What gives fetuses inherent moral consideration or value?

What property are reproductive authoritarians contending a first/second trimester fetus has that renders it worthy of moral consideration above and beyond other lifeforms without bizarre consequences when consistently applied? They typically rattle off a common set of argumentative goal-posts which they retreat to one after another when challenged on their position. Lets examine these arguments.

  • “It is Alive” – Trees are alive, cows are alive, fish are alive; pro-lifers don’t forbid killing and eating them. Being alive is probably necessary, but not sufficient for special moral status.
  • “It has a heartbeat” – Most animals have heartbeats and pro-lifers don’t claim their position entails vegetarianism. Quite the contrary, most pro-lifers are good ol’ boys and girls who look suspiciously and often disdainfully at vegetarians. Choosing the heart over any other organ (like the brain) is arbitrary, it is done as an appeal to emotion.
  • Being an “organism” – Bacteria (and perhaps even viruses) are distinct organisms but pro-lifers don’t think these are worthy of moral consideration. Additionally, any sufficiently complex artificial intelligence that achieves sentience in a manner similar to that of humans would be entitled to moral treatment despite not being of a biologically organic constitution. So being an organic life-form is neither necessary, nor sufficient for special moral status.
  • “It is a HUMAN organism!” – This is a blatantly speciesist circular argument. Human life can’t be valuable merely because it is human any more than plant lives could be valuable merely because it’s they’re plants; it is their properties that determine their moral value, not their phylogenic allegiance. Being a human organism is neither necessary, nor sufficient for special moral status.
    • “It has human DNA” – This carries all the flaws of the last bullet-point plus some more. Skin cells killed by hand-washing and sperm cells killed by ejaculation aren’t considered murder victims by pro-lifers and the early fetus ‘has no capacity to think, feel or be self-aware any more than a sample of flesh from our body–it is no more a person than an appendix. Human DNA is neither necessary; nor sufficient for moral status.
    • “UNIQUE” human DNA – This carries all the flaws of the last two bullet-points plus some more. Seeing as pro-lifers wouldn’t consider it morally neutral to kill one of a pair of identical twins (I hope) on the grounds that no life with unique DNA is thereby lost, this argument is moot as well. “Unique” DNA is neither necessary, nor sufficient for moral status.
  • Having a full human set of 46 CHROMOSOMES? – Abortion opponents don’t believe that fetuses with Turner’s syndrome (where otherwise normal females have only one X chromosome and thus only 45 in total) or any other similar genetic anomaly causing a different number of chromosomes have lesser moral status. Even then, the choice of 46 chromosomes would still be begging the question; what makes a species with 46 chromosomes inherently better than one with 48 or 42? Of course the answer is that reproductive authoritarians decided God made us superior, and invented the chromosome argument purely to justify existing beliefs. The number of chromosomes an entity has is completely irrelevant to moral status.
  • “The life-cycle has begun at conception, therefore it deserves full status of what it could become if left to develop” – There is no reason to stop tracing causes back to before conception, and pro-lifers don’t believe we have obligations to conceive wherever/whenever possible so as to avoid having any hypothetical lives which could have thereby developed go un-actualized. Moreover, what other topic do we consider something today 100% of what it has the possibility of developing into only much later? I don’t often hear of anti-choice people intervening in a cat abortion by a vet citing “it is in its life cycle!” This argument is insufficient to declare special moral status.

I haven’t seen any property which could render anything before a second-trimester abortion wrong without having ridiculous implications when applied consistently. The anti-choice position implies there is such a property, but they never give a coherent one.

I do believe there are things that make born humans uniquely worthy of special moral consideration compared to other animals, such as the following:

  • Sentience
  • High capacity for suffering
  • Robust autonoetic consciousness

It is things like these which make born humans unique, and fetuses don’t have those in any more abundance than a dog or pig fetus at the same period of development. Or for that matter, grown adult pigs, dogs, cats, ferrets, mice, and most other mammals. I will add, though, that I think dogs, pigs, and cows deserve special moral consideration above a lizard, frog, or fish, but that those in turn deserve moral consideration above a worm, fly, or mosquito. There’s a gradient, not a hard line where a human adult is the only organism deserving of any moral consideration whatsoever, and all other organisms deserve next to none.

The anti-choice person often says at this point, “but doesn’t that mean that you should support (1) executing brain-dead people and (2) post-birth abortions?

  1. We already allow a family/spouse and their healthcare providers to decide to “pull the plug” on a loved one that is brain-dead or otherwise in a vegetative state, so this gotcha point wouldn’t have any impact on the criteria I mentioned that gives humans special moral consideration. This issue is, as it should be, between the doctor and the individual family, not the government.
  2. There is a grey period, like it or not. From a few weeks before birth to a few weeks after I personally can’t say one way or another as to whether a fetus/baby has qualities setting it above pigs or dogs at the same level of development. I would error on the side of caution and restrict infanticide, except in cases where medical experts have determined the infant has a condition that would doom it to a slow and excruciating early death. Let us remember also though, that I think pigs deserve some level of moral consideration, so putting a 3rd trimester fetus at a pig’s level isn’t exactly saying it deserves no moral consideration whatsoever.

