Abortion: why it doesn’t matter whether the foetus is alive

Abortion is one of the most divisive contemporary issues. Not only does this debate hold huge significance, but it has some strong arguments on both sides. Unfortunately, public discourse seems to ignore these valid points. Instead, people spout ideas which are often misguided, and sometimes simply incorrect. One of the main fallacies in this debate is whether the foetus is alive. The truth is, this doesn’t actually matter.

The case for abortion

One of the main arguments in favour of abortion is that foetuses aren’t alive. This can be a legitimate argument; however, the pro-choice side seems to misunderstand what this means. Many people assume that there’s a clear scientific consensus about a foetus not being alive until 24 weeks, and those who disagree are putting their feelings above facts. This is wrong. Science has no answer as to whether a foetus is alive.

Anyone who has studied high school biology probably assumes that whether something is alive or not depends on whether it can complete MRS GREN. This is an acronym for the seven characteristics of life: movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, and nutrition. A foetus can’t carry out all of these functions, therefore it’s not alive. Right?

Wrong. The only part of MRS GREN that a foetus can’t do is reproduction. However, when the foetus is born and becomes a baby, it still can’t reproduce. All pre-pubescent children can’t reproduce, as well as women who have completed menopause, men with vasectomies, etc. The list goes on. This is because MRS GREN is used to classify whether kingdoms are alive, for example the animal kingdom, or the plant kingdom. If there are exceptions to this rule, for example pre-pubescent mammals, then they are still alive, because they’re part of a kingdom which can complete MRS GREN.

Science’s failure

So how do we know if foetuses are alive? Well, that depends on what you mean by ‘alive’. Do you mean the start of human development? The start of sentience? The start of viability outside the womb? Science can answer these questions fairly easily (conception, 20 weeks, 24 weeks), but this introduces another question: what do we mean by life? This is where science fails us. You see, this is a value judgment. We have to choose whether we value the start of human development, sentience, viability, or something else. This is a philosophical question about ethics and morality. We must come to an answer using logic and reason, but not science. Why? Because science can’t give moral judgements.

Science explains the nature of the universe. It uses empirical data, which can be discovered by conducting experiments or observation. This means that science can only investigate things which are objective. Suppose you wanted to investigate whether cyanide killed people. You could put two people in a room, and give one of them cyanide. If the person who consumed cyanide died and the other one survived, you could conclude that cyanide kills people. This is objectively true.

Now, suppose you wanted to investigate whether it was moral to kill people with cyanide. What possible experiment could you conduct to see whether it was true or not? You simply couldn’t. This is because morality isn’t objective. We live in an impartial universe that doesn’t care about how humans treat each other (there are some arguments against this, but addressing them would be too much of a tangent). Therefore, science can’t determine morality. It follows, then, that it can’t determine whether a foetus is alive.

Pro-life?

The pro-life side of the fence isn’t much better. They assume that life begins at conception, therefore abortion is murder. I’ve already explained that foetuses could be alive, so this argument may seem to hold some weight.

Under scrutiny, however, it has the same problems as its counterpart. Life may begin at conception, but why should we value life? Lots of things are alive: trees, bacteria, and viruses, just to name a few. I doubt that pro-lifers care about these (micro) organisms. So why should we value a foetus’s life over these ones? This is the question that the pro-life side must answer.

The real issue of abortion

So far, I’ve explained that science can’t tell us when a foetus becomes alive, and philosophy can’t tell us why we should care about life in the first place. So what should we be talking about instead? The real issue of abortion is whether a foetus is a moral being. A moral being is the philosophical term for someone who is worthy of moral consideration. We generally consider all people to be moral beings (sometimes with the exception of criminals). If a foetus is a moral being, then abortion is wrong as it’s violating their right to life. If a foetus is not a moral being, then abortion is acceptable.

So what makes something a moral being? One possible answer is the ability to view actions as right or wrong. Mature humans can view their actions as moral or immoral, and choose which ones to follow. Animals don’t have this ability; therefore, we don’t give them moral consideration. Foetuses also don’t have this ability, so in that sense, they aren’t moral beings. However, they will become moral beings if they’re allowed to grow. New-born babies also can’t view actions as right or wrong, and yet we (probably) think infanticide is wrong. What makes foetuses any different?

Another possible criterion for moral beings is sentience. This is the ability to feel, perceive, or experience something. Babies experience sentience, therefore they are moral beings. People in serious comas aren’t sentient, therefore turning off their machine isn’t murder. A foetus is sentient at about 20 weeks, so abortion before this time is acceptable. However, many animals are also sentient, including all mammals, birds, and reptiles. They would all become moral beings.

Final thoughts

To conclude, the main issue of abortion is not whether the foetus is alive or not, and it can’t be solved by science. The real question is whether it’s a moral being. It’s important to note that there are many other legitimate arguments for and against abortion. For example, a woman’s right to bodily autonomy may trump a foetus’s right to life, regardless of whether it’s a moral being or not. However, I hope I’ve dispelled the main illogical arguments against abortion, and replaced them with something more coherent.

Enjoyed this article? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Also, consider signing up to my email subscription to never miss an article, and follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!

11 comments

  1. No one argues that a fetus is not alive, the word you are looking for is viable. Until a fetus can live on its own, outside of the womb, It is not viable. It is dependent upon the consent of the mother to continue to gestate.

