Quakers for Life debates Dr. Jonathan Baron on Morality of Abortion

Quakers for Life, Penn’s Pro-Life student group, debated the ethics of abortion with Dr. Jonathan Baron, professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Baron has served as President of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and has authored numerous books on judgment, morality, and bioethics. Below are statements from Dr. Baron and Quakers for Life, followed by rebuttals from each.   

Dr. Baron:

Is abortion generally immoral?

I think that something is immoral if, among the options being considered, it leads to worse outcomes on the whole than some other option. Some women do not consider abortion as an option. Thus, this question is relevant to those who would consider it but want to behave morally, or those who want to encourage (or compel) moral behavior in others.

To ask whether abortion is immoral, we need to ask why killing is wrong. In some cases, the harms from doing wrong can be compensated by greater benefits.

First, killing could harm people attached to the victim, such as prospective parents. This is not usually an issue. (People who want to adopt unwanted babies may be harmed, but this harm should be weighed against other benefits.)

Second, killing could cause pain. If this is a problem, anesthesia would solve it.

Third, killing cuts off or prevents a stream of experience. For most people and animals, this experience is desirable because pleasure exceeds pain. Note that, if it is wrong to reduce the stream of good experiences, then it is wrong to do anything to prevent the existence of more people and more animals. If abortion is wrong, than so is any sort of birth control, including abstinence, or rejection of offers of unprotected sex with strangers.

Fourth, killing a person prevents the future achievement of personally constructed goals and life plans. Such goals arise in early childhood and develop throughout life. Thus, some of the problem here concerns goals that do not exist yet, and we speak of “potential people”. Note again that, if it is wrong to prevent the existence of potential people, then it is wrong to do this in any way, as above.

I think that we have no moral obligation to create goals in hopes that they might be achieved. We do this in ourselves as well by having children. Getting married or entering a career will lead to new goals in ourselves. Whether it is good to create these goals depends on their consistency with the goals we already have.

I apply the same principle to the creation of new goals that results from the creation of new people. In the case of bearing children, the goals we already have may include our desire to provide well for our own children, our hope that they are capable of contributing to the good of others, and our unwillingness to contribute to planetary overpopulation. Such goals provide both good reasons to have children and reasons to limit the number of them.

The same considerations apply to reason three. If we have already decided, for good reason, to limit births, then preventing the existence of one person will allow that one to be replaced by another, so no net loss (and possibly a gain) of total pleasure will result, in addition to achievement of other goals.

Abortion may be immoral in some cases, but the relevant reasons do not apply to most cases.

Quakers for Life:

According to the science of embryology, human life begins at fertilization – when the sperm unites with the egg to create a single zygote. No serious academic disputes this scientific reality. As Peter Singer, a pro-choice professor of philosophy at Princeton, states in his book Practical Ethics: “There is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being.”

Since abortion involves intentionally ending the life of this human being before he or she is born, it cannot be generally morally right unless it is permissible to intentionally kill certain classes of innocent human beings.

Our opponents argue that particular characteristics associated with adult human beings are what give humans their moral value (i.e., the right to not be intentionally killed). We argue that human beings do not derive their value from having particular abilities or aspirations, but simply from being human beings.

If any characteristic other than membership in the human family is used to determine human value, then certain classes of born humans will always be left out. For instance, if the ability to reason is what confers value on humans, then it is only wrong to kill those who have the ability to reason. It would then follow that it is morally permissible to kill newborns or those afflicted by certain mental illnesses – those who lack the ability to reason.

Likewise, if the capacity to comprehend and feel pain is what confers human value, then it is only wrong to kill those who have this capacity. It would then follow that it is morally permissible to kill born humans who are afflicted by congenital analgesia (a rare medical condition in which victims lack the ability to feel any pain).

