Abortion and a principle of prudence

I hate to write about abortion again – people might mistakenly think it’s a “Big Issue” for me – but this objection brought itself forward in my mind, and I have to get it out.

There are two premises that I cannot seem to find good reason to deny:

  1. Abortion deprives a distinct and biologically human organism* of a vital future right.
  2. In any scenario involving two human organisms, one of which is fundamentally dependent on the other, where there is a conflict of rights between the two, prudence demands that, ceteris paribus, the autonomous party allow her rights to be abrogated (especially when they are of lesser importance) in order that the dependent party’s rights are satisfied.

The first premise is merely a definition which I think is quite defensible. The second, on the other hand, is a matter of prudence: if we have to choose which human gets to have her rights validated when there is a conflict (given the above situation), the non-autonomous individual’s rights trump the autonomous party’s.

The evidence I have for this matter of prudence is largely that which I feel as a parent: if my children, who depend on me for their survival, require something (time, resources, etc.) that will deny me something in return (as is very common in parenthood), then I am obligated as a parent to make the sacrifice. It would take an extreme case to bring about any potential counterexamples: for instance, if one’s child is standing in front of an oncoming train, I might have a hard time saying that it is obligatory for any given parent to put herself in front of the train in order to save the child (although I am of the personal conviction that I would feel obligated given those circumstances). There are, as such, many cases where such an action would be supererogatory: it would be a great personal sacrifice that would befit a parent’s general responsibility to protect his or her child as much as is humanly possible but not necessarily immoral if not performed. (Indeed, if a parent did not make this choice, then they are likely deserving of compassion rather than condemnation.)

If I am right and this premise holds, then it is equally applicable to the type of parenthood that obtains upon conception (the genesis of a biological child). This would seem to demolish many pro-abortion arguments, especially the notion that the mother’s right to bodily autonomy supersedes any rights of the fetus since the mother’s autonomy (which the fetus lacks) is precisely the reason why the mother should make the sacrifice in the vast majority of circumstances (see here for some more circumstantial considerations). In the act of procreation, the woman assumes a responsibility as a mother to her child that demands obligation. Abortion is thus an outright violation of that responsibility – not mere negligence, but willful violation.

Thus, I come to the following syllogism (Pind = ‘independent party’; Pdep = ‘dependent party’):

  1. For any action A performed by Pind, it will be immoral if the net shift in rights from Pind to Pdep results in an outcome beneficial for Pind and detrimental to Pdep.
  2. The deprivation of a fundamental right to Pdep in order to secure another for Pind results in a positive net shift to Pind.
  3. Therefore, any such A will be immoral.

Since this class of actions seems directly relevant to abortion, it would appear to be both valid and sound.

Have I missed something? This seems a reasonable objection to abortion along grounds that are not religious.


*This is true even in the cases of identical twins and chimaeras: there is at least one biologically human organism which is genetically distinct from its parents.

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8 Responses to Abortion and a principle of prudence

  1. FishyFred says:

    Just found you after you commented at Ed Brayton’s blog. Before I comment, I want to clarify that you’re talking about late-term abortion only.

  2. Brody says:

    No, my premises are aimed at the broad category “human organisms,” under which zygotes, fetuses, children, and adults would all fit. Premise 1 might be (and probably is, actually) controversial because referring to a future right might not be accurate, but I think it’s defensible. (Actually, to be honest, I don’t like including “rights” language in these sorts of arguments if I can help it as the concept is very slippery.)

    I think any distinction between early- and late-term abortions misses the point of the argument: a zygote is as much as a biologically distinct human organism dependent on the mother as a late-term fetus is. The level of biological complexity seems to be irrelevant, in the same way that a parent carries an equal to her infant as her post-pubescent child. (Of course, the degree of independence is much greater, and so that’s a fair consideration.)

    I should note, however, that this argument does somewhat presume that the dependent party either lacks the ability or authority to make a decision on a given course of action. When parents have the responsibility to make a choice, the above principle of prudence holds almost universally, I would say.

  3. FishyFred says:

    I think any distinction between early- and late-term abortions misses the point of the argument: a zygote is as much as a biologically distinct human organism dependent on the mother as a late-term fetus is.

    That statement skims very close to the primary difference of opinion between supporters of abortion rights and non-supporters. At the zygote stage, the only difference between a human and a fish is the location of a few chromosomes and protein patterns. You may be familiar with a chart that shows several animals during different stages of development. A huge number of land-dwellers, for example, have gills for weeks.

    To me and practically every pro-choicer in the world, the distinction between a zygote/blastocyst/clump of cells and a viable fetus makes all the difference in the world.

  4. Brody says:

    At the zygote stage, the only difference between a human and a fish is the location of a few chromosomes and protein patterns.

    I’m not a biology expert, but while what you say might be morphologically true (i.e. a zygote resembles a fish somewhat in its physiology), there is a quite distinct genetic difference between the two. Being biologically human also has another property: the future capacity (given normal gestation, growth, development, etc.) to be conscious and to have higher thinking processes.

    If you’re questioning whether or not a zygote is biologically human and/or distinct from the mother, I don’t think the science supports you on that. A zygote is genetically distinct from its parents at conception (so it is not like a patch of skin cells), and its genetic structure is characteristic of a human’s (that is, we can classify it as Homo sapiens by its DNA). What’s more, if the zygote is left to develop, it will turn into precisely the kind of organism that you seem to think should be protected (somewhere in the mid-to-late second trimester and beyond, I suspect).

