The ‘Weird’ First Fortnight of the Foetus: Implications for the Abortion Debate

Guest Post: William Simkulet
Paper: The Cursed Lamp: The Problem of Spontaneous Abortion

For many people, the moral status of abortion stands or falls whether or not a human fetus is morally comparable to you or I; whether its death is a significant loss.  Many people believe human fetuses have a right to life from conception, and thus conclude that there is good reason to think induced abortion is seriously morally wrong.  Judith Jarvis Thomson challenges this belief, constructing a scenario where she believes it is morally acceptable to end the life of a person because although he has a right to life, his right to life does not give him a right to use your body.  Her example should be familiar:

Violinist:  You wake up in the hospital, surgically attached to a violinist.  Your doctor explains that last night the Society of Music Lovers kidnapped the two of you and performed the surgery.  The violinist has a serious condition that will result in his death soon unless he remains attached to your kidneys for the next 9 months (you alone are biologically compatible).

The violinist has a right to life, and surely you are free to let him remain attached to your body to save his life.  It would be a great kindness for you to do so, but Thomson says that the violinist’s right to life does not give him the right to use your body.  Anti-abortion theories that focus on the moral status of the fetus neglect to show why the fetus’s moral status – its argued for right to life – would give it a right to use the woman’s body.

The violinist case is supposed to be a counterexample to the claim that a right to life gives one a right to your body.  However, it is easy to misread the case as an analogy for pregnancy.  John T. Wilcox, I think, does something like this, and raises a rather important criticism – the violinist example is weird, he contends, while pregnancy is “the opposite of weird.” The thrust of this argument is that we should not trust our intuitions about Violinist, but we should trust our intuitions about pregnancy; and many people have the intuition that human abortion is a serious moral loss because fetuses are persons from conception.

But pregnancy – especially early pregnancy – is weird.  Most of us are not intimately familiar with the nuances of fertilization and fetal development.  If we were, we would recognize that within the first two weeks of pregnancy, the fetus is under constant danger – danger, that parents and anti-abortion theorists alike seem to neglect.  Approximately half of all human fetuses are spontaneously aborted within the first two weeks of pregnancy. During these first two weeks of pregnancy, a fetus’s cells are totipotent, such that each one can separate to form a full human being – creating identical twins, resulting in the loss of one unique person and creating two different “replacement” fetuses.  Furthermore, two or more fetuses can chimera, ceasing to exist and creating a single, distinct organism.

Either fetuses matter during these first two weeks of pregnancy, or they do not.  Thomson-style pro-choice theorists do not care which is true, as even if they do matter, their right to life doesn’t give them a right to the mother’s body.  However, this is a significant moral dilemma for traditional anti-abortion theorists.  If fetuses are not persons from during these two weeks, then abortion during these two weeks is not morally problematic at all.  Their view doesn’t prohibit abortion, rather abortion during the period of totipotency is not killing anything of moral significance.  Don Marquis can be understood as taking this view.  However, many people genuinely believe that fetuses are persons from conception, so they matter – they have a full right to life – during this first two weeks.  These people oppose induced abortion, but generally ignore the moral losses of spontaneous abortion, twinning, and chimerism.

Pregnancy is weird, but it makes sense to say that commonsense commits us to the metaphysical stance that we are numerically identical to fetal counterpart beginning at conception, and the moral belief that, all else being equal, this fact means abortion is prima facie seriously morally wrong.  However, opposition to induced abortion should also include opposition to spontaneous abortion, twinning, and chimerism.  In my paper The Cursed Lamp:  The Problem of Spontaneous Abortion, I argue that this commonsense position has significant moral implications.  If anti-abortion theorists genuinely believe that fetuses are persons from conception, induced human abortion is relatively insignificant to spontaneous abortion, which literally kills more human beings than every other cause combined.  In light of this, anti-abortion theorists cannot afford the luxury of opposing induced abortion over spontaneous abortion; even small reductions in spontaneous abortion would eventually save more lives than all efforts to prevent induced abortion combined.

  • Sarah Smith

    “In light of this, anti-abortion theorists cannot afford the luxury of opposing induced abortion over spontaneous abortion; even small reductions in spontaneous abortion would eventually save more lives than all efforts to prevent induced abortion combined.”

    That seems like a bit of a stretch- presumably homicide rates compared to deaths by disease, ageing and other non- murder causes are equally out of kilter, but we don’t usually think that the resources put into preventing and punishing murder are a luxury we can’t afford. Instead you try and combat both. Presumably likewise people who are anti abortion are also in favour of medical research into prevention of miscarriage which would seem to be consistent.