Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Fight moral decay: Save Big Bird and Barney | Main | The rules of Refuge »

June 10, 2005

Embryos and fetuses aren't babies

Jeffery Feldman thinks that Democrats should abandon the pro-choice label because it leaves us open to accusations of baby killing:

Of all the rotten words Republicans like to throw at Democrats, the phrase ‘baby killer’ has to be the worst.

Republicans in Congress like nothing more than to tell the American people that a ‘Holocaust’ is being committed by Liberals in this country, and that over 30 million ‘babies’ have been ‘killed’ since the passage of Roe v. Wade, roughly twenty years ago. ‘Abortion on demand,’ they call it, or worse: a ‘culture of death.’

None of this would matter—and the country might actually be solving some of its serious problems with healthcare, education, or national security—if the Democrats had long ago found a powerful way to respond to the ‘baby killer’ accusation from Republicans. Unfortunately, the only response Democrats have used is the once powerful, but now inadequate phrase: ‘I am for a woman’s right to choose.’

The rest of Feldman's long and insightful post is a discussion of how Democrats should counter accusations of baby-killing. His position is based on his support for Blackmun's position as articulated in his opinion for the court in Roe v. Wade.

Feldman make a good case for abortion despite accepting the faulty premise that the community has a moral right to safeguard "potential life." The "choice" frame looks bad to people who assume that fetuses have moral standing. If you believe that non-viable fetuses have rights, it's less clear why a woman's right to choose should prevail.

The simplest answer is sometimes the best. Abortion is about the a woman's right to choose because fetuses don't have any moral standing, except perhaps towards the very end of pregnancy, and even then their rights pale beside a woman's right to control her own body.

First trimester fetuses have as much moral standing as moles or splinters. They can't think, they can't feel, they can't respond to stimuli. They are lumps of tissue. They should stay or go at the host's* discretion. Hence, the pro-choice line.

Later on in the pregnancy, a non-viable fetus has the same moral standing as animal with a comparable mental life. Being responsive to stimuli or capable of feeling pain gives an entity some moral status. If something can feel, we are obliged not to torture it or kill it capriciously. But if you're prepared to allow people to kill piglets for food, you should accept a woman's right to terminate a non-viable second-trimester fetus. Arguably, the piglet has a stronger claim to be left alone than the fetus. The piglet has a much richer mental life. It is a being actively engaged with its environment with unequivocal cognitive, affective, and social capacities. Besides, it isn't impinging on the integrity of anyone else's body.

The concept of choice is at least as important when we talk about later-term abortions. Even if we accept that a non-viable second trimester fetus is a beautiful little creature with the moral standing of kitten or a puppy, the fact remains that this creature is a guest in the womb of a full-fledged human being. The moral standing of later term fetuses is just too weak to compel anyone to be pregnant if she doesn't want to be. Gestation is a glorious gift, not a moral obligation. Hence, the pro-choice line.

The central irony of the abortion debate is that moderates have the strongest rhetorical position, but the weakest arguments. Religious zealots have undermined the strongest pro-choice arguments by making it socially unacceptable to categorically deny the moral status of fetuses. Feldman may well be right about the framing issue. Frankly, I wouldn't advise any Democratic politician to make my arguments on Meet the Press. I like Feldman's alternative frames a lot: "privacy and protection", "children first", and "the government shouldn't force women to have babies." These are all excellent additions to the moral toolbox. However, I don't think they can replace the core concept of "pro-choice." I'm open to any frames that get that idea across, but the concept itself is indispensable.

**EDIT: "Host's discretion" used to read "mother's discretion." As a commenter observed, "mother" is technically inaccurate and emotionally loaded. Even the most ardent anti-abortionist wouldn't describe a gestating woman with no live children as a mother. We don't ordinarily describe a woman as a mother until she gives birth to at least one live baby.

It's interesting how the anti-choice bias permeates our language. Another commenter noted that a woman carries an embryo for the first two months of her pregnancy, not a fetus. It would be nice to have a neutral non-clinical term for the concept "non-viable fetus or embryo"--something like "pre-viable pregnancy." As in "A pre-viable pregnancy isn't a baby."

