In the fourth section of our series on killing we stacked the bill of a population of seven billion onto our ecology. Using logic first addressed by Malthus we demonstrated the undiminished validity of it today despite technological advances. We expanded these reasonings to other areas where shortages are threatening mankind in its very existence. In this last section all what came before will be assumed into a case for abortion as justified killing in a variety of situations; and a basic right to women in general.
There still are churches and ordained men that don’t know better than to say that having more children is always better. Marriage and sex are for making children. Four thousand years of history, plump cheeks and innocent smiling eyes have convinced them of it, and rightfully so. Two percent population growth is two percent growth in the economy. Two percent more jobs while borrowing on two percent inflation. Retirement funds always supported on two percent more people. Who is complaining? And all it takes is nursing them, teaching them, loving them and if you are lucky you get a lot of love back. Who, in their right minds does not love a baby?! Children are born and all is well in the world of the happy people. But we are at the end of the line. Between here and 10 billion people the picture is not going to get any rosier.
‘Misery’ awaits and it would love your company. But lest you despair or think I am pleading for you to give up the dream of children hang on. Because all it would take is a 0.2 drop of children per woman to bring us back into manageable territory in the not too distant future. Combine this with efforts to lower our individual carbon footprints and suddenly we are on survivable levels again. All it would really take is the realization that every time someone puts a child into this world they are harming society a little more. The only justification for it can be that each parent agrees this is a contract of him with society. A contract in which is stated that the child is deliberately wanted and that one will do all it takes to raise it to the benefit of the world the child is born into. The child is allowed life if it contributes to solutions that counter the harm having another member is causing on the whole ecology. A child as such isn’t born with ‘original sin’, it has birth-rights and also birth-responsibilities and as a parent it is your responsibility that these are met. If we just could block the birth of unwanted children we’d be far on our way towards those 0.2 per capita.
One obvious way to push back birthrate and avoid unwanted children, though not entirely uncontroversial, is contraception. This is an issue where the controversy is almost entirely religious in nature. Like Malthus, the religious seem to be convinced moral character must win the day for birth control. Despite centuries of human nature saying it just doesn’t work. Even if it was a valid moral stance that sex by itself leads to moral bankruptcy, abstinence has brought us nowhere. (In fact, the underground position sex takes in the case of chastity has inspired plenty of crimes against our young.) Malthus himself had three children and while he probably thought that he paid for their way through life, none of us have paid our price until our footprint on this earth is zero! If even Malthus lacked the ‘moral’ strength he advocated for it is clear we will not best him on average. We need to incorporate human nature into our equation and allow for contraception.
Contraception is good, it is by far preferable above anything else but it is not enough. If contraception was enough we could do away with warning labels such as ‘do not toast bread while in bathtub’ , ‘do not touch trigger while looking down barrel’ or ‘these condoms are one-sided use only, do not wash moron!’. Contraception will fail because people are lazy or stupid or because they are not prepared for situations where hormones, pheromones and rare luck mix. You may think an accidental child is just what the doctor ordered for these people but it is not moral to bring unwanted children of clueless parents into this world. We need to incorporate human stupidity into our equation as well, if for no other reason than that not doing so is bad for our species as a whole.
Now I will never convince creationists that a zygote and an embryo are just biological forms like cats and dogs. I will never convince them that the soul or Self they experience took as much as 20 to 30 years to become what it is and isn’t infused at the merging of the sperm with the egg. They may not be convincible but the more rational among us may accept that biology knows everything about the phases of embryonic development and can enlighten us about the suffering it would cause to kill it. After fifty days an embryo is about 18mm long. Roughly and inch if you don’t like it metric. At 15 weeks the embryo is about 20 cm big. The infant at this stage shows signs of movement. At 28 weeks the fetus develops the brain connections that make it capable of feeling sensory input. If a baby is born before 34 weeks the best of our abilities will not likely save it. With this I am not going to propose timing that says it is okay to kill a fetus for this or that reason at this or that stage. The discussion about these important details needs to follow on essays such as this one. I am adamant though that, for instance, the unwantedness of the child makes for a greater harm than destroying 18mm of living tissue. We are not only talking about harm to society or parents though. What about the suffering of a fully self-conscious child without a future, in pain or in constant want for love or food? How much killing can be justified with that? How much does it harm to end the life of a 20cm insensitive fetus and how much does it harm not to end it? There is a tipping point somewhere in there. That is what I am saying.
