Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Is Abortion Murder?


Tim McGregor asked me the following question:

“I started pondering about the issue of abortion and I thought maybe a worked example how desirism might help us make moral decisions would be greatly aid my comprehension of it.

With that in mind, would it be possible to explain how we might decide:

  • Whether to abort a foetus when the life of the mother is threatened?
  • At what age it might be ethical to do so if the foetus was not threatening the life of the mother.?”

The Framework

In applying desirism, the underlying question that needs answering is “what do people generally have reasons to promote and inhibit?”. The “generally” is to emphasize the trans-cultural feature of what is in common to people, regardless of their cultural background, influences, opinions and desires. This is to consider the moral issue as an all-things-considered and all-things-being-equal question and to find the facts of the matter.

Operating with such a framework question does not guarantee determinate let alone definitive conclusions, this is an enterprise that draws upon any relevant rational and empirical tools as for any other such empirical enterprise. Any conclusion is both provisional and defeasible and so open to challenge within such a framework.

A desirist focuses only on reasons to act that exist (as well as states of affairs) and these are desires. If an agent lacks such a desire, they appear to them as an external reason and not one that motivates them. Now one cannot use reason to change desires, instead one uses the social forces such as praise and blame, reward and punishment to do so. Desirism provides rational and empirical grounds over what desires to promote and inhibit and shows that history has been littered with the promotion and inhibition of desires for which there are no rational and empirical justifications. That is always the danger over the mutual and reciprocal influence over desires – whether they are really justified - a danger desirism has been developed to mitigate against.

So granted a conclusion is available for a given topic, of course individuals and groups are going to differ and disagree with this conclusion, this is because they either have desires that people generally lack, or lack desires that people generally have, the conclusion serves to show the desires that such individuals and groups should have. That is the whole point of the analysis. Again if no-one disagreed then there would be nothing to debate, and no-one bothers to ask such questions of universal agreement (still sometimes those are worth asking, if they can even be recognised, since we could all be wrong).


In order to answer Tim’s questions we are going to look at another question that underlies these - “is abortion murder?” -and based on the conclusion to that, answer Tim’s questions.

It is said, even by moral relativists, that the one common feature across cultures is a prohibition against murder. However this is misleading since murder is a value-laden term, it has disvalue built into it by definition. Let us explicate this term, which I will only do briefly here, as this post is focused on abortion.

Murder stereotypically means the deliberate wrongful killing of a person. Given such a meaning, it is no surprise that this is a prohibition that is likely a near universal across cultures. The real question is what counts as murder and this varies significantly across cultures depending on their notions of “deliberate” and “person”. All grant that for whatever is regarded as “deliberate” and “person” that it is “wrongful”  - that people have reasons to inhibit such a desire – a desire to deliberately kill a person (although they might indirectly focus on acts, rules or duties, none can be successfully affected unless the relevant desires are influenced).

We do not need to explore the notion of “deliberate” here, as we take it as given that an abortion is “deliberate”. This leaves us to answer the question as to whether a foetus is a person.

Prior to examining this we first need to explore two issues related to murder, self-defence and the defence of those incapable of defending themselves.

Defence against Murder

If a society coherently and consistently promotes an inhibition to deliberate kill persons, fewer members of such a society will have such a desire and so will be less likely to act upon it. However successful as society is at doing so, it is likely that some will still have such a desire and some of those will act upon it, albeit less than a society that fails in such a promotion. If there is a clear and present danger and killing the would be killer is the only option then this is not murder, it is self defence, this is not wrong, it is permissible, neither to be promoted nor inhibited. We do not need to explore the issues of the use of self-defence as a reactive response and tests to ensure whether such a claim is valid or not. However  this establishes the concept that there may be other circumstances that alter the conclusion that the deliberate killing of a person is murder - that is wrongful - such as medical complications.  We will look at that below.

We do need to note that if a foetus is a person, it is not capable of self-defence and this leads to the next derived principle.

