Monday 11 June 2012

Should the unborn be given the benefit of the doubt?

Among Embryologists and other scientific specialists with no vested interest in abortion there is no controversy about when human life begins, it is unanimously at conception. Some critics argue that the unborn are not human beings whilst others grant their humanity but argue that the unborn ought to only be granted human rights when they acquire a particular function. That may be the ability to feel pain, experience self-awareness or any number of different abilities. The problem with this is that every acquired characteristic is just a subjective line in the sand, and it could just as persuasively be argued that a working renal system or eyes are the points at which we grant the unborn human rights. There is no particular function that suddenly bestows value upon the unborn, and to present this as the case is not an argument but rather an assertion. Moral consistency dictates that either we have human rights in virtue of being human beings or we don’t, not because of an acquired function at some arbitrary moment. This means that if the unborn are humans then they warrant the human right to not be intentionally killed. If the unborn isn’t human then we are left with a strange question. How exactly can human parents produce offspring that isn’t human but later becomes so?

What is conception?

Conception is the moment when the female egg is fertilized by the male sperm, this brings into existence the zygote. The zygote is a genetically distinct, living and growing human. All of us without exception began our lives as a single cell zygote, we began our lives as a human being and will remain so until death. Referring to the human zygote Dr Keith L. Moore states that ‘The cell results from fertilization of an oocyte by a sperm and is the beginning of a human being.’ [1]

What do the experts say about when human life begins?

Dr Alfred M. Bongionni, Professor of Paediatrics and Obstetrics at the University of Pennsylvania - ‘I learned from my earliest medical education that human life begins at the time of conception…I submit that human life is present throughout this entire sequence from conception to adulthood and that any interruption at any point throughout this time constitutes a termination of human life…’

Professor Micheline Matthews-Roth, Harvard University Medical School – ‘It is incorrect to say that biological data cannot be decisive…It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception.’

Dr Watson A. Bowes, University of Colorado Medical School – ‘The beginning of a single human life is from a biological point of view a simple and straightforward matter-the beginning is conception.’

Professor Hymie Gordon, Mayo Clinic – ‘By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.’

Should the unborn have the benefit of the doubt?

As the above quotes demonstrate, experts agree that human life begins at conception. However even if we didn’t have this knowledge we should grant the unborn the benefit of the doubt, rather than being flippant about when human life does or doesn’t begin.

A thought experiment

Imagine you were driving along a road in the dark and you saw a shadow up ahead, should you drive into it, or press the brakes? Most people would give the benefit of the doubt to what could be a person in the road and do what they can to avoid a collision. If we don’t give the benefit of the doubt to the unborn as Randy Alcorn says ‘we are saying, this may or may not be a child, therefore it’s all right to destroy it.’ [2]

There is unanimous scientific agreement on when human life begins, yet even if we didn’t have this information it makes sense to grant the benefit of the doubt to the unborn even if we were unsure. The scientific data when combined with the philosophical case is extremely persuasive.

Moral difference

There is simply no morally significant difference between us before we were born and the adult we now are. Obviously there are differences but as Stephen Swartz points out in his SLED acronym,  the embryo for example differs only in size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency [3]. None of which provide sufficient justification for abortion. From the point of conception we are humans, less developed, less able, less talented but no less human but equal through our common human nature. Any interruption of the process from the point of conception results in the death of a human not anything else.

The burden of proof is on those in favour of killing the unborn to present proper justification for taking the life of an innocent, distinct, whole and growing human entity. Without which abortion is simply an unjustifiable moral wrong that ought not be permissible. Are we unsure about when human life begins? No, but even if we weren't it makes sense to grant the unborn the benefit of the doubt and not practice something that results in the termination of what could have been the beginning of a human life.

[1] – Moore, K, L. (1977), The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 2nd ed, Philadelphia, Penn: W.B. Saunders.

[2] Alcorn, R. (1995), Prolife answers to pro-choice arguments, Multnomah, Oregon.

[3] Klusendorf S. (2009) The Case for Life, Crossway.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. There seem to be three arguments enmeshed together, two of which are mistaken.

