IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > CognitiveLiberty > FreeThought > Personhood > Vision > Affiliate Scholar > John G. Messerly > Philosophy > ReproRights
Ethicists Generally Agree: The Pro-Life Arguments Are Worthless
John G. Messerly   May 17, 2016   Reason and Meaning  

Abortion continues to make political news, but a question rarely asked by politicians or other interlocutors is: what do professional ethicists think about abortion? If ethicists have reached a consensus about the morality or immorality of abortion, surely their conclusions should be important. And, as a professional ethicist myself, I can tell you that among ethicists it is exceedingly rare to find defenders of the view that abortion is murder. In fact, support for this anti-abortion position, to the extent it exists at all, comes almost exclusively from the small percentage of philosophers who are theists. Yet few seem to take notice of this fact.

To support the claim that the vast majority of ethicists don’t favor the pro-life position, consider the disclaimer that appears in the most celebrated anti-abortion piece in the philosophical ethics literature, Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion Is Immoral.” Marquis begins:

The view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument.

Marquis concedes that abortion isn’t considered immoral according to most ethicists, but why is this? Perhaps professional ethicists, who are typically non-religious philosophers, find nothing morally objectionable about abortion because they aren’t religious. In other words, if they were devout they would recognize abortion as a moral abomination. But we could easily turn this around. Perhaps religiously oriented ethicists oppose abortion because they are religious. In other words, if there weren’t devout they would see that abortion isn’t morally problematic. So both religious and secular ethicists could claim that the other side prejudges the case.

However, it is definitely not the case that secular ethicists care less about life or morality than religious ethicists. Consider that virtually all moral philosophers believe that murder, theft, torture, and lying are immoral because cogent arguments such prohibitions. Oftentimes there is little difference between the views of religious and secular ethicists. Moreover, when there is disagreement among the two groups, perhaps the secular philosophers are actually ahead of the ethical curve with their acceptance of things like abortion, homosexuality, and certain forms of euthanasia.

How then do we adjudicate disputes in the moral realm when ethicists, like ordinary people, start with different assumptions? The key to answering this question is to emphasize reason and argument, the hallmarks of doing philosophical ethics. Both secular and religious individuals can participate in a forum of rational discourse to resolve their disputes. In fact, natural law moral theory—the dominant ethical theory throughout the history of Christianity—claims that moral laws are reasonable, which means that what is right is supported by the best rational arguments. Natural law theorists argue that by exercising the human reason their God has given them, they can understand what is right and wrong. Thus, secular and religious philosophers work in the same arena, one where moral truths are those supported by the best reasons.

That ethicists emphasize rational discourse may be counter-intuitive in a society dominated by appeals to emotion, prejudice, faith, and group loyalty. But ethicists, secular and religious alike, try to impartially examine the arguments for and against moral propositions in order to determine where the weight of reason lies in the matter. Ethicists may not be perfect umpires, and the truth about moral matters is often difficult to tease out, but ethicists are trained to be impartial and thorough when analyzing arguments. Some are better at this than others, but when a significant majority agrees, it is probably because some arguments really are stronger than others.

Now you might wonder what make ethicists better able to adjudicate between good and bad arguments than ordinary people. The answer is that professional ethicists are schooled in logic and the critical thinking skills demanded by those who carefully and conscientiously examine arguments. They are also trained in the more abstract fields of meta-ethics, which considers the meaning of moral terms and concepts, as well as in ethical theory, which considers norms, standards, or criteria for moral conduct. Moreover, they are familiar with the best philosophical arguments that have been advanced for and against moral propositions. So they are in a good position to reject arguments that influence those unfamiliar with positions that oppose their favored ones.

