I was inspired to write a valid but unsound syllogism after reading an excellent paper, called: The Scourge: Moral Implications of Natural Embryo Loss by Dr Toby Ord.
Why devote the time to write an unsound logical argument? Well, I judge the premises to be dubious, but other people, such as those who are not pro-choice advocates, for instance, should accept them as true. This leads to the consideration—if the syllogism is indeed valid—of an interesting conclusion. Thought experiments are fun, aren’t they?
Spontaneous Abortion Argument
Premise 1: From the time when an ovum is fertilised by sperm (conception), the resulting embryo [a] has a comparable moral status to that of an adult human being; it has, at least, the basic human right to life [b].
Premise 2: It is immoral to knowingly perform an action that has a reasonable chance [c] of resulting in the death, natural or otherwise, of an entity with the basic human right to life.
Premise 3: The majority of embryos die from natural causes (spontaneous abortion) within a few weeks of conception [d1-4].
Conclusion: Therefore, a man or a woman who pursues conception, and is informed of spontaneous abortion, is acting immorally.
Objections and Thoughts
Premise 3 is a demonstrably true. I wonder why so few people know about it.
Premise 2 is false in the sense that there are clear exceptions, such as performing an act of self defence (kill or be killed), or suicide, or helping to assist suicide when there are no alternatives to avoid suffering, etc. But to pursue procreation, either through sex or artificial insemination, is not an exception on the face of it.
Premise 1 is … well, initially, I thought the premise was false outright. But perhaps, an embryo does have a right to life? This right is simply in conflict with—and superseded by—the mother’s right of autonomy over her body. An embryo that cannot think or feel does not, however, have a moral status comparable to an adult human. In my view, at least.
The conclusion is in obvious conflict with our human right to have families, and our species’ right to survive (if there is such a thing). If we are to accept the conclusion, we may argue that these rights supersede the immorality of knowingly allowing embryos to die, but if so, what is the defence for having two children? God forbid, three or more!
What do you think? Does this argument have value as a thought experiment? Does it reveal an uncomfortable truth for pro-life advocates?
PS, do read Dr Toby Ord’s paper…
[a] Embryo refers indiscriminately to human zygotes, morulas, blastocysts, embryos and fetuses.
[b] The right to life, and to live in freedom and safety.
[c] For argument’s sake, let’s assume a reasonable chance is one in six, which is exceedingly generous.
[d] References shamelessly lifted from Dr Ord’s cited paper…
[d1] Hertig, A. T. 1967. The overall problem in man.In Comparative aspects of reproductive failure, ed. K. Benirschke. New York, NY: SpringerVerlag, 11–41
[d2] French, F. E., and Bierman, J. E. 1962. Probabilities of fetal mortality, Public Health Report 77(10): 835–837.
[d3] Bieber, F. R., and Driscoll, D. G. 1995. Evaluation of early pregnancy loss. In Diseases of the fetus and newborn, 2nd ed., eds. G. B. Reed, A. E. Claireaux and F. Cockburn. London, England: Chapman & Hall, 175–86.
[d4] Boklage, C. E. 1990. Survival probability of human conceptions from fertilization to term. International Journal of Fertility 35(2): 75–94.