Better Off Alive?
by Sherry F. Colb
One of the pro-compelled-pregnancy-and-birth arguments that have been circulating in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization responds to the claim that abortion can benefit children. The latter argument holds that sometimes a woman's existing children stand to gain from their mother's decision not to expand the family. Indeed, some argue, the new child that would exist if the state forced the woman to remain pregnant and to give birth against her will might suffer as a consequence both of being unwanted and as a result of whatever circumstances led the mother to want an abortion.
Lately (and at various points in the past), I have encountered a superficially appealing reply: the child who is now alive but would have been dead if their mother had had an abortion is obviously better off alive. Even if the other children in the family suffer some for having an additional sibling, the argument continues, the extent to which they suffer cannot compare to the loss that the new sibling would have suffered in being aborted. I want to suggest here that this claim is not as compelling as it might at first seem.
The claim seems persuasive because, as per the pro-compelled-pregnancy propaganda that I called out in this post indicated, we speak of zygotes, embryos, and fetuses as "the unborn" as though they were already little babies, and the woman's body was just providing shelter for them to get bigger. If this false picture were accurate, as we, perhaps subconsciously, have come to assume that it is, we would be asking whether a little baby is better off having to share and be somewhat unwanted or being choked to death or otherwise murdered. Of course, none of us would support going into a family with too many children and shooting the youngest of the children as a way of increasing the quality of life. Only an absolute utilitarian who focused on average utility would say that the right thing to do is to increase average utility by killing the low-utility babyIn reality, however, zygotes and embryos at least are not yet babies. Like sperms and eggs, they could one day transform into babies (or, more accurately, a pregnant woman's body could turn them from raw material into babies, as women have been doing from the beginning of our species). But right now they are non-sentient tissue that has not yet become babies. What pregnant women carry around for a good part of their pregnancies are accordingly not just "unborn" but very much "unfinished." Just as you could not truthfully describe yourself as an attorney who simply hadn't passed the bar when you had attended the first week of law school, it is just as dishonest to characterize a zygote or an embryo as a baby before the nervous system has developed enough to create subjective feelings of pain, pleasure, fear, or relaxation.
In case any of my readers believes that I think a baby does not exist until birth, that is a mistaken assumption. At some point during its development, the fetus has the capacity to experience subjective sensations. Otherwise, newborn babies would not evidence familiarity with the sound of their mothers' voice. Newborn actually seem to cry and make sounds with an "accent" that matches the language that their birth mother speaks. They are clearly listening in the womb. I can remember bringing my newborn home after voluntarily giving birth to her and noticing that my dogs' loud barking did not wake her from her (otherwise very light) sleep. Since she was not hearing impaired, I inferred that the sound of barking was familiar to her from the latter part of pregnancy.
The fact that a baby comes into existence at some point prior to birth is unsurprising. The amazing part is when they go from being living tissue, little different from a live plant, into being someone, someone for whom things can go well or ill, a sentient being. Once we have a sentient being, it makes sense to speak of whether they are better off living a compromised life (compromised due to resource scarcity or the fact that they are unwanted) or being killed, the latter process quite possibly causing pain and discomfort, just as it would a newborn. (Note that doctors for a long time maintained that newborns could not feel pain and would accordingly do surgery on newborns without anesthesia, using only a paralytic drug of the sort that some states give to the condemned during an execution by lethal injection). Similarly, people contemplating death by suicide ask themselves whether they are better off ending their lives now or experiencing the pain that they anticipate in the future.
What makes very little sense, by contrast, is to compare coming into existence and living a particular life with not coming into existence at all and insisting that the latter is better than the former. Consider the following example. Josephine is about to ovulate. She tells us about the upcoming ovulation, adding that she (Josephine) will be sleeping with her husband and has not decided whether to use her diaphragm or not. If she were to ask us for advice about whether or not to wear a diaphragm, imagine us giving her various answers.
Answer 1: You should wear a diaphragm. You guys have been fighting a lot, and you don't want to bring a child into the world until your relationship is stable. Children are stressful to a marriage!
Answer 2: You should not wear a diaphragm. You would love being a mom. It would be the most incredible and rewarding adventure ever.
Answer 3: You must not wear a diaphragm. Don't you think the egg and sperm that would join would be so much better off becoming a live baby than they would be leaking out into the toilet?
One could give the woman other answers, but I mention these three for a reason. The first two make sense because they assess things from the perspective of the woman asking the question. Is it a good idea for her to have a child? Will a child improve or detract from her life with her husband? The third answer is bizarre. The life of the child that would exist if Josephine conceived cannot be compared favorably with its nonexistence. The only materials to which we can refer in drawing this strange comparison is the woman's egg and the man's sperm cells, but the real comparison--since egg cells and sperm cells are not beings the way that a baby is--is between nonexistence and existence.
I think we can all remember a time when our parents asked us to be grateful to them for creating us (or perhaps I am betraying the bizarre conversations that happened in my home growing up). If our parents demanded gratitude, what did we say? We said we never asked to be born. Creating someone is not a benefit that we grant to the one we created. On the contrary, when we create someone--someone who is capable of having the subjective experience of pleasure, pain, fear, or calm--we thereby take on obligations and debts to that someone. It would be incoherent for a parent to say to a child, "Why do you expect me to nurture you? You should be grateful that I brought you into existence! Is that not enough?" Seana Shiffrin quite convincingly argued here that parents actually inflict a harm by nonconsensually compelling someone to come into existence where there was no one before. On this theory, she says that it is wrong to procreate.
One need not go all the way to believing that creation is a harm (though I'd have a hard time refuting it) to recognize that it is incoherent to say we are giving someone a benefit by turning them from raw material with no experiences into a sentient living being. There's no "they" there until there is sentience.
Some readers might be thinking "well that's different; a sperm are an egg are not "someone," but a zygote or embryo is. Nope. A zygote or embryo is not sentient. It is incapable of enjoying anything or of finding anything aversive. There is no one there about whom we could sensibly say "you're going to feel much better once you come into existence as a sentient being." In that sense, you are not "killing" an "unborn child" when you end a pregnancy prior to sentience, any more than a man is "killing" sperm when he masturbates. I realize that some of our most popular religions take that view, but it really is in the realm of religious faith rather than secular morality to say that living tissue that has no subjective experiences can have an interest in coming into existence. Dust does not have interests. Sperm cells do not have interests. Egg cells do not have interests. The only living beings who have interests are sentient beings, including sentient animals like the ones who suffer pain and terror at the slaughterhouse. An abortion prior to sentience does not kill someone. It merely prevents someone from coming into existence, as all of us do every day that we are not procreating.