All this education doesn’t mean that the majority of ethicists are right, so individuals who disagree with them may choose to follow their own conscience. But if the vast majority of ethicists agree about an ethics issue, we should take notice. It might be that the reasons you give for your fervently held moral beliefs don’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Perhaps they can’t be rationally defended as well as those reached after conscientious, informed, and impartial analysis. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your conscience and accept expert opinion, but if you are serious about a moral problem you should want to know the views of those who have thoroughly studied the issue.

At this point you might object that there are no moral experts because ethics is relative to an individual’s opinions or emotions. You might say that the experts have their opinion and you have yours, and that’s the end of it. Perhaps behaviors in the moral realm are just like carrots—some people like them and some don’t. This theory is called personal moral relativism. However, not only do most ethicists reject moral relativism, so must pro-lifers. After all, pro-lifers think that the moral prohibition against abortion is relative; they think its absolute. They believe that there are good reasons why abortion is immoral that any rational person should accept. However these reasons must be evaluated to see if they are really good ones; to see if they convince other knowledgeable persons. Yet so far, the pro-life arguments haven’t persuaded many ethicists.

Lacking good reasons or armed with weak ones, many will object that their moral beliefs derive from their God. To base your ethical views on Gods you would need to know: 1) if Gods exists; 2) if they are good; 3) if they issue good commands; 4) how to find the commands; and 5) the proper version and translation of the holy books issuing commands, or the right interpretation of a revelation of the commands, or the legitimacy of a church authority issuing commands. Needless to say, it is hard, if not impossible, to know any of this.

Consider just the interpretation problem. When does a seemingly straightforward command from a holy book like, “thou shalt not kill,” apply? In self defense? In war? Always? And to whom does it apply? To non-human animals? Intelligent aliens? Serial killers? All living things? The unborn? The brain dead? Religious commands such as “don’t kill,” “honor thy parents,” and “don’t commit adultery” are ambiguous. Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or if we accept an institution’s authority. Why trust the voices in our heads, or institutional authorities?

For the sake of argument though, let’s assume: that there are Gods; that you know the true one; that your God issues good commands; that you have access to them because you have found the right book or church, or had the right vision, or heard the right voices; and that you interpret and understand the command correctly—even if they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years or from a long ago revelation. It is unlikely that you are correct about all this, but for the sake of the argument let’s say that you are. Even in that case most philosophers would argue that you can’t base ethics on your God.

To understand why you can’t base ethics on Gods consider the question: what is the relationship between the Gods and their commands? A classic formulation of this relationship is called the divine-command theory. According to divine command theory, things are right or wrong simply because the Gods command or forbid them. There is nothing more to morality than this. It’s like a parent who says to a child: it’s right because I say so. To see how this formulation of the relationship fails, consider a famous philosophical conundrum: “Are things right because the Gods command them, or do the Gods command them because they are right?”

If things are right simply because the Gods command them, then their commands are arbitrary. In that case the Gods could have made their commandments backwards! If divine fiat is enough to make something right, then the Gods could have commanded us to kill, lie, cheat, steal and commit adultery, and those behaviors would then be moral. But the Gods can’t make something right, if it’s wrong. The Gods can’t make torturing children morally acceptable simply by divine decree, and that is the main reason why most Christian theologians reject divine command theory.

On the other hand, if the Gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for the God’s commands. On this view the Gods, in their infinite wisdom and benevolence, command things because they see certain commands as good for us. But if this is the case, then there is some standard, norm or criteria by which good or bad are measured which is independent of the Gods. Thus all us, religious and secular alike, should be looking for the reasons that certain behaviors should be condemned or praised. Even the thoughtful believer should engage in philosophical ethics.

So either the Gods commands are without reason and therefore arbitrary, or they are rational according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral and that reason, not the Gods’ authority, is what makes something right or wrong. The same is true for a supposedly authoritative book. Something isn’t wrong simply because a book says so. There must be a reason that something is right or wrong, and if there isn’t, then the book has no moral authority on the matter.