    1) Biological facts =? Moral personhood

    I'm unaware of any of the serious bioethical literature surrounding abortion to care about the semantics of whether 'human life' in a value-free sense starts at conception. What they're all interested in is when - and in virtue of what, and by what degree - fetuses acquire personhood. The biological facts of when we call a 'human life beginning' have no value except to give a bewitching equivocation along the lines of "Look, we all agree a human life (biological sense) starts at conception, so fetuses are human lives (moral sense) from conception, and must be protected!"

    2) Precautionary principles

    Now this normative uncertainty argument can be reconstructed without implying this sort of fallacious leap: for surely there is *doubt* around the personhood criteria - folks, even well informed ones, disagree over whether personhood is at once or comes in degrees, whether it is gained at brain development, birth, conception, or some other stage, etc. etc. So, given the costs of false positive personhood are less than false negative personhood-assignment, we should play it safe.

    This sort of normative uncertainty leads to other consequences elsewhere we might not like (e.g. presuming animals have significant rights not be killed in case they do bear rights etc). The problem is those with a liberal view on abortion would say there are significant costs associated with this view for the (indubitably people) women.

    So the right way of navigating this is to weigh ones likelihood of the fetus being a person and multiply that by the costs of abortion, versus the costs of continuing pregnancy for the woman. Whenever this sum is negative are occasions when abortions are wrong.

    3) Sledging SLED

    Another thing I've never really seen in the literature is SLED. This seems wholly an invention on the part of those with conservative views on abortion assigned to those with liberal views. It stinks strongly of straw-manning, or at least a way to uncharitably precis views in lieu of detailed argument. Although there are intuitive costs to accepting a brain-functioning view of personhood, that doesn't mean it can be dismissed out-of-hand. Also, gradualist/potentialist views have enough fudge factor to gerrymander to our intuitions, so I don't see the knock-down case for "actually, we have moral personhood in a degreed way commesurate with our level of development" being wrong.

    Here are a couple of reasons given by real moral philosophers either why abortion is permissible or why the conception view is untenable:

    You can grant the fetus full personhood at conception yet hold abortion as a permissible (if not laudible) exercise of bodily integrity. In the same way I am 'within my rights' to unhook myself to famous violinists who depend on me to survive, I likewise am within my rights to withdraw myself from the bodily consequences of pregnancy, even if that kills a whole innocent human being. For more, here's JJ Thomson:,Fall02/thomson.htm

    The conception view of personhood has a nasty reductio: a large proportion of natural conceptions (~30-60% depending on source) end in spontaneous natural miscarriage. If these really are full human beings, natural embryo loss is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of this or any other era (the death toll is 0.3 to 0.6 x the total number of humans ever alive, and so completely outstrips Malaria, TB, WAr, Famine etc,). So we should channel our resources away from (say) famine relief and to developing means to combat this much bigger problem natural embryo loss. Yet this is (very) counter-intuitive. Here's Toby Ord with more:

  3. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.

    '1) Biological facts =? Moral personhood

    I'm unaware of any of the serious bioethical literature surrounding abortion to care about the semantics of whether 'human life' in a value-free sense starts at conception. What they're all interested in is when - and in virtue of what, and by what degree - fetuses acquire personhood. The biological facts of when we call a 'human life beginning' have no value except to give a bewitching equivocation along the lines of "Look, we all agree a human life (biological sense) starts at conception, so fetuses are human lives (moral sense) from conception, and must be protected!'

    As this was written to cover a range of views it was necessary to state how established it is that human life begins at conception. Hence why I think it’s necessary to make this clear and point out the obvious absurdities of the contrary. However there are academics that do make arguments comparing the human embryo to somatic cells. An error of confusing a part with its whole, a bad point unfortunately made far too often. Obviously not all bioethicists agree like in any other discipline, I find the clearest demarcation is at conception (Like many Bioethicists also do), and not in virtue of some acquired function. You’re certainly correct to point out that bioethicists are interested in when and in virtue of when the unborn may or not have value. It’s an important question and after reading your blog you’re certainly a bright guy who seems well read so I look forward to a fruitful discussion.