Again, being brief, a moral agent is a person that can act and respond to the social forces. Now all moral agents are persons, but not all persons are moral agents. The notion of a person here (we are not exploring animal rights or psychopaths here) is is that any person is worthy of moral consideration, whether it is capable of being a moral agent or not. This certainly includes children, who lack the maturity to be moral agents, and those who are incapacitated, due to injury, illness and age. People generally have reasons to inhibit the desire not to consider such persons worthy of moral consideration, and this gives people motivations to defend those who cannot defend themselves. This does not mean or imply killing the aggressors in some form of assisted self-defence but rather that people generally have reasons to inhibit such desires, after all we all have been and will be in the position of being incapable of defending ourselves.

So if a foetus is a person and it clearly is incapable of self-defence, on the basis that it is worthy of moral consideration, we certainly would have reasons to deem abortion murder and utilise both the social forces and legal institutions to ensure that abortions do not occur.

Is a foetus a person

So now we need to see if a foetus is a person or not. If it is not, then abortion is not murder, if it is then abortion is murder.

Now history full of varying conceptions of persons, that is to who qualifies as a moral agent and who is worthy of moral consideration, often getting these relations inside out such as for slave and minorities being considered moral agents but not worthy of moral considerations, children often were not worthy of moral consideration and very often and till today women are worthy of only diminished moral consideration, if at all. If we seek a trans-cultural understanding of what is a person we can only have recourse to rationally secure arguments and empirically sound evidence which supports none of the above and other similar discriminations.

At the very least a  person is a being with dispositions, desires and beliefs. One can have such desires and beliefs without language, as some higher animals do and as, indeed we often do, operating on beliefs and desires that we have never put in words (and may, if one does not fully consider one’s life, ever do). So the fact that a foetus has not yet learnt a language does not mean that it does not have beliefs and desires, however limited they may be.

At this stage we need to refer to biological, developmental and neurological knowledge, to establish at what at age foetus could be reasonably called a person. Prior to such an age it is not a person and past that age it is.

Some have argued that not even a new born baby is yet a person but here we will seek a reasonable minimum. I have a recent wonderful reference, which I unfortunately cannot find, that eloquently and, I believe, accurately covers these issues and which is establishes that a foetus becomes a person between 22 and 23 weeks from conception.  Further that paper argues that even as medical science improves – such as increasing the likelihood above a 4% survival rate for a 22 week old foetus -this will not alter these biological facts.

I will take this as tentative empirical support, that a foetus less than 22 weeks old is not a person and so such an abortion is not murder. The 22 to 23 week period is therefore questionable but see below. Should my reference – if I ever find it - be invalid and revised then the relevant date would need to be updated, but this is an entirely empirical question one way or another.

So this tallies nicely (all too nicely one might wonder) with the current UK limit of 23 weeks. Another lost reference (I checked my google history and when I have time will check my delicious bookmarks) was that the huge majority of elective abortions occur before 20 weeks and virtually all 20 -23 week abortions are due to medical complications. This makes me conjecture that those very few 22 week abortions are very unlikely to reside in the 4% that would have survived.

So it seems that the UK has both reasonable and humane abortion rules. There is no need to add a more limited period for elective abortions versus medical emergency abortions as this is the way it already occurs.

Now there are many other questions that could have been asked that I have not dealt with but, as far as I can see, the above is the central question that needed to be dealt with and so issues of over choice, cause of pregnancies, religious beliefs are important but separate questions to this.

Tim’s Answers

Whether to abort a foetus when the life of the mother is threatened?

23 weeks

At what age it might be ethical to do so if the foetus was not threatening the life of the mother.?

22 weeks but this is practically what happens anyway.


Tim’s question was inspired by what he correctly calls a piece of idiocy Nun Excommunicated For Allowing Abortion.

There are two points here. First is that religious beliefs are motivated by when the “soul” enters the foetus. However there are two religious positions on this “immediate ensoulment – upon conception - and “delayed ensoulment” – after conception.

Immediate ensoulment has the problem of the formation of twins after conception and much theistic debate has revolved around the time of delayed ensoulment. Indeed, contrary to popular conception, the Catholic Church is itself has never rejected delayed ensoulment! There is a fascinating free eBook on this and I do have that reference: The Pope who said Abortion is NOT Murder by John McCloskey. So there is no reason why religious mystical ideas of ensoulment could not be made consistent with our empirical knowledge of human developmental physiology and neurology.

