Moral Dilemma of Abortion

General Moral Principles:

In general, moral principles arise in human life because the behavioral choices and actions of individuals can affect others. Religious beliefs also suggest that morality in human life also encompasses strictly private conduct and a supposed relationship between men and their gods, but by definition, those issues lie wholly outside the realm of objective logic and reason because the belief in gods in the first place is a matter of blind faith rather than evidence.

In principle, the basis of all morality in human life derives from the simple moral imperative do no harm, which also provides the ethical obligation to which the medical field has subscribed since the era of Hippocrates. The Judeo-Christian Bible recognizes the same idea within the do unto others concept, except that the basis religious version of human morality is its supposed Divine origin. However, the religious perspective relies on a very wide range of specific moral rules based only on the a-priori and unproven belief in Divine authority.

By contrast, the secular logical ethical perspective presupposes nothing besides the very general notion that human society is "better" for the individuals it comprises when nobody harms anybody else. Admittedly, it is not possible to prove analytically that human moral conduct must conform to those ideals beyond suggesting that it is simply much better for human beings to conduct themselves morally simply because that is the most beneficial to all of us equally. Assuming only that human morality is consistent with whatever is most beneficial to the individual, virtually any conceivable moral issue is capable of objective analysis. Unlike the largely arbitrary rote rules of religious morality, the rules of objective secular morality can be precisely defined and any moral issues that arise can be analyzed in specific terms and principles that pertain to the facts in a manner that yields consistent results that are understandable in logic.

Identifying the Moral Issues in Connection with Abortion:

Abortion raises moral issues to the extent the unborn fetus can be considered a human being. While some religious definitions suggest that a human life exists as of the instant of fertilization, that particular view is virtually irrelevant to the secular moral issues. Secular moral concern for the unborn zygote shortly after conception is very difficult to justify, simply because a zygote is not yet biologically developed enough to perceive physical pain and also insufficiently developed to maintain any conscious awareness.

Beyond the zygote stage of human gestation, sentience becomes a legitimate moral concern only in the fetal stage where physiological development allows the fetus to become sensitive to physical discomfort or pain. In that respect, the mere fact that a fetus is capable of suffering by virtue of the actions of others gives rise to the same moral responsibility not to cause pain that also prohibits inflicting pain on an adult human being without his or her consent.

The infliction of physical pain is not the only moral issue raised by abortion; it also raises moral issues in the realm of personal autonomy. At some point of human physiological fetal development the fetus becomes entitled to the same personal autonomy rights as any other human being. While it may be more difficult to identify precisely what developmental criteria correspond to the stage where a fetus can be assumed to have personal rights, aside from any issue of sentience or awareness. Certainly, there is no logical basis for protecting an infant a few minutes after being born without affording the same protection to that infant in its last hours of gestation. The fact that modern obstetrics allows physicians to schedule births by the calendar further illustrates the impossibility of distinguishing the pre-moral rights stage of humanity from the moral rights stage, after birth.

In the United States, abortion raises fundamental legal issues that are the formal embodiment of the moral respect for the autonomous rights of an unborn human being. That is mainly a function of the concepts of fundamental rights, equal protection, and due process that emanate from the U.S. Constitution. Prior to the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade decision in 1970, the moral issue of where "personhood" was believed to be linked to stage of gestation where major fetal movements first become perceptible outside the womb, to which the courts referred to as fetal "quickening."

In principle, the moral obligation to avoid inflicting physical pain on a developing fetus is relatively easily achievable through modern anesthetics, completely irrespective of the moral issues arising from personal autonomy or American constitutional laws. However, it is much more conceptually complex to define objective criteria to distinguish the pre-moral rights entitlement stage of gestation from the moral rights entitlement that all human beings enjoy equally under any basic respect for moral concerns.

One argument is that which supported the fetal "quickening" analysis: namely, that major fetal movement is evidence that a fetus has reached the stage where it is capable of independent survival outside the womb. In the forty years since the Roe decision, medical science has developed tremendously, to the extent that survivability outside the womb has been pushed back to much earlier stages of fetal development. It is not particularly difficult to identify where the fetus first becomes capable of independent survival outside the womb and to distinguish that stage of development from the point where the fetus is still dependent on acute medical intervention for survival outside the womb. What is much more difficult is distinguishing the moral obligation to use modern medical interventions to sustain the life of adult human beings in medical distress from the same moral concern.

Finally, to the extent the moral issue is framed in terms of secular American law, the matter of determining where autonomous human life begins must be defined by objective scientific principles. The fundamental separation of church and state in the minds of the Framers of the Constitution that generated the First Amendment absolutely prohibits any reliance on religious beliefs or principles in defining where life, and therefore personhood with moral rights, begins.

Applying Moral Principles to the Abortion Controversy:

Generally, it is immoral to cause another to experience physical pain without justification. In the context of the morality of modern abortion, this may be the easiest issue to resolve since the use of anesthesia can eliminate physical suffering associated with abortion at any stage of development. Prior to the modern era of medicine, however, the ability of the fetus to experience physical suffering would have been a logically valid reason to suggest that some moral justification was required to abort a fetus to the extent that choice caused physical suffering. Conversely, analysis of that same issue may lead to a diametrically opposite result today. For example, in some cases, abortion is considered primarily because the fetus is identified as being afflicted with severe deformities and other abnormal conditions capable of causing substantial physical discomfort to any individual born with them. If the moral imperative is to minimize physical suffering, anesthetized abortion might be considered more humane than allowing some fetuses to develop to full term.

Even with modern scientific medical tools, it is still not possible to establish a precise moment where every fetus first becomes capable of sentience, or the precise moment where every fetus first becomes capable of independent existence outside the womb. It is not necessarily that independent existence is the most important element of the consideration, but clearly, that must be one of the relevant considerations, as previously illustrated in connection with the moral concerns about a fetus moments before full-term birth.

Similarly, the issue of independent survival is not dispositive either, since different degrees of effort at sustaining life artificially are routinely made based on the fact that patients are at the end-of-life stage rather than in midlife. For example, while it is may sometimes be possible for a ninety-year-old patients to survive longer with an organ transplant, or through other aggressive life-saving medical interventions, those types of interventions are not considered morally required where it is obvious that the patient is not likely to benefit in terms of quality of life and remaining life expectation.

Family members routinely authorize do not resuscitate (DNR) orders for elderly patients whose lives could be prolonged through resuscitation. The same orders are not considered moral where the patient is much younger, even in similar medical circumstances. Perhaps, the same distinction is valid relatively far in advance of complete fetal development. In one case, the patient is considered not to have enough quality of life remaining to require greater efforts to prolong life; in the other case, the fetus is considered not yet to have begun a life that is sufficiently recognizable as living to warrant moral concern (aside from the separate issue of sentience).

Therefore, in several respects, it becomes apparent that there is little to support the moral concern for a relatively undeveloped zygote, but there are several specific reasons to protect the life of…