Reply to Adelstein: On Steelmanning the Pro-Life View

Matthew Adelstein of Bentham’s Bulldog wrote a post recently “steelmanning” the pro-life view recently, referencing several of my posts. Needless to say, I didn’t find the steelman convincing. Nevertheless, Adelstein covers a number of different, commonly given pro-life arguments in his post, and it seems worthwhile to offer a brief response to each.

Stepping through Adelstein’s Post

After emphasizing that abortion would represent a moral atrocity greater or on par with the Holocaust under the pro-life view, Adelstein begins his challenge of pro-choice views with the following:

Some say merely the fact that the fetus is physically located inside the mother makes it okay to chop it into small pieces. This is obviously false — one’s rights don’t change based on their physical location. If a being was otherwise identical to an infant, but just happened to be inside a womb, it would not be morally permissible to chop it into little pieces.

Some might say that the morally relevant distinguishing feature is viability outside the womb. However, on this account, one’s rights depend on the available technology. After all, viability is determined, in large part, by the technology at the time. However, this is absurd — one’s rights don’t increase when we get new technology.

Additionally, it’s hard to give an account of why viability is morally significant. One could give an account based on bodily autonomy, but we’ll see why that’s unsuccessful in a moment. Why in the world would it matter to the intrinsic rights of a being whether it depends on another’s body? If it turned out that our entire world was inside the womb of a giant, such that we were not viable outside the giant womb, it would still be impermissible for the giant to kill us all.

This is a misunderstanding of autonomy arguments and the reason they emphasize viability and the dependence of the fetus on the woman’s body. Defenders of bodily autonomy arguments generally grant (for the sake of argument) that the fetus has the same moral status as the mother. They state that abortion is still permissible because the fetus does not have a right to the mother’s bodily resources or a right to remain inside the mother’s body against her will. Viability , then, doesn’t change the moral standing or “rights” of the fetus itself – it represents the point at which the fetus could be removed from the mother’s body without causing the death of the fetus. That is why viability is seen as morally relevant to autonomy arguments – it seems to be the point at which (at least in theory) a woman could remove an unwanted fetus without causing death to the fetus; the death of the fetus is no longer a necessary outcome of the woman’s removal of the fetus from her body.

They might say that the line is whether a being is currently sentient. Yet this means it’s okay to kill people in comas.

The “coma objection” seems to be based in a misunderstanding of what philosophers mean when they say an organism has a right to life because it is dispositionally conscious. I’ll simply link to other posts that have been written about this.

They might say that the line is when a being will be sentient in the future and has been in the past. However, this would imply that if, at conception, a being had ten milliseconds of consciousness, it would be impermissible to abort it. Yet this is implausible — a several millisecond-long flicker of consciousness shouldn’t make the difference to whether a being’s future consciousness matters.

This also has the strange result of implying hypersensitivity wherein a minuscule flicker of consciousness accesses the entire future consciousness’ value. It’s also hard to give a principled justification for this criteria mattering.

I actually think this is an interesting point and one that might be developed by a strong pro-choicer to show why disconnected “flickers” of consciousness in late pregnancy, even if theoretically possible, are not enough to make a late fetus a person morally equivalent to the mother. Indeed, it seems plausible that more developed mental states, like some basic desires, are needed for personhood to matter. We would need to look at the scientific research to see when those more developed mental states emerge (and I would argue that this research gives further weight to birth as the morally relevant “cutoff point”).

To Adelstein’s point, however, the fact that a miniscule flash of consciousness does not matter morally doesn’t mean that more sustained consciousness never matters morally, so it is hard to see how this effectively challenges the pro-choice view.

There’s an even deeper problem though. If one thinks that the value of a being’s future consciousness doesn’t matter until they’re conscious, then it would be permissible to genetically engineer your child to make them incapable of happiness. After all, their future well-being doesn’t matter making it okay to kill them — there’s no reason this genetic modification would be wrong.

This allows us to segue into another potent argument for the pro-life view. It has several premises.

  1. If abortion is permissible, then it would be permissible to conduct an abortion by painlessly chopping off all of a fetus’s arms and legs.
  2. If it’s permissible to conduct an abortion by painlessly chopping off all of a fetus’s arms and legs it’s permissible to painlessly chop off one of a fetus’s arms
  3. It is impermissible to painlessly chop off one of a fetus’s arms.

Therefore, abortion is impermissible.

Premise 1 is pretty intuitive — if it’s not wrong to kill the fetus, killing it painlessly would by removing its limbs wouldn’t be wrong.

Premise 2 is pretty intuitive too — consider three considerations favoring it.