At this point the believer might object that the Gods have reasons for their commands, but we can’t know them. Yet if the ways of the Gods are really mysterious to us, what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything about the Gods or their commands, then why follow those commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the priest or preacher? If it’s all a mystery, we should remain silent or become mystics.

In response the religious may say that, even though they don’t know the reason for their God’s commands, they must oppose abortion because of the inerrancy of their sacred scriptures or church tradition. They might say that since the Bible and their church oppose abortion, that’s good enough for them, despite what moral philosophers say. But in fact neither church authority nor Christian scripture unequivocally oppose abortion.

As for scriptures, they don’t generally offer specific moral guidance. Moreover, most ancient scriptures survived as oral traditions before being written down; they have been translated multiple times; they are open to multiple interpretations; and they don’t discuss many contemporary moral issues. Furthermore, the issue of abortion doesn’t arise in the Christian scriptures except tangentially. There are a few Biblical passages quoted by conservatives to support the anti-abortion position, the most well-known is in Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” But, as anyone who has examined this passage knows, the sanctity of fetal life isn’t being discussed here. Rather, Jeremiah is asserting his authority as a prophet. This is a classic example of seeking support in holy books for a position you already hold.

Many other Biblical passages point to the more liberal view of abortion. Three times in the Bible (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20–21) the death penalty is recommended for women who have sex out-of-wedlock, even though killing the women would kill their fetuses. In Exodus 21 God prescribes death as the penalty for murder, whereas the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry is a fine. In the Old Testament the fetus doesn’t seem to have personhood status, and the New Testament says nothing about abortion at all. There simply isn’t a strong scriptural tradition in Christianity against abortion.

There also is no strong church tradition against abortion. It is true that the Catholic Church has held for centuries that activities like contraception and abortion which interrupt natural processes are immoral. Yet, while most pro-lifers don’t consider those distributing birth control to be murderers, the Catholic Church and others do take the extreme view that abortion is murder. Where does such a strong condemnation come from? The history of the Catholic view isn’t clear on the issue, but in the 13th century the philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that the soul enters the body when the zygote has a human shape. Gradually other Christian theologians came to believe that the soul enters the body a few days after conception, although we don’t exactly know why they believed this. But, given what we now know about fetal development, if the Catholic Church’s position remained consistent with the views of Aquinas, they should say that the soul doesn’t enter the zygote for at least a month or two after conception. (Note also that there is no moment of conception, despite popular belief to the contrary.)

Thus the anti-abortion position doesn’t clearly follow from either scripture or church tradition. Instead what happens is that people already have moral views, and they then look to their religion for support. In other words, moral convictions aren’t usually derived from scripture or church tradition so much as superimposed on them. (For example, Christians used the Bible to both support and oppose slavery in the period before the American Civil War.) But even if the pro-life position did follow from a religious tradition, that would only be relevant for religious believers. For the rest of us, and for many religious believers too, the best way to adjudicate our disputes without resorting to violence is to conscientiously examine the arguments for and against moral propositions by shining the light of reason upon them.

It also clearly follows that religious believers have no right to impose their views upon the rest of us. We live in a morally pluralistic society where, informed by the ethos of the Enlightenment, we should reject attempts to impose theocracy. We should allow people to follow their conscience in moral matters—you can drink alcohol—as long as others aren’t harmed—you shouldn’t drink and drive. In philosophy of law, this is known as the harm principle. If rational argumentation supported the view that the zygote is a full person, then we might have reason to outlaw abortion, inasmuch as abortion would harm another person. (I say might because the fact that something is a person doesn’t necessarily imply that’s it wrong to kill it, as defenders of war, self-defense and capital punishment maintain.)

But for now the received view among ethicists is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief not grounded in science or philosophical ethics.

