NaClhv

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2022-06-27

A moral evaluation of abortion

(This post is still incomplete. Check back later when it's done, and don't take anything below as something that I've "officially" said, especially on an issue as controversial as this one.)

Roe v. Wade was recently overturned. I think this is an opportune time to organize and express my thoughts on the abortion issue. This will focus mostly on the morality of the action itself, and less so on the legal or political analysis of the court decision.

Table of contents

The layout of the arguments and its crux

Let's begin with an overview of the typical arguments. Pro-choice advocates say "my body, my choice": they argue for the right of women to get an abortion based their right to bodily autonomy. The pro-life side says "abortion is murder": they say that life begins at conception, and that intentional killing of that life is wrong.

The first thing I notice here is that these two of arguments are not equal and opposite in their interaction. That is to say, if we grant both arguments their full force, we don't end up with a neutral conclusion: the pro-life side wins. The right to life is a stronger right than the right to bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy doesn't mean that you get to kill people with that right. Like all rights, it's limited in scope and stops when it starts infringing on the rights of another human being.

This is why the pro-choice side needs to go beyond its original argument. They need to establish that not only do women have a right to bodily autonomy, but also that this overrides any right to life that a fetus may have. Unfortunately, the pro-choice advocates have generally failed in this respect. Their most common slogan here says "it's just a clump of cells", which I find to be utterly unhelpful: I'm a clump of cells. You're a clump of cells. We're all clumps of cells - and the value of any such clump is to be determined by further reasoning, not by mere assertion.

The pro-life side, by contrast, doesn't categorically deny a women's right to bodily autonomy. They don't need to. They can simply stick to their original argument - that life begins at conception - and just play defense, knowing that the right to life is intrinsically stronger than the right to bodily autonomy.

Many miscellaneous arguments follow this form. For instance, from the pro-choice side, there is supposed to be a legal right to privacy that allows women to get abortions. But again, the pro-life side doesn't need to deny the right to privacy. They can just play defense and argue for the intrinsic value of a fetus as a human being, relying on the fact that the right to life trumps almost any other. Nobody would argue that you can kill someone as long as you do so in the privacy of your own home.

So that is the overall, strategic layout of the main arguments. Of course, noticing that this favors the pro-life side doesn't mean you have to grant those arguments. But it does allow us to focus our attention to the crux of the whole debate: what is the value of a fetus? Does it have the right to life? And how does it compare to the woman's right to bodily autonomy?

An aside on assigning value

But before we really get started, I have to address one particular class of reasoning on the pro-choice side: that the value of the fetus is assigned to it by the whims of the society. There's often a lot of words used to dress up this concept, like "social context" or "separate, participating member", but it all amounts to the same idea, that the fetus has value if the mother or the society or some such group of people simply deems it to have value.

This is an abhorrent idea. If you believe this, I have little to say to you. I consign you to the lot of the racist slavers and the genocidal tyrants of the past, who also enabled their evil by denying the personhood of their victims. No; whatever value the fetus has, it must be found through well-established principles applied to its intrinsic properties, and not on arbitrary whims.

The value of a fetus

So, then, what gives value to a fetus? A great deals has been said on this issue. Is it the ability to feel pain? Is consciousness, or independence? Or the presence of a heartbeat, or brain waves, or a unique DNA? Some discussions of this type can be interesting, but I often don't find them to be too helpful. They're occasionally suspect (is that REALLY what gives value?), and often involve going too far into the minutiae.

Instead, I propose that we consider the one property that everyone agrees that a fetus has - indeed, its chief intrinsic property: the POTENTIAL to become a fully valued human being. I then apply the principle that we use to evaluate ANY potentiality: by valuing it through the probability of actualization, minus any ancillary costs. That is to say, the value of a fetus can be calculated as:

probability of actualization as a full human
- costs required to bring about the actualization

The units here are in full human lives - in "natural units", as it were. This is the only proper basis for this kind of calculation, and should be used for any evaluation of trade-offs: life for life, as that's what's at stake here.

Note the robustness of this formula: whatever else a fetus may or may not be, whatever other properties it may or may not possess, it's certainly a potential human being. That is indeed its primary nature. Furthermore, take a moment to consider the universal applicability of the principle: all potentiality is evaluated through the probability of its actualization. A job interview is not yet a job, but you evaluate it through the probability of that actualization. A date is not a relationship, but you evaluate it through the probability of that actualization. A lottery ticket is not the payout, a college acceptance is not a degree, and a seed is not yet a tree, but they're all evaluated through the probability of their actualization, minus the costs to bring it about.

Note furthermore that this is the MINIMUM value, because it's only evaluating the fetus through its potential. That is to say, the fetus may have additional value beyond just potential. If the fetus has any value as it currently exists - if it can feel pain, or has brain waves, or some form of consciousness (which it almost certainly does as it progresses to the later stages of its development), then it would have value in addition to the above formula. Just as your time in college may have value merely for your experiences there apart from getting a degree, a fetus may have value in addition to its potential to become a full human being.

