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Bad Analogy

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The February 29, 2012 episode of the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 focused on the morality of sex-selective abortions. One of the panelists was Melanie Phillips and one of the guests selected to defend current abortion law over attempts to make it more restrictive to prevent sex-selective abortions was Kate Smurthwaite.

Smurthwaite drew an interesting analogy between denying a pregnant women an abortion and thus forcing her to carry a foetus until birth and forcing a person to donate an organ again their will to a recipient who will otherwise die without the donation.

For some reason I was not too satisfied with the analogy so I decided to explore a bit more:

  • In Smurthwaite’s analogy the pregnant woman is equivalent to the donor
  • The foetus is equivalent to the intended recipient
  • We don’t force donors to the donate organs to recipients who need them so how can we force pregnant women to carry their foetus to term?
  • But there is a difference:
    1. The natural course of action (without any intervention) in the pregnant woman’s case is that the foetus will be born. The natural course of action (without any intervention) in the organ donation case is that the recipient will die.
    2. The foetus will live if not interfered with. The recipient will die if not interfered with.
    3. The pregnant woman has to affirmatively make the choice for abortion. The donor does not have to undertake any such affirmative action.

Therefore I find Smurthwaite’s analogy a little unsatisfying. But what if we switch the analogy and consider the pregnant woman and the organ recipient as equivalent?

  • According to Smurthwaite the women suffers physically and mentally if the abortion is not carried out. In the same way the recipient suffers physically (and mentally, surely) if the organ donation is not carried out.
  • If the donor is someone like Terri Schiavothen is it moral to harvest an organ from them? Is such a donor equivalent to a foetus?
    • Obviously an embryo with no neural development is not equivalent to the donor.
    • What about a 30 week old foetus?
      • It is viable ( > 95%[1])
      • It can, if not aborted, enjoy a life. Unlike the donor who is in a persistent vegetative state
  • If the health[2] of the pregnant woman can be privileged over that of the foetus, can the health of the recipient be privileged over that of the donor who is in a persistent vegetative state?

One important question of course is at what stage of the fetal development do we consider it a person? Reasonable people can disagree. For some[3] birth is the marker. Others choose a different time point.[4]

A Digression Regarding Mental Health

Regarding the effect on the mental health of the woman, in case abortion is not carried out, can such fears for mental health be extended beyond birth? As Giubilini and Minerva[5] point out:

Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of.

Giubilini and Minerva also tackle adoption as an alternative:

Why should we kill a healthy newborn when giving it up for adoption would not breach anyone’s right but possibly increase the happiness of people involved (adopters and adoptee)? … On this perspective, the interests of the actual people involved matter, and among these interests, we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption. Birthmothers are often reported to experience serious psychological problems due to the inability to elaborate their loss and to cope with their grief. It is true that grief and sense of loss may accompany both abortion and after-birth abortion as well as adoption, but we cannot assume that for the birthmother the latter is the least traumatic. For example, ‘those who grieve a death must accept the irreversibility of the loss, but natural mothers often dream that their child will return to them. This makes it difficult to accept the reality of the loss because they can never be quite sure whether or not it is irreversible’

If mental health is a suitable reason for abortion can it also be a suitable reason for an after-birth abortion?


Melanie Phillips raised the issue that Smurthwaite’s position is identical to supporting eugenics. In my opinion Smurthwaite has it right when she says:

Eugenics is where the government decides what characteristics it considers desirable in the next generation and then forces some women to have children (often with men they don’t want to have children with) and others not to. What I’m advocating is the opposite of that, where the government butts the hell out and lets women choose for themselves. Of course individuals selecting for themselves what genetic traits they’d like their kids to have is as old as the hills. That’s exactly what is going on (subconsciously or consciously) when a woman looks across a crowded bar at a guy and thinks “nice eyes”. She’s picking traits that she thinks might help her offspring. But of course then she also gets to know the guy and is highly likely to change her mind if she finds him stupid or unimaginative. Of course he’s doing the same to her, checking out her genes. And great news – science is getting much much better at helping us do this. Increasingly we can actively allow wannabe parents to select embryos to be implanted during IVF to avoid hereditary diseases where it may not be obvious in the bar whether the object of your desires is a carrier of the gene. In a few generations, at least in the west, this is likely to mean much lower incidence of things like sickle cell anaemia and Huntingdon’s disease. It would be unspeakably cruel not to allow that sort of progress to be used to prevent suffering. And if it became possible to select embryos for hair and eye colour too then firstly – that would be pre-implantation IVF embryo selection – not abortion.

The question though does arise, would Smurthwaite be OK with pre-implantation IVF diagnosis which screens for homosexuality (if possible) such that parents can reject embryos which show markers for homosexuality (and thus the probability of the embryo growing up into a homosexual man or woman is high)? Based on her answers to the question of sex selective abortions I am guessing she would be OK. I don’t think I will (just like for sex-selective abortions).

Some more final points:

  1. Re: Honour killing and abortion. Honour killing and abortion are not comparable because honour killing is a crime? That is circular reasoning. Once can reasonably say that honour killing is a crime and abortion is not because the two are not comparable.[6]
  2. Just because one believes an act is foolish and that one wouldn’t do it, does it automatically follow that that particular act should not be made illegal? I may find reckless or drunk driving foolish and I wouldn’t drive recklessly or drunk, but does it follow that they should be legal?
  3. Melanie Phillips needs to work harder to understand analogies. Nowhere in Smurthwaite’s analogy does it make any sort of equivalence between the donor organ and the foetus.

[1] Information for parents of preterm babies less than 30 weeks gestation, p. 4

[2] Physical and mental. However while indications of threats to the physical health of the pregnant women are objective, is the same level of objectivity present in the evaluation of the mental health?

[3] 44 minutes into the video

[4] At around 24 weeks of gestational age a prematurely born fetus/infant has a 50% chance of long-term survival outside its mother’s womb. Cite.

[5] After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? J Med Ethics, 2012

[6] One involves killing a human teen/adult and the other may involve the termination of an embryo (though the later stages provide a more difficult situation to rationalise).

Written by Polevaulter Donkeyman

July 17, 2012 at 12:15

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

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