Let us say that a worker has the rather unenviable job of doing away with stray cardboard boxes in a large warehouse, and that in the course of his labor he spends hours throwing the boxes into a compacter. One day, as he picks up an unusually heavy, sealed box that has been placed in the garbage pile, he hears a co-worker shout, “Stop! Don’t do it! There’s a toddler asleep in that box!” Other coworkers smirk, and one notes sardonically that the concerned coworker must be an idiot, judging from the improbability of there being a toddler in the warehouse in the first place, much less in a sealed box. Our worker is now faced with a decision.
I do not want anyone to believe that I present this as an analogy for abortion, at least not in anything but the accidental sense. I merely wish to present what I believe to be a valid and quite acceptable ethical principle that could be accepted by anyone, pro-life or pro-choice: in a matter of ethical uncertainty, one should err on the side of moral caution, not moral license. There may be very little chance that there is a toddler in the box, but I believe that the worker does have a duty to investigate the claim. This is especially the case the more grave the ethical concern: the fact that a life may very well be at stake (and, moreover, a life that few if any contemporary ethical frameworks would neglect to extend the rights of personhood) means that if the worker simply ignored the warning and tossed the box into the compacter he would be acting in an unethical manner, even if the box were empty, simply because he acted in a haphazard way without investigating the claim. And, of course, in the unlikely event that there had been a toddler in the box, he would have been in even more trouble.
Now there are caveats and limitations to the principle. For example, if the co-worker had shouted that the God-Alien Timalzek from Vesta was hiding in the box, we might more easily have a right to dismiss the claim. This is not to say that it is flat out impossible that such a state of affairs might exist, but as a matter of principle there must be limits to acting on uncertainties in order simply to avoid paralysis. Thus, in order to qualify as a matter of ethical uncertainty, the competing ethical claim(s) must be able to present a compelling and rational case. But, similarly, once such a competing claim has presented at least some form of evidence, it cannot simply be passed over as “weaker” without any investigation. Unlike many non-ethical practical decisions (such as, which of these ties should I wear in order to make the best appearance at my job interview) which by their nature usually allow for a great deal of uncertainty, it is my contention that ethical decisions by their very nature can have only a very low tolerance for uncertainty, because the consequences of ethical decisions can potentially impact others’ lives in a very negative manner. We even have words for failing to recognize the possible negative implications of our ethical decisions: recklessness or neglect.
But there is another limitation: to what degree can the uncertainty really be solved, what resources must be expended to solve the uncertainty, and are those costs worth failing to make a decision? In the box example, the uncertainty has a rather straightforward, low cost solution: simply unseal the box and look inside. The question admits to very little beyond that. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely the low cost and ease of solving the uncertainty compared to the potential cost of ignoring it that makes the example a solid case in which the principle of ethical uncertainty applies. We may very well imagine a different case, which lowers the potential damage of the uncertainty while raising the cost of coming to a solution. Let us say that workers have spent days preparing for a massive concrete foundation, and on the day scheduled for the concrete to be poured one of the workers shouts that they must stop the operation in order to see if a watch he has misplaced is somewhere in the labyrinth of wood and metal rods that will soon be immersed in concrete. The cost of investigating this uncertainty in both time and money is quite higher than the potential losses, and we might imagine the foreman denying his request with a certain gruff indifference.
The final caveat, which is really more a reformulation of the preceding concern, is that we must weigh moral uncertainties against moral certainties. On his way home from work, our worker crosses a railroad track near a switch at which the line branches. He sees that both branch lines have a car sitting on them, and that a train is heading at full speed towards the switch. It will clearly not have time to stop. As he looks at the cars, he can clearly see that there are passengers inside, somehow oblivious to their peril. The other car, however, seems from his distant vantage to be empty. He has no time to make a better investigation: he must act. He knows there are persons in one car, and is uncertain about the other; weighing these, the ethical choice would be to flip the switch so that the train will demolish the car that appears empty rather than the one he knows is full.
I believe the force of this principle is obvious, and that once accepted (as it should be regardless of one’s pro-life or pro-choice stance) its implications for the abortion debate should be equally obvious. But still, consider the principle of uncertainty vis-à-vis abortion.
The basic question in the pro-life/pro-choice debate is “Is the embryo or fetus a person, and thus entitled to the ethical and legal status and protections or personhood?” At this point I should wish to note something that might tick off members of both sides of the issue: this question cannot be answered by the biological sciences, sonograms, or anecdotal stories of fetal hands grasping at fingers. The question is ultimately ethical-philosophical and legal in nature, rather than biological, even though it is also clear that our philosophical stance on these matters must be informed by what we know through science. But, to be even more clear: it is not certain that simply because the fetus has an anatomical connection to its mother that it is to be considered a part of its mother’s body rather than a person. Making this claim would also force us to deny the unique personhood of members of conjoined twins, who are anatomically connected and in some cases even dependent upon that anatomical connection, which is something I believe most pro-choice adherents would want to resist. Second, the status of having a unique set of DNA does not render one a person, as this would mean that chimerical individuals would have to treat the chimera cells present in their body with all the respect of a separate person, which I believe is clearly an unwanted ethical conclusion. Third, the ability to grasp someone’s finger, or the fact that aborted fetuses are often quite unpleasant to look at, are so clearly unrelated to the question that I believe they deserve no further comment.
