As it is the case with many other choices, getting an abortion is a matter of weighing the pros against the cons. Among potential reasons to get an abortion are the inconvenience of pregnancy and giving birth, lacking the maturity needed to properly raise a child, the mental strain of bearing the fruits of rape, high risk of genetic disorders (when applicable), and so forth. Potential reasons not to get one are wanting the child in the first place (okay, that one is pretty obvious), the trauma of the procedure itself, or the loss of life that comes as a result of it.
The idea according to which abortion should be illegal usually stems from the conception that the destruction of a fetus is a kind of murder (I am not really aware of any other argument, besides possibly that abortion is an unacceptable health hazard, but that’s a rather poor argument to give as a justification to override personal choice). Implicit in that conception is that fetuses possess certain qualities that make them eligible to a right to life to the same extent that human beings do once they are born. Evidently, once a child is born, they have these rights, but it is difficult to argue that it is birth itself that grants them – it seems that a baby is qualitatively no different at birth than a week before, and that killing it at that time would still amount to murder.
Therefore, I feel that for the most part the debate about abortion boils down to a single point of contention: that is, at what exact moment do we assign sufficient value to a fetus to warrant granting it the right to life?
What gives value to life?
Rather than giving a precise definition of what it is to be human, which is nearly impossible, I will simply list here all the attributes that a being may have which, as most would agree, increases its “value”:
- The ability to feel pain - pain is common grounds for empathy. We want to avoid feeling it, and we want to avoid causing others to feel it.
- Sentience, or self-awareness – the being’s ability to perceive a value for oneself.
- Viability - the being’s ability to survive on its own, independently.
- Intelligence – an intelligent being is capable of comprehending and following a moral framework and its contributions will be seen as valuable by other intelligent beings.
- Emotional attachment to the being - if the loss of a life causes pain and suffering for other people, this in itself is sufficient to give it value.
“Having the right to live” is a fuzzy concept, but in all situations at least one thing of value must be found in the being in consideration. Animal rights activists want to give rights to all animals, but it stands to reason that most animals can feel pain, are viable, and in several cases are indeed self-aware. Regardless of whether you believe this is sufficient or not, it’s not nothing.
In order to have rights, it seems that a fetus needs to have worthwhile properties. It seems clear that it has them at birth. At conception, on the other hand, an embryo cannot feel pain, isn’t sentient, nor intelligent, nor viable, and the only people who might care about it are its parents, when they even know it exists. It is, quite literally, just a lump of cells. So what is there to protect? What is there to give rights to?
One worthwhile property an embryo is often said to have is “potential”. That is, even though it is not a baby, it will become one eventually, and destroying it means ruining this potential. The argument fails, however, because potential value is not value. The AAPL share you bought in 2000 for $20 might be worth $600 now, but it wasn’t worth that then.
A lot of couples wish to have a certain, fixed number of children: could be one, two, three, or more. Let’s say Julie and Fred want two children but only after they graduate college. Julie gets accidentally pregnant. If they decide to abort, they will wait a few years and then they will have a child, and another a bit later. If they decide to keep the child, they will have another child a bit later, and then no more. In either case they will have two children: abortion does not lead to a net loss of life. Furthermore, by waiting, they can be better prepared and raise their children in a better environment. Therefore, the net potential is likely greater if the abortion takes place.
Potential is not a real thing and it has no real value. It takes time, energy and effort for that potential to be fulfilled and be worth something. Whatever potential value an embryo might have can be reproduced at a later date in a single night – it’s nothing to write home about.
So when, exactly, does the fetus have rights?
It seems obvious to me that the fetus becomes a “person” somewhere between conception and birth. There is no answer as to when exactly this happens. Some people are uncomfortable with this uncertainty and set conception as a precise, “logical” threshold. Saying this is akin to saying that because it is not known at which exact size a small apple becomes big, that all apples must be big.
The proper answer is to determine, at all moments, what properties the embryo or fetus has, and at which point it has enough for us to err on the side of caution and protect it. Viability seems like a sensible threshold to me, but regardless of what is decided, stating that personhood starts at conception, a point where the embryo has literally no interesting properties, is absurd.