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An article donated by Dr. Sanford Aranoff

A detailed analysis of diverse views about the
beginning of a person, with biblical references

PART 3

Sponsored link.

This discussion is a continuation of Part 2

horizontal rule

VI. Morality

Kenny makes a few more points, which help in clarifying this complex issue. He states: 1

"It is more common for moralists to take the rejection of infanticide as a starting point for the evaluation of other positions. Any argument used to justify abortion, or in vitro fertilization, or stem cell research must undergo the following test: would the same argument justify infanticide? If so, then it must be rejected."

This introduces considerable complexity into the argument. If the mother's life is threatened, then of course the abortion is permissible as an act of self-defense. We are allowed to kill other people in order to save our lives. This is the moral justification for war. If the abortion is necessary for the mother's health, we may also justify the abortion, for poor health reduces life expectancy; although this point is controversial. If the sole reason for the abortion is convenience, that is, the mother simply does not want the baby, we again may, stretching the argument, justify the abortion as an act of self-defense. The reason is that statistics clearly show that a woman has a greater chance of survival by having an abortion. It is wonderful and noble for a woman to give birth, but it is immoral for us to compel her to be noble and not permit her to opt for actions that would increase her chances of remaining alive. The fact that women do not mention the self-defense issue does not mean we can ignore the argument. If an action results in improving one?s chances of living longer, we may be able to use the argument of self-defense even if the person did not.

Self-defense includes actions that increase the probabilities of living longer, not just to save your immediate life. The same is true for nations. A country is allowed to go to war to defend itself even if the danger is not imminent. A nation does not have to wait until it is attacked. If it is going to war to prevent a future danger, this is saying it is going to war to increase the probabilities of survival as a nation. Of course, this is very tricky.

A frequently heard counterexample is this. Simple convenience cannot be justification for abortion. Pregnancy is a natural phenomenon produced by a conscious act of two persons who know the consequences of their act. What about pregnancy caused without the woman's consent? Actually, these points are not relevant. Regardless of the cause of the pregnancy, if now there is a danger to the mother, self-defense justifies the abortion.

This issue is complicated. For example, if someone kills a person sitting near him who is smoking, saying that he does not want to breathe the second-hand smoke and thereby risk his life, we do not justify this murder, even if it was impossible to leave the room. You see how the logic gets messy, and this is my point. I will elaborate below showing the complicated messy logic.

There is another issue. What happens if a man rapes his sister, and the woman wishes to have an abortion? Most legal codes permit abortion in cases of rape and incest. It is hard to find justification based upon the logic presented here. The logic would have to be that it the immorality of raising such a child counteracts the immorality of the abortion; however, I cannot justify this argument.

We see that using basic principles of morality do not give clear answers to the questions of aborting a malformed fetus or a fetus resulting from rape or incest. We must not be disturbed that our basic principles do not give clear answers. K. Gödel proved mathematically 2 that one cannot deduce all true statements starting from a given set of postulates. An extension of Gödel's idea shows that no matter how we define the principles of morality, there will always be issues for which we cannot decide. Using this idea in human affairs may be overkill, but may be necessary due strong emotions. We cannot legislate all possible preferred outcomes.

English 3 stated that the concept of a person does not suffice to settle the abortion issue, for the biological development of a human being is gradual. She also states that whether a fetus is a person or not, abortion is justifiable early in pregnancy to avoid modest harms and seldom justifiable late in pregnancy except to avoid significant injury or death. She gives long and serious arguments for these positions. What is surprising is that although this paper was written decades ago, people today seldom mention her valid arguments.

Let us mention briefly some thoughts about morality. Abortion is immoral, as we discussed above. We do not have the moral right to do with our bodies everything. English discussed this point at length, using additional arguments. On the other hand, it is very moral to protect one's health. A case may be made that the morality of protecting one's health is superior to the immorality of abortion. The public is confused about this point, for the health issues may not be immediate. That is, it may be moral to perform an abortion for the sake of one's health.

Embryonic stem cell research is a moral activity, as the research will lead to treatments to improve health and save lives. The fact that the research results are not immediate does not detract from the morality of the research. On the other hand, the research can be considered immoral as it involves the destruction of potential human lives. Here again the morality of health and life is superior to the immorality of destroying potential human life. Furthermore, if the cells are developed in the laboratory, they are not even potential human lives, in spite of the fact that when fertilized embryos are implanted into uterus they may develop in to a child, because the action of implantation is needed to create the potential life. Just because it may happen that the embryo may be implanted does not mean that now it is a potential life. A sperm is not a potential human because it may meet the egg. When we say the cells are potential human lives, we mean that if the natural process continues, without further actions on our part, the cells may become people.

This type of thinking and analysis removes the objections many politicians have to permitting embryonic stem cell research.

