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    Why Abortion is Immoral by Dan Marquis taken from The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, 4 (Apr. 1989); pp. 183 - 202. by permission of The Journal of Philsophy WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL 183 WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL T HE view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously im- moral has received little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion posi- tion is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument. The pur- pose of this essay is to undermine this general belief. This essay sets out an argument that purports to show, as well as any argument in ethics can show, that abortion is, except possibly in rare cases, seri- ously immoral, that it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being. The argument is based on a major assumption. Many of the most insightful and careful writers on the ethics of abortion—such as Joel Feinberg, Michael Tooley, Mary Anne Warren, H. Tristram Engel- hardt, Jr., L. W. Sumner, John T. Noonan, Jr., and Philip Devine¹- believe that whether or not abortion is morally permissible stands or falls on whether or not a fetus is the sort of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end. The argument of this essay will assume, but not argue, that they are correct. Also, this essay will neglect issues of great importance to a complete ethics of abortion. Some anti-abortionists will allow that certain abortions, such as abortion before implantation or abortion when the life of a woman is threatened by a pregnancy or abortion after rape, may be morally permissible. This essay will not explore the casuistry of these hard cases. The purpose of this essay is to develop a general argument for the claim that the overwhelming majority of deliberate abortions are seriously immoral. A sketch of standard anti-abortion and pro-choice arguments ex- hibits how those arguments possess certain symmetries that explain why partisans of those positions are so convinced of the correctness of their own positions, why they are not successful in convincing 1 Feinberg, "Abortion," in Matters of Life and Death: New Introductory Essays in Moral Philosophy, Tom Regan, ed. (New York: Random House, 1986), pp. 256-293; Tooley, “Abortion and Infanticide,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11, 1 (1972):37-65, Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford, 1984); War- ren, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” The Monist, L.VII, 1 (1973):43– 61; Engelhardt, “The Ontology of Abortion," Ethics, LXXXIV, 3 (1974):217-234; Sumner, Abortion and Moral Theory (Princeton: University Press, 1981); Noonan, "An Almost Absolute Value in History," in The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives, Noonan, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard, 1970); and Devine, The Ethics of Homicide (Ithaca: Cornell, 1978). 0022-362X/89/8604/183-202 1989 The Journal of Philosophy, Inc. This content downloaded from on Fri, 2 May 2014 15:42:49 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions 184 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY their opponents, and why, to others, this issue seems to be unresolv- able. An analysis of the nature of this standoff suggests a strategy for surmounting it. Consider the way a typical anti-abortionist argues. She will argue or assert that life is present from the moment of conception or that fetuses look like babies or that fetuses possess a characteristic such as a genetic code that is both necessary and sufficient for being human. Anti-abortionists seem to believe that (1) the truth of all of these claims is quite obvious, and (2) establishing any of these claims is sufficient to show that abortion is morally akin to murder. A standard pro-choice strategy exhibits similarities. The pro- choicer will argue or assert that fetuses are not persons or that fetuses are not rational agents or that fetuses are not social beings. Pro-choicers seem to believe that (1) the truth of any of these claims is quite obvious, and (2) establishing any of these claims is sufficient to show that an abortion is not a wrongful killing. In fact, both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion claims do seem to be true, although the “it looks like a baby” claim is more difficult to establish the earlier the pregnancy. We seem to have a standoff. How can it be resolved? As everyone who has taken a bit of logic knows, if any of these arguments concerning abortion is a good argument, it requires not only some claim characterizing fetuses, but also some general moral principle that ties a characteristic of fetuses to having or not having the right to life or to some other moral characteristic that will