Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Rethinking Abortion in Light of Advancing Technology

Advances in technology will eventually change how one prioritizes which ethical "rights" get invoked for or against having an abortion.

{ Audio .mp3 (7 min.)  of this essay } For my Ethics class I regularly re-read Mary Ann Warren's 1973 article, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion."[1] Although it is well argued, I can't agree with every sub-conclusion she draws which would be required to justify her overall position -- hardly a surprise, of course, given my pious commitments.

In a postscript to the article, she attempts to show that her argument for the moral permissibility of abortion does not commit her to infanticide. Why not? Because after the infant is born, "it does mark the end of its mother's right to determine its fate." I have two points of disagreement with her on this matter of infanticide -- one minor, the other more substantial, but which is somewhat related to the minor issue.

First, I have never been clear on where alleged moral "rights" come from, at least if there is no all-knowing issuer and (eventually) absolute enforcer of those rights (otherwise known as God). In contrast, political rights are far more easy to understand and apply: Find the king, or the Constitution, or some other governmental authority, and then draw some sort of reference and subsequent enforcement from there. So my minor disagreement with Warren is that talk of moral rights only introduces further confusion into the abortion debate.

Second, even if one were to acknowledge some sort of discernible rights being affirmed or violated, I was curious about how the following aside from Warren would interplay with such rights:

"Indeed if abortion could be performed without killing the fetus, [the mother] would never possess the right to have the fetus destroyed, for the same reasons that she has no right to have an infant destroyed."

What might it mean to perform an abortion without destroying a fetus?

At first glance we might worry that just as murdering someone without killing them is impossible, so committing an abortion without destroying the fetus is likewise, for semantic reasons, impossible. But this is not quite a correct understanding of the term, because the very word "abortion" just means the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, and does not, in addition, also mean the deliberate termination of a fetus's life. As we currently practice it, the act of abortion indeed causes the termination of a fetus's life, but that is merely an association due to our poor technology, not due to the prior logically entailing letter. Compare our use of the word "surgery" today as compared to times past. In the past, surgery always caused pain, but today we are fortunate to know that the association of these two terms is not one of logical entailment, as every anesthesiologist can attest.

With this semantic confusion behind us, we are now in a position to think about abortions, but without fetal termination. Perhaps we can imagine a specialized vat whereby we place a fetus within so as to grow it to viability. Advances in robotic surgery would allow doctors to remove the whole placenta quickly enough to
support the oxygen and nutrient environment which keeps the fetus viable, and then to reattach it to the artificial vat support system. In this case the woman would have terminated her pregnancy (accurately called an "abortion") but the fetus would still remain viable. Or again, perhaps the vat technology is too difficult a feat, but advances in biology allow a transplantation of just a small portion of the placenta, along with its accompanying fetus. Likewise, per as earlier, we would have terminated the pregnancy, but with the advantage of the fetus remaining viable.

In her postscript, Warren supplies two arguments on why infanticide is wrong (1) for reasons analogous to those which make it wrong to want to destroy natural resources or great works of art; or (2) for reasons whereby people value infants -- such as when foster parents who would want the infant would be deprived, or when greater society, valuing infants and willing to step up and support them, finance orphanages through the tax base. However, under advanced technology circumstances, these same issues would apply to the woman losing her "right" to commit an abortion, were the growth vat or the transplant biology advanced enough to remove the infant from the woman. Using Warrens own reasoning, just as the woman does not control the right to commit infanticide after the birth, neither would the woman control the right of feticide in utero.

Warren wants to say that the rights of actual people trump the rights of potential people, but I am unclear which rights are being mentioned. My suspicion is that there are conditions where the right of the woman's quality of life could very well be subordinate to the rights of a fetus to have life at all. Suppose that the surgery were no more troublesome than having a mole removed, or taking a few hours out of one's day for an anesthetic nap (for surgery), similar to colonoscopy procedure. Under these conditions there would be minimal quality of life degradation. Even if one acknowledges the presence of moral rights, there must be a hierarchy to these rights to make them workable, as both scholars and jurisprudence practitioners of legal rights have recognized.

Earlier in her article Warren wants to suggest that an actual person's rights (in this case the mother) always trump a potential person's rights (the fetus). I don't see why this should be accepted a priori. Indeed, the mother should not be presumed as the only actual person with rights in place. Instead, I suggest that it is the empirical circumstances and consequences which allow us to formulate the hierarchy of already-acknowledged rights. If one grants this suggestion, the consequences of the mother's degradation of quality of life could eventually be so low in the advanced technology cases mentioned that one should assess the fetus's right to life as super-ordinate over the mother's right to quality of life. If so, then I conclude that we shall soon be rethinking abortion in light of advancing fetal support technology.



Images: Header image taken from article, Soraya Chemaly "What Do Artificial Wombs Mean for Women?" 2/23/2012 RH Reality Check Blogsite (Accessed 4/8/2014).  Inset image taken from Green Diary - Green Living Blogsite. (Accessed 4/8/2014)

[1] Ann Warren "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" [.pdf] The Monist: An International Quarterly Journal of General Philosophical (Peru, IL, 1973).

Labels: , , , , , ,