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Wednesday, August 06, 2003


Someone suggested that since I hinted at it in the previous post (the comment about protecting embryos), I should go ahead and post my opinions about abortion. I know that a post on this topic is incredibly unlikely to change anybody's mind, but perhaps some might find it interesting. And, I've already posted on politics and religion and haven't managed to alienate everybody yet, so I have to keep trying!

First, let me say that I think a pregnancy is a very special thing and the chance to bring a human being into the world should be taken very seriously. I hope I've made it clear that I value human life tremendously, especially that of children, and I think there is plenty of room in our society for more children who will be raised well by eager, competent, parents (and I think there are many such candidates for adoption if the parents don't qualify on this score). So, I'm all for taking pregnancies to term and delivering babies.

But, it seems to me, if you take people's rights seriously you have to take the rights of the pregnant woman seriously and acknowledge that the decision to continue a pregnancy must be hers (at least at the early stages). At that point, she's the only human being involved. A fertilized egg might be a potential human being, but until its brain begins to operate as born humans' brains do, it isn't a human being yet.*

So, should the law prohibit abortions after that point, assuming we could analyze fetal brain activity well enough to determine if this sort of activity is present?


While I think this would be the right test to determine if the fetus is human, I don't think it's the right test to determine whether the state should prohibit abortions. I think that test should be viability: when the baby could be delivered alive with excellent chances for the safety of both the mother and child.

To understand why, consider this thought experiment:

Suppose somebody had a fatal disease, and the only way for them to be cured would be for a particular person, you, to be hooked up to a machine for nine months while some kind of transfusion process occurred. While hooked up to the machine, your autonomy would be severely limited; you couldn't do everything you wanted, you would be ill part of the time, you'd have to limit what you consumed, etc. At the end of the transfusion you'd have to undergo a separation procedure that would be traumatic, painful, and somewhat dangerous.

Should you be forced to submit to this process? If you decided to go ahead, should you be forbidden from separating early? Even if it would mean certain death for the dependent person?

I think the answer is that, even if it costs a human life, you should be free to separate from the machine. And, I think this is similar to the situation of a pregnant woman. It's her body, she should be able to control it, even if a dependent human will die if she chooses to end her pregnancy before it is viable. But, once the other person is viable, I don't think one should be able to separate in such a way to ensure his death; in that case, the separation should be done so as to preserve his life.

I know that some people think that these situations are not analogous. They say they are different because the woman caused the fetus' dependency. This is true, in a way, but it isn't so simple. It's not the case that she caused the fetus to change from an independent person to a dependent one. On the contrary, she caused it to change from a non-existent state to a dependent one. If she owes it something, it's to return it to its state of non-existence.

So, using this argument, I think we can side-step the question of when the fetus becomes a human being and declare that it's only after the fetus becomes viable that abortion would be murder. Until that point, I think it is the, possibly regrettable, legitimate exercise of individual liberty.

*As an aside, I thought I'd just mention how incredibly unpersuasive I find the "argument" that a fetus is a human being because we can recognize fingers and toes in a fetal image. This is an absurdity of Pythonian proportions:
"How do you know she's a witch person?"