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 18 2011: Morality is a promise you make to God. Ethics is one you make to men. If abortion is legal, that is an ethical matter. If it is immoral, that's because you and your god agree. If we don't share the same god, then our ethics will not be based upon a consensus of morality , but a consensus of expediency. It is more expedient to live with each other than each other's god. If you can be objective about murder (premeditated intentional death of a human life) then you must be willing to limit the discussion to human values and not spiritual ones. Human values are "me" oriented: my preservation, my pleasure, my goals. If "me" is the benchmark for your ethics (you can't be moral without a higher benchmark than "me") then whatever "me" wants that doesn't harm another "me" would be pemissable. That is, as long as your "me" doesn't curtail my "me", us "me"s should be able to get along. The unborn "me"s don't have much of a chance, do they? Their me-ness isn't recognized by the nation of "me"s, so they can't be a "me".
    If it's not a moral question then it isn't murder, because it's not human life. It's just a non-me competing with me.
    OK then, capital punishment? Why not? Once we determine the end of "me"ness, then it's not murder. Prostitution: a victimless cirme. Drugs: they should all be legal. Euthenasia: some folks just outlive their "me"ness and get in the way of mine, you know. When everything is measured against "me" there is no morality and there is no debate. "Me" wins everytime. Or are there self evident truths, that we are born equal and endowed with our Creator with inalienable rights, among them the right to life? Everyone needs to answer these questions for themselves. "Have some personal accountability."
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      Feb 18 2011: Very well put, Michael! But many of us who don't believe in any creator, still believe it's wrong to kill, wrong to steal, and, most importantly, right to do things to make other people happy even when "me" gets nothing from it -- in fact even when "me" has to suffer for it. Many non-religious "me"s would risk their own future existence to save a "you" they've never met before.

      If they're not doing it for some sort of god, then they must be doing it for a personal morality, right?
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        Feb 18 2011: You have reasoned that it is wrong to kill? It makes you feel bad if others die? Your "me" is in full control. If enough of you feel bad about murder, then you band together to enforce your consensus that murder is "wrong". You pass laws and pay your taxes to be sure the laws are enforced. You want something from this "murder is wrong" thing. There is no transecendent reason for it, it's just a matter of "common" sense. You shouldn't have to live in fear in a "civilized" society.You don't need a god to have a "civilized" society, so god is irrelevant to that discussion. If it's not a mandate from God that you should not kill your neighbor, it's a mandate from a large group of "me"s who have pooled their resources to make it so. If people didn't kill each other out of obedience to god, we wouldn't need need to police each other. Your statement that you would risk your life for a stranger is based upon two criteria: first, such feelings are good. They promote a sacrificial view that the loss of one for another or others is an individual choice that in turn benefits the "me" and, if emulated by others, will benefit "me" by preserving "us". The motivation for your sacrifice that you deem a personal choice, seemingly irrational, does not diminish the rational objectives: make your own choices and make it noble enough for others to make their own choices.
        The exercise of free will is to decide what is "right" and then, if you have the will, to act upon it. For example: One may not agree with the war, but none the less be compelled to do your duty. You want others to do their duty, without question, so you subjugate your own questions and do your duty. Even if you might perish from running into a burning building, the benefit from that risk is too great to deny your duty. If nothing transcends "me" then consensus and "might" makes right. Your individual freedoms are not inalienable.

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