In addition to full-fledged frames, we need concise, non-clinical expressions to denote the morally relevant concepts.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef00d8345dd04069e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Embryos and fetuses aren't babies :

» Why I love Lindsay Bayerstein from Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk
I love that Judith Jarvis Thompson paper. I read it for the first time when I was about 13. It was one of the first philosophy papers to really make an impression on me. [Read More]

» The Grammar of Life from Granfalloon Junction
I thought that the strongest passage in this post by Majikthise, offering a philosophical defense of the pro-choice position, was one that came almost as an aside, in a footnote. [Read More]

Comments

I'd also point out that until 2 months of gestation it's an embryo, not a fetus. But since we're now calling frozen zygotes frozen embryos, I guess accurate scientific description is dead.

(end pissed-off science nerd rant)

"They should stay or go at the mother's discretion. Hence, the pro-choice line."

Mother's?

Be careful. The truth leaks in.

If there is in fact, for the species to be, a social compact built in, as I believe the facts requires there be, the moderate position is the strong one because the core question is: who are we? Not, when can this lump a tissue be called a wart, when, a kitten, when, a bundle of love. The moderate position on who we are seems to me clearly the strongest position.

I agree, and I think that this is a case in which we've thought too much, not too little, about framing. We've been so insistent on arguing in our own frame -- a woman's right to choose -- that we've been reluctant to jump into the pro-lifer's frame -- a fetus's life. If a pro-lifer says "fetal life is important," and a pro-choicer says "a woman's right to choose is important," then the argument goes no where. If a pro-lifer says "fetal life is important," and a pro-choicer says, "no, it really isn't, for all these reasons, but a woman's right to choose sure is," then I think you can really go somewhere.

I think it's about time that the Pro-Choice movement started talking about whether a fetus is a person or not. Unfortunately, the Right is right when it counters our cries of "Choice" with their cries that you cannot choose to murder. If we never publicly dispute that exterminating a fetus is murder, we will lose as surely as if we gave up.
The major problem, as I see it, is that expectant mothers form an emotional bond to the fetus, and publicly calling it a "lump of tissue" won't win very many hearts and minds. The truth is that emotional attachment doesn't make the fetus human. But as much as people can come to terms with the fact that animal shelters kill thousands of cute little kitty-cats and puppy-dogs, if you were to kill their little kitty-cat or puppy-dog, they would certainly look to have to prosecuted on a murder charge, if they didn't already try to kill you in revenge themselves.
So how do you convince these people that their fetus is a cute and cuddly little ball of cells, but the woman who wants an abortion has a lump of tissue?

razor, this issue of terminology is a complex one. Words like "fetus" and "gravida" (pregnant woman) simply aren't part of everyday language. When you're pregnant with a wanted pregnancy, everybody calls the embryo/fetus a baby -- ultrasound techs, friends who ask how the pregnancy is going, everyone. It's colloquial shorthand. So referring to the gravida as a mother doesn't necessarily mean that we're using the word in the sense that we would for a woman who is carrying a baby in her arms. (Would you describe a woman who has had several pregnancy losses and no live births a mother? Some people would, but I wouldn't.) Anyway, "mother," according to my dictionary, means (among other things) "a creative source; an origin," which seems a perfectly reasonable way to describe the relationship between a pregnant woman and an embryo or fetus.

One of the other reasons (besides convenience) that we talk about fetuses as babies in ordinary conversation is that the identity of the fetus is often conflated with the pregnant woman's dreams and hopes about the baby she will eventually have. If you're pregnant and happy about it, it's almost impossible not to daydream about this future child. Walk past a playground and you imagine wheeling the baby there in a stroller; walk past an elementary school and you think about the first day of school. But every parent I know acknowledges that the infant, when it's born, really isn't the same person as that dream baby. I find it striking that lots of people have placeholder names that they use for the fetus while they're pregnant (while my niece was in utero, she was called "Thelonious"), but those names invariably disappear once the baby is born. Once the baby has an individual identity that the parents can't control, s/he becomes a different kind of creature.

Lindsay, actually I do know people who describe women who have never had a live birth "mothers."

Lindsay, actually I do know people who describe women who have never had a live birth as "mothers." They are not anti-abortion, either: these are women on a mailing list for people who have terminated pregnancies because of a fetal defect.

