You’re Doing It Wrong: Abortion, Embryos, Children, Robots, and Stupidity

In which I throw my pro-fetus hat into a very confused ring

You may have noticed that people tend to argue about the morality of abortion. You may have also noticed that when it comes to persuading opponents, most of those arguments don’t go very far. I am under zero illusions this piece will be any different, yet that doesn’t mean writing on this issue is inconsequential. If done right, a back-and-forth on a contemporary moral issue such as abortion has the capacity to clarify and inform.

This all started with a tweetstorm by a pro-choice author that generated a flurry of responses. One of those responses was by Berny Belvedere. Then, in a follow-up, Nicholas Grossman replied to Belvedere. Just as it happened last time we debated this topic on Arc, the responses kept coming. Belvedere responded again, and now I’m jumping into the mix, myself.

Here is how Belvedere lays out the underlying reasoning from the initial tweetstorm.

Here is my reconstruction of Tomlinson’s reasoning:
(1) The pro-life position crucially involves the view that life begins at conception.
(2) If pro-lifers really believed life begins at conception, they would easily and unproblematically choose to save the thousand embryos over the single 5-year-old child.
(3) But if a pro-lifer was actually put into Tomlinson’s scenario, she would choose to save the child.
(4) Thus, pro-lifers don’t really believe life begins at conception.
(5) The pro-life position is a sham.
Formalizing an argument, the way I’ve done above, helps to clarify how exactly the reasoning is supposed to work. When we do that for Tomlinson’s challenge, it becomes fairly obvious the argument fails.

Without getting too Midrashic here, I would like to submit my humble contributions to this discussion in particular and to the abortion discussion more generally:

Tomlinson’s argument is stupid.

There you go; I solved it.

In all seriousness, there are a few glaring problems with Tomlinson’s argument which neither Belvedere nor Grossman address, because they are charitable fellows and Berny likes to grant his opponent’s presuppositions as much as he possibly can, because, well, why did Muhammad Ali sometimes fight with one arm behind his back?

In other words, Belvedere wants to get into the internal logic of an argument and break it down in its strongest form, even if it means he has to grant propositions to his interlocutor that, if Belvedere were using another strategy, he would attack rather than allow. This is because if Belvedere notices a number of flaws in an argument, he will often choose the one he finds most illuminating or clarifying and focus on picking that one apart rather than try to address all of the problems the argument contains.

I have a different aim here. I’d prefer to show just how weak an argument Tomlinson’s is by pointing out a few of the different ways in which it fails, in addition to the weaknesses Belvedere has already pointed out. It should be noted that this does not include an address of the logical fallacies inherent in an argument that assumes knowledge of the internal states of others and assumes they are acting in bad faith. Without further ado:

First, believing that life begins at conception is not the same thing as believing that a one-day-old embryo and a five-year-old child are exactly the same thing, or that they are “worth” the same thing, whatever that means. We know that many “pro-lifers” do not believe in this equivalence, because of differences in public polling between outlawing all abortion and outlawing abortions after 20 weeks or 6 months of gestation.

In other words, as an embryo becomes more like a baby, more and more people are in favor of not allowing it to be aborted. So Tomlinson is almost right when he states “no one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child.” He would have been right had he stated “a large fraction of pro-life people actually do not believe that an embryo is equivalent to a child.”

The difference is that Tomlinson believes that he is revealing that pro-life people are liars, and that they are pretending to think that the embryo and the child are the same thing. Yet many who oppose abortion, myself included, do not think that an embryo and a five year old are equivalent. To believe that human life is worth protecting is not the same thing as believing that all human life is exactly the same (we will touch upon this in further detail below, in the third point).

Second, there is great diversity within the “pro-life” or even “life begins at conception” crowd. There are disagreements about what it means that “life begins at conception,” or about what the ramifications of this are, ethically speaking. There are disagreements about whether “personhood” or “human life” are the right terms to use when discussing this issue, and there are disagreements over how significant the difference is between an embryo and a child. Therefore — and this is important — any argument claiming to EVISCERATE or DESTROY the “The Pro-Life Position” is confused from the start.

