Is Abortion Eugenics?

Introduction

The short answer to the title question: “Is Abortion Eugenics?” is: Yes, abortion (i.e., contemporary abortion-choice policy) can qualify as eugenics wherever a children-in-utero is intentionally terminated for any number of reasons deemed ‘defects’ in the child. Preliminary reasons for this answer are that (1) eugenic abortion is a standing legal term describing any abortions conducted for eugenic reasons; (2) the concept of eugenics never required the coercive laws and pseudo-science with which it was associated in the early 20th century; (3) the onset of genetic testing has greatly enabled our predictive ability regarding fetal health, thus giving us a window of opportunity to abort a child before he or she is born with a genetic defect; and (4) and even with non-genetic defects–that is, traits which aren’t transferred to the child’s future offspring–these are still, by definition, defects and would qualify a child as “defective offspring”, thus satisfying the minimum criteria for eugenic target practice. Aborting such children-in-utero due to their perceived “defects” would still be an effort to improve the “stock” of the next generation of children, and so would qualify as eugenics at least in the broadest conceptual sense of eugenics.

That’s the short answer and four reasons for affirming it. But that answer might not satisfy audiences who aren’t aware of the backstory to this ethical issue. Eugenics and abortion have similar but different histories which have set these concepts on an interwoven path across modern history; they sometimes overlap and sometimes diverge. For this article we will focus on the definitional history of eugenics to see how and why abortion might qualify as eugenics.

What is Eugenics?

“Eugenics” was once a daring idea swirling around elite conversations 100 years ago, in medical schools, science conferences, and political boardrooms. Today, the term is rarely heard except to insult contentious policies and programs. In the abortion debate, the term “eugenics” occasionally appears in reference to “eugenic abortion” but often, it too is intended as slander. So we are left with a preliminary question of what exactly is “eugenics” and more to the point, does abortion–in any significant sense–qualify as “eugenics”?

Francis Galton Seated

Francis Galton, 1950s. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Francis Galton, a famous victorian era Scientist, cousin to Charles Darwin, avowed evolutionist, political progressive, and outspoken social engineer, is credited with first coining the term “eugenics” in 1883 [here and here]. He would eventually pioneer a scientific field under that title, “eugenic science” along with fellow eugenicists of the time like Herbert Spencer, and Frederick Osborn, and others. Galton invented and defined the term “eugenics” by drawing from the Greek root eu, meaning “well/good” as in eulogy (“good word”) and euphoria (“bearing well”) and genus meaning “birth” as in genetics. Together they become eugenes a Greek word meaning “noble birth.” From that term he derived an English cognate “eugenics” expanding the concept from “noble” birth into “good” birth (the root eu could signify nobility or goodness). However, that broad understanding of the term isn’t very specific. It doesn’t tell us what Galton means in the phrase “good birth.”

Galton goes on to explain the term by loosely sliding between human and animal eugenics, as the concept was common fair within animal husbandry. He sees it simply as the “science of improving stock.”

[W]ith questions bearing on what is termed in Greek, eugenes namely, good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities. This, and the allied words, eugeneia, etc., are equally applicable to men, brutes, and plants. We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confine to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had. The word eugenics would sufficiently express the idea; it is at least a neater word and a more generalised one than viriculture which I once ventured to use. [Francis Galton, “Human Faculty,” (1883), pg. 17; emphasis mine].

Galton has a lot to say here, but for the sake of focus we’ll only note a few implications (underlined above) as they relate to the discussion.

1) Galton uses the term “viriculture” as a synonym for “eugenics,” potentially implying some element of “culture.” In this passage and others, Galton seems to understand eugenics as intentionally and directly dealing with culture somehow in the form of or through heritable traits.

2) When he says “suitable races” A brief perusal of the rest of the book, as well as outside sourcing confirms that Galton had in mind the “racial evolution of the human species” (Roswell Johnson, “Eugenics and So-Called Eugenics,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 20 no. 1 [1914], 98.).

3) The phrase “noble qualities”, borrowing from the Greek eugenes (“noble birth”), includes attributes that we now know to be genetically inherited (ex., skin color), as well as some things that we now know are not genetically inherited, for example, propensity for wealth/poverty. These overzealous guesses about heredity are a big part of what eventually discredited eugenics.

4) Galton “by no means confine[s]” eugenics to “judicious mating” that is, positive eugenics (encouraging breeding among “preferred stock). Thus he also has in view negative eugenics (discouraging breeding among defective stock).

5) Galton seeks to be “cognizant of all influences” which lend advantage to some and disadvantage to others. In this same line he mentions viriculture as a somewhat narrower synonym. Galton does not seem to be limiting his concept of inheritance to strictly biological modes (such as genetics).

Our purpose here isn’t to detail the whole history and downfall of eugenics, or even to preoccupy ourselves with the eugenics work of Galton. Rather, the effort is to establish a historically informed root sense of the term whereby we can judge whether abortion qualifies in any significant sense.

The ‘Eugenics Tree’ developed and circulated by the National Eugenics Office (c. 1921) was a prominent logo and conceptual description of the eugenics movement.

Galton was not dealing in a “new” concept, but rather a new application of an old concept. Eugenics was already at play in animal husbandry. It was not common at the time, however, to think of mankind as merely another species of animal. the more common view was some brand of creation doctrine (whether biblical, deistic, or otherwise). Creation doctrine was common in the 19th century, even among top tier scientists, and while that doesn’t require any single religious or textual tradition, it does tend to set apart mankind as a “special creation” innately distinct from the other animals. But creation doctrine met it’s stiffest competition in 1859 when Charles Darwin published Origin of Species. Soon Darwins model of evolution skyrocketed to the top of international scientific interests. As Darwin’s theories saturated the market, mankind was increasingly seen in dimmer (and fiercer) lights. Man was thought to be on the same living continuum with the other animals, not some “specially created” entity radically distinct from other animals. Under this new paradigm, it was only natural for Galton to transition in thought from animal husbandry to human breeding. The same goes for Darwin. His follow-up book, Descent of Man (1972) is riddled with the “good breeding” rhetoric seen later in Galton’s writing (see, John West, Darwin Day in America [2007], pgs. 31-33, 128-130).

But the early notion of eugenics veers far wide of the modern definition of eugenics. In the late 19th and early 20th century, eugenicists tended to define “eugenics” with reference to heredity generally, and not genetics specifically. They lacked the hard science to narrow down “heredity” to genetic factors, yet instead of proceeding with caution and humility, they instead marched boldly forward entwining eugenics with overtly racist agendas (ala, Hitler’s “racial hygiene” program), and ad hoc/pseudoscientific theories like phrenology (the study of personality/character via skull shape). Early eugenics programs also earned great scorn by operating within a context of forced sterilization, a practice that has since been judicially overturned (Skinner vs. Oklahma [1942]). For these reasons it’s clear why eugenics has a bad reputation and would be a slanderous accusation today.

In summary so far, eugenics refers to the theory and practices involved in generating “good stock” of human progeny, whether in one generation or in many future generations. Eugenics was conducted as a “science” but much of it has been shown to be pseudoscience (including scientific racism, phrenology, and hereditary poverty, etc.) Eugenics may be positive, encouraging “good” parents to breed; or negative, discouraging “bad” parents from breeding. We’ll call this the “broad sense” of eugenics. the early eugenicists tended to include race and poverty in their estimations of “good” and “bad” stock, and they were even able to pass U.S. law institutionally approving forced sterilization for “defective” people, as they were deemed unfit to breed.

