Abortion is not Immoral and Should not be Illegal
by Richard C. Carrier
Conclusions on the Main Issues
The present debate is about two things: what the facts are and what the universally shared values are that relate to those facts. After all that has been said in this debate, there does not appear to be any major disputes about the facts. Some minor quibbles remain, but they are not of great significance to the main point. So the debate has ended on an irreconcilable difference of values.
The only value that I have found to be universal is a value for individual human personalities. I think we both agree that an individual human personality can only in principle exist when a developed cerebral cortex exists, which is after the 20th week of gestation, though unlikely before the 25th week-but due to variation in rates of development, each individual case will differ within this range and this can only be assessed by a competent medical professional. This is why I do not see how abortion before this point is immoral, however much it might not be desirable. In opposition to this, Jen Roth does not attach primary worth to the personality, but instead to the body, even without the architecture of personality, and on this ground she regards abortion as wrong. I do not agree, however, that all humans can value bodies in the same way they value personalities, and I have argued that humans usually think in terms of personalities rather than bodies in related contexts.
Morals must be based on universal values. In my opening statement I wrote that moral disputes can only be resolved if all sides clearly understand the true facts of the case and then, or as a result, share the same values with respect to those facts. I also wrote:
Disputes over fundamental values, however, are irreconcilable. Both sides must agree to disagree, or develop a mutually agreeable compromise…[or] respect the individual moral sentiments of others even when we do not adopt those principles ourselves.
Ms. Roth has not succeeded in convincing me to adopt a value for a pre-cortex prenate, at least not one comparable to what can be held by almost everyone for individual human personalities. However, she certainly holds such a value herself, as many do, and though I still do not completely understand why, I certainly respect it as a personal principle of their own. But it does not meet the criterion of being a universal moral truth, and does not meet the requirements of what should become a matter of law. There is no more ground for outlawing abortion because of some people’s individual sentiments than there is for outlawing the consumption of pork because of some people’s individual sentiments.
As I wrote in the beginning:
It is…possible for abortion to be ‘immoral’ for some but not all people…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).
This is where I stand. Ms. Roth has made a valiant case (though not quite understandable to me) for why she and many others hold certain principles. But she has not made a case, in my opinion, that these principles are or even ought to be universally adopted, much less enforced by law. As I still see it, abortion before the third trimester does not violate anyone’s rights in any sense that everyone can understand (at least not in any sense that I understand). Properly performed, it does no substantial harm that I can see. And it actually performs some limited positive good, however slight. So I can find no good reason to make pre-late-term abortion illegal.
Two Major Parting Problems
I found two errors of reasoning in Roth’s last rebuttal that deserve closing discussion.
First is her appeal to the popularity of her position. Though this is a fallacy (even if a majority believed it, that would not make it right), I have never disputed that there are many who share Roth’s views-even if they do remain a minority. Roth goes too far, however, when she tries to appeal to “the size and strength of the pro-life movement” as proving the ubiquity of her own position. The pro-life movement is largely comprised of people who hold the view they do, unlike Ms. Roth, because of their belief in untrue facts, namely the belief that God infuses a soul at conception. Some even think it is wrong to kill an ensouled body only because God said so-hence the existence of a belief in these people that atheists must be immoral. So it is very much an open question whether they, once accepting the true facts, would remain on Roth’s side. Given what appears to me to be a high rate of switching from pro-life to pro-choice positions among those who deconvert from theism to atheism, Roth is not calling upon very reliable allies. These people have little to do with what Roth wants to argue. Moreover, “that many people do value the prenatal human from the beginning of his/her biological life, regardless of developmental stage” is entirely moot. Many people value cats so much that they have outlawed eating them-even though they scoff at the identical idea of outlawing the consumption of cattle, as is done in India. Not everything people value is a subject of morality. In fact, one can value something and still not believe occasionally destroying it is immoral, and this is obvious even in women who have children and still have abortions-for if they want a child, then that prenate, at every stage of development, is very valuable to them. But that value, like many things, is contingent on circumstances.
Second, Roth argues that “the human organism itself builds the brain structures necessary for the formation of the personality, and thus can hardly be said to come into existence only after those brain structures have been built,” and therefore an individual human personality exists essentially from conception. Literally, her sentence refers only to the organism, not the personality, but in context she means a complete organism, inclusive of the personality, but this makes no sense. A brain does not exist until a brain actually exists. A blueprint for building a brain is not a brain. I point out the flaw in this reasoning at length in my last rebuttal. And this is where I simply fail to comprehend her case. I do not understand why a blueprint, even a blueprint copied many times or even half-way to completion, is supposed to be valuable in the same sense as an actual construction. It is usually wrong to cause pain, but there is no pain without actual nerves, no perception of pain without a cortex, nor either under the influence of anesthetics. It is usually wrong to destroy or harm a body against its owner’s will, but not when there is no owning will, as when the architecture to put a will in motion has not been put in place, or is no longer in place. And contrary to Ms. Roth’s inexplicable claim, the human personality can only be said to come into existence after the necessary brain structures have been built. But as far as I can see, no human organism is complete without the personality, and any body without a personality (which is any body without the machinery of personality)-corpse or fetus-cannot be a person in any commonplace sense.
