I've noticed that everybody that is for abortion has already been born.

Most people have double standards about some things such as sport, the arts or their job- this is unfortunate but such irrational behaviour is a inevitable part of human life. Yet when people exhibit double standards on issues of life and death this is a very serious matter, as we saw in Part 1.

{Unlike my previous foray into applied ethics this is a piece of journalism rather than an academic essay, so it is not intended to be comprehensive. I only hope that what I say is stimulating and perhaps challenging.}


If in spite of my argument in Part 1 we were to justify terminating a human life when it is failing and hopeless, it would seem then that we were committed to protecting life when it is healthy and only just beginning. Thus there are at least some defences of euthanasia that are incompatible with the defence of abortion. But assuming that we do oppose euthanasia on the same grounds as we do the death penalty, what impact does that have on the logic of the abortion debate? Any inference there is to be made is certainly nothing like as clear as that we saw between capital punishment and euthanasia, but nonetheless there are parallels.

Importantly, both issues must initially be clarified by the distinction between the value of an act’s being legally permissible, and its all-things-considered moral value as a choice by an agent in concrete cirmcustances. Thus, somewhat counter-intuitively the same act can be legally good while being morally bad.[1] Or likewise the reverse may hold- as is implied by my argument, even if there were particular cases of terminally ill patients where killing them would be the moral thing to do, euthanasia should still be illegal. Questions of one’s freedom to control one’s body and the direction of one’s life are independent from questions of whether concrete instances of the related acts are morally justifiable.

The most obvious implication on abortion from my argument takes the form of a slender a fortiori  manoeuvre: if euthanasia is wrong then abortion must be at least as wrong because, unlike candidates for euthanasia, foetuses have not at least had some kind of life outside the womb -indeed their lives are ahead of them- and they are completely morally innocent. Of course the big objection to this new argument will be that it treats foetuses as if they are of equal moral worth to terminally ill adults, which is controversial.

Do we normally think of foetuses as having significant moral worth? It is rather telling that in normal circumstances, when a potential child is wanted and is appreciated as a gift, the parents think of the foetus as ‘their baby’ and ‘their child’, but in abnormal circumstances, where a parent feels that they would be unable to afford supporting the child they change the language to speak of a mere, inhuman foetus instead of a child, or a ‘blob of jelly’ instead of a baby.[2] Used in defence of abortion, this appears rather contrived since we do not hear of women giving birth to blobs of jelly.

Moreover, why does the abortion industry resort to every euphamism imaginable (planned parenthood, reproductive rights, post-conception services) rather than stand up for abortion. It suggests that deep down these people are aware that it is wrong.

Thus, here is another double standard: in the general case (where we find our most reliable intuitions) we [3] ascribe a significant moral worth to foetuses, but in cases where it becomes particularly inconvenient for us to do so we shy away from it.[4] Because morality is not a matter of doing what is convenient for me -for example, exploiting or beating my wife may be convenient for my purposes but that certainly wouldn’t make it the right thing to do- this implies that the moral thing to do is to protect the foetus. Moreover, the decision doesn’t only tend to vary with practical circumstances, but with thinking the decision through also: “When women have independent counselling [i.e. not from the company providing the abortion], up to half change their mind and decide not to abort. However, when women are referred straight to the abortion clinic for counselling, that number can be as low as eight per cent.”

What do these facts tell us? Most women have abortions for other people’s reasons, not their own. This is not choice. Of course I certainly wouldn’t claim that these things are proof  that abortion is wrong -because this majority who value the foetus may be wrong to do so. Nevertheless, it does count in favour of the pro-life case.

In September 2011 a cross party bill to reform pre-abortion counselling was debated in the British Parliament. The purpose of the proposal, related to my previous quotation, was to provide women going through the National Health Service with the choice of counselling provided by organisations other than the one who would be facilitating the abortion. It was therefore an intrinsically pro-choice bill, and indeed it’s proponent Nadine Dorries MP is herself of the pro-choice opinion.

The reason for wanting this choice is that the UK already has the highest abortion rates of any European country (double that of Germany), and the abortion providers are publicly funded in proportion to the number of procedures they carry out. Thus they are under a structural imperative to carry out as many as possible, regardless of whether any of the individual employees think that way or are aware of it. For example while Marie Stopes International is usually described in the media as a charity in job adverts they identify themselves as “a marketing focused, results oriented social enterprise”. These are technically not-for-profit organisations but obviously the more abortions are carried out the higher they can afford to pay their staff (including counsellors).

The funding of these organisations is clearly in need of review, non-NHS “abortion providers are paid £60 million of taxpayer’s money per year to carry out abortions and counselling. Yet the British Pregnancy Advisory Service [the largest such provider]’s largest clinic in Central London allocates one single hour per week for counselling. Not one hour per woman – just one single hour per week“!![5]

Of course this problem isn’t restricted to Britain, in America Planned Parenthood is praised as a charity that helps working class women make choices to keep themselves out of poverty but a) they provide no pre or post natal care or support for adoption, b) the management bureaucracy regards individual women only as statistics: they are always raising the quotas of ‘sales’ a clinic has to make to receive its budget, even when demand is falling, thereby forcing clinic workers to use marketing techniques to pressure women into feeling abortion is their only choice, and c) some of the management are in the top 1% of earners. Clearly these people don’t let their absolute respect for women get in the way of making money.

