Continuity arguments and abortion
Mar 7, 2011

Continuity arguments and abortion

There is a class of arguments that I refer to as "continuity arguments". They get used for a variety of applications but often run into significant problems. In the specific case of the abortion debate, both sides attempt to use the argument poorly in an ironically symmetrical manner.

The basic idea of a continuity argument is one starts with a statement both parties agree with. Then one slowly changes the situation into one where there is disagreement and this change is continuous in the sense of not having any discrete changes in the situation that one can point at and say 'there is where the argument breaks down'. The conclusion is that the case is true when there is disagreement because it was true where there was agreement and the argument didn't change structurally between the two situations. It is a continuous deformation, if you will. Very often this continuous change occurs by changing a variable such as time or price that is naturally susceptible to continuous changes.

A priori, this is a logically valid approach and can be quite useful at demonstrating points. However, it can also lead to quite contradictory results when one starts being imprecise about the nature of this continuous deformation. Let us consider the case of abortion and the claims made.

The argument sometimes made from the pro-life side is as follows. They note agreement about killing babies one minute after birth being morally disagreeable to society. They then ask, well what about one minute before birth, is this change significant? Most would agree that there is little logical difference. Then one asks 5 minutes and 10 and moving continuously in the time variable until one gets to 8 months before birth. Since at no single point can one say "here is the point where the argument breaks" the idea is a demonstration that abortion is wrong at all times.

Conversely, the pro-choice side sometimes argues similarly. They take an agreed upon point such as one minute before conception. Then the question is: what about one minute after conception, can this difference be logically upheld? Note that some morning after pills work after fertilization by preventing attachment to the uterine lining which is often, but not always, conceded by the pro-life group. The argument then extends by continuously changing the time variable asking what about after 5 minutes, 10 minutes etc up to several months. The situations are not quite symmetric because most pro-choice people would also be against super late term abortions while many pro-lifers would consider the moment of fertilization to be perhaps of religious significance. That is, the argument fundamentally and discretely changes at this instantaneous moment. Nonetheless, the basic idea of a continuity argument is often attempted by both sides and it is quite hard pressed for either side to give a good argument why it breaks down for any small change in time.

The difficulty involved here is that the point where we say it is or is not moral to act is and will have to be an arbitrary choice. We are left with no choice but to pick a place where we are going to simply claim this is right or wrong. Neither continuity argument works because the abortion debate is essentially an arbitrary picking of a point along a spectrum.  Pro-life people have chosen that point to be conception (or perhaps implantation), while pro-choice people have picked it somewhat latter.

There is a related issue involving the idea of specifying a specific point versus a range. For instance, many pro-choice people don't support late term abortions or at least may qualify it as only acceptable in cases of providing a risk to the mother. There is thus not an exact date for unquestioned  acceptance but this is not a problem. That it is more of a range with some gray areas does not detract from the earlier point that it is an arbitrary choice in the time spectrum, even if that choice is a range not a point.

Similarly, if one is selling a car for x dollars, surely one would also sell it for x-1 dollars. However, one cannot apply induction to repeat this procedure over and over to conclude it would be sold happily for 1 dollar. The fact that people have an inexactly specified range of prices opposed to a singular well defined limit doesn't pose a practical problem. Our pragmatic solution is to take this continuous variable of price and and put in place somewhat arbitrary values such that we buy things for prices that typically end in 9.99. The same idea applies in abortion where instead of price it is time that is the continuous variable and we make some fairly arbitrary designations of acceptability that prevent continuity arguments.

Given such a situation with a relatively continuous deformation and the need to choose arbitrary points or at least arbitrary ranges the question turns to how best to do that. I believe the answer is to look at the resulting social utility of such a choice. Answering what the respective social utilities of differing points in time is precisely what many of the other talking points in the abortion debate discuss. I will differ that conversation as this post is restricted in scope to noting the failure of both sides in applying the so called continuity argument. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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jongh said...

