Technology and the abortion debate

The abortion debate can be summarized as follows: abortion rights advocates think women have the right to control their own bodies, which includes terminating a pregnancy; abortion opponents think fetuses have a right to life, whether they are inside a woman’s body or not. Technological changes on the horizon have the power to give both sides what they want – for women: the ability to terminate a pregnancy, and for fetuses: the ability to survive outside the mother’s womb. I suspect this technological change will necessitate a change in the way we argue about abortion, but particularly for the side arguing for abortion.

Law professors Vernellia Randall and Tshaka Randall published an article in the Journal of Health and Biomedical Law titled “Built in Obsolescence: The Coming End to the Abortion Debate.” The Randalls argue that as doctors are able to save fetuses at earlier and earlier stages of a pregnancy, women will be able to terminate a pregnancy earlier and earlier, too, without terminating the life of the fetus. Additionally, the Randalls point to research in artificial wombs, where scientists have already successfully created such a womb for rodents and brought the animals to term in it (although the rodents were not healthy and did not live a normal lifespan).

How will this change the abortion debate? One of the main arguments for abortion rights is that a woman must be sovereign over her own body. This means that she can dispose of tissue in her own body at will, including a fetus growing inside her. A pro-choice advocate could even declare it regrettable that the fetus must perish in the operation. Nevertheless, the woman should not have to carry to term a pregnancy she does not want, and she is within her rights to remove the fetus from her body.

In future decades, pro-life advocates could grant that women ought to be fully sovereign over their own bodies and that they do have the right to remove an unwanted fetus. However, they could argue that while women have the right to remove a fetus, they do not have a right to kill it. For early abortions, removing a fetus and killing it are one in the same. To remove a first-trimester fetus is to deprive it of the only life-giving nutrients available. In the future, that will not be the case. Fetuses at earlier and earlier stages of development will be able to survive their abortions.

All else equal, this new technology should tip the scales in favor of a pro-life position in view of the fact that the main argument for abortion has been undercut.

This should not be interpreted as an endorsement of criminalizing abortion. I think abortion-rights advocates can still make a strong case for the legality and morality of abortion, but they will have to drop the autonomy argument from their arsenal. Instead, I think pro-choicers should focus on the fetus, and explain why killing a fetus is morally distinct from killing a child. I believe this can be done.

For the sake of brevity, I will leave that discussion for another post. My purpose in writing this post was to show that the abortion debate is about to change markedly.

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6 Responses to “Technology and the abortion debate”

  1. David Says:

    Interesting. Raising a baby in an artificial womb or otherwise saving a very early term baby sounds expensive so I guess it would be a barrier to getting a legal abortion. Maybe we’ll have a market for babies by then though.

    From a forward-looking perspective, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much difference between killing say a fetus at 3 months vs a freshly born child. (Well, I’m not sure what the miscarriage rate is by months of development. For very early term babies at least, they probably have a good chance of not making it anyway I guess.) The bulk of the child’s lifetime is in the future (and out of that springs the possibility for an endless tree of new people as well as an even larger tree of relationships and other effects on the world).

    Will be curious to see where you go with this.

  2. Bob Says:

    Yeah, as long as the artificial womb process is socialized (and free), then this will have your desired impact.

    If not, then I don’t know if it will change much. Maybe late-term abortions done by choice (i.e., not the life of the mother) can be reduced, though.

  3. Andy Hallman Says:

    Hi David.

    Raising a baby in an artificial womb or otherwise saving a very early term baby sounds expensive so I guess it would be a barrier to getting a legal abortion.

    Yes, that’s something I was going to bring up in the following post. Suppose the government, in light of this new technology, makes it illegal to kill fetuses after only a few weeks of gestation. The government could prevent the parent(s) from killing the fetus, without requiring that they pay for the expensive procedure to keep it alive (essentially allowing the parents to neglect the fetus). This could allow third parties to step in and pay for the fetus’s medical care. It could work like a very early adoption, such that now that this third party has stepped in, it has custody over the fetus, and would retain that custody after the child is taken off the life-support system.

    The other possibility is that the government requires that the parents pay for the fetus’s medical care, the same way it requires parents to feed their children after they’re born. If the medical treatment is very expensive, one could argue that it is too onerous on the adults to shoulder such a burden.

