Abortion – Does The Foetus Have a Right To Life?

imageThis is a complex area for everyone, but particularly for libertarians who are by definition both pro-life and pro-choice and whose fundamental moral keystone is the principle of non-aggression.

The first step in thinking clearly about the issue is to clarify the meanings of the terms used, particularly “human life”. It is very easy to fall into the logical fallacy of equivocation when using the term “human life”, e.g.

It is clear that both the sperm and the egg are genetically human and that they are both alive in a biological sense. However this is not what we mean by “human life” in a moral sense. If it were then male masturbation would be genocide and female menstruation would be murder. It is also clear that the appendix is genetically human and alive, but nobody argues for a ban on appendectomies to protect the “human life” of the appendix.

There are two meanings of “human life” that are easily confused, the first meaning illustrated with the examples above refers to genetically human life and is a biological use  rather than a moral one.

The second meaning of “human life” is membership of the class of beings to whom we owe moral obligations. This second meaning is the ethically and morally relevant one that we are referring to when we say it is wrong to take a “human life”.

We would presumably consider it equally wrong to kill an intelligent alien visitor without good cause, regardless of the non human nature of his DNA.

So what do we mean by “human life” in the ethical/moral sense

Philosophers debate at length the characteristics required to be members of the moral community and become entitled to the rights associated with it. e.g.

Mary Warren’s list of characteristics:

1. Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;

2. Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);

3. Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of genetic or direct external control).

4. The capacity to communicate, messages of with an indefinite number of possible contents on indefinitely many possible topics.

5. The presence of self-concepts and self-awareness.

However, there is an obvious criticism that the criteria listed are derived by observing the properties of a class of entities that are deemed to belong to the moral community and since this class excludes foetuses the argument carries no more weight than a simple assertion that foetuses are not members of the moral community.

Another problem with such criteria is that they not only conclude, inevitably, that a foetus has no right to life, they also entail the conclusion that a new born infant or a mentally disabled adult and many animals have no right to life either. A conclusion that offends our moral intuition.

Fortunately, we can avoid getting drawn into the complex philosophical debates about what constitutes “human life” in a moral sense by looking at the problem from the opposite end, where emotions do not cloud reason so much, that of human death.

If a fully functioning human being, with all the rights associated with that status, is involved in an accident they can be kept in a state of biological life via medical machinery almost indefinitely. However, it is generally accepted that if there is no cerebral brain wave activity then there is no “human life” in the moral sense. Turning off the life support machines is not murder but simply the deactivation of biological processes sustained by external means.

If this were not the case then it would be necessary to keep the corpses of everyone who “died” in hospital on life support machines forever or be guilty of murder!

Having established that human life,in the moral sense, requires cerebral brain wave activity the question becomes much simpler, when does the foetus develop the sort of cerebral brain wave activity that indicates human life?

This is a question of biology, rather and philosophy and it appears in the foetus between twenty four weeks and thirty weeks of conception.
(Pro-life claims of earlier activity appear to be scientifically invalid.)

A foetus younger than this is not a human life in the ethical sense and can have no more right to life than the body kept warm on a life support machine. The woman having an abortion is no more guilty of murder than the doctor who turns off the life support machine of a brain dead accident victim.

It is tempting if you currently hold anti-abortion views at this point to revert to the potential for human life argument and try to distinguish the case of the dead man on the life support machine. After all he has no potential for life, whereas the foetus has potential for a full human life.

However, we have already refuted the argument for rights for biological entities with the potential for human life on the grounds it would make menstruation murder and masturbation genocide. With advances in biological science even non embyonic  cells now have the potential for human life. Can we seriously consider cutting nails or hair as murder!

To conclude, a foetus up to 24 weeks is not a “human life” in the moral sense, it is a  genetically human biological entity with the potential for “human life”, but such an entity has no right to life.

Abortion of a foetus up to 24 weeks does not involve the violation of any human rights and libertarians should support the woman’s right of self ownership to abort a foetus if she wishes to.