I don't think the pro choice side has failed in applying the continuity argument. Unlike the pro-life side, the pro-choice side appeals to science. What do I mean? Basically the pro-life side's main gripe with abortion is that it destroys a life that otherwise would have gotten to live. The pro-life side sees abortion as the intentional taking of life; tantamount to murder. This is because the pro life side is appealing to religious sentiments that dictate that life is sacred. This is, of course, not true in reality however. The intentional killing of bugs is acceptable while the intentional killing of dogs and children is not, for example. What informs our thought process when deciding to kill one animal over another probably has something to do with how most people tend to view that animal; whether it is a pest or not, for example. Another big factor that goes into that decision making process is, I believe, how "human" and or how useful said animal is. A bug is not particularly useful to humans, attractive to humans, or, particularly "human" like. It's existence is of little importance to most of us and probably not very meaningful. Bugs live a menial existence in other words. Dogs on the other hand are playful, energetic, trainable, useful, friendly, funny, compassionate, and caring animals--many traits shared with most human beings. A pro lifer is a fervent protector of the unborn child, the fetus. Yet most people, including pro lifers, are not fervent protectors of bugs; which, by the way, have more "life" than a fetus. They walk, they mate, they eat independent of a host etc. A fetus cannot really do much in it's current state. Especially in the early stages when it is more reptile than human. The pro life side sees a fetus as a human with goals and aspirations, etc. etc. And because life is sacred, human being the most sacred, the fetus should be protected. The problem is that a fetus isn't "human" until a certain point. Fetuses don't have sensory organs that perceive pain in a "human" way until they become more developed. When the fetus eventually becomes a baby the chances of that baby experiencing pain is much greater. It could have abusive parents or a birth defect, for example. Therefore, the pro choice side sees the argument more along the lines of how "human" the fetus is. That is to say the point the feelings and actions we associate with most humans begin to develop. I think the pro choice side can pick a definite cutoff point for this very reason. Using medical science we can determine at what stage in development a fetus will develop the complex neural activities which impart the more human traits. So late term abortions are a no no unless the baby will kill the mother; at this stage a baby can feel pain, and in some cases could be birthed pre maturely and kept alive. Medical science is the tool we need to observe a cutoff point for abortion.

jongh said...

The question now is, what point in time is the fetus most human. It's arguable, but I believe most pro choicers think it should be when the fetus feels pain consciously. Now that we have established a point-- when the fetus is aware of pain-- and a method to observe this point, we can say that the pro choice side has a definite point to deem having an abortion as illegal. If a child must be aborted then shouldn't it be during the stages when it doesn't feel pain, isn't conscious in the same sense of humans, and is not as developed? We destroy a bugs life because it is a nuisance or an eye sore, but it is doing more living than a fetus. It probably feels pain. So if we can justify the killing of other living things which aren't as "human", yet feel more than a fetus, I think we can justify the abortion of a fetus before the cutoff point. Not to say that abortions are the most desirable outcome, birth is, but if an individual's life and the baby's life will become straitened as a result of the birth, then I would agree with aborting the unwanted pregnancy before the cutoff. The pro life side believes that the moment of conception is when life begins, but the medical science doesn't agree that life in any meaningful since of the word occurs then. Many agree that there is a certain developmental stage when the fetus is the most "human". The pro life side gets their idea that life begins at conception from their religious belief. A belief that does not require the population to adhere to because it is based on faith. The pro choice side appeals to the science which is either true or false; you can't just arbitrarily believe that a fetus is more developed than it actually is or feels pain when it doesn't. Ergo, I do not think the pro choice side arbitrarily picks a time range; it is based on the science. That range only differs slightly; 28 weeks, give or take a few days. 28 weeks is generally when pain can be processed by the brain. No abortions at or after 28 weeks.

bazie said...

Let us suppose I buy your entire argument (I don't) and agreed that 28 weeks was the line. What about 28 weeks + 1 day? Does the day make a big difference? If not, what about 2 days? 3 days? and so on.

The point here is as I described above: one is making an arbitrary choice. It is possible to pick some arbitrary factors (such as "feels pain") and then make various scientific estimates that correlate to the arbitrarily chosen factor. Of course, most won't even agree that what you have chosen is even an important factor to make an arbitrary choice of.

The only thing you have done differently than someone who sets an arbitrary line at conception or an arbitrary line at live birth is set an arbitrary line at 28 weeks. And any time someone sets an arbitrary line - and attempts to claim moral veracity for it - they are going to fail via the continuity argument above.

jongh said...

Well if 28 weeks is the cutoff why should anything over that be acceptable? I am just disputing your bit about declaring the arbitrary line. The arbitrariness of the pro lifers line is not the same as the pro choicers. The pro choice group tries to define the line based on how developed the fetus actually is. Dr.s are mostly in agreement on 28 weeks.

jongh said...

And actually if the pro lifer accepts that conception is the point where life begins, which they do, how can it be called an arbitrary line? It's based on a religious belief they have. This belief literally underwrites their lives, defines who they are. They believe they will go to hell if they do not uphold certain religious strictures. The pro choicers set 28 weeks because they agree with doctors and scientists who say that the fetus isn't human in any meaningful way until 28 weeks. The way you beat the pro life argument is by using the science to show that the point of conception is not the point when a fetus has any meaningful human quality of life.

bazie said...

I am not at all agreeing to a 28 week cutoff, or any other cutoff - indeed it is the very idea of fixed cutoff that I reject.

People can choose a cutoff for all kinds of reasons. Religious reasons, scientific reasons, reasons people make up. Some will say one set of characteristics defines "meaningful human life", others will disagree and say some other set of characteristics defines it. It doesn't much matter because as soon as someone sets a line in the sand, they have committed the fallacy I have outlined.