The most remarkable thing about the bill isn’t that it wasn’t passed, but the media reaction to it. It was widely denounced as religiously-motivated fascism and frequently compared to sensationalist fundamentalism as seen in the USA – despite the fact that it had nothing to do with religion. It’s true that counselling organisations with a religious origin or basis could have provided some of the counselling (and why shouldn’t they? Why should ‘religion’ take on wholly negative connotations?), but only if  the counselling they provided was wholly independent and conformed to the medical standards set by the NHS.

No counsellor who used ‘fire and brimstone’ scaremongering techniques would ever be approved, and in any case the counselling would have been optional. All these facts were far to inconvenient to make it into the narrative that the popular ideologues want to spin of hate and superstition vs. freedom and reason. For example The Guardian is only too happy to publish baseless accusations about the quality of counselling groups that take a pro-life stance.

So pervasive is this ideology is that it is very common to encounter people who believe that the only reason anyone would oppose abortion is because they have been ordered to do it by the clerical overlords who supposedly dictate every aspect of their lives. But as I have shown above that is clearly not the case, as is equally well demonstrated by the existence of many secular, atheist, feminist (consider that a disproportionately large number of foetuses aborted are female), and LGBT pro-life people (not to mention doctors and scientists). The idea that all pro-lifers are religiously motivated only stems from a desire to obfuscate the real debate and pigeon-hole people into simplistic categories.

So here we are again (but nearly at the end, I hope):  yet another double standard is one of pro-choicers who support the rhetoric of the ‘New Atheists‘ in their fetishistic approach to science while dismissing any and all science that supports the pro-life position. What I mean by this fetishistic approach is the dogma that a position can be judged reliable only if it can be described in terms of the physical sciences. Since the vast majority of pro-choicers are atheists (though as I just said not all atheists are pro-choice), I surmise they are familiar with it. It is deployed to say that religion is unacceptable because it suggests phenomena that could not be described by physics -as if there couldn’t be anything that could be described or evaluated by other disciplines.

The double standard is the pro-choice movement’s frequent dismissal of science as unimportant: characteristically, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood has said “Medical science is irrelevant to the question of when a fetus becomes a human being”. Well before we decide whether we agree, lets see what medical science has to say on this matter:

“As it is made up of human DNA and other human molecules the zygote is clearly human and not some other species. It has a genetic composition that is absolutely unique to itself, different from any other human that has ever existed. It does not share the same DNA as its mother and is therefore not a part of her body. … This DNA includes a complete prototype dictating not just early development but even hereditary traits that will appear in childhood and adulthood, from hair and eye color to personality features.” -Marjorie England.[6]

“According to scientists, an organism is made up of interdependent elements in a complex structure able to perform the activities of life by independently-functioning but mutually contingent organs. The human zygote easily meets this denotation. Once it comes into being, it starts a complex sequence of stages to prepare it for sustained progression and growth: The zygote promptly initiates a growth strategy that will, if unbroken by external interference, accident or disease, progress seamlessly through development of the definitive body – birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity, and aging, culminating in death. By distinction, while an ordinary compilation of human cells may perform the activities of cellular life, it will not display organised interfacing directed towards an elevated level of co-ordination”. – Carl Sagan – yes, the infamous atheist.[7]

Between four and seven weeks the embryo’s nervous system and brain have developed such that they have a working mind of their own (speaking of which it is a little known fact that foetuses dream). And at eight weeks they have developed all of their bodily structures and organs and are henceforth known as a foetus.[8] Those prematurely born from as early as twenty weeks could go on to survive (yet in the UK they are denied the human right to life until twenty-four weeks, or until birth if they are deemed likely to suffer from any disability- including things like a cleft pallet or Downs Syndrome which have not been shown to impair life at all).

This seems pretty conclusive to me, medical science does have a critical contribution to make to the question of whether the embryo is a human. To name just one implication of this, it means that Judith Jarvis Thompson is wrong to claim, as she does in her seminal pro-choice argument, that the embryo is just a part of a woman’s body to be treated as she wishes.

What abortion looks like

What is so hypocritical about the atheist pro-choicers’ response to this is that they claim that the science can be ignored in favour of their rather arbitrary speculations as to when a ‘person’ – understood as an invisible metaphysical entity distinct from a concrete human being – begins. Because a ‘person’, like ‘god’ is not something that can be observed or measured by scientific methods it is not surprising that the ascription of the status of ‘personhood’ is defined by individual opinion with very little consensus on where the boundaries lie.

