Return of the Scourge, Part I
As my conclusion, I will now respond to certain objections that Ord anticipated. I was hoping to get this done in one part, but due to the length, it will contain two parts. See here and here for my previous parts.
Empirical Objections: The first empirical objection Ord responds to is the fact that critics of his argument could contest the numbers. I did not do this because while I believe the numbers are greatly skewed, it’s really irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of the argument.
A related objection he looks at is that there may be studies we can look at that show a much lower rate, but the studies Ord used are from fertilization, whereas many studies count from implantation on, and would account for the lower statistic. I am pointing this out merely for completion’s sake. Like the first objection, it is irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of the argument, so I will let it pass.
The next objection he anticipates is similar to what I pointed out earlier, but not the same. He anticipates the objection that there may be nothing we can do to prevent spontaneous abortion, and support for this fact may come from cases of chromosomal abnormalities. This still does not address my concern that many spontaneous abortions are from hydatidiform moles, choriocarsinomas, etc. rather than just from human beings with chromosomal defects. If this has not been accounted for, then the numbers have been seriously skewed.
But what about humans with abnormal defects? Ord continues with the anticipated objection, that chromosomal defects (such as trisomies, which means the affected person has a third copy of particular chromosomes). Because such defects are present since conception, occur in every cell, and are often fatal, there may seem to be little hope for reducing the incidence of spontaneous abortions. But Ord argues this is not enough to undermine his argument. Let’s look at his objections to this argument.
First, he argues that some chromosomal defects are non-fatal, such as Down’s syndrome. We rightly value people with Down’s syndrome, so if The Claim is correct, we should value and protect embryos with similar abnormalities. I agree with this, and I don’t see it as an absurd conclusion. If we could develop a way to treat people with chromosomal abnormalities, I think that we should take it. But this doesn’t reply to the objection, in that it may never be possible to treat these people, especially since many preborn humans (as Ord, himself, argues) are spontaneously aborted before implantation even occurs. Arguing that we may have an obligation to save people that we can help does nothing to undermine the argument that we may never be able to help these early miscarried humans.
Second, he argues that we may be able to make great progress in curing chromosomal diseases through gene therapy or similar techniques. I agree, but again, this fails to respond to the objection. If we are able to help these unborn human beings with chromosomal defects, it seems patently obvious to me that we should! But again, this does not respond to the argument that we may never be able to help these unborn human beings who spontaneously abort so early in life.
Third, he argues that we may be able to use techniques such as sperm sorting to avoid some of the chromosomal defects occurring in the first place. The problem with this argument is that now we’re crossing into the realm of eugenics, which has many moral implications on its own. Needless to say, this response begs the question by assuming that there is nothing morally wrong with eugenics.
So these responses may show us that if we are able to treat unborn human beings, then we should. But it may never be possible to save most of the unborn human beings who miscarry. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the implication that if we can save unborn humans, we should. He does mention cancer, that although it is very difficult to find a cure and we cannot even be certain there is a cure, it is so critically important we still have a moral imperative to continue the research. But for one thing, notice how he does not consider it so critical that we should put aside all other concerns to only find a cure for cancer, but it is also a false analogy because cancer has dangers to society that Natural Embryo Loss just doesn’t have; for example, cancer kills those who currently contribute to society, leaving behind dependents.
Ord’s last anticipated objection is that there are many other factors, like maternal smoking, hormone deficiencies, etc., that contribute to spontaneous abortions. This is true, and the fact that we try to prevent those things shows that we actually do care about the unborn and try to protect the unborn from harm. But Ord argues that 90 to 150 million unborn children would still be dying if we remove these other reasons that are amenable to treatment, so those who accept The Claim should still be pushing to find a cure for Natural Embryo Loss. I have already argued why this is incorrect. We have an obligation not to kill or cause unnecessary harm, but we do not necessarily have an obligation to save from natural death, and it may not be possible to save from natural death. We can extend life, but we cannot stop people from dying altogether. Great strides are made in science and medicine, which means it’s now possible to save unborn children that it wasn’t possible to save 50 years ago. This is a good thing, and it also gives us an obligation to save these children, if we can. I don’t think we actually do have an obligation, as Ord alleges, to make a huge global push to see if it’s possible to save every single unborn human being.
Also, as commenter Jameson Graber noted, and I believe is worth pointing out, there are economic concerns that must be taken into account. Allocating resources is never a morally neutral act since you must distribute valuable resources which could be taking away from other activities that may save more lives in the long run. You also have to understand a problem before you can invest in its solution. Since we live in a time of legalized abortion, scientists are under no pressure to explain their studies on spontaneous abortion to the general public. So it seems disingenuous for Ord to claim that no one cares when people of his level of knowledge hasn’t explained it to people. (I have paraphrased, but I owe the thoughts in the preceding paragraph to Jameson).
I think it’s clear that Ord’s example of The Scourge does not give us the moral implications he thinks it does. In my next part, I will respond to philosophical objections that Ord anticipates.
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