Thoughts On What An Ethical Solution To The Abortion Ethics Conflict Might Look Like, Part I: 25 Stipulations


This is Labor Day, after all…

Eventually it is irresponsible and cowardly to criticize all of the rhetoric regarding abortion and not make a serious proposal. I feel like I’ve reached that point.

Let’s start with what we have to work with.

25 Stipulations

I have not labored to put these in order of priority or importance, and many constitute “but on the other hand” reflexes upon considering the previous point. I’ll bold the items that seem particularly important as I post them. I am certain that I will miss some or many points that need to be considered as well.

1. Abortion involves two human lives, not one.

2. Women’s functional and evolutionary role is and has been to continue the species by bearing children.

3. That was sufficient from a biological and anthropological standpoint, but as civilization developed, this role interfered significantly with the ability of women to participate equally in society to the degree that they might wish, and to engage in life choices that men, not so burdened by childbearing and child rearing by anatomy and tradition, take for granted.

4. This gender divide violates the “inalienable rights” adopted by The Founders as the bedrock of the American experiment, culture, society and ethos.

5. However, life is unfair, and rubbing out innocent lives in order to make it superficially more fair is unethical as well as hypocritical.

6. Sexual intercourse is only necessary in order to create new human beings.

7. The act of sex is still a significant aspect of “the pursuit of happiness” for most men and women.

8. No one has an ethical obligation to have offspring.

9. Not being obligated to create life does not imply a right to end a life one did not choose to create.

10. Pregnancy and child-rearing can be and often is a serious obstacle to women’s ability to determine their own course in life, to achieve their aspirational goals, and to participate equally in society according to their talents, ambitions, and determination.

11. Overcoming that undeniable and significant problem does not change or repeal the Categorical Imperative, which holds that it is unethical for anyone to use another human being without that human being’s consent to accomplish a personal objective, no matter how legitimate or virtuous.

12. The Categorical Imperative is an Absolutist principle. All rules, principles and laws have exceptions, however. That is the problem with Absolutism.

13. An innocent human being has a right to exist, and, therefore, to live.

14. No individual has a superior right to end another human being’s life, except in societally approved situations (self-defense) that comport with principles of justice as defined by law.

15. Arguments that a mother can “defend herself” against her unborn child when a pregnancy does not truly place a woman’s life at risk are contrived and illegitimate.

16. Under basic American principles and rights as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the government does not have the power or right to force a woman to become pregnant, prevent her from becoming pregnant, have sexual intercourse or not have sexual intercourse.

17. It follows, then, that the government should not have the power or right to force a woman to bear a child to term and give birth, except..

18. The government does have the power and right, and indeed the obligation, to protect the lives of human beings within its jurisdiction.

19. An unborn child is such a human being.

20. 17-19 define an ethics conflict. Ethics conflicts can only be resolved by accepting that a solution will violate one or more ethical principles.

21. Not solving such an ethics conflict also violates one or more ethical principles. Thus the abortion problem as it stands constitutes Ethics Zugzwang, the state in which every choice is unethical, and making no choice is impossible.

22. Solutions that are constructed by ignoring the factors that make abortion an ethics conflict are intellectually dishonest and unethical.

23. The terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are both intellectually dishonest and unethical.

24. Human life begins at conception.

The best teacher I ever had, and I had many excellent ones, was Nobel Prize recipient George Wald, who taught a wide-ranging biology survey course that I took in my Freshman year in college. Wald was a lock-step liberal, but he didn’t shy away from tough issues. He admitted, in one typical stream-of-consciousness lecture, that he didn’t have a definitive answer for the abortion problem (this was before Roe v. Wade), but he said that it had to involve deciding when a human life began. Logically, he said, there are only two choices: it is a human life when it is conceived, or it is a human life when it is born. Every other standard, he said, was necessarily arbitrary and had no integrity. Artificial lengths of time were unscientifically arbitrary made no sense, he said: a fetus was not human one second and suddenly human the next? So, Prof. Wald said, between two extremes, either as valid as the other but one triggering unpalatable legal consequences, he chose birth as the dividing line between human and not human. This prompted applause from many in the large class of over 500. It did not seem right to me then instinctively, at a time when I hadn’t given abortion much thought, and seems more misguided now that I have.

