I recently began a series looking at a new article/book released by pro-choice philosophers Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob (hereafter NG). You can read the article here. And if you’d like to read the book before you read my responses to it, you can read it for free on-line here.
3. Fetal Consciousness and Facts About Abortions
In this chapter, NG make the case that what matters morally is when the fetus becomes conscious,
aware, able to feel, etc. So they make the claim that when a fetus becomes conscious or aware is the most important information about the development of fetuses. Of course, one wonders why this information is considered more important than when the fetus was conceived, as if the embryo that eventually becomes the conscious/aware fetus was never conceived, the conscious/aware fetus would never come to be. So it seems like this is, at least, information as important as when the fetus becomes conscious/aware.
NG allege that consciousness likely emerges after the first trimester, at the earliest. To support this statement, they allude to information from the U.S. National Library of Medicine at PubMed.gov, assuming that if you are interested enough you will go search for the information yourself. This is unfortunate as it does not properly justify their claim. It is up to the one making the claim to adequately justify it, not to the one considering your claim to go out on a scavenger hunt to find your information. But not only is their claim not adequately sourced, a major problem is NG do not actually define what they mean by “consciousness” or “awareness,” nor do they tell us exactly how much is necessary in order for the fetus to matter morally. This is surely an important point, as some philosophers who weigh in on the abortion issue believe that you don’t have a sufficient amount until well after birth (e.g. Michael Tooley, Francesca Minerva, Alberto Giubilini, and Peter Singer).
I’m not very interested in debating when, exactly, consciousness, awareness, or feeling develops in fetuses. This is because I reject their personhood framework. So I’m much more interested in refuting their arguments for why they believe consciousness even matters morally in the first place. If their arguments fail, then they have not sufficiently made their case. Needless to say, I think their arguments fail.
The first argument they give is that “concerns about consciousness and feeling in fetuses are most important for them because they are fundamentally what’s most important for us” (italics in original). Consciousness is what enables us to experience good and bad things in life; after all, without a viewpoint, then things can’t get any worse for us.
But this argument is specious. It subtly equivocates on the term “important.” We consider consciousness to be important because we are already having conscious experiences; we would not want to lose our consciousness because of these experiences we can value. But when it comes to fetuses, consciousness does not lack value just because they can’t appreciate these experiences. Consciousness is important for the fetus because without it, the fetus will not be able to properly flourish as a human being. To paraphrase Christopher Kaczor, we don’t find it a tragedy when a rock fails to develop consciousness. This is because rocks are not the kinds of things which are oriented toward being conscious. We do consider it a tragedy when someone is unable to be conscious because humans are the kinds of things which are oriented toward being conscious, so a human needs to have conscious experiences to fully flourish as a human being. NG’s argument doesn’t work because it trades on the second meaning of “important” in the first case (consciousness is important to fetuses because it enables them to flourish as human beings), and the first meaning of “important” in the second case (consciousness is important for us because it enables us to have good and bad experiences).
Second, they ask us to imagine a human who is born unconscious and lived their entire existence in that unconscious state. That human would have no perceptions or awareness, no relationships, knowledge, etc. From this they conclude that this human never actually was — any bad thing that happens to that human’s body never actually happened to them.
But this argument merely begs the question — why assume that because a human was born permanently comatose that the person never actually existed? Why couldn’t their being born comatose be a bad thing that happened to the person? In fact, it seems more reasonable to say that a person has been harmed by being born permanently unconscious. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to say that the body has been harmed but no person ever existed there. For whose body has been harmed? The person’s, obviously.
Third, they argue that if you died prematurely in some way, or even just went into a permanent comatose or vegetative state, for any undisclosed amount of time and then died, then either option would be bad for you — either dying or entering a permanent comatose state.