Conclusions on Minor Issues
I will conclude my views on five remaining minor issues.
First, Ms. Roth disputes the number of elective abortions after the 20th week. I do not see this as any great matter. Even if there were an excess of such (and there is no evidence that there is), I already agree that this should be restrained. But Roth has only produced arguments that the data we do have, which show late-term abortion is rare, is inaccurate or incomplete. But that only eliminates the possibility of evidence either way-it does not make it common. She still cites reputed quotations of Dr. Martin Haskell that I in turn noted that he claims were misquoted, and she seems to think that doctors who misremembered or exaggerated the number of post-20th-week abortions performed at their facility “should still know whether the abortions which occurred were elective or not.” That is not a reasonable assumption. If their memories are so bad on even the general details, their memories are unlikely to recall something so specific with any more accuracy. She did not dispute the ultimate fact that no more than 40 clinics in the entire nation are even equipped to perform late-term abortions, and there are fewer than 20 doctors in the country who can do the job. Given this fact, and the fact that it is a very expensive, multi-week, in-patient procedure, I do not think it probable that there is anything like a rash of such procedures, much less electively.
But this is moot, since I already agree some caution is in order in the use of these procedures. Cortex development occurs between the 20th and 26th weeks, and varies on a case by case basis. Whether an elective abortion in this period is ethical must be assessed by a doctor, who can determine the actual state of prenate development. No hard and fast rule can replace professional judgment, and this is the opinion of numerous medical associations. However, unless a case can be made for its necessity, it may be reasonable to simply play it safe and outlaw all elective abortions after the 20th week (something only the ACOG appears to support). At present I cannot come to a position either way on such a proposal, since I would rather first speak to several knowledgeable doctors regarding what may be problematic with such a law before I could blindly support it. But in principle such a concept does not contradict my position. Hence it is a minor issue.
Second, I am undecided whether an increase in abortion contributed to a decline in U.S. population growth after 1960. The evidence remains as I presented it in my second rebuttal. Roth does not seem to realize that Cynthia Gorney, whose book I cite in that rebuttal, documents how the creation of a “saving the mother’s life” loophole in abortion laws (first starting in 1967), coupled with new advances in abortion procedures (in the early 1960’s) led to a significant expansion in the use of the procedure. She has doctors on record admitting that they simply used the legal excuse to practically open up abortion clinics. Public approval of recourse to the procedure was high even in the early 60’s and back-alley clinics began to multiply as a result of this and the new technologies. We see a very small decline in the rate of growth from a 1.7 average to a 1.6 average between 1959 and 1962, precisely when public approval and new technology became available and illegal practitioners began their growth in numbers. This rate then dropped astonishingly below an average of 1.0 after 1967, when the practice began to acquire a legal loophole .
Although the numbers bounce up and down before and after this year, no doubt normal fluctuations, we must keep in mind the baby boom population: a near 100% rise in rate of growth after 1946. Roth thinks this new rate was “unusually high.” To the contrary, it was the normal rate, interrupted by the Great Depression and World War II. In the period before WWI and between WWI and the Depression, the growth rate was nearly the same as in the early post-WWII years, thus demonstrating that this was the norm, not the exception. In contrast, no great depression or world war is available to explain the drop in growth after 1965, a drop that actually matches the documented levels in depression or wartime. The Viet Nam war cannot be an excuse, since it mobilized less manpower annually than the Korean War, which itself did not put a dent in growth, and the total mobilization over the nine year Viet Nam war was only half that of the mere five years of WWII, with only 16% the casualty rate . More importantly, after the Viet Nam war was concluded the growth rate did not rise, as would be expected if the war were to blame for the post-1965 drop.
What is more significant is that this amazing inexplicable drop in growth occurred exactly when the baby boom population was reaching the typical age to have children (20-23 years). This calls for an explanation of why, when the population was 27% larger and the largest segment of the population was just reaching child-bearing age, the rate of growth substantially fell-to nearly half what it was twenty years previously-and continued to remain low. Logically, I cannot rule abortion out, for it is a fact that had abortions not taken place at the rate we know they did (and according to Roth, the known rate was actually lower than the actual one), those births would indeed have returned growth rates after 1965 to pre-1965 levels. Coincidence? I wouldn’t bet on it. Even so, I have never settled on this relationship being definite. Rather, as I have said all along, it is only undeniable that the availability of abortion does in fact reduce the number of births (since unaborted babies would, by definition, be born) and thus does help, however slightly, population control. That is a limited benefit. And though a limited benefit would never outweigh a significant harm, it does outweigh an insignificant one.