  1. It would be very odd to say that, after you chop off the fetus’s arms, you then have an obligation to chop off the rest of its limbs. How could there be a proactive obligation to chop off the rest of its limbs?
  2. If we could ask the fetus what it would prefer, it would prefer to live a life without an arm — where it will have a good life overall presumably — rather than one in which it’s aborted. Thus, it’s better for the fetus.
  3. If we consider which is the graver harm — which hampers the being more — chopping off all of its limbs clearly hampers it more and harms it more than merely chopping off some of its limbs.

The conclusion follows from the premises. Thus, one has to reject one of these incredibly obvious premises to continue to adhere to the pro-chopping up babies inside the womb view.

This reasoning echoes what is known as the “impairment argument” in pro-life literature. That suggests that if it’s wrong to cause an injury to a fetus such that a future person that comes about from the fetus would have a worse life than they otherwise would have had, it must also be wrong to kill the fetus. But as other philosophers have pointed out, this isn’t the case. In other words, we would reject premise 2 of the syllogism Adelstein creates. It is not obvious that if it’s permissible to kill a fetus, it must be also permissible to damage the fetus such that the resulting person has a worse life than it otherwise would have had.

The impairment argument and Adelstein’s considerations favor it, I would argue, also quietly smuggle in the assumption that a fetus is already a person, making the argument circular. “Consideration 2” is evidence for this. By saying that the fetus “would choose” to live without an arm, Adelstein is suggesting that the fetus is already the sort of thing that can have desires, choices, etc. – in other words, it is already the sort of thing pro-choice people would identify as a person. But that is the exact point under contention.

Sometimes people think that bodily autonomy justifies getting an abortion. The bodily autonomy argument claims that even if abortion is murder, even if fetuses do matter, abortion is permissible. The following famous analogy is often given. Imagine that you woke up hooked up to a person and they’d die unless you remained hooked up to them for nine months. It seems like you wouldn’t be required to remain hooked up to them for the nine months.

There are several relevant disanalogies between this and abortion. First, it seems like you would if this person was your child. Second, if you’re responsible for putting them in the situation in the first place, it seems clear that you then have an obligation not to unplug. If I force someone to be dependent on my body for nine months, I don’t get to unplug and kill them. If I poisoned someone in a way that made them dependent on my body for nine months, I wouldn’t get to unplug and kill them. Third, if this happened on a large scale to millions of people per year, as happens with abortion, it would start seeming impermissible to unplug. If we all knew someone who’d died from unplugging and this was a frequent occurrence, unplugging would start to seem very wrong. Fourth, even if you are allowed to unplug, you’re definitely not allowed to hack up the person or kill them, as happens with abortion.

Here, we are back to the bodily autonomy arguments. And I would say that Adelstein’s disanalogies all fail. Parents do not have any legal obligation to donate blood, bone marrow, kidneys, or other such bodily resources to their children. Moreover, “forcing someone to be dependent on my body” does not create a legal obligation to provide that bodily support. For example, if I go out with COVID and infect some with COVID and cause them to be in need of a kidney transplant, I am not obligated to donate my kidney to them. (COVID has in fact killed millions of people, yet the mass death caused by people going out with COVID has not created a corresponding obligation to give up bodily resources to those one infects.) Re: the final distinction, killing vs letting die, this can be addressed by pointing out that several forms of abortion – hysterotomy and medication abortion, for instance – do not cause the direct death of the embryo or fetus. The fetus dies from exposure in the first case, or lack of access to nutrients in the second. Thus this objection would not make abortion generally immoral; it only has weight for certain kinds of abortion (and many philosophers have made arguments that if certain types of abortion are moral, other abortions that accomplish the same thing but with less pain and suffering are also moral).

Adelstein offers a brief moral risk argument for finding abortion immoral:

Let’s say you’re not sure about abortion. Here are some reasons to hold to the pro-life view under uncertainty.

One reason relates to the ubiquity of the egocentric bias. We know that humans favor their own interests. Existing people that aren’t in the womb have an interest in there being abortions. Thus, we should expect this to cloud our judgment.

Another reason relates to the history of moral circle expansion. Pretty much every previous time in world history that we’ve said ‘this being doesn’t matter’ we’ve been wrong. Slavery, the holocaust, Jim Crow, and many more have come because we neglected the interests of certain people. The same is true of the atrocity of factory farming. History is not kind to those who say ‘X class of beings don’t matter at all — you can kill them if you’d like.’

A third reason is about decision-making under uncertainty. If you’re not sure if some action would kill a person, you shouldn’t take the action. Thus, if we’re uncertain about abortion, we shouldn’t do it.

