[Previous article: Pro-Choicers’ Persistent Infant Problem: A Reply to Boonin]
Pro-choice philosopher David DeGrazia has defended a view on which pre-conscious human fetuses lack moral rights, and part of his defense includes an argument for thinking that his position “does not support radical openness to infanticide” (77). But his view does not adequately address pro-choicers’ problem concerning the moral status of newborns.
Central to DeGrazia’s case against fetal rights is his premise that pre-conscious human fetuses are not seriously harmed by being killed. He supports this premise by defending the time-relative interest account (TRIA), a general theory about how much something is harmed by its own death. In this section, I’ll explain TRIA, DeGrazia’s reason for thinking that it implies that pre-conscious fetuses don’t have moral rights, and his reason for thinking that it does not imply that infants don’t have moral rights.
To begin, note that one thing that affects how much something’s death would harm it is the amount of good things that it would have gone on to enjoy had it not died. To illustrate, suppose that two people, Bob and Carl, are both killed today. Had Bob not been killed today, he would have gone on to live a few more years that would contain 10,000 good things. In contrast, had Carl not been killed today, he would have gone on to live a few more months that contain only 100 good things. It seems that Bob’s death harms Bob more than Carl’s death harms Carl, all else equal.
According to TRIA, the preceding thoughts capture only one of the factors that determine how much one is harmed by one’s own death. TRIA adds a second factor: the degree of “psychological unity” that obtains between the current version of the person and the future version of the person that would have experienced the future good things. The higher the degree of this psychological unity, the more seriously the current version of the person would be harmed by being killed. So, TRIA implies that it’s possible that Carl’s death harms Carl more than Bob’s death harms Bob, even though Bob’s death deprives him of a lot more future good things. For it might be that today’s Carl has a high degree of psychological unity with future Carl whereas today’s Bob has a low degree of psychological unity with future Bob.
DeGrazia identifies three factors that determine how much psychological unity obtains between a person at one time and that person at a future time:
- The “richness of the subject’s mental life” (65)
- The “proportion of the mental life that is sustained over the stretch of time in question” (65-66)
- The “degree of internal reference between earlier and later mental states” (66)
On these criteria of psychological unity, most typical adult human beings have a very high degree of psychological unity with their future selves. First, typical adult human beings have a very rich mental life. They have many beliefs, desires, memories, plans, intentions, and so on. Second, the proportion of a typical adult’s mental life that’s sustained over time is very high. For example, you-of-next-week will have most of the same beliefs and life plans as you-of-today. Third, the degree of internal reference between a typical adult’s current mental states and her mental states in the future is high as well. For example, you-of-tomorrow-evening will have memories that refer to experiences that you-of-today are having right now. And some of you-of-today’s expectations (such as your expectation of eating dinner tomorrow evening) refer to certain experiences of you-of-tomorrow-evening (such as the experience of eating dinner).
Returning to our illustration with Bob and Carl, we can now say more about why TRIA might imply that Carl’s death harms Carl more than Bob’s death harms Bob. Suppose that Bob has very severe dementia. As a result of his dementia, he never remembers what happened the day before. This means that the degree of internal reference between his current mental states and his future mental states is lower than it is for a typical adult human being. And this means that the degree of psychological unity that Bob has with his future self is lower than the degree of psychological unity that Carl has with his future self, all else equal. This might be enough for TRIA to imply that Bob’s death harms Bob less than Carl’s death harms Carl.
DeGrazia applies TRIA to pre-conscious fetuses. Since these fetuses have no mental life at all, they clearly score poorly on the criteria of psychological unity outlined above. DeGrazia infers that “the utter lack of psychological unity between the presentient fetus and the later minded being it could become justifies a very substantial discounting of the harm of the fetus’ death” (72). Since pre-conscious fetuses are not seriously harmed by death, their interest in not dying is “too weak to ground a right to life.” And DeGrazia thinks that there isn’t anything else that could ground a right to life for pre-conscious fetuses. So, he concludes, pre-conscious fetuses don’t have a moral right to life.
In contrast, TRIA does not imply that human infants lack a moral right to life. Typical infants have a fair amount of psychological unity with their future selves, at least after they’ve had a bit of time to develop outside the womb. DeGrazia writes:
Postnatal psychological life develops very quickly due to the infant’s exposure to the bustling, varied, highly social world outside the womb. The infant’s mental life rapidly becomes more complex and unified. Even at a sensory level, it is more complex insofar as the infant is processing a much wider range of experiences than a sentient fetus encounters. Exposure to the world of vision, for example, greatly richens sensory experience. Unification of mental life also increases as the infant begins to recognize (remember) her mother and other familiar figures, form desires (which, by their nature, are future-oriented) and—once equipped with some sense of bodily control—intentions (also future-oriented), and experience fear and perhaps other forward-looking emotions. Such a mental life is already much richer and more unified than a sentient fetus’ mental life and, of course, the nonexperience of presentient fetuses bears no comparison to it (78).