'Lindsay, actually I do know people who describe women who have never had a live birth as "mothers."'
And remember that sometimes Heather has two mommies.

Janet, are these people choosing the term "mother" to make a point about the status of women who miscarry? Or is it more a reflexive application of a word to their ordinary concept of motherhood? It's difficult to draw a sharp distinction in any given case. But what's your general impression?

"When you're pregnant with a wanted pregnancy, everybody calls the embryo/fetus a baby"

And nobody calls the person carrying the fetus a 'host.' One frame for 'host' implies that the fetus is a guest. (In another frame, 'host' implies that the fetus is a parasite; but I can't believe that Lindsay intended that meaning.)

Sorry for the cross-post, Janet. You answered the question I was asking.

Bill, good point about adoptive parents. I didn't mean to imply that adoptive moms and dads aren't real parents. But suppose someone was committed to adopting the fruit of a pregnancy that ultimately miscarried. In that sad scenario, we'd probably describe the committed adopter as a "prospective mom."

Adoption activists have done a good job educating people about usage. Nowadays most people know that it's rude and misleading to refer to a child's biological parents as her "real parents." I think maybe the miscarriage families are trying to expand the use of "mother" for similar, and equally valid reasons.

Parenthood is a social role as well as a biological phenomenon. If women who have lost wanted babies want to be called mothers, I'm all for expanding the usage.

Like Janet said, it doesn't necessarily reflect on the moral status of the fetus qua fetus. Again, that's why this about choice. Someone who want to be pregnant, you deserves medical care, social support, and respect. Someone who loses a wanted pregnancy deserves compassion and understanding from others--not because the conceptus was a person whose passing we grieve for its own sake, but because the loss of that pregnancy is a crushing disappointment for a family.

My take on this is similar to yours, Majikthise. I would start with settling the definition of life. The questions I ask are designed to establish that life is not a presence/absence issue, but a gradient. Is a bacterium alive? Is an obligatory parasite alive? Is a virus alive? Is a crystal (it can propagate its own form) alive? Then we go to fertilization. Is a sperm that is destined to fertilize an ovum alive? Once the fertilization happens, I credit the zygote -> embryo with a status approximating that of "organ". Its "aliveness" and moral status then increase up until viability (or thereabouts) until it is truly alive in an independent sense.

The religious need to imbue humans with a discrete (not discreet) soul, and to insulate us from our animal nature (see creationism) have led them to this absurd point of trying to figure out when "non-life" ends and "life" begins. The big problem with my argument is that it is too nuanced for many who need everything to be simple and binary.

Lindsay -- I think it's a bit of both. I've gotten into arguments a couple of times, when I've said that I don't think of myself as a mother, not having had a living child. One response was along the lines of "I hope that someday you will come to see that you are a mother," which I found incredibly patronizing. I think part of it has to do with how people see "mother" as a status. I don't attach much importance to being able to call myself a mother (or not), just as I don't attach much importance to being able to call myself a wife. I don't see it as a mark of status or special identity, just a description of my relationships.

I have a hard time with a lot of the rhetoric around pregnancy loss these days. On the one hand, I think it's a good thing that we acknowledge that this can be a devastating loss; on the other hand, I find the insistence many have on seeing the fetus as babylike, and especially the trend to naming lost or aborted embryos or fetuses, pretty disturbing.

BTW, I said we've thought too much about framing, and on reflection, that's not what I mean. I meant that we've been too zealous in sticking to our own frame for fear of letting them define the terms of the debate, rather than being willing to debate it in both frames.

As a craaazy vegan-type, I'm less persuaded than you about the right to kill pigs, but I think the liberal state should err on the side of doing nothing, and the burden of proof is on those advocating state action (though my burden of proof for advocates of state action is much lower than that of typical libertarians).

Feldman's article is so full of bullshit that he must have written it from one of the pens outside the Chicago stockyards.

With respect to some of this guy’s “Last Time I Checked” drivel.....

"Last time I checked, hundreds of thousands of American children were suffering from chronic asthma and other inner city diseases caused by GOP deregulation in business and the environment."

