In the previous part of this series, I addressed empirical objections that Ord anticipated. Now I will respond to his anticipated philosophical objections. See here and here for the first two parts in this series.
The first objection he responds to is a claim I made in an earlier part, that many of the conceptions that occur are not really human embryos, but non-human entities. He doesn’t really respond to this argument. Instead, he just claims that even if true, that still leaves 90 million unborn humans that we have to save, which is still enough to lead to his Conclusion if we accept The Claim.
It’s not clear how he arrives at his number of 90 million, but he has not even made an argument for how many people would have to die before we should halt all other issues and try and solve this one issue, alone. Ord’s Conclusion simply doesn’t follow. To reiterate, the fact that embryos die naturally does not justify our killing them intentionally. So even if pro-life people were inconsistent by failing to end miscarriages, it would not justify elective abortion. (Plus, there is no reason to count the death of embryos in our average lifespan since, having survived until birth, dying as an embryo, which has dangers that are far different than the ones we encounter outside the womb, is no longer a threat to anybody.)
Considering that most unborn human beings who “spontaneously abort” do so before a woman even discovers she’s pregnant, I’m not sure Ord’s thought experiment even makes logical sense. Just how would Ord expect pro-life scientists and doctors to save these microscopic embryos? He would likely reply that it’s our problem and not his, but it may not even be possible to save these embryos. The fact that they die naturally does not give us an obligation to save every last one of them, though I would agree that we have an obligation to save as many as we can.
Ord’s next anticipated objection is the objection that spontaneous abortions are natural. He argues that this proves too much because cancer is natural, yet we have an obligation to find a cure for cancer. But I don’t think it proves too much at all. If we have an obligation to find a cure for cancer, then we have an obligation to save what human life we can save. That includes unborn human beings. Society doesn’t have an obligation to drop everything and prevent all Natural Embryo Loss, however. Society’s resources are finite. That does not prove that the unborn are not as intrinsically valuable as older humans, it just proves that society places a greater priority on saving lives that would be lost to other ailments and disasters. Besides, again, we do try to save unborn human life. We tell pregnant women not to smoke or drink, and doctors have developed ways to operate on unborn human children. We should save all the unborn human beings that we should, but it may simply not be possible to save all of them.
A third objection Ord anticipates works toward the pro-life position, but not in the way he thinks. He argues that when an elderly person dies, it is not as tragic as someone who’s younger because they have less of their life ahead of them. Perhaps when an unborn human dies it’s not as tragic due to this extending to both ends of a person’s life. So an embryo dying is not as important as an adult human’s. I don’t know who would make this kind of argument, but I agree with Ord that it’s weak. An embryo who dies has much more of their life ahead of them than an elderly person, or even an adult human being. Ord has hit on Marquis’ Future of Value
argument. However, an adult person dying can be seen as more important due to their instrumental value to society, rather than their intrinsic value as human beings. So it could be argued that an adult person who dies is more important to society as they are a contributing member of society. But I think that a doctor has an obligation to save all human life that they can, because we’re all equally valuable. So Ord’s argument works to show why it’s wrong to kill an unborn human being, due to the future you are robbing them of. But it doesn’t work to show why we have an obligation to save their lives.
Ord seems to be taking an all-or-nothing approach to whether or not we should value unborn human life, which shows an extreme lack of nuance on his part. He argues that we could save The Claim by arguing that an embryo does not have any life plans or projects, but an adult does, so embryonic death is less important than adult death. But there’s a distinction to be made between killing someone and letting them die. There’s a lot to consider in that debate, but in this case, we still have to go back to the fact that people die naturally does not justify our killing them intentionally. So there is a debate to be had on how many unborn human beings we have an obligation to save, but none of this has any bearing on whether or not we can kill them intentionally.
Ord finally considers the objection that the full moral status of embryos restricts us from harming them, but not from saving them from a natural death. He first responds by claiming that if this were true, we would not have an obligation to save a drowning child, to help victims of natural disasters, or to fund research into curing cancer. But when it comes to a drowning child, or a person sucked into a tornado, or a cancer victim, you only have an obligation to save that person if you can. You are not morally obligated to risk your life for someone else. That would be a supererogatory, or morally heroic, action. So this actually supports my contention, that we are obligated to save what life we can, but we are not obligated to attempt to save all human life.
His second response is that if there is no duty to protect embryos, but there is a duty to protect humans after they are born, then that shows that embryos do not have full moral status at all. This objection is simply not well-thought-out. We do have an obligation to save what unborn life we can, as I have already argued. We are not necessarily required to save all human life outside the womb. We are obligated to save what life we can. It may simply not be possible to save all unborn human life.
Implications: Ord’s thought experiment does not do the job he needs it to do. In fact, it seems to me that aside from Ord’s thought experiment working against him by showing that if there was a real Scourge we would not be justified in mass murder, Ord’s thought experiment actually proves too much. Back when slavery of blacks was legal, a white slave owner could have argued that we obviously shouldn’t consider blacks people because if we did, it would lead to extreme and unpalatable conclusions. It would mean that we have enslaved and allowed the murder of a large population of humanity, if we considered blacks to be people. It would mean a great shift in the way of life of plantation owners who rely on slave labor. This argument obviously fails, because the implication is not what’s absurd. What’s absurd is that we have allowed the slaughter of millions of human beings. It would not be absurd to consider human zygotes as human beings; it would only highlight our need to save these young human people.
It seems that Ord’s entire article is a non sequitur
, but he makes extreme claims that are nothing more than an argument from incredulity
. Take this paragraph, which is near the end of his essay: “Those who ‘bite the bullet’ and accept the Conclusion will have a very difficult time. They will have to accept a very strange ethical belief, and they cannot leave it as a purely theoretical view — for if they really believe that the Scourge is with us, then they will be compelled to fervent action. It is also a belief that will alienate them from much of the public. It will be very difficult to convince people that The Claim makes induced abortion wrong when they know that the Claim comes along with the Conclusion.”
So because Ord considers this a “strange ethical belief,” and he believes this will “alienate” someone from the public, and that they’ll have a very difficult time convincing the public, this, somehow, is supposed to lend support to his idea that the Claim is false. I have actually found that it is not very difficult to convince someone of The Claim. In fact, I have helped people who were pro-choice up until the unborn becomes human become completely pro-life after simply showing them the scientific facts of human development. Perhaps instead of arguing that pro-life people argue for “strange claims,” Ord should allow the science to speak for itself.
Needless to say, the pro-life position that the unborn are fully human and fully persons from conception is well-supported by science. If Ord’s implication is true, it only shows that pro-life people should take Natural Embryo Loss more seriously, not that the unborn don’t have full moral status.