In country after country, women literally bleed to death after experiencing complications related to unsafe, illegal procedures. Legalizing and decriminalizing abortion not only saves their lives, but also slows the cycle of poverty. For women in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Chile, Brazil, Northern Ireland, and other countries not surveyed here, the battle is ongoing. We are morally obligated to see what measures need to be taken in order to provide these women with safe, legal access to reproductive healthcare. Also, once this access is provided, we must ensure that there are no barriers keeping some women, be it for economic, educational, or other reasons, from getting and being able to meet the costs related to reproductive healthcare.
Before I proceed, a bit of required reading. The linked article speaks about purposeful change or purposeful modification, which can be defined as self-actualizing or -optimizing change. Kevin Tobia, a Graduate student at Yale University, speaks about a self emerging from change rather than the typical self people speak of, namely the self that persists despite change. Purposeful change involve changes resulting in self-discovery or becoming a better version of yourself, be it socially, morally, or what have you.
With that in mind, I think Tobia has, perhaps inadvertently, identified the marquee difference between even infants and fetuses, and has thus tilted the scales even more in favor of the pro-choice position. Fetuses cannot and do not purposefully change or modify themselves, and that’s mainly because they do not exist in the world and therefore, do not have access to the experiences and sensations serving as impetus for such change. Newborns, on the other hand, can and do purposefully change and modify simply because they do have access to the sensations and experiences in the world. There’s also the fact that the parents and relatives of the newborn have expectations of the kind of purposeful changes they’ve already observed in themselves and other people they know, and they can thus extrapolate from such experience and impose such expectations on their newborn.
This definitely sets aside Singer’s argument for infanticide because Tobia has identified a clear demarcator between fetuses and newborns. Purposeful modification is the key component of personhood. What makes for a person is the fact that people self-modify. People, specifically in the absence of psychological or cognitive issues, are concerned with improving themselves. They’re concerned with being better socially. The average teenager, for instance, has insecurities and awkward quirks, many of which they foresee overcoming as adults. Speaking for myself, a lot of awkward quirks in my teens are simply not there anymore and that’s because I’ve purposefully modified them over time; there was this sense of having to grow out of such behaviors. The same goes for the bulk of my insecurities. Rather than recede into a corner during social events, I am more often the guy at the center of room drawing everyone closer because I’m more confident, interesting, and unafraid to introduce myself and hold conversations about a milieu of topics. I’m sure that many of my readers, even the ones who disagree with the pro-choice position, can make similar observations about themselves.
Ultimately, Tobias has provided pro-cholcers with the key component of personhood. In fact, it is both necessary and sufficient to adequately define what is meant by a human person. Of course it goes beyond biology and genetics. It is not enough that a human person is genetically human and related to its parents. There is more that constitutes a person and purposeful modification is clearly the most important identifier of what a person is. This is precisely why fetuses are not persons and are thus exempt from the rights reserved to persons. They are most certainly exempt from receiving these rights because they cannot receive such rights over and above the would-be mother who has a propensity for purposeful modification. That of course leads us into the well-established argument from bodily autonomy, but an argument from purposeful modification is clearly sufficient to dispense with the pro-life position. Fetuses are no doubt genetically human, but they are not one in the same with a human person, and that is because they cannot and do not have the capacity for purposeful change.
By R.N. Carmona
As a pro-choicer, I am used to hearing the worst arguments pro-lifers have to offer. In some cases, arguments aren’t offered. Their convictions are merely repeated (e.g. life begins at conception; abortion is the killing or murder of an innocent human being). Usually, no effort is made to justify these convictions. Of the arguments that pro-lifers could present, only one of the following arguments is commonly used. Given its common usage and given that I find it to be the weakest argument a pro-lifer can use, I will summarize it first. That will then be followed by arguments that I deem stronger. The arguments themselves are actual arguments put forth by knowledgeable pro-lifers who actually engage with the arguments offered by their opponents. The order in which the arguments will appear are in accordance with their degree of strength. Anyone is welcome to disagree with their order since, though I’ve thought about the arguments carefully, their degrees of strength remains a matter of opinion.