    Whether or not there is any significant difference between the stages of a developing human prior to birth (the ability to feel pain, to be conscious or sentient) still doesn’t seem to trump my argument here, though. What would challenge it is some discussion of non-extreme circumstances (like those I describe here) that would get the mother off the hook for this as a general matter or that would decrease the gap between loss/gain to mother and loss/gain to child such that it is negligible or inscrutable or, if you would like to challenge the principle, some sound reasoning for why this shouldn’t hold equally for a zygote/embryo/blastocyst as for a more developed fetus or infant.

  5. Michael Heath says:

    I found you over at Ed Brayton’s blog and always enjoy reading your comments there even though I am not a Christian, even your long one from today. ☺

    Re your first premise:

    Abortion deprives a distinct and biologically human organism* of a vital future right.

    If one were to concede this point, and possibly both of your numbered points; doesn’t your position force a moral and legal obligation on not only the biological parents, but also a society whose government has a primary obligation to defend individual rights, to actively and preemptively defend all fertilized eggs? Given that most fertilized eggs either do not implant or abort naturally, doesn’t that open a hornet’s nest given our current medical capabilities that could theoretically, or at least eventually, bring all fertilized eggs to term, even those that would have naturally aborted. At first glance, the idea that naturally aborted entities are less valuable would most likely fail your test to keep religion out of the logic used to insure rights are appropriately protected, maybe not, but that is my first impression of your thesis.

  6. Brody says:

    Hi Michael, thanks for dropping by. (Glad to see my participation over at Dispatches is paying off…)

    You raise a good question about natural abortion that I think can be somewhat easily accounted for. The act of abortion is an intentional intervention in natural processes, and I think that is a relevant difference from a fertilized embryo not implanting (and hence naturally aborting). If my first premise is conceded, the converse (as a moral dictum) is not “We must ensure the future existence of every fertilized egg” but not “We must not deprive these distinct and biologically human organisms of a vital future right by aborting them.” This premise doesn’t guarantee rights to every fertilized egg; it simply indicates that we ought not to act in such a way that these distinct organisms are deprived of a right (which the premise clearly indicates is done in the act of abortion). One is not responsible for depriving another individual of a right if the act is not intentional or negligent, neither of which can definitely be said about abortions that occur as the result of natural physical processes.

    I will grant that it is possible that this argument could be co-opted to assert a moral obligation either to do everything possible to make sure every fertilized egg comes to term or that fertilization is absolutely avoided wherever possible (by eliminating hormonal birth control and “morning-after” contraception in favor of barrier methods), but I think that would require a stronger initial premise that would be far more objectionable than the one given. (Perhaps an argument like this has been proposed by a Catholic thinker?)

    Thanks again for the comment.

  7. Michael Heath says:

    Hi Brody,

    Thanks for the well-thought out reply. I struggle with the constitutionality and morality of this issue and appreciate your thoughts.

    If I understand your premise correctly, at the very earliest stages of conception, you are defining the assignment and defense of rights of this particular entity by the situation that created them, rather than by defining the entity itself as having rights worthy of defense relative to the parents’ rights. Natural outcomes are fine, eradication by human intervention should be prohibited. Given your thesis (if I understand it correctly), wouldn’t that require that we criminalize and prohibit all in-vitro fertilization (IVF) as well as prohibiting the pill as well? In fact, all human artificial insemination given the technology, just like the natural process, requires more zygote starts than your desired yield to achieve the desired yield. We also know the pill also prevents implantation of an embroyo (the endometrial effect). If I understand your position, we are violating the rights of zygotes created by IVF and the pill that are not implanted and this violation is worthy of governmental protection.

    Brody – it’s easy for me to conceptualize a government for the people, even by judicial fiat, ruling that the government has the obligation and the power to defend the life rights of viable fetuses with extremely limited variances to this policy. From a moral perspective I also support this viewpoint as long as it doesn’t violate the superior rights of the mother (e.g., her right to life if the pregnancy becomes life-threatening and a live birth is impossible). Therefore, I do view fetsuses as having rights that government at some point is obligated to defend. The further away from viability one goes, the less I support this policy, I see the rights of the parents becoming greater relative to the rights of blastocysts for example and believe this is common sense and common to nearly all of humanity (the old burning building, wailing baby, petri dish analogy). However I also freely admit I have no perfect place to draw the line on where these entities’ right to life is superior to the parents right to refuse to make every effort for a healthy birth, though I admit I wouldn’t draw it very near the point of conception and would prefer drawing it well before viability, which is quickly becoming an irrelevant stage given developing technologies.

    Since I consider myself a logician, I do appreciate your effort to create a logical argument in terms of my better developing my own position, which is certainly open to your kind of approach to this issue. I share this so you know I’m not trying to refute your position, just understand it well enough to possibly influence my own position given its so muddy between fertilization and the beginning of the fetal period (10th week).

  8. Brody says:

    First, let me suggest that my argument here is primarily moral rather than legal. The principle of prudence (parents ought to give up non-vital rights for vital rights of their offspring) is one that is morally binding and could perhaps be considered legally binding because it suggests that the parent has the ability to abrogate the lesser right, and to not make the sacrifice for the vital right of their child is to be negligent.

    But I freely admit that I am cautious about extending this forth to IVF (in part because the practice is done to allow willing parents the ability to procreate) or even perhaps to hormonal birth control more broadly. That is an issue that will require more thought.

    Thanks again for the comments; they’ve been quite helpful in providing focus.

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