A baby that is born at term could also have been born earlier just as successfully; this triggers the arbitrariness factor that Wald said made other benchmarks illegitimate. Furthermore, there is no logical reason to argue that a child a hour from being born is any less human than the same child after being born. This fact is what led Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer to note that if it should be ethically and legally justifiable to abort a viable fetus, there is no ethical reason not to permit the killing of the same child after its birth. However, accepting the other of Wald’s two extremes requires no such hypocrisy. Before conception, there is no human life. After conception, there is.

25. “Viability” restrictions, as used in laws and court opinions, are intellectually dishonest and therefor unethical. If an organism is developing naturally and will progress normally to birth and eventually adulthood absent outside interference to deny that natural development, it is viable enough to be regarded as the human life it is. A newborn baby isn’t “viable” in the sense that it can survive absent intense and lengthy care by others. If something is going to grow and live if you don’t kill it, you can’t claim it wasn’t really a life when you do.

I’m happy to add to the list. Meanwhile, I’ll be using these in Part 2 later today, as I try to find as ethical a solution as possible to this ethics conflict.

20 thoughts on “Thoughts On What An Ethical Solution To The Abortion Ethics Conflict Might Look Like, Part I: 25 Stipulations

    • From a biological standpoint, the father has the least at stake, since he’s not the one pregnant unless he’s a seahorse.

      That being said, if I was married and we agreed on having a child, and my wife got an abortion behind my back, I wouldn’t be happy about it. I also don’t understand the logic of a woman who willingly sleeps with a man, want’s to keep the baby, DOESN’T want the man in her life, but takes his money for child support.

      And how often does it happen that a man get’s a woman pregnant, doesn’t want to marry her, but does want her to keep the baby?

      • That’s nearly impossible to say, but I think it does happen from time to time for the same reasons people get divorced but still want custody of their kids: there are men who don’t mind or like the idea of being fathers, even though they aren’t crazy about the women they got pregnant. However, that is complicated when it comes to pregnancy by whether they like the idea of being a father while assuming that the kid will be living primarily with the mother or whether they would actually be willing to take full custody if it was offered. I think some number of the guys who would want the child are definitely thinking the former.

  1. I have always maintained that engaging in sexual intercourse is not a right, but rather a privilege granted by mutual consent. If it were a right and per se inalienable, then no one can deny that right. The conclusion that then could follow is that there is no such thing as rape since it is merely the application of one’s right.

  2. The fact is that the principal of anyone being completely in charge of their own body, whatever gender, is a shibboleth. Legally there are some substances that no one can introduce into the body without a prescription and sometimes at all. Legally, in a number of nations, no one may attempt to end their own life. Legally, the government may still commandeer anyone’s body for service in time of war or national calamity, and the individual does not get a whole lot to say about it necessarily. Legally, the government can end your life in war, in the commission of a crime, or if you are tried and found guilty of a crime that merits death. Legally, the government can significantly limit anyone’s freedom of movement or of action. The left can try to separate the abortion question from all of this, but it is being fundamentally dishonest, and it is being doubly dishonest in light of the fact that the left is pushing hardest to compel the introduction of vaccines into the body, whatever concerns or questions anyone may have, using all the powers at the disposal of government to do it.

    The fact is that it is never and has never been about either liberty or morality. It is about getting votes. When women could not vote at all, it was very easy to make abortion illegal, based on the principle, that dates back to the time of the original Hippocratic oath (in which a physician swore that he would give no deadly medicine to anyone and would not give to a woman an instrument to produce abortion), that abortion was wrong because it destroyed a human life. It did not matter, because the political parties were not competing for the votes of anyone but men. It was also accepted that men would sow their wild oats and then settle down. That said, abortion was always available if you had enough money and the right connections, the same as a man who was rich enough and connected enough could easily unburden himself of a wife he no longer desired by having her committed.

    Well, then women got the vote, in some cases and places before the 19th amendment, that’s how Jeanette Rankin got into Congress before the 19th amendment was passed. Now there were a whole lot more votes to compete for and another set of unique interests that were part of the equation, to say nothing of a new identity politics.