I definitely agree with the authors that either situation is bad and neither situation is desirable. In fact, I might even agree for the sake of argument that neither situation is more preferable than the other.  This would simply be because if I am permanently unconscious, it would be like I was dead. I wouldn’t know either way because in both situations, I permanently lose consciousness. However, does that mean I cease to be a person in both situations? Certainly if I die, I would cease to be a person. But would I cease to be a person if I enter a permanent coma? That is much more debatable. If your answer is yes, then there would be no reason to keep me alive at all via life support. But if the answer is no, then one should not be so hasty to pull the plug on me. Doctors are not infallible, and people have been known to come out of comas and even diagnosed persistent vegetative states. So it seems reasonable to keep me alive just in case the doctor’s diagnosis about me was wrong, or I might come out of it sometime in the future because something doctors don’t understand happened to me (after all, the brain is still one of the least understood organs in the human body). So it seems like NG are dedicated to the proposition that one should pull the plug on me so that I don’t take up valuable hospital space or become an unnecessary burden to others rather than keeping me alive since I may actually come out of the coma someday.
Aside from the logical problems with their argument, it is still quite debatable whether brain death counts as actual death, at all. After all, even if a person is brain dead, the person’s body can still be kept alive via life support. As bioethicist Maureen L. Condic has shown, “brain death” was proposed as the criterion of death in 1968 by doctors for the purpose of being able to preserve organs for harvesting and transplantation, a criterion of death widely accepted today (though not universally). But a person’s true death is not when the heart stops beating or when the brain stops functioning, it’s when the person’s cells cease being able to function as a unified whole. So if we are going to take a symmetrical view of human life, rather than arguing from the cessation/beginning of consciousness, we should argue from the cessation/beginning of when the person’s individual cells start being able to function as a unified whole, and this begins at fertilization.
Finally, they argue that rocks and plants aren’t conscious and that’s why they lack rights. The fact that embryos and fetuses completely lack minds, as rocks and plants do, is why they lack rights.
Here, NG simply commit a category error fallacy. Rocks and plants are non-conscious entitites — embryos and fetuses are pre-conscious entities, and this difference matters. Rocks and plants are never conscious (in the way NG want them to be, which is difficult to assess since they never actually define what they mean by consciousness). However, human fetuses and embryos will be conscious — they are on a self-directed path of human development toward being presently conscious. This means that embryos and fetuses do not lack consciousness. In fact, they are conscious entities. They simply lack the necessary organs to be able to immediately exercise their capacity for consciousness. And this matters morally for rights because rights are inherent to us as human beings, and since all of the changes the embryo and fetus undergo are within its internal programming to undergo, none of these changes are substantial changes — in other words, none of these changes change the embryo or fetus from one thing into something else. It remains the same thing throughout all of its changes, a human being.
So as we can see, NG do not adequately make the case for why consciousness matters. In fact, they seem to assume that the person doesn’t even exist unless one is able to immediately exercise their consciousness. But they don’t argue for this, it is merely assumed, making their personhood case as question-begging as several of the arguments they reject. Perhaps they do argue for this elsewhere in their writings, but as it is germane to the case presented here, it should have been included here, as well.
I have argued that their arguments for the moral relevance of consciousness, awareness, etc., have not succeeded. As such, I will not address their points about why and when most abortions occur, as it’s not really relevant to the overall argument.
4. Bad Arguments
In this chapter, NG address several bad arguments. They begin by addressing question-begging arguments and I generally have no issues with this section. I do agree that the pro-life arguments they present beg the question by assuming the immorality of abortion; consequently, they are not arguments that I use.
NG then go on to address common “everyday” arguments, and these bear closer examination. First they address everyday pro-life arguments. Some of the arguments on this list were also on the question-begging list and others I have addressed in my comments above or in the previous part. So I will not address every argument exhaustively here.
Argument: Abortion ends a life. NG’s response here is true, as far as it goes. Many things are alive, like mold, bacteria, and mosquitoes. But these are things people generally don’t have a problem with killing. So not all acts of killing are wrong. But what NG fail to consider is that few pro-life people oppose abortion simply because it’s taking a life. Saying that abortion takes a life is part of a cumulative case for the value of the unborn. It’s not simply that the unborn are alive, but that they are living members of the human species. So to address the argument “abortion ends a life” on its own terms is to misrepresent how the argument is usually understood by pro-life people. Therefore it should not be on the bad arguments list, as it is not usually used in the way NG alleges that it is.