The evaluation at various stages of development

Note additionally how this correctly evaluates the myriad of branching concerns that come up in the abortion question. So no, a sperm or an egg do not have anywhere near the same value as a fetus: they may be "potentially human", but they have a very low probability of actualization, and therefore very little value. This probability (and therefore value) jumps up enormously upon conception - the first and probably the biggest of the major "filters" in the development of a full human being - but it's still far short of certainty.

After an egg is fertilized to form a zygote, it may fail to implant in the uterine wall, and thereby fail to develop into a fetus. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but estimates cluster around a failure rate of 2/3. This is definitely a loss, but the low probability of full actualization at this point means that the loss is small. In addition, this loss carries no moral imperative, as there are no direct intervention methods available that can definitively alter the outcome.

In addition, we must consider the second term in the formula: the cost required to bring about the actualization. Certainly, being pregnant is hard - especially during the later months - and giving birth is among the most painful and difficult physical endeavors that anyone can experience. There is also the direct danger to the life of the mother during the whole process. All this is costly, but when measured in human lives, it amounts to a tiny fraction. Mothers: what fraction of your life would you have given up to simply deliver your child without all the pain, risk, and hassle? I'd imagine that it's some small-but-nonzero number.

So when we apply the formula to the zygote pre-implantation, we have a small probability, then we subtract from it a small cost. I will not venture too precise a calculation, but it's clear that the net value will be some small fraction of a full human life. So we need not be overly concerned about losing a zygote pre-implantation. Perhaps it merits about as much mourning as the peaceful passing of an elderly relative. This is, in fact, about the weight of concern given to infertility in our society, which shows that our evaluation criteria is tracking well with reality.

After the egg is successfully implanted, the probability of a successful birth increases rapidly in the first few days and weeks. By the time that a woman knows she's pregnant, the probability is reasonably close to certainty: only about 10-20% of recognized pregnancies end in miscarriages. So a miscarriage is definitely a huge loss, and there is rightfully a great deal of mourning over such a tragedy. But again, because there isn't much that can be done to definitively affect the outcome, it carries little moral judgement. Again, our evaluation criteria is tracking well with reality.

The act of abortion

This now brings us to the question of abortion. As we've just mentioned above, by the time a woman knows she's pregnant there is a very good chance of a successful birth. At this point, the "cost" term to bring about that birth is negligible in comparison. So, the value of such a fetus is quite high - let's say 80%, for the sake of the discussion.

Abortion is the active, premeditated, and often violent intervention to reduce that number to zero. It therefore carries nearly the full moral weight of killing a human being. When the act is considered in and of itself, in isolation, it is a grave evil. And anyone who participates in such an act (again considered in isolation) are moral monsters.

So - that's it, right? End of argument, open-and-shut case? I'm obviously 100% pro-life, abortion is murder, and should be universally outlawed? Not quite. For one, you'll notice that the evaluations above don't quite line up with the standard pro-life talking points. Yes, life starts at conception, but not every fetal life is of equal value: they must be weighed through the probability of actualization. A zygote pre-implantation is of some value, but the value of a 10-week fetus is much greater. A third-trimester fetus has more value still, and if it’s viable outside the womb it’s effectively a full baby. This does mean that an abortion is “better” if we can do it early. Note again that all this lines up exceedingly well with all of our strongest intuitions.

If “not every fetal life is of equal value” doesn’t sit well with you, then think of it this way: if you can only save one of the lives listed above, by all means save the one that’s furthest along its development. You will get closest to saving an actual baby that way. If, on the other hand, you chose to save the zygote over a viable fetus, there is a very good chance that it’ll die anyway, and nine months later your choice will have likely cost the life of an actual baby that’s now missing from the world.

But remember, we’re ALWAYS in this situation. We’re always choosing between lives to save. We have finite resources. We cannot save everyone. How do we make the decision? By weighing the costs and probabilities, on the basis of life for life. In this way, saving the viable fetus is actually the most fair, egalitarian decision you can make.

This brings us to the next point that I have against some in the pro-life camp: some people say life is of infinite value. I disagree. A human’s biological life (I'm not speaking of the soul here) is a finite, material entity, and has a finite worth. We evaluate, trade, and spend it all the time, at every moment. We often exchange a fraction of it for economic gains, in work. We spend it for political or military gains, in war. We trade it for other lives, in raising children. If we make wise decisions - if we make the right tradeoffs - we will better preserve or increase our resources, which in turn allows us to save more lives. In this way, human lives can be evaluated to have some equivalent value in other things, like dollars or hours of work, or bodily autonomy.

