In my previous article, I responded to Toby Ord’s thought experiment that was meant to parallel miscarriages. In this article, I’ll respond to his arguments regarding what he sees as absurdities that result from the pro-life position.
The Claim: Ord, for the sake of brevity, refers to “The Claim,” which is the claim by pro-life advocates that from the moment of conception (a misnomer, as conception takes more than a “moment,” which is an ambiguous term, anyway), the resulting embryo has full moral status. The ethical debates surrounding abortion, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), and embryonic stem cell research all revolve around The Claim. I agree with this, and Ord accepts this conclusion for the sake of argument to show that this leads to absurdities, a simple reductio ad absurdum.
Natural Embryo Loss: Ord begins his next section with a discussion of Natural Embryo Loss (NEL). Most respected studies, he says, show that the majority of embryos die within a few weeks of conception. The riskiest time is before implantation, when 50% will not implant; the majority past that point will survive until birth. An immediate problem is that the studies he quotes from (two from the 60’s, and one from the late 70’s) are all forty to fifty years old. Medical advancement happens constantly, and someone who would not have survived fifty years ago may now have an excellent chance of survival. Besides, a number of entities conceived from the sperm-egg union are not actual human organisms but other non-human entities (e.g. hydatidiform moles); if the studies did not account for this then their conclusions are greatly skewed.
On top of that, even if the majority of conceived embryos will not survive until birth, that really doesn’t add anything to the discussion. One hundred percent of all conceived embryos die, some just die sooner rather than later. But even if we could draw a moral conclusion from the percentage of embryos who survive until birth, it should be that life is even more precious than we thought. Embryos should be helped to survive, not have their lives cut short because other embryos don’t survive past that point anyway.
Ord concludes this section by drawing the parallel between The Scourge and miscarriage. Using three graphs that he has included in his essay, he shows that if we allow the unborn to be granted full moral status, then our view of human mortality should be drastically altered. But I disagree. I think it shows the actual state of affairs, but there is no reason to actually have to change our conception of human mortality. The problem with this argument is it’s of the same nature of the arguments that we count our age based on our birthday, so obviously we don’t count until we’re born. But this argument fails because it’s only a function of society. Some Asian countries count their age from the approximate point of their conception.
So if the majority of human beings die in the unborn stage, there is no need to count them in our consideration of average human life span since not only may it be impossible to save those early embryos (just as it’s impossible to stave off death by natural causes indefinitely), but we count average human lifespan for health purposes. Knowing how long the average person lives helps us understand how we should live to keep ourselves healthy, and to know whether or not certain health issues are natural for someone of our age, as well as other reasons that have no bearing on how many embryos survive until birth. The fact that the majority of embryos die before birth (or before implantation) has no bearing on determining how healthy I am, so there is no need to factor them in to our consideration of average lifespan. Similarly, just because the unborn are not counted in our census or pregnant women can’t legally drive in the carpool lane does not show that the unborn lack full moral status, as these are also societal concerns that have no bearing on the issue of when human life begins. Still, it would not be wrong to factor the unborn stage into our average life expectancy. If we did that, then perhaps we would agree there should be greater urgency in protected possibly miscarried children (though I think we are already doing that to pretty great extent, anyway).
At any rate, none of this shows that we are permitted in taking unborn human life intentionally.
An Unwelcome Conclusion: In this section, Ord gives an examination of the similarities between The Scourge and NEL (e.g. it kills the majority of people, it affects everyone around the world equally, both reduce life expectancy, etc.). But it seems to me that now The Scourge actually works against Ord. If there were a Scourge, that would not justify mass murder. So why should a Natural Scourge justify elective abortion?
He aruges that the only difference between them is that The Scourge struck immediately and so brings with it a sense of urgency, whereas NEL has been with us since the dawn of time. I agree with his examination of this claim, that this is not a morally relevant disanalogy since the fact that cancer has been with us since the earliest days does not make it less bad or instill any less need to find a cure. So even if this was the only difference, the thought experiment does not do the work he needs it to. However, it is not the only difference, as my next paragraph will illustrate.
Ord uses the conclusion of The Scourge, that all other projects had to be put on hold and a major international effort directed toward curing it, to argue that the same conclusion follows for NEL. But does the same conclusion follow? Hardly. The Scourge is a serious threat to the future of humanity. If it kills 200 million people every year (and adding all other deaths, the number comes up to 255 million people dying every year), this presents a significant threat to the future of the human race. People who could otherwise reproduce are dying off, and people who are contributing to society are dying off. I don’t think it unreasonable to say that while the death of children in miscarriages is tragic, it is not a global disaster on the same scale that The Scourge is. This is a significant difference between the two cases. Miscarriages are tragic, but they do not threaten the future of the human race. So one could reasonably believe that we should work toward saving more unborn children who will otherwise be miscarried without believing that the entire world needs to grind to a halt in order to do it.
So it seems evident that not only does the thought experiment of The Scourge not do the work Ord needs it to do, he is grossly overstating the importance of finding a solution. But Ord is not finished yet. He anticipates some objections to his arguments. In the next article, I’ll examine his responses.