The Amoral Unborn
I’m not in the political prediction business -and it looks like Romney might be back on top of the polls in Michigan- but if Santorum squeezes out a win in the Mitten State that will certainly be embarrassing for Mitt and will lead to more embarrassing political controversies over reproductive rights and “social issues” that should be settled by now. That said, I understand reasonable people can disagree about a tricky topic like abortion rights. I know Santorum and Gingrich oppose secularism, but in order to get past this moral impasse as a public policy issue let’s appraise the moral foundation of a woman’s right to reproductive control.
Placing an ethical premium on personal autonomy provides a vital safeguard against harm for individuals. The state should only infringe on that autonomy to the extent that a person’s free decision causes measurable suffering to others. Abortion opponents doubtlessly believe that ending a pregnancy harms the “unborn.” They’re wrong.
Our moral concern need only extend to conscious creatures with the ability to perceive experiences. It’s the reason landscapers don’t face an ethical dilemma every time they mangle and sever live grass with steel blades. An unborn blastocyst lacks a brain and nervous system (it doesn’t even have neurons yet); without those faculties a blastocyst cannot suffer. In contrast, developed conscious women can suffer and can experience pleasure. Pro-life activists want the state to restrict the personal autonomy of a full human person. Then, against her will, the pregnant woman must suffer all the consequences and risks in order to protect an entity that, by definition, does not suffer.
The later stages of pregnancy may complicate the biological picture, but no moral obligation yet develops. Despite the growth of a nervous system and brain, a fetus has no awareness that is critical for our moral concern.
[The] fetus is actively sedated by the low oxygen pressure (equivalent to that at the top of Mount Everest), the warm and cushioned uterine environment and a range of neuroinhibitory and sleep-inducing substances produced by the placenta and the fetus itself: adenosine; two steroidal anesthetics, allopregnanolone and pregnanolone; one potent hormone, prostaglandin D2; and others.
The closest parallel may be surgery under anesthesia. Surgical patients do not perceive their experience or conscious pain because, as my nurse anesthetist friend explains, “the brain is unable to receive or remember pain… the nervous system is still intact and signals are still being sent to the sleeping brain.” A fetus never awakens into consciousness – it won’t notice… it can’t notice or miss its life or its termination anymore than a sperm does.
I thought it’d be unnecessary to discuss, but since Newt Gingrich made the ridiculous, false, and offensive charge that “Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide” I might as well explain why infants merit our moral care. Using a comparable moral framework, Will Wilkinson of The Economist believes infants are not persons, but still accepts that the prohibition on infanticide is “wise.” Yet I think he sells the strength of his case a bit short. Wilkinson argues that “birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line.” That’s not entirely false, but it’s less arbitrary than he suggests. Here’s Christof Koch from the Scientific American again:
The dramatic events attending delivery by natural (vaginal) means cause the brain to abruptly wake up, however. The fetus is forced from its paradisic existence in the protected, aqueous and warm womb into a hostile, aerial and cold world that assaults its senses with utterly foreign sounds, smells and sights, a highly stressful event.
As Hugo Lagercrantz, a pediatrician at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, discovered two decades ago, a massive surge of norepinephrine—more powerful than during any skydive or exposed climb the fetus may undertake in its adult life—as well as the release from anesthesia and sedation that occurs when the fetus disconnects from the maternal placenta, arouses the baby so that it can deal with its new circumstances. It draws its first breath, wakes up and begins to experience life.
In other words, at birth, infants begin to experience conscious awareness. After delivery, the infant is an autonomous entity that no longer directly risks harm to the mother. The newborn’s ability to perceive harm and pleasure demands that we foster the child’s wellbeing.
Since blastocysts and fetuses can’t consciously experience the consequences of a woman’s decision, any government intervention unnecessarily infringes on personal liberty and causes harm and risk. The only refuge left for abortion opponents is to invent vacuous principles to protect such as “dignity.” Depending on the application, this religious concept is a “vague restatement” of other useful and more precise ethical metrics at best or is an attempt to elevate the interests of nobody above the interests of conscious autonomous persons at worst. In our moral calculus, it’s dispensable.
Secular reason leads us to care for living conscious women against the illiberal assault on their personal autonomy. It’s the moral position.
(image: fetal brain development)