Pro-Choice Thought Experiment: The Scourge
Philosopher Toby Ord wrote an article called “The Scourge: Moral Implications of Natural Embryo Loss” (The American Journal of Bioethics, 8(7): 12-19, 2008). This is an argument that comes up somewhat regularly, but Ord concocted a thought experiment to illustrate the argument. The argument usually goes as follows: Some 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriages, which means that thousands of “unborn humans” die naturally. So to be consistent, you should advocate that doctors try and find a cure for miscarriages so that you can save all those lives that are lost. Ord begins with a thought experiment:
“The Scourge struck swiftly and brutally. This terrifying new disease, more deadly than any before it, left no part of the world untouched. From the poorest countries in Africa to the richest countries of the West, it killed with equal, horrifying, efficiency. It struck quickly, killing most of its victims within a few weeks of onset, and silently, for there were no detectable symptoms prior to death. Before the Scourge, the global death rate was 55 million per annum. That is, all causes of death — old age, war, murder, disease, and so on — conspired to take 55 million lives each year. The Scourge changed this dramatically. It alone killed more than 200 million people every year. From that time on, more than three quarters of the deaths each year were due to the Scourge. Where life expectancy in the West had risen steadily over the past century to 78 years, it had now dropped to just 29. Perhaps worst of all, the effects of the Scourge were not felt equally across all members of society. It killed only the very young and innocent — those who were completely powerless to prevent it.
Compared with the Scourge, all other problems seemed insignificant. The Scourge was the major issue of the age, and there was an overwhelming obligation on society to fight it. Other projects had to be put on hold and a major international effort directed towards loosening the Scourge’s grip upon humanity.”
Ord uses this thought experiment as an analogy to natural miscarriage. But right away, some disanalogies become apparent.
For one thing, not every union of sperm and egg results in an actual human child. Other entities can result from the sperm-egg union, such as a hydatidiform mole, a choriocarsinoma, or a “blighted ovum” (see my linked article for a brief description of each of those, and the source I drew those from). In that case, they will either be flushed out with the woman’s next menstrual cycle or they must be surgically removed.
Also, we do attempt to prevent miscarriages! Our society tells pregnant women not to smoke or drink while pregnant, and advancements in medicine allow us to help unborn children now that it wouldn’t have been possible to help fifty years ago.
But most strikingly, we are not necessarily obligated to save someone who dies naturally. And even if we were, the fact that people die naturally does not justify our killing them intentionally. People die of old age, but that doesn’t justify murder. As my friend Josh Brahm likes to say, people die in natural disasters but that doesn’t mean we can nuke cities.
So doctors should work to cure humanity of “the Scourge.” But it doesn’t follow from this that we have an obligation to save miscarried children (and frankly, it may not even be possible, as while we can extend someone’s life through medical treatment, it is not possible to prevent anyone from ultimately dying).
I’ll respond to the rest of the article in a later post, as he does argue further from his example of the Scourge. In fact, he argues that if we consider the unborn to be full human persons with full moral status that it leads to an absurd conclusion. For now, these responses are enough to show why Ord’s thought experiment fails, and it’s enough to show to the average pro-choice person why pregnant women miscarrying certainly does not justify killing the unborn intentionally.
I've never understood this argument. Doctors do their best to prevent miscarriage ALL the time – there is a whole industry around helping women who have miscarriages or cannot get pregnant in the first place try to become pregnant and keep the baby healthy all the way till birth.
They don't really know the percentage of embryos die before birth. They guess based on IVF. But IVF doesn't follow what happens naturally. Dr. Robert Martin thinks that IVF isn't done right because IVF doesn't allow for the survival of fittest sperm. Instead, IVF technicians pick one (see http://www.personhoodusa.com/blog/biology-lesson-from-dr-robert-martin/).
Consider that IVF children are more likely to get cancer (http://www.personhoodusa.com/blog/ivf-babies-more-likely-to-get-cancer/) and no one knows why. So, it could also be the case that IVF is far more likely to cause miscarriages and we wouldn't know.
But even if 50% of human beings conceived die before birth, this doesn't justify killing those who are surviving just fine.
Imagine a church group of 100 people goes on a camping trip. A forest fire rips through the area, killing 50 people. The remaining 50 make it to safety, so what do you do? You kill some of them, of course. Because their survival rate was so low. Dumb.