This historically rooted understanding of eugenics, may be termed the “broad sense” of eugenics (i.e., facilitating “good stock”) and comports with it’s definition as found in dictionaries of etymology such as OnlineEtymologyDictionary

“[E]ugenics (n): doctrine of progress in evolution of the human race, race-culture,” 1883, coined (along with adjective eugenic) by English scientist Francis Galton (1822-1911) on analogy of ethics, physics, etc. from Greek eugenes “well-born, of good stock, of noble race,” from eu- “good” (see eu-) + genos “birth” (see genus). . . . The investigation of human eugenics, that is, of the conditions under which men of a high type are produced. [Galton, “Human Faculty,” 1883] [Online Etymology Dictionary]

The broad sense is also found in older encyclopedias and dictionaries which were contemporary to the eugenics movement.

EUGENICS (from the Gr. . . well born), the modern name given to the science which deals with the influences which improve the inborn qualities of a race, but more particularly with those which develop them to the utmost advantage, and which generally serves to disseminate knowledge and encourage action in the direction of perpetuating a higher racial standard. [Encyclopedia Brittanica (1911)].

The study of hereditary and environmental influences, for the purpose of improving the physical and mental qualities of future generations. [New Catholic Dictionary (1910)]

[Eugenics] (n.) The science of improving stock, whether human or animal. [Websters Dictionary, 1910]

Eugenics literally means “good breeding”. It is defined as the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally. [The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914)].

We should point out, that the “broad sense” allows for, but doesn’t require, eugenics to be a science, that is, a clinical field of study and practice dealing in objective facts and practices. But even if it were proven to be pseudoscience, eugenics would still be about “improving human stock.” Eugenics is also affiliated with sterilization practices, as that was once a popular means of eugenics. But, even if other means were used–such as abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, or even death camps–it would still be eugenics if it actually or was intended to achieve (what was thought to be) “improved human stock.” Also, eugenics is often associated with coercion, such as forced sterilization. But again, it would still be eugenics if people voluntarily underwent sterilization or conducted their mating practices according to eugenic principles.

We should also note that the parallels between animal husbandry and human breeding practices are only rough parallels. In animal husbandry it’s not uncommon to kill feeble newborns or relatively healthy but older members of the herd. Obviously, Hitler’s “racial hygiene” program–which included these sorts of practices–would qualify as “eugenics.” But that extreme use of eEugenics cartoon - Candle and Mothsugenic theory was never normalized in the U.S. Nevertheless, eugenics can refer to any measures whatsoever which are intended to socially engineer improved stock on a human population, but the term appears to also be used in a narrower sense, in reference to the ideology, laws and practices which composed the sterilization laws of the early 20th century.

Institutionalized eugenics laws have since been halted, practically abolishing the most common point of reference for “eugenics.” There does, however, exist a category of abortion called “eugenic” abortion. The broad sense of eugenics appears to be at work here. Duhaime’s law dictionary defines eugenics as: “A measure taken to avoid or prevent the birth of a defective child” (Speck vs. Feingold [1979], ftnt 4). This definition admits the notion of a “defective child” but does not restrict that notion to genetically defective children. Nor is there any mention of coercion, sterilization, or even science. The entry continues,

“[A] eugenic abortion (is) one directed solely to eliminate a potentially defective fetus.” (Hummel v. Reiss, 1991].

Duhaime’s broadness is important for legal purposes. In the court of law, medical and scientific nuances are not necessarily in focus. A defendant could be aborting her child for eugenic concerns (broadly) irrespective of the more “evolved” or scientifically informed notions of heredity. She could ascribe even to the “racial hygiene” ideas of White supremicists, and consider her child unworthy of life for being the product of a racially mixed father. For legal purposes, the broad definition of eugenics, and eugenic abortion, is important lest our court system definitionally exclude real causal forces. That is, people may believe pseudoscientific theories, or ascribe to a racist worldview, or have otherwise distorted ideas about heredity and what counts as “good birth.” Or they could even kill their unborn child because of concerns about environment and culture. And regardless of how legitimate or illegitimate these beliefs may be, they can causally affect people’s reproductive choices. This legal definition therefor refrains from ruling unnecessarily on these details thus allowing litigants to hash it out in future cases.

Another reason for asserting the reality of this broad sense of eugenics is because of it’s semantic family, in particular, the adjective “eugenic” which means:

pertaining to or causing improvement in the type of offspring produced. Compare dysgenic.” [TheFreeDictionary]

The adjective “eugenic” may include genetic degradation/defect, but it doesn’t have to. It points out anything pertaining to or causing, what is perceived to be, some sort of improvement among offspring.

The antonym, dysgenic, shows the same bivalent meaning, as “eugenics” does (above), but it does so from the opposing side. Whereas eugenics can refer to either improved human stock generally, or improving the human gene pool specifically, the term dysgenic can refer to either genetic defects or to defects generally–it depends on which dictionary is cited.

some people are born a burden

In the fashion of progressive politics at the time (Woodrow Wilson, et al.) social welfare programs were common. This meant that sick, handicapped, and infirm people did not just “burden” their families but all tax-payers as well, whose dollars funded these programs.

Still another reason for rejecting the strictly “genetic” sense of eugenics is that in the U.S. and especially in Germany, eugenics are argued on the basis of the burdening impact of handicapped or otherwise “defective” offspring on society. Whether a trait is genetically based or not is secondary to the fact that a particular child is still considered a burden to society and a poor use of resources. This “burden” is especially heavy, and precariously positioned, in countries with socialized healthcare, government welfare, and otherwise federally funded social programs where the tax burden for these “undesirables” is spread out across populations of people who don’t necessarily want to see their tax dollars funding someone else’s “irresponsible” family planning practices. Children who have non-heritable conditions which nonetheless restrict their ability to serve productively in military or in the labor force are still seen, by this logic, as “burdens” to society.

We may safely conclude, that there is a literal and factual sense in which eugenics refers broadly to “intentional/planned measures to improve human stock” and the various measures so far identified with this concept have so far proven unseemly, including force sterilization, euthanasia, prison camps, and eugenic abortion.

The Genetic Shift

More recently, somewhere around the mid-20th century to today, the term “eugenics” has come to be understood in a way that narrows and restricts the semantic range of eugenics. Most notably, eugenics is interpreted with reference not simply to “inherited traits” generally but in terms of the mode of inheritance as well, that is, genetics. Eugenics was, in many ways, a facet of the pioneering efforts of genetic science. We see this shift commonly in medical dictionaries–wherein motive, history, legality are not necessarily in view.

Practices and genetic counseling directed to anticipating genetic disability and disease”
(Farlax Partners Medical Dictionary [2012]).

“Eugenics: A pseudoscience with the stated aim of improving the genetic constitution of the human species by selective breeding.” (WebMD [last updated 5/13/2016])

“eugenics: . . . . 2. Practices and genetic counseling directed to anticipating genetic disability and disease.” (Stedman’s Medical Dictionary [1998])

Countless bioethics journals and books follow suit forewarning about the intersection of eugenics and more recent genetic technology such as genetic testing and genetic engineering in one’s offspring (for example, see here, here, and here). It is safe to say that the genetic sense of “eugenics” is the normal sense of the term today.

There are several possible reasons why modern dictionary entries, such as these, would acknowledge a genetic component to eugenics (as opposed to a more general “heredity” definition ala, Galton, Herbert Spencer, and Frederick Osborn). The most obvious reason is that eugenics is primarily concerned with heredity, and the prime mover in heredity–according to the best efforts of modern science–is genetics. Anyone who might take eugenics seriously today or who would attempt to argue academically for some updated brand of eugenics would be entirely dismissed if he or she left out genetics. Indeed, the American Eugenics Society (1926-1972), or AES, survived right up to the year of Row v. Wade (1973). And AES uses the following definition:

“[Eugenics is] the study of improving the genetic composition of humans through controlled reproduction of different races and classes of people.” (Quoted by Rachel Gur Arie, 2014)

The American Eugenics Society survived for decades after WWII, even though institutionalized eugenics (meaning sterilization programs) was banned. When Watson and Crick pioneered the theory of DNA, uncovering it’s mysterious linguistic code in 1953, the notion of “heredity” underwent a monumental shift. Sure, genetics was a standing convention in the sciences by that time, but DNA based genetics was now the scientific concensus–fully establishing Darwin’s model of evolution (including classical and Neo-Darwinism/Modern Synthesis) over and above alternative models like Larmarkism. The AES, at least since the 1942 Oklahoma vs. Skinner case, had every reason to adapt their “store front” version of eugenics to suit new discoveries and distance themselves from the more regrettable and unsavory affiliations (animal breeding, coercion, racism, etc.).