As for American politics and abortion, no doubt much of the anti-abortion rhetoric in American society comes from a punitive, puritanical desire to punish people for having sex. Moreover, many are hypocritical on the issue, simultaneously opposing abortion as well as the only proven ways of reducing it—good sex education and readily available birth control. As for many (if not most) politicians, their public opposition is hypocritical and self-interested. Generally they don’t care about the issue—they care about the power and wealth derived from politics—but they feign concern by throwing red meat to their constituencies. They use the issue as a ploy to garner support from the unsuspecting. These politicians may be pro-birth, but they aren’t generally pro-life, as evidenced by their opposition to policies that would support the things that children need most after birth like education, health-care, and economic opportunities. But what politicians and many ordinary people clearly don’t care about is whether their fanatical anti-abortion position is based in rational argumentation.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website: reasonandmeaning.com.



COMMENTS

Ethicists. What would they know? How about talking to the women who want freedom of choice. Something the US always lectures other countries about. As for Bronze Age religious moralism that surely is a personal choice which should not be inflicted on 21st century educated women. Smacks of misogyny.

I must say that, unfortunately, the quality of this article is extremely disappointing. And it’s a shame, because ieet.org used run much better articles just a few years ago. Messerly’s piece contains so many problematic statements, imprecisions, and outright mistakes that is almost painful to examine it. Not to mention that, overall, it reads like a sermon from a pedantic, bigot priest under opium.

1) First of all, since when “Ethicist” is a legitimate occupation? Who are we talking about exactly? Philosophy professors in general? Only those who teach Morals? Educated people who write about moral philosophy? Messerly’s collegues? The whole article rests on a mythological group of experts - these “Ethicits”.

2) Let’s have a restrictive definition of the profession. Let’s say - to be called an ethicist, you need to have a PhD and teach philosophy of morals, somewhere on our planet. Ok. Now, I would like to see the results of the survey - because I very, very much doubt that most “ethicists” would consider abortion as something morally unproblematic.

And now, please let me criticize the most substatial mistakes :

You cannot mix the juridical and biological aspects of this issue. Biologically speaking, nothing is “murder” or “crime”. This is not the language of biology, so you cannot use biology to demonstrate your prejudices. In nature, you just have animal behaviors. Some animals abandon, hurt, or kill their own youngs. Some rape and kill memebers of their own species, some take resources fom them, some purpusefully deceive other creatures. Where is morality in all this? A (serious) biologist cannot answer.

So, you cannot meanginfully ask to a biologist - how many weeks it takes for an embryo to become a person. Why? Because persoonhood is something culturally determined, it changes according to the historical time and the geographical region. From a merely physiological perspective, the process of stabbing an adult human with a knife, or sticking a pair of scissors inside an unborn human baby are the same. You have certain catastrophic effects on the two biological forms and you compromise irreversibly a series of biotic functions. End of the story. Matter will simply riconfigure later, thanks to bacterial orgaisms decomposing organic tissuess, and other chemical processes.

The point is - why the same action performed after birth becomes a crime? This is the philosophical question, not a biological one. Life in general is a cycle, rotating over the beat of reprodution. Human life is not different. Of course it is arbitrary to segment this cycle and say “well, human personhood starts at this point, before it is just meaningless matter”. Why our juridical system protect only a certain segment? This is where philosophers come in.

The role of philosophy is to provide context and to question the juridical rules that try to solve the juridical conflict between two persons : the mother and the unborn child. Yes, it is a conflict, because they both objectively exist (yes, try to deny that…), they both occupy the same physical space, and they both compete for resources.

Of course one may try to deny full persoonhood to one of the two parts of this conflict. That is the easiest way to solve it. You remove the conflict altogether by turning one of the two parts into a mere object. You can say that the mother is just an incubator for the next generations, for example. This has been a legitimate legal statement for sometime in the past centuries. Or you can equate the embryo to a parasite, like an intestinal worm. This is how some Western juristictions view the subject, since a few decades.

