The ethics of foetal moral status

Is the pro-life view speciesist?

Why is being human morally relevant?

Is personhood based on viability?

Is personhood based on sentience or consciousness?

Is personhood based on birth?

Is infanticide permissible?

How can killing an early embryo be seriously wrong?

Would you save a 5 year old or a frozen embryo?

Why prioritise abortion over miscarriage?

“Most embryos are miscarried”

“Skin cells are human life”

“Potential is morally irrelevant”

“Acorns are not oak trees, and embryos are not humans”

“Sperm have the potential to become a human”

Are all abortions equally wrong?

Other ethical and metaphysical questions

Is the pro-life view speciesist?

There are a variety of pro-life views: pro-lifers do not all agree on why they are pro-life, and they disagree on a few marginal cases. But it is probably fair to say that most pro-lifers think that being human is morally relevant, even such that a human being with minimal cognitive abilities has more value than an animal with more cognitive abilities. It has been alleged that this amounts to ‘speciesism’ – morally comparable to racism or sexism, in that it involves prejudice or discrimination based on an arbitrary, morally irrelevant characteristic. Sometimes it is claimed that this human exceptionalism has its roots in, and can only be justified by, certain religious views.

It is worth briefly mentioning that some of the temptation towards the ‘speciesism’ allegation is because of the way in which human exceptionalism has been used to mistreat animals, in many cases with great cruelty. It should therefore be noted that human exceptionalism does not imply that animals may be mistreated, so this should not be used as a mark against the theory, even if it means that many proponents of human exceptionalism historically have been morally flawed. Of course, it may be that human exceptionalism is false and all animals have a right to life – but if so, then it seems most plausible that human foetuses also have a right to life.

It will help to be clear about what, exactly, speciesism is. Jeroen Hopster has a helpful explanation of what speciesism actually is here. He points out that human exceptionalists are not necessarily speciesist: you might think that humans, in general, are more morally valuable than animals, but that when their interests are alike (e.g. in avoiding the same sort of pain), they should be treated equally. Since pro-lifers could take this view, they are not necessarily speciesist. So there are two options for the pro-lifer: defend speciesism, or reject speciesism while still defending human exceptionalism. The latter is perfectly possible and is the approach I endorse.

Although human exceptionalism is often claimed to have its roots in religion, it is defended by religious and non-religious philosophers alike, who have both rejected the claim that this is speciesist. Shelly Kagan, for example, points out that as an empirical matter, people typically accused of speciesism don’t make judgments that are best explained by an arbitrary preference for our species. For example, neither Superman nor ET are humans (examples can be multiplied endlessly: Legolas, Gandalf, Buzz Lightyear…), but virtually every alleged ‘speciesist’ in the world would treat them in a similar manner to humans – and would probably treat their infants the same way. Hence it is unlikely that our moral assessment of humans value is based on a sheer prejudice for our species. There is probably some underlying factor explaining our treatment of humans and human-like species – even if we are unable to articulate or even identify what, exactly, that factor is.

Everyone will have some basic foundational moral convictions which they will use to determine which individuals are persons and which are not. Many use a cognitive criterion – you are a person if you have sufficient cognitive ability. But this could easily just be called ableist or cognitivist, akin to racism or sexism. Simply saying that it is an arbitrary prejudice isn’t enough: it needs to be demonstrated that it is an arbitrary prejudice. It is not clear from the evidence that those accusing pro-lifers of speciesism have shown this.

Coming back to our central question, however, it would help if we could identify and articulate what is it that makes humans exceptional, even in instances where their cognitive abilities are inferior to those of animals (as in the case of infants and some disabled people). Hence the next question.

Why is being human morally relevant?

We’ve established that believing in human exceptionalism isn’t necessarily speciesist. Speciesism is an arbitrary prejudice for a species (including a prejudice based on a morally irrelevant factor). If there is a plausibly morally relevant attribute which humans have, then this could explain human exceptionalism.

It’s worth mentioning that most people are committed to there being some criterion like this. After all, virtually everyone believes that humans with very severe cognitive disabilities, and indeed infants, have more rights than animals, even when those animals have more advanced cognitive capacities. Even if we cannot come up with an underlying criterion explaining why humans have more rights than animals (independently of their individual capacities), our intuitions about human equality must be given some weight. Ultimately there has to be some brute fact about where rights come from: maybe given our intuitions, ‘being a human being’ will suffice. Of course, much of our moral progress has been predicated on human equality as a brute fact – it has proven an intuitive and fruitful theory even in the absence of a unified underlying explanation.

But many ethicists have offered suggestions for why human beings are inherently valuable, and why it is that even very cognitively immature human beings should be considered as persons.

To fit with our basic intuitions, such a criterion should fit at least two criteria: disabled humans and infants should be included; and other beings intuitively counting as persons should be included. Some might also say that it should have some connection to paradigmatically human features: the capacity for rationality or advanced relationships of some kind, for example. Hence you will find that many of the theories – if not all – try to make a connection between this kind of attribute and individual humans who may lack that attribute (e.g. infants).

While human exceptionalism has often been seen as a theological or mystical doctrine, which some secular philosophers have disavowed precisely because of its theological basis, there are a number of secular philosophers – and even more secular theories – explaining the basis of human exceptionalism. Maybe humans are exceptional because they are made in the Image of God – and this should not be dismissed immediately, given how many people are theists and how morally fruitful this doctrine has been by comparison to virtually every other culture’s conception of human value throughout history. But we can also offer other suggestions.

For example, S Matthew Liao of NYU argues that having the genetic basis for moral agency suffices to make one a person. This would include human beings with severe disabilities and infants. And it could be tweaked – perhaps a ‘physical basis for the development of moral agency’ – to allow for aliens to be persons, if they were relevantly like us. David Hershenov suggests something along similar lines: roughly, you are a person if it is part of your healthy development to have the sort of cognitive capacities a typical adult human has. Shelley Kagan of Yale University proposes ‘modal personism’: you have the relevant moral status if you could have been a person. Jeff McMahan of the University of Oxford describes a variety of views, including that of TM Scanlon, known as ‘species norm’ accounts: these say something like, you are a person if you are a member of a species for whom it is normal to develop the kind of capacities adult human beings ordinarily have. For example, it is normal for a human to learn to talk, reflect deeply about the world, and so on. It would not be normal for a dog to do so. Another way of putting it: we consider humans unfortunate if they are not able to do these things. But we do not consider dogs unfortunate when they are not able to do these things: that is just normal for a dog. For these reasons, we might spend significant resources on helping a human to talk, thinking that they are deprived of such an ability and deserving of the opportunity to develop it. But we would not think anything like the same for a dog. This suggests that all of us do, in fact, consider humans and dogs to have different norms even if they happened to have the same abilities on an individual level. It is, arguably, these norms which determine moral status – and the fact that morality is, in general, about norms, makes this a fairly natural connection.

I think it is ideas like this which have led people for many centuries to call humans ‘rational beings’ – meaning that humans have as part of their inherent nature the ability to be rational. That does not meant every human being has rationality: they may be deprived of it by pathology, immaturity, or otherwise. But they are still the kind of thing which, in ordinary circumstances, would be rational (or self-aware, or capable of profound relationships, or morally responsible, or whatever one takes to be distinctive of humans).

It is worth noting that these sorts of accounts only need to give a sufficient condition for personhood. It might be that other individuals could be persons without fitting any of these criteria. So these accounts are not committed to saying that, for example, a dog who learned to talk and philosophise is not a person. Thus one of the main objections to these views (that they would not include such dogs) is unconvincing.

Hence there are a variety of plausible secular accounts of human exceptionalism. You need not be a speciesist to be a human exceptionalist. Nor do you need to believe in certain theological ideas. Nor do you need to take humanity’s moral value as a brute fact.

Is personhood based on viability?

