Is Abortion Okay Because the Unborn Don’t Have Desires?

Response by Quinn R.


This week, I will be answering the response produced below:


“…prior to brain development, the fetus does not have PREFERENCES. It literally does not care what you do to it, because it doesn't have thoughts in the first place.

That's very different from born persons, because those of us who are alive have thoughts and feelings. If you kill me, you're violating my personal desire to be alive. But the fetus, before it has developed a functioning brain, has no such desire to be alive, because it doesn't even have desire in the first place.


One of the fundamental things that makes a being deserving of protection is its desire to be alive. But if it doesn't have that (or even the capacity to have desire in the first place), it doesn't matter if you protect it or not, because it doesn't care. It doesn't even know what it means to care.


We thinking, feeling persons often project our own thoughts and feelings onto the fetus, but we really shouldn't. Until right around the third trimester, the fetus doesn't have thoughts or feelings at all.


But the Mother sure has preferences. Pregnancy obviously comes with tons of difficulties including sickness, pain, bloating, diminished personal confidence/appearance, loss of personal autonomy, and the eventual requirement to financially and emotionally support a child she may or may not be ready to support.


At the point when the fetus has thoughts and feelings (typically thought to be right at or before the 3rd trimester) it would make sense to afford personhood to this being, which has its own goals, desires, thoughts, and feelings. But before that point, when it has absolutely no mental desires whatsoever, the choice of the Mother should come first on how she wishes to handle the fetus inside her.


Thoughts?”


First of all, thank you to those who have submitted questions to Life Source. It makes me very happy to know that people from all sides of a debate as controversial as abortion can still engage in productive, charitable dialogue. If anyone has questions they wish to submit about the ethics of abortion, feel free to do so here.


It seems that the best place to start in responding to this post is discussing the concept of desire. When I discuss desire, I will be referring to conscious desires, as opposed to unconscious desires. A fetus already has an unconscious desire to live — the functions performed by the fetus further its ability to live, whether this be taking in nutrients or developing its various capacities.


It might be argued that one must have a desire to be alive in order be a person, i.e., to have a right to life, and therefore deserve protection. However, if a desire to be alive is what is required in order to be a person, how should we treat those who are suicidal and no longer desire to be alive? If a desire to be alive is a necessary for personhood, or to be deserving of protection, then one who is suicidal is not a person and does not deserve protection.


Of course, those who are feeling suicidal ought to be helped and supported. Why? Because their lives are valuable, whether they can recognize it at the moment or not. Their lives are full of potential - meaningful futures in which they can form relationships, set forth on projects, and desire, hope, and dream. We help and support those struggling with suicidal thoughts in the hopes that they may start to see their lives as valuable and desirable even though they presently may not. Why shouldn’t the unborn, who also have lives with this same potential, be given the same chance to value and desire their own lives?


One might assert that a person doesn’t necessarily need a desire to be alive, but rather needs desires in general. However, this criteria for personhood runs into difficulties: neither a human in a coma or even a sleeping human have desires, and therefore would not be persons by this standard.


It might still be objected that unlike the unborn, a human in a coma has had desires in the past. This human desired to be alive and would not have wanted someone to kill him in the future, which is what makes it wrong to kill him. The unborn, however, have never had desires in the past, so it can’t be harmed. However, Trent Horn presents a challenge to this view: “Imagine if we genetically engineered fetuses so that when they grew up they had no preferences of their own and could be ordered around. Would that make it right to own such fetuses as slaves and kill them if we wished? I think most people would agree that this would be wrong even though the genetically engineered fetuses don’t have any past or present desires, because they have a right to grow up normally and not be turned into brainwashed slaves. But if those fetuses had a right to grow up normally, then it follows that they have a general 'right to grow up', and so it would be wrong to abort them” (1).


It may be argued that even though the unborn are persons, the value of the mother’s life simply outweighs that of the unborn because the mother has more complex thoughts and feelings and/or is more established in her desires and preferences. However, to be consistent, one would have to say that of all persons. This would mean that the lives of persons with more established desires and preferences would be worth more than the lives of persons with less established desires and preferences. Additionally, the lives of intellectually and emotionally intelligent people would be more valuable than the lives of intellectually and emotionally unintelligent people.


Finally, I wanted to acknowledge that pregnancy definitely comes with its own set of difficulties — difficulties I very well may never fully understand. Those who are pregnant ought to be given love and support before and after the pregnancy, and we must all work to create a society that can help those who are pregnant can flourish. It may be argued that certain difficulties experienced in pregnancy may justify abortion — these arguments would require another post to properly respond to. However, I hope that I have shown that it is very difficult to argue than the unborn aren’t persons because they don’t have desires. And if this is the case, that the unborn are persons with value like you and I, we must ask ourselves, what is this life worth?


Sources:

1. Horn, Trent. Persuasive Pro-Life: How to Talk about Our Culture's Toughest Issue. Catholic Answers Press, 2014, pp. 143.

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