On the Morality of: Abortion

Although abortion is stereotyped as the most controversial and divisive social issue there is, I think the moral issues at stake are actually fairly unambiguous. This installment of “On the Morality Of” will explain why.

Pared down to its essence, the moral question posed by abortion is a simple one: is an unborn fetus a human being, with all the moral rights and protections that pertain thereunto; or is it a non-human, an assemblage of cells, the existence of which may be terminated without wrongdoing?

The answer to this question, of course, depends critically on how you define a human being. Is a fetus a human being if it has a face, or arms and legs, or a beating heart? None of these criteria seem to me to be definitive. Being a human is far more than a matter of superficial physical appearance – we do not grant humanity to department-store mannequins, after all. Nor is humanity the mere arrangement of internal organs. If a person’s heart or lungs are failing and they need to be kept alive by machinery, does that deprive them of their moral personhood? Obviously not.

What if we were to define a human being as a living organism which possesses a certain, characteristic set of genes? This definition seems somewhat closer, but again, I think it misses the mark. If humanity consists of being a living organism which possesses human DNA, then we would also have to grant personhood rights to HeLa cell colonies, or to fetuses with anencephaly (warning: disturbing image). More to the point, if a living thing with human DNA is human, then every single one of our cells should be considered to be a human in its own right, and the millions of them that are naturally sloughed off our bodies each day would constitute a holocaust of unthinkable proportions. Obviously, this is absurd.

I submit that there is one and only one defining characteristic of a person, one thing which sets us apart and gives us our unique moral worth. That thing is consciousness – the facility for self-aware thought. That is what most clearly differentiates us from all other species on this planet, and it is also what gives us the uniqueness and individuality that is rightly viewed as a key component of moral worth.

Taking consciousness to be the defining characteristic of humanity gives us a clear dividing line to use in deciding whether abortion is immoral. Ending the existence of something which does not possess the ability for conscious thought – whatever else it may be – is not the destruction of a human being. Ending the existence of something which does possess that ability is the destruction of a person. This is a solid, rational standard. It’s a good sign that this position also neatly mirrors the common position on end-of-life care and euthanasia: once a human being has suffered brain death, or any other injury that results in the irreversible cessation of consciousness, they no longer possess moral personhood and we are under no obligation to ensure their physical continuance.

So, when does consciousness begin? This is a question which has an empirical answer. As Carl Sagan wrote on the topic:

Different kinds of mental activity show different kinds of brain waves. But brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy—near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this—however alive and active they may be—lack the necessary brain architecture. They cannot yet think.

This boundary line – which is the same boundary line the U.S. Supreme Court drew in Roe v. Wade, although for different reasons – is a feasible and defensible standard. It safeguards the autonomy of the woman, and her moral right to exercise control over her own body and not be forcibly subjected to the risks and burdens of pregnancy, without compromising the important principle that every human life should be protected. If a woman wishes to obtain an abortion, it seems to me that half a year is more than adequate time for her to become aware of her pregnancy, make the decision to abort, and obtain access to medical services.

As Sagan points out, six months is actually a conservative boundary, since regular brain waves are often absent in fetuses. Also, it’s conceivable that a fetus could possess them and still lack the ability for conscious thought. Nevertheless, it’s still a good standard and not one we should seek to push. When we know, based on our physiological understanding of how the brain functions, that consciousness cannot exist, then no person is present and we are under no corresponding ethical obligation. However, if there’s a rational possibility that consciousness may exist, then we should err on the side of caution and defend that life, just as it would be immoral to shoot into a closed box without knowing if there’s a person inside. Of course, if continued pregnancy would pose a threat to the life or health of the mother, then terminating the pregnancy is an unambiguous matter of self-defense.

Until the capability for conscious thought exists, a fetus cannot have the same moral status as a person. Doubtless, the fetus is a potential person. But potentiality is not the same as actuality, and a person who only potentially exists cannot claim moral rights which match or supercede the rights of an actual, living, conscious person. (The language is imprecise here; in truth, a person who only potentially exists does not exist, and a non-existent person cannot claim anything. There is no one to make the claim.) Therefore, no harm is done when a woman aborts a pregnancy before this point. There is no person for harm to be done to.

Other posts in this series: