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By Andrew Lilico

In my view there should be no laws against abortion, and no laws in favour.  We need no such laws.  The same laws (and principles underlying those laws) should apply to all human animals.

This view comes down to two key propositions.  One is an indisputable scientific fact: that human zygotes, embryos and foetuses are instances of the human animal.  The other is a highly disputed ethical proposition: that all human animals are people, regardless of ethnicity, sex, intelligence, beauty, size, or ancestors.

The indisputable scientific fact is that human zygotes, embryos and foetuses are instances of the human animal. No-one disputes that a tadpole is an instance of the frog animal; that a caterpillar is an instance of the butterfly animal; or that a joey is an instance of the kangaroo animal. Now, as it happens, as placental mammals (and indeed a couple of other creatures, such as certain snakes), humans initially rear their young in a closed-off section of the body rather than in their mouths (like certain frogs or toads can) or in a pouch of the body (like a marsupial). Obviously the fact that the section of the body in which the mammal is initially reared is not open to the air is in no way crucial to the question of whether the animal inside is truly an animal.  We don’t for example, claim that worms that live inside the human body are any less animals than worms that live in water.


Science has revealed to us the point at which the new animal is formed.  That is conception.  Perhaps there could have been other candidate moments. But as it happens, conception is when it occurs.

Now, in principle (though it is highly unlikely) the scientific position on when a new animal is formed could in the future change.  We might discover that, in fact, mammals do not become genetically distinct from their mothers until some time after implantation.  Or we could discover that those ancient theorists were correct that believed that the new animal was formed inside the man, and only planted in the woman.  But we are pretty confident that we’ve got this right: the human animal is formed at conception.  A zygote or embryo or foetus is not a potential human animal; it is a human animal.

That isn’t really disputable (though many people might like to dispute it).  What is disputable is whether every human animal is a person.  By “is a person” I mean that every human animal attracts that special moral status we apply to people, when we think of the limitations on how we can treat them and our duties towards them (e.g. hospitality) – as opposed to the duties/limitations we have in respect of, say, other animals such as dolphins or dogs.  That is not to say that we have no duties/limitations in respect of dogs (say); but those duties and limitations are different in category from those we have towards people.

The notion that every human animal is a person, in this sense, has not been the normal view through history.  It has been much more normal to think that Jews or women or slaves or infidels or the disabled or homosexuals or political dissenters were not truly people.  They could be killed or beaten under conditions one would not kill or beat people.  They could be experimented upon if necessary.  They had no priority when it came to hospitality.  That did not mean that one had no duties, whatever, to slaves (say) – one might have some duty to look after them, just as one had some duty to treat one’s dogs kindly.  But they did not attract the protections and duties of people.

The position that the human animals we call “embryos” or “foetuses” are not truly people is an expression of this long tradition of restricted moral specialness – the idea that some human animals are less morally special than others; that some human animals do not need to be treated as people.

My view is the less standard one: that the duties and limitations we have in respect of people are not related to whether the human animal in question is man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Greek, beautiful or ugly, big or small, intelligent or stupid.  My position is that of pan-human moral specialness.

Consequently, I oppose having any special laws to set out or restrict our duties regarding human zygotes, embryos or foetuses, just as (and for precisely the same reasons that) I would oppose having special laws stating when it would and wouldn’t be okay to kill or experiment upon a Jew.

There are conditions under which we decide that it is legally permissible to kill one person to save another.  The same principles underlying those should apply to all humans.  There are conditions under which we decide it is legally permissible to experiment upon people.  The same principles underlying those should apply to all humans.  There are conditions under which we regard it as legally permissible to withhold hospitality, even though it leads to someone’s death.  (For example, I heard a recent radio interview with a woman in Africa who had walked for three weeks without food, bringing two of her children to a relief camp, but she had abandoned her three-year-old child after ten days, because she could not have made it if she had brought him. Even if we thought this wrong – and I’m not sure whether I do or not – we surely don’t think she should be prosecuted for it.)  Precisely the same principles should determine when it is permissible for a woman to withhold the hospitality of her body from the human animal inside her.  There are even conditions under which the law regards it as permissible for us to withhold hospitality from the sick, to hasten their deaths (e.g. the withdrawal of feeding).  Without pre-committing to whether the cases in which this is currently done are all correct, I assert that whatever principles we use to determine this should apply to all humans.  Going further, if we are to have euthanasia, we should understand why that is right for all humans, not just for some.

Our standard view is that it does not become okay to kill people or experiment upon them or harvest living ones for organs just because they wouldn’t feel any pain or wouldn’t complain about its being done.  Such criteria might be relevant for experiments upon rabbits, but people are different.  Exactly the same applies to zygotes, embryos, and foetuses as to other people.

Lastly, there have been times in history where the bodies of children (even when adult) were considered the possession of their parents.  But few would say that now.  There is no more reason why it should be acceptable to describe a foetus as a “mother’s reproductive material” than it is so to describe her ten-year-old son.  And we don’t consider it “no-one else’s business” or “nothing to do with any man” whether a mother kills her six-month old baby or abandons it to die, so why should it be acceptable to assert it is, say, not something a man can have an opinion on whether it is okay for a mother to kill her six-month old foetus?  When we talk of duties/limitations of parents in respect of the treatment of their children, we are not talking about “how parents treat their bodies”.  The question is not how parents treat their own bodies: it is how they treat another person’s, and whether they have a duty of hospitality towards it.

We do not need any abortion laws.  It would not follow automatically from having no abortion laws that we would have either fewer or more abortions. That would depend on what principles we decide apply to the treatment of people.  But it is not right to have special laws regarding the killing of embryos, any more than Jews or homosexuals or the disabled.  One pan-human universal framework of homicide law is enough.

67 comments for: Andrew Lilico: Repeal all abortion laws

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