    After World War II and as American standards of living began to rise, the idea that women’s sex lives should be much more limited than men’s, or that men should eventually settle down started to become passe. Sex became more and more about pleasure and self indulgence than about reproduction. In the meantime, the Democratic party, which had always been linked to the Catholic Church due to Irish and Italian union membership, made what I believe was a calculated decision that there would be more votes in turning towards women’s interests and away from the church, which remains implacably opposed to abortion. This was underscored by papal publications which stated unequivocally that “every human act must remain open to the transmission of life.”

    But there is still more to it. Since the great excess that was the 1960s and the great hangover that was the 1970s, there has been a growing culture of irresponsibility, ease, and disposability. Turn a tap, instant drink, push a button, instant information, flash a card, instant money. Finish your hamburger, throw the wrapping in the trash and think no more of it. Do whatever with whoever, walk away in the morning. It didn’t help that the Great Society welfare state made it easy for men and women to just walk away, no matter what they had done. The welfare check could replace the wage earning husband.

    It also didn’t help that some men knew how to capitalize on this, and some Supreme Court decisions made it that much easier to capitalize on this. It became easier and easier to feed oneself a constant diet of any kind of stimulation one wanted, including extremely crude sexual thoughts. Maybe this sounds like psychobabble, but it is a fact that if you think too much about one thing it becomes that much harder to stop thinking about it. The more you think about something to the exclusion sometimes of reason, the more likely it is that you’re going to do something extreme. That’s why overly religious Muslims are prime targets to become terrorists, why angry young men whose idea of fun is hitting bags in the gym and hitting one another and mixed martial arts are that much more likely to actually get violent to deal with a problem, and it’s why those who keep feeding themselves pornography get obsessed with sex to the point of doing it without restraint and without really concern for the consequences. It’s to the advantage of all these people that abortion remain safe, legal, and, not rare, but easily accessible, and private, so they are safe from judgmental eyes.

    The problem with abortion is that the left doesn’t want to face up to the grubby and selfish reasons it wants to keep it legal and unfettered and that too many irresponsible people want to be irresponsible with their sexuality and avoid the consequences. That’s why you hear BS arguments like it is somehow about controlling women’s bodies and you hear idiotic comparisons like making access to abortion similar to access to firearms. No one ever killed someone just by buying a firearm, but every. single. God damned abortion kills somebody, and that’s the God’s honest truth. Own it.

    • What you’re describing is decadence: the underregulated form of the fundamental liability of stagnation (known motivational limitations). People who give in to temptation lose discipline and become less and less able to deny themselves instant gratification. I call such people “Heedless”. Yes, it is definitely a problem that we as a society need to address.

      • Yep, that’s what it all boils down to. Pretty much all empires get there before they fall. I’m not going to say there are no valid reasons to abort. There are, starting with the health of the mother. Rape is evil, but killing a resulting but still innocent child has always bothered me, since in effect it is punishing the child for the crime of its father. Knowing that the child is going to have problems in life is another issue altogether, with a LOT more ethical questions. However, I don’t want to hear shallow, hateful stuff like “no uterus, no right to talk about it,” and I don’t want to hear about casual abortion as birth control and enabling slutty/horndog behavior.

  3. I think this is a very good examination. I would just add another stipulation:

    Parents (and in some cases the state) are allowed and expected to curtail certain “inalienable” rights of their children, both for the child’s good but also for their own convenience, until those children reach an arbitrary age. Children are not allowed liberty or the pursuit of happiness if their parents disagree, and in many cases their free speech, freedom of religion, right to bear arms, etc are curtailed for any or no reason.

    Often this is for their protection or education, but a parent can also refuse to allow a 16 year old to buy a gun because they don’t want to deal with it. They can involuntarily imprison an 8 year old because it’s raining and they don’t want to deal with muddy shoes. And while the age of 18 is traditional, it’s totally arbitrary as evident in that a few things kick in anywhere from 16 to 21.

    I’m not saying the government’s interest in protecting human life shouldn’t begin as soon as it exists, but it’s worth considering that every other right is abridged or curtailed when it comes to children until the reach an arbitrary age, usually under the authority of parents. In the case of abortion, even the stanchest advocates seem to believe that age is at birth, so no one is suggesting that patents have the right to kill six year olds any more than they have the right to tell a 30 year old he can’t go outside because it’s raining. But there’s precedent for the government allowing parents a wide latitude in disallowing rights to their own children up to an arbitrary cut off.