The most common, in fact, the only actual, argument pro-lifers put forth is an argument rooted in Franics Beckwith’s shared-value argument. Beckwith’s thought experiment is as follows:
Suppose your Uncle Jed is in a terrible car accident that results in his being in a coma from which he may or may not wake. Imagine that he remains in this state for roughly two years and then awakens. He seems to be the same Uncle Jed that you knew before he went into the coma, even though he’s lost some weight, hair, and memories. Was he an [intrinsically valuable human being (IVHB)] during the coma? Could the physicians have killed Uncle Jed — the living organism we refer to as ‘Uncle Jed’ — during that time because he did not exhibit certain functions or have certain present capacities? If one holds that IV depends on capacities that are immediately exercisable, it is difficult to see why it would be wrong to kill Uncle Jed while he was in the coma. Yet it would be wrong, precisely because Uncle Jed is identical to himself through all the changes he undergoes and that self, by nature, has certain basic capacities.
Consequently, the [Anti-Equality Advocate] cannot reply by arguing that Uncle Jed’s life was intrinsically valuable during the coma because in the past he functioned as an IVHB and probably will do so in the future. For we can change the story a bit and say that when Uncle Jed awakens from the coma he loses virtually all his memories and knowledge including his ability to speak a language, engage in rational thought, and have self-awareness. He then would be in precisely the same position as the standard fetus. He would still literally be the same human being he was before the coma but he would be more like he was before he had a “past.” He would have the basic capacities to speak a language, engage in rational thought, and have self-awareness, but he would have to develop and learn them all over again for these basic capacities to result, as they did before, in present capacities and actual abilities.1
Beckwith’s “Uncle Jed” example has been used, albeit not always directly. There are also variants to this argument. One pro-lifer brought up similar thought-experiments that replace Uncle Jed with a person that’s asleep or with craniopagus conjoined twins.2 The strength of this argument might be obvious to any pro-lifer; rather than asking pro-lifers to consider the weaknesses of the argument, I want them to think on why the following arguments are stronger.
However, prior to moving on to other arguments against abortion, I want to touch on a common variant of Beckwith’s shared-value argument and that is any argument that attempts to make abortion and infanticide analogous. This argument follows from Paul Ramsey who argued that there isn’t an argument in favor of abortion that doesn’t work in favor of infanticide.3 This argument is a shared-value argument because it assumes that fetuses and infants share properties in common.
It can be argued that the next two arguments have the same degree of strength. I, therefore, do not place them in any particular order. The first of the two I want to summarize is Don Marquis’ “Future-Like-Ours” argument. Marquis states his argument forcefully:
The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. To describe this as the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biological state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experiences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his other future.4
Marquis is arguing that all that’s necessary is that we find a shared property between adult persons and fetuses. If this property is found, then we can confer rights on the fetus. That property is that a fetus has a future that resembles ours. This argument can be considered a variant of Beckwith’s shared-value argument since it also rests on values purportedly shared by adults and fetuses.
The next argument I want to focus on is what Earl Connee refers to as the Non-Reductionist conclusion. This view was first expressed by Derek Parfit. The Non-Reductionist conclusion follows from the following argument:
There must be a moment when I started to exist. … . [T]here must be a sharp borderline. It is implausible to claim that this borderline is birth. Nor can any line be plausibly drawn during pregnancy. We may thus be led to the view that I started to exist at the moment of conception. We may claim that this is the moment when my life began. And, on the Non-Reductionist view, it is a deep truth that all the parts of my life are equally parts of my life. I was as much me even when my life had only just started. Killing me at this time is, straightforwardly, killing an innocent person. If this is what we believe, we shall plausibly claim that all induced abortions are morally wrong, except those that save the mother’s life.5
This view is non-reductionist because it doesn’t reduce our personhood or humanity to functions, particularly brain functions. It’s based on the metaphysical proposition that our substance is pivotal to our identity. This conclusion is in keeping with religious belief in the soul.