Life for life in exceptional circumstances

So in short, I disagree that abortion should be universally outlawed because it’s the killing of a human life. Sometimes, the killing of a human life is allowed. We know what we’re losing in an abortion: the fetus has been well-established as typically having about 80% value of a human life. We now must discuss the other side of the coin: what are we gaining in an abortion? And is the exchange worth it, when considered on the basis of life for life?

One possible exchange for the life of the fetus is the life of the mother. In fact, the life of the mother may be considered quite a bit more valuable, since any risk to the mother is likely a risk to the fetus as well. Such a risk may also significantly impact her role as a mother, which may then affect her other children beyond just the fetus in question. Thus any serious risk to the mother’s life is to be given a very wide berth in terms of allowing an abortion.

What about other exceptional circumstances? For example, what do we do in the case of fetal anomalies? This is actually fairly easy to evaluate, since it’s already covered under the “value of a fetus” which we considered above. If the abnormality would seriously compromise the fetus’s likelihood of a full human life, then its value must be discounted accordingly. There are, of course, greatly varying degrees of fetal anomalies, and they all have to be judged individually. I will again not venture a more precise calculation here, except to say that an abortion would certainly be justified in some extreme cases.

What about cases of rape or incest? “Incest” could probably be skipped over, as the concerns here would mostly be covered as a part of “fetal anomalies” or “rape”. That is to say, if we had a healthy, normal fetus which was produced as a result of a consensual incestuous relationship between two adults, then there would be little reason for an abortion here, regardless of any judgement about the morality of such a relationship. Any anomalies which might arise after birth can be handled through the probability calculation.

“Rape” is the most difficult of the cases, for it involves the evaluation of a very complex set of possible “benefits” to an abortion. Most importantly, this is where the “my body, my choice” argument is by far the strongest. As this is the main argument on the pro-choice side, it's worth going into it in some depth.

"My body, my choice": an outline

We had hitherto basically ignored the "my body, my choice" argument. In effect, we've been considering what the woman SHOULD want, upon discovering that she's pregnant. The above discussion demonstrates that the woman should generally WANT to carry the baby to term, barring a few exceptional circumstances. She should "choose life", and thereby satisfy both pro-choice and pro-life concerns. That is the moral thing to do.

But what if the woman wants to do the immoral thing? What if she wants the abortion? Can we then deny her this choice, on the grounds of its inherent immorality? Or should she be allowed, on the grounds of "my body, my choice"?

This question is no longer on what the woman should do, but on what we should do in response to the given fact that she wants an abortion. This at last brings us to the actual the heart of the abortion controversy. So let us carefully consider the new scenario that arises in this new question. What is the net value for the whole situation, when a pregnant woman is denied from getting an abortion? Picking up from where we left off, we can break down the net value as follows:

  1. Value of the fetus,
  2. minus the cost to the fetus/child from being unwanted,
  3. minus the cost to the woman for raising or giving up the baby,
  4. minus the cost to the woman from the loss of her bodily autonomy during pregnancy.

The value of the fetus is the same as before: typically about 80% of a human life. But if the mother wants an abortion, this must be modified by the second, 'cost of being unwanted' term. An unwanted fetus is likely to lead to an unloved child, and they're likely to suffer some harm as as a result. A mother's love is crucial, so this harm amounts to some non-negligible fraction of a human life. But on the other hand, such unloved children can still grow up to be good, valuable adults, which must mean that this cost is limited to a minor fraction of a human life. So after subtracting this cost, on the balance of probabilities, we still have most of the value of a human life.

The third term reflects the additional cost to the woman for raising or giving up the baby. Now, if the woman was required to raise the child that she didn't want, that could really be a very high cost, amounting to a good fraction of a human life. But this isn't the case: it's not difficult to give up a baby for adoption, and "safe haven" laws allows the mother to give up the baby to the state with no penalty. Nobody doubts that these processes are emotionally challenging, but they count for relatively little on our established scale of "life for life". Again, after subtracting this cost, we still have most of the value of a human life.

The forth term is the "my body, my choice" term. Some pro-choice rhetoric uses this as a decisive claim that brooks no counterargument, implying an infinite value for this term. But of course, that cannot be. Yes, everyone has the right to their own body - but this right is limited, like all rights are. Let's see some examples that highlight this limit.

The limits of bodily autonomy

Imagine that you see a woman about to jump off a bridge in a suicide attempt. You run over, grab her, and forcibly drag her away from the edge. What happened here? You took away a woman's bodily autonomy to save a life, and you'd be rightly be considered a hero in this scenario. What does this mean for the "my body, my choice" argument? It's simple: bodily autonomy, important as it may be, doesn't extend enough to cover the loss of a whole human life.