Now, of course, genetics isn’t the only means of inheriting traits from one’s parents. There is also culture and environment, the “Nurture” part of the nature-nurture dichotomy. We see this adaptation in the work of one of the most famous eugenicists, Frederick Osborne (1889-1981) who presided over the AES in 1946 (after forced sterilization was banned), and in 1954 founded the journal Eugenics Quarterly (later, changed to Social Biology). He argued for a non-coercive, and scientifically neutral, brand of eugenic anthropology which dealt in culturally transmitted traits; indeed, he was skeptical of the “hereditarian” model which attributed most every socially derelict quality to biological heredity (source).

We also know that non-genetic factors can influence gestation and development in pregnant mothers. The pregnant mother can impart anything traceable to the shared blood and nutrients with the fetal child, including any bacteria, viruses, or other contaminates that may enter through the umbilical cord. Where any of these blood-born contaminates are thought to be or cause “defective” status they would qualify as eugenics. A key example might be fetal-alcohol syndrome. These case would be eugenic in the looser sense of the term–as unseemly “burdens” on society. But if the reader finds that usage unsightly, it could be term “eugenics-like” as it’s follows similar logic and appears in the same ballpark with historic uses of the term (prior to modern genetics) but does not include the genetic component found in modern definitions.

013-Fitter-Families-exhibit-and-examination-building-Kansas-State-Free-Fair-Topeka

A “Fitter Families” Exhibit at the Kansas State Fair (c. 1920)

Eugenics is considered pseudoscience today, but it was once considered good sound science and that meant it’s reputation hung on its ability to keep pace with the best developments in hereditary science at the time, otherwise it would lose any persuasive claim on science. Put another way, eugenics itself evolved over time. Eugenics, as a field of study and practice, adapted to survive the growing hostility against eugenics that arose in the mid to late 20th century. Numerous U.S. states had eugenics laws on the books between 1900-1941, and Hitler reportedly drew much of his inspiration from U.S. law codes in this respect. Hitler of course, died in infamy, and the ideological baggage of the 3rd Reich went down in infamy with him including his theories of “racial hygiene”, a brand of eugenics, which eventuated the death of millions of feeble and mentally ill people, Jews, Blacks, Gypsies, and other people deemed “defective.” Back in North America, U.S. eugenics laws were effectively dissolved with the combined impact of Hitler’s infamy and the Oklahoma vs. Skinner case of 1942 which ruled against the practice of forced sterilization.

Here we should be careful not to mistake different phenomena masquerading under the same name. In one sense there is the socio-historical institution of “eugenics,” that is, legislative and judicial acts which established certain practices intended to improve the “human stock” (aka, genetic stock/racial stock). In this sense, “eugenics” was overturned. Eugenics laws, from the early 1900’s, no longer applies today.

In another sense, there is the scientific theory which entailed scientific racism, and a bevy of bad science practices which purported to show that human populations could be objectively improved through selective breeding practices. This sense of “eugenics” has been debunked as pseudo-science.

In still another sense, eugenics is, philosophically speaking, “the science of improving human populations.” And while that “improvement” is typically understood with reference to functionally advantageous or societally preferred genetically-based attributes, the genetic component is the commonly accepted means of heritable transference, genetics is not the intrinsic “end-goal” of eugenics. So long as a parent somehow passes on an effect to his or her child, then it is affecting the next generation–whether for one generation (i.e., non-genetic traits) or all future generations (i.e., genetic traits). Compared to the other two, the philosophic sense of eugenics is not so easy to discard. Sure we can still object to eugenic practice or eugenic laws , but we can hardly suggest that the theory is incoherent or that it’s neatly distinguished from abortion.

Is Abortion Eugenics?

So we return to the original question: Is abortion eugenics? The answer to this question depends on what kind of abortion we’re talking about. Some kinds of abortion are clearly selecting for “preferred” genetic lines, hence the ethical conundrum with fetal genetic testing (ex., amniocentesis). There is no real question about whether this sort of practice is common, for example, for Down Syndrome children-in-utero, or whether Down-Syndrome is a genetic condition, or whether Down-Syndrome people are able to reproduce later in life. Since all of these are facts, there exists a real and literal sense of “eugenics” in abortion. Hence we still have the somewhat contentious, but nonetheless accurate term “eugenic abortion” (Hummel vs. Reiss, 1991).

But other kinds of abortion have no eugenic intention nor eugenic effect. Some women abort their children-in-utero without any intended or resultant social benefit. Now there may be an abstract or general senses of beneficence at work here–preventing one more unwanted child, or one more mouth to feed, or one more financial burden on society and that might approximate “eugenics”–but we can admit that at least in some cases, women have abortions which have no eugenic intentions or eugenic outcomes.

A tricky middle ground can be found with non-genetic but still inherited “defective” traits (and “defective” could be any agreed-upon traits like gross deformity or really anything deemed as such in the eyes of the beholder). If a woman were to somehow harm her child-in-utero, for example, through fetal alcohol syndrome, drug addiction, or viral and bacterial contagions (or any effects therein) and she were to abort that child-in-utero she is still contributing to a “purer” stock of children. She’s “thinning the herd” of malformed, sick, feeble, or otherwise “defective” children. This practice is entirely consistent with the early notions of eugenics (Galton, et al.). And it’s only trivially different from modern “genetic” definitions of the term. Nowhere do the founders, or even the later fathers of the Eugenics movement require that a trait extend beyond one generation (thus qualifying as genetic heredity) before it can count as a “defect.” Some defects only affect the immediate generation, other defects commune across several generations. Eugenics is aimed against “defective” offspring, regardless of how transferrable that defect may be across multiple generations.

One can try to argue that only genetic inheritance qualifies as eugenics. Indeed a wide range of academic sources presume as much. But that “narrow definition” doesn’t explain the evidence as well as the broad-definition of eugenics does.

1) Even today, we know that genetics are not the only means of inheriting qualities from one’s parents. There is also viruses, bacteria, epigenetics, and of course anything that might qualify as “nurture” (culture, upbringing, environment).

2) Bearing in mind Galton’s inspiration for the term eugenics was animal husbandry, breeders sometimes have to “cull the herd” for reasons besides genetic inheritance. They may kill injured and subsequently disabled animals–thus improving the relative health of the herd for that generation of animals. Or they may kill animals with dangerous or otherwise problematic learned behavior. Dogs for example may be put down because they were attacked so much that they became violent and untrainable. Again, these practices are still “improving the herd” for one generation even if they don’t trace the problem to genetics.

3) The adjectival sense of “eugenic” has a wide semantic domain meaning “well born” or “fitting for those who are well born/preferred stock.” This sense isn’t limited to genetics.

3) The Greek word, eugenes, from which Galton derived the English cognate “eugenics” means simply “good/noble birth” and includes culture, environment, and primarily family name (i.e., inheritance rights) within it’s notion of beneficial inheritance. Good hereditary standing, was more than just genetics.

4) Frederick Osborn and his followers established a real, albeit minority, account of eugenics in terms of cultural heredity.

5) “Eugenic abortion” is defined as late as 1979 in terms of “defect” yet only some defects are genetically caused (Hummel vs. Reiss, 1991).

6) Using eugenic-type methods to improve a population or family line for one generation would still be eugenic in spirit, even if there is no genetic mode of transmission into further generations. It would be oddly trivial to draw a thick dark line between “eugenics” and “selectively aborting defective children-in-utero whose defects aren’t transferrable to future generations.” Both refer to “improving the stock” even if genetic transmission stretches further into the future.

