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.
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.
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.
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.