Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Debates About Abortion Are More Than Just About Morality

There has been a lot in the news recently about the subject of abortion. Jacob-Rees-Mogg, perhaps the smartest MP in the House of Commons, received widespread criticism for his belief that abortion is always wrong under any circumstances. And last week there was a documentary on BBC 2 called Abortion on Trial in which Anne Robinson hosted a debate between nine people who held different, sometimes highly contentious, views on abortion.

Debates on abortion are seen by most to be disagreements on moral grounds, but that isn't primarily what's behind the divergences. The differences of opinion on abortion are not primarily to do with moral issues; they are to do with interpretation of facts.

They may consist of moral convictions, but moral convictions are based on evidence-based understandings of how certain acts affect human beings, which are about matters of fact and interpretation of data. Take our anti-abortion Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Mrs. Jones the pro-abortion lobbyist - what they disagree on is not so much about moral issues (not in most cases) it is a difference of opinion about facts.

Jacob Rees-Mogg believes all human life is sacred and should not be killed. Hence, he claims to believe that killing a foetus is morally equivalent (or thereabouts) to committing murder. Although she is pro-abortion, Mrs. Jones still believes that murder is wrong - it's just that she doesn't think abortion is murder. If Mrs. Jones believed that killing a foetus is morally equivalent to murder, then she would be anti-abortion too. That's why their primary difference is not a difference in morality - both of them are anti-murder - it's a difference of opinion about what constitutes murder.

But the matter doesn't stop there. In terms of epistemological consideration of abortion, there are four kinds of women:

1) Those that think abortion is not murder and would terminate a foetus
2) Those that think abortion is murder and have no qualms about terminating a foetus
3) Those that think abortion is not murder and would not terminate a foetus
4) Those that think abortion is murder and would therefore not terminate a foetus

People in group 1 will usually feel able to have an abortion and not feel like they have committed murder. People in group 2 that have an abortion are effectively doing so in spite of thinking it is murder, so they are far lower in numbers than those in group 1. People in group 3 may not think abortion is murder but they may think life is sacred and wish to preserve and protect it. People in group 4 usually would not have an abortion, and may often protest against others having abortions too.

When pro-choice people call for more tolerance, they are underestimating the strength of the opposition's belief. Tolerance is the capacity to recognise and respect the beliefs or practices of others - and of course one can do that even towards those one thinks are absurdly misjudged. I think scientology is a foolish, manipulative belief system, but in being tolerant of it, I'm saying that if you want to believe in something that I think is utter rubbish then that's up to you.

It is prohibitively difficult to call for tolerance in the abortion debate, because what remains ambiguous is the very qualification for tolerance in the first place. There is no use crying out for tolerance unless there is some agreement about what should be tolerated. Given that the two sides disagree on the definition of murder, it is unlikely that appeals for tolerance can be easily used for reconciliation.

Let's now look at the epistemological considerations regarding where people diverge on the abortion matter. If the abortion debate is primarily about whether or not abortion is murder, we have to take the problem a step back, because even if we all agreed that aborting a human life is murder, and that murder is wrong, there would still be the question of at what point does it take effect?

Just as views about whether divorce is right or wrong depend on how seriously one views marriage; views on abortion depend not just on whether it is murder, but also on whether one views a foetus as a human or a pre-human, and on whether murder can occur at the pre-human level.

There is also the little matter of what is life?
People consumed by this debate need to give a bit more consideration to the intricacies of gestation, because what goes on internally is not a simple mythological moment of conception – and that needs to be factored into this idea of denying potential human life. 

If we decide to classify ‘life’ at an exact point, we still have time over which to deliberate. The egg is responsible for 23 of the zygote's chromosomes and the spermatozoon is responsible for the other 23. What this produces is a 'life' of unique DNA structure - a unique life has been conceived, and just like a six month old child, it has metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction (albeit on a much smaller scale). 

What we have is a process lasting several days whereby the zygote enters the uterus, the cells continue to divide, until a blastocyst is formed (for those unaware, a blastocyst looks a bit like a ball of cells). Implantation is when the blastocyst attaches to the lining of the uterus (this takes a few more days).

The blastocyst has fully attached itself to the endometrium within about ten days after conception, and therefore a woman would know that taking the morning after pill would either prevent an egg from being released from the ovary, or it would facilitate the necessary biochemical changes to the womb so that any fertilised blastocyst is unable to implant and become an embryo.

Therefore, a woman who took the morning after pill a day after unprotected intercourse knows that if a pregnancy was going to occur through natural genetic algorithms then her action would prevent pregnancy. Is that abortion? Is that murder? Surely not. What about a woman who finds out she is pregnant after 10 days and takes Mifepristone on the eleventh day, terminating her pregnancy? It's the sorites paradox all over again.

Doctors have another definition of death - they define death as the point at which electrical activity in the brain ceases. Embryos do not have a brain so in legal terms a woman who takes Mifepristone to kill an embryo hasn’t killed a human life if one defines human life in terms of electrical activity in the brain.