7) There exists a budding field of epigenetics which leaves the door open for heritable but non-genetic traits–which could potentially continue on for many generations as if it were genetic. In this way, genetic science itself is still evolving and may have to embrace significant modifications to account for our biological blueprints and the interpreters of those blueprints.

8) There appears to exist at least two senses of the term “eugenics” one being the stricter “genetic” sense and the other being the broader classical sense of Galton (and others) which did not specify or require any particular mode of heredity.

9) Imagine that congress were to pass a bill paying poor people a large sum to get sterilized in an effort to “cure poverty” by destroying the reproductive potential in cultures of poverty. Notice, this scenarios directly admits that poverty is cultural, not genetic. That scenario would defy the narrow genetic sense of eugenics, but it seems to obviously qualify as eugenics since it would be manipulating circumstances to eventuate “better stock.”

Conclusion: Abortion Is Eugenics

What’s the answer? Abortion is clearly a means of eugenics, most explicitly in cases aborting genetically handicapped children-in-utero, such as down syndrome cases. Secondarily, abortion can also qualify as eugenics in the broader, classical sense of the term, wherever people are terminating the life of a child-in-utero to reduce the incidence of physiological or even psychological “defects” (however they define/understand the notion of “defect”). Third, eugenic abortion is a real and defensible term, as it describes the easily demonstrated fact that some people conduct abortions for the purpose of eliminating unwanted traits among the next generation of children. Fourth, we can admit that institutional coercion and “scientific” brands of eugenics have been overturned and their contribution to the larger concept of eugenics is effectively debunked–hopefully they are buried forever. There may persist scientifically neutral forms of eugenics, which do not import scientific racism or any other pseudoscience, but we have great reason to leave the worst excesses in the name of “eugenics” buried, never to see the light of day again.

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Posted in Abortion Practices, Contraception Practices, Ethics of Abortion, Family Planning, History of Abortion, Terms and Definitions | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

What is it that’s being aborted?

Introduction

Is it a fetus? Is it a baby? Is it a person, a child, or perhaps a human being?

In the ethics debates over abortion, the status of the aborted individual is no small matter. If that entity is a rights-bearing individual then abortion carries greater ethical weight than otherwise. It’s no surprise then that pro-life advocates tend to use terminology with “humanizing” qualities for the fetus while abortion-choice advocates tend to use terms laden with “dehumanizing” qualities.

The effort here is precision. Without delving into the deeper waters of the legal definition of “person,” or “baby,” what can we say about that thing inside the mother’s womb? What exactly is it that’s terminated in an abortion?

What Is It?

It’s human
Despite the apparent controversy over this point, at the popular level, there is no serious controversy about this point among scientists. biological human life is a scientific issue, among other things, and that qualifies experts in the various life sciences to speak authoritatively on this issue. And speak they have. Pediatrician Dr. Maureen Condic explains:

“The conclusion that human life begins at sperm-egg fusion is uncontested, objective, based on the universally accepted scientific method of distinguishing different cell types from each other and on ample scientific evidence (thousands of independent, peer-reviewed publications). Moreover, it is entirely independent of any specific ethical, moral, political, or religious view of human life or of human embryos. Indeed, this definition does not directly address the central ethical question surrounding the embryo: What value ought society place on human life at the earliest stages of development? A neutral examination of the evidence merely establishes the onset of a new human life at a scientifically well-defined ‘moment of conception,’ a conclusion that unequivocally indicates that human embryos from the one-cell stage forward are indeed living individuals of the human species; i.e., human beings.” (“A Scientific View of When Life Begins,” Lozier Institute [2014], pg. 5)

Scientifically speaking, it’s genetic markers and developmental trajectory clearly identify it as a member of the genus and species homo sapiens. As such, it’s a member of the human race, and is biologically identified as “human.” (see also, Whitepaper 1:1 [2008], and Princeton Site). Perhaps popular level discourse gets derailed on the legal or philosophical definition of personhood mistaking that for the more rudimentary issue of human-status (for example, see Sara Zhang, “Why Science Can’t Say When a Baby’s Life Begins,” Wired Magazine, 2 Oct 2015). If you don’t believe these sources, you can peruse a couple dozen more Handout.Conception Definition with Science Quotes which corroborate this conclusion.

It’s a Living Human.
Perhaps someone grants that it’s a “human” but it’s not alive in the normal sense of the word. It’s not alive like you and I are alive, right?

Well, it has all the biological qualities of life, from conception onward, it just manifests them differently with respect to its early stage of development. It a tiny, underdeveloped human still inside it’s mother so we can expect it’s attributes of life to manifest differently from us. But it’s not uncommon for species to manifest radically different mobility, nourishment, adaptations (etc.) relative to their stage of development. Meanwhile, there’s no serious scientific debate as to whether the human in utero is alive or dead. It’s clearly alive, having the attributes of life including (1) organized structure, (2) ingesting nourishment, (3) excreting waste, (4) responding to stimuli, (5) adapting to environment, and (6) it can reproduce (Source: Biology-Online).

It’s a Living Human Organism
Someone might object that “Just because it’s human doesn’t mean it’s human, right?”

Lots of things are “human” without being distinct members of the human race. For example, human hair, human skin cells, a human organ, or perhaps a severed human limb, these are all human but none of these are distinct members of the human race. They aren’t “humans” or “a human,” they are humans in the adjectival sense, where “human” is a descriptor characterizing something else: skin, hair, organ, etc.

But this mode of thinking doesn’t correctly describe the human in utero. Once fertilization has occurred, there exists a new individual human organism. It’s genetically distinct from it’s parents. It has, in itself, all the biological qualities of life (mentioned above). Moreover, it’s cellular composition includes specific specialized organelles, co-operating to achieve these different qualities. It’s a tiny machine. The human in utero is literally a biological organism, and it will remain the numerically same human organism, with the same single lifespan, till it dies even if that’s 100 years later as an old man or old woman.

It’s a Human Being
One of the more controversial terms in this debate doesn’t need to be controversial. “Human being” is a phrase often used synonymously with “person.” And at least since the Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973, it’s a debating feaux paus to refer to the child-in-utero as a “person,” or similarly a “baby.” However, human being is a nominative sense of the word “human.” The word “human” can be an adjective, merely describing something else: “this looks like human language” or “these rags have human stitching.” The phrase “Human being” designates a “being” which is human. It’s the normal term for a “human,” whether “man, woman or child,” and for any member of the human race, that is, of the genus and species homo sapiens

Given these features, it is technically precise and judically permitted to call a human in utero a “human being.” But there is a problem. The term “human being” has both a general and a specific usage. It’s more general usage, is the one used here–any member of humankind, the human race, the genus and species homo sapiens. The more specific usage, and the more common use of the term “human being” is in the sense of “person,” i.e., human persons. On the pro-life side of this debate, there is no shortage of arguments offered to justify defining the human in utero as a “person.” But legally speaking, the Roe v. Wade decision has decided that humans in utero are only “potential persons.” It’s not considered a person in the eyes of the law, and therefore does not have the legal (and potentially ethical) protections promised to persons.

It’s Genetically Distinct From It’s Parents
Through the process of fertilization, also called conception, the two gamete cells–egg and sperm–fuse intermingling the genetic heritage of the father and mother. A new individual has begun, biologically speaking, since it has a wholly unique genetic thumbprint from either the mother or the father. Instead it has features of both the father and the mother, together.

In this way, the child may be in the mother’s body, connected to the mother, and perhaps even “part” of her body, yet it’s a genetically different organism from the mother, with a different set of biological blueprints than hers. The human in utero can have a different gender from the mother, different diseases and conditions from the mother, different blood type, and so on. One way to put it is that the human in utero relates to his or her mother in physical continuity but substantive discontinuity. They might be linked into a single chain, so to speak, but the links are made of different metal.

