An article donated by Dr. Sanford Aranoff
A detailed analysis of diverse views about the
beginning of a person, with biblical references
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
- Anthony Kenny, "The beginning of an individual human", Dædalus, Winter
(2008), p. 16.
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.
- Jane English, "Abortion and the Concept of A Person", Canadian J. of Philosophy, 5 (2), Oct. (1975).
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