Note that this restriction of bodily autonomy goes beyond the few moments required to restrain a jumper. It'd obviously be a mistake to immediately release such a person, just a few feet from the edge. Indeed, someone who's deemed to be a danger to themselves or others can be involuntarily committed. This is, of course, a rather severe way of taking restricting their bodily autonomy. The details vary depending on the jurisdiction, but some such measure is available nearly everywhere. Such commitments generally last less than a few days, but extensions lasting up to several months are are available as necessary, and even indefinite commitment is possible in rare cases.

Of course, the situation changes drastically if you had restrained the woman to prevent a murder, instead of a suicide. In this scenario, there's no question that your action was more than fully justified. Not only could the woman be bodily restrained in this case, but also thrown in prison and locked up for a long time. All this is right and proper. So, the "my body, my choice" argument stands no chance whatsoever when it's put up against the life of another human being.

Now, what if the woman was actually a thrill seeker, jumping off the bridge with a parachute? Such stunts are dangerous, and she may still die as a result. Say that the chance of her death is 0.1%. Would you be justified in forcibly stopping her? Probably not. Again, what does this mean for the "my body, my choice" argument? This gives us a lower bound - the argument IS powerful enough to cover 0.1% of a human life, in this particular scenario.

What if you restrict someone to prevent an amputation instead of a suicide? You would still be rightly praised for doing the right thing. Here, bodily autonomy doesn't even cover the loss of a limb, let alone a life. But the follow-up restraints on such a person would obviously be milder: it would make no sense to lock them up forever to prevent the loss of a foot.

There's many other cases where we rightly to restrict someone's bodily autonomy. Consider the case of mandatory vaccinations against contagious diseases. If the threat and the benefit are reasonably well-established, we're generally agreed that this is a good thing. Here, we're taking away people's bodily autonomy, en-masse, for rather abstract gains. The same goes for a quarantine, or mandatory masking laws. Lastly, motherhood is, if anything, a larger restriction on a woman's autonomy than a pregnancy, but we don't allow mothers to kill their children, no matter how badly they want to.

The principles of evaluation

I do not mean for any of the above examples to be an exact analog to abortion. But we can extract some key principles from them, which can then be applied to the problem of abortion. We can then use these principles to quantify the "my body, my choice" argument.

The first principle is that we CAN indeed take away one's bodily autonomy, as a measure to prevent a greater alternative loss. As we have said before, bodily autonomy is not of infinite value. Like all other rights, it has its limits, as attested by the many examples above.

The second principle is that more bodily autonomy can be taken away when the alternative loss is greater. So we can't do much to stop a stunt with only a 0.1% chance of death, but we can do more to prevent an amputation, and still more if a whole life is at stake, as in a suicide or a murder. Similarly, in terms of contagious diseases, it's easier to justify a masking mandate than it is to justify a vaccine mandate or a forced quarantine: the more severe restrictions on bodily autonomy require a greater loss as the alternative. This is in perfect accord with our previous idea, that we must weigh the component consequences to make our decisions, on the basis of life for life.

The third principle says that it matters how and why you lose your bodily autonomy. That is to say, there's a difference between semi-voluntary restrictions, like a vaccine mandate, and forcible restrictions, like someone grabbing you and dragging you away from the edge. Worst of all are wanton, unjustified violations - an example would be if someone forcibly and bodily dragged you away, for no reason. The most extreme violation of this kind, of course, would be murder. These details of "how" and "why" effectively determine the multiplier we apply to your cost. Understanding this multiplier requires a careful examination of some more examples.

The compensation multipliers

Consider the example of being committed to a mental institution, or quarantined. You may, of course, voluntarily submit yourself to such measures, in which case there is no question of violation of your rights. The multiplier here is zero; there is no cost or loss associated with "my body, my choice".

Or, you may voluntarily submit yourself to an inquiry to determine whether such a measure is necessary. You don't want to be committed or quarantined, but you chose to submit yourself to the inquiry. If you get the unwanted outcome, and your bodily autonomy is restricted as a result, that may count as a minor violation of your rights. You gambled and lost, and you do deserve some small amount of sympathy, or perhaps compensation. Of course, this amount must be far less than the full value of the loss, since you voluntarily subjected yourself to the gamble, and the outcome was probabilistically determined. Hence, for the purposes of evaluating how badly your rights were violated, there would be a small multiplier - far less than 1 - applied to your actual cost of serving out your term.

Or, your bodily autonomy may be restricted, but for a good reason. You were living your life without doing anything particularly wrong, but due to random chance and ill fortune, you're caught in a pandemic or became suicidal - and now you're subject to a violation of your bodily autonomy, locked in a room somewhere against your will. In such cases, the multiplier is comparable to 1.

Lastly, you may simply have been subject to an wanton, unjustified violation of your bodily autonomy. This would be like someone simply kidnapping you off the street and locking you up in their basement. Such violations have an enormous multiplier, elevating the cost of the loss to a different order of magnitude.

