Abortion Isn’t Immoral (Part 1 of 2)

Note: The questions posed by the ‘abortion opponent’ in this article are compiled from comments, e-mails and letters received from DrHurd.com readers over the years.

Abortion Opponent: I don’t believe abortion is moral. The fetus is a conscious, sentient individual. It enjoys the inalienable right to life just as all human beings do. Abortion should be illegal — because it’s murder.

Dr. Hurd: A fetus is a potential human individual; not an actual one. This is glaringly obvious in the early stages of pregnancy where the fetus is really nothing more than a mass of tissue. As the fetus slowly evolves into a more human-like form, even one with apparent partial consciousness, you still can’t call it an individual, human being.

Why not? Because the fetus literally feeds off the woman’s body in order to develop. It is not yet an individual entity, in any real sense of that term. The pregnant mother, for example, does not have the option of putting the fetus up for adoption, or having loved ones take care of it, as she would if it were a real, live infant. It’s a part of her own body, not a body all by itself.

A crucial difference exists between an infant (even though highly dependent at first) that can live and breathe on its own versus a fetus that must — by its nature — function as a part of another human’s body in order to thrive. The fetus is a slowly evolving potential life; but not yet an actual life.

Abortion Opponent: But how can you deny that the fetus is conscious, at least in the later stages of pregnancy? And that the fetus feels pain?

Dr. Hurd: “Consciousness” presupposes a biologically self-generating, self-sustaining individual life. In order to prove that the fetus has an individual consciousness, you must first prove that it’s an individual. Yet there’s no rational, factual basis for doing so.

Only individuals have rights — not parts of individuals. Defending the ‘right to life’ of the fetus is like confusing the egg for the chicken. An egg is not a chicken until it’s hatched. Before it’s hatched, the egg remains a merely potential chicken.

Abortion Opponent: But I look at the pictures of bloodied fetuses and I can’t get past the fact that this is murder.

Dr. Hurd: All decent human beings respect the individual right to life — that is, the right to be free from murder. They know, and feel very strongly, that murder of the innocent is wrong. Yet anti-abortionists project qualities onto a two-week, three-month or six-month fetus which it does not and cannot possess — qualities such as the independence and tenacity of an infant struggling to hold onto its food, or of a toddler learning to walk.

Your struggle is one of emotions versus reason. Sometimes we feel emotions strongly, but an objective inventory of the facts forces us to a different conclusion. Abortion represents an especially dramatic example of this principle. Many abortion opponents feel that the fetus is human, because of their subconscious projections of humanity onto the not-yet human; but facts remain facts regardless of feelings.

Abortion Opponent: But the fetus can sense, perceive, and feel pain — just like an infant. It contains human, living cells.

Dr. Hurd: Your appendix, your tonsils, and your fingers all contain living cells as well. But these cells and body parts do not exist as individuals. They are part of you, and they are alive, but they do not comprise an individual with rights.

These living organs only exist as part of a human body, not a human body all its own. The same applies to the human embryo — growing towards the state of a sovereign, self-sustaining entity; but not one until birth.

You cannot reverse cause and effect. Individual existence comes first; then, along with it, comes the capacity for sensing, perceiving, and (later on) reasoning associated with human individuals. So it’s pointless to indulge in debates about whether the fetus can feel or sense. These concepts only apply to actual individuals. Until you have established that the fetus is an individual, your other arguments simply don’t hold up.

Abortion Opponent: But the fetus is helpless! Helpless creatures have rights.
Dr. Hurd: Animals are often helpless creatures, at least against man. Does this mean we should stop doing research on mice or rabbits, even if doing so could bring a cure for cancer? Or that we should forbid ownership of pets, on the grounds that this constitutes slavery? Are we to stop eating beef and chicken? Should we stop eating plants, since they are helpless forms of life? All these forms of life are, to some extent, helpless — and, unlike the fetus, they constitute actual life, not partial or potential life. If we use helplessness as the criteria for individual rights, then virtually everything has rights and the human species will necessarily perish.

Abortion Opponent: A newborn infant, like the fetus, is a potential more than an actual. Yet I’m sure you would argue that the young baby has a right to life; that infanticide is wrong. If infanticide is wrong, then why is abortion morally acceptable? It seems arbitrary to draw the line at birth. Why not draw the line at conception? Or, if not conception, at some point during the pregnancy, when some level of consciousness begins? What gives the two-day-old infant rights which the fetus does not possess?

Dr. Hurd: The fact that the infant does not require another’s body to function. The fact that the infant is now a young chicken, so to speak, rather than a still unhatched egg. The fact that he is no longer part of another person’s body — but rather a body, and consciousness, all his own.

Concluded in tomorrow’s column.