Chapter 8 : Abortion

Reading: 

John T. Noonan: An Almost Absolute Value in History

An Almost Absolute Value in History by John T. Noonan Jr.

Summary  by  Jason Chirichigno(2002)

This article sheds light on some of the ideas that I currently hold on abortion from a personal perspective. Over the years I have struggled with the difficult ethical, moral and scientific question of when does life begin? Could it be the moment of fertilization, at birth, or is there no answer? After much debate my answer, in keeping with Noonan, is that human life begins at the moment of conception, the moment the egg is fertilized, cells begin dividing and are alive, both in a scientific, and for me, an ethical manner. The fertilized egg is complete with the genetic code for ?human life? and as Noonan expands, the potential of all that is human, inherent in an organism possessing a genetic storybook. ?Once conceived, the being was recognized as man because he had man's potential? (Nonnan, p. 84).

Noonan explores three arguments that attempt to refute the moment of conception as the beginning of life, these arguments are viability, experience, and social visibility.

For critics of the notion that life begins to conception they point to the fact that a fertilized egg, a zygote an embryo or fetus, cannot live on its own accord. Yes, a fetus cannot live on its own, without its mother, however, Noonan makes clear that the same can be said for a newborn infant. I would go as far as to say that a human child is not viable on its own until many years later. ?Indeed a child of one or three or even five years of age is absolutely dependent on another's care for existence; uncared for, the older fetus or the younger child will die as surely as the early fetus detached from the mother? (Noonan, p. 84). This leads us to the second argument proposed, experience as a measure of humanity.

Critics attempt to equate experience with humanity, with the notion of the fetus completely lacking of experience and hence void of their own humanity. Noonan makes excellent use of science in order to prove this point. The fetus is completely responsive to the environment within the womb. Sounds, smells, toxins all have an effect. Any educated person has to acknowledge that the diet of a mother greatly influences the health of an unborn child. ?The embryo is responsive to touch after eight weeks and at least at that point is experiencing? (Noonan, p.84). Less concrete, however still proven through scientific inquiry is that an unborn child can distinguish voices in the outside environment and prefers that of its mother. Noonan further explores the criticisms of people employing experience as a reason to say that a fetus lacks a humanity. Critics point out that a fetus has not experienced the range of human emotions, such as love. Noonan, is correct to point out that many adults have failed in such endeavors, some never experiencing love, are they any less human? I do not think so.

The final argument offered in criticism is that of social visibility. Critics claim that fetuses cannot be considered active members of a society because they cannot be seen or heard. Noonan explains that although this point is not as tangible it is just as dangerous. We have entire segments of our population that effectively do not have a ?voice?, the homeless being only one example. Once again , are they any less human? The answer is no.

 

Summary: http://www.cariboo.bc.ca/ae/php/phil/mclaughl/students/phil433/noonan1.htm

Outline by  Don Berkich,  University of Texas, Corpus Christi (by permission)

Synopsis: Noonan's thesis is that abortion is always morally wrong except in very special circumstances. Those circumstances, like having a cancerous uterous or an ectopic pregnancy, involve direct and obvious threats to the life of the mother and the life of the fetus. Presumably, the Principle of Double Effect can be used to justify his allowing abortions in these cases.

Noonan's argument makes two critical assumptions. According to premise (3), the human conceptus is a human being. And according to premise (5), there is sufficient reason for abortion only in cases of cancerous uterous or ectopic pregnancy.

Now it is important to appreciate that Noonan thinks premise (5) is obvious. He therefore devotes no more time to its defense in the article. For Noonan, the important question is whether or not premise (3) is true. Is the fetus a person? You would do well to note that in the popular press and literature the entire debate over abortion is generally thought to revolve around the question, is the fetus a person? If the fetus is a person, then abortion is the killing of an innocent. Sometimes killing an innocent person is legally murder. So anti-abortionists often conclude that, since by their lights the fetus is a person, abortion is in fact murder.

Noonan, then, assumes that the crux of the abortion debate is the status of the fetus. Is it a person or not? Noonan presents three arguments which conclude that the human conceptus is not a human being, and he shows that each argument is unsound.

Recall what it is to show that an argument is unsound. An argument is sound if, and only if, it is both valid and each and every one of its premises is, in fact, true. Now, an argument is valid if it has a certain form such that, loosely, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. More precisely, we say that the conclusion of a valid argument must be true if the premises are all true. Since a sound argument has all true premises, the conclusion must be true.

So, what does Noonan have to do to show that an arguments is unsound? He has two options: he can show that the argument is invalid, or he can show that one or more of the premises are false. Since each of the arguments is valid, he has to show us that each argument has at least one false premise.