    It is my contention that we have value simply because we are human, not because of some acquired function we may gain or lose during our life-time. I hold to the substance view of human persons similar to that espoused by Robert P. George and Francis J. Beckwith. If you are going to argue that certain functions are required for a human to have value are you consistent and grant that certain adults and children are less valuable and disposable than other human beings? We all agree that humans have certain values and rights; the disagreement is when these rights begin. You think that it is when the biological human gains certain functions. I think that that we are the same substance and being now as we were as embryos though obviously our functional and physical characteristics have changed. From the moment we began to exist there has been no substantial change in our essential human nature.

    The definition of personhood given by many bioethicists I’ve read could mean that newborns, many elderly senile people and many with disabilities do not qualify as ‘persons’ and also don’t have a strong claim for protection as fully-fledged persons may. As a Christian I tend to think that the most vulnerable in society should be protected and cared for, not killed off because a philosophical view makes the case that they may be less valuable than others in the human community.

    The difference between a human non-person and a human person is simply an idea created to justify abortion so that we can feel okay about killing the foetus.

    Due to word limits I’ll respond to your other two paragraphs in separate paragraphs if that’s okay, hopefully I’ll get round to the others by the end of the day. So maybe wait until after then if you feel inclined to respond. Thanks, Daniel.

  4. Knowledgeable people have and will always disagree on things, philosophy would be very boring if they didn’t but just because some people disagree doesn’t mean there is no correct answer. I simply do not accept the definition of person-hood given by ethicists like Singer or Kuhse, their definition is arbitrary and simply provides justification for an almost eugenicist view of people, leading to certain human beings be viewed as inferior and less valuable. What do you think of Singers 28 day rule? I think the vulnerable should be cared for and protected, not targeted because they don’t meet certain ethicist’s subjective standards of person-hood. Surely you’re a trainee doctor because you want to help and care for those who are in pain, are vulnerable and in need of protection? (I read your profile on your blog and saw you were doing medicine).

    The intricacies of these sorts of questions are not like mathematical puzzles we can work out with a moral calculator. There is no problem of the ‘likelihood of the fetus being a person’ to me, it is a person, a part of the human community and it is prima facie morally wrong to kill them. Abortion is wrong because it kills an innocent human being not because it comes up negative on a utilitarian calculator. There is certainly a cost to carrying a child, I wouldn’t dare argue with you there but there is a cost to looking after a newborn, toddler and teenager but just because it may make life more complicated and difficult is not justification for killing them off.

    The point of the post was to make the case that if we are at risk of potentially killing another human person, no-matter how immature, and less developed than us warrants caution... not killing.

    I’ll do the other paragraph in response to sled tomorrow, sorry for taking so long...I work full-time and been a busy week plus it’s the Euros and England are playing.

  5. Sorry, busy week.

    SLED was first proposed as far as I know by the Harvard Philosopher Stephen D Schwarz (A real Moral Philosopher) in his the book the moral question of abortion. Of course it is a simplification of what is a complex issue but nevertheless the points raised by it are the key differences.

    The violinist thought experiment made popular by Judith Thomson in my opinion fails in terms of the analogy itself. Apart from rape one does not simply find they are pregnant or attached to a violinist against their will, you don’t ‘usually’ just wake up pregnant. One has usually engaged in sexual activity where the possibility of producing a new human being exists. Also unhooking one’s self from the violinist is not analogous to actively killing the unborn during the process of an abortion. It’s a faulty analogy on a number of levels as far as I can see; of course I’m relatively new to this area so I may be mistaken. It also seems to minimise the maternal duty we have to our offspring.

    Interesting article by Toby Ord, definitely warrants reading again. That said even granting the biological fact that miscarriages are common doesn’t therefore mean that we may ‘intentionally’ kill them for our own ends. Many developing countries have high infant mortality rates but it doesn’t therefore mean they are less worthy of the rights of person-hood. I think the key point for me is that simply because due to natural means an embryo may spontaneously abort doesn’t mean that we may deliberately kill it. There are many people around the world living with diseases of which there exist’s no known cure and will ultimately die from them, should we kill healthy people because many people will ultimately die anyway? Of course I understand that there is more to this objection but perhaps I’ll wait for your responses in the hope that I may find more time to carry on our discussion and look into this particular point a little more in depth.


