I do seem to be escalating faster and faster into the posts that I always knew I would write, but always meant to put off to some later time. But I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and he spent a lot of time discussing abortion in ways that I find discontinuous with the rest of the morality he discusses. Frankly, I think he starts with his final position and works backwards to rationalize it with assertions that I don’t think he would apply to any other situation. That led me to posting on his forums, where there is a 25+ page thread on the topic.
First, a little meta-discussion. It fascinates me that this topic seems to break along the same entrenched positions, using the same arguments, among atheists. There’s a key point in here. Abortion is not a religious issue. It goes to the very secular question of what it means to be human, sentient or, in some other way, worth actively protecting from harm. Humanists face the same moral dilemmas here, and it is a topic that forces a certain clarity of the roots of your morality to think through. The Bible makes almost no reference to abortion, and when it does it is either highly symbolic and vague (Psalms 139), or makes it clear that killing a fetus is not murder (Exodus 21:22-23), so even Christians are forced to read their own independent moral position into their religion (something I argue happens a lot).
Second, this is not a topic for which we can all simply agree to disagree. If you believe that those who oppose abortion should keep it to themselves, then how can we pass laws against infanticide, murder, genocide, slavery, or even theft? If we ignore an action because one party does not consider the other to be human, we leave any form of social ethics in tatters. One of society’s key functions is to protect us from each other. Without knowing who warrants this protection, who is part of the society, it is impossible for society to perform its function.
My goal here isn’t to definitively resolve the abortion debate, but rather to understand it and determine what questions we would need to answer in order to judge any solutions. My own belief is that the lives of entities should be protected in proportion to their sentience. This interestingly matches pretty well with the effective position of American morality, which was reached through intuition and haggling rather than first principles (perhaps there is a Darwinist principle here?) Americans generally consider the lives of microbes to be of nearly insignificant value, while we judge the lives of higher primates and dolphins of proportionally greater value. This does not mean that we will not use monkeys in medical experiments to save humans. But it does mean that we are not as cavalier about killing monkeys as we are about ants. We would kill a monkey to save a human with little thought. But we are less likely to kill a monkey simply because it is inconvenient. We shoo monkeys. We kill ants. I believe a similar thought process should guide abortion. A pre-sentient clump of cells is just that: a clump of cells. But an entity with a human nervous system, human brain waves, and human reactions to stimuli is much more than a collection of cells. It does not seem right that it would be destroyed merely because it was inconvenient. I would think it would take a reason proportionate with its sentience.
I only put forward my specific position here to frame my point, which is why I have not yet gone into greater detail on the politics I derive from this position. I don’t know if it is the best rule, but it is the kind of rule I am looking for. Protecting sentience applies to a wide variety of problems, not just abortion. Protecting sentience allows us to answer new questions, whether it be the treatment of clones, “organ farms” or genetically modified humans or primates. We can compare this rule against other questions that it touches on: the protection of humans after they are born, the brain dead and coma victims, and medical testing on humans and non-humans. If our convictions on those topics conflict strongly with this rule, then the rule has failed or our convictions should change. In this, ethical philosophy is very much a science, and the creation of ethical hypotheses (propositions) should be the foundation of rational debate. Yet even in rational circles among atheists, the debate looks very much like the entrenched debate of American society, just lacking references to the Bible or Hell.
In reading The God Delusion, I find that Dawkins asserts many things in defense of till-the-minute-of-birth at-will abortion. But these assertions don’t show up in his other discussions of morality. He claims that the key is the entity’s ability to suffer, and that if a fetus does not suffer, then destroying it is moral. But this is nonsense. If I decapitate you in your sleep, you also will not suffer. That has no bearing at all on the morality of the action. He suggests that specially protecting a human fetus is poorly founded on a human-centric “speciest” view at odds with the gradual slope of evolutionary development. But this is also nonsense. This would imply that if it’s ok to kill and eat a cow then it is ok to kill and eat a human, that slaughtering a million humans is the same as slaughtering a million bacteria. He never follows these claims to their logical conclusion. He never applies them to issues outside the abortion debate (the classic fallacy of “Intelligent Design”). And he nearly exclusively uses the straw man of banning abortion of an early-term embryo to argue it must be allowed until birth. There is a wide gulf between those two points.
So here’s the question. What fundamental principles should we use in determining when abortion is or is not ethical? How do these principles apply to questions outside of abortion, from our treatment of animals to our treatment of children to our treatment of genetically engineered clones?