What I am trying ot say is that : since the dawn of time, this is how most aggressors legitimized their crimes. Ancient Greek did it to non-Greek populations. Romans did the same. Women, black people, native americans have been stripped of juridical personhood just till few years ago. But the list could be much longer. You can of course play this de-humanizing game, but it’s not worthy of a philosopher - it’s just an attacker rationalizing his own crimes.

My vision of the future is a vision of extended personhood, a vision of a more inclusive juridical system that is ready to take into account animal rights, cyborgs, and mechanical units. It is quite disturbing to imagine someone ready to discuss the persoonhood of a robot, but quick to dismiss the persoonhood of embryo.

Less than 15% of professional philosophers with PhD’s are theists.

http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/04/29/what-do-philosophers-believe/

Among the other 85% it is very rare to find one that defends the pro-life position.

Almost all of these people have taught ethics or specialize in ethics as ethics is the most prominent specialization in philosophy.

http://dailynous.com/2015/10/07/philosophers-by-subject-area/

The fact is that the anti-abortion position is defended by a very small majority of professional philosophers.

IMO abortion is immoral. However on practical grounds, the flawed theory pro-life activists offer is that if unwanted babies were not aborted, they would all be adopted/placed in foster homes. No way to prove this.

The situation since Roe v Wade has been: the number of unwanted babies has been lowered to a feasible level—the ratio of babies to adopters is at homeostasis.

At any rate, if pro-lifers want to demonstrate against the immorality of abortion, let them do so; they are not mistaken ethically. But if they think Roe v Wade will be struck down, they are mistaken.
Militant pro-lifers are obsessed with morality to the extent of negating practical matters.

The legal system is guided by the vague but important heuristic of stare decisis; to stand by a decision, via precedent. We can’t change laws, back ‘n forth, whenever we feel like it. Roe v Wade ought to be retained, though—again—if pro-lifers want to protest on the basis of morality, it does make them feel better and is harmless; abortion wont be made illegal again.

Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it doesn’t go back in.

John, you seem to have built an argument out of anecdotes.

The top ranked journal for ethics in medicine: Journal of Medical Ethics has 1008 articles on the topic of abortion between the early 2000’s and today- there’s plenty of debate around the topic of abortion. Whereas in general very, very few “non-theistic” ethicists would argue against a woman’s fundamental right to carry, or refuse to carry a child to term- everything else remains a matter of dispute even among non-theists.

I criticize one little point in this generally fine article: its use of the term “pro-life”.  That term was chosen by the antiabortionists to smear those of us who support abortion rights.

It behooves us reject and denounce that smear, not pick it up.

John, I said something quite different. I doubt that “most “ethicists” would consider abortion as something morally unproblematic”. Replying with “Less than 15% of professional philosophers with PhD’s are theists” does not make sense. It’s a non sequitur.

Your argument goes like this :
(A) Most Ethicists are non-theists (which is probably true, but unproven);
(B) Only a theist can be pro-life (which is surely false);
(C) All non-theists consider abortion unproblematic (which ludicrously false).
(D) Most Ethicists consider abortion unproblematic (flawed conclusion).

I don’t want to be pedantic, so I won’t go into details. And I won’t comment on “ethics is the most prominent specialization in philosophy”, which is a puzzling statement to say the least.

Apart from these obvious mistakes, I see another troubling assumpton behind your article. You are basically saying that - “well, since the me and my non-theist collegues agree on this issue, and since are obviously smarter than those who disagree with us, pro-life arguments are ipso facto worthless”. I remind you that, just until a little more than a century ago, there was a consensus between “Ethicists” regarding the inferior nature of women. And I assure you - those misogynist philosophers were all very smart fellows, with IQ above average, careful minds, and a good library at home.

Even if all the philosophy professors in US and UK agreed on the fact that Indians are unworthy of self-govern, such consenus is morally very problematic, from an external point of view (and also from the Indians’ point of view).

