TED Conversations

Jeffrey Allen

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If you don't consider human life "sacred," is there any moral reason not to have an abortion?

The decision to have an abortion is incredibly stigmatized, especially in America. Even those who promote pro-life policies say abortion should be as rare as possible. They may cite the mental and physical anguish of the woman—rather than any moral failure—as the prime reasons unwanted pregnancies are lamentable, but rarely does anyone challenge the underlying implication that the choice to have an abortion is somehow bad, even if in many cases it may be considered the "less bad" option.

I want to understand what has caused this deep-rooted and rarely challenged stigmatization. Does it come only from our religious roots, or is there some other moral argument against abortion?

It may help to compare the impacts of abortion to an everyday event we don't stigmatize—the killing of animals for food, sport, or clothing. Putting aside the religious argument that human life is inherently more valuable than other forms of life, is there any other reason to treat the killing of a human fetus—particularly one at the earlier stages of development—as any worse than the killing of a cow, deer, or chicken? Indeed, the animals we routinely kill have similar, if not greater, capacities to:
- feel pleasure and pain (their nervous systems are more developed than those of a fetus in early development);
- experience meaningful emotions (cows in line for slaughterhouses show clear signs of extreme distress); and
- look forward to future events in their life (there's no proof animals have any conception of their futures, but neither do fetuses).

It seems clear that, from a biological standpoint, the animals we routinely kill have just as much claim to a right to life as a human fetus. Yet we stigmatize one killing and not the other. So something else must be going on here. A whole other discussion could be had about animal rights, but for the time being let's focus on abortion. If we strip away all faith-based arguments, are there any ethical reasons left to oppose abortion?


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    Feb 17 2011: I agree with Revett, that's a heavy topic.
    1) I think we should look at the issue outside of religion, because if we bring religion into the game then objectivity is lost immediately.
    2) beside the religious arguments, what are the arguments against abortion ? Killing unborn life ? From the moment of conception a new living organism is created. What is different between the 1. minute of this life and the 9. month is only the degree of development. So why, depending on the country, is abortion allowed until a certain age of the fetus ?
    3) As you pointed out Jeff, what, in principle is the difference between killing an animal or an unborn human life ? We even make differences between animals. Nobody much cares if you smash a fly, but if you kill your neighbors dog (or your own) and you get caught, then you go to jail.
    Nevertheless, in all cases we are talking about life.
    I don't see any ethical reasons to oppose abortion, at least not w/o being hypocritical. But then, we could start a new discussion about what is considered ethical/unethical and why. What is the "benchmark" to call something ethical/unethical and doesn't that (at least to a degree) vary from society to society ?
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      Feb 17 2011: Thanks for your thoughts, Harald and Revett. Indeed it's a minefield—one of the most dangerous!—but I don't think it has to be. I think many of those mines have been placed there by religious influences in our society, and they make it harder for non-religious people to come to grips with the non-religious ethical questions involved. But if we put aside religious arguments—which often cannot be logically proved or disproved anyway—I'm hoping maybe we can clarify some of the underlying moral issues.

      So maybe we should dive a little deeper into the question Harald raises—what is ethical/unethical and why?—but, like I said, leaving faith-based arguments aside.

      I would start with, maybe, it's unethical to do anything that physically or emotionally harms another living thing, or reduces that living thing's ability to choose how to live its own life, if you can reasonably avoid doing that harm without inflicting some greater harm to another living thing.

      Would you agree/disagree? Would you add anything else?

      And what would this precept mean for our question about abortion? I would suggest maybe it means abortion should be avoided, as it clearly harms the fetus, unless the baby's birth would be expected to inflict a greater harm on other living things (the parents, for example, or other children in the family).

      But of course that raises the question of if we can reasonably compare the relative size of the various "harms" involved?

      And though we can describe pretty clearly the potential harms (and benefits) to living adults, what exactly are the potential harms to the fetus? If its nervous system is not developed yet, it can't feel pain. But should we consider it a harm to the fetus that it doesn't get the opportunity to live the life it would have lived, even if it has no conception of itself as a being with a future? We don't seem to worry too much about the future life a cow would have had, presumably because it doesn't comprehend such things.

      Any thoughts?
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        Feb 22 2011: "......anything that physically or emotionally harms another living thing....."
        That's already difficult. Where do you put the limit ? Obviously, you'll have to stop eating any kind of meat.
        Also, would it be ok to kill a fly ? It's a living organism and maybe even feels something.
        Then, there also seems to be evidence that even plants can feel something. So you couldn't hurt a plant (meaning eating a plant) either. Where does that leave us ?
        Coming back to abortion. The best way out of this dilemma is to avoid anything that can later lead to abortion. I know that's easier said than done, but proper education is certainly one element here.
        The issue of whether the fetus can feel or not is also dangerous, because you might have other situations where you could apply similar reasoning (some mental diseases).
        Actually, I'm not sure this topic can be discussed based on logic. Moral issues don't necessarily follow logic.

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