How, then, can we solve this dilemma? Well, part of the difficulty is that we have not even yet come to consensus on what a “person” really is. Many contemporary definitions have used “the ability to choose rationally” as a corollary to “having the right to choose” and thus having the rights of personhood. Of course, this sort of definition has the unpleasant side-effect, confirmed by its own philosophical champions, of denying infants, toddlers, and young children the status of “person.” They must then be given a special ad hoc defense to make killing them unethical, such as comparing them to “priceless works of art.” Not only that, but I believe this unpleasant side effect is coupled with another: namely, that even “the ability to choose rationally” is itself a suspect concept: whose rationality? What standards do we set for this rationality? And, finally, what if “choice” is an illusion?
Another simply takes sentient consciousness as its guide to “personhood,” although yet again there is the problem of the status of infants, who assumedly do not develop self-awareness until later and must be either subject to infanticide or given an ad hoc ethical defense that protects them while underscoring the flaws of this definition of personhood.
I will dispense with religious definitions of personhood on the grounds that a revelation or revelations not accepted by all cannot be the basis of common consent, but I will also note that these definitions are not necessarily free of their own internal difficulties, such as the possibility of inconsistencies with biological understandings of human reproduction.
There are many more definitions of “personhood” and many variations of the above definitions, which I do not have the time to exhaustively list. I would like to make the observation, however, that to some degree almost any definition of personhood is an ad hoc claim. That is to say, we have certain people that we wish to include as “persons” and certain people that, for good or bad reasons, we wish to exclude, and we then create a universal definition that attempts to fall along these pre-chosen lines. That it is so difficult to do this without either excluding wanted entities or including unwanted entities is perhaps one sign that the terms of the debate are themselves flawed. But it also seems to suggest that to some degree neither side is treating the status of the fetus as a real uncertainty. Pro-Life individuals, for the most part, have previous philosophical or religious commitments, or perhaps have simple sentiments or “gut instincts,” which compel them to include fetuses and embryos, and as such theories of personhood which emanate from this corner tend to simply include fetuses and embryos. Pro-Choice individuals, similarly, have previous philosophical or sometimes social commitments that tend to compel them to want to not include fetuses and embryos as persons, and as such their theories of personhood tend to focus on essential qualities that exclude these entities (and, usually, many born individuals as well).
In other words, the language and debates of personhood have been used on both sides to obfuscate the real uncertainty of the issue: that, lacking a solid biological or scientific basis for “personhood,” the debate has taken the form of each side developing a definition of personhood that suits its agenda and tastes and then “discovering” that fetuses and embryos are or are not persons. This may not be a necessary outcome: that is, I do not believe that the discussion of personhood must take this form. I do believe that, at least in the American abortion debate, this is more or less the form the argument has taken (that is, whenever the argument takes a coherent form and is not limited to a bumper sticker slogan or billboard).
I believe that if the true ethical uncertainty of the fetus’s status as a person were acknowledged, the result would be strongly towards something resembling a pro-life position, with caveats. For example, we must weigh uncertainties against certainties. If a pregnancy has resulted in life-threatening complications for the mother, the certainty of the mother’s personhood takes precedence in ethical considerations (interestingly, even the Catholic Church has come to this conclusion, although it has taken extra special care to phrase its teachings on the matter in a way that obfuscates that they are permitting abortive measures). More difficult to weigh, but certainly of importance, are the possible social ramifications, psychological, or developmental ramifications of certain sorts of traumatic pregnancies, such as rape and extreme underage pregnancies. However, I would like to point out that I believe the principle of ethical uncertainty would deem unethical all sorts of “abortions of inconvenience;” or, in other words, “I don’t want a baby yet,” “I don’t know where I will get the money,” “raising a child is difficult and I never wanted that,” or so forth. That is, the possibility that the entity created as a result of conception might be a “person” is itself sufficient cause on its own to outweigh these concerns, especially in a nation with the social service infrastructure of the United States. I am not meaning to make light of these concerns: as a poor man myself with two children, I know the difficulties of raising children, of making extreme career and other sacrifices for them, and I furthermore know that these difficulties can only be magnified in the case of single mothers. But I believe that both sides, pro-life and pro-choice, can admit that abortion has become a means of creating a scapegoat for our social problems. The United States, as good of a country as it is, is host to single mothers living in poverty, crime, poverty, unwanted or neglected children who often end up spending much of their time in jail, and so forth. However, I believe it has also been abundantly clear that legal abortion has not solved these problems, and I believe that to some degree the shouting back and forth on both sides has only served to distract from social programs and solutions that would more ably strike at the source of these social malaises, of which “inconvenient pregnancies” are the symptom.
This may seem unfeeling. I do not believe that I am unsympathetic to the plight of the poor, unmarried girl who ends up pregnant and soon finds herself in a situation she would much rather avoid. I am a strong advocate of social programs to aid such an individual. I simply believe that we have not yet really engaged the real uncertainty of the ethical status of the fetus, and that until we have a better sense of what makes a person a person we had best act with ethical caution rather than ethical license.