The problem with moral risk arguments for simply accepting a default pro-life view is that there are equally compelling moral risk arguments for not accepting a default pro-life view. For instance, making personhood dependent on biological type may exclude animals that rightly should be considered persons. (Certainly, many millions of animals currently suffer and die as a result of people’s disregard for them because they aren’t “biologically human.”) Moreover, there is the moral risk that a pro-life view causes millions of women to suffer and even die unnecessarily. Considering that deeply misogynistic views have been widely accepted in Western cultures for thousands of years, we might equally wonder if much of the current opposition to abortion is itself rooted, and perpetuated by, historic hatred and disrespect for women, particularly sexually active women who violate society’s mores. Thus, moral risk arguments themselves do not provide much reason to blindly accept a pro-life view.

Adelstein then spends some time attacking various pro-abortion positions on the grounds that the positive benefits of abortion to women – better mental health, better access to education, escape from domestic violence, increased autonomy and respect in society – aren’t sufficient to make abortion moral. But since Adelstein hasn’t been successful in showing why abortion actually is a moral atrocity equivalent to slavery or the Holocaust, his complaints that these positive benefits don’t make abortion moral all fall flat.

Finally, Adelstein offers a brief defense of the “future-like-ours” argument. He does so by accepting a premise that seems to me pretty obviously intuitively false: that disassembling an android before one can “switch it on” to experience consciousness for the first time is just as bad as “killing” the android after it has already been conscious and existed. That already seems implausible; before the android is switched on, what exists to be harmed? But then Adelstein says this, about my position that one can create a “chain” of morally required actions that grow more and more implausible if the FLO view is correct:

As for the chip case, the chip will probably not become a being with a future like ours. Also, even if it does, it will just be a part of something with a future like ours. Thus, we needn’t bite the bullet in the chip case.

Adelstein seems to think that the “probability” that a chip will become a functioning brain alters whether or not it truly has a “future like ours”. But one can easily alter the android case to make sure the chip has a high probability of becoming conscious. Maybe the silicon wafers are on the line at an android manufacturing plant that has a 100% success rate in creating perfectly lifelike, conscious androids. Is it murder to take a silicon wafer off the manufacturing line and throw it away, or even to replace that particular wafer with another wafer? Even if one considers it 99% likely that a silicon wafer on a manufacturing line at the plant will become conscious, such an act does not seem like murder, for there is nobody who exists yet to be harmed.


Adelstein covers a lot of ground in this article, but most of his objections have been previously handled by other philosophers. One comes away from the article feeling that if this is the best possible presentation of the pro-life view, the pro-life position has a very low likelihood of being correct.

Published by KS


2 thoughts on “Reply to Adelstein: On Steelmanning the Pro-Life View

    1. Aww, thank you! I will definitely keep writing arguments.

      I have to add, and I mentioned this in my Twitter response to Adelstein, that I don’t think debates like this in particular are productive or fair. I’ve been thinking a bit about why.

      In many ways, I think approaches like Adelstein’s are reminiscent of New Atheist attacks on Christian philosophers. The problem there, it seems to me, is that the New Atheists weren’t interested in actually defending a particular naturalist thesis; they just wanted to “poke holes” in the Christian worldview using whatever particular gotcha came to mind in the moment. Thus, when say William Lane Craig spends time constructing a defense of the Christian worldview and addressing a particular New Atheist concern, the New Atheists can simply float to the next gotcha argument because the latter have no positive claims to defend. They just want to tear down the Christian position, likely because it seems self-evidently “stupid” to them, without doing the work of constructing a coherent alternative naturalist framework. (I imagine this is also why many New Atheists are defensive of the idea that they simply “lack a belief in God” as opposed to affirming that “no God exists”. )But this obviously puts Christian apologists in an unfair and frustrating position.

      But this is the same sort of thing Adelstein, I would argue, is doing here. Since he is solely motivated by a desire to “poke holes” in the pro-choice view, he can simply shift between future-like-ours arguments, rational kind arguments, etc., using whatever framework is best suited for a “dunk” in the moment. The effect is a frustrating scattershot of arguments, some plausible and some aimed at pro-choice straw men, all of which could be addressed at length. But because Adelstein has no interest in defending any positive claims himself, he can simply respond to anything by moving on to the next scattershot attacking argument. Moreover, he can also “drop” whatever established pro-life position seems inconvenient to him at the time.

      Obviously, responding to this sort of thing rapidly devolves into an exercise in frustration, becoming more about who has the stamina to continue writing lengthy responses. So in the end I can’t say I endorse this sort of debate style. I do wonder if it’s worth writing something more on productive engagement with this sort of person! I imagine this is hugely frustrating to people in a range of debate spaces.


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