gener- ate the obligation or the lack of obligation not to end the life of a fetus. Accordingly, the arguments of the anti-abortionist and the pro-choicer need a bit of filling in to be regarded as adequate. Note what each partisan will say. The anti-abortionist will claim that her position is supported by such generally accepted moral principles as "It is always prima facie seriously wrong to take a human life” or “It is always prima facie seriously wrong to end the life of a baby." Since these are generally accepted moral principles, her position is certainly not obviously wrong. The pro-choicer will claim that her position is supported by such plausible moral princi- ples as "Being a person is what gives an individual intrinsic moral worth” or “It is only seriously prima facie wrong to take the life of a member of the human community." Since these are generally ac- cepted moral principles, the pro-choice position is certainly not ob- viously wrong. Unfortunately, we have again arrived at a standoff. Now, how might one deal with this standoff? The standard ap- proach is to try to show how the moral principles of one's opponent lose their plausibility under analysis. It is easy to see how this is This content downloaded from on Fri, 2 May 2014 15:42:49 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL 185 possible. On the one hand, the anti-abortionist will defend a moral principle concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be broad in scope in order that even fetuses at an early stage of preg- nancy will fall under it. The problem with broad principles is that they often embrace too much. In this particular instance, the princi- ple "It is always prima facie wrong to take a human life” seems to entail that it is wrong to end the existence of a living human cancer- cell culture, on the grounds that the culture is both living and human. Therefore, it seems that the anti-abortionist's favored princi- ple is too broad. On the other hand, the pro-choicer wants to find a moral principle concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be narrow in scope in order that fetuses will not fall under it. The problem with narrow principles is that they often do not embrace enough. Hence, the needed principles such as "It is prima facie seriously wrong to kill only persons" or "It is prima facie wrong to kill only rational agents" do not explain why it is wrong to kill infants or young children or the severely retarded or even perhaps the severely mentally ill. There- fore, we seem again to have a standoff. The anti-abortionist charges, not unreasonably, that pro-choice principles concerning killing are too narrow to be acceptable; the pro-choicer charges, not unreason- ably, that anti-abortionist principles concerning killing are too broad to be acceptable. Attempts by both sides to patch up the difficulties in their posi- tions run into further difficulties. The anti-abortionist will try to remove the problem in her position by reformulating her principle concerning killing in terms of human beings. Now we end up with: "It is always prima facie seriously wrong to end the life of a human being." This principle has the advantage of avoiding the problem of the human cancer-cell culture counterexample. But this advantage is purchased at a high price. For although it is clear that a fetus is both human and alive, it is not at all clear that a fetus is a human being. There is at least something to be said for the view that something becomes a human being only after a process of development, and that therefore first trimester fetuses and perhaps all fetuses are not yet human beings. Hence, the anti-abortionist, by this move, has merely exchanged one problem for another.2 The pro-choicer fares no better. She may attempt to find reasons why killing infants, young children, and the severely retarded is 2 For interesting discussions of this issue, see Warren Quinn, “Abortion: Identity and Loss," Philosophy and Public Affairs, XIII, 1 (1984):24–54; : Lawrence C. Becker, "Human Being: The Boundaries of the Concept," Philosophy and Public Affairs, IV, 4 (1975):334-359. This content downloaded from on Fri, 2 May 2014 15:42:49 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions 186 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY wrong which are independent of her major principle that is sup- posed to explain the wrongness of taking human life, but which will not also make abortion immoral. This is no easy task. Appeals to social utility will seem satisfactory only to those who resolve not to think of the enormous difficulties with a utilitarian account of the wrongness of killing and the significant social costs of preserving the lives of the unproductive." A pro-choice strategy that extends the definition of 'person' to infants or even to young children