So, TRIA implies that infants are seriously harmed by their own death, at least once they have had a bit of time to develop outside the womb. This means that there is normally a very strong moral presumption against killing infants. In other words, infants normally have a right to life.
DeGrazia’s Infant Problem
I’ll offer three objections to DeGrazia’s view.
First, DeGrazia’s view is undermined by the following thought experiment:
Temporarily Comatose Baby Case
Baby Alice is born in a temporary coma. Because of a serious brain injury that she suffered during gestation, she has not yet had a conscious experience. But doctors are certain that over the next several weeks, Alice will come out of the coma and make a full recovery.
As I argued in my previous blog post, we have good reason to think that Alice has moral rights such as a right to life. But DeGrazia’s position implies that Alice does not have moral rights. His reason for thinking that pre-conscious fetuses lack a moral right to life is that they utterly lack psychological unity with the future minded beings that they could become. Consistency requires him to say the same thing about Alice. Since we have good reason to think that Alice has moral rights, we have reason to reject DeGrazia’s position.
Second, DeGrazia’s view is undermined by the following thought experiment:
Futuristic Artificial Womb Case
Baby Claude is born prematurely at 19 weeks gestation. Fortunately, artificial womb technology has been perfected. Doctors place Claude in an artificial womb, where he can continue to develop for 21 more weeks.
As I argued in my previous blog post, we have good reason to think that Claude has moral rights such as a right to life. But DeGrazia’s position implies that Claude does not have moral rights. According to DeGrazia, fetuses acquire the capacity for consciousness between 20 and 28 weeks gestation. So he must think that Claude lacks this capacity. And that makes Claude similar to a pre-conscious fetus in such a way that DeGrazia’s argument against fetal rights is also an argument against Claude’s having rights. But again, we’ve seen reason to think that Claude does have rights. So, we have further reason to reject DeGrazia’s view.
My third objection draws on the following:
Actual Newborns Case
DeGrazia’s view implies, very implausibly, that it’s morally much better to kill a typical newborn than it is to kill a typical one year old.
Typical one year olds have a high degree of psychological unity with their future selves. That means that DeGrazia’s view implies that typical one year olds are seriously harmed by death and that there’s a strong moral presumption against killing them. Further, one year olds might be “persons” in DeGrazia’s sense: “beings with the capacity for complex forms of consciousness” (69). If one year olds are persons, then there are further grounds on DeGrazia’s view to hold that it is very wrong to kill them, for DeGrazia thinks that “all persons are subject to a principle of respect that provides additional grounds for a strong moral presumption against killing them” (76).
In contrast, newborns that were born just a second ago are not persons in DeGrazia’s sense. And compared to typical one year olds, these newborns have a much lower degree of psychological unity with their future selves. DeGrazia would acknowledge this point. After arguing that an infant’s psychological life develops very quickly once she is born, DeGrazia writes:
So, even if immediately after birth the newborn does not have greater psychological unity than a presentient fetus has, very soon psychological unity deepens—entailing a stronger time-relative interest in continuing to live—and, again, this deepening of psychological unity continues relentlessly. On the present approach, this difference between presentient fetuses and infants is significant except perhaps shortly after birth (78, my emphasis).
DeGrazia isn’t sure that newborns who were born just a second ago have significantly higher psychological unity over time than pre-conscious fetuses. Since these newborns have such a low degree of psychological unity with their future selves, DeGrazia’s view implies that death harms them much less than death harms one year olds. And so, his view implies that it’s morally much better to kill a newborn than to kill a one year old.
But it’s pretty hard to believe that it’s typically a lot better to kill newborns than to kill one year olds. From a moral point of view, they seem roughly equally terrible. Since DeGrazia’s view implies otherwise, we have further grounds for rejecting his view.
DeGrazia’s view allows him to consistently deny that pre-conscious human fetuses have moral rights while maintaining that typical human infants have moral rights, at least once those infants have had a bit of time to develop outside the womb. But as I’ve observed, non-typical newborns like Alice and Claude also seem to have moral rights, and DeGrazia’s position can’t account for this. Further, his position conflicts with the commonsense view that it’s roughly as bad to kill typical newborns as it is to kill typical one year olds. Pro-choice advocates who want to avoid implausible commitments about the moral status of infants can’t rest content with DeGrazia’s time-relative interest account.
 All cited page numbers in this blog post are from DeGrazia’s article, “The Harm of Death, Time-Relative Interests, and Abortion.”