Perhaps if all Democrats stopped driving cars or investing in and reaping profits from businesses that pollute, they might have a moral leg to stand on. We could probably clean up the environment by 50% if all registered Demos rode bicycles instead. And just where are we going to put all these factories that pollute? We have exported plenty along with the paying jobs that they provide, thus putting even more children on welfare rolls.

What ARE the solutions? Does Dr. Feldman have any.

"Last time I checked, hundreds of thousands of American children were suffering from malnutrition and premature obesity caused by the GOP refusal to aid poor families in this country."

Low SES families get both financial and medical aid. They cannot be forced to utilize these resources properly. Too many of them (and other socio-economic groups, too) make BAD food choices, spending their money on fat and sugar laden pre-prepared and fast foods. To blame the GOP for people's eating habits is ludicrous.

"Last time I checked, American children were walking into schools with guns and shooting each other, a problem caused by the GOP refusal to place tighter regulations on the sale of firearms."

Statistics show that school is the safest place an American child can be.

"Last time I checked, American children were not being provided the skills they need to compete fairly in the world because the GOP is waging a covert assault on public education in this country."

Four Words: No Child Left Behind....is Dr. Feldman a teacher? Well I work in the education business and teacher accountability is at an all time high. There has been a whopping increase ( I guess that is somehow covert) in funding for special education (where a huge chunk of low SES children end up due to prenatal substance abuse/poor parenting skills caused learning/ behavior problems) again this year!

I wonder if Dr. Feldman knows about the research that shows that the typical child of a welfare mother enters kindergarten with a working vocabulary of approximately 500 words as opposed to children from working, middle, and upper class homes whose working vocabularies are often >1500 words. Now the "1500 word" kids usually come from homes where both parents are employed. The typical welfare mother is not employed. Who has more time to spend verbally enriching a child's formative years?..or teaching a child how to have a reciprocal conversation as opposed to parking him in front of a TV or on a video game?

I wonder if Dr. Feldman knows about the educational research showing that children who attend Head Start show only temporary gains and then start losing ground again along about the end of the second grade. I wonder if he knows, like teachers do, that the home environment is the single most crucial factor in a child’s educational success. Has Dr. Feldman ever been in the Wal-Mart parking lot and overheard commands to screaming toddlers (who are simultaneously being whacked like hell all over their heads and bodies ), of "Get your ass in that car !" Not much reciprocal conversation there. Not too many "W" questions! How much money does it take to correct that kind of parenting? (Of course, Mom has a cell phone, salon nails, an expensive hair-do and flashy clothes. Wonder how she can afford all that on welfare?)

Last time I checked, Federal spending for Medicaid has outstripped funding for public education. Does Dr. Feldman suggest that we rob Peter to pay Paul? Simple logic says the pie only so big and there is only so much to go around. I know working class families who get along fine on less money than some indigent families that subsist at deplorable wholly on the public dole. It all boils down to PRIORITIES and an the ability to allocate resources where they are intended to be allocated. Some people could blow a million a year and still neglect their children..it all boils down to what that individual VALUES.

When you got more people riding than you have pulling the wagon, the laws of physics say its gonna slow waaaaaaaaaay down.

"Last time I checked, the disability benefits that protect American children when working parents are injured or killed were under assault by the GOP attempt to eliminate Social Security."

Hey, we would all like to have one of those different and better private retirement accounts like our elected representative have. Why would that be a bad thing?

Besides I don’t think it was the GOP which raided Social Security (which started out to be a RETIREMENT fund) to provide a vast array of public benefits to the indigent.

"Last time I checked, children born into single parent households in America were being blamed for social problems such as drug use and crime, because the GOP believes that only a nuclear family can raise a moral citizen."

Well, at the risk of being called snarky...nuclear families do have a little bit better success rate.

"Last time I checked, the homeless rate of American children was rising because the GOP believes that public housing is wrong."

Well you gotta admit that huge public housing complexes are inhabited primarily by single parent families and do seem to contribute a disproportionate share of the youthful drug use and crime described by Dr. Feldman. Would he suggest gross violations of privacy in the form of some kind of Draconian police state restrictions on inhabitants of public housing, or maybe he would like to see the working and middle classes (who now struggle to pay health insurance premiums because they DO NOT qualify for free public health services) be taxed even more in order to lodge all the poverty stricken in Beverly Hills. Ooops...wait a minute...drug use and multiple-serial-single-partner-parent alliances are a problem there, too. My bad!!

