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Monday, February 18, 2013

Does Abortion Harm the Preborn?

In my last article, I gave a discussion of various arguments against fetal personhood, including the Functionalist view. I presented a detailed analysis of why presently exercising self-awareness does not make one inherently valuable. This will be a follow-up to my last article, presenting a detailed analysis on whether the ability to feel pain or exhibit consciousness makes an entity inherently valuable, followed by a discussion on whether the unborn is actually harmed by being aborted.


Usually when I discuss what makes us valuable with a pro-choice person, I’ll receive one of three responses (often used interchangeably): sentience, consciousness, and self-awareness. Self-awareness is usually understood as the awareness of oneself, and to perceive of oneself as existing through time. I responded to this in my previous article. Consciousness is usually understood as having an awareness of your environment and your needs. Sentience is usually understood as a combination of self-awareness and consciousness. I have already shown that self-awareness is not a criterion that makes one valuable. But what about consciousness?

First, the unborn exhibit a limited amount of consciousness. Unborn twins have been observed fighting in the womb, the unborn have been observed sucking their thumb, and learn to recognize their mother’s voice in the womb. So if consciousness makes us valuable, then you would have to reject late-term abortion (which isn’t usually a problem, since even most pro-choice people don’t believe in late-term abortion). If you want to support abortion-on-demand, then you would have to take argue that there’s a “threshold” of consciousness one needs, but this would just be an ad hoc determination for the express purpose of allowing abortion. [1]

If consciousness is what makes us valuable, then it’s subject to the same problems as self-awareness. You lose consciousness whenever you fall asleep, enter a reversible coma, or go under general anesthesia before surgery. So in that case it would be permissible to kill you for any reason when you are in those states. And again, if you argue that you once exercised consciousness so that’s why it would be wrong to kill you, then we can just return to Frank Beckwith’s case of Uncle Jed. [2] If Jed enters a coma but has severe brain damage to where he loses all of his abilities so that he has to re-learn them (he’s essentially in the same position as the standard fetus), then you would have to say it would be permissible to kill Jed in such a state. However, I don’t know anyone who would say it would be okay to kill Jed in that state.

It seems that a lack of consciousness is not adequate criterion to allow us to kill you.


I don’t think there’s any real solid evidence as to when the unborn can feel pain. To be safe, I say it happens around 20 weeks. Some pro-life advocates insist it happens much earlier, and some pro-choice advocates insist it happens much later. I take the happy medium. For me, it’s irrelevant because my argument rests on what the unborn is, not on whether it can feel pain. But what about the argument that it is permissible to kill the unborn because they can’t feel pain, or that it’s at least humane to kill them when they can’t feel pain, so if you’re going to kill them it should be before that point?

This objection also fails due to clear counterexamples. If it’s permissible to kill the unborn because they can’t feel pain, then it is permissible to kill anyone, as long as you do it painlessly. And what about a case like Gabby Gingras, who was born with congenital inability to feel pain. [3] If the lack of pain made it permissible to kill someone, then someone with Gabby’s condition would never be safe.

So it seems that pain, likewise, is not appropriate criterion for making one valuable, or at least is not adequate criterion for removing someone from protection.

The Next Question

So this raises a question: does abortion harm the unborn entity? In most cases, it seems, it doesn’t cause them physical harm. But I’ve shown how that’s irrelevant to the question of whether we can kill someone. In their now infamous essay supporting after-birth abortion (they prefer this term over infanticide, to illustrate that a newborn and a fetus are morally equivalent), Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva claim that you don’t harm an unborn human being (or a newborn!) when you extinguish their life. They write,

“Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an existing person. The reason is that, unlike the case of death of an existing person, failing to bring a new person into existence does not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims...Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’ We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” [4]

But this definition of “harm” is lacking. Robert Wennberg offers an analogy to show us why:

“If I were cheated out of an inheritance that I didn’t know I had, I would be harmed regardless of whether I knew about the chicanery. Deprivation of a good (be it an inheritance or self-conscious existence) constitutes harm even if one is ignorant of that deprivation.” [5]

Or consider a man who cheats on his wife. If he decides never to tell her, has she been harmed by his infidelity? Of course she has.

One does not have to be aware that they are being harmed, in order to be harmed. [6] Plus, as Patrick Lee points out, there are certain times in which someone may not have any interests but it would still be wrong to kill, such as a slave who was indoctrinated not to have any interests or desire to live. It would still be wrong to kill this person, even if he has no conscious longing for, or interest in, a right to life. [7]

So it seems that one does not need the present desire to live in order to have a right to life, and one does not have to be presently aware of their harm in order to actually be harmed. While the definition of “harm” has been debated, it seems to me the most basic, and accurate, definition of harm is simply “to leave someone worse off.” The unborn are certainly made worse off by being killed. First, they are deprived of their future of valuable experiences. But second, to kill anyone, even one who is unaware of being killed, is a grave harm. Probably the gravest harm that can be done to an individual.

It seems that the most reasonable answer to the question is that yes, unborn human beings are most definitely harmed by being killed.

The preceding article appeared on the Secular Pro-Life blog.
[1] I addressed threshold arguments in my previous article.
[2] See the Self-awareness section of my last article.
[3] Note that the article is a little graphic.
[4] I plan on addressing “after-birth abortion” sometime in the future.
[5] Robert Wennberg, Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 98, as quoted in Frank Beckwith, Defending Life: The Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, NY, 2007), 145.
[6] Giubilini and Minerva try to get around this problem in their article, unsuccessfully. I’ll expound more on it in my future article.
[7] Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, as mentioned in Beckwith, Defending Life, p. 145.

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