Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Abortion and Secular Morality

I had a chance recently to write a short piece on why I believe abortion is immoral, from my secular standpoint. Please find below:

I’ve changed my mind in the past few years regarding abortion. Not very distantly I was a strong proponent of abortion on demand, and would argue with you all day long that human fetuses were nothing but parasitic organisms, owned entirely by the mother and at her complete disposal.

Now I admit that I’ve come to being pro-life. However, I’m more interested in changing people’s points of view so that abortion becomes an archaic, barbaric practice, such as the lobotomy, in the minds of the citizenry at large, rather than outlawing it. I’d rather doctors refuse to perform them out of their own conscience rather than fear of legal action.

You can see from my description that I’m an atheist. I have no religious or Biblical basis for being pro-life. Actually, it was part of this that lead me to my current position. You see, I do not believe in God, or heaven, the soul, reincarnation, or any other enduring spirit that exists outside of the physical body. I believe that the mind is the arbiter of the personality, and on the destruction of the physical components that make up the mind, the “person” will be gone as surely and permanently as the picture from a smashed television.

The clump of cells created by fertilization of a human egg has the singular astounding potential of developing into a human. It will create a self-aware animal that thinks and feels and exists independently, and has the ability to consider both the past and the future. A fetus might grow up to be a human that sows great destruction, or creates a new field of philosophy, or overturns Newtonian physics once and for all. Vastly more importantly, it might grow up to be your average human who experiences happiness and sadness doing all the small things that make up life, who worries about the future and ruminates on the past, and whose ability to do so is one of the universe’s natural wonders.

The deliberate destruction of existing potential to grow into a human offends me like the burning of the Library at Alexandria. It offends me like the Taliban destroying ancient Buddhist statues. It offends me like someone bulldozing Stonehenge because its in the way of where they’d like to plant radishes. It is the penultimate act of failing to recognize what is truly extraordinary and exceptional about humanity.

I already mentioned that I don’t believe in the concept of the soul or reincarnation. The person who could have grown from a destroyed fetus will never come back. They are gone forever. They do not have another chance. They do not go to heaven or come back recycled in another baby. Each fetus is the equivalent, in my mind, of the last existing blueprint of the greatest invention of the long dead grandmaster of a forgotten craft. If we put it in a museum and advertised it as such people would come from all over the world to admire it and feel part of something greater. People tell me tossing that blueprint into the fire because it annoys them in some way is a legitimate moral action. I am repulsed by that attitude.

Hopefully now you can see at least why I think abortion is immoral. I extend this immorality even to cases of rape and incest. The mother may be anguished for approximately nine months. The human that may have grown is robbed of the chance to ever be anguished. Neither will they ever be joyful, feel loved, hopeful, distraught, frightened, or content. The potential that they’ll grow up and want live, and think, and feel just as much as the rest of us do outweighs limited temporal discomfort. I would no more be able to accept someone destroying any human fetus than I would approve of them setting torch to the last library on Earth.

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At 26/7/08 7:04 AM , Anonymous Barnaby Dawson said...

I am also an atheist but I am not 'pro-life'. I would like to take a moment to explain why I disagree with your view.

I am arguing that early on in a pregnancy abortion is ok and that later on it becomes various degrees of wrong until at birth it has become infanticide.

Potential is not of itself important. Using your library of alexandria metaphor:

Destroying an embryo which as yet has no mind is like knocking down a new building before its becomes a library. Destroying a foetus as its brain is just starting to develop is like destroying a tiny village library. But if that library is not being built in a sensible location or its somewhere thats prone to flooding wouldn't it be better to knock it down and start again somewhere else?

Yes as the foetus starts to grow a brain that gives it greater and greater moral status until it reaches that of a new born. But the development is cumulative. Destroying a building that may one day become a great library is not the same as burning down the library of congress because the building is just a building. A new one can be built. Unique copies of books cannot be replaced but you are not destroying any of them (or very few).

Furthermore potential really can't be thought of an a sensible way to measure value because of chaos theory. Every choice you make destroys huge realms of potential worlds but you are not commiting genocide with every sneeze.

I'd quite happily discuss this further with you.


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