seems just as arbitrary as an anti-abortion strategy that extends the definition of 'human being' to fetuses. Again, we find symmetries in the two posi- tions and we arrive at a standoff. There are even further problems that reflect symmetries in the two positions. In addition to counterexample problems, or the arbitrary application problems that can be exchanged for them, the standard anti-abortionist principle "It is prima facie seriously wrong to kill a human being," or one of its variants, can be objected to on the grounds of ambiguity. If 'human being' is taken to be a biological category, then the anti-abortionist is left with the problem of ex- plaining why a merely biological category should make a moral dif- ference. Why, it is asked, is it any more reasonable to base a moral conclusion on the number of chromosomes in one's cells than on the color of one's skin?* If ‘human being', on the other hand, is taken to be a moral category, then the claim that a fetus is a human being cannot be taken to be a premise in the anti-abortion argument, for it is precisely what needs to be established. Hence, either the anti- abortionist's main category is a morally irrelevant, merely biological category, or it is of no use to the anti-abortionist in establishing (noncircularly, of course) that abortion is wrong. Although this problem with the anti-abortionist position is often noticed, it is less often noticed that the pro-choice position suffers from an analogous problem. The principle "Only persons have the right to life” also suffers from an ambiguity. The term 'person' is typically defined in terms of psychological characteristics, although there will certainly be disagreement concerning which characteristics are most important. Supposing that this matter can be settled, the pro-choicer is left with the problem of explaining why psychological characteristics should make a moral difference. If the pro-choicer should attempt to deal with this problem by claiming that an explana- 3 For example, see my “Ethics and The Elderly: Some Problems," in Stuart Spicker, Kathleen Woodward, and David Van Tassel, eds., Aging and the Elderly: Humanistic Perspectives in Gerontology (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1978), pp. 341-355. 4 See Warren, op. cit., and Tooley, "Abortion and Infanticide." This content downloaded from on Fri, 2 May 2014 15:42:49 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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    University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy Volume 8 Issue 1 Fall 2013 January 2013 When Does Human Life Begin? The Scientific Evidence and Terminology Revisited Maureen L. Condic Follow this and additional works at: https://ir.stthomas.edu/ustjlpp & Part of the Family Law Commons, and the Health Law and Policy Commons Article 4 Recommended Citation Maureen L. Condic, When Does Human Life Begin? The Scientific Evidence and Terminology Revisited, 8 U. ST. THOMAS J.L. & PUB. POL'Y 44 (2013). Available at: https://ir.stthomas.edu/ustjlpp/vol8/iss1/4 This Article is brought to you for free and open access by UST Research Online and the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy. For more information, please contact the Editor-in-Chief at [email protected]. WHEN DOES HUMAN LIFE BEGIN? THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE AND TERMINOLOGY REVISITED MAUREEN L. CONDIC* The question of when human life begins continues to be a source of ethical and political controversy. In this debate, the language used by many medical textbooks fosters significant misinterpretation of the scientific facts. In particular, terminology that refers to the product of sperm-egg fusion as a "penetrated oocyte" and claims that the zygote does not form until syngamy (approximately twenty-four hours after sperm-egg fusion) have resulted in the erroneous belief that a human embryo does not exist during the period prior to this point (i.e. the "pre-zygote error"). Yet an objective view of the modern scientific evidence supports only a single definition of the term "zygote": a one-cell human organism (i.e. a human being) that forms immediately upon sperm-egg fusion (not after twenty-four hours of development has elapsed). Therefore, the life of a new human being commences at a scientifically well-defined event; the fusion of the plasma membranes of sperm and egg. This conclusion is not a matter of religious belief or societal convention; it is a matter of objective, scientific observation. In light of the evidence, alternative views of when human life begins and when a developing human is the subject of rights (at viability or when the fetus is capable of conscious awareness) are both scientifically unsound and have significant negative implications for the ethical treatment of all human persons. INTRODUCTION A wide range of issues that are important for both science and society center on the biological and moral status of human prenatal life, including * University of Utah School of Medicine. Department of Neurobiology, 401 MREB. 20 North, 1900 East Salt Lake City, Utah 84132-3401. 