  6. re. Personhood

    It seems both false and uncharitable to say that functional or gradualist or whatever other views of personhood are "simply an idea created to justify abortion so that we can feel okay about killing the foetus", and of a similar school of psychologising as the substance view of persons is just a way to subjugate women by commandeering their reproductive freedom. (Ditto the 'arbitrary' remarks).

    You are right that functional views lead to intuitive costs in that they might entail (for example) that children with severe mental handicap might be 'worth less' than primates. However, if we find those costs prohibitive, we can massage the position to have little intuitive conflict: perhaps we should scale disability in such a way that even if ceritus paribus if you had a choice between me and me who writes better you should pick the latter, for all practical purposes people should be taken to have equal worth, save only perhaps in cases of profound mental handicap. I see no conflict between that, my intent to maximize human wellbeing, and my medical career.

    And substance views have bigger problems. Although somatic cells are no biggie, genetically novel stuff like hydatiform moles are things that might sneak in as 'people' which we don't want. But I don't think this will prove insoluble for the substance view.

    Ord's reductio looks like it might be. You misread him in thinking he talks directly about abortion - he doesn't make the argument that it is okay to kill fetuses because, hey, lots of them die anyway. Rather, commitment to the substance view entails that natural embryo loss is the biggest killer in human history, by a gigantic margin (~40% of all people died in early fetal development). As we should direct our efforts towards bigger problems before lesser ones, we should be diverting all our funds from relative trifles like AIDS or Malaria or global hunger and spending it all on trying to stop natural embryo loss, which kills orders of magnitude more. Yet is absurd, so the substance view is untenable.

  7. Caution not killing?

    Although *you* find it certain the fetus is a person, most people *aren't*. I took your argument to be against those who aren't sure by saying "look, even if you aren't convinced the fetus is a human person, you still should be very cautious about abortion, because what if you're wrong, you'd be killing someone!"

    That isn't enough to secure the conclusion we should refrain from abortion 'just to be on the safe side'. All sorts of activities pose risks of killing people (driving, say), yet we don't think it is reasonable to ban them, or even not do them regularly. Surely the right thing to do *just is* the calculation of how likely the bad thing is to happen and compare it against the benefits, whilst obviously doing all in one's power to limit the risks etc. So if you aren't convinced the fetus is a person, you shouldn't have an abortion *unless* carrying the baby to term is going to impose some very severe costs on your wellbeing and those around you, such that running the risk you may in fact kill a human person is a reasonable one to take. I doubt any with a liberal view on abortion would disagree with the practical consequences of that.


    The small hill of literature on the violinist has adapted the analogy to analogous circumstances to consentual sex, and it still seems plausible. Suppose the woman *signs up* after an appeal from the music lovers society for the violinist, but has regrets after a couple of weeks and wants to stop. It seems within her rights to do so (indeed, she did some good by supporting him for at least this long). So in the same way a woman who initially wants to have a child, gets pregnant, and then changes her mind is surely within her rights to withdraw bodily support, and the child has no grounds for complaint. (Obviously, the same argument applies a fortiori if the woman is merely *consenting to a risk* of getting pregnant, and our analogies so far leave out the fact pregnancy bears health risks).

    This is a pretty minimal view of maternal duty, but perhaps that is the right one: our view of maternal duty after birth (where she can give the baby up if she cannot cope) are different from pre birth. Besides, one can still buy the violinist argument and hold it would be *better* in most cases if the woman persevered with the pregnancy.

    You are right that this only allows 'withdrawal of support', and not killing (Thomson recognises this in the paper itself). Yet this rules in things like morning after pills and (plausibly) chemical abortions - the majority, and further the abortion issue simply becomes one of finding appropriate techniques, which would not prove difficult.

    Enjoy life,



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