Since they’re contrasted in Connee’s paper, I’ll go on a relevant tangent to touch on the Reducionist conclusion—which is a pro-choice argument. The Reductionist conclusion stems from the Reductionist argument which could be stated as follows:
On the Reductionist View, we do not believe that at every moment I either do or don’t exist. We can now deny that a fertilized ovum is a person or human being. … [The] transition takes time, and is a matter of degree … . We can then plausibly take a different view about the morality of abortion. We can believe that there is nothing wrong with an early abortion, but that it would be seriously wrong to abort a child near the end of a pregnancy … . The cases in between can be treated as matters of degree. The fertil- ized ovum is not at first, but slowly becomes, a human being and a person. In the same way, the destruction of this organism is not at first but slowly becomes seriously wrong.6
This argument rests on the non-ambiguity of a fetus’ moral status. Since I want this tangent to be brief, I’ll return to how this is established. Furthermore, I’ll attach the argument from the ambiguity of a fetus’ moral status, since it’s germane to the discussion.
The last argument in favor of the pro-life position, which is, in my opinion, the strongest, is the argument from potentiality. This argument is arguably best defended by Reginald William. He states the following:
[I]F all things being equal, the more valuable something is, the more we tend to condemn deliberately preventing its existence, it is also natural to think that when something is of but slight or modest value, we would not condemn just any deliberate act that ends up preventing its existence. It is plausible to think that, in such an instance, we would only condemn a deliberate act that results in there not being something which itself stood to engender the relevant object of value.7
The above is a clear statement of the argument from potential. William gives us several examples (e.g. the seed and food) arguing not only from potential but also from the value of the thing preceding that which we deem valuable. The reason this argument has the highest degree of strength is because it’s compelling and likely the most philosophically sound point that can be made. William tells us the following about people who encounter this argument:
Yet many people who encounter these criticisms, including Grade-A philosophy students and bona fide philosophers, end up endorsing the argument from potential at the end of the day.8
This isn’t surprising since strong arguments are usually convincing and/or difficult to grapple with. In other words, even them who disagree with this argument have to think carefully; their reasoning has to be clearer if they are to refute the argument. This isn’t always obvious, so acceptance can follow; if not, one might opt to remain agnostic on a given matter.
The above serves as a summary of the best pro-life arguments. In fact, these are the arguments we should commonly hear. Unfortunately, what we get is poisoning of the well, false analogies (e.g. abortion is murder), ad hominem, and appeal to emotion. Aside from misrepresenting pro-choicers and the case we’re making, they’re also damaging their own case. If any pro-lifer fails to see the strength the above arguments have over the usual mantras, propaganda, and outright lies put forth by some pro-lifers, it is a failure in reason. The arguments above aren’t only stronger, but they’re more conducive to the discussion. You’ll get further in a discussion on abortion if you choose to present one or more of these arguments rather than marginalizing your opponents and making sweeping generalizations about them.
With that said, let us return to the Reductionist conclusion and the points used to support the argument. McMahon argued that a fetus becomes a person at the onset of brainwaves.9 Given this, it can be said that the Reductionist conclusion is also a progressive conclusion since the argument attempts to show a clear path from non-person to person. McMahon isn’t the only person to argue this. Michael Gazzinga states the following.
Clearly, I believe that a fertilized egg, a clump of cells with no brain, is hardly deserving of the same moral status we confer on the newborn child or the functioning adult. Mere possession of the genetic material for a future human being does not make a human being. The developing embryo that becomes a fetus that becomes a baby is the product of a dynamic interaction with its environment in the womb, its postnatal experiences, and a host of other factors. A purely genetic description of the human species does not describe a human being. A human being represents a whole other level of organization, as distinct from a simple embryo as an embryo is distinct from an egg and sperm. It is the dynamics between genes and environment that make a human being. Indeed, most of us are willing to grant this special status to a developing entity long before it is born, but surely not before the entity even has a brain.10
I placed particular emphasis because that statement, in particular, demonstrates how there’s an underlying progression in the Reductionist Conclusion. Toward the end, he speaks of granting this special status to fetuses before birth; however, he states that we can’t grant them this status before they have brains. Another iteration was offered by Gertler:
GB Gertler proposed 22-24 weeks gestation, on the basis that the neocortex begins producing EEG waves at this time. Underlying this proposal is the view that human cognition is the beginning of cognitive capability and the point at which protection of personhood should begin. In similar fashion, Burgess and Tawia defined functioning brain as one where there is identifiable activity of the kind that normal adult brains (cortices) indulge in. They argue that what is required is a critical minimum level of structural organization, with functional components present and mature enough to perform. On the basis of EEG readings, they conclude that a fetus becomes conscious at 32-36 weeks gestation.11
The Reductionist conclusion is therefore the result of an argument stating that personhood reduces to brain function. This is what is meant by the non-ambiguity of a fetus’ moral status. It’s status isn’t ambiguous since we can demarcate, on the basis of empirical conclusions, between a person and a non-person and therefore, between a fetus and a fully developed human being.