44 No. 1] When Does Human Life Begin? The Scientific Evidence and Terminology Revisited 45 abortion, assisted reproduction technologies and human embryonic stem cell research. The debate over these issues often reflects deeply divided opinions. In the spring of 2013, scientists reported the successful generation of cloned human embryos that survived to the blastocyst stage before being destroyed to obtain embryonic stem cells.¹ The result was met by significant ethical objections from some commentators² and unqualified praise from others, reflecting the widely differing views of both when human life begins and the value of human life at early embryonic stages. Similarly, a proposed amendment to the Mississippi Constitution in 2011 that would grant the rights of personhood to human embryos from the one-cell stage onward, raised considerable alarm in the media and was ultimately defeated after achieving the support of a substantial number of the state's voters (42%). Similar personhood efforts in Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia and Florida also obtained significant public support while facing strong opposition from scientists and others, indicating that the diversity of opinions on when human life begins noted five years ago' have not been resolved. Yet even at much later stages of human prenatal development, there is no consensus on when a human embryo or fetus is a human person with basic human rights. The ambivalent public opinions surrounding the conviction of Dr. Kermit Gosnell for murder of three infants, who were killed after delivery in late-term abortions, illustrates the lack of consensus in our society regarding the moral and ethical status of human prenatal life. Different religions, philosophies and cultures have come to very different 1. Masahito Tachibana et al., Human Embryonic Stem Cells Derived by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer, 153 CELL 1228, 1228–38 (2013). 2. Cardinal O'Malley: Human Cloning Inconsistent with Human Dignity, Treats People as Products, U.S. CONF. OF CATH. BISHOPS (May 13, 2013), http://www.usccb.org/news/2013/13- 094.cfm. 3. David Cyranoski, Human Stem Cells Created by Cloning, 497 NATURE 295, 295–96 (2013). 4. For example, in a critical essay the New York Times stated that, if passed, the amendment "would define the term "person" in the State Constitution to include fertilized human eggs and grant to fertilized eggs the legal rights and protections that apply to people." Editorial, The Personhood' Initiative, N.Y. TIMES, Oct. 28, 2011, at A30. 5. Lee Rubin Collins & Susan L. Crockin, Fighting 'Personhood' Initiatives in the United States, 24 REPROD. BIOMED. ONLINE 689, 689–91 (2012); Susan Young, Mississippi to Vote on 'Personhood', 479 NATURE 13, 13–14 (2011). 6. E.g., Kathy Hawken, North Dakota's Fetal Personhood Amendment: Why I Voted Against It, THEDAILYBEAST.COM (Mar. 24, 2013), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/03 /24/north-dakota-s-fetal-personhood-amendment-why-i-voted-against-it.html. 7. Maureen L. Condic, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective, 1 WESTCHESTER Inst. White Paper 1, 1–32 (2008), reprinted in 9 NAT'L CATH. BIOETHICS Q. 127, 127-208 (2009). 8. See e.g., Trip Gabriel & Jon Hurdle, Philadelphia Abortion Doctor Guilty of Murder in Late-Term Procedures, N.Y. TIMES, May 14, 2013, at A12. 46 UNIV. OF ST. THOMAS JOURNAL OF LAW & PUBLIC POLICY [Vol. VIII conclusions on the question of when human life begins and when that life has value, leading many to conclude the question cannot be objectively resolved. Yet ample scientific evidence points to a clear resolution to this question based entirely on an objective, factual analysis of human embryonic development. HOW DOES SCIENCE DETERMINE A NEW CELL TYPE HAS BEEN FORMED? To address the question of when life begins from a scientific perspective, we must first consider when a new cell that is distinct from sperm and egg is formed. As previously discussed, scientists determine when a new cell is formed based on two simple criteria: cell composition and cell behavior. These two criteria are used universally in the field of biology to distinguish when new cell types are produced, either in the laboratory or during embryonic development. These two factors often interact, with differences in cell composition resulting in differences in cell behavior. For example, brain cells have characteristic electrical activity required for information processing and this activity is produced by specific molecules (voltage-gated membrane channels) that are present in brain cells, but not in skin cells. 