In a discussion on this blog a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I used to be pro-life. Someone (Joe?) asked at that time:
Okay-dokey. Here’s the argument that changed my mind on abortion. (This isn’t the approach I’d necessarily take nowadays, however.)
In my youth – up to age 16 or so – I was abortion-agnostic. I didn’t really have an opinion one way or the other.
In late high school and early college, I was mildly pro-life. My argument was that it wasn’t possible for us to know for certain when “personhood” begins. Given that we are stuck with uncertainty, I thought it was logical and humane to err on the side of preserving life. Therefore, I argued, abortion should be illegal except when needed to preserve the mother’s life.
What changed my mind was reading an essay by some philosopher (alas, I no longer know the name of the author or the essay).
The author of the essay argued that, to judge abortion, we need to balance harm done to a woman forced to give birth, against harm suffered by an aborted fetus. However, in order to be harmed by the loss of its future, a fetus would need to have valued its potential future at some point in its existence. To value its potential future, it must have a history of
a) Awareness of itself as a being which exists across time, into the future.
b) Anticipating and preferring its own future existence.
If a fetus is not capable of both those things, then it is not harmed in any meaningful way by being aborted. All that it loses is a future it has never valued.
So that was the argument that switched me from being pro-life to pro-choice.
* * *
Now, I can anticipate three objections to this argument, none of which are very persuasive.
1) “What about the mentally disabled”?
Mentally disabled people, contrary to what is implied by this question, do have a sense of self extending into the future, and do anticipate their future.
2) “What about people in comas or asleep?”
First of all, it’s inaccurate to assume that people in comas have no brain activity; being in a coma is not the same thing as being brain-dead. They merely have no way of expressing brain activity, which is not the same thing.
More importantly, a fetus has never experienced a sense of self across time, or anticipated a future. A person in a coma has done both these things. Therefore, the person in a coma would be harmed by being killed in a way a fetus is not.
Consider, for instance, person “A,” who just loooooves chocolate pudding. A walks into a room where there is set out a dish of chocolate pudding for him to eat. A says “Oh boy! Chocolate pudding! I can’t wait to eat it!”
Just then, Stephen Sondheim walks into the room. Naturally, A is overwhelmed by the presence of the worlds greatest songwriter, and all thoughts of chocolate pudding escape A’s mind.. During this period, I enter the room and eat A’s chocolate pudding.
Have I done A harm? I think I have, because he was anticipating eating his chocolate pudding, and (once Mr. Sondheim wanders away) A will be hurt and disappointed to discover his puddingless state.
Now, contrast this with person B. Person B doesn’t like chocolate pudding – he hates the stuff, and always will. Furthermore, B didn’t even know that chocolate pudding was available.
Now suppose I again eat the chocolate pudding. Has B been just as harmed by this as A was? No. A and B are not in parallel situations; A is being deprived of something A values, whereas B isn’t being deprived of anything B values.
3) “Aren’t you providing a justification for infanticide?”
The third likely objection is that this logic may justify infanticide. This is a “woman? What woman?” argument, and considering how the woman is affected will clear it up.
Before birth, there is a conflict of rights between the fetus and the mother. The rights of the fetus to its future must be balanced against its mother’s right to control her own body. A fetus has only a weak interest in its future, since it doesn’t know or care if it has a future or not. Put against a woman’s strong interest in owning her own body, the interest of the fetus in continuing its life is easily overwhelmed, justifying an abortion.
However, the same thing is not true once an infant has been born. Since there is no longer a conflict between the infant’s right to life and the mother’s right to control her own body, infanticide cannot be justified by appealing to the mother’s interests in bodily autonomy. Therefore, once it’s born, the infant’s right to life takes precedence.