I am evolving towards a pro life stance as an atheist, because it seems to align more with reason, and if one is to be completely unemotional and pragmatic, abortion should be considered a last resort just like any form of violence against any life form.

Arguments I've heard from pro-choice folks are mainly from the "freedom over controlling one's own body" perspective.

Well, we all have the right to control our bodies but only to the extent it doesnt harm someone or in some cases some thing else.

As our knowledge of science expands, we see less and less distinction between humans and other life forms, and we've come to learn that all life forms have a common ancestor.  This, to my way of thinking, makes anyone or anything capable of empathy accountable to the rest of the living things to be conscious of their fellow beings, and understand the gravity of responsibility when it comes to doing violence to another life form.

I dont know if this means either the extremes of no "morning after pill " or "abortions up to 1 second before birth", I dont like either extreme of the argument, as a rational, caring, loving human being.

I think the issue is more complex than pro life or pro choice as defined in our society, but I think as thinking, rational atheists, we need to acknowledge the complexity of the issue and , as we do in all scientific pursuits, constantly refine and re-evaluate our positions in light of new discoveries and be ready to put aside cherished beliefs in favor of doing the right thing.

For now, Id err on the side of caution.  I cant imagine how incredibly horrible it would be to experience an abortion from a fetus's perspective.  Thats something the pro-choice side is alarmingly quick to dismiss, stating that they feel no pain etc when we truly have no idea, and are pretty sure there is little to distinguish a third trimester fetus from a newborn baby.

My two cents.

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Replies to This Discussion

I'm not a pro-life atheist because of my previous evangelical background and what was "drummed into me" by rabid prolifers, just to clarify. I am also not a mysogynist. Anything but. I believe everyone has the right to control their own bodies, as long as it doesnt bring harm to someone else - woman or not.

If you have to make up science to justify the de-personification of the fetus, then you are behaving as a creationist. If there is hard science, present it!
I think for the most part we agree. But I still like the title Pro-Life. I'm also a vegetarian. So you really said it well that as science progresses all life forms, etc. etc. That was good.
There are certainly some common prochoice objections which don't have much merit, but that's true for the prolife side too. To be entirely fair, I'd have to say that my reading of the standard prochoice position which actually could justify the destruction of prenates (ie, embryos & fetuses) is that the problem with it is not an effort "to make up science to justify the de-personification of the fetus", but that it relies on a philosophical principle the consistent application of which would produce results that most people would find ethically unacceptable. I don't think that (as long as you focus on the better quality arguments) that either side can win based on better science.

It's fairly uncontroversial that personhood is linked to moral status. You and I have great moral status that stones, trees, birds and horses certainly don't. (Even animal rights advocates who grant nonhuman animals some moral status still generally grant them a lesser status than a normal human being.) The position that the typical human being has the 'most elevated' moral status (when theological arguments are dismissed) will rely on the fact that we possess personhood (or something very similar). The conflict between prolife and prochoice thinking (as I see it) comes from different views about how personhood and moral status are linked.

The prochoice standard, which I'll call an "acquired ability" account, holds that since personhood is a set of abilities (eg, rationality, particular cognitive skills, self-consciousness, etc.), the moral status associated with personhood is only acquired when all of the abilities are acquired. The lesser moral status which a nonperson possesses is presumably determined by which morally significant traits the nonperson has acquired. On this basis, if an embryo has not acquired more morally significant traits than what a jellyfish possesses, then when balancing the autonomy rights of the mother against the destruction of the embryo, it's not necessary to grant the embryo greater moral status than a jellyfish. If a fetus has not acquired more morally significant traits than a salamander, then according to an "acquired ability" account, it's not necessary to grant the fetus greater moral status than a salamander.

As a prolifer, I reject such accounts.