Perhaps all this can be more easily understood in terms of money. Consider each of the following scenarios, and how much compensation you'd need to be brought back up to your original state.

In the first scenario, you voluntarily spend $100 on something you wanted. Since this was a voluntary transaction, you are as happy or happier afterwards than before you spent the money. There is therefore no compensation necessary, and the "compensation multiplier" is zero.

In the second scenario, you choose to gamble your $100, then lose it. You are, of course, sad about the loss. But such losses can be insured against, which would restore you to your original state. So the net compensation, on average, would be the cost to purchase such an insurance plan, which would be less than $100. So the "compensation multiplier" would be less than 1.

In the third scenario, you simply lose $100, through no particular fault of your own, as you were going about your life. Or maybe someone takes the $100 from you, but for a perfectly reasonable emergency, and is willing to pay you back afterwards. The compensation required for restoration would be $100, and so the "compensation multiplier" would be 1.

In the fourth and last scenario, you would be robbed of $100 at gunpoint. This is a grave violation of your rights, and the required compensation to make up for it may be many, many times the original value.

So, the overall formula for the loss is:

Raw value of the loss * compensation multiplier

This finally allows us to quantify the "my body, my choice" argument, and tackle the remaining questions about abortion.

"My body, my choice": pulling it all together

Recall that we were discussing abortion in the case of rape. We were using the following formula for the net value of the situation, for when the woman had been prevented from getting an abortion:

  1. Value of the fetus,
  2. minus the cost to the fetus/child from being unwanted,
  3. minus the cost to the woman for raising or giving up the baby,
  4. minus the cost to the woman from the loss of her bodily autonomy during pregnancy.

As we said, the sum of the first three terms still leaves most of the value of a human life. We now know how to evaluate the forth term. It's the raw value of the loss * compensation multiplier. Under typical circumstances, the "raw value of the loss" doesn't amount to much: it's the cost of carrying a pregnancy to term. We've discussed this cost earlier, and said that it'd be "some small-but-nonzero number". It's worth several months of a woman's life - so maybe 5%, if we're being very generous, given that these are generally considered the "good" years of her life?

The case of rape

With rape, this changes dramatically. First, let us acknowledge that rape is a serious crime - one of the few that may be comparable to murder, and therefore worth something on the life-for-life scale. Secondly, a pregnancy caused by rape is an additional, extreme offense to the woman. Biologically speaking, it's the fruition of that which the rape itself was only a threat. Getting pregnant as a result of rape is what battery is to assault, or what murder is to attempted murder. Such a pregnancy may easily be worse than the rape itself. So when we speak of the "raw value of the loss", it's no longer a number like 5%, but something much greater. This is the cost you're asking the woman to bear by carrying the pregnancy to term.

Lastly, this value must now be multiplied by the "compensation multiplier" - and we know that when the loss is incurred through a wanton, unjustified violation of your rights, this multiplier grows huge - and on top of an already large "raw value of the loss". Again, I will not venture an exact calculation, but it's clear that this can easily be a large, negative number, big enough to overwhelm the positive result of the first three terms, and thereby force the whole situation to have a net negative value. Perhaps an example of such a calculation, meant mostly for illustrative purposes, may go something like this:

80% (value of the fetus)
- 20% (unwanted fetus/child)
- 10% (raising/giving up the baby)
- 25% (raw value of the loss, for the rape + pregnancy)
     * 8 (compensation multiplier)
= -150%, or -1.5 on the life-for-life scale.

The upshot is that an abortion in the case of a rape can be justified in many cases. Of course, each case has to be judged individually, and different scenarios will produce different numbers and therefore possibly different conclusions. But we should often expect something like the above example.

Note that this doesn't change the the fact that the woman should WANT to keep the baby, even if it's the result of a rape. That is the high call of morality. This is untouched by the above calculation, which determines whether the rest of society should FORCE her to keep the baby. So, abortion in the case of a rape is one of those circumstances where an individual should act one way, but it'd be wrong to legally force that action. Choosing to keep a rape baby would be like selling all that you have to give to the poor, or surrendering your body to donate all your organs to others. Such a virtuous action is so rare that one may well suspect insanity or duress instead. But assuming that we can get past that suspicion, any woman who can actually answer that righteous call would be a high and holy beacon of compassion and mercy. But we cannot make it a rule to demand such superhuman virtue from the human population.

"Ordinary" cases

Of course, the vast majority of abortions do not fall into these exceptional circumstances. So let's consider something more realistic: women getting an abortion often give reasons like "I can't afford a baby now", or "I don't have the right partner". Note that such factors are already included in our framework above, under "cost to the woman for raising or giving up the baby", and they generally amount to a small fraction of a human life.