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  • Belinda Harman

    That was a really interesting angle on the morality of abortion I’m not sure if we can be 100% sure that it is as late as 24 weeks before there is brain wave activity. I would like to know more about how they would ascertain that information but if this was the case it would make the point of when the foetus becomes an independent individual life much clearer. Though even if this was definitely true I still think in this day and age it should be very rare for the need to leave an abortion until the 24th week, it would be worse for the mother and everyone involved to leave it until this late stage if not for moral reasons then for medical and emotional ones. Abortions if wanted or needed should always be carried out as soon as possible.

    • I quite agree, 90% of abortions in the UK are carried out before 13 weeks and 98% before 20 weeks. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Abortion/Pages/When-should-it-be-done.aspx

      • MartyBooms

        Absent mans influence the natural result from pregnancy equals birth of human being having rights. To say anything outside natural process can cause human life is irrelevant. I don’t think we can compare ingredients to finished product. I personally believe that its been a culture. and an agenda by some to push the idea that pregnancy. is something less then a beautiful thing. I don’t want abortion to be made illegal. but I also don’t want abortion to happen. To me its a problem of the way we as mankind look at life in general.. Is their going to be enough to go around for me and mine. We are always told that theirs a pie and only so much to go around when its simply not true . Life should be sacred. in any. moral sense regardless of religious belief for any society to be peaceful.

  • Talha J Ahmad

    Well written and interesting argument. One issue that bothers me and something Belinda eluded into, if it is a mere life style choice and someone just decides at 23 week to abort, I would be unfortable with that attitude. If course there is an issue whether 24 weeks is indeed absolutely right time!

    • There is a clear difference between actively supporting something and making it illegal. The reasons for wanting an abortion are varied and some of them would doubtless be considered by most people as trivial, selfish and irresponsible. (Others would doubtless seem reasonable to all but the most ardent pro-lifer, such as after rape)

      However if we were to make it a crime every time someone acted selfishly, irresponsibly or based on trivial whims then all but a few saints would be criminals.

      There is also the issue of true motivation, vs stated motivation. 

      • Mpa Nunya

        Murray…this act of selfishness destroys human life. How many choices does a woman have to prevent a pregnancy? This list could go on indefinately. However, no rights are afforded, no choices given cor the unborn. The NAP mandates agression only to defend. Unless the “mothers” life is threatened, there is no excuse. Sorry Murry you are wrong on this one.

        • The whole point of the article is to explain why the “unborn”, are not entitled to human rights any more than sperm are entitled to human rights. The point at which we differentiate living persons from lifeless biological material is the existence of cerebral brain wave activity.

          Abortion after that point potentially violates the rights of another person, prior to that point there is no person to whom rights can be given.

          • Mpa Nunya

            So sayeth you. Glad no one decided to destroy your life in vitro, under the declaration that life isn’t life until there are brain waves.

  • Is an early foetus really equivalent to a ‘brain dead’ adult? If the brain activity of the adult was expected to resume in a week or two, would we still pull the plug?

    • That is a good point, but…

      If that were the case then lack of brain function would not equate with death and the entire argument would fall. 

      I think this is an example of the “potential for life” argument which would then need to explain why sperm and eggs don’t also have a right not to be “killed”.

  • Great post on an almost impossibly difficult subject. And “male masturbation would be genocide” is one of the great lines I’ve read in a long time. 😉

  • Minarchist

    I don’t think your analysis of the potentiality objection is complete.  The fundamental difference between the status of fetus and that of sperm, egg, nails, hair, and whatever else have you, is that of action/nonaction.  In the case of a fetus, if left unacted upon (assuming of course that the mother continues to live), it will, in most cases, become a human life in the morally relevant sense of the term.  All of the other aforementioned examples require human action (labor) to become life.  These therefore deal with one’s obligation to create life and are not relevant to the case at hand.  In this libertarian’s opinion, the potentiality objection still stands.

    • Ieuan

      I agree, my own view is that the essential elements are together and will, in all likelihood, if left to it,go on to form a conscious human being, how can you argue that this isn’t, therefore, a valid life?

      Also, why is it just the woman’s right to determine in these matters, does the father not have some claim or right?

