Steelmanning the Pro-Life View
Seeing if I can be a convincing pro lifer
Disclaimer: I am very, very, very tentatively pro-choice, though very undecided. This is my defense of a view I don’t hold.
The greatest human rights atrocity in the United States today is abortion. It kills millions of innocent people — those being the most innocent among us. It is a blot on the moral character of America, one that will one day be denounced the way we denounce previous atrocities like slavery and the holocaust.
Here’s the question for the abortionist crowd — presumably you’re opposed to infanticide. So then, if you are, what is the morally relevant difference between a fetus and an infant? The answers that abortionists give are not successful.
Some say merely the fact that the fetus is physically located inside the mother makes it okay to chop it into small pieces. This is obviously false — one’s rights don’t change based on their physical location. If a being was otherwise identical to an infant, but just happened to be inside a womb, it would not be morally permissible to chop it into little pieces.
Some might say that the morally relevant distinguishing feature is viability outside the womb. However, on this account, one’s rights depend on the available technology. After all, viability is determined, in large part, by the technology at the time. However, this is absurd — one’s rights don’t increase when we get new technology.
Additionally, it’s hard to give an account of why viability is morally significant. One could give an account based on bodily autonomy, but we’ll see why that’s unsuccessful in a moment. Why in the world would it matter to the intrinsic rights of a being whether it depends on another’s body? If it turned out that our entire world was inside the womb of a giant, such that we were not viable outside the giant womb, it would still be impermissible for the giant to kill us all.
They might say that the line is whether a being is currently sentient. Yet this means it’s okay to kill people in comas.
They might say that the line is when a being will be sentient in the future and has been in the past. However, this would imply that if, at conception, a being had ten milliseconds of consciousness, it would be impermissible to abort it. Yet this is implausible — a several millisecond-long flicker of consciousness shouldn’t make the difference to whether a being’s future consciousness matters.
This also has the strange result of implying hypersensitivity wherein a minuscule flicker of consciousness accesses the entire future consciousness’ value. It’s also hard to give a principled justification for this criteria mattering.
There’s an even deeper problem though. If one thinks that the value of a being’s future consciousness doesn’t matter until they’re conscious, then it would be permissible to genetically engineer your child to make them incapable of happiness. After all, their future well-being doesn’t matter making it okay to kill them — there’s no reason this genetic modification would be wrong.
This allows us to segue into another potent argument for the pro-life view. It has several premises.
If abortion is permissible, then it would be permissible to conduct an abortion by painlessly chopping off all of a fetus’s arms and legs.
If it’s permissible to conduct an abortion by painlessly chopping off all of a fetus’s arms and legs it’s permissible to painlessly chop off one of a fetus’s arms
It is impermissible to painlessly chop off one of a fetus’s arms.
Therefore, abortion is impermissible.
Premise 1 is pretty intuitive — if it’s not wrong to kill the fetus, killing it painlessly would by removing its limbs wouldn’t be wrong.
Premise 2 is pretty intuitive too — consider three considerations favoring it.
It would be very odd to say that, after you chop off the fetus’s arms, you then have an obligation to chop off the rest of its limbs. How could there be a proactive obligation to chop off the rest of its limbs?
If we could ask the fetus what it would prefer, it would prefer to live a life without an arm — where it will have a good life overall presumably — rather than one in which it’s aborted. Thus, it’s better for the fetus.
If we consider which is the graver harm — which hampers the being more — chopping off all of its limbs clearly hampers it more and harms it more than merely chopping off some of its limbs.
The conclusion follows from the premises. Thus, one has to reject one of these incredibly obvious premises to continue to adhere to the pro-chopping up babies inside the womb view.
Sometimes people think that bodily autonomy justifies getting an abortion. The bodily autonomy argument claims that even if abortion is murder, even if fetuses do matter, abortion is permissible. The following famous analogy is often given. Imagine that you woke up hooked up to a person and they’d die unless you remained hooked up to them for nine months. It seems like you wouldn’t be required to remain hooked up to them for the nine months.
There are several relevant disanalogies between this and abortion. First, it seems like you would if this person was your child. Second, if you’re responsible for putting them in the situation in the first place, it seems clear that you then have an obligation not to unplug. If I force someone to be dependent on my body for nine months, I don’t get to unplug and kill them. If I poisoned someone in a way that made them dependent on my body for nine months, I wouldn’t get to unplug and kill them. Third, if this happened on a large scale to millions of people per year, as happens with abortion, it would start seeming impermissible to unplug. If we all knew someone who’d died from unplugging and this was a frequent occurrence, unplugging would start to seem very wrong. Fourth, even if you are allowed to unplug, you’re definitely not allowed to hack up the person or kill them, as happens with abortion.
Let’s say you’re not sure about abortion. Here are some reasons to hold to the pro-life view under uncertainty.
One reason relates to the ubiquity of the egocentric bias. We know that humans favor their own interests. Existing people that aren’t in the womb have an interest in there being abortions. Thus, we should expect this to cloud our judgment.
Another reason relates to the history of moral circle expansion. Pretty much every previous time in world history that we’ve said ‘this being doesn’t matter’ we’ve been wrong. Slavery, the holocaust, Jim Crow, and many more have come because we neglected the interests of certain people. The same is true of the atrocity of factory farming. History is not kind to those who say ‘X class of beings don’t matter at all — you can kill them if you’d like.’
A third reason is about decision-making under uncertainty. If you’re not sure if some action would kill a person, you shouldn’t take the action. Thus, if we’re uncertain about abortion, we shouldn’t do it.