  4. I think this is mostly an excellent breakdown, and certainly a constructive approach.

    I do beg to differ on one key point, though: One possible standard that seems obviously non-arbitrary to me for when something becomes a “human life”–which I’m translating here as “human consciousness” since that’s what has rights and moral value to me–is when it has a functioning human brain.

    Consider this: If your arm gets cut off and replaced with a tin arm, do you have fewer human rights or moral value? If your entire body below the neck is replaced with tin, does that make you worth less as a person? What if your brain is the only thing organic about you, the rest being a human-shaped tin prosthesis? Do you still have rights?

    Conversely, what if your brain is removed and replaced with a lump of tin, while your lungs still breathe and your heart still beats? (We’re assuming no brain uploading is involved in this situation.) Are you still alive? Do we have a duty to keep your heart beating?

    If your brain is removed and placed in a tin body in Alexandria, while the rest of your body is sent to Boston and receives a lump of tin to replace your brain, where are you?

    For a more in-depth take that goes beyond even the physical brain itself, you may want to check out the fascinating article “What Makes You You?” from Wait But Why. (Content warning: existential crisis.)

    I have a more fluid concept of identity, and therefore of the border between life and death, than most of my fellow non-Buddhists, but I don’t expect most people to go that far at this time. In the meantime I think that human brains ought to be easy enough to agree on as a broad and safe criterion of human moral value.

    • I understand why you would argue this, but I think it is sort of arbitrary. Which stage of brain development does the human brain make the person human? When the fetus can feel pain? When it can talk? Even before the brain develops, the fetus is on a trajectory towards developing a human brain. This is rather different than your scenario where the brain has been removed, as in one case the brain will develop in the future and in the other it won’t grow back.

      People get bogged down in arguments that cannot really be agreed upon because of different viewpoints on the value of life when they start trying to pin down at what point a life begins to have value. If a bug gets in my house, I will squash it. If a lizard gets in my house I will capture it and put it back outside. Some people might smash both. Some people might set both free. I don’t value the life of a spider or cockroach enough to not smash them, but I do value the life of the lizard enough to not smash it. If you try to find a certain point in the life cycle where everyone can agree that the life has value, you will fail.

      Personally, I have some trouble with the idea that life has value at conception myself. If the fetus is still only 100 cells or so, to me it is more like a bug than a lizard, or a human baby. I have no problem with killing a bug or a 100 cell non human organism. I have to step back and look at the larger picture to see why the life begins at conception argument has ethical merit, as the alternative argument that it begins at birth is repugnant. Somewhere between the first few weeks of pregnancy and the 3rd or so month, the fetus becomes a baby to me. My opinion on exactly when that happens isn’t tangible enough to make a legal argument on which everyone is going to agree. My opinions on when a fetus becomes a life are sort of arbitrary as well. Arbitrary isn’t a good standard.

  5. Why is it that women are subject to prosecution if they are using street dugs or alcohol when pregnant. As I recall the most dangerous period of time for fetal development is during the first trimester of pregnancy. Hence, the state has the right to protect the unborn infant and prohibit the use of such substances by irresponsible pregnant women.

  6. I always figured that another clean line was implantation. I figure that at conception, an individual being is created, and cast into the mortal storm where life is not a given. Many created embryos fail to succeed beyond this point, failing to reach the safety of the mother’s uterine wall. At this point, the mother is unaware of the existence of the new being. Some, however, succeed in making it to the uterine wall, which, unbeknownst to the mother, welcomes and embraces the new being, providing shelter and sustenance. At this point, the new being has achieved it’s primary goal – find shelter. Abortion any point past this point is a revocation of that shelter, and is an act of kicking an unprepared creature out into a world it cannot be prepared for.

  7. Yes, 17 to 19 are the essence. I don’t know why you reference ‘Government’. You are seeking ‘ethics’ not ‘law’. As you have asserted numerous times : just because something is ‘legal’ doesn’t make it ‘ethical’ ; and equally something ‘illegal’ isn’t necessarily ‘unethical’. ‘Law’, Government, and the Constitution are in my view irrelevant to consideration of the ethics.