Pro-choicers who are unaware of these empirical conclusions can argue from the presumed ambiguity of the fetus’ moral status. They can argue that since we can’t establish whether or not a fetus is a person, it is best to side with precaution. Using this reasoning, Nathan Nabis offers his Precautionary Principle:
When dealing with a decision between the freedoms of choice and consciousness belonging to an actual woman as opposed to the uncertain moral status of a fetus gestating in her body, the most cautious option is to honor the physical and mental integrity of the woman and her best judgments regarding her own interests. This position requires the least amount of comprehensive assumptions.12
The Precautionary Principe, even in light of the fact that we can establish personhood, is compelling. Even if we agree that a fetus is a person, it is a very peculiar kind of person since its gestating the body of another person. If bodily autonomy is a chief unalienable right, then the right to choose should remain a legal option. This is closely related to what is arguably the strongest argument for the pro-choice position—the argument from bodily autonomy.
The argument from autonomy can, but does not have to, follow from the Precautionary Principle. Torcello argues “that where moral uncertainty is a factor, a society is not justified in enacting oppressive legislation that encroaches on the physical and mental autonomy to which free and equal citizens otherwise have a right in a just liberal society.”13 In other words, if the moral status of the fetus is uncertain, a government cannot infringe on a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.
In where it doesn’t follow from the Precautionary Principle, one could refer to Margaret Olivia Little who stated that “a person’s right to life is circumscribed at the point at which that life involves occupying and using another’s body.”14Or one could also cite Susan Sherwin who “argues that pregnant women can justifiably refuse to view their fetus as having full moral standing because of the ontological dependence of the fetus on the pregnant woman. The fetus would not even exist without this unique and intimate dependency on the pregnant woman.”15 One could also cite Judith J. Thompson’s marquee paper in where bodily autonomy takes center stage.16 It’s curious that pro-choicers make use of their strongest argument(s) whereas pro-lifers do not.
In any case, does this really matter? My response is that it does matter, but not as much as some of us may think. In arguing about the politics and ethics of abortion, some of us have lost track of the most important issue. If we can mitigate or put an end to something by merely focusing on its precursors, then why not focus on those precursors? Sure, pro-lifers and pro-choicers can’t find much common ground as we’ve seen; however, common ground isn’t impossible to find. I’m not alone in seeing that reducing abortion is a reasonable goal. Pro-lifers may add that they want to put an end to abortion. However, in order to reduce or put an end to something, the same steps have to be taken. This is where we find common ground!
I don’t have to agree with your reasons for wanting to put an end to abortion. I only have to agree with you in concluding that targeting the precursors of abortion is a valuable endeavor in and of itself. The decision to have an abortion is often due to multifarious reasons. Among these reasons are the fact that the woman can’t afford to raise a child, having a baby would dramatically change her life, or she doesn’t want to be a single mom or experience relationship issues.17 The first of these reasons is important because it leads us to a problem people, whether pro-lifer or pro-choicer, should be concerned about: poverty. The poverty rate for children was 19.9 in 2013.18 As of 2008, the abortion rate among poor women increased even though the overall rate decreased.19 If so many children are currently in poverty, how can we expect the mothers of those children to continue a new pregnancy in all cases? It’s only reasonable that some of them will choose abortion.
