Saturday, February 18, 2006

A philosophical argument for a middle ground on abortion

I would like to state an argument about abortion, without claiming that it is correct or even superior to other arguments on this difficult subject. I personally do not have a strong position on when a fetus becomes a baby. If I had to choose between the "viability" thesis (roughly 24 weeks, or just under 6 months) and the point of conception, I would choose conception. I have no idea why viability has any philosophical importance: it seems, just from looking at a fetus, that it is clearly a human being well before 6 months.

These thoughts are an attempt at something between those two numbers.

A human being is an animal with mental states. Of course, when sleeping or unconscious, a man might not be mentating ("having a mental state"), but a mere shift of an accidental characteristic will cause him to mentate, so he has the proximate potential to mentate. That is, he needs no substantial change before he can have thoughts, just a change in accidents--sleeping to waking.

What enables a person to have mental states? The brain. This is a generally accepted answer even among those, like me, who believe that the brain and the mind are distinct. Mental states supervene on physical states of a certain sort, and those physical states can only take place with a brain. Some physical arrangements of matter make possible a very strange circumstance, and that is mind. While it might be possible to have those physical arrangements and not have corresponding mental states, it is certainly the case that if the matter is not arranged correctly, there can be no mind. This is Searle's position, and I think it is very strong.

I think that when a fetus has a brain--has some neurons firing--there is a prima facie case that it has mental states which are supervening on the brain. Since the formal cause of man--the definition, or essence--includes at least the proximate potential to have mental states, the first possible time that a creature could satisfy this requirement would be when a brain has developed. This is a substantial change. Before the brain has developed, the mass of dividing and specializing cells is just that, cells: when it can mentate, it has personhood, and thus is a baby, and cannot be destroyed without the charge of murder.

So a fetus does not have the proximate potential to mentate: there is no set of mere accidents that need to change to cause the fetus to have a mental state, unlike the sleeping person. For the fetus to have a mental state, it will need to undergo a substantial change--get a brain--and become a baby. After the time of that substantial change, abortion is murder.

What this means on the time scale of a pregnancy, I do not know. The masses that will become the brain are developed as early as 5 weeks or so. Generally, the embryonic stage is said to end, and the fetal stage begins, at 8 weeks: all organs in a newborn are present at this point. This might be a good time to suggest that mental states might occur; another natural point might be week 13, when brain waves are said to be detectable. The most rapid development of the brain seems to take place largely in the 25-30th weeks, but that might just result in an increase in the capacity or type of mental states. Without a solution to the mind-body problem, of course, it's impossible to know.


Blogger Naomi said...

I don't have the scientific info on this, but a bioethics professor of mine and I discussed this issue and he said the general feeling among bioethicists was that the point at which the fetus achieves consciousness (7-8 months) is where they would draw the line. I don't even quite know what "consciousness" entails, but he also mentioned the ability to feel pain (as opposed to having purely reflexive reactions to contact) as one of the issues. Maybe you have more info on this neuropsych stuff, I'd be interested to hear more, but I liked this idea b/c it seems to get closest to answering the question of what is "human," and also, incidentally, pretty much would allow all abortion :)

8:36 AM  

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