The key fact is that only about 1.3% of abortions are done after the 2nd trimester, and most of those are either to save the mothers life, or because the mother was a low-income person living in a restrictive reproductively authoritarian state that hindered the mothers from being able to get abortion services earlier. Therefore it isn’t likely late-term abortions or infanticide would come into vogue even if there weren’t any restrictions in place. So basing one’s argument on the fear-mongering that laws and restrictions are the only thing keeping people from 3rd-term abortions or infanticide is admitting you are just that, little more than a fear-monger.

“Abortion laws help women’s health”

The argument that these restrictive abortion laws have women’s health in mind is fully disproved by one statistic: maternal mortality rate. The CDC reports that the rate of deaths from abortions is 0.79 per 100k abortions. The death rate from childbirth is 14 per 100k. In other words, it is safer to have an abortion than to carry the pregnancy to term. By the way, Greece has the lowest maternity mortality rate (3 per 100k); the US is 47 countries worse. Anti-abortion laws are NOT about the health of women. Anti-choice activists and politicians are just using women’s health as a prop to justify their pre-conceived totalitarian perspective on women’s reproductive rights.

Let us look at some more stats to really hammer this point home. The US states with the more restrictive abortion laws are also among the lowest scorers on maternal mortality. Georgia—recently in the news for establishing its restrictive abortion law—has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the country, 66.3 per 100k, just behind Louisiana at 72 deaths per 100k. California, the boogie-man for most anti-choicers, is drastically lower at 17.6 per 100k. Highly restrictive Indiana? 50.2/100k. Texas? Rank 42nd at 39.2/100k. Arkansas? Ranked 46th at 44.5/100k. (Stats as of 2019)

Let us look at the least restrictive states in abortion. Massachusetts has a maternal mortality rank of 2, meaning far fewer women die there. Connecticut? Rank 8 (though tied with Rhode Island). Seems pretty evident abortion restrictions are being enforced for theocratic partisan reasons and not to help women. Most of the low-scoring states even chose not to expand health insurance access through the ACA’s Medicare expansion, or if they did, it was a highly truncated expansion. Health is just a post-hoc excuse partisans invented to justify something they want to do. They don’t actually support women’s health.

Ironically, based on the infant mortality stats, they don’t even really care about the lives or health of babies either.

The real motivation behind restricting abortion is theocracy; abortion opponents want to inflict their religious beliefs on others

Many times opponents of reproductive choice will claim their authoritarian view on abortion rights actually has nothing to do with religious beliefs, which is almost always a lie told purely to hide their advocacy of theocracy. This couldn’t be more obvious considering that polling organizations find anti-choice positions the most prevalent among the fundamentalist and evangelical denominations, and lowest among the progressive religions/denominations and atheist/agnostic categories. This isn’t just a coincidence. The reason fundamentalists are the main anti-choice block is because they hold to the doctrine that God magically squirts a soul into everybody at conception. As a result, they believe it is that quality that sets humans 100% apart (hence they believe animals don’t have souls, only we do).

Their religion-based opposition to reproductive rights falls apart first and foremost because religious mystical beliefs have no place in deciding public policy.

The real nail in the coffin, though, becomes clear when you look at the core religious belief of theirs that they think justifies their position. Most evangelicals and fundamentalists believe “a person will conceive when God decides the time is right,” that a person will become pregnant when God wills it. However, we happen to know that 50% of all conceptions are naturally spontaneously aborted by the body before the woman ever knows she’s pregnant. Thus, God starts and ends this divinely willed conception 50% of the time. That makes God the most pervasive abortionist of all time. And since it happens most of the time without the woman’s knowledge, they can’t even claim God was trying to teach a lesson with the miscarriage! Of course, all of this is only a problem for those who hold to fundamentalist, orthodox, or otherwise evangelical interpretations of their religion. Some barbaric fundamentalists get around this by saying killing of any kind is OK when god does it or decries someone to do it. Those people are barely shy of a Christian ISIS. Tons of progressive Christians, on the other hand, don’t create this paradox that arises from demanding that the Bible is literal and word-for-word God-inspired (hence why those Christians are generally pro-choice).

There’s also the doctrine that fundamentalists believe which says that God created humans apart from animals as the stewards and subjugators of the them; that humans are special in an ultimate and divine sense. They believe everything from the animals to the universe was created entirely for the use of humans. This why they believe animals have no rights but fetuses have infinite rights.