Humans indeed differ across many broad categories – whether by age, race, gender, level of intelligence, level of physical fitness, etc. Therefore, to arbitrarily state that any one of these categories is what ultimately gives moral value to humans is to reject human equality even among born humans.

There is, however, one characteristic that is shared equally among all humans: membership in the human family. This is why it is equally wrong to kill a woman as it is to kill a man (though they differ by gender), and why it is equally wrong to kill a newborn as it is to kill an adult (though they differ by age and cognitive ability). Human value is derived from nothing more than membership in the human species – to suggest otherwise is to reject human equality.

Rebuttal: Quakers for Life

Dr. Baron counts something as morally wrong when it leads to worse aggregate outcomes for society than some alternative action. Thus, he argues that abortion is not generally wrong in cases where – whatever minimal harm may accrue to the child being killed – society as a whole is rather more likely to benefit than to suffer.

We do not find this a compelling basis upon which to build morality. For when an individual’s right to life is purely dependent on his contribution to an aggregate well-being, matters of morality really become matters of expediency and power.

Consider the following example: An angry mob falsely believes that an innocent orphan should be executed. The authorities know that if the friendless orphan is set free, the mob will riot, and several people would likely die as a result. Given a binary choice, according to Dr. Baron’s utilitarian view, it would be better to kill the innocent – who has no connections and is generally hated – than to allow several people and their families to suffer. We would disagree.

Furthermore, Dr. Baron seems to conflate the moral obligation to not kill people with a fictive responsibility to create them. But there is a morally significant difference between creating good and taking away by evil. One is not obligated at every possible moment to be actively helping the homeless, but one is certainly obligated at all times to refrain from strangling them. Thus, just because it is always wrong to intentionally kill the preborn human does not necessarily mean that one must always take every opportunity to create a new human.

Finally, consider the following scenario: A newborn is isolated from society, is unwanted by his family, and it can be determined that the stream of the infant’s future experiences will, in the aggregate, be negative (for society as a whole). Is it right for the mother to hire someone to anesthetize the newborn and actively, intentionally kill him? By Dr. Baron’s four points above it would seem impossible to call it wrong.

Rebuttal: Dr. Baron

The law attempts to categorize choices (mostly acts, but some omissions too) and then declare that some category violates some law. Morality, unlike the law, does not need to do this. It can examine acts individually in their full context. The question “Is abortion wrong?” thus translates as “Is abortion usually wrong?” or “Is it so clearly and so often wrong that we should always ignore the appearance that it is often right?” We can determine the morality of individual acts by looking at their expected consequences.

Viewed this way, abortion is sometimes wrong, e.g., when a wanted child is aborted impulsively after its parents argue. But, in many common cases, the harms of abortion are smaller than the harms of a birth. The harms of abortion include effects on the parents (effects that can be extremely disruptive), on existing siblings, and perhaps on preventing the birth of future siblings who will have better lives. These harms are especially great when the fetus has some serious defect.

The principle you advocated says abortion is always wrong because you cannot think of a principle that justifies killing (of innocent humans) in other situations — that is, a principle that justifies an exception to the principle that killing innocent people itself is wrong — and also applies to abortion. Well, perhaps “abortion” is an exception? Why not? (The term “innocent” already implies several exceptions to a broader principle that “killing people is wrong”, such as self-defense, capital punishment and war.) We are back to the question about abortion.

Importantly, if you follow a principle that often leads to greater harm than making an exception for the case at hand, then you cause harm to someone, who then might legitimate ask what kind of “morality” justifies the harm she has suffered, and why anyone should endorse a morality that often leads to this harm. And you are prevented from giving one simple answer, “Because the harm you suffer prevents greater harm to someone else.” This is an answer we can usually give when we punish criminals, sometimes very harshly, for the purpose of deterring others from committing the same crime.

So why should I endorse your principle, or any principle, that repeatedly harms people without any compensating benefit (harm prevention) for anyone else? What sort of “morality” is that?



(Photo by Quakers for Life)

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