It’s a Child-in-Utero
So far, the terms have been scientific terms which have been vetted and agreed upon in the biological and life-sciences. The next term is a term of art established in legal/judicial discourse. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (2004) established a legal precedent, only tangentially related to abortion-choice policy, wherein the yet-unborn child is called a “child-in-utero.” Since that law, and the court case history behind it, were not directly addressing abortion the court admitted a legally “safe ground” the phrase “child-in-utero.” Terms like “baby” or “person” might be contentious in a way that’s hard to prove, but the phrase “child-in-utero” is comparably easier to establish.

First, the fetal human stands in a child-to-mother relation with the pregnant woman. It is literally her biological offspring. And the normal term in life science for one’s offspring is one’s “child.” And, second, since that child remains in the womb for the duration of the pregnancy, it is a literally a “child-in-utero.” (Lat. in utero = “in the uterus”). Indeed the word “fetus,” by Latin etymology, means “offspring.”

This phrase, “child-in-utero” might be offensive to some because “child” has connotative force roughly the same as “baby” or “kid.” But the terms remains a part of case law, having legal precedent, and it’s biologically defensible since it’s literally the child of it’s mother and it’s in utero. Moreover, the term “child-in-utero” is a clear descriptor, identifying the relation of the individual (a child of it’s mother), it’s location (inside the mother’s womb), it’s developmental stage (Zygote, Embryo, or Fetus).

It’s Legally Innocent
Obviously, the child-in-utero cannot rightly be held legally responsible for any crimes any more than 10 month old toddler could. It stands legally innocent before the law. And therefore can not qualify for any capital crime whereby, perhaps, a capital punishment could be passed down on a convicted criminal.

It’s Natural
Abortion debates don’t always venture into the wider world of bioethics, but sometimes they do, and so it can be important to remember that the developmental process, from fertilization through child-birth is a natural process. For what it’s worth, some bioethics issues aren’t dealing in natural processes in the same sense as pregnancy is a natural process. Human beings naturally multiply by sexual reproduction, with an intermingling of two parent genomes through a typically 9-month gestation period.

Medical technology, however, has allowed some flexibility in these “natural” conventions. Some premature births as early as 22 weeks. The earliest surviving “preemie”. James Elgin Gill, born in 1988, was born after only 21 weeks 5 days in utero and is a healthy college student today. We owe a great debt to medical technology for raising the survival rates for premature births. But medical technology has also raised some dicier dilemmas at the borders of human life, including human cloning and in-vitro fertilization. These issues raise some difficult questions worth exploring in bioethics, but for our purposes here, we can note that these scenarios aren’t clearly ‘natural’ in the same sense as conventional pregnancy. Conventional pregnancy is a normal human biological process “built into” human physiology and psychology via the reproductive processes of sexual intercourse, insemination, gestation, and eventual birth.

But Is it a Fetus?
One conventional term for children-in-utero is “fetus.” This term is true enough, for most purposes. “Fetus” refers to a developmental stage from week 8 onward. Technically, however, it’s not the proper term for weeks 1-2, after conception (The “zygote” stage), or weeks 3-7 (the “embryo” stages). Hence “fetus” is the wrong term for the child-in-utero during weeks 1-7 but only begins to correctly describe the entity from week 8 onward.

Nevertheless, the term “fetus” has come to be used as a generic reference to the child-in-utero, perhaps, in part because it avoids such terms as “baby,” “human,” or “person.” These other terms might suggest pro-life bias. Granting this colloquial usage is fine for what it’s worth: “Fetus” has some value as a term-of-art because it does point out that thing inside the mother’s womb. And it distinguishes it from things like a “tumor” or some otherwise undeveloped amorphous entity.

However the term “fetus” still lacks precision because it doesn’t distinguish the entity inside of human mothers. Put another way, we may ask, “What kind of fetus is it? Is it bovine? Equine? What?” It’s a human fetus.

In the phrase “human fetus,” fetus is a descriptor signifying a developmental stage of something, but it does not itself point out what that thing is. The supporting word “human” is needed for clarification. We can however use “fetus” in a nominative sense letting the descriptor borrow an implied object, as in, “She wants to abort her fetus” or “He’s no longer a fetus, he’s a full-grown adult.” The descriptor is used in a nominative sense as “[human] fetus,” and “[human] adult.”

Grammatically speaking, nominative usage–like “fetus” for “fetal human”–is allowed, but in this setting it risks undue bias by not allowing the demonstrable key feature, which pro-lifers try to emphasize, it’s status as a human.

But Is It a Clump of Cells or Tissue?
Abortion-choice advocates sometimes use phrases like “its’ just a clump of cells,” or “lump of tissue,” etc. This terminology is exclusively used among abortion-choice advocates and pretty clearly ignores the biology and medical knowledge we have about that entity. Perhaps in a tenuous sense we could call a living human organism a “clump of cells” or “lump of tissue,” but that description connotes unorganized or perhaps non-living matter. That’s a poor descriptor for a genetically distinct living human organism. And it risks rhetorically loaded language. After all you and I are “just a clump of cells,” if we are allowing that genetically distinct, natural, living, human organisms qualify as “just a clump of cells.”

But Is It a Pregnancy?
This one might seem unnecessary or even silly, but there’s a valuable distinction worth mentioning here. One of the common definitions of abortion is “terminating a pregnancy.” If abortion terminates something, well, then that terminated something could be a pregnancy right? The child-in-utero is the obvious distinguishing feature proving the mother’s pregnancy. But the entity, the child-in-utero, is not the same as the process of pregnancy. Pregnancy is a natural process, it is not an individual. The child-in-utero is an individual, undergoing a process called pregnancy. But it is not identical with the pregnancy. That definition of abortion–as “terminating a pregnancy”–is a bad definition anyway, since child-birth terminates a pregnancy too. Any definition of abortion which equally suits child-birth is a bad definition. The child-in-utero is the defining feature of a pregnancy but is not identical with the pregnancy.

Clearer definitions, here, add “terminating a pregnancy before the fetus is viable” (i.e., can survive outside the womb). This is a better definition of “abortion,” except that it risks the same problems as the “fetal” definition above. If a human being is killed, by abortive measures, in week 7 it’s not yet a fetus, but still subject to abortion.

But Is It a Product of Conception?
One of the more clever terms of art that has been coined in the age of abortion-choice policy is “product of conception.” This language is technically correct, in that the child-in-utero is a product of conception. But seeing as how you and I are products of conception too, that’s not a great identifying term.

Still, this language has some advantages over the terms “fetus” and “clump of cells.” It doesn’t specify a stage of development, only the results of a stage of development (conception). So it does not misidentify the child-in-utero as a fetus, when it might be an embryo, or a zygote. Also, it’s not committed to any particular identification or marker for that entity. Functionally, this phrase is very useful for abortion providers since it is extremely depersonalized, lacking any humanizing connotations.

However, it’s generality sacrifices precision. Because the phrase is so broad, it include, besides the child-in-utero, other organic results from conception such as the amniotic fluid, the umbilical cord, and the amniotic sack. There’s no abortion debate regarding the destruction of amniotic fluid, unless perhaps that fluid is being tampered with in a way that helps or harms the child-in-utero. To refer to the child-in-utero in the sweeping phrase “product of conception” includes too much in it’s borders. The child is biologically and organically distinct from it’s food source, its feeding tube, and its surrounding environment.

Moreover, this descriptor is only that, a description and not an identifying term. This phrase is a kind of working/approximate definition, where we are referring to things not for what they are but for some process or secondary qualities associated with them. Linguistically this is adequate in some cases, and it might be the best we can do in other cases. But when it comes to children-in-utero it risks duplicity when the phrase neatly avoids admitting just what kind of entity is being aborted, and we have plenty of evidence and knowledge and associated terminology to call it what it is. Linguistically, it’s a poor reference term which exclusively employs round-about descriptors when we have plenty of suitable, established identifiers for a thing.