Third, Tomlinson uses a thought experiment intended to illustrate how dishonest pro-life people are, especially in their claims that “life begins at conception.” If you could only save one five year old or 1,000 embryos, the story goes, you would save the child, and that reveals your hypocrisy and mendacity on the abortion and “life begins at conception” issue. Yet abortion is not a choice between saving one or saving the other; Tomlinson offers his illustration as a helpful way to parse out truths about the morality of abortion, but the question of abortion standardly contains one life in the balance. It stretches credulity to posit that abortion, on average, is something like a choice between killing embryos and killing children. Abortion is rarely a moral decision that involves comparative evaluation of the life of an embryo and the life of a child. This is connected to my first point: proving that people value the life of a five year old more than they value the lives of embryos does not prove that they do not value the lives of embryos.

Fourth, Tomlinson frames his thought experiment in a way that begs the question. He forces you to choose between a very human child and essentially a container that says “1000 Viable Human Embryos.” He has stacked the deck, emotionally speaking, toward saving the child, because humans and containers are not the same thing, and all of us have a built-in propensity to be far more protective of very-human-looking-things over Tupperware. Even if I can conceive of these embryos as the children they’ll go on to be, in the moment the fact that I’m looking at a container makes it hard to choose the embryos. Furthermore, abortion is about more than just embryos; it also involves mothers. A more helpful thought experiment, then, might involve the choice between saving one five-year old from a gas that only kills humans under six years of age (including embryos in the womb), and saving 1000 newly pregnant women from the gas, who, if not saved, will all miscarry. Now, we have two human situations. We have a human child and 1,000 human pregnancies that will be terminated. This is also an important reframing because calling something in a container a “viable human embryo” is not the same thing as imagining that if you do nothing, those 1,000 embryos will most likely become human children.

Without knowing whether or not these 1,000 pregnant women want to keep or abort their embryos, would you choose to end their pregnancies in order to save one five year old? If the 1,000 women were a reflection of the population of pregnant women in general, the majority of whom choose to see the embryo along until it becomes a human child, then you would quickly have to face the ramifications of your choice either way.

In one scenario, you would have to explain to a family that you let their child die in order to save 1,000 pregnancies/embryos, while in the other you would have to explain to 1,000 families that you let their pregnancies be terminated in order to save the five year old.

I just Kant even

Fifth, following-up on Belvedere’s deployment of deontological ethics, let’s bring in Immanuel Kant. The “categorical imperative,” Kant’s famous ethical formula, goes as follows:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

Kant’s approach involves investigating whether your maxim (what you are doing and why) is universalizable. If it is, you’re golden. If it isn’t, you shouldn’t do it.

The philosopher Harry Gensler once presented this Kantian argument against abortion:

1. If you are consistent and think that abortion is normally permissible, then you will consent to the idea of your having been aborted in normal circumstances.

2. You do not consent to the idea of your having been aborted in normal circumstances.

3. If you are consistent then you will not think that abortion is normally permissible.

In other words, those who say abortion is fine would not also say it’s fine for them to have been aborted.

Taking all of this into account, I would tell Tomlinson, Belvedere, and Grossman that if I were faced with my modified Tomlinson-esque thought experiment of one five-year-old human child vs. 1,000 human pregnancies, I would be haunted by that choice forever, but I honestly believe I would choose to save the 1,000 pregnancies. In the interest of honesty and openness, though, as the number of pregnancies approached one, it would become more and more attractive to me to save the child instead. If I had to program Grossman’s human-saving robot, I’d have to choose some kind of number or mathematical formula, but the number at which I would flip from saving the pregnancies to saving the child would be much lower than 1,000. Perhaps that simply says something about how much more valuable, relatively speaking, a five year old is to me than an embryo, but, as I have argued above, that’s not the point for people in the “life begins at conception crowd” like me. The point, actually, is that all human life must be valued and protected, even if many systems of ethical thought think some lives are “worth” more than others, and even if many of my fellow citizens value the freedoms of adults more than the lives of embryos and fetuses.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.