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Debates Secularist Abortion Carrier1

Abortion is not Immoral and Should not be Illegal

by Richard C. Carrier



This opening argument against the immorality and illegality of abortion is simple, short and largely unoriginal: the arguments have all been voiced and heard a thousand times before. As will become apparent, the present argument leaves numerous fundamental assumptions as undefended givens. This is deliberate. The novelty of the present debate is that the positive position shall be taken by a secularist, whom I presume shares many assumptions in common with me, in particular some physicalist account of mind and existence, and a nontheological understanding of morality and law. Whether she will challenge any of these or other assumptions, which ones she will challenge, and how she will challenge them are the very mysteries that prompted me to enter this debate. As a result, important pieces of my argument, and sources of evidence, will inevitably appear in rebuttals. What I present now is essentially the reason that I, personally and at the present time, do not regard abortion as immoral and would not approve of outlawing it. But I may be wrong. So I am looking forward to the unfolding of this debate as an important educational experience.

I. Abortion is not Immoral

Given the facts as we can at present prove them to be, there is no good reason to regard abortion as immoral. To demonstrate this we must first explain what it means for something to be moral or immoral, and also what abortion is.

A. The Facts of Morality

The Nature of Moral Disputes

The foundation of every moral system is the combination of values with facts. To disagree on a point of morality can thus be a dispute about the facts (such as the circumstances and consequences of an action), or a dispute about values, or both. If a disagreement hinges on facts, one case or the other is vindicated when both sides honestly investigate and acknowledge the facts that can be known. If a disagreement hinges on values, inquiry must be made as to why each holds the values they do. Values are either the conclusions derived from certain facts in combination with certain other values, or else they are fundamental. Disputes over values that are the conclusions derived from certain facts in combination with certain other values are resolved as for all other moral disagreements–by investigating the facts more carefully.

Disputes over fundamental values, however, are irreconcilable. Both sides must agree to disagree, or develop a mutually agreeable compromise. It is even possible, within certain limits, to respect the individual moral sentiments of others even when we do not adopt those principles ourselves. But disputes that appear irreconcilable are not necessarily about fundamental values. They may simply result from either side failing to understand the reasons for either position, or from the inability to establish certain facts as true or false. Such cases must be resolved by first tolerating eachother or working out a compromise, while continuing to logically analyze the dispute and to investigate the facts. In law, this principle is manifest as moratoria, temporary injunctions, and holding suspects in custody (with or without allowance of bail), all of which being necessarily temporary solutions pending investigation, trial or judicial consideration. These observations must be kept in mind throughout this debate.

The Values We Share

Those who argue that abortion is wrong generally base their argument on respect for individual human existence. Usually, this value, or something similar, is rightly assumed to be universally shared, and then the dispute arises only on matters of fact. I will continue this assumption. There are those, we can imagine, who not only have no value for respecting individual human existence, but also could not even in principle be persuaded to adopt such a value (e.g. by appealing to some other values they did possess which would be fulfilled by adopting a value for human life). But such people would not be persuadable on any point of morality anyway, rendering this debate of no use or interest to such a creature. We are thus speaking to, and for, everyone else.

The Nature of This Debate

Given the above, the required set of circumstances for abortion to be immoral are any which violate respect for individual human existence. The question here is thus not whether the value for individual human existence is justified (this will be assumed for this debate), but whether any circumstances of abortion contradict the object of that value. This is therefore a dispute about the facts, not values. Moreover, there are in almost all moral systems cases when killing is not immoral, and some when it is even moral. Self defense (or the defense of others) is the most prominent and relevant example here. But I imagine there will be no secular dispute in actual matters of self defense. In other words, I will assume for now that everyone agrees that abortion neither is immoral, nor should be illegal, when necessary to save the mother’s life. This leaves only one issue for debate: whether elective abortion is immoral.

Digression on Moral Relativism

Something must first be said briefly about the moral subjectivism inherent in this analysis. Based on the above, it follows that some things could be "immoral" for some people and "moral" (or amoral) for others, since people vary in their values. For example, some people may possess a fundamental value for all animal life of any kind, which would entail not eating meat, not allowing suicide, nor even allowing the removal of life support for a brain-dead patient. But this value system would only exist for them, not for others. However, my analysis does not entail moral relativism in the usual sense, since it is also possible (and I believe it is the case) that some fundamental values are shared by all people, or very nearly all people (I allow some rare exceptions for the sociopath, who is generally regarded as having a mind alien to the vast majority of humankind, devoid of all ordinary moral sentiment).