10 Based on both composition and behavior, it is entirely clear that a new cell type forms immediately upon sperm and egg plasma membrane fusion (Figure 1), which is a rapid event tha kes less than a second to complete. At this point, a single cell is generated that contains all the components of both gametes and therefore has a unique molecular composition. Moreover, the cell produced by sperm-egg fusion rapidly enters into a new pattern of cell behavior that is also distinct from either gamete (initiating cell division, for example). Thus, based on the two criteria noted above, a new cell is formed at a well-defined moment: the instant of sperm-egg plasma-membrane fusion. 9. MAUREEN L. CONDIC ET AL., IS THIS CELL A HUMAN BEING? EXPLORING THE STATUS OF EMBRYOS, STEM CELLS AND HUMAN-ANIMAL HYBRIDS 27 (Joachim Huarte & Antoine Suarez eds., 2011); Condic, supra note 7. 10. Due to the singularity of the sperm-egg fusion event (which occurs only one time in one place for each oocyte) and the difficulty of obtaining oocytes (only five to ten human eggs can be harvested at a time, compared to approximately 250 million sperm in human ejaculate) the mechanisms of sperm-egg plasma membrane fusion are not well studied. However, both acrosome-reacted sperm, C.N Tomes, Molecular Mechanisms of Membrane Fusion During Acrosomal Exocytosis, 65 SOC'Y REPROD. FERTILITY SUPP. 275, 275-91 (2007), and mature oocytes, Min Liu, The Biology and Dynamics of Mammalian Cortical Granules, 9 REPROD. BIOLOGY ENDOCRINOLOGY 149, 149 (2011), express well studied SNARE and SNAP proteins on their surfaces that are likely to mediate rapid membrane fusion (~0.25 seconds) once sperm-egg binding occurs. No. 1] When Does Human Life Begin? The Scientific Evidence and Terminology Revisited 47 DEVELOPMENT REFLECTS THE ACTIVITY OF AN ORGANISM AND IS NOT CONTROLLED BY THE OOCYTE Knowing that a new cell is formed at gamete fusion does not fully answer the question of when human life begins. We must still ask what kind of a cell has been produced a new human being or simply a new human cell? The medical dictionary administered by the National Institutes of Health defines the product of fertilization as a "zygote,” or “a cell formed by the union of two gametes; broadly the developing individual produced from such a cell." The term "zygote" derives from the Greek zygōtós or "yoked," a variant of zygoûn, or "to join together." Thus, "zygote" is another name for a one-cell embryo that is formed by the union of sperm and egg and that undergoes the process of development to generate a mature individual. However, there is still inherent ambiguity regarding precisely when the zygote forms; either at sperm-egg fusion or at fusion of the male and female pronuclei, approximately twenty-four hours later. Historically, medical texts define the formation of the zygote and the beginning human life as syngamy; i.e. the "fusion"¹² of the two pronuclei in preparation for the first cell division of the embryo.¹³ Consequently, the new cell formed by sperm- egg fusion is often characterized as nothing more than a modified gamete (i.e. a "fertilized egg" or a "penetrated oocyte"). However, based on the ample scientific evidence¹4 that is reviewed and updated here, this conclusion is clearly false. A modern understanding of human embryology indicates that syngamy does not meet either of the two criteria for the formation of a new cell. Rather, the zygote is formed in the instant of sperm-egg plasma membrane fusion, with all subsequent events of the first day of life being acts of the zygote, not acts that form the zygote (Figure 1). The view that the zygote is simply a modified human oocyte in part reflects the difference in size and complexity between the male and female gametes. Human sperm, excluding the tail, measure roughly five microns by three microns with a volume of approximately 150 cubic microns, 11. Zygote Definition, MERRIAM-WEBSTER.COM, http://www.merriam-webster.com/medline plus/zygote, April 1, 2014. 12. Although syngamy is commonly described as pronuclear "fusion," this is highly inaccurate and dangerously misleading. Condic, supra note 9. 13. For example, "Fertilization is a complex sequence of coordinated events that begins with contact between a sperm and an oocyte...and ends with the intermingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes at metaphase of the first mitotic division of the zygote." KEITH L. MOORE & T.V.N. PERSAUD, THE DEVELOPING HUMAN 31 (7th ed. 2003); “At this point, [syngamy] the process of fertilization can be said to be complete and the fertilized egg is called a zygote." BRUCE M. CARLSON, HUMAN EMBRYOLOGY AND DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGY 36 (3rd ed. 2004). 14. Condic, supra note 9.