The moral of this story is that yes, most anti-choice positions are motivated by theocratic religious beliefs, not carefully considered dispassionate analysis. The superficially secular arguments against a woman’s choice are almost always ad-hoc excuses invented to justify the existing religious position the inventor had. Even then, religion is just the half of it; being able to virtue signal and self-present as knights in shining armor without actually having to work hard or put oneself in any real danger is the other half. This is obvious because “pro-life” people couldn’t actually be much less supportive of life, considering their war-mongering, their support for the death penalty, and their general slant towards favoring all things punitive.

“Science supports the pro-choice position”

Nope, science doesn’t make moral decisions, science decides what is, not what ought to be. An anti-abortion theocrat will say “science proves that fetuses have heartbeats, therefore science proves my anti-choice position,” when nothing of the sort is true. We know when fetuses get a heartbeat, but as I already explained earlier in the article, having a heartbeat is arbitrary. It is an appeal to emotion, to the sentimentality culture has for the heart. Cats have hearts, dogs have hearts, amphibians have them, and so do most other complex multi-cellular animals. Thus, the theocrat took an elementary school “science” fact, extrapolated it to fit their existing belief, all the while being clueless about the many other scientific facts that make their use of the first one look silly indeed. This is what they do with almost all of their supposed “scientific” proofs against abortion—human DNA, being an organism, etc.

Her body, her choice

Ultimately, the “her body, her choice” argument is absolutely sufficient to justify the pro-choice position. We don’t require by law parents whose children have kidney failure to give them one of their own do we? Sure, a good parent would want to, but requiring them to is a whole other level of totalitarianism.

Limited pro-choice

Some people say “I’m pro choice except when they use abortion as their form of birth control.” They’re mistakenly under the impression that this is a reasonable middle ground, but it is a totally incoherent position for the following reason: if the fetus isn’t a person for the people who’ve had accidents while using contraception, they still aren’t for irresponsible people using it as birth control. The personhood or non-personhood of a fetus is not determined by the reason for a person getting an abortion.

Abortion as birth control

Also I just need to point out that this idea of a meaningful number of women using abortion as their birth control is a myth; very few women actually do this. Before we get into it, lets define what we mean by “using abortion as birth control.” A teenager who accidentally forgets to use contraception, gets pregnant, and gets an abortion does not qualify. The phrase “using abortion as birth control” can only be reasonably be applied to a person who repeatedly engages in unsafe sex because of the knowledge that they could always just get an abortion.

Going to the numbers, 51% of abortions were done by people who became pregnant while using contraception or birth control, so that counts them out and leaves us with 49%. Of this 49% only half had had a previous abortion. Since we defined “using abortion as birth control” as repeated carelessness, that leaves us with 24.5% abortion-receivers who potentially fit the bill. There is probably a portion of this quarter that fit our definition, but there will also be people who are simply too poor to afford contraception consistently, those with mental disorders, and those who lack proper education on contraception. If we divided the remaining 24.5% between those groups equally, we end up with 6.13%. But lets just be generous to abortion opponents and arbitrarily round up to 10%. This leaves us with a reasonably arrived at number that, in my opinion, is far insufficient to stake an argument against abortion choice on.

I completely agree that the tiny quantity of people who do “use abortion as their birth control” are absolutely irresponsible, careless, and going about things the worst way possible, but this doesn’t mean I then get to step in and take control of her person (through me voting in theocrats and authoritarians) and force her to become an incubator. If theocrats want to smother a woman with guaranteed cash to convince her that neither she nor the baby will go through hardship if she finishes the pregnancy then go for it; but they don’t have to right to force her to finish the pregnancy under the barbarous opinion that the hardship that follows is her just deserts. Motherhood shouldn’t be used as a punishment.

Conclusion

Anti-choice people don’t have the right to claim to be anti abortion or pro life if they continue to support abstinence-only sex education instead of comprehensive sex ed, continue to oppose increasing access to birth control, and continue to oppose expanding resources like WIC and food stamps to children and mothers. Otherwise, it is clear that the primary reason they want to take away women’s rights is to punish them for what they see as immoral out-of-wedlock fornication, not because they really care about life.

The policies just now mentioned would reduce unwanted pregnancy and abortion, and increase the quality of life for those who got pregnant. But no, fundamentalists feel that the girl and child should experience hardship for the “living in sin” sex of the mother. There are similar reasons why they oppose HPV immunizations; they feel like it would remove the “deserved” consequences for “sexual immorality.” Many of them feel that AIDS was God’s judgment to LGBT people for their “sexual immorality” (never-mind that exclusive lesbians were less affected than straight people; a, b, c, d). This punitive-ness is ingrained in their world-view. Anything bad that happens to anybody they find immoral, detestable, or an abomination is interpreted as them getting what they deserve. Conveniently, anything bad that happens to people they like is just the result of the devil or demons.

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