If the above is true, it follows that there is a universal moral truth for everyone (or every sane person), a truth which derives from this set of shared values, whatever it happens to be. And this universal moral truth would exist side by side with other quasi-moral principles derived from non-universal values, shared within various groups or not shared at all. It is thus possible for abortion to be "immoral" for some but not all people, in this sense–just as it is possible for eating pork to be "immoral" for some but not all people. However, it might be better to call such things principles rather than morals, in order to reserve the title "morals" for only those principles that are universal (or would be universal, if everyone knew all the facts and all the ways these facts interacted with their values). From now on, when I employ the term "moral" or its cognates, I am referring to this universal truth, and not to the equally true but necessarily parochial principles found everywhere in human society.

Therefore, my argument here is not addressed to parochial "principles," which are valid for those individuals who hold them in conviction (and often worthy of respect even from those who do not hold them, but understand their basis). Instead, I am addressing myself to the question of whether abortion is universally immoral, i.e. immoral on the grounds of a value possessed by all non-sociopathic human beings. And I believe that a value for individual human existence is one of these universally shared values, or else one or more other values is universally shared which in turn entail such a respect, even if a person who possesses these values is unaware of this connection (and thus lacks respect for individual human existence out of ignorance or error).

To put this all simply, the proposition "abortion is immoral" means to me that every non-sociopathic human being has some value which is contradicted or undermined by the practice of abortion, even if they are unaware of this contradiction. My position is thus that such a value does not exist, with respect to abortion, as the facts are presently understood.

B. The Facts of Abortion

What Abortion is and How it Happens

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (s.v. "Abortion"), the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has defined abortion as "the expulsion or extraction of all (complete) or any part (incomplete) of the placenta or membranes, with or without an abortus, before the 20th week (before 134 days) of gestation." This definition is based on the scientifically-established fact that a developing human organism cannot survive outside the womb before this date and therefore premature birth is not even an elective option. In reality, before the 24th week the chance of a baby’s survival outside the womb is almost nil, but doctors use the 20th week as the cut-off because there have been some rare cases of survival at that early a point, but none before, and the degree of organ development that is necessary for survival even to be feasible occurs between 20 and 24 weeks of gestation.

Most abortions are conducted before the 85th day (within the first trimester). An abortion conducted between the 85th and 134th day of a pregnancy (second trimester) is formally called a "late-term abortion." Recent invention in political circles of the term "partial-birth abortion" refers not to abortion at all, but to the killing of a premature (third trimester) baby who is considered to have a remote chance of survival outside the womb. Such a procedure is almost unheard of and is conducted only under the most unusual of circumstances, such as when a baby is already dead, or cannot be prematurely delivered–due to deformity or injury of the womb or birth canal–but must still be removed to save the mother’s life. In almost every other case, after the 20th week, "abortion" is neither safe nor necessary–the baby would simply be delivered. Before that period, however, it is likely that most abortions are either spontaneous (i.e. a miscarriage) or elective (i.e. at the mother’s choice, and not medically necessary to save her life).

However, abortion statistics, such as appear in any World Almanac, only measure medical procedures, including the use of prescription abortifacients like the "Abortion Pill." What is rarely understood in this issue is the fact that the most popular means of birth control actually partly relies upon inducing early abortion, and is very likely responsible for many times as many abortions as occur in counted procedures. Hormonal medications of this sort include "The Pill," and Norplant, as well as the numerous herbal solutions which share the same or similar chemical properties and are thus employed in third world countries as a less expensive alternative to the manufactured pharmaceuticals that they mimic. All these chemicals operate simultaneously on many levels, primarily by preventing ovulation and hindering sperm, but also by preventing implantation (and thus causing expulsion) of an egg that, despite all else, is fertilized anyway. In other words, all chemical forms of birth control, including the pill, cause abortions–and no one can know whether or when they have worked by their primary means or in this last-resort manner. This means that any discussion about the morality or legality of abortion necessarily entangles us in the morality and legality of the use of the pill and related implants and injections. This is all the more true given that women can deliberately cause this early-abortion effect up to three days after intercourse by taking a double or triple dose of their ordinary birth control pills.