Occasionally it is thought that viability is what determines personhood. This is perhaps more common in the UK and US, where viability has marked the legal limit for abortion on demand (in effect – though in the US post-viability abortions are allowed for almost any reason in practice as well). In most of Europe, there is a limit of around 12 weeks, and there is probably less emphasis on viability.

It is widely agreed among ethicists that viability does not change the inherent moral status of the foetus. It is hard to see how it could: normally our moral value does not depend on our ability to live independently of another person; this would seemingly suggest that anyone who was in any way dependent on others – whether people in hospital or on welfare – is not a person. Indeed, many people have pointed out that newborn babies are hardly able to live independently without significant effort from others.

You might think that viability is important because after viability, a wider group of people can sustain the baby and the baby is no longer dependent on her mother alone. But this doesn’t affect the inherent value of the baby – it is more of a claim about the duties the mother has towards her child.

Pro-choice philosophers have pointed out various problems with the viability position. Michael Tooley, for example, notes:

“The fact that an organism … is capable of physiological independence, is surely irrelevant to whether the organism has a right to life… consider a speculative case where a fetus is able to learn a language while in the womb. One would surely not say that the fetus had no right to life until it emerged from the womb, or until it was capable of existing outside the womb. A less speculative example is the case of Siamese twins who have learned to speak. One doesn’t want to say that since one of the twins would die were the two to be separated, it therefore has no right to life.”

Likewise, Peter Singer writes:

“The point at which the fetus can survive outside the mother’s body varies according to the state of medical technology… do we say that a six-month-old fetus should not be aborted now, but could have been aborted without wrongdoing thirty years ago?… Suppose that for some reason a woman, six months pregnant, was to fly from New York to a New Guinea village and that, once she had arrived in the village, there was no way she could return quickly to a city with modem medical facilities. Are we to say that it would have been wrong for her to have an abortion before she left New York, but now that she is in the village she may go ahead? The trip does not change the nature of the fetus, so why should it remove its claim to life?”

Again, while it might seem plausible that viability changes the mother’s obligations towards the child, it is not at all plausible that viability changes the child’s inherent value, for reasons like these.

The viability suggestion is likewise highly vulnerable to improved medical technology. Viability has reduced dramatically in recent decades, with the youngest baby now born at 21 weeks and 1 day. Artificial wombs are rapidly improving (see video here), with mice able to be gestated artificially for the entire first half of pregnancy, and humans already able to be gestated artificially for pretty much the entire second half. It is conceivable that in the next few decades, artificial wombs will allow babies to be gestated for the entire pregnancy, which would, on the viability view, make embryos persons from the beginning.

Is personhood based on sentience or consciousness?

An intuitive suggestion is that personhood is based on sentience or consciousness – the capacity to feel or experience certain things. Some of the definitions here are fairly vague, but these views can broadly be separated into two categories: simple sentience, and complex consciousness.

If personhood is based on simple sentience, then presumably any animal which is sentient (which most people believe to be most of them, at least most vertebrates) counts as a person. This seems very counter-intuitive: while some (though clearly not most) might think that every sentient animal has a right to life, and might consistently live this out through vegetarianism (and being pro-life!), it is highly counter-intuitive to think that they not only have a right to life but are equal persons. This would require treating mice, for example, as having the same value and rights as an adult human being. I have never met anyone who believes this.

It would, of course, also require attributing personhood to the embryo or foetus at a fairly early stage (see ‘Embryology and the beginning of life’). Since we can never know for certain whether the embryo is conscious, a cautious approach might require us to attribute personhood at a very, very early stage of pregnancy (there are active neurons within a few weeks of fertilisation). As suggested in ‘When does consciousness begin?’, there is no longer any reason to doubt that foetuses are sentient at 10 weeks after fertilisation, and perhaps before.

If personhood is based on complex consciousness, then a threshold will need to be defined. Again, there is evidence that foetuses have considerable conscious abilities late in pregnancy, but clearly not enough to be comparable to an adult human being. But the same, of course, is true of a newborn baby. This is why most philosophers – for example, Singer, Tooley, McMahan, Giubilini, and Minerva – have suggested that if personhood is based on these qualities, then both abortion and infanticide are permissible. This is extremely counter-intuitive (see ‘Is infanticide permissible?’).

There is another problem, however. If our moral value is based on complex cognitive abilities, then it is hard to see why people with even more advanced cognitive abilities are not even more morally valuable. To suggest that at a certain threshold moral value is suddenly equalised and cognitive abilities make no difference appears profoundly ad hoc and implausible. Hence, this view also threatens our commitment to basic human equality.

Is personhood based on birth?

Again, it is widely (if not universally) agreed by pro-life and pro-choice ethicists alike that birth makes minimal or no difference to the inherent moral value of the foetus/baby. It might be that birth makes a difference to the duties the mother has towards the child – but it does not change the inherent moral status of the child herself. After all, little of moral significance happens at birth. The main physiological difference is that the child begins to breathe air through the lungs rather than receiving oxygen through the umbilical cord – though of course some children (like myself) were not breathing to begin with at birth either!

I once assisted with a caesarean section for twin babies. At one point, I had pulled one baby out (yes, it was surreal) while the other was still in the womb, though not for very long. On what grounds could we have said that the baby ‘outside’ was a person while his twin brother was not? They had exactly the same level of development. To say that birth (by caesarean or otherwise) made a difference to their inherent moral value is absurd. It is impossible to believe that a mere change in location and the commencement of breathing is what makes someone a person.

Is infanticide permissible?

As discussed above, there is widespread agreement in academic ethics among defenders and opponents of abortion that the inherent moral status of the foetus does not change at birth. Indeed, the foremost defences of abortion depend on attributing a lower moral status to the foetus, and the standard ways of doing this also have implications for newborn infants. If being a person depends on some particularly sophisticated cognitive ability, then it is likely that infants are not people. This argument is broadly accepted by Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, Jeff McMahan, and others. Although it has been persuasively argued by Richard Hain in his doctoral thesis on infanticide that infants have considerably more advanced cognition than Singer suggests (and probably later term foetuses as well), still, infants are clearly very dissimilar to adult humans in terms of cognitive ability, and probably less sophisticated than some animals. If what makes humans distinct (such that they can be called ‘persons’, while animals cannot) is some cognitive trait, then infants probably do not have it.

It is for this reason that Singer and others have argued that infanticide is permissible for the same reasons that abortion is. In general, a pro-life view can be argued by pointing out that abortion and infanticide are morally similar (assuming bodily autonomy arguments do not work – for which, see ‘The ethics of choice’), and that infanticide is clearly wrong. Hence, abortion is likewise wrong. But what if someone accepts that infanticide is permissible, as some ethicists are increasingly likely to do?

When our intuitions differ so much that infanticide could be accepted by one person and thought to be murder by another, it is tempting to think that we are approaching ethical territory where we simply cannot resolve disagreements due to fundamentally different intuitions or worldviews. But in this case we need not give up so easily, for there are other wrongs done to infants on which we all still agree, which are best explained by infants being persons worthy of respect and basic rights.

Forgive me for the extremely dystopian discussion, but consider the following examples:

  1. Farming: human babies are grown on farms and preventing from developing, so that they can be harvested for organs for use in transplants.
  2. Experimentation: human babies are used for invasive medical experimentation under appropriate amounts of painkiller.
  3. Sexual gratification: human babies are used for sexual gratification.
  4. Discrimination: human babies are discriminated against on grounds of race or sex.
  5. Mutilation: human babies are mutilated under analgesia for fun.
  6. Clothing: human babies are killed with their skin used for clothing.
  7. Food: human babies are killed for food.
  8. Decoration: human babies are killed to be used as decoration.

All of these strike most people as horrific, some of the worst crimes imaginable – and I am sorry to even describe them.

