Thursday, 1 April 2010

Killing Babies and Other People

A recent Facebook discussion with some rellies has made me think some more about abortion, so at the risk of alienating half my friends and readers whatever I say, here's what I thought. Thanks to Andrew, Shiloh, Steve and Mike for the inspiration, but I won't blame you for the content. I don't know the answers, I'm just thinking about the questions.

There are two basic ethical issues in the abortion debate. The first is this - is an embryo (foetus, whatever) human? Or to put it another way, at what point does an embryo become human? I really don't know the answer to this, but a lot of the answers I hear don't make sense to me. You can go to the far end of the debate, as per official Catholic doctrine, and say that any attempt to prevent pregnancy is immoral, although "for your hardness of heart" you can practice the rhythm method if you must. For them clearly, and for most other "right to life" groups, an embryo is at the very least human at the point of conception, if not before. This point of view at least seems consistent, but it seems too black and white for what is a gradual, organic process of growth and development.

The alternative point of view is some form of the argument that says an embryo is human when it is able to survive seperately from the mother. This is a little vague for me - what point is that exactly? When it can survive in a respirator? When it can survive outside a respirator? When it has been weaned? It's hard to see where this reasoning ends, but it's also very true that at an intuitive level, we grieve far less for a child that has miscarried than for one who dies in infancy, and perhaps our emotions are telling us something our brains can't fully explain.

In any case, if the embryo isn't human then it needs a special set of moral rules in its own. We have moral rules about creatures that aren't human. On the other hand, if it is human we have to treat it like we would another human, and this is where it gets interesting.

Most humans think that it is sometimes OK to kill another human being, although we vary about exactly when. Some of the common reasons for thinking its OK are not really relevant to embryos. For instance, lots of people think it's OK to use the death penalty as a punishment for serious crimes, like murder - but an embryo is unable to commit such crimes. Similarly, plenty of people think it's OK to kill enemy combatants in a "just war", but you need to be out of the womb for a long time before you can become a soldier.

On the other hand, there are at least two commonly accepted reasons for killing that can potentially apply to embryos as well.
  • The self-defence argument, or its variant, the forced choice around suffering. We generally consider that it's OK to kill someone in self-defence, and this extends for instance to police officers being able to kill someone who threatens another person's life. This is also a common reason for abortion. If the mother's life is threatened then it's OK to kill the child to save her. Where I live this has gradually extended over time, so that it's OK to have an abortion if the pregnancy threatens her health. Then by extension it's OK if it threatens her mental health, and you find yourself with a legal loophole which in practice allows anyone to have an abortion who wants one. I guess my thought here is that this is far from black and white - in fact it's very similar to the "when does an embryo become human" question. Clearly though, by the time you are at the legal loophole stage you are in practice seeing the embryo as very much less than human - otherwise you would rate its life more highly.
  • The mercy argument. In this argument, it's OK to kill a person (or at least allow them to die without intervention, which I think is morally the same thing) if their suffering is so great, and so beyond cure, that prolonging their life would be cruel. This is the argument used to defend abortions of embryos with congenital abnormalities. However, there is a gradient for this one too. At one end, there are those abnormalities which mean the child will not survive much past birth - why put the mother through the trial of a birth only for the child to suffer and die immediately? At the other end, though, are lots of abnormalities which don't have this outcome. For instance, now that Down Syndrome can be detected in the womb, lots of parents choose to abort an affected embryo. Yet people with Down Syndrome are quite capable of leading happy, fulfilling lives and once born are considered fully human. You suspect that once again, this is a case of the embryo not being seen as fully human, so the parents grief and expense is placed above the child's life.

So, the choices at the "less than human" end of the spectrum on these two reasons suggest that our society has a practical ethic around embryos that looks more like a gradient than a "yes/no" question - a bit like the graphic opposite. At one end, we're pretty comfortable with abortion the day of conception no matter what (eg the "morning after" pill). In the middle, we like to have at least the fig-leaf of protecting the mother's health, or saving the child from suffering, but we see the embryo as less human than the mother so we prioritise her needs. At the far end, when a child is close to birth, we believe it has to be pretty drastic - the mothers actual life would have to be threatened.

If this is what we do, are we happy with it? How would this approach to ethics affect other areas of our lives? Your thoughts, my friends...


Luke said...

A clear presentation of some of the key issues in the argument, Jon. However it's rare for someone who is pro-abortion to reach the point of agreeing the embryo is human and suggesting there are good reasons to sometimes kill people in these circumstances. Although conversely the anti-abortion rarely reach the same point as well.

Jon said...

I think the abortion argument is so often a dialogue of the deaf. The rights of the unborn child are held up against the rights of the woman as if the two were not (literally) closely intertwined.

Pykle said...

And yet both parties must logically draw a line on both questions: there must be some point when human cells (which no one cares much about) become human beings. Likewise, we all kill things all the time, including things that are human cells without worrying, so what is the point when killing becomes taboo?