The Essential Nature of Abortion

The immediate and obvious effect of abortion is the killing of a developing human organism. What this actually entails varies according to stage of development. As of fertilization there exists a zygote (a single cell with the genetic blueprint for constructing a unique person) which begins travelling towards the uterus, taking roughly three days to reach it. In this period, the zygote grows into a mass of sixty or more identical (undifferentiated) cells. Another two or three days and this mass begins to form an embryo (meaning that some simple differentiation occurs among the cells) and attaches to the uterine wall. It is this event which birth control medications prevent, if they first fail to prevent ovulation or fertilization. An abortion at this stage is clearly a very different affair than at later stages.

Nerve cells do not appear until the third week, and though full cellular differentiation occurs in the fourth week, no functioning organs appear until the end of the second month, at which point the entire embryo is little more than an inch long, and is now formally called a "fetus" because preliminary organ development is complete and most of the remaining development is a matter of mere growth in size. At that stage, simple reflex nerve-muscle action is possible (the sort of event that doctors test for in adults by striking the knee with a hammer), and electricity can be conducted just as it can in a disembodied nerve cell. But the fetus does not become truly neurologically active until the fifth month (an event we call "quickening"). This activity might only be a generative one, i.e. the spontaneous nerve pulses could merely be autonomous or spontaneous reflexes aimed at stimulating and developing muscle and organ tissue. Nevertheless, it is in this month that a complex cerebral cortex, the one unique feature of human–in contrast with animal–brains, begins to develop, and is typically complete, though still growing, by the sixth month. What is actually going on mentally at that point is unknown, but the hardware is in place for a human mind to exist in at least a primitive state.

The great majority of elective abortions occur before the fourth month begins, and there is effectively no such thing as an elective abortion in the fifth month or later. No competent doctor would advise it, no intelligent mother would risk it. Consequently, I will not argue for the legality or morality of "abortion" after the 20th week. Certainly, such a procedure could be immoral, in that it could be an act of disrespect for an individual human’s existence. Though it is doubtful that this argument can rightly be applied to elective abortions prior to the 20th week (the only period in which the word "abortion" is properly applied in medical terminology), it is clear that caution is certainly warranted after that–perhaps even sufficient caution to consider the act immoral and to make it illegal–except, as we have noted, in cases of genuine necessity.

Individual Human Existence

Until the 20th week, the cut-off date for an actual "abortion" to occur, there is no complex cerebral cortex and no major central nervous activity. That is a condition universally regarded as a state of death in adults. An adult human being in such a state cannot really be "killed," just unplugged. And such an act would not be disrespectful of their individual existence because that existence has already ceased, and only a body remains. Even if we were able to regenerate a brain-dead patient’s cerebral cortex, using the genetic blueprint in her cells, we would still fail to resurrect her. We would instead merely create an identical twin inside a used body, with an infantile mind and no memories, no complex personality traits, and no intellectual skills. Although this fresh brain would be ready to learn and develop anew, it would be a different person. None of the unique features of the deceased would exist any more–the only mental features that would survive are the very same features that would be shared by any natural identical twins.

The fetus before quickening is in the very same state as this hypothetical regenerated person. And the analogy of identical twins is a crucial one. Twins share the exact same blueprint for brain and body, and there is nothing "individual" about a blueprint that can be shared by more than one individual person–their individuality does not derive from their blueprint, but from their unique personal development, which begins almost certainly before birth, but without any doubt upon birth, when there can be no mistake that novel sensory data has begun transforming the brain and educating it in unique ways. None of this individualization can occur before the existence of a complex cortex that can be individualized (pre-fifth-month)–certainly none before there is a central nerve organ of any kind (pre-third-month). Therefore, an individual human (as opposed to a vacant body) cannot exist when a medically-defined abortion occurs. This entails that abortion cannot counter our shared value for individual human existence.

C. The Moral Status of Abortion

I conclude that abortion is not immoral. But I have assumed that my facts are correct, and that there are no other values contradicted by allowing or performing abortion. In particular, I have carefully defined a value for human life in a particular way which may be incorrect, though I believe my definition most acurately reflects common human values. Whether this must be defended remains to be seen.



II. Abortion should not be Illegal

Given that abortion–an elective termination of pregnancy before the 20th week–does not violate anyone’s rights and does no substantial harm, and actually performs some limited positive good, there is no good reason to make abortion illegal.