"Last time I checked, America’s children where experimenting more and more with dangerous forms of STD transmitting sexual behavior because the GOP believes that educating children about sex is immoral."

Youngsters have always experimented with sex and they know exactly what it is much earlier than adults like to acknowledge. Besides, in the teenage segment of the population that Dr. Feldman is so concerned about, having ridiculously early sex is a cultural norm. The young men like to persuade young girls to, "have their baby." Too many of the older men (who ought to be somewhere gainfully employed–even if it means doing work that at present only Hispanic immigrants will do) loiter and molest young girls. These youthful and older predators derive their manhood from being a sperm donor (and actually brag about the numbers of off spring they have begotten) without any iota of a sense of responsibility about supporting their offspring. These babies do not get aborted either–and would not even if there was a free clinic on every corner.

When a fifth grade teacher intercepts a note from a 10 year old girl which states, “ I want to have your baby.” Or even more revealing...describes in accurate detail her ability and willingness to perform fellatio on the 10 year old object of her affection, it becomes painfully clear that she is getting “sex” education away from school. What she ain’t getting is VALUES education. Ooops..my bad again..schools aren’t supposed to teach values.

Liberals completely miss the point. It is not how much money we throw at problems that solve them. It it a prevailing culture that causes problems and only changes in cultural values and mores will be at the root of solving problems.


In my experience -- which includes far too many hours spent listening to anti-abortion fanatics while serving as a patient escort at Planned Parenthood -- the anti-abortion crowd routinely uses the term "mother" -- or even more commonly, "mommy" -- to refer to pregnant women.

As for what to call "it" when you're pregnant and pro-choice, we struggled with that during my wife's recent pregnancy. Friends of our had taken to calling "it" "Emma" -- short for empbryo -- until they learned that "it" was a boy (and let's not even get into pre-natal gender-typing!!). I settled for calling it "it", which upset some people, but too bad.

Lindsay, I think it's important to draw a distinction between a fetus and a baby. I do not want my comments to suggest that we shouldn't.

But I would careful. You say, 'the piglet has a stronger claim to be left alone than the fetus. The piglet has a much richer mental life. It is a being actively engaged with its environment with unequivocal cognitive, affective, and social capacities. Besides, it isn't impinging on the integrity of anyone else's body.' We have to consider the richness of mental life in judging moral standing, but relying exclusively on this leads to problems.

NICUs are now able to save children born at 750 - 1000 grams. The brains of these children are in early stages of development; for example, they lack sulci. I don't know how to measure it, but they have may have a less rich mental life than a puppy delivered at term. I think it's important to save these kids, when we can. Moreover, many very low birthweight children are born to poor mothers, and when this happens I want MEDICAID to help pay for the kid's care. I can't ask for a transfer of funds from you to that mom to take care of her puppy or piglet.

Right on Lindsay.

I find it bizarre how reluctant people are to address the moral status issue. The democratic party takes stands on value issues all the time. Believing in economic interention by the government is a value choice. But for some reason liberals and democrats are unwilling to say "We think that having a mental life is a necessary condition for moral status." Although this stance would be completely akin to "We think that the government has the right to interfere in consentual economic transactions to promote the common good" only the latter statement sounds like something a left-liberal theorist might actually say.

The other side of the neglect of the moral status issue is weird too: why don't more philosophers talk about it? The community of people who talk about moral status per se in philosophy is small, and mostly consists of people coming out of even narrower debates, like abortion, animal rights, or environmental ethics.

Open an introductory ethics textbook. You will see a section on theories of jusice. You will see a section on consequentialism vs. deontology. You will not see a section entitled "theories of moral status." Yet most of the big moral issues of the day hinge on it. The uselessness of much of contemporary medical ethics in particlar can be traced to the failure to develop full fledged theories of moral status.

[/rant]

Liberals completely miss the point. It is not how much money we throw at problems that solve them. It it a prevailing culture that causes problems and only changes in cultural values and mores will be at the root of solving problems.

