Robert J King Ph.D.

Hive Mind

What, Exactly, Is an "Unborn Child"?

The anti-abortion debate in Ireland has turned nasty. And illogical.

Posted May 06, 2018

A fierce debate is going on in Ireland at the moment concerning the potential repealing of the eighth amendment. This was the change to the constitution that put the life of a fetus on an equal footing as the life of the mother. The actual wording (of article 40.3.3) put into place in 1983 is:

‘The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’

This amendment is the foundation to laws concerning abortion—which is very hard to obtain in Ireland. Between 1980 and 2016 at least 170,000 women went from the Republic of Ireland to the UK to have abortions done. (1) Often, because of the difficulties in arranging travel and expenses, this abortion happened much later in the fetuses' development than it otherwise might. The law potentially puts every single stage of an embryo as morally equivalent to a mother. They are all “unborn children”.

But, what constitutes an “unborn child”? My locale (I live in Cork) is now festooned with pictures of babies, sucking their thumbs, sometimes with text underneath which reads things like “I’m nine weeks old, I can kick and yawn, don’t repeal me.” There are no pictures of recently fertilised eggs, or slightly larger blastocysts, or notes about the size of said fetus (about the size of a peanut) or the neural complexity (somewhat less than that of a mouse) of said fetus. This is disingenuous. If the argument is “This is a fully human life from the moment of conception, all the way through with all the moral weight thereof” then do not duplicitously tug at heart strings (or worse) with pictures of babies.

Crossing the line?

At some point along the path from conception to birth—there is a baby, at some point, there is not. Exactly where does the fetus cross the line into babyhood? Nowhere, is where. Lines are for the center of roads. Biology teaches that there are no lines in nature—only shadings. Shadings of one species into another, of one developmental stage into another. Biology is built on analysis of functions, not essences. Technically, in philosophy the error of demanding the drawing of lines is called a sorites paradox. This is the fallacy of thinking that because adding one grain of sand to another never turns a non-heap into a heap—that therefore heaps of sand do not exist. All the paradox shows, is that the term “heap” is ill-defined. Well, is "unborn child" well-defined? It is not.

Some are apt to reply: “Well, we are fine with that. We will define the embryo as a baby right from the start. Right from the moment of conception.” OK then, for consistency's sake, put pictures of fertilized eggs up on those posters then. Just remember to point out that they are about 1/10th millimeter across (about half the size of a full stop if you are reading this on a phone).

I am not just being facetious. It’s time to call for seriousness and consistency here. Life is not quite as clear-cut as some might wish. Let me give an example, Artificial insemination—IVF—requires a ratio of about 10:1 fertilized embryos to be produced for every one that is born (3). That is just the way the odds happen to run. Those other embryos are kept, frozen, in liquid nitrogen. The USA has about 400,000 of these, Ireland has many thousands as well, and here’s the thing—we have already decided that these embryos are not unborn children. We decided it in 2009. The status of these embryos is entirely the province of the parents—and the default being the mother. (2)

"Abortion" is pro-life.

They cannot all be born, and no-one in the right mind would insist (please, gawd, tell me I’m right about this, and that we are not living in some Margaret Atwood fever dream) that the mother could be morally or legally compelled to carry each and every one of these frozen embryos to term. So—they sit there, in perpetual potential limbo, a minor sacrifice to the wanted embryo that gets to be a baby. No one thinks of these other embryos as "unborn children". And this is partly a function of our technological advances, partly a recognition that modern women may have lives beyond being just baby machines, and partly due to the idea that what the world needs is children who are wanted and planned for, not ones whose existence is coerced and compelled. That is—unless someone is offering to step forward and have all those embryos implanted in them? It will soon be possible to do this with men…don’t all rush at once, now.




3) For more details on attitudes to assistive reproductive technologies see our Dempsey, M., King, R., & Nagy, A. (2018). A pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? A spectrum of attitudes to assisted reproductive technologies in Ireland. Journal of reproductive and infant psychology, 36(1), 59-66.

Update The report on the mother and baby homes has been issued and it makes for chilling reading. A comment on  the report goes as follows:

“The regime described in the report wasn’t imposed on us by any foreign power,” the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, told a news conference. “We did this to ourselves as a society. We treated women exceptionally badly, we treated children exceptionally badly.”

Ireland had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, he said. “Young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction. As a society we embraced judgmental, moral certainty, a perverse religious morality and control which was so damaging. What was so very striking was the absence of basic kindness.”

I get a number of emails and responses to these blog posts. Some positive, some negative. I'm (almost) always happy to engage with these. Many come from a position of assuming that they know what kindness is and, given that they think are promoting the 'sanctity of life', then they simply must be the kind ones.

This report should give them pause. Not, I want to stress, because I reject any sanctity of life arguments--as it happens, I take them at face value. It's because, as this report shows, it's very easy to become confused about one's own motives. To, for example, preach about the sanctity of life while presiding over an institution that treats newborn babies as literal trash fit only for a cess-pit. This realization, that humans are capable of such utter lack of moral clarity while feeling themselves morally superior, should give every one of us pause. And, the flat out refusal of some institutions and individuals to face up to this moral responsibility should give us all further reason to demand moral clarity of ourselves.

At the end of the excellent film, Philomena, the main character (who has had a baby stolen) confronts one of those that did it. Initially she thinks she was acting out of kindness, but a rare moment of moral clarity shows through.