Now, I fully acknowledge that there may be exceptional circumstances, which increase this cost to untenable levels. I furthermore acknowledge that the woman is the single best person to make the judgement about such costs, if we had to rely only on a single person. It may very well be that, if the woman were forced to have the baby, she would rightly say to her child in the end, "I wish you had never been born". These are possible outcomes, and our calculation framework can evaluate them all on an individual basis.

However, on the whole, it must be that for the typical, representative case, the net cost here is as I have said before: it adds up to a small fraction of a human life. Furthermore, the "my body, my choice" term is also calculated to be fairly small. For if the pregnancy is the result of consensual sex, the "raw value of the loss" in carrying the pregnancy to term is generously about 5%, and the "compensation multiplier" is far less than 1, corresponding to the "you gambled and lost" scenario. So altogether, a typical calculation may go like this:

80% (value of the fetus)
- 20% (unwanted fetus/child)
- 20% (raising/giving up the baby)
-   5% (raw value of the loss, for the pregnancy)
 * 0.2 (compensation multiplier)
= +39%, or +0.39 on the life-for-life scale.

So, in such typical cases, it is good and right to forbid the woman from getting an abortion.

The right reaction

You may not like all the math and probabilities and principles laid out above. You may feel compelled to pick at specific numbers or dismiss the whole thing as nonsense. Okay, then - here is an argument based far more on gut feelings and visceral emotions, which come to the same conclusion and thereby validate my calculations.

Few people would outright advocate for infanticide. Indeed, killing babies really is wrong, and evolution has equipped us with its usual measures to prevent such actions. Think about actually killing your baby, in prehistoric times. Think about grasping its head and body and twisting until you snapped its neck, or holding it below water as it squirms in your hand, or even just hearing its cries as you climb up a mountain to leave it behind. You are rightly revolted by the mere thought of these actions. Your every instinct would violently, sickeningly rise up against you if you actually tried to go through with them. Your muscles would rebel, your guts would punch itself, and your thoughts would set your brain on fire. You'd likely say, "I just can't do it". This is, in fact, the appropriate reaction, provided by evolution, to an act as evil as infanticide. We thus understand that infanticide is wrong - not just from moral principles, but also because our visceral gut reactions confirm it. So evolution has provided an reliable, well-tuned guide for this situation, through many long years of natural selection.

Of course, morality is not defined by evolution. But in this case, we only need to acknowledge that they both care about life. In fact, evolution specifically operates on the probabilistic propagation of one's progeny. So it lines up very well with base-level moral judgements made on a life-for-life basis, and makes its provisions a reasonable guide on infanticide.

But the provisions of evolution can still fail. In much of modern civilization, we're often faced with a new situation that natural selection simply hasn't had time to work on. In fact, this is exactly what's happening with modern abortion. They are a completely new phenomena on an evolutionary timescale, and natural selection hasn't had time to work on it. But if it had, there'd no question as to its effect: an abortion would feel like an infanticide - or at least about 80% like it, for that is abortion's weight on the scales of life-for-life.

So the recency of modern abortion has prevented us from feeling this altogether appropriate feeling. If our instincts were properly calibrated about it, we'd intuitively understand just how wrong it is.

An analogy

So this brings us to a place where we can start summarizing things - and a popular way to do that for abortion is to use an analogy. There's a lot of silly abortion analogies out there about violinists or houseguests, but I think we can do better, using the reasoning explained above to illuminate the moral calculus involved.

Imagine that you're a thrill-seeker engaging in a dangerous stunt. You're doing it for the thrill - because it's fun. Of course, you don't want anything bad to happen, but the thrill only exists because of the danger. So, you choose to go ahead with the stunt. You go and have your fun.

Well, it goes badly. Some time after your stunt, you discover that you've actually injured yourself rather badly, although you didn't realize it at the time. Now, you'll naturally heal up in about nine months, but in that time you'll experience a number of pretty debilitating symptoms, which will severely restrict your bodily autonomy.

However, there's an alternative treatment that will heal you up instantaneously. You just have to kill your child - a little baby boy. Now, this kid has had some medical issues: he's been in a coma since birth, and requires some additional care. He is entirely dependent on you and would surely die without your support, not just because he's a baby, but also because of this extra care required. But all this is temporary: there's a very good chance that he'll make a full recovery, in about nine months.

So then, what should you do? Should you kill your child for the instantaneous heal-up? If you tried, would we be wrong to intervene and forbid the killing? This is what an abortion is actually like, in a vast majority of cases. From this analogy and everything else I said above, I say that you should not kill your child, and instead be required to bear the consequences of your choice.