And changes in the cultural values and mores can apparently only be enacted by the draconian intervention of a government controlled by the Republican Fundamentalists. Otherwise, I think that grip's side has already lost the culture wars, since leaving aside all of his classic Republican Fundamentalist hyperbole, his complaint is that the government is not indoctrinating people with the values that he wants them to follow and punishing them when they deviate.


The other side of the neglect of the moral status issue is weird too: why don't more philosophers talk about it? The community of people who talk about moral status per se in philosophy is small, and mostly consists of people coming out of even narrower debates, like abortion, animal rights, or environmental ethics.

Well you can see the attacks made on Peter Singer when he looks into this. How many people have the spine for that? My view is that Human DNA != Human Being. It's not always clear where the line is, but for example, Terry Schiavo was a former Human Being. Fetuses in the first trimester are possible Human Beings.

And, BTW, I distinctly recall discussions of moral status in my Ethics courses. They weren't as core as the other discussions, but they definitely happened.

"And changes in the cultural values and mores can apparently only be enacted by the draconian intervention of a government controlled by the Republican Fundamentalists. Otherwise, I think that grip's side has already lost the culture wars, since leaving aside all of his classic Republican Fundamentalist hyperbole, his complaint is that the government is not indoctrinating people with the values that he wants them to follow and punishing them when they deviate"

Another load of assumptive, extrapolative bullshit.

Tell me, do you think it should be a cultural norm for a ten year old girl to be exposed to fellatio in her away from school environment?

Hell, we have people in this country who will sit and watch what amounts to soft-porn on TV without so much as a blink of an eye and then get all bent out of shape when a mother nurses her baby in public. And we don't have BIG cultural problems?

I simiply do not think partisan attacks of the kind launched by Feldman are going to bring any consensus--do you? Simply stated: It is not all the fault of the GOP!

I am sympathetic to the moral standing of late-term fetuses. I was 8 weeks premature myself, and my earliest memories of my younger brother from the weeks he spent in the NICU. As a little kid, I just assumed that incubators were a universal ectopic phase of gestation.

If a super-premie baby is born, we have an obligation to take care of it, provided the prognosis for normal life is good and assuming we have the resources to do so.

But while that fetus is in utero, the final decision should rest with the woman. Very late term abortions are morally complicated--but not everything that's potentially wrong should be illegal. In practice, very, very few women get late term abortions, except under extraordinary circumstances. These aren't the kinds of contingencies that laws can anticipate effectively. That's why the decision should remain between a woman and her doctor. In these circumstances, I trust a woman's judgment and a physician's professional ethics over the ready-made solutions of judges and legislators.

Stephen, I'd say that a bacterium is certainly alive, without equivocation or gradation, as is a zygote. I think "life" is a diversion, though, because virtually no one thinks that life automatically confers moral status.

I think the meaning of the word "mother" can usually be inferred from context. I think we should use language naïvely whenever we can, and only resort to using language precisely when naïveté fails us. I admit, I don't always follow this route myself, though.

"..classic Republican Fundamentalist hyperbole.."

Sir,

I will be happy to provide you with reseach, facts, and statistics to back up any of my assertions about Feldman's drivel.

Anecdotal comments such as the "Wal-Mart scene" are taken from real life scenarios I have personally (and sadly too often) observed.

The few snarky comments interjected for color are just what they are. But why should you liberals have a monopoly on snarky comments?

"My view is that Human DNA != Human Being."

The standard language used in the industry to make this point is that a human being != person. "Human being" is the biological term, and can be defined in terms of DNA, although professionals prefer to define it in terms of evolutionary lineage. "Person" is the moral term. How to define it is up for grabs.

"And, BTW, I distinctly recall discussions of moral status in my Ethics courses. They weren't as core as the other discussions, but they definitely happened."

Oh sure, they're there, but they're always limited to a particular issue. You might read Marquis on killing and talk about moral status. You might read something about personal identity and fetuses. What you don't see are very many unified theories of moral status, the sort of theory put forward by Mary Anne Warren in *Moral Status* (Oxford 1997) or Peter Singer in *Practical Ethics*.

"Well you can see the attacks made on Peter Singer when he looks into this."

You're right. One reason people are afraid to talk about general theories of moral status is that they won't like what they discover. Not at all.

The comments to this entry are closed.