The final concluding thought is over the Catholic Church’s gross moral hypocrisy of ex-communicating a decent Nun who saved a life versus not defrocking, let alone ex-communicating, both all those priests who abused young children in their care and all those who defended them from criminal prosecution. Since the Pope is a prime suspect in the latter we know why the Church has not and still not has done this, but all this goes to further discredit that religious considerations has any value in public debates over abortion.


Timmeh! said...

I suspect an error here, either in your answer or my understanding of it, but I could be wrong. Your answer to my first question suggesting that it would be unethical to abort a foetus after the 23rd week, even if the failure to do so would likely result in the death of both mother and child?

faithlessgod said...

Ah I see what you mean.

No after 23 weeks then there is the dilemmas of killing one or another person due to medical complications. This did not exist before 23 weeks. There was only 1 person before.

The example you gave happened after 11 weeks.

If a cesearian is possible that could be done then the premature baby could be incubated, this option needs to be attempted surely?

One could argue given that choice it would be unethical to abort? But then I do not know of any post 23 week abortions.

Timmeh! said...

Gotcha. So an abortion after this date would unethical, since you would be killing a sentient whose desires are relevant to our inquiry, but a caesarian and subsequent attempt to maintain the life of both baby and mother is the most ethical course of action. This makes perfect sense.

Sorry, I should perhaps have made it clear that I was thinking in a more general sense than that of the specific example at St. Joseph's.

faithlessgod said...

Not sure about the gotcha.

The first idea was that there should be no elective abortions after 22 weeks. That would be unethical. That was the main point.

Only emergency abortions would be allowed after this. Technically that is only till 23 weeks anyway. Even in emergencies after that one needs make a best effort to have a physician available to specifically ensure if a fetus is viable (all are 27 weeks barring medical complications) it is given the best chance of surviving.

The principle remains that early/middle term abortions are not murder but late term ones would be so no-one can have an elective late term abortion (the definition varies from country to country here I take it as 22+ weeks which the best supported by the evidence).

Emergencies are emergencies and the principles of medical triage applies. This would mean should the fetus still die it would not be murder but rather a failure of the best attempts to save lives.

However doing less than one's best in the circumstances could be regarded as culpable - such that the charges of reckless
and negligence would apply.

dan said...

I'm afraid I don't really buy your reasoning for the elective case. It seems to me the flaw (drawing from discussions I've seen elsewhere, so this is not my observation originally) is that it focuses entirely on the fetus, and pays no attention to the mother.

The argument focuses on when the fetus attains "personhood" and declares it murder after that point. But that says nothing about what rights the mother may have which could possibly trump the fetus' rights. And that's an important consideration, because this is not simply a fetus floating in space that we have decided to protect from murder by arbitrary other people in society.

I think the standard thought experiment for this is: imagine that you wake up one morning hooked up via machines/etc. to a famous, talented individual. He has some condition that can be cured by your remaining connected to them for 9 months (or what have you). If you disconnect yourself, he will die.

There's no doubt that the celebrity has personhood status. But declaring it murder to disconnect yourself is fairly extreme. Or, for a more thinly stretched analogy, to declare it murder to decline to donate a kidney to someone who will die without it.

In short, determining the ethicality of abortion based solely on looking at the fetus' personhood rather ignores the personhood of the woman (with the exception of the mother's survival in this case). Or in more desirist terms, perhaps there are more and stronger reasons to ensure women have access to arbitrary elective abortions than to ensure the life of fetuses, and you can't restrict yourself to the latter.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Tim

This is not a good analogy. If she had 22 weeks to decide as to whether to be hooked up to the celebrity for another 23 weeks then the analogy would work.

The analogy fails since the celebrity is already a person, a pre-23 week fetus is not.

[Plus if the celebrity was Jordan or Peter Andre I do not think anyone would consider it murder anyway ;-)]

The potential mother-to-be has 22 weeks to decide as to whether to agree to carry the fetus to birth or not. So her choice is not ignored here, but since it is not murder for these 22 weeks that is more than enough time for her to make a decision and, as it happens, this is compatible with current UK laws.

faithlessgod said...


Woops sorry Dan I thought it was Tim replying.

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