Bioethicist Christopher Tollefsen, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, spoke last night on “The Philosophical Case Against Abortion,” hosted by Swarthmore Students Supporting Life. Tollefsen is co-author of Embryo: A Secular Defense of Human Life, which he wrote with Swarthmore alumnus Robert P. George.
Why a philosophical case rather than, say, a religious case? Tollefsen indicated that his aim in approaching the problem of abortion from a philosophical standpoint was to try to craft an argument that transcended religious lines in outlining a coherent, valid moral norm.
“To have a conversation together about the morality of abortion or any vexed moral issue… it makes sense to invoke a domain that involves natural reason, so that we don’t have to rely on revelation or revealed authority,” Tollefsen said. “It’s just good politics that if we want to make a case to someone, to be able to use a language that other people can share, concepts that other people can share, reasons that other people can share.”
According to the basic terms of Tollefsen’s argument as given in the talk, a human being is essentially a human being starting at the point of fertilization, and as such necessarily demands moral respect, thus rendering most acts of abortion (excepting extreme cases of threat to the mother’s life) an immoral act.
Jack Keefe from the Daily Gazette and Martha Marrazza from The Phoenix sat down with Tollefsen after the lecture and Q&A; session to discuss further consequences and extensions of his argument, and his opinions on recent technological and legislative developments.
Daily Gazette: I was curious about the moral implications [of your argument] … If we take as given your 35% or “my” 60% as being the actual percentages for fetuses or embryos that are spontaneously aborted, what are the moral imperatives that derive from these deaths that seem to be external from the choices of men or women, that don’t have an agent? What are we behooved to do in response to that?
Christopher Tollefsen: Some people argue that to be consistently pro-life about this means you have to think of this as the overwhelming problem that needs to be solved. I don’t think that it is for a few different reasons.
Suppose that it’s easy to tell whether somebody is in an early stage of pregnancy, and that there is one particular problem that people could suffer from we know causes these spontaneous abortions, and that there was one easy solution—that you could give everyone a pill, and if they took a pill once a week and nobody would get any spontaneous abortions. It seems to me obvious that we would do that. But none of those conditions seem to apply. As far as we know, there’s not one particular cause of spontaneous miscarriage. It’s not the case that we can tell who is going to have the spontaneous miscarriage… and it’s impossible that we could test or engage in some sort of proactive measure without being very intrusive into a lot of people’s lives. We can’t peg it to just people who are going to have this problem—it would have to be, given the knowledge that we have, all women who could possibly conceive. It doesn’t seem that the practical circumstances that would warrant making this a top priority or an especially pressing problem are there—one normally puts ones resources into a problem that one has a chance of solving.
The additional point that you made—which is also important—is that this is something that just happens. It’s not a moral wrong. The state is not obligated to take care of every possible thing that could just happen to people that could be detrimental to their welfare, but the state is obligated to take steps to ensure that no human being’s rights are being assaulted by other human beings…. But nobody thinks that the state has an obligation to protect them from every possible illness or disease they could possibly suffer.
DG: [That fact] also adds an interesting new dimension of moral calculation to having a child: can the question of having a child to begin with—the decision to conceive a child—have a moral dimension to it?
CT: I think it does. I don’t have a knowledge of the conditions under which one can do very early term damage, but for instance, if you’re intending to get pregnant, you should not be drinking excessive amounts of alcohol for the period of time you are getting pregnant or might be getting pregnant to… people probably have a responsibility if they are trying to get pregnant to have adequate nutrition. Commonsense things that doctors actually recommend to do… there is a kind of ethics of conception, and it makes sense, given that you know what you’re trying to do is to bring into existence a human being, and that there is some control of the circumstances under which that can happen.
The Phoenix: I have a question about viability and of technology getting more and more advanced—the earlier and earlier stages where we are able to sustain life outside of the womb—how does that complicate this question of where life begins, or is it all irrelevant because life begins at fertilization?
CT: Two things in this: The changes in viability and the changes in technology that make viability possible do show just how arbitrary the idea of viability as a moral marker is. There’s also an interesting question that I’m not going to offer an answer to, but there’s an interesting question in that if artificial wombs ever became a reality, whether it would be useful to offer artificial wombs to women who would otherwise seek to have an abortion… to remove the temptation, to remove some of the burdens, to save children who would otherwise be aborted. It doesn’t seem like this. It seems like artificial wombs could be a partial solution to the abortion problem.
DG: You were arguing that personhood is an essential quality from fertilization… but there’s also the sort-of neurological side [to explain], of the people who have a neurological view of personhood, of experience, consciousness, awareness. For instance, a number of countries, including the United States, officially define the cessation of life as being the end of an EEG signal… given that the emergence of the EEG can be placed between the 24-27 week [gestation] period on average, why would it be invalid to draw a line there at what is, conceivably, the most basic of neurological emergence?
CT: By way of clarification, the question I asked is when do human beings begin to exist? I framed everything I talked about as being an individual human being—what are you and I? We‘re individual human beings. When did we come into existence? We came into existence at the time when individual human being came into existence. Which human beings are worthy of moral respect? All human beings are deserving of moral respect. We can do all that without bringing in the language of personhood at all. We framed the whole thing in terms of being a human being.
From that standpoint, then, I think your question breaks into two questions. [One,] the presence of brain activity means that something that once wasn’t a human being now becomes a human being. I think, clearly, the answer is no—you have one biological entity that is generating for itself the support structures… it’s in control of its biological destiny, it makes eventually possible the emergence of brain activity, but when the brain activity comes it doesn’t change it from being one kind of thing into another type of thing… that’s, I think, the biological question, and I don’t think that any reputable biologist is going to say that it wasn’t a human being beforehand and now is.
If you ask the moral question, should brain activity make a difference for how we respond to this morally, should that be the marker, before which something doesn’t deserve moral respect and afterwards we think it does. Again, this idea of fundamental moral respect goes hand in hand with what we essentially are as human beings. The presence of brain activity is not a being-changing event… it doesn’t change something from being nothing. That reason, it seems arbitrary to take that as the marker for moral respect rather than taking this as an essential quality.
TP: I’m sure you’ve heard about the Minnesota Bill against sex selection [as a viable reason to abort]… it’s inserting intent into abortion, as we can determine sex very very early now… does intent matter for abortion, or is it the act itself?
CT: I don’t think you can separate the two: what our actions are is determined by what we’re intending to do. If I try to help somebody across the street because I want to take their money, as opposed to help somebody across the street because I want to help them out, I’m doing two different things. I think that one of the things in that kind of case—of sex selective abortions—bring out, is that, oddly enough, many people find them morally repulsive, even people who are in principle in favor of legalized abortion. I think that the deep question there is that if that is a consistent position. It isn’t obvious to me that if people think that abortion is morally permissible and can do it financial reasons, why can’t they do it for sex selection reasons? People who are in principle not opposed to abortion have conflicting intuitions that sometimes point them in different directions.