Monday, February 28, 2011

An irreligious approach to abortion

Andrew Brown:

Still, for the sake of argument, let's say that we are all agreed that infanticide is wrong, and not to be used as a tool of policy by anyone in peacetime. So what is it about the infant which makes it wrong to kill one? I'm looking for a non-religious answer here, as the rules of the debate demand.

I am not sure that I can come up with a wholly convincing reply except that it just is wrong, in the same kind of way that torture is simply wrong. But I am pretty certain there is something wrong with an answer which is often heard in these debates: the idea that the crucial quality that makes for a proper human is autonomy.

This comes up in the context of abortion when discussing time limits. It is felt – and argued – to be grotesque that a baby can be aborted who might survive given sufficiently intensive care. In that case, it is said to be capable of independent existence. But of course it isn't. This doesn't change much at birth, either.

Anyone who has ever handled a new-born baby knows that they are incapable of independent life. Even the Greeks, who thought it virtuous to expose all new-born infants on a mountainside and raise only those who survived, did not leave the babies for more than a couple of hours to survive by themselves and when they did the results were invariably disastrous, as the story of Oedipus shows.

This dependence doesn't materially change at birth. It just becomes wider and more general. Even in the womb, and even an embryo or foetus never depends only and entirely on the mother, since the mother also depends on other people to feed her and keep her alive. That kind of mutual interdependence is part of what being human means.

This interpretation runs against the whole current of reasoning about rights. Interdependence can't be described or defined by contracts because the whole point of a contract is that it has conditions. But getting away from rights talk is surely a good thing. And it does offer one kind of answer to John Harris's question about what changes in the moral status of a baby when it is born. It's nothing in the baby itself. There's no special privilege to breathing air. But once it has been born, it has a claim on more than care. It has a claim on love.

Atheistic thinking can't come to terms with human beings having intrinsic value.

They also can't appeal to a higher law. There are no higher values. Values are just the product of subjective thinking, not what reality actually is (because reality doesn't actually have any transcendant laws).

It's amusing that the author says the newborn has a claim on love. If birth and autonomy doesn't change moral status, why doesn't the unborn have a claim on love?