VII. Abortion is wrong, but not a capital crime

Let us make it extreme. Let us assume there is absolutely no issue of the woman's health, even if I maintain that this assumption is false. In this case, Kenny's argument, that since we do not justify infanticide we cannot justify abortion, is valid. We now have the complicated contradictory conclusions that abortion is justified and it is not justified. People who make statements about abortion say either that abortion is first-degree murder or say that it is permissible, as the fetus is part of the woman's body, saying abortion is no worse than drawing blood thereby killing the blood cells. Kenny's argument about not justifying infanticide complicates the issue. Abortion is not first-degree murder as we discussed above, and abortion is not justified as we cannot justify infanticide in a similar case.

The one place in the literature that I have found that discusses abortion rationally dealing with the above contradiction is the Jewish approach, as mentioned in the book of Exodus discussed above. If a man strikes a woman killing her, it is a capital crime. If he destroys her fetuses, the punishment is a monetary fine. The point is that abortion is immoral. The exception is, of course, if the woman's life is in danger, for in Judaism, it is permitted to do whatever necessary to save one's life. The Bible clearly states that abortion is not justified. A woman cannot say that she can do as she wishes for the fetus is part of her body. On the other hand, abortion is not first-degree murder, for the punishment is only a monetary fine. Most thinkers on the topic lose this subtle and important distinction between abortion and infanticide.

I mentioned Hebraic law to illustrate the resolution to the conflict. Now that we understand the resolution is based upon morality, we may disregard Hebraic law, and focus our attention only on U.S. law and commonly accepted morals. The resolution to the conflict is that there are circumstances where abortion is morally wrong, but we should legally permit it.

We can justify abortion saying the fetus is not a person. We cannot justify it because we would not similarly justify infanticide. The resolution of these contradictory statements is that abortion is immoral, but not as immoral as infanticide. There are different levels of immorality. Abortion is not morally acceptable except for circumstances that would justify it. However, this does not mean that the government must mandate what they see as morally acceptable. The government does not have the right to mandate that people avoid eating unhealthy French fries. The government does, however, have the right to mandate that a person not mutilate his/her body. The problem is that many people on both sides of the debate take extreme positions, and are unable to think of the complexity of the gray in-between areas.

Kenny makes another point. The fetus before birth and the baby after birth are the same individual, whereas the life that began at conception is not this same individual. Therefore, killing the fetus is killing an individual human being, and so is immoral, which is not the case for killing the embryo. Although this argument is valid, the above argument, namely, a person does not become a person until birth when the organization is complete, is also valid. Killing a fetus (before birth) is not the same as killing a person, and so is not first-degree murder. This is the same as the point of the previous paragraph. Abortion is immoral but is not first-degree murder.

Is the abortion of a malformed fetus okay or not? On the one hand, we may want to insist that women carry malformed fetuses to term, because the danger to the woman is not present, and this is the only justification for abortion. However, there is another way of looking at this. Since abortion is not absolutely immoral as is infanticide, we can say that agreeing to carry a malformed fetus to term is also immoral, as since it is very expensive to raise a malformed child, society will pick up the tab. It is immoral for a person to act in a way that results in compelling society to help financially. It is immoral to accept charity if we have the opportunity to work and so avoid accepting charity. It is noble to give charity, but it is immoral to ignore reality and become dependent upon charity. In the case of the malformed fetus, we need to look at the broad picture and decide. Again, this is not the case for infanticide, which is immoral, with no mitigating circumstances.

VIII. Summary

In summary, the fact that people supporting a certain viewpoint of the nature of the human being selectively quote from the Bible, ignoring explicit statements contrary to their view, shows intellectual dishonesty, making it difficult to understand this complex situation. We must fully discuss the subtle moral issues. Insisting on viewing a person as merely a collection of organs and flowing blood hides the reality of the amazing organization that is a person. Focusing thinking on these narrow lines further makes it difficult to anticipate the next step of the evolution of life on earth, which is the worldwide network of supercomputers, which will act as a single permanent living mind. Since all that we really are is organization, what will be as this organization evolves? Meanwhile, let us not deny the right of people to preserve their health. Furthermore, we must not be excessively dogmatic, due to the complexity and partial contradictory aspects of this problem. Let us think clearly and courageously about the present and the future.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Anthony Kenny, "The beginning of an individual human", Dædalus, Winter (2008), p. 16.
  2. http://www.exploratorium.edu/. In 1931, the mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel proved that within a formal system questions exist that are neither provable nor disprovable based on the axioms that define the system. This is known as Gödel's Undecidability Theorem. He also showed that in a sufficiently rich formal system in which decidability of all questions is required, there would be contradictory statements. This is known as his Incompleteness Theorem. In establishing these theorems, Gödel showed that there are problems that cannot be solved by any set of rules or procedures.
  3. Jane English, "Abortion and the Concept of A Person", Canadian J. of Philosophy, 5 (2), Oct. (1975).

Written: 2008-DEC-27
Originally posted: 2009-MAR-01
Latest update: 2012-FEB-21
Author: Dr. Sanford Aranoff, Adjunct Associate Professor of Mathematics and Science, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648
Email:
saranoff@rider.edu

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