I advocate a standard for moral status, which I call the "presumptive capacity" account. Personhood is indeed defined in terms of a set of abilities, and since prenates don't possess those abilities, it does follow that prenates are nonpersons. That does not entail any conclusion about their moral status. While possession of the personhood-defining abilities is sufficient for 'most elevated' moral status, that doesn't imply that possession of said abilities is necessary for 'most elevated' moral status. While they are often used as if they were synonyms, "ability" and "capacity" can have different meanings. A capacity can be an "actual or potential ability" or an "innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment". I believe that it is a particular kind of capacity which determines moral status.

A normal prenate has a capacity for personhood, but the personhood-defining abilities are not MERELY 'potential' (after all, any sperm-ovum pair has such 'potential'). Within the field of embryology, the word "presumptive" has a specialized meaning. If, under normal conditions, something can be expected to develop into a particular structure, then it can be labeled the 'presumptive' incarnation of said structure. Inasmuch as, under ordinary conditions, a normal prenate will be expected to develop into a person, it is fair to say that it presumptively possesses personhood-defining abilities. If something has a capacity for personhood, and if the potential for those abilities is such that personhood can be said to be presumptive then I would argue that that is sufficient to confer 'most elevated' moral status.

Prochoicers can of course argue that even if a "presumptive capacity" account would make most abortion morally impermissible, there is no good reason to prefer it to an "acquired ability" account unless you want a justification for prohibiting abortion. In fact, the reverse seems to be true. The "acquired ability" account seems to be an ad hoc justification for abortion in that it's not consistent with how we ordinarily consider moral status.

For example, if someone suffers from an illness or injury which results in their losing personhood-defining abilities, we don't automatically decide that they've lost 'most elevated' moral status. It's not the loss of attributes which, but whether or not the abilities will manifest themselves in the future which is used to determine whether a "right to life" exists. That our concern is with whether or not it is reasonable to expect that personhood will be forthcoming rather than present is consistent with a "presumptive capacity" account and inconsistencies with an "acquired ability" account.

Furthermore, human beings (because of our large skulls and a pelvis adapted to an upright gait) have evolved so that our gestation ends relatively prematurely within our development. As a result, even though mature humans are mentally more sophisticated than mature specimens of any other animal, our newborns are profoundly unsophisticated. If one were to consistently apply an "acquired ability" account, then (given what we've learned from studies of animal behavior) newborn humans would not only have less status than adult chimpanzees, porpoises, and elephants - but they'd have a decidedly lesser status than pigs. In other words, a consistent application of that standard would necessarily imply that human infanticide is morally preferable to slaughtering an adult pig.
interesting, how would you then apply that to mentally handicapped humans?

Also, can you explain what "presumptive capacity" means?
Mentally handicapped:

It'd depend upon the severity of the handicap. Is it a case where development will be slower, and produce less mental ability than normal, but a reasonable standard for personhood can still be expected to be met? If it is, then that is sufficient for the same moral standing as a current person (although, obviously not the same level of autonomy before personhood is achieved).

If the handicap is so severe that personhood can never be achieved, then the human being doesn't get the most elevated moral status, but one determined by the morally significant traits can reasonably be expected to present themselves (either as a genetically challenged human being develops with age, or as a sick or injured person improves with treatment). While humans who just lack a personhood capacity (neither treatment nor development will produce the abilities) don't get the moral status, that doesn't necessarily determine what happens to them. Their family can still treat them as if they were a person out of sentiment. There'd merely be no moral obligation to do so.

Trying to clarify:

One criterion for 'most elevated' moral status would be the abilities which define personhood, and the standard is that the status is conferred when the abilities are acquired, the alternative that I propose is that one need not look for the appearance of abilities, but of capacities (an "actual or potential ability" or an "innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment") as long as the potential of the capacity reaches the threshold of being presumptive (under normal conditions, the capacity can be expected to develop into an actual ability). If the process of development hasn't started (ie, sperm-ovum pair), then there is a potential for abilities to develop (and therefore a capacity), but it isn't presumptive.