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    By “unborn human being,” I mean a living human zygote, embryo, or fetus. I shall defend this somewhat controversial usage later in these remarks. By “direct abortion,” I mean an act whose object is to destroy an unborn human being. By “indirect abortion,” I mean an act whose object is something other than the destruction […]

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    Articulating and responding to common misconceptions concerning the ethics of abortion will help to clarify and advance the debate, moving past misleading slogans to engage in a forthright and respectful public dialogue in the wake of Dobbs, and seeking to build a genuine culture of life that suppor

  • Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing

    The political philosopher Ryan T. Anderson, bestselling author of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, teams up with the pro-life journalist Alexandra DeSanctis to expose the catastrophic failure—social, political, legal, and personal—of legalized abortion.Hope in the Ruins of Roe Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade and returned abortion law to the democratic process, a powerful new book reframes the coming debate: Our fifty-year experiment with unlimited abortion has harmed everyone—even its most passionate proponents. Women, men, families, the law, politics, medicine, the media—and, of course, children (born and unborn)—have all been brutalized by the culture of death fostered by Roe v. Wade. Abortion hollows out marriage and the family. It undermines the rule of law and corrupts our political system. It turns healers into executioners and “women’s health” into a euphemism for extermination. Ryan T. Anderson, a compelling and reasoned voice in our most contentious cultural debates, and the pro-life journalist Alexandra DeSanctis expose the false promises of the abortion movement and explain why it has made everything worse. Five decades after Roe, everyone has an opinion about abortion. But after reading Tearing Us Apart, no one will think about it in the same way.

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    The Philosophy of the Abortion Debate

    Prof. Knobel's presentation slides can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/2p8as75m This lecture was given on March 24, 2022 at Texas State University. About the speaker: Angela Knobel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dallas. She received her doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 2004. From 2004 to 2020, she taught philosophy at her alma mater, the Catholic University of America. Her work focuses primarily on Aquinas’ theory of infused virtue, virtue ethics and applied ethics. Her book Aquinas and the Infused Moral Virtues is forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press.

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    Unborn Human Life and Fundamental Rights

    In "Unborn Human Life and Fundamental Rights: Leading Constitutional Cases under Scrutiny" (Peter Lang, 2019), editors William L. Saunders and Pilar Zambrano have collected a series of essays covering over 10 different nations and jurisdictions and addressing human rights and the role of judiciaries at home and abroad in protecting those rights. Concluding reflections are offered by legal philosopher John Finnis. Featuring: - Prof. Gerard V. Bradley, Notre Dame Law School - Moderator: Prof. Robert P. George, Princeton University * * * * * As always, the Federalist Society takes no position on particular legal or public policy issues; all expressions of opinion are those of the speaker.

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    The Supreme Court & Abortion

    Is The Supreme Court likely to reverse Roe vs. Wade and overturn federal abortion “rights” as it decides the Dobbs case? What led to this moment? What are the signs of hope for the pro-life community? Carter Snead from University of Notre Dame Law School explains.

  • https://www.nytimes.com

    Making the argument that lies behind the constitutional debate. A striking thing about the American abortion debate is how little abortion itself is actually debated. The sensitivity and intimacy of the issue, the mixed feelings of so many Americans, mean that most politicians and even many pundits really don’t like to talk about it.