While some of his criticisms are less than satisfactory, over all it can be agreed that these arguments are, in fact, unsound. You should be able to state, in each case, which premise is false and why it is false.

But what, precisely, do we gain knowing that each of the arguments which conclude that not every human conceptus is a human being is unsound? Really, we know much less than one might have hoped. At best, we now have no reason for thinking that not every human conceptus is a human being. That is, perhaps, too many negatives to unravel easily. Put it this way: we know that the arguments which conclude that

  • Not every human conceptus is a human being

are unsound. Does it follow that the conclusion is false? Does it, in other words, follow that

  • Every human conceptus is a human being?

Absolutely not. Knowing that an argument is unsound tells us nothing, repeat nothing, about the truth or falsity of the conclusion. Showing an argument unsound is equivalent to discarding the argument; we throw the argument out since it doesn't give us any reason for thinking that the conclusion is true, any more than it gives us a reason for thinking that the conclusion is false.

So Noonan has to provide additional arguments to show that

  • Every human conceptus is a human being.

Noonan's Argument

3/11/02


 

1

It is morally wrong to harm another human being without sufficient reason.
 

 

2

Except in cases of cancerous uterous and ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, abortion harms another human being without sufficient reason.
 

Therefore

3

Except in cases of cancerous uterous and ectopic pregnancy, abortion is morally wrong.

1&2

This is a good first approximation of Noonan's argument. But it is clear upon closer reading that his argument is much more complicated. For example, Noonan is awfully concerned to justify the assumption that the human conceptus is a human being--alternatively, that the fetus is a person. But this assumption is nowhere to be seen in the above argument. Hence we have more work to do:

Noonan's Argument:
 

 


 


 

 

 

1

If x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason, then x is morally wrong.
 

 

2

If x is an abortion then x is an act of harming a human conceptus (embryo, fetus).
 

 

3

A human conceptus is a human being.
 

Therefore

4

If x is an abortion then x is an act of harming a human being.

2&3


 

5

If x is an abortion then, if x is not a case of cancerous uterous or ectopic pregnancy, then x has no sufficient reason.
 

Therefore

6

If x is an abortion and x is not a case of cancerous uterous or ectopic pregnancy, then x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason.

4&5

Therefore

7

If x is an abortion and x is not a case of cancerous uterous or ectopic pregnancy, then x is morally wrong.

1&6

Here we have Noonan's argument in fuller detail. Notice that we've uncovered a number of assumptions in the process of expanding his argument. The argument is valid, so our question now is whether it is sound. Are all of Noonan's assumptions--premises (1), (2), (3), and (5), specifically--true?

*******************************************

Let us restate Noonan's first premise:

Premise (1)

 

 

 

 
If x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason, then x is morally wrong.

Premise (1), note, is a moral principle. Call it MP. Why should we believe that MP true?

We might say that MP is obvious by common moral intuition. The problem with this answer is that we have no recourse if there are differences in intuition, as surely there will be. So common moral intuition alone won't help us determine whether or not MP is true. Consequently we must consider any support ethical theory might give the principle.

Noonan is clearly persuaded by the religious conception of morality. This evidently includes both DCT and NLT. Let us consider each in turn.

DCT Argument For Premise (1):
 

 

 

 

1

DCT is true.
 

 

2

If DCT is true, then x is morally wrong iff God forbids x.
 

 

3

God commands love your neighbor as yourself.
 

 

4

If God commands love your neighbor as yourself then God forbids x if x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason.
 

Therefore

5

If x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason, then God forbids x.

3&4

Therefore

6

If x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason, then x is morally wrong.

1,2&5

NLT Argument For Premise (1):
 

 

 

 

1

NLT is true.
 

 

2

If NLT is true, then x is morally wrong if x is inconsistent with relevant proper purpose.
 

 

3

If x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason, then x is inconsistent with relevant proper purpose.
 

Therefore

4

If x is an act of harming a human being and x has no sufficient reason, then x is morally wrong.

1,2&3

The problem with these arguments is simple: neither NLT nor DCT are true, so the first premise in each case is false.

Noonan is sensitive to this problem and anticipates these objections by proposing that 'humanistic' conceptions of morality will likewise support MP. But which? Noonan gives little indication for what he has in mind, so let's briefly canvass KET, SCT, and IRU.

IRU Argument for Premise (1) (informal):

 

 

 

 
Consider two possible worlds very much like ours except that one world has and follows MP while the other world does not. Clearly utility (here, measured by best interests) is maximized in the world with the rule. Hence we seem to have an argument for MP provided IRU is true.