The irony is staggering. The atheist’s use of the word ‘person’ here is basically equivalent to the word ‘soul’, something which they would be ridiculing if they weren’t preoccupied here with defending radical sexual freedom at all costs. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a pro-choicer making use of metaphysics (or other non-empirical disciplines such as jurisprudence), but as atheists they need to realise that they should treat religious people equally in this respect. Yet as I said before atheists can be pro-life too- and not just Carl Sagan:

To go back a bit, even if the foetus were just part of the woman’s body that would not mean that criminalisation of abortion would conflict with the legal right of women to use their bodies in any way they wish- there is no such right. Women, like men, cannot sell themselves into slavery, prostitution or for to cannibal for food. They cannot use their body to obstruct public right of way. They cannot take certain drugs. Indeed, even though abortion remains legal, there are many things we do not allow women to do with their bodies during a pregnancy. Thus any right that women have to control their bodies is not absolute, it has exceptions.

Yet another double standard is for pro-choice lobbies to continually cite cases of rape and incest to justify the existence of abortion itself (using the vulnerable women at the heart of these tragic cases as means to their ends) while refusing to freely break down the statistics to show the proportion of abortions that are these sensitive cases. In the early ’90s the New York Times found such extreme case abortions made up less than 1% of cases nationally in the US. Since then official statistics in most US states and the UK (which has never given a number) have failed to divulge the number of rape/incest cases, instead opting for the general category of protecting the mental well-being of the woman.

In December 2011 the highly-respected Academy of Medical Royal Colleges published a comprehensive report over-viewing 44 studies of mental illness in relation to abortion. They concluded: “Having an unwanted pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems. However, the rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy are the same, whether they have an abortion or give birth. ” This is interesting because according to the statistics for 2010, 98% of abortions in England and Wales were performed “because of a risk to the woman’s mental health”. As Dr. Peter Saunders (who also wrote the article I cited in the euthanasia section) deduced, “This means that when doctors authorise abortions in order to protect a woman’s mental health they are doing it so on the basis of a false belief not supported by the medical evidence.”

Michael Cook of BioEdge concluded: “The plain implication of this for a GP [general practitioner of medicine] advising a woman in his offices is that he must tell her: ‘I am sorry, but based on the statistics, I cannot sign a paper which states that if you do not have this abortion, your mental health will be impaired.’ Of course, he may be convinced that this particular woman’s health will be impaired. But why do 98% of women get the signature”, rather than 49% or less? Clearly, if the science is taken seriously this needs to change since far too many abortions are being carried out on grounds which go against the legal requirements. Given that the British law prohibits abortion for non-medical reasons, Dr. Saunders pointed out that this means most abortions in England and Wales today are illegal, something which strongly pro-choice journalists Jeremy Laurance and Debora Orr have conceded.

The objection that has been made to this argument is that for the women who chose termination and the women who chose life to have the same levels of mental health does not imply that having children doesn’t often worsen mental health, because the women who did chose life obviously wouldn’t have done so unless they were happy about having children. But this fundamentally misunderstands the study. The report’s conclusion that “it makes no difference to a woman’s mental health whether she chooses to have an abortion or to continue with the pregnancy” was based only on studies of women who were struggling with unwanted pregnancies and had the option of abortion open to them. That many of the women decided not to go through with abortion therefore does not invalidate them as representative examples of women who may well have suffered mental health problems from keeping the children.

A final double standard (who’s keeping count?) is found in environmentalists wanting to virtually ‘enfranchise’ future generations for the purpose of action on climate change while (quite often) being in favour of abortion. The official magazine of the UK Green Party quoted with approval: Society “is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – Edmund Burke (1729–1797), a Whig politician. The Party has even goes as far as to propose a council with legal powers as a voice for the unborn, and I couldn’t agree more I just think it is rather lacking of them not to explore the implications of this on the abortion debate.

See: More Thoughts On ‘Pro-Life’ or back to Part 1.


Thank you to Eve Farren for some of this information.

[1] Of course the law must itself be moral, but because the law performs a much narrower function than morality does in general different standards will apply.

[2] We must remember how much the abortion situation has changed since the 1960s. When it was legalised we didn’t have most of the knowledge about embryology and genetics we have today. Most importantly ultrasound techniques have since made it clear that foetuses are intricate human creatures, far far more than ‘blobs of jelly’ as the public were told at the time. Because of these scientific developments its current legal status is arguably undemocratic. For more, see this article about that failed bill, particularly from the 12th paragraph.

[3] Of course some people are exceptions to this, I am talking about the average person.

[4] In saying this I recognise how very impractical it really can be.

[5] Nadine Dories’ opinion column here:

[6] England, M. A., (1996), ‘What Is An Embryo?’ in her: Life Before Birth, London, Mosby-Wolfe

[7] Sagan, Carl, (1997), Billions and Billions, New York, Random House (somewhere pp. 163-179)

[8] CARE and The House of Lords, (2001), ‘Human Sentience Before Birth’, 3, 36.

Double Standards On Life and Death, Part 2


2 responses »

  1. And another double standard: ‘”Child support laws aren’t enforced to punish men for having sex- they’re enforced because it’s best for the child. In the same way, abortion shouldn’t be outlawed to punish women for having sex- [as pro-choicers it should be outlawed to protect fetal life. In both cases, it’s not about punishment, it’s about protection. And that’s as it should be.”

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