When confronted with the overwhelming moral case against abortion, most people’s brains start to malfunction. They start to make terrible arguments that they’d never make in any other context. I’ll address some of them.
Abortion is just a medical procedure
Abortion is a medical procedure the way that Hitler’s medical experimentation was. You don’t get to excuse murder just because it’s done in a medical setting. Presumably, most people that say that wouldn’t support late-term abortions — however, late-term abortions are equally “medical procedures,” thus, these people are inconsistent as well as caring about totally arbitrary things.
Only people with uterus’ get to talk about the issue
Why? People can obviously talk about issues that don’t affect them directly. I can advocate banning animal testing despite not being an animal tested on. We can obviously have empathy — though I can see how that could be hard for the pro-baby murder crowd.
You shouldn’t control what women do with their bodies
Obviously you can control what women do with their bodies if it’s murder. If women had a button on their foot that, when pressed, killed lots of people, we should make pressing it illegal.
Banning abortion won’t reduce the number of abortions
Empirically false and illogical — banning things makes them more infrequent. Additionally, I wouldn’t just advocate a law against it — I’d advocate deeply stigmatizing, having our culture see it the way we see slavery today. That would reduce the number of abortions.
But what about a case of rape
You don’t get to murder just because the parent of the victim is a rapist.
Even if you think that abortion is fine in those cases, let’s focus on the vast majority of cases. This is just a red herring thrown out by the pro-choice side — they support abortion in other cases too.
Some website called defending feminism defends the chopping up of babies inside the womb. Their arguments are the typical variety of pro-choice nonsense. In the arguments for abortion section they claim
Abortion is a safe procedure with extremely few major complications – fewer than ¼ of one percent of procedures – which makes it a safer procedure than having one’s wisdom teeth removed. When compared to childbirth, the safety of abortion is particularly evident – the risk of death from childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion.
Giving birth is extremely safe — only 700 people die per year from it. We shouldn’t butcher half a million babies each year to prevent 700 deaths — most of which aren’t foreseen, so wouldn’t be prevented by abortion.
Abortion is far better for women’s mental health than being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy. The overwhelming majority of women who get abortions don’t regret them; more than 95% of women surveyed in a recent UC San Francisco study felt that abortion had been the right decision both before and after the procedure. Conversely, women who are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and who then give up the child for adoption often experience deep regret and poor mental health years after the adoption. In one study, over half of mothers who gave up a child for adoption experienced severe depression, while 97% of mothers experienced some level of depression.
These statistics are relatively dubious. But, even if true, you don’t get to butcher babies to improve your mental health. There are more arguments that show women benefit from butchering their kids — even if true, these are irrelevant.
One other reason to think abortion might be wrong is because fetuses have a future like ours. The reason it’s bad to kill people generally is because it robs them of future experiences. Yet the same thing is true of abortion.
KS of the aforementioned defending feminism website, in reply, writes
Despite this, I would like to propose a simple thought experiment with two scenarios to intuitively show how the future-like-ours argument fails to explain the wrongness of killing, and thus ultimately fails to show that abortion is immoral. This is not intended to show that a future-like-ours is necessarily irrelevant to examining the harms of killing, but to simply show that removing a future-like-ours from a being that has never experienced consciousness is not equivalent to murder.
Scenario One: A brilliant scientist has determined how to create perfectly human-like, silicon androids which will have the same experiences and consciousness as biological humans. She builds the android’s body, and she creates the silicon chip that will enable the android to become conscious and have human-like experiences. Having assembled the android, however, she begins to have existential doubt about the morality of her project. She therefore decides not to power on the silicon chip that would enable the android to become conscious and she disassembles it completely.
Scenario Two: The brilliant scientist goes through with the project and powers on the android. Once conscious, the android begins to interact with the world and develops desires to continue doing so. But then an anti-android activist unplugs the android’s power source and disassembles the android, permanently ending the android’s conscious existence.
It seems intuitively obvious that there is a moral difference between the actions of the scientist in scenario one and the actions of the activist in scenario two. In the first scenario, the scientist disassembles an object that, in Marquis’ terms, possesses a FOV but has never been a subject of experience. Disassembling it does not violate the desires or wants of any being. In the second, the activist also removes a FOV from the android, but more importantly, destroys an entity that exists as a subject of experience and desires to interact with the world. Only the second scenario seems credibly equivalent to murder.
Of course, a defender of Marquis’ argument may bite the bullet and argue that Scenario One also involves murder and a great harm. But one could then argue that if the unpowered silicon chip possesses a future of value, the silicon wafer used as the basis for that chip also holds possesses that future of value. If the scientist’s community decides to throw away a batch of silicon wafers, is that batch also being deprived a future of value, and in some sense being harmed? Each successive step backwards seems more and more intuitively implausible.
I would bite the bullet. Who is it worse for? The android would be better off existing for a short time than not existing at all. As for the chip case, the chip will probably not become a being with a future like ours. Also, even if it does, it will just be a part of something with a future like ours. Thus, we needn’t bite the bullet in the chip case.
This future like ours account has several other virtues. It explains the following features.
Why it’s not wrong to kill a non-sentient being.
Why it’s generally worse to kill young people than old people who are about to die.
Why death is bad in the first place.
Why it’s wrong to kill any being if and only if it will have a future like ours.
Thus, it’s the best way to think about the wrongness of murder.
We must end this atrocity. The mass murder of babies is going on, and most people are on board with it. This is not unprecedented — ancient Greeks, for example, killed infants after birth. Overall though, the case against abortion is overwhelming. The only question is whether we care enough to stop this mass slaughter.