    From a forward-looking perspective, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much difference between killing say a fetus at 3 months vs a freshly born child.

    Right. It’s hard to see anything morally significant about a physical process such as birth, as opposed to a mental process such as the acquisition of consciousness. In fact, Peter Singer has famously (or better yet infamously) argued that killing severely disabled newborns can be justified on the same grounds as aborting those very same disabled fetuses. Singer argues that if it is acceptable to replace our future children through abortion, it is also acceptable to extend this practice to newborns who are not self-conscious.

    From Singer’s Practical Ethics:

    Peter Singer: When death occurs before birth, replaceability does not conflict with generally accepted moral convictions. That a fetus is known to be disabled is widely accepted as a ground for abortion. Yet in discussing abortion, we saw that birth does not mark a morally significant dividing line. I cannot see how one could defend the view that fetuses may be ‘replaced’ before birth, but newborn infants may not be. Nor is there any other point, such as viability, that does a better job of dividing the fetus from the infant. Self-consciousness, which could provide a basis for holding that it is wrong to kill one being and replace it with another, is not to be found in either the fetus or the newborn infant. Neither the fetus nor the newborn infant is an individual capable of regarding itself as a distinct entity with a life of its own to lead, and it is only for newborn infants, or for still earlier stages of human life, that replaceability should be considered to be an ethically acceptable option.

    Back to your comment…

    The bulk of the child’s lifetime is in the future (and out of that springs the possibility for an endless tree of new people as well as an even larger tree of relationships and other effects on the world).

    I see what you mean here. Killing a child is to deprive it of, say, 75 years of happiness. Killing an old person who is about to die anyway deprives him of just a few days of happiness, so it seems worse to kill the child.

    On the other hand, we couls also say that it is more objectionable to kill a healthy adult than a sick child, on the grounds that it is costly to keep the child alive but not the adult. By the time a person is an adult, many of the costs to nurture him have already been incurred. They are sunk costs. However, all of the costs of nurturing a child to adulthood are ahead of him.

    So while it is true that there is more benefit left to gain for a child, other people must bear more costs to care for that child.

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    Yeah, as long as the artificial womb process is socialized (and free), then this will have your desired impact.

    I haven’t made up my mind over what the desired impact is. I think that as our ability to help people increases, so too does our obligation to do so. This is why I think the new technology makes abortion seem harder to justify. However, as I said in the post, I think there may be better arguments for abortion that don’t rely on the necessity of the mother’s bodily sovereignty. I’ll try to explore some of those in subsequent posts.

  5. Pedro Paulo Bastos Says:

    The abortion debate will be always a delicate subject to argue about. The new technology is about to revolutionate the abortion cases and I think it’ll be less worse than it used to be. Keep alive a fetus although its creator doesn’t want it is a good way to minimize the abortion’s impact, once we consider that a fetus is a life as me, you and everybody.

    I keep on believing that abortion is a crime and it must not be done. Women have the power over her own bodies but the fetuses are not theirs. The fetus is an independent life who needs the woman to get developed. Nowadays, more than never, there are too many contraceptive methods (male & female condoms, pills, diaphragm, Mirena, the coil, injections, including the “coitus interruptus”)! People shoud protect themselves before getting pregnant. I don’t see a real reason for a woman to not want a baby even if she is poor, sick, insane, etcetera. The problems might be worked out in the future.

    However, creating a fetus in an artificial womb is a nice and fair way to give to raped women the chance to interrupt an unwanted pregnancy which is clearly understandable – in many countries the law assures the right of abortion in case of violation. Except what has previously reviewed, the abortion is a crime in all ways. The new technology preserves the fetus’ life, but I think it’s still a crime deprive it to have a mother, a family, an education and all the necessary process that a child needs to grow up mentally and physically sane. It’s still a crime in the same way it is a mother who abandons her child – newborn or not – on the streets, orphanages, etc. I think this new debate has its prons and cons, but it’s still very primitive for keeping the idea that the fetus is a “thing”, not a “person”.

  6. Dan Rasmussen Says:

    I recently finished reading Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s book Billions and Billions. It contained a chapter on abortion, and another on science-based moral living. They suggested that it doesn’t sound right to base your definition of “the moment human life begins” on the technology available at the time, and interestingly explored the subject. You might want to take a look.

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