Case Study: If a Fetus is a Person, Is It Moral to Kill It?
Abortion was, in some countries, and still is, in Indonesia, a contentious issue. Generally speaking, the debate can be divided into two camps, one supporting abortion based on the freedom of choice, or the “pro-choice” argument, and those supporting the sanctity of life, or the “pro-life” argument. But even though for an outsider the two camps seem to be clear-cut with clear answers, such as if you value life, you must refrain from killing the fetus because the fetus is considered to be a living being, and if you’re pro-choice, it’s either you consider the fetus to be “not yet a person with rights” or at least to be “of less importance to the choice of the mother”, it is important for now to understand that philosophy is less clear-cut than one would like to think.
Take, for example, an argument by Jarvis, which argues that even if the fetus is considered to be a person, the mother’s right to her autonomy trumps the child’s right to live. While it might seem cold, it might be wise to first consider the analogy used to reach that conclusion. Imagine for now that you’ve just been kidnaped and is now being held in some unknown location. You lie on a bed, your hands and feet tied together, and you can’t move. After panic subsides and clarity dawns on you, you realize that there is a sort of tube jutting from your back into another person lying on a bed just beside yours. After waiting for what seems to be forever, your kidnapper comes into a room and greets you. After much arguing, you learn that the person lying beside you is a famous musician with kidney failure, and requires urgent help. This is where you come in. You’re basically his “makeshift kidneys”, since he needs your kidney, it makes sense that you, with similar blood characteristics to that of the musician, serving as his “external kidneys”. Now the question is, should you be allowed to go free at the expense of the life of this person?
If you want to stand your ground and say that killing, in whatever manner and due to whatever reason, is an immoral thing to do, then you’re going to condemn yourself to living as “makeshift kidneys” for God knows how long. If you’re lucky, then perhaps tomorrow the person will wake up and receive the proper medical attention he needs, but if you’re unlucky, then you might be there for a year, or maybe more. You won’t see sunlight again, nor will you see any television. You can’t even move since your kidnapper won’t let you go so easily. For your captor, you are an invaluable asset to preserve the life of this famous musician. Sure, the way you get into this situation is less than ideal, but then certainly it shouldn’t stop you from saving this musician. The captor said it himself, that even if the way gets into this situation is disagreeable, to say the least, in the end, it is for a greater good.
So here is the situation, if you take the plug off, he dies. If you stay there, you won’t die, but you can say goodbye to your previous way of living. But if you don’t want to stay there for long, is it moral to unplug him? Should you be punished for killing him? Perhaps you might be inclined to say, “killing the poor musician isn’t the same as killing a fetus, since killing the poor soul is just a side effect of my act of freeing myself, while terminating a fetus is us actively trying to get rid of it in order to survive is a very much intentional act of killing”. But then if we are to consider the fact that people only abort their fetuses not because they are actively trying to kill the fetus but only because they want to keep their family together, for example, or because they don’t have the resources to raise the child properly, or even if the pregnancy is a result of rape, then suddenly the line becomes less blurry. Is killing the person to free myself any that different from killing a fetus to prevent a greater evil, that is, failing to raise a child properly which might lead to malnutrition and death?
Killing for the Greater Good
And thus, we arrive at the central question of this essay: is it alright to kill a person to save another/for the greater good? Well, perhaps some might say that it is alright in the sense that those who do that shouldn’t be punished. The death of the person, while regrettable, is not then in itself a morally repugnant thing. It is just an unavoidable tragedy. Some other people might even say that it is morally commendable. To save the lives of many people morally outweighs the price of a single life. After all, we can still say that in times of war, it is the duty of soldiers to kill their enemies to save their comrades, or to save innocent civilians from getting exploited by the enemy. They might even be heralded as heroes and given a medal, praising the soldier’s character for his courage and decisiveness in times of crisis.
But even if we try to soothe our conscience by claiming that we don’t really want to kill the person intentionally, it is just a side effect of me trying to free ourselves, this doesn’t mean that in this case, the death of the musician is not a necessity for my freedom. On the contrary, for me to be free and return to my old life, it is necessary for the musician to die. So in the end, I have to kill him with the intention of getting rid of him. Even if the situation you find yourself in is a disagreeable one, even if you could perhaps say that it is partly his fault that the musician has to die because it is he who puts both of you in this unfavorable situation with no other alternative but to kill him in order to free yourself, to say that his death would only be an unintended side effect would be a refusal of responsibility since you’re perfectly capable of staying there and save the musician’s life.
Therefore, on the other hand, it is still possible to condemn the action even though the person killing him shouldn’t be punished. This can be seen from the fact that the death of the person is still seen as a tragedy, albeit an unavoidable one. The soldier in times of war is commended not strictly because he kills many of his enemies, but because he has made the difficult decision to kill his enemies in order to save other people’s lives. Therefore, it should be thought of as the reason why he is heralded as a hero and not condemned as a psychotic warlord is because he kills not for killing’s sake but because he managed to save a lot of his comrades under extraordinary circumstances. The killing itself is still seen as a tragedy, which is why war is almost always thought of as a bad thing and is only thought of as an option when all other options have been exhausted.