    If there are ‘inalienable human rights’ the woman clearly has them. The unborn child may well have such rights once viable. But prior to that, any such rights for the child can only exist if the woman is prepared to waive hers. It seems reasonable surely to hold that any rights I might have as a tenant, eg. to keep a dog, are subsidiary to your authority as my landlord (?). My right, whilst a tenant, to keep a dog, cannot therefore be ‘inalienable’ because you can ‘alienate’ them using your higher right as the owner of the property.

    I’d therefore argue that an unborn child prior to ‘validity’ (ie. ability to survive outside its mother) can have no inalienable right to life. The mother’s right to control her own body takes priority over any rights of her unborn child, or anyone seeking to intervene.

    That doesn’t mean I am in favour of abortion. I’m very much in favour of doing everything possible to help and enable a mother to carry her child to term, and to find a way for that child to be loved and cared for. If we had such a traumatic event in our family (I have three granddaughters) I don’t think we’d be talking ‘ethics’.

    • Going by your landlord-tenant analogy: If you’re a landlord who takes on a tenant, you cannot just evict them for any reason or whenever it suits you. You are bound to the lease, and you can’t kick them until they break their lease, it expires, or they violate some ordinance which justifies automatic eviction. By the same token, a fetus conceived by a woman’s voluntary actions should not be evicted because of mere convenience. A fetus INvoluntarily conceived, ie the product of rape or incest, could be said to be a “squatter”, hence I’m okay with abortion under those circumstances (likewise when the health of the mother is jeopardy).

      • An analogy is a good way to get a general comparison of a similar concept. but you do not want to make the mistake to confuse an analogy with an perfect overlay of the two concepts. There are ways in which is it like a tenant situation, but it is not a precise overlay, and contorting yourself around the in’s and out’s of one does not tell you much about the other.

      • I don’t understand the eviction analogy at all. Evicting someone isn’t killing them. If eviction literally was killing them—in a zombie apocalypse, for example, or “The Bird Box” situation—it might be legal to evict a tenant, but it would be unethical. Any analogy that ignore the little matter of the conduct causing death is not useful.

  8. Jack. I guess you would not acknowledge any ethical obligation to continue to house an unwelcome tenant, simply because he argues : that he has nowhere else to stay; and it is so cold outside that he would die if he sleeps on the street?

    When you exercise your right to evict him, and he dies on the streets I (and many of my left leaning friends) may well condemn you as a heartless bastard. But we won’t question your right to evict him, particularly when you point out you never wanted a tenant, and he has never paid rent.

    Some of us might seek to expand into a political debate as to whether ‘Society’ has a duty to house your pathetic and unwelcome tenant, but I’d expect you to resist such an argument as ‘on the road to the Gulag’, or at least ‘unAmerican’.

    I’d be enormously surprised if you directly killed your unwelcome tenant, or acknowledged that by evicting him you had effectively condemned him to death by hypothermia. (Maybe shooting him would be kinder, but you are the lawyer.)

    At the end of the day you might well hold off on the eviction, because you are a ‘nice guy’, and you might grumble about your ‘moral dilemma’. But having followed you for some years, I cannot recall you acknowledging any ethical obligation to be ‘nice’.

    Concerning your explicit point, yes, ‘evicting someone isn’t killing them’. I’d advise you to leave your evicted tenant and his belongings off your property, to die from the cruelty of the weather; not your responsibility. You might even blame God (?). In all sadness, I’d advise the resistant mother to do likewise.

    • Struggle as you might, you can’t make simple eviction a life and death matter. Even in the US, there are options for those who are homeless. I mentioned examples of situations where death is certain or near certain_-I wouldn’t throw someone out onto the street in a hurricane or flood either.Unlike a mother, I didn’t create the tenant: he put himself in my property, not the other way around. I have limited moral and ethical obligations to him. I can feed him. I can clothe him; I can give him money, but that’s altruism, not duty. It I choose to take my property back, I have nothing to feel guilty about…unless he really is domed to death. But he’s not.

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