    Like

    • Most people I’ve talked to argue about whether it’s alive, so I decided to talk about that. I guess we’re just in different bubbles if you hear more about viability. I did address that a bit, but personally, I think this is a bad argument. The main reason is that it changes with technology. Right now, a fetus is viable at 24 weeks. In the future, however, technology might allow a fetus to be viable at 20 weeks. This means that whether we value a fetus or not depends on the technology available at the time. You can make that argument, but personally I find it arbitrary

      Like

  2. No body argues that the fetus is not alive. The word you are looking for is viable. A fetus who cannot live out side the womb is not viable. The main issue with pregnancy is bodily autonomy. A nonviable fetus depends upon the consent of the mother to gestate. A fetus does not have the right to kill its mother in a catastrophic pregnancy. A fetus also does not have the right to diminish its siblings’ circumstances, nor put its parents into a financial hardship. A parent is not obligated to donate organs to keep its child alive, even if the organ donation will not threaten the life of the organ donor, such as a liver lobe or kidney. Why should a mother risk her life to birth a baby?

    Like

    • In hindsight, I wish I did discuss bodily autonomy more. Many pro-lifers support abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, so that’s a very big topic. In terms of financial hardship, however, if it’s ok to terminate a fetus to prevent this, why isn’t it ok to terminate a child? The parents may feel financially secure, but two weeks after the baby’s born, they may lose their jobs. This baby will bring financial hardship on them, and what right does it have to do that? I assume you’re against terminating a baby, because even though they both cause financial hardship, you value the baby more than the fetus. If this is the case, I’d ask you why, and we can discuss whether a fetus has the same moral worth as the baby, which I discuss in the article.

      I agree that a parent isn’t obligated to donate an organ to their child by default, but consider this scenario. If someone drives drunk and hits someone, and the person they hit now needs an organ transplant due to the injuries they sustain, and the drunk driver’s organs are a perfect, match, should the driver be obligated to donate their organs? The point is that if the mother’s actions lead to a fetus being conceived, then she may be obligated to give birth (provided you agree with the hypothesis, which you may not)

      Like

      • The reason they don’t kill children, is because children are living on their own outside of the mother’s body. Children do not depend upon gestation anymore. Also most pregnancies are aborted early. Later abortions are done for catastrophic reasons, It is never a “choice.” That blows me away that some “Prolifers” think that women can just waddle into a clinic because they did not get a round tuit. Pro life is such a misnomer. Pro life is a necrotizing ideology.

        Like

      • I assume you consider viability outside the womb the starting point of life and moral worth, then. I’ve replied on your other comment as to why I personally disagree with that. Again, many pro-lifers support abortion when the woman’s health is threatened, so probably agree with you on having late-term abortions. By the way, I’m pro-life myself. I understand I didn’t make that very clear

        Like

      • Bodily autonomy is important. I do not want to be ordered to donate an organ to a billionaire just because I am a tissue match, and the billionaire is more important to society than I am. If my daughter needs a heart I may well shoot myself in the head and let her have mine, but it is up to me. BTW my daughter was unexpected, but she was very welcome. I am pro choice, and It is a good choice to continue an unintended pregnancy. But I do not subscribe to some foolish notion that dying in childbirth is romantic. Every single maternal mortality at our hospital could have been prevented if they had terminated a catastrophic pregnancy sooner. But no, they had to wait for bishop approval or until the fetal heart beat stopped or blood pressure topped 300. That subordinates the life of a healthy woman to a doomed fetus. Even then the baby was delivered and given comfort care until it expired, or given heroic care if it was developed enough to survive prematurity. I consider myself pro living. I am more life affirming than the pro-life people who impose on me. I do not understand why they call the women who use planned parenthood sluts and whores. Why does it matter to them where I get my pap tests? I do not understand why they vote down school referendums. Even though welfare users have to be employed, they tell food stamp users to snidely get a job. I consider pro-life a pejorative term. Please consider being more life affirming than that.

        Like

      • OMG I made a huge mistake! I meant to say I’m pro-choice! Sorry. We agree on pretty much everything you said about pro-lifers. For your first point about the billionaire, though, the hypothetical I gave earlier wasn’t about who was more valuable to society. It was about if you were responsible for them needing the organ transplant, ie by hitting them with a car whilst you were drunk driving.

        Like

      • I also think it is possible to be pro choice and in favor of policies that would minimize the numbers of abortions. Like accurate sex education, contraceptive availability. I can foresee a future where just about the only abortions are the terminations of pregnancy emergencies.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Smart and clearly written article, thanks! We need more logically sound pieces like this in the discussion on abortion.

    I actually have a comment on a tangent: Are you sure animals don’t have the ability to view actions as right or wrong? How would we know? I know that many of them have a strict incest taboo, so this could be an indicator that they can view some actions as wrong.

    On the inability of science to make moral statements. I’m not 100% convinced. Have you read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris? There, he explains, how, from his point of view, science can be a great foundation for morality.

    Keep up the good work and hope to read you soon!

    Like

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed this article. That’s a very good point, I suppose we don’t know whether animals are moral beings. Certainly animals such as dolphins have been known to fend off sharks from humans who have fallen off boats, as well as your point on incest. I guess we can say that some animals have a moral compass whilst others don’t, such as many invertebrates that don’t even have brains to experience consciousness.

      Yes, I actually have read that book, I didn’t want to discuss in the article as I thought it was too much of a tangent, but now that you’ve brought it up we can discuss it.

      From my interpretation, Harris claims that:
      1. Morality is bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of conscious beings

      2. Science can tell us what actions will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of conscious beings

      3. Therefore, science can determine objective morality.

      However, the first claim is questionable. Why is morality this form of utilitarianism? Science doesn’t tell us that. Sam Harris tells us that. It’s not an objective, scientific fact; it’s a value judgement. Harris needs to prove why morality is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number for his argument to make sense. Personally, I haven’t seen him do this. What do you think?

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s