The problem is simple: whatever line one draws (say 28 weeks, but birth and conception are equally equivalent) and one says that after this absolutely 100% morally wrong - akin to murdering innocent babies and before it 100% morally right no problem at all it is just a lifeless clump of cells. Clearly, that is nonsense. Because one can just push the line up or down a day (or a minute, or a second) and nobody in their right mind could argue that the difference of a second or a minute or a day is the difference between morally acceptable and morally unacceptable.

It is a discontinuous jump between two completely different states. Such a discontinuous jump cannot morally occur on a variable such as time where one can continuously make small changes to it.

jongh said...

Ok. So are you for or against abortion?

Also,I don't see how birth and Conception are equivalent. Could you please elaborate.

Secondly I think you are misrepresenting the pro choice side if you are reducing it to: abortion is 100 percent right as long as it occurs when the fetus is a clump of cells. Pro choicers are in favor of abortion as a last choice; when it straitens the condition of those involved. It's not some willy nilly free for all. It's about having a choice. The reason there are restrictions on it is because of how we feel about human suffering.
To clear up your second or minute or day issue, thats why they have ultra sounds and check ups.

jongh said...

When the pregnancy straitens the condition of those involved.

bazie said...

I don't support the government banning the choice of a mother to perform a legal abortion, but that is a very different question than "are you for or against abortion". Nobody is categorically "for abortion".

The point about birth and conception and 28 weeks and 10 minutes after birth and after conception but before implementation and any other arbitrary line one might draw in the sand is that they are indeed all just a choice people make to declare a moral boundary at. One can try and justify that choice (you gave a loose justification that science shows this is when it is meaningfully human) but regardless it is an arbitrary choice. Different people draw this line at different points for all kinds of different reasons. But each time you draw a line in the sand one fails due to the continuity argument I sketched.

As for "last resort", well this depends on the person. For some getting an abortion is a big deal, for others it is almost meaningless just an extra layer of birth control. I am not going to judge any of these people and the wide range of perceptions they have, that is their prerogative.

And no, an ultrasound doesn't resolve the issue in the slightest. The point is that for marginal differences in time there cannot be said to be a big discontinuous jump in morality. The difference between conception -1 minute and conception +1 minute cannot be the difference between triviality and murder. Likewise if you replace conception with 28 weeks or birth or anything else. An ultrasound doesn't resolve the argument, it just let's us measure things a bit more precisely.

As I asked before, what precisely is the difference between 28 weeks and 28 weeks plus a day such that the one is morally acceptable but the other is morally not?

jongh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jongh said...

When I said are you for or against abortion you know what I mean.

When you say it is an arbitrary choice I don't think it is arbitrary in the way you would have it. As in it's not just some random choice without consideration to other factors. The people that are pro life agree that it's conception because life begins at conception. Pro choicers think it's ok for abortions for a plethora reasons but they want a cutoff point because they don't want the fetus to suffer, for example.

An abortion is a last resort either way you cut it; it's the last thing you can do to prevent a pregnancy

As for the -1 minute plus 1 minute regarding conception-- of course it would matter logically. If human life begins at the fertilization phase then having the abortion would be wrong. If the abortion takes place before that it's not an abortion in any meaningful since of the word. It's more like a preventative measure, like taking a plan b pill. Nothing fertilized, nothing to abort. The egg is either fertilized or not. -1 minute; not fertilized, plus; fertilized-- that is very important. Doctors agree that the pregnancy doesn't start until the Fertilized ovum attaches itself to the wall of the uterus anyway. And pro choicers are informed by the medical community.

The ultra sound does resolve the issue if it shows that the fetus is developed to the point where the abortion is illegal. The fetus is either not developed past the legal abortion limit or it is; if -1 minute or plus 1 minute makes the difference then that distinction is important. If we agree that those higher functions arrive at the 28 weeks then that is the cutoff. But that is just general medical wisdom; in cases where the higher function hasn't arrived yet or came early, then a woman can be checked if she asks for an abortion and wants to be checked. I believe doctors highly recommend, or, maybe even do mandatory screenings during the final weeks. Not 100% sure though.

Precision is also a key point if we agree that the abortion cutoff is when the fetus reaches higher function.

28 weeks is the point where the abortion becomes illegal so + 1 day would be illegal. So if following the law is morally acceptable then having the abortion is not acceptable. We are talking biology here; minutes, days, and even seconds can matter.

Maybe I misunderstand, but shouldn't your gripe be with what counts as human/ higher developed rather than the time. Because if you can show that characteristics a, b, c, for example, occur at a certain time then why do you have a continuity problem? Pro choicers believe that the abortion is ok as long as it is not done past or at the point of higher development. If we can measure that precisely then what is the issue?

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