"Never mind the problem that it seems Ord's math is off. If the Scourge only threatens the very young and innocent, why would life expectancy drop to 29? Couldn't the child who survived the Scourge expect to live into their 70's, just as children who survive their time in the womb can?"
I strongly urge an edit of the post to delete this part of your argument. "Life expectancy" refers to *average* life expectancy. Thus, if a large percentage of people suddenly stopped living until their first year, then naturally the average drops drastically.
Jameson, thanks for pointing that out. I'll edit it out.
I'm surprised you didn't go right to the following disanalogy: the "Scourge" is not new. It is not a "disease" that suddenly started appearing. His story has such an emotional impact because it appeals to our basic defensive instinct against new threats. Gradually discovering that most embryos don't make it past eight weeks in the womb is really not the same as discovering a newly formed virus from some science fiction type scenario.
And if we're trying to solve perennial problems like that, chances are we're not going to get there through concentrated effort. Average life expectancy has not risen over time because of scientific research funded by governments. It has risen because of general economic improvements.
I was just about to point out that someone beat me to the edit. Thanks again.
To be honest, that disanalogy didn't occur to me. I'm not sure that's a morally relevant disanalogy to responding to the thought experiment, though. Ord could just extend the Scourge. After all, we've been dealing with AIDS now for decades, but doctors are still working to find a cure for it.
Maybe you're right. But I think natural embryo loss is far more analogous to death by old age than it is to a disease. It is, after all, pretty much inevitable (from what we know) and natural (not caused by humans).
I definitely agree with that.
I definitely think the 50% statistic is overstated. I've actually seen studies that suggest that merely 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. I decided not to argue that point, accepting the 50% statistic, as I didn't feel that how many unborn children die was relevant to responding to this argument.
By the way, good job in choosing this topic. Ord's article has been sitting in my favorites for a long time, because I was thinking for a long time about how I would critique it.
Thanks! I actually wasn't sure if anyone would have heard of it, because it's only been used once in any of my discussions/debates on abortion. I do plan on responding to the rest of the article because he makes additional arguments and responds to arguments that pro-life people make.
I don't know that I've ever heard anyone claim that since there are miscarriages then abortion is ok. Miscarriages happen, that's life
Abortion is still a valid choice for many women because of circumstances. But again, if you believe that from conception that unborn is a full human with equal (or greater really) rights to the woman who carries it, then you will believe that abortion is always wrong
But to say that this is enough to show the average prochoice person that it's wrong to support abortion, then you may want to speak to a few prochoice people
Yes you have paraphrased poorly. You are claiming he said that this shows why it's not okay to support abortion. What he actually said was that he has shown why **the fact that there are miscarriages** does not itself justify abortion. In other words, that one specific argument in favor of abortion is a very poor, illogical one. You really can't see the difference between what he said and what you said?
What I said was that I haven't heard anyone prochoice argue that because miscarriages happen, then abortion is ok.
Abortion is ok because it's a choice, an option
You still don't seem to be getting it. The point is, he did not claim that this would convince pro-choice people that supporting abortion is wrong.
Although this is one of the reasons I read here, so I do thank you for the response
It does give me a good idea of arguments the prolife side tries to work out and the disconnects between the two sides.
What do you define as a "choice" or "option"? I mean, you can choose to beat someone, enslave someone, kill someone, and so on. If you mean that it is a legal choice, then there was nothing wrong with slavery when that was legal. Just because you can choose to do something doesn't make it okay.
I've probably spoken to hundreds of pro-choice people. It's what I'm involved in doing in the pro-life movement. I've also gone to painstaking lengths to understand pro-choice people and their arguments. You should consider the possibility that you're simply mistaken about the strength of pro-life arguments, or what the average pro-choice person believes. Circumstances do not justify abortion, especially abortion-on-demand. You would have to look at each circumstance on a case-by-case basis. The problem is if you can't justify killing a toddler for that circumstance, then it doesn't justify abortion, either. In order to justify abortion-on-demand, you have to show why all abortions should be legal. The average pro-choice person usually resorts to irrelevant arguments, like circumstances, but pro-choice philosophers either argue from bodily rights (a la Thomson's violinist), or that the unborn are not persons or are not harmed by abortion (a la Singer, Boonin, or Tooley). It's usually not difficult to show the average pro-choice person why an argument from circumstances doesn't succeed.
