Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion – Part 11
In chapter two of his book, Boonin attempts to show thatevery standard argument in favor or protecting human life from conception isultimately unsuccessful. In chapter 3 he deals with those arguments that claima fetus acquires a right to life sometime after conception. In doing so he rules out that a fetus acquires a right tolife (1) at implantation, (2) when it begins to “look” human, (3) when itactually begins to move, (4) when a woman can feel it move, (5) when itacquires a brain, and (6) when it becomes viable (=able to live outside thewomb). Boonin does a fairly good job of arguing why these are poor candidatesfor the beginning of one’s right to life (although I personally think he couldhave done a much better job with the implantation argument). Additionally inthis chapter, Boonin puts forth his own view on when a fetus acquires a rightto life, namely, when it develops “organized cortical brain activity.”
“Organized cortical brain activity” is distinguishable from“initial brain activity.” Initial (or simple) brain activity begins very earlyin fetal development. An embryo develops the components of a brain (i.e., thebrain stem, midbrain, and forebrain) 22-25 days after fertilization and hasreadable electric brain activity as early as 6 weeks. Organized cortical brainactivity, however, is the sort of brain activity within the cerebral cortexthat produces readable patterns of EEG waves associated with “consciousness.”This happens between 25-32 weeks after fertilization.
To support the development of “organized cortical brainactivity” as the point at which a person acquires a right to life, Booninappeals to his version of why killing is wrong. [Go back and read the previoustwo blog posts for more detail on this.] In short, for him killing is wrong because it deprives an individual ofthe future life that he or she desires to keep. What puts a moral demand on me to not kill you is that you have some actualdesires about how your future life goes,and this is morally significant. In Boonin’s own words:
…an individualcannot begin to acquire this special moral standing [i.e., the right to life]until it begins to have at least some actual desires. The fact that anindividual will later have such desires is not, on this account, morallyrelevant. A human fetus has no such desires prior to the point at which it hasconscious experiences, and it has no conscious experiences prior to the pointat which it has organized electrical activity in it cerebral cortex.
In other words, you or I do not have a “right to life”unless we have actual desires about preserving our lives, and we do not haveactual desires about that until we are “conscious,” and we are not “conscious”until there is organized brain activity in our cerebral cortexes. Since thisdoes not happen until weeks 25-32 from fertilization, any abortion occurringbefore week 25 would be morally permissible.
That is an incredibly brief summary of Boonin’s view. So howshould we respond? It seems to me that Boonin has, in a quite intelligent way,marked a particular biological development – the development of organized brainactivity in the cerebral cortex – as one that carries huge moral significancefor human beings. The reason this particular biological development issignificant is because it enables psychological capacities like“consciousness.” Yet, it also seems to me that Boonin has done nothing morethan develop a scheme that fits his preconceived ethic. He has not proven that“consciousness” is morally significant. He has assumed it to be and hasdeveloped an ethic that allows for the killing of the “pre-conscious” (i.e.,fetuses without organized cortical brain activity) around his assumption. Inthe end, I do not see how his assumption that “consciousness” is the morallysignificant factor to be any better than my assumption that “being human” is.
Now, since Boonin wants to utilize a particular biologicaldevelopment to make his case, I want to point out something biological as well.Actually, John Chrysostom pointed this out in the 4th century A.D.,when he said of those practicing abortion: “Why…make the chamber of procreationa chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for child-bearing untoslaughter?” Biologically speaking a woman’s womb is designed to nurture andsustain human life. It seems to me to that if we were to destroy a child in thewomb, whether it be conscious or not, we would be acting contrary to thenatural, biological function of the womb in the first place. Or, likeChrysostom said, we’d be turning the place that biologically functions tosustain life into a place where life is ended.