PM5109: On Abortion

Abortion refers to intentional termination of pregnancy.

Many religions see abortion as the taking of innocent human life, and therefore wrong. Others believe that the foetus, at least at the earlier stages in its development, does not yet fully qualify as a human life, and thus it is not wrong to kill it. The Catholic Church, for example, teaches that an embryo is human life from the moment of conception and thus wrong to kill; but many historic Christian thinkers believed that the foetus did not gain a soul at conception, but only at quickening (first movement detectable by the mother). Arguably, if prior to quickening the foetus lacks a soul, it would be permissible to kill the foetus before quickening, but not afterwards.

Maratreanism takes a rather different view. It believes it is generally wrong to kill that which has a soul, although in certain circumstances that may be permissible - for example, euthanasia. But, it does not believe a foetus necessarily has a soul. When does an embryo or foetus or infant receive a soul? Maratreanism does not look to objective biological features to answer this; rather it looks to the desires of others.

Why does anyone have a soul? By transitive anti-solipsism - if one has a soul, then that one will truly wish that others which appear to them to have souls do indeed have souls - not all such others, but certainly those dear to that one's heart - and Maratrea in granting that wish will cause those others to be; and those in turn will desire yet further others to be. Therefore the web of desire between beings is the cause of ensoulment.

From this, it follows that a foetus, an embryo, an infant, etc., possesses a soul only to the extent it participates in this web of desire. So, there is no one particular gestational age at which ensoulment occurs; rather, ensoulment occurs because the mother, the father, and others concerned, desire ensoulment to occur (even if they would not phrase that desire in quite the same terms.) They are desiring the child to be born, they are hoping for it and looking forward to it; if something goes wrong (such as a miscarriage or stillbirth) they will feel distraught, and truly wish things to be otherwise. On this account, the child has a soul.

By contrast, a mother with an unwanted child, who wishes to have an abortion, is unlikely to have the same feelings about the child, and thus it would not have a soul.

The conclusion: Abortion is generally wrong if the child has a soul. In the circumstances in which the mother wants an abortion, the child would not have a soul, and thus abortion would not be wrong. In circumstances where the child has a soul, and abortion would thus probably be wrong, the mother is unlikely to want one. So, in most cases where abortion actually happens, it is not wrong.

Suppose the mother really wants the child, and then discovers it has a defect, and decides on that basis to abort it. The child may have a soul on account of being wanted, which would suggest abortion is wrong; yet, the abortion of the defective child is closer to euthanasia, a circumstance in which killing even the ensouled is permissible. So, this is no reason to think abortion is wrong.

What if the child is not wanted by the mother, but is wanted by others? Those others would have to have significant emotional investment in this particular child to want it to live - as opposed to just a generic opposition to abortion. The average anti-abortionist does not care enough about this particular child to cause it to have a soul. The father might however. For this reason, it is advisable that the father (where known) be consulted and involved as much as possible in the decision-making process. The mother should seek, and be encouraged to seek, the father's consent. At the same time, if the father is strongly opposed and the mother wants an abortion, we should not prevent her from having one - it is difficult to evaluate how strong the father's contrary desire is, and what its exact basis is; even if he is opposed, he may not be opposed sufficiently or in the right way to cause the child to have a soul. Better to let the mother have her way with her own body - if she is doing something immoral, that is a risk she takes upon herself. But by encouraging paternal involvement, we reduce the likelihood of the father being so strongly opposed so as to possibly ensoul the child and thus reduce the likelihood of the abortion being wrongful.

The woman may later regret the abortion, which could be sufficient to cause the child to become ensouled retroactively, and thus the abortion might retroactively become unlawful. Or, to state things more accurately, the mother's future regret may be sufficient to cause the child to be ensouled by backward causation, thus making the abortion itself immoral. To avoid this, anti-abortion speech, which might encourage the mother to regret her past decisions, may need to be discouraged and limited, tending as it does to produce immorality.

In the event the woman has an abortion and regrets it - including where she feels compelled by reason of defect - this regret may constitute true desire creating another branch in which the child is not so aborted but is born. Taking this consideration into account, we should realize that the morality of killing the ensouled foetus or child is not as grave as we might at first think, for we are not entirely killing it, but merely removing it from this current branch; it continues to live in others. It must be observed that the wrongfulness of killing anyone lies predominantly in the branch in which they are killed, and thus is not the wrong against them but the wrong against others; they may well go on living in some other branch which desire creates (by the mediation of her promises.)