Exactly. Many pro-choice people start out their arguments with "what if X circumstances occur?" Abortion can only be permissible when analogous circumstances would justify the killing of a born person. Otherwise, you have to objectively establish why being younger and less developed somehow makes a fetus sub-human.
Yes, and it is also worth pointing out that it might be easier to implement abortion bans than to dramatically reduce the number of miscarriages (after all, since many miscarriages occur *naturally*, I am unsure what amount/degree of medical/technological would be necessary in order to make females' bodies less likely to *naturally* miscarry).
Honestly, I think that we will eventually be able to create/develop and commercialize a cure to aging, but your point here is valid in the sense that it might be easier to implement abortion bans than to dramatically reduce the number of miscarriages.
I'm much more skeptical that we'll ever be able to do that. I know guys like Richard Carrier think we'll achieve immortality in 50 years, but I don't think there will be a cure for aging or death.
I am pessimistic about it being done in 50 years or less, but why don't you think that it will ever be done? It seems to me that improvements in scientific and medical technology will eventually uncover the cause of aging and figure out how to cure it.
If someone in 1913 would have predicted that the Internet would exist and have all of this stuff (Wikipedia, YouTube, et cetera) less than 100 years later, he or she would have probably gotten massively ridiculed for this prediction, but yet, he or she would have been correct in this prediction.
Hence, my point is that saying that something will never happen, especially when there is no evidence to back you up on this, can be a poor move to make.
I just said I'm skeptical about it, not that I think it won't ever be done. I'm open to being wrong, I just don't think it's something that humanity can achieve, despite the incredible scientific advancement humans have made. I just don't think immortality is achieveable (save the immortality that comes if the human soul exists, as I believe it does).
It may not mean that we have to prevent every miscarriage, but it DOES mean that we need to think how we respond to miscarriage. If we believe that the unborn human life has dignity and worth, then we should be providing the same burial and ritual (funeral or memorial service) for miscarried babies that we do for he who dies after birth. This kind of advocacy lives a consistent pro life ethic that focuses on the positive and demonstrates we mean what we say.
Fo more information check out Elizabeth Ministry International and their resources on miscarriage rituals, burial vessels, delivery aids, and more: http://shopelizabethministry.mybigcommerce.com/categories/MISCARRIAGE%2C-INFANT-OR-CHILD-DEATH/
I keep seeing people talk about a "consistent pro-life ethic," but it usually just means "you should believe exactly as I do." I agree that a miscarried child is a full-fledged human being, but there are different reasons why one would hold a service for someone who died. If your best friend dies, you would be more likely to attend the service than if a homeless person dies. Or if your child that you raised dies, you would be more likely to attend the funeral than if you just found out that a child you never knew you had died. Many women grieve over their miscarriages, but if a child dies early enough then they don't grieve. That doesn't mean that the unborn wasn't fully human, or that the mother didn't think her child was fully human, it just means that she didn't have a chance to bond with her child yet, as mothers who go through te entre nine months of pregnancy do.
In the work I do, the problem I see most often is mothers who desire to mourn the loss of their unborn child, but simply do not know that there are resources that can help them do that. I have yet to encounter a mother who did not grieve (in some fashion) the loss of a baby…and I certainly don't think anyone is forcing them to mourn if they don't.
Multiple grief studies have been done that indicate that the length of gestation is not at all linked to the amount of grief a mother may experience. Given the vast amounts of evidence that discusses the grief associated with miscarriage and stillbirth, I'd caution against making generalizations that only serve to make mothers who do grieve feel that they are somehow weak or wrong for mourning their loss.
I understand that and I'm not disagreeing with it. What I'm disagreeing with is your seeming implication that all women who miscarry grieve the loss of their child. Not all do, because many pregnant women lose their child without even knowing it, or before they actually have a chance to bond with it. If they don't grieve that child, that doesn't necessarily mean that they don't consider the child a full-fledged human being. There are any number of reasons that we grieve for someone, most notably because we have a strong emotional attachment to that person.
I completely agree with this. Just because there are miscarriages happening naturally, that doesn't mean we should allow people to intentionally kill an unborn child. It is not the right way to do things. Pregnancy is a natural thing. It is unnatural to kill unborn children. But I do find it hard to believe that 50% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage. That is such a high percent and the number of people on the planet is constantly growing higher and higher and if 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriages and you add in the 22% that end in abortions you get 72% of all pregnancies end in the death of the child before birth. That seems to high of a number for the amount our planet's population is growing.