A. Abortion Does No Harm

From a point of view outside of this affair, the killing of a neurologically inactive fetus is no greater a harm than the killing of a mouse, and in fact decidedly less–a mouse is neurologically active, and though it lacks a complex cerebral cortex, it has a brain of suitable complexity to perceive pain (and I would argue that the mouse deserves some moral consideration, though less than humans). A fetus cannot perceive pain (and perception is not quite the same thing as sensation: sensation can exist without a brain, but perception cannot). The neural structures necessary to register and record sensations of pain transmitted by the appropriate nerves either do not exist or are not functioning before the fifth month of gestation. A fetus can no more feel pain than a surgical patient under general anasthesia, or a paraplegic whose lower-body nerves continue reacting to stimuli, but cease sending signals to the brain. And we have already established that a fetus does not contain an individual human personality of any kind, any more than a brain-dead adult does. With no perception of pain, and no loss of an individual personality, the act of abortion causes no immediate harm.

However, there may be indirect harm caused by abortion. For instance, there may be unacceptable medical risks to the mother, as there always are with any surgical procedure, even surgery of the outpatient variety. But I doubt such risks are unacceptable enough to warrant making the procedure illegal. I recently had elective surgery to remove a benign cyst from my wrist. This required general anasthesia and a 45-minute cutting-and-suturing of my flesh. The risks I voluntarily undertook were no less and almost certainly greater than the risks attending competently-performed abortions (especially chemical abortions). Since it would be absurd to outlaw the procedure I underwent, it would be absurd to outlaw abortion on the same ground. Mothers should be informed of the risks, as all surgical patients should be, but they should not be denied the right to voluntarily accept those risks. Whether there is any other kind of harm caused by abortion which would justify outlawing it remains to be seen.

Something must briefly be said about the risks of sex in general, since sex–voluntary or involuntary–is itself necessary for abortion to ever become an issue. The fact that celibacy is always safer than being sexually active is irrelevant here, since most things we do are more dangerous than not doing them (such as driving rather than walking to the theatre), and if it were appropriate to force everyone to live safely, then not only should abortion be illegal, but so should sex in all but the most limited of circumstances (and so should driving a car for that matter). I will assume no one wishes to argue for such an Orwellian society.

B. Abortion Performs a Limited Positive Good

First, abortion is a notable benefit to society. The harm to a society that is caused by an excess of unchecked population growth is severe and well-documented. The ability of societies to check population growth without legalizing abortion has proven nearly non-existent: there are few countries in which abortion is outlawed or stigmatized that are not suffering harshly from overcrowding, with all the attendant economic, criminal, or political troubles. In contrast, most nations that allow the procedure are maintaining stable populations with nearly zero growth, and exhibiting more or less general prosperity. From a purely pragmatic perspective aimed at the interests of the commonwealth, abortion is at best a great benefit to mankind and at worst a necessary evil. And for women who regard zero growth as a moral imperative, abortion can even be a moral necessity from their point of view–although this would be better called a matter of principle, so as to distinguish this personal belief from the morally universal.

Second, abortion is a significant benefit for the individual woman. The risks of death or permanent disability certainly must be greater for a woman who carries a fetus to term and bears a child, prematurely or not, than for a woman who aborts before the third trimester of her pregnancy. And the social and economic ruin that can ensue from an untimely motherhood is a serious harm as well, and although this could be alleviated by recourse to adoption, free medical care for pregnant women, and public welfare for women unable to work as a consequence of their pregnancy, these solutions are not as simple as they sound, and are not so universally available as people might think (even the United States, among the wealthiest of nations, has no such welfare system in place, not to mention a very poor excuse for a medicare system, and there is no desirable option for orphans in nations like India or Chad). Moreover, the potential physical harm from bearing a child simply cannot be alleviated. Abortion thus supplies some benefit for many women.

C. The Appropriate Legal Status of Abortion

An act that causes no involuntary harm and produces some benefits for individuals and society in general should never be outlawed. This is based on the principle that laws should only exist to preserve and protect the liberty of individuals and, when no liberty is at stake either way, to increase the general welfare of all citizens. Whether that principle is misinformed remains to be seen. But from the above analysis, there appears no way in which outlawing abortion would even indirectly preserve or protect the liberty of any individual, or provide any general benefit to the citizen body without uneccessarily depriving individuals of their liberty.

Now read Jennifer Roth’s Opening Statement, “A Secular Case Against Abortion

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