But on the most sophisticated account given of why abortion and infanticide are permissible, it is not clear that they are necessarily wrong, as long as other people gain sufficient enjoyment from them in sufficient numbers. Jeff McMahan suggests there are two tiers of morality: with sufficient cognitive sophistication, individuals are ‘persons’ and subject to the morality of dignity or respect: to kill such an individual would disrespect them and so is inherently wrong (except in self-defence and other exceptional cases) regardless of consequences. Below that threshold of cognitive sophistication, individuals are not ‘persons’ and so still have interests, but these interests can be weighed against those of others and overridden as long as the interest of others are sufficiently strong. Thus, below the threshold of ‘respect’, individuals can basically be treated in a consequentialist way: they can presumably therefore be treated in any way so long as it brings sufficient benefit to others.*

If this is the case, then there is no principled obstacle to any of the above scenarios, so long as sufficient benefits accrue to others. Presumably even doing them without painkiller could be permissible, though would need a weightier justification still. It cannot be objected that these actions would give them worse lives when they grow up, because for some actions the child is killed as part of it, and for other actions the child could be killed (since infanticide is permissible) once the action is complete (see also the argument from prenatal harm under ‘Are there other arguments for the pro-life position?’).

Most people who endorse infanticide would not endorse performing any of these actions on a newborn infant. But that cannot be because they are persons (since that is what they are rejecting), it cannot be because of the physical or mental pain experienced by the infant (since in most cases there is no pain, and such pain could be outweighed by the interests of others), and it cannot be because it would make the infant’s life worse when they grow up (since they need not grow up). Hence, there is considerable difficulty in explaining not only why these actions are wrong, but why they are so heinous.

The pro-lifer can easily explain why these actions are wrong: human infants are persons, just as human adults are. They therefore have a right to life, and a right not to be dehumanised, degraded or otherwise disrespected in these ways.

Again, this is only a brief sketch of a relatively dystopian area, so please forgive my brevity. The argument is given in considerably more detail in my published paper with Daniel Rodger and Bruce Blackshaw, ‘Beyond Infanticide’, published in The New Bioethics and available with all my other papers here: I have a second paper in progress on the same general theme, available on request.

* More specifically, McMahan says that individuals have time-relative interests, not just interests. The rough idea here is that individuals have an interest in various things in the future, including living. But those future interests are less weighty – less important – if the psychological connections between the individual now and the same individual at that time in the future are weaker. For example, I have an interest in still being alive tomorrow. But if the psychological connections between me today and me tomorrow are weak – perhaps I barely remember where or who I am from one minute to the next, and cannot form any new memories – then my time-relative interest in still being alive tomorrow is considerably weaker and can more easily be outweighed by something else.

How can killing an early embryo be seriously wrong?

This is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the pro-life view for many people, along with concerns about bodily autonomy. It is perhaps bigger than the concern about bodily autonomy, given that the overwhelming majority of pro-choice people do support banning late abortion.

There are some obviously bad ways of stating this objection, such as the common claim that the early embryo is a ‘clump of cells’. It is true that the early embryo is a clump of cells, but it is also true that Roger Federer is (for the most part) a clump of cells, and yet he is a much-loved member of the human family whom most people (even his fiercest rivals) consider to be a person with inalienable rights. Sometimes, when he is fast asleep and not dreaming, he is even an insentient clump of cells. Yet despite such a dehumanising description, his moral worth remains intact. There is a strange denigration of biology here: we are biological beings. Biological material – however mundane it might seem in some ways – can be profoundly valuable.

Still, the basic hesitation is a fair one. It is unintuitive to many people that early embryos are persons, and this is an intuition with which I can sympathise. So I will spend considerable time responding to it – please bear with me! There are six basic points I want to make:

  1. Every view has some counterintuitive implications: these are unavoidable but should be minimised
  2. Our superficial intuitions are not reliable on this question and related questions
  3. Consciousness is important, but not necessarily current consciousness
  4. The badness of death is perplexing either way
  5. There can be seriously wrong actions which lead to no suffering
  6. We should prioritise reason over intuition in this case

I conclude that the pro-life view is, all things considered, the most reasonable.

It is worth being clearer about exactly what we are talking about, since it is commonly thought that late abortions are exceedingly rare, and therefore that the overwhelming majority of abortions are performed on ‘clumps of cells’. As I described under ‘When does consciousness begin?’, we have no way of really knowing for sure when consciousness begins. But there is good reason to think it is significantly earlier than has previously been thought. It is now thought by the leading pro-choice foetal pain expert that pain may be experienced from as early as 10 weeks after fertilisation, and some have argued that it may be possible even earlier. In 2020, 24,777 abortions occurred after this point in the UK alone (a conservative estimate assuming gestation was measured accurately and abortion pills were taken the same day they were posted – neither of which are likely). It does not matter how many abortions occur before consciousness if these abortions are seriously problematic – they remain a serious moral problem in and of themselves.

As mentioned, it is possible consciousness begins even before this point – though it is pretty impossible to tell exactly when it would start. So we can only be really confident that embryos are not conscious for perhaps the first few weeks of pregnancy.

The phrase ‘clump of cells’ is obviously relatively uncharitable even for very early embryos – as if the embryo were just an amorphous pile of some material. By 16-21 days there is a functional heart, and by 4-5 weeks the baby is already moving spontaneously. Other landmarks are covered under ‘Embryology and the beginning of life’. Videos of the embryo at just 4 weeks show that it is anything but just a ‘clump of cells’. By 8 weeks it is plainly identifiable on video as something deserving at least some respect. At 6 weeks it is not too dissimilar.

The embryo is, of course, from the very beginning, highly complex and highly organised, to put it mildly. I suspect it would be difficult to find a biologist in the world who is not impressed – even in awe – at times, at the complexity and organisation involved in even the most basic biological features of the zygote, compared with inorganic material. There is clearly something different at fertilisation, something with the inherent recipe, blueprint and organisation to mature into an adult human being – all that is needed from this point onwards is time, nutrition and oxygen. From the very start, the embryo a) acts towards clear goals (getting to the uterus, developing structures for implantation, preserving its structural integrity against further sperm, beginning a body plan, and so on); b) has differentiated parts for specific functions, among the different cells; and c) co-ordinates those parts and their functions to attain those goals. There is evidence even by the two-cell stage that the cells have differential gene expression to perform different tasks. And so on. More of the details can be found in George and Tollefsen’s Embryo.

There is a reason science nerds love science, well exemplified in this video (biology starts around 4:50). It inspires awe – reverence, even, when genuinely studied.

Of course, this reverence is not enough to demonstrate that it is a person. Bacteria inspire the reverence of biologists as well, but are not persons. All I am saying at this point is that we should not conceive of the early embryo as simply a blob of matter. It is a profoundly intricate, complex, system with clear (unconscious) goals, co-ordination, and so on. Organic material – especially organisms – rightly inspire reverence and wonder.

In the case of human embryos, of course, this amazing organism is not just like any other amazing organism – a bacteria or worm – it is in an important sense one of us. It is a scientific fact that it is a human organism. And this very same thing – with just a bit of time and nutrition – will most likely be something very much like us. Moreover, it is one of our offspring. It has two mature human parents and is their kin. Think of it another way: you were once that thing. It is a pretty incredible journey to have come from that – but it really is your journey. If you think you are worthy of wonder (in the sense that every human is), keep going back in your timeline, long before you can remember. It might be easy for some to look at an unfamiliar embryo in a petridish without any sense of wonder. It is slightly harder to look backwards at yourself without at least a hint of awe.

Those are just some of the reasons to think that the human embryo is profound not only because it is a wondrously complex and co-ordinated, awe-inspiring biological organism. It is all this and it is one of us.