Third, on the question of birth control, I find Ms. Roth’s position perplexing. She regards any technology that works “solely by preventing the implantation of an embryo” as “ethically dubious,” which is consistent with her overall position, though I doubt even a majority of American women would adopt such a view when faced with cheap once-a-month abortifacient pills. I certainly cannot agree with her. However, Roth does not make sense when she says it is okay to use partial abortifacients, since they do not “intend” to kill a fetus but only happen to do so once and awhile. No court in the country would ever reason this way. “I didn’t mean to kill him” is not a defense against a charge of manslaughter, and it is never moral to take potshots at people you want to make go away on the ground that “the bullets only hit them sometimes.” If a pre-cortex prenate is a person, then putting their lives at risk would not be moral and should be illegal. Indeed, I support a person’s right to sue their parents for physical defects knowingly caused by, for instance, smoking while pregnant-so long as a person exists who was harmed by a willful act or by willful negligence, even if that act happened before their time, a wrong has been done, and a person comes into existence even on my view between the 20th and 26th week of gestation.
Fourth, I am also perplexed with Roth’s statement that “whether the embryo can be considered to have an individual biological identity during the period when twinning and chimerism are still possible is debatable.” Given her position, it should not be debatable at all. Why would that stage make a difference? Whether one cell or a hundred cells, a blueprint and human body exists under construction. If her criterion of personhood is the possession of an individual genome naturally undergoing development, then a person must exist almost at the instant of conception. Now she implies that the number of cells “might” be an added criterion, which seems strangely arbitrary, and is certainly inexplicable to me. In the end, Roth “believe[s] that all human individuals should have human rights, from the beginning to the end of their lives” but I still do not understand exactly when lives are supposed to begin and end in her view. There is no practical difference between a pre-cortex fetus and a brain-dead body on life support-both are alive, both have everything but an intact cerebral cortex. Applying Roth’s criteria consistently, the latter is not dead.
Finally, I cannot let a bogus analogy stand. Ms. Roth compares the limited goods of abortion (at the very least, population control and the alleviation of medical risk and economic hardship) to a mugging:
If a mugger threatens to kill me, but instead lets me choose to just get beaten over the head and have my wallet stolen, I would be hard-pressed to consider battery and robbery as “limited goods.” Similarly, I do not consider abortion beneficial to those women who feel that their circumstances make it impossible to choose life.
There is no comparison here. For there is no mugger, who by definition has a third option: do none of the above. To the contrary, there is no third option-there is no “none of the above” for a pregnant woman. She only has the two choices. If I stumble off a cliff and have the option of either risking a more dangerous fall-with death possible and decades of financial and social disability almost certain-or suffering some scrapes and bruises climbing up, this is pretty much a no-brainer. The only reason people choose the first option at all is because, unlike a cliff, a baby might pop out at the bottom, and there are people who see that as worth the risks and costs of the fall. But it is wrong to expect others to agree with this personal value choice, even more wrong to actually condemn these other people as immoral, and absolutely heinous to contemplate locking them up. Ms. Roth would have us stand at the top of that cliff and actually push the women to the bottom who tried to climb up. I cannot approve.
Conclusion: Doing the Right Thing
I still agree with Roth on the social issue: the economic and personal hardships of parenthood are things we can improve with education and other institutional and personal policies, just as the risks of pregnancy can be improved with future medical advances, and we ought to seek these improvements no matter what-we ought to have them even if abortion didn’t exist. But we don’t have them now. No amount of “but we will solve that problem in the future, therefore you have nothing to worry about now” is going to help anyone. People have problems now, and need solutions now, and only certain solutions are available now-it does not matter that we would rather have better solutions. Until we have them, we do not have them. I would rather women and men avoid cliffs. But if they have to fall, the options may suck, but I for one would both extend them a hand if they choose to climb back up, and set up as good a makeshift net for them as I can if they choose to take the fall. The choice will be difficult for everyone who has to make it, but the choice they make will have to be based on their own values and circumstances, and their own principles. The universal truths of morality have little to say on the matter, and the law should have even less to say. It is no one else’s business but theirs.
Now read Jennifer Roth’s Closing Statement
 “Historical National Population Estimates: July 1, 1900 to July 1, 1999,” Population Estimates Program, Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau (Internet Release Date: June 28, 2000).
 U.S. Army.