This leads, of course, to another issue we should be addressing. If one can’t afford a child at the moment, one should do everything in one’s power to prevent pregnancy in the first place. As statistics have shown, abortion decreases with age, particularly after the age of 19; that is to say that abortion rates are higher among younger women.20 This may imply an educational or literacy problem. More sex education is necessary. More preventative measures need to be available so that abortion rates continue to decrease. This, to me, is a reasonable goal no matter what your personal motives are.
Then there’s the issue of relationship issues. We cannot expect a woman to want to carry the child of an abusive significant other. Given that this is a problem according to statistics taken year after year, we should be focused on domestic violence. This is, no doubt, more difficult to address than the previous issue. Providing sex education is one thing, but convincing abusive men that abuse is wrong seems to be a more daunting task. Also, abusive men aren’t made overnight. There’s obviously something that needs to be addressed in overall male psychology.21 This implies taking therapeutic measures that aren’t always available. Regardless, this is something we should want to figure out.
This is why I argue that the abortion debate doesn’t matter as much as some of us think it does. The moral status of a fetus, potentiality, shared value, reductionism, and non-reductionism are merely smokescreens. There’s a real issue behind the plumes that deserves our attention. Limiting abortion by focusing on its precursors is a worthwhile goal. Whether one sees it as a worthwhile goal because of its inherent value or because one desires to put an end to abortion doesn’t matter. In other words, one’s religious, political, or personal motives for wanting to motion against the precursors of abortion makes no difference. This is common ground. This is where we can stand together. Reducing abortion is periphery when considering male psychology and domestic abuse, poverty, lack of jobs, and sex education or sex illiteracy. This will make a bigger impact—leave a deeper imprint; families would benefit more, abortion will be reduced, and more importantly, babies will be born into self-sufficient households. The arguments, whether for or against abortion, are entirely secondary when considering these issues. I can only hope that this is salient.
1 Wilcox, Clinton. “Arguments Against Fetal Personhood.” Secular Pro-Life Perspectives. 4 Feb 2013. Web. 21 Nov 2014.
3 Chapman, Stephan. “From Abortion to Infanticide”. Chicago Tribune. 22 Apr 1982. Web. 21 Nov 2014.
4 Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral”. Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, pp. 183-202. 1989. Print.
5 Connee, Earl. ”Metaphysics and the Morality of Abortion”. Mind 108 (432) (1998): 619-646. Print.
6 Ibid. 
7 William, Reginald. “Abortion, Potential, and Value”. Cambridge University Press. Utilitas Volume 20 Issue 02 June 2008, pp 169-186. Print.
8 Ibid. 
9 Ibid. [7[
10 Gazzinga, Michael. “The Ethical Brain”. The Dana Foundation. 1 Jul 2005. Web. 21 Nov 2014.
11 Jones, D Gareth. “The Problematic Symmetry Between Brain Birth and Brain Death”. Journal of Medical Ethic Issue 24:237-242. 1998. Print. Available on web.
12 Torcello, Lawrence. “A Precautionary Tale: Separating the Infant from the Fetus.” Res Publica Issue 15: 17–31. 2009. Print.
13 Ibid. 
14 Kaposy, Chris. “Proof and Persuasion in the Philosophical Debate about Abortion.” Philosophy and Rhetoric Volume 43, Number 2: pp. 139-162. 2010. Print.
16 Thompson, Judith J. “A Defense of Abortion”. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1. 1971. Print. Available on web.
17 Finer, Lawrence B., et. al. “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives”. Guttmacher Institute. ND. Web. 21 Nov 2014.
18 “Poverty”. The United States Census Bureau. ND. Web. 21 Nov 2014.
19 Wind, Rebecca. “Abortion Rate Increasing Among Poor Women, Even as it Decreases Among Most Other Groups”. Guttmacher Institute. 23 May 2011. Web. 21 Nov 2014.
20 Ibid. 
21 Arkowitz, Hal. “Are Men the More Belligerent Sex?”. Scientific American. 1 Apr 2010. Web. 21 Nov 2014.