      My own argument would be that be that ‘life’ exists from the time the sperm fertilises the egg and we see an upwardly sliding scale of probability that it then goes on to form a life. Consequently, the risk of terminating a ‘life’ via abortion is offset against the % chance of success at each stage of pregnancy.

      • Identical twins do not form until day 4 or 5 after conception and twins are caused by the mechanics of cell division around that time. (i.e. any fertilized egg could become twins)

        If  “life” is created at the point of fertilization then how is the second twins life created?

    • Its an interesting distinction, but does the mother not have to act to ensure that a human life results. She needs to feed to nourish to fetus and refrain from activities that could cause a miscarriage or damage to the fetus such as drinking or smoking.

      I am sure most mothers would agree that pregnancy is not an entirely passive process of just not aborting the fetus.

      • Minarchist

        I agree that it’s not entirely passive, but it requires considerably less action than creating life from a nail clipping.  The life in this instance is developing, where as life in the other instances has not even begun the developmental process.  The thrust of my argument is that, provided the mother goes on living as usual, the fetus will become a life.  At the very least, I think there is enough of a disparity between a developing fetus and sperm/egg/non-embryonic cells that it renders the argument from analogy ineffective.

  • Ben Eng
    • Jan_B_Andersen

      Ben – if the criteria is the ability to sustain ones own life, how about humans that develop say diabetes or kidney failure? Do their life become unprotected nonhuman life?

  • I don’t agree with abortion, I would prefer people took responsibly for actions or carried the baby and gave it up for adoption to a couple who cannot have children.

    Saying that, I would not want to stop any woman making that choice, I would disagree and wish she did not but if that’s the choice she wants to make then so be it.

  • Nicely reasoned. For me it falls down when you talk about the potential for life and compare it to masturbation and menstruation.  In fact, neither of those alone has the “potential for life.”  Without wanting to do a “birds and the beas” for you – it takes two.  And THEN there is the potential for life.  Indeed, it’s more than just potential.  If you don’t interfere then that foetus will become a born person in almost all cases. 

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  • whoever

    If the criterion is when brainwaves begin, then get forget about length of term. The doctor should test the individual fetus for brainwaves and, if found, abortion is prohibited, regardless of the length of term. Maybe prohibitively expensive under current technology, but that should be the goal.

  • Dawn Young

    Sorry your reasoning is so wrong on this occasion.

    To be human a ‘thing/object’ must have the complete human genome. That is the correct DNA sequences. Sperm and Ovum are lacking in this so are not humans but only potentially human. A zygote has the complete human genome so is 100% human. The difference between when you were a zygote and you now in relationship to your make-up is age/time. A zygote is fully human, however it is also newly formed and at it’s most fundamentally immature stage of development.
    There are seven characteristics of living organisms which determine if something is alive or not. Does it respire, does it metabolise, does it excrete, does it respond to its environment, does it move, does it grow, does it reproduce. And there in a nutshell you have the scientific proofs that a fetus (Latin for ‘little one’), because it ticks all the boxes, is a fully alive human being. You on the other hand have just resorted to sophistry to justify what is no more less than infanticide.
    As a human matures into adulthood the transition from one stage to the next is fluid, continuous and individual. For example you can never pin point the exact point at which the baby becomes a toddler or becomes an infant or becomes a child or becomes an adolescence and so on. To determine whether we should classify something as human life by how sentient they are, or how useful they are, or how mature they are, or how much pain they feel is to to be arbitrary. This in turn leads to it all being a question of opinion rather than fact.
    Murder is the deliberate ‘ACT’ of taking of the life of another. To perform an abortion is to deliberatly do something (act) to end a human life. If you took no action the fetus would mature into a baby and there after into an adult human. To put someone on a life support machine when technically dead is to perform an act to prevent the natural final destination of a human life. To remove someone from a life support machine is to allow the human organism to pass into it’s final stage which all organisms pass from life to decay.
    Also I am anti-abortion but would love to know why over and over again it seems to be men that are so keen on abortion? Is it because it opens the door for you to use women for your own sexual gratification knowing that if she so inconvenienced you by getting pregnant you can now so easily coerce her into an abortion by threat of abandonment knowing that you can now access abortion without the doctor being persecute for murder?