 

KET Argument for Premise (1) (informal):

 

 

 

 
MP is plausibly an implication of the second formulation of the categorical imperative.


 

SCT Argument for Premise (1) (informal):

 

 

 

 
MP is, one can well imagine, necessary for social living.

So no matter which ethical theory one we adopt, it seems that MP is easily justified. In the absence of any argument to the contrary, we shall take it that Premise (1) of Noonan's Argument is true.

*******************************************************************

Let us restate Noonan's third premise:

Premise (3)

 

 

 

 
A human conceptus is a human being.

This is the premise which absorbs most of Noonan's efforts in his article. Noonan argues that a human conceptus is a human by 1) putting forward arguments that every human conceptus is a human being and 2) criticizing arguments which conclude that not every human conceptus is a human being. Let us take Noonan's criticisms first.



 

Noonan's Criticisms of Arguments against Premise 3:

The Viability Argument:


 

 


 


 

 

 

A human conceptus is viable when it can live apart from the mother.


 

 


 


 

 

 

1

A human conceptus is a human being when it is viable.
 

 

2

Not every human conceptus is viable.
 

Therefore

3

Not every human conceptus is a human being.

1&2


 


 


 


 

Criticism 1:

The time of viability is affected by technology and, possibly, race.


 

Criticism 2:

The weight and length of a fetus are better indicators of viability than age.


 

Cricitism 3:

Infants are completely dependent on care-givers.


 

Given the variability of viability, it is capricious to treat viability as a necessary condition on being a human being. Hence the Viability Argument is clearly unsound, since premise (1) is false.

The Experience Argument:
 

 


 


 

 

 

Experience, memories, and perceptions are required to be considered a human being.


 

 


 


 

 

 

1

Every human being has experiences.
 

 

2

Not every human conceptus has experiences.
 

Therefore

3

Not every human conceptus is a human being.

1&2


 


 


 


 

Criticism 1:

The human conceptus reacts to stimuli at 8 weeks "and at least at that point is experiencing."


 

Criticism 2:

Comatose or catatonic adults are presumably human beings.


 

Criticism 3:

Infants can be said to have little experience.


 

Criticism 4:

There is no reason to think that experience should count for humanity.


 

Noonan's criticisms are persuasive on two scores: they show that premise (1) is not true, and they show that premise (2) is not true. We conclude that The Experience Argument is unsound.

The Social Visibility Argument:
 

 


 


 

 

 

The human conceptus is not able to communicate and is not a member of society.


 

 


 


 

 

 

1

Every human being is socially visible.
 

 

2

Not every human conceptus is socially visible.
 

Therefore

3

Not every human conceptus is a human being.

1&2


 


 


 


 

Criticism 1:

So if we cut off a person or group of people from society at large, they're no longer human beings?


 

Criticism 2:

Any division of human being from non-human being in terms of social visibility would open the door to great injustice.


 

Noonan's criticisms here are directed at premise (1). The second criticism is especially interesting, because what it argues is that in cases where premise (1) is assumed to be true, great wrongs are often perpetrated. But the deciding criticism is the first one. To see why, consider the case of Robinson Crusoe. One can be utterly absent from society and nonetheless be a human being. We conclude that the Social Visibility Argument is unsound.

Since Noonan finds each of the three arguments against premise (3) of his argument to be unsound, he correctly concludes that we have no reason to think that premise (3) of his argument is false. But we cannot conclude that premise (3) of Noonan's Argument is true, since having no reason to think the premise is false is no reason to think it is true. For all we know, it could still be false. Noonan must, then, give sound arguments to show that premise (3) of his argument is true.



 

Noonan's arguments for Premise (3):

The Argument from Potentiality:
 

 


 


 

 

 

1

If a human conceptus is potentially a human being, then it is a human being.
 

 

2

A human conceptus is potentially a human being.
 

Therefore

3

A human conceptus is a human being.

1&2



 

The Argument from Conception:
 

 


 


 

 

 

1

If a human conceptus is conceived by human parents, then it is a human being.
 

 

2

A human conceptus is conceived by human parents.
 

Therefore

3

A human conceptus is a human being.

1&2

The Argument from Genetic Code:
 

 


 


 

 

 

1

If x has a human genetic code, then x is a human being.
 

 

2

A human conceptus has a human genetic code.
 

Therefore

3

A human conceptus is a human being.

1&2

Unfortunately for Noonan, each of these arguments is also unsound. Can you see why?

 

 

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Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2002. All Rights reserved.

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