Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The fusillade of developmental facts argument against abortion

Every time I teach abortion I get three or four papers that attempt to argue the pro-life position by appealing to every single fact about human development the author can look up. They generally go like this

Paragraph 1: State the thesis that full moral status is present at conception, thus making all abortion wrong.

Paragraph 2: State some facts about early embryonic development, along with several things that aren't facts. Say that this shows that all abortion is wrong.

Paragraph 3: Emphasize that the heart starts beating very early on. As a matter of fact, blood circulation can be present as early as 4-5 weeks, however students will place the date even earlier. I just read a paper that asserted the heart was beating at 18 days. Whenever the heart is asserted to start beating, this fact is then used to claim that all abortion is wrong.

Paragraph 4: Finish up the developmental cycle. Repeat thesis.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion.

This argument simply doesn't work. You cannot both assert that every stage of fetal development is morally significant and that full moral significance is present at conception. If you really felt that the presence of a beating heart marked the onset of personhood, than you would allow abortion before that event.

Now perhaps what the people who write this paper are thinking is that the *potential* for a beating heart is what brings moral status. But if that is the case, why focus on the potential for these minor events in development, and just talk about being a potential sapient adult?


Jivin J said...

Hi Rob,
They might (though, of course, I'm not sure) be trying to use facts about fetal development to show the continuing development of the unborn human organism and use that development to show the unborn from conception is whole human being.

They might be trying to use fetal development as a way of showing the unborn is fully human not as a way of arguing the development of a heart (or other organ) gives the unborn a moral status.

But they probably do this rather sloppily.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Those are definitely better arguments than the ones I have been getting.

To make those arguments, you need to fill in a whole bunch of steps between fact about development X and the wrongness of abortion. Not effort is made to fill in those steps, and I wouldn't think of them on my own.

The discussion of moral status in class has focussed solely on the model of having a rule which states that a property (either potential or actual) brings moral status. Entities are then argued to posses the relevant property. I use this model because it allows me not just to talk about abortion, but animal rights and the moral status of wild nature.

Julian Elson said...

Are these anti-abortion paper writers disproportionately male relative to the class as a whole? Just curious. (Or are they graded in some anonymizing manner that makes it impossible to know?)

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

All the papers are written by women, because the class itself is overwhelmingly female. I think I have five men out of 40 students spread across two sections.

I had this experience Auburn University as well. All students there had an ethics requirement. Men took business ethics. Women took bioethics. People who registered to late to get into business ethics or bioethics took ethical theory.