Towards policies and goals

How would all this translate into an actual law, policy, or enforcement? This is where things get really messy, and grows beyond the scope of this post. Admittedly, I have been assuming an unrealistically ideal solution here - that we'd be able to simply say "abortion is forbidden under these circumstances", and that people would simply obey. But of course, this is impossible. Every law has flaws, corner cases, enforcement costs, and unintended consequences. What I have demonstrated above is that an anti-abortion law would be morally justified, provided that it's implemented well. I have not said anything about how badly it could go if it's implemented poorly.

Furthermore, I have already acknowledged that there are high variances in all the calculations I performed above, and exceptions to all of the cases. Yes, a risk to a mother's life should generally allow for an abortion, while abortion "on demand" should generally be disallowed. But what does "generally" mean exactly, and how does it translate into an actual law? Ideally everything would be judged on a case-by case basis, but how could a general law cover every case?

Lastly, I've also acknowledged that the mother is the single best person to make those case-by-case judgements for her own case. Of course, this doesn't mean that an abortion should be provided solely at her discretion. After all, you're the single best person to judge how you should live your life, but we don't allow on-demand suicides. Given that an abortion ends a life, there should be strong guardrails to prevent bad decisions, while still giving the mother's preference its due weight.

Again, specific laws are beyond the scope of this post and I do not intend to prescribe them. But it seems to me that whatever we come up with should be nuanced and flexible, to strongly discourage abortions in general but allow them in justified cases. I would be against simplistic, absolutist solutions, or even simple yes/no decision trees. I'm more favorably disposed to something along the lines of 'due process' or 'community consensus'. So, I suppose you might say that my position is for abortion to be "safe, legal, and rare" - but I would perhaps refine that to "safe, conditionally legal, and really, REALLY rare".

How rare, exactly? An abortion should be about as rare as a homicide or a suicide. Or about as rare as deaths by firearms or automobiles. All of these are deaths that we generally accept, not because each one isn't an individual tragedy, but because that's the general level of 'exception' or 'rarity' we're willing to bear as a society. Of course, we'd like for all these numbers to be zero. But we cannot achieve that without sacrificing too much in some other benefit, freedom, or societal operation, so we allow for some tragic exceptions.

So, how rare is that, exactly? In the United States, the number of homicides, suicides, and deaths by firearms or automobiles all land in the ballpark of 20,000 to 50,000 per year. We have a very long way to go to make abortions this rare - because the number of abortions is far, far greater, at the holocaustic rate of 600,000 to 1,000,000 per year.

The judgment of history

Do not think that my refence to the holocaust was careless or flippant. The numbers are in fact comparable: at our current rate, we're committing about one holocaust per decade. Roughly one in seven fetuses are aborted instead of being born. Even if you believed in "my body, my choice" - even if you thought that each women had a "right" to these abortions - are these numbers not a complete travesty? Doesn't the raw number of deaths mean anything in its sheer magnitude? If we executed a million felons a year, would that not be a society-wrecking tragedy, even if each execution was fully justified in court?

How did we come to commit such atrocities? Unfortunately, its probably because we still think that we get to determine people's values by assigning it to them according to our whims. On the divine scale of morality between nothing and infinity, in comparison to perfection, we're still far more like the racist slavers and genocidal tyrants. Thus we still value a life only insofar as it can do something for us - vote for us, work for us, sleep with us, or approve of us. It seems stupid to exchange all that for the supposedly real and intrinsic value of a fetus, which will only drain our time and resources for several more years before it can do anything for us. So we commit these atrocities for much the same reasons as these villains of the past. Like them, we are caught up in a societal evil.

But this perspective gives us the context for how we can do better. For one, I don't think that women who get abortions should be treated like a murderer. They are not some exceptionally cruel monsters. Rather they're merely caught up in a societal evil, and we know that such things are hard to resist. Have you ever wondered how anyone could have supported slavery, or how any culture could have practiced infanticide? For the same reason that we abort our children: societal evils are hard to recognize from the inside. It thus follows that we should not judge any of these people too harshly. They are merely individuals, seduced by personal and societal power and blinded by ignorance - a potent mix that's difficult to resist when it's backed up by the society at large.

But make no mistake: the judgement of history on abortion will be hard and decisive, to a degree no less than it was for slavery or infanticide. I do not pretend to know what the future holds in detail - no doubt it'll be full of glory and horrors beyond our current ken - but I do believe that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. And when society becomes better, abortion becomes more clearly evil. Imagine a society that can provide the best chance of success for every child, whose medical technologies are so advanced that any fetus is viable outside the womb, and whose children grow up with a loving mother and father in happiness and fulfillment. Clearly, an abortion would be less defensible in such a world.

On the other hand, imagine a society where the mother and the baby regularly die during childbirth, where rape, slavery, and infanticide run rampant, whose children generally grow up in misery and alienation. Abortion would be more justified in that society.

