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By Patrick McAuliffe

This is going to be a real throwback to our second issue of the year, where I discussed the morality of humans leaving our planet and colonizing a new one, essentially killing any (likely simple) life that lived there. The professor in my class on the epistemic limits of science brought this up to the students, and I struggled with it in my first article. Is it moral to choose the extinction of an actual life (or many lives) for the sake of a potential life (or lives)? What about the reverse? Maybe proposing some common pro-life and pro-choice arguments will help us flush out why my professor advocates so strongly for alien pond scum over humans fleeing a dying planet.

You may personally believe in the subjectivity of morality, but as a baseline, some things are not subjective. Murder, for instance, is morally wrong in all cultures and religions. (This is separate from killing, which gets a bit more broad and is tolerated or allowed in some instances, such as Aztec human sacrifice). From this baseline, our culture has viciously feuded over what constitutes a human life, specifically in pregnancy. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case upholding the constitutionality of abortion, claimed that no state could prohibit it under the Fourteenth Amendment. The portion of the Amendment that the justices were referring to is as follows: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” An assumed immunity or privilege according to the Supreme Court is the right to privacy, and regulation of a woman’s abortion is an infringement of her privacy. It is no business of the state’s to interfere in a woman’s reproductive functions.

Theoretically speaking, the justices’ reasoning would be correct if the fetus being aborted is just a part of the woman and not something new and independent (morally speaking). People are very touchy on this topic in particular because of the unique moral questions that it brings. I will try to lay everything out as best as I can without going into cases such as rape or incest, because we need to understand why abortion is generally morally permissible or not before we understand why it would or wouldn’t be in specific cases.

A common pro-choice argument, posited by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her 1971 work A Defense of Abortion, is referred to as the “violinist argument”. In this thought experiment, you awake one day to find yourself bedridden and hooked up to a machine. This machine is hooked up to a famous violinist, who has contributed enormously to classical music and art culture in general. You obviously have your own life to live, but if you choose to leave the bed and detach from the machine connecting you with the violinist, he will die. Being hooked up to the machine will only last nine months, but you will be trapped in a situation you did not consent to for that time. Should you have the choice to leave the bed? Thomson responds with a vehement yes. Even though the violinist has the right to life just as you do, the right to life cannot equal the right to the means of sustaining life. Nobody gave the violinist the right to use your body, including you, so it would not be immoral to take from him what he had no right to in the first place.

The major issue at stake in the violinist argument is consent, primarily for the person that awakes to find themselves attached to a violinist they had no intention of saving. The problem with this analogy that doesn’t quite carry over to abortion is that, by having unprotected sex, a woman exposes herself to the possibility of getting pregnant. Whether she wanted to or not, such an action is implicit consent to a possible pregnancy. Knowing the risks and how to prevent them yet refusing anyway is not a valid excuse for killing a possible human being for your convenience (to be examined later). To bring it back to the violinist argument, the person hooked up to the machine didn’t somehow offer themselves to the violinist to be used as life support in a dire situation. They had no say in being attached to the violinist; women who do not want to be pregnant do. So that you don’t find yourself hooked up to a tiny, grape-sized violinist inside you, insist on condom usage or birth control.

The pro-life argument beyond a religious one that I find most convincing is the “future like ours” argument, posited by Donald Marquis in the Journal of Philosophy. It holds that the future experiences and values of the fetus will resemble a fully formed person’s or child’s life experiences and values. Since this is one of the main reasons we do not kill fully formed people or children, we should also not kill the fetus before it is born, as this would rob them of the values and experiences they will one day have. This does not rule out all abortion, however; if the fetus will certainly be born with deformities so great as to make their post-birth life nothing but pain, the experiences they will have will not be like ours and the fetus can be aborted. People with autism or Downs syndrome should not be aborted, as per this argument, because they have the ability to lead fulfilling lives similar to non-disabled people. A boy in my Boy Scout troop made his Eagle Scout rank the same year or a year after me, and I had known him from when we were Cub Scouts together; he has Downs syndrome. Sometimes, but not always, mentally disabled people will not lead the lives the rest of us have, but for the sake of the others that do, one cannot say that they should all be aborted.

Much like the violinist argument, the counterargument to this position rests on what we consider rights. Again, the right to life does not equal the right to the means of sustaining life. M. T. Brown writes in the Journal of Medical Ethics specifically about the “future of value” section of the FLO argument. The potential for value, just like for fully formed people, does not bestow a right to the means of fulfilling that potential. He also writes that “the right not to be killed does not confer upon the fetus or anyone else the right to another person’s body.” Here I would use my counterargument listed above for the violinist argument in that there is a degree of risk in unprotected sex and the implicit consent that goes along with knowing the dangers of it yet engaging in it anyway.

There seem to be two major considerations in the abortion debate: consent and potential, i.e. how far the consent of the mother goes, and whether the potential of the fetus is sufficient reason for killing it. Both of these combined will help guide us to why moving into an alien planet may be immoral.

First, we assume that we are leaving our planet for a reason. That reason is most likely climate change, which humans have some part in accelerating. We know the risks in not using protection with our planet, yet we continue down our destructive path. Therefore, we logically have some responsibility for the situation we are in. Let’s assume our responsibility in our downfall, because it gets much trickier (and closer to a rape analogy) if the reason we are leaving is through no fault of our own. Second, we assume that the pond scum on the other planet will one day, if it follows a similar path as our own evolutionary development, become as intelligent or more intelligent than the human race has been up to the point of our discovering them. We have the whole of our knowledge and technological advancements behind us as we flee our dying Earth; they have primitive photosynthesis. Which deserves to live more?

What’s difficult in this analogy is that there is no third option like there is in pregnancy. Humans cannot choose to coexist with the alien pond scum because their ecosystem is too fragile to support such a large foreign injection. Meanwhile, a pregnancy can end how it has for thousands and thousands of years: with a baby to be cared for by parents, the potential and the actual uniting. Still, I will argue, from the premises we drew above, that I eventually agree with my professor. If we have destroyed our planet by our own doing, we should lie in the fiery bed that we made. I urge you to consider these arguments and more when you think about abortion or playing Space Columbus or anything else in between. These questions keep you thinking about the nature of what it means to be human, what rights are, and even what possible dignity life can have, even if it is just pond scum.

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