So yes, fetuses are biologically alive, NG agree, but this fact, alone, does not grant value to the fetus. To be fair, though, NG do end the section by conceding that pro-life people might mean something more, like “morally significant life” or “life with rights,” but if that’s what pro-life people mean then they should say it since we need to be clear and accurate on this issue. And to this I give wholehearted agreement but pro-life people are not the only ones to fall prey to unclear and/or inaccurate statements. I have engaged many pro-choice college students on college campuses, and even many college students have difficulty articulating why they think abortion is moral or should be legal. Hopefully books like NG’s will help to elevate the conversation.
Argument: Abortion kills innocent beings. NG allege that the word “innocence” cannot apply to the unborn because it is a concept that applies to beings who can do wrong and choose not to. Fetuses are neither innocent nor not innocent. But this is a faulty view of innocent.
Traditionally, children have been seen as innocent because they cannot understand right from wrong. A toddler is innocent of any wrongdoing for this reason, so he is not morally culpable for any acts that he does (such as hitting his sister for no reason). He has to be taught right from wrong. But even the severely mentally handicapped are still seen as innocent of wrongdoing if they do something ordinarily perceived as wrong. In this case, as we’re talking about something that would ordinarily be a breach of a person’s human rights, i.e. to have their life taken without due process, the argument is the unborn are innocent because they haven’t done anything to warrant losing their life. They have not committed a capital crime so they are not deserving of capital punishment for simply existing.
Argument: Abortion hurts women. I generally agree with NG’s rejection of this argument, even if I disagree with their individual claims. It’s true that this is not a good argument against abortion. All surgeries have elements of risk; if there is nothing morally problematic with abortion then women should be allowed to take on that risk. However, their claim that the medical research shows that abortions are generally not medically dangerous is dubious. Again, they provide no evidence for this claim (although they do cite a source for their claim that racial minorities have increased health inequalities, a claim I’m not interested in debating). The evidence usually relied on for this claim comes from the Centers for Disease Control and there are good reasons to doubt the conclusion of their research (see the article linked here). How abortion affects women physically and psychologically are issues that deserve further research and study, from scientists who are objective and not setting out to bias the research.
Argument: The Bible Says Abortion is Wrong. I generally agree with the conclusion here. I reject this argument, generally, because one must first accept God exists and the Bible is God’s divine word in order for this argument to have traction. So it’s not always a bad argument; it could be helpful when discussing abortion with a pro-choice Christian. But when discussing abortion with a pro-choice atheist or person of a different religious faith, I don’t use the Bible.
There are reasons to doubt NG’s handling of the Bible passages in their book. However, as this is a secular blog, I won’t go into them here.
Argument: Abortion stops a beating heart. This is another argument that really doesn’t belong here. The argument is not simply that stopping a beating heart is wrong (which also means that NG’s responses miss the point of this argument). The argument is that a beating heart is a sign of life, so if you stop a beating heart, it is sure evidence that you are killing the embryo.
Additionally, NG’s claim that embryos don’t have a beating heart is absurd. Yes, critics of recent heartbeat bills have alleged this point but I was surprised that NG would agree with it, considering that earlier they were very much concerned with information about human development. The fact is that no pro-life person says that the heart is fully formed by the 22nd day after conception. The argument is that the heart starts beating at that time. Just as the fetus is not fully formed even after birth, the heart is not fully formed at 22 days, and no pro-life person thinks that it is. But there is a definite heartbeat at that time. Secular Pro-Life has published an excellent article describing this bizarre argument and showing why it doesn’t refute the science involved in fetal heartbeat bills.
NG give one more argument against abortion they view as bad, and I generally agree it’s not a good argument. So I won’t engage it here, nor will I engage the bad common pro-choice arguments they examine since I agree with those, too.
In the next part, I’ll finish this series by analyzing their critique of the good pro-life arguments and critique their defenses of the good pro-choice arguments.
 I say “for the sake of the argument” because this assumes that there is no life after death which is better than our life here on earth. So for the sake of the argument I’m assuming there’s no afterlife.
 Some, like pro-life vegans, would be opposed to killing most life just because they are alive.