I’m afraid I’m still puzzled by where this line of argument is supposed to take us. Certainly not to the absurd conclusion that Andrew’s email correspondent draws, which that if we grant legal protection to zygotes or embryos, we would need “start refusing to sell alcohol to breeding-age women,” or “refuse to let them ski, ride horseback, or cycle,” because “all those activities can cause miscarriages.” (And if you disagree, you’re siding with the Taliban – which I suppose has replaced “that sounds suspiciously like something Hitler would say” as the clinching argument of choice.)

Right. And similarly, because we extend legal protection to born children, we don’t let their parents take them swimming or skiing, and we arrest parents who keep guns in the house, and also alcohol, and of course there’s secondhand smoke and all the other “activities that can cause accidental death” and that are therefore illegal. Except . . . they’re not illegal, because we make a rather obvious distinction between “activities that might accidentally harm or kill another human being in your care,” and “activities intended to directly cause the death of another human being.” So I still don’t see how the fact that zygotes and embryos die accidentally all the time bears on whether killing them is wrong – beyond the instinctive feeling that if something happens a lot without our thinking about it much, it can’t be bad.

As for why we don’t think about it that much – well, certainly Julian’s right, in a sense, that we respond differently to earthquake deaths than to accidental zygote deaths because earthquake victims have a lot of qualities that prompt pity and empathy and grief, and zygotes don’t. The zygote doesn’t have friends, he doesn’t have a personality or memories, he doesn’t have the kind of intimate bonds that are ruptured by the death of an adult human being. So the tragedy isn’t nearly as great as it would be if I were to die, or Julian, or Andrew. And similarly, not all murders are created equal, which is why I don’t think there’s any contradiction between saying that abortion is murder and should be illegal, and admitting that there are greater extenuating circumstances – because of the intimacy of pregnancy and the understandable terror associated with becoming pregnant unintentionally – and less suffering involved for the victim than in almost any other form of murder, and that the penalties for a woman who procures an abortion should therefore be minimal or nonexistent.

Yet acknowledging that all deaths aren’t the same, and that all murders aren’t equally wicked, doesn’t mean that all lives don’t deserve legal protection. If I shoot a mother of four, it’s a much greater tragedy than if I shoot a friendless bum, and you’d probably want to give me a much stiffer prison sentence. But it doesn’t mean the mom should have the right to life and the bum – or the fetus, the embryo, or the zygote – shouldn’t.

And of course, the other reason we don’t respond emotionally to zygote deaths is because we don’t know they’re happening. The “zygote intuition” argument would make a little bit more sense, in this regard, if people never felt grief over a miscarriage. Then you could argue – “look, our moral intuitions tell us not to grieve over human life before that life acquires a personality, or self-awareness, or a face.” But of course, people do feel grief over miscarriages, by and large – just as they feel guilt (again, by and large) over abortions. Which suggests, in turn, that we don’t grieve for zygotes not because we somehow intuit that they aren’t really people, but because – unlike embryos and fetuses – we aren’t aware of their deaths. You can’t grieve for something you don’t know exists.

And you can’t kill it, either. I know that the argument-from-zygotes is intended to show the alleged extremism of the pro-life position, not make an empirical claim about the nature of abortion in the U.S. – but even so, it’s worth pointing out that no abortion clinic is in the zygote-killing business. They’re in the embryo and fetus-killing business, because by the time anyone knows they’re pregnant, the zygote is all grown up. So if for some reason we decided to move to an entirely intuition-based abortion regime, our zygote intuitions wouldn’t really matter much anyway – only our embryo and fetus intuitions would.

– posted by Ross


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