But speculation is one thing, the actual case is another. Here we are confronted with two possibilities of how things are. But we are not interested in mere normativity. Normativity is useful as long as it can help in understanding the world as it is. Therefore, for this investigation, it is not enough that we look at what individuals say when they see war, nor is it enough for us to just see individual opinions on murder. After all, it is possible that a person might, in one case, claim to be distraught over the death of a friend while at the same time rejoice, or at the very least be indifferent, when confronted with the death of an enemy. Nor will it be enough to cite a priori arguments. We can indeed appeal to such arguments, such as, “killing is bad because human life is sacred”, or, “if everybody starts to kill people for whatever reason, then society won’t last for so long”. But as we have seen, even those who uphold such apriority can still transgress their own rule without much of a fuss. They can, for instance, modify the definition of what it means to be a “full-fledged human being”, such as what Kant did to justify colonialism, into something which excludes a number of people, or perhaps, if they want to justify it in a less conspicuous manner, by adding a conditional clause which allows them to transgress their own laws without technically going against the written law. Therefore, in this case, it will be prudent if we are to examine things more thoroughly by looking into historical facts and how society distributed its resources, and therefore how society chooses its dead.
The Sanctity of Life
Before we continue, it is important to stress that, just like any other act, abortion is always done because of reasons other than for the sake of killing the fetus, assuming the fetus is indeed considered to be a person. It is never done in isolation, free from any background situation. It is always done against the background of something else, such as the lack of financial resources to take care of the child properly, the lack of a stable familial situation such as the absence of a caring parent, the lack of mental stability, in short, the lack of favorable environmental variables which can prove to be detrimental for the child’s development.
Now perhaps some might say that it is the parents’ fault for conceiving the child in such a situation. Perhaps if the parents have been more responsible, more considerate, smarter, more hardworking, and so on and so forth, then they wouldn’t be in such a situation anyway. Perhaps it might be true, that at times mistakes are made, and perhaps the parents need to be more careful. But then it is not generalizable to all cases. If the unfavorable situation comes not because of the parents’ irresponsibility but due to external sources, such as worker exploitation which results in poverty, could we really blame it on the parents? And even if it is the result of irresponsible behavior, then should we really allow the child to suffer for something that is not within his control? Should we punish the child for something that is not his fault?
And thus, like our previous case with the musician, people are sometimes pushed into impossible situations. While at times it might be the inclination of some to reduce any morally charged actions to the bare minimum, such as, when considering about abortion earlier, to reduce every case to a few general ideas, such as that usually the parents could be thought of irresponsible, if they couldn’t afford to have children, than they should have tried anything until their lives are more financially stable, etc., such reductions rarely do justice to everyone involved. Not only will it put an impossible and detached burden on those involved, the result of such a discussion will also then be ultimately useless. And thus, since morality is in the end rooted in the human condition (which is why moral dilemmas usually revolve around situations), guidelines are nothing more than suggestions, a push to make a decision and do something which in the end has to be taken by the people themselves, not because it is an imperative, but because the people themselves have reaffirmed that it is what they want to do.
But perhaps there is a way out of this. Besides, if we are able to agree that refusing to be the musician’s makeshift kidney—which will result in his death—should not be met by any form of retribution, perhaps we still will not so easily terminate a person’s pregnancy, not because in fear of some external retributions, but at the very least because of the sanctity of human life. Now, what follows is not exactly a moral imperative on what to do in a given situation, but more of an appeal, not based on some cold reason but simply to mercy. But it is not that if people don’t take this road, they have no mercy in their hearts. People who choose not to be the musician’s makeshift kidneys for the rest of their lives should not be judged as heartless criminals who are indifferent to the death of the musician. But this does not mean everyone must refuse to be the musician’s makeshift kidney for an extended period of time, nor must they agree immediately to be the musician’s makeshift kidney. It all comes down to what the person chooses to do in the impossible situation. And just like there are reasons to abandon the musician, there are reasons as well to stay by his side.
The sanctity of human life isn’t just a cold moral imperative. Instead, it is in part based on the appreciation of the living, that everyone is unique and is worth something, each and every person that is living. Human life is precious not because of its value to society, supposedly, but because it is in itself precious. A person is not a machine, nor is it just an inert thing. A person can experience things, it can make something out of himself and improve himself and do good to the world around him. It is indeed what makes a person special. Against all odds, humans have somehow transcended their limitations and actually be conscious and are capable of having what we call “life”. The capacity to have a past, a present, and a future. Human life is indeed a wonder in the making.
Based on this appeal, it is perhaps inferable then that perhaps terminating the pregnancy isn’t really always a good solution, nor is it then a bad one, although certainly this cannot be extended to all cases. After all, should we rob the fetus of the opportunity to grow up and live as a functioning member of society? All life is sacred, one might say, and we shouldn’t just terminate it so easily. Besides, even if chances are the child is more likely to grow up as a broken person, a person’s life is not mere statistical probabilities. Therefore even if the condition is such that it makes it hard for the child to grow up normally, isn’t it the case that the child still deserves to have a chance to live and to prove himself? That, I believe, should be answered not by us, but only by those who have the misfortune of finding themselves in that situation, for only they could have the right to judge and decide based on what they think is best for everyone involved.
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