These definitions may help...

capacity:
definition #5- Innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment; faculty.
(American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edit. 2009)

capacity:
definition #4- actual or potential ability to perform, yield, or withstand
(Random House Dictionary, 2010)

presumptive:
definition #4- Embryology . pertaining to the part of an embryo that, in the course
of normal development, will predictably become a particular structure or region.
(Random House Dictionary, 2010)

presumptive:
definition #1- expected to develop in a particular direction under normal conditions
definition #2- being the embryonic precursor of
(Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary, 2007)

so the way I'm using it...

if there's either an actual ability, or an innate potential for the ability to be produced via growth or development, then in either case there's a capacity

if there is the potential for a result, and under ordinary conditions one would expect normal development to produce that result, then the potential is presumptive
I find this a bit disturbing:
"It'd depend upon the severity of the handicap. Is it a case where development will be slower, and produce less mental ability than normal, but a reasonable standard for personhood can still be expected to be met? "

But again, its the consequences and circumstance that is more important than trying to blanket-define what constitutes a living being with a right to life too.

Here is what I mean. A cow has a right to life, and a right to be treated with care, and to not be tortured. Yet, we raise them for food. We eat them, but one can be legally charged with animal abuse in most places if they are not given adequate food, lodging and medical care. Another circumstance: Some human beings in certain work places are not given adequate food, and certainly denied the same medical attention that might be given to a dog or cat in a different part of the world.

Is treating a cow with the utmost of respect, then killing it and eating it worse or better than putting human beings into a slaughter house as workers (migrant workers come to mind) are actually treated worse than some of the prized animals?

some mentally handicapped adult humans have less intelligence than a common dog or cat. One could be charged with murder for killing a person in this state.

Again, I think its all complex, far more complex than a simple "pro life" or "pro choice" stance, and I believe rational, thinking atheists need to acknowledge this, and lead the charge in pursuing the best course of action in any given circumstance, weighing each situation very carefully whenever life is involved in the equation.
Re: Mentally Handicapped -

You wrote, "But again, its the consequences and circumstance that is more important than trying to blanket-define what constitutes a living being with a right to life too."

I'm not sure what you mean. If you mean by 'blanket-define', that there can be a single principle to determine what constitutes a living being with a right to life, then I do advocate for 'blanket-defining.' I'm concerned that you're proposing some kind of consequentialist view which would say that we never have a clear duty - but that some good (happiness for utilitarianism or agape for situational ethics) can always trump our moral rights and obligations.

I absolutely do believe in there being a clear principle which needs to be applied across the board - not a hazy set of criteria which seem to change with different circumstances. I wasn't trying to be vague or leave "wiggle room" because I thought there wasn't any clear answer and that each situation must be considered separately. I do believe that there is a standard which, if it's met, confers the moral status of a person - and if the standard isn't met, then there is no right to life. Some mental disabilities fall below and some above, but I do believe that there is a single standard.

Let's say, for example that a person suffers head trauma in an accident. Their current mental abilities (as far as I'm concerned) are irrelevant to whether they have a right to life. If they'll never have greater mental abilities than a dog or a cat, then we have no greater obligation to them than a dog or cat. If it's expected that they'll recover at least to the level of a five year old (even if that could take a long time), then they definitely have a right to life.

Suppose we're dealing with a fetal anomaly... if there's merely an amniocentesis showing Down's Syndrome, then that isn't enough to lose the right to life since, while it typically results in reduced cognitive abilities, it doesn't usually result in clinically 'severe' or 'profound' disability. On the other hand, if a sonogram shows that a baby has anencephaly, then you can abort it immediately, or the day before it's due (or even euthanize it after it's born).

Re: Cows-

I don't agree that cows have a right to life. What would the basis be for such a right? If you said that it was virtuous to protect them, then I could see that. Saying that they have a right to life would mean that we have a moral duty to them. It seems much more sensible to say that preserving their lives is ethically supererogatory rather than obligatory.