We can illustrate the problem with an analogy. Suppose we spoke of an individual not by name, or title, or family, but by saying “I mean the one with the Hawaiian shirt and the long hair over there.” We might be able to identify which individual is indicated. But we still don’t know if it’s a corpse? A manikin? A woman? A Man? Or a dressed up pig at a pet parade?

Similarly, with the phrase “product of conception,” we can rightly ask what is the product of conception? Is it a human being? A blastocyst? A cow? A pig? A tumor? By staying intentionally ambiguous, one risks biasing the speaker with ignorance, as if one does not want to know what that thing is which has results from conception.

Conclusion

In summary, we can safely say that the object or entity in question is a child-in-utero, a natural living human organism; it is legally innocent and genetically distinct from it’s parents. Prolifers may be tempted to call it a “baby” or a “person,” but there are plenty of non-contentious and, perhaps, easier to defend terms and qualifiers to choose from instead.

Other terms of art, often used in this debate are problematic and risk misidentifying the child-in-utero: “fetus” (which is only one of several stages of development in utero), “product of conception” (which includes things like the amniotic sack, the umbilical cord, and fluid), and “pregnancy” (which is the biological process, not the entity undergoing that process).

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Research Notes on Abortion

For those of you who attended my talk at the NCCA (2015), here are PDF’s of the (1) Complete Notes, (2) Prolife Arguments, and (3) Prochoice Objections.

Handout.Complete Notes: The Case Against Abortion

Handout.30 Prolife Arguments

Handout.Prochoice.Objections

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If Men could get pregnant . . .

One of the arguments common in the abortion debate is a thought experiment about male pregnancy.

The theorized scenario goes something like this:

If men could get pregnant, then [insert prochoice outcome, like . . .]

  • birth-control would be given out like tic tacs
  • abortion would be virtually mandatory
  • there’d be 10x’s as many abortions
  • the prolife movement wouldn’t exist
  • etc.

At the heart of this thought experiment there is some semblance of a noble motive. The abortion debate is laden with gender issues, classic and modern, political, societal, local and individual. Men don’t always understanding the plight of women in this day and age, or for that matter, at any age in the past. Perhaps men would be more caring and compassionate towards young mothers, unwed mothers, or otherwise reluctant mothers if men could get married. This point is valid, insofar as it goes. 

This thought experiment, however, has some major limitations which make it an unreliable tool in the abortion debate.

(1) Hypothesis Contrary to Fact.
By using a hypothetical scenario that is very different from the known world and laden with untestable conjecture, it constitutes a logical fallacy called “hypothesis contrary to fact which.” If men could get pregnant then that would be a weird nether-world totally unlike this one, and therefor ethically irrelevant to this conversation.

(2) It’s Invented On the Spot
How could a person gain knowledge of this fictional world? Since this pregnant-male world doesn’t exist, one would have to be inventing it; a fictional world. But being fiction, all logic and reason go out the window. Once principled reasoning goes, then it becomes silly to argue about it, since one can just invent the rules for this alternate world as he or she goes along. This is a fine practice for creative writing or story-telling, but doesn’t get us very far in analyzing the ethics of abortion.

(3) If it’s “similar” to this world, then we can’t assume a pro-choice outcome
If men could get pregnant, and we are trying to somehow stay “true” to the order and reasoning of this world, then we can’t assume that the male sex drive, or men’s approach to family, or their operations in society, or their sense of gender would go unchanged. But if those things changed in keeping with this theorized shift in child-bearing, then the anticipated prochoice outcome wouldn’t necessarily follow either. It could be that conservative approaches to sex, marriage, and family would follow if men assume responsibility for child-bearing. But we can’t really know one way or another because, of #2–this scenario is invented on the spot. 

(4) Non-sequitur.
For the sake of argument, if male pregnancy was the only thing to change, somehow, and let us suppose further that that tweak on the facts would generate a much higher abortion rate, or a much more liberalized abortion policy, or a proliferation of birth-control–then we are still left with the same question we started with. Is abortion ethical? That scenario would result in abortion being common, and a range of related behaviors proliferating, but none of that shows whether or not the child-in-utero has a right to life. Societies have shaped law and policy to suit gross injustice in the past, and we have no reason to assume we couldn’t do it again. If abortion numbers skyrocketed, well that could just be skyrocketing evil.

(5) Ad Populum/Consensus Gentium
In this pregnant-male scenario, where abortion is common, we cannot, from that stipulation assume that abortion would be ethical. Evil can be popular, or even universal. As such, that scenario commits a fallacious appeal to majority, that is, the Ad Populum–if it argues on the basis of popularity, or the Consensus Gentium–if it argues on near universal agreement. Bad ideas and wicked practices can be popular and widely believed

In summary, the male-pregnancy scenario does nothing to prove that a liberal abortion policy is ethical. It does however raise an interesting consideration to help men sympathize better with the plight of women. 

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Is Consent to Sex Consent to Pregnancy?

PregnantOne of the pivotal conceptual keys to the abortion debate is whether and how sex relates to pregnancy. Specifically, are people consenting to pregnancy when they consent to sex? Pro-lifers typically assert a strong and ethically charged relation where consent to sex is a kind of natural invitation to pregnancy. The woman may not willingly or knowingly be inviting pregnancy, especially if the couple is using different kinds contraception, such as condoms and birth-control pills. However, she is still engaging in a sex act, and since contraceptive practices all have a margin of error, she may still get pregnant. If pregnancy should happen, Pro-lifer’s argue, then she now has the responsibility of carrying that child to term–it’s her responsibility which she invited on herself by using nature’s way of making babies. Meanwhile, pro-choicers are liable to argue that sex and pregnancy are divided; having sex is not an invitation to pregnancy. Who is right?

Well, depending on what you mean by “consent” both sides can be right. If consent is understood strictly in terms of knowingly and intentionally desiring non-pregnancy as an outcome of sex, then a woman would not be consenting to pregnancy. We may call that “strict consent.” By this strict sense, consent refers to adult informed consent, that is, reasonably well-informed willful desire for an outcome or against an outcome. This notion entails some combination of expectations, intention, hope or purpose. However there’s another sense wherein consent should either be stretched to include other things than what is specifically desired or the pregnancy should be thought of as a duty-bearing outcome of the consensual sex-act.

Consent to a Forest Fire

Suppose a woman named Elle does not want to start a forest fire, does not expect to start a forest fire, and does not think she will start a forest fire with her actions, yet, she nevertheless applies a lit match to a dry tree along the highway beside a dense Northern Californian forest. She fully understands how fires work, and how that part of California has a propensity for forest fires. She was playing a trick on a friend, Jay, pretending to start a fire but secretly expecting that the match would be blown out by the stiff winds before it touched the wood. She likes playing tricks on her friend Jay. They play tricks on each other, and have fun doing so. She was acting purely for innocent pleasure motives. Unfortunately, despite her intentions, the match did not blow out and the tree immediately caught spark and lit up like a torch. Other trees ensued in the blaze.

Did Elle start a forest fire? Yes. Did she start it knowingly? Yes. Did she intend to start it? No. But is she still legally and ethically culpable for starting that fire? Yes. The responsibility for starting the forest fire falls on her. Her intentions were betrayed by her actions. Put another way, she physiologically consented to the forest fire even if mentally she did not consent to it. She enabled what she did not want. She is morally responsible for enabling it, and it is of secondary importance whether she wanted that outcome or not. She gave a kind of consent.

Consent to Heartburn

Perhaps another illustration would help us understand consent in terms of free consequences. There is a consequential aspect of freedom. People may have the legal and ethical right to conduct themselves in at least a generally “free” way. People may choose their activities, their words, their lifestyle, their vocation, their lovers. But they do not have the liberty to choose whether to accept the consequences (including subsequent responsibilities) of their free actions. No one’s liberty has been violated if they eat a chili cheese dog and receive heartburn, without consent. Heartburn may still occur for people who are prone to acid reflux, and it may even occur for people who take preventive medicine.