Now, what I am trying to say is that ethical views come from the Lebensform of the “Ethicist” and they cannot have scientific value by definition. Such views are not the product of a scientific process, they do not come from a sequence of trials and errors (like, “I tried to murder a couple of men, then I noticed that it was wrong, because how they reacted, so I became a pacifist”). Ethical principles, laws, and unwritten behavioral rules simply sanction a balance of bio-political powers between groups of men. Disagreement in ethics means disagreement in lifestyles. And it is ridiculous to claim that - a superior intelligence leads to better moral judgements.

Rick Searle is right - nobody in his right state of mind would try to make abortion illegal again, and - also - instamatic is right in saying that anyway the cat is out of the bag now. Nobody can expect to return to the past. However, abortion is undoubtably morally very problematic. This is a fact.

For Rick

When you say “Whereas in general very, very few “non-theistic” ethicists would argue against a woman’s fundamental right to carry, or refuse to carry a child to term” that is the point I was making. Almost none support the “abortion is the new holocaust” position.

For Andre

Most professional philosophers are non-theists (as the link to the most comprehensive survey indicates)
Most non-theists defend the pro-choice view (which is well-known to anyone who has been around any philosophy department not associated with a religious institution. I’ve personally taught at 6 of them over 30 years) thus
Most professional philosophers defend the pro-choice view.

The link in my last comment defends the claim that ethics is the most prominent speciality area in philosophy today.

 

John

That quote from Marquis was written about 30 years ago. It won’t suffice as evidence of contemporary prevailing opinion. Marquis purpose of that paper was to overturn the presumption that there are no good arguments.

In my on experience I’m confident in concluding that Marquis has succeeded in that goal. Since he wrote that piece in 1989, his argument has been widely regarded as one of the best arguments against abortion.

And though it still may be the case that the majority of ethicists disagree with Marquis, that quote still does not suffice as evidence for the conclusion that prevailing opinion is the same as it was in 1989 on this issue.

However, I agree that if is the case that many ethicists still disagree with Marquis, then that does provide sufficient reason to further investigate the issue. For instance, when the majority of ethicists thought that black people were worth less than white people or that women are worth less than men, it also was sufficient warrant for people to look into the issue and discover the ethicists were mistaken and women are equal and that eugenics is wrong.

Further, I disagree with you that education in meta-ethics is relevant to the warrant we have for taking consensus seriously.

A mathematician could be a platonist or an anti-realist but it lends no credence whatever to their conclusions based on mathematical reasoning. There is no warrant to take a platonist more seriously in a dispute over a mathematical proof than an anti-realist because it simply doesn’t matter in the domain of how mathematical facts are deliberated.

Joncoval

I agree with you that ” though it still may be the case that the majority of ethicists disagree with Marquis, that quote still does not suffice as evidence for the conclusion that prevailing opinion is the same as it was in 1989 on this issue.” Thanks for pointing that out.

And I also agree with your point that meta-ethics may be irrelevant to the issue. Thanks for pointing that out too.

I still feel very very confident that the strong anti-abortion position—-abortion is murder, doctors and patients should be punished, the zygote is a person with full moral rights, etc—- almost unheard of among ethicists, although obviously the issue becomes more problematic as the fetus becomes more personlike.

Hi John,

That was a great article.

I am not sure this relates to ethics, but, it is my personal belief that adoption, which is a billion dollar business, is fuelling the pro-life movement.  That and, it’s anti-desegregation roots. 

There was a good article written about infant adoption in America by Darlene Gerow.

This might entirely be coincidence, but I have found that areas where abortion is illegal are often the biggest merchants of infants which they ‘adopt out’ to wealthy couples living in North America. 

Ireland is a great example.

I was wondering, if during your lifetime you came across a connection between adoption for profit and the pro-life movement?

Rosie

I have never come across that connection but if there is money to be made doing something you can be sure that somebody will do that thing no matter who gets hurt.