Re: Complexity & Moral Stances-

Pretty much every aspect of our existence is cram-packed with complexity. That's no reason to avoid crafting ethical principles. Ordinary life is complex, but we still create laws which are intended to be applied uniformly. I see no relationship between being a rational person who is cognizant of the world's complexity and disavowing sweeping moral stances. About 600 years ago infanticide wasn't universally condemned. 150 years ago slavery wasn't. 100 years ago women lacked the right to vote. You can always claim that the complexity of a situation requires some intermediate position.

Now, the people who take a less modest and more universal stance on what is ethical or unethical may in retrospect be found to have made the wrong bet on history (eg, those who placed states rights above abolitionist principles), but they might bet correctly (eg, the abolitionists). It's not irrational to make the more sweeping claim. It's just more philosophically ambitious.
Another caveat to this is the definition of "crime" and how we look at a justice system.

I see correctional facilities and the justice system as a means to curbing or discouraging certain behaviors that society deems undesirable, or are damaging to human survival.

I do not believe that people should be "punished" for a crime. People should be "treated" when they exhibit irrational, damaging, or otherwise negative behavior that damages society in some way, the treatment including forms of isolation for extended if not indefinite periods if warranted by their qualified overseers, psychiatrists etc. This means, if society determines abortions are undesirable as I do, then society needs to work to prevent them. I doubt prison, or even stiff fines for abortions would prevent them, rather, it would only make them more brutal and underground, so if society agrees abortion is undesirable, we should work to prevent them by effective means such as contraceptives,education, adoption, better state child care alternatives, taxes etc.
I've been told by prochoice women that if they became pregnant with a child they did not want to raise, then regardless of their economic situation or the ability to give the child up for adoption or whether or not there was a good relationship with the father, then they'd have an abortion. Since pregnancy is inherently burdensome, they would abort unless they wanted to raise the child. One characterized pregnancy as an ordeal. Another said that an abortion is far less disruptive to her life than a pregnancy.

I agree that we should try to prevent abortion via "means such as contraceptives, education, adoption, better state child care alternatives, taxes etc." If abortion remains legal, however, I don't see how that would prevent cases where someone with an unplanned pregnancy is motivated by a desire to avoid the experience of being pregnant with a child they don't want. If having an abortion meant committing a crime and foregoing legal assurances of safety, then I believe that would add a deterent for those whose motivation isn't 'desperation' (and who'd be unlikely to be affected by the 'positive measures' which I agree with you about). There are plenty of things which are illegal for such reasons, and which most people think should remain so.
I think the issue is more complex than pro life or pro choice as defined in our society, but I think as thinking, rational atheists, we need to acknowledge the complexity of the issue and , as we do in all scientific pursuits, constantly refine and re-evaluate our positions in light of new discoveries and be ready to put aside cherished beliefs in favor of doing the right thing.

As a thinking rational scientific individual what do you call a living organism with the DNA of a human being? If you think the answer is complex then I suggest you that are not the thinking rational scientific individual that you claim to be or you are really a pro-choice individual who has infiltrated this group.

The choice between life and abortion is inseparable from the choice between altruism and non-altruism. If the mother's life is endangered by the pregnancy or it is the result of rape then, altruistically, abortion is in order. If the reason is only that the pregnancy is inconvenient for somebody then, altruistically, abortion is not in order.

Are you altruistic?
Sorry, this statement :
"As a thinking rational scientific individual what do you call a living organism with the DNA of a human being? If you think the answer is complex then I suggest you that are not the thinking rational scientific individual that you claim to be or you are really a pro-choice individual who has infiltrated this group."

Doesnt make any sense to me. Why would thinking that an organism with the dna of a human being as complex peg me as non rational or pro choice? Every individual skin cell I have contains the "dna of a human being". Of course the answer is complex!
Doesnt make any sense to me. Why would thinking that an organism with the dna of a human being as complex peg me as non rational or pro choice? Every individual skin cell I have contains the "dna of a human being". Of course the answer is complex!

So you have trouble differentiating between a fetus and a skin cell. Hint: You were a fetus once not a skin cell.

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