When a loved one is in an accident and loses all cognitive capacity, it might fall upon you to choose whether or not to retract the feeding tube and end your loved one’s life. A lot of people have a hard time agreeing on whether or not assisted suicide is murder. Similarly, consider as an analogue the issue of embryonic development. There is a set of cells at the beginning, and what at some point we would call a ‘human’ collection of cells at the end.

Now imagine five countries, each differing on the their interpretation of the embryonic and foetal developmental stage. Imagine in those five countries each has a law that states it is illegal to abort after an embryo becomes a ‘human’. But when we look at each country's law book we find that each country differs in its definition of ‘human’ – one defines it as when electrical changes occur, one when the blood starts pumping, one when the brain is fully formed, one when the embryo develops a functioning nervous system, and one when fingernails begin to grow. Under those circumstances, none of the five countries can claim to be objectively correct in its constitution. 

Why is killing a sperm or an egg more immoral than killing a zygote, and why is that more immoral than killing a morula, and why is that is more immoral than killing a blastula, and why is that more immoral than killing gastrula, and why is that more immoral than killing a foetus at four months? The morals don't even begin to take a footing until the epistemological category distinctions are agreed upon - and they rarely are in this debate.

On the flawed view that abortion is wrong because all life is sacred
Quite obviously, a claim that all life is sacred and to be preserved is not only absurd, it is biologically impossible. We can't easily afford sperm and eggs the same regard for life as a five month old foetus, just as we can't easily afford microorganisms the same regard for life as sperm and eggs. It may be easy to avoid aborting a foetus if you are against abortion, but it’s impossible to live from day to day without being complicit in killing bugs and insects and microorganisms.

Every time you clean the kitchen worktops or do some gardening, living things are killed. When your house was built, millions of tiny living things had to die for that to happen. Yet I presume even the most ardent anti-abortionist is not opposed to the idea of gardening and house building. Consequently, there is no absolute sanctity of life - we commit genocide on microorganisms on a regular basis.

Moreover, even if two people agree that all pre-natal life is sacred after conception, who is going to regulate this? It takes a long time for the two nuclei to merge and form a diploid after one sperm enters the egg. At what point in this process does life become sacred? 

The earliest we could speak of 'pregnancy' would be the implantation of the embryo - although in almost every case there is a long period of time between implantation and human detection. Most women don't know they're pregnant until a few weeks after conception. Sexual intercourse produces large amounts of spermatozoa, most of which do not fuse with the ovum and produce successful fertilisation - so even the act of sexual union is an act of biological profligacy. Taken to an absurd limit, even sex can compromise the sanctity of life.

The upshot is, there is no clear cut objective point at which one can say an act of abortion is ‘murder’, because if the objection is the denying the potential of so-called sacred life then contraception and the morning after pill would indict the couple too.

Final point: Why I don't think there are many absolute anti-abortionists
I have a thought experiment to show why I think those who say they are against abortion under any circumstances are probably not telling the truth. Picture the scene – it’s 50 years in the future and a sadistic dictator has control of a large island which he uses as a closed incarceration camp for the sexual gratification of his huge army.

All the women there are captive and feel there is no chance of escape. They are ostensibly kept alive to be the sexual playthings of the sadistic army, where each woman’s daily routine is to be raped dozens of times, and this process is repeated every day.

Some of the men are perverted and like sexual perversion with children. Because of this, if a woman becomes pregnant she is still raped for as long as she can be until the baby’s birth, and then along with her daily rapes she is forced to raise a child until he or she is a few years old and can be the sexual plaything for the more perverted army men. Pregnancies are rare because the women are forced onto the pill – after all, pregnancies only impede the men’s enjoyment and it cuts short the woman’s potential for being an optimally shaped sexual slave. 

One day, one of the captives falls pregnant - knowing full well that the baby will be born, and that by the time her child is six or seven he or she will be a sexual slave for the perverted men. And then when the child is older he or she will go into the other rape camp, spending the rest of his or her life being a sexual salve raped dozens of times every day. 

Now, the woman is just 10 days pregnant when she is offered Mifepristone by another of the inmates who takes pity on her – an elderly lady who is herself a sex slave, but who still has one Mifepristone which she was keeping for herself in case she ever fell pregnant. 

To those, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who think abortion is wrong under any circumstance, I put the following question to you (or any who hold an uncompromising view). Given the woman’s choices (these are the only two choices she feels she has, having been born into this horrible set up, herself a victim all her life) – she can either take the Mifepristone, being pretty sure that she will save her future child from a life of brutal sexual slavery, or she can bring a child into a world in which she knows that from about 5 years old to death that child will have a life consisting only of being a rape victim dozens of times a day, every day.

I fancy that that majority of even the most hardline anti-abortionists would not wish to deny this poor lady the Mifepristone - and for that reason, most anti-abortionists who say they would not advocate abortion under any circumstances are probably either being dishonest with themselves, or probably capable of some pretty unpleasant emotional sadism.