John,

The brief discussion you offer on the views of Aquinas and the Catholic Church on abortion betrays your unfamiliarity with Aristotelian/Thomisic metaphysics generally. You mention natural law theory at the beginning of the essay, but don’t even bother to caricature a natural law defense of the pro-life position let alone offer a charitable one. And your protracted discussion of divine command theory makes it sound as if there’s no possible alternative to it.

As for your comment on the Catholic Church and contraception, I can only shake my head. The difference between semen or ova and a zygote, for Catholics following Aquinas, is that the latter possesses the essence “human being,” whereas the former do not. Neither sperm nor ova have an inherent potency to become an adult human being; left to their own devices they will never be anything other than what they are. A zygote, by contrast, *does* have as its telos the development of an adult human being. It is the possession of this form or essence that determines the type of thing something is; the Catholic argument is that the zygote possesses one and the same form as the infant, adolescent, or adult human being.

Finally, your appeal to Aquinas on abortion is equally uninformed. True, Aquinas thought it was not murder (but only contraception) up to forty days after insemination. Why did he think that? Because he bought into Aristotelian biology. Aristotle held that the sperm was a sort of material cause for the human embryo, rather than a constituent thereof. The sperm operated from the outside of the embryo, first forming a “vegetative” embryo, then after that was complete the “sensitive” part of it. These first two stages took around 40 days. At this point, there is no “rational soul” possessed by the embryo, but only the sensitive, so it is at this point essentially an animal. After 40 days, however, the sperm fashions the “rational” aspect of the embryo, which is when it becomes a human being proper. All that to say, if Aquinas were privy to modern biology, he would have *certainly* opposed abortion from “conception” on—whatever you want to say about that.

The reason most ethicists don’t oppose abortion? Well, clearly because the ones who should know the history of their field know nothing of the historically dominant ethical theory in the west.

John,

I think the brief discussion you offer on the views of Aquinas and the Catholic Church on abortion betrays your unfamiliarity with Aristotelian/Thomisic metaphysics generally. You mention natural law theory at the beginning of the essay, but I wish you had articulated a natural law defense of the pro-life position. And your protracted discussion of divine command theory makes it sound as if there’s no possible alternative to it.

I am a bit shocked by your comment on the Catholic Church and contraception. The difference between semen or ova and a zygote, for Catholics following Aquinas, is that the latter possesses the essence “human being,” whereas the former do not. Neither sperm nor ova have an inherent potency to become an adult human being; left to their own devices they will never be anything other than what they are. Thus they are not human. A zygote, by contrast, *does* have as its inherent, internal, telos the development of an adult human being. It is the possession of this form or essence that determines the type of thing something is; the Catholic argument is that the zygote possesses one and the same form as the infant, adolescent, and adult human being.

Finally, if I may, I think your appeal to Aquinas on abortion needs to be corrected. True, Aquinas thought it was not murder (but only contraception) to abort up to forty days after insemination. Why did he think that? Because he bought into Aristotelian biology. Aristotle held that the sperm was a sort of material cause for the human embryo, rather than a constituent thereof. The sperm operated from the outside of the embryo, first forming a “vegetative” embryo, then after that was complete the “sensitive” part of it. These first two stages took around 40 days. At this point, there is no “rational soul” possessed by the embryo, but only the sensitive, so it is at this point essentially an animal. After 40 days, however, the sperm fashions the “rational” aspect of the embryo, which is when it becomes a human being proper, i.e. when it begins to possess the human essence. All that to say, if Aquinas were privy to modern biology, he would have *certainly* opposed abortion from “conception” on—whatever you want to say about that.

Of course all this goes back to the realism/nominalism debate; modern ethicists tend to be nominalists, and hence are more or less committed to defending abortion. In short, most philosophers today think the pro-life arguments are worthless because (1) they don’t understand them, and (2) they’re modern philosophers, i.e. nominalists!

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: The Algocracy and Transhumanism Podcast: Episode 3

Previous entry: The Algocracy and Transhumanism Podcast: Episode 2