Abortion is spread along several of the classifications of killing we made at the beginning of this series. Not all of it needs to be selfish. Several of the reasons we can infer are even altruistic. The child may have a miserable future ahead due to physical or economic constraints. Perhaps there are already more than two siblings whose future would become jeopardized by this birth. There are also borderline cases: perhaps the child would prevent a union between man and woman that potentially could produce children of its own. Women get abandoned while pregnant and may consider themselves insufficient as a parent for a child. There are also un-altruistic reasons that are nevertheless obviously of greater harm than the killing of a pre-natal child in the early stages of its development. A lot of sexual assaults end up in pregnancies. Since anti-conception was not an option here I would move that this must widen the range during which abortion is an option. Further still, since psychological harm can result from delivering a child that ends up looking like ones assailant an even wider range must be possible. I believe the consequences of rape provide justification for late-term-abortion.
The decision ‘if an abortion is moral or not’, should be made along a decision tree. Just as the reasoning about whether someone is disabled or not. ‘Do the least harm’ may decide whether and until when abortion can be used as a failsafe for anti-conception, for aborting children whose future is challenged, for children that face a miserable future, for children that result from crimes. Since no-one is an island society is also involved, in particular since in present day it‘s harmed by unwanted pregnancies. This harm widens the range for all other reasons for aborting a little, while it obliges none. The suffering of the embryo, as it is killed, should be measured against a societies diminishing capacity to give it food, shelter and an outlet for charging its tablet on. With 7 billion competitors having a head start Mother Nature can only accommodate those whose parents are prepared to give it their very best try. Bringing the unwanted into our world not only hurts the parents and causes a child to mature under less then optimal conditions emotion-wise, it brings a person into the world whom society has to bear the brunt of the cost for. These children higher levels of teen-pregnancy, they have higher levels of abuse both as victim and later as perpetrator and it has higher chances of spending part of its life locked-up. Society is not harmed in such a way that this supersedes the right of the parents to reproduce at all or the right of a child to live. (Though on an isolated island such a scenario isn’t hard to imagine. ) However society in its broad ecological terms is indeed harmed enough to put quantitative limits on your reproduction and to demand minimal investments into the development of the children you do decide to keep.
We may need to yield some consideration to the late Christopher Hitchens who, though a prominent atheist, still nuanced abortion and spoke in favor of what he called ‘potential humans’. But should we equate ‘potential’ with actual ability and count a loss of potential as suffering as well? Well in a way we already did this when we mentioned the potential of the elephants to restore their species. But as potentials go, they all seem to cancel each-other out. The parents of unwanted children are potential astronauts and inventors and the child is a potential gangster or a miscarriage in the making. In the end I think Christopher just wanted to warn us against a frivolous approach to abortion. If one is honest it does seem very easy and selfish to outweigh the suffering of the embryo by that of the already fully grown adults. In this however I think we will need to disappoint Christopher for defending the frivolously-aborting, selfish and dumb parents’ rights for a clean, safe and not too distant abortion is as important as defending the rights of free speech for those that say things we cannot digest. I think it is also important to realize that thanks to birth control and safe abortions a higher percentage of six month old embryos get to be an adult than ever before.
In a society that judges it moral to execute prisoners, slaughter animals, destroy unwanted cats and dogs and send soldiers forth to kill both the armed and unarmed; in such a society the killing of innocent potential human beings should not shock nor surprise.
Killing is not black and white and even in the case of abortion different circumstances (will, economy and physical disfigurement) make for different answers on what is still moral. But lest it be the very last chance for continuing the species, abortion, as a principle is not wrong. Together with birth-control it can not only bring humanity on a slope towards 6 billion people again; with all around better chances for feeding, clothing, communications and not living in slavery, but it can also assure humanity of children with motivated parents while freeing the unwilling from such burden so they may contribute in other ways.
Killing should not be trivial and at all times it should be done with a clear perspective of what one is protecting instead. We shouldn’t kill game on a full stomach or leave our meat half finished. We shouldn’t kill the last of a species pretending to take tissue samples or mistreat animals already destined for slaughter. Nothing is alive on this small planet in splendid isolation therefore neither should its morality be aligned with genetics. Life has evolved to reproduce without limitation or regard for resources. By cutting away at the bush the remainder can flourish and thrive. Either all life is sacred, or none of it is; and that is the truth about killing.