The arc of the universe bends towards justice. We therefore know which of these world we'll end up in. And on that day, when our present debate lies in the far past, the settled matter of history will be that abortion is wrong - belonging in the same class of actions as infanticide, enslavement, genocide, and rape - and to be left behind in the past as an unfortunate sign of an age that was limited by its ignorance and poverty. May we all work to hasten the coming of that day.

This has been my honest attempt to understand and evaluate the moral issues surrounding abortion. I have no illusions about any harms or benefits I may acquire for writing it all down. I did not do this for money or women, as I used to joke about my study of physics or theology. My only defense is that this is what I really think, after a genuine attempt to get as close as I can to the truth.

<--->

Now, all the pro-choice arguments about "fetal personhood" and "consciousness" and "bodily dependence" may downgrade this scenario from a murder, to something more like a suicide or self-mutilation. What it CANNOT do is to negate the intrinsic loss of value in the act of abortion itself. Remember, a fetus is, incontrovertibly, a potential human life. And ANY potential of ANY kind is valued according to the probability of its actualization. We've already done this calculation, and we know that the fetus has almost the same value as a baby. And this is intrinsic value - calculated according to the simplest and most robust principles, and independent of how anyone feels about it, or any value that they personally assign to the fetus.

So, let's say that we simply grant the pro-choice arguments wholesale: the fetus is not an independent legal "person" and does not have a separate legal "right to life". Well and good. This still means that the act of abortion reduces the value of the woman/fetus system by a major fraction of a human life. Again, this makes it akin to a suicide or self-mutilation.

Note that this is the best-case scenario for the pro-choice side. There's no denying that the fetus has intrinsic value. Who, then, is the best person to control that value? Who gets to make decisions for it? As we've seen, if we give this control to the fetus itself - by saying that it's a legal "person" with its own "right to life", then it's game over. Abortion really is outright murder in that case. Could we give it to someone else? Or to "society"? The most pro-choice option here is to give it to the woman herself - by saying that the value of the fetus belongs to her and she gets to make decisions for it. But this is the very case where the act of abortion reduces to a suicide or self-mutilation. Anything else makes it worse.

Can we further refine these scenarios, so that they're actually analogous to abortion? I think so. There's a lot of silly abortion analogies out there about violinists or houseguests, but I think a good analogy can illuminate the moral calculus and set the record straight.

outline:

context, overview, analysis of large structure of arguments
focus on life - what gives a fetus its value?
- an aside on arbitrary values
value though probability of actualization
- conformity to intuition
- what it means for various stages of development
evaluation of abortion according to the formula
- in isolation
- in context
exceptional cases
- possible benefits
- life/health of mother
- fetal anomaly
- incest
- most other cases
- rape? (to be left for later), launch into next section

the "my body, my choice" argument
- distinguish between what the woman should want, and what we should force the woman to do
- changes to the calculation
- of finite value - enumerated factors: who, magnitude of imposition, what's at stake, consent, accident, violation
- restrictions: other persons
- restriction: value to "self" still limited - examples, involuntary commitment
- restriction: responsibility/consent, accident without malice, assault/intentional harm
- adoption option: not zero, but smaller than parenthood
- possible double counting: adoption+unwanted? unwanted + cost of parenthood?
- possibility: "I wish you were never born" case
- general application (including the "I wish you were never born" case)
- specific application to rape

Summary of cases, possible laws
the judgment of history


"my body, my choice" fails when someone else is involved (in generating additional value
if we say that the fetus is not another person, "my body, my choice" still fails when the value exchange is too big. We do not allow suicide or amputations, and anyone assisting such actions is criminalized
you cannot count the harm to the fetus as being agaist another individual for the purposes of negative cost, and count it as the woman in allowing freedom.
If the fetus is another individual, "my body, my choice" is not allowed at all.
If the fetus "belongs" to the mother's "body", it is still of value - you would easily, for example, commit a woman to a psychiatric ward for several months to keep her from commiting suicide, or just to prevent self-amputation. (even if the woman would be healed afterwards regardless) (involuntary commitment periods are generally 3-5 days with extentions up to 60/90 days available if deemed necesary, for a CHANCE of self-harm)
"my body, my choice" in such cases is at most limited to the value of the "restriction", when they arise naturally or accidentally.
difference between consent/responsibility and accident and malevolence:
you bet $100, you lose $100, you're robbed of $100.
you crash your car, someone else crashes into you, someone else intentionally crashes into you.

I wouldn't say that such abortions are impossible to justify, but that justification needs to meet an incredibly high bar. So, for instance,

social context arguments are evil

pro life side wins, pro choice arguments don't address the pro life argument

we need to evaluate the value of a fetus

probability - significant fraction of a human life, at a minimum

an abortion, taken in and of itself, is a monstrous decision

mitigating factors: life for life - rape, incest, life of the mother. Even economic factors can contribute, but the natural unit is a human life

Rare, really rare, but safe and legal.

Not to be made in private.

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