This is an e-mail I sent to a friend whose official position on abortion I would hesitate to characterize, but leans towards the pro-life side. The actual conversation we had was via text messaging, so I don’t have a record of her questions but I basically wanted to hit all the points of what it is that I think actually makes killing wrong, why society needs to enforce that, why I don’t consider abortion murder, why I think that abortion is okay, and why it shouldn’t matter (from a legal point of view) if the mother wants an abortion and the father does not.
To put it in some context, she and I had already had a previous discussion where I had explained that I think killing is wrong because it severs the attachments that people have to the world around them, and vice-versa. Her hypothetical example that I mention in my opening is whether that makes it okay to kill a reclusive person who has no such ties. I’ve edited it to remove some personal stuff that I had in a preamble and ending.
If someone is a recluse then killing them is morally wrong. While true that nobody will care about the result (in the hypothetical), we don’t live in a vacuum. What we’re talking about is two different types of morality: legal and metaphysical. If truly nobody cares about the death of our hypothetical person (note that this must include himself), then you’re correct: there is no metaphysical moral issue with killing him. However the legal morality of this is problematic. We create our own society and then we all have to live in it. If we allow people to kill other recluses, then we are also subject to the lawlessness of being killed ourselves. Thus, from a legal moral perspective, it is wrong to kill the recluse.
However, in a very slightly less constrained hypothetical where nobody cares about the man, but the man still has attachments to the world around him (art, music, hobbies, whatever), the metaphysical moral issue reappears. In my opinion, it is once again subject to the premise that the reason killing is wrong is the severing of these attachments. Granted that the man won’t care after the fact, but there’s a difference between caring and being affected. While he won’t realize it, the loss of these attachments is an effect, and I do believe that when making a decision about morality, the opinions that matter are specifically the opinions of those affected (in this case, the man). You could argue that his opinion is voided by his death, but that’s not quite right because we are talking about the moral *decision*. A decision which, by necessity, precedes the action, thus his opinion at the time of the decision is what we base our moral choice on.
Furthermore, while I do believe that it’s severing these attachments that make killing wrong, not all killings are equally wrong. In the same way that snow and dry ice are both cold, one is certainly colder than the other. With this in mind, it is more wrong to kill a person with a lifetime of these attachments than it is to kill an infant whose only attachments may be the love of its parents. This runs counter to the intuition that evolution has programmed us with, but I think the reasoning is enough (for me at least) to trump the gut instinct of biology. Note again, that killing the infant is still wrong, but simply less so than the adult.
This brings us back to abortion. Everything I just said about killing being metaphysically morally wrong because it severs attachments then fails to apply (if one assumes the desire for an abortion on the part of the parents). The fetus has no such attachments. At the point where it is legally allowed to be aborted, it hasn’t developed sufficiently to even have these attachments. As such, even if abortion counts as killing, it is not a form of killing I find morally quarrelsome.
A quick aside: I will not be using the term “murder” because it confuses the issue. Murder is a legal distinction, and has nothing to do with morality. Furthermore, murder is illegal, and is distinct from merely “killing”. This is why killing someone in self defence or by accident is not called murder by our justice system, and since we live in a society where abortion is legal, it too cannot honestly be called “murder”.
Anyways, this whole argument deals with the premise that aborting a fetus is “killing”. I actually deny this premise as I don’t consider the fetus to be anything more than a cluster of cells that will develop into something to which the term “killing” can be applied. Unfertilized eggs and sperm share this description, but we don’t think of menstruation or male masturbation as “killing” any more than we ought to think the term applies to a fetus. There’s nothing magical about the moment of conception, it’s just one step along the way to creating a person. The line between fetus and person isn’t a clear cut one. It reminds me of the question “how many grains of sand does it take to have a pile”. There isn’t a concrete answer. At some point it just stops being a few grains and becomes a pile. While answers will differ in the intermediate stages, we can look at a couple of grains and come to a consensus that they don’t form a pile. We ought to be able to do the same with the early stages of fetal development.
As for father’s rights, I consider that an entirely separate issue. If the father wants to keep the child but the mother does not, it is a tragic situation but the final say should (and currently does) belong to the mother. This goes back to legal morality above. Should we create a society where one person can be forced to carry an unwanted child? Considering all of the risks and efforts involved on the side of the mother (with none being involved for the father) it is unfair for a man to be able to force this upon a woman against her will. Imagine a society where a rapist could force his victim to carry his child. I hope you’d agree that this is not a society we would want to live in. Perhaps you’d suggest building in an exception for rape, but now all of a sudden all a woman has to do to get out of a forced pregnancy is accuse a man of rape, which I think causes more problems than it solves. Even at the end of the day, if abortion services are made unavailable to these women, it won’t stop them from obtaining one; it will simply stop them from obtaining one safely.
I’m prepared to change my opinion on this if it ever becomes possible to bring a baby to term without having to incubate it inside of the mother (artificial wombs or surrogacy transplants, for example) depending on what’s involved with the process. But for the time being, situations such as these are tragic but must fall to the decision of the woman.