In the case of heartburn, no human life hangs in the balance so there’s no ethical quandry about whether to “kill” the heartburn. But there’s still a relevant parallel. No one’s freedom has been violated, nor injustice committed, if the consequences are natural outcomes of freely chosen acts.

Consent to Mothering an Infant

Likewise, a woman may not want her infant child because she stopped consenting to motherhood after the child’s 2nd birthday. But that ship has already sailed. She has no rightful freedom to kill her infant child. Never mind whether she consents to motherhood or not. Birthing a child and being a mother to that child–even if she later refuses consent–is sufficient for establishing a legal duty to care for that child or see that it is surrendered to be cared-for by someone else. Killing the infant is clearly overkill. Consent to the cause is consent to the effect.

Furthermore, even if she never consented to mother the child, she still has a natural consequence and it is not clear (beyond a reasonable doubt) that killing the child (in utero or ex utero) is an ethical option. The human child in utero is now an interested party, whose personal future hangs in the balance. Had this child been the product of rape (an unchosen consequence), or otherwise unjustly introduced, say, through some mad scientist’s experiment, then this line of argument might not follow.

However, as it stands, anyone advocating for some “right” to kill morally and legally guiltless human beings on the basis of someone else’s consent has clearly not satisfied the burden of proof when it comes to deliberating over and administering death sentences.

Physiological Consent

Returning then to the notion of physiological consent, the sex act can be thought of as physiological consent to pregnancy. When two people, capable of conceiving and bearing a child, engage in heterosexual intercourse they are partaking in a physiological invitation for pregnancy. One might say that our bodies are designed or made to make babies this way. Adults should not be surprised if intercourse generates pregnancy. Frankly, this is how people across human history have thought of sex and pregnancy. Sex is the normal, natural, and well-known way for making babies so that if one does not want to make a baby, one should not have sex. If one wants to have sex without making babies, he or she is still responsible if an accidental pregnancy ensues. More recent contraceptive measures and abortion, since 1973, have given people a host of ways to try to divide sex from pregnancy. But if two consenting adults engage in heterosexual intercourse and the sperm and egg meet, and a child is conceived, they have consented to the outcome in the sense of extending the natural means of inviting that consequence.

Thus, the pro-choicer is left with a strict sense of “consent,” consenting to sex does not entail consenting to pregnancy. A person can want one of these and not the other. But this objection isn’t sufficient to discredit the other type of consent. It doesn’t clearly achieve the degree of evidence needed to satisfy the burden of proof (for administering a death sentence). Plenty of doubts remain before one can conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it’s ethically permission to intentionally kill the fetal human being. Meanwhile, this other sort of consent, “physiological sense” remains as a plausible pro-life alternative. Having sex is itself the consent, the invitation, to pregnancy. One can want either or both, but the sex act itself constitutes physiological consent to pregnancy at least insofar as a moral duty ensues as the act itself is a kind of consent irrespective of one’s strict intentions. Likewise, a person who lights a tree on fire has given the relevant kind of consent to starting a forest fire, even if it was an accident.

Pro-lifers, therefore have a few options. Pro-lifers can ague that consent is either not necessary or consent can be physiological such that if a woman gets pregnant because of consensual sex, she is morally culpable for that outcome (i.e., she is morally responsible as a mother to her child). The pro-choicer has to object to the analogies and consider this “physiological consent” either illicit, inadequate, or inapplicable, while doubling down on the more commonly accepted sense of “informed adult consent.”

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Can children-in-utero feel pain?

20_weeks (1)The Pain Capable Act (HR 1797, “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”), effectively banning abortion after 20 weeks, just passed the house this May (2015) and is set to go before the Senate. As of today it’s being reviewed in a judiciary committee. If it passes the Senate, it will likely be vetoed by President Obama. If children-in-utero do feel pain, then most (perhaps all) senate democrats and the President consider that a worthwhile cost in protecting late-term abortion as a right (20+ weeks).

Advocates for this bill have been accused of duplicitous motives, namely, an incremental attack aimed at abolishing abortion. Instead of seeking to reduce fetal pain or support women’s interests, so it is said, the aim is to repeal Roe vs. Wade and get rid of abortion-choice in America.

That accusation may be true or false but in targeting motives instead of laws and actions, it misses the mark. That tactic can be called the “motivational fallacy” for treating motives as if they, by themselves, are sufficient to decide the wisdom, truth, or goodness of a claim. While motives can matter, it’s not clear that they count for very much here. It is sufficient for the purposes of congress to seek to limit needless pain inflicted willfully and aggressively against innocent human beings. Psychoanalytic conjecture about people’s motives is not the proper job of congress. Instead, their job is to pass and repeal laws. In this case, the law concerns the alleged pain of children-in-utero. This pain is, relatively, easy to legally prohibit thus discouraging, reducing, and perhaps ending it for the vast majority of endangered children-in-utero.

Pain is Abstract
There are some roadblocks to this legislation however, not the least of these being the abstract nature of “pain.” Children in utero allegedly feel pain as early as 8 weeks gestation and at least by week 20. “Alleged” is the proper term here because the nature of pain is private, and there are some problems with quantifying pain as an object for legal analysis. One cannot extract pain, measure it out in a beaker, and divide it into parts. It’s not a public object like that. It’s deeply private, being a subjective state of experience. There’s no amount of scientific analysis that can ever bridge the medical doctor or the lab technician into another person’s felt experience of pain.

Being a subjective experience, people can rationally doubt it’s existence for anyone besides themselves. This position would be extreme. But one is at liberty to doubt any other person’s pain. Some people exaggerate, imagine, or lie about their pain. It is rationally justified to doubt “the boy who cried wolf.” In other cases, people may experience real pain, but it’s private nature leaves it’s unverifiable in the public’s eye. A friend of mine suffers from chronic pain. Her pain has defied medical diagnosis and yet it persists in a punishing debilitating way. Her own father remains skeptical to this day. He thinks it’s “all in her head.” Pain operates like this. It can be very real yet forever defy objective analysis. People can question each other’s pain and be perfectly rational in doing so.

When it comes to children-in-utero one can rationally doubt whether it feels pain since it’s felt experience of pain sensations is intrinsically private.

The Burden of Proof
This manner of objection, however, is deeply problematic. If we concede that it’s okay to cause what might be pain in a gestating fetus because we aren’t sure it actually feels pain then we have shifted the burden of proof the wrong way. The safe default position is to refrain from harming other human being unless otherwise justified beyond a reasonable doubt. The heavier burden of proof lies on those who want to harm human beings. This is why we are to approach warfare with such reverent trepidation, and why some parts of the world have banned the death penalty altogether. It is not enough to think that humans probably aren’t being harmed; no, we must be sure that they aren’t being harmed. This is the measure we use for administering punitive judgments against criminals. They are considered innocent until proven guilty. Before inflicting pain/harm/suffering on a criminal, we must prove that it is justified beyond a reasonable doubt.

In Philosophy, there is a skeptical problem termed the “Problem of Other Minds.” This problem refers to the difficulty, among hyper-skeptical theorists, in identifying whether and how other minds exist besides one’s own mind. While this problem plagues some philosophers, it doesn’t bother non-philosphers much at all. Why is that? We have common sense knowledge that other people, who live and act in roughly comparable ways to our own experience, are probably real people. We do not start with universal doubt, rejecting everything that we can’t prove with 100% certainly. Instead, we start with a basic and common sense awareness of things. We can even allow that there’s a possibility that reality is radically different from how it seems, but we don’t abandon our preliminary assumptions about other minds, or their experience of pain, unless some overwhelming reason is offered for doubting that operating assumption.