This might get you some way towards seeing how a human embryo – even a zygote – could be the object of such zealous protection. For some of you, the penny might be well and truly on the floor already. But for others, you may need more than this. Others might be plainly unconvinced. So let’s answer this question in more detail. How can it be seriously wrong to kill an early, presentient embryo?

  1. Every view has some counterintuitive elements

The first thing to say is that the pro-life view is not the only one with some immediately counterintuitive implications. Every view has these. As I’ve discussed in various questions, there is pretty much a consensus within academic bioethics that if late-term foetuses are not persons, neither are infants, nor certain disabled people. Since they are not persons, it is plausibly permissible to kill them (or commit other would-be crimes against them – see ‘Is infanticide permissible?’) for sufficiently serious reasons. Thinking that embryos are persons may be counterintuitive, but it is safe to say that condemning infants and many disabled people to non-personhood and non-equality is a fairly big bullet to bite as well. There are of course other options: maybe you think personhood depends not on being as rational as a mature human, but on consciousness. But then probably all mammals and maybe even many insects are persons, and this seems yet more counterintuitive.

If what I’ve argued in this ethics section is correct, all the most plausible views other than the pro-life view at least commit you to these sorts of counterintuitive implications – a rejection of human equality even for neurotypical or cognitively mature adults, a rejection of personhood for infants and certain disabled people, and so on – or else a far too broad conception of personhood whereby other animals and even insects (and, of course, many foetuses from a relatively early stage) are persons, equal to the rest of us.

So it’s not as if you can simply avoid strongly counterintuitive positions just by not signing up to the pro-life ticket. Every option is riddled with deeply counterintuitive implications. If I had a choice between accepting embryos into the human family and excluding infants and many disabled people from it, I would readily choose the former. But this is only the first of many considerations. Let’s go further.

2. Our superficial intuitions are not reliable on these questions

To put it simply: if our intuition about early embryos is unreliable, then probably the central objection to the pro-life view collapses. There are a variety of reasons to think our intuitions are unreliable:

a. Most simply, our intuitions here are not particularly widely shared. As I explain in point 6, even I no longer have this intuition (though I used to). Moreover, it is fair to say that a huge number of people historically and in the 21st century retain an intuition that killing an early embryo is wrong – and this is not because they have false empirical views about its consciousness. For example, it has been known for at least a couple of centuries that early embryos could not experience anything – and yet the overwhelming attitude among doctors in the UK throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was that abortion was a very serious wrong – recall that the World Medical Association until 1983 had wording committing all doctors to ‘maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception’, while the British Medical Association (more progressive than most) in 1947 referred to abortion as ‘the greatest crime’ along with suicide and murder. These were long after the decline in devout religiosity in the West. See point 6 for more discussion of this point.

Another case of differing intuitions is when embryos are wanted – or when the embryo was us. In those cases, we usually do not find it at all strange for people to put great value in the embryo and see it as significant in itself – to see it as a burgeoning human being, rather than just a clump of cells. When parents see their baby on ultrasound for the first time, it may or may not be conscious – but that is irrelevant to the fact that they instinctively see it as a baby, and sonographers do not usually ‘correct’ them by pointing out that it is an insentient clump of cells.

Likewise, many people are prepared to recognise that the embryo is a ‘baby’ – something morally valuable and perhaps even sacred – when it first has a heartbeat (16-21 days after fertilisation). But of course, having a heartbeat in itself is not morally significant – and people usually know this on reflection. Yet it is a case of reasonably widespread (though of course not unanimous) acceptance that an insentient ‘clump of cells’ is something worthy of our respect.

b. Our intuitions in the Western world in general have been particularly shaped by an historically unusual picture of ethics, as Jonathan Haidt has described in his book The Righteous Mind. We have come to be anomalously influenced by a very narrow hedonistic view of ethics (mainly due to the influence of utilitarianism, even on people who are not utilitarians), in contrast to the overwhelming majority of human cultures, which had a much broader range of moral concepts. See point 5 for more discussion of this point.

c. Our intuitions are based to a large degree on the shape or the look of the embryo. This is (in my view) obviously morally irrelevant. But yet it is clearly part of our intuition that early embryos are not persons. After all, throughout history, an enormous number of people have cited the fact that the embryo does not look like a human, or a baby, to support the suggestion that it is not a human and therefore not a person. In the modern day, likewise, it is extremely common for people to instinctively say that it does not look human.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: humans have evolved to be particularly drawn to faces, especially eyes, and of course to find particular things about babies cute. Most of these are not present in the very early embryo, though of course the eyes are visible a few weeks, and by that point people are more inclined to see this as a human being. But of course, this evolutionary preference for faces and eyes is not relevant morally – though it has had (and probably continues to have) a harmful effect on those whose faces have been disfigured by various causes.

Perhaps one way of seeing this is to imagine that, from the very start, the embryo looked like a human baby and perhaps was even the same size (somehow) – but was still unconscious. We would probably find it nowhere near as unintuitive to say that killing it was wrong. On reflection, we might wonder whether killing it was wrong, since it is not conscious yet, but we would not find the idea that killing it is wrong as crazy as we do with an actual embryo in the real world.

But yet the baby’s form obviously is irrelevant. If the two-cell embryo was fully conscious, able to reflect philosophically and experience pleasure, and so on, we would all consider it a person. So I suggest that the shape of the baby is responsible for a considerable part of our intuition on this question, and yet is clearly misleading.

d. Likewise, evolution has not led to us being able to see the early embryo, or to be able to do much about miscarriages. So it is again not too surprising that we would not necessarily have evolved a strong sense of concern for early embryos. In that sense it might be seen as something of an historical accident – in another universe in which we could see the embryo for the entirety of pregnancy, and were in a position to do things to protect it, it is perfectly plausible we would have had completely different intuitions. Hence our intuitions in this case might well be seen as somewhat accidental and not especially geared towards truth.

e. Our intuitions on who counts as a ‘full human being’ throughout history have very often been wrong. Many, probably most, cultures have thought it obvious that people of other races were less valuable because of how they looked. Many cultures have thought that women were obviously inferior to men: Plato wrote that “if a person lived a good life throughout the due course of his time, he would at the end return to his dwelling place in his companion star, to live a life of happiness that agreed with his character… But if he failed in this, he would be born a second time, now as a woman.” Aristotle concurred: “the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior”. Likewise, until the advent of Christianity (and tragically even in many ‘Christian’ cultures since), it was blindingly ‘obvious’ to most people that some people were naturally born to be slaves. See Aristotle again: “he who is by nature not his own but another’s man, is by nature a slave; and he may be said to be another’s man who, being a human being, is also a possession… But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”

In sum, there is no reason to think that our intuition in this particular case is particularly reliable, and several forceful reasons to give our intuition only very limited weight.

3. Consciousness is important, but not only directly

It is safe to say that the intuition is strongly rooted in the idea that consciousness is morally relevant – and without consciousness, it is hard to see how killing the embryo could be seriously wrong. I want to make three comments on this point (points 3-5 in this answer).

The first is that pro-lifers usually (though not always) agree that consciousness is important, and that our particularly advanced mental capacities are what make humans uniquely valuable. So it’s not as if pro-lifers have a crazy intuition that just being an organism makes you a person, or anything like that.

But pro-lifers say that ‘being conscious’ alone can’t quite be right. After all, there are many sleeping people, or comatose people, who are not conscious. So there has to be a basis for moral value which is somehow related to consciousness and which explains why sleeping and comatose people are still persons. An obvious example is: having the capacity for consciousness. But embryos have the capacity for consciousness: it is just a latent capacity which needs maturation.

