In a recent column, “Faith, science and the abortion debate: Do abortion rights advocates follow the facts, wherever they lead?” at Religion News Service (reposted at America as “In the abortion debate, it’s the pro-lifers who have science on their side”), theologian-bioethicist Charles Camosy reports that pro-choice advocates sometimes deny scientific facts that are relevant to abortion debates.
E.g, they sometimes deny that embryos and beginning fetuses have heartbeats; and they may deny that fetuses feel pain at three months of development, despite some limited research that they do; and they deny that some aborted fetuses looked like babies.
Camosy’s apparent suggestion—seemingly accepted by many anti-abortion advocates—is that these facts “lead” to concluding that abortion is morally wrong and should be illegal.
This suggestion is mistaken. While Camosy and others who share his position focus on “scientific” facts, they often overlook that there are facts about where facts “lead.” The science that studies these facts is logic, the kind taught in logic, math, and philosophical bioethics classes since understanding logic is essential for evaluating arguments on all ethical issues.
To evaluate arguments on abortion, much of the logic we need to know comes from Aristotle and his “classical syllogisms.” Consider this standard example:
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Stating the unstated premise makes this argument into a syllogism:
Socrates is a man.
All men are mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
The skill of stating arguments in “standard” form enables us to see why the facts that Camosy reviews do not successfully support any anti-abortion conclusion. To make this clear, let’s state the arguments as syllogisms:
Embryos and beginning fetuses have hearts.
All beings with hearts are usually wrong to kill. (Or all hearts are wrong to stop or kill).
Therefore, embryos and beginning fetuses are usually wrong to kill.
Fetuses after 12 weeks of development may feel pain.
All beings that may feel pain are usually wrong to kill.
Therefore, fetuses after 12 weeks of development are usually wrong to kill.
Some fetuses look like babies.
All beings that look like babies are usually wrong to kill.
Therefore, fetuses that look like babies are usually wrong to kill.
It’s unfortunate that some people deny the first premises here, but it’s also unfortunate that people often don’t recognize that these second premises are essential to the arguments and that these premises are false or widely believed to be false.
About the “heart argument,” of course animals have hearts, but most people, including “pro-life” people, do not think that animals’ lives are usually wrong to end. So they believe that the premise that all beings with hearts are usually wrong to kill is false and so that any argument about abortion with this premise is unsound.
And we can imagine a human heart kept alive by a machine. Must it be wrong to kill that heart? No, and so it’s again false that all hearts are wrong to stop or kill. A heartbeat, in itself, is of no moral significance: it’s who is around a heart that matters morally. No theorist of human rights proposes we have rights because we have heartbeats: a person with a hypothetical “beatless,” artificial heart would be as wrong to kill as anyone with a natural heart.
It’s sometimes been explained that a heartbeat is a sign of life—biological life—and that’s why heartbeats are so important. But this suggested argument suffers from this premise:
All biologically living things or beings are usually wrong to kill.
Counterexamples such as bacteria and mold and broccoli and carrots, among other living things that aren’t at all wrong to kill, refute this premise.
Concerning the “fetuses may feel pain at 12 weeks” argument, again, the treatment of animals suggests that most people believe (although perhaps mistakenly) that it’s false that all beings that may feel pain are usually wrong to kill. And male circumcision, among many other tragic examples, suggests that some people perhaps don’t care as much even about human pain as they claim to.
The better response, however, to this argument is to consider 12 weeks of fetal development as a potentially plausible time to restrict abortions, provided accessible exceptions are allowed after that, since most abortions occur before 12 weeks. So moderate pro-choice people can and should accept whatever the best science says about when fetuses become sentient.
Anti-abortion advocates, however, should also accept the ethical facts that just because a human organism is sentient or even a person does not entail that anyone else must support that being, or that that being is entitled to the use of anyone else’s body, even for their life to continue. Judith Thomson observed this over 50 years ago in her famous “A Defense of Abortion” article; many anti-abortion advocates have yet to appreciate the brilliance of her position and those developed from it.
Finally, concerning the “some fetuses look like babies” argument, one response is, “OK, but embryos and beginning fetuses do not ‘look like babies,’ and so this argument won’t condemn most abortions.”
And babies—real babies—are not wrong to kill because they look like babies. Children and adults aren’t wrong to kill because of their looks either. While we are biologically human or biologically human organisms, that’s not why we have basic rights either. Leading theories of the foundation or basis of human rights propose that we have moral rights because of what rights protect us from: harm, disrespect, unfairness, and other losses: medical ethics is wisely pluralistic in its explanation of the moral data.
Anti-abortion advocates often claim that we are persons and have basic rights because we are the “kind” of beings that are rational beings. But this view seems to offensively suggest that severely mentally challenged human beings have rights not because of their own intrinsic characteristics, but because of their relations or similarities to allegedly “ideal,” rational human beings. And to claim that embryos and beginning fetuses are of that “kind” is to equate or identify us with physical bodies, a view which most people reject. We can also think that only conscious substances or subjects are of this “kind” anyway, a view that jibes with pro-choice views.
Many philosophers, present and past, have argued that only conscious beings, or experiencing subjects, can suffer such harms and disrespect, and so only beings like that have basic rights and be persons or person-like. Embryos and beginning fetuses don’t have any of that, even if they ever “look like babies.”
Camosy writes, “Facts, as they say, are stubborn things.” Indeed they are. And it’s a stubborn fact that scientific facts never, about any issue, in themselves, determine the ethical facts: those familiar with the naturalistic fallacy, the is-ought gap, and critiques of “scientism” are well aware of this.
In thinking about ethical issues, we need to attend to all the facts—scientific facts, logical facts, and ethical facts—in deciding what’s best to think and do. Philosophers study these issues, consider the relevant facts, from all the types of facts, and are usually broadly pro-choice. That and how they come to these conclusions should be more widely known; that might lead to many good outcomes regarding abortion and many other issues and concerns.