Now no one is asserting that children-in-utero have “minds” in any sophisticated sense, nor do we even need them to have a”mind” in any useful sense at all. If children-in-utero have the physiology correlate with pain, and if their behavior is known to mimic that of pain sensations, then we have sufficient reason for thinking that they can feel pain. The burden of proof, remember, is on those who intend to permit inflicting pain on them. If they cannot show that the fetuses apparent pain is illusory then we are justified in assuming they actually feel pain.

Fetuses Have the Features for Feeling Pain
As it turns out, children-in-utero do have the material and active features corresponding to pain reception.

“At 20 weeks, the fetal brain has the full complement of brain cells present in adulthood, ready and waiting to receive pain signals from the body, and their electrical activity can be recorded by standard electroencephalography (EEG).”
Dr. Paul Ranalli, neurologist, University of Toronto

“An unborn baby at 20 weeks gestation “is fully capable of experiencing pain. … Without question, [abortion] is a dreadfully painful experience for any infant subjected to such a surgical procedure.”
Robert J. White, M.D., PhD., professor of neurosurgery, Case Western University

Many more medical professionals could be cited in support of this growing concensus. That is, children-in-utero have the neurology to receive pain signals through a comprehensive neural system linking to the thalamus (where pain reception occurs) as well as respond to those signals through their endocrinology  (hormonal release) and muscular systems (responding to environment, avoiding injury). All of these are present at least by the 20th week of development.

Specifically, children-in-utero are known to avoid forcepts, resist poking and prodding, squirm under the knife, and in the case of fetal surgery they have to be anaesthetized because they move as if they felt pain. Indeed fetal surgeons are required to administer anesthesia for fetuses 18 wks or older.

Moreover, we have reason to think that the fetal experience of pain is worse than comparable acts on neonatals.

[20 weeks development is a] “uniquely vulnerable time, since the pain system is fully established, yet the higher level pain-modifying system has barely begun to develop.”
Dr. Ranalli

At a common sense level, everyone seems to feel pain at some point in their life, and we understand that it should not be inflicted needlessly on other human beings. We have a vast scientific knowledge about the material features of pain in the human body. The whole medical industry turns, in large part, on its ability to understand and treat pain. Generally speaking, pain is a problem to be solved, not a solution to be administered. The essence of medicine is to reduce pain and harm and foster health and life where possible. These are the the complementary Medical principles of beneficence and non-malfeasance. It’s medically self-defeating to inflict pain unto death on a healthy human being with no medical benefit to that human being.

Given these reasons, it’s unethical and, perhaps, should be illegal, to cause pain unto death in innocent human beings where no medical benefit is intended for that human being. We have every common sense reason to believe that fetal human beings can feel pain at least by 20 weeks development. It is our duty as a society to enact laws to minimize or abolish practices which intentionally inflict pain on otherwise innocent human beings. Such evidence would certainly weigh against slavery, or rape, or child abuse. In the same way, abortion after 20 weeks gestation violates the societal duty to not harm innocent human beings. Therefore, abortion at 20 weeks is unjustified with respect to fetal pain.

Sources:
* https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/1797
* https://www.congress.gov/congressional-report/113th-congress/house-report/109/1
* http://www.doctorsonfetalpain.com/answering-the-pain-deniers/#.VWZ6kE_BzGc
* http://www.doctorsonfetalpain.com/fetal-pain-the-evidence/5-documentation/#.VWZu-E_BzGc
* http://www.mccl.org/unborn-babies-can-feel-pain.html
* http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=%22Glover%20V%22%5BAuthor%5D [Glover has several articles showing the apparent experience of pain in fetuses]

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Is Abortion Safe?

Some pro-choice advocates suggest that abortion should be “safe, rare, and legal.” But what if it’s not safe at all?

Well, the abortion-choice advocate can point out that maternal deaths have gone down significantly in the history of abortion. Medically “safe” practices have expanded to give more options and methods to reduce undue risks. That said, it is naive to suggest that abortion is a safe, neutral or even a good option.

Death isn’t safe.
The child always dies in an abortion, and that’s hardly safe. And in those rare cases of botched abortions where the baby survives, there are still abortion-rights advocates who think that infanticide is permissible.

Intrinsic Risks
Because of intrinsic risks in abortion procedures, the sheer number of injuries and deaths has risen, in spite of advances in medical technology and safety practices. Legalized abortion has fostered a much higher abortion rate than anyone in the early 1970’s could have imagined. What was thought to be in the order of 10,000 or so abortions ballooned up to over 1,000,000+ per year, a 10-fold growth. Even with relatively “safe” practices, there is always some incidence of malpractice and accidents so that injuries and death occur. The percentages have lowered for botched abortions, maternal injury, and maternal death, but because of the swollen numbers abortions, the sheer amount of injuries and death have gone up.

Moral Harms
Morally, it’s not safe to one’s conscience to conduct willful killing of human life. The human conscience is a malleable thing, and it’s risky to stretch and tear at it with such morally questionable practices like abortion. Such practices invariably involves playing God, determining death for another innocent human being. Cultural Corruption Culturally, the abortion industry has been a major step towards a “culture of death.” We compromise our moral character as a culture when we treat willful convenience killing like its justified and good. Similarly, sympathies have grown for active euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, and the “sanctity of life” view has waned as the “quality of life” view has grown.

Economic Damage
Economically, it’s not safe to link killing and profits. The abortion industry is literally in the business of death-profiteering. Sure it’s normally okay to make lots of money through legal measures, but, in the long-run it’s a self-defeating venture to make money off of killing millions of future employees, future tax payers, and future family members. Who will take care of the present baby booming generation? With 1-2 children to each household there are fewer family options to turn to. More often than not, that role has to be farmed out to nursing homes. That’s expensive. And of course, it’s immoral to put a profit incentive on baby-killing. If the argument against monetizing death ever worked regarding “war for oil” accusations, the abortion industry has amped it up ten fold (in the order of 58 million abortions).

Social Risks Socially, an “abortion climate” continues to ease and affirm sex outside of marriage–which is unsafe to society. How is it unsafe to society? The sex industry has skyrocketed ever since the “free-love” sixties raising divorce rates, raising the rates of sex slavery, raising the profitability and lowering the inhibitions about pornography, raising the incidence and varieties of VD’s, not to mention causing a whole lot of naive young ladies heartbreak when they’ve “put out” only to find that the boy lost interest in them after using them for sex.

Legal Dangers
Legally speaking, abortion is a rapists best friend. Rapists and sex traffickers don’t have any need for babies. Pregnant victims carry around DNA evidence (the baby) for at least 9 months and get into conversations about the father. But sex offenders want silent victims and no evidence–abortion serves both purposes.  One would think that abortion clinics would anticipate this potential problem and never let it happen. But unfortunately Clinics have been known to comply with those crimes.

Medical Dangers
Medically speaking, and with some disputation, its not even safe for the mother. Maternal mortality has declined in the 20th and 21st centuries, but given the heightened incidence of infertility, and suicide rates among abortive mothers suggest it’s not safe for them either. Psychologically, with abortion, the chances of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder skyrocket for women who’ve had an abortion. Likewise increased are such social problems as abuse and divorce. We can’t say that the social factors are “caused” by abortion, but they seem to be found together suggesting something like, “Women who have abortions are more likely the people who get in abusive relationships and who get divorced, whether or not the abortion causes those things.” Many studies have sought to mitigate other studies claiming that abortion generates mental health problems. This facet of the “safety” issue is not settled but there do remain current, vindicating, sources pointing towards the widely admitted fact that having an abortion is traumatic. By self-report, women are known to turn to drug and drink, and escalate prior mental health issues, all correlating with their abortion. Given these facts one cannot honestly say that abortion is safe. The best case one can make, while being honest about the facts, is that it is a necessary evil in regards to some really tough cases.

*Originally posted May 13, 2015 at IntelligentChristianFaith.com

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