At this point you might object and say that an immediate capacity for consciousness is needed. But why think that? There isn’t anything obviously morally relevant about having an immediate capacity for consciousness that is morally valuable, while having a latent capacity is not. Moreover, what counts as an immediate capacity for consciousness is unclear. Some people in particularly deep sleep may not have an immediate capacity for consciousness. Some people comatose because of a brain haemorrhage almost certainly do not. But they are still clearly persons. It is going to be difficult to define what is meant by an immediate capacity, and even more difficult to come up with a definition which includes all the adults we would want to include as persons. Suppose you are at the hospital, beside your partner is currently anaesthetised after surgery. You’re confident he or she is a person (naturally), because she has an immediate capacity for consciousness (whatever that means). But suppose the neurosurgeon enters the room and tells you that during the surgery, they had to temporarily remove part of her brain which is essential for consciousness, though they of course plan to replace it at a later time. There is no sense here in which your partner has the immediate capacity for consciousness. They do not even have the neural hardware to be conscious, as things stand. Still, you are convinced they are a person.*

What is it that persists throughout your sleep and comatose phases? You, the biological organism. So it is most plausible to suppose that that is what matters – a biological organism existing with a natural (if not immediate) capacity for consciousness.

The basic point is this: our intuition that consciousness is needed for personhood is plausibly misleading, because persons are normally conscious or soon will be. But deeper reflection on the relationship between consciousness and personhood shows that a capacity for consciousness is sufficient for personhood, and it does not matter how immediate or latent that capacity is, as long as it is there. Our intuitions are just not used to working in these unusual cases.

4. The badness of death is not based on conscious experience

Epicurus famously argued that death is nothing to fear, because if we are dead, we won’t know or experience it. This raises the question: why is death bad? And why is killing wrong?

Killing clearly can’t be wrong because it causes a bad experience. After all, you could kill someone quickly in their sleep, and they wouldn’t experience a thing. This tells us something extremely important: death has nothing to do with any negative things we might experience. So in this sense it seems early embryos are no different from adult humans. Neither of them experience anything in death. So clearly from this perspective, one need not be conscious to be harmed by death.

There is an obvious answer to why killing is wrong: because it deprives someone of experiencing certain goods in the future. But of course, if this is the reason killing is wrong, then abortion is wrong, since it deprives the embryo of experiencing certain goods in the future, as Don Marquis has famously argued. And further, it shows that it is possible to seriously harm someone without ever causing them any sort of distress. This will be important in the next section.

So to avoid this problem, you will need to say something like: killing is wrong because it ends consciousness. But it’s not clear why ending someone’s experiences is any worse than depriving them of experiences in the first place. It is wrong to end someone’s food supply. But it seems no less wrong to prevent them from ever having any food in the first place.**

There’s another theoretical puzzle about this problem. It appears to imply that having been conscious is more morally important than having a conscious future ahead of you. On reflection, this is profoundly counter-intuitive. It says that the possibility that you will experience conscious goods in the future is virtually irrelevant to whether it is wrong to kill you, but having been conscious (in the relevant way) – something which has already happened and is irrelevant to future consequences – makes you a person. This seems to have things backwards.

There’s yet another problem with this response: the Epicurean problem comes back to bite, since the person whose consciousness is ended never finds out that their consciousness is ended. They never experience the harm you’ve done to them. So there is another sense in which consciousness is not directly relevant to why killing is wrong. Neither the embryo nor an adult human being experiences the badness of death itself. Nor do they ever find out or experience in any way the fact that they have been deprived of future life.

This might all seem like a bit of a trick: but it is important. It demonstrates a critically important point: at the very least, it shows that death is not bad because it gives you any sort of negative conscious experience, whether the badness of death or remorse at being deprived of further life. So in this sense, at least, you do not need to be conscious to be seriously harmed by death.

(Here’s another example to see this point. Having sailed to a distant country to export some new medical imaging technology, you become shipwrecked on a desert island. You come across a pregnant woman on a desert island. She is fast asleep. Your friend decides to kill her painlessly for food. You, naturally, intervene: this is obviously a human person with a right to life. Your friend tells you she is unconscious, so it is fine to kill her. You respond that she will be conscious, so it’s still wrong. Your friend says that whether she will be conscious is irrelevant; what matters is whether she was conscious. You’re instinctively uneasy about this claim as you’re not sure that’s right, but you go along with him since you’re desperate for food and not wanting to get into philosophy. But there’s an obvious bigger problem: surely this pregnant woman was conscious, so your friend’s reasoning doesn’t apply. At this point your friend informs you that he has used that medical imaging equipment and has determined that although the organism was conscious in the past, her memory and everything about her specific personality has been wiped from her past life. She will be a new person with no connection to the old person. Hence, her former conscious life is irrelevant, even if it existed. This makes sense to you, so you both quietly kill her and make her into a substantial supply of burgers.

It seems clear that you have acted wrongly, and probably committed murder. But it cannot be because the woman is conscious, and it cannot be because she has recently been conscious – because she is completely disconnected from that former consciousness. So it is implausible to think that previous consciousness is as morally significant as it needs to be for this response to work).

Finally, it has been suggested that respect is the reason killing is wrong: Jeff McMahan suggests that this is the most promising way to explain why every person has an equal right to life, despite very different lengths and qualities of life remaining. That is to say, killing people is wrong because it violates duties of respect towards them – it disrespects them in a particularly heinous way. I am inclined to agree with McMahan on this, though we disagree on who counts as a person. But this account, of course, makes no reference to consciousness – only very indirectly (it factors into who is a person). In fact, the account introduces a fairly nebulous concept of ‘respect’ not directly related to consciousness. All sorts of unconscious things can be disrespected – dead bodies, for example. So this in fact offers another indicator of how it could be seriously wrong to kill an early embryo. None of us find it inconceivable how desecrating the dead could be seriously wrong, even though they are not conscious, and never even will be conscious again. By the same token, there should be no reason it is inconceivable that killing an unconscious early embryo who will be conscious could be seriously wrong. See the next section for more on this.

Of course, on this account the best way to know whether killing is wrong is to identify who is a person on other grounds: as I have suggested throughout, the only plausible accounts of personhood that explain our more fundamental intuitions are those which include embryos.

In summary, plausible accounts of the wrongness of killing generally do not require any sort of conscious experience of death, which is an indicator that consciousness may not be needed to be seriously harmed by killing. In fact, the more plausible accounts of the wrongness of killing clearly apply, or could easily apply, to embryos despite their lack of consciousness.

5. There can be seriously wrong actions which lead to no conscious suffering

Killing and desecration of the dead are examples of a wider class of actions which have no noticeable effect on the victim – meaning, the victim suffers no conscious negative consequences as a result. Sometimes these are called ‘harmless wrongs’, and they have been widely discussed in ethics. I want to also include actions which are harmful but have no conscious effect on the victim. Since we have a strong cognitive bias to connect harming someone and doing seriously wrong things with causing people to suffer, identifying examples where these come apart is helpful for comprehending how killing an early embryo could be seriously wrong. Here are a few examples:

  • Your child dies. You and your family eat his corpse for dinner later that night.
  • You are contacted by a former owner of your house, who say that they would like to bury their child in your garden, since it is where that child was born. They will never be able to visit, nor will anyone they know. Being a utilitarian, you realise it is obviously more moral to cook the child for dinner and donate the money you would have spent on food to purchase malaria nets for children in Sub-Saharan Africa. You do so.
  • You deliberately use the pages of a famous anti-slavery speech as toilet paper. No one ever finds out.
  • You are upset at a Muslim neighbour. Knowing he and many other Muslims would be greatly offended by it, you put a Qur’an on the floor and stamp on it until it is pulled apart. No one ever finds out.
  • Your parent dies, and asks as their final wish that you visit their grave – just around the corner from your house – once a year. When the time comes, every year, you are enjoying playing a computer game, so you don’t bother.
  • You see a severely disabled child build a sandcastle on a beach, and then you see him and his family finishing their holiday and going to their home far away. Knowing they will never see this sandcastle again, you kick it over for fun.
  • You are a nurse in an operating theatre. When a patient is anaesthetised, you and the team mock a large birthmark that the patient has.
  • You cheat on your wife. No one ever finds out.
  • A famous civil rights activist passes away. No one is able to attend his funeral, and it cannot be streamed. Knowing that no one will ever know, you ask a local white supremacist to read the eulogy and perform the burial rites.

Jonathan Haidt gives a number of other examples: someone smears elephant dung on a picture of Nelson Mandela and displays it in their art museum; various cases to do with ‘harmless’ incest; the production of a sex robot deliberately created to look like a specific child (never seen again and incapable of being harmed) to be used for gratification; and so on. Consider also the cases I suggested in ‘Is infanticide permissible?’. The possible examples are endless.

If you are anything like the average person, you probably think that most of these are seriously wrong, even though they never harm anyone in a way that the victim could appreciate. The consciousness of the victim is completely irrelevant to the fact that they are seriously wrong. Indeed, in several cases the victim is already dead. But yet these things are seriously wrong.

It won’t be enough to say that they are seriously wrong because they could reinforce the bad attitudes of the culprit. Abortion could do that in various ways – it could desensitise people to the value of human life. And it is hard to believe that merely reinforcing a bad attitude that someone already has is in itself enough to make these acts so appalling. Likewise, it won’t work to say that they could offend people if people were to find out. Because in these cases, it is overwhelmingly likely no one will find out, and in any case the same could apply to abortion.

So the basic situation here is that we have a huge variety of things which are seriously wrong and yet which are completely irrelevant to the consciousness of the victim – because the victim never finds out, or is already dead, or is never cognisant of these acts or the harm they might cause.

Now imagine someone tells you they cannot even conceive of why these things would be wrong, because the victims are never conscious of the fact they have been wronged, and never suffer any noticeable harm from it. They insist that it’s just so counterintuitive to them that these could be seriously wrong. What would you say?

Every reader will probably have a different answer to this, so I can only speak in very general teams. It is very likely that the response you give to this person is the kind of response which could be given to someone who struggles to see how killing an early embryo could be morally wrong. Yes, it is true that the victims in all these cases are never consciously harmed, and never experience any negative effects. But all of these actions show egregious disrespect for a human being (in many cases a dead human being) and for certain abstract values or concepts. In the same way, although an early embryo will never be consciously harmed, and never experience any negative effects (though they will certainly be deprived of a future life, as with all killings), killing it shows egregious disrespect towards that young, immature human being, the value of human life, the value of human equality, and so on.

Of course, it is not just that the human being and the things it represents are disrespected; the infant is also deprived of life. We are often able to understand why depriving someone of the rest of their life harms them, even though they don’t notice the harm. The same is true in the case of early embryos. In fact, it is easier to see how killing an embryo is wrong than many of these cases. Why is it intuitive that someone who has completed their life, is dead and will never again experience anything can be disrespected, but that someone who has their whole life ahead of them cannot?

This is the kind of thing pro-lifers mean when they say that the early embryo is a person. They are not making the obviously false claims that it is conscious, has a personality, and so on. Perhaps this confusion is part of why it is so unintuitive to think that an early embryo is a person – it is clearly unintuitive (and indeed false) to suppose that the very early embryo is conscious (though it is quite possibly conscious before long – we simply do not know). When the claim is understood properly – the early embryo is a biological human being (which is scientifically uncontroversial), it is a member of the human family (albeit a very young and undeveloped one), it is the kind of thing all of us once were, and it is an entity with a future ahead of it and who will (likely) naturally develop into a conscious personality – I suggest that the claim is far less unintuitive than often thought, especially when all the above considerations are put together.

Jonathan Haidt’s work can also provide an explanation (perhaps a debunking one – see point 2) of just why so many in the modern West find this idea so unintuitive. Western societies, he claims, have a WEIRD morality (Western, Educated…). ‘Weird’ is not just a helpful acronym; it is also true. Western societies are historically extremely anomalous in the basic constituents of their moral thinking. Western societies typically have moral beliefs built on only two main pillars: care and fairness. By contrast, most societies throughout history have included other basic parts of morality: authority, loyalty, and in particular, sanctity/divinity. For various reasons, Westerners have largely dropped these latter three, especially the sanctity element. Part of the reason is, of course, secularism. Another part of the reason is that our moral thinking has been particularly influenced by utilitarianism which, Haidt notes, was conceived by an individual with autism with perhaps a different sense of interpersonal dynamics to most – this perhaps explains why so many of the above actions are so offensive to many people, but are not necessarily wrong according to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism cares only for pleasure or pain inflicted on other people (and oneself) by one’s actions: it attributes no inherent weight to loyalty, selflessness, respect, and so on (except insofar as they cause pleasure or pain).

It would be a mistake to think that sanctity is simply a religious concept, and since most people are not religious, they could easily discard it. For it does not refer only to supernatural dimensions of morality: it includes, for example, the reverence and respect we show to the dead – something very much a part of the morality of most non-religious people. In fact, there is a case to be made that all of the actions I listed above are violations of this kind of reverence or respect that we should have towards human beings and the ideals or groups they might represent.

So it is probably not true to say that Westerners have completely dismantled these elements of morality and rely only on care for others and fairness. In fact, they do retain a strong sense of sanctity, if only in certain situations less connected to supernatural phenomena.

These observations, I propose, explain much of why so many find it difficult to see how killing an early embryo could be seriously wrong. At the same time, the examples of disrespect I have suggested show that we can conceive of how harming something unconscious could be wrong. It can be wrong for exactly the same reasons that disrespect someone who never experiences any harm can be wrong (and also because it deprives the embryo of future goods).

6. We should prioritise reason over intuition in this case

For some people, this might have shifted their intuition itself. That has, in fact, been my change in perspective over the years – and it probably has been gradual. I originally shared the intuition that it was not wrong to kill an early embryo. But as I gradually reflected more and more over time on various things – the reasons killing is wrong, the grounds of moral status, the complex development of the early embryo, the nature of disrespect, and so on – my intuition itself began to shift, and I can now say I no longer even find it unintuitive that killing an early embryo could be seriously wrong, though of course I can still sympathise with those who do not share this intuition yet. I now have an intuitive sense of (at least) unease about taking the life of any human organism, no matter its shape or level of consciousness – even if that unease is not as strong as, say, my aversion to late-term abortion. This shift in intuition has not, I should add, led me to a particularly unusual place: in fact, I think it is likely that most of the world – or at least much of it – considers early abortion intuitively wrong, without relying on false empirical claims. As I mentioned in point 2, it has been known for at least a couple of centuries that early embryos could not experience anything – and yet the overwhelming attitude among doctors in the UK throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was that abortion was a very serious wrong – recall that the World Medical Association until 1983 had wording committing all doctors to ‘maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception’, while the British Medical Association (more progressive than most) in 1947 referred to abortion as ‘the greatest crime’ along with suicide and murder. These were long after the decline in devout religiosity in the West. So maybe it is our intuition that has gone astray in this case (see point 2).

For others, your intuition may not have shifted at all, or shifted only a little. In that case, I propose this: given that every view has some counterintuitive implications, that is no reason in itself to fear the pro-life position. In that sense, there may be a level playing field – or maybe even tilted in favour of the pro-life position, given that the other positions have even more counterintuitive implications – the denial of human equality, the permissibility of infanticide, and more.

Moreover, given that our intuitions on embryonic moral status are not likely to be particularly reliable, and have certainly not been unanimously held across different cultures, we should not give them much weight, if any. Given also, then, that our intuitions can be easily explained with reference to moral psychology, and shown to be inconsistently applied (we believe in many harmless wrongs), given that the wrongness of killing is to some extent puzzling whichever view we take, and given that there are strong concrete reasons to think that killing an early embryo is wrong (as explained in the rest of this ethic ssection – it is the only way to uphold human equality, the wrongness of infanticide, and so on), I suggest that the reasons in favour of adopting the pro-life position far outweigh the intuition against it on this point.

Holding to a position even while considering it somewhat counterintuitive can certainly be done. That was my own position when I first became pro-life, though as I say my intuitions have gradually shifted since then. But we do this all the time in ethics. One of the most interesting – and frustrating – things about ethics is that virtually everyone arrives at views on reason which conflict with their basic intuitions. For example, Jeff McMahan himself says at various points that his own view in support of abortion has certain implications he finds very uneasy. But ethics is full of these conflicts. Moreover, virtually everyone studying ethics discovers that they have intuitions which are completely contradictory when the underlying principles are drawn out. Most of us consider it rational to change our positions, in conflict with some of our intuitions, in light of these contradictions, rather than holding onto them.

Hence I claim that the rational thing to do in this situation, if you still have not even hint of an intuition against killing early embryos, is to consider that intuition outweighed by the reasons discussed throughout this article and others. That may mean that for a time you have to believe something you find somewhat counterintuitive. That is fine – we have all seen optical illusions before! You will be OK.

*Or maybe you think they are not a person, but could still be a person, and that suffices to be treated as one. In which case, the pro-life position is proven by a different route.

**Of course, it can be worse in certain cases to end something someone already has, but that is usually because they are dependent on it or have gotten used to it, and will suffer more from being deprived of it than someone who never had it. But in the case of ending someone’s experiences, clearly they will not suffer more because they are ‘used to it’. They will not suffer at all, because they will be dead.

Would you save a 5 year old or a frozen embryo?

Suppose an IVF clinic is on fire and there is a frozen embryo – perhaps many – trapped inside. At the same time, there is a 5 year old child trapped inside. You only have time to save one. Which do you save?

This question has been thought to pose a problem for pro-lifers, because most people’s intuition is that you should save the 5 year old – not just over one frozen embryo, but even over many frozen embryos. It is suggested that this shows their lives cannot be equally valuable – especially if you should save one 5 year old over many frozen embryos. How can pro-lifers respond?

The first thing to say is that the intuition may not be as obvious as it first appears. Bioethicist S. Matthew Liao points out that you can modify the case so that the choice is between a 5 year old child, and a frozen embryo belonging to you and your spouse – your last possible embryo, in fact, since you have no children and your last egg has been used. At the very least, it is no longer obvious that you are obliged to save the 5 year old child. Liao points out that this is very difficult to explain if the embryo has no rights – after all, you wouldn’t be permitted to save your most prized possession – say, a unique Picasso painting – over a 5 year old child.

Regardless of whether Liao is right or not, the pro-lifer’s basic response is this: most people now agree that human beings are equally valuable and have equal fundamental rights. And yet most people also think that they can prioritise who should be saved in certain triage situations. Most people would, for example, say that a pregnant woman should be saved, other things being equal, over a non-pregnant woman. And these decisions aren’t only based on the number of lives saved: most people would save a now infertile 50 year old woman with 3 young children dependent on her over a still fertile 50 year old man with no dependents, while at the same time insisting that they are equally valuable and have the same fundamental rights.

Assuming the overwhelming majority of people are not completely irrational in this respect, it follows that human equality, and humans’ inviolable fundamental rights, are consistent with treating humans differently when it comes to saving people with limited resources, based on various different factors. These factors might include, for example, number of dependents, length of life left, likelihood of survival, integration into society, intimate relationships with others, being known to others (especially in intimate ways, e.g. family), pain and pleasure likely to be experienced in being saved, and so on.

Can these sorts of factors plausibly differentiate embryos from 5 year old children? It seems so. Frozen embryos are far less likely to survive, they have only marginally longer left to live (assuming they do), they are generally not integrated into society, they generally are not known to others, and so on. So these sorts of reasons could justify saving a 5 year old child over them. As Liao shows, when those factors are equalised – when the embryo is very much known to and valued by their family, for example – the intuition that one must save the 5 year old is far more tenuous.

Hence, in summary, two individuals having equal and fundamental human rights (such as the right to life) is compatible with prioritising them differently in emergency situations. Ideally, both would be saved – and it would certainly be wrong to kill either – but that is not always possible. Hence, the fact that we would save the 5 year old child does not demonstrate that the embryo is less valuable or that they may be killed.

That is the (relatively) short answer. For the long answer with a far more detailed theoretical framework, see my paper ‘The scourges’, published in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy and available with my other academic papers here:

Why prioritise abortion over miscarriage?

A few philosophers – most notably Toby Ord, Amy Berg and William Simkulet – have argued that pro-lifers’ prioritisation of induced abortion over miscarriage, and/or their relative apathy towards miscarriage, imply that they do not really think that embryos/foetuses are persons with the same kind of value that you and I have. They point out that the number of miscarriages each year far exceeds any other cause of death, and far exceeds even the number of induced abortions. If all these tens of millions of babies lost to miscarriage each year are really persons, isn’t this a public health crisis of epic proportions, and a far bigger problem even than induced abortion?

There are a few things to say in response. First, the number of miscarriages is likely highly exaggerated. Second, a significant proportion may well involve a failure of any embryo to form at all – if so, then there is no organism which loses its life at all. Third, to characterise ‘miscarriage’ as a single cause of death is highly misleading. ‘Miscarriage’ just refers to the death of an embryo/foetus prior to 20-24 weeks (the exact cutoff differs according to various sources/countries; it is a ‘stillbirth’ after this point), not to a particular pathological process. To say that ‘miscarriage’ is a cause of death is like saying that teenage death is a cause of death. In fact, there are a wide variety of causes of miscarriage, and no one particular cause outnumbers deaths by induced abortion (which is a defined, particular cause of death).

Still, there are many tens of millions of genuine miscarriages each year; are pro-lifers inconsistent for not spending anywhere near the amount of resources on these combined as they do on abortion?

There are a few reasons for thinking not. First, many miscarriages may not be preventable without altering the identity of the embryo or foetus. The reason is that many miscarriages are due to serious genetic anomalies, and it may be that the genetic changes required to prevent miscarriage would be so substantive that the identity of the individual is changed – the first individual is extinguished and a new, genetically different individual takes its place. If so, then there is no imperative to ‘cure’ these individuals, because the cure is to stop them existing and replace them with a new individual – which is of course not a cure.

Second, enormous amounts of time and money are already spent on miscarriage research, far exceeding (probably even relative to the number of deaths) the time and money spent on anti-abortion activity.

Third, as I argue in my paper on this topic, there is generally a difference between killing and letting die, in part because killing necessarily disrespects the victim, whereas letting die does not necessarily. If the wrongness of killing is primarily grounded in the disrespect for human life shown by the culprit, and if abortion on a societal level involves significant dehumanisation and degradation of unborn children, these provide a significant motivation for preventing abortion which is not paralleled by miscarriage. Miscarriage does not typically involve disrespect for human life, dehumanisation, and so on. On the contrary, miscarriage is generally treated with considerable sensitivity and lament even by abortion providers and advocates. Hence there is a significant moral asymmetry which justifies anti-abortion activism more than anti-miscarriage advocacy.

Fourth, anti-abortion advocacy inherently doubles up as anti-miscarriage advocacy, because so much of it involves humanising the embryo/foetus and generating sympathy for it.

So there are a variety of reasons why anti-abortion advocacy might reasonably seem more urgent than anti-miscarriage advocacy, even despite the greater number of embryos/foetuses lost to the various causes of miscarriage than to abortion.

This is the very short answer to the question, which misses out a wide variety of important elements. For a full answer, see my paper, ‘The scourges: Why abortion is even more morally serious than miscarriage’, published in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, available with my other academic papers at

“Most embryos are miscarried”

It is true that many embryos are miscarried, and it is sometimes argued as a result that they cannot be persons.

But the standard estimates of miscarriage rates are probably unrealistic, as Gavin Jarvis at Cambridge has shown. Moreover, it is not clear what the argument is supposed to be. For much of human history, the infant mortality rate has been extremely high. But this obviously does not mean that they are not persons. This shows nothing at all about the value of embryos or infants.

For more on this question, see ‘Why prioritise abortion over miscarriage?’

“Skin cells are human life”

This is true, but it misunderstands what pro-lifers say when they say that ‘human life deserves protection’ or that ‘life begins at conception’. As explained elsewhere, pro-lifers know that skin cells are alive, and that they are human, but are not persons. When we say that life begins at conception, or similar things, what we mean is that an individual, living human organism is created at fertilisation – that is what we are, and so that is the relevant sense of ‘human life’. Maybe pro-lifers are a bit careless or vague when they make these claims: but when the claim is explained in full there is a clear distinction between a human organism and a skin cell. When we want to know what matters, we ask what we are. We are living human beings – that is, living human organisms – not merely ‘human life’ in a generic sense.

“Potential is morally irrelevant”

Some pro-choicers point out that we don’t normally treat potential Xs (in general) as Xs. We don’t treat trees as tables, for example, even though they are potential tables. So why should we treat potential human beings as if they were human beings?

It is doubtful whether the mainstream pro-life movement (academic or grassroots) has ever argued that embryos/foetuses are potential human beings and therefore have the rights associated with actual human beings. I have certainly never come across a pro-lifer who has made this argument, even though it is how the pro-life position is often presented.

Pro-lifers do not say that embryos and foetuses are potential human beings: we say that they are human beings, immature ones at the very earliest stage of their development – just as children are relatively immature and undeveloped, but still human beings. So pro-lifers do not rely on any sort of claim about potential Xs being Xs (or being entitled to the rights associated with Xs). Such a claim in general would be absurd.

Having said that, there is clearly at least one sense in which ‘potential’ is morally relevant. When you ask people why killing is wrong, one reason they often give is because it deprives someone of their future. But this is just another way of saying that you are depriving them of potential goods that they could experience. So in that sense most people are, in fact, in agreement that some kinds of potential can be morally relevant. And this kind of potential, as I pointed out in another question, is true of the embryo/foetus: killing it deprives it of the kind of future a human adult would normally experience – in fact, even more future. So it may be that there is a kind of potential which is morally relevant and true of the embryo/foetus.

“Acorns are not oak trees, and embryos are not humans”

‘Oak tree’ is the name for a grown member of a variety of species in the genus Quercus – that is, a member of that genus at a particular stage in its life-cycle. It is true that acorns are not oak trees: but they are both organisms of that genus, at different stages in their life-cycle.

Likewise, it is true that embryos are not human adults – but both are members of the species Homo sapiens at particular stages in its life-cycle. They are both the same kind of thing: a member of the same species.

The reason this is thought to be significant is that acorns are not valuable in the same way that oak trees are. But that is because the value of an oak tree is instrumental: we value oak trees because they are beautiful, or useful for timber, and so on. But that is not why we value human beings. We value adult human beings not because they are useful or beautiful, but because of what they are: human beings. But exactly the same is true of embryos: they are human beings in exactly the same sense. The only thing that this analogy tells us is that embryos are not adults: this is trivially true and completely morally irrelevant.

“Sperm have the potential to become a human”

As I argued above, it is doubtful whether pro-lifers have ever made the argument that embryos/foetuses are potential human beings and therefore should be treated like actual human beings. So to argue that something else is a ‘potential human being’ to show that the pro-life view has absurd implications makes little sense.

I  did point out, though, that there may be a kind of morally relevant potential that could make abortion wrong at least in most circumstances: embryos and foetuses usually have the potential to experience a meaningful future in the same way adults do. Is this true of sperm cells as well?

Unfortunately, sperm are not human beings. They have only half the genetic material required to develop, and by themselves, will not develop into a mature human being. When they enter an egg, they disintegrate. They could fertilise one of millions of different eggs, each forming a completely different person. In any case, it can’t be that the sperm and the egg are both identical to the zygote they form: if so, then by the laws of identity, they would be identical to each other (since if A = C and B = C, then A = B), and this is absurd.

What is going on here is that there are (at least) two different senses of ‘potential’ here: there is identity-preserving potential, and non-identity-preserving potential. What does this mean? It means that some things have the potential to become or experience something while remaining the same thing. For example, I have the potential to be a teacher or to learn Portuguese while remaining me: it would be me that was a teacher or knew Portuguese. By contrast, a tree has the potential to be a table or chair, but not while it retains its identity. It has the potential to give rise to a table or chair, but it is destroyed in the process. When it ‘becomes’ a table or chair, it ceases to exist.

Embryos have the identity-preserving potential to become an adult human being. That adult will be the same individual as the embryo, just much older and more developed. By contrast, sperm cells do not have identity-preserving potential to become an adult being, They have only the potential to give rise to an individual which will become an adult human being, but the sperm cell will not survive that process and remain the same individual. Hence the two cases are entirely different.

For more detail on some of the relevant metaphysics, see my paper on fertilisation with Alex Pruss at

Are all abortions equally wrong?

This was a good question I was recently asked on a podcast. It is an interesting question because there are, I think, multiple ways of measuring the ‘wrongness’ of an action.

Pro-lifers generally say that unborn children are equal human beings, and hence have an equal right to life. Hence, the basic action of ending that life is inherently equally serious, and that life deserves equal protection against such killing.

But that doesn’t mean that every person who has, or performs, an abortion has done something equally wrong. There are many different cases of killing which are in some sense equally wrong, but with very different levels of culpability. For example, killing someone because you enjoy killing people of a certain race is very, very wrong. Killing someone because they punched you in the face is also wrong, though not quite as wrong. Killing someone in a perfectly sane state of mind is generally very wrong; killing someone because you suffer from barely controllable bouts of rage due to a mental disorder is still wrong, but the culpability may be somewhat reduced. And so on.

What these examples show is that culpability for killing can vary significantly – in some cases it might be entirely absent. But that is at the same time compatible with saying that the victims are all equally valuable and equally deserving of protection, and that in every case an infinitely serious right to life has been violated. So the short answer is: it depends. All abortions (except perhaps those justifiable to save the mother’s life) are equally wrong in that they all involve the unjustified taking of an infinitely valuable human life. But that is compatible with some of those abortions being very culpable, while others are barely culpable at all.

Other ethical and metaphysical questions

In time, I hope to answer a wide variety of questions on the ethics of abortion, going into considerably more detail and engaging with the most recent academic literature. I hope you’ll forgive me for not having had the time to do so yet (no one has paid me for any of the tens of thousands of words I’ve written so far!). But if you are the kind to be particularly interested in detailed questions in analytic philosophy (perhaps about animalism, or identity, or time-relative interests), then it is fair to at least tell you where you can find more detailed defences of the pro-life view. There are of course several academic books on the ethics of abortion – Frank Beckwith’s Defending Life and Christopher Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion (2nd ed) are probably the two most commonly recommended. But even these do not go into some of the most detailed and recent debates relating to abortion. For those, my top recommendation would be the work of David Hershenov, who has a huge body of work on this topic (soon to become a book, I am told), covering all sorts of diverse ethical and metaphysical questions relating to abortion. All his articles are available here. S. Matthew Liao has a not so big but equally detailed and cutting edge discussion of a few of the relevant questions here. Stephen Napier’s edited volume has a variety of recent articles on the ethics of abortion. And, although I am biased since it contains two chapters of mine (on mental health and telemedicine abortion), a forthcoming Routledge volume